by Marie-Renée Lavoie
Marie-Renée Lavoie’s singular voice is back! After two adult novels and a book for children, Lavoie cruises to an adolescent altitude where she is able to tackle some major coming-of-age themes with the levity and humour Young Adult literature affords. The oldest of five children (and not particularly happy about her “abnormally large” family), thirteen-year-old Zazie will have a lot to experience as she starts high school. From divorce and bullying to after-school jobs and first crushes, Zazie recounts her misadventures with wit and charm. This excerpt, the “meet cute” between Zazie and the Boy, will have you both cringing and chuckling along with its narrator.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, when my mother comes home later than usual, I go pick up Simon from daycare. It’s on the list of “family punishments.” His teacher Naïma always tells me that Simon had a good day, even though he hit another little boy, got punched in the stomach, wet his pants, and disturbed everyone during naptime. The usual. I thank her and take the bag of soaked clothes, wishing her a good evening.
The other girls come back from school together and get started right away on their homework under the watchful eye of Sandrine, who loves playing the role of the strict pain-in-the-ass teacher (like I used to do with her back in the day). We all have to blow off steam sometimes. Everyone has a turn. Except Simon, obviously, since he’s the youngest, which doesn’t worry us: we know he’ll be able to blow off steam later as he kills a few more brain cells on his future PlayStation 23.
I get off the bus two stops early to pick up Simon at daycare and we walk back, which is no mean feat for a little guy whose legs are still measured in centimetres. Unfortunately, he hates the stroller as much as naps. So we go through the back lanes to make the trip more fun.
We always see cats—some wild, some beat up, some affectionate, etc.—, a mural with skulls painted on the door of a huge garage (Simon loves getting scared), kids playing, some boys buried in the frame of a car, their butts half exposed to the elements, a telephone pole sagging against the roof of a shed, but especially—especially—Mme Nardella’s yard, covered with artificial grass and overflowing with a village of garden gnomes that would turn Papa Smurf green with envy. It’s a wonderfully tacky thing that we could look at for hours. We point to our favourite objects, slipping our hands between the fence posts: the mushroom house, the wheelbarrow full of miniature vegetables, the mini skunk, a partridge in a pear tree. Sometimes when she’s outside, Mme Nardella lets us come in to see the yard from up close. But no touching! That’s what happens when you spend a lifetime without children. The poor woman did what she could to build herself a little nest. Simon always stares at her, his thumb shoved all the way into his mouth; between her enormous breasts and her Italian accent, I don’t know what intrigues him more. And Mme Nardella always smells like tomatoes. She must make an excellent spaghetti sauce with meatballs.
One fine Monday evening, as we were walking home like usual through the lane, I let Simon walk up to the fence to look at the gnomes while I fished around for a pack of gum I knew was at the bottom of my bag. Finding anything in my bag is a risky venture, so I was very busy when Simon slipped his head between two posts as he tried to grab the frog at the foot of the fisherman gnome. It was new that year, the fisherman gnome, the pond, the little frog, and the water lily. Simon wanted that frog; such is life.
Of course, as soon as he could tell his head was stuck, Simon started to yell. He screamed as he attempted to pull his head free, his hands clutching the posts. His chubby little fingers tried to twist the metal; it was funny and tragic at the same time. So I dropped my bag and knelt down next to him to try to calm him down, but nothing worked. He wasn’t paying attention. Instead of a child he was a panicked little animal, bent on surviving at all costs. He struggled with his whole body, beating his feet, hands, and head. His ears, which he tried instinctively to tear off in order to free himself, had begun to swell and redden.
“Stop it, Simon, stop. Calm down, it’s me. STOP!”
Panic-stricken, he pushed away my hands as I squeezed his ears to allow his head to slide back through the posts. All of my calm big sister fibres started to seize up, slowly, like dominoes that come crashing down one after the other, first in my head, then my throat, my stomach, giving way to a free-fall into panic.
“Help! Help! Over here! HELP!”
I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t see straight, I was in a bad horror movie. My little brother was dying on the ground, his body split in two, and I was powerless. I needed the Jaws of Life.
“The fire department! QUICK, CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT!”
As luck would have it, Mme Nardella must have been out; she didn’t answer our cries. And I didn’t have a TELEPHONE to use.
“Help me! HELP ME! GET A PHONE!”
Simon’s shrieks rose to a crescendo, matching the intensity of my own panic, when out of nowhere a boy showed up next to me carrying a bottle of Palmolive dish soap. Without hesitation, he leaned over Simon, poured half the contents over both ears, “It’ll be OK, buddy, don’t move,” before taking his head with both hands and pushing it gently, but firmly, towards its body that remained on the rutted asphalt of the lane. A five-second operation. End of story. One word: efficient.
Simon, back to being just a helpless little boy, threw himself into my legs to rub his sticky ears on my favourite turquoise jeans, staining them immediately. He kept pummelling me with his fists, a nervous tic that was his way of releasing fear, but I was so happy to see him in one piece that I closed my eyes and let him. Large hot tears escaped at once, running down my cheeks all the way to my neck. I hadn’t expected that! The shock over, the adrenaline subsided, my lips began to tremble. I was seconds away from bursting into tears like a little baby.
“I’m sorry, I went a little heavy on the soap. Ears are like fish hooks.”
I pulled myself together right away. A boy and a bottle of soap were staring at me. A boy with a sense of imagery.
“Uh… no, it’s OK, it’s no big deal… uh… it’s great… ”
“I live right over there, the one with the garage door open.”
Two other boys, their hands full of tools, stood in front of the garage staring intently at us.
“EVERYTHING’S OK, GUYS!”
They held their thumbs up at the same time, coordinated as synchronized swimmers, and turned back to their work in the shadows of their auto body gutting workshop.
“They’re my brothers. We just moved in. Mostly for the garage.
“I’ve got some rags in the garage to take care of the soap, if you want. And there’s a sink to rinse off.”
He swung the bottle of soap under his arm like a baguette, trying to hide his black hands by putting them in his pockets. It was completely useless; his face and clothes were just as black, maybe blacker. It looked like he’d just walked out of a coal plant. He reminded me of the chimneysweeps in Mary Poppins. He must have been messing around in some really dirty stuff.
“Uh… no, it’ll be OK, thanks. We live two streets away.”
“OK. Ice his ears, the swelling will go down.”
“Oh! Yeah, thanks. Thank you. Really. Thanks.”
I don’t usually babble, but just then I was a bit flustered.
“No problem. Really.”
“Hey by the way, do you go to PGM?”
The question was so simple that I didn’t understand it right away. And honestly I was busy keeping my eyes wide open without blinking to dry the tears I’d held back. I could still hear my hysterical screams echoing down the spattered walls of the lane.
“I think I’ve seen you at school.”
“Yeah, I think so. You go to PGM?”
I’m not deaf any more than I babble, but I was incredulous for two good reasons: I couldn’t remember having seen him, and I didn’t understand how he was sure he’d seen me, the diluted child of doubtful beauty.
“I see you come through the lane sometimes.”
“Ah.” (In my head, it was still ‘Me?’)
“Is that your brother, or are you babysitting?”
“Uh…” I glowered at the miniature bratty wonder clinging weakly to my leg. No way I could betray him.
“He’s my brother.”
“Wow! You have a big age difference.”
“He’s my half-brother.”
Half-betrayal. It just came out. A ten-year gap was better explained if there were two mothers or two fathers involved.
“Think you’ll be all right? You sure you don’t want a rag?”
“No, no… It’ll be OK.”
Translation by Arielle Aaronson