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In the early 1990s, wing nights were a big deal in my sleepy Ontario backwater. Every Tuesday, my grandmother picked me up and drove to our favourite spot.
We ordered wings and nothing else. That was the beauty of wing night – there was no pretense for appetizers or sides. Wings were the main event, our raison d’être. They came in batches of 10, 20 and 30, smothered in sauces that were either fiery and barbecued or else honeyed and garlicky. We always opted for sweet over spicy. Among other things, Nan and I shared a flagrant love of garlic and didn’t care that its perfume would seep from our pores for hours afterward. We had no one to impress but each other.
The server set down a single plate, piled high and steaming, between us. Then we were off, diving straight in with our fingers, sparing no thought about etiquette or germs. We whittled away at the miniature drumsticks with our teeth and tongues. We worked greedily, wolfishly, until all that remained were shards of bone discarded on a side plate. Sauce splattered around our mouths, our fingers sticky up to the knuckle.
We talked non-stop. We talked with our mouths full. Nan told me stories about the “poor souls’' at the long-term care home where she worked as a nurse’s aide. She was always standing up for them and then being reprimanded by her supervisor. Mostly, though, she talked about her love life. She was in her early 60s then. She told me about her failed relationships. There were many, and they were all uniquely spectacular. Having grown up on a farm, she had a penchant for farmers. She was a sucker, really, for a man in cowboy boots, and men were suckers for her. Women either adored or despised her – there was no in-between – and more often than not it was the latter because I suspect she terrified them.
Men couldn’t help but be drawn to her. A fact that I, a flat-chested 14-year-old, attributed to her boobs. She wasn’t petite like Dolly Parton, yet her breasts were nothing short of formidable. They jiggled whenever she laughed, which was often. The sudden whoop of her laugh turned heads and caused her eyes to twinkle and then shrink. She was loud, her sentences seasoned with expletives that made my mother (who never, ever swore) cringe. I couldn’t help it. Nan’s swearing excited something in me, likely because I wasn’t brave enough to swear myself.
I loved listening to her stories, but what I loved more was the fact that she had chosen me to listen to them. Me – a painfully shy, late bloomer who had as yet never been kissed. As we devoured wing after wing, my guard would inevitably start to slip. I told her about school and my friends. I told her about a boy I really liked who really liked me back. We had talked on the phone a few times (if you could call all those awkward silences talking). We stuffed notes in each other’s lockers. In one such missive he asked if he could have a kiss before my family went to Florida for the winter break. He wanted a going away present, he said. For days I could think of nothing else. When the time came and I headed over to his locker to deliver “his present,” my heart raced and I chickened out. During the long drive to Florida, I daydreamed about the boy non-stop as I stared out the backseat window. I filled notebooks with doodles of him. I was determined I would not make the same mistake twice. When I came back from the break, he was holding hands with another girl.
At that moment in the telling, Nan placed a sticky hand on top of mine and looked me straight in the eye. “His loss,” she said with such authority that I had no choice but to believe her. We carried on eating. For a long time we said nothing at all. Instead, we ate. We ate with gusto and determination, as though excavating our way to someplace else. Eventually I glanced over at her. There was sauce ringed around her mouth, carving a path toward her chin like a goatee. She took one look at me and we both howled with laughter.
When we were done, we ignored the lemon-scented wipes the server had provided and instead licked our fingers clean one at a time. Heads turned. Nan didn’t care and in that moment neither did I. I wished that I could be brassy and fearless like her. Sometimes when I was around her I felt flashes of that kind of audacity rub off on me, though it never lasted once she dropped me off at home.
She’d been gone for years before I realized that it was never about the wings for her, either. Before I recognized the loneliness and vulnerability that ran like a shallow creek below the surface of her laughter.
Wing nights aren’t really a thing any more. Sometimes I dream about walking into a restaurant by myself and ordering a plate of wings and nothing else. I want my mouth and fingers smeared in a fusion of honey and garlic. I want the thick sweet sauce to linger on my lips for hours.
Julie M. Green lives in Kingston.
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