Then Wesley disappeared. Disappeared again. No one knew until he didn’t show up for supper. His car was gone. Few days later it was still gone.
Norbert said he’d probably be back the next week or next year, saying he’s found Jesus and he’s starting a commune on Vancouver Island.
I checked his basement space and saw he couldn’t have packed much. All I could tell was missing was his tape machine.
One of those afternoons when Wesley was away — I think it was a Saturday a week and half after he’d been gone — Petra asked me to a meeting. She always asked everyone, so it’s not like I got a special invite. Never fazed her if no one would go. She’d still ask next time like she expected you to go.
“Don’t you want to support the struggle of the people of Azania to achieve independence without relying on either of the two imperialist superpowers?” she said to me.
“Don’t you want to support the struggle of the people of Azania to achieve independence without relying on either of the two imperialist superpowers?” she said to me.
“I never heard of … what is it?”
“Azania. What’s it got to do with us, right? Like an appeal for charity. We should shed a tear for the poor starving, downtrodden Africans. Isn’t it terrible all those foreigners dying around the world? Isn’t it dreadful how they’re being tortured down there in Latin America? Shed a tear. Give sixteen cents a day to keep a starving child alive.”
“Something like that.”
“Besides, no one knows what causes these terrible things to happen. It’s too complicated. What the hey, we can’t change the world, might as well sit back, enjoy life.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“You do grasp we can change the world? Good. That’s a start.”
“I dunno about Azania or Africa or anywhere like that.”
“Ah. This part of the world here we can change. Our precious generation will see to that. But the rest of the world is different. There’s our world, where things count, and there’s the Third World which is all those places that aren’t quite civilized, that we can’t do much about.”
“I dunno about all that.”
“I’m here to tell you, Mark, it’s all one world. One big struggle between two camps, two sides. On one side are the imperialist superpowers and their minions....”
What she said maybe comes out like a lotta political rhetoric with imperialism-this and imperialism-that and monopoly capitalism all over the place. But it felt different listening to her with her big, warm spotlight on me. Later when I went to a few meetings I heard the same kinda stuff from others. And sometimes it was okay and explained a lot, like if I got this bit about some little thing going on, I’d have a key that would open things up the rest of my life. Other times it did seem the words were being thrown around and didn’t explain anything. But always, with Petra —
Okay, I was falling for her. But I don’t think that’s all there was to it. It was the combination. And I could see little bits of the world making sense and after a while those little bits starting to join up. And I was part of this thing happening everywhere. It was about me and about some people in Chile and the guys back at Cruikshanks and the kids hitchhiking across the country and Vietnam and everywhere. It was like that line, you are me and we are he and we are all together or something, but without the mystical stuff.
She’d hate that, me comparing it to a pop song. I’d never say that to her. I’d be such a disappointment to her if I did. I never wanted to be that.
Not just me. I think no one ever wanted to disappoint her. Almost anyone, if she’d talk to them by themselves, would end up going to a political meeting with her. One on one, they’d feel rotten turning her down, like they were betraying themselves and her and everyone, the whole progressive peoples of the world. But if she asked everyone in the house at the table, like just threw it out to all of us at once, that was different, it wasn’t so hard to say no then. I wonder why she never caught on to this, why she didn’t just corner people individually all the time. Maybe she didn’t know the personal effect she had. Or she did and she didn’t wanna do it that way, for one of those funny reasons she had.
So one night I find myself in a school auditorium somewhere in Kitsilano waiting for a meeting to begin.
It feels weird being in a school again. I get these weird vibes walking down the hall past the principal’s office and into an auditorium. I’m supposed to meet Petra there. She came earlier to help set up. By the clock in the auditorium I’m more than half an hour early myself, so I sit near the back and watch her and the others making preparations.
Most of the guys have semi-short hair and some are wearing ties. Some even have suits on. Cheap suits, as much as I can tell, seeing as I only ever owned one for when my parents made me go to church. But that’s how these guys look, like this is the once a week they have to dress up for their parents. Most of the women wear skirts or dresses. Petra’s in the same superstraight clothes I’d caught her wearing downtown.
They’re sticking up banners, long rolls of paper with slogans painted in bright red, and setting up tables and a podium on the stage at the front. One of the guys looks familiar and I realize he was the neatly dressed lookout on the team when Gus and me watched them postering. Then I pick out the guy and the girl who’d done the gluing.
Someone taps my shoulder from behind, an East Indian guy. “Are you here for the meeting? It does not start until eight o’clock. Have you read this material?”
He gives me a copy of a thin green book about the Azanian people’s struggle. It says a dollar fifty in the corner. I can’t afford it, I tell him and he says that is not an issue.
Petra notices me and comes up the aisle. She has a little smile on her face, like we have a secret understanding.
“My other engagements cancelled.”
“You want to help?”
“I’ll just sit here and read this. Educate myself.”
She returns to her banners denouncing neo-colonialism and shouting long-life to the warm friendship between the Canadian and Azanian peoples. I make like I’m reading but I can’t follow it and I watch Petra. She’s working with guys and other women, but there’s no flirting or anything like that. A guy and a woman on the stage are stitching yellow letters on red cloth. At the side of the room two guys hold a ladder for a woman who’s tacking the corners of one of those paper banners high on the wall. Petra’s standing back, telling her to raise or lower the corner to make it level. Another guy is running wires from the microphone on the podium to equipment at the side of the stage.
With ten minutes to go, Petra tells everyone to finish up. I wonder if she’s head of the whole thing but she must be just in charge of the preparations cause when the auditorium’s half full of people, she comes back and sits with me.
A guy I hadn’t noticed before makes a short speech and introduces speakers from different groups. They each get up from their seat at the long table and say into the microphone how they support the Azanian liberation struggle. It’s all very serious, not like rah-rah or anything. Petra doesn’t say two words to me the whole time, keeping her attention on the speakers. The audience listens closely and applauds after each speaker. It seems a different kind of applause than I’m used to. Not like “Aren’t we great! Isn’t this fun!” But more like “Good point. We agree.” Nothing like the crazy, anything-can-happen rallies I’d heard about. Kinda boring.
I wonder how I’ll describe this meeting to Gus. This makes me look at it like he might. With his bullshit detector running. Imagining I’m him, I watch the speakers and the audience without getting caught up in it.
Finally a small black man in a dark suit at the middle of the table is introduced as a freedom fighter direct from the front lines of struggle who will report on the situation in Azania. I guess I expected a big guy in a red beret and belts of ammunition across his chest.
The little man starts in slow English with thanks to the organizers for giving him the opportunity to bring fraternal greetings from the people of Azania to the revolutionary and freedom-loving people of Canada. (“That’s us,” Petra whispers to me.) Then he goes into a history lesson. I don’t get most of it but everyone else, including Petra, listens like their lives depend on catching every word. But my mind is wandering. Is this a living, breathing revolutionary, for real? Okay, he isn’t like one of our yippies with a painted face and head band and slogans about fucking the system and making love not war. That’s okay. But can he be a real-life liberation fighter, in a real struggle against real dictators, tyrants who’ll put him up against a wall and shoot him if he’s caught? Like that Ché guy? After his speeches in Canada is this polite little man actually going back to a war with weapons in the jungles and mountains or whatever they have in Azania?
His voice rises and brings my attention back to his words. He’s talking now about the suffering of his people. But no big sob story. How they harden in their resolve to throw off their oppressor without relying on an outside neo-colonialist power to take its place. This brings the first interruption of applause. His voice grows stronger as he repeats they rely only on themselves, the Azanian people, with the fraternal support of the revolutionary and freedom-loving people of the world. More applause. And the Azanian people pledge their own undying support for the struggles of the Canadian working class and its women and youth and all other peoples in this country in their struggle against their common enemies, imperialism and neo-colonialism. More applause and he goes back to thanking his Canadian hosts and the groups that have given their support during his tour of Canada. He’ll take back all their moral and financial support to his brothers fighting in Azania when he returns home to rejoin the struggle.
That’s all. And when he leaves the podium, he gets a standing ovation. And for some reason I’m up and applauding too, even though I didn’t understand most of it.
As the applause continues the freedom fighter stands behind his chair and shakes his hands together over his head like the winner of a boxing match. Except it isn’t for himself, it’s for us. People raise their fists back to him.
Then a funny thing happens. Drums start pounding and a bunch of East Indians, in robes and turbans, leap onto the stage in front of the tables and start this wild dancing. Everyone in the audience is on their feet and clapping along. (“The Bhangra,” Petra says, like I should know what that means.) It turns into this little play about these people sewing crops, harvesting them, then having them taken away by some bad guy, a landlord or something. So they take up arms — all the time keeping up this wild dance, hopping and shouting and shooting imaginary rifles to the faster popping of the drums — and they overthrow the rich guy, which leads to more, wilder dancing. By then everyone is cheering and the dancers go on and on with the encouragement, hopping and shouting faster and faster. Finally they dance their make-believe guns over to our Azanian liberation fighter and lay them on the table before him. He’s laughing and clapping and comes around the table to hug the dancers. Everyone on stage holds hands together in the air and everyone in the room is shouting and cheering.
Then the room goes quiet and someone begins singing this song to end the meeting. Everyone holds their right fists in the air as they sing. Petra nudges me. “Your arm broken?” I shake my head and keep my arms at my side but I stand through to the end of the song.
So that’s the meeting. I kinda wanted to put my fist up in the air at the end there and show I was part of it but that just seemed like too big step. I didn’t know if I could explain it to Gus, what happened at the meeting that made me want to join. He’d take it like I was fooled by some BS. Though it bugged me disappointing Petra too.
But I guess it was okay. Afterwards she said, “You’re right. Sorry. I shouldn’t have pressured you.”
She had to stay after the meeting to take the decorations down. This time I helped. The others who worked with us asked how I liked the meeting. But they didn’t push. I got the idea they were leaving me to Petra, that I was her responsibility.
She said she knew a good place for coffee. I figured she’d bring a gang of people from the meeting. But she left with me alone.
And so she took me to Morley’s for the first time and we had our first after-meeting meal of chili with thick hunks of crusty bread, and coffee that was endlessly refilled. It was cheap too. The kinda place with the menu on the wall behind the counter, with new prices handwritten over the old ones. We were in one of the two booths at the end.
There was something wrong with her. She was smiling too much for her, like from a private embarrassing joke. Like she was starting to get a buzz from something, though I’d never seen her take anything that would give her a buzz.
It was an interesting meeting, I told her.
“You liked it?”
“I dunno how these things are supposed to go.”
“You thought it was good?”
“It was hard to get into at first but I did after a bit.”
“Yeah, I did.” What was going on with her?
“That’s good,” she said. “It's very … good.”
When the food came, we slipped into one of our long talks and she seemed okay again. There was all the political stuff coming from the meeting and something about breaking out of a cocoon, no, a cradle, breaking out of a cradle, the cradle of history or something she wanted me to grasp.
Somewhere in there — I don't remember how we got to this, it’s sorta the mystery of Petra — somehow I got to telling her about dying, thinking I was dying, that bummer at Marmalade Skies, which I’d never mentioned before in our talks. Somehow I got onto it. And what Wesley said about needing a guide through the drug experience to get the truth out of it, something like that. But she cut in and said our brains had evolved through life-and-death struggles to cope with the material world and it hardly seemed likely that substances that made them function less accurately would give us a better perception of the world.
Then she let it drop. That's where I expected her to go on about stuff but she didn’t. She just asked me what other issues had been occupying my thoughts.
I’d gotten used to her way of talking about everything as an issue. Having to grasp what the issue is with everything. So I came up with some more stuff in my life. It’s great when someone knows all the basic stuff about you, so you can go on about things as they come up in your mind without having to stop and explain the background and everything all the time. Like a different level of being friends. Though, cone to think of it, I don’t think Petra and me ever went through being regular friends. Me and Gus were friends. Petra and me sorta skipped that part, went right to being something else. At least on my side. This feeling like she was in my head. Knew little things about me no one else did. She knew and judged them but somehow she didn’t judge me for having them. Know what I’m trying to say? Ever wish you had a twin, so there’d be at least one other person who’d know what it’s like to be you?
But Petra wasn’t my twin. I couldn’t read her like she could read me. I was trying to. I watched her face as we talked. Her almost hard face, with little flares of red shooting up her cheekbones now. Her eyes not so big but standing out bright cause they were warm and kinda glistening. Thin lips but, I noticed for the first time, real wide. What would it be like to kiss her?
I realized what I’d just been thinking. I stopped myself right there. Like I’d done something dirty, thinking about Petra and kissing. She’d be disgusted if she knew. I tried to stop thinking about her as a female and concentrate on what she was saying.
“You know what’s happening, don’t you?”
“Not exactly,” I said, trying to remember what issue we’d been discussing.
“Just with me then.”
“The love shit, Mark. It’s happening.”
“Uh.” I didn’t wanna get this wrong.
She said, “To you too? Possible?”
I can't remember exactly what I said next. The next minute or so is blurry. Something like me swearing and her agreeing and me losing my breath and getting it back and plunging into confessing I was totally, completely nuts about her. And then, incredible, amazing, her agreeing with that too. And me agreeing with myself again and saying this was incredible. How did this happen so sudden?
“It’s been happening all along, Mark. Didn’t you realize?”
“Not from the first time we met. That kind of thing is shit. But I saw it developing.”
“And you felt it? Like about me?”
“I have learned to recognize it in myself.”
“This is like — like —”
“Yep,” she said like pretending to be fed up with herself.
“Amazing, incredible. Yep. Yep.”
“What do we do?”
“What we do is act like human beings. Let it work out slowly. I learned that much.”
“Learned from going through it before?”
“From bad experience.”
“Does it always turn out bad?”
“We take it slow. We see what’s left when the amazing-incredible-going-crazy part has run its course. It may come to nothing.”
“You think so?”
Both our faces were on fire. I could feel the heat filling the room. She was grinning. “I’ll tell you what to do.”
“I know what to do.”
“Of course you do, big guy.”
“Okay, maybe you could give me a hint now and then.”
We have more coffee. Go out for a walk. No arms around each other. Not even holding hands. Just talking quiet, I don’t remember what about. Back to the house. Back to the kitchen where we’d hung out so many evenings.
Everyone else in bed or still out. Quiet. Sitting across the table from each other. Her getting up, walking around. Putting things away, moving them around. Sitting down again, smiling at me, suddenly embarrassed, reaching across and grabbing one of my hands with both of hers.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
But there we were. Her not moving and me not moving. Then her laughing. “Good night.” And getting up to leave.
And sitting back down.
“Mark, I have to tell you something about me.”
And I’m thinking a hundred things in a few seconds. All those fears. Other guys. Men.
“I have to warn you about me. I am not a good Marxist.”
I burst out laughing. But her look stopped me.
“Social relations.” She was talking very soft, very slow for her. “They’re my downfall. I let social relations screw up my political relations. I fight against this tendency in me but I'm not always successful. It’s why I’m not a member of this new party.”
This surprised me. I thought she was like the ultimate politico.
“I once —” But she stopped and said instead, “Anyway, you should know this about me. If you’re serious about politics, I may not be good for you.”
I hardly knew what she was talking about. It couldn’t apply to me. I reached to pull her towards me. She was beautiful then in all her seriousness, so beautiful. In a way that had nothing to do with her mouth or her eyes or anything. But she was just beyond my reach, smiling and saying again, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And she was walking out the kitchen to the hall and the stairs, the stairs that went up to her room, the room she shared with Loren, and the bed on the floor I’d slept on once.
And me, somehow time passed and I was back in my bunk in the dark shed, thinking I should wake Gus below and tell him everything. But what would there be to tell? Just an amazing, wonderful, confusing thing that had happened to me. To me and Petra. To no one else. Ever. He’d never believe it.
I felt Gus shift in the bunk. I heard him mutter in his sleep. I had some idea of answering him and carrying on a conversation as he slept. Telling him. Had to tell someone.
He muttered some more. And answered himself in a different voice. A lighter voice.
I held my breath to hear better. There was definitely another voice. Then a giggle and a shushing. Long silence and a kinda purring.
The kinda purring two people make if they’re trying to be quiet about fooling around in a bottom bunk. Gus and Loren.