Our first winter in Canada. Mom knitted that sweater-vest for Dad.

We Don’t Even Know If They Like Us

A story about that time I moved to Canada.

It gets cold in Canada, especially in Calgary where one night, my dad’s friend walks outside without a hat on and his ear falls off. At least, this is how my dad tells the story, probably to make sure I wear my winter hat and it works — because after that, I always do.

I live in Calgary with my parents, one insane budgerigar, two turtles, and a growing collection of winter hats. We’ve moved here from Australia, where I was just a kid. A baby, really.

Here in Canada, I’m in the double-digits. I’m growing up — kind of lonely, and nearly friendless, but growing up nonetheless. I spend most of my free time in the basement, forcing a small army of stuffed animals to listen to my poetry. Sometimes I force the toys to make out with each other, too. The Care Bears are really into it. They’re fun and experimental and, in hindsight, probably gay. Barbie is less open. Or, at least, she’s not looking for a serious relationship at this stage in her life. A recurring plotline has Barbie turning down a tearful Ken before zooming off in her pink convertible, late for yet another executive business meeting.

In real life, I don’t have a Ken. I do, however, have a best friend. Her name is Patti, and she’s a quiet, bookish, Mormon girl who can’t see without her glasses. After school, I often drag Patti to the steps out back so we can watch the cool boys skateboard, doing ollies off the rails in their checkered Vans.

The secret and true reason for my interest in skateboarding is Seth, a shy, adorable boy in my class who is in the habit of blushing violently whenever I stare at him from across a room, which is very often.

“You know what we need?” I say to Patti after school on the steps one day. “We need to get some boyfriends.”

“I’m not allowed to have boyfriends,” she says.

I shrug, grinning. “Me neither.”

In Patti’s bedroom headquarters, we begin to plan it out. I tell Patti it makes “the most sense” for me to be Seth’s girlfriend, “and you can have Troy,” I say. Troy is also an avid fan of skateboarding. He’s as tall as Patti is, and is Seth’s best friend, so it just seems meant to be. But Patti has some reservations.

“I’m not sure,” she says, and my heart sinks a little.

“Well, would you rather have Seth?” I try to sound neutral about it.

“It’s just that we don’t even know if they like us back.”

We consult Patti’s sister, who is in high school and is therefore an expert on boys. Patti’s sister says Seth’s blushing when I stare can mean one of two things: 1). that he likes me, OR 2). that he hates my guts and is actively trying not to vomit.

I pick Option One, and the planning accelerates. I daydream out loud about what it would feel like to hold Seth’s cute little hand. I picture bringing Seth home someday so we can order pizza with unlimited toppings and play Scrabble in the kitchen with my parents.

My action plan is fairly elaborate and involves Show and Tell time in class. When it’s my day to get up in front of everyone, I will put on a lively and interactive performance, dazzling my classmates (Seth) with a fantastic array of knock knock jokes and magic tricks. I decide to call myself HILARIOUS HILAL and enlist my mom to sew a black cape for me, with my stage name embroidered on the back. In the pictures from that day, there I am with a huge grin, my cape spread out behind me like a pair of wings. Even my budgerigar, who is usually a total asshole, seems to be smiling his approval in the background.

That day finally arrives and I head to school, unable to relax until Show and Tell. Once up there, I can’t look at Seth. I just can’t bring myself to. Patti winks, and gives me a secret thumbs up.

“I AM HILARIOUS HILAL!” I shout at my alarmed and very unprepared classmates. “GET READY TO BE AMAZED!”

Things begin to unravel almost immediately. I drop my pack of playing cards, my magic tricks don’t work, and no one except Patti so much as cracks a smile at my jokes. It’s a disaster. As I look out at the sea of faces, I quickly recognize this for what it is: a hostage situation. Like my classmates, I want nothing more than for it to be over.

In the lunch room later, I throw myself into Patti’s shirt and sob while she pets my hair and coos “it’s okay,” over and over again into the crown of my head.

“But it’s not okay!” I blubber. “Chris Sawyer called me Horrible Hilal.”

“Well, Chris Sawyer is a dick,” Patti says, and I’m stunned. Patti never swears, on account of it being against her religion. “Chris Sawyer is a big dick.”

I have never loved Patti more than I do in that moment.

So there I am, sitting with Patti, weeping openly in the lunch room, when he comes over, right up to our table, stands above me, a feverish burn in his pale cheeks and says: “I liked your jokes. I liked your joke about the orange.”

It is the first time he has ever spoken to me like this, has crossed a room, and said something to me. There’s a stunned silence that lasts for several seconds before Patti throws back her head, and begins to laugh.

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