For a long time, Gus and I never talked about it. Chicks, I mean. Or I should say women. He and Loren were together a lot and it got to be generally accepted without anyone ever mentioning it. But after a while I had to tell him Petra and I were close too.
He wasn’t real surprised. “I thought of her myself. But I figured she was with someone.”
“So did I.”
“Kinda ballsy chick I could go for.”
“Don’t let her hear you say that.”
“She wouldn’t go for me?”
“Talking like that.”
“You still half scared of her?”
“No. I didn’t know her then,” I said. “But you are with Loren, right?”
“We’re helping each other feel good.”
They were helping each other feel good almost every night. Petra and I were supposed to be into the love shit, and so far we weren’t doing anything in a bunk or anywhere else. She was not about to fall headlong into some relationship as she had done before, she’d said. Take it steady. Hormones weren’t going to lead her into any more disasters.
She had this whole idea about us discovering each other in what she called an all-sided fashion. Not letting physical intimacy outrun all the other kinds of intimacy. I don’t think she knew then that I was virgin, that my physical urges had never had the chance to outrun anything.
Before that first chili at Morley’s, I’d been going nuts every day trying to come up with ways to talk with her, without thinking there was even a remote chance there could be something else past that. And then after, when I found out there was a good chance, I was still going crazy every day. Going crazy wanting to be with her. Worse now. Cause I had some kinda right to it more than other people and it drove me insane how much time she wasted with other people.
Then we’d hold hands in the kitchen after the others had gone to bed or were out and it felt wonderful and okay again.
Then once we went on to snuggling on the kitchen couch and it was like a whole new stage in our relationship. From then on, if she was around at night, we’d go off to Morley’s for a talk and we’d come back to the darkened house to hold hands, just as we had that first night, and then snuggle on the couch a while.
Then we got into stretching out on the couch. All our clothes on. And I’d go nuts every day waiting till night, hoping she wasn’t gonna be out doing political stuff, so we could end the day talking, holding hands, snuggling on the couch and then laying together.
Okay, she was bringing me along like an inexperienced kid. But I didn’t mind. I was an inexperienced kid.
And there was the fact she was older than me and, I know this sounds silly but, she was kinda big. Bigger and stronger than the girls I’d necked and groped with in high school. Maybe she was my type. Other guys used to say, That’s my kinda chick, or so-and-so is not my type, too blond or too smart or too tight-ass. I’d never gotten into that. I’d say I didn’t have a type, I’d take them all. Like I was some playboy. Maybe now I was finding out I had a type all along and didn’t know it cause I’d never met a girl — woman — like Petra.
One night as we stretched out on the couch, she said, “Does it bother you I’m almost as tall as you?”
“The way you’re wriggling, as though you’re trying to keep higher than me.”
“Because I don’t want to put my head on your shoulder if that’s what you’re trying to accomplish. I prefer being face to face.”
“So stop —” her arms tightened around me “— wriggling.”
Nudging kisses in the dark.
Then she said, “I get it from my mom.”
“We’re the same height. My father was shorter than either of us.”
“So he was bossed around by both of you.”
“Not likely. He was a big man in every other way. Fearsome actually. Scared the hell out of my mom half the time.”
“You mean violent?”
“No, no. Never. Never with us. He just held strong opinions. I take after him, I suppose. I got my early politics from him.”
More nibbling on the neck.
“You can’t leave me hanging,” I said. I was thirsty to hear everything I could about her. Every scrap I picked up about her was so interesting, so much more than my boring history. “I told you every little thing about me, about my life and my family. But this is the first time I even heard that you had one.”
“Oh, I had one.”
“I was born in a log cabin —”
“Serious. Like you talk about everything else.”
“I actually was born in something close to a log cabin In northern Ontario, just outside a mining town.”
“And you’re not gonna tell me which town. Big political secret.”
You can guess it. But I will tell you my father worked for the mine. Not as a miner. Electrical worker. When I was born we lived in a wooden house twenty miles from town because it was dirt cheap. Electrical workers didn’t make good money then. Especially if they worked for a big company and especially if they were communists. No, he wasn’t officially a communist. A fellow-traveller they called him then. He’d support anyone who was right about something, he said. He just happened to think the communists were right all the time. Not right enough for him to join the party, but that fine distinction was unappreciated by the bosses or the police or the newspapers at the time. And he’d tell everyone what he thought and never back down, however daunting the odds against him. He was a Scot. He said that explained why he had to speak his mind plain but I think that was just a personal joke. Like him calling my mom a Heinz 57 Variety, since she was part Ukrainian, part French, part English and who knew what else? They joked about it, when I was young, her calling him a bone-headed Scotchman and him calling her a mixed-up mongrel. They were funny in those early years, full of life. And they doted on me — I was their first. We moved into town shortly after my first brother was born, so I remember the wooden shack only from my mom telling me about it. They told us all kinds of stories, both of them. And read to us. They had this immigrant, working-class appreciation of culture. My brothers and sisters and I had all the classics read to us at an early age. Treasure Island, The Three Musketeers, sure. But also Shakespeare, Byron, Dickens, Jack London. And lots of Robbie Burns, of course. I still remember most of “Love and Liberty.” Everything you had to know about both were in that poem, my father would say. Sentimental socialist that he was. And we got science. Whenever some discovery was made, my father would collect all the newspaper and magazine articles he could find about it, get books from the library, and we’d be educated on it for the next two weeks. Me and my brother and later my sister. And music. All kinds of music in our house. Classical, folk, bagpipes, Quebecois, spirituals.... No formal education could ever equal what we absorbed in that house. For the longest time we didn’t know this was unusual. We grew up thinking everyone was vitally interested in the great mysteries of life and love and death, and the fate of street urchins in Victorian England, and whether the universe was expanding at a constant rate. At first I thought my schoolmates just didn’t refer to these things in public, some kind of etiquette I had missed. It only gradually dawned on me that their private terms of reference were the same as their public obsessions — TV, sports and clothing. I made friends though, just by being nice to them, playing their games, inviting them to my birthday parties and getting invited to theirs. It was a shocking big change in my life when they turned on me. Something I’ll never forget. One kid, in particular, I still remember his name, Jamie McAllister, taunting me at school one day about being a red. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I knew it had to do with what made my family different. The next day he had a little gang of kids, some of them I’d thought were my friends, calling me names at recess and then on the way home after school. Dirty red. Go home to Russia. I knew a little about Russia, my parents talking, but I’d never heard it in that context. In my mind it was tied up with everything else my family knew and held dear — all the stories, the music, the ideas. I stopped and turned around and walked right up to Jamie McAllister and dared him to explain his views, this nine-year-old kid. I told him I’d never been to Russia but it would be an honour to go there. He should go there too to have his brain examined but I doubted he even knew where it was, Russia that is. Why didn’t he go to the library and look it up? Not the most correct or intelligent political argument but it got his goat. Next thing I knew, we were fighting. My first bloody lip. Probably his too. My father was so proud of me when he found out, he had tears in his eyes. He sat me down and explained, as well as he could to a kid. He belonged to what was considered a red union and the government and the company and the cops, the entire state apparatus, were trying to smash it. I already knew the names of Marx and Engels from my parents. I knew some of the general ideas. But this was the first I knew about Marxism as a political force, with other forces mortally opposed to it. Certainly the first I knew about people who would try to destroy you for holding those beliefs. And about other people, sometimes the majority, who would go along with you being destroyed. You might think all this would shake me, make me start wondering about my family. Perhaps if I had been a little older when this all blew up, an adolescent trying to fit in with my peers, I might have grown to resent my parents and my upbringing. But I recall the next few years with my family fondly. We were very close then, particularly my father and I. He’d ask me everyday what had happened at school that day and if there had been harassment we’d talk over what I should say or do to counter it. He’d never go with me in person to protect me, although I knew he wanted to and he would have if I asked him to. He let me handle it myself. I was grateful for that. Then on weekends he’d take me to meetings and he’d introduce me around as his fighting daughter. These people were my friends too, these adult lefties. They were all proud of me, just like my father. I was friendly with their kids. Some of them were more into their parents’ political scene than others but I was always the star pupil with the adults. Their young comrade, they called me. With all the trouble going on, my family was hanging out together more with the other red families. We spent Sundays together, sometimes at union halls, the parents upstairs in intense meetings, the kids playing in the basement. Or just having picnics together. The parents babysat for each other constantly. We shared cottages for a week every summer. We had New Year’s parties that turned into long discussions about politics and science and films. We had get-togethers for occasions that weren’t printed on any calendars you bought in a store. And of course we walked together on picket lines and in marches. My whole family marched together when my brothers and my sister were old enough. And we were always talking about the attacks we faced everywhere outside our group, how to turn it around so the masses would join us instead of isolate us. That was part of our lives that we went through together in the mid-fifties. And, despite the persecution and the hardships, we were never happier.
Petra stopped. Her hold on my arm was loose.
“And then?” I said. “I have the feeling there’s a big then coming.”
“And then we all grew older.”
“You grew out of it?”
No. It was the party. It was Russia. It was the union. I remember my father standing up at a meeting and denouncing the leadership. He and some of the other middle-aged comrades we’d grown up with. They said the leaders were betraying the ideals they’d fought for. I didn’t follow it all but I knew my father was fighting against something dangerous. Khruschevite revisionism, though he wouldn’t have called it that then. He just knew something was going wrong. Something had changed in the party, it was compromising, it was giving up its revolutionary principles, conciliating.… My father and his comrades thought it was just our local leaders at first. Bad local leaders who, when they were exposed, would see their mistakes and change, or would be replaced when the party saw what was going on. So it turned into my father and some of the other middle-aged comrades we’d grown up with denouncing other comrades we’d grown up with. For a few months my parents went to smaller meetings in homes where they discussed strategy to set things right, to return the party to its historical course, they said. But eventually they stopped going to meetings altogether. A strange sort of time for us. Adrift. Half our friends avoiding us and the other half confused or too careful to relax with. Then six months later someone from higher up in the party came to talk to my parents. And they were back in again. I’m not sure they were convinced but they decided it was still better than any alternatives. So we were all back in again. Back in the mainstream of the fringe, I suppose you could call it. With a difference though. Even as a budding teenager I could see my parents’ naive enthusiasm was gone. My mom sort of dropped out, no big fuss, just began focusing in other directions, on us kids, the house and family matters. My father was still in it up to his neck but he was developing this kind of edginess. You might never detect it if you hadn’t lived through the earlier period with him. There was a kind of phony heartiness about his political support now. And I could never quite work up the same worship for my father again. So I grew up into a teenager and I made new friends in high school. I learned to laugh off any taunts as if my accusers were being silly. In any case, there was no longer the same level of hysteria about reds in town or elsewhere. My parents’ friends weren’t causing any commotion in the few places they still had any influence. So by the tine we got into the middle nineteen-sixties, around the time when it seemed the whole of North America was in upheaval over civil rights and war in Southeast Asia and student democracy, the so-called communists here were playing it safe, trying to be respectable, actually counselling people not to rise up in any way that would threaten their arrangements. Refusing to provide leadership. So in the vacuum, we had all these alternatives arising. We got these militant new organizations, some of them pretty mixed up, trying to direct the struggles. And we got the whole supposedly non-political counterculture, promising young people a new life without the old divisions of rich and poor, black and white, capitalist and communist. For a while I was still emotionally attached to the old politics of my parents but the breaking point came when I was at university. I was there for two years. No, I won’t tell you where, though again you could guess. But it was before I knew Norbert and the others in this house. So in my second year, my second year living away from home, I helped organize a small demonstration against an American offensive in Vietnam. This was early, before everyone got into the act against the war. The student activists who recruited me were a combination of energetic but confused liberals and new left types before they called themselves the New Left. They were all amateurs by the standards I grew up with. But at least they were trying to do something. They asked me to join this demonstration they were planning and I got into it and I felt all this energy pouring back into me and I ended up practically taking over the organization of this demonstration. It turned out to be just twenty people marching around with signs but it felt good. It was my first real political activism since I’d been a kid. It felt like a new starting point. Then the day after the demonstration, the very next day actually, I had a visit from the local so-called communist party secretary who informed me I was to cease any such organizing on my own and to forward any future proposals for public activism to the local committee through him. A funny scene, this balding man sitting on the edge of my bed in my student flat, holding his hat in his hand, the kind of fedora no one had worn for a decade, and talking to me as though I were some little kid who’d misbehaved and had to be slapped back into line. I explained the demonstration had not been proposed by me but by other elements on campus and I was only aiming to influence the organization in a progressive direction, to promote a correct analysis among the progressive students. But this dull, empty man just repeated his orders. I reminded him I was not a party member nor considered myself under party discipline in any other way. At that moment, if I’d been a member, he would have taken my card and ripped it up. That’s a metaphor, by the way, so-called card-carrying members didn’t in reality have cards. But all he could do was lecture me about my shining family background and warn me about mixing with anti-social elements and adventurist hooligans, and he put on his hat and left. I was devastated. I’d never broken so sharply with the comrades before. Strange thing to say I suppose, since I’d never officially been in the party. But I was still devastated. Being around the party, in a red family, had defined my life since I was an infant. The worst part was that every criticism my new leftie friends had made against the old-line politics, the old leftism which I had vigorously defended, every criticism seemed to be proven valid now. That night, the same night, I received a phone call from my father. He’d been contacted by the old comrades at home. I was a wreck and I was so relieved when I heard his voice on the phone. He’d see it as us being in trouble together again. He’d offer to help me and tell me how proud he was that I stood my ground against tyranny. I was getting misty eyed, thinking about us being together again. I have always been weak this way. At this point I probably would have given in to anything if he — But he didn’t of course. No, he immediately launched into a tirade against me. Who did I think I was, going off to university on the backs of the working class and then thinking I was so high and mighty I could decide the world’s issues on my own? What kind of adventurist had he raised? I could scarcely believe it. He was calling to slap me back into line too. Well, I recovered quickly, I always do, and I gave him back as good as I received. I said a lot of hard things, not all of which I would still agree with today, but some of them sharp and true. Told him he was the one who was the traitor to our past struggles. He and his phony comrades. The sell-out communists. Toeing the Moscow line like sheep. Social democrats without even a human face. You’d have to grow up in those circles to know how cutting this was, how insulting. By the time we hung up, our relationship was permanently damaged. Apart from a few more minor skirmishes, we barely spoke to each other after that. My brothers and my sister had wandered away more quietly. And, to make a long story short, the bitterness and guilt in the family eventually separated my parents. There was probably more to it than politics but politics alone was almost enough to do it in my family. My mom couldn’t take her family being split in three or four directions. I suppose she found it easier to keep up relations with the kids without my father around to rant about us and the rest of the world. So here I am. Well, it’s not quite that simple. You might as well hear the rest. You want to hear the rest? Well, even though I’d said all those harsh things to my father, even though I’d stood up to that party bureaucrat, that was also the end of my political career with the New Left too. Oh, I flirted with it. I flirted with all the groups sprouting up on campus then, enough that I lost my year in school although I was a good student. I just never got around to handing in essays since I was too busy with things that were more important. I hung around for another half year as an unofficial student, auditing classes but mainly doing the political thing with all the new groups. But, the problem is, as long as I was politically involved, I couldn’t bring myself to give up the way of looking at the world I had grown up with. Not entirely, that is. I couldn’t bring myself to commit to any of these other groups. Inevitably I ended up dropping out of school, even as an unofficial student. And I dropped out of serious politics altogether. Out on my own then and looking for the third way. You’ve heard of the famous third way? Not communist, not capitalist, the old left-right spectrum being outdated in the dawning of the new age? Yes. That. The world seemed to be turning around in a new direction, led by disgruntled young people. I was one of the bold figures leading the way. Not by doing anything practical. Just by being. By loving. By absorbing and passing on the good vibes. And— you know most of the rest. This house and the craziness, the asshole I shacked up with, and Norbert and all the craziness we went through. I told you about it. Didn’t tell you though all the stupid things I did along the way because of the people I hooked up with, got stuck on. Correct. The love shit. Sometimes. Sometimes just the wanting-love shit. Or sometimes the sympathy shit. Or wanting sympathy. Wanting something else. A family maybe. I’m not going into all this now. It’s not relevant. Remember my telling you about Wesley? How he took this turn for the yippie, guerilla-theatre style just around the same time as some of us were starting to get serious about politics? I was trying to make it simple for you when I told you all that. But I didn’t just flop from being a New Leftie to a political groupie to a flowerchild and back to the so-called hard politico you see today just because the atmosphere changed or because new vibes were in the air. And the last step was the most conscious I ever took in my life. One of my former leftie friends at the university looked me up and invited me to this meeting she said was entirely different from what had been happening at campus when I was there. And I went and it was good. It was all the old enthusiasm, the old rigorous approach, except more so. I don’t know if you can get this but it was all the best of the old communists with this new energy. And it actually denounced the Soviets as imperialists on a par with the American imperialists. This was so … so liberating for me. To hear the Moscow-line communists being called revisionists who had betrayed the revolution and the people’s struggles around the world. Do you grasp what I’m getting at? These were the same criticisms my father and his friends had made a decade earlier before caving in. Except this was more precise, more confident, and it pointed us forward. Genuinely progressive. It was exciting almost beyond belief. Of course, I had to call my father, went to see him actually. This was just over a year ago. I set up an appointment to meet him at a coffee shop, neutral territory, to tell him about this wonderful development. I was tremendously moved when I walked in and saw him sitting there, waiting for me to deliver this news that justified his actions ten years ago and resolved all the contradictions that had been eating him up ever since. I sat down and I got halfway through telling him what I’d rehearsed before he interrupted me. He told me he knew for a fact the new group was a police organization, the leader was a foreign agent, and its politics were opportunist and would end in anarchism and terrorism. You see, he’d been given the line already. And that’s all he would hear. He was emotionally attached to the old party, right or wrong. He’d made his peace with the betrayers, the revisers of his own great principles. And I couldn’t shake him from that. I didn’t even try after I saw how he was. We tried to talk civilly and awkwardly about other things, about Mom, said goodbye and we haven’t spoken since. As for the rest of my family, my mother’s fine. She’s not well these days but she talks with me. She may come around. My brothers and my sister refuse to talk about politics at all. Any politics. They blame it for everything bad that’s happened to our family. They get worked up if I even mention it. The heritage of revisionism.
We’d long stopped holding each other and were lying on our backs, shoulders squished against each other on the couch.
She rolled to face me and pinched my leg.
“And let that be a lesson to you, young man.”
“Why won’t you tell me where you grew up or went to university? What’s the big secret? Don’t I know everything else about you now?”
“Mark, you don’t even know my name.”
And that was when I learned she wasn’t really Petra. She’d chosen the name years ago, when she was a kid, what she thought was a romantic, revolutionary-sounding name. Just in her fantasies. Some kids acted out in their heads being Batman or Roy Rogers, catching bad guys everywhere. She was Petra, the implacable enemy of evil reactionaries. Then when she got involved in New Left politics, she gave that out as her name. A psychiatrist might say it was to dissociate herself from her family while maintaining a subconscious link, she said. After a while everyone she hung out with, except people from her home town, knew her as Petra. Then, with the new group all the activists used pseudonyms to confuse police agents. So she stuck with Petra. Only one or two comrades knew her real name.
“So why not me?” I said and we both heard me adding: Didn’t she trust me?
“Someday you’ll know it. So far you’re one of the few people who even knows I have another name.”
That night on the couch we went as far as feeling each other up. It wasn’t as cheap as that sounds. It was another beautiful new stage in our relationship.