Grief & Loss

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Dreaming Sally

Dreaming Sally

A True Story of First Love, Sudden Death and Long Shadows
edition:Hardcover
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Excerpt

On the afternoon of Tuesday, July 2, 1968, I was lingering in the mezzanine of Toronto’s Malton Airport with a clus­ter of Odyssey kids, awaiting our flight to New York City. Coolly assessing two girls who were crying from homesickness even before we boarded the plane, I was struck how sick I was of home. Glancing toward the escalator, I caught sight of the familiar brown head rising into view. As Sally moved closer, I smiled hello, but she seemed distant. I was disappointed when luck failed to place us side by side on the Air Canada jet.

An hour later, we descended into the swelter of the Big Apple. As I rolled down the window of our dirty yellow cab, the clatter and heat combined with the festering stink of a garbage strike, and Real Life, terrible and beautiful, broke through.

The Italian, Naples-bound ocean liner SS Raffaello was parked in the harbour like a gargantuan private limousine. On the jetty, we merged with the kids from Vancouver and Halifax and were funnelled through a canopied gangplank. Coloured stream­ers unspooled like a scene in an old movie, and I found myself walking beside Sally, out of twenty-seven chances. Occasionally, wishing works.
 
Our tourist-class cabins were below the waterline. I unpacked my bag in a porthole-less space I would be sharing with three others— Sean, a co-survivor of a decade of UCC; Peter, a cheerful Vancouverite in horn-rimmed glasses; and Will, a handsome, friendly boy from UTS. I grabbed a top berth, only to find my nose a foot from the ceil­ing, inducing a wave of claustrophobia.

The nine-hundred-foot-long ship was only three years old and carried 2,500 passengers and crew—forty-five thousand tons of fun. The very sight of watertight doors unlocked my mental holdings of Titanic lore—the myth of unsinkability, the Irish rabble below and the Gilded Age plutocrats above, the iceberg. In anticipation of any­thing untoward happening on the trip, my mother had sewn a $20 bill into the lining of my madras jacket, as if a scrap of paper could divert any crisis. As the Statue of Liberty glided past, I was driven to tell anyone who would listen that the monument was rumoured to be modelled on the face of the sculptor’s mother and the body of his mistress. Boom, boom, I was an icebreaker.

In the dining room, we were assigned to tables of four, boy-girl, boy-girl, an inspired orchestration of instant double dates. The only down side: ties and jackets and dresses were mandatory at dinner. Drifting from table to table, Nick introduced his co-leader, Tammy, a twenty-year-old former head girl from the Vancouver private school Crofton House, a live wire of near-Twiggy thinness, as steeped in art history as Nick. Together they seemed almost too good to be true.

After dinner, Sally and I gravitated to the spacious bar at the stern of the ship where a panoramic window overlooked a swimming pool and the setting sun. We knew we fell three-plus-years short of legal age, but no one demanded our ID. As we settled on stools and ordered drinks absurdly priced at a quarter apiece, Sally and I offi­cially graduated from the childhood sandbar to the adult cocktail bar.

Sally was still Sally, only more so. I was now close enough to smell the smoke on her breath, restudy the contours of the unusual face and head. It was what she was not that I liked best: no pretentious egghead, no remote porcelain doll done up in eyeliner, nylons, high heels, lipstick, perfume, no idealized, prefab, painted-by-numbers head girl, no worship-me-forever film queen. She was as real and alive as they came.

Careful not to stake a claim on her, I wandered off to mingle with the rest. I made an awkward stab at dancing with Margi, a diffident Halifax girl, to a band playing antique Guy Lombardo tunes, then a sudden rush of self-consciousness drove me to bed before midnight.

First thing in the morning, I cracked my head against the ceiling of my cramped berth. Convening for the first of daily meetings in a children’s playroom, we perched on yellow plastic munchkin chairs as if regressing to nursery school. We took turns standing up to give our names and schools; it would take time to pin all the names to the faces. Nick solemnly lectured us on the formation of the European Common Market and delivered a primer on the first Italian leg of the trip—Sorrento, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan. When he forbade “fraterni­zation” between the sexes, the room swam with nervous giggles.

That afternoon, we sunbathed in deck chairs by the pool, lulled by the hot Atlantic wind; behind the mask of my sunglasses, my eyes ravished the sirens of bikini atoll, slathered in baby oil, slithering one by one down a pink slide into the cold salt water.

After a dip, I stood by the stern railing, mesmerized by the blue-and-white wake churning into a past I longed to forget. One of my father’s rare war stories, fuelled by drink, surged to mind: how he had stood on the conning tower of his frigate in the frigid North Sea, swinging one leg over the railing in anticipation of a U-boat torpedo—a confession of terror that had made me quietly proud of his honesty.

Nick appeared beside me, interrupting my daydream. “You can understand,” he offered, “why some people might want to leap in.”

I was so amazed that a mature male of the species had taken the time to attend to me that I was tongue-tied.

“I’ve noticed you tend to hang back from the group. You’re a bit reticent.” He made his observation in such a gentle way that I did not experience it as judgmental. But I merely nodded.

After dinner, once more we hit the bar. Moving from table to table, I deployed my categorizing mind to sort the group—thirteen girls, thirteen boys, aged seventeen to twenty. Most of us were the Protestant offspring of lawyers, physicians, businessmen, a senator, a judge, a mayor, a brigadier-general, a combat photographer, a former head of Canadian intelligence in World War II; our mothers were mainly stay-at-homers. Five of us were kids of doctors—me, Sally, Will, Liz and Annabel; only three went to public schools; only one was black, or half black. Some of us were scions of staunch Scots and Irish pioneers, founders and builders of meatpacking empires, the CBC, medical labs, exploiters of natural resources and commodities. I had trouble believing that we were in any way part of an immacu­lately conceived privileged class, subject to great expectations; yet that was the invisible air we had breathed since birth. The way I felt about myself, why would anyone envy me?

Most of the boys seemed like frogs among the princesses. Miniskirted Kat Joy, a perfect sixties name, was a gamine Vancouver free spirit who weakened my knees with a smile. Likewise her cousin Nikki—almond eyes, olive skin, jet black hair, a body off the cover of Vogue. A second set of cousins from Toronto, Havergal girls Annabel and Jane, turned my head. Margi, Chris, Marywinn, Barb, Robin, Liz, Kathy, Nan—redheads and blondes and brunettes, eyes of blue and brown and green, a melding mosaic of the shy and sheltered, worldly and bold, bony and fleshy, boozers and abstainers. I was learning at last that it was possible to have friends who were girls and not girlfriends.

The lack of marijuana and my aversion to beer propelled me to an intoxicant favoured by adults: Canadian Club rye, mixed with ginger ale, on the rocks. One strong, tingling sip of sweetness, then
two, then three, and then Sally pulled me onto the dance floor. I was the rust-bound Tin Man and she the can of oil. We did not touch—no slow dances yet. Avoiding eye contact, I fixed on her party dress, puffed at the shoulders, a swirl of yellow, turquoise and pink, a small, heart-shaped opening revealing a patch of slightly sunburnt skin above her breasts.

Gimme a ticket on an aeroplane,
Ain’t got time to take a fast train,
Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home,
My baby, she wrote me a letter.

Back at the bar, the Italian servers, Guido and Luigi, both card-carrying Commies, ruefully replenished drinks for the trainees of the WASP ruling class. Sally loved to talk, but she also listened to what I was saying, and the more she listened, the more my own words tumbled and rolled, and we fell into our old bantering ways.

“What sign are you?”

“A Stop sign!”

By the early morning hours, our group had merged into a sin­gle organism, drinking, laughing, losing our heads, even as the bow of the Raffaello sliced open a new time zone. The rigidly enforced, all-the-live-long-day timetables of family and school, with its unspoken program of erotic abuse, melted like the ice in my drink and we were back on the steps of Sally’s cottage, kicking the can. Were we getting older or younger?

Back in my berth, I pulled out my pocket travel diary and scrib­bled, “Unbelievably fabulous time with Sally!” Maybe someday I’ll find the words.

On previous trips, drunken yahoos had rolled grand pianos overboard. In contrast we were sweetness incarnate. One night, boosted into orbit by three rye and gingers, I was drawing a crowd
with my well-timed one-liners. By 3 a.m., the bar was nearly empty. Encouraged by Sally’s laugh, I flung myself horizontally across the room, scattering tables and chairs. An overnight convert from inhibi­tion to exhibitionism, I pounded the piano keys until the stool broke under my weight. Standing beside Sally on the open deck, I watched the rosy-fingered dawn poke through the fog.

Over a late lunch, Nick circled our tables to reprimand us. We had achieved a historic first: never in twenty years of tours had not one sin­gle person showed up for breakfast. Only in the afternoon sun did I notice the purple bruises decorating my flesh from my Superman flight. Meanwhile, word had leaked out that Nick was slinking into Tammy’s cabin where they were fraternizing as if there was no tomorrow.

After five straight nights of careening around our floating pleasure palace, I decided to cool my heels for a spell and retreated alone into the womb of the ship’s cinema. I was disappointed that the film, In Cold Blood, was dubbed into Italian—A sangue freddo—but I stuck it out because, by coincidence, I was reading the paperback of Truman Capote’s genre-busting masterwork.

Even though I knew how the story ended, I was transfixed by the haunting black-and-white imagery and the theme of capital punish­ment. The actor Robert Blake plays a condemned murderer on Death Row; minutes before his hanging, he murmurs a reflective soliloquy on his horrific childhood while staring out of a barred prison window; raindrops streaking down the pane reflect back on his face as the tears he could not cry. In the near-unwatchable final scene, his head hooded and torso harnessed like a toddler’s, he drops through the trap door in slow motion, the amplified sound of his heart fading, beat by beat, to a dead stop. Out of the darkness I stumbled, as if emerging from a familiar nightmare.

Back in the bar, I parked myself on a leather couch beside Sally
as she held court, gushing about a guy named George. Ultra-smart, athletic, witty, handsome, he was twenty-one and sported a beard. A beard? I was lucky if a few pathetic hairs sprouted out of my chin every full moon. She babbled on and on about George, the man she was going to marry, the kids they’d have, a boy and a girl named Jason and Kimberly, and a St. Bernard dog named Petunia. Careers, house, cottage, the works.

Jesus, I thought. All the names already picked out.

I wanted to shut her mouth with a kiss, even as an image of George branded my brain.

Thankfully, Sean asked the question for me: “Sally, are you actually engaged?”

“Well, not officially,” she replied, and I seized the slim opening as a sign of hope.

I was on deck, leaning on the railing, nestled between Sally and Nan, taking a breather from dancing. The ship was anchored, and in the dim moonlight we made out the famous profile of the Rock of Gibraltar. Ignited by Sally’s smile, I performed my killer imitation of Skull Bassett, my lugubrious ancient-history master: “Tomorrow we will pass through the Pillars of Hercules, the nine-mile-wide pelvic portal into the Mediterranean Sea and the Pagan World.” Then Peter burst through the bar door, a stray piece of shrapnel expelled by a blast of Rolling Stones. He grabbed the drink from Nan’s hand, flung it overboard and hauled her onto the dance floor.
Below deck in her cabin berth, Tammy rolled over and looked Nick square in the eyes: “You know, we’re never going to be this happy again.”

It was official: on our delirious crossing of an epic body of water, our group was falling in love with itself.

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