Double Image (Contemporary)
Zanni Howard, from her beginnings in a small prairie town to a career that takes her around the world, is an expert photographer, seeking to reveal both truth and beauty in her art. But, in her personal life, she blindly makes assumptions about who she is and what will bring her contentment.
Zanni’s struggle to comply with society’s compelling pressures and find the ideal soul mate leaves an agonizing wake of broken marriages, frustrating love affairs, guilt and confusion. How will she learn that her only chance for happiness lies in discarding her tangled and misleading youthful dreams so she can see the truth about herself as clearly as she sees images in a camera’s view-finder?
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1 ⬥ A dry river
I lost my virginity on a bitter cold night in the first week of December, while a vicious northeast wind blasted snow across the dormant sugar beet fields and whipped the naked poplars shivering along the fence lines.
It was Shakespeare’s fault. Mr. Franklin, my grade twelve English teacher, had assigned an essay on Macbeth that would count for half our midyear marks. Right after class, Sheena asked me to stay with her for the weekend so we could work on the essays together. I knew she asked only because I got top marks in English and could help her with the essay. Still, it might keep my mind off Steve for a few hours.
“Lyle and I are going to the Saturday night dance. We’ll party after.” She flipped her long brown hair over her shoulder and looked up at me sideways.
“What do you mean, ‘we’? You and Lyle don’t want a third party hanging around.” Sheena lived by herself in a little travel trailer on the school grounds, so her folks wouldn’t have to drive her back and forth thirty-odd miles every day during the winter.
“His brother came down from Calgary last night. I thought we could make up a foursome.” She flipped her hair again. “Notice anything?”
“Zanni, you’re blind! I put a red rinse on my hair.”
“Oh. It looks good.” She probably thought she looked different, but she didn’t. Her hair was still brown and her nose still a little too long to fit the rest of her face.
“Thanks.” Her smile was tight. “It’s no good putting a rinse on black hair like yours but you could iron it.”
“Don’t you know anything?” Now her smile was almost a sneer. “Straight hair is in. Nobody wants thick, wavy hair like yours.”
From the vantage point of my five foot eight, I could see dandruff along the part in Sheena’s hair. Nobody wanted that either.
Sheena tapped my arm. “So what about Saturday night?”
It would be a drag without Steve. We’d split up in November and my heart was bleeding. He’d been my one true friend, and we’d talked and gossiped and planned our future for hours on end. Every day I longed for him. Every day I wanted to kill him.
“Well?” she said.
Maybe Sheena was doing me a favor. If I went dancing, Steve might hear about it and come crawling back.
We quit sweating over the essays at six on Saturday. I put on the red miniskirt and mohair sweater I’d brought from home and slipped into red go-go boots. “I’m ready.”
“You haven’t put on earrings or anything,” Sheena said. “No make-up either.”
“I don’t like jewelry or make-up.”
She stared at me. “Don’t you care how you look?” She pointed at my wrist. “I bet your dad wore that scruffy watch around the garage for twenty years.”
“He did. That’s why I like it.” The worn leather strap felt smooth against my skin.
The boys came for us at seven. When Sheena introduced me to Vernon, he said, “Jeez, you’re tall. And what kind of a name is Zanni? I never heard of it.”
“It’s short for Alexandra.”
“You got pretty eyes, though. What color is that, anyway? Green?”
“Hazel.” Vernon was rude and had no imagination At least he wasn’t ugly. He had medium brown hair, medium blue eyes and was maybe an inch taller than me. Compared with Steve’s tall lankiness, sharp gray eyes and mocking wit, Vernon was totally medium, in spite of his city bell-bottom jeans and love beads. But if Sheena could use me to pass her English, I could use Vernon to give Steve a jolt.
In Wing Lee’s Café, Sheena and Lyle talked about seeing A Hard Day’s Night the week before. I’d seen it, too, alone at the back of the theater instead of in the balcony with Steve. Not even a broken heart could keep me away from that movie.
“Jeez, that came out in ’64,” Vernon said. “Movies still get here two years late. I always said Willow Bluff is the asshole of southern Alberta. When you guys get hitched, you ought to move to Calgary, like I did.”
Lyle shook his head “I’m gonna take over the farm from the old man someday.” He looked down at Sheena. “That’s right, ain’t it, hon?”
I shut out their voices and nibbled chow mein, glancing at the steamed-up windows of the café, hoping one of the vague shapes outside was Steve and that he’d come in.
We’d split up because his mother told him we were too young to be engaged and should go out with other people. What made me so furious I could barely speak was knowing he didn’t love me enough to stand up to her. I moved a little closer to Vernon. If Steve did come in, I wanted the scene to hit him right between the eyes.
Lyle drove us to the dance at the Elks Hall. Vernon was a good dancer but he and Lyle spent a lot of time slugging back rye from the forty-pounder Lyle had stashed in his car. Sheena and I went out a few times, though I thought rye tasted like gasoline smelled. Halfway through the dance I asked the band to play I Want to Hold Your Hand. That had been our song – Steve’s and mine – for the two years we’d been together.
Charlie, on lead guitar, said, “Never heard of it.”
I felt like asking if he lived in a cave somewhere but Charlie and my father were buddies. I told him to forget it.
The dance finished at one in the morning. I felt a little dizzy and was getting madder by the minute. Steve hadn’t shown up at the café and he hadn’t shown up at the dance. The whole evening had been a colossal waste of time.
Lyle let the car warm up for ten minutes before we bundled into it but the heater hadn’t made much headway against the howling wind. I was still shivering when I noticed Lyle was heading north across the river instead of back to Sheena’s trailer.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“An old couple Lyle knows are away on holiday,” Sheena said from the front seat. “He’s got the key to their house.”
“Because the trailer has only one bed, stupid!”
When it finally sank in that she was going to sleep with Lyle, I was surprised. Then I wasn’t. Every time I overheard Sheena whispering and giggling with the other girls, it was about boys and sex. As little kids, they always dressed up in their mothers’ high heels and lipstick to play house. They hadn’t changed much. They still called me stuck-up because I wanted to explore the river or take pictures instead.
Lyle pulled in beside a dark house, lonely in a wide expanse of fields, the tires crunching on drifted snow. We struggled to the front door, heads bent against the blast. It was only marginally less cold inside the house. Lyle lit a coal oil lamp, then stuffed paper and kindling into the airtight heater while Sheena and I clutched our coats around us. Vernon brought an armful of split poplar from outside and soon the crackling fire gave off heat and the acrid smell of smoke. The expanding metal of the heater snapped and groaned.
Sheena said, “See you guys in the morning.” She and Lyle disappeared into the darkness of a small room and closed the door. I could hear them through the thin wall, talking and laughing.
Vernon sat on a single cot obviously used as a sofa. I sat in a lumpy chair next to the heater, with my coat still on, wondering whether my feet would get warm if I took my boots off. He smiled, patted the cot and said, “You better come and sleep here with me. That chair looks pretty uncomfortable.”
“No more bedrooms?”
“No,” he said. “Lyle’s got the only one.”
I looked away, letting my hair fall over my face like a curtain. I couldn’t go home; trying to walk the ten or fifteen miles would be suicide in that bitter wind. I could sit up in the chair all night. Or I could share the cot with Vernon.
I knew that was risky but I’d heard girls say you never got pregnant the first time. Ruth and Granny said a girl who slept with a man before she married was a slut, but Sheena wouldn’t dare blab. If she did, then everybody would know she’d been sleeping with Lyle.
Vernon was still smiling at me.
I remembered how it felt to plunge into the river in summer, the water enveloping my whole body in a cool, exhilarating rush. Sex might be like that, only warm, not cool.
Being a virgin was supposed to be a big deal but so what? My life was already ruined. I’d lost my soul mate. And I’d find out what sex was all about. I might as well take the plunge and get it over with.
I’d do it. I’d show Steve.
By the time I’d blown out the lamp and stumbled through the dark to the cot, Vernon was already under the blankets. I stripped and edged in beside him, my skin shrinking in the cold. Without even a kiss, he climbed on top of me, fumbled his flesh into mine and began pumping. The sensation was interesting and not unpleasant, though each time he thrust, the blankets lifted and let in cold air. I tried to tuck them close around me but it was only a minute or two before he grunted and rolled off.
If that’s all there was to sex, I hadn’t been missing a darn thing. This river had no water.