Angels Don't Wear Denim
Angels Don't Wear Denim
Angels Don't Wear Denim
Angels Don't Wear Denim
by Lenore Sagaskie
Angels Don't Wear Denim
by Lenore Sagaskie
My parents packed our family into the station wagon and moved us out of the city shortly after I became a mature graduate of the first grade. I remember them saying it was for the country air and better schools, but as I watched the cityscape disappear to be replaced by empty fields and a solitary row of telephone poles, it felt like exile to the middle of nowhere. It was so rural our road didn't even have a name; it was given the dubious distinction of being called a "rural route." Our nearest neighbors were at least a kilometer away and were even more remote than we were. Our new home was situated on the corner at the intersection of Rural Route Five and Highway Six, a fairly well-traveled two-lane highway that was a major artery for commuters into the big city from the northern towns.
Our new home wasn't a traditional one. It had been a ten-unit motel and restaurant with a residence attached. My Armenian father had successfully branched away from his father's family business and started a flooring business of his own. He was motivated to expand his business, and the high-traffic location of our new home was perfect. He spruced up the motel units and rented them out to university students while he completed renovations. The restaurant was gutted and transformed into a showroom for carpet samples and rugs from around the world. Behind the showroom he built a two-storey addition that created a spacious warehouse in the back. The addition had many benefits. Not only was it used for storing rolls of carpet and as a place to clean rugs, it doubled our living space. The addition my father built added an entire wing to the upstairs. The wing connected to the upstairs of the old. Dad designed a new kitchen, a dining room, living room, and family room. Though the original living room and kitchen were located downstairs, we never used them and lived entirely upstairs. All our bedrooms and the bathroom were located upstairs in the old house.
My bedroom was situated next to the extension and it didn't have a window. As a child I never questioned why I didn't have a window in my room, but as an adult I speculate that the original window was lost when the addition was built. Anyway, it was dark at night when the lights were off--really dark, the kind of total darkness that as an adult I still struggle with. As a child, it was more than challenging. My father didn't allow things that coddled children, things like night lights. He believed that children toughened up if you made them, and he would force me to sleep in that room in total darkness. Sometimes my mother would let me leave the door open a crack to allow a little light to filter in, but I was on my own if my father happened to walk past. If he saw my door open to allow even a splinter of light into the room, he would let his displeasure show in ways I prefer not to discuss.
My father didn't have a lot of patience, and he wasn't very kind, but he worked hard to make our house a home. Both my parents participated in the daily running of the business. Dad was clever and showcased several of his premier brands of flooring throughout the house. He would often convince potential customers to walk through our home to show them how the carpet looked, sometimes going to the extreme of pouring beet juice on the gold and black carpet to demonstrate the stain resistance. Mom made sure we got onto the school bus every morning and was in the showroom when we returned home every day. The store was always busy after school, so we would quietly go upstairs, watch television, and wait until closing time to have dinner together as a family. It worked well for a while.
It didn't take long for my brother and sister and I to get accustomed to our new school and neighborhood. I was a very social child and made friends easily. My new friend at school lived on a dairy farm and looked like Pippi Longstocking, the freckle-faced girl with braided red hair who had the best adventures I'd ever read. I loved and devoured all the books that featured my beloved literary heroine, and I was eager to begin some adventures with my new friend Holly. I didn't get to spend a lot of time with her outside of school hours because she lived a few miles away and she was always busy with the chores that were part of farm life. I accepted the limitations on our friendship and resigned to spending more time with her at school. I had other companions.
It concerned my parents that even though I had plenty of school friends, I often preferred the company of my imaginary ones. I guess it was even more troubling to them when they realized that my imaginary friends weren't children. Sometimes I had a difficult time getting up in the morning for school because I was up talking with my friends all night. On more than one occasion my parents would walk past my room at night, discover the door open a crack, and hear me chatting away when I was supposed to be asleep. A few times my door would explode open, and I would cower in fear to see my father looming in the doorway, backlit by the bright light in the hallway as it pierced the darkness. My father engaged this tactic expecting to catch one of my siblings he believed had snuck down the hall into my room. I think it only made him angrier to discover that I was alone, conversing with an unseen friend. He would rage at me about my open door then emphasize his anger by slamming it shut, leaving me in the depths of darkness. As I got older it wasn't so much the darkness that frightened me, it was the knowledge that I wasn't alone in it. Sometimes there were monsters waiting to keep me company, too.
I still remember the first time I saw faces in the dark. I thought I was having a nightmare when a flash of a glowing face appeared in front of mine. I remember shrieking, though more in surprise than in fear. As soon as I cried out, my father burst into my room; his raised voice made it clear that his patience had already been exceeded. I don't remember exactly what I said to him, but my outburst cost me a hard swat on the behind before he stormed out, slamming the door behind him, imprisoning me in that inky void. Weeping and humiliated--and not wanting to catch a glimpse of anything else in the darkness--I pulled the covers over my face and cried myself to sleep while I felt the comforting sensation of fingers stroking my hair.
I saw different faces in the dark during the time I lived in that house, and I had more than a few "imaginary friends." I enjoyed talking to them because it was a window into adulthood I could sneak a peek into. I took full advantage of it. I wanted to know things like what adults did for fun, what it was like to have a job, live on your own, and fall in love. I shared details of my life too, details that they waited for and hung on to, just as I hung on to the details and minutiae of their lives. I remember how excited I was when I came home with the jawbone of a cow, a gift from one of my classmates. My parents were trying to be supportive, but I remember their poorly-concealed disgust. I happily told my friends that evening about how my grade school crush, David Moyer, fished it out of a swamp and presented it to me at school in front of everyone. I loved rocks and bones. When he gave me that jawbone, it felt like a public declaration of love. My friends agreed that it was indeed a gesture of love and that he cared for me at least as much as I did for him. It felt good to have interested, supportive friends.
My best friend's name was John. When I first met him, I thought he was an angel because he had stars on his hands. I had never seen tattoos on anyone before--at least, not that I remembered. Who would have stars on their hands but angels? I guess I should've known from the handful of times I attended church that angels don't wear denim. John wore denim like it was his uniform. His jeans and jacket were time-faded but smooth and free of creases. He had blue eyes and hair the color of beach sand; the length just grazed the collar of his jacket. His kind face held a soft smile that invited you to smile in return. I liked that about him. So few adults I knew smiled when they spoke with children, but he always had one for me, even when I wasn't feeling much like giving one to him in return. John told me of his adventures and oh, how I loved a good story! He had a motorcycle that gave him the freedom to set out on his adventures. He told me stories of driving across the prairies, watching the sunset in every province and state he ventured into. I would close my eyes just to listen to his voice and imagine what it was like to see the sunset paint the canvas of the sky into a kaleidoscope of jewel tone colors, or wait out a thunderstorm under an overpass or bridge anticipating the pastel hues of a rainbow breaking through the storm cloud-darkened skies. He told me he traveled with a sleeping bag and a tent so when he grew tired he could pull off the road into the trees and sleep under the stars. He'd been to places I read about and always wanted to go--places like Saskatoon, and Calgary, and even up into the Yukon--just to experience the northern lights in the wilderness at their best and brightest. He told me that it was okay to go on adventures but to be careful of motorcycles. "They were the death of me," he would say, then quickly change the subject before I could ask what he meant. John told me as many stories as I read; I was a voracious reader and read a mountain of books above my grade level by the time I was in the fourth grade. Just as I devoured my favorite books, I hung on his every word.
John was more than my friend--he was my constant companion. I learned so much more from him than I did either of my parents. Though we had some of our best discussions at night when I was tucked into bed, he would roam about the house to whatever room I happened to occupy. I always knew he was there; even when I couldn't see him, I would sense his presence in the room and instinctively turn toward him. He had a love of music, especially the records that my father had. My brother and sister and I would sneak into the living room when my parents were busy and play my father's records. We would listen to Bill Haley and His Comets and dance like fools to "Rock Around the Clock." John would always be there just in the corner, smiling and tapping his feet. It made me happy when he told me our dancing was "cool" and "groovy." I know he loved Elvis, and sometimes at night after I told him stories like I was Scheherazade in The Tales of the Arabian Nights, he would sing softly as I drifted off to sleep. He was there giving me his best when things started to take a turn for the worst.
My parent's marriage was falling apart, and it was taking a toll on our family. Mom became silent and smoked cigarettes one after the other. Dad was out later and later on installation jobs and was no longer present at our dinner table. He often returned home after our bedtime, so he wasn't concerned about my door being open anymore. I still left it open a crack, but only to eavesdrop as my parents argued in their bedroom down the hall. I could hear them talking loudly even though they would try to keep it hushed, but occasionally it would be punctuated with a scuffle or a slap, or worse. I think the anger and the violence drew the others out of hiding. They found me.
John's presence had shielded me from the others since my first encounter with the glowing face in my room. As my parents fought more, the bad ones were appearing more frequently. It was as if they sensed the turmoil and were drawn to it. Perhaps there's a law of attraction, but back then I just sensed that things were changing, and it felt like the darkness of my room was creeping into my home and my life. Even though I was only nine years old, I sensed that the worst was coming.
The Sad Lady started to come around more at night when John was telling me stories. I never did learn her name--I don't even remember her telling me. I named her the "Sad Lady" because she just felt overwhelmingly sad to me. She always appeared in a yellow summer dress speckled with a pattern of tiny white flowers. It hung on her shoulders with thin spaghetti straps. She would stand off to the side of my bed, one hand clutching her opposite wrist, her head at just the right angle to hang a lock of hair across one side of her face. She would look up at me through that strand of hair with dark eyes and heavy lids that looked as if she had been crying. While John always had a smile for me, I don't think I ever saw one cross her face. She rarely spoke, and when she did, she spoke quietly and carefully as if the words leaving her mouth caused her pain. She would listen to John's stories and sometimes would close her eyes and sigh. I always wondered if she was envisioning her own adventures. When my parents started to argue, she would break from her reverie and move about the room like a nervous bird. If my father began to rant or storm down the hallway she would move into the far corner of the room and return to the darkness. I think she was afraid of violent men. She didn't have to worry about him for long.
My father left our house Christmas Eve in a whirlwind of rage, overturning furniture and breaking anything that was in his path, including the Christmas tree. We children were packed into the car and taken to our grandparents' home while my mother tried to sort things out. Before we left, Mom was overwhelmed with emotion and couldn't muster the energy to do anything but sprawl on the divan in the living room smoking cigarettes in her robe. I caught a glimpse of one of the bad ones lurking in the corner by her ashtray, breathing in the spirals of smoke as they danced toward the ceiling. After my father left, I saw them more frequently, those unwanted faces in the dark.
Sometimes I was intimidated by those grimacing faces . I could feel their anger before they made an appearance. When they did, The Sad Lady would disappear as if she could sense their arrival. They were even more terrifying when they were shouting. I could never understand why no one else could hear their rage. Why was it my burden to bear? I was floundering under the weight of it. The worst of those nights I could feel their breath on my skin, and I would retreat under the sheets, using them as a safety barrier to keep the bad ones at bay. John's appearance would chase them away, but I soon learned that even he was not always there for me. I think he was afraid of them too. I felt lost without my friend, and my mother sank into a cloud of apathy that suffocated all of us.
My grandparents moved in with us to help my mother cope with getting the house and the contents ready to sell. Things got a bit better for the family and the household quieted. The bad ones stopped harassing me but remained as silent witnesses. I could sense their continued presence. Not long after, the Sad Lady just disappeared one day, and I never saw her again. I hoped she found some reason to smile. After my grandparents settled in, things got calmer, and a new level of normalcy became commonplace. I still had difficulties settling into our new routine. I continued to struggle and became less outgoing and more introverted, retreating to my room as soon as I got home from school and only coming out to eat. I only wanted the company of my books and my friend and wrapped myself in the comfort his presence gave me. One night when I was whispering secrets in the dark, my Nan heard me talking to John. "I want to meet him," she declared from the doorway. "Do you think he would mind?" I looked toward the foot of the bed where he sat, smiling his perfect smile. He shrugged then nodded. I told her I would ask him. He didn't wait long to make her acquaintance.
One day I spied my mom and grandmother sitting at the kitchen table, bent over their morning cup of orange pekoe tea. They were speaking with hushed voices, though Nan had a distinct voice that was audible from across the room even when she was whispering. Their heads were so close together I knew it was something they didn't want any of us kids to hear. I crept into the room and hid just inside the entry to the living room so I could listen.
"I heard her talking to him a few nights ago, Pat," my Nan said.
"She does that every night, Mum," my Mom replied. "He's been her imaginary friend ever since we moved here." She sipped her tea and gave my Nan an irritated glare.
"I asked her if I could meet him, and she told me that she would ask him," Nan said as she looked around the room. She bent her head closer and talked even quieter.
"Oh?" Mom's head snapped upward. Nan smiled, knowing she had her full attention.
"Last night I went to bed and woke up with a start around midnight. I felt like I was being watched. I couldn't move. It was as if my body was paralyzed. I tried to wake your father, but I couldn't speak either." Nan took a sip of her tea. "Then I saw someone sitting on the edge of the bed."
"What? You never did!"
Nan reached across the table and gave her hand a hard squeeze. "I'm telling you Pat, I did. He was a young bloke around our Peter's age, maybe younger, but definitely not a child."
My mom shook her head as she tugged her hand out of Nan's grasp. "You had to have dreamed it, Mum. He's her imaginary friend. He's not real."
Nan stared at mom until she couldn't bear the intensity and had to break away from it. "He spoke to me. Spoke to me! He told me things about her, things that she told him. Things even I didn't know--and you know how much I adore that child. He told me how much he cared for her, though I don't remember everything he said." Nan set down her cup. "I was a little rattled by it, Pat, but I thought you should know that our girl doesn't just have imaginary friends. She sees ghosts."
Mom sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "What should I do about this?"
Nan drained her cup and set it on the table. "It's not hurting anything, and she's happy. For now, just let them be."
I snuck back to my room unseen by either of them. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear any more or even if they had anything left to say. Nan never mentioned their meeting to me and neither did John. I was too intimidated to ask. I'm sure John knew that I overheard my Nan in the kitchen that day. He always knew where I was. I still saw him, but it felt like his visits were becoming less frequent. By the time we moved, his nightly visits were reduced to a few nights a week. I felt his absence more than I cared to admit.
When we moved, I said goodbye. I don't remember exactly what I said. They were words that I thought you had to say when you politely said goodbye to someone forever. But every detail of it is still etched in my mind: how bare and lonely the room looked as I scrutinized the pockmarks left in the carpet from the bed casters, how the silhouette of the dresser was brighter and cleaner than the rest of the walls. I remember the peach wallpaper curling up at the seam on the wall closest to where my bed had been for so many years. I remember how John stood there in his usual spot, the same as he ever was, except that his perfect smile wavered long enough for me to notice. He appeared smaller to me now than he did all those years ago. At the ripe age of twelve, I wasn't much shorter than he was. I would have given the world any sacrifice it demanded just to hug him, but I knew I never could. It was the deepest heartache I ever felt in my whole life, even deeper than my parent's divorce or leaving behind David Moyer. I turned my back; my shoulders shook with the effort it took not to burst into tears as I left him standing in my empty room. In my mind's eye, I will always see him standing there in that place where I grew to love him.
We started a new life back in the city once more. My mom remarried, and we moved into a townhouse in the city. I attended a new school. Time healed my heart as time always does. I stopped seeing ghosts. I don't know if that's a gift that children possess that dissipates when puberty hits, but I never saw any before or since we left that place. Perhaps it's possible that none could ever have taken his place.
My father remained, for the most part, absently present. He would breeze into my life whenever it was convenient and when it made him look good. Even during good times, he would rage about the unfairness of the divorce and child support and make excuses about how he couldn't afford to support us. He had a new family now, he reminded us, and they were his priority. For the first few visits, we always met in coffee shops or in his new store, which was located in a faceless strip mall devoid of the character of our old place. I felt like an outsider instead of family, and soon it felt like my visits were more of a burden to him, so I started to see him less and less.
I met someone who made my heart soar, and he became my world. We married in a simple ceremony that my father couldn't attend--his new family had plans that day. In many ways it felt like a blessing; there was only room for one man to rage that day, and I learned that my new husband shared some traits with my father. In no time I felt like I was caught in a déjà vu repeating my parents' lives just as they were when I was a kid. Instead of watching it through the eyes of a scared child, I was living it, repeating my mother's role. It made me remember those times in the past, and I found myself remembering my old friend who gave me so much comfort during those times. I found it more than ironic that I saw two examples of men during my childhood and I found myself exactly where I didn't want to be. I needed to find comfort once more. I started to doubt myself. Did John really exist, or was he just something my child's mind made up to get me through the worst of times? And if he existed, was he really how I remembered, or did the passing of time make him better than he was?
Maybe I built things up in my mind, but no man could ever live up to the standard of my childhood friend. I'm still not sure if it is a reflection of my expectations, but I have never managed to make the right choices when it comes to companions. None of them could measure up to that perfect man I met as a child. On the eve of my impending divorce, I had a sudden urge to go visit the ghost that had set the bar too high for any mortal man. I drove instinctively, every road and turn navigated as if I'd driven there just the other day, though it had been decades since I'd even thought of that place. The motel units were still there, but the house and carpet store were long gone. It looked like it had once been renovated back into a restaurant and then renovated once more so that the restaurant and the entire building had been converted into apartments. I sat in the parking lot in my car and stared in shock. It was too much. I started to cry. It wasn't what I was searching for after all that time. I'd left that place as a child with a broken heart, and with new heartache I returned. Through my pain it all came flooding back, every single memory, every shared laugh, the love I felt for him, and the knowledge that it was the purest love I ever received from someone who just wanted to be my friend.
"I miss you, John," I whispered as I closed my eyes and wiped tears from my cheeks. I sat there and stared at the ghost of my childhood home, imagining it as it once was, the way I held it in my mind's eye. I needed it to be as it was; I needed those memories intact. I straightened up and clenched the steering wheel just as I felt the once familiar sensation of his fingers trailing through my hair. I glanced toward the rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of a denim sleeve and a hand with stars on it brushing across my cheek as I pulled out of the parking lot.