by Jean Roberta
Her name was Chris Weeks, and she lived with her mom and dad in a little blue concrete house next to our acre, on which the construction students at the state college had built a house for my family. That was when our country road had started becoming a fashionable suburb, a place for faculty families.
Chris and her parents were from the time before, when Johnny Creek Road, three miles outside the town limits, was as country as any dusty road along a dry creekbed in a country song. Chris’ dad worked for the railroad, her mom was a housewife, and the family kept sheep to supplement their income.
I’m not sure “friend” is the best word to describe what Chris and I were to each other. She was several years older than I was, with breasts that pushed out the bodice-fronts of the cotton gingham dresses her mom sewed for her. We saw each other every day because we waited for the school bus together.
Chris was beautiful enough to grace the cover of an album of country songs. Her hair was long, wavy and red, touched with gold when the sun was going down. Her eyes were large and blue. She loved animals, and always had a dog by her side when she wasn’t going to school. For a few years, her constant companion was an Irish setter whose fur was the exact color of her hair. He helped her herd the sheep. When he was run over by a car on the road, she was more distraught than I had ever seen her.
I was there when it happened, and the sight chilled me to the bones. Did I have a premonition? I’m not sure.
I knew that Chris and I were unlikely to be friends when we grew older. She told me that she wasn’t planning to go to college after high school, since she didn’t see the point of it. She seemed headed for an early marriage with a local boy, who might work for the railroad with Mr. Weeks. It went without saying that Chris’ husband would have to like animals and children.
“Write to me,” she said when I told her we were moving to Canada. I was fifteen. I said I would write, but I wondered how long the correspondence would last. Would she expect me to come to her wedding? Would she ever consider visiting me in my strange new home?
Moving to a bigger town in Saskatchewan and settling into a new school system took up all my energy for several months, but Chris was always in the back of my mind, where I pictured her tending a lamb, a dog, or some other animal. I intended to write to her, but I didn’t know what to say. Her dreams were not mine.
Less than six months after our move, my dad told me that a former colleague of his had sent my parents a letter saying that Mr. Weeks had died of a heart attack, then Chris and her mother were both killed in a car accident. So the little blue house was empty until it could be sold or completely torn down as an anachronism on “The Hill,” as Johnny Creek Road had come to be called.
I wondered what became of the sheep, and I hoped they weren’t all slaughtered for their meat. Chris would have hated that.
From time to time, I still imagine Chris bathed in the glow of sun from behind the mountains that formed a frame for the valley we loved in. In my dreams, she roams the sagebrush hills, unchanged since the 1960s, with her Irish setter, while every passing breeze flirts with the skirt of her cotton dress.
I probably sentimentalized Chris, even when she was alive. She seemed like the kind of uncomplicated natural woman I could never be. I sometimes wish we could discuss our mutual impressions of each other, but by now, she has been dead for much longer that she ever lived.
On a parallel note, here is an excerpt from “Winter Break,” a story in my out-of-print collection, Secrets of the Invisible World (1988). It is loosely based on another doomed relationship, which included sex:
Her expression was dangerous. “You think you’re smart, don’t you? Just because you know a few long words. You’ve always talked your way into what you want.” I felt sick. “If you’d grown up in my neighbourhood, you would have been creamed! Your education won’t help you in the real world, lady.” Seeing the look on my face, she softened. “Cup of coffee?” she asked, trying to sound cool. I nodded. “Look, babe,” she said, “I care for you too. I love you, really. But you have to learn one thing if you want to be with me. I decide what happens to me.” Her voice was steely. “Not you, not my mother, not even my boss. I’m not going to change, so don’t try it.”
I held the cup of coffee in both hands. I couldn’t look at her. “Babe—“ she started, then sighed. “Little woman.” She tried to put an arm around my shoulders, and I pushed her away. “You grew up in a rich family,” she said, as though stating the obvious.
“Rich?” I asked in disbelief. “Rich?”
“There’s a whole lot you don’t know about life,” she explained. “I know you know a lot about books. I respect that, I really do, but sometimes you don’t know what’s going down.” She had quietly poured herself a glass of rye.
“Don’t drink,” I said grimly.
“Don’t push me, girl.”
By now I knew the discussion was hopeless, but I kept on. “Shit, Maxine,” I said as roughly as I could. “I know an alcoholic when I see one.”
“Shut up,” she warned me. “If I need a drink now and then, you can’t stop me.” She paused. “You like me this way.” She hunched her shoulder, caricaturing her own posture. She waved her drink at me.
“I don’t –“ I started angrily.
“Yeah, you do,” she persisted. “I could fuck you in the road, and you’d love it.” I gasped. Then I grabbed the glass out of her hand and threw it against the wall, where it shattered in a satisfying burst of shards.
“Bitch!” I hissed furiously. “Stupid bitch!” I tried to stomp out of her kitchen. “You’re going nowhere!” I yelled, glaring her in the eyes. She grabbed my arm, and I almost hoped she would hit me. I would have found that easier to handle. She held me in a bear hug as I struggled in vain to tear myself away.
“Hey, don’t leave. Little One, I’m sorry,” she crooned into my ear. The look of pity on her face was unbearable.
“You’re going to be stuck,” I choked out, “in your stupid life until your liver rots! Who the hell is going to want you in ten years? Who in their right mind would put up with you?” I couldn’t stand to think what this question implied about me. “I tried to help you,” I insisted.
“Come here,” she said quietly, moving me into her front room without relaxing her hold on me. “Come sit here,” she said, pulling me onto her lap.
I could no longer hold back my tears. “We can’t stay together, can we?”
“No,” she said sadly. “Little One, maybe I’ll go to university someday, but I’ll decide when. Maybe I’ll give up smoking and drinking too, but not now. I’m not the one you need. I love holding you,” she chuckled, “but I hate the way you put me down with your education. And the fact you’re older than me. And whiter.”
I was shocked. “I never put you down,” I said vehemently.
“You probably don’t know you’re doing it,” she said calmly. I could see there was no point in disputing this further.
I could say that I’ve been drawn to people who are obviously not my type (or vice versa) because of a shortage of better choices, but I’m not sure that would be true. I’ve been drawn to people who seem very different from me because I want to learn something from them, or I want to “help” them improve their lives (usually a very bad plan), or I want emotional support from them in exchange for whatever they might want from me.
I should know better by now, but I’m not sure I do.