Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Robin was two years younger than me, 14 to my 16, but compared to her I didn't know a thing.

The year was 1988. She was a ragamuffin of a girl, draped in tie-dye and fringe, hiding under layers of pseudo-hippie-gypsy thrift store finds. She smoked. She drank. She did whatever drugs she could get her hands on. Her thin, straight hair fell into her eyes every few seconds. Her pale hand, patched with eczema, shook as she pushed the hair back behind her ear.

I didn't know myself yet, beyond being that quiet girl with the A+ average. I was attracted by Robin's darkness, her daring, her bad behaviour. I let her take the lead.

She brought me to dim, overstuffed vintage clothing stores in Kensington Market. I watched half in horror, half in awe as she hungrily shoved handfuls of scarves, bangles, beaded necklaces, and whatever was in easy reach, up her wide coat-sleeves.

She led me to the sidewalks of Yonge St. to sit on the concrete, near a steet vendor she had befriended, watching the world go by. The only people I had ever seen sitting on the sidewalk were homeless beggars and bums. I felt very far from my middle-class living room, with the powder-blue wall to wall carpeting, as the cold from the sidewalk seeped through the seat of my jeans.

I was never bold or foolish enough to take up cigarettes myself, but I inhaled Robin's second-hand smoke as though it were medicine that could heal the under-confidence of my over-protected self.

I did shoplift. I still remember everything I stole. A patterned cotton scarf that I used to tie my hair back for years after. A tube of "magic" green lipstick that turned pink once applied. A black beret that's still in my bureau drawer. And the last thing: a silver bracelet that I slid into my shirt sleeve in Eaton's department store. A plainclothes security officer followed me around the store for ten minutes after, as I lurked among the handbags and hosiery, trying to shake him off. Finally I bought a cheap scrunchie, to legitimize my presence, and that seemed to satisfy him. I got away with it that time, but after that I decided that it wasn't worth the risk. I was only stealing for the thrill anyway, to prove that I could. I hadn't taken anything that I couldn't just as easily have bought.

I was playing with these forces. I could chose them or not. I didn't realize how lucky I was, how different from Robin. Over the course of the year I heard rumours through a mutual friend: that her father had touched her inappropriately. That she cut herself. She got suspended from school for a while. She had a severe asthma attack but wouldn't give up smoking.

When the year ended, Robin was among a group of us who went to music camp together. I played violin. She played viola. The camp was used by younger children the rest of the summer. There was a playground. We sat under the slide on a rainy evening, just before dusk, and I watched the tip of Robin's cigarette glow hot orange in the gathering blue. When she had smoked it down to the filter, we knelt in the damp sandbox and sculpted life-sized mermaids. I can still feel the cold sand, grainy under my palms, as I smoothed the contours of my mer-lady's breasts and hips. That moment, from all of my teen years, marks the time when I was happiest to be a girl, celebrating femininity, with no context other than the earth, the cool air, mist, and wide, evening sky.

The last time I saw Robin was ten years ago from today, and also ten years after that summer. She appeared in the health food store where I was working, a scruffy boy on her arm. She had shed her hippie layers for a miniskirt and go-go boots. Her hair was highlighted and done up in fetching waves. But I recognized the shake in her hands, and in her voice, the cigarette cough, the nervousness underlying her jokes. Her eyes darted around, refusing to meet mine for more than a second or two at a time. And then she was gone, probably with some unpaid merchandise stuck up her sleeve.

She's another one I wonder about a lot. God bless, Robin. I hope you found your way to happiness.


Warped Mind of Ron said...

It's sad sometimes seeing the choices that others have made for themselves. Choices that may have lost them opportunities for a happier life.

unsigned said...

If you still knew her she'd probably be asking you if she can "borrow fifty bucks" and promise to pay you back this time.

Karen said...

I really enjoy when you introduce us to characters from your past. They remind me of people I knew once and also wish I still knew on some level.

I hope Robin is doing well.

Leighann said...

I sometimes wonder if I've ever come across someone from my past and just not realized it.

There are a few people I wonder about.

whatigotsofar said...

Everybody's got a Robin somewhere in their past. Mine never encouraged me to steal though.

Keera Ann Fox said...

There have been a couple of Robins in my life, too, and I wonder what became of them. I was their friend because I liked them, not because I wanted to be bad. I remember the last one best: Cathy from high school, who ended up in the hospital from a suicide attempt, her mother said (Cathy said otherwise). Her mother had called me because I was the only decent friend Cathy had. I wonder if I should have reacted differently. I did visit Cathy in the hospital, but later ended my friendship her. I do wonder what happened to her. Every time I hear Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" I think of her because I first heard that song in her car.

Tink said...

It's like looking through a warped mirror and seeing all the things you're not... Be glad you're on the side that doesn't envy the other.

jameil1922 said...

wow and i can't believe you actually saw her again. and she hadn't changed. that's kind of scary. i rarely see people i went to h.s. with. i saw this one guy when i went home a few weeks ago. he was working at trader joe's and looking super hot. i think i'll go stalk him when i go back. hahahahahaha

R.E.H. said...

This was a very inspiring read... in a way. I knew many characters like her myself (and I probably even was like that).

I too did a lot of shoplifting in my early teens... I even took up shop, so to speak. Kids in school would pay me to steal some stuff for them. I'm not proud of it.

I got caught twice... and my mother found out. The first time she forgave me, because what I had stolen was a nudie magazine ;)

She said she could understand that I was too embarrassed to buy the thing.

Buying it would have been a whole lot LESS embarrassing than having my mother find out I had stolen the damn thing!

Sparkling Red said...

Ron: Yes, it's sad when people you care about are lost. In grade 9 I had a friend who was in even worse shape. I'm not sure if I'll write about her. I'd have to look very hard to find the beauty in that relationship.

Unsigned: Could be.

Karen: Thanks. :-) I know I'm not alone in my attraction to charismatic but troubled types. I guess I'm a little like that myself, sometimes. Or at least, I used to be.

Leighann: Yes, people change so much. I'm sure I've walked by lots of characters from my past without paying enough attention to recognize them. I'm always lost in thought when I'm out in public, anyway.

Whatigotsofar: Well, that's good, I guess. I'm still not sure how I feel about the stealing. Sometimes I'm glad to be able to say that I did it a few times, because didn't rebel much as a teenager, and I wished that I'd had the guts to be more of a badass. Other times I think it was just a stupid kid thing. I guess the truth includes both of those concepts.

Keera: I had a friendship in 9th grade that ended that way. A very troubled girl, bad influence, self-destructive, finally called my house saying that she'd taken a lot of pills to kill herself. I talked her into coming to my house, which she managed to do (I'm not sure really what pills she took or how many) and then my parents had to take her to the hospital to get her stomach pumped. After that we went our separate ways. I don't think either of us had the wisdom to deal with the implications of that night.

Tink: Yes, I so easily could have been a girl like that, if I had been more impulsive by nature. My inclination to be cautious saved me from the lure of the forbidden.

Jameil: You go girl! Let us know how it goes. ;-)

R.E.H.: Oh my gosh, I can't imagine. My mom would have thrown a fit to end all fits if I'd been caught! And a nudie magazine! That must have been agonizing for you. Still, it's such a cute story now... ;-)

Aurora said...

Wow, you stole something?! I am impressed and scared and shocked all at the same time. Good post.

Nicole said...

Another wonderful peek into your history.
Wish I could write like you.

But you bring back memories.
Some of the Robins that touched me in my Lifetime I have found again recently on a German networking site.
Some not.

We are always attracted/fascinated by something that is different than us, I guess.

Sparkling Red said...

Aurora: I still remember the first time I saw a girl (no one I knew) shoplift and get away with it. I kept waiting for someone to yell "STOP, THEIF!" or for security guards to come running, but she just pocketed the lip gloss and walked away. My reaction was the same as yours. I didn't want to try it right away, but later I did. Kind of a rite of passage, I guess.

Nicole: It's true, that we are attracted to people with qualities that are dormant in our own lives. I guess that means the more we embrace in ourselves, the less we will be at the mercy of that magnetic attraction to others. Did you/will you get in touch with the people from your past?

Jenski said...

It is sad that Robin continued on that same path. It is amazing how former friends who are obviously so different can make such a strong impact on our lives. The night at music camp sounds like a very meaningful moment.