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Measuring Up

On Fathers, Sons, and What It Takes to Build a Home
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Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister

Jane Austen's Transatlantic Sister

The Life and Letters of Fanny Palmer Austen
also available: Hardcover eBook
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Mistakes to Run With

Vancouver, 1988. I’m seventeen, sitting on an overturned milk crate in the July heat.

My best friend Frances rubbed her toes through the leather of her stilettos. She was black, half Native, and didn’t know her real father. People said his name was Fergie and that he was from Barbados. This is all anyone knew.

Although Frances was prettier than the other girls on the track, Japanese dates rarely took her out. No matter that she spoke a little of their language, learned while working at Bradley’s nightclub, which catered to Asian businessmen with thick wallets. If she and I were out on the corner together, chances were I’d catch a date first.

My hot-pink tube top shimmered in the sun. I sucked a frozen strawberry juice bar, monitoring my tan through my sunglasses. I’d flung my six-inch heels aside; they lay in the shadow of the Korner Kitchen coffee shop. I slathered my legs with baby oil, careful not to spill any on my miniskirt.

Five years before, the local newspaper in Victoria, British Columbia, where I grew up, had published an article about my academic, athletic, and civic achievements. My place on the school math team had earned us a spot in the Gauss Contest. I’d won a French public-speaking competition that sent provincial finalists to Ottawa to meet the Governor General, Jeanne Sauvé. The article featured a grainy picture I hated: skinny face, acne, poodle perm. My parents had saved the clipping and, before gluing it into the pages of a family scrapbook, had sent photocopies to aunts and uncles in Europe.

“I need at least four today,” Frances said. Her pimp wasn’t known for setting quotas. I figured she had rent to pay.

I’d already made three hundred dollars that morning and stashed the money in my bra, where the folded bills scratched against my breasts.

Frances often worked double shifts to earn what I did in three hours. At the age of seventeen I was convinced of the righteousness of my behaviour, which showed what a person could do when not intimidated. I ate lobster, drove a Camaro. I wasn’t a victim. We smiled from the curb at the men who drove around the block, waved, beckoned with our index fingers, manufacturing a sweetness for even the circle jerks who ogled our flesh through their car windows but never stopped to take us out. This was part of the job, smiling while covering up our fear.

At the age of fifteen, within the space of two months, I’d gone from losing my virginity to performing half-and-halfs on the street that cost two hundred bucks, half blow job, half lay. Another year of work had brought me to Vancouver, to this point now, deep in the summer of 1988.

I’d never had a violent date like Frances who’d been kidnapped, bound with rope, held captive in a garage, and forced to eat dog food before being set free two days later. Another friend had been attacked, her head split open, by a guy driving a station wagon with a child’s car seat in the back. She’d tried to block the blows while yelling she was pregnant but he beat her unconscious with his crowbar anyway. I saw her in the Korner Kitchen two weeks later: she’d returned to work with her arm in a cast and seventy-two stitches in her head.

I remember thinking I was lucky. I remember thinking I was careful. Such things could never happen to me.

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