What used to be a functional, if not necessarily pretty, haulage road along the St. Lawrence Seaway in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Québec is now quite a wonderful cycling path which, translated, is called Beauharnois Canal Regional Park.
This is a true story I wrote for the narrative writing group I began attending this year at Mount Sinai’s Clinic for HIV-related Concerns.
I have made edits, for purposes of internet publishing, but I believe it fairly represents the events of the early 1970s which remain a traumatic memory and the subject of on-going work in healing.
‘Hawaiian Tropic’ Secret
I was lying naked on a large rock, one of hundreds which lined both shores. I loved the sense of adventure in daring to be outside with no clothes on. I was out of sight of the gravel road which made its way along the shoreline to where the canal seamlessly became the lake. I could always cover up when a ship happened along.
I stood up to re-align myself towards the changing afternoon sun. As I did so I noticed him, also standing up, also completely naked, on a ridge that overlooked the rocky fields, the roadway, the water and me.
He cupped his hand over his sun-glasses to see me better. His slicked back, black hair glistened. Then he touched himself. My heart raced with feelings of panic that were at once strange and yet oddly familiar. (I had already discovered I liked boys, and had played around with my best friend but, like me, he was just another pubescent boy.)
I sat back down on my boulder, out of the man’s sight again, fastened my shorts and wedged my feet into my running shoes. Then I lifted my bike out of the bushes and began making my way along the bumpy road towards him, my legs still stretching to reach the pedals of this new, adult-sized ‘ten-speed’ I had paid for with earnings from my “Montreal Star” route.
I noticed that the man had driven his car – a big, brown, fairly new Pontiac Parisienne – off the main road and parked it on a path which snaked its way up the small ridge to where he still stood.
My heart seemingly in my throat, which was parched from the afternoon’s sun-bathing, I walked up the man’s path, noticing a Crucifix – perhaps a Rosary, too – dangling from the car’s rear-view mirror.
“Salut”, he said softly, smiling as he rubbed his hand over a large belly and, then, lower.
“He’s kind of gross,” I thought.
I could smell the strong scent of tanning oil.
“Salut”, I replied, hoping that my limited French would help me talk to him.
“Veux-tu…?” he asked, without saying any more, pointing to a large blanket he had stretched over the grass behind his car.
I hesitated, still panicked really.
He looked as old as my Dad, even older, and he really was quite fat. He sat down on the blanket and again spoke softly.
“Viens ‘ci”, he said, patting a spot beside him on the blanket. He pushed aside a brown bottle labelled Hawaiian Tropic Suntan Oil.
I set my bike on its side in the mixture of wild wheat, thistles and tall grass.
I awkwardly pulled my shorts down and over my shoes, then peeled my shirt over my head. I stood silently, looking around to see how hidden we were. From this vantage point I could not see the road, and yet I could see the water. He had a good hiding place.
The man didn’t say much but he hummed in an ‘Ooh-la-la’ fashion. My heart was thumping as my instincts raced between boyish curiosity and sheer terror. He pulled us together and I felt his oily skin on my chest, arms and legs.
Before long there was a very strange twitch and then….
As I tried to recover my breath the man began talking quickly, almost shouting really, and I didn’t understand what he was saying. His anger, though, was unmistakable. As I quickly pulled my shorts back on he seemed to be asking why I had turned away from him. Obviously he had wanted to see what had happened. I didn’t know how to react to his anger. I was disappointed, though, and filled with a sense of shame. Then he said something to the effect of not telling anyone that we had met here. The way I felt at that point there was no reason, in my mind, for him to be concerned.
I scraped my shin on a pedal of my bike, hopping on as fast as I could. Tears welled up as I bumped along the road, wishing that I didn’t have a half hour ride across the city, through downtown, before I’d be home. As frightened as I was, though, it seemed like I had better just come up with a fictitious cycling route to describe to Mom and Dad. The secret was safe.
Somehow I would have to account for my afternoon. Thankfully, I thought, a long ride home in the summer heat would certainly call for an immediate shower.