Caesura published Coleman's Cleopatra, 1963 in the issue called reset, winter 2022. They also held a Zoom event where I read this story.
Coleman's Cleopatra, 1963
We lived in the high mountains of southern Alberta. It was isolated, cold, and snowy but the rugged, rocky landscape was beautiful. This was sunny Alberta. That’s how it was advertised. Like Idaho’s Famous Potatoes. We were sunny. My dad was a pit boss in the coal mine. At home, we ate bupka, perogi, garlic dills, and cabbage rolls. My Polish mother served a lot of boiled cabbage and mashed potatoes with butter. She’d put on a ’78 of the Beer Barrel Polka and waltz around the kitchen. My father would tap his coffee cup, shake his head, and laugh.
I was very busy then, defining myself. I wanted to distinguish myself, but I wanted to be the same: the age-old conflict of adolescence. I bought a blue-wool dress at Thompson’s, traditional, expensive. It took all the money I’d saved for years. I painted black eye-liner from the inside corner of my lids out to my hairline. It was the Cleopatra look. Elizabeth Taylor sailed across the big screen at the Roxy. I figured I could look like her. I could wear my hair in bangs straight across, long hair at the sides hanging straight down. I could be re-born Cleopatra and never again step into a kitchen that smelled of beets, carrying the scent of dirt.
In those days, everybody smoked cigarettes. I tied weeds together with string and “smoked” them. My hair smelled like burnt weeds and once I sucked a hot coal into my lungs. I coughed for days, but it didn’t stop me. I sneaked cigarettes out of my mother’s purse and hid in the alley to smoke them, chewing Sen Sens to erase the smell from my mouth.
Once, I wore the blue dress to school and Bobby Novak came up behind me. He pressed his knee into the back of mine. He touched the fine hairs of my arm, ever so lightly. Bobby looked like Paul Newman. His blue eyes blazed the same color as my dress. “You look good,” he said. “I see you’ve got breasts now.”
“Is that a compliment? Am I supposed to say thank you? Or what?”
“I said you look good. But what’s that mess on your face? You been working in the mine with your father?”
“It’s makeup, asshole. Eyeliner.”
“You look like the guys coming off shift at the wash house. Hey,” he said. “I’ll roll you a special cigarette.”
“I don’t smoke anymore. It gives me a headache.”
“Suit yourself,” he said. “But we’re going to the Rex Café and we thought we’d stop and smoke.”
Yeah, it made us giggle. I watched, fascinated, as the jukebox whirred and clicked, picking out the right 45 so we could hear Wonderland by Night. We all wanted French fries and hamburgers. And we left the café without paying. Counting money was beyond us, by that point anyway.
The pot slowed everything down. Out on the street in front of the restaurant, we watched the alpine glow light up the mountains, the snow drifts, the houses. They turned a glorious shade of pink, then peach, and ended with deep orange. We were bewitched, as if we could feel ourselves moving through our lives. We knew we’d be young and lit up like that, forever.