To whom it may concern

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

The year I turned sixteen was, for lack of a more poetic descriptor, a bit of a garbage heap.

My parents split up.

My Nana died.

I spent the entirety of my grade ten year trying to eat as little as I could, and exercising as much as possible.

The acne on my forehead, chest, and back mutated from a small community garden patch, into a GMO-modified super crop. Equal parts horrified and embarrassed, I spent as much time spackling concealer onto my shoulders as I did my face. (Thankfully, for my birthday I was gifted a prescription for Accutane, and therefore also a new lease on my teenage dermatological life.)

I had braces and was in total denial about my (very real) need for glasses. I can never be sure I didn’t cause permanent damage to my eyes, what with the amount of squinting I performed every day at school.

I had extensive surgery which saw the breaking of both of my jaws and the reconstruction of my mouth. The end result was a complete restructuring of my facial composition and profile – although this never became apparent until approximately three months post-breakage, what with the amount of swelling that I had to live down.

During this time, I ate so much instant oatmeal I couldn’t even look at Quaker package for almost six years post-recovery.

That summer, I enrolled myself in Camp Potlatch’s “Leadership in Training” course, the completion of which would certify me to work as a camp counsellor.

Unfortunately, my Nana died two days before I was to start the camp and I missed the first three days as I had to fly down to Nova Scotia for her funeral and wake.

I remember feeling so utterly discombobulated flying back home by myself. I was jet-lagged and flu-ridden from the back-to-back, cross-country plane rides and the ensuing whirlwind of familial gatherings, churches and burials.

I was also livid that my parents still expected me to attend the camp. I hadn’t even had the chance to properly grieve, and here I was flying right back home, packing up my bags and pretending like nothing had happened.

I’ll never forget the car ride to the camp’s boat launch just outside of Squamish – my entire body seething with teenage rage, hurt, and indignation.

Any time my dad said anything I just ignored him while screaming, “SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP” inside my head.

Unfortunately, once I arrive at the camp things didn’t get much better.

My first three hours were spent in the frigid waters of Howe Sound, learning how to right a capsized canoe.

I also somehow lost my retainers (negating much of my happiness from having just gotten my braces off in the first place!) and then almost fainted, as I was too embarrassed to tell anyone that I was very hungry and hadn’t consumed anything since leaving Halifax the day before.

I was also subjected to the advances of the world’s worst flirter – a seventeen year-old boy named Christian, who was my partner in our canoe-training exercise.

Christian was about six foot four, weighed approximately one hundred and fifty pounds, and had a shock of white-blond hair that stood a good six inches straight up from his head.

He liked to sing to me, in particular the lyrics from Dennis Leary’s seminal work “I’m An Asshole.”

As you can imagine, I was immediately smitten.

Walking up from the waterfront, soaked from head to foot, lugging the front end of our very wet, and very heavy canoe, I felt the first prickle of a tear in my eye.

Trying my best to air on the side of positivity, I whispered to myself that “there was no way this could get any worse.”

And then it started to rain.

I immediately began to plot my escape: I would tell the director that my mourning was too great! I would “accidentally” break a limb!

No doubt reacting to my increasingly pallid complexion and demoralized demeanor, my counsellor Julie came up to me, put her arms around my shoulders and gave them a squeeze.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go get warmed up.”

As we walked up to the showers, she and Amanda (another counsellor in-training) let me know how happy they were to have another girl in their ranks.

“I really, realy didn’t want it to be just me and five guys,” smiled Amanda.

Looking quickly back at Christian and his rag-tag group of compatriots, I silently agreed. I too wouldn’t have wanted Amanda to weather the incoming storm on her own.

As we walked into the washroom, and I saw both Julie and Amanda begin to undress, I felt a wave of panic rise inside of me.

I didn’t want to get naked in front of these two strangers.

I didn’t want anyone to see my body.

For a second I was completely paralyzed, unable to even breathe.

But then I saw how completely unmoved both of them were by the scenario; how completely at ease they were in their skin.

And in that moment, I wanted this more than anything I had ever wanted anything before. More than I wanted my parents to get back together, more than I wanted my Nana to be alive, more than I wanted clear skin, and skinny legs.

I just wanted to be warm, and bare, and happy.

So I took off my clothes and under the stream of the second shower from the left, I felt some of that happiness and strength.

And in that moment I forgot about my retainers. About my parents. About death, and acne, and my body.

I just felt the water warm me – all of me.

The following three weeks were impacting, and transforming, and utterly brilliant. That time spent in the bush canoeing, hiking, kayaking, building fires, cooking camp food, swimming, fending off Christian’s advances, and sleeping under the stars was exactly what I needed to get over the trauma and drama of being sixteen years-old.

At least for a little while.

(Along, of course, with Accutane.)

11 thoughts on “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

  1. ab*sol(resol)lootlee brilliant.

    thanks also for reminding me how well you can write, weave, encapsulate, time-travel, gift-wrap it all up.

    (*i presume your abs are brilliant, too)

  2. I love your writing, missy. In fact, you have earned a coveted spot on my bookmark toolbar, so I can come check out your blog every few days so I don’t miss anything. You inspire me. :)

    xo,
    your Southern friend

  3. Firstly, the canoe bit…if you don’t get in the canoe, there’s no need really to learn to right a capsized one, is there?

    Secondly, and thankfully, I associate the name “Christian” with “Christian Grey”, although, I do like a spikey look on certain guys, just not six inches long, straight up as if a gallon of hair gel was used in the making of said spikey look. And CERTAINLY not attached to any guy, gangly or good-looking, tall or short, that has a personal anthem of “I’m an Asshole”. I mean, honestly, did he not realize that the “I’m” part of that song’s title left the field wide open to so many jokes by others at his expense? Apparently, he was so oblivious to his own teenage shortcomings, it didn’t matter that he was singing what no doubt became his theme song. (He is probably incredibly gorgeous now and no doubt, rich beyond imagination and ruling some small country. That is how it goes with most nerds. And now I’m wondering what happened to me, Nerd Extraordinaire…must work on finding the answer.)

    Lastly, though Ricky G. would wholeheartedly disagree with me and think me silly for this, I don’t think the warm water at that very moment was coincidence. Perhaps it was your Nana’s way of giving you the warmest, most soothing thing she could at the very moment you needed it.

    1. 1. FAIR POINT.

      2. Ahhh Christian Grey. For me, Christian always equals Bale. I had a HUGE crush on him when I was 14 and I think it’s stuck.

      3. I should have specified that his hair was in fact an afro (HUGE blond curls) that just seemed to go on forever. That guy man. He also had the most amazingly piercing green eyes. I always thought he looked a bit like an inverted leprechaun. I would love to know where he is now.

      4. This last part of your comment made my heart grow about four sizes. What a lovely thought. I will treasure it. :)

  4. Thanks so much for sharing :) It certainly brings back my awkward trying years and I so wish to never go back to being a teenager – no thank you – been there and done that! I think being 19 was the hardest for me – my mom almost died, her mom died, almost lost the farm due to medical bills, was taking care of my nephew, gave up going to college and got a job to help support the family, etc. It made me a survivor and stronger though. Happy Weekend!

    1. Holy smokes! Ms. Renee, I cannot even imagine. As always, your strength, brilliance and resourcefulness leaves me in awe. To go through something like that at such a young age shows just how amazing you are! xx

  5. We all have had awkward moments/ phases growing up. Having those experience is one thing.To articulate them however is a different story. Thanks Vanessa for sharing this post. Wonderful writing. I feel I was there with you. BTW, welcome back.

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