by Chris Eng, illustration by Karlene Harvey
The six teens in the smoke pit of Willeford Senior Secondary stopped talking and looked at Jenn. They were punk by her reckoning, but bore as much in common with the crew in front of Pete’s Burgers as cats with dogs or lemurs with human beings. Their clothes were torn, but precisely and intentionally as opposed to rips that come from years of casual wear. Their hair was multi-coloured, but tinted with temporary dyes that would wash out if parents protested. Their belts were huge, spiked and non-functional. Their shirts were tight and new, the fronts emblazoned with the names of bands familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of punk. And they were all smoking, but there was a deliberateness to it which made it seem like they were part of an animatronic display at Disney World.
Claire, a girl in Grade 12 with lavender highlights and a Sex Pistols shirt, gave Jenn a look up and down, then said, without any enthusiasm at all, “What’s up, McNabb?”
Jenn gave herself the same look in her mind’s eye. There was nothing going on with either her or her wardrobe. At 16, Jenn had mastered the art of being non-descript. She was pretty—with some effort and an hour or so in the morning she might have been beautiful—but she consistently veered toward plainness, covering up her slight but curvy frame in grey or tan blouses, sweaters and knee-length skirts, and topping it all off with thick stockings and worn maryjanes. Her auburn hair hung straight and unmanaged, parted on the left and framing her face in an acceptable yet entirely uninvolving way. A black knapsack, heavy with schoolwork, hung off her right shoulder and she’d wedged a book tightly under her left arm. It was an appearance that almost satisfied people’s conceptions of ‘nerdy’ but settled on ‘wallflower’ instead.
Jenn shrugged. “Nothing. Just seeing what was going on.”
“Yeah, I got that,” Jenn replied, wondering why she’d come over to talk to them. She knew, of course—they were punks, or the closest thing to them she had any contact with. They were obviously socially separate from the group downtown, but she thought if she hung out with this group for a while, she might better understand the culture.
Claire grinned at Jenn—a shark’s smile, carnivorous and hungry—and said, “So, why’d you ask then?”
Jenn’s stomach flipped over and she steeled herself to stop from taking off as fast as she could, a response which wouldn’t do her any favours socially. She may have felt awful, but she didn’t need to let them know it. She’d walked herself into this situation and she’d walk herself out with a shred of dignity.
Claire’s eyes flicked down to the book under Jenn’s arm. “What’cha readin’, McNabb?”
Jenn pulled the book out slowly with her right hand and showed it to Claire. “Anarchy for Newbies.”
“Why,” Claire asked, “are you reading that?”
“It’s interesting. I don’t know much about anarchists and they’ve been around for hundreds of years.”
Chad, a blue-haired boy wearing a ‘London Calling’ shirt, leaned in, leering. “Let me sum it up for you.” Affecting a faux nasal twang and an extremely poor British accent, he crooned, “I wanna beeeeeeee anarchyyyyyyyyyyy.”
“The Sex Pistols weren’t anarchists.”
“Whatever,” Chad muttered.
“What’s so interesting about them anyway?” asked Claire. “Does the book give you instructions for how to blow up the government?”
Jenn stared confusedly at her for a second. “Anarchists aren’t terrorists, Claire.”
“Yeah, well… you’re the expert.”
Claire flashed a patronising smile at Jenn and the conversation was over. Without any transition at all, Claire was involved in a conversation about music with Ashleigh, a short, green-haired girl with long blonde roots and a Simple Plan shirt, and Jenn was standing on her own.
As she looked at them, she thought about Mohawk-Girl’s denims and how even though they seemed like a uniform, they were the uniform of an army of one. Mohawk-Girl made them her own; it was her style. The punks in the smoking pit wore uniforms they coordinated together, and their uniforms did not accept deviation or innovation. There were no Prada-Girls in the smoke pit. You bought your wardrobe at the mall or you stayed the hell away. In hindsight, Jenn wished she’d done the latter.
Westport was a city steeped in both history (relative to most of the rest of North America) and commerce. Founded almost a century and a half ago, it had initially been a trading hub and still was, though to a much lesser degree. The last major outpost of civilization in Canada before landing in the Pacific Ocean, Westport had changed course slightly over the years. It decided, when presented with the choice between keeping its respectability or becoming a global industrial power player, that good sense and Britishness would prevail and so it stayed small-ish, growing at a steady but manageable rate and keeping its old-school wealth to itself. That was fairly easy for it, because Westport was located on an island. It took effort to visit Westport; it took effort to leave Westport, and it would take a great deal of effort to change Westport, if anyone wanted to.
Jennifer McNabb’s parents didn’t want to. Both Oliver and Hesther McNabb could trace their roots back three generations in the city, almost to the beginning of the 20th Century. They were cornerstones of the community and their marriage was a singular event which brought out all the society types in force. The birth of their son Jack, two years later, was celebrated around town, and five years after that, at the birth of their daughter Jennifer, predictions were made about how she would inherit her mother’s stunning beauty and surely her charm, as well.
The McNabbs occupied a spacious residence in Ravensbridge, a suburban neighbourhood known for its curvy roads, long driveways, huge lots and high hedges. The house probably could have been referred to as a mansion, though the McNabbs never called it that. It was just a house like all their neighbours’, a reflection of the hard work that earned them the ability to purchase it.
Jenn let herself in through the sliding glass doors in the downstairs TV room, flopped onto the couch and reached underneath it for her laptop. She flipped it open on her lap, punched in the 15 -character password, and kicked her shoe-clad feet up on the coffee table.
She rarely (if ever) turned the TV on. She didn’t know what the TV had to offer her that she couldn’t watch on the internet within thirty seconds. She fired up her browser and typed ‘X-Ray Spex’ into Youtube, her homepage. That was where she’d gotten to yesterday.
Jenn was working her way through the punk classics haphazardly, listening to one song and then clicking through to whatever related video caught her eye, jumping from track to track, genre to genre, and era to era indiscriminately. She didn’t have anyone to recommend bands to her (other than Google, which was hit and miss), but this seemed to be working. She was slowly but surely assembling a list of bands she liked.
Like X-Ray Spex, for instance. They were good.
The lead singer’s name was Poly Styrene and she wasn’t singing the lyrics, she was screaming them. It was melodic, angry, urgent and beautiful at the same time. Jenn had never seen anything like it, certainly not during the years she’d taken vocal lessons and been a member of glee club. But that was a few years back now and compared to this it all seemed so safe and, well, boring.
That was the thing about punk in general, though—the thing Jenn discovered a few months back when she started to dig deeper than the bands that got written about in gossip blogs: it wasn’t safe. That was the whole point. It wasn’t polished and mastered over 32 meticulously studio-recorded tracks. It didn’t have to be, anyway. Punk could be as simple as you and your friends writing songs in a garage. Inspiration was as straightforward as you not liking the status quo and wanting to change things.
Jenn definitely wanted to change things. Her home and school lives, for starters.
This room was her one safe spot in the house. Her mother might (repeat: might) be good enough not to barge into her bedroom without knocking, but that wouldn’t stop her from standing outside her door asking questions. Repeatedly. Constantly. Loudly enough to be heard over Jenn’s headphones. The TV room, in comparison, had an outside entrance and was far enough away from the kitchen that her mother never heard her come in and wouldn’t think to look for her there for several minutes. It was the ten to fifteen minute buffer Jenn savoured. She could fit at least four or five songs in before she was interrupted.
The X-Ray Spex song ended and she clicked on a track by a band called Vice Squad.
She didn’t know why she let the Smoking Pit Punks bother her, but they did. Probably because she felt she should have some common ground with them. They were punks and she was interested in punk culture. She’d spent several nights clicking from page to page on Wikipedia learning about punk politics and how it had evolved and become a social force as well as a music genre and fashion statement. Punk was both a suggestion and a blueprint for how to change your life and the world. But now that she’d brought herself up to speed on the academic end of things, she was having difficulty turning that knowledge into real world experience. Simply put, she couldn’t figure out how to become a punk.
She couldn’t go up to the Downtown Punks and just strike up a conversation. That was just too weird. And when she’d tried to talk politics with the Smoking Pit Punks, she found that was the one thing they didn’t want to discuss at all. Whenever Jenn brought up something that sounded even vaguely political (including the time she just wanted to talk about The Clash), Claire and her crew found a way to cut her down and then ignore her.
Honestly, she didn’t know why she tried to be social with anyone at all. Every single time she made the effort, it inevitably turned out she had nothing to contribute (“So, y’know, screw him, right?” “Uhh… right?”) or they were baffled by her topics of interest (“A huge percentage of the plastic garbage we throw away is just collecting in the middle of the South Pacific! Isn’t that scary?!” “Umm… I guess?”). It was a losing proposition either way, and no one benefited. Better to just do nothing.
The thing Jenn found most galling was her parents were supposed to ensure her social status. The McNabbs were old blood, pillars of the community. She was supposed to inherit esteem or class from them or something. Unfortunately, without any direct coaching over the years on how to be a snobby, stuck-up bitch, even the status they could have given her evaporated and any cred she might have with her peers was cred she earned. Except she couldn’t earn any cred with them, nor did she want to.
Plus, even if she did end up wrangling an in with one of the cliques at Willeford, she had nothing in common with any of the people in them. She had no interest in diving into the school’s dating pool (who would date her, anyway?), and most of her spare time involved sticking her nose into a book, as opposed to shopping or hanging out in the food court of the local mall or talking about whatever prime time soap was dominating network TV. Which is why, of course, she was sitting alone in her basement watching punk videos on Youtube and thinking about all the different reasons she didn’t fit in and was forced to sit alone in her basement watching punk videos on Youtube.
Jenn loaded up a video by The Distillers as Vice Squad finished.
On top of all that, she had no fashion sense. Well, she might have had some buried deep down, but even if she did she found it unlikely that it would ever get used, what with her wardrobe being filled with the muted colours of temp secretary clothing. That was the arrangement: her mother would buy whatever bland, ugly items she saw fit and Jenn would say nothing and wear them. The alternative was a tense showdown with her mother in the middle of the store and no new clothes. Subdued office-wear wasn’t exactly a compromise, but it was the only option Jenn had, so she let it go.
The Downtown Punks seemed indiscriminate as to who they’d take in, though. They hung around with Prada-Girl and that implied they were open to hanging out with people who fell well outside the usual stereotypes. They might even take Jenn as-is. Well, not as-is, but maybe with only a bit of work. That’s why she kept going back, to study them, to figure out what made them tick and how they dressed and how she could do it too.
She looked up from the screen.
This was a group she wanted to impress. She wanted them to like and accept her. The problem was she didn’t know if she had it in her to be what they wanted her to be. She desperately hoped they weren’t as close-minded as everyone she’d ever known, but why would they be any different?
Footfalls on the stairs. Fuck. Jenn tensed herself for the coming fight. It always ended in a fight. Always.
“Hello to you, too, dear,” her mother said sardonically from the base of the stairs about ten feet to Jenn’s left. Jenn turned to look at her. Hesther McNabb looked like she did every day—a bored, vaguely alcoholic, ’50s suburban housewife. Even though she was born much later than that, she was (for all intents and purposes) some relic they forgot to collect when the decade was over. She should have ended up with a man in a Cadillac wearing a hat instead of Jenn’s dad. Her hair was perfectly coiffed and she wore an immaculate dress. She was Stepford in every important sense. The only thing missing from her uniform was an apron, but she wore one when she cooked, so Jenn guessed her robotic overlords were okay with that.
“Hi,” Jenn said, adjusting the laptop’s volume down a notch.
“Not hanging out with your friends today?”
“I don’t have any friends. You know that.”
“Well, you’ve been out every day after school this week except today. I assumed you’d made a couple.”
“Nope. I’ve just been out reading in the park. But I didn’t feel like reading outside today, so here I am.”
“Jennifer, you know I’m happy to have you at home any time. Of course, our quality time would be nicer if we actually had it together. Say, in the same room.”
“I don’t think we ever have what anybody would describe as ‘quality time’.”
“Oh, come now. What about our shopping trips?”
Jenn’s eyes flicked over at her mother and then back to the screen. She sighed, closed the laptop and slid it under the couch, well aware she was done watching videos for the moment.
“We go shopping when you need stuff from the mall,” Jenn said. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with me.”
The intensity and volume of her mother’s voice grew incrementally. “What about your clothes? Those don’t appear out of nowhere.”
“Mother, you buy me clothes without being prompted and without any input from me. I mean, thanks, but that doesn’t make what we do ‘girls’ shopping trips’.”
“Well, maybe if I ever got any input about what you wanted to wear, shopping wouldn’t be such a nasty chore. Besides, what’s wrong with your clothes?”
“I look like a secretary. From the ’80s.”
“And what? The boys won’t look at you? Is that what this is about? Is that your problem?”
The rage and frustration Jenn had been working to suppress since her conversation with the Smoking Pit Punks came to a head all at once. She stared her mother in the eye. “I look like you. That’s my problem.”
“Well, I’m happy with myself. And at least I’m not obsessed with having boys look at me. Jesus, Jennifer, I didn’t know I was raising a slut.”
Jenn knew what was about to come out of her mouth was a bad idea, but she was past the point of caring. “I might be a slut, but at least I’m not married to someone who won’t even look at me.”
A staring contest ensued as her mother’s composure disintegrated. Hesther McNabb’s skin both lost its colour and went beet red, creating a horrible blotchy tone. Her eyes widened far past the point Jenn was used to seeing and her facial muscles locked up into an expression of unutterable rage. “Why… you… you little bitch!” Seemingly instantaneously, her mother had bridged the gap between them, her hands grabbing for the front of Jenn’s sweater and hauling her to her feet.
Jenn fought back, but the strength she could summon was nowhere near her mother’s. Without warning her mother’s right hand became a blur, raining down again and again on the side of Jenn’s face in hard, open-handed slaps. “You ungrateful bitch,” her mother screamed at her. “You ungrateful little bitch!”
In a split-second between blows, Jenn let herself fall backward onto the couch and twisted to the side. Her mother’s hand was still holding the sweater, and the move forced the housewife off-balance and pitched her toward the floor. As she let go to break her fall, she loosened her grip and Jenn pulled free.
Jenn didn’t waste a second. As soon as her mother’s hands were off her, she vaulted to her feet, grabbed her bag and bolted for the side door.
“COME BACK HERE!” her mother howled. “WE’RE NOT FINISHED!” But Jenn was already outside and racing toward the street.
She’d never pushed her mother that hard before, but it had only been a matter of time. There was never a point when afterschool hadn’t involved confrontation. Besides, Jenn hadn’t said anything that wasn’t true.
She dodged right and cut down a path between two houses. Her mother, when she recovered her composure (haha) would probably come after her in the car, and if Jenn didn’t want to get caught she’d have to head somewhere her mother wouldn’t think to look. Three blocks over, there was a bus stop with service about every ten minutes. There were also bushes around it which would be easy to hide behind.
Clearing the block, Jenn sprinted across someone’s front lawn toward a tree-lined foot path across the street. When she realized she was crying, she wiped the tears away as she ran.
One more block to freedom. Except eventually she’d have to come home and there would be retribution for all of this. She’d have to face down both her parents together. But not now. Now she had a chance to think things over, calm down and put everything in order before the shit hit the fan all over again.
The end of the path loomed ahead in a hedge wall and she came to a sudden halt as she reached it, taking a second to compose herself. Her mother’s claws had left a mountain range of fabric where they’d dug into her sweater and she hurriedly smoothed it out and straightened her skirt for good measure. Her entire face was flushed, but the left side burned where her mother had slapped her. That would look bad in a few minutes. She hauled off and slapped herself hard on the right side of the face a few times. That might keep the redness kind of even. Her eyes were going to be puffy no matter what, but at least she wasn’t wearing any makeup that might smear. She took a deep breath through her nose to clear the snot out, and then several deep breaths through her mouth to calm herself down. She straightened her hair, switched off her phone (the only person who ever called was her mother and Jenn really didn’t want to talk to her at the moment), took one last deep breath and stepped out to the bus stop about twenty feet away. Looking up the street, Jenn saw the bus meandering toward her. The sense of relief caused her to sag slightly.
There was a recessed doorway off to the side of the building she usually watched from downtown, and from it Jenn could cock her head around and see everything happening at Pete’s. She wrapped her arms around her knees and watched the punks as they milled around—Mohawk-Girl talking to Queen Bee joking with the Mongolian. This was their afternoon ritual, their quality time, their afterschool homelife, their family. And there he was—Book-Boy—sitting in the same spot, reading the same book on quantum physics with the same involved expression on his face.
Jenn watched them as the minutes passed and some punks left and new punks arrived and eventually, when the light presumably got so bad he could no longer read, Book-Boy closed his textbook up, said his goodbyes and left.
Throughout it all, Jenn didn’t do a thing to stop herself from crying openly in the dark of the doorway.