My childhood was happy, quiet and blissfully normal. I grew up in Scarborough with my parents and older brother. My mom was an administrator for the TDSB and later worked the floor in a factory. My dad took a job as a janitor while putting himself through business school. In the evenings, my brother and I would sit on his lap while he pored over his textbooks. He would let us doodle in the margins as he hunched over them.
Everything changed when I hit puberty. In Sri Lankan culture, when a girl starts menstruating, her family holds a ceremony to mark the occasion. The day of my party, 50 family members gathered in my home to celebrate my passage into adulthood. I wore a heavy beaded pink sari and sat patiently while guests poured milk over my head—a custom meant to bless me with fertility—and recited blessings. Later, hundreds of friends and relatives joined us in a banquet hall to eat and dance.
My parents started treating me differently after that day. Since I was officially a woman, they believed I needed protection. If I wasn’t at school, I had to be home—at all times. They were terrified that I’d get a boyfriend and have premarital sex. They barred me from attending school trips or concerts. Sometimes teachers would phone home and try to change their minds. To avoid further questioning, my parents would pull me out and transfer me. By the time I was 17, I’d attended three high schools. I loved learning—it made me feel strong. Leaving was always hard.
One day, during the summer before Grade 12, my parents snooped through my inbox and found an email from a boy I’d met in a chat room. They freaked out. I tried to explain that he was just a friend, but they wouldn’t listen. That day, I realized any decision I made for myself would infuriate them. I couldn’t live like that. So I ran away, and, without my parents’ knowledge, I went to live with my aunt in Ottawa while I finished school. But a month after I moved in, my dad called the house. He was coming to pick me up.
I couldn’t go back. I grabbed my big red backpack and left. I didn’t think to bring tampons, food or a change of clothes. All I had were my textbooks. Even in my panic, I knew I needed to graduate. I took the bus downtown and headed to the Rideau Centre, which seemed like a good place to disappear. I didn’t think about where I’d sleep, what I’d eat or drink.
I couldn’t sleep—the anxiety and adrenaline were too powerful. Instead, I wandered until sunrise. When I tried to sit on the sidewalk, a homeless man came over, yelling at me to get off of his turf. The same thing happened a few blocks over. Eventually, I dozed off on a park bench. I woke up starving and walked around, glancing into public garbage cans. I spotted a half-eaten bagel, still in its crinkled wrapping, and ate it without hesitation.
I took to scouring for food in dumpsters outside restaurants and grocery stores. On good days I’d score unfinished meals from a small Chinese restaurant or Tim Hortons. Staff regularly threw out huge bags of muffins, doughnuts and bread. I took what I could get. When you live on the street you have no choice. You have no freedom. I’d gone from one trap to another.