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  • Sarah Ellis

Faction and Fiction: What was it about that afternoon?

I’m going to tell you about two girls. One is named Mildred and one I’m going to call Dogsmirt. These two girls have much in common. They are both eleven. Mildred’s birthday is October 14th so she’s eleven and three months but Dogsmirt is just eleven for as long as she needs to be. She might be having a birthday soon if we need a group scene or an opportunity for a preteen social crisis.

Both girls have unusual names. Mildred was a common name a hundred years ago but now it is generally reserved for seniors of British origin, the occasional dog and Chinese kids. Mildred is not a senior or a dog but she is Chinese. Mildred is called Mildred because “Mildred” was the closest her family could come to her Chinese name. Dogsmirt is called Dogsmirt because the name is unique in literature and because it is fun to say aloud with that “sm” sound that is somehow slightly, if very safely, naughty. Smut, smudgy, smelly, smegma.

(You, my esteemed readers, are making your own text as I write here so I’m sure that you have examples to support or counter this contention. Those of you who have consented to sign on with this text might think of smother, smug, smear, smirch, smarmy. Those of you who have not taken the bait are thinking, “uh . . . smile?”)

Mildred and Dogsmirt both live in Vancouver Canada. Mildred lives in Canada because her family emigrated ten years ago from China as refugees. Mildred did not come with them at that time. She was left behind with her grandparents. She came when she was five years old. By that time she had a baby sister. Her parents, who she didn’t know, met her at the airport and took her straight to kindergarten where they gave her a cubby and sang “Welcome, welcome, Mildred” and she had never heard that name. Then they handed her a pencil. She had never seen a pencil.

Dogsmirt lives in Vancouver because it is known and convenient and familiar.

There is one more connection between these two oddly named eleven year olds. Both of them enjoy bus travel. Not city busses but long-distance busses.

Mildred enjoys busses because she likes cars and trucks and heavy equipment of all sorts and she wonders if she could drive a truck one day but she has never seen a woman truck driver. She thinks that you might be able to make lots of money driving a truck, more than being a clerk in a store, although probably not as much as being an actor, which she would like to be because of the dressing up.

Dogsmirt also loves busses, for all the reasons that Mildred does plus an extra one. Snooping on drivers from a bus, looking down on them and seeing what they have on the seat beside them, gives Dogsmirt an introspective moment and, if the light is right, it also means that she sees her own reflection superimposed on the drivers and the cars and if that’s not the objective correlative for a stage of individuation that comes around age eleven I don’t know what is.

One more detail of common ground is that neither girl has read Harriet the Spy. Mildred finds reading hard. You would think that Dogsmirt would have read it. She’s exactly the sort of kid who would have. But no. Referencing children’s books in other children’s books is considered contrived. So she hasn’t, which is a darned shame, really.

How do the girls come to travel on intercity busses? Mildred has only been on one. She went out to the Fraser Valley with her family to visit a cousin on a farm. She got the window seat.

Dogsmirt is a regular coach traveler. She is a joint custody kid. Her mother lives in Vancouver where Dogsmirt goes to school. Her Dads live in Bellingham where Dogsmirt goes most weekends, on the bus. The reason that Dogsmirt has two dads, and one of them is a turkey baster volunteer, is that it is time for same-sex parents to be part of the wallpaper and not a “problem” or an “issue” except that it didn’t quite work out in that wholesome, happily-ever-after way because Dogsmirt’s mother went a bit squirrely after Dogsmirt was born and started acting like she and the donor dad were a couple and that really alienated the other Dad. But that is more or less sorted out now and largely adult business and therefore part of the backstory that you may or may not find out about.

All that said, the girls have some important differences as well. Dogsmirt’s mother buys her skinny jeans and Mildred’s mother does not approve of skinny jeans. Mildred has gorgeous handwriting and Dogsmirt’s is a scrawl. More significantly, Dogsmirt is not Chinese. She could be. It would be both plausible and interesting for her to be Chinese but that sets her smack-dab in the middle of the swampland called Cultural Appropriation and I’m not one bit Chinese.

So now I’ve given the game away, of course. Here’s the big difference between the two girls. You’ve guessed. Mildred is real and Dogsmirt is made up. Mildred is 1.5 meters tall. She weighs 38.5 kilograms and lives at 2373 East 37th Avenue and her passport number is JM398662.

Dogsmirt is made of moondust and dreams, memories, observations, hopes, sorrows and what-ifs and she weighs nothing. She lives in our heads where there is no fixed address. Even homeland security and Canadian Border Services cannot find a way to require that she have a passport.

That would be the end of this not-a-story except for a funny thing that happened. Mildred and Dogsmirt met.

No, not because Mildred read a book about Dogsmirt. As I mentioned, Mildred’s not much of a reader of fiction. They really met. In a playground.

Yes, I think in a playground.

Dogsmirt was there by herself, practicing skateboard moves in an empty wading pool. Mildred was there with her family. It should not have happened. Factional and fictional.

Or, if it did, the known universe should have been rent in twain. If it had been a movie there would have been crackling sound-effects, eerie green light, a soundtrack with swelling strings.

But it wasn’t like that. Mildred was sitting on a swing, not swinging, just chewing on a steam bun and Dogsmirt came over and held out her board and said, “Wanna try?”

What was it about Dogsmirt? She just seemed a little crisper, a little more intensely coloured, a little more alive than the other kids on the playground. Everything she said, even just the goofy stuff, seemed important and new.

And what was it about that afternoon? Mildred’s parents, who were usually very protective just stayed in the background even though Mildred, without any protective knee pads or a helmet, was wheeling around on a skateboard. Mildred’s little sister, usually pesky, didn’t even approach the wading pool. And all the things of the world, the sun gliding behind a cloud, the sound of the big park maintenance grass cutter, the smell of the cut grass, the rough surface of the wading pool, all these things were so distinct.

And what was it about Mildred herself? How did she come to talk to Dogsmirt about how much she wanted skinny jeans and how tired she was of translating for her parents. How did she find the words to describe so clearly that afternoon visiting her cousins on the farm and the hugeness of cows? How did she feel comfortable enough to reveal how much she missed her grandparents and how, deep down, she didn’t really feel part of her family and why did everybody assume that she was going to be good in math when she wasn’t. And how was it that Dogsmirt seemed to understand everything she said? Not just the words but the underneath as well?

If you want to know what that afternoon was like, think about falling in love. So, is this a preteen lesbian love story? No. We’ve already got two dads, let’s not push it. No, this isn’t a story about love but about fiction.

The afternoon ended. Dogsmirt wandered off, away from the playground and back to her own story, as yet unwritten. She’s sitting in the waiting room with all my other half-written characters, doing yoga stretches and sudoku.

Dogsmirt and Mildred did not exchange email addresses. Mildred’s family doesn’t have a computer and Dogsmirt doesn’t exist anywhere in cyberspace at all. Really, not at all. Google “Dogsmirt.” Nothing.

Last time I talked to Mildred, which was a few weeks ago, she had still shown no further interest in skateboarding. She didn’t tell anybody about Dogsmirt, not even me. But she remembers that afternoon, last fall. She remembers the taste of it, the little shake of it, when things rearranged themselves, the rightness of it.

That’s what it is like when a real person meets a fictional person. If everything is right, if the stars are aligned and the words are right and you need something, even if you don’t know what it is, and you get it, even if you don’t know that you got it, then one encounter can wiggle its way into your dna.

At least, that’s my story. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. In this business, I don’t have a choice.

Sarah Ellis

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