So. I was a loser. I found this out when I wore a furry, bright-red cowl-neck sweater to school one day, and Lisa said, "Where did you get this thing? Bi-Way?"
Bi-Way was a chain of Canadian stores that sold cheapo merchandise: badly stitched muumuus; "three T-shirts for the price of one!"; candy dispensers that were also mini fans that stopped working after one use; fake Barbies with giant heads and breakable plastic limbs. I'd gotten the sweater at Zellers, which was also a chain of stores, but a few grades above Bi-Way. I told Lisa proudly where the sweater came from and she said with a smirk, "Nice socks." They were, indeed, nice — as fiery red as the sweater: I liked to match.
"Say vagina," Lisa said before walking away with her posse of cool girls, and I said vagina, and they laughed. Later, I looked up vagina in my dictionary.
That was in grade nine, and I had been in Canada for about three months by then. I knew almost zero English, except for the names of vegetables that my elderly English-as-a-second-language instructor was adamant about teaching us in the summer, when we first arrived from Poland. He would frequently take us to the grocery store and introduce cucumbers, carrots, and apples to our new vocabulary.
The problem with the sweater, as I found out later, was that it was not a "label" — not Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger — plus, it was the kind of sweater a girl my age, back then, would never wear. The cool girls, skater girls or girlfriends of skaters, wore oversize T-shirts, loose pants, and Vans or Airwalks. The other cool girls wore skirts and tight shirts and they smoked cigarettes in the parking lot and giggled with boys who wanted to get with them.
There were some Polish kids in my school, but they all knew one another from elementary school and they were a tight clique. The city I'd moved to was small (36,000 people), and most of the other Poles had come from even smaller villages. Sometimes entire villages would immigrate: uncles, cousins, and grandparents would pick up their lives and move en masse. A sponsor — an established Canadian citizen of Polish heritage who could vouch for one particular family — would bring a family, and then once that family established itself, they would sponsor another one, and eventually the village would start emptying out. Everyone would catch the virus of immigration. The reason? People in North America had VCRs and Mars Bars that in communist Poland were available only in concession stores like Pewex (now the name of an ironic hipster bar in Warsaw) and only if you had American dollars. So by the time we got there, my Canadian city already had a bunch of "_ski_s" in it — the last three letters of almost every Polish name being basically the same, including mine.
The children of those immigrants were known in my school as the "Polish mafia," and they were an impenetrable group. My main disadvantage was that I came from a big city — Warsaw, the capital of Poland. I was immediately dubbed a "snob." I didn't help myself by behaving like one and complaining about the crappy town we lived in. (Consider this: the most exciting venue was the dumpster behind 7-Eleven, where you could drink fluorescent slushies and smoke pot if you were cool and had pot.)
As fall turned into winter, I wasn't progressing: I was still trying to match my tops with my socks. And I couldn't afford to spend the money I made at Wendy's — my first job, hands smelling of mustard and ketchup for days — on labels. I was saving up for a ticket to Poland, to run away back to Warsaw after the school year was over.
At school, I spent my lunches at the library — my safe place, a library, always. I was mesmerized by the glossy magazines: Sassy and Seventeen. I learned how to dress from them — no more matchy matchy. I found out that flowered grunge dresses were in, and I bought my first pair of Doc Martens and an oversize sweater that had the right designer label from a secondhand store. I was finally getting the look. I still had no friends, but my dresses were like camouflage — I could hide better; the teasing stopped.