All Things Being Equal

Christmas, 2003 / No. 11
Art by Ian Phillips
Ian Phillips

Kitten stopped being called Kitten on December 6, 1989, when she was sentenced as a young offender. The judge called her then by the name she shared with her dead mother: Kathleen. Kathleen Maria Basneau, Québécoise mutt and almost-self-made orphan. Curiously lacking at the time was the sensationalism that usually accompanies trials like hers. The facts, with no names attached, had been parcelled into headlines, but the immediacy of the event had passed. Kitten’s audience in the courtroom now consisted of her caseworker, a few stragglers seeking shelter from the outdoors, and her best friend, Jasmine. No one made eye contact. The justice system was playing a tired role, going through the motions. It was inevitable that fourteen-year-old Kitten would be sentenced to live in a detention centre until her eighteenth birthday. The sentence was received without any emotional reaction, and Jasmine once again experienced the peculiar feeling that she was dreaming while awake—that none of this was quite real.

Kitten and Jasmine had grown up in the Pointe, where almost everyone was Catholic, white, and poor. The Pointe was a hundred and eighty kilometres east of Montreal. The Pointe bragged nothing of distinction, but had a great deal in common with its neighbouring towns: pockmarked streets, picked-over depanneurs, well-stocked liquor stores, and stagnant beer parlours. The parlours of the Pointe and of the neighbouring towns were thickly muted rooms where a woman’s presence was still considered an insult. Kitten’s father liked to say that when feminism came to Quebec, she fucked a few people in Montreal but left everybody else alone. Jasmine’s aunt used to say that, all things being equal, she’d just as soon have her sherry in her own home, thank you very much.

Kitten grew up with her father, a sullen man who took to trouble. Neighbourhood talk was that he hadn’t always been that way. He had taken to trouble only after Kitten’s mother had died from cancer when Kitten was six. The type of trouble he took to was the beer-drinking-fighting variety. No one blamed him. He’d had a hard time when Kitten’s mother had passed away. He proudly told the other wives in the Pointe that he could see his dead wife more and more clearly in Kitten’s young face as it began to mature.

Jasmine came to the Pointe later, in a very roundabout way. Jasmine had arrived too soon for her teenage mother. And while her mother had been enchanted with the idea of a new little baby, it was a case of desire and practicality being in direct conflict. At three months old, Jasmine became a ward of children’s services. She landed a few trial runs with would-be families that lasted two years each, then at the age of eight, she came to live in the Pointe with Penny and Edgar, a childless couple in their sixties. Jasmine never got the opportunity to know Edgar. She arrived in February; he had a massive heart attack in May. Jasmine and “Aunt” Penny then moved into the building where Kitten and her father lived.

The first meeting between Jasmine and Kitten began inauspiciously. Kitten almost fell over Jasmine on the second set of stairs of the squat three-unit building her father, Aunt Penny, and Old Man Delorme all called home. Kitten calmly commanded Jasmine to follow her. On that August afternoon, Jasmine followed Kitten out the front door of the apartment and two houses down to the home of Marguerite and Helene, sisters in their eighties who had spent their lives in eastern Quebec, and who would not give credence to the idea that anything worthwhile happened west of the Pointe.

If you lived in the Pointe and your cat went missing, it was probably in Marguerite and Helene’s basement. Without knocking, and with no Marguerite or Helene in sight, Kitten made a beeline down a well-worn path toward the basement inhabitants. Amidst the smell of urine-soaked newspaper lived seventeen cats of various shapes and sizes. Startled by their new visitors, the cats lunged for secret corners. Kitten grabbed one slow on the getaway and, thrusting it toward Jasmine, said, “It’s so cool that they all live here. See, it’s not like Marguerite and Helene steal the cats, the cats like it here. They want to live here…but just so you know, no one’s supposed to know they’re down here…promise.” Kitten pulled the struggling feline back to her chest and gave it a rough kiss before dropping it to the ground. Jasmine now shared her first secret ever with someone in her own age group. She decided she liked this secret bond of stolen cats, and that she liked the frantic girl in front of her who ploughed through space with no apologies for the room she took up.

Jasmine didn’t know it, but she was falling in love. It was the beginning of that very special kind of love affair young girls have for one another before puberty teaches them to not trust their bodies and, especially, each other. The attraction was obvious. Kitten was an event. She made things happen. Jasmine would eventually graduate from audience to willing accomplice, and the neighbourhood would never be safe from the loud, sturdy, blond Kitten and the shadowy brunette who was always with her. They became inseparable.

Aunt Penny missed her Edgar terribly. She became prone to bouts of confusion and intoxication. Occasionally, Jasmine’s caseworker pressed to have her removed from her care. Aunt Penny always petitioned, and eventually always got Jasmine back. When Jasmine would arrive home, regardless of the duration of her absence, Kitten would be waiting for her, ready to pick up in mid-sentence where they had left off.

The following spring, Kitten came up with a master plan. Jasmine had been away for three weeks. When the bus dropped her off, Kitten was there with all the pertinent details: mice. They were going to collect mice. They were going to build mice condominiums out of old boxes, and all the mice would live happily together and they would feed and play with them.

There was no shortage of mice in the apartment. They had browns, greys, and white-browns. It was Jasmine’s idea to build an integrated community. They were easy to catch. Jasmine was in charge of corralling and Kitten did the snatch job. They set up their makeshift housing units in Kitten’s room. Each mouse started off with its own housing unit, but by the end of the second day, there were some serious overcrowding issues. Kitten was responsible for daily maintenance. She liked to be boss. At the end of day two, Kitten’s father was telling her to clean out the raunchy stink or there’d be hell to pay.

The next morning, Jasmine woke up with Kitten’s face looming over hers. Kitten’s voice was desperate and her eyes red. “We’ve got a problem on our hands.”

Jasmine followed Kitten upstairs to her apartment. All of the boxes were laid out on Kitten’s bed. Carnage. Kitten ripped off each box top, exposing stiff little mouse bodies frozen in various positions of desperation. Kitten was defeated.

“Air holes…they couldn’t breathe,” she said. “They all suffocated, except I didn’t hear them. How is it that I didn’t hear them…scratching for their lives? ”

Kitten switched from anger to confusion, mercilessly poking at each stiff mouse body, occasionally picking one up, staring into its glassy eyes, fingering its outstretched claws.

“How is it that I didn’t hear them? That’s what gets me. They’re dying and I don’t notice.”

Kitten gathered herself. “Maybe we just need to try something stronger…rats? Delorme has a couple; I heard him say so.”

She went back to the boxes, unable to tear herself away, “Look, this one had babies and ate half of one…it’s still there.”

Jasmine screamed and made it across the hall to the sink before throwing up. From Kitten’s father’s room they heard him bellow for them to keep it down, that he was trying to fall asleep. Kitten’s mouth pursed and her eyes flinched. She was glad that it was the cracked porcelain sink Jasmine was staring at, and not her. She told Jasmine to keep her retching down and went to find paper towels to clean up the mess. Jasmine could hear Kitten and her father yelling. Kitten came back to the bathroom with the paper towels. She looked embarrassed as she mumbled, “He’s pretty drunk, I think you’d better leave.”

Jasmine thought it was strange that Kitten seemed afraid of her father. Outside the apartment, Kitten was confident and loud. Jasmine didn’t like Kitten’s father, and since Kitten would never talk about him, she figured Kitten mustn’t like him much either.

Two days later, Kitten was ready for action. She’d used her savings to buy a proper cage and was confident that there would be no repeat atrocities. As Kitten banged on Delorme’s door, Jasmine was having second thoughts about the enterprise.

Delorme listened quietly as Kitten explained the mission. He had no problem with them taking a rat off his hands. Kitten went into the kitchen, leaving Jasmine and Old Man Delorme standing in his living room. The room was filled with books. Books spilled off of shelves, onto the floor; they were even on his bed. They were the old kind: faded, dusty hardcovers. The place smelled of old man, but the books almost made you forget the stink. It was like they somehow made the place respectable.

Delorme and Jasmine eyeballed each other with nothing to say. The only sound came from Kitten as she battled it out in the bottom of a kitchen cupboard with what sounded like a battalion of rats. She came out of the kitchen in a very businesslike manner, a box tucked under her arm, and said, “Thanks, Old Man Delorme. Jasmine, let’s move out.”

Kitten brought the rat cage down to Jasmine’s, as it was still early enough to get her father’s back up with noise. Aunt Penny had started in on her morning sherry and was having a fierce dialogue with one of the local TV personalities on her tiny, battered television screen. In the quiet of Jasmine’s room, Kitten crouched with the cover still on the box. “He was a hard one to get. I’m gonna call him Drano, cuz that’s what I had to hit him on the head with to stun him for a second.”

Jasmine worried about Drano’s condition. Could rats withstand can attacks? Kitten lifted the lid and a fully intact, cognizant rat with a very pink tail looked up at Jasmine.

As elegant as a scamper can be, Drano was out of the box and across Kitten’s lap in one quick motion. He was heading for the kitchen. The two girls arrived just in time to see him disappear behind the stove, which, of course, masked several holes in the wall. Drano was one graceful rat. But Kitten was irritated. “What’s the point of having a cage if you’ve got nothing to put in it? ”

Drano was never recovered. At night they thought they could hear him in the walls scratching out a little S.O.S. message, but their frantic, fruitless searches led Kitten to her ghost-rat theory. Some evenings Kitten would smuggle an Ouija board into Jasmine’s room. Kitten claimed to receive extensive messages from Drano, usually telling her to pull Jasmine’s hair or sit on her head until she cried for mercy. His favourite message was “can attack,” causing Kitten to squeal with delight as she hurled her entire weight on top of Jasmine. Sometimes Kitten tried to get a message from her mother, but it never worked. Kitten told Jasmine that bone cancer had killed her mom. She said the cancer had eaten her bones. When her mother was sick, for the first few months Kitten would nap beside her in the afternoon, even after her mother went to live in the hospital. Then there was a day when the nurse told her she couldn’t get into her mother’s bed, because the slightest movement was excruciatingly painful. Kitten dreaded the visits that were required of her. Her mother had looked like a stranger. Kitten said all that she wanted now was to be able to talk to her mother just one last time. She wanted to say sorry—sorry that she was happy when the nurse had told her she couldn’t get into her bed. She hadn’t wanted to touch her mother anymore.

By mid-November, Aunt Penny was once again in the midst of her troubles. Christ was speaking to her through a rose that she kept in her mouth. The fact that Penny was not a religious woman made this all the more alarming. Each night, either Marguerite or Helene would bring dinner to Jasmine and sit with Aunt Penny for a period of time. They invited Jasmine to come stay with them, but Jasmine liked it fine where she was. Nobody had been tipped off about this last incident until Aunt Penny started going outside with the Jesus transmitter rose and no panties. Calls poured in fast and furious to children’s services.

Jasmine wasn’t allowed to go back to Aunt Penny, Kitten, and the Pointe for almost two years. In twelve-year-old girl time, two years is forever. While away, Jasmine had discovered books—books, but no friends. She’d figured out how to demagnetize the books at the central Montreal Public Library, and coming home, her backpack was loaded with six new prizes. She stumbled from the last step out of the bus and into the Indian summer day in the Pointe. Kitten was leaning against a bus station barrier. She looked Jasmine up and down critically before smiling at her with her drugstore-red lips. Kitten looked bonier. Her shoulders and parts of her face were pointier. Jasmine may have found books, but Kitten had found cigarettes; she ground an ember into the ground with her worn Keds. Flanked by two boys—a tall pimply boy and a squat one with a mullet (the eastern Quebec special)—it also looked like Kitten had discovered boys. Jasmine readjusted her cracked Adidas bag on her shoulder and fell in step with Kitten’s new-found posse. Jasmine wanted to hug Kitten but her arms were stiff and awkward, and the time where it would have seemed natural had passed.

Jasmine dipped her head and tucked her chin to her neck. This was her favourite position; it told her she didn’t have to speak, and everybody else that she wasn’t going to. Kitten and the boys were talking about a car. Tall and pimply had a cousin named Claude Aumais who had just got a car. Six blocks later, they were at the Pointe’s old cemetery. The boys and their cigarettes kept moving, but Kitten had a plan for herself and Jasmine. There’d been problems with the graveyard while Jasmine was away. A couple of stones had been taken, so someone came up with the money to install a really bright U.V. light at the gate. Kitten crouched down in front of the new light and uttered those queasy little words, “Trust me. Just do like me.” Kitten focused her eyes on the centre of the light, all the while talking Jasmine through it.

“Keep staring till I say stop.”

Jasmine’s eyes were hurting when Kitten said, “O.K. Now look up! What do you see? ”

Jasmine looked into the graveyard and saw that the sacrament candles burning by some of the graves had changed drastically. Their little flames were all glowing the most beautiful see-through purple she’d ever seen. Kitten rested her cheek against Jasmine’s.

“Pretty cool, eh? ”

Jasmine stayed very still in the middle of the almost invisible purple mist, with the smells of fresh-cut flowers dying slowly, baby powder, and Kitten’s Player’s Lights. The glow was slowly losing its iridescence. The purple leaked out into an inky black night. Kitten told Jasmine not to do it a lot—she was pretty sure it burned up some part of your eye. Kitten left for a party. She didn’t invite Jasmine. Jasmine went home to Aunt Penny.

After a day with Aunt Penny and Great Expectations, Jasmine heard Kitten calling for her from the hallway. Kitten took her up to the roof and showed her how she’d learned to roll a joint using Tampax paper. She brought a king-size beer she’d stolen from her father, and giggled as Jasmine tried to keep the harsh smoke in her lungs. They sat in silence, which two years earlier would have been unheard of. Jasmine was disoriented, and Kitten had a lot on her mind. After a few minutes, Kitten mumbled, “Can attack,” and jumped on Jasmine. As Jasmine struggled to get free, peels of laughter and Kitten’s weight on her bladder made her pee her pants…just a little. Jasmine told Kitten this and they began to laugh even harder.

Old Man Delorme stuck his head out the downstairs window and yelled for them to behave. As he started to bellow, “C’mon, you girls, enough. It’s only polite. I have an expectation of peace,” Jasmine and Kitten sucked in their breath to a count of five before they lost all semblance of control. Kitten let go of the beer can, which narrowly missed Delorme’s head. They ran squealing to the fire escape and down into a cool August night that had absolutely no expectation of peace.

Kitten had stashed cigarettes and a whole six-pack of beer on top of an electrical box at the end of the block. They sat on top of the box, vibrating from its gentle hum, and shared the beer and the entire pack of cigarettes. Kitten was in love with Claude Aumais. He was eighteen, had a car, and knew everything about alternative music. He was going to take her to see the Cure in Montreal. She explained how love between boys and girls worked, and Jasmine was fascinated, disgusted, and a little jealous. She’d known the detail stuff forever, but to hear solid Kitten talk about squishy feelings and warm body parts made it seem different. Kitten’s face turned restless once the beers were gone. In her short sleeves, Jasmine could make out red diagonal lines running up and down Kitten’s arm. Jasmine’s fingers reached out to touch them. The lines were raised and thick. Her fingers pulled back, but she wasn’t able to hide her revulsion fast enough.

“You like those? ” Kitten slurred, and pulled a pocket knife from her hip pocket and very quickly, almost surgically, retraced one of the lines so it reopened and bled.

Jasmine gawked, “Why do you do it? ” Kitten’s eyes looked still and empty.

“Cuz I can…” Her face was dark and closed, and Jasmine sensed she wasn’t allowed to ask any more questions. After a few minutes, they both went home.

On a much cooler night in September, the kind where you can’t wear shorts any more, one distinct event rocked the Pointe. Sirens woke Jasmine up. Aunt Penny thought they were coming for her and hid under the bed. It took a moment for Jasmine to realize the sirens were coming to their building. They stopped abruptly. Jasmine opened her front door. Blood-smeared handprints mapped their way along the wall, down the stairs to the front door. At that moment, the police charged in, yelling for Jasmine to get down. They pounded up the stairs into Kitten’s apartment, where her father lay in a thick red pool of blood that was spilling out onto the linoleum. The paramedics with their stretcher bumped awkwardly up the stairs. A man with a badge asked Jasmine if she knew the girl who lived upstairs.

The night Kitten stabbed her father, she ran out into the night in shorts and a tank top. She walked along a gravel path until a police cruiser picked her up. The knife was still in her hand. The wives in the Pointe tied up the phone lines; they rarely saw action like this. For months, her father’s beer-parlour friends ruminated on the barbaric event, philosophizing on the ungrateful nature of children in general.

An investigation turned up pieces of paper that no one had paid attention to. There were hospital reports, one from when Kitten was twelve. The intern hadn’t thought to ask why Kitten had internal bleeding from vaginal tears. A guidance counsellor’s concerns about Kitten’s home life had never left the notepad they were written on. There was a lot of gossip in the Pointe that fall. Claude Aumais said that Kitten’s father had been messing with her for a long time. Old Man Delorme said some things were supposed to stay in families; that they weren’t supposed to be talked about.

When Kitten’s father was released from the hospital, two weeks later, he admitted he’d been very drunk the night Kitten came at him, and he couldn’t remember what had happened. Since the stabbing, Kitten had remained silent. At first doctors thought it was shock, then they said it was because she was stubborn. Jasmine knew that prolonged silence kept monsters at bay, kept you removed from reality just enough so you could survive.

The sirens from that night had finally broken Aunt Penny, and she was placed in a long-term-care facility. Jasmine now lived back in Montreal with a new family. She came back for the trial.

It was a different Jasmine who got off the bus. Jasmine’s foster mother’s constant lament was, “You’re such a pretty girl, why do you do so much to hide it? ” Jasmine had chopped her mouse-brown hair just as short as she could get it, and used Sun-In to give herself a big yellow skunk stripe down the middle of her head. When Jasmine walked into the courtroom, her boots scuffed the taxpayers’ wood floors. Jasmine liked her boots. They were strong leather boots that made Jasmine feel like she could run or kick someone if she wanted too—kick someone and it would really hurt.

The day Kitten became Kathleen in the judge’s courtroom, and was sentenced under the Young Offenders Act, her face remained empty. Jasmine watched as she was led away. Kitten ducked her head and tucked her chin to her neck as she sat back down. Would it have even made a difference if she had known what was going on?

Jasmine’s thoughts turned to Aunt Penny and how the poor old woman had gotten it wrong—“all things being equal”—what a joke. There was no way around it. Some people got good stuff, lots got bad stuff, and the game was fixed. She stood up, her chin still pressed to her neck. Slowly she raised her head. Maybe the fix was in, but Jasmine needed to believe that if she looked hard enough, she’d be able to see it coming. She walked toward the exit. Her heavy boots thudded deliberately against the polished floor. She left black scuffs. Her mark to say that she was here.