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Read "Trust Exercise," Winner of CBC's 2017 Literary Prize for Creative Non-Fiction

Air Canada enRoute is a strong supporter of Canadian arts and is once again proud to be a sponsor of the CBC Literary Prizes, which are supported by cbcbooks.ca, CBC's website devoted to books and authors, readers and writers. Each year in our May, October and December issues, you can read the winning works of the country's leading established and up-and-coming writers.

Trust Exercise

By Becky Blake

The views and opinions expressed by the writer do not represent those of Air Canada enRoute, Bookmark Content and Communications or Air Canada. Some readers may be offended by the content, which is intended for mature readers.

My first love’s name was Anton.

Shortly before we met, his mother left his father for a Mennonite caterer. For months after she moved out, there was nothing to eat at Anton’s house except Honey Nut Cheerios. No milk.

The first time I encountered Anton’s father, he was sitting alone in the living room. He’d rigged up a pulley system that allowed him to manoeuvre a pizza box from the kitchen counter, through the room, and onto his lap. The pizza box was empty.

When I asked Anton to kiss me, he said he would consider it if I made him a very good bowl of vichyssoise. He also wanted me to promise that we would be together forever. The promise seemed a little dramatic, and I didn’t know what vichyssoise was, but I agreed to both conditions, excited at the prospect of soon having my very first kiss.

There was no Internet in those days, so I went to the library to find a recipe. It turned out that vichyssoise was cold potato leek soup. The recipe was for eight servings. I cut it in half, but partway through I forgot and added too much milk. The result was a potato milkshake. Anton drank it but refused to kiss me since it wasn’t very good.

In my last semester of high school, I moved into a commune on Anton’s street. I got a job as a baker to pay my rent. At work, I had to wear an apron that said, “I’ve got the best buns in town.” I was 17, and I always had little balls of dried dough stuck in my arm hair. After one month, I got fired.

My housemates and I took turns picking up food from the House of Friendship. The charity baskets they gave us always included three food groups: Jiffy peanut butter, jalapeño peppers and Crystal Light drink mix. Sometimes it seemed like the House of Friendship was trying to kill us.

I got another job: as a short-order cook at a senior citizens’ golf course. In the kitchen at the clubhouse, I learned to cook staples from the 1950s, dishes my boss thought seniors would enjoy: potato salad, shepherd’s pie, tuna casserole. I also learned to make fancy condiments from other more basic condiments: tartar sauce from mayo and relish, shrimp sauce from ketchup and horseradish.

At night, Anton came over and I tried to impress him with my new cooking skills. He had a sweet tooth, so I started to make him strawberry cream-cheese pies. Eventually he agreed to kiss me. Then he was my boyfriend.

On weekends, we stayed out all night, then went to the farmers’ market at 6 a.m. to buy pinch-pot cherry tarts and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. The Mennonites always seemed like they were judging us for being stoned. Anton didn’t like Mennonites because of the one who had stolen his mother’s heart.

To me, Anton’s mother was like a Slovenian Cruella de Vil. An imposing woman who was always flanked by two tall greyhounds, she didn’t think I was good enough for her son because I hadn’t read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Even after I read it – all four books – she still seemed to hate me. She once cooked me a meal with mouldy vegetables and then stood there watching to make sure I ate it.

When Anton met my parents, we discovered that he and my dad already knew each other. Apparently, my dad had once placed Anton into a school for juvenile delinquents. Sitting with my parents in their living room, Anton was so nervous, he started eating the potpourri. Not just one handful, but two. When I stopped him, he said he’d never heard of potpourri.

Anton and I were always broke. One day, we found a $50 bill blowing across a parking lot. We immediately went to Toys “R” Us to buy a soap-bubble saxophone we’d been eyeing. Afterward, we went to the movies and ordered two large popcorns, then took the bus home; it was a great day. Usually, we had to walk everywhere and could only afford to hang out in fluorescent-lit coffee shops holding hands across sticky tables. Those coffee-shop days were also great, caffeine fuelling our dreams for the future: Anton was going to make music; I was going to be an actress.

Anton built me a bicycle from scratch. It took all summer. On the day it was finally ready, he rode it over to my place. I’d just found out that I’d been accepted last-minute into a theatre school in Toronto. When I told him I had to leave right away, he rode the bike home and I never saw it again. He told me later that he sold it, but a friend said she’d watched him dismantle it. I imagined Anton wrenching bolts from their sockets, angry at me for leaving him behind.

Toronto was only an hour away. Anton hitchhiked to visit me on weekends, and I tried to share everything I was learning at school so we wouldn’t grow apart. One time, I blindfolded him and we wandered around Kensington Market: a trust exercise I’d done in my acting class. For over an hour, I handed him things to touch or taste. I was taking care of his every step, and the bond between us felt unbreakable. Then I gave him an unpeeled kiwi to eat. (I wasn’t too familiar with how kiwis worked.) He ripped off the blindfold and spat out a wad of fuzzy green gunk into his hand. “What the hell was that?” he asked, madder than I’d ever seen him.

During my second year of theatre school, Anton moved to England for a while to live in a squat. We didn’t talk about dating other people – we didn’t have to; our love was going to last forever and always be exclusive. Every month or so, I’d get a postcard, or a call from a payphone. “I’m apprenticing with a didgeridoo maker,” he told me once, then played me a mournful tune. He sounded really happy, though.

When Anton finally came back to Canada, I wasn’t sure how it would feel to see him again. I took a deep breath before opening my front door. We were both wearing the exact same orange shirt – a new shirt for both of us. We stood, amazed, on either side of the doorframe for a long moment before we kissed. We were obviously psychic – like all great lovers who were meant to be together.

We spent that summer fooling around and talking about everything we’d seen and done while we were apart. In September, when I was back in school, Anton left again – this time to Vancouver. On my spring break, I went to visit him and he took me to a grocery store that had no staff. It was like shopping in the future, like something out of the sci-fi books he sometimes read. We bought pasta and sauce. Pocky for dessert. The store was silent except for our scanner’s beeps – as silent as my weekends back in Toronto without Anton.

In theatre school, there was a lot of touching. Eventually, in my third year, I cheated on him with a clown. It was only one time, but Anton never forgave me. Since then, he probably hates clowns as much as Mennonites, but that’s just a guess. It’s been more than 20 years since we last spoke, and I don’t know where he is.

Twenty years is such a vast expanse to cross that the content of some of these memories may have shifted. One or two could even belong to someone else – be stories that I stole from Anton’s friends. Memory, like my word, can’t always be trusted. But I promise you this: Anton and I were deeply in love.

I still miss him. That first-ever boy I strawberry-kissed. That first sweet boy I tried so hard to feed.


Becky Blake

Becky Blake was the winner of the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize. Her creative work has appeared in publications across Canada, and her debut novel is due to be published by Wolsak & Wynn’s Buckrider Books in the spring of 2019. She currently lives in Toronto.

Tess Roby is a photographer and musician based in Montreal. A collector of images, she develops autobiographical work that captures her movement from one place to the next. Roby holds a B.F.A. in Photography (2016) from Concordia University. Her work has been published and exhibited internationally, and was most recently featured in Vice’s 2017 photo issue alongside Wolfgang Tillmans.

Photo: Ayelet Tsabari


Jurors

Carmen Aguirre

Carmen Aguirre has written and co-written 25 plays. Her first memoir, Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, won CBC Canada Reads 2012 and is a number-one national bestseller. Her second memoir, Mexican Hooker #1 and My Other Roles Since the Revolution, is a Globe and Mail bestseller and was chosen by CBC as one of the best books of 2016. Carmen is a graduate of the prestigious theatre training program Studio 58.

Dave Bidini

Author and musician Dave Bidini is the only person to have been nominated for a Gemini, Genie and Juno, as well as CBC Canada Reads. A founding member of the Rheostatics, he has written 12 books, including On a Cold Road, Tropic of Hockey and Around the World in 57 1/2 Gigs. He has made two Gemini Award-nominated documentaries, and Baseballissimo, his third book, is being developed for the screen by Jay Baruchel.

Charlotte Gray

Charlotte Gray’s most recent bestseller is The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country. Ever since she immigrated to Canada from England in 1979, she has been trying to make sense of this country for herself and her readers. The author of 10 books of biography and history and a member of the Order of Canada, she appears frequently on radio and television (but still doesn’t really understand hockey).

Photos: Alejandra Aguirre (Carmen Aguirre); Carlos Osorio (Dave Bidini); Valberg Imaging (Charlotte Gray)


Non-fiction readers

Christian Fink-Jensen, British Columbia
Danielle Fraser, Ontario
Melynda Jarratt, New Brunswick
Harold Johnson, Saskatchewan
Adnan Khan, Ontario
Sonja Larsen, British Columbia
Philip Moscovitch, Nova Scotia
Jay Pitter, Ontario
Laurie Sarkadi, Northwest Territories
Dorothy Williams, Quebec

Tags

CBC LITERARY PRIZES     LITERATURE    

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