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The Elephants

The Situation Was Coming To a Crisis

Reg Johanson

My daughter was five years old and preparing for her first visit with me and my family in Edmonton. S’s parents told her to be careful, because we might dye her hair blonde and kidnap her. Something like that happens in the 1991 film, Not Without My Daughter, about an American woman whose Iranian husband, at the end of a visit with his family in Tehran, tries to prevent her from returning to the US with their daughter. And many years before, S ran away from home to live with me in Edmonton. She was 18, but she had to leave without telling her family because they wouldn’t have let her go. Not exactly a kidnapping, but her parents must have resented my family for that. And then there was the time I tried to rescue S from her aunt and uncle’s house because I thought she was being held against her will and I got chased off by a neighbour who thought I was looking for his daughter. I’ve told the story many times but never noticed this pattern. In the past I told it to seduce. Told in a certain way, it’s very romantic. But a friend called me on that because she noticed another pattern. She asked me, what is it with you and women of colour? How many relationships have you had with white women? I said: It’s a coincidence. I felt like I had to deny. I wanted to be numbered among the blameless men. I wanted to be a good white man. And that has a smell. An odour that puts people off. So I start with S’s first letter to me. I got it when I was living with my aunt and uncle, my dad’s brother, in Edmonton. I remember reading it in my bedroom in their basement. It was a bare room in a barely-finished house in a new south-side subdivision with no grass and no trees. It was bleak. It was winter. The room had a bed, a desk, a record player and a reclining chair. I might have been smoking hash. I might have been drinking from a bottle of wine stolen from a box of wine they had forgotten to remove from the closet. I’m disappointed to find that I don’t have her first letter. I have later ones, but not the first ones. But I remember the first letter said something like, you probably don’t remember me but I was in your English class. I got your address from the phone book. She sent the letter to my dad’s address, in Richmond, where I went to school for grade 10. I had to leave my dad’s house that spring. My aunt and uncle were kind to take me in. They were trying to help. But after a while I think they started to resent me. They had two kids of their own. I think they were impatient for me to move back in with my mom, who had sent me to live with my dad a couple of years before. I think they resented me snooping around in their stuff and smoking their weed. I think they resented my appetite. There wasn’t enough to eat so I made up the deficit by shoplifting at Safeway. Anyway I didn’t recognize her name so I looked her up in the yearbook. I didn’t remember her face. She was a brown girl. I insert that here, awkwardly like that, because it’s important to the story, but when I saw her picture in the yearbook I can’t say what the fact that she was a brown girl meant to me. I don’t remember if it signified. I know I was dumbfounded to receive such a letter at all. To this day, when I’m lonely, I fantasize about a secret admirer. I remember that the letter said that what got her attention was the Rolling Stones lyrics I brought for the poetry unit. I brought the lyrics to “Sister Morphine”. Or I might have written a poem that stole a lot from “Sister Morphine”. She said she was a Rolling Stones fan too. She might have included a drawing—her letters often included sketches of Mick Jagger or Angus Young or Garfield the cat. In the later years of our marriage one of our treasured possessions was a box set of Stones CDs. The return address was not hers, but a friend’s, because, she said, her parents couldn’t know that she had written to me. Things were bad with her parents, she said. I was very lonely when I received this letter. I was 16 years old. I had no friends. By the time I got her first letter it had been almost two years like that. I went to school—a few different schools—but made no friends. I was coping by smoking a lot of hash. But smoking hash wasn’t helping me make friends. It made me paranoid and even more isolated. If someone laughed in my vicinity I might think they were laughing at me, and I might threaten them. This was my condition when I received S’s letter. I wrote her back right away. I lived for her letters. Our correspondence became the most important thing in my life. We sent and received letters every two weeks. Her letters are full of complaints about how slow the mail is. She tries to say I Love You without saying it in so many different ways. There are doodles and cartoons in the margins. She hints at past affairs forbidden by her parents. She encourages me. She tells me not to give up. After I moved back in with my mom I stopped at the mailbox every day on the way home from work. Our correspondence was a secret from her parents, but my family knew all about it. My mom was worried about me and she thought this was a positive development. She and I both wanted me to be a writer. And I needed someone to talk to about it, as I still had no friends. I sent S lots of poems. S wrote that she envied me for being able to talk to my mom. She said she had given up talking with her parents. I quit high school and got a job with the sheet metal crew working on the new hospital. Now I had money to fly back to Vancouver for weekends to meet her. The only thing I remember from our first meeting was smoking weed. Smoking weed and going to the mall. We were so out of it we got lost. I remember walking in circles in the Landsdowne Park Mall, trying to find the exit. On the first trips I stayed with my dad. I remember she came over once. I’m sure it was not the same day we walked around in circles in the mall. I imagine her dressed in denim on that day. The day she came to my dad’s house she was definitely dressed in a white onesie. She might have made it herself. She made a lot of her own clothes. Her makeup had sparkles in it. Sparkles on her brown skin. The scene I have in my memory is like this: She and I are sitting on the patio in the backyard. My dad and V, a family friend from our days in Alberta, who owned the acreage I grew up on, are watching us through the big windows that look out onto the patio. In my memory I see them with their mouths kind of hanging open, kind of stupefied. Would their mouths have been hanging open if it was a white girl sitting there? I saw a similar kind of dumbstruck look on the faces of my grandparents, my dad’s parents, when they met S for the first time. The scene stands out because it was the moment in which I remember her brownness starting to become visible, to signify. On my dad’s side I had a cousin whose mom was MI’kmaq, and who was forced to flee her marriage to my abusive uncle. On my mom’s side my aunt adopted a Cree girl. A way had been prepared for us to understand how my cousins, whom we love, came to be our family. Yet S’s difference seemed to cause a kind of wonder. I asked her what religion she was, by which I was trying to ask--what? What kind of brown person are you? She said she didn’t really know what her religion was, maybe protestant? She seemed uncomfortable. I must have asked her a more direct question because I remember she said something about her family being from Saudi Arabia, which turned out not to be true, but it was the kind of thing I was getting at. I wonder what I knew about Islam at the time. If she had told me then that her family was Muslim, from Fiji, would it have meant anything to me? I do know that the idea that she was maybe from Saudi Arabia meant something to my dad: he warned me that if we fooled around her brother and father would be obligated by their religion to kill me. My family thought that you could simply read that off on any Muslim you happened to meet. Of course they hadn’t met any Muslims before S. My dad was an atheist, but mom and her sisters were religious. One of my aunts had been a nun and studied for a theology degree, the other had been very active in the church, and my mom had us baptized after she divorced our atheist dad. She was on her church’s Banner Committee—the banners she made in our basement, out of felt, were hung in the church. These days her paintings and sculptures are represented by the Scott Gallery in Edmonton, check them out. But they all left eventually, citing patriarchy—I learned the word from them. My aunt said that for her, of the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, the only one she couldn’t keep was obedience. But when it came to Islam, my family took what I now understand to be the white liberal middle-class feminist line. We regarded S as the victim, and later as the hostage, of a backwards religion. And that was how we explained why the letters between S and I had to be a secret, and why my mom could be fully involved, to the point of conspiracy, in my relationship with S, and S’s mom couldn’t. A way had been prepared for us to understand. Eventually I rented hotel rooms instead of staying with my dad. We had sex for the first time—and it was my first time—in the Sylvia Hotel. She came with me to the airport on the Sunday. I got halfway down the ramp and turned around and came back, abandoned my flight, and the first few days of work that week. On later trips I stayed downtown at the Castle Hotel on the Granville Mall. She skipped school and came to my room, or made excuses to her parents. Once or twice I visited her at school. Things got worse for her at home as our affair became more intense. Pressure was building. Her family was moving to Australia and they expected her to come with them. She was turning 18 in March. And she didn’t want to go.

Reg Johanson is a writer and editor living in a rapidly-gentrifying East Vancouver on unceded Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh, and Squamish territory. He teaches writing and literature from an anti-colonial and anti-capitalist perspective at Capilano University. Check out the Fall 2017 issue of The Capilano Review for more of the story published here.​

This originally appeared on October 22, 2017