"Trust Exercise" by Becky Blake
2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize winner
Becky Blake won the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize for "Trust Exercise".
As the winner of the 2017 CBC Nonfiction Prize, Blake will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, will have an opportunity to attend a 10-day writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and have her story published on CBC Books and in Air Canada enRoute magazine, which you can read below.
My first love's name was Anton.
Shortly before we met, his mother left his father for a Mennonite caterer. For months after she moved out, there was nothing to eat at Anton's house except Honey Nut Cheerios. No milk.
The first time I encountered Anton's father, he was sitting alone in the living room. He'd rigged up a pulley system which allowed him to manoeuvre a pizza box from the kitchen counter, through the room, and onto his lap. The pizza box was empty.
When I asked Anton to kiss me, he said he would consider it if I made him a very good bowl of Vichyssoise. He also wanted me to promise that we would be together forever. The promise seemed a little dramatic, and I didn't know what Vichyssoise was, but I agreed to both conditions, excited at the prospect of soon having my very first kiss.
There was no internet in those days, so I went to the library to find a recipe. It turned out that Vichyssoise was cold potato leek soup. The recipe was for eight servings. I cut it in half, but partway through I forgot and added too much milk. The result was a potato milkshake. Anton drank it but refused to kiss me since it wasn't very good.
In my last semester of high school, I moved into a commune on Anton's street. I got a job as a baker to pay my rent. At work, I had to wear an apron that said, "I've got the best buns in town." I was 17, and I always had little balls of dried dough stuck in my arm hair. After one month, I got fired.
My housemates and I took turns picking up food from the House of Friendship. The charity baskets they gave us always included three food groups: Jiffy peanut butter, jalapeño peppers and Crystal Light drink mix. Sometimes it seemed like the House of Friendship was trying to kill us.
I got another job: as a short order cook at a senior citizens' golf course. In the kitchen at the clubhouse, I learned to cook staples from the 1950s, dishes my boss thought seniors would enjoy: potato salad, shepherd's pie, tuna casserole. I also learned to make fancy condiments from other more basic condiments: tartar sauce from mayo and relish, shrimp sauce from ketchup and horseradish.
At night, Anton came over and I tried to impress him with my new cooking skills. He had a sweet tooth, so I started to make him strawberry cream cheese pies. Eventually he agreed to kiss me. Then he was my boyfriend.
On weekends, we stayed out all night, then went to the farmers' market at 6:00 a.m. to buy pinch-pot cherry tarts and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. The Mennonites always seemed like they were judging us for being stoned. Anton didn't like Mennonites because of the one who had stolen his mother's heart.
To me, Anton's mother was like a Slovenian Cruella de Vil. An imposing woman who was always flanked by two tall greyhounds, she didn't think I was good enough for her son because I hadn't read Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Even after I read it — all four books — she still seemed to hate me. She once cooked me a meal with mouldy vegetables, and then stood there watching to make sure I ate it.
When Anton met my parents, we discovered that he and my dad already knew each other. Apparently, my dad had once placed Anton into a school for juvenile delinquents. Sitting with my parents in their living room, Anton was so nervous he started eating the potpourri. Not just one handful, but two. When I stopped him, he said he'd never heard of potpourri.
Anton and I were always broke. One day we found a $50 bill blowing across a parking lot. We immediately went to Toys R Us to buy a soap-bubble saxophone we'd been eyeing. Afterward, we went to the movies and ordered two large popcorns, then took the bus home; it was a great day. Usually, we had to walk everywhere and could only afford to hang out in fluorescent-lit coffee shops holding hands across sticky tables. Those coffee shop days were also great, caffeine fueling our dreams for the future: Anton was going to make music; I was going to be an actress.
Anton built me a bicycle from scratch. It took all summer. On the day it was finally ready, he rode it over to my place. I'd just found out that I'd been accepted last-minute into a theatre school in Toronto. When I told him I had to leave right away, he rode the bike home, and I never saw it again. He told me later that he sold it, but a friend said she'd watched him dismantle it. I imagined Anton wrenching bolts from their sockets, angry at me for leaving him behind.
Toronto was only an hour away. Anton hitchhiked to visit me on weekends, and I tried to share everything I was learning at school so we wouldn't grow apart. One time I blindfolded him and we wandered around Kensington Market: a trust exercise I'd done in my acting class. For over an hour, I handed him things to touch or taste. I was taking care of his every step, and the bond between us felt unbreakable. Then I gave him an unpeeled kiwi to eat. (I wasn't too familiar with how kiwis worked.) He ripped off the blindfold and spit out a wad of fuzzy green gunk into his hand. "What the hell was that?" he asked, madder than I'd ever seen him.
During my second year of theatre school, Anton moved to England for a while to live in a squat. We didn't talk about dating other people — we didn't have to; our love was going to last forever and always be exclusive. Every month or so, I'd get a postcard or a call from a payphone. "I'm apprenticing with a didgeridoo maker," he told me once, then played me a mournful tune. He sounded really happy though.
When Anton finally came back to Canada, I wasn't sure how it would feel to see him again. I took a deep breath before opening my front door. We were both wearing the exact same orange shirt — a new shirt for both of us. We stood, amazed, on either side of the doorframe for a long moment before we kissed. We were obviously psychic — like all great lovers who were meant to be together.
We spent that summer fooling around and talking about everything we'd seen and done while we were apart. In September, when I was back in school, Anton left again — this time to Vancouver. On my spring break, I went to visit him and he took me to a grocery store that had no staff. It was like shopping in the future, like something out of the sci-fi books he sometimes read. We bought pasta and sauce. Pocky for dessert. The store was silent except for our scanner's beeps—as silent as my weekends back in Toronto without Anton.
In theatre school, there was a lot of touching. Eventually, in my third year, I cheated on him with a clown. It was only one time, but Anton never forgave me. Since then, he probably hates clowns as much as Mennonites, but that's just a guess. It's been more than twenty years since we last spoke, and I don't know where he is.
Twenty years is such a vast expanse to cross that the content of some of these memories may have shifted. One or two could even belong to someone else — be stories that I stole from Anton's friends. Memory, like my word, can't always be trusted. But I promise you this: Anton and I were deeply in love.
I still miss him. That first-ever boy I strawberry-kissed. That first sweet boy I tried so hard to feed.
Listen to Becky read "Trust Exercise"
Read the other finalists' stories
- "Caught" by Sarah Bennett
- "Diving" by Alisha Mascarenhas
- "The Guardian" by Gail Nardi
- "The Road to Machu Picchu Starts at 385 lbs" by Carla Powell
Becky Blake was the winner of the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize. Her creative work has appeared in publications across Canada. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Wolsak & Wynn in spring 2019. She currently lives in Toronto.