I didn’t seek Tracy’s friendship. I had known her for years, but we didn’t become friends until my seventeenth summer. She lived down the street, was the youngest of four wild children, raised by a single mom. After Tracy’s old man left, she and her family became welfare cases, rare in our hardworking, middle class neighbourhood. Few of the neighbours wanted anything to do with her family. Valuables had a way of disappearing when any of the Paul kids came to visit.
Our upbringings could not have been more different. My parents hauled us to church each Sunday, taught us our prayers and lectured us on the dangers of promiscuity and drugs. They watched over us, with almost suffocating intensity. Tracy was mostly neglected.
“Left to run wild,” my mother said.
I was two years older, but Tracy was worldlier, more street-wise. She tied her hair in tight braids that stuck out from either side of her head, just above her ears, making her look like a floppy-eared puppy or an innocent child. Her look was deceiving, considering what she was up to.
She ambled past my home, hands in her front pockets, day after day. I didn’t know where she was going and I suspect, neither did she. I stood watching from the front window. “She looks lonely,” I said.
“Maddy, she’s not the sort of girl you should associate with. Tracy has been pulling down her pants for boys since she was eleven-years-old. She hasn’t been taught the difference between right and wrong,” my mother said.
Not that my home was perfect. Not since Mom got sick. I never knew, one day to the next, who would be there when I came home – the mom who was loving and caring or the mom who was gloomy and demanding. My older siblings fled the chaos, finding accommodation in cheap basement suites. My younger brother found his outlet in athletics. My introverted father withdrew, sometimes becoming dark and brooding. I am like my father.
I sat on the front lawn of my house on a hot summer afternoon, reading The Hobbit. Tracy approached pushing a stroller. She smiled at me, pointed to the pretty, curly-haired baby. Said she was babysitting her niece. She asked if she could hang out for a while because her mom was in a bad mood.
“Sure,” I said, grateful for the company. I plucked a blade of grass to use as a bookmark. She pulled the baby out of the stroller, kissed her tenderly before sitting her on the grass between us.
“Do you like Tolkien?” I asked, showing her the cover of my book.
She shrugged. “I never read unless I have to. I like listening to Diana Ross, Rod Stewart. You?”
“Yeah, they’re alright. I like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.”
She rolled on to her back and laughed. “You are so weird.”
That summer, Tracy offered me her friendship with a wide, open smile and a deep belly laugh that lifted me from my dark moods and introspection.
“Hold your head up. Why are you so quiet?” she asked.
She reminded me how to laugh. We danced with wild abandon in her bedroom, while the record player spun hits from the disco era. We were “Doing the Hustle” and “Staying Alive.” She laughed at my lack of rhythm and shouted in triumph when this nerdy girl finally learned to step in time to the music. It was better than sitting alone in my room listening to Leonard Cohen’s dark, haunting lyrics.
There were times she was a woman. There were times she was just a child. And you
held her in the shadows where the raspberries grew wild…
We roamed the malls, wandering from store to store, just looking. We imagined the beautiful clothes we would buy, if only we had the money, but I grew tired frustrated by the game. I lovingly stroked the arms of a white cashmere sweater and stared at myself in the mirror. The fifty dollar price tag was far beyond my budget. I put it back on the hanger and we left the store.
“We should go home. I’m hungry,” I said.
“Not yet. Wait here.”
Tracy ducked into Kmart. Later, she pulled four chocolate bars out of her pocket and offered me one.
“Did you steal those?”
“Yeah, want one or not?”
My hunger pangs overpowered my conscience and I accepted the Oh Henry, chewing it guiltily while we wandered. I looked at her with distaste that she would dare to break the eighth commandment and with admiration that she had the guts to do so.
In September, I entered grade twelve, she, grade ten, but we rarely saw each other at school. She ditched class on a regular basis and hung with a rougher crowd. I was a serious student. She was loud and boisterous, with a reputation as a trouble-maker. I was agonizingly shy. She never did her homework – laughed at me when I offered to help her with her math.
We happened upon each other in the hall one day. She pulled me into the girls’ washroom and opened a pack of cigarettes.
“We aren’t allowed to smoke inside,” I said. I had nothing against smoking, having picked up the habit at the age of fourteen. My family home was usually thick with a grey haze of cigarette smoke from my father’s pack a day habit. I was probably addicted before I started. I was afraid of getting caught, however, and her suggestion both terrified and thrilled me.
“So?” She offered me one and struck a paper match. We entered separate cubicles. I locked the door, sat on the toilet tank with my feet on the seat. We smoked and talked. “If a teacher comes in, don’t say nothing,” she said.
As if on cue, a teacher walked into the washroom. “Who’s smoking in here?” she demanded.
I threw my cigarette into the toilet and froze. Beside me, the door opened. “It’s me,” Tracy said.
“I should have known. Get to the office!”
The door closed behind them and I sat, fearful and ashamed of my fear. I slunk to my next class, wondering how to apologize to her.
“I should have gone with you to the office,” I said to Tracy on our walk home.
“No you shouldn’t. It’s no big thing for me, but you’re a good kid, super straight. You have to protect your reputation.” She grinned at me.
“What did they say?”
“They called my mom. Don’t worry. She don’t care.”
The bruise on her cheek the next day told me otherwise.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “What? Your parents never hit you?”
“I got spanked a couple of times when I was little.”
Her eyes narrowed for a moment and then just as quickly filled with mischief. A
Volkswagen Beetle passed by. “Punch buggy!” she said, and punched me hard on the shoulder.
Before I could retaliate she ran down the street ahead of me, laughing.
We stopped at the shopping mall after school one warm autumn afternoon. I hooked her arm, dragging her to a photo booth. We each plugged two quarters into the slot and made silly faces at the camera. We laughed at the four black and white images that emerged, our faces squished together, smiling, like we were free of all cares and worries. She tore the strip in half, two pictures for her and two for me.
She stopped short. A look of fear crossed her face. “I have to go home.”
“I just remembered something.”
She took off in a run.
I sprinted after her. “What’s wrong?” I called. She didn’t answer and we ran all the way to her house.
We arrived, out of breath, at her door. Her eldest brother was there waiting. “I told you to come right home after school to babysit. Now I’ll be late for work.” He smacked her across the face with the flat of his hand. She squeezed her eyes shut against the sting but didn’t make a sound. He raised his hand again.
“Stop that!” I yelled.
“Get out of here,” he said, “before I give you the same treatment.”
“Just go,” Tracy whispered to me, before her brother yanked her arm, dragging her into the house.
I was invited often to her house. I knew the reason. I was a barrier against her mother’s dark moods. We chatted and giggled in Tracy’s room while her mother drank herself into a stupor in the kitchen and then passed out in bed. Her mother’s hard fists wouldn’t land on Tracy while I was present. I often wondered how Tracy managed to smile.
In time, my mother saw through Tracy’s tough exterior and saw a teenager in distress.
She fed Tracy and offered her a mother’s love, in the form of kind words and hugs. Tracy’s mother was visited by Social Services. Mrs. Paul arrived at our door the next day, full of fury. “You got no business calling Social Services on me. I love my kids.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“I’ve seen your kids. They’re no angels.”
“How I raise my kids is my own business.”
“I simply can’t ignore trouble when I see it.”
“You ain’t seen trouble, lady. Stay out of my business.”
A light drifting of snow fell on our heads as we made our way to the school on a Saturday afternoon. By November, the trees were stripped bare of their leaves, making them seem naked and vulnerable. “Why do you want to go to the school, today? It’s getting cold,” I said. The grounds and parking lot were almost deserted.
Tracy spotted a boy leaning against a brick wall sucking on a cigarette. He threw the butt to the ground when he saw us approach, blew smoke from the side of his mouth and jerked his head in the direction of the parking lot. “Stay here. I’m going to buy some weed from that guy.”
“How can you afford it?”
“I got something he wants.”
She looked away.
I grabbed the sleeve of her jacket. “No, Tracy.”
“Wait here, please,” she said, and pulled away.
I wandered over to the little kids’ playground and sat on a swing. In the distance I saw Tracy follow the young man to his car. A cold northern wind bit my cheeks. It was five o’clock in the afternoon and starting to get dark. I pulled mitts from my pockets, grasped the metal chain of the swing, and pumped my legs, remembering a time when all it took to make me happy was a swing set. I then dragged my toes on the snowy ground, stopping the swing, careful to avert my eyes from the lone car in the parking lot. Breath steamed from my mouth. I felt abandoned, wondering why she asked me to come with her to meet the boy and why she wanted me to witness her bad behavior. Sadness overtook me and I decided not to wait. I zipped my coat up to my chin and slumped home.
Mom saw my sadness. She said, “Don’t spend all your time with Tracy. She’s got ‘trouble’ written all over her. Why don’t you give Kathy a call?”
“Kathy and me aren’t friends anymore.”
“You need to make new friends.”
“You’re just like your father. You need to break out of your shell.”
I resented Mom’s interference, but knew she was right. I longed to confide, to tell her about my loneliness and that I felt invisible at school. Tracy accepted me the way I was and I needed her friendship. I couldn’t confide. Mom was fragile, ever on the verge of a breakdown. If I stressed her further, she might go over the edge.
I retreated to the library when the atmosphere of my home became too thick with my mother’s unhappiness. I devoured books, escaping in the pages of novels, history and Greek mythology. I tried to share my passion with Tracy, but she looked at me with blank expressions while I enthused about this book or that.
She interrupted me, “Why do you care about all that shit? That’s not real life.”
“I know. That’s why I read. It’s like I’m in a different world.”
“Yeah, life sucks.”
We ducked into an alley so she could light a joint. She inhaled, held it in her lungs. Smoke curled from her lips, filling the air with a sickly, sweet smell. She then offered it to me. I shook my head.
She sneered at me. “Right, you’re too good, a fucking saint.”
“You’re mad at me because I don’t want to take drugs?”
“Sorry, I’m just pissed is all.” She looked with distain at the joint in her hand. “Fucking thing’s full of stems and seeds anyway.” She drew x’s in the newly fallen snow with the toe of her shoe. I watched her smoke the joint. Her eyes glazed over.
I got sick just before Christmas, three grand mal seizures in one day, which left me with a dislocated shoulder and a badly chewed tongue. The first day in hospital, Tracy was by my side.
I fell in and out of sleep, dopey from medication. She looked down at me, her cheerful smile gone. “Get better,” she said.
When my family came to visit she sat quietly in a chair in the corner. Mom stroked her head and playfully tugged at her braids. “She’ll be better soon. Don’t worry.”
The second day, Tracy had a wrapped present for me. It was the white cashmere sweater we’d seen at the store.
“How could you afford this?”
“Don’t worry about it. I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Her expression was hurt. I thanked her and didn’t press the matter further.
I found a job in the New Year, working part-time at Kmart, to help my parents with my university tuition. Tracy had difficulty finding a job. I walked with her from store to store and waited while she filled in application forms.
Again and again we heard, “Tracy Paul? You’re on our bad list. We’ve caught you here shoplifting. Why do you think we’d give you a job?”
“Okay,” she said, and walked away.
Warm Chinook winds blew on a February afternoon, a relief from the cold. She accompanied me to the university campus for orientation day. I was excited, enthusiastic about my future and chatted about my upcoming classes. She was uncharacteristically quiet. In a stairway between floors of the Humanities building, she pulled out a flask of vodka, said, “To you and your future,” grinned, took a long drink, and then offered some to me. I took a sip and handed her the bottle. Her eyes wouldn’t meet mine.
That spring, we attended a party. She left with a boy. I went home. A frantic phone call from her mother came at four o’clock in the morning. “No, I have no idea where she is,” I said.
“I thought she would be home by now.”
My mother hovered over me while I held the phone in my hand. “What’s wrong? Who is it?”
I waved Mom away, gritted my teeth, trying to stay calm while two panicked women demanded answers from me.
I was ordered by Tracy’s mom to stay away from her daughter. I was older and a bad influence, or so I was told. My hand shook as I hung up.
Mom’s panic only increased when I tried to explain what happened. “Just you watch;
Mrs. Paul will be over here tomorrow shaking her fat fist at me. I wish you had listened to me in the first place, when I said to stay away from Tracy. You could have avoided all this trouble.”
“Mom, be quiet!” I yelled.
“Don’t tell me to be quiet!”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!”
“You can’t solve Tracy’s problems. They’re bigger than you.”
“I’m not trying to solve her problems. She’s just my friend.”
I knew though, that the friendship was over. The next time I saw Tracy, I said, “Your mother thinks I’m a bad influence on you. You know that’s not true.”
“We can’t be friends, anymore.”
She turned from my door and didn’t look back.
I started university the following autumn. I heard Tracy dropped out of school. I met her by chance on a bus, one day, on my way to class. She was thinner and the braids were gone, as was her smile.
“Hey, Tracy, I almost didn’t recognize you. Where’re you going?”
“Downtown. I was just visiting my mom.”
“You don’t live at home anymore?”
“No, got my own place now.
“No more braids?” I pointed at her hair, which now curled around her head.
“Nope, grew out of them, I guess. Where’re you going?”
“To class, at the university.”
“Geez, I can’t even spell university.”
She turned her eyes from me and gazed out the window. I got off a few stops later.
I read about her in the paper some months later. It seems she had her throat slit by her pimp and lay wounded in a hospital bed. I stared at the article, scarcely able to believe my eyes. I followed the story over the next few days, eager to know she had recovered. Some Letters to the Editor were less than kind. “She’s just a prostitute. It’s her own fault for choosing such a dangerous lifestyle.” I resented such comments. They didn’t know Tracy like I did. In our brief time together I caught a glimpse of the person she could have become. I considered going to see her in the hospital, maybe bring a gift, not to reconcile, just to show her that somebody cared.
My heart ached.
I folded the newspaper, set it on the table and did not to go and see her.
Madelaine Wong is a former school teacher who now dedicates her time to her family and to writing. She is published in several magazines and is the co-author of Cradling the Past, a Biography of Margaret Shaw. Tracy’s Braids is a story that she has been yearning to tell for many years.