Laura Kraemer
"The Sweater"

I spend a lot of time with my high school yearbook in the summer after grade eleven, flipping through the pages with a corrosive mix of longing and contempt. I return again and again to the picture of Rebecca. In her class photo, she wears a sweater made of bulky yarn, its broad shawl collar secured at the neck with chunky wooden buttons. A sequence of geometric shapes in vibrant shades of pink, blue, green, and purple make their way across a neutral background. Her eyes shine with girlish vitality, brimming with her trust in the world. Honeyed curls crowd approvingly around the skin of her face, clear and sun-kissed like an Okanagan summer. She is perfect, a word only ever used by teenaged girls with a slight curl of the lip.

Leaping from the page of familiar strangers, the sweater declares itself to me. You too can have this. I want very much to be a girl like Rebecca. The sweater is a crucial first step.

The sweater is childlike in its colours and sexless in its shape. It obscures Rebecca’s narrow rib cage and full breasts, a manifestation of that magical ratio I once read about in Cosmo magazine. It’s brazenly frumpy, and her choice to wear it for her grade eleven class photo suggests that Rebecca does not rely on attention from boys to feel good about herself. Only a person confident in her other qualities—a sharp mind and a solid work ethic, concern for others and prowess on the field hockey pitch—would conceal her body in this way.

I’m sure that if I had this sweater, I would no longer rely on attention from boys to feel good about myself. Wrapped in its bulk, I would let the phone ring until it stopped when my stepsister’s 28-year-old sort-of-boyfriend called. A few months after my stepsister left for a nanny job in Europe, he started calling. At first, it was just to chat, and only every few weeks. But then it became weekly, then a few times a week, never before ten o’clock, often much later. What are you wearing? he asks. I give him an orgasm with my words, as though by doing this I will become real one day, like some X-rated Velveteen Rabbit.

These calls leave my sleep in tatters. I lay awake in anticipation, hungry for the crumbs of affection he drops in his haste to get to the part where I talk dirty. I get on my knees and scrabble for those crumbs, shoving them into my pockets for later. Sleep won’t come for a long time afterwards. I’m too busy whipping his empty words into a froth that will ease the void in my gut. These creations always leave me hungrier than before—a shaky, bottomless need that comes from eating sweets on an empty stomach.

I think about Adam, the lanky boy in my drafting class with the uneven teeth and big smile and how I’d heard from a friend that he liked me. The idea of dating Adam, a kind boy my own age, appears like a speck on the horizon, the promise of land. The sweater will make me more visible to him, make it easier for him to wave me into shore.

But there is a risk. On its own, the sweater is uncool. Rebecca wears it with the knowledge that she occupies that most elevated of high school castes: She is not subject to current trends; she dictates them herself. And to lead through fashion is not enough at our school; one must also lead with a conscience. In social studies, Mr. Sanders talks to us about fair trade and free markets. How in an ideal world, people put energy into the economy with their labour and in turn they draw resources with which they can compete for the goods of society. This sweater is fair trade, which is why it costs so much more than other sweaters. To purchase this sweater is to support hardworking Peruvian families who raise sheep and then shear them, spin and dye the wool, and finally knit the garments by hand. They’re trying to make a better life for themselves. This, we are told, gives them dignity.

I can’t speak for Peru, but in high school, trying is dangerous. At my school, nothing is more pathetic than someone striving for something so clearly out of reach: We even have a word for these unfortunate souls: a tryhard. As in, Oh my god, look at her: what a tryhard.

I worry that this sweater will expose me for what I am: an outsider wanting in, a fool who thinks she could ever make it on the inside—a tryhard.

But like the Peruvian sheep farmers, I too have hope for a better life. And I have a job at Dairy Queen.

In September, I return to my dad’s place in Kelowna after spending the summer on the west coast with my mom and my stepdad. My first stop is the import store where I know the sweaters can be found.

Small bells tinkle overhead as I enter, the air thick with the smell of sandalwood and mothballs. I hurry past the incense holders and beaded skirts to the shelves of sweaters against the back wall. Grimacing suns of hammered copper look down on me as I choose one quickly and ask if I can put it on layaway. If I put all of my DQ wages towards it, it will be mine in three weeks.

But this fall, things have changed at my dad’s place. Margot, his pretty blonde girlfriend, has moved out, taking her red Mustang and her furniture with her. What used to be our patio set is now in our living room, the sturdy mesh cushions covered with a pockmarked orange bedspread.

My dad is home most afternoons when I get back from school. He finished an album last spring with money borrowed from Margot and her elderly mother and it’s usually on, playing loudly on repeat. Adult contemporary he calls it, a genre I’ve never heard of, with lots of synthesized saxophone and moody piano. I pretend to like it, even telling him I have a favourite song. Which I suppose I do, though it’s more a case of the lesser of twelve evils. When it was first released, he got me to call the local radio stations and request his songs. Who? the DJ would say. Then, yeah, you bet babe. But the songs never played. After a while, my dad stopped asking.
By 3:30, he’s usually enjoying an early cocktail. He says the word cocktail with brittle cheer. His eyes betray his breezy manner, warning me not to do anything that spoils the illusion that drinking alone on a weekday afternoon is what all normal people do.

My dad and I have an unspoken agreement on these things. He says nothing about the late night calls from my stepsister’s 28-year-old sort-of-boyfriend, and I hold up my end of the bargain. But to do this, I have to look away when he says cocktail. It conjures up an image of the rooster at my mom and stepdad’s place, a sharp-clawed little beast that struts around the yard, assaulting the hens on a whim and taking the odd run at us as we approach with the compost bucket. You always have to be on your guard.

My dad is home in the afternoons because his carpentry contracts have dried up. People don’t want custom-carved handrails when the economy’s in the shitter, he tells me. I’m beginning to understand that my dad inhabits his own micro-economy in which the booms are short and the busts are frequent. Our fridge is never actually empty, but I lack the imagination to make anything with salsa, eggs, and vodka. I never really got to know Margot, but I miss her Thai curries.

I start buying lunch with my DQ money, sketching sub sandwiches into the margins of my math homework, and picking up a few things at the grocery store on my way home from school. I become a feminist when I discover there’s GST on pads and tampons. Ice cream is free during my DQ shifts and I eat a lot of it, but hot food is half price. I can’t bring myself to order things from my friends in the kitchen. Needing anything, even food, is embarrassing.

It takes me ten weeks to pay off the sweater. It becomes mine at last on an evening in mid-November. I say no thanks to a bag and wear it out of the store. I’ve waited long enough. My coat doesn’t fit well over its bulk, so I carry it under my arm. After a few blocks, the collar begins to irritate my neck, the skin becoming chafed and red under the straps of my backpack. Then it starts to rain, a cold drizzle that will delight Rebecca and her friends with its promise of another ski season. The sweater gets wet and smells like a dog.

When I get home, my dad microwaves me an egg in a glass ramekin. He drops a little salsa on top and presents it to me with a flourish like it’s a delicate soufflé. I eat it quickly, leaning against the counter.

“That’s quite the sweater,” he says, amusement playing at the corners of his eyes. He’s expansive and jovial, no more than two drinks in, I’d guess. “Looks like something your mom would wear.”

“Thanks,” I say. His comments make me uneasy. They’re either so over the top with affection that I can’t be sure if he’s talking to me or the cat, or they’re transparently instructive, getting my back up. He pours himself another drink.

“I dreamed about you last night.”

"Oh yeah?” I busy myself with a piece of bread in the toaster, forcing it to release the bread early. I have a ton of homework to do.

“You were all done up. Make-up, hair—the works. You looked gorgeous. My gorgeous little muffin head.” The cat trots in at this, meowing as she wraps herself around my dad’s legs, always on the hustle, that one. He grins broadly, looking through me to the daughter of his dreams.

I laugh, high up in my throat. For a second, I think he’s reaching out to pat my head, but he seems to reconsider, bending over to rub the cat with rough, playful strokes. She purrs and butts her head against him. He scoops her up and heads for the living room, drink in hand. “You had a lovely little dress on,” he adds over his shoulder.
When I get to my room, I pull the sweater over my head and hang it on the back of my desk chair, relieved to be free of the itch and the smell of damp wool. When my stepsister’s 28-year-old sort-of-boyfriend calls that night, I tell him about it, how it itches and stinks, how it took me nearly three months to save up for it and how I’ll probably never wear it, and we laugh—for a moment, something like friendship taking shape between us. But neither of us knows what to do with this, and we hurry to return to familiar territory. With a stroke of erotic inspiration, he asks, if you’re not wearing the sweater, what are you wearing? And I tell him as I have so many times before, my words once again my wares.