Mr. January is at least 43 now. He is the face of clean living and resolutions kept. In his fireman’s suspenders, he has the kind of muscled, but not overly muscled chest that reveals a good year of conscientious workouts at the gym. He’s acquiring that barrel-shape very strong men get as they age. His chest hair, blond of course, has become wiry and coarse. There’s more of it now. I am glad to see the charity photographer hasn’t made the firemen wax their chests or engage in other kinds of pre-photo shoot grooming I would call homoerotic (I am a bit academic) and everyone else would call metro-sexual.
It could have been completely different. All the things I could have learned about men, about real men, about honourable, honest men, I could have learned from Mr. January when his shoulders were broader and his waist narrower. I met him when I was 16 and he was a 22 year-old rookie. I know he was the “rookie” because that’s what the other firemen on the crew called him. They said, “Hey! Rookie!” and gave him orders.
I had been sitting in the passenger’s seat beside my best friend who had a newly printed driver’s license and 1974 dirt brown wreck of a car courtesy of her indulgent, non-custodial father. I may have been giving her directions about how to navigate the network of one-way streets through downtown. She was an inexperienced driver and easily confused. She backed over a concrete parking barrier and the bent iron tie that held it in place tore the gas tank of her car.
The lady who owned the earring and scarf store heard the crunch of steel being torn apart. She noticed the fuel leaking all over the road. She thought the car was going to blow up in front of her shop and its window full of expensive silk. She called the fire department.
Three trucks came racing down the street, all three manned by our city’s finest. The crews of each vehicle had to argue about who would spread the chemicals to diffuse the flammable properties of the gasoline on the street, who would wait with us for the tow truck and who would simply return to the firehouse in case of a real emergency. We were young women. We needed their protection on the dark downtown streets. While we knew that the firemen had made our Friday night, it was especially flattering to listen to them negotiate and learn that we had also made their Friday night.
Mr. January was a shy young man in those days. He peered out at us from under his helmet, making eye contact as his crew mates joked and asked us questions. Being a nice Canadian girl, I ran off to the local donut shop to buy all the firemen coffee.
“What, no donuts?” one of the firemen joked, his eyes twinkling above his moustache.
“So, are you girls studying at the university?” he asked.
Mr. January locked eyes with me from underneath his helmet.
“No, we’re still in high school,” I told him, at which point I felt my best friend kick me with all of her might on the back of my shin.
Mr. January gave me a shrug that said, “too bad, sweetie.”
“She’s still in high school,” my friend lied, “but I go to college now.”
It never occurred to me that I could have lied too. I could have lied and changed the course of my life forever. I could have grown from nice girl into nice woman. I could have lived happily ever after with Mr. January, if only I hadn’t been so honest.
After the car had been towed to her mother’s driveway, my best friend and I took donuts to the firehouse where Mr. January was sitting in a chair outside, enjoying the evening air. After our little accident, it had been a slow night at the fire house. He was probably bored. We locked eyes over the box of donuts and he asked me how old I was.
“Seventeen,” I lied. Say what you will about me, but I am a fast learner.
If I had really been seventeen, I would have already had one boyfriend. I might even had had one bad boyfriend who’s pressured me to go further than I wanted to, who’d have called me fat when I wouldn’t go all the way and then, broken up with me to go out with my best friend.
If I had really been seventeen, I would have known how to flirt with intention. I would have known that I could have sat down next to Mr. January, introduced myself and shot the breeze. I would have known, once he’d touched my knee to draw my attention to a passing car of European design or even put his hand on my shoulder to thank me for coming by, that I could have made a move — given him my phone number or asked for a ride home.
Mr. January would have counted the months until my 18th birthday on his fingers. He would have said, “I can’t take you out until you’re eighteen. I have to be careful in the community.”
On Sunday afternoon, he would have come by to talk to my mother. He would have said, “Your daughter and I like each other very much and we’d like to get to know each other, but I know she’s young. Do you think I could treat her like a friend? Would that be OK with you? I don’t want you to think she’s sneaking around.”
And my mother would have thought of all those scrawny, slightly greasy boys she’d seen outside my high school who were going from auto shop class to the auto shop. She’d have thought of the very attractive, slightly effeminate guys I was in school plays with, whom she knew things about that I did not. She would have thought of all the ways young girls get hurt and reckoned that a young fireman coming to talk to her about her daughter was the best possible path.
“I just want you to know that she had to go to university,” my mother would have told Mr. January. “If you can help me make sure that she gets there, I think you would be a good friend for her to have.”
Together, they would have made a deal, an arrangement that I now know could have protected me from so much.
And so, for the next 7 or 8 months, Mr. January would have met me at the library after school before he went in to the firehouse for the night. He would have supervised my acquisition of French vocabulary and been able to help me with algebra.
I would have whispered teasing, naughty phrases into his ear like, “Je veux ton bizet sur ma bôuche” and refused to translate them, sending him rifling through dictionaries. I would have learned enough algebra to make up a mildly suggestive analogy about solving the mysteries of X.
After my homework was done, we would have gone out for ice cream or for coffee. When I needed a ride to a party, he would have dropped me off and told me to be as normal as possible for my age, but not to get too drunk or to do anything I might regret. His attentions would have been flattering enough for me to stay sober(ish) and keep my knees closed.
I suspect, maybe, Mr. January would have convinced me to go to church with him. I suspect, probably, Mr. January’s spiritual ideals might have been different than mine, certainly a great deal stronger. Eventually, I probably would have gone to church with him, if only to meet his family and make a good impression on them.
On my eighteenth birthday, he would have picked me up in the evening. He would have brought me flowers.
“Have her home by eleven,” my mother would have said, a slightly threatening look in her eye, but she would not have broken the deal.
He would have taken me for a walk along the lake pier to watch the sunset.
“Je veux ton bizet sur ma bôuche,” he would have said, to prove he’d been listening to me during all those hours in the library. After dark, we would have sat on the park bench beside the lighthouse and kissed and kissed and kissed.
“You’re legal now,” he would have said, breathless and smiling. “You’re finally legal.”
I, though, would have learned a thing or two by then. “I am not ready,” I would have said. “Maybe after I graduate. Maybe.”
He would have groaned: “But I have waited so long.”
I wouldn’t have had a ticket for him to come to the graduation ceremony itself. My mother, my siblings and grandparents would have used up my allotment of seats. Instead, he would have to come to the house afterwards to pick me up for the dinner dance. He would have worn his dress uniform and shaken hands firmly with my grandfather who would have taken our picture for the album. My grandmother would have beamed with absolute pride. She’d have been bursting with the news, “Marina’s got herself a fireman!” to tell my aunts and great-aunts.
I would have shown him off at the dance. After a shot or two, he would have confiscated the mickey of vodka I had hidden in my purse. “You don’t need that,” he would have said because I still wasn’t old enough to drink and he still had to be careful in the community. I might have known enough, at 18 years and seven weeks of age, to buy stockings and garters instead of pantyhose to go under my formal gown. My best friend would have coached me, would have told me exactly what to buy and where to buy it.
Later, after two or three slow dances, we would have left the party to celebrate alone. Legal, or not, there would have been a bottle of champagne.
“Do you want to wait?” he would have asked me. “I’ll marry you first, if that’s what you want.”
“I think I’ve waited long enough,” I would have told Mr. January.
But, I was not really 17. I was only 16 and some months, and while I had just learned how to lie to men, I had not learned enough about myself to pull it off. I hadn’t been lied to, no one had been un-careful of my feelings, there was so much I had not learned how to appreciate or navigate.
For the next two years, whenever I passed a fire truck in traffic, I would inevitably find myself looking directly into the eyes of Mr. January. If I were driving with my best friend, she eventually got another car and learned to drive a little better, she rolled down the window and joked with the whole crew who remembered us, but I was too busy making eye contact with Mr. January to join in with the group.
I had to go away to university and, for some time, I did forget Mr. January, at least, until I heard a siren off in the distance.
Right after my last year of university, when I was old enough and had learned enough about myself, I had a summer job working with special needs teenagers. I was responsible for planning community integration activities and making sure our clients learned about public resources and agencies. One day, we went to the firehouse for a tour. The kids had a great time trying giant boots and raincoats, viewing the equipment and rolling out hoses. Mr. January didn’t give the tour. It was the moustachioed fire fighter of the twinkling eyes who had forgotten all about the dirt brown car with the broken gas tank, the coffee with cream and a quip about their being no donuts 6 years before.
Then, I turned a corner from the fire truck garage into the office and there was Mr. January in a navy blue t-shirt so tight that it looked like it might unravel from the strain of being stretched across his shoulders. My eyes wandered from his shoulders to those suspenders.
“I know you,” he said.
“I know you too,” I said.
I might have swooned, if swooning means feeling a sudden and dramatic drop in blood pressure. I am aware that I needed to grasp something…the door frame or a desktop. Someone asked me if I was really all right. Someone went running for the oxygen tank, just in case I passed out.
The whole twenty-two years of my life flashed before my eyes and ended with the acceptance letter to grad school on the other side of the country. I’d received the letter just a few months before. The experience left me chilled and dizzy. I had to go home right after the firehouse tour and lie down for about a week.
I never saw Mr. January again. He wasn’t hard to avoid. I lived on the opposite side of the country. Later, I lived in 12 different apartments in the big city on the opposite shore of our great lake. Now, I live an ocean away. I have had lots of boyfriends and learned a lot. Much of it, I had to unlearn in order to function and have real relationships. It’s been a complicated kind of life.
Then, I came home for Christmas with my husband and children to have my mother present me with the local fire fighters’ fundraising calendar.
“Jeff from across the street sold it to me,” she said proudly.
Mr. January lives with his slightly younger, slightly chunky wife and their little boy, who is exactly my oldest son’s age, right across the street from my mother.
Kate Baggott’s work has been published in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland and Israel. Mr. January is from her recently-completed book Tales from Planet Wine Cooler for which she is actively seeking a publisher. Links to other published pieces can be found at http://www.katebaggott.com
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