Chapter 23: Art Therapy. ACT II of VIII of Merry Christmas!
“SNOW! I WILL GIVE YOU A LOONIE IF YOU JUST SNOW!” Madison waves a dollar coin towards the sky, shouting from the asphalt of the playground. “SNOW FOR THE MOOLAH!”
Standing off to the side, all looking amused, is Ilona and her friends.
“Okay, who was the fool that gave her the money to bribe Mother Nature with?” Clara asks, glancing between everyone.
Susan slowly raises her hand, bowing her heard slightly in shame. “I was the fool who fed the beast.”
Cynthia sighs as Madison now promises a blank cheque to the heavens. “We will collect her when the bell rings and hope it will snow soon. Madison might explode otherwise,” she turns to her friends, “and we would not want to clean that mess, would we?”
Minutes later, and after many more attempts to make snow magically appear, the bell sounds, and with some struggle they manage to corral Madison and get into school.
Classes fly by the rest of the mourning for Ilona, with excitement for lunch gripping her stomach. Today is the day, where for the first time in forever, she will not spend all of lunch with her new friends. Today is the day she and Collette journey to the art room and make wonderful Christmas gifts. Today is the day Ilona has a different kind of fun.
After having lunch in the gym, the rest of the girls file out to the schoolyard, with books of all types living under their arms. Ilona and Collette travel the opposite way down the hallway and enter art class, and exchange greetings with Mrs. Shuster. Little clusters of students fill pockets of the room, making Ilona wonder how widespread their shared history is.
“I saved you both a spot right over here. Everyone gets a tiny little hamlet to launch their creativity from. Now have fun and be awesome!” Mrs. Shuster’s voice goes from a whisper to almost a shout as she talks. Ilona notices none of the other students lift their heads from their projects, as if they are used to sudden increases in volume from Mrs. Shuster.
“We will and thank you Mrs. Shuster,” Collette whispers back, than turns to Ilona, “Let’s start with the Christmas cards shall we? Good practice and less labour intensive.”
Ilona follows Collette’s lead and gathers some cardboard, coloured markers and handfuls of bits and pieces of artistic knickknacks, all to adorn their projects.
“How do we start?” Ilona whispers as they sit back down.
“Anyway you want. It is art, and even better, Christmas art, so there is no rules,” Collette whispers back.
Ilona starts delicately cutting the cardboard into vaguely squareish shapes while Collette pulls out a small notepad filled with very intricate diagrams and writings. Ilona is amazed at how much thought and planning her friend has put into this venture, and starts to wonder for how many years she has done this. She does not like thinking these things, these dreadfully personal questions, but Ilona wonders how long Collette has been like her. How long has she been poor.
“You can ask if you want to. I don’t mind,” Collette says quietly, measuring away at the same time.
Ilona’s mouth snaps open and shut multiple times in a few second.
“How… How did you know…” Ilona rambles louder then she should have. She scrunches her shoulders in, aware of her actions.
“It is a question I knew would come up eventually, ever since the first day I really met you. I was the only person, besides you, at the wall who had no smart phone. A kid in grade five, in this school, without a smartphone? Unheard of. I knew all about you at that moment, deduced with logic even more than Cynthia did with emotions. So I knew when this time came to ask you here,” Collette continues measuring and marking the cardboard, occasionally checking her notepad. “And worry not, you don’t have to tell me your secrets. Everyone deals with lack of prosperity in different ways, and if and when you feel okay enough to talk, I am available. So, in summary, I have no problem telling you. Ask away.”
“Your family is poor like mine. How did it happen?” Ilona’s words are barley audible coming out of her mouth, but still carry across to her friend.
“Short answer: My father was fired and has been unemployed for almost two years,” Collette states and checks a diagram, “Long answer: my father worked my entire life for this company. A new boss comes, someone highly regarded in the field, and starts playing favourites, bending rules against people he does not like, and making underlings lie for him. And right away he targets my father. Nitpicks galore suddenly exist against him, a once glowing record besmirched with falsehoods, and one day he walks in and is fired. And just before this all started, my father’s boss admitted the reason for everything. He hated my father because he is black. And that he married someone white. Sins to him,” Collette keeps talking, very evenly, very calmly, and flips to another page in her notepad.
Ilona grapples for the words to say, the gestures to make, the anything to lessen the horror of what Collette has lived with.
“That is… That is… awful,” she finally mutters out.
“No. It was actually a blessing. I remember that year and a half well. My father would come home from work, looking weary and broken, almost crying a few times. He tried hiding it from me, but I saw, I knew. Parents really don’t know that we know. Seeing him that morning, coming right back from work, after they dismissed him five minutes after he showed up, was truly liberating. My mother and I could tell, right away, that the pain was over now. That long, horrible, demoralizing time, was finally done. He gave us both a big hug, a really wonderful hug, the kind you remember forever, and in that moment I knew it was all better,” Collette is cutting and talking with calmness.
“But, you dad lost his job. All because of a terrible racist…” Ilona trails off, so many thoughts and confusion not allowing her to properly reply, to offer comfort, or even fully understand, what Collette is telling her.
“Yes, he lost his job. Yes, it was because of a small minded manchild. Yes, that all sucked big time, as Madison would say. But at least now he is away from that toxic environment. The stress is gone, the hurt is gone, the evil is gone. My father is my father again. He smiles everyday, not cries. My grandfather, who was a wonderful brilliant man, was felled by a heart attack to soon in life. That fate will not befall my father,” Collette continues cutting, gently piling her handiwork together.
Silence hits Ilona for several minutes, not sure what to do or say. The enormity of the everything of Collette’s existence over the last few years, and how she appears so at ease, so calm, about all these injustices. Collette just keeps working, carefully translating her notepad etchings into reality, with Ilona suddenly forgetting all that was said before and finding herself admiring the precision of her friends work planning and cutting the cardboard.
Staring at Collette’s hands, Ilona sees the stupid reason for her friend’s hardships over these years. Ilona never put any thought into this reality before, from back when she longed and stared at the wall, or even after she met her new friends, or even when the epic sleepover for Collette’s birthday happened. Ilona never thought about Collette being black, or even light black, before. She was simply Collette. Words finally form on Ilona’s lips.
“I am sorry about what happened to your father. I am sorry that he faced racism like that. I am sorry for the evils you have faced,” she whispers, breaking the quiet.
Collette stops working and looks directly at Ilona for the first time. “You have nothing to apologize for Ilona. You did not do any of this.”
“I know… I know… But, I just don’t know what to do… To make things right…” Ilona mumbles to Collette.
“Just be my friend. That is all you have to do,” Collette replies with a smile, “And try to finish at least one Christmas card today.”
Ilona looks down and sees that she has only made one cut, and lunch time is almost up.
But in so many ways, it does not matter, for Ilona feels not a bit of Christmas spirit anymore.
Song For This Chapter: Good King Wenceslas by John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore.
First serialization started on Friday, June 7th, 2013.