Friday, April 11, 2008

The Ballet Ultimatum

In the last few weeks of grade 4, Neve came up to me at recess.

“Come, I have something I need to tell you.”

She took me by the hand and led me to a quiet corner in a way that really had me worried. She had this look of terror on her face like she was about to give me some very bad news. From the look on her face, I thought one of her family members had died.

I remembered her telling me that her younger brother had been diagnosed with asthma. We were sitting in class at the time and she began asking me all these questions about what it was like for me growing up with asthma. As she led me away I had this bad feeling she was going to tell me this brother of hers had died.

When she finally spoke, she told me that she had made arrangements to go to a private school the following year and she wouldn’t be coming back for grade 5. This was bad news, but it wasn’t the kind of ‘end of days’ news that warranted this degree of seriousness.

“That’s what you wanted to tell me? My God! From that look on your face, I thought you were going to tell me your bother had died.”

Obviously things were going to change. Right away I started thinking of a workaround. We could still write to each other. We could talk on the phone. When I turned 16 and got a driver’s license, we could hang out again. I didn’t see this as the end world.

Much to my surprise, she had already thought of her own workaround.

She explained that this school she would be going to was a full-time ballet school. She was getting paid to go and the money she was getting was more than enough to cover the tuition for one person. In fact, she said it was almost enough to cover the tuition for two people. Then she explained that she had talked it over with her dad and Mr. Campbell had agreed that, if she could convince me to go, he would pay the difference so that we could attend this school together.

I could not help but be touched. It was incredibly sweet of her and her dad to go to all that trouble, but um…..


Ballet is a humiliation for a ten-year-old boy!

I grew up playing sports. I was a fighter, not a lover, and I certainly was not a dancer.

This story would be a lot funnier if it were not for that fact that Neve was always so deadly serious. And, she was being deadly serious now.

She was neither dumb, nor naïve. She came to that conversation armed with every convincing argument for why I should join ballet school.

She told me, “Lots of boys take ballet. There is nothing wrong with that!”

And, “I think you would look really good in a ballet uniform.”

And, “If you don’t go, I may never see you again.”

It is truly amazing what passes for a compliment in the mind of a nine-year-old girl. I know in her heart she thought she was buttering me up with that comment about me looking good in a ballet uniform. However, male ballet dancers do not wear uniforms. Airline Pilots wear uniforms. Male ballet dancers wear long underwear and bedroom slippers that are way too damn tight. There was just no way this was going to happen.

But like I said, the fact that she had talked her dad into paying my way made saying no very hard. I could see she really wanted this. And to be fair, I loved her enough not to want to disappoint her. She was very mature and understanding throughout the whole conversation. She never made me feel uncomfortable. She didn’t push the ultimatum. She simply explained how much it would mean to her if I would do this. Then she ended the conversation by saying,

“If you do decide to do this, it will be a serious commitment. You won’t be able to horse around the way you have here at Vista. You will have to take it seriously, but you don’t have to make up your mind right now. There is still time until the end of the school year for you to decide. Just think it over and we’ll talk more in the days ahead.”

Then she went to work on me.

If ever there was a girl who could have convinced me to do something as flamboyant as that, it was her. She did all these little things that tugged at my heart strings.

One day at recess we walked around the school yard and she just took me down memory lane.

“Remember the time we did this? Remember the time we did that? Remember the time we tried to feed the squirrel?”

She spent the whole time drawing out my every happy memory. When you spend eight hours a day, five days a week, for five straight years with someone, there are bound to be a few happy memories and she hit on every one of them. More than once I had that sick feeling in my stomach that made me wish nothing would change.

On another day she had brought a coloring book and a box of crayons to school. Our grade 4 teacher was in the habit of giving us open study periods since it was almost the end of the school year. It was an opportunity for us to study for tests or to work on assignments that were coming due. Or if we chose, we could just goof off and do whatever we liked provided we did it quietly and didn’t disturb our classmates.

When she gave us one of these study periods I went and sat down beside Neve and she pulled out this coloring book and these crayons.

“Want to color?”

I thought that was kind of silly, but sure why not. We were practically adults at that age, but a little regression isn’t so bad. When she pulled the coloring book out of her bag she was sitting on my left. For some reason she asked me to switch seats, which we did and she ended up sitting on my right. We spent the period coloring and talking. I don’t remember what we talked about, but it was not about ballet. I kept thinking she would push that subject again, but she didn’t.

It was very sweet sitting there in class and coloring. It kind of reminded me of kindergarten when we were painting together and she was trying to find a paint brush that she liked. She was every bit as cute as she was back then.

As the study period neared its end, she did something that got my attention. She stopped and looked at me. Then she wrote her initials in the bottom right hand of the page and she looked at me again. I took that as a queue that I should do the same, which I did. Then she began flipping through the pages of this book.

She opened the coloring book up to two pages that had already been colored, albeit poorly. And, when I looked at the bottom corner of the pages I saw the initials MN in the bottom left and NC in the bottom right. I laughed when I saw that. It was funny, if not impossible. We never colored with crayons in class before, nor do I remember her ever bringing that coloring book to school. I sat there pondering the meaning of that. I could picture Neve sitting at home the night before doing a rough job of coloring in that book to try and make it look like we had colored those pictures at a younger age before writing our……

It was like being punched in the gut when I figured it out. That was not fair!

The third thing I remember her doing as part of this campaign involved a clear plastic zip lock bag she brought to school filled with notes and Valentines Day cards, and basically everything on paper I had ever written her. She had kept it all and now she was pulling it out and reading me these notes. I don’t remember any of them off hand, but I do remember feeling a little upset.

I used to keep all of Neve’s notes and Valentines Day cards as well. I kept them in a drawer of my dresser. Unfortunately, one of my mother’s insanity quirks was that she would periodically pitch out my personal belongings. She was like the opposite of a pack rat. Every so often she would get this compulsion to grab a giant garbage bag and go through my room filling it up with all my stuff. Hockey card collections, comic book collections, you name it. I remember I got a delivery route delivering flyers at one point and I’d spend the money on collectibles only to have them end up in landfill.

I was not the only one affected by this insane little quirk of my mother. I remember my brother lost his cool one day when I was very young. All his stuff got pitched.

I was talking on the phone to my sister the day my mom had come through my room and pitched out all of Neve’s notes. Some of them were ones she wrote me and sent home with my neighbor Jason Ashton when I was in hospital. There were many days growing up with a violent father and an insane mother when those notes were all I had to remind me that someone in the world cared. But, my mother found them and wiped them out in one shot.

“It’s nothing but a lot of junk! You don’t need that, so I pitched it out!”

It would have been impossible to explain sentimental value to a sociopath, so I never bothered. But I was so mad when she did that I called my sister. I remember talking to her about that and she said bluntly, “Why do you think I moved out?”

“You just need a better hiding place,” she suggested.

Where? No square inch of that house was safe from her. Even if you thought you knew a nook or cranny in that house, you would hide something only to find it gone. And she was such a hypocrite about it too. She would think nothing about throwing our stuff out, but you knew in the drawers of her dresser were things that had meaning to her. It was tempting to want to grab a garbage bag and get even by emptying her drawers of all our school pictures and other items. Of course, I never did.

While I was still talking to my sister on the subject, something occurred to me. I know the perfect hiding spot! My mother kept all my childhood pictures in the bottom drawer of a four drawer chest cabinet in her bedroom. She never looked at them, they were simply there. From that point on, I decided to hide everything in that drawer. I had to start from scratch, but by the end of grade 4 I had a few notes and one big heart cut from a piece of pink construction paper.

“To M, Love Neve”

From that point on, whenever I needed a pick me up, I would just sneak into my parent’s room and rifle through that bottom drawer. They were always there.

It was a little distracting thinking about all that as Neve read to me from notes she pulled from this zip lock bag. It was still very sweet watching her go through my notes and read them all. This was the only occasion where she engaged in her campaign of convincing me to take ballet where I wasn’t even close to crying. The resentment of my mother kept my emotions perfectly in check.

There may be other things she did to convince me to join this ballet school that I don’t remember, but the last thing I do remember had to do with a photo album.

During one of our end of year study periods, Neve came and sat down beside me. She had brought this photo album to school with some of her childhood photos. When she sat down beside me, she placed this photo album on the desk in front of me. She put her elbow on her desk and then she put her head in her hand. She opened this photo album up and she just smiled at me as she turned the pages. She never said a single word.

My eyes bounced back and forth between that photo album and the smile of this pretty little girl and I was getting choked up. I had already endured the trip down memory lane. I survived the shock treatment of the coloring book. I’d listened to myself saying the sappiest things in note after note that she pulled from a zip lock bag. Now I’m looking through a photo album while she gives me the silent treatment for dramatic effect.

Don’t get me wrong. Neve was a very smart girl even at that young age. She could yank my emotional chain on the best of days. But I was pretty smart too. It was blatantly obvious that one of her parents was coaching her on the most efficient way to rip the heart out of my chest. What I experienced in the dying days of grade 4 was a whole other level of manipulation that I’ve never experienced in my life until this very day. Also obvious was which parent was behind it.

So I asked, “Your mother is coaching you on how to do all this stuff, isn’t she?”

When I asked that, Neve got this big smile on her face. Then she shrugged her shoulders as if to say, ‘maybe’. But she wouldn’t answer my question. She didn’t say a word. She just sat there smiling and turning pages.

It’s worth pointing out, at this point, one thing I remember very well about the Campbell kids. This was true of Neve and this was also true of her brother Christian anytime you would ask him a question about Neve. Those two cannot tell a lie. It’s not possible. I don’t know if it is something about their DNA or what, but they can’t lie.

If you ask them a question that they don’t want to give an honest answer to they may smile. They may laugh a little. They might try to change the subject in an obvious way, or they may answer your question with another question. Those two seem to have this entire Campbell family playbook of things they can do to get out of giving an honest answer, but they cannot tell a lie.

Not even little white lies. Try it sometime. Next time you see one of them, mess your hair up really bad and then walk up and say, “Be honest. Am I having a bad hair day?”

They’ll laugh. They’ll say, “Why do you ask?” But they will never look you in the eye with a straight face and say, “Not at all. I think your hair looks fantastic like that.”

I point this out, because when I asked Neve if her mother was behind her elaborate campaign, it was obvious to me someone was coaching her. I suppose it’s possible that she simply smiled because she took it as a compliment that I thought a parent was behind what she was doing. She never did answer my question. But when I asked if her mother was the guilty party and she got that smile on her face, I took it as a tacit admission. To this day I’m convinced that if I had dusted that photo album for fingerprints, I would have had no trouble tracing them back to Marnie Neve.

It was not fair.

You take the sweetest, prettiest little girl in the world and team her up with a psychologist mother and you’ve got enough dynamite to blow up a little boy’s heart for life. I’m 35-years-old as I write this and I still remember that. It was completely unfair.

As she turned the pages of that photo album I could feel the tears coming. I glanced quickly around the room at the guys in my class and I knew I would never hear the end of it if I started crying. I turned to Neve and I said,

“This is interesting and I do want to see more, but I need to go to the washroom real quick, I’ll be right back.”

When I told her that, she got this disappointed look on her face that told me she didn’t think I was interested at all and was simply looking for an out. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to convince her otherwise I needed to get out of that room.

I remember I just made it out the door of our class as I burst into tears. Luckily the boy’s washroom was right across the hall from our classroom. I ran into the washroom, locked myself in a bathroom stall, sat on a toilet seat and balled. She was killing me!

It was really upsetting too, because she didn’t have to do any of those things. I loved her. I loved her right from kindergarten. I would have done anything for her. I would have fought any guy for her. But for crying out loud……


Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place! This was like being told, “You can jump off a bridge or you can get hit by a train. You get to pick.”

I was dead either way. There is no way I could have survived the humiliation of being a male ballet dancer, but I sure as hell didn’t want to say goodbye to my favorite childhood friend of five years.

So there I sat, by myself, in a bathroom stall, balling like a baby. Every time I heard someone come into the washroom I had to find a way to stop crying and hold my breath. As soon as I heard them leave I’d start up again. Eventually I worried that I had been gone so long a teacher might come looking for me, so sucked it up as best I could and dried my eyes before heading back to class.

When I walked back into class, Neve was waiting for me and genuinely concerned.

“Are you alright? You were gone a long time.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. No problem.”

“Why are your eyes all bloodshot?”

“Oh, just my allergies are really bothering me today.”

In addition to asthma, I also had allergies so it was a believable story even if I was lying through my teeth. What was I going to say? “Well Neve, I was in the washroom crying for the last hour, because I love you and you’re killing me.”

I’m sure most ten-year-old boys are very honest about their emotions, but there was no way I was going to be honest about mine.

That night I went home and I sat alone in my room. I remember sitting on the edge of my bed and thinking it through. At one point I started laughing to myself like a crazy person. On my dresser was a picture of me and my hockey team. My closet door was open and on the wall in my closet was a picture of me and my baseball team. On the shelf in my closet were trophies and medals and crests and ribbons from every sport I ever played. Hockey, baseball, soccer, you name it.

As I sat there in my room alone, laughing to myself, I thought I must be crazy! I can’t believe I’m going to do it. I can’t believe I’m going to take ballet. But I had made up my mind that Neve was just too important a part of my life to lose. I had even gone so far as to convince myself that learning ballet may actually help me be a better hockey player. I was probably reaching with that one, but I was going to do it.

That night I stayed up late into the night. I couldn’t sleep. The next morning I rode the transit bus to school. It was the picture perfect day. The sun was beating through the windows that ran across the back of our classroom. I couldn’t stop staring at the clock, I was anxious for that first recess to come. I was looking forward to how happy it would make her to hear that I’ll do it.

When recess finally came we got together. What happened at recess is so vividly etched into my brain I will never forget it.

Just as I was about to say I will go to ballet school with her, I had this image pop into my head. I pictured myself in ballet tights, wearing ballet slippers and dancing on my tip toes. I was mortified!

It was like walking into a bedroom, a naked man lying in bed, holding a teddy bear and smiling at me. There was just no way I was going to live this down. And this wasn’t going to be some casual ballet lessons in the evening, with a class on the weekend, where if you start to feel uncomfortable you can just walk away. She had made it clear to me that this was going to be a serious commitment.

I was ten! When she said serious commitment, I was imagining this maximum security ballet prison, with little sugarplum fairy guards flying around with assault rifles, gunning little boys down as they tried to escape over a wall. I was imagining a nightmare. I just knew there was no way I would be able to do this, so at the very last second I changed my mind.

I told her, “Neve, I’ve thought it through. I’ve made up my mind. And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do it.”

If I live to be a million, I will never forget the look in her face when I said that. She was stunned. I really think she thought she would convince me in the end, and to be fair she had me at one point. But as the realization came that I wasn’t going, she had this unforgettable look in her face.

I could see this little tear starting in the corner of her left eye. But behind that tear, was a look of shear fucking resentment. It was as if her heart stopped beating and her lungs stopped breathing. Her body never moved, her head never moved. She was not scowling. She just stared at me with a look of pure hatred. You could feel the heat of burning anger radiating off her body. I’m certain that if she had a handgun she would have put the barrel to my head, dropped me with a bullet and not even blinked.

When she finally did speak, her exact words to me were, “Even if it means you’ll never see me again?”

I pleaded with her not to make it an all or nothing ultimatum. I said there’s no reason we can’t still write to each other, talk on the phone, when I get older and get a driver’s license…..

She cut me off mid-sentence and said, “M no! I told you. This is going to be a serious commitment for me. I’ll be too busy on evenings and weekends practicing and training for ballet to have any time for you. If you’re not going to do this I will never see you again.”

When she said that, I got genuinely scared for the first time. Up until then she had only hinted that I may not see her again. Now she had dug in her heals for the first time. Like I said before, those Campbell kids cannot lie. If they say something will happen, it will happen. And even though I knew that ‘never see you again’ is not what she really wanted, I was certain that would be the result, because to do otherwise would mean she lied.

I begged her not to cut me out of her life completely, but she was hurt. She was angry. She had gone to all the trouble of convincing her dad to pay for me. She had spent a week or two bending over backwards and forwards to convince me how much it would mean to her for me to go. And she was not about to show me any mercy whatsoever. To a nine-year-old girl it must have seemed like there was only one valid reason not to go and that is that I didn’t really care about her.

Neve, I want you to know that you could not have been more wrong. Your decision to cut me out of your life back then destroyed me.

All I could do was apologize, and then she broke down and started to cry. Classic me, I didn’t want her to see me cry so I simply walked away. I think I got about 5 steps before I started balling.

From that point on everywhere I walked, everywhere I went, everything reminded me of her. We had already spent a day walking around the school yard recounting five years worth of memories. As I walked away, I tried to avoid groups of people not wanting anyone to see me cry. I turned the corner at the end of the school where the library was, which is also where I used to wait with her after school for her dad to pick her up.

Finally I just walked inside the school even though it was recess and everyone was supposed to be outside. The first two doors on the left side of the hall both led to our kindergarten class. The library was on the right. I stood in the second doorway looking into our kindergarten class which was now empty. In a corner of that room was the play area. The same wooden blocks and cardboard bricks were still there.

Looking into that classroom brought home to me just how much I hated going to school. I just stood in that doorway by myself crying. I never wanted to learn. All I ever wanted to do was find Neve and play house.

I made so much noise crying in the hallway that eventually the librarian came out of the library. She snuck up on me from behind and asked me what was wrong. I tried to answer her, but I couldn’t even speak. After trying unsuccessfully to get me to talk she asked if I wanted her to walk me to the office. I nodded, yes.

As we walked to the office, I remember a girl from our class came inside the door that was across from our grade 4 class. I don’t remember which girl it was, but I do remember her asking me if I was okay. I tried to reply to her too, but I couldn’t speak. I ended up walking right past her without answering and I felt bad about doing that.

When we got to the office, the office secretary tried getting out of me what was wrong. I still couldn’t talk. I was just crying too hard. The librarian and the office secretary talked about what may have happened to me. I had no cuts or scrapes. My clothing wasn’t ripped. It was obvious to both of them that I was not physically injured, but I was badly messed up. Finally the office secretary asked me if she should call home. I nodded, yes again.

Not long after that I remember my mother picking me up from school. The office secretary couldn’t say what was wrong with me. She didn’t know. But she did make the point that I was not physically injured, so it must be an emotional pain. On the car ride home my mom started asking me what was wrong. I finally had my voice back and all I could say was, “I don’t want to go back to that school next year.”

She kept prodding me to find out why, but I just kept repeating, “I don’t want to go back to that school next year.”

As we drove down Erin Mills Parkway, approaching the forest on the right at Britannia, she asked if someone touched me. That really, really, really pissed me off. Here’s my mother now thinking I’ve been molested. I went off on her, screaming like I never have before.

“No, it’s nothing like that! I just don’t want to go back to that school anymore!”

Both my parents spent much of that summer thinking I had been molested, and they wouldn’t let the subject drop. I don’t believe I ever told them what really happened, but they really did not want me to drop French immersion. They thought it would be good for my future.

I also suspect they didn’t want to have to invest the time and effort to transfer me out of that school, fill out forms, and get school records transferred over, especially if it would be less effort for them to talk me out of my decision. It was only the fact that I spent much of that summer crying, from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed, that they finally relented and transferred me out.

The next day in class Neve wouldn’t even talk to me. She ignored me like I didn’t exist. My best friend for years and now she was treating me like Suzy Merk.

I was devastated.

Then the school year ended.

Rumor has it that Neve went back to Vista the following September to visit the class, but if she was looking for me, I wasn't there.

The next year I started grade 5 at Settlers Green.