This is the first of a two-part story. Read the second and concluding part. Copyright is held by the author.
I DISSOLVE from sleep and sit up to see dawn through the window of my childhood bedroom. I look at the poster of Bram Stoker’s Dracula tacked to the wall at the foot of my bed. I’m on my thinning mattress that I’ll have until I leave it behind and across from me is my dresser that slants because it’s missing a leg. My sister, Carrie, calls me. She tells me to get out of bed. I’m not quite a teenager if my assumption about Carrie’s age is correct based on her voice and attitude, but I tell myself that I’m 26 years old. I jump out of bed to experience my feathery, child body again. I am now, must be, about 12 again.
I go to my closet and see the wool uniform skirts strung on hangers. The few nice clothes I took pride in hang perfectly. I reach for them but I need to see myself in a mirror. Instead, I open my bedroom door a crack and see Carrie in socks and an oversized T-shirt. She growls when she sees me through the sliver although the only step she’s probably taken to get any closer to the school bus was to brush her teeth. I slam the door when she gets close to it. Something flutters in me and I open the door a pinch again, put an eyeball to the crack, listen to the thump, thump of Carrie charging around her bedroom, something that will only get worse until even her own small children will call her an ape. She comes back out into the hallway, naked aside from panties, and the sight of her skin humbles me. Carrie is a fat adult but here she’s just my sister. I go over to my mirror to see myself. And there I am, as crushing as a natural wonder of the known world.
I get dressed and go downstairs to the kitchen where Carrie chomps on a Pop-tart, crumbs tumbling into a propped-open textbook she’s hunched over on the counter. The bottle of the awful stuff is set next to it, the cough medicine I’d take for almost a year with a colossal spoon beside it. I think of my adult life and the shag carpet in my apartment that I sleep on now after Tommy, my boyfriend, left and inadvertently took all comfort with him.
When Carrie stomps past me, opens then closes the closet and launches my coat at me, I’m so sad for Tommy that I really don’t hear her commands. Her mouth just opens and closes. He got deployed and it was months since I’d seen him but we emailed each day. There’s no email in my 12-year-old life, and no Tommy, but he’s living somewhere and also 12. I put that thought somewhere else, suck it up, and follow Carrie to the door.
This isn’t like the movies, all comedies, where people get sent back to places in their lives all because they were terrible people. I wonder if I’m Tommy’s pre-teen type, but talk myself into believing that he’s in the desert somewhere, safe in a citadel, trying to figure out how he’s going to get computer access to email me.
It’s winter because Carrie made me stuff myself into my lilac puffer coat that smells like mothballs. She’s sucking on a lollipop, her ponytail swinging, and my lungs are tight and sore. Pneumonia made me lose two months of school. We almost lost our house because of the hospital bills and that’s why I didn’t see my parents. Dad works overnight and mom had to pick up overtime before her official shift, or maybe they’re already split up. I ask Carrie, “Does dad still live with us?”
She spins around and grabs me, “Don’t ever talk like that. Our parents love us you ungrateful bitch.”
The bus pulls up to the curb and the kid’s faces at the glass are mousey, tempestuous. Jesus, I think, I’m 12 again. The bus door opens and Carrie lets me go before her. I roll my eyes at her and wonder whether I have any control over my body, or whether I’m just a spectator here, because I swear, I didn’t mean to do that.
The bus smells faintly, but still distinctly and equally, of urine and peppermint. Light floods the heads of the kids who maniacally bounce on seats or try to make themselves smaller by pressing to a wall. When I walk to a seat I’m rattled by all of their voices all at once, and I know that I’m not crazy but I’m terrified that this is not a dream at all. I sit down and everything sinks when I see Sean Kirkland.
The night before Tommy left for Iraq, we’d laid down on my futon, serving as my bed, to go to sleep. I was afraid to touch him and wondered why he didn’t touch me. Then there was a popping sound and I was catapulted up and then on top of him as his side of the futon dropped to the floor, leaving us sandwiched. We had to get up and get dressed to carry the pieces of the futon to the curb. Tommy didn’t want to leave me with the burden of disposal. We laughed together the whole time. We then laid ourselves on a makeshift bed on the awful carpet, and I was very happy, despite what would happen in the morning. Then I had to cry. Tommy said, trying to sound sweet but without any patience, “Don’t start this now.”
In the morning, I drove him to the base. He told me to stay in the car. He walked across a green lawn and looked back casually once, and then twice. When he went between two brick buildings, I closed my eyes and he was gone. About a month after, my girlfriends took me out to a bar and I ran into Sean Kirkland for the first time in almost 10 years, since high school, and he pretended he didn’t recognize me.
Beside me on the bus Sean Kirkland spits on the floor then proceeds to violently fake-cough, then chokes himself, then pretends to be dead. I feel a kind of admiration for how ballsy he is, when Carrie pushes me aside and sits down in my place. She shakes a precocious finger in Sean’s face and says, “I’m gonna pray you get sick and blood comes out of your eyeballs you little weasel!”
He does resemble a weasel. He responds, “I’m not gonna get sick you cranky bitch heffer!”
Carrie stomps the floor with a determined foot then smacks the air in front of Sean’s face. She then lifts me, and drops me somewhere else. I thank her, and my heart aches, having forgotten about Carrie’s chivalrous behaviour when it came to her sick sister. But she scoffs at me and joins some of her girlfriends I recognize, all child athletes headed for substance abuse and eating disorders. In therapy, Carrie will be told to relinquish control of almost everything in order to find herself. She will tell me about this while indulging in plates of fried food at a diner after Thanksgiving dinner one year, after we fled our mom’s house and delayed a visit to our dad’s.
The knowledge of my own future life and the future lives of some of the others is stifling. I will only excel at slicing a perfect slant into flower stems in order to stuff them into glass tubes or Styrofoam forms. I will justify my job when some recent widow or guilty husband comes to pick up my work. I know some of the things these kids will do, where they’ll end up, and I don’t want to move at all.
This is not like the movies. I land in the school’s parking lot like I’ve been spit out. I’m a speck amongst specks. Carrie moves away from me with her group of friends eyeing me first, and maybe she just has trouble letting go too. I see this now. I’m not alone for long. A girl with thick plastic glasses held together with carefully wound duct tape over the hinges starts to walk beside me. It is Darlene. We are best friends and I didn’t even think of her. She puts a hand to my forehead and asks, “Do you have a fever? Carrie was weird on the bus. You OK?”
Adult Darlene refuses to do much with her life. The last time I saw her she was in nothing but a tank top and boxer shorts trying to crawl through a window into one of her boyfriend’s houses, a man who was 20 years her senior. I wrote her a letter. She never responded. Child Darlene has a face like peppered snow and excitement, or anxiety, lives in each of her movements. It is hard to speak, but I manage, “Sorry. I’m sorry. I feel fine.”
We were partners then. The eyes of the others pick us up as we approach our designated “block” in the schoolyard. She asks me if my mom agreed to buy us tickets to the rated R movie and I want to get in my car that doesn’t literally exist yet and go right to the movies. I’ve never been a good actress at all. I tell her, “You know my mom. It’ll take some more coaxing.”
Did my 12 year-old self use the word “coax”? Does my 26-year-old self use that word? The bell rings and I move faster than Darlene, leaving her as I’ve had to do in the future, but it is too early for this.
Once settled in a seat, my sixth grade seat I went to without a second’s doubt, I stare at the clock. There were many clocks. Then I blink and things have shaken into another half-hour, depressingly not an entire hour.
When I saw Sean Kirkland at the bar after Tommy had been deployed I forced him to recognize me. I ordered a drink beside him and he said my full name aloud. We small-talked and sort of caught up. He was working in construction and his hands were filthy. He seemed so uncomfortable that I bought him a drink and almost left him, but then unexpectedly, he apologized.
I look away from the clock and realize that Mrs. Dougherty, my sixth grade teacher, is telling us that if we don’t shower before we go to bed each night with a seriously potent soap, microscopic organisms are left to nest, feed, and populate on our skin. She speaks with disgust and a sense of utility as each kid looks at their arms and at all of the others like there are so many secrets. I don’t look at my arm because I know what “microscopic” means. I feel comfort hearing Mrs. Dougherty again, by the fact that there are worlds of invisible violence that could do more harm than anything.
Mrs. Dougherty finishes and walks to the door, turning from us, and everyone shifts in their seats embracing the blip in order. I’m tapped on the shoulder. I turn, and there is Mitchel Haley, a second to Sean Kirkland who I forgot about, who tried to crazy glue me to my desk at one point in this year I’ve been dropped in. Everyone thinks he’s handsome, even my mom, and he smiles at me, points to another aisle, to a desk directly in front of the teacher’s desk where Sean raises a hand wrapped around something. A flame comes from his balled fist as he looks right at me.
When Mrs. Dougherty returns, spelling workbooks get passed out. My mom’s greatest fear was that re-assimilation would be difficult after my sickness, but my father assured her that I was never going to be a guppy dropped in a tank of other guppies. I was a goldfish. It wasn’t like some didn’t try to befriend me. The girls asked me if I’d gotten to second base with any boys as they stroked my hair on the first day back after I had pneumonia. I shook my head and they went through a list of boys, asking me if I wanted to hook up with any of them, as they started to braid my hair and loop their hands around my skeletal wrists like I was a toy. I made another social mistake and went and sat under a tree during lunch recess with Darlene because I knew she wouldn’t ask me about second base. She wasn’t friendly but she wasn’t mean either. She had a book and I had a book, although Darlene’s was some romantic thing stolen from her sister with a depiction of a sordid embrace on the front cover.
After spelling, we line up and begin to march to the church. Darlene catches me in the stairwell and says, “Sean Kirkland with a lighter. Bad for us.”
I instinctually grab her hand and we share a look. Hers is befuddled, which indicates that again I am bad-acting. I release her and think to run, to run as fast as I can and get out of there, but I can’t. We get to the church with our classmates and assemble in sloppy lines then settle in pews, and Father McDonahue comes to the spot right in front of the altar to speak to us.
Indelible marks are what sins leave on your soul. I’m in the year of my Confirmation, which means mass twice and not once during the school week until the ceremonious day we get to decide to commit to Catholicism. Stretch marks started on my hips and raked across my white as a fish-belly’s skin like I’d done something wrong that year. My mom said I was growing too fast. Somehow, I started at this age to not believe her, to resent every word she said. I fantasize about Mitchell Haley and Sean Kirkland’s souls and see them round like tennis balls and covered in millions of pimple pocks.
In the classroom again, it is almost lunch and all the girls who have mothers and fathers who will stay together despite things, who have expensive perms and who look like glamour shots taken at the mall, will ignore Darlene and me. They will provide audience. I hear a crackling that could be anything from a pen snapped to the intentional crumbling of cookies that will be thrown haphazardly into the cavity under my desk so that my textbooks will be scarred or scores of ants will invade during the course of the day. I sit still and feel something enter my hair from behind. I know it’s a wad of spit from Mitchel Haley’s handsome mouth. Mrs. Dougherty exits the room, catching my eye, I think, before she exits, and our reluctant lunch mother, wearing what we term mom jeans, enters.
Various objects come at Darlene’s and my own face with the skill of a trained athlete. They always hit the mark — the scrunched wrappers, the silly putty, the mangled balls of bread crust, the rocks — on the upper forehead and just before the bridge of the nose. I instinctually shut my eyes and when they’re closed I smell something wonderful, like bread or my flowers. My stomach drops. I want to go home. I’m not sure I want to see Tommy. I see a barren desert but it’s pinkish and inviting. When I actually get hit on the forehead I open my eyes and there is everyone again like the angry scribblings in the margins of notebooks the nuns will confiscate — heavy, overlapped, and without a sense of continuity. I find Sean Kirkland across the room and he looks away and smiles at his audience.
My first impression of Sean Kirkland as an adult was that he was deflated. He wore clothes like a person who couldn’t make decisions. He’d heard I’d gone to art school and I nodded. I asked him about what he built. After a brief description of how he was working for a house flipper during which he mentioned his affinity for the sledgehammer and power drill, Sean’s eyes softened and found mine. I told him that I was a florist and he laughed. I described for him the woman I work for who rubs hydrangeas on her breasts every hour and then continues to chain-smoke, using one hand to work the flowers. He said to me, “I’m glad we have something in common.”
We were unhappy adults. I tell him about Tommy and somehow the letters come up and the emails, and the descriptions of his dreams he sends me in them. I tell Sean about the girl that comes up in Tommy’s emails fairly often who he eats meals with and talks with almost every night. They ask each other questions like: what could you absolutely cut out of your life if you needed to? What couldn’t you die without doing?
Tommy doesn’t tell me his answers to these questions but asks me what my answers would be after he reveals, only some of the time, what the girl’s answers are. The girl would give up her eyesight, or a limb, or solid food. The girl wants to see the pyramids and meet her biological father. She is married. I can’t answer these questions. I write about my flowers, how I tried to start painting again, how I started to write, but he never mentions these things in his responses. His dreams often involve us, and we’re looking at our children scampering on lawns in the hard sun. There is always sun. We’ve never talked about children before. The greeting cards he sends me in the mail are cordial and short.
After I unloaded my adult anxieties on my childhood bully who wasn’t looking at me anymore, who chugged his beer again and again as I went on, as I grew more aware of the fact that he was not listening, I tell Sean Kirkland that Tommy doesn’t love me. When those words came out of my mouth I felt the worst I’d felt as an adult. He flicked his head in my direction when I finally stop talking, and asked,” Do you know why I was so mean to you in grade school?”
I shouldn’t have told Sean about Tommy. Sean Kirkland’s adult face was manly in a way I really didn’t know much about; almost classic film actor mysterious. The attention I got from him that night as an adult was still concentrated like the attention I got as a kid, so that I thought just maybe if I turned my head he’d whip out a pair of scissors and cut a piece of my hair off for old time’s sake. He answered his question: “You reminded me of my sister. And she was a perfect little bitch.”
At lunchtime we rise and start to lineup for the cubby passage, a narrow corridor with a partial wall separation against the back of the room. The lunch mother sits at Mrs. Dougherty’s desk and rifles through a magazine as Darlene finds me and says, “Let’s go in together.”
I tell her, “You know, I think you should go by yourself.”
I march over and join the front of the line that’s more like a series of knots, right behind Sean Kirkland and Mitchell Haley who devilishly gawk at me. The girls look at me disdainfully as I nudge one and smirk at some others and enter the cubby, so brazenly ahead of everyone else. Did I always wait to go last?
Inside, it’s dim and filled with our oversized coats, and I find my lunch with a happy face drawn on the front of the brown bag, something I demanded instead of a lunch bag, although I’ll revert to lunch bags again when I’m 26. I trace my mother’s imperfect head-shaped circle and the door snaps shut.
Sean is in here with me gripping an open carton of chocolate milk. My confidence is gone but I’m left with something more complex than fear. I squint at him, and when he runs toward me I don’t move at first but I eventually swipe my arm at him as my body hits his, and it is like the movies. The chocolate milk sails over our heads, spraying the grey corridor where I’m left with Sean, who I grab very intentionally by both of his arms and kiss stone hard on the mouth.
It isn’t a peck, but there isn’t any tongue. The door flies open and Mitchel Haley catches me still holding Sean Kirkland. I refused to do this in our adult lives. After too many drinks, stumbling out of the front door of the bar first while my girlfriends were peeing, he followed me and grabbed my arms and I didn’t mind. We’d had a good conversation, but when I looked into his eyes I saw that little boy, and now that I’m looking at this little boy, tears form in his eyes and I release Sean Kirkland who scurries to the other end, a bit wounded. I smile brightly at where his spindly body used to be. Mitchel Haley comes up and pretends like he’s going to smash his body into mine, but then he slinks off after Sean Kirkland and the rest of the class floods in. I get my lunch and no one says a word to me.
On a car block beside Darlene during lunch recess, who’s asked me again and again about what they did to me in the cubby corridor, to which I keep saying nothing, I look up at the terrible sky.
Read the ending of this story tomorrow.