They were twins, like my sister and I, so automatically we felt an instant kinship, since we were never resident assistants to twin sisters. They arrived at Founders College residence early to avoid culture shock and acclimatize to York University campus and the city of Toronto. As resident assistants, we were informed they were Mennonites, from a remote town in Northwestern Ontario. A graduate student, who lived in the dorm during the summer, who regularly breakfasted with us in the cafeteria, described Beaverbrook as a service centre for Northern First Nations communities and as “kind of isolated.” She worked as a forest fire fighter on the fire base outside town, the summer after she graduated from the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at York University. I couldn’t understand how Mennonite twins became students in the School of Gender, Sexuality, and Women Studies at a liberal arts college in cosmopolitan multicultural Toronto. My twin sister and I bickered and quarrelled over why they weren’t at Bible College. My sister and I never agreed, debated, and argued about literally everything, despite the fact people often thought we were identical and often couldn’t tell us apart. I no longer tell people we had a third sister. We were triplets, the result of fertility treatments gone awry and an infertile mother overly zealous to have babies. Anyway, our third sibling, the pragmatic, level-headed, mild-mannered one, died in a childhood bicycling accident.
My twin Olivia and I worked as resident assistants at the university residence for the past three years. Only a year away from acquiring our bachelor’s degrees in women’s studies, we hadn’t yet become jaded or cynical about residential life, unlike our dormmates and fellow students. We had no complaints about bland cafeteria food and an inability to escape the lifestyle of a professional student. We still enjoyed the communal life, the school camaraderie, and the sense of youthful community and abandon.
We had our own version of frosh week, for early birds, students who, sans parents, arrived before the hordes of bewildered freshmen and helicopter moms and dads landed on campus. Instead of engaging in the normal boring activities, this time we decided to try something different. Since most females who planned to reside on the women’s floor hadn’t yet arrived, we decided to volunteer to take these twins, towards whom we felt a kinship, who arrived early, to become acclimatized to the campus, out for an outing, beyond the usual subway train commute, shopping trip to the downtown shopping megamall, Eaton Centre, and assorted tourist traps tour in downtown Toronto, including an elevator ride up CN Tower. We planned to escort them on a day trip to the Hanlan’s Point Beach, even though my sister insisted and protested she thought we were taking a chance, if university authorities or residence officials, discovered we had taken two freshmen to a clothing optional beach.
Still, I insisted we try something different with the Hardar sisters, twins like ourselves, who didn’t think of themselves as twins, they said, because they were monozygotic or identical twins, and were born a day apart. Olivia was ready to tell them we had a triplet, but I, poking her in the back with a firm finger, and then clasping and twisting her arm, whispered we needn’t get into ancient family history, flashing back to the eighth grade. I didn’t want to reveal we were triplets, our third sister dying after arguing furiously.
When we were twelve, I was upset at Isabella for stealing my mode of transportation, but she insisted she took her own bicycle, when it was my bicycle, even though they were identical brands and models of mountain touring bicycles. I knew it was my bicycle, because I maintained mine better: I washed the frame, and moving parts with the pressure washer at the garage car wash, lubricated the chain and sprockets with proper oil, not WD-40, and inflated the tires with air when pressure was low so I could ride my bicycle easily.
During our dispute, Isabella and I started hitting each other. She told me to fuck off, find my own boyfriend, and took off on my red CCM bicycle. I chased after her on her red CCM bicycle. She drove straight through a stop sign at the intersection. On Queen Street West, she was broadsided by a Pizza Pizza delivery car and then crushed by a Toronto Transit Commission streetcar. Not even a year old, my red bicycle, was a mangled piece of wreckage, and my sister was dead. For months afterwards, I felt progressively gloomier and more depressed, and, by the time a year passed, I lost plenty of weight. Neighbours, teachers, friends, and fellow students thought I suffered anorexia nervosa. I couldn’t reveal to anyone, except a psychiatrist, the complete circumstances surrounding my sister’s death. Even then I only revealed the whole story—or what I construed as the comprehensive version—to her after I made her promise not to tell anyone, particularly my parents, who must have spent a few hundred thousand on private treatment and tried to sue the city, claiming a streetcar driver was somehow negligent and therefore responsible.
“I didn’t know there were Mennonites in Northwestern Ontario,” Olivia said.
“There are many Mennonite communities in Northwestern Ontario.”
“Are you both virgins?” I asked.
Even Olivia looked shocked, and, later, she asked why I posed that intensely personal question. Actually, I didn’t understand what I was thinking when I asked, but wanted to know the girls’ level of personal experience. Personally, aside from knowing I was an outlier, I still hadn’t figured out this gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or polyandrous relationship business in all its various dimensions, and I think that was the fundamental reason I found myself a student in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at York University. Having looked at her twin, the sister, Mary, with the medic alert bracelet, replied, “Yes, we have extensive sexual experience. Remember: we’re from Northwestern Ontario, which has some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Canada.”
I swore to God I could read my sister’s mind: she was probably ready to joke we fought as Navy Seals in the invasion of Iraqi and Afghanistan.
Olivia said, “I notice you have a medic alert bracelet. My sister and I also have medic alert bracelets. We’re supposed to wear them because we were both diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We’re also supposed to take lithium, but we don’t because we don’t like psychiatrists. But why are you wearing a medic alert bracelet?”
“Mary wears a medic alert bracelet because she has a congenital heart condition,” her sister replied.
I knew from firsthand experience a twin barging in and answering a question for another sister was also typical behavior.
My brow became contorted. “Seriously?”
“No worries, though. As long as Mary doesn’t run a marathon or swim across Lake Ontario, she should be okay.”
“And you’re sure you’re not twins?”
“Positive. Others might consider us twins, but we don’t because we’re not identical and were born a day apart.”
“We both know the curse and the stigma of being twins,” Olivia said, “and it’s perfectly cool by us.”
I accidentally bit my own lip; this twin talk ticked me off. “Have you ever been to a clothing optional beach?”
“No,” answered Anne, smiling.
“Would you like to? There’s plenty of men, many gay, walking around naked, but it’s perfectly safe. The ferry ride to and from the island is worth the trip alone, especially at night.”
“But we’ll have to ask Dad for money.”
“No worries. We’ll pay for the subway tokens and ferry ride for you two out of petty cash. The money comes out of your student fees, ultimately.”
“We paid our tuition and students fees already and wouldn’t have come to Toronto, if we hadn’t. Dad doesn’t believe in credit, neither does Mom, nor do we for that matter.”
She told me her parents owned and operated a blueberry farm, a snowmobile and jet ski dealership, and a hunting and fishing outpost camp outside their hometown. I didn’t know how her parents could be successful in business without believing in credit, but I replied, “So it should be no sweat.”
We made the trip Saturday, even though Olivia began to have reservations about taking Mennonites, even if they were reformed or progressive, even if they weren’t dressed in traditional Mennonite dress, to the beach on the Saturday of a Labour Day weekend, when it was warm and sunny.
When we arrived at the ferry terminal, there were lines stretching from the Jack Layton double bicycle statue to the ticket counters, but Olivia simply led the crew past the day trippers, families, processions with bicycles, baby carriages, hand carts, scooters, skate boards, somehow managing to jump the cue without major disruptions, without rousing any ire, by uttering in the direction of the front of the line some nonsense, like, “Anne, we made it back in time with the medication,” “Anne, we got your diabetes pills from the car.”
While the Hardar sisters admired the harbour front view of the city skyline, office towers, waterfront, and island airport from the upper deck of the ferry, en route to the islands, Olivia and I had a fierce argument, which we staged in harsh whispers.
She told me what she knew about Mennonites, virtually nothing, but wondered why they weren’t wearing nun-like uniforms, or black clothes. I countered she was ill-informed, bigoted, maybe even racist.
“If they’re Mennonites living in a small town, I don’t know if they’re ready for the city,” Olivia said. “I don’t think sects like the Mennonites are known for welcoming or procreating with outsiders.”
“Mennonites are not members of a sect!” I whispered fiercely.
“If not, what are they? You need to read The Joy of Sects!”
“Olivia, you know nothing about Mennonites. You bought a book about world religions and The Joy of Sects during your first year at York, but you haven’t opened them yet, like most books on your bookshelves.”
She squinted her eyes and glared at me. (The fierce expressions; those were our trademarks.) “I read my books.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I whispered fiercely. “I can’t believe my sister is an effing racist and a bigot!”
A uniformed security guard walked towards us. He flashed a badge and asked if there was a problem onboard. I told the security guard everything was all right, and, for a change, Olivia backed me up.
Meanwhile, I felt confident the beach would be crowded, as the ferry approached Centre Island, and, again,
Olivia agreed with me for a change. Excited, awestruck by the view from the city, the Hardar sisters persuaded me, for a moment, we chose wisely, in the selection of an activity and outing.
When we arrived at the clothing optional beach sign, Olivia said, “You girls did bring your swimsuits? You can strip all the way down to your birthday suits, if you like. We’re going to take off all our clothes, if it’s okay with you.”
“Oh, it’s perfectly okay with us. So we’ll just go to the changerooms—”
“They’re actually women’s washrooms, but for public washrooms—this being Toronto—they’re actually clean and neat and built like bomb shelters.”
“We’ll just change into swimsuits, and then we’ll decide later if we want to take them off.”
“Excellent idea. But you’re okay with us both getting naked?”
The girls both returned from a short walk to a café and restaurant, adjacent to public washrooms, which were build like armoured bunkers, with smart looking but modest and unrevealing one-piece swimsuits, although they possessed appealing figures. Meanwhile, my sister stripped down to her minimalist bras and panties and I wore a bikini.
Then at the wicker gated entrance, and the stands where numerous bicycles were locked, we reached the boardwalk and the winding sandy trails through sand dunes. Acting as Global Positioning System devices, I said, “Redlight. We are now entering a non-clothing optional beach. Clothing here is required, so as to appeal to a traditional cultural sense of decency.” Meanwhile, the Hardar sisters tittered and giggled like little girls.
Then, as we passed the pickets, posts, and the barrier fence surrounding the beach, I said, “Greenlight. We are now entering the clothing optional beach.”
“Shouldn’t you have said it the other way around,” Olivia interjected. “Greenlight for the traditional beach, redlight for the clothing optional beach.”
“Olivia, you just want to fight. Do you really want to argue about red and green lights now?” I asked.
Middle-aged men, tan, hairy, balding, nude, with massive, protuberant bellies, proudly strutted around the fences and boundary lines between the clothing optional and ordinary beach. Several roosters stood, strutted, and posed with gawking young women, but most laid or lounged on the sand languidly, drinking beer, chatting, sun bathing. The girls continued to joke and titter, but the sister with the medic alert bracelet looked flushed and sweaty.
“Are you all right?”
“She’s fine, just excited.”
“Sounds good,” I said, “but now I want to hear it from her.”
“I’m okay,” Mary said in a wan voice.
“If you’re not comfortable or you don’t feel well, we can turn around. We can hike around the island, or rent a bicycle—there’s no shortage of sights and attractions. We can ride on a quadricycle, with my sister and I peddling. Or, we can simply walk back to the Hanlan’s Point dock, take the next ferry back to the city, and we’ll be at Founders College residence within a few hours. No worries, no hurries, no sweat off my brow.”
“I think you’re overreacting,” Anne said. My sister and I both insisted the ailing visitor sit down and rest, but Mary insisted on walking. Her sister surprised me when she pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Anne started smoking a cigarette and arguing with her ailing sister, which only aggravated her breathing difficulty. Mary attempted to walk further, taking smaller and smaller steps, until she, bluish around the lips and eyes, bent over and hyperventilating, crumpled into a squatting heap.
“Does this happen to you often?”
“For Christ’s sake, she just hasn’t been getting enough exercise.”
I became truly alarmed: a Mennonite who smoked, spoke abruptly, and took the Lord’s name in vain. My sister, with whom I later argued about whom who originally suggested this trip, now argued she wanted to return to campus. Olivia started to argue with the Anne about aborting the adventure, and Anne turned on her ailing twin.
“For Christ’s sake, Mary, don’t be such a pussy and a wuss.”
Olivia clenched my shoulders and turned on me. “You’re trying to tell me these girls are Mennonites?” she whispered fiercely. “If anything happens, it’s your fault.”
“She looks like she’s having a heart attack,” I said.
“She’s probably has never seen a well-hung man naked in her life,” Olivia said, in an aside.
Overhearing our conversation, Anne said, “Give her a chance. It’s part of her education.”
“They both said they weren’t virgins,” I whispered fiercely.
“As if it’s your business to ask, as if it’s their business to reply honestly,” Olivia added.
Increasingly under the impression they were naïve and innocent, I wasn’t certain what I was thinking when I asked, aside from, if they’re more experienced, they might be better prepared.
The girls found a spot close to the dunes to sit down on the blanket, which I borrowed from a Founder College residence bed. Unable to avoid the bare legs and buttocks wading along the shoreline, strutting the crowded beach, I crawled over the fine dark sand, spreading the blanket and beach towel. Looking awestruck, Anne unselfconsciously made a spectacle of herself viewing the nude bodies. Meanwhile, Mary hyperventilated and tried to catch her breath, as her face and pallor grew ashen and her flesh grew blue around the lips, eyes, and fingernails. Anne started to verbally attack Mary, demanding to know why she couldn’t simply enjoy the outing without having a panic attack. Disturbed by how breathless and dreadful Mary appeared, I started to argue with my sisters about whether we should leave the Hanlan’s Point Beach, altogether. Finally, both sets of sisters calmed down. We stopped chirping, chattering, quibbling, quarreling, and started reading the books we brought along in our handbags and backpacks. I was surprised when I saw Anne and Mary were also reading copies of Bad Feminist, except Mary had an immaculate hardcover copy, which looked brand new, and Anne had a trade paperback copy. I thought Ann used her edition as a door stopper, when I knew from personal experience hardcover books, particularly heavy textbooks, made the best doorstoppers. Ready to joke about how three young women could read Bad Feminist at the same time, I decided to hold my tongue, especially when I saw Olivia smirking as she read Fear of Flying. Later, Olivia persistently interrupted me, engaged in this peaceful, meditative activity, in a perfect locale, reasserting her belief Mary was seriously ill. I was in agreement, but I honestly believed rest was the best remedy. Through recent painful experience as a resident assistant, I learned it was best not to push panic buttons, especially if it entailed police or first responders becoming involved.
Then a handsome naked man sat in front of Mary. Except for his flip-flops and a paperback novel, Postmortem, he was totally naked. Although he was a middle-aged man, who wore half moon eyeglasses, he had no beer belly. In fact, this nudist’s body was sculpted like a bodybuilder. With neat thick salt and pepper hair and a chiselled, rugged face, I thought, he was handsome and looked like a fashion model, with nearly perfect proportions. But his penis was not only huge, it was practically erect. He even appeared to be flexing the muscles in his groin and shaft in an effort to show off. I had visited a strip club, a bar featuring exotic dancers, in downtown Toronto, and observed similar performances as strippers flexed the muscles in their groin and buttocks and around their breasts, with discipline and control, in motions that seemed effortless, but I have to admit I never saw a man perform the art of flexing the muscles in his penis. I did think his exhibitionism was a bit overstated and overt, even for a diehard, hardcore nudist, which, I assumed, he might have been, if he was cruising. So I gave the man the meanest bitchface my face could express. As soon as he spotted me, sensing the changes in atmospheric pressure, he picked up his backpack, towel, and pocketbook, and moved behind us, stepping out of sightlines. Then I watched helplessly as Mary clutched her chest and collapsed on the beach.
“I don’t think she’s well,” Olivia said.
“She’s napping,” Anne said.
“She’s not napping. She looks as if she’s lost consciousness. It looks like she’s having a seizure.”
Her condition reminded me of the alarming epileptic seizures our deceased sister Isabella suffered as a child.
“I think I saw her eyes roll into the back of her head. Does she have seizures?”
“You’re imagining things,” Anne said. I realized then Anne was truly enjoying her expedition to the clothing optional beach—to the point where she had pulled down the top of her one-piece bathing suit and was in denial about her sister’s condition.
“No. Can you please check on your sister?” I demanded.
Anne touched the arteries in her neck and her wrist. “Oh, no, I don’t think she’s breathing.”
Then panic overwhelmed me: my heart started beating hard and fast, my head was bounding, my muscles were trembling, and my voice was pitched and raised: “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I even checked her pulse.”
“Does she have an epi-pen?”
“Why the hell would she have an EpiPen. She has no allergies and takes heart medication for a ventricular septal defect.”
“Has she been taking her meds?”
“She takes her heart pills every morning and night.” A torrent of words rushed from her mouth, to the point I didn’t understand her voice: “You have to be understand,” Anne said quickly, “we weren’t even born on the same day. Mary was wan and sicky from day she was born, a blue baby.”
“Shut up!” Olivia said. She straddled the young woman’s chest and started administering chest compressions.
Kneeling above Mary’s head, Ann gently slapped her face, trying to rouse her, and started giving her chest compressions when Olivia grew tired.
“Christ.” Glancing around the beach with the numerous naked bodies, I stood up and shouted, “Is there a doctor around?”
The well hung, sculpted man took off his half moon glasses and set down his paperback thriller. “Yes, I’m a doctor,” he said, casually.
“What are you waiting for? Can you help?”
He started asking Anne health questions and, when she answered about the type of medication Anne took, and her previous medical history, the doctor’s manner more serious and focused discussion became abrupt and technical, filled with jargon and medical terms.
I couldn’t help noticing the large size of his penis, which dangled freely, as he quickly assessed this patient without medical instruments.
“I believe her heart stopped,” the doctor said, “but with massage I’m getting a weak, thready pulse. She needs to get to the hospital immediately.”
A nude sunbather overheard, volunteered to fetch help, and sprinted through the sand to the lifeguard stand further down the beach shoreline. The lifeguard consulted a supervisor, who interrupted a video shoot with a camera crew from Naked News, and rode a dune buggy to our spot on the beach. The head lifeguard told the camera crew from Naked News, waving consent forms, to stop shooting and videotaping, and after he tried to rouse Mary, radioed for help. I couldn’t believe what happened next, but the helicopter was like something out of the invasion or Iraq or the Vietnam war. Within a few minutes, an orange ambulance helicopter rose noisily above the city island airport, a few kilometres away. The helicopter flew along the shoreline to the beach shoreline and then hovered until the pilot spotted a landing spot, blowing huge clouds of dust and dry sand, clearing a huge swath along the busy beach. Meanwhile, swimmers, sunbathers, nudists, naturists, and gawkers crowded forward and gathered around us as we tried to assist Mary.
Olivia donned a t-shirt and denim cut-offs, and I decided to slip on my bikini top. Since it was hot and sunny, most beachgoers remained nude, but virtually everyone watched as the air ambulance hovered along the shoreline and landed at the beach, the whirling helicopter blades sending up clouds of dust and sand.
With a pair of defibrillator paddles, paramedics shocked Mary’s chest and attempted to restart her heart. Then the paramedics loaded the young woman onto a stretcher while Anne, sobbing, was permitted to accompany her sister into the air ambulance.
“We shouldn’t have let her go,” Olivia said.
“She had all the information about her sister,” I said.
“I mean, we shouldn’t have allowed her to come to the beach,” Olivia countered.
“I shouldn’t say this,” said the doctor, as he slipped on a thong, “but I don’t think your friend isn’t going to survive.”
“I think we’re in shit,” Olivia said.
“Forget about it and don’t worry. It’s nothing. They understand life’s short. That’s why they came.”
In the aftermath, after a few sleepless nights, their parents took a break from the harvest at the blueberry farm, clearance sales at the snowmobile and jet ski dealership, and managing the tourist camp. Before the Hardar parents flew to Toronto, they decided to make a shopping trip to the Walmart superstore in Dryden for funeral clothes for themselves and their daughters. Meanwhile, they constantly called Anne on the cellphone, trying to persuade her to return to Beaverbrook, but she argued she wanted to stay at York University to resume studies, which hadn’t yet started. Fatigued, the Hardars nonetheless skipped an overnight stay at a motel and drove their four-wheel drive home.
On the return ride on Highway 72, her father continued to argue with his surviving daughter on the cellphone, but Anne kept calling back, saying she wanted to stay in Toronto. As he, on his cellphone, pleaded with her to return to Beaverbrook, their truck sped along the winding highway through the Canadian Shield in darkness, with their high beam headlights cutting a light swath through the summer night. On the otherwise quiet highway that bordered the provincial park, their twin cab collided head-on, striking a bull moose that tried to cross the laneway, after it wallowed and fed in a creek that meandered out of Ojibway Provincial Park. Later, amidst chalk marks, markers, and pylons, and wreckage scattered across the highway and the creek, the police accident investigators concluded the couple was killed instantaneously or shortly after the crash. As resident assistant, I was asked to help break the news to Anne.
Afterwards, Anne decided to stay in the city to continue to pursue gender and women studies in her freshmen year. The Sunday before her first week of tutorials and lectures, she decided she would dispose of her sister’s cremains, and my sister and I accompanied her on a return to Hanlan’s Point Beach. To my amazement, when we arrived at the beach, the doctor who came to Mary’s aid waded the water in the nude.
Three women, looking overdressed in leggings, capri pants, skorts, and blouses, stood around him on the shore, and again his large penis appeared practically erect. Clenching my jaw, I tried my best to ignore him.
“I think this is illegal,” Olivia said, as we waded in the water off Hanlan’s Point Beach.
“What’s illegal?” I demanded.
“Disposing of human ashes at a public beach, especially a swimming beach.”
“I think human ashes are sterile, unlike everything else here.”
Anne read a passage from Psalm 51:2. “Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”
Then, she did a remarkable thing, I thought, for a young woman of her background. She asked me to hold the marble urn of cremains before she pulled off her long flowing rose patterned summer dress, which modestly concealed her healthy body. Then she waded naked into the water from her shore, while I admired her luminescent pearly skin and remarkably toned and fit figure, which, she later told me, she acquired picking blueberries, cleaning tourist’s cabins, and operating jet skis and snowmobiles. She sprinkled the ashes in the humid warm air and low light into the cool water as mist rose. She waded into chilly water up to her shoulders, dove, and stayed submerged beneath the surface. She stayed under water for so long I became frightened she was trying to end her own grief. I was ready to scream when her head popped above the surface. After stroking her long hair, she swam back to shore. Relieved, I wanted to ask her why she chose that particular Biblical passage, so concise and simple, and not a fuller, more nuanced, cathartic passage. Her delivery was so dry and understated and I, with my mixed Mediterranean European background, was hoping for a speech more passionate and emotional, more umpf. Still, why had she finally stripped down and swam nude, as if in a ritual of cleansing and spiritual purification? But I was too overwhelmed and awed by the spectacle, the sunset against the horizon of the Toronto skyline, with the windmill and geodesic dome at Ontario Place, and her perfect form against the beach. I said nothing and took a picture of her modest figure, silhouetted against the inspiring landscape, with my smartphone.
John Tavares was born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, and is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His previous publications include short fiction published in various anthologies, little magazines & literary journals: Blood & Aphorisms, Plowman Press, Green’s Magazine, Filling Station, The Writing Disorder, The Acentos Review, Brasilia Review and Sediments Literary Arts-Journals, among others.