You’re my Best Friend

Senior public schools came into vogue in the early 70s, landing me in the inaugural class of the newly opened Henry Hudson Senior Public School. The first floor of the building contained regular classrooms designated for art, music, and science. It also housed the office, two gyms, a library, all the lockers, and a large cafeteria. The second floor was open concept, with a common area in the middle and classes ringing the perimeter. There were walls jutting into the room from between the windows, spaced far enough apart to accommodate two classes between them. These two classes would sit back to back, each facing a wall with one side of the room completely open to the large central space and the other housing windows.

I was in Mr. Gidlow’s class, which was comprised entirely of kids taking music and which therefore doubled as the school band. We sat with our backs to Mr. Garber’s class. Mr. Gidlow was an adequate teacher, although a bit dull. Mr. Garber, on the other hand, was a draft-dodger from the Vietnam War, was full of life, and told wonderful stories in a tremendously engaging fashion. I sat in the back row of my class and was regularly distracted from whatever Mr. Gidlow was saying by whatever Mr. Garber was saying. As far as I remember, Vera was in Mr. Garber’s class and that is how I first met her.

Vera and I clicked immediately. We were very different people from very different backgrounds, but somehow we just worked. My home life was fairly calm, other than the occasional dust-up between my eldest sister and either my mum or my other sister, while Vera’s was quite chaotic. In my house we all had dinner together at the same time every night, but I never saw Vera’s whole family sit down to a meal and certainly not on a regular basis. I had to ask for parental permission, had a curfew, and was grounded from time to time. Vera didn’t seem to have any of these strictures on her freedom.

I envied her lack of confines, but sensed as soon as she started coming to my place regularly that she would have preferred to have the stability of my home life. She came over after school most days and still fondly remembers scarfing down pepperettes and Kraft singles, amazed that they were always in plentiful supply. Eating at Vera’s place was more of a catch as catch can situation – sometimes there would be a pot of stew or spaghetti with sauce on the stove, and other times there wouldn’t be anything to eat at all except the homemade pickled vegetables and hot sauce her mother stored in their pantry. They did enjoy having barbecues in the summer though, so much so that Vera wrote the following haiku for a school assignment,

Love the meaty smell, of the meaty barbecue, cooking in my yard.

I may not have got the words exactly right, but that was definitely the gist. One time when we were teenagers and on acid we entered her kitchen to be greeted by an entire dead pig laid out on the table. It was freaky and fascinating at the same time, and kind of emblematic of Vera’s kitchen in general.

Steve and Luba, Vera’s parents, were immigrants from the part of Yugoslavia which is now called Serbia. Steve was a typical old-world chauvinist who mistreated his wife and hardly gave Vera a second look. His three sons got all of his parental attention. Steve’s father had backed the Yugoslavian king in his fight with Tito and had been exiled to Egypt after the monarchists were defeated, leaving his wife to raise four children on her own. Steve and Luba met when they were still teenagers, and fled Yugoslavia for Austria. They were placed in separate displaced persons’ camps, but when it became clear that the 17-year-old Luba was pregnant, they were reunited and came to Canada shortly after their son was born. Steve loved to complain about how shitty Canada was in comparison to Yugoslavia. One time as an emboldened teenager I got so tired of his carping that I asked him, “If Yugoslavia is so great, then why don’t you go back?” That was the last time he ragged on Canada in my presence.

Luba was a very sad woman. She was caught in an unpleasant and unhappy marriage in a strange country with no options for escape. She often worked two jobs while also doing the lion’s share of raising her four kids and managing the house. Luba was extremely bright, spoke several languages, and had a natural talent in the sciences. Unfortunately, she was also cowed by her domineering husband and generally had little confidence in her own abilities. By the time I met her she was clearly depressed and heavily into prescription drugs (my mother was a nurse and told me that Luba’s doctor was well known for over-prescribing). She tried desperately to be happy and welcoming whenever our crowd came to the house, offering us booze at much too young an age and doing whatever she could to endear herself to us. I think she was just really lonely and didn’t recognize how embarrassing her behaviour was to her daughter. 

Vera had one older brother, John, and two younger brothers, Sasha and George. John was fairly erratic as a teenager, and Vera and I suspected that there was mental illness involved. Just as John was starting to straighten out, Sasha began to act very oddly. Sasha was by far my favourite of Vera’s brothers – John was off in his own teenage world, and George seemed like a brat. Sasha was a kind and gentle soul, and very handsome. I’ll never forget the time when he came rushing into the basement and ran up to Vera and me saying, “Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?!” He was so proud of knowing something we didn’t that neither of us had the heart to tell him about the Beatles, and instead feigned incredulity at the news.

It became clear as Sasha headed into his mid-teens that he was mentally ill. At one point Vera and I spoke to my mum about it, and she suggested that he might be schizophrenic and needed to go to the hospital for a proper diagnosis. Vera and I then went to her father with my mum’s advice, and he immediately shut us down. He wasn’t willing to admit that there was a problem because it would reflect badly on him. I can still remember how amazed I was by his response, and how angry both of us were at his lack of concern for his son’s welfare. Sasha did eventually end up hospitalized despite his father’s objections, but the drug they gave him exacerbated the problem and he left before they could find the proper medication. Mental illness is still very hard to properly diagnose and treat, and schizophrenia remains one of the most difficult conditions to control. 

Sasha seemed even worse when he came home from the hospital. One day when just he and his younger brother were home, he calmly gave his watch to George, walked to a nearby bridge, and jumped to his death. I don’t know a lot about schizophrenia, but I have heard that those suffering from it often hear voices urging them to kill themselves. Perhaps that’s what motivated Sasha, or perhaps he was just tired of feeling ill and couldn’t see any other way out. Whatever the reason, he was still just a teenager and a really lovely guy, making his death tremendously tragic.

As awful as Sasha’s suicide was, his funeral was just as bad. Vera was furious with her father for obvious reasons, and told me as soon as I got to the church that she would never speak to him again. She also pointed out a videographer her dad had hired to film the event. Steve had spent a lot of money on the funeral and wanted a record of what a good and caring father he was. Despicable. During the service the priest droned on and on in Serbian about Stefan, a name I didn’t recognize until Vera told me it was Sasha’s given name. This made her even angrier because Sasha had never liked the name Stefan, and the fact that the priest kept using it confirmed her suspicion that the service was more about Steve than his son.

People were invited to visit Sasha’s open coffin at the front of the church after the priest had finished. Luba was off her head on tranquillizers – understandable given the circumstances – and fell over on her heels several times as she made her way up the aisle. It was unutterably sad. I don’t remember if Vera went to the coffin, but I do remember that at one point the camera came in for a close-up of the dearly departed’s sister. She forcefully pushed the lens away, causing the videographer to stumble backwards. He took the camera away from his face and Vera went right up to him, quietly hissing in a menacing tone, “Don’t you dare take my fucking picture!” I don’t recall seeing him anywhere near her after that. I was unsurprisingly very upset when I got home after this harrowing event, so much so that my usually oblivious father hugged me without being asked. It was just a terrible day.

Vera and I had a lot of fun together as well, and we were sometimes naughty. On one occasion we were repeatedly falling backwards on my bed, laughing as we landed and immediately regaining our feet to fall yet again. Finally, after I don’t know how long, we landed at the same time and the bed frame simply split. A shocked silence ensued, and then we looked at each other and broke into peels of laughter. Just then we heard the front door open and close, and realized that my mum was home from work. We had no idea how we would explain the situation to her, all we knew was that we couldn’t tell her the truth. Neither of us wanted to face her famous temper, so when she came down the hall I lied and I said we’d simply sat on the bed and it had, for whatever reason, just given way. Mum came in the room, looked at the damage, and then waved it off. The frame was very old and clearly needed replacing. When she left Vera and I shut the door and collapsed into gales of relieved giggles. We’d gotten away with it!

This was during the 70s when there was lots of marijuana and acid around, and Vera, our friends, and I all regularly indulged. She and I went to see the first Star Wars movie high on acid, which is why to this day I don’t know what happens in that film. We got into a laughing fit on the bus ride home from the theatre and were so loud and obnoxious that the driver kicked us off. I’m not sure how we got home after that, but that marks the only time in my life I’ve ever been asked to leave a public vehicle or space. 

Vera and I took acid before most concerts we saw as well. We had tickets to see The Doobie Brothers downtown and my mum kindly let me borrow her sporty little red VW Rabbit to get us there. I now know how stupid it was to drive in that state, but at the time it was just a gas. We were typical teenagers and assumed we were going to live forever, so driving stoned was not a concern. I had just merged onto the 401 when Vera spied an airstream camper up ahead. Those are the silver ones that look like giant cigar humidors. It was sparkly and mesmerizing, and we ended up following it in a trance right past our exit. Eventually we came to our senses and got off the highway, but by then we knew we were going to be late.

The opening act was well underway when we finally gained our seats. The place reeked of marijuana and Vera immediately lit up one of the joints she’d brought so we could join in the fun. No sooner had she handed it to me then a man behind us sat forward and announced, “Sorry ladies, but you’re under arrest.” We turned around to see two guys who certainly looked like narcs. We both just sat their wide-eyed with our hearts in our throats until one of them said, “Nah, we’re just kidding. Could we have a toke?” Vera responded, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” and turned around without offering them the joint. Talk about your stupid pick-up lines!

Vera had a very nice figure and guys were always hitting on her. One night we were at a disco, just looking to have fun and dance, when three guys came over. They all had their shirts open to show off their hairy chests and gold chains. I know this is not politically correct nowadays, but at the time we called guys like that “Ginos.” We tried as politely as possible to make them understand that we weren’t interested, but one of them was particularly insistent. He said he could knock back eight shot glasses in a row without taking a breath in between – it was like a magic trick. Would we like to see it? We kept saying no thanks, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He forced himself between Vera and me in our cubicle as his friends went to the bar. Before long they came back with a whole row of shot glasses filled to the rim with various types of booze. We sensed that the one guy was hellbent on performing for us, so eventually we just sat back and said go ahead. He proceeded to knock back the first shot but must have mistakenly poured some in his trachea because no sooner had he slammed the glass down on the table then he heaved and the entire drink came shooting out his nose. I think it was Bailey’s or something like that because it made milky tan stains all over the front of his pristine white shirt and left brown, gelatinous strings hanging from his nose. Vera and I broke into uproarious laughter as the poor guy slid under the table and slunk away without looking back. We both agreed that we were glad we had relented – that trick really made our night.

In grade 13 we went on a school trip to Greece. Vera and I shared a room with a girl named Susan whose sole claim to fame was that she could sleep anywhere and at any time. I have yet to meet a better sleeper than Susan. Being able to sleep well, however, hardly makes one a lively roommate on a high school trip. Our whole entourage, along with our teacher chaperone Mr. Wood, went out sight-seeing the very night we arrived in Athens. I don’t remember exactly where we were, but at some point Susan, Vera, and I looked around and realized that we had become separated from the group.

We searched with growing panic until realizing that they were simply gone and we would have to make our own way back. I remembered the name of the square our hotel was in and began asking people which way to go. At one point we were directed down a rather narrow street, and when we were about halfway along someone suddenly reached out from a darkened doorway, grabbed Vera’s arm, and started pulling her into the building. She cried out in alarm, and Susan and I immediately grasped her free arm and started hauling her in the opposite direction. This went on for a bit until our opponent finally gave up the battle and let go. The three of us tumbled into the street and, gaining our feet, ran away as fast as we could. We told Mr. Wood what had happened when we finally got back to the hotel, and all three of us lit into him for being so irresponsible as to leave us behind like that. He said he had assumed we would find our own way back, but apologized for his lapse in judgement and became more vigilant after that. 

In 1985 my husband Douglas and I met up with Vera in Yugoslavia. We stayed with her paternal grandmother, or Baba, and met her Aunt Evga and her two cousins, Bonay and Lalay  (I’ve written their name phonetically as I’m not sure how they are actually spelled). The brothers took us out to a club one night and gave us strict instructions not to speak. Foreigners were not welcome, and even Vera’s accented Serbian would give us away. Vera had way too much to drink, and on our way home she started shouting, “Wake up Yugoslavians. Tito is dead!” and other things of that nature. Douglas and I, remembering her cousins’ admonition, were fearful of what might happen if we let her continue, so we did our best to keep either his hands or mine clamped firmly over her mouth until we had safely made it back to her Baba’s apartment. Vera woke up with a terrible headache the next morning and her Baba insisted she have a little drink of a homemade plum brandy called slivovitz to take care of it. Vera resisted for a bit, but eventually relented and drank it down. Almost immediately she began to feel better – there is a lot of wisdom in old remedies. We stayed in Yugoslavia for less than a week because both Douglas and I could feel a palpable tension in the air. The country was already falling apart and in six years time would finally erupted into a bloody and protracted civil war.  

Vera and I were friends for 15 of the most formative years of our lives. We lost touch when I moved away from Toronto in my late twenties, but just last year, after a 23 year gap, we finally reconnected. We met over lunch and ended up talking so long that they were handing out dinner menus when we left. She and her husband John also came to hear my choir’s yuletide concert last November, and we had a lovely dinner together before the show. I feel sure that we will remain in touch for the rest of our lives now that we have reawakened our friendship. Some things are just meant to be.

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