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.