When I was four, my parents moved us to a tiny townhouse complex on Brookmill Boulevard. The new subdivision was a big step up from our rental apartment in the heart of Scarborough. For immigrants, paying into a mortgage and having your own home was the big rung on the ladder. It was cashing in the ultimate coupon of the promised land.
On our row there were about a dozen houses, nestled side-by-side like marzipan squares. Directly across from us was a row of identical townhouses, with one less in the row to accommodate a walkway that lead to the playground. The playground was the vortex of our childhood, linking together the other rows, which at the time seemed miles away. If you didn't live directly amongst the two dozen houses I could see from my front walk, you might as well have been in Siberia.
In between these two rows of houses was a parking lot that lead out to a small street, which lead to the bigger road that featured my public school, which lead to an even bigger road with the mall. Even though we were broke, walking to the mall was a favourite pastime. My father worked nights and my mother had to entertain two young girls every evening. On summer nights, trips to Towers or Kmart to buy aluminum foil or a new hula hoop would be considered a special event.
The backyards of our houses were all joined in a long row, with partial fences between properties for semi-privacy. Most of the mothers were home back then, so we ran freely from yard to yard, jumping into turtle pools and hopping over sprinklers. At the Westernmost tip of the row lived Shireen Ali and her brother Mohammed. (Yes, we thought it was cool too.) At the easternmost tip lived my best friend, Cameron.
Cameron was a year younger than me, blond and skinny in a Christopher Robin with knee socks and sandals way. We were inseparable. His mom was a short-haired, tall Australian and his dad a Burton Cummings-looking, dark-moustached chain smoker. They weren't his biological parents, but we didn't really know what being adopted meant. They were just cool.
Cameron was easy to get along with. Mostly because he did what I said. One day I berated him to tie his own shoes. (I was 6, he was 5) His mother was quietly watching us and said, "Cameron, if your friend asked you to jump off the CN Tower, would you?" I had never heard this saying before. It was the first of many sayings that would be new to me as a child of immigrants.
My parents' saying were always uttered in Turkish, with some rhyming pattern and cryptic message that doesn't translate well. Çamura taş atma. "Don't throw a stone in the mud." Something equivalent to don't disturb a bee hive, or don't knowingly cause a shitstorm. (If only George Bush had Turkish speaking parents. This could have been applied to the Iraq situation.)
When Cameron's mother said that to him, I defiantly retorted, "I would never ask him to do that. I just want him to tie his own shoes." My six year-old-brain did not compute. I could tie my shoes, why the heck couldn't he?
Cameron was one of the few kids in the complex whose mother worked. While the rest of us were eating cheese and crackers and watching the Flinstones, he was at an after school program. Daycare, I suppose. But unlike our children today, we had no knowledge of that word. Sometimes I would get to ride in the car with Ken, his dad, to pick Cameron up. The overwhelming stench of cigarettes would fill my nostrils with pleasure at the thought of how irate it might make my mother. It was the smell of otherness. Just as I'm sure that the smell of my mother's garlicky cooking was for them.
One day Cameron brought me a painting. Perhaps I've written about this before, but it's a day that I've replayed many times over the past 25 years and I feel the need to write it down again. I remember it was sunny. I could see Ken's head approaching over my mother's immaculately trimmed hedges and the tiny bit of privacy they gave the front of our small house.
"Cameron would like to give you something," Ken said with a smile. Cameron shyly held up the painting. It was the painting of a 5-year-old boy: grey with red and orange swirly circles. Primitive but sweet. Yet I felt my mood cloud over.
"I don't want it!" I said dramatically.
I remember my mother trying to coax me to be polite. Ken also tried to smooth things over with a "Surely you don't mean that?" And surely I didn't. But something in me was determined to crush little Cameron's spirit. It was the first time I can remember being a bitch.
I hurt and embarrassed my first best friend that day. He walked away with his dad's arm around him, his sad little painting trailing behind him in the summer breeze. I'm sure I got in shit, that my mom was embarrassed by my behaviour. I was the oldest and therefore the "good child." Yet I had chosen that day to be difficult, to test out my dark side.
Cameron got me back for being a bitch that day. He moved to Australia when I was 7. I was heartbroken. I thought of him for years and looked forward to receiving their annual Christmas cards with updates from his mother. When I was 16 we heard that they were coming back to Toronto for a visit. I looked forward to Cameron's return for weeks, imagining we would see each other and immediately fall in love. (I was 16 remember?)
When he and Ken showed up, I was surprised. Cameron had grown into a lanky, greyhound of a boy, with a cracking voice and an Aussie accent. He was awkward and we had nothing to say to each other. And what had I thought we would say? "Hey remember that time we were playing 'I'll show you mine' in the playground and your mother drove by just as you whipped out your penis?"
The Christmas cards became less frequent. It's entirely possible that they still arrived, but that my mother was less eager to read them aloud. Cameron took a left turn somewhere. The last time I heard of him he had robbed a liquor store and had gone to jail. It pained me to hear it.
I still think of him from time to time. Outside of my family, his friendship was the first important relationship I had. I hope he's turned his life around and that he's happy somewhere, listening to the ocean.
I have one book from my childhood. Just one that I've kept all these years. It's a book of poems called The Rose on my Cake by Karla Kuskin. Inside bears the following inscription:
There was a young girl named Nadine
Who tried so hard being polite + serene
A SHOUT and a YELL would come right OUT!
Her Mum would laugh with delight at such a silly sight
NADiNE is a lovely natural girl.
It's dated 1978 and though it's attributed to Cameron, it's his mother's unmistakable penmanship. Describing me at 4-years-old. I trace my fingers over the blue ball point letters, hoping to know more of myself as a girl. But all I have are these memories, scraps of an innocence lost.