Birthday Pedicure

 

I get a pedicure about three times a year: once on my birthday, once when summer is beginning and my toes are about to start going naked, and once or twice on some other day when I declare myself down in the dumps. Today I got my birthday pedicure, and it was a disappointment. I didn’t get the girl I wanted, I got the mean woman instead, and I didn’t ask to wait for the girl I wanted because I don’t know her name and felt awkward about saying I’m waiting for HER and pointing like a five year old, and also the girl I wanted was doing someone else’s toes; an old lady with crazily bent toes and thick, yellow toenails . I like pedicures, but not enough to wait thirty minutes before even starting.

The mean lady is the owner I think, and I don’t know how since she’s so bad. She gave me cold water in my foot tub and seemed  annoyed that I wanted it hotter, she clipped one of my toenails crooked and used the razor thing on my heels without even asking me. I hate the razor thing, it scares me. Also, she never brought me the hot towel like the other ladies do. Plus, they were playing a soap opera on four TVs and she seemed interested in that, not my feet. (I watched for a while and was amazed that there were characters named Marlena, Beau and  Hope, so they appear to be the exact same characters, played by the same actors, as when I briefly watched that soap opera in high school IN THE LATE EIGHTIES. Even creepier, they do not seem to have aged.)

Also, the massage chair wasn’t relaxing this time, it did this thing where it jiggled my upper back violently, so in the mirror next to me I noticed that it looked very much like I was having a seizure. I couldn’t find the remote to try to change the settings, but I didn’t look very hard because of the mean lady. How can I be in my forties and still be irrationally afraid of the mean pedicure lady? (Incidentally, I am also afraid of my hairdresser, and I always tell her I love my hair even if I don’t.)

But then it occurs to me that from where she sits, literally below me and clipping toenails for twenty bucks even though she’s older than me and owns a business, maybe the only way to have a little dignity is to be kind of mean and aloof. Because maybe this was not her dream.

Years ago, I used a gift card at a very fancy spa to get a pedicure while pregnant, and the eucalyptus cream they rubbed all over my lower legs caused itchy welts that made the proprietor call an ambulance, probably so the pregnant lady wouldn’t sue him. But he was also mad at me for having an allergic reaction in the first place, and he was so mean to me, in that disdainful, Frenchy way, that I cried. This pedicure wasn’t as bad as that one, at least. At nobody had to call an ambulance. Which is really a good way to think of anything mildly disappointing.  

Magical Jumper

I have felt big my whole life. Not fat–although I have often felt fat, too–just big, like Sully the Pixar monster. I think it may have started when I was four or five and people told me I was a “big girl,” meaning grown up of course, but I took it to mean large. In elementary school, my friends happened to be a bit younger and much smaller than I, those tiny little girls with ski-jump noses and frail limbs whose doctors are forever asking if they are eating enough. I was robust and ate plenty. Also, I had an obsession with cute things–the small forest animals in my books, the small glass animals I played with and made tiny houses for, even the tiny shoes of the babies I saw at church made me swoon, and I felt enormous in comparison.

In high school and college I felt big, even though I weighed about 115 pounds. I remember wearing a size 4 pair of jeans, having gone up from a size 2, and thus thinking I should not try out for the cheerleading team. I could even do handsprings and flips, but I didn’t have the requisite cheerleader personality, and now here was another reason–I would look big in that tiny skirt. I’m sure there were actual cheerleaders on the team that weighed more than I did and were taller and more ungainly, and they looked fine to me, but when I imagined myself in that outfit I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I did not have an eating disorder, I ate plenty and didn’t think of my weight very often, I just felt mildly goofy and awkward in clothes for humans. 

But I had a magic outfit, when I was seven, and it changed everything.

It was a dress, made by my mom as most of my clothes were. She called it a jumper, and it was sort of like dressy overalls that finished out into a skirt instead of pants, and she made it out of blue velour that was sort of a cross between cobalt and turquoise. The most shocking, bright blue, velvety fabric you have ever seen, and even though an overalls-dress sounds ridiculous now, it was the height of little girl fashion at the time. I know because my mother made it from a Butterick Girls pattern and those, I felt, were very stylish. Jeniffer Connelly modeled for them, though I didn’t know her name at the time or that she would grow up to be a famous actress.

Jennifer Connelly modeling for a Simplicity pattern, circa 1975. My sister and I wanted to look like her. This is kind of like my jumper, but mine was shimmery and blue and more wonderful.

It draped beautifully and swished when I twirled and didn’t stick to my legs or tights, and the color looked great on me. People always said so when I wore it. People stared at me when I walked by, for real. There was nothing quite like it in any store I’d ever seen, and I imagined I looked like some kind of almost-royalty in it, like Sarah Crew in A Little Princess, mixed with a dash of the very sophisticated Nancy Drew, the version in the books where she is older and wears lipstick.

No outfit ever came close to that jumper in making me feel beautiful, though there were a few that made me feel sort of pretty. There was a purple sweater I wore in high school that caused a boy I liked to say, “You, um, you look, um… wow.” There was a pale blue wool jacket I wore as a newlywed that was expensive in an understated way and inspired an Italian waiter call me beautiful lady with pretty eyes, and there was a maternity dress my husband bought me because I complained when I was seven months pregnant that I had nothing to wear, and it somehow took my hilarious beach-ball body and hung in such a way as to look a tiny bit sexy. I have no idea how.

But there was never another outfit like the magical blue jumper, maybe because I was never seven again. I learned to doubt myself even when I think I look great. And this is not because of anything society has imposed on me about female beauty, this is just because of an inner voice that is analytical and critical and finds humor in everything, which also makes me a good writer, so I guess I wouldn’t give it up. I do try, though, to conjure up that feeling the blue jumper gave me; that light-as-air, pretty, not-big feeling that swooshed down me as soon as I put it on. And I hope my daughters had that feeling in some little dress from their childhood, or have that feeling in their wedding gowns and in many outfits they will wear as grown up ladies. I wish it for everyone, actually; I think we’d all be a lot nicer, a lot more benevolent and magnanimous if we felt lovely in our clothes. Not powerful, not sexy, not “on trend,” just light and air and possibility, of all that we might become.

Surviving Joshua

I once spent four days with peanut butter in my hair and cabbage in my bra, while wearing a pair of overalls made for a husky little boy. It was a bad week. But when I think of that week now, a tiny little smile always shows up at the corner of my mouth, just the tiniest of smiles, because honestly, despite the grief that smothered me like a heavy, murderous blanket, the whole event also had an I Love Lucy quality to it. I was a sad Lucille Ball, shuffling around my weird little apartment in clothes meant for a child farmer, with my hair sticking up and the leaves of a cruciferous vegetable stuck to my boobs.

In July of 1998, my baby died in utero. I have to say it that way, “my baby died,” as part of my ongoing therapy assignment (I am my own therapist) for two reasons. First because it irrationally annoys me when people die and we say they were lost, like they went to Ikea and took hours finding their way out. (This is a real issue that we need to open a national dialog about at another time.) Second, because that’s what people always say when you have a miscarriage: she lost the baby. Again, a weird little semantic difference meant to sound softer, less painful than the truth, and more acceptable in public, but instead robs the person grieving of even getting to say the terrible thing that happened. Also, I did not have a miscarriage, I had a fully formed 30 week old baby boy with a name in there, and he died because the cord was in a knot and nobody knew it. He had blond hair that stuck straight up and a round face and he could wear clothes, so that was not a miscarriage. In some ways that would be  harder than what I went through; it is hard to fully grieve for something teeny-tiny, especially if you don’t know if it was a boy or girl and may not have named it and cannot really hold it. That would be harder for some people than what happened to me, I acknowledge that.

But that is not what happened to me, and this is my story, and if modern culture has taught me anything, it’s that when people tell their sob stories, you gotta butt out and let them blab and respect it. And then you have to talk a lot about their journey, and make a big deal out of the thing that happened even if it’s not a big deal. But this kind of is.

I was twenty-six, newly married, and living in an apartment right over a massive freeway. The apartment we were renting was not the apartment we were shown when we signed the lease. Whether this was deliberate deceit on the part of the shifty lady with crooked lip liner in the leasing office or some miscommunication due to the language barrier, we do not know, but we were shown a quiet two bedroom facing East, and when we went to move in, we were shown that our key was actually to a noisy, one bedroom directly over the Capitol Beltway. And the boiler room. Meaning that for the first six months of our marriage, we were feverish and shouting and sleep deprived. It was 88 degrees in the apartment, the noise of tractor-trailers whizzing by on 495 meant we couldn’t hear each other sometimes–our pillow talk was screaming–and drifting to sleep was like trying to sleep while hovering over the Jersey Turnpike.

We were both working full time and in grad school, we both had terrible commutes, and it turns out pregnancy makes me really, really sick, like Kate Middleton gets, only she gets to be pampered when she has it and I had to wake up at 5:30 and drive an old Corolla to Rockville Maryland to teach high school girls. (They were sweet and full of concern when I periodically puked in a trash can while explaining the importance of the Magna Carta.)

When I was six months pregnant, we’d only been married about seven months, but this baby was wanted. I had maternal instincts oozing out of every pour in my twenties: I stared at babies in restaurants and named them in my head, I teared up at adorable pampers commercials, I tried to take in stray animals whenever possible. I loved my husband and our cute little life, despite the horrible apartment and old cars and bad commutes and tight budget. So this baby was anticipated and talked about and yearned for, and the nursery was decorated with denim and gigantic sunflowers. (It was still the 90s.)

And one day at about eleven in the morning, on the day of a grad school final presentation, I realized I hadn’t felt the baby kick in a couple days. I remember delivering my presentation anyway, in denial about my fear and hoping to feel the baby kick while I showed a powerpoint on Victorian realism. When it was over, the professor told me in front of everyone that the content was okay, but the delivery was a little dull, which she found “very disappointing.” I remember nodding and walking out, and that she called for me down the hallway but I kept walking, went straight to the doctor, alone, where he did an ultrasound. (I didn’t call my husband and tell him to meet me there, because if I was wrong, he’d lose time at work and I’d seem a little hysterical, and I wasn’t ready to believe I was right. Also, this was in the days before young married women made their husbands do every damn thing that has to do with child raising, including baby showers and routine OB GYN and pediatric visits, in the name of co-parenting, which I think is a stupid modern way of thinking of parenting, but that’s another article for another time.) I remember my own doctor wasn’t there, so I got the other guy, and I watched his kind face go from I’m just going to humor this worry-wart to Oh…crap… His eyes did a slow blink as his brain composed what he was going to have to tell me, and I knew. He told me it was a fluke; that I could still have other children. Unfortunately this well-meaning man chose these words to say to me: “You can try again, it’s going to be okay… we’ll get you a good one next time.”  I hope he heard the way that sounded coming out his mouth and never said that to anyone again. Ever.

I will spare you the details of the next forty-eight hours, and jump to the part where I had cabbage in my bra. But I will say this: I believe every women in the world needs either a mom or a sister or a best friend, preferably all three, but at least one of them. Because that is who you call when you are in shock or your grief is so acute that you cannot even speak and you are unable to move your limbs or function. You call the people who knew you when had braces and a crush on Ralph Macchio, the people who stayed with you when there was a really cool pool party but you had chicken pox, the people who encouraged you through that rough audition for the town musical when you were fourteen and sang Second Hand Rose and your voice cracked. I normally cringe at anything that smacks of girl power, it’s so corny and demeaning, to both women and men, but there is something to that sisterhood thing; that camaraderie in those movies about quilts and magnolias and traveling pants. There is something strong and real and tough and binding about moms and sisters and girlfriends, a bond like Navy Seals must have. So after I called my husband at work and broke him into a thousand pieces with my sobbing, I called my sister, who called my best friend, and I don’t remember anything else from that day.

I had to wait a couple days to deliver, because “the hospital schedule was real tight,” and I cried a river. I mean I literally got dehydrated and salt-deprived so I had to have an IV, and the little narrator in my head went “damn, that’s impressive.” And I will say that my sister became my hero all over again when she marched into my delivery room and took charge, insisting I get as much pain killer as I wanted, which for some reason they were being stingy with. Anything I wanted, my sister the Naval officer made it happen. And when I looked up at her and said, “I don’t think I can do this,” she leveled me with her navy blue eyes and said, “Yes. You can.” Because she knew the stupid way younger sisters believe older ones, having learned from convincing me I could lay an egg when I was five. And so I thought, “Oh, okay, I guess I can.”  

There was a funeral, and I am grateful to this day that there was. Since I was pretty much a zombie at the time, walking around with glazed eyes and only eating or showering when told to, I’d have skipped a funeral if someone had told me to. But my dad, still grieving for my mom (as was I, which is a whole other story), told me we must have a funeral, for my sake, and our kind, wonderful priest agreed. My husband had to go pick out a little coffin, a thing which I could not have done and still could not ever do, for any child, ever. But he is a Marine, so he put on his battle face and did it, and we found out it had already been paid for. By our church, meaning our priest called them up privately and said, “It’s on me,” as was the plain but lovely marble gravestone. Whatever we wanted it to say, we were to just tell the church and they took care of it.

Some things a person must do when someone has died are hard beyond hard, and associating them with a cost is repugnant–much less taking out a wallet and slapping down a credit card like you’re paying for a sweater or a cheeseburger–and so when the grieving person hears the phrase “it’s been taken care of,” it is a balm. That priest, who then gave a homily about how our little Joshua was  tiny like a sparrow, but beloved by us and by God more than sparrows or riches, and how even though he didn’t get to live on this earth he mattered so very much. He didn’t say God had a plan blah blah blah or even remind me that I’d see my son someday in Heaven, he must have known those platitudes are not especially comforting to a stunned, grieving parent. When your child has died and someone tells you God has a plan, you kind of want to say screw you, even though of course God does have a plan and probably disapproves of that phrase in general. (Be careful what you say to the bereft. When my mom–who happened to be gifted at sewing– died in an accident years before, a friend of the family told me “God needed an angel in Heaven to make clothes for all the other angels.” It was stupid–the creator of the universe couldn’t make some freaking robes himself? Did He have a factory up there? Were the wages good? And it was theologically unsound, since people do not become angels when they die. I had to cut her some slack, since she was grieving too, but when you are raw and someone tells you something stupid, it’s like lemon juice in a million paper cuts.) This priest, though, said my baby was small but he mattered, his life mattered as much as a king or a prince, and he was beloved by God and knew that we loved him. I want to find Father Stanley Krempa and thank this kind man who knew what to say, and what not to say.

But back to the cabbage.

When you have a baby and your body goes through the bizarre miracle that is producing another human, your milk comes in. Nobody thought to prepare me for this, not even a nurse. Maybe someone thought of it but didn’t have the heart to tell me. So when I woke up after that first night of sleep, it was bad enough to realize it wasn’t just a horrible dream, but I also discovered my boobs were the size and texture of cantaloupes. I got a lot of weird phone calls that day that would later strike me as funny: someone from the development office of the school I taught at, appointed to call and express sympathy for my loss and say something like “by the way we do hope you realize we cannot offer you your position back, we filled it, but maybe someday you can apply here again,” and I said thank you when what I thought was screw you; a nurse at the pediatricians’ office I had chosen for the baby, calling to say they deeply regretted my situation, and I said thank you when what I thought was you don’t even know me, and the obgyn who’d told me we’d get me a good one some day calling to ask how I was feeling. “Fine,” I told him, because I am a pleaser, “except I think there is milk or something in my boobs and I’m not sure what to do about that.” He got off the phone quickly.

It’s a catch 22, see, because if you “express” the milk with a machine, it’ll just come back like crazy, so you essentially have to wait it out, lugging around two leaky cannonballs. My doctor said one homeopathic remedy to dry up the milk is to put cabbage up against your breasts in your bra. He gave no real scientific reason for this, he even said there was no proof it would work, but he felt compelled to let me know about it, and since I was in horrible pain and my husband has the need to try to fix problems, even unfixable ones, I put cabbage leaves in my bra.  

Cabbage is itchy, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t even taste good, not even when it’s served with bourbon chicken and fried rice, but it definitely doesn’t dry up milk in your boobs. So the physical pain I was in was considerable, and my clothes didn’t fit. Not even maternity clothes, which are big around the waist but not in the boobal area. What did fit were a pair of overalls my friend Aimee brought me, which belonged to one of her brothers but she wore all the time with a tight t-shirt. It was sort of a 90s, Jennifer Aniston look when she wore them but more of a fat-lesbian- construction worker when I did.

I wore those overalls for about four days, days I barely remember. My husband took off work for three of them, and I slept a lot; we took walks and went to see movies in the middle of the day. I craved peanut butter, for some reason, a food I normally dislike, and at some point on about the fourth day I got peanut butter on the counter, bent down to pick something up and banged my head on the counter, smearing my bangs with the peanut butter. I didn’t have the energy to wash it out, and a shower would have made the milk flow freely and negate the cabbage benefits, which I was still holding out hope for. There was a knock at the apartment door; a friend had stopped by to see how I was doing. Not a really great friend, but a well-meaning, well-dressed, wife of a colleague of my husband’s who “heard about my situation.” She was holding a casserole, as one does. Chicken, as it always is. I saw her look me up and down, take in the overalls, the huge boobs and wet spots down my shirt, something gooey in my hair, and the slippers. (And she didn’t even know about the cabbage.) I saw it register that she was dealing with a crazy person here, and I saw the effort it took to compose her face into cheerful sympathy instead of horror.

I said something, she said something. I don’t remember. She asked me what I needed and I said nothing. If’ I’d had other children, maybe somebody would have made a meal train, like they did years later when my husband got deployed. If I’d had surgery or was undergoing treatments, maybe somebody would have organized rides to doctors. But I was young and healthy and, though sad and jobless and a broken, slimy mess, I was essentially okay. Nothing really to be done. So a few days later when I got home and there was a small gift bag on my doorknob containing earrings, I thought it was a mistake. Two days later, a loaf of exquisite banana bread on the doormat, and a few days later, a scarf with small pink flowers and a sympathy card that said you are stronger than you know. I don’t even wear scarves, I look like I’m auditioning for Driving Miss Daisy when I wear scarves, but I love the look and feel of them and the point is, somebody got me a present. It continued for a couple of months.

I think it was the friend of a friend who gave me the earrings, possibly the older lady in the apartment upstairs who made the banana bread. I’m not sure, and they clearly didn’t want or need to be thanked. (Which just shows you, in the case of the well-dressed colleague’s wife, that people can be really good and nice, and you shouldn’t judge them for being decked out in Lilly Pulitzer and Gucci and looking like a human country club.) And I guess my point here seems to be that we should all give presents when something has gone wrong, but what I really mean is this: Give. Don’t judge, just give. Whatever. My sister gave the gift of bossiness when I needed her to in the delivery room, and in the weeks to come when she called to make sure I’d showered that day or got a sitter to come take me to lunch. Our priest gave funds for something we didn’t have the heart or to pay for, and the exact right words to say. My friend Aimee gave the gift of showing up with overalls and making me laugh–letting me laugh at how bad this thing was that I was going through. I wanted to laugh–it was ridiculous! The grief! So, so bad, and so close to the tragic loss of my mother (see, I couldn’t even type “death,” I said “loss” after complaining about the word) that it was funny in a dark way, and Aimee got that. And some people I will never be sure of gave me earrings and banana bread and a scarf, and the gifts were like tiny shots of an antibiotic to my sadness infection.

My point is that I hope I remember to give. I’m not naturally as good at it as some people, I think because raising four kids is a constant exercise in selflessness, but I forget to give to people who don’t live in my house. But it seems to me to be what we were put here for. And also this: grief can be funny. We feel badly about that, like noticing humor in tragedy makes us kind of wicked, kind of evil and disturbed. Our culture is so judgy now, you can’t react to anything the wrong way or you’re insensitive, even your own grief. But I say embrace it. If it’s funny, laugh. If it’s doubly funny because it isn’t supposed to be, laugh harder. It’s okay. In everything there is a season, a time to laugh and a time to cry, and sometimes the seasons get all mixed up; it’s raining when there’s a blue sky, or we’re in a hurricane with the sun peeking in and surprising us all, and those are the healing moments. We should savor them.

Dorothy’s Party

 

They had chosen Kate to come get her and take her to mass, because her sons were too embarrassed to come into her room anymore. They waited in the lobby. Kate was Joe’s wife, she reminded herself. His new wife, not Catherine. She liked Catherine better. It was an unfortunate coincidence that they both were named Catherine, though the new one spelled it with a K and went by Kate. Dorothy didn’t like Kate very well, the name or the wife, though she didn’t know why. The girl was nice enough. (Well, woman, really. Kate was forty-six years old, but Dorothy never did like saying ‘woman’; it sounded sexual somehow, so she called everyone a girl until they were near her own age, and then they were a gal.)  But the name: it was pretentious; it evoked movie-star arrogance. Katherine Hepburn insisted on being called Kate, Dorothy once heard.

Kate was sent because of the one time when Dorothy had needed help in the bathroom. David and Marjorie were taking her to church; one of those Sundays where they’d called ahead and said how about we take you to mass and then to Dixon’s for brunch after, and she was supposed to be grateful. The truth was she didn’t like Saint Boniface church. She didn’t like Father Bob, who insisted on being called Father ‘Bob’ instead of Father Whatever. No one even knew his last name, and he tried to be everyone’s friend. He had a little beard that made him look like a hippie. His homilies were always about justice and mercy, and he had an i-Phone and one of those bigger thingies. He apparently even had a Facebook page, of all things, and not for the church, for himself. He shared his ‘thoughts’ on there; little witticisms and jokes that were self-deprecating on the surface but really meant to show off what a great guy he was. Dorothy had looked. Everyone thought she couldn’t use a computer but they were wrong. She just didn’t like them. Easy enough to get one of the girls to look up Facebook for her. She’d asked Tina, the little Hispanic one. She looked like a child, and she wasn’t as bossy as the others. Didn’t ask a lot of questions.

Dorothy also didn’t like going to mass with David and Marjorie because her daughter-in-law, Dorothy felt, was a prig. Marjorie was one of those women who acted just so: made meals for Christ House and had Father Bob over for dinner dutifully once a month and took Dorothy to lunch every week, bringing her the Prevail undergarments  she knew Dorothy preferred, because Belmont Ridge housekeeping staff used Depends, and Dorothy hated them. Prevails were better. Marjorie even brought Dorothy the particular brand of lemon cookies she was fond of. True, none of the boys did this, not David himself, or Joe or Jamie, but Marjorie always made Dorothy feel she was supposed to say how grateful she was for the visit and the cookies and the undergarments, which were just a precaution. And Marjorie wore a mantilla to mass. Dorothy had worn one herself in the 1950s when everybody did, but nobody wore them now, especially not at Saint Boniface where people came to mass in beach clothes and rubber shoes. Which of course was terrible, too. But Marjorie and David and their brood usually attended Saint Mary’s, where the priests went by their last names and on Fridays they even had mass the old way, with the priest facing the same way as the people. Well, she liked that better. Presumptuous, when they were turned forward. Too casual. But Marjorie was too pious. It was showy. St. Boniface was closer to Belmont Ridge, Dorothy’s home now. An upstairs room, she was quick to point out, not the first floor where they called it ‘assisted living.’ The first floor was all the droolers in wheelchairs.

Everyone was driving out for mass and brunch this time: Joe and Kate and their kids, David and Marjorie and their kids, and Jamie. Jamie would have that girl with him. That Stephanie. He would meet them there, he said, and Joe and Kate were the ones picking her up. Now Dorothy would have to sit by them in the church so they could all feel good about themselves for taking old Dorothy to mass, and then go to Dixon’s for omelets that were never all the way done in the middle; the fellow made them too fast. The bread basket was good, though. Cinnamon raisin.

Kate knocked now, and then opened the door, smiling. Why did people do that: knock, as if you had a choice, and then open the door without being told to come in? A formality, but not formal at all. Familiar. Pointless, if they weren’t even going to wait.

“Hi there,” Kate said, leaning down to kiss Dorothy’s cheek. She always said hi there, not hi mom or hello Dorothy, and always the breezy air kiss on the cheek. Dorothy knew it was because Kate didn’t know what to call her. Mom? Dorothy? Certainly not Mrs. Bowers, Kate herself was Mrs. Bowers now, too.

Kate looked pretty, actually, if a little tired. Always trying to look glamorous, that one. Soon she wouldn’t be able to pull it off anymore, Dorothy thought. Just wait. She was wearing a turquoise scarf with her jacket and her hair was down, but Dorothy looked away and heard herself say, “They brought my coffee cold, and I never even got to go to breakfast.” Kate seemed to have this effect on her; she was always complaining when Kate was around.

“Well, you can’t leave on an empty stomach,” Kate said, opening the cupboards as if she owned the place, already looking for something for Dorothy to eat. As if Dorothy would want anything in there. “You get ready and I’ll find something.”

“I can’t eat now, mass is in less than an hour and I’ll want to receive. And I am ready,” Dorothy said. She was. It was mass, not a fashion show. She was wearing her good wool skirt, too.

“Oh. Well, great!” Kate said, too brightly. Then, “Hey, why don’t you wear that green sweater we gave you for Christmas? That would go great with that skirt!”

“Fine.” Dorothy shuffled to her dresser to get the sweater, though her blouse was fine, if a little wrinkled. It looked like real silk, and it was still a nice shade of rose, though not the pink it once was. It was a perfectly good blouse; she didn’t like how Kate said the sweater would “go great” with her skirt. It wasn’t even correct grammar.

 

Joe Jr. had gotten out to open her door, smiling and giving her a good hug. “Hi, Mom,” he said, and she thought for the millionth time what a handsome man Joe turned out to be. A surprise, because he’d been an odd-looking child. Teeth too big for his face. He was turning fifty next year, but he’d stayed slim, and the gray hair looked good on him. Catherine-with-a-C was a stupid woman, to let Joe Bowers go, although he could be a bit aloof. Prickly, even, if you caught him at the wrong moment. And he was too caught up in his work; Dorothy always thought so. When his first child was born, Joe Jr. took only two days off. They didn’t have this ‘paternity leave’ back then, though they didn’t have it in Dorothy’s time, either, and she’d had four children without Joe Sr. ever having even one day off and she’d done just fine, thank you very much. But that first Catherine expected more, from day one, and Joe was always working. When the baby was two, Catherine-with-a-C put him in some silly music class where the child whacked around a tambourine or maraca, Little Maestros, it was called, and both parents were supposed to come, but Joe never wanted to. Dorothy knew this, because of the one time Catherine-with-a-C stood before her, teary, right before they’d announced to the world that their marriage had fallen apart, and asked her, “Did Joe Sr. ever come to things? You know…the kids’ things? When they were little? Because Joe never does. He says he can’t take time off during the week for things like that, and he doesn’t want to use time on Saturday for a music class for a two-year-old. As if Harper’s age were the issue.” One tear had escaped then, and she’d blown her nose loudly.

Dorothy had wanted to tell her that no, Joe Sr. never came to things like that, because she would never have expected him to, and she would never have put a two-year- old in a three-hundred dollar class just to shake around a cheap maraca. She had another child by the time Joe was two-and-a-half, and they could play in the yard with sticks for free. You could make a maraca type of thing with a jar and some rice. But she just said “those were different times,” a phrase she thought made the point without too much blame, or not enough to take issue with. The marriage ended a month later. Little Harper was so young, they thought he wouldn’t know a thing, but that child didn’t use a toilet until he was four.

That was her first grandson’s name: Harper. A last name, and not even the first Catherine’s maiden name. Not a family name of any kind, just a name they “liked the sound of.” This was back when the only people who gave their children last names were southerners using old family names, and wealthy people wanting to establish a child’s patrician roots with a first name like Anderson, Bentley, or Greer. Now everyone used last names, it meant nothing now. By now, it was probably considered lowbrow. Her grandsons were Harper, Forrester and Cole, and the girls—the girls!—were Darby and Ryan. She would never get used to Ryan for a girl, and Darby was, well, not even a name, really. Thank goodness she was a pretty child, when she was not acting sullen, or absorbed in sending messages on her phone with her thumbs.

Ten o’clock mass was packed as usual; it always amazed Dorothy that this many people showed up, the same people who just the day before got drunk or cheated on their taxes or their wives. But they came. Some of the couples who showed up were not even married, but living in sin. Like Jamie. Father Bob turned a blind eye. Though Jamie didn’t belong to this parish and probably only went to mass when he went with the family. The girl, Stephanie, wasn’t any religion at all; she had a tattoo on her ankle, and was some kind of new-age veterinarian who gave acupuncture to dogs. She adored Jamie, was always holding his hand. Sure enough, she was there, too, in a dress that precluded wearing any sort of bra. She made Dorothy nervous. Clearly it was mutual.

After mass–Father Bright, the young one–gave an earnest homily about grace, and what it lacked in substance it made up for in sincerity–they all drove to Dixon’s, where they were given the back room. Dorothy didn’t want the back room, the back room was all booths. You had to scoot in, and then ask everyone to get out if you had to use the ladies’, or else you had to ask to sit on the outside in case you need to get out, which just caused speculation. And you couldn’t hang your purse over your chair. The light was better in the front room. Why didn’t anyone care about light anymore? “What’s wrong with up here?” she asked. There were several free tables.

They all paused, looked at Joe. “C’mon, Mom,” he said, putting a long arm around her as if she were a child. “There’s more room in the back. And I think I see some people I know back there.”

Oh, wonderful. Some people he knows. From what? From his job that she still didn’t understand, selling advertising on web sites? A ‘senior manager,’ he was called, but the time she tried to call him at the office and interrupted him, she’d said she thought she would reach his secretary. He’d said he didn’t have his own secretary, exasperation in his voice. So he couldn’t be very important there. In her day, an important man had his own secretary. These friends in the back room were probably computer people or slick advertising folks. And nobody told her! She would have done her hair better. It was a little flat on one side. Maybe worn a different blouse under the green sweater. This one was fine for every day, but not to meet your son’s friends, even if they were slick computer people. There was a little bit of something on the collar, she saw now; food or make-up or something. Nobody told her. She started to say you go see the people you know, I’ll wait up here, but the waitress or hostess or whatever she was had already walked ahead, and Joe was ushering her to the back room. He could really be so pushy when he wanted to be. Just like his father, before he got sick and became a big baby again.

“SURPRISE!”

Dorothy looked around. Why, there was something going on here already. They could move to the front room. She started to turn from these people, saw the look on her son’s face: delight, with a shadow of something else over it. Hesitancy, or nausea.

“Joe?”

“Look, Mom, all your friends are here.” Dorothy turned again, aware of her easy spirits hugging the floor, making her feet heavy. What was this floor, linoleum? Slippery, and almost…magnetic, at the same time.

“See, Mom?” Joe was saying, Kate smiling by his side, David and Marjorie nodding vigorously, as if she’d said something clever. At least Marjorie had taken the lace off her head in the car. Her dress was quite nice, actually. A little too nice for Dixon’s. “See?” Joe was saying. “Penny and Stuart Miller are here! Hey Stuart!” He was looking around the room. “And Dr. Masterson and his wife, and Karen and Bob are here! And look, your friends from the old street: the Andersons, and Pete and Didi Heckman! And there’s Dutch Beckerly…everybody’s here, Mom!”

Dorothy looked around the room. Why were they all here? That was Didi Heckman, though the old neighborhood was two hours from here. Her hair looked awful, too. A bad dye job. Karen and Bob were really Joe’s friends, not hers. Why were they here? What was Dr. Masterson doing at Dixon’s? They expected her to say something.

“Oh, my!” she mustered. “What’s going on?”

There was a smattering of laughter. Joe grinned but there was that shadow again, like all the times when he was young and Joe, Sr. would tease him in that way where you didn’t know if he was kidding. If Joe brought home a B+ on a test, his father would say, “Whatsa matter, that the best you could do?” A joke, of course, a B+ was just fine. Or if one of the children made Joe Sr. a gift; a crooked clay pot or ashtray–this is back when it was okay to smoke–he’d open it and say, “What, is this all I get?” Teasing, of course, But not entirely, so the kids always looked confused. Joe looked like that now.

“Your birthday, Mom,” he said. Then, brighter: “Everybody came to celebrate your birthday!” Some clapping, a little cheer, and then both Andersons started in with Happy Birthday to Yoooooo, and everyone joined.

“Goodness, how nice!” Dorothy ventured when it was over. Kate seemed to relax a little, and they made their way to a table, Marjorie saying let’s get you off your feet. “My birthday’s not for a month or two yet…” she said, shuffling. She was aware that she was shuffling. Was it her birthday? Or, had Joe forgotten the date?

“It’s next week, Mom. We picked a day everyone could come,” Joe was saying as he scooted in her chair. It didn’t scoot well on this floor. Was it some sort of tile?

“Dorothy!” Dutch Beckerly clapped her on the back, as if she were a man, Dorothy thought. “Happy birthday, Old Gal,” he boomed, and then shuffled off the omelet bar. That was shuffling. She wasn’t that bad, she just walked slowly. Dutch looked so old! Surely she didn’t look that old. And she did not shuffle.

“May I see a menu?” she asked Joe. A reasonable request.

“Well…sure Mom. Sure. But don’t you want to talk to people? To your friends?”

She hated how he pronounced it “dontcha wanna.” He didn’t get that from her. Then Marjorie piped in, “People want to talk to you, Dorothy…” She’d appeared out of nowhere, as always.

“Well, I’d like to eat!” Dorothy said, and just at that moment, Kate appeared with plate of food from the buffet for her, setting it down with a flourish. Loaded with potatoes, just the way Dorothy liked it.

“Oh, but the buffet is expensive, and I only get the one pla–“

“Mom! The price does not matter!” Joe said, in a fierce whisper.

“No, it doesn’t matter one bit,” Kate said smoothly. “They know this is your party, Dorothy. In fact the whole thing is paid for, and you can eat one plate of food or ten. Doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it!”

As if she would eat ten plates of food.

“Heh-ey, look who’s here,” she heard David say, and she knew without looking that Karen had come. She feigned surprise anyway when Karen leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Hi, Mom. Happy early birthday.”

There was a bit of a scuttle as her brothers all looked for an empty chair to pull up to the table, as though Karen were elderly herself. Of course, she wasn’t young either. Karen was no spring chicken. She’d be, what, fifty-something now. Strange, a daughter so old. She looked good, and Dorothy meant to say so, but what came out was, “Did you come alone?”

“Yes, Mom. I am alone. Nancy’s in Florence. You have me to yourself.” Karen smiled a wry smile as she put a napkin on her lap, a nod to one of her brothers that yes, she would like the buffet, just give her a minute. They were serving her, too, but leaving distance so the two of them could talk. Dorothy remembered now that ‘Nancy’ was in Florence. She worked in international marketing, Dorothy had been told several times through the years. Whatever that was. Pretentious; she would have thought so no matter who it was. “She says to tell you happy birthday.”

“Well.” Dorothy had no response, no message to pass along to the woman who was, as she still explained to people, her daughter’s roommate. As if they were twenty-two and sharing an apartment.

The bread basket was filled again (they put other kinds of bread in there now, probably it was cheaper, everyone was cutting corners these days, but there were still two pieces of cinnamon raisin), and nearly everyone had made their way to Dorothy’s table to say hello, even Penny and Stuart Miller, who both called her Dot. Stuart was pushing a walker that was too tall for him and made him look as if he were holding the bars of a cage, and Penny was prattling on and on. As usual. Dorothy decided to sit back and watch. Dixon’s was just the same as it had always been, except for the employees. They all recognized her now, but none of them really knew her. She’d been coming here for years and there was a time when they knew her, knew Joe Sr. and that he liked his coffee with milk and she took hers black. Now they knew nothing. She supposed it was nice of the boys to give her a party. Joe’s idea, probably. David would think it cost too much, or Marjorie would anyhow, and Jamie wouldn’t have thought of it. A big heart, that one, but no foresight, none at all.

Dorothy remembered another party, the only other party given just for her. She was nineteen, but everyone thought she was twenty. Her mother, not normally a vain woman, made Dorothy rinse three times with vinegar so her hair would be shiny. Her mother had known. And in her insistence on new stockings, a vinegar rinse, there was a tacit consent given. Dorothy’s mother disapproved of Jack Campbell, for his two-tone, cap-toe shoes, the flamboyant red of his silk tie. But she was a pragmatist; Dorothy had her father’s strong nose and eyes just slightly too close together. They couldn’t afford to be too picky. Jack Campbell was a war hero, they said, and a man who liked a challenge. He didn’t mind Dorothy’s height, and he said she looked like Marie McDonald. Which she did, at a certain angle.

Dorothy stared at the people, at nothing, and let her mind turn inside to the place where it slipped sometimes now, the way your foot will slip off a curb if you aren’t careful and sometimes even if you are. Only now she let it slip there, willed it, looking around this back room at Dixon’s, smelling the burnt oil of old hash browns, until it became something else entirely, and she could hear Frankie Carle playing, smell the sweat and the punch and the Brylcreem the boys had in their hair. Jack Campbell was dancing with her, his hand  low on her back, his hips pressed against hers, even with hers, she was so tall. She’d met him there, as requested, and when she walked in the door, the band played “Happy Birthday,” and she had looked over her shoulder to see who they were playing it for. Surely not her? Jack Campbell laughed and took her hand, walked her out on the dance floor. Her birthday wasn’t until the next week, but she didn’t say so.

Jack Campbell thought she was beautiful and so she was. He had a Hudson Super 6, inherited from an uncle, parked outside. Later he would tell her the car didn’t really belong to an uncle, but to his cousin, Georgie, who died somewhere in Northern France, in something called ‘Operation Norwind.’ Such a pretty name, Dorothy thought, when so many of those things sounded ugly. Only eighteen months ago, Jack said. A great guy, but his time was up. Georgie loved that car.

He would tell her this and then wipe at his eyes with the bottoms of his palms, nearly his wrists, though his tears never spilled over, only turned his eyes a fierce blue. She’d remember that, the clumsy way he wiped at his eyes, like a school boy or a farmer. It made her feel motherly for a moment, which confused her. She knew nothing then of how you could feel different ways towards a boy, a man. But then he had shaken his head a little, as if to clear it, and smiled at her, the old Jack Campbell smile. He was talking about California now, a job waiting there for him. “Come with me, Kid,” he’d said, the emphasis on with, because he was going either way. It made Dorothy weak, how he called her ‘Kid,’ though years later when she thought of it–the rare times she allowed herself to think of it–it sounded absurd. They were in the corner, sitting out a slow dance, talking. Flirting. It was like speaking a language you weren’t entirely fluent in: you might understand the words, but only guess at the meaning.

He went on. “You’ll like it out there. Palm trees, pine trees, take your pick. Lemons. Limes, big as your fist. Year round.” He took her hand then, gently curling her fingers into a fist, then putting his hand around it. They both starred at their hands for a moment, a thing separate from them. “The ocean’s right there, blue sky, and it never rains.”

Dorothy couldn’t imagine a place where it never rained. The look Jack Campbell had in his eyes frightened her a little. He was in love with a place, and she understood in that moment that he belonged to the place more than he ever would to her, or to anyone else; that he was part of it already, and he wasn’t even there yet. Still, he wanted her to come. He didn’t say whether he meant for them to marry. She could not ask what he meant, it would reveal her uncertainty, spoil the moment somehow, the way planning the logistics of a trip spoils the daydreaming about it.

He knew anyway. He knew by the way she glanced down at her cup of punch, at the floor, instead of at him. He drew back, just barely, to look at her face, to make sure he’d seen correctly, then leaned in close again. A sigh, barely audible. His hand, still covering her fist, gave it a little squeeze as the band picked up, couples darting out to the dance floor again. A jitterbug, which the band always played when the sexual tension in the room got so thick you could feel it, taste it, suffocate in it. He didn’t lead her out to the dance floor gradually, he stood suddenly and grabbed her arm, almost shouting over the music, a sudden merriment in his voice when he said, “C’mon, Kid, let’s dance!” Shouted, really, because by then he was halfway there.

“Mom?” Karen was looking at her, the waitress holding the coffee pot over her cup. “No, thank you, I’m fine,” and the waitress disappeared. Dorothy could tell from the sharp turn of her heel and the posture of her back as she walked away that she’d been thinking ‘crazy old lady,’ or ‘boring old lady,’ or something that ended with old lady. They may have known it was her party, but they didn’t care, which was worse than not knowing. In fact the party was irritating the wait staff, it was clear.

Foot off the curb again, only it won’t go, even when she tries. But she can remember it, which isn’t the same as going back there; smelling it and tasting it and feeling nineteen, being nineteen, every sense heightened so much that she felt nearly dizzy all the time. It isn’t the same, but it’s close enough.

She remembers not just Jack Campbell, the red silk of his tie, wide-leg trousers since the war was finally over. There are other things, too: the blue of the sash on her dress the time her father took her to see Meet Me In St. Louis, the taste of the dill pickle he bought her in the lobby. The smell of starch on a hot iron,­­­­ because her apron had to be cleaned and starched every night, Boeing insisted on it. Peach pie, in the red ceramic pie dish, because company was coming. Her mother, in a rare good mood, humming the Texaco Star Theatre theme song, singing the words out loud when she got to Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief… The sum of all these things together rose up in Dorothy’s throat and drifted out in front of her, becoming a thing she could almost touch; sepia-toned, and just out of her reach. She tried to tell Karen this once, years ago, when she had had too much wine. She wanted to tell somebody, to say this is how it was. She tried to tell her about the movie and the pickle, the starch and the peach pie, those handsome Texaco men, but Karen had rather absently said, “Huh…is that movie the one with Judy Garland, with that ‘clang-clang-clang’ song in it? I always thought that one was kind of boring.” Dorothy had given up then, rolled her eyes and said, “It’s nothing you people would understand.”

Karen waited a minute, two, and then said, “We have our own things, Mom. We do.” Dorothy couldn’t imagine what they were.

Now Dorothy is looking at people moving slowly around the omelet bar, but she is seeing those couples on the dance floor. The band has picked up even more, a Lindy Hop, so one moment the girls are stomping to the music, nearly leading, nearly in charge of the whole thing, but the next minute they are crushed against the boys’ torsos, limp. The dance so violent, the boys, even the agile ones, the best ones, are heaving with the effort, and the girls’ spines seem about to snap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Certain Something

 

Debbie Simms turned fourteen the year that she got fat and fell in love with Jason Sanders and got thin again. It also happened to be the year her father died, the obvious catalyst for the weight gain, though not the crush. The crush was normal. Every girl in the eighth grade was in love with Jason Sanders. But Debbie would always think of her father’s death as separate; a thing floating near her fourteenth year but completely detached, existing in a realm exempt from the normal restrictions of space and time. Her mother, Janice, said the weight gain was hormonal, that it was her slow metabolism, that Aunt Maureen had thyroid problems, too. Aunt Maureen was three hundred pounds. Now that was fat, Debbie would think, at first, when it was only ten pounds, then twenty. But she knew she was well on her way.

It may have actually been Debbie’s hormones or slow metabolism or thyroid that betrayed her, or it may have been the Mallowmars and King Dons and Hostess fruit pies that she ate, one after the other, while she flipped between Ellen and Austin and Ally. She liked Ellen, and it was especially good if Ellen had on somebody funny, and even better if it was somebody funny or talented but also overweight. Or if she had that little girl on, Brielle, who was, like, a genius. Debbie couldn’t hate Brielle; in fact she loved her. All that bright-eyed cuteness. But even then, she flipped to Austin and Ally a lot because she was in love with Austin, the Austin of years ago when they filmed the show. He was played by Ross Lynch, who was in his twenties now, an actual adult, and not as cute as when he was seventeen. The Ross Lynch who was sixteen and who played Austin Moon was perfect. Easily the most perfect boy in the world, and way better than Brielle, no matter how cute she was.

Sometimes she also flipped the channel to a weird 90s show for kids called Power Rangers, to see what they were up to. She was pretty sure that the brown haired guy and the blond girl liked each other. She thought the show should do something with that plot but they never did, probably because the show was for little kids and all. She told herself that she would only watch for a minute, that she actually needed to relax after a long day at school, and she would watch Ellen and Austin and Ally and eat Little Debbie snack cakes, especially the pink powder puff ones that tasted like marshmallows and cotton candy together. She felt a strange significance in the fact that they were Little Debbie snack cakes, like they were made especially for her.

She had to hide the snack cake wrappers by four-fifteen to be safe, because her mom got home at four-thirty from her real estate job. She wouldn’t get in trouble, exactly, if her mom knew that she spent her baby-sitting money on her snacks, but her mom would be disappointed and give her that look, and a little talk about how they both needed to start taking walks and eating healthy. Debbie knew it made her feel better to say “we both need to…” only that was dumb because her mom was naturally thin and Debbie didn’t really want to go for walks with her anyway.

She hated that her mom’s name was Janice, that they were Debbie and Janice.  She wanted their names to be Elise and Maddie, or Diane and Caitlyn, or just about anything, but they were dumb old Debbie and Janice, which were not good enough names to be in a story or a show or movie. Her Dad’s name had been Mike, which was an acceptable name for a man, though not as good as Connor or Alex. Mike was fine, though. It didn’t embarrass her. In fact, her dad was pretty good all around, except for when he wore his Lee jeans that were too-dark blue and had a waist that was too high. She had hated those jeans. But most of the time he wore pretty good clothes and he laughed good and he didn’t embarrass her in front of her friends. Well, in front of Judy, her only main friend. Especially after she got fat.

Debbie went to the mall with Judy sometimes. She ate lunch at school with Judy, who was so small she looked like a fourth-grader and had thick glasses and carried a purse with covers that buttoned on and off. Judy had matching purse covers for all her outfits: little girl outfits, like red corduroy jumpers with strawberry appliques sewn on, with a red corduroy purse cover to match. Her mom made them. Debbie thought they were dumb and embarrassing, but it was better than eating alone and sometimes old Judy could be pretty funny. Like she would say, “if Mrs. Coakly’s bun gets any tighter, its going to pull her eyes back and she’ll look Chinese.” Then they would laugh a little and feel the cool superiority that she knew the other kids felt; the kids who sat at the big table in the back. Kids like Meredith Lancy and Jason Sanders. Sometimes Debbie laughed more than the situation called for, just so it would look like she was having a really good time with tiny, weird Judy. And it wasn’t so bad. Yeah, for a quiet little girl with dumb purse covers, Debbie thought, Judy could be pretty funny. Only she never seemed to notice the funny stuff about herself, like her stupid homemade outfits with little bumble-bees and strawberries sewn on, and her thick glasses. But they had a tacit understanding: Debbie said nothing about Judy’s clothes or resemblance to an old lady, and Judy never made fun of Debbie’s increasing size and never asked about her dad.

Mostly they talked about people in Hollywood, which Debbie was an expert on, or about Jason Sanders. Or, rather, Debbie talked and Judy ate her perfect turkey sandwiches on wheat bread with one little piece of wilting lettuce coming out the side exactly a quarter of an inch, and looked at Debbie through those huge glasses. “Specs,” Debbie’s dad had called them one time, which Debbie thought was kind of cool for a dad.

Debbie ate her snack cakes or fruit pies, or maybe one of the honey buns you could get for seventy-five cents that were so sticky you had to pull them out of the cellophane wrapper with your fingernail, and maybe part of a sloppy joe or whatever they were serving, so it wouldn’t look like she only ate sweets. She would laugh a lot and be really animated with old Judy, and talk about what actresses looked better with long hair or how she heard that Jason Sanders fooled around with Summer Banks at a party with high schoolers at it. She didn’t know if that was true or not, but she had heard it, or something pretty much like it, when she was in a stall in the girl’s bathroom and Meredith Lancy and Tiffany Peterson didn’t know she was in there. She knew Meredith and Tiffany liked Jason Sanders, just like Debbie herself liked Jason Sanders, because he was so cool he seemed much older than fourteen—almost fifteen—and she liked the way part of his hair fell over one eye. There were rumors that he drank, that his older brother got him beer and maybe other stuff, too, and that he went to high school parties and did stuff with girls. This both repulsed and fascinated Debbie and made her watch him out of the corner of her eye all the time.

Plus, Jason Sanders talked to her sometimes. Like once they were at their lockers, which were pretty close because there weren’t too many names in their class between Sanders and Simms, and his bag was in her way so she just stood there, but then he saw and said “oh, sorry,” and moved it. And another time they had to sign an attendance sheet when they had a sub in history, and he handed her the pencil that was going around and said, “here.” She had liked the way he said it, and sometimes she would think about it over and over in her head: oh, sorry and here, over and over. And she would imagine that he said other stuff, too, or that he looked out from under his hair at her and smiled, just slightly, or that they were at a dance and he was kissing her neck. She even dreamed that once: that they were at a dance or something, and Jason Sanders was kissing her neck and touching her hair, which was longer in the dream, but then all of a sudden her dad was in the dream in his green Eddie Bauer shirt saying Deb? Debbie? Wanna go with your ol’ man to the hardware store? We can get some ice-cream on the way home… but then he disappeared and she couldn’t find him, and then Jason Sanders turned into her dad only different, without one of his arms, and she woke up sweating.

Her dad died in a car accident. He was at the Billing’s house where he was doing a dry wall job. No, supervising  a dry wall job. The Billings were some rich Mormon people they sort of knew because Sarah Billings was in Debbie’s girl scout troop when they were in elementary school. Sarah was pretty and had blond hair and got good grades and was nice to Debbie, but only up to a point. Debbie decided that Sarah was of those people who was just nice enough that they could think to themselves how great they were because they were so nice. Debbie always wished she had hair like Sarah’s, though, and was annoyed and fascinated that Sarah politely refused to drink Coke or Pepsi because of her religion. But at least Sarah was only Mormon-rich, not country club rich. The kids who were country club rich had names like Cooper and Summer. They wore clothes that were nicer than the other students. Debbie couldn’t put her finger on what it was that made the clothes nicer, but the belts and things often had tiny whales on them, for some reason, and she knew they didn’t come from TJ Max and Khol’s. Sarah Billings was rich, by the looks of her house, but they didn’t belong to the country club, and she might have gotten some of her clothes from Khol’s.

It had been Saturday, so Janet and Debbie were home, and Debbie got the phone when it rang. It had been Mrs. Billings only her voice was high and pinched and breathy when she said “Debbie, get your mother…” and she was sobbing. For some reason Debbie had said, “What? Why? What’s wrong? Is my dad the— ?” But her mom, who was wiping the counter after making banana bread, suddenly seemed to know without being told that something was wrong, and her eyes got huge and scared and angry and she started screaming What?! What?! no…no…no before anyone even told her. She crumpled down on the kitchen floor when she started talking to Mrs. Billings, who must have told her that there had been an accident right out in the Billing’s driveway, and Debbie’s dad had been hit–mangled, maybe–by one of his own dry wall guys backing the truck up. Mrs. Billings probably told Debbie’s mom whatever else happened, but even now Debbie didn’t know if he was mangled or if he broke his neck or something or if the truck just hit him in the head and killed him. They thought she didn’t need to know and she never asked. The smell of bananas still made her sick.

Debbie started eating a lot right after the funeral. They were Methodist, or at least they went to a Methodist church sometimes. Debbie wasn’t really sure what Methodist was or why her parents chose that, because she knew there were some other kinds you could choose, and when the minister met with her and her mom before the funeral, he said, “now, as you know, Debbie, we Methodists believe in the communion of saints, with a small s, and the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. You can take comfort in that,” she said okay but it didn’t really make sense. She didn’t know why it mattered how you wrote anything, or what was comforting about “the life of the world to come.” They meant Heaven, and she knew all about Heaven, but it sounded boring. Harp music was annoying. So when she got home after the funeral, she ate. She ate a lot.

It was summer and she had fifty-seven dollars saved up, and she got more every Wednesday night when she babysat for the little boy down the street. Peter. He had Down’s Syndrome. He was nine but he seemed more like four, and he always had a runny nose and seemed oblivious to Debbie, just listening to his little yellow radio and swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed. His own parents smiled at that–like it was cute or something–and called him Stevie Wonder, whoever that was.  It was an okay job but  Debbie was glad she didn’t have to take him anywhere. She just watched TV and kept an eye on him and waited for her ten dollars. You could buy three boxes of snack cakes with ten dollars, or two packages of mallowmars, which had more in them. There was almost nothing better than the squish of a mallowmar when you bit through the waxy chocolate coating and through the marshmallow, and the tender snap of the graham cracker bottom. Debbie could make a package of mallowmars last a pretty long time—maybe even four days.

So by the time school started, Debbie Simms was fat. Janice took her shopping, which was one of the activities her mom liked best, because you could hide in the manufactured happiness that went with shopping. Janice would get all excited about their “girl’s day out” and chatter the whole time, and Debbie knew her mom wanted her to get excited, too, and be all into getting new outfits, and talk along the way about school and which boys she liked and who was having a party on Friday night. Like Meredith Lancy or Tiffany Peterson or even old Sarah Billings would, if they were Janice’s daughter instead. But even before she was fat, Debbie didn’t really get invited to parties, and now that she was 184 pounds, it was hard to get excited about shopping for school clothes. So Debbie coped by being sullen and only conceding to buying one pair of jeans, which she would wear with old sweatshirts. She tried for sort of a grunge look. And when her mom “treated” her to a haircut on the way home at a really nice place where they offer you tea or soda while you sit there, the lady said “Now, if we layer it through here to frame her face, it’ll really make those pretty brown eyes stand out.” Eighth-graders were not stupid; Debbie knew that was a very deliberate way of not saying anything about her weight, of trying to point out that she noticed something else. The b-word would probably think how nice a lady she was, like ohh, I was so nice to that fat girl, I complimented her eyes.

Her eyes were just boring brown and not that great.

Debbie stayed fat through the Christmas holidays, and managed to smuggle her snack cakes to Oklahoma, where her mom’s sister lived with her three bratty sons.  Janice told her it would be good for them to get away for Christmas, to a place where there weren’t so many memories of her dad, and Debbie said whatever even though she wanted to hold on to those memories like a life preserver and felt a shaky pain when she thought of leaving her own house for Christmas. But she blocked them out and went grudgingly to brown Oklahoma where it didn’t even snow and her cousins acted like she wasn’t there. The only good thing about the trip was the weird structure that traveling provided: Debbie liked airports, the necessity of having to walk down a long thing called a concourse–she liked the sound of that word–and find your gate. She was allowed to pick a magazine at the little store in the airport, and there were articles about kissing and sex in there and she felt a rush of adrenaline, reading stuff like that right next to her mom, who probably thought she was reading about new fashions or fun crafts or something. And on the plane, she could watch people as they walked by to go to the bathroom, carefully evaluating their outfits and their general attractiveness, picking out the good ones, scoffing silently at the dumb ones, and loosing herself in the bright staleness of it all. She seldom looked at her mother, who didn’t seem to feel the same odd security in airports, and wore a look of vulnerability that Debbie hated.

They came home for New Year’s, and Janice went to a party at the Billings; a grown up party so Debbie wasn’t invited, but her mom said she could come, she wasn’t a baby and they’d be happy to have her. Debbie said she had a party to go to, but she didn’t, and she couldn’t go with her mom because Sarah Billings would hear about it, though Sarah was going to Meredith Lancy’s party. Meredith’s parents were rumored to be so cool that they stayed up in their gigantic bedroom watching TV when Meredith had parties and didn’t even come down to check on people. Meredith’s parents each had their own bathroom.

Debbie didn’t want her mom to go to the Billings, who, she thought, were only inviting Janice because they felt sorry for her, so Debbie said she had a stomachache and wanted to stay home. Janice put her coat on, slowly and deliberately, and then turned to Debbie with a look Debbie had not quite seen before, and said, “Then stop eating all those sweets.” She looked like she was going to cry. Debbie slumped towards the TV.

So Debbie stayed home watching boring TV shows, and on her fourth Mallowmar, she got a bitter taste in her mouth and felt a sudden anger surge up inside her, and without thinking she crushed the sticky cookie in her hand and threw the little mess at the wall. Then she sat silent for nearly two minutes, surprised at her outburst, and went upstairs to bed, leaving the little white and brown cookie body on the floor where it fell.

Six weeks later it happened. Debbie and Judy were sitting at their lonely, wobbly lunch table when Jason Sanders himself walked up, casually, hands in his pockets and hair over one eye, and asked Debbie to the spring dance. All he said was Hey. You wanna go the dance? and Debbie could feel her heart beating in her neck, and almost turned to make sure he was talking to her. She managed a “Yeah…” and he said ‘Kay. Meet me at Meredith’s at eight on Friday and was already sauntering away before she could answer. Judy’s eyes, behind the inch-thick glasses, were as big as dinner plates.

For two days the possibilities raced through her mind. Had he secretly found her cute and attractive all year and was only now getting the courage to tell her? Was it the thirteen pounds she lost? Was it her new way of slinging her backpack over her shoulder after history class—did he suddenly think she was cool? She did feel cooler; she was starting to have…something. Not the cool confidence of the popular crowd, but the very beginnings of something she couldn’t put her finger on or words to. Just something. And her life had changed: Tiffany Peterson had even said “Hey, Deb. You can sit with us if you want” at lunch the day before. Debbie had felt a little badly about leaving Judy alone with her perfect sandwich to eat quickly and then go to the library to pretend to do research, but she had to. Judy would do the same thing if they’d invited her to the big table; everything was different now. And Janice noticed a certain openness about her daughter, who ate her salad at dinner, and not much else. It was too good to be true.

So when Friday night came, and Debbie sat in her room in her seventh outfit, her mind bubbling with possibilities about the night: a charming Jason Sanders (who looked even more like Ross Lynch in the daydream), and her future, she tried to ignore the sinking dread in her stomach when she heard an urgent knock at the door.

It was Judy, whom she hadn’t spoken to in five days, her hair stringy and damp from rain, her glasses fogging up when she came into the warm house. Part of their tacit understanding, their odd friendship, was that the two didn’t go to each other’s houses. They had not been the type of friends to do that, only necessary lunch table sharers and occasional mall companions, so when Debbie heard Janice say “Hi, honey. You’re Judy, right? Debbie’s in her room. Go on upstairs,” she was filled with rage that made her arms hurt.

“What do you want?” Debbie said. It was almost a shout.

And Judy, in a glistening red raincoat with ladybugs printed on it, took off her glasses and began to wipe them on her sweater sleeve.

“It is a joke,” she began. “This whole dance thing is just a joke. He’s going to get you to drink a lot and then he’s supposed to…you know, do stuff with you, because he bet Meredith and Tiffany and some other people that he could. He doesn’t really like you.”

Debbie’s arms really ached now.

“How do you know?” she almost yelled, her voice tight and her throat suddenly sore. She was thinking absently that she had never seen Judy with her glasses off, and that without them her eyes were very small and mole-like, and had no lashes.

“I found out from Sarah Billings. She wanted to warn you but didn’t want to tell you herself because of…everything. She was really nice about it and told me to tell you she’s really sorry. So then I spied on Jason and heard him laughing about it with some people. It’s true. It’s just a joke,” she finished matter-of-factly, putting her glasses back on.

Debbie was suddenly enraged, thinking of Judy spying on Jason for her, thinking of Sarah Billings with her sickening sweetness and perfect blond hair saying she was sorry for her, and she stood and screamed at Judy “Get out! Get out of my house! Get away from here! I don’t need you to help! I don’t need you!” And then, one last time when she could still feel Judy standing outside her closed bedroom door and heard her say through it “Debbie, you can’t actually go…” she screamed “GET OUT OF HERE!”

Janice Simms was wiping down the counter after baking for the first time since her husband died (apple muffins, not banana bread), when Debbie came down the stairs and she heard a car horn beep in the driveway. She stopped herself from asking is that what you’re wearing?  when she saw Debbie’s frayed jeans and short shirt, which was pulling so tightly across her that you could make out fat bulges pushing out under Debbie’s bra line. And she stopped herself from saying that whomever was driving the car outside—this Meredith person or her older brother or whatever—should come inside and be introduced, because she knew that kids didn’t really do that anymore.  And she stopped herself from giving Debbie a hug, or insisting she be home by eleven, or finding the cause of the look in her daughter’s eyes; the look that left Janice cold because it spoke of change and grudges and innocence that was somehow already gone. Janice ignored that. Debbie needed this, she thought. Things had been so hard, and this was better than her just eating and watching TV, and anyway, what could possibly happen? They were fourteen for goodness’ sake. Probably at the dance the boys would stand on one side and the girls on the other, too embarrassed to talk or dance, just like in her day. And maybe later, they would go to this girl’s house and watch a movie that might have some bad language or something. But that’s not so bad, really. Debbie probably heard those words before. And she needed this, this party with other kids; the beginning of a social life. At least it was…something.

“Goodbye!” she called as the door slammed, feigning cheerfulness, and turned to face an empty living room, sorry that Debbie wasn’t wearing a raincoat.

The Spectrum Club of West Jefferson High

One

The air conditioning vent was behind and above Dr. Berger’s head, so Katie could look at it instead of at the bearded school counselor who was watching her too intently. Another bonus: there was a small piece of paper wedged between the metal bars of the vent; it flapped wildly when the air conditioner came on, making a comical whizzing sound, and then went limp when the air turned off. Dr. Berger didn’t seem to notice this, but Katie watched the little piece of paper when it did its spastic, solo dance. It was surprisingly entertaining.

Outwardly, she pretended to listen, to care about what Dr. Berger was saying, her expression thoughtful one moment, earnest the next. She had perfected what she called her “session faces.” She ought to win an acting award, she thought, although nobody won acting awards for faking out a school psychologist. She wanted to like him. Katie wanted to like most people, particularly adults, and wanted them to like her. She couldn’t help it, she wasn’t one of those girls with simmering disdain for authority, one of those girls who didn’t give a rip what other people thought. She was a pleaser, she knew it, and if that made her meek or anti-feminist or something, she’d deal with that later. In college or her twenties, when she would surely be confident and passionate about things. But  Dr. Berger wasn’t even trying, and she resented him for it. He could at least try to be normal. And who decided to employ this strange, monosyllabic man with his fat fingers and beady eyes? Who decided he would be of use in a high school?

Plus, she was hungry, and the bit of the window she could see revealed a strip of turquoise sky and marshmallow clouds. A Bierstadt painting, she thought, aware that most of her peers would not think of that, would not know Bierstadt. t was a perfect, early October day, and she wanted to be out there with the sun on her shoulders, or at least at lunch. Anywhere but here.

He was asking her again about the colors, and if her difference was getting any easier to assimilate, and whether the teachers were accommodating her sufficiently. That was what he called it: her difference, something she possessed, like a ball or a cup you could hold in your hands. It must have been intentional; problem, or, worse, learning disability,  sounded more like a bag of bricks you’d drag around. Difference sounded light and special; a blessing. A golden privilege.

She was privileged, Katie knew that. She did not live in a mansion or wear designer clothes, and she went to public school, always had. Even now, despite living in a nice little suburb in close proximity to several posh private schools and only slightly less posh Catholic schools. But Katie had seen the National Geographic specials where a girl her age might already have a baby, might already be worried about how to feed it. She’d seen the commercials for End Hunger Now, the children with distended bellies and dirty fingernails, their doleful eyes pleading with the camera. She knew that the doted on only child of an American Navy Captain was among the most privileged young women in the world. Despite her clothes from Target and knock-off Uggs. Despite her mother’s coupon envelope.

She also knew that Dr. Berger’s use of big words and clinical language was intentional. He didn’t say, “How’s it going dealing with your weird color issue?” Or, “Are your teachers letting you have extra time and bring your colored pencils?” Instead he talked about assimilation, synthesizing information, and teachers accommodating her. It was both an affectation and an implicit challenge: understand me, he was saying, and of course she did, so perhaps he was complimenting her, too.

The thing is, he was weird, with his little eyes; like a mouse, she thought, or, no, a gerbil. Dark brown eyes that looked brilliant and calculating one moment, lifeless and dim the next. The gerbil effect was  magnified by the bushy beard with the streak of white running through it. Katie imagined it was white paint, or milk, dried on the coarse, wiry hairs of his beard. How could hair turn gray in a steak, like Cruella Deville? But it did, apparently.

Dr. Berger was a short, thick man who smelled like cough medicine and seemed to be lacking a neck, and when he sat down, his collar pushed into his cheeks. His jowls, Katie thought. He was not unkind to her, exactly, but he asked question after question, and then gave no reaction to her answer, except “Mmm-hmm.” He didn’t even write anything down, like a psychologist in a movie, he just sat with his small, thick hands folded as if in prayer, but with his fingers facing into his palms. It made Katie think of the little rhyme here is the church, here is the steeple, open it up, see all the people… She vaguely recalled liking that when she was very little. Or maybe she imagined she had. That moment, when you could drop your elbows and turn your fingers up to wiggle them, always a small surprise. Open it up, and they all run away. Only Dr. Berger never opened his hands, he just sat there until the period was over. She had lunch next; Wally would be waiting soon.

The minute hand on the institutional clock jerked upwards with a loud, mechanical sound, followed by “the bell.” It was not a bell at all, like at her old school, but a sustained intercom beep. Funny that someone, at some point, had decided to call it “the bell,” as if it were a pleasant sound, or as if it’s predecessor were a chime of steel on copper. But West Jefferson was a relatively new school, and there had never been an actual bell. It was just a name, based on something that didn’t exist anymore, like phones being called phones, when they were computers that could make calls.

Katie was already standing up when she saw Wally at the door, knocking with two knuckles and leaning in, which struck her as a terribly grown up gesture. Wally always came, ready to walk with her to lunch because they were going the same way anyway. She thought she saw, just for a moment, a shadow of disappointment cross Dr. Berger’s face as he said what he always, unfailingly said: “We’ll continue this next week.” Was it possible that he liked these sessions? Katie had no idea, and thinking about it was vaguely uncomfortable, so she slung her backpack over her shoulder and shot Wally a look, something between exasperated and grateful, and stepped out into the crowded hall.

*

Of the six members of the spectrum club of West Jefferson High School, Katie McDonald was, in her own opinion, the only one who was average. She was not beautiful, like Dagny and Natasha, and even Joss and Cullen. She was not ugly, like Wally, who could get away with his looks because he was brilliant and nice, and enormous. His un-handsomeness somehow suited him. She was not rich or named after somebody famous, and even her “difference,” which, last year, earned her an invitation to the spectrum club in the first place, did not set her apart. She could not instantly multiply several five digit numbers in her head, she was not a musical genius, a fabulous writer, an aspiring movie director or a science prodigy. She had never tried to invent anything in her basement or been written about in any publication. Katie didn’t have a particular talent that she knew of, and her learning difference did not give her slightly slurred speech or social problems, or enable her to do anything at all. It got in her way.

Katie saw colors. And personalities. All the time. In places where, she learned, others did not. Not in the air, but in letters and words. Letters had their own color in Katie’s mind, and objects had a rightful color even when a particular object was not the correct color. A blue table remained a blue table, though the word table was a green word in her mind, despite the letters T-A-B-L and E having their own color,  and a yellow ball was a yellow ball even if ball was red. Even worse was the fact that ball placed the letter L–an aloof, shy letter, next to a friendly A on one side and an arrogant S on the other. Numbers were similar: three and five were white and orange, respectively, but thirty-five was no color at all in Katie’s mind, possibly because she was too busy noticing that three was bubbly and exuberant, and five was quiet and  hostile; they did not get along.

It had proven particularly problematic in early elementary school, when students spent much of the day coloring and arranging things that were, in Katie’s mind, already colored. Katie had learned to read in preschool, with the help of her own picture books and a box of colored plastic magnet letters. Possibly these things forever printed her brain with what color things ought to be: it was true that BALL in One Hundred First Words! was red, and that CUP was blue, colors that Katie would forever associate with ball and cup. But she still had some of those plastic letters in a little box of toys from her early childhood; the H was yellow, which was correct for H, but the A was green, which was clearly incorrect.  In Katie’s mind, the letter A would always be red, B would forever be green, and C a pale goldenrod. Her plastic letters were not to blame for what would, years later, be diagnosed as severe synesthesia. Eventually, the guidance counselors would know that synesthesia affects one in every two-hundred-thirty-seven people, to one extent or another, causing them to unintentionally assign colors and personalities to letters and inanimate objects. But in elementary school, they knew nothing.

In Kindergarten, on a naval base in Norfolk, Katie un-learned to read, so confusing was this world of wrong-colored letters. She decided to give herself a break from the chaos of it, and temporarily ceased reading. Mrs. Camden didn’t notice, since most of the other children could not read either, and only thought Katie showed a quiet, passive-aggressive streak when it came to coloring.  Mrs. Camden had twenty-seven five-year-olds in her care and only a part-time aide, so Katie’s difficulty with colors was small potatoes.

In first grade, she had regained some of her reading ability, but she was in the low reading group and was so bored with Biscuit! books that she stared out the window much of the time. Miss Gillespie, her earnest, newly accredited teacher, thought something was a bit “off,” and talked to Katie a few decibels louder than the other students but made no other real effort to help her. Second-through-fourth grades, in San Diego, were much the same. By then Katie could read well above grade level, though her scores on standardized tests were below average, and she was prone to near paralyzing panic in situations involving math homework, particularly fractions, which placed numbers not only side-by-side but also on top of each other, in arrangements that clashed and blended, depending on their colors, lending the problem unintentional significance in the wrong places.  Coloring maps was even worse; it took all her strength to follow the directions and color California green, when the correct color in her mind was white. It felt like she was obstructing truth. It felt like a betrayal.

It was Katie’s sixth grade English teacher, at a DOD school in Naples, Italy, who first noticed Katie’s “way of thinking,” as she called it. The class was called ILA there, not English, and there had been an assignment on Johnny Tremain. Katie’s notes were left on top of her desk when the students had to suddenly go outside for a fire drill. Mrs. Houser, taking her purse out of the file cabinet and walking to the door behind her students, annoyed that her lesson had once again been interrupted just when the students seemed at least mildly interested, noticed Katie’s notes; entire sentences shaded in different colors for no apparent reason. It looked intentional, not like doodling, and in fine black pen she had written odd phrases to the side: Whigs NOT BAD–ignore mean letters. Torries liked England. Ignore R and I.

It was Mrs. Houser who would eventually encourage Katie’s parents to have her tested, an experience they all resisted. Katie imagined sitting upright in a chair with electrical wires coming out of a band around her head, her hands tied down, while a  Dr. Doofenshmirtz-like scientist cackled nearby and planned the demise of the Tri-State area. Her parents worried about the results: what would it mean? Wasn’t Katie doing just fine, getting As and a few Bs? For the McDonalds, a few Bs and that one C were better than being someone who needed to be tested. Katie’s parents were people who succeeded, and they were positive she would be, too. She was simply a late-bloomer, a sheltered, only child. Testing was not necessary. She was sort of melancholy; slumped shoulders and mild panic in her blue-gray eyes, but wasn’t everyone like this in middle school? They chuckled when they talked about it; yes, everyone was like this in middle school.

But they acquiesced, at Mrs. Houser’s near insistence. Mrs. Houser had been a formidable woman. A tiny woman, but a woman to be reckoned with. She’d have made a good admiral or general, Katy’s father said. So they had her tested, and Katie’s diagnosis of “significantly above average IQ, presence of both graphemic and ordinal-linguistic personificatory synesthesia” was something of a relief, at least to Katie herself. It confirmed what she already knew: that other people do not see  letters as having personalities and colors. Letters and numbers are, apparently, generic things that simply come together to form words or equations, and most people think of them as no color at all, or black. And this: other people do not find contradiction when two letters or numbers who do not get along must sit side by side; an arrogant R next to a shy, worried U in the word rural, for example–it was always more difficult with adjectives, since the personalities of the letters interfered with the meaning of the word—and that other people do not panic when they are told to “color Indiana blue” on a map when Indiana is pale sage green in their mind.

Briefly, she was something of a celebrity.

The next year, back in the US, there was a faculty meeting at Macarthur Middle School with an entire agenda item called Synesthesia: understanding the needs of our students, and “our students” meant Katie McDonald. She was to be given extra time on tests, something that nearly eighty percent of the student body’s IEPs entitled them to for one reason or another anyway. Most teachers simply let every single student have as much time as they wanted, even letting them take the test home to finish if necessary. But Katie was also to be allowed to use her colored pencils at any time, and to have teachers re-word test questions if anything about the phrasing was difficult for Katie to understand. She was entitled to a private tutor in any class at the location of her choice, the use of a computer at any time (no reason was given but it seemed the right thing to do), and weekly sessions with a school guidance counselor. Their good intentions were, of course, humiliating; Katie politely declined every accommodation except the use of colored pencils. She liked the smooth, shiny cylinders of color, liked how they felt in her hand.

Occasionally, a graduate student or PhD candidate arrived from the University of Virginia, or John’s Hopkins, or, once, Madison Wisconsin, and asked to have Katie be part of a study. This  meant meeting with them during school hours, under supervision of the school counselor, to be asked questions. Katie readily complied if it meant getting out of a math test, and declined if it meant missing art, her favorite subject, or social studies or chorus, her favorite classes because her friends were in them. Katie went to regular public school for seventh and eighth grade, her father having received orders to the Pentagon, and they were apparently going to stay for four or possibly six years instead of two. She prayed for six: to live in one place for six years would be heaven. To not have to pack her belongings, leave her friends and adjust to a new place; it would be almost normal. And by then she’d be in college—impossible to think of—and to come home to a place that felt like home would be exquisite.

Katie’s main friends in middle school were Abby Gately, whom she’d known when they were living on base in San Diego and then again in Naples, because Abby’s father had been stationed there too, and an assortment of other girls. They were all nice, average girls who stuck together out of a tacit understanding that they shared a similar social status (average), values (don’t be too mean, don’t act like Heather Andrews, the head of the popular group, and don’t cheat on tests), and socio-economic status (white and middle class, their parents called it, but it was really very upper-middle class and they all knew it). They went to each other’s birthday parties and dutifully hosted sleepovers and called each other for homework help when needed, but none of them seemed to be best-friends-forever, soul-mate kind of friends, and they accepted this. It was particularly true for Katie, because she’d only just gotten there in the last part of seventh grade, and was used to having temporary friends.

The summer before high school, Abby Gately’s father got orders to Guam, and the school board voted in favor of a proposal that would divide the school zone yet again, splitting Katie’s neighborhood in a seemingly zigzag line for reasons having vaguely to do with racial equality and diversity. County test scores suggested the zoning needed to be fiddled with a bit to even things up. The proposal, passing,  mandated that the left side of the zigzag would attend Sandburg High, and the right side would attend West Jefferson. (There was no East Jefferson. No one knew why.) Katie not only lost Abby, but the rest of her friend pool was drastically reduced, so on her first day at West Jefferson High School, she had the clean-slate look of a girl who was available for friendship. She knew this, and knew that it was certain social suicide unless you happened to be beautiful and extroverted, like Cassidy Miller, or downright sexy  and mysteriously introverted, like Shea Moran, or very, very cute like Megan Becker. Or, if you had total confidence in your entitlement to popularity, like Heather Andrews. In Heather’s case, very expensive clothing and accessories helped.

Having none of these, Katie adopted a look of industrious seriousness, always walking around with a book she could instantly look at,  as if she had things on her mind other than high school or friends, unconsciously hoping this look would insulate her from perceived loneliness. Freshman year was spent in one long attempt to look busy. She sat at a lunch table with Beth Peterson and a few other kids from Macarthur Middle School, who clung together that first year, masking their fear of aloneness with casual indifference to each other.

In the second week of sophomore year, at lunch time at the club fair, Katie noticed a table with SPECTRUM CLUB written in big letters on the supply room paper they all called ‘butcher paper’ even though it wasn’t. She had been told, back at Macarthur Middle School, that her synesthesia placed her “on the spectrum of Autism,” though it did not mean that she was autistic. The Spectrum, it turned out (her parents researched it), is a very nebulous thing. And Katie didn’t immediately connect “spectrum club” with the word ‘spectrum’ in that context. Her decision to casually wander by the spectrum club table had more to do with the presence behind the table of a junior named Joss Silverman. Joss lived near Katie; she had often seen him rounding the corner in his BMW, as she had just this morning while waiting for the bus. Katie hated the bus. There was something demoralizing about standing in the heat or the cold with an assortment of freshmen and a few others: the skinny girl who wore all black and picked her nose, the angry-looking boy who wore one strand of his hair braided in the back in an homage to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Salvadoran boy who carried an old battered brief case and would not speak. Her parents insisted she ride the bus freshman year so that she might make friends, and sent her out the door with a kiss on the cheek and the expectation that she do so. So Katie tried to be nice to the eclectic bunch standing grimly on the corner in the mornings, but it was impossible to make much headway, and she longed to go to school in a car. A heated, baby-blue BMW would be even better, and if it could be driven by a boy who looked like the one who drove that car, even better.

The first time she’d seen Joss driving, the year before, it occurred to Katie that a sophomore could not be driving himself to school in September unless he repeated a grade, and she mentally filed this away under “facts about Joss Silverman.” But it did nothing to diminish her fascination; Joss was beautiful. Startlingly, disarmingly beautiful. Green-flecked eyes with lashes any girl would kill for, a square jaw and perfect, never-needed-braces teeth, and the dark, shiny curls of a pop star. Now that Katie was a sophomore, he was a junior, but he looked about twenty, she thought. Maybe twenty-one.  He wore a tiny amulet of some kind on a leather string around his neck; whatever it was, it looked perfect on him, the way a hummingbird egg looks in a nest, or maybe a pearl in an oyster. Or maybe that would be gross and covered with slime, but still.

Katie had not known many boys growing up, only the sons of her parents’ friends, and Joss was a far cry from those boys. Those boys repulsed her when she was young, with their runny noses and crooked teeth, their wild laughter and their creepy songs about greasy, grimy gopher guts, their need for noise and mild violence when playing. Boys were awful, and their high school counterparts not much better. Katie knew that this was simply the genesis of males, that her own father and grandfather might have started out this way and outgrown it, but she had no frame of reference for a boy with some elegance, some class. A serious boy, whose t-shirt belied muscles underneath and had just a few hairs peeking out the neckline, which made her dizzy. So when she saw the owner of the blue BMW sitting at the “Spectrum Club” table at the activities fair, Katie casually walked by that table with what she hoped was a look of only mild interest, as if she had somewhere else to be and was only waiting. Killing time.

Joss Silverman glanced up at Katie from a worn copy of The Art of Cinematic Storytelling, and said, “Hey. Take a brochure if you want. You need to be seriously deranged to join, but we’ll consider your application,” and then he looked back down at his book. By “brochure” he meant a paper with Spectrum Club printed hastily at the top in Times New Roman–Katie had become something of an expert on fonts, and had disdain for the boring, default font of computers–and the description “We meet when we feel like it. Talk with your guidance counselor to find out if you qualify.” Nothing more.

Another, rougher voice piped in: “What my colleague means is, we’d love to have you, but you have to meet certain…qualifications. Which most people don’t. But feel free to join us if you’re able.” He smiled sheepishly and stuck out his hand.

It was an enormous junior named Wally Cooper, whom Katie knew by sight because his head stuck up about a foot above everyone else’s during passing period and she’d asked Beth Peterson, “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Wally Cooper,” Beth had said, as though she’d known him all her life. “Isn’t he huge? He’s like, an oaf.  But totally smart. Smartest guy in the school I bet.”

So Katie had some knowledge of Wally Cooper, and shook his hand with a smile that she hoped conveyed friendship and not pity. He wasn’t exactly fat, though you most certainly couldn’t say he was slim either; just wider and taller than anyone she knew, with a broad nose and an unfortunate case of acne on his cheeks and neck. She had never shaken a boy’s hand before, that she could recall. Wally was clearly being funny but the gesture still struck Katie as…mature. Suave, even. It spoke of a sophistication that this group must have, a cool sapience Katie hadn’t even known she was craving until this minute. She was so tired, suddenly, of girls who only talked about boys or bands or their hair, and boys whose idea of wit was fart jokes. Here was the beautiful Joss Silverman reading a book about film making, and the huge and brilliant Wally Cooper had used the word “colleague” and shaken her hand.

As it turned out, having a rare form of synesthesia was, indeed, “on the spectrum,” and when the club met during “activities period,” the un-inspired name given to the final hour of the day on Wednesdays, Katie went to the “guidance cluster” to see if the club of Joss Silverman and Wally Cooper was a real club. It had occurred to her that this was odd: a club dedicated to kids who…who what? Were autistic? Joss Silverman was sort of aloof, and had apparently possessed a driver’s license since tenth grade, but if he was autistic or had traits that were “on the spectrum” Katie couldn’t tell what they were. Of course, no one could tell hers, either, if they counted at all. And there was nothing autistic-seeming about Wally Cooper. It was a real club, albeit one of the more vague, purposeless ones. They weren’t putting together a yearbook or raising either money or awareness, because there was no need for money and all the members were well aware of why they were there, and didn’t particularly want others to be.  And it wasn’t a club whose main purpose was to check a box that said “well-rounded” on college applications, like debate or Model UN. This was a club you might want to leave off your college applications, which lent it some appeal for a girl who always followed the rules.

Besides the beautiful Joss, whose Tourette Syndrome may or may not have contributed to certain personality traits common in a boy his age (aloof unless particularly interested in something, prone to both sudden detachment and ‘over-focusing,’ fidgety), and the disarmingly nice Wally Cooper, there were two other old members, and two new, if Katie included herself. The old members were Dagny Brooks-Pierce, the sophomore star of both the music and theater departments, and Natasha Mori, whom Katie had never seen, or at least never noticed. Dagny had a mane of dark blond hair so thick, it really did remind Katie of a mane, and an alarmingly womanly figure for a fifteen-year-old. She seemed to be all hair and lips and boobs. That first day, Katie remembered, Dagny had been wearing a low-cut tank top and a tweed blazer, and…were those jodhpurs? It was an outfit that would have looked ridiculous on Katie but was perfection on Dagny Pierce-Brooks. Katie averted her gaze and looked helplessly at Natasha Mori, who regarded her back with cool hazel-orange eyes. Her eyes were Asian in shape, but almost literally orange, a color Katie had never seen in a human eye, and her long black hair and high cheekbones did not make Katie feel any better. There was beauty everywhere, and she nearly walked out, it was all so disconcerting. But then Joss Silverman walked in behind her, saying, “Well, look who came. Rainbow girl. The human color-wheel.” He’d been the one to read her “application,” such as it was, and the thought of Joss Silverman sitting alone somewhere–his room, maybe? A boy’s room with dark browns and pale grays, like in Pottery Barn Teen?–reading about her, made her neck flush. She stayed.

“Guys, this is Katie Something-or-other. She’s got this thing where she sees colors in letters, or numbers, or something. It’s legit. Katie, we welcome you,” Joss said with a little flourish, and then, as if he’d used all his word for the moment, he sat and bent over a notebook.

“Oh, my God. She’s adorable,” Dagny Brooks-Pierce said, flapping her hand almost spastically, motioning for Katie to sit by her on the file cabinet despite several empty chairs. Katie thought: adorable? There was a note of condescension in it. But then the immediate thought: oh, well, that’s pretty good. There was nothing else you could hope to be when up against this girl, whom Katie’s mother would call buxom, and about whom Katie’s father would only say, Yikes, or maybe she looks like trouble in a parental sort of way, and when up against this Natasha person, who looked like a princess from a far away land. ‘Adorable’ was going to have to be fine.

The other new member turned out to be Cullen Jones, who walked in with several binders, sat down heavily in a desk, and began to do what appeared to be homework from another planet. Katie noticed that his papers were covered in numbers, but with symbols and squiggles she had never seen before.

“Hey, Cullen. Going to join us this year, huh?” Wally Cooper said, and Cullen grunted in the affirmative. Everyone seemed to know him, and they smiled at him like indulgent parents.

“Cullen’s our resident math genius,” Wally said, obviously for Katie’s benefit. “I’d show you, but he doesn’t do parlor tricks.”

Cullen was a student of un-specific graduation year, because he’d arrived at West Jefferson High in fifth grade to take math courses, then continued on to college math courses in what should have been seventh grade, leaving a two year gap before he came back again as a freshman who essentially was in graduate school math. His lack of social skills and astounding mediocrity at any academic subject other than math and science prevented him from simply going to college at age fifteen, but the teachers and administrators at West Jefferson gave Cullen a wide berth. So advanced were his mathematical skills, (he’d been asked to co-author books on both string theory and quantum modular forms, and had been in Time Magazine’s ‘child prodigy’ issue), it seemed almost indecent to give him the label of “sophomore” or anything else. He was always just Cullen Jones. He, too, was beautiful, for lack of a better word. All the best physical traits of his handsome, blond father and his regal Kenyan mother had endowed Cullen with theoretical good-looks that were ethnically un-specific and very camera friendly, at least in Time. But Cullen seemed to be in a different world, and he was. He might be next to you, but far away and unresponsive. There was something about him that didn’t quite register; a failure to connect that even good looks couldn’t assuage, so the good looks were noticed and then forgotten.

So that was it. Three boys and three girls the year that Katie McDonald was a sophomore and Joss, Wally, and Natasha were juniors, and the next year, though no one knew why, they did not advertise their club in September. By then, it had become something almost sacred, though none of them would have called it that. They were just a group of friends who started as a club and became something else entirely. By then, they couldn’t really open it up to others. By then, they were, (literally, Dagny would have said as a joke, because people were always saying ‘literally’ when it wasn’t literal at all), carved in stone.

 

Books I’ve Read

I’m not sure if teenagers fall in love with books anymore, unless they are weird. The thirteen year old girls who are self-proclaimed Shakespeare lovers do (you know the type: they already pronounce theater with re at the end, they already dress like an aging librarian, their first love, at age twelve, was Mr. Darcy), but I don’t think the normal ones do. Plenty of normal kids loved Harry Potter so much they read it under the table in social studies and again–twice–over summer break, and sure, lots of millennials say Divergent and The Hunger Games changed their lives and made them want to read, but I’m talking about loving books, books written for grown ups, all books, even the ones they didn’t like.

But I did. It was the 80s, and I was a fairly normal kid; I pronounced theater normally and thought Mr. Darcy was overrated. But Lord, I loved books. I loved their look and smell and the weight of them, from the garish, brightly colored paperbacks that smelled like pharmaceuticals, to the old leather bound copies of Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo that smelled like dust and sour milk. They were my friends, my secret comrades. I loved all of them, even the ones I hated, like Catch 22 and Animal Farm. I’m not the first person to say books were my safe place, my escape from hurt feelings, boring teachers and long bus rides. They were also my way of stepping into the adult world to figure out people,  what made them love and hate and aspire, argue and despair and yearn and get married or decide not to.

I loved nonfiction too–any book really, especially if it looked old or the cover felt nice in my hands. Throughout most of ninth grade I carried around a copy of poetry by Byron (The only one I ever really read was She Walks in Beauty) and Selected Works of Galileo. I was fascinated by the stars, though not enough to actually learn about astronomy, and mainly I liked Galileo’s works because I liked the idea of being someone who carried around a book about stars. (I experimented with dark eye makeup that year, too, but it didn’t work out.) Fiction was my main obsession, though. I came home from school and went to my books (though not my school books) the way some kids in the eighties spent entire afternoons playing video games or listening to Duran Duran or talking on telephones for hours, the curly pea-green or golden cords tethering them to the wall.

I hesitate to write paragraphs about the books that moved and shaped me and taught me to think and write and be myself, because it seems a little precious. (It is not lost on me that using the word precious in this way–not as in valuable but as in affected and self-focused–is, in itself, precious. But I can’t think of another word that is right.) I was at a party last month, and I should say first that most of the guest were literary-types, and I heard someone say, “The other day while I was reading Proust…” and I thought, Lord, please let me never sound like that. But I have now had three or four friends ask me, plead with me in one case, to write about the books I have loved, as an adolescent and all the way up to now. Not in a list, but “more of an essay.”  Books that branded my brain enough that occasionally I still think of them or their main character, even if they were purchased from the checkout line of a grocery store. (I’m sure that guy who reads Proust for fun never bought a book in the checkout line at a grocery store.)

So here they are, in chronological order, meaning the order that I read them beginning at about age thirteen. What is missing are the books I loved as a very little girl, and almost any book I ever had to read for school. And of course of the ones that are here, some were deeply meaningful because I was going through something as small as a high school friend being unkind to something as large as the death of my mother. You never know with books; they are like strangers that walk across your path: sometimes you forget them immediately and sometimes you realize later that they came to save you.

I’ll begin with my Madeleine L’Engle phase, and I’m not talking about A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t even like A Wrinkle in Time, except the parts where Meg and Calvin have kind of a moment and he takes her hand. I stumbled on Madeline L’Engle when I read Ilsa (see more on that here:) and a little paperback called And Both Were Young. It was your typical lonely-girl-in-a-boarding-school story; she was misunderstood, and a boy (who was both athletic and intellectual!) came along and taught her to ski and saw her real beauty, especially when she took off her glasses (surprise!). It was an artsy, intellectual book, in a middle-school kind of way.

That book got me searching for anything by L’Engle I could get my hands on, including the series about a big family called the Austins. They were boisterous and wicked smart, and the youngest–the pretty one–was selfish and vain but they loved her anyway. The main character in these books, Vicky Austin, grew up, traveled abroad, solved mysteries and fell in love, and made all the bad choices that sometimes come with falling in love very young, if you know what I mean. That was an eyeopener at age thirteen, I can tell you. But L’Engle, with her tesseracts and regenerating starfish arms, renewed my realization that that science could be beautiful and awe-inspiring and not incongruous to literature. I asked for a telescope for Christmas  that year (and a neon yellow sweater and a Wham album on cassette). If Dava Sobel had been writing then, I’d have been her biggest fan. I picked up the Austin Chronicles recently and skimmed them, and thought the 70s intellectual element was too heavy handed, but they were great stories.

Then there was my Victorian novel phase, around age fourteen, where I reveled not only in the descriptions of the English countryside and the desperately romantic plots, but in the fact that I could actually read and understand these very grown up literary books. I purposely dropped my copy of Wuthering Heights three times in front of a substitute math teacher I had a crush on, so that he might pick it up and say “Wow, you’re reading this?” and be impressed by my maturity and sophistication. Being a math teacher, he picked it up without looking and said, “Uh, you dropped this,” until the third time when he looked at me like I had a disability of some kind, and started speaking louder whenever addressing me.

I remember liking Jane Eyre and Middlemarch around the time my family moved to a new state and I knew no one. It took me over a year to make any real friends, so I figured I might as well be a girl who drank tea after school and read Jane Eyre. But my favorite was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which taught me that the handsome men are sometimes scoundrels (this idea having not been introduced in Disney movies yet) and the nice men are sometimes weak, and basically a girl had better be smart and never fall asleep in the woods. (I had to read that part three times to make sure I understood correctly what Alec did to Tess. Could that be in a book this old?)

Then there was my southern fiction phase, beginning around age fifteen. It started with Pat Conroy, whose Prince of Tides I picked up at a bed and breakfast I stayed at with my parents. If you don’t know that book, it involves an abusive father, a suicide attempt, a rape and a tiger eating someone (at least it was the bad guy), yet it has all the lyrical language, nostalgia for the south and haunting beauty southern fiction is supposed to have. But holy cow. That one grew me up a bit.  I would not want my own daughter reading it at age fifteen, but my parents had gotten used to seeing the Victorian novels in my hand the year before and decided I had good judgement, and stopped paying any attention to what I was reading. I also read The Great Santini, which temporarily made me think all Marines were abusive jerks, until I realized that a few of my dad’s friends were Marine officers, all of them kind, funny family men. But that father character… wow. He made me think about husbands, and what to avoid. I don’t own a dog, but to this day I can’t look at a can of dog food without thinking of serving it to a person you loath and passing it off as dinner.

Thankfully, I moved on to Anne Rivers Siddons novels, still southern fiction but gentler, and with more complicated, less traumatized characters. I read every single one two or three times, beginning with either Sweetwater Creek or Nora, Nora. Siddons is famous for capturing southern, aristocratic society in the 1050s and 60s, but she’s just as good at capturing the confusion, angst and loneliness of being twelve or thirteen. Being from Colorado, I was baffled and captivated by her descriptions of the culture of Atlanta back then, and Siddons was the first to open my eyes to the civil rights movement, how that went down and what it meant to the “colored” people who lived it. I understood that her stories were fiction, and she was white, so maybe this part wasn’t quite right, or was hyperbolic or one-sided, but mostly she got it right, whereas my history textbook taught me facts, which amounted to absolutely nothing meaningful.

I still read Siddons’ older novels sometimes (the newer ones have an older-gal, chick-lit vibe I don’t care for) and they seem dated now, but they make me draw in a sharp breath of nostalgia for a time and place I never lived in. In retrospect, I see that her novels are a bit like paintings by Thomas Kinkade; real heavy handed with the brush–all those bright colors!–but your eye is sure drawn to them. They make me see all over again the bittersweet dichotomy of something–or someone–being very flawed and very beautiful. (Hey Proust-guy? I actually just said bittersweet dichotomy. But it’s not as bad as what you said.) Or even just problematic and beautiful, which pretty much sums up marriage and motherhood and parenting and parents and religion and growing old and death.

Also Southern fiction taught me it is never a good idea to fall in love with your first cousin.

Eventually I went to college and majored in history because I was afraid if I majored in English I would never get a job. I thought with history, at least I could work in a museum or go around to schools impersonating Eleanor Roosevelt or something. But I did minor in English, and I had to read a bunch of stuff I don’t remember. I think I read Homer, Milton, Donne and Goethe, and I have a vague recollection of a terrible group project wherein we acted out Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. (I can’t even remember which character I played, but I rang a bell and tried to look hungry, and there was a boy whose character, in my memory, was called Swiss Cheese. I just Googled that and it’s true, and the plot sounds horrendous.) This is to say that mostly I don’t remember the stuff I was made to read, except for the Shakespeare, which made it all worth it.

After college I found that I was a real live grown up with an apartment, and once again I could read anything I wanted. My friends were all reading John Grisham and Stephen King if they were reading at all, but by now I was an English teacher and I felt it unseemly for a teacher to walk around with a copy of The Firm or The Dead Zone. In my mind that would have been like walking around with a Danielle Steele novel. (Not walking around with a book at all wasn’t really an option. I took a book everywhere so that I could reward myself when I had to do boring things like grade papers. Three papers, one chapter. That’s how it went.) I was twenty-two and I’d had enough of old English stuff, so I picked up My Antonia, falling in love with poor Jim. Jim was good, and relatable and kind, like a pioneer version of Jim from The Office, so it was kind of like The Office meets Little House on the Prairie, though The Office wouldn’t be on TV for over a decade.

I loved Willa Cather’s descriptions; you can see the sun setting heathery-gold, and smell the wheat and sorghum fields. I was still pining for Colorado and the west in general, so after My Antonia I picked up some Edna Ferber. I will always have a deep affection for Giant and that time in the American west when everything started to change because oil was replacing cattle. Ferber’s characters, especially the father–Rock Hudson in the movie–are flawed and lovable and larger than life when they’re strong, painfully human when they’re weak, like real people. In fact if there was a Venn Diagram of books that teach you about families, fathers and daughters, America, bad boyfriends, prejudice, pride and love, Giant would hit all those marks.

Then my mom died suddenly, and I write that not to elicit pity but because when something like that happens, you can’t even go to the post office without every move you make to get there being over-drenched in meaning and pain and grief, much less read a novel. But I had to escape in novels, so I read the novel equivalent of chicken pot-pie: comforting stuff that was like a warm, fattening blanket. I read Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers about five times because my mom liked it and I remember seeing the silver and pink paperback on her nightstand. What a lovely fluff novel. Penelope Keeling is a mother figure, which I needed, and I fancied myself similar to the lovely Antonia: smart and “different” and unhappy with my blond eyelashes. Then I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was somehow comforting despite the poverty and despite all the sad, hard things that happen to Francie. She’s a fighter, and at the end when she decides to be a writer, I thought for the millionth time that’s what I would do, too (still working on it). I still think of Francie when we buy a Christmas tree every year, and when I save change in a hidden jar, and I feel like she’s still alive and out there somewhere, observing beauty.

The book that really saved me from my grief over my mom, or at least showed me that grief could actually be funny, in a way, was Lolly Winston’s Good Grief. The main character’s young husband has died of cancer and she is muddling her way through a support group with weirdos and a job she hates until she suddenly loves it. She’s an observant, sarcastic gal so I loved her and thought, “It’s okay to laugh.” By then we sort of had the internet, and some primitive Amazon search told me I might enjoy the novels of Elizabeth Berg. There has never, ever been a more spot-on suggestion to me on a shopping website; Elizabeth Berg is just amazing. She is not Willa Cather or Edna Ferber, and she doesn’t try to be, but she captures life and people in this way that is perfect and funny and heartbreaking and inspiring and comforting all at once. I guess a publisher would market it as chick-lit, but that is not being fair to the beautiful, funny writing. I can’t even write a paragraph about which one I liked best because that would be like writing about which one of my friends I like best; I can’t do it. (Wait, I totally can, but my point is they all have their strengths.) They are all so freaking readable, with characters that break  your heart while making you laugh. But if you’re going to start with one, start with We Are All Welcome Here or Dream When You’re Feeling Blue; you’ll see what I mean.

I went to graduate school and compromised slightly less than in college: I got an English degree, meaning I got to read a lot, but officially the degree was in “The Teaching of Writing and Literature,” so that I could teach again if I got desperate. I had to take a bunch of education and psych courses that I didn’t care for and don’t remember, but my English professors were marvelously accommodating. We could read whatever we wanted (!)  and then talk write about it. I remember wishing I could have gone to graduate school first, instead of college. So I read Shakespeare’s comedies, interspersed with whatever I felt like, from Catcher in the Rye to Harry Potter (the first one came out about then). (As a side note, I had two small kids by the time I was in graduate school and one professor told me to deconstruct Goodnight Moon when she noticed it fall out of my backpack, which was also my diaper bag. She was a humorless woman and I didn’t know if this was her idea of a fun challenge or a punishment for the indecency of dropping Goodnight Moon in her classroom. This was before you heard about professors saying cool things like, “Can’t find a sitter? Bring the baby to class!” I’d gotten so good at writing papers that I wrote sixteen pages on Goodnight Moon and got an A. I wish I knew where that paper was now.) But once again none of the books I read for my classes really stuck with me, because even though I chose them, it wasn’t the same; I wasn’t reading for pleasure.

In the years that I was a young mother (an identity I’m having a hard time letting go of, even though a couple of them are about to go to college), I read to get a break and go somewhere interesting, at least in my head. I read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto when my oldest was eight; I remember this because it was so good that I snuck it into the second and third graders’ spring concert at school and tried to read during the boring section of “songs from other lands.” People were openly astonished that I would do this, including my husband who knows me, so I had to put it away. It’s a weird, wonderful story I never would have thought of in a million years, and at the end it’s basically a literary thriller you can’t put down. By now we really had the internet, and Ann Patchett led me to Jane Hamilton and A Map of the World. That’s a tough one to read when you have young children but it’s beautiful and hard and deep. For whatever reason, I didn’t read anymore of her books until recently, when The Excellent Lombards came out and I read in the space of ten hours, while taking care of work and home and life too. It’s an odd sort of page-turner and a tribute to farmers and family.

Which leads me to Jane Smiley. I can’t really say when I first read Jane Smiley, but I think it was A Thousand Acres, another book about farming and family, and this one won a Pulitzer so it’s no chick-lit fluff.  I’ve been reading and re-reading her novels ever since. They are my go-to when I have to grab something to read and I don’t want to spend money on the kindle app and have no time for the library; I just grab some Jane Smiley novel I haven’t read in awhile. There was a movie of A Thousand Acres with Sissy Spacek and Michelle Pfeiffer, and it was fine if you’d never read the book, but without the omniscient narrative of the main character it fell flat. It was just people acting out a script, which wasn’t at all the same. The book was a powerful look at fathers and farming and sisters and marriage. I think there was some infidelity in there too. But the books of Smiley’s that really leave me speechless are her  Last Hundred Years trilogy, starting with Some Luck. Here is a portrait of America as big and fascinating as Ferber’s Giant;, it begins in the 1920s and takes the reader through American history in novel form, reminding me of the time my grandparents were becoming adults, then my father, then me, then my children, with all the strong wills and personality conflicts and tensions and loyalties that would be in any big family, with a gorgeous backdrop. Seriously, this trilogy needs to be a movie–this one might work as a movie– except that I can’t think of a single actor who could do Frank justice; he’s so selfish and bad, but not entirely bad. Alec Baldwin is too old and too funny, so maybe Matt Bomer. But back to the books: if I was stranded on a desert island and had to read the same three books over and over, these would at least be in the running.

Then a few years ago I went through a Kingsolver/Quindlen/Shreve phase, alternating books by the three writers until I’d read mostly everything. I think I would disagree with these women on just about every issue in the world–they have such strong, independent voices as writers, but from what I have read, all three dutifully tote the party line and have the “correct” opinions on politics–but all of them are astonishing with words and plot. Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is reminiscent of those Pat Conroy novels (the dysfunction, the childhood trauma and beauty all at once) but with dangerous African snakes and spiders, and a strong anti-Christian message, if I recall correctly. But the characters and plot hook you and suck you in and it’s useless to try to get out, and somehow it even makes you laugh sometimes. Kingsolver’s other novels, especially Flight Behavior and Prodigal Summer are like fingering some exotic and beautiful tapestry in a foreign marketplace: you don’t want to buy it, necessarily, but it’s so beautiful and you can’t stop looking at it.

Anna Quindlen has written some lovely novels; Blessings was the first one I ever read and it lived up to it’s name, so her Every Last One was a bit of a shock in terms of plot. I don’t want to give it away, but this one will make you want to keep your children home. The main character’s oldest daughter reminded me of mine, so I couldn’t shake this story for weeks after reading it, and I had trouble letting her out of my sight. But the writing is hypnotizing.

Anita Shreve captured everyone with her Oprah’s book club pick The Pilot’s Wife, but Stella Bain is wonderful (amnesia!) and my personal favorite is Light On Snow because it involves a grieving father and daughter–been there–and a baby and a young woman who isn’t what she seems. It isn’t a feel-good book, but it is. It’s redemptive somehow, and Shreve writes with an economy of words, which I have grown to admire. And after reading about Nicky Dillon and her dad, I had to go back and re-read Elizabeth Berg’s trilogy about Katie, starting with Durable Goods, one of my favorite books in the world. Yes. Read that one.

Somewhere around 2010 I was given a Kindle, and started reading anything it recommended, obeying it. I still love the feel of an actual book in my hands, but with a kindle or the app on an i-pad you can read free samples, which is a bit like going to a candy store without ever leaving home. If I had to say without thinking too much, what books I read in the last five years that I remember finishing and thinking, “Damn, that was amazing. I wish I had written it and I want to be that writer’s friend and I’ll probably read it again in a few years,” they would be, in no particular order, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon, And The Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore, and The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog.

All of those above were amazing, beautiful books. But there are three that I cannot just put on a list; it just so happens I read these three in actual book format, with pages and a spine and what-not. We are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is another one of those epic stories about America, and it is also about family and frailty and dreams you can’t quite reach but want so badly. I don’t know why this book isn’t more well known; it is important and rich and beautiful. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert was astonishing; gorgeous historical fiction that leans toward mystery. Gilbert she wrote Eat, Pray, Love, though this is nothing like that. Signature is full of adventure and horticulture, abolitionists and sailors. Just amazing. Finally, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it disappointed me only in that I loved the characters and wanted total happiness for them, but of course Doer knew better. That was the thing about this book–the beauty of it, despite all that suffering. How did he do that?

And real quick, the non-fiction: David McCullough and William Manchester. I know scholarly people scoff at them for writing history books for regular people, but that’s just because they’re jealous. When I had small kids and felt like I needed to re-grow the brain cells I lost every time I watched Barney or had a long conversation about going potty, or why goats are goats, I’d read a history book or biography. I loved being a stay-home mom, and thought I had the cutest, funniest kids in the universe (and truthfully, I did), but I needed to keep alive some small part of my brain that enjoys learning. Fiction alone couldn’t quite do it, so I alternated Manchester and McCullough. My father, I knew, liked The Last Lion books and American Caesar (about Churchill and McArthur, respectively), but the middle ages was more my cup of tea so I tried A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester made this “dark period in time” (that’s what text books always say–it was just darkness and plague and starvation with a little Church corruption thrown in) seem so alive and fascinating that I briefly (briefly!) considered going back to school to study medieval history, and The Glory and The Dream reminded me why I love American history more.

David McCullough’s John Adams makes this seemingly dull second president seem larger than life, and even–oh man I can’t believe I’m saying this–a little sexy. If you absolutely can’t read a huge book about him, watch the documentary with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. I also tried The Great Bridge (seriously, you ask? A huge history book about a bridge? Yes! It’s totally not boring!) and Mornings on Horseback, (Teddy Roosevelt–what a MAN that guy was!) and I’m about to start The Wright Brothers, having once again reached a point where I think my brain cells are dying. (The kids are older now and don’t talk about goats and going potty, but now I work in a school library where all anybody wants is Elephant and Piggy books. Makes me want to cry).

Last but not least, the three best books I’ve read in the last three months: Olive Kitteridge, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and A Man Called Ove (yes, I KNOW, I read books for older people sometimes now! So what of it?) Elizabeth Straut’s Olive Kitteridge won a Pulitzer Prize too, and in about five pages you can tell why just from the voice of Olive. The book may be fiction but it says something profound about humans and families and getting older, and Olive is funny in the way of a difficult-to-love grandmother. The same goes for Ove, and if you ever tried to read that one and put it back on the shelf, try again and give it a few more pages. It’s actually a joyful little book. I owe a debt of gratitude to my dad for giving me a copy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which involves the English countryside I’m so fond of, a guy that reminds me of my dad, and a love story that is delicate in an age when love stories never are. It’s funny and light-hearted with a below-the-surface depth and profundity, and Helen Simonson didn’t get it published until her kids were grown and she was in her forties or something, which gives me hope.

So there it is. Everything I ever read, or at least the stuff I remember. And my original point about kids not loving books anymore except the weird kids could, I think, be remedied, if we…what? Took away their phones for three hours a day–that would be a start. But it’s unfeasible and unlikely, and they’d just find something else to do. (Where I live, kids don’t even have one hour a day of unstructured time, much less three.) I swear, kids are getting dumber every year. So the weird kids out there who are reading Bronte and Hardy or Manchester and McCullough for fun will, one day, rule the world. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Love,

Paige

P.S. I never read Angela’s Ashes, I think Wally Lamb’s books are just too depressing, and The Goldfinch? I read it, it was amazing, but that part in the middle? What? And I forgot Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. Wow. I have to go look for my telescope.

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