13. “The River,” The Tea Party

The summer of ‘93 was, in a word, enchanting. In particular, Miss Kitty was enchanting. She put a spell on me.

Let me take you back to Canada’s Wonderland, where I worked as a locker attendant at the front gate and at Splashworks, the water park. Kitty was a balloon girl and occasional front gate cashier. She had beautiful olive skin, long brown hair and mesmerizing grey, feline eyes. I’ve still never seen anything quite like them.

It’s funny, most of the summer we didn’t talk much, we didn’t work together much. Then one day I came back from a few days off, probably early or mid-August. It was a slow weekday and the head cashier at the front gate, Neetu, asked me to join her in the back room to chat. She informed me that I had been a “topic of conversation” among the balloon girls while I was away. Apparently I had been identified as “mysterious” and there were a number of flattering things said about me that I’d never heard said about me before. For me, to hear these things, that was enchanting. It was a new world, light years from the anonymity of high school. It showed me for the first time that my introversion wouldn’t always work against me. That it could work for me. They liked that I was quiet and carried myself unassumingly.

It was very soon after that that I found myself working the front gate with Kitty on cash. Maybe our separate conversations with Neetu opened us both up, but suddenly chemistry began to ooze between us. It felt intense pretty quickly. There was that “opposites attract” thing going on, as she was decidedly a cat person and I was firmly a dog guy, which somehow seemed important at the time. But, it turned out, she had a boyfriend. A boyfriend she portrayed as a bit of an ass, who she implied might be on the way out, but a boyfriend was had nonetheless.

There were a couple more chemistry-filled workdays together after that. But soon after she came to the park on her day off, towing the grimy, disinterested-looking boyfriend. Well, so much for that, I thought. Flirt with me, then flaunt this guy in front of me? I was a little pissed off and a lot of something like heartbroken. I remember dramatically thinking how fitting it was that I’d worn all black before changing into my Wonderland blue-and-whites. I was so emo.

But the next day I worked with her, it all came back. All of that chemistry. We talked about music. In particular, she asked me if I’d heard this song called “The River” by a new Canadian band called The Tea Party. I hadn’t, but I made a mental note. We finished at the same time that day and were walking back to the change rooms together, behind the scenes. She asked if I’d like to go out some time, “As a friend-type-thing.” I remember chuckling a little at that, and her sort of sly smile. That smile. Lord, that smile.

So we did, very soon after that. We went out. We went to see Jurassic Park. After that we ate at Lime Rickey’s. It was a ’50s-style diner with amazing desserts and those little jukebox things at each table. We each chose a song. Me: “Crosstown Traffic” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Her: A Madonna song, maybe “True Blue.” And then we couldn’t figure out what to do after that. So we sat in my car in a parking lot near Wonderland and created a fantasy land with red moons and lots of horses and purple rivers, a world that was just for us. And then it got to be a little less “friend-type-thingy.”

I wrote her a story. It was about a dog and a cat who wanted to be together, but there was this rat that was getting in the way. Not the most impenetrable metaphor in the world.

I think, somehow, what happened next was that our hearts went in opposite directions. I became even more enchanted. What I suspect happened with her was that she sort of solved my “mystery” and discovered there wasn’t really much of one, and achieved the perhaps conscious, perhaps unconscious goal of getting back at her boyfriend to some degree. But I was locked in. And I was clueless to her “unlocking” until much later. I was so full of… feelings. I remember one day at work asking her, looking her right in those glowing eyes, “Do you ever feel like you’re just going to explode?” But I meant it in a good way, like I had so many feelings swirling inside that I could barely contain them. That was my awkward way of letting her know how I felt.

A few weeks later, Wonderland’s end-of-year semi-formal dinner dance was coming up. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go. Dances were never my thing. We talked about it during an awkward phone call. She told me I should go and that we’d make it fun. I took that as a good sign. But on the night of the dance, she completely avoided me. I heard through a mutual friend that her boyfriend showed up. I tracked her down for a slow dance at the end of the night, but it was weird and silent. But it was one of those silences that spoke volumes. It seemed like she felt bad, that she probably knew how rough that night had been for me, but this was how it had to be. That’s what her silence told me. And, while heartbroken, I knew it probably wasn’t a good idea to get involved with someone’s girlfriend, on a number of levels. I had myself to blame.

A few days later I helped her collect balloons, so we took a walk around the park. It was still weird. I tried to ask her what happened that night, but she wouldn’t really give a straight answer. Changing the subject, I told her I had seen the video for “The River,” noting the naked horse-headed woman. “She has a great body,” she said, in a tone that was almost disappointed, like she thought that’s all guys ever think about. I wasn’t even thinking about that; I just thought it was wonderfully weird and surreal. Call me an anti-anthroequinite,* but I tend not to be attracted to women who have the head of a horse.

On her last day of work for the season, she gave me a little piece of paper, folded up, and I watched her walk away before unfolding it. It was a sweet little note, just saying how much she enjoyed getting to know me, nothing too specific. And she signed it, Miss Kitty.

It took me WAY too long to get over her. She was, after all, an enchantress. I was under her spell. It kind of ruined me for other girls for almost a year.

Until I saw her again. It was the next summer. I was working at Wonderland again (she wasn’t), this time as a cashier. I was selling baseball hats at Hat Attack when I saw this girl with short, punky black hair walk away from her friends and approach me. At first, I didn’t recognize her without her long brown locks, but those glowing, grey eyes and radiant smile were burned in my memory. It was her. We chatted for a couple of minutes, just catching up. In that time, all the feelings came flooding back. I was in a daze for a few minutes after she said goodbye. But as I stood there, reflecting on everything, I suddenly felt the feelings melt away. It was so quick that it literally felt like a spell was lifted. I was instantly unburdened.

But one spell she couldn’t lift was the spell The Tea Party’s music put on me. That wasn’t hers to lift. A few months after Miss Kitty introduced them to me, I saw them live for the first time, opening for Blind Melon, and if any band was capable of casting a spell on its audience, it was them. It was some intense, trippy stuff. They became one of my favourite bands of the ‘90s. I’ve probably seen them live more than any other band. This song, their first big single in Canada, encapsulated everything you needed to know about them: they were trippy; they were great musicians who experimented with rhythm, genres and instrumentation; there was a big, fat Zeppelin influence; they were nuanced; and they rocked. (Actually, they still do, since they just released a solid new album after a breakup in 2005.)

So in the end I’ve experienced a couple of decades of musical joy, all thanks to that feline enchantress.

P.S. Fun fact! If you watched the video, you’ll notice Jeff Martin’s puffy shirt. The first airing of this video had to precede the original airing of the Seinfeld episode by at least a month.

* The term I’ve made up for people who hate part-human/part-horses.


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