Groggy from a long night of flight connections across North America, I could make out the tiny silhouettes of my nephews peering down the basement stairs. My emergency pull-out crash-pad was their play zone and they wanted it back.
I suddenly remembered the black suit that had been stuffed into my suitcase the day before. It was the first in a series of quick actions I took after learning my grandmother had passed away. Somewhere between the San Jose airport in Costa Rica and the Arthur Funeral Home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., the suit would need to be cleaned.
“I’m up,” I shouted to the boys, and little feet thundered down the stairwell.
Much about my hometown had changed since I’d moved away, but the dry cleaner at the corner of Lake and Wellington was the same. I arrived, suit in hand, nostalgic about the sound of the little bell that signalled my arrival. That’s when I saw her—she was working the counter—Jennifer Z., my high school bully.
My chest and my limbs instantly began to burn from too much blood that had picked up major speed. Her hair and makeup were normal. She bore no remnant of the ferocious punk style that made her so famous in the hallways at Sir James Dunn. Gone, too, was her entourage of punk wannabes. Most notably, Tony V., Jennifer’s terrifyingly spiky-haired sidekick, was nowhere in sight.
Slowly, I walked toward the counter and laid down the suit. Jennifer pulled out a tag and a pen and asked, “Whaddya need?” It was just another routine transaction.
“Same-day cleaning,” I said. That’s when our eyes met.
I guess it’s no surprise the sound of my voice was a trigger. The way I spoke in high school (and still do) was what she and her gang seemed to hate about me the most. I was, admittedly, heavily influenced by my dad, who was a radio broadcaster. In our house, speech needed to be crisp, clear, confident and perfectly paced. Indiscernible mumbling—the method of communication favoured by adolescents the world over—was not allowed. Anyway, it made sense that my very recognizable voice was the thing to alert Jennifer to the dead end of memory lane upon which we had stumbled.
After three, long-suffering years of Jennifer’s taunting and teasing, this was my chance to spit pure venom, to tell her, in no uncertain terms, how she’d made my life a living hell. I knew the speech by heart, of course. I’d rehearsed it a thousand times as one of several ultimate revenge fantasies when I was still younger and more inclined to take comfort in manufactured wallowing.
My funeral suit was within arm’s reach. It wasn’t too late to grab it, vent my well-seasoned rage and fly out the door. (And wear a rumpled suit to my grandmother’s funeral, as this was the only shop in town with same-day service.)
During the pregnant pause that followed, I glanced down at the tag and pen Jennifer was holding. Her hands looked so small. When had she become that small? I’d remembered her being very tall, but she wasn’t. It must have been the extra height of hair that fooled me. Her hands were shaking, too. I looked at her, but she looked away. We both felt the strain of awkwardness. Signs of flush were emerging on her neck and face.
Finally, I broke the silence: “Can I pick it up at 5:00?” Jennifer nodded in the affirmative. Her hands trembled as she passed me the tiny ticket.
My legs felt like rubber bands as I walked back toward the door. The cheerful bell blamelessly chimed me out, my dramatic speech left in the realm of things imagined. In spite of how tempting it was, I knew the vitriol would have felt much less triumphant once it had been spilled.
Back in the car, a strange sensation of weightlessness came over me and I held onto the steering wheel for ballast. Only three minutes had passed. In just three short minutes I’d been given the gift of seeing my high school bully for what she really was: a frail, fallible, fearful human being. She was no longer the monster I needed her to be in order to cling to my grudge.
I never think of the day my grandmother was buried without also thinking about having been set free from the pain that Jennifer Z. caused me during high school. The unexpected encounter was not a dead- end at all: it was a superhighway of grace and a path to forgiveness that I desperately needed to travel to discover an old wound had been healed.