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She’s Shameless: Catherine Graham

May 31st, 2009     by Stacey May Fowles     Comments

In the weeks leading up to the launch of She’s Shameless: Women write about growing up, rocking out, and fighting back, we’ll be posting sneak peak excerpts from the book. Our first post is Red Bars, by Catherine Graham.

Catherine Graham is the author of The Watch, Pupa, and The Red Element. She teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto, the Haliburton School of the Arts, and through the City of Burlington. Her work has been anthologized internationally and published in The New Quarterly, Literary Review of Canada, Taddle Creek and The Fiddlehead. You can find out more about her at

Red Bars by Catherine Graham

I was sitting in the backseat, fingering the silver seatbelt, half-listening to Mom and her friend Eleanor. We were taking the back route, the safe route, to the mall, instead of the highway, so Mom wouldn’t make those sharp intakes of breath (no transport trucks to pass us). Still, she seemed high-strung, her mouth tight as she nodded in response to Eleanor’s yammering.

Start of another season of swim classes. I was trying for my Bronze Medallion this time round and my green Speedo left indents on my shoulders. Red bars.

With both hands on the wheel, Mom was oblivious to me watching her. I stared at the squiggles congregating on her nose, red like her hair.

Her hair had grown back soft and thin, in opposition to Eleanor’s coarse, black spikes.

At Sears we managed to avoid the spray-attacks of the perfume ladies, and we were standing in the bathing suit section, when Mom veered us away. I hid the glossy black one that I wanted on a shelf and wedged myself through the clack of racks.

“What do you think?” Mom smiled as she held up a fancy nightgown. The neckline was bordered with baby blue cross-stitching, a simple yet intricate pattern. It made me think of ants, their bodies snipped and glued into complex shapes.

“Here. This goes with it,” Eleanor said, holding its match. She pressed a long sleeve into my hand. The fabric was so bright I thought the bathing suit, the last thing I had touched, would leave a black mark.

“But will it be warm enough?” I said, touching it. “You get cold at night, Mom.” Even post-treatment, Mom still got the chills.

“Not for Rusty,” Eleanor said, “for you.”

Mom passed Eleanor the fancy nightgown and Eleanor held it up to my chest for Mom to see. After they nodded, I was told to look in the mirror.

The straps were the width of bathing-suit straps and the bodice was lined with piping a shade lighter than the blue of the intricate pattern. I couldn’t help but think, isn’t this what women wear on their wedding night? Women with breasts?

“I don’t get it,” I said and looked at Mom in the oval mirror. She was looking at my chest, her eyes wide and watery, as if filling in the gaps.

I went home that day with an expensive nightgown set, not the black Speedo bathing suit I wanted. So I crossed my arms as Mom drove us home. I put my head down and sulked.

The day of my Bronze Medallion exam I barely fit into my old Speedo. Elastic cut into all parts it touched.

I pushed the red out of my mind and I did what the examiner told me to do: I swam the full length of the Centennial Pool underwater. I breathed my Tic-Tac breath into the sour-smelling mouth of a bony boy. I saved two pseudo-drowners. All the while Mom, like the other moms, watched through the glass.

After the last rescue, the examiner huddled us into a corner. One by one, she called out the names of the students who passed. When she finished, we all stood up. We had to walk by the glass to get back to the change room, and because I was last in line of six, I witnessed the high-fives and hand waves. The responses of the mothers were all the more manic. When I saw red, I knew Mom was watching me.


I looked the other way.

Two weeks later, when the badge arrived in the mail, Mom congratulated me. By then she knew I’d passed, but I didn’t tell her when she needed me to, standing there with the healthy mothers, waiting.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Why?” She said this to me in the car at least three times; her voice had no anger in it. Again I fingered the buckle that strapped me in and watched my middle finger turn red.

“Look!” I said and pulled down the neck of my sweater. I touched the red bar on my shoulder only to find the red bar wasn’t there.

Perhaps that’s why, when she handed me the badge, I went straight to my room and threw it in the closet. Why I lay on my bed and turned on the clock radio. It muffled my outburst of tears.

With She’s Shameless, co-editors Megan Griffith-Greene and Stacey May Fowles have compiled an anthology of fearless and funny non-fiction about strong, smart and shameless women. With wit and honesty, the writers share stories of their teen experiences (both positive and negative) on everything from pop culture to high school principals. The book is founded on Shameless magazine’s tradition of smart, sassy, honest and inclusive writing, and reaches out to young female readers who are often ignored by mainstream: freethinkers, queer youth, young women of colour, punk rockers, feminists, intellectuals, artists, and activists. Join us for the launch on June 23rd.

Please Note: Due to the personal nature of the She’s Shameless stories, comments will be closed for these posts. Thank you for your understanding.

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