I initially posted the following blog entry November 26 about how I was nixing the first three chapters of the book I had been querying. Less than one month later, I received my first request for a full copy of my manuscript! So I waffled on my decision, made some edits to fix the Heathrow factual inaccuracies and proceeded to send out “batch two” of queries to agents. I was happy when I received requests for partials of the newly revised manuscript. Then the feedback started to trickle in. It was advice pointing to a conclusion I had already reached once: the first three chapters don’t flow with the rest of the book.
So here I am, 2 1/2 months later and I have indeed killed the original chapters 1-3 once and for all. May they rest in piece. Moral of the story:
- Trust your gut
- TAKE THE ADVICE AGENTS PROVIDE TO YOU!
Happy writing, editing and querying #amwriting peeps.
Here’s my original post:
After some deep contemplation and heavy rewriting, I have decided to kill the first three chapters of my book.
The final nail in the coffin was feedback from an agent indicating my depiction of Heathrow Airport is not accurate and reflects sloppy research. In fact, my description of Heathrow is based on my personal experience there nearly 20 years ago when I was turned around and sent home because the customs agents suspected I was going to be working illegally (what can I say, I was a naive kid and made a bad decision, also I’m a horrible liar). It was also before 9/11, so not surprising that a lot has changed.
It was a tough decision to completely rewrite the opening chapters but I think it will ultimately improve the story. So now for your reading pleasure, here are those first three chapters based on my experience at Heathrow in spring of 1998.
As the plane descends toward Heathrow Airport my stomach gives a little flip-flop. First, because I hate flying; and second, because I am so pumped about the summer adventure that lies ahead.
After four years of slaving away at university and working crappy jobs to cover my tuition, I am free. I can do whatever I want. The world is literally my oyster. And the first oyster I want to crack is London! After London, I’m going to hop over to Dublin, then maybe on to the Mediterranean or Italy for some warmer weather. The options are endless! My plan is to pick-up the same kind of mundane, mostly-crappy jobs I worked throughout university, only how can a job suck when you’re in an exotic locale?!
I swallow hard a few times to clear my ears as we descend below the clouds. Only the clouds never really end, they just flow directly into a thick fog. It seems London has bundled up in her finest grey coat to greet me, but I don’t really care. I’m in fricking London, England! I’m the furthest from home I’ve ever been and I have no one to answer to but myself.
Once I’m off the plane and through customs I’ll take the Underground into the city where I’ve got a nice B&B lined up. I decided to splurge on the B&B instead of a hostel for the first couple of nights while I get over the jetlag. Maybe I’ll do a little shopping, some sightseeing. I definitely want to check out Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guards. Then I plan on knuckling down to find somewhere cheaper to stay long-term and look for a job.
The only thing I’m a wee bit nervous about is that technically I’m entering the country under illegal pretenses. It’s not a big deal. I’ve been told that thousands of students do it every year. You just say you’re going to backpack around, which is partly true, and then in actual fact you work under the table for cash and make money so you can travel on to another country where you do the same.
I’ve really done my research. I searched the web, posted questions on forums and got advice from people who have done the same thing before. I’m pretty pleased with how organized I am. I’ve even got a few job leads tucked into my notebook in my trusty backpack. There are a couple of small boutique hotels looking for housekeepers, which might not be bad, and a few restaurants looking for experienced servers, which I am.
I sink back into the seat and pull my seatbelt a little tighter around my hips. The plane touches down smoothly and begins to taxi toward the gate. As soon as the wheels hit the landing strip people start scrambling for their bags and belongings even though the seat belt light is still on and the captain has told us to “stay seated until the plane stops moving.”
I sit patiently waiting for the plane to stop moving, as I’ve been told, and try to calm the butterflies fluttering about in my stomach. Even my hands are sweating with excitement… no, I think it’s more nervous energy… make that pure nerves.
People start piling off the plane. I throw my bag over my shoulder and fall into step behind a slow moving elderly woman who smells faintly of baby power.
I’ve never understood why people think that if they push and stand really close to the person in front of them they’ll get off the plane any faster. Just as I’m contemplating that mystery, the man behind me steps on my heel and slams his laptop case into me for good measure, pushing me into the dear little old lady in front of me. She turns around and glares at me as if it’s my fault, so I shrug and say ‘sorry.’
We move like a herd of cattle toward the luggage carousel where we all stand around again and wait, which is precisely the reason I don’t understand the stampede to get off the plane. Colourful pieces of luggage start to drop down onto the carousel and I watch for my sizable red suitcase with the large Canadian flag proudly glued to one side.
I watch as several other people about my age pull their backpacks off the moving belt and throw them onto their backs. I could have chosen a big backpack, but I decided to go with a big suitcase instead because theoretically I’ll be staying in one place for longer periods of time.
I lug my suitcase off the conveyor belt, set it down on the wheels and start to roll toward the customs area. This will be a complete breeze I tell myself. Think good vibes and good thoughts. I am a good person. I am not doing anything illegal. Well, not 100% illegal. Maybe only a little bit illegal. A few people warned me to avoid the female agents because they sometimes tend to be a bit more overzealous. But I think that’s a sexist crock of crap. I’m sure all the agents are efficient and professional.
As my turn comes, I shuffle toward a female agent who seems very interested in me. Maybe she likes my blazing red suitcase. Or maybe she knows someone from Canada. Any time I’ve ever travelled to the United States, the agents barely looked up when I passed them my passport.
“What’s the purpose of your trip?” She asks gruffly.
I want to snicker because her accent sounds so funny and she has the stereotypical bad English teeth, and on top of that she has an awful haircut that looks like it was cut with garden shears.
“I’m backpacking around the U.K. and Europe this summer,” I say with a wide smile showing off my perfect pearly whites, a result of several years of tortuous braces.
She frowns at me and my pearly whites, leans over the desk and eyes up my bag.
“You’re going to have some trouble backpacking with a suitcase that size,” she declares.
She’s not asking me a question. She’s made an absolute statement that I am not going to be able to backpack with my suitcase. And she’s right. I didn’t really think about how it would look to be calling myself a backpacker, and yet here I am with a huge suitcase. The only thought that entered my mind when selecting the perfect bag was finding one that I could cram the most stuff into. But I have to stick to my story. I have to convince her that I am truly a backpacker.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I try to force a laugh. “I’m a pretty fit girl, and this suitcase has got wheels so I’ll be able to pull it behind me,” I reach down and attempt to give my bag a little tug with the pull strap to show how agile the suitcase moves. But it doesn’t budge at all, so I carry on with my explanation.
“I’m not going from place to place every day. I’m planning on stopping and staying in a few spots for longer periods of time. And backpacking, I mean, it’s really just a term isn’t it? I’m more like travelling…” I say trailing off as I realize I’m rambling nervously.
“You planning to work?” She demands in her funny clipped accent.
I know it’s meant to be a question, but the way she says it sounds like she has said “you are planning to work.”
“No, no. Of course not,” I hear myself giggling nervously again. Calm down, I try to tell myself. Breathe and calm down.
“And how long are you planning on staying?”
By this point, not only is her full attention focused on me, but a couple of her colleagues have finished interrogating the other travellers and sidle over to watch her grill me. I feel a cold sweat forming on the back of my neck. The sweat on my palms has now cooled, so my hands are extra damp and clammy.
“I have a return ticket for September. I might be going to graduate school, but I haven’t decided yet. I was hoping this trip would help me clear my head,” I say lying through my perfect teeth.
I have no intention of going to graduate school in the fall. I’m not even planning on coming home anytime soon. Even though my ticket does indeed have a return date in September, I’ll be able to change the date for a small fee. I’m silently thankful that I took the advice of several veteran travellers who advised setting a return date that fits with my story of a short backpacking trip.
“Are you planning on working at all during your travels?” She asks again as more of her colleagues close in.
If they are trying to intimidate me it’s working. I’m in a full body sweat now and I can feel the tingle of adrenaline starting to course through my body. I feel like a piece of meat being eyed up by a couple of rabid dogs. What have I done wrong? Can they smell my fear?
“I am not planning on working. I’m going to be travelling around all over the place,” I say with a bit more determination, and start to get a bit angry as the adrenaline really kicks in. I actually start to believe my own lie, which I suppose is important if you are trying to convince someone that your version of the truth is the one they should believe.
“Right,” she says making a note on the papers in front of her and reaching out to take me firmly by the arm. “I’m going to have to ask you to come with me please.”
My stomach drops and I get the prickly feeling all over my skin that I get before I faint. My mouth feels like it’s full of cotton balls, but I somehow force myself to speak.
“I don’t understand. What’s the problem?” My voice quavers and I blink rapidly trying to hold back tears. I bite the inside of my mouth trying not to cry.
“I have reason to believe that you are entering this country illegally with the intent to find employment,” she speaks in a robotic tone, reciting the words I’m sure she has spoken thousands of times before, smashing people’s dreams into smithereens.
My ears start ringing and I can’t even hear the words coming out of her nasty mouth. I notice a few nose hairs quivering just above her lip, but I don’t hear any of what she says.
It’s almost as if I’m in a dream, watching it all unfold. No, make that a nightmare. There I am, flanked by two customs agents, one arm gripped tightly by the female agent. And yet another customs agent has my red Canadian-flagged suitcase, which he manages to pull along with no trouble thanks to the wheels. I shuffle along like a zombie, meekly struggling against the firm hand on my arm before I give up and allow myself to be steered through the concourse.
People point and stare as I’m led through the terminal like a common criminal. I want to shout ‘but I’m Canadian! I’m not a criminal!’ But of course I don’t say anything. I hang my head in shame. Somehow, a part of me still holds out hope that I will be able to get them to change their minds and set me free.
I’m led to a holding cell. Yes, an actual holding cell. Not as bad as the ones I’ve seen on TV. It’s basically a 10 x 10 room made out of cinder blocks painted beige and there’s a long, continuous bench that runs along three of the walls.
There are already several people in the room. I assume these are my fellow illegal aliens. There are two mothers with small children, and a couple of older women huddled in the corner in deep conversation. Most of the women are dressed in long gowns and have their heads covered with scarves. They avoid eye contact with me, which is fine because I really don’t feel like making small talk – ‘hey what are they detaining you for?’ Yup, probably not a good idea.
The agents leave me in the room for what feels like hours. It’s long enough that the adrenaline rush dissipates, allowing the reality to set in and I start feeling really sorry for myself. But I’m also mad.
I’m mad at myself because I could have paid a paltry fee to get a student work visa. It’s really easy but I was being cheap, or maybe it was that I feeling a bit rebellious. I tilt my head back against the cool concrete wall and close my eyes, trying to run through the various scenarios.
They won’t really throw me out of the country will they? Canada is part of the British Commonwealth, we’re like family and I’m a good person. I don’t have a criminal record. I don’t even have any speeding tickets, which could be because I don’t own a car, but on paper I look great! Don’t they understand? It just doesn’t make sense to kick me out. I was willing to work one of the crap jobs that most people wouldn’t even want to work. Like cleaning toilets, or bussing tables in a pub.
I look around the room nervously eyeing up the other women and children. They all look so sad… and tired… and defeated. I guess I look just like them.
The door opens and the female customs agent summons me to follow her.
They took my suitcase away when they put me in the holding cell so I have no idea where it is, but I’m sure they are combing through the contents. Probably looking at my raggedy underwear and laughing. I follow her into a room marked ‘interview room five’ and am invited to take a seat. I glance at the ‘mirror’ on the wall knowing full well it’s a two-way glass where other customs agents are probably watching me and snickering at the foolish girl from Canada.
My nerves are wrecked from the high excitement of arriving in England, to the low of being locked up in a cell. My dreams of backpacking are quickly slipping away and by this point I’m shutting down. Now the agent tries to act friendly, and introduces herself by name. She asks me several more questions, in a less-hostile tone than our initial meeting, trying to get me to admit I was planning on working illegally. But I refuse to give her the satisfaction. I only nod or shake my head in response to her questions.
“Do you give me permission to look in your carry-on bag?” she asks.
I just nod my head, not really thinking about what’s in my bag.
She starts to pull out my make-up bag, toothbrush and small travel size toothpaste, a couple of granola bars, my LonleyPlant guide to backpacking Europe on a shoestring budget. I give her a look when she pulls that one out as if to say, ‘see I told you I was backpacking.’
But then she places her hands on my journal. A sudden bitter taste rushes into my mouth and I feel the blood drain from my face.
I’ve never been an avid journal writer, but in preparation for the trip I made sure to keep all of my research notes in one place, my journal. The book includes all my notes about places to see and stay, but also includes extensive information about potential places to work, job leads and even copies of some of my email correspondence with employers who said they would hire me under the table. Crap. And of course, as a journal, the book also contains some of my inner most thoughts, musings about the trip and life in general. I am mortified. How could I have forgotten my journal was in there?
Sure enough she looks up after flicking through just a couple of pages and tells me, “I’m going to need to take some copies of this.”
She stands up, journal in hand, and asks me if I’d like anything to eat or drink. I’m still refusing to talk or respond to her, so I just shake my head.
“Suit yourself,” she says leaving the room.
I am so shell-shocked. I have no idea what my rights are. Is it like on TV when they have to stop questioning a suspect when they ask for a lawyer? Or is this just it? Do they get to do whatever they want? This was totally not part of the plan. I did not research this scenario.
I rest my head on the cool table and cover my head with my arms as the hot tears begin to flow. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of making me cry, but I can’t help it. I’m furious with myself, my naivety, my laziness. And I’m furious with the stupid customs agent. I’m tired. I just want to climb into a nice bed and sleep. But clearly that’s not going to happen. Who knows how long I’m going to be here for.
I hear the door open and I look up. I must look an absolute mess. Some people look just fine when they cry, but I’m not one of those ‘pretty’ criers. I get all red, puffy and blotchy. I meet eyes with a gruff looking male agent who actually appears a bit sympathetic. He tosses a paper bag on the table and grunts, “brown bag lunch.” Then he pauses at the door. “Don’t worry love, it’ll all work out.”
I look up at him through blurry vision. I just look. I don’t smile, I don’t frown. I just look, and my chin starts to quiver. He quickly closes the door and flees the room to spare me the embarrassment I suppose. Or maybe he just went to the two-way mirror to watch me blubber like a baby. It’s been twelve hours since I said goodbye to my parents in Toronto, and one hour since I had my dreams crushed but it feels like an eternity.
I’m issued a stern warning to never come back to the UK to work illegally. The female customs agent informs me that instead of marring my travel record for the foreseeable future by putting the words ‘deportation’ on my file, she has instead made a note about me being detained and quarantined. It doesn’t matter to me though because I’ve sworn off the entire UK and anything to do with Brits for the rest of my life. She hands me a new ticket, ‘luckily’ British Airlines was able to accommodate me on the next flight back to Toronto. Oh boy, another eight hour flight after being awake for the last 24 hours straight.
I spend the next two hours waiting for my flight in Heathrow using up the few emergency traveller’s cheques my grandmother gave me. This definitely qualifies as an emergency and I silently thank my gran for thinking of me. I buy odd British candies and chocolate bars that we don’t have at home and stuff them into both my face and my bag.
I haven’t worked up the courage yet to call my mom and tell her what has happened. I can just hear the disgust in her voice, “what? No, no, no. My daughter does not get deported. What will I tell the neighbours.” That’s what she’ll say.
I bite into a Cadbury flake bar and jam my credit card into a payphone. I dial the familiar number I’ve known by heart since childhood and wait as I hear the distant ringing down the line, seemingly worlds away. By my calculation it must be about 6 a.m. in Toronto, but my math’s never been that good, as illustrated by my mom’s groggy voice when she picks up.
“Hello?” She sounds anxious and sleepy all at once. I hear the rustle of the blankets as she sits up in bed.
I can’t even get the words out, I make a croaking, guttural sound in my throat and she says hello again.
“Mom…” my voice cracks and I feel a huge lump in my throat. “It’s me, it’s Amy,” I manage to get the words out as the tears start to run down my face. Out of my peripheral vision I realize I’m drawing unwanted attention to myself as people walking by the telephone booth so obviously gawk at me. I know I look a mess. All puffed up with red blotches all over my face. I told you, I’m not a pretty crier.
“Dear God, what’s happened? Are you all right?” Mom asks in a frantic voice.
I hear dad in the background. It sounds like he says ‘what is it? Who is it?’ ‘It’s Amy,’ mom hisses at dad.
“Are you alright? What’s happened?” She asks again.
I have difficulty getting the words out. I give a huge shuddering sigh, “they’re sending me home.”
“Who? Who’s sending you home? I don’t know what you mean. Amy, you’re not making any sense,” she says.
I hear dad say something and he grabs the phone.
“Sweet pea, what’s going on? You’ve got your mother all worked up. Are you in some kind of trouble?”
I push back my shoulders and try to compose myself. “Oh, dad. They’re sending me back home on the next flight because I was going to work illegally,” I say and then break down again.
I hear him put his hand over the receiver and whisper to mom that I’ve been deported. She snatches the phone from his hands.
“Oh darling, I’m so sorry,” she says in that warm motherly way making me wish that I was at home right now and could climb into my bed in my old bedroom. “Are you coming home right away? Do we need to come get you? How does it work?”
I shake my head no to myself, and tell her about the special quarantine status. After another 10 minutes on the phone I’m calm enough to hang-up and wander around the terminal until my flight leaves. Mom and dad told me that I was welcome to stay with them for as long as I need. Which begs the bigger question, now what am I going to do?
It’s fine to stay with my parents for a few days, maybe even weeks, but I’m a grown adult, I can’t live with them forever. I have nowhere to live. All of my things are in a storage locker. I have no job. At least I have a little nest egg saved that was supposed to fund my summer abroad. How embarrassing to have to go back to the city and face all of my friends and former co-workers who threw me such an amazing going away party.
By the time I board the flight back to Toronto I’ve probably eaten more Cadbury’s chocolate than most Brit’s do in an entire year. I’m absolutely exhausted, it’s been 27 hours since I last slept. I didn’t sleep on the way over because I was too excited about my trip. And now I’m so tired all I want to do is recline my seat and close my eyes but I can’t fall asleep, I’m too wound up. I’m like the little boy I used to babysit when I was a teenager. He’d get so worked up when he knew I was coming over to babysit that by bedtime he was exhausted, but so excited he simply could not sleep. I would read him story after story, I even tried warm milk, but to no avail. I just had to let him keep going until he passed out. That’s like me right now. I’ve been running on adrenaline and sugar for the last 27 hours. I’m going to have to pass out at some point.
I think I read somewhere that after being awake for 17 hours people start to show the same signs as someone who’s inebriated. I wonder what my motor skills would show if I were to drive a car right now? I close my eyes and try to sink back into the hard seat. I slip into a fitful sleep filled with British customs agents with huge gnarly yellow teeth breathing hot air in my face and throwing me into a grotty jail cell filled with scary looking guys. Then they yank me out and put me into a dirty interrogation room where I’m chained to the wall.
I think the voices around me must be drifting into my dreams because at one point in the middle of my interrogation the customs agent asks if I’d like milk or cream with my tea. I squeeze one eye open and see the lady beside me holding out her cup for a refill of tea. The flight attendant notices me and asks in a highbrow British accent if I’d like anything to drink, “because we’ll be descending soon.”
I rub my eyes in disbelief. I can’t believe I have slept almost the entire way home.
“I’d like some water please,” I manage to croak. I wonder if she knows the circumstances around my trip. Have the customs agents told her to keep an eye on this wily Canadian girl to make sure she doesn’t cause any trouble? It certainly seems like no one really paid any particular attention to me. Although I guess I have been passed out for the better of eight hours, which reminds me I’ve really got to use the ‘loo.’ I sigh to myself, I’d practiced getting all the cool British lingo down, and now I’m not even going to get to use any of it. Not even ‘fan dabby dozy’ – everything is good, I loved that one.
The reflection that greets me in the poorly lit mirror is hideous. Why did no one tell me I had chocolate in the corner of my mouth this whole time? My eyes are puffy and pink, inside and out. My skin looks greasy, pale and blotchy all at the same time. To top it all off I think I have a rats nest growing on my head. I try to smooth back my hair into a ponytail and splash water on my face. I don’t want my parents to be too frightened when they see me at the airport. It’s a slight, but not monumental improvement, but there’s really not much more that can be done. The ping of the seatbelt signs alerts me that it’s time to return to my seat, fasten my seatbelt and prepare for whatever else life has in store for me.
I zone out, mesmerized by the stainless steel luggage carousel, not really paying attention to the colourful rainbow of bags parading along. I know I’m supposed to be watching for my bag, but I’m just too depressed. Once I pull my bag off the carousel it means my trip is really over. Secretly on the flight over I’d been hoping the flight attendant would tell me she had an urgent message and that there’d been some sort of mistake. That the Queen found out I’d been wronged and they didn’t really mean to kick me out of their country and that they’d be pleased to have me stay and even work there. A girl can dream, can’t she?
I lug my suitcase from the spinning carousel and note that indeed, my suitcase is quite large. How had I ever thought that it wouldn’t draw attention? Once I get to my parents I never want to see the frigging huge stupid suitcase with the blatantly patriotic Canadian flag emblazoned on it again. I tug on the handy-dandy pull strap and start to make my way through Canadian Customs.
I’ve never experienced a panic attack before, but thanks to the Heathrow incident, apparently the idea of going through customs now has the ability to send me into a state of heightened panic. At first it felt like someone was squeezing me, and I couldn’t breathe. Then all of the sounds of the airport suddenly dropped into oblivion and all I could hear was the roar of the blood either rushing to or from my head. Regardless, the next thing I know I’m sitting on a plastic orange chair surrounded by three very good looking customs officials (all with beautiful teeth, I might add). One of them is telling me to keep my head down as he presses a cool pack against the back of my neck. Another one is looking at my passport and speaking into his two-way radio, I hear him say my name. Oh no, they’re going to put me in lockdown here too?! I try to stand-up but the officer orders me to stay seated.
“Take deep breathes, try to put your head between your legs,” he tells me.
I’m freaking out. I cannot stand being locked up in another holding cell. I want a hot shower. I want a clean bed. I want to rest my weary body.
“You’re having a panic attack. Just relax and breathe,” he says.
The other two agents are scanning the crowd. Probably looking for whoever is going to take me to the next holding cell. There’s nothing I can do. I am supposed to be the master of my own destiny and this is all my fault. I close my eyes and I start to think I’m hallucinating because it sounds like my mom is calling me. There’s a flurry of activity around the customs booth and suddenly mom is there. The agent holding my passport steps forward to greet her and my dad.
“Are you the Vining’s?” he asks them.
My mom nods her head and when she spots me her reaction seems to say a lot about my appearance. Her hand flies over her mouth at the sight of me. I must look pretty bad.
“I’m going to have to see some ID Mrs. Vining. Your daughter has had a little episode and she may be a little out of it so we just need to make sure we’re releasing her to the right people.”
My mom nervously smooths her hair, a sign that she thinks the customs agent is cute too. I smile and laugh. They all look at me with concern, like I’m some kind of mental patient they are responsible for monitoring.
I attempt to push myself up from the chair to tell them, “Yes, these are my parents.” But my knees betray me and I slump back down into the chair.
Mom hands over her driver’s license to the agent and they seem satisfied that she’s not a criminal. She rushes over and pulls me into a big hug.
“Mom, I can’t breathe,” I manage to gasp.
“Gail, give the girl a little room,” my dad says. “The agents said she’s in a delicate state and that something traumatic must have happened to her.”
They both stand back and look at me.
“Oh Amy, you do look out of sorts. C’mon, let’s get you home,” she says as I try my legs once again. Thankfully this time they work.
dad pulls the suitcase, which I am beginning to think of as my albatross, through the airport and mom helps me along.
“You’ve had quite a little trip haven’t you,” she clucks like a mother hen.
I cling onto her arm as we make our way out of the airport.
“Mom, if I never see another airport again it will be too soon,” I tell her.
“Now honey, you don’t really mean that. Does she Charles?” She calls back to dad.
“Gail, if my Amy says she never wants to see another airport again, I will do everything in my power to make that happen,” he says with a smirk.
“Oh Charles, don’t patronize me, or your daughter. This is very serious. Isn’t it honey?” Mom acts with such concern that I feel as if I’m about to launch into another bout of hysterical sobbing.
As they bundle me into the back of the car something my dad used to say when I was a kid pops into my head: home again, home again jiggity jig.
I wake up on day three holed up in my old bedroom at my parent’s house and still can’t will my body to get out of bed. When we first got home from the airport I jumped into a hot shower, where I stayed for 45 minutes. Mom actually had to come into the bathroom to tell me it was time to get out before I ‘turned into a human prune.’ I didn’t even know what time it was.
By that point I’d really lost all sense of time in terms of day and night. But I do remember enjoying a nice cup of tea with lots of milk and sugar and some toast with jam before falling into my old twin-sized bed. Over the last couple of days I’ve pretty much just slept. Occasionally mom or dad would come into the room to check on me and bring me something to drink or eat. Other than that they’ve mostly left me alone.
But on day three, mom comes bustling into the room and pulls the curtains wide open. Light floods the room and I recoil like a vampire, the sunlight stings my eyes.
“It’s too bright,” I squeak from beneath the cocoon of cozy blankets. “It’s too bright, close the curtains,” I whine.
She stands at the end of my ridiculously small bed with her hands planted on her hips.
“I will only close them if you promise you will get out of bed today.”
I shake my head underneath the blankets and I can feel her playfully swat my legs with the tea towel in her hand.
“Come on downstairs. I’ve made you a nice pot of tea and dad picked up fresh bagels and cream cheese. Just humour us.”
She had me at fresh bagels. “Ok,” I say in a muffled voice from under my bedspread. “Give me a couple of minutes to get cleaned up.”
I have a shower even longer than the one that prompted my mom to pull me out when I first got home. When I step out the bathroom is heavy with steam. I wipe away some of the condensation on the mirror and stare at my reflection long enough to think that I have spotted two new freckles.
Then I spend a good chunk of time looking for grey hair, which I believe I find. But there is a chance it’s just a random blond hair. I’m still a bit young for grey hairs, although if I do get even one grey hair I absolutely blame the entire United Kingdom.
I fully moisturize my face and body, taking the time to go over the rough patches on my elbows. Ok, in all seriousness I’m not really giving my elbows extra attention, I started to zone out as I was lathering cream over my elbow and the next thing I know mom is pounding on the door asking if I’m “still alive in there.”
“Yes mom. I’m just taking time to pamper myself.” It’s a half truth.
In reality, I’ve had all kinds of crazy thoughts floating through my head over the last couple of days, and in the last hour or so holed up in the steamy bathroom I’ve been having some thoughts that kind of scare me. For instance, I was thinking of chopping off my hair to shoulder length.
I know it may not sound all that crazy to most people, but for me it would be a big deal. I’ve had long hair my entire life. My mom would kill me if I cut it off. She’s always going on and on about me and my lovely red locks. She used to have beautiful red hair, but shortly after I was born she went ‘prematurely grey’ – but it was more like shocking-white. Anyway, it looks very elegant on her now, but for years she insisted on dying it an awful shade of red. I think that’s the reason why she never let me dye my hair when I was a teenager.
All my life I’ve respected my mom and dad by not dyeing my hair any crazy colours like the rest of my friends did throughout high school. When everyone dyed their hair black I just smiled and fawned over how “dramatic” they looked. The hardest for me to resist was in the summer time when many of my friends would suddenly appear with sun-kissed skin and fantastic blond highlights.
But I resisted the temptation. I resisted letting my mind wander to the place where I could envision myself romping around on the beach, laughing and flicking my glossy blond highlighted hair. It’s kind of funny, or maybe even sad, that now even as an adult I still have never dyed my hair.
Then there’s the tattoo I’ve been very seriously contemplating. The idea actually came to me in the car on the way home from the airport. I think that I deserve a badge of honour for the ordeal I went through. Although admittedly I really have no one to blame but myself for what happened.
However, I’ve since come to the conclusion that there is no image in the world that I can envision myself wearing on my body for the rest of my life. I’ve seen those women of a certain age (and even some that aren’t even of that ‘certain age’) and they have these weird misshapen tattoos peeping out from their bosom areas or lower backs.
Mom raps at the door again, “come on Amy, your tea is getting cold and dad’s waiting to visit with you before he goes out to work in the yard.”
Dad retired two years ago after 35 years as an accountant. Now he just putters around the house and the yard, doing all of the odd jobs my mom has been stacking up for him over the last few decades. Sometimes I envy him because he doesn’t have to worry about going to work every day, but other times I feel sorry for him because I think he feels like he’s kind of lost. That’s what scares me about getting old. There are no more adventures, no more big trips. No chance of getting deported for trying to illegally work in a country because you’re too old for anyone to believe that you still want to work. I laugh out loud to myself envisioning my dad trying to sneak into the U.K. so he can work illegally as an accountant.
I traipse downstairs and catch mom and dad unawares. They are sitting side by side at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, dad slowly rubbing mom’s back, and she running her hand over the whiskers on his face. They are totally and completely in love still even after 30 years of marriage and three kids. The scene almost brings tears to my eyes so I shuffle my feet a bit to make them aware of my presence. They both jump apart like two teenagers caught necking.
“Don’t mind me. Just came down to have a spot of tea and some bagels and cream cheese.”
“How are you feeling honey,” dad asks with real concern in his voice.
“Oh I’m fine,” I lie, when I really want to stomp my feet and cry like a baby, ‘it’s not fair! It’s not fair.’
“There’s a whole list of people who have been calling for you over the last couple days,” mom says motioning to the notepad by the phone.
“Like who,” I ask, loading up a bagel with a thick layer of genuine cream cheese. No half fat or fat free cream cheese here.
“Your brother and sister for starters. And Aunt Ginny and some of your friends from school,” she says stirring her tea vigorously without making eye contact with me. “People seem to be very concerned about you and want to make sure you’re doing well.”
“Hey, why wouldn’t I be doing well? I mean I’ve only had my dreams crushed and plans obliterated. Life goes on, right?” I say cynically.
“I didn’t know this was a pity party,” dad says. “If I’d known I would have brought my smallest violin to play for you,” he chides.
Mom hits his shoulder playfully and he laughs.
“I’ll let the two of you continue with your little tea party, I’ve got some wooden ties to put in place for our new vegetable garden,” he says standing up from the table. “No more feeling sorry for yourself princess. It’s not like anyone died, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you and this is just one bump on the road.”
There’s nothing like dad and his sage wisdom I think ruefully. Seriously, a bump in the road? Growing up he was always dishing out these old adages that none of us understood. Thankfully the internet saved us because we could just Google the phrases and then come back with a clever retort at the next opportunity.
Mom and I sit in silence for a while, with just the ticking of the clock filling the silence in the kitchen. Somewhere outside I hear the gleeful shout of children, no doubt playing a carefree game, not worrying about what their futures will hold.
“What are you thinking about,” mom asks.
Just as I’m about the make up a lame answer I’m saved by the bell, the phone rings.
“Maybe that’s another one of your friends calling,” she says placing her hand on the receiver. “You really should return some of these calls this afternoon,” she says picking up the phone.
Great, I’m really looking forward to that. I mean, I know they’re my friends and all, but it’s so embarrassing. I am going to be the laughing stock of my circle of friends, and then when the news hits Facebook I’ll be the laughing stock of the entire universe.
Mom rolls her eyes at me as she says “uh huh,” then pauses and adds another “uh huh.” She attempts to mouth something to me, but I have no idea what she’s saying so I just shake my head in confusion.
“It’s Aunt Ginny,” she hisses, then uncovers the mouthpiece and adds a couple of “uh huhs” for good measure, followed up by a, “that’s terrible, what are you going to do?” She rolls her eyes again and I can’t help laughing.
Aunt Ginny is mom’s baby sister, Virginia. They’re only 4 years apart but Ginny has always acted much younger and needy. When I was a kid, there were times that mom would suddenly hop on a plane in the middle of the week and fly to be with Ginny for whatever the crisis of the moment was. Because for whatever reason, Ginny’s world was constantly in crisis. But to me as a kid, the crises seemed like drama and excitement, which equated glamour and mystery. So of course Ginny has always been my favourite aunt.
Ever since I can remember, she has told the best and craziest stories, probably because she is always heading off on wild and exotic adventures. She also used to let us stay up late and eat junk food when she occasionally babysat us. Apparently, there were more than a couple occasions where mom and dad came home to find us three kids and Ginny all passed out on the couch. We were passed out from exhaustion, Ginny was passed out as a result of the “special juice” she’d been drinking all night while we guzzled chips and pop.
Mom holds her hand over the receiver again, “she and Albert are supposed to be leaving for France next week but the dog kennel has rejected Duchess.”
Mom snickers before turning her attention back to Ginny and I can’t help laughing too.
Duchess was the cutest little puffball of white fur when I first met her. She was a lovely and friendly puppy. She’d sprawl out on your chest and lick your face for hours and hours. But somewhere along the line Duchess went to the dark side.
She became hyperactive and high maintenance. We heard stories about her ‘marking her territory’ all over Ginny and Albert’s beautiful house. My mom told me recently they’d brought in some kind of dog whisperer, and Ginny proclaimed Duchess was cured of her bad behaviour. But now it sounds like Duchess is back to her mischief.
“Oh no Ginny, you’re really going to have to cancel the trip,” mom sounds genuinely sympathetic. “You’re sure there’s nowhere else that might take her? She’s such a sweet little thing… or at least she can be,” mom says, always the supportive sister.
I don’t know what mom is talking about. The last time they visited, dad had to build a pen for Duchess in the kitchen to keep her contained because she tore up anything and everything she could get her paws on, including dad’s prized leather briefcase. Mom gave it to him for their 10 year wedding anniversary. I don’t think I’ve ever seen dad get as mad as he did that day. It was not a pretty picture when he found Duchess with her teeth sunk deep into the buttery leather. There were pieces of soggy cowhide strewn all around the office. Ginny had just laughed and offered to buy a replacement. She explained to him that it probably tasted really good to Duchess, and he shouldn’t leave things like that lying around.
But Duchess must be getting on in years now. Maybe 7 or 8, isn’t that like 50 in dog years? How hard can it really be to keep tabs on a geriatric dog like that? Maybe she just needs some special attention. They should get a pet sitter to stay at their house with the dog while they’re away. I start to write out a note on a piece of paper to mom saying ‘pet sitter’ when the idea hits me. I have nothing to do all summer. I have no job prospects, and I don’t want to spend the summer bunking with my parents. Why don’t I fly out to pet sit Duchess? At least I’m a semi-friendly face. And Victoria is supposed to be beautiful in the summer, particularly since Aunt Ginny lives in a gorgeous house right on the ocean.
“Tell Ginny I’ll do it,” I say to mom.
She mouths ‘what’ to me, so I repeat myself.
“Tell her I’ll look after the dog while they’re away as long as I can stay at their house over the summer.”
“Just a minute Ginny,” she says into the phone. “What are you talking about? You can’t be serious.”
I nod my head, a sudden stubborn determination taking over. I want to go to Victoria for the summer. I want to get away, and if it can’t be Europe then why not the west coast of B.C.?
“I’m not having this conversation with you right now Amy. Go see if your father needs help in the yard,” she orders, speaking to me like a 2-year-old (or a misbehaving dog) and turning her attention back to the phone.
Spontaneity is never a trait people have used to describe me. Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you I am logical, organized and reliable. Ok, I’m reliable in terms of being a good friend, but I may have a bit of an issue with tardiness. It’s not a sign of disrespect, it’s just that sometimes I get caught up in what I’m doing and lose track of time.
Mom keeps casting furtive glances over her shoulder at me and doing the swooshing motion trying to get me to go outside. I take my time rinsing my teacup and plate, slowly drying them as I try to eavesdrop.
“Yes, it was just awful…” I hear her saying. “We had no idea,” and a pause as she listens to whatever my aunt is saying. “No, that’s right… illegally,” she drags out the word making it sound much more sinister than it actually is.
“I’m really worried about her,” she pauses to listen again. “No, no, nothing like that,” she says with a heavy emphasis on the word ‘that.’ I’m sure Aunt Ginny wants to know if I’ve been hitting the booze. After all, it does run in the family.
“She’s got this crazy idea now,” mom stops midsentence and glances over her should to check that I’m out of earshot, she think I am, but I’m not.
“She wants to come and stay at your place over the summer, with Duchess,” she says it with such disgust that I can just imagine the tone of Aunt Ginny’s voice changing.
Mom immediately starts backpedaling.
“No, I didn’t mean anything by that. It’s just that she’s been through such an awful shock and I think she should stay close to home.” mom just starts her “uh huh’s and “I sees” again. Sounds like it’s a battle and I’m not willing to get in between those two, so I wander out to see what project dad’s got going on in the backyard.