Month: May 2014 (Page 2 of 2)

That Certain Something

Debbie Simms turned fourteen the year that her father died and she got fat. That is how she would always remember it: the year my dad died and I got fat. Her mother, Janice, said that it 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 actually have been Debbie’s hormones or slow metabolism or thyroid that let her gain the weight, 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 Degeneres and the Power Rangers. She knew that the Power Rangers was for little kids, boys, probably, and she liked Ellen better, but if Ellen had on somebody dumb or boring, like Regis Philbin or something, then she flipped to the 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 the Power Rangers 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.

Then at four, she watched Oprah on some channel that showed old ones, and hoped it was something good, like the time they had Justin Beiber on for the whole hour. But 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 Kayla and Elise, only they were dumb old Debbie and Janice. Her Dad’s name had been Mike, which was an acceptable name for a man, though not as good as  Austin 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.

She 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 this 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 old tiny 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. And they had a tacit understanding: 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 her huge glasses. And Debbie ate her snack cakes or fruit pies, or maybe one of the honey buns you could get for fifty 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. And she would laugh a lot and be really animated with old Judy, and talk about how Taylor Swift looked better with curly hair or how she heard that Jason Sanders had done things 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, and 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’d…done things with girls, (Debbie didn’t want to call it what the other girls did; it was gross), and 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 breathing on her neck. She even dreamed that once: that they were at a dance or something, and Jason Sanders was breathing on 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 Billings’ 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 “nice” and had blond hair and got good grades and was pretty nice to Debbie, but only up to a point. One of those people who was just nice enough that they could think to themselves how great they were because they were so nice to the people that other kids teased. Debbie always wished she had hair like Sarah’s, and was annoyed and fascinated that Sarah politely refused to drink Coke or Pepsi because of her religion. Even ginger ale, which doesn’t even have caffine.

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.” Nobody had ever explained that. When was it coming? So when she got home, after a small, stiff funeral in a starched little church with red, scratchy material on the benches, 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 retarded little boy down the street. Peter. He was six but he seemed more like three, and he always had a runny nose and seemed oblivious to Debbie, just listening to his little yellow Fisher-Price radio and swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed, like a crazy Stevie Wonder. 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 two whole 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 it. 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 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 make some of that weight not so noticeable.” That weight she had said, as if Debbie weren’t there. Janice closed her eyes briefly and nodded her consent, and Debbie thought she saw the spasm of pain float across her mother’s face.

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 travelling 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. Sometimes, a sterile, generic voice would get on the speaker system and Brown, Elliot Brown, please come to a white paging telephone. Miller, Doris Miller… Debbie liked listening to the names and 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.

The trip was bad, the cousins were terrible. There was a really cool one who played lacrosse, and two younger ones. The cool one, Ryland, ignored her or else walked up and asked if she wanted to play the wii or go outside and play basketball, and you could tell his mom made him ask. She tried shooting baskets and actually got a few in the net but never when Ryland was looking and he seemed bored and annoyed. The middle one was a jerk who liked to burp while trying to sing Lady Gaga lyrics, and he actually asked her what she weighed. The little one was okay; he liked to color and told her funny jokes. But she couldn’t very well hang out with him. He was, like, five.

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. 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, and anyway, Sarah was going to Meridith Lancy’s party. Meridith’s parents were rumored to be so cool that they stayed up in their gigantic bedroom watching TV when Meridith had parties and didn’t even come down to check on people. Meridith’s parents each had their own bathroom.

She didn’t want her mom to go to theBillings, who, she thought, were only inviting Janice because they felt sorry for her, so Debbie said she had a stomach ache. 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.

***

 Eight 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 he 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 eleven 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? But it didn’t matter, because her life had changed. Tiffany Peterson had even said “Hey, Deb. You can sit with us if you want…” at lunch the day before, and she did and left Judy alone with her perfect sandwich to eat quickly and then go to the library to pretend to do research. Everything was different now. And Janice noticed a certain openness about her daughter, who ate her salad at dinner. 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 sulky but charming Jason Sanders, and her future, she tried to ignore the sinking dread in her stomach when she heard an urgent knock at the door two hours earlier than her ride was supposed to come.

It was Judy, whom she hadn’t spoken to in five days, her hair stringy and damp from rain and her glasses white with steam from 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?” she said.

And Judy, in a red rain coat that a six-year-old would wear, 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 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. She looked like a different person.

“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 niceness and perfect 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 your 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 making bread for the first time since her husband died, (pumpkin, not banana, but it was a start), 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-thirty, or finding the cause of the look in her daughter’s eyes; the look that left Janice cold because it spoke of an innocence about to be lost.  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 not even fifteen 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 needed this. At least it was…something.

“Goodbye!” she called as the door slammed, feigning cheerfulness, and turned to face an empty living room, only sorry that Debbie had no raincoat.

Swim

I started this manuscript when I was twenty-two, living alone in a teeny efficiency apartment and teaching high school. Trying to be a grown up. It was really just a kernel of a young-adult novel until over a decade later, when I really was a grown up, and had known what it is to lose someone and then–because what choice do you have?– move on. This novel is so full of personal references that those of you who know me might find it comical. But Elsie is not me, she is completely fictional, and the ending may surprise you. The prologue and first chapter are below–still hoping to get this one published so that’s all I’ve put here–and though it may seem melancholy at first, I think the story, on the whole, is funny, and real, and redemptive. A grown man I know who shall remain nameless and doesn’t even like fiction read the whole thing and told me the ending made him cry. In a good way. Biggest compliment I ever got.

It was just a neighborhood swimming pool with a chain link fence surrounding it, and a vending machine that was always out of everything but ancient Now ’n’ Laters. There was an aging deep-freezer that the owner filled with ice pops that he bought for twelve cents a piece and sold for fifty, and a plastic recipe card box at the sign-in desk where a sullen teenager was supposed to look up each member’s card by last name and make a check mark. To call it a “country club” or, as it said on the sign, “Wessex County Swimming and Diving Club” was like calling a Chihuahua “Spike” or “Goliath.” Whoever named it must have gone in to real estate, a profession where you are supposed to take a little rectangle house with crumbling bricks and call it a “gorgeous all-brick colonial.” Everyone called it “the club.” The grown-ups must have understood that originally it was a joke. The kids just called it ‘the club’ because the grown-ups did.
When I was six I was dared to jump off of the high dive at the club on a summer day when everyone was out of popsicle money and ideas. It was in the deep end of the pool and had a big sign that read Children Under Fifteen Not Permitted. The sign was occasionally ignored because we all understood the age requirement to be arbitrary. We knew thirteen and fourteen-year- olds who had jumped off, but never in the history of the pool had a six year old done it. I had been dared by Libby Parker, a twelve-year-old who had it in for me; I don’t remember why. That is one of the mysteries of childhood: what your brain chooses to remember, and how your brain chooses to remember. In my memory, Libby Parker was big and mean and hated me, so she dared me to jump off a diving board that was fifty feet up in the air. It was probably only fifteen feet, and Libby Parker probably felt nothing for me but vague superiority, because she was older. People talked about that dare for years, and in the story, I was the victim and the hero. I was only six, and small. No one expected me to actually do it, and nobody liked Libby Parker much.
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to jump. It had been a boring summer; I was restless and I wanted, suddenly and with all my heart, to do something big. Something important. So I watched the lifeguard, and waited for her to run her fingers through her hair. This was a sure sign that one of the boy lifeguards was about to walk by and she wouldn’t be paying attention to the pool. I climbed the long ladder to the high dive. By the time the lifeguard noticed me, and began pointing and blowing her whistle, I was at the top. I watched her adjust her swimming suit and hair as she started my way, and I remember thinking that even now, when I was about to do something dangerous and against the rules, even now she was taking time to adjust her swimming suit and hair so she would look good. Maybe most six-year-olds would not notice this, but I did, and it made me mad. It gave me disdain for her; she did not care enough about my safety. Which gave me courage. So I jumped, arms crossed and feet down, because that’s how divers did it on Oceans: Creatures of the Deep; either backwards, off the side of their boat, or arms crossed and feet first.
I don’t remember much about the fall, but I remember the sound of the smack of my own body, and the climb upward through the water, silent and graceful and other-worldly, into life. I wanted to do it again. I wanted to feel the power I had over my circumstances. I wanted to feel like I could control something. Even then, at age six. Almost like I was preparing myself for some unknown struggle, like the sand turtles on Animal Kingdom who start running for the ocean as soon as they hatch, practicing the turtle-marathon they will determine whether they live or die. I was practicing, for something more than swimming, or swimming on a team. Something that might save my life.
I like being prepared. But I have learned that you can’t control anything. The best you can do is put your limbs down and your head up, and let the water take you. 

Chapter 1: Macaroni Necklaces

By the time I was ten I had made a vow: if I ever have a kid, I will give him or her a normal name. Even a boring name. I will not name my child after me: Elspeth, the most awkward name I have heard to date, other than joke-names. (My aunt went to high school with a girl named Crystal Leer, and it was rumored that her middle name was Chanda.)
I wouldn’t mind keeping my last name: Robertson. It’s a good last name. It’s a Scottish clan name. My dad is completely American, and even his grandparents were born here, but he is so proud of his Scottish heritage that he saddled his baby girl with an ugly Scottish name. The Robertson clan, he has told us and everyone else, is the “oldest remaining branch of the house of Atholl, which occupied the throne of Scotland in the 11th and 12th centuries.” He jokes that he is actually a forgotten king, and I am a princess, and that somewhere in the Scottish highlands, there is a castle, and it is ours; all we have to do is claim it. It evokes vague memories of every princess novel I ever read when I was twelve; every story about an orphan girl who is actually the daughter of royalty, or a royal daughter who longs to be penniless but free.
Elsepth is the Celtic version of Elizabeth, but spelled and pronounced with as little charm as possible. On the first day of school every year, on every team and at every camp or summer class I’ve ever taken, I am the kid who has the weird name.
People assume the spelling is a mistake; that Elspeth is not actually a name. Or that it is an old lady name. An old lady who plays bingo and has gray hair in tight curls.  Or the name of one of the witches in Macbeth, who watches the boiling pot and warns about toil and trouble.
My nickname, Ellie, is all right. People assume it is short for Eleanor, which is certainly not my dream name, but it’s better than Elspeth.  I’d love to have a name like Rachel or Alexis or even Elizabeth, spelled normally. My parents felt that my name had character, a quality of utmost importance to them. I may wind up in therapy for having such a weird name, but I’ll have character. My brother, Danny, did better in the name department. There is a Scottish version of Daniel, too, but for some reason they chose the Anglo-Saxon one. My parents had this idea that a strong woman, a woman of substance and character, needed and deserved a strong name. And by ‘strong’ they meant God-awful, apparently.
Daniel is a normal, solid name. Even cool. And Danny himself was cool, mainly because he did not try to be. My memory of him is blurry. He died when I was seven; almost a decade ago. He was ten; he had been at a birthday party, and was being driven home from a sports center by the uncle of the kid whose birthday it was. This is all I know, because this is all the information a seven-year-old is given: there was a terrible accident. It was not the uncle’s fault. It was a tractor-trailer that got out of control, because the driver had been driving for two days straight and was sleepy. Danny died right away; he did not feel any pain and he was not scared. This is what they told me. I have now been alive over two years longer without him than I was with him, and I have never asked to know more. They did not say how they knew he did not feel any pain. Sometimes I allow my mind to go there; to wonder if he really did feel pain, for a second or two. Or if he knew he was going to die and if he thought “oh, bummer, I had a soccer game tomorrow” or “Ellie will sure be sad.” They did not say what he thought when he saw that truck coming at them because of course nobody would ever know. And they did not say “he never got to say good-bye” because it was so obvious.
When I was five or six and he was eight or nine, I used to try to dislike my brother occasionally. I just felt I should dislike him, at least sometimes, because I perceived that other girls do not like brothers. My friends at the time hated their brothers, or at least disliked them enough to be able to roll their eyes and say, “I hate my brother” with venom I could never muster. Crissy Matthews’ brother called her ‘butt-face’ and broke her model of the Eiffel Tower, and broke the lock on her diary to read it. Tori Peterson’s brother ignored her, played video games all day, and would never even look her in the eye, much less talk to her. It made me feel sorry for her, even though she had a T.V. in her room and a doll called ‘Little Cathy Cut n; Curl.’ I was too old for dolls, but Little Cathy had hair that actually grew; you turned a crank on her back and the hair came out of the top, and you could give her hair cuts until the hair was gone, and then buy re-fills. I wanted that doll so badly that I dreampt up elaborate fantasies wherein I found the doll at a garage sale, brand new, for only a dollar, so my mom caved in and bought her for me.  My mom was known to do rash things at garage sales and I knew it. Not that spending a dollar is rash, but I thought it was when I was five.
I remember being five; what it was like and what I wished for and what I thought. People say you can’t remember much about being this young, but I do. It is my gift. Some people are born to solve math problems; I have a killer memory.
Tori Peterson, a neighbor I sometimes played with who was already precocious  also had her own pair of white, leather ankle boots with fringe around the tops. I would have given up birthday presents and Christmas presents for a year if I could have just had boots like that. I didn’t even bother asking, because my parents were the type of people to buy one pair of sensible brown school shoes, and black Mary-Janes for dressing up. Tori Peterson had everything she wanted, but I felt luckier than her in one way: her brother wouldn’t even look at her. She hid his Gameboy once, just to get him to pay attention to her. He screamed at her with a rage that even I knew was disproportionate to the crime.
I knew I could not muster hate for my brother—hate was a sin that could send you to Hell forever, or at least to Purgatory, where you would float around in nothingness. So I tried occasionally just to dislike Danny. It was impossible. He was likeable. He enlisted me as his helper in building forts out of chairs and pillows; he invented games with the sugar packets on the table when we were waiting for our food at a restaurant. He created comic strips about a potato/knight he called “Sir Spud.”  He told fabulous jokes at dinner, from books he would get at the library or make up. Jokes that even made my parents laugh. He would walk into the kitchen, get an apple, and grab my arms or my mom’s and do a little dance with one of us for a minute, and then bite the apple and walk out. He was always smiling.

Here is my main memory of Danny; the one I play in my head sometimes like a movie you watch over and over when you are bored: it is Halloween, I am five and I have come home from school crying because I didn’t win a best-costume ribbon in the contest at school. I am a pirate and Danny is an astronaut. I wanted to be “Mickey and Clyde” with him. They are puppets on a popular show for kids. But Danny said, nicely, they were babyish and he wouldn’t be Mickey or Clyde, because he was going to be an astronaut. So I am a pirate and my mother has made me an outfit using old corduroys and different colored socks, bandannas and an eye patch. It is wonderful, until the teacher says Well, what have we here? A little girl Pirate?  I hadn’t thought about being a “‘little girl pirate”, I only wanted to be a pirate. I answer yes… and Mrs. Randolph says You have no hat! All pirates have hats.  Why don’t you go to the craft corner and see if you can make yourself a hat with some construction paper?  I know suddenly that she is trying to keep my busy in the craft corner during “centers time” so she can focus on some other, needier kid. I have grown up all at once: I see that my teacher is trying to get rid of me, because I am an easy child and not a difficult one, and I do not want a hat, and I do not know how to make one, and I know that I will not win the contest.
Later, at home, Danny is wearing a second place ribbon for his astronaut costume, which he’d made himself with a white ski suit and a football helmet and tinfoil because my mom wouldn’t let him wear a fishbowl on his head. He sees that I am upset: Oh, well, he says, the fourth grade had their contest first, and since I won, they couldn’t let you win for the first grade.  They have this rule about not letting kids from the same families both win, because they say it…wouldn’t be fair.  My dumb teacher just forgot to wait for the kindergarten contest, or you would have won and not me.  You would have at least gotten second, because your costume is one of the best in the school. Everyone said so.  Next year I’ll just make sure your class goes before mine…
He is the savior of my pride and my five-year-old ego. Of course there never was a rule about kids from the same families. It was the only kind of lie he ever told. We stayed up eating our loot and watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! My parents have always been nostalgic about the little bald kid in the zig-zag shirt and the rest of the “peanuts gang.” I am not sure why; he is an odd, sad kid, but the Halloween episode is good, and it turned out to be a perfect Halloween.
We moved away fromColorado; away from mountains and pine trees, where you can see the tops of snow covered mountains, where the sky is turquoise, and even the dirt smells good. We moved to a “gorgeous all brick colonial” inVirginia, where my dad could be the lawyer for a very big company that makes missiles.  All big companies have some lawyers to advise them, research issues, and things like that.  He used to be the kind of lawyer who stands in a courtroom and defends people, but he stopped after Danny died. He said he just didn’t have the fire in him anymore. It is a nice house, and the brick was only crumbling a little.
Northern Virginia is not even the pretty part of Virginia. There are no mountains, the heat in the summer makes you feel like you’re going to pass out, and nobody wears cowboy boots unless it is some sort of weird fashion statement. Here, in fact, cowboy boots on a girl look trashy: the remake of Footloose gone wrong. There are plenty of horses in Virginia, but no cowboys. The people who ride horses in Virginia wear English riding boots and blazers, like artwork that involves hunting dogs. Their horses have names that are not names but several words: ‘Fog on the Hillside’ or something. I wonder: do they call the horse by this name when they feed it? Hey there, Fog- On-the Hillside. That’s a good girl…
       There are mountains in Virginia, too, but they are just pretty, rolling hills: nothing tall and jagged and snow-capped.
The only good thing about moving was being nearer to my aunt Catherine. Aunt Catherine lives Maryland, so close to the part of Virginia we live in that you can be there in forty minutes. She is like a character in a book: the funny, loving, wise-cracking aunt that I admire so much I can sort of feel it in my chest. Everyone admires Aunt Catherine. She is a food critic for Washingtonian magazine: she goes to restaurants and gets served the very best things on the menu and then writes about them for the magazine. The chefs and managers and owners of the restaurants are terrified of her, although my parents said she is never cruel in her reviews. But she is honest. And if the food is bad, or even so-so, she will say so in a way that is blunt and eloquent. So eloquent it is painful. Once she described her main course as “a tiny lamb chop, so underdone I felt compelled to revive it, served vertically on a bed of gluey polenta, all tiny enough to feed a small family of fairies, or possibly provide them shelter.”
It made her famous. Small portions went out of style, and were referred to as “fairy food” by some chefs. Serving food vertically went out of style, too. At least that’s what my dad told me. But that was a decade ago. Now small portions are back in, especially if you can serve several of them and call them tappas, and charge more.
Aunt Catherine has fiery red hair, always worn up, and freckles across her nose even though she is fifty. She is prone to wearing those huge scarf things wrapped around her shoulders and arms, old-lady-diva style, but somehow she is sort of sexy. I don’t get it, but I adore her. She is a little bit famous in some circles; being the niece of Catherine Robertson-Doyle is fun at restaurants, even though nobody my own age knows who she is.
Moving nearer to Aunt Catherine was a good thing. She and my uncle Leo show up at my birthday dinners and on holidays and sometimes for no reason at all. Leo is a grizzled old man who is somehow handsome anyway. He wears cashmere sweaters and two-tone shoes, and has written five books on military history. He was friends with Perry Como, an old singer who isn’t even alive any more. But this was the only good thing about moving. We suddenly lived near the two people who make everything fun, relaxed and normal.
The main thing I remember my mom saying over and over about our new house when we first moved to Virginia was The floors! The floors! What beautiful floors! Like she’d been waiting her whole life to have floors like this. Hard wood floors, in a dark honey color. They are actually called “hard wood,” as if some people have soft wood floors. She loved those floors and all I could think was they are just floors, and I hate it here, and I want my brother back and my life back. But to them it was a pretty house, with a nice fireplace and new windows (another thing adults love in a house) and a two car garage. The kitchen sink is big and white; it is called a farmhouse sink, and my mother loves it like nobody ought to love a sink.
The house also has “Williamsburg blue” shutters on the windows; they are somewhere between blue and gray, exactly like the sky in Northern Virginia. Flat, with no depth. But to my parents, it was a perfect house, a house where we could have a wonderful life and heal. At least, that’s what they told me in the days surrounding our move “out east.” When we got here, some people called it “the South,” because it is Virginia, and some people called it “Washington” because we are near D.C. People who live around Richmond, the really Southern part where everyone has an accent and a truck, call it “Northern Virginia,” because to them it is the North: it might was well be Boston. I never got used to living in a place with so many different identities. It might as well be nowhere.
I have gotten used to the house and the boring shutters. When I was ten, we painted my room  the exact shade of blue that I love; the color was called “periwinkle dreams.” It’s funny, like Fog-On-The-Hillside, but a great color. The yard is beautiful, with a little garden in the back that my dad works on in every season but winter, and a rose garden in the front that my mom loves. The neighbors are even nice: an old couple, the deRosas, who take a walk every single night holding hands, and a military family with twin boys who are about twelve by now—the kind of boys who fight like crazy, pounding each other with their fists and shoving each other every second but then straightening up and calling their parents “Sir” and “Ma’am.” They play basketball in their driveway every minute and you get the feeling that even though they fight, they will be good friends their whole lives.
Then there are the Millers, a couple in their early thirties with a little girl named Audrey. I’ve been baby-sitting for Audrey since she was a baby and I was twelve; her mom, Jennifer, started letting me “watch the baby” while she was home, watching me so carefully it made me get nervous headaches. She paid me, but acted like she was doing me a favor, letting me watch her baby so she could “get something done.” Jennifer is nice, but a control freak who worried every single second about what Audrey was doing: was that toy safe? Was Audrey hungry and was it an okay time to feed her? Was that little outfit she was wearing made of organic cotton? Was she sleepy or cranky or off  schedule? She always seemed to think I would feed Audrey glue, or let her fall asleep face down on a pillow or something.
Audrey is five now and I love her, despite her mom. She is smarter than I think other five-year-olds must be, with light brown hair cut short, and big blue eyes. She likes to make “pixie houses” out of leaves and grass and loves to play games, and knows not to tell her mom if I happen to let her eat something with corn syrup in it when I am baby-sitting. She draws me little pictures for Christmas and my birthday.
We did get better, my parents and I. We healed, all of us, or healed enough to laugh and to act normal and be normal on the surface. But having someone in your family die leaves you with a big fat scar, just as if you had an operation. Or an amputation. Only the scar is invisible. It doesn’t hurt anymore after a while, but it is there.
Every now and then, something will happen that reminds me of macaroni necklaces. What I mean is this: when Danny was little, he went to day camp in the summer; some sort of nature camp. They went on hikes and did crafts and basically waited until it was time for their parents to pick them up. Most of the moms put their kids in there because both parents had to work. Our mom put Danny in there because she thought he would like it. She was always doing things like that.
There was one year where I was old enough for the camp and Danny wasn’t too old yet, and we did it together. We were in different groups, because we were different ages, but sometimes the groups would overlap at an activity and one time Danny and I had craft time together, and the craft was making necklaces out of yarn and raw macaroni, painted and strung onto the yarn.
It was boring. It was pointless, because only the very youngest kids were going to actually wear their macaroni necklace for more than about an hour. I was in the youngest group and even I didn’t really like it. But Danny came up to me because the bigger kids were supposed to help, and he told me this way of doing the necklace where you think of something exciting for red, something annoying for blue, something funny for yellow and something mysterious for green, or something like that. He made it really fun. For his first example for an annoying thing, he whispered “Blue: making necklaces out of macaroni at a nature camp. There is no macaroni in nature. Green: the mysterious smell coming from that guy’s shoes…” He was always thinking of smart, older-kid things like that. It made me giggle and it made me proud to be in on his joke. I actually kept my necklace from that year, and I still have it.
Danny outgrew the camp, and a couple of years later he died. Then we moved. And a year or two later, my mom signed me up for a camp in the summer; a different camp in a different state, years later. The first day, there is some kind of craft time and the counselor takes out a piece of yarn and the macaroni and starts to tell us how to paint it and let it dry and string it on the yarn, and what fun it will be. Just when I think everything is starting to get better. Suddenly I want to just curl up in a ball right there under that picnic table and go to sleep.

It has been almost ten years now. But I still have moments like that.

Cardenio and the Warbler

This little story started in a park in 2010. I was watching my kids play, I was warm in the sun and a little bored, and I had a notebook with me. The evening before, my husband had made a reference to Shakespeare’s “lost plays,” and I didn’t know what he was talking about. I should mention here that my husband is the creator of Open Source Shakespeare, and in the years he has been maintaining it, we have both learned a lot. I had a Master’s in English and had even lived in England, studying Shakespeare in London, but I’d never heard of the lost plays. He’d told me about how Shakespeare may have written a couple plays that have disappeared, and I was fascinated.

In the park the next day, I was still thinking about it, the way that you watch a really good, complicated movie and then think about it for a few days. A story line came to me about four kids who find something that may be a piece of one of these lost plays.  Before we left the park, I’d scribbled down the characters’ names and rough plot line in my little spiral, and the rest is history. The first chapter, in the voice of the oldest sibling, Kolbe, is here. If you like what you read, buy the book on Amazon.com!

Chapter 1

Kolbe

 The sun comes through my window at about six-thirty most days, and sneaks through the space where the window shade doesn’t lay flat against the window. Even on cloudy days, some light comes in and lands on my face, or makes a stripe across the bed sheets. Sometimes it’s a bright ray, with those little dust dots floating in it. Sometimes, I can tell it’s morning only because there is a change in the color of the light seeping into the room; from near-black to grayish blue. And then: gold. Pale, warm gold, like honey on a plate.  It’s my favorite way to wake up. I’d rather wake up a little early to the light coming in than wake up to an alarm, or somebody coming in to shake me.

I’ll lay there for a while, thinking of almost nothing. I can hear Mom telling the others be quiet, Kolbe needs his sleep, like I’m sick. I’m not sick. I needed my sleep more when I was playing lacrosse or basketball, practicing for three hours every day and tired all the time. I don’t know why I need my sleep now, but when she says that, they all hush up. Even Maggie. At least for a few minutes Maggs will be quiet, until she wants Eli to play dolls with her. Then I’ll hear her whining Eeeeeee-liiiiiieee! Come ON! Or she’ll say his whole name in her grown up voice, trying to sound like Mom or Dad: Elijah Harris, you SAID you’d play dolls with me! Then I usually get up and go down there. They all still act weird around me, too. Like I’m a guest, or like I’m famous or something. They all focus on me too much. If Rachel gets a glass of water or a snack, no one notices, but if I do it, everyone watches and Mom will say something like getting a snack, Sweetie? Oh that’s good…

I still have homework, even though it’s summer. That’s how the teachers decided I’d be allowed to graduate from tenth grade and move on to eleventh, even though I missed almost two months of school; they gave me a bunch of lame homework. It’s all busy work—like work sheets with algebra problems we did in early February, or questions from the history book from the chapter on “Reconstruction.” Mr. Harper gave me the study questions from the end of the book, with an answer key. They’re all going easy on me; It’s so obvious. I guess I should be grateful but it just makes me feel pathetic. It’s my foot that got crushed, not my frontal lobe. Jeez. But I guess it’s better than if the homework were really hard.

Today I went downstairs and for once, nobody said a fake-cheerful good-morning! because today they were arguing about something. It was the good kind of arguing, more like excited discussing. Mom only looked up and smiled at me, interrupting Dad long enough to tell me there’s two fried eggs for you in the pan, still warm, if you want them.

Dad was saying I don’t think I can leave that soon and Mom said just meet us there and Dad said it might make sense to have two cars there, in case one of them needed to drive back, and Mom said it would be nicer if we all went in one car. She said if we’re really going to do this thing, we should do it right and something about how we need to commit to at least six weeks.

I stood there with my eggs, and I was about to interrupt, to say what are we even talking about here? Instead Rachel interrupted. Wait! She said, and they both got quiet because that’s what we always do for Rachel, since she was little and couldn’t talk very well. What, Honey? Mom said, trying to be patient, and Rachel said the piano there isn’t any good, and Mom said we can have it tuned, and that’s when I knew where they meant we might be going for six weeks: my Granddad’s house on Tilghman Island. It’s not an island like in the Bahamas or the Caribbean; palm trees and coconuts and miles of sand. It’s a little piece of the Eastern shore of Maryland, with scrubby little bushes and rocky, narrow beaches. The kind of beach where you can’t walk barefoot or you’ll need a first- aid kit; the kind of beach where blue herons stand for hours in the brushes because nobody is there to scare them away. The whole island is…beige. And gray. Like a black and white picture. It’s the kind of place a person would go to disappear.

Tilghman Island is also only three hours away, but we’ve never gone for the whole summer because of  sports, Rachel’s piano lessons, and Dad’s work. Now my parents seemed to be seriously talking about staying away all summer and all of a sudden I didn’t want to go. I don’t even know why. I knew in a split second that if I’d thought of it, it might have seemed like a good idea, but here they were, all talking about it without me, like it didn’t matter what I thought. But I also knew, in that same split second, that we were going anyway. They would say it matters what I think, but it doesn’t.  I am the patient now; this all somehow for me, and, like a sick patient, they think I don’t know what’s best for me. So I didn’t just lose my foot, I lost my right to an opinion, too. So I just poured some cereal and went up to my room with it and slammed the door.

The Stand Mixer

Three years ago, I had more counter space. The counter wasn’t that big to begin with, and now roughly a fifth of it is taken up by a state of the art stand mixer in stainless steel, which is supposed to make me a better mother.

Most people would call it a “Kitchen Aid,” in the way that a copier is called a Xerox machine even when it’s not; the way a soda was a Coke, where I grew up, even when it was Sprite. But my mixer is not a Kitchen Aid, because my husband got gift subscriptions to both Consumer Reports and Cook’s Illustrated years ago and now he’s hooked on both. And so, in an effort to please me and validate my role as a mother and nurturer, and because of his deep belief that one cannot truly embrace an art without the right tools, he got me the mixer that is ranked the best overall by both publications; best for making breads and cakes of all kinds as well as mixed meat dishes.

I am not bothered by the nature of the gift. I like practical things. And this was something I had been wanting for roughly five years, while he wanted a food processor. Nearly every recipe in modern cook books—and by that I mean anything published after about 1990—begins with in the bowl of your stand mixer… or in the bowl of a food processor… because it is a given that anyone who really cares about cooking has these things. The budget and counter-top precluded getting both. So when he surprised me with this Cuisinart mixer for our tenth anniversary, it was a good thing; romantic, even. A gesture of surrender. It said “your cooking and baking needs are more important than my hobby.” I felt touched and victorious.

Roughly the size of a Toyota 4Runner, this mixer can do it all. The bowl has a 5.5-quart capacity, it comes with four attachments, and the top flips open so you can add a meat grinding attachment. There are ten speeds on the dial and a separate button for “fold,” and a digital clock and timer that supposedly can be pre-set to mix while I’m away.

The day I got the gift, I used it to make a cake, meatloaf, and blueberry muffins. Here is the thing: it bugged me. The paddle didn’t–still doesn’t–reach down to the bottom of the bowl, so you have to detach the bowl and use a spatula periodically anyway. If the batter is thick, it all gets stuck in the paddle. It’s loud, so I can’t use it when our toddler is asleep, which is often when I want to use it. And I got to thinking: it may be ranked best in function, but it looks like an aircraft carrier. Plus, I’m not going to grind my own meat. And why on earth would I mix batter while I’m away?

I started thinking of metaphors.  My prayer life is like this mixer. I keep looking for something that will make my prayer life better; some tool, albeit a spiritual one. I grew up Protestant, so I’m still more comfortable with free-form prayer. My evangelical friends’ prayers are of the casual, me-and-God-are-pals variety, which start off something like Hey, God? I just wanna thank you for this awesome day, man, and for giving us Jesus for our friend and brother… I like the familiarity, but I think the language of prayer ought to reflect the depth and richness of the faith; I’m not comfortable using the same banter with God as I do with Dave at the filling station.

On the other hand, many Catholics seem to think that prayer, or at least public prayer, is a quick Hail Mary, rattled off so fast that fruit of thy womb sounds like fruit of the loom, and without much sincerity. A friend of my daughter’s said “HailMaryfullagrace, the Lord is witty…” until she was twelve and no one corrected her. And there are Catholics who think that a “real” prayer has to include “thy” and “unto” and sound like St. Augustine himself thought of it. Which is intimidating. So I tried getting into contemplative prayer, because the name appealed to me. Maybe this was a solution, a sort of modern style, but sanctioned by the Church. It is similar to meditation, in that you empty out your mind of everything and repeat a word or phrase over and over in order to come closer to God. Very Eat, Pray, Love. Turns out it is frowned on in some circles, and only recommended if you do it right, otherwise it can lead to a sort of new-age-ish emptiness.

Finally, I gave up. I recently sat down to pray a little in the morning, because my day was not going so well, and I ended my little prayer with “oh, and God? Teach me to pray better.” The answer came loud and clear and instantly. God does not usually send me memos so quickly; usually he gives me a little time to search for the truth, wait for His will, come closer to Him, and figure things out in good time. But this time the answer was instant: I opened my eyes and the first thing I saw was a soccer cleat, muddy and left in the living room. A Nike soccer cleat. That little swish instantly triggered God’s truth in my head: Just Do It. I really believe it was God talking to me. He was saying Stop thinking about it so much and just DO it. Pray more. Pray now. Pray again in a little while. Just do it. Do it the way you’ve always done it; you don’t need anything fancy or new to help. Just do it. And soon you will do it better.

I thought I would return the mixer. The store had a happiness guaranteed or your money back policy. I thought I’d use it a few times just to be able to say I gave it the old college try, and then take it back. So I made pumpkin bread; four loaves of pumpkin bread at the same time, and my arm didn’t get sore from all the mixing. In fact, I left the room at one point to help somebody with pre-algebra, and it kept mixing, and turned itself off so as not to over-mix. I kept it a while, and in that time, everyone living in this house outgrew napping anyway. And it’s really not that loud; not really. And aircraft carriers do have a certain powerful beauty.

It has been a few years now, and I can’t imagine not having a stand mixer. So no, you don’t need fancy machines to do what you can do yourself; you certainly don’t need anything fancy to pray. But if there was some way to get the spiritual pay-off of hours of prayer but only pray for a few minutes, it would be tempting. Really tempting.

Four loaves of pumpkin bread at the same time. I’m just saying.

Sasha of the White Boots

She had a pair of white leather boots with fringe around the top, and she wore eye shadow. We were in seventh grade. I was twelve and she was thirteen and a half; it was enough to endow her with mystery and charisma by itself, but the boots and the swagger cinched it.

We lived in a small town in Colorado, where the houses were set far back from the streets and into the mountain, everyone had four-wheel drive, and some of my classmates lived thirty minutes away. Sahsa Winters moved into a rental house within walking distance from mine, just over the hill, around an enormous boulder we called “the thinking rock,” and down a little dirt path. The little house was low to the ground and had a sloping roof and one window, and changed tenants every six months or so. In November, when she showed up in Mrs. Jeffery’s seventh-grade homeroom with her flame red hair, olive skin and high cheekbones, wearing those amazing boots, it was all the girls talked about. A couple days later, when I’d taken my blue diary with a silver key to the thinking rock, probably to write about how badly I wanted a puppy or my unrequited crush on John Lambert, I heard a girl yelling at someone, “Move your ass!” I looked through the aspen trees to see Sasha kick the tire of an old jeep as it pulled, screeching, out of what passed for a driveway. She turned and our eyes met. I froze. I didn’t know any other girls who used the word “ass,” especially directed at someone old enough to drive. Possibly even a parent. I could see that it was the mysterious, beautiful new girl from school, and she was walking toward me.

“Hey,” she said, folding her arms over her chest. Her right hip swung out when she did this, a gesture that was both juvenile and womanly but seemed unconscious.

“Hey,” I croaked, pulling my diary closer to me to hide it. It had butterflies with little smiling faces on it, and My Dairy printed at the top. I had liked it until this moment, when it suddenly seemed ridiculous.

Sasha jerked her chin up at me, almost imperceptibly. “Whacha doin? Writing somethin?”

“Um, yeah. Just…a journal sort of thing.”

“Huh. That’s cool,” she said. She kicked at a rock for a moment. She was wearing the white boots again, those beautiful soft leather boots with the swishy fringe. If I owned those boots, I thought, I’d never kick at the dirt. I’d keep them perfect. I’d wipe them down every night with whatever you wipe leather down with, and walk gently at all times. She looked up, tossed her wavy red hair behind her and said, “You wanna come over?”

Thus began my friendship with Sasha Winters, the most fascinating girl in the seventh grade. I sat on the single bar stool at the peeling counter in her kitchen, and she sat in a tattered arm chair eating potato chips, though it was nearly dinner time. We talked until she looked bored, and I said I’d better be getting home. Her house had green shag carpet and dark paneling and smelled like cigarettes, but because it was hers and so different from my own, I found it thrilling.

Sasha didn’t come to school every day, and when she missed a day and was asked where she was, she would shrug and say she took a day off. Surprisingly, the teachers never pressed her for more information. She was so good at math, she could do the class work in half the time it took the rest of us, though she never seemed to pay attention. When Mrs. Jeffery tried to stump her by putting a problem on the board from the back of the book, the part with long algebra equations, Sasha sauntered up and did the equation with bored indifference, getting the right answer. And when our language arts teacher once said, “Sasha, can I see you at my desk, please?” Sasha barely lifted her eyes from her notebook, where she was doodling a picture of a girl standing on a rock, her wild hair blowing in the wind, and said, “Just a sec.” The room went silent. It was public school in the 1980s, hardly a bastion of deference and respect for authority, yet there was something about the way she said it: just a sec; as though they were peers. As though she were doing Mrs. Davis a favor. More amazingly: Mrs. Davis waited. There was a flash of shock or annoyance in her eyes for a split second, but she waited.

Sasha’s jeans were tight and her hair was so long it grazed the bottom of the back pockets on her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. She wore no makeup except a fat Bonnie Bell lip gloss in strawberry surprise, which she applied often and violently. Everything else, she did with a kind of slow, deliberate ennui. And though she wouldn’t lower herself to having a best friend, or doing any of the other things seventh grade girls did–wearing friendship pins on the laces of their sneakers, giggling about boys, singing the refrain of Peter Cetera songs in groups at recess for no apparent reason–she seemed to have chosen me for her one friend. I was her sidekick and lunch table companion, and it was a role for one. By unspoken agreement, I gave up my other friends, for the most part, even Susan Peters, my best friend since second grade. At the beginning, Susan once said, “Why do you like her?” “She’s interesting,” I said. “She’s really smart.” Susan was smart, too; it must have stung. I couldn’t say, I don’t know. She’s cool. She makes everyone else seem boring. But I thought it.

“Well, I don’t like her,” Susan said. “Her hair is greasy. She won’t talk to most of the girls in the class; it’s snotty. And I think she’s poor.” “Her hair is not greasy,” I said. “And she’s not poor. Her parents are…artists or something.”

I had never actually met Sasha’s parents; they were never home. I imagined they were artists because the house smelled like cigarettes and the green shag carpet struck me as bohemian, though I didn’t know that word yet. Usually no one was home at Sasha’s house, except the man in his twenties who came and went, sullen and silent, except to tell Sasha to do this or that small chore. I had no brothers, but this was within the range of behavior for brothers, or step brothers who fell within that murky no-man’s-land between teen and grown-up.

My own parents were charmingly pleased, in a detached sort of way, that I had a friend and classmate just a short walk away. Playing with Susan and Tracy and my other friends required our mothers to coordinate the driving. My mother was glad I often went to Sasha’s house now, and often told me to ask her home for dinner. I never did. By some tacit understanding, we always hung out at her house, and I did not include her in my family life, the way I had with Susan and the others. She wouldn’t have wanted to eat dinner with my parents and sister, talk about her own parents and what her favorite subject was. Sasha was somehow above all that.

She did come over once, on a rainy late afternoon when the wind was whipping the pine trees around. It was not the kind of weather to be out in and my mother fussed over her at the front door, taking her coat and hurrying her into the foyer, offering her something warm to drink. Sasha mumbled something about needing to look at my geography book, and we hung out for a couple hours. She borrowed my Roses & Romance nail polish and painted her fingernails in stripes and polka dots. I had never seen anyone do that before. “Is anyone home at your house?” I ventured. I thought maybe she was getting bored. She looked at me strangely for a second, then said, “Just Derek. He’s in a foul mood.” So, he had a name. Derek. It suited him. Maybe he was yelling, and she wanted to get away. I was flattered she’d chosen my house, though there was really nowhere else she could go on foot. Hesitatingly, I asked her if she wanted to eat dinner with us. Maybe she heard the insincerity in my voice; she blew on her nails a few times and said she had to go home. She never asked to see my geography book.

Months went by, and my mother did eventually register some concern. Why did Sasha never come over here? Why had I not seen Susan in a while? What was Sasha’s mother’s name, again? I had no idea. She was casual in the way she asked, but I knew it was now on her agenda to find these things out. For a week, Sasha and I continued to sit together at lunch, go to her house on the days when I didn’t have choir practice or a piano lesson. We’d flip through magazines and talk idly about the pictures. Sasha had a tattered spiral notebook she kept under her mattress. She never let me look at it, and once when she was in the bathroom I pulled it out quickly and opened it. Her loopy, childish cursive covered each page with what appeared to be poetry. Sad, strange poetry, with titles like “Smash the Glass” and “Obsidian.” I didn’t know what the word meant. Some were less dark; one of them went The moon was high, the wind was warm, I  drank the tears of the summer storm… I heard the bathroom door open and hurriedly stuck it back under the mattress.

In April, just as the grass was peaking up through the crusty, melting snow, I went to Sasha’s house. She hadn’t been at school, and I was curious. She was alone, taking clothes out of her little cardboard dresser, piling random objects into the boxes on the floor.

“We’re moving,” she said.

“Oh,” said. “Where?” I tried to sound casual.

“I dunno. Durango, maybe. Derek thinks it’s cool there.”

“Oh,” I said. I couldn’t imagine why Derek’s opinion mattered that much. Just then he opened the front door and yelled, “Sasha, hurry up already! I’m freezing my ass off out here!” She rolled her eyes elaborately.

“Nice brother,” I said. Sasha went to the small closet–it had no door but she’d hung a sheet across it like a curtain–and pulled out a shoe box, laid it carefully on top of some clothes.

She laughed. “Derek? He’s not my brother. We’re married.” She turned and began to take down the closet curtain. “Help me,” she said.

“You’re…married?” I said. She only nodded.

I didn’t ask any more. My mind was reeling; inside I did an enormous double take and felt the sting of shock, but I quickly stifled it. I filed away this information with other things I once thought were true but turned out not to be: koalas are not actually bears, the moon does not get bigger and smaller. Apparently, people did not have to be adults to be married.

“When are you leaving?” I asked. Sasha shrugged. A couple days, she said, but she never came back to school. She was gone the next day, and if anyone knew where, I never heard about it. I never told anyone what she’d said, either, but I am convinced it was true. I don’t know what state she’d been married in, or with whose permission, or what she was escaping that made her do it. Maybe she loved him, or thought she did. Maybe she was forced, or felt forced. She never seemed particularly happy, but few girls do when they are fifteen. We’re married, she said. Then: Help me. Did she mean just with the curtain?

I never really said goodbye, just see ya, as usual, as I headed home. I ran all the way this time; the sudden, exuberant run that children break into for no reason. I ran into a small branch of a pine bough that scratched my cheek a little. It stung, and the pain felt oddly good. I burst through the door to my own house breathless and windblown.

“Oh, good, you’re home,” my mother said as she took pork chops out of the oven. “Susan called. She’s having trouble with the social studies homework. You’d better call her back.”
I took the stairs two at a time to the phone in my bedroom, with the selfish relief of someone who has seen someone else’s boat capsize in a storm. I smelled the pork chops and laid my head down on my old Holly Hobby pillow, looked up at my blue canopy bed. Relieved.

I have thought of Sasha Winters many times since then, and once heard some eighth grade boys talking about her. My brother heard the weirdest thing about that girl–he heard she was, like, married. The other boys laughed. I’d marry her one of them said. That girl was HOT. It was all anyone ever said about her.

I wonder now, why I didn’t tell my mother, and what would have happened if I had. Maybe I knew my mom would make a big deal out of it; social workers would be called, Sasha brought in for embarrassing, personal questioning. Maybe I thought Sasha was too good for all that, or maybe I thought she’d blame me, hate me. But maybe she was waiting for me to tell. Deep down, hoping I would. I wonder what damage I might have caused by not knowing until it was nearly too late, and not telling when I could have, even after the fact. Maybe I’d have done more harm than good; I’ll never know.
Help me, she had said. I am ashamed that what bothers me is not that I could have saved her, but that I’ll never know if she wanted to be saved.

For Goodness’ Sake

I wrote this for a contest in Real Simple a year ago, and then forgot to send it. The question was: when did you truly know you were a grown-up? This is a tribute to my mom.

My grandmother stood by a window in her retirement community, on the assisted living floor, her gnarled hands clutching her walker. Yes, tennis balls on the bottom, and yes, a little calico bag on the front to hold magazines she could no longer read. She was wearing a floral summer skirt with plaid winter pants underneath, a green woolen blazer that had been her father’s, and her pajama top. The nurses had given up telling Dorothy Rinehart what to wear. She’d been waiting for me, like so many other “white heads,” as she called them (though her own hair was white as snow), who were waiting for a visitor, or else for the shuttle bus that would take them to the drug store.

When I came inside, she clutched my still-young hand in her freakishly strong one, and immediately began to tell me how her room was too cold and the food was terrible and the nurses were stealing from her. Specifically, her bras. She was convinced that the nurses in this lovely, expensive retirement community were stealing her underwear and bras. Probably wearing them when they went “out on the town.” I listened, because I’d learned that trying to make her see things as they really were was pointless, and all she really needed was somebody she trusted to listen. Eventually, she would let out a big sigh and change the subject.

But on this Saturday in September, she did not change the subject. To my horror, she cried. She’d never done that before. And they weren’t the tears of a senile old lady, confused or tearing up about stolen brassieres: for a moment, she was completely lucid. “I miss her so much,” she said. She was talking about my mother, who had died two years before in an accident. She’d been hit by a bus; all the more horrific because it was so Chaplinesque; the way a minor character dies in a bad comedy. My mom was only 54, and she was vacationing with my father. It was sudden, tragic, and as devastating as anything could possibly be for our family.

That is why, on a beautiful fall Saturday when I didn’t have to be at work, I was at a nursing home, where I would listen to my grandma talk for a while, then take her out for lunch, and return to her apartment to clean up and check her supply of Depends. My sister and I did this every weekend, because my mom couldn’t. We also went to see my now-single dad more; left soups and casseroles in his fridge, dropped in on him at work, and called him every single night.

My grandma and I talked for a while about my mom; about what a “character” she was. Our perspectives were so different: my grandma spoke of how my mom had been so mischievous as a girl; how she could outrun all the boys, how she was a better dancer than “all of them,” even little Nancy Spencer, who’d had lessons. And how brave she’d been to marry my father, a weapons officer on his way to his second tour inVietnam, and

how strong she’d been when I’d had terrible asthma as a child. (It was the ’70s. There was some talk of having me live in a bubble, literally, to which my mother said something like Oh, fiddlesticks! I’ll have her get some exercise and learn to play a wind instrument, and she’ll be fine. And I was.)

Mostly I listened, assimilating this version of my mother into the one I had of the feisty, funny secretary who loved her morning coffee, sang too loudly in church, sewed every school play costume I ever wore (as well as my clothes, until sixth grade, when I begged her to stop), played a fabulous game of racquetball, and was my biggest fan. I still missed her, too, and wore a blanket of grief around my shoulders constantly. Back then it was so heavy, I could scarcely lift my head.

After a while, I noticed that we were still inside. An hour had passed, and it was beautiful outside. “C’mon, Grandma,” I said. “For goodness’ sake, come outside and get some sunshine.” That was it: my moment. I knew absolutely, right then and there, that I was a grown up. I was twenty-seven and married with a baby on the way. By all rights I had been an adult for several years. But the prosperity of our culture allows most of us an extended adolescence, in which we work and play and decide what we want to become, and until my mother’s death I was in that miasma of my twenties. I did not realize I’d become an adult until I uttered the same words my mom used often on my sister and me, when some childhood drama had upset us. She’d let us have a good cry or tantrum, and then she’d say for goodness’ sake, come outside and get some sunshine. If it wasn’t sunny, she’d say for goodness’ sake, dry your eyes and help me with the salad, or for goodness’ sake, let’s bake some bread.

She really believed in this force called Goodness. She believed in God, too, but more apparent to me was her belief in noticing what is good and pointing it out for others, especially others who were hurting. It didn’t matter if it was a childhood pain or an adult pain. I can remember her comforting a neighbor I played with, Libby Landry, when her Easy-Bake Oven broke and we all knew that her parents could not afford to replace it. I can remember her comforting another neighbor, years later, when she’d just heard her husband’s diagnosis of cancer. There was the time I didn’t get the part of Daisy Mae in my high-school production of “Lil’ Abner,” the time I didn’t get the teaching job that a fancy private school had all but promised me, and all the less-than-perfect grades, deceased pets, and unrequited crushes in between.

My mom was a comforter, always pointing her friends and neighbors toward what was good or might offer them hope or comfort: a cup of tea, a walk in the fresh air, the comfort of some tangible act of labor like baking bread. It wasn’t in the absent there, there way of a stout English nanny or a character in a Rosemund Pilcher novel, either; her advice was that of a true friend who sees you are drowning in quicksand, and doesn’t say take it easy, but instead says I’ll get a rope. I learned to say For goodness’ sake… so well that I could say it to myself, speaking in the royal “we.” It served me well when I lost the baby, when I was home with two babies only a year apart, when my husband left me eight months pregnant with a fourth baby to go fight in a war, and many times since. To be able to get up, to breathe, to put one foot in front of the other and do some small thing, and eventually to reach out to others, is a life-preserver in a storm.

That was my mom’s legacy to me: that belief in moving forward; in going out into the sunshine for the sake of its goodness and for goodness’ sake. Stuff happens. Life hurts. You grieve, you mourn, you shout or rail against the heavens, but then, when you are a grown up, you step out of yourself and serve others in any little old way you are able. You drag them out into the sunshine, and if you cannot say Follow me, you say, C’mon, we will do this together.

So as I let my grandma take my arm (my mother taught me that, too: you never take an old person’s arm, you let them take yours), and walked slowly with her out into the fall air, I knew I had crossed that threshold into the land of grown-ups. A land where you try—you at least try, for goodness’ sake—to put others before yourself. A land where you notice the small, good things. Sunsets. Brisk walks in the fresh air. The deep purple of a perfect eggplant, even if you don’t especially like eggplant. The sturdy legs of toddlers, holding their mother’s hand; your own kids laughing. Homemade bread. You notice them, and you try to help others see them too. I was a little sorry to have left the land of childhood, but I would do okay here. I had a good teacher.

 

 

Victoria and Jane

Victoria and Jane lived in the same neighborhood
on the very same street,
just three houses apart.

They were very
best
friends.

Victoria’s room was purple and red,
her two favorite colors,
but she called them violet and crimson.

Victoria had a whole trunk full of dress-up clothes:
ball gowns
and capes
and wings,
and a tiara with genuine rhinestones.

Victoria liked to play pirates,
or ship-wrecked-in-the-jungle,
and she liked to make up plays where she was the princess,
being rescued from a tower on a cliff.

She liked to have leftover lasagna for breakfast, and her mother sometimes let her.
On her peanut butter sandwiches,Victoria liked apricot jelly,
or bananas and honey,
or marshmallow fluff,
or raisins made into a happy face.

She also liked five-alarm chili, and Aunt Sissy’s Cajun jambalaya with sausage,
and coconut macaroons,
and she liked her soda as fizzy as possible.
Victoria liked to swing on her tree swing standing up, and ride her purple bicycle no-hands
while trying to count to ten without wobbling.

At singing time at school,
Victoria liked to sing loud, and see how many people noticed.

Mrs. Summerbee down the street said, “That Victoria is a real firecracker.”

Jane’s bedroom was blue.
It was the very softest shade of blue that she liked best,
with small roses on the wallpaper.
The quilt on her bed was the same shade of blue, to match, and she kept them nice and neat,
with just the smallest bit of white sheets peeking out,
just the way she liked.

Jane had a collection of china horses,
and a dollhouse that once belonged to her grandmother.
The people in the dollhouse were handmade, and sometimes
Jane liked to pretend they were real.

Jane liked buttered toast and fruit for breakfast, and if it was oatmeal day,
she liked a pinch of cinnamon on top,
but just a pinch.

Jane did not like food that was squishy or spicy
or unusual,
she kept her hands on the handlebars of her bicycle at all times,
and at singing time, though she had a lovely voice,
she sang very,
very
softly,
so she would not be noticed.

Victoria and Jane liked to play cowgirls;Victoria would round up the steers and ride her mustang through the prairie
whooping and hollering.

Jane would be the cook.

When they played  Broadway Show,Victoria would be the leading lady,
and the dancers,
and the Chorus.

Jane worked the spotlight.

And when the two friends painted pictures together,
Victoria liked to paint a fiery sunset over the rainforest,
or a city full of skyscrapers and shiny speeding cars.

Jane liked to paint daisies
or a single,
beautiful
bird.

One day, Victoria and Jane’s teacher, Mrs. Witherspoon, announced that the school was going to have a talent show. Any student who wanted to could perform on the stage, all alone or with a friend.

Victoria was ecstatic.

“I can’t decide,” she told her mother, “if I should tap dance, or twirl a baton, or sing and play the harmonica.”

“You could do something with Jane,” her mother suggested.

But Victoria preferred to work alone.

Jane told her mother, “I can’t decide what to do for the talent show,” and her mother said, “Maybe you and Victoria would like to perform together…?”
But Jane had ideas of her own.

The night of the show
their parents waited while Linda-May Peterson sang “O Solo Mio”
and Billy Parker tried to break dance,
and the Williams twins recited the last scene of Julius Caesar.

Then it wasVictoria’s turn.
She burst onto the stage and stirred the audience up with a lively rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” on the harmonica,
while tap dancing
and  twirling a baton.

When she finished,
the audience went wild.

Then it was Jane’s turn.
She walked quietly out onto the stage,
cleared her throat,
flexed her fingers,
and played a little melody she’d written herself.
It was simple and lovely and pure; and she called it
“Jane’s Noctourne.”

The last note was so sweet, it brought a tear to the principal’s eye.

When she finished,
the audience went wild.

They both left the stage with second place ribbons
(Hector Hamsworth won first place with his magic show, because he made a hamster disappear,)
and they all went out for ice cream.

Victoria got choco-bubble-mint with rainbow sprinkles.

Jane got plain vanilla
with a single,
perfect
cherry on top.

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