I would love to sneak into the house when no one’s home. I’d walk upstairs and scrape little patches of paint from the walls to take a peek at what I know is underneath. I’m sure it’s still there because we couldn’t get it off. And believe me, we tried. Nina’s writhing beast, Beth’s spiral suns, Sheila’s giant alphabet and the geometric designs I copied from the notebook hidden under my mattress—none of it would budge. We thought Barb the landlady was going to kills us when we told her it wasn’t coming off. She didn’t. She had a better idea. Those watercolors turned out to be tougher than Pine-Sol and Clorox, but they were no match for Sherwin Williams.
The house must have stood there when 11th Street was a lane through a cornfield, and somber men in suits broke ground for the Mennonite college on the other side of town. Everything evolves. The fields sprouted a Winnebago factory, the college built a theatre and a science center, and the two-story house split into sagging apartments.
That place was heaven and hell wrapped into one burrito. Whoever added the stairway up to our door didn’t bother to attach it to the siding, so it wobbled disastrously. Earwigs ran under the spoons when you opened the kitchen drawers and the guys who lived there before us never once cleaned the bathroom. But we paid the deposit, and that made the apartment beautiful. That alone eclipsed the disrepair and the bugs.
In the steaming Indiana summer of 1991, our sophomore year of college was over and were finally on our own. For the first time in our lives no one would tell us what to do. Four girls, one apartment, four months. I could feel my life waiting to leap into my arms. The higher the mercury climbed, the better it measured our fever. I refused to go home to the farm in Pennsylvania where I would have to obey my parents’ rules all summer and pretend I still thought church ice cream socials were fun. No way. I was staying right here with my best friend Beth and the other two girls she picked to be our housemates.
Beth wrote me, last semester while I was in Costa Rica, to say that she found the perfect housemates for us. “Nina is so awesome,” she wrote. “She was in our art history class, remember?” I had no idea who she was talking about. “She wants to live with us! Yay! And Sheila Friesen. I don’t think you know her that well, but you will love her. Remember the girl who got fined for falling in the fountain in front of the library?” I heard about that, but I don’t remember who it was. “That’s Sheila. She is SO FUNNY!” Beth was sure I knew them and I was sure I didn’t.
It didn’t matter. Whoever is good enough for Beth is good enough for me.
As soon as I got settled, I would start feeling like my old self again. Of course. There’s nothing wrong with me. Everything would be fine. I would smother my new secret sadness in a blanket of silence until it stopped kicking. It would, right? All I needed was a little time. And some tequila wouldn’t hurt.
* * * * *
On the day we moved in, I was ready to haul my boxes up the stairs at seven AM, but I didn’t I didn’t have the key. I had to wait around until ten o’clock when Nina’s brother Anthony brought everybody else from the campus dorms. Tom dropped me off in the yard on the way to his house-painting job, so I dozed on my pile of stuff under a tree. Damn gnats. I put my pillow over my head instead of under it. At first I was afraid someone from the apartment downstairs would call the cops about the squatter in the yard, but I soon realized that no one lived there.
I’d packed up my dorm room months ago in the chill of January and flew south for a cross-cultural semester in Costa Rica. I told my mom that, during the week since my feet landed back on American soil, I’d been staying in the dorm with Beth. That was a lie. Of course I stayed at Tom’s house. And I’m not complaining. There are worse things than a whole week of sleep-overs with your boyfriend, but I was dying for my own bed, someplace to unpack my boxes and call home. Being homeless is exhilarating for about two days, and then it’s not.
Anthony’s red pick-up finally turned into the alley and pulled up. It was heaped with duffle bags, trash bags, boxes, and the mattresses that no one noticed slipping through the front doors of the dorm. That’s what Beth says, anyway. She says in the mayhem of moving, no one even blinked as they picked up their beds and walked. The dorms throw everyone out at the end of the winter semester so, if you’ve signed yourself up for summer classes in May and June like we did, you have to find somewhere else to live. And where are you supposed to sleep? Flat on the floor? The girls rode in the back of the truck, even though it’s illegal, so they wouldn’t lose anything going over the railroad tracks. They promised to lie down if they saw a cop.
Beth jumped out of the truck before it even stopped and came leaping over to hug me. We squealed and yelled and jumped up and down while we were still hugging.
I recognized Sheila and Nina immediately. I can’t say I remember the thing Beth said about Sheila falling in the fountain, but I can believe it. Sheila’s not that graceful. When she tried to jump out of the truck, she lost a sandal and stubbed her toe. Her mom is Indian, so that must be where she got her gorgeous heart-shaped face and brown eyes like a puppy. When we said hi, she was laughing and crying at the same time over her toe.
Nina picked her way out of the truck and came over to say hi, too. She’s one of those people that, when you hug her, it’s like hugging yourself because she’s so small. I’ve seen her before. She hung around the art building and that’s about all I know. I’m afraid of people that small in the same way I’m afraid of newborn babies. A girl like me could accidentally break a thing like that without even dropping it.
* * * *
By the time Anthony honked the horn and drove away, we were drenched in sweat, giddy as a flock of parakeets, and it was lunch time. Our upstairs apartment contained a jumble of coffee-stained t-shirts, mismatched flip-flops, spiral notebooks, overdue library books, incense burners, family photos, copied cassette tapes, and snow boots in search of a summer home.
“I’m starving!” I said. I’m always starving.
“Me too,” Sheila said, coming out of the room she and Nina were sharing. She lifted the V-neck of her oversized undershirt and disappeared inside it for a moment like a turtle, mopping the sweat from her face.
Beth stood in the doorway of our room, tossed her ponytail and said that she could eat a water buffalo with cheese.
“Gross,” Nina said, scrunching her eyes shut at the thought. She stopped pulling folded clothes out of a Samsonite suitcase and gave a shudder.
“You don’t like cheese?” I asked.
“I don’t like to think about eating animals,” Nina said.
I said the only thing I could think of which was, “Oh,” and looked at Beth. Beth raised her eyebrows and blinked.
“So. Do we have any food?” Forget eating animals. Just don’t make me eat the cardboard boxes.
Beth opened her mouth to say no, but something occurred to Sheila. “Oh my God!” Sheila said, looking shocked. “Does anyone know how to cook?” Her hand flew to her hair and began twisting. The metal bracelets on her arm made nervous music. “Beth? Do you?”
“Well. Sort of,” Beth said.
“Hannah?” Sheila asked me. “Because, I don’t.”
“I can make pancakes,” Nina said. In her flowered sundress with that black eye make-up she likes, she looked like a confused twelve-year-old. “And strawberry syrup out of strawberry jelly. It’s so easy. You just—“
“Eggs!” Sheila remembered. “I can make eggs!”
“See?” I said, “We’re fine.”
“Yeah, but I we don’t have anything now.”
Nina giggled a delighted giggle.
“I could go to Seven Eleven,” I offered. “And get peanut butter and jelly.”
“Wait,” Beth said. “Not yet.” She marched into the kitchen. The rest of us followed.
Beth ducked into the dark pantry. On the narrow shelves, previous generations of students had abandoned a dusty bag of rice, several boxes of salt, the greasy dregs of a Crisco bottle and a mostly-empty can of coffee. A pile of forgotten onions seemed to believe they were under ground and showed notable signs of life.
“A-ha!” Beth held up the grimy bag of grains. “Lunch!”
“There’s only one problem,” Beth said. She disappeared back into the pantry and mumbled a curse. Then she burst into laughter.
“What?” I said.
Beth stepped into the light holding the rice in one hand and a decrepit frying pan in the other. “Guys? This is the only thing we have to cook with.”
Sheila started twisting her hair again, jangling her wristful of bracelets.
“Check the cupboards,” I said.
We found a few surprises like a moldy wooden spoon, empty peanut butter jars with no lids and what I recognized to be mouse turds, but nothing a girl can cook in. Sheila saw a spider and screamed. I offered to smash it but then Nina screamed.
“I guess we could eat the onions,” Beth said, trying to look sad but her eyes sparkled.
“Ew! Are you serious?”
“No thank you!”
“Can’t you can’t make rice in a frying pan?” I said. “A little?”
But Beth’s ideas were still coming. “I know! Wait!” She ran into our room and came bouncing back holding her little red hotpot above her head like the Statue of Liberty’s torch. “Hotpot rice!”
“Hotpot rice!” Sheila howled like that was hilarious.
Nina squealed and cheered.
“Can you make rice in a hotpot?” I asked.
“Why not?” Beth shrugged. “You can make Ramen.”
I couldn’t argue with that, so I swallowed my doubts and went back to unpacking.
Maybe I could have saved the hotpot if I had seen Beth’s preparations. She filled it half full of rice, then added water to the brim. I didn’t know how to cook, but I did score in the 99th percentile on an aptitude test for mechanical reasoning. ‘Mechanical reasoning’ doesn’t mean you can fix things—it means you can tell ahead of time something like that is never going to work.
I had to bike to the Seven Eleven to buy peanut butter and jelly after all, and the hotpot couldn’t be salvaged. No amount of soaking and scraping could remove the disaster melted into the metal and plastic. We kept it, for a while, on top of the refrigerator as a sentimental tribute to our first meal together. Eventually it went to hotpot heaven with the charred layer of rice still cemented to the bottom.
* * * * *
No matter what we did to those walls, they weren’t going to get any worse. The kitchen wore a horrible coat of dark-smudged yellow, and the rest of the rooms were shades of tired grimy white. A decade of grubby college students can wreak havoc on a paint job. We had the sense to call Barb, our eternally patient landlady, and ask her permission before we started decorating. We promised to use only watercolors so as not to do permanent damage. Barb said she didn’t care what we did as long as we cleaned it all up before we moved out. The house wasn’t hers anyway—she just managed it for a friend who was a missionary or something.
Ninaproduced her precious paints and told us to be careful not to get any green in the yellow. She set about creating ghostly little waif spirits that wafted mysteriously through the rooms. Beth unleashed colorful exploding suns and lanky brown bodies that resembled her. Sheila said she can’t paint to save her soul and she got one of her anxiety attacks when we tried to encourage her.
“No, you guys,” she begged, starting to wheeze. “I’m not artistic like you are. I wish I was, but I’m not, okay? I just don’t feel comfortable. I’m not good at things like you guys are.” Then she had to rummage around for her inhaler.
I’m no artist either, but I love bright colors, so I painted my heart out. I warmed up with a few lopsided flowers here and there. Then I drew borders around the windows and doors—shaky replicas of the traditional designs that I practiced painting on pottery in Costa Rica. I hoped that if I got used to looking at them, my eyes would stop prickling every time I opened that notebook. I couldn’t stop seeing the pursed lips of the potter as he patiently drew them there for me so that I would never forget. I felt the hot windy shade of the porch and heard the palm leaves rustle beside the kitchen. A few days ago. It made a lump pop into my throat that I could hardly breathe around.
There were no rules. You could paint anything you wanted, any time you wanted. We kept the paints and brushes in a drawer of the giant Desk so everyone could use them. Even Sheila finally got over herself and painted a huge row of ABC’s in a circle around the living room. She said it was a practice run for her future kindergarten classroom. Later, she added “PYSY WORLD SUCKS” and a stick figure on a crooked gallows because of how much she hated that class.
It didn’t have to be pretty. Before long, it wasn’t.
Remember that story about the woman who goes insane in the upstairs room with yellow wallpaper? Similarities exist. We weren’t trapped by a lock like she was, but we were upstairs. Struggling to get out in other ways. With walls that got crazier, the harder we tried.
* * * * *
Furniture, if you think about it, is a luxury. As long as you have a roof over your head, water in the tap and a reasonable pan to cook your rice in, who cares if you have to sit on the floor?
The only piece of furniture that came with the apartment was The Desk. The living room contained a Desk so immense and so heavy that it must have been assembled in that exact room. No human being could have gotten that thing up the precarious stairs and even God couldn’t have gotten it through the door. We could have used it as a table if we had chairs, but we didn’t. Not one. So we set Sheila’s ancient stereo on it and stashed cassette tapes and phone bills in its drawers.
Between the four of us, we owned one fan, one floor lamp, a Mr. Coffee and the five single mattresses provided by the dorm. We ended up with an extra because Beth stole one for me, and Sheila, afraid that Beth would forget, took another. In the chaos of loading Anthony’s red pick-up truck, no one was counting.
Beth and I took two of the mattresses, dropped them onto the floor of our bedroom and pushed them together to make one big bed. Nina and Sheila dragged two into their room and pushed them against opposite walls. They’re friends, but not best friends like Beth and me. The extra went into an inexplicable closet, christened The Pit of Sin, which opened off the kitchen.
I guess we could have painted furniture on the walls. Funny we never thought of that.
We soon came up with a couch, but it wasn’t so much a piece of furniture as the remains of one. Tony Royal, our friend the cafeteria thief, said we could take it when he graduated and left town. It’s hard to say whether or not it was an improvement over sitting on the floor. It was a furry pink thing with offensive springs that would violate you if you weren’t careful. But you could lie, sit, or stand on it as long as you avoided the springs. You could lose things under it.
Beth lounged on that couch like Queen Bathsheba while her boyfriend Curtis and his brother Dan carried it all the way across town from Tony’s house to ours. She says they thought it was funny. They started out on the college side of town, where our thoughtful forefathers planted a corridor of maple trees along every sidewalk, and hauled it to the Winnebago-factory side of town. No shade, no sidewalks. Curtis and Dan grew up in Africa because their parents are missionaries, so I guess they’re used to being hot and walking a long way.
I can’t believe Beth had the nerve to lie on the couch all the way home. I would never do that. Then again, I weigh a lot more than she does. That’s the effect Beth has on men—they leap at the chance to carry her down the street in the summer sun while she lies on a couch. If that was me, they would expect me to take a corner. Honestly, so would I.
When we had to get the couch out at the end of the summer, we didn’t bother to carry it down the perilous stairway to the street. Why? Nobody wanted it. We dragged it to the door and threw it off the porch. It crashed to the ground beside the stairs and then we set it on fire. The neighbor man who hates us called the police, so we had to say it was an accident.
You should have seen Beth working on the cop to get him to believe that, after we accidentally dropped the couch off the porch, it somehow caught on fire.
That was a fantastic idea. It was much easier to throw away after it was all burned up.
* * * * *
Our kitchen was a petri dish for disturbing plant and animal species. The whole south wall is a row of windows, so it’s 95 degrees in there for months on end. If you left the milk on the counter, it turned rancid by the time you were done with your cereal. If you forgot the last of the lentils in the refrigerator, they would come back to life in a few days. We constantly had to revise the refrigerator for the source of exotic smells, and whatever we found to be resurrecting from the dead went into the trash. When we found something truly unspeakable, we flushed it down the toilet. I bought a flyswatter to fight off the wildlife.
Household chores were nobody’s job. You could do them if you wanted to. If nobody wanted to, then nobody did them and nobody complained. That’s the advantage of not having any rules—if you’d rather do something later, you can, and if you don’t want to do it at all, no one will grumble at you. It gets messy, though.
In the sink, the dishes piled up until one more spoon would cause an avalanche or there was nothing left to eat with. I got used to filling the coffee pot with water in the bathroom because you couldn’t get it under the faucet in the kitchen. I think I washed more dishes than anyone else did, but I may be biased. Beth cooked a lot, so I thought I should chip in. Sheila tried sometimes, but the threat of discovering something alive between the plates was hard on her nerves. The stress gave her asthma.
Nina didn’t wash the dishes. She didn’t cook, either. She only had to eat about twice a week to maintain her stick figure and she didn’t seem to get hungry. Hers were the containers of food that spoiled and had to be thrown away, things I would have sold my soul for like left-over Chinese take-out. We would never have thought of eating what belonged to Nina. Although I doubt she wouldn’t have noticed. She obviously didn’t think of it either.
Curtis and Dan brought us a microwave. They found it on one of their dumpster dives and they thought we might like it. Of all the gems they unearthed from the trash, that is one they could just as well have left there. I think it was one of the first models ever sold and it weighed almost as much as me. The cord was frayed, the round dials wouldn’t turn and somebody had seen fit to duct tape it in several places. Curtis put a cup of water inside it and plugged it in. I ran out onto the porch, holding my ears, praying to God that it wouldn’t explode.
Explode is not quite the word for what happened, but it sounded like an explosion—one that lasted a full minute until a bell rang and Curtis pulled a steaming cup of water from the belly of the beast. The monster worked. I was terrified of it, though. I could feel it cooking my brain and my future children, even through the walls, as it somehow produced its terrible thunder. I bolted from the room anytime anyone turned it on. How can a duct taped microwave not be an agent of death? I’ll save my risky behavior for somewhere besides kitchen.
* * * * *
When the house was built, The Pit of Sin must have been intended for storage. I doubt it was intended for sin, although you never know. Lucky for us, it was big enough for both. The Pit of Sin was hotter than the kitchen, stuffy, and smelled of the need for a shower. The defining feature of The Pit, the one which determined its destiny, is the presence of a door we could close. We piled our mountain of snow boots and empty boxes in such a way as to leave a narrow passage from the door to the single mattress in the back corner. It was a guest room, you might say, that guests were not expected to use alone.
Strictly speaking, I don’t know that any of The Ten Commandments were broken in that little room, but I know a lot of our Sunday School teachers’ hopes for us were dashed against that ratty mattress. It belonged to all of us, and we all tumbled into its windowless refuge—all of us except for Sheila. Sheila’s the only one who missed out on The Pit of Sin, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. She had a fling with Rajesh, the gorgeous Indian guy who broke her heart, but that was at his house. He would never have deigned to put his elegant leather-wearing foot on our rickety stairs. She got over him because of Neil, which was a romance destined to end in the tragedy of him getting engaged to someone else. Nina and Dan had their nights in the Pit of Sin before Dan got stir-crazy and hitchhiked west. Nina was happy like a little bird in those early weeks. Beth and Curtis took their turns too, until Curtis and Tony Royal got on a plane with their passports and Beth began to realize that she would never find anyone she loves more.
Mostly, The Pit of Sin belonged to Tom and me. We could shut the door and make everything else in the world stay on the other side. As soon as the rest of the house was quiet, we opened the door a crack so we wouldn’t suffocate. It was almost as hot in there as the eternal toaster oven we knew we were risking, so our sticky adventures were punctuated by trips to the refrigerator for water. We climbed out the kitchen window onto the porch roof then, with our cups in our hands, and sat in our underwear basking in the cool air of a midnight too humid for stars. It’s a good thing the mosquitoes kept us slapping or we would have fallen asleep out there and rolled right into the yard.
* * * * *
“You know that almost-bald patch on Sheila’s head?” Beth asked me. We were pedaling our bikes toward the shady end of 8th Street and our first summer class.
“You know why it’s almost bald?”
“No. I thought it just grows that way.”
“She pulls her hair out.”
“Yes. Nina told me.”
“She pulls her own hair out?”
“Can you imagine? She twists it and twists it until it comes out.”
“I’ve seen her do that but I didn’t know she pulls that hard.”
“Doesn’t that hurt?”
“It has to.”
“She just does. Her nerves.”
“She’s that nervous?”
“I guess so.”
“She just is. She’s supposed to take medication but she doesn’t like it.”
“For her hair or her nerves?”
“Her nerves, dummy.”
“But I guess it would help her hair, too.”
Sheila is not exactly crazy, but she’s the first person I ever met with “anxiety” as a permanent condition. It isn’t her fault. It’s genetic. Her mom is as bipolar as the day is long and won’t take her medicine, either. The whole family moved from Mumbai to Indianapolis when Sheila’s mom was a teenager—not a wonder she has troubles. Sheila spent a lot of time at Grandma Friesen’s house when she was a kid, while her dad was in med school and her mom was having a hard time being a mom. She gets panic attacks that spark asthma attacks and she can never ever forget her inhaler.
* * * * *
Barb, the landlady, offered to take ten dollars per week off our rent if we mowed the yard ourselves. We didn’t make her say it twice. If we’d seen the mower she expected us to use, we might not have been so eager, but by that time it was too late. We tackled the job in pairs because it could have killed anyone of us, including me.
Things were going along well enough until Nina went nuts and wrecked the system we agreed on. She and Sheila were supposed to alternate weeks with Beth and me, but of course it was their turn when Nina had to go and get herself hospitalized. That could be the straw that broke the camel’s back—the threat of having to mow on top of so much inner misery. The yard is huge by anyone’s definition, with several annoying pear trees to circle around, and the rattletrap mower weighed a ton. It was used to be self-propelled, but it could barely crawl anymore. We pushed it around the house, sweating, swearing, stopping every five minutes to tighten the handle which vibrated loose, and to beat the grass out of the dull blade. It was an awful ordeal.
Yard work, in case you didn’t notice, does not obey the same rules as housework. Housework piles up at a uniform speed. Every day that you don’t wash the dishes, the pile grows a little higher. The mound of unmentionables in the laundry basket gets another layer each time you change your clothes. It’s a war of attrition that nobody wins—you address the most important things first, like the coffee cups and underwear, and the battles rage on. But you never have to wash all the dishes in the kitchen or do all the laundry in the closet the way you have to mow the entire yard at once. There’s a critical point, when it comes to grass, after which an already horrible job becomes infinitely worse, because while you are cutting the lawn around your house, you are also making hay. We learned that the hard way. You have to rake the hay up right away because if you don’t, the grass underneath dies and your eternally patient landlady gets very pissed. What is it about people over 30 and grass? Good grief.
I took some extra responsibility because I’m the biggest, and therefore the best match for that mower and the challenge of filling the tank with gas. It was my job to walk to Barb’s house and drag the beast from her garage to our yard. Then I rode the gas can to Seven Eleven on my bike and wobbled back with it perched on the bar. Nobody else thought they could do it, and it’s not even hard as long as you don’t have to stop. In Costa Rica I saw entire families cruising down the road on 10-speed bicycles—I think one girl should be able to manage one gas can. And, no, they did not have a baby seat.
The weeks clicked along. Mixing the mental exertion of summer classes with the physical struggle against that mower created a little balance. Even Nina learned to beat the beast into submission. Then she turned herself in to the mental facility and our pairs were ruined. No more doing the happy dance because it’s someone else’s turn.
She only stayed for two weeks in Pine View, but she didn’t mow much after that. She worked forty hours a week, and on Saturdays she went to therapy. None of us had the nerve to ask her to take her turn. Sheila would never have suggested a thing like that—she would have pulled out the rest of her hair first. Beth thought about it but she chickened out. She didn’t want Nina to think she was insensitive. I didn’t care what Nina thought of me, but I felt sorry for her and I didn’t want to make her tell me she would try.
Meanwhile, all around the house, the grass kept growing.
When Troy and Brenda moved in downstairs, Troy offered to help. They worked at the Winnebago factory and had matching mullets. I never imagined anybody who wore such terrifying Metallica t-shirts could be so kind. I told Troy it was okay, not to worry about mowing. I know he pitied us as we struggled with that mower, but we didn’t want him to tell Barb he was helping and take away part of our discount.
The Little Red Hen was right. Sometimes you just have to do things yourself.
* * * * *
Sooner or later, I’m going to have to spit it out: that summer I had some problems I didn’t know what to do about. I didn’t get to go to Pine View like Nina, though.
There’s a category of people in the world who aren’t supposed to have problems, and I am right in the middle of it. I’m one of those chronically happy people—an extrovert. I’ve been called “bubbly,” which I think is an overstatement, and people are always saying what a positive attitude I have even when I think I’m being crabby. Can you imagine how annoying that is? Happy people like me are allowed to have little problems like bee stings, bombed tests and bad-hair-days—but no big ones. No existential misery allowed. No sulking. No lying in your room with the lights off because you can’t bear to come out. You are the one who will always get off your butt and do something about it, whatever it is. It’s like some unwritten law. If you’re a tomboy with a healthy tan and a hearty appetite, you work it out yourself. Period. No one takes you seriously when you’re down. They can’t. They don’t believe you.
If you’re small and skinny like Nina, with big black eyes and a talent for painting convincing human figures in tortured positions, it’s alright to be fraught with problems. It’s a plus—like a tasteful accessory. Even better if you have money for pills and professionals. Nina grew up in a typical-looking American family with a picket fence and parents who, on Sunday mornings, dressed everyone in matching colors and then came home from church to have fights that ended with broken plates. It must have been very confusing.
It’s not my fault I’m the exact opposite. I didn’t ask to be born a robust ball of energy. With sincere Mennonite parents who dutifully raised their daughters to be good , right, and to be nice no matter what. They never shouted, threw plates, made empty threats or broke any rules. No traumas. No excuses. No exceptions. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.
Every student goes on a cross-cultural study semester. I don’t know why I had to come unglued over it when it was my turn. In a tiny town called Los Rios, nestled between the mountains of a tropical dry forest, I practiced Spanish and learned to make indigenous pottery.
You’re not supposed to love it. You’re supposed to find friends there, not find yourself. It’s not supposed to break your heart to get on the bus and ride away three months later, looking out the window at the beautiful waving hands. You’re supposed to be delighted to come home.
I thought I would be thrilled when it was over. I told myself I would be. I faithfully anticipated my breathtaking reunion with Tom at the airport. A mighty orchestra would play in the background, and he would lift me off my feet. He was tall enough to, and strong like that.
I did not want to leave Los Rios.
Inside of me lifted a wail like the howl of wolves—for the yellow afternoon light on blowing palms, the hourly ruckus of roosters, the belt of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon where moonless nights are black. And for the sweet guayaba taste of the boy with the sharp quiet eyes of a hunting bird, who rolled rr’s like a purr. But I did what was expected of me: I walked away. I did as I was told.
Why did I do that?
Why am I so broken?
Everyone babbles on about listening to your heart, but what if your heart tells you to do something ridiculous?
The questions echoed back to me, shaking the bedrock below me. I climbed the mountains and valleys of my inner terrain, searched under rocks and in the tops of the trees for answers. It’s embarrassing to be overwhelmed by something that makes no sense, so I suffered with my mouth closed.
There was Tom at the airport when we landed, the new boyfriend I left for three long months, waiting with hugs and kisses to welcome me home. I clutched him like a drowning woman, hoping his arms would make the pain in my chest go away, hoping they would make me back into who I used to be.
I never told him about the rainforest boy. Although, somehow, he knew.
* * * * *
There is no refrigerator in the kitchen. Nothing here requires electricity except the bulb. The kitchen is not even a room in the house; it is a wooden addition with a brushed earth floor connected to the back of the house made of cinderblock. It is neat as a pin. It is virtually empty.
Beside the back door is a woodstove. Is that what I will call it? It does not have a name in my language. They call it the oven but it isn’t that either. On top of a roughhewn wooden base, two open-ended clay ovals are placed, and, inside of them, sticks smolder. There is no stovepipe. Thin white smoke escapes through the spaces that are purposefully left between the boards that form the walls, the space below the roof.
The kitchen sink is a sectioned cement tub. It is set through the wall so that the drain runs into the scorched yard where chickens dash around clucking. Cool water comes from a faucet with a round metal knob like the one outside the farmhouse where my mother hooked up the garden hose on dry August evenings. The sink is also the washer, where every morning Hilda who asks me to call her “Mamá” scrubs the clothes of the day before into spotless submission and drapes them over the barbed wire fence at the back of the yard to dry.
In the shallow section of the sink sets a clay pot, its opening covered by a lid. Inside the pot, the half shell of a round nut called a jiícaro floats on water. When we are thirsty, we reach into the pot, scoop water into the jiícaro and lift it to our lips, cool water running down our chins in the smoke-blackened kitchen. Curling mango leaves skitter and sun stripes slip across the floor.
In this kitchen, more than anywhere else, I am a foreigner. Here, I not only have no words, I am helpless. I do not know how to wash my own clothes. I cannot fry an egg. We do not have cereal or apples or bread. We have rice, beans, tortillas made of corn that my papá, called Tito, grinds. We have canned tuna, sometimes a tomato, a strange sweet custard made of purple corn, stewed chicken for a birthday. When Diego who says he is my brother goes fishing and brings home little bagre, mamá Hilda fries them in boiling vegetable lard, eyeballs and all, and we devour them down to the brains in their heads, driven by a need for nutrients for which we have no names.
Tom says he used to watch me in the library. That’s impossible, because I used to watch him in the library, berating myself for being so Mennonite and ordinary. He sat across from me in the lounge, absorbed in whatever book lay in his lap, looking unattainable with his batik shirt and Eskimo moccasins, a bandana tied around that ring of curls. Sometimes he fell asleep, and then I could stare at him as long as I wanted. I convinced myself that he came from somewhere exotic, that he wasn’t even a Mennonite—or not one with a boring pedigree like me. His hair was too long and curly. His skin was too olive. And he did not buy those beaded mukluks at Payless. His grandfather was Native American? His mother is Mexican? Was he born and raised in Czechoslovakia? The first half of my sophomore year passed and I didn’t even know his name, just that I wanted a boyfriend like him someday. I swear he never once glanced up at me. He says it’s the other way around.
We met during finals week, as if, in spite of everything that was right about us, destiny had other ideas. He walked, with my friend Matthew, into the dorm lounge where I sat slouched over my Theatre Set Design project, slaving with glue and an exact-o knife, sometime between midnight and sunrise. There I was, far beyond the reach of any human emotion and most coherent speech, my eyes plastered open by pure caffeine, in a horrible coffee-stained sweatshirt and let’s not talk about my hair. Matthew introduced us, incredulous that we hadn’t already met. At that point, I couldn’t even care. After meeting me in my bleary, catatonic state, there was no way he would ever like me. There went that possibility.
I was wrong. We found each other at the Christmas dance on Saturday night and it was clear that my red eyes and coffee stains hadn’t repulsed him the way I expected they would. That never happened to me before—the delirious synchronicity of being crazy about someone who is simultaneously crazy about me. He said I’m the most beautiful girl in the school, which is completely ridiculous. Me: the most average white American girl in the fifty states. I don’t think so. Monica is more beautiful. She’s skinny as a supermodel and grew up in Belize. Camila is more beautiful, with her fearsome blonde hair, combat boots and self-confidence. And Beth. Hello? Beth is twenty times more beautiful than I am. She’s slim and brown and I would give my left leg for her curly hair. Lucky for me, Tom saw no comparison.
Everything was right except the timing. Two weeks into our newborn romance, Christmas break separated us, and then I left for the winter term in Los Rios, Costa Rica that planted the seed of discontent with its penetrating taproot.
I thought it would go away. That’s how it works, right? I was sure those nights in The Pit of Sin would speed the day. The only naked man I’d ever seen was the guy in the biology textbooks with arrows and labels along the sides. This gave me the basic idea of what to expect, but the possibility of being confronted by a living example scared the devil out of me. I tried to be calm. I told myself to be brave. Tom must not sense my naiveté or for sure he would get up and leave in his whitey-tighties. Tom, as it turns out, comes from the same kind of upright Mennonite family as I do, in spite of his intriguing footwear, and was every bit as virginal and uncertain.
It takes a long time to learn to hear beyond the zealous youth pastor in your head, but you can do it if you don’t give up. In the Pit among the boxes and snow boots, we worked out a new set of rules, messing up the sheets, falling off the bed, giggling and shushing each other until the early summer dawn.
* * * * *
I never even heard of the Grateful Dead until I arrived at college. If my life had a soundtrack, it would begin with hymns in four-part harmony, vinyl records of ladies singing Bible songs to autoharps, and my dad’s gospel bluegrass. I ventured onto the slippery slope of Christian Rock at about fourteen because, as the song says, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” You don’t go straight from Bill Gaither to “Steal Your Face.” Sting seemed harmless, then U2, then REM, and then one day my mom busted me with a Cure tape. I should have known better than to leave it lying beside my stereo. The picture of giant red lips on the outside of the lyric sheet was bad enough, but the words on the underside made her cheeks burn and earned me a lecture on Christian values. After that, I borrowed dubs.
The name “The Grateful Dead” doesn’t sound like my kind of music and the idea of groupies called Deadheads freaked me out a little. Then this weird guy who tried college but dropped out a few weeks later told me that Deadheads were actually dead people, and when he said it he was dead serious. His eyes went large and round, and he wasn’t trying to be funny. He said it was all satanic.
When I heard the Grateful Dead for the first time, I fell in love before I even realized who I was hearing. I didn’t know that the Grateful Dead was hippy music, and that the guy driving the VW bus with the die-dyed curtains at the windows would obviously not be playing anything else. He offered me a ride from the grocery store back to campus, and I recognized him as the roommate of some of my theatre friends. As I climbed into the incense and cigarette saturated bus, music with a keyboard trickling like the morning sunshine caught me off guard.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“The Dead,” he replied, perplexed. He clearly thought I would know that. ”Wake of the Flood.”
“Oh,” I said trying not to sound confused. “It’s great.”
“Yeah, it’s a good one.”
This didn’t sound like the satanic music you’d expect zombies to listen to.
The shaggy-headed tie-dyed friends I was making were so brave. They questioned the rules. They were the theatre students and the music students and the ones who had by far the best parties. They did things that I thought might be morally wrong like smoking pot and sleeping with their girlfriends but they were so nice. They didn’t seem dangerous to me or to each other, and they were definitely not already dead.
I understood I’d found the perfect guy when I learned that Tom liked the Dead too. I discovered that on the night we smuggled tequila into the library and I kissed him because he was too shy to kiss me first. I knew we were meant to be. This is the one I prayed, all my boyfriendless life, that God would send me. I was in love with his broad shoulders. And his long hair. And patchouli oil, too? You see? Jesus does love me.
Beth wasn’t wild about the Grateful Dead, although she did attempt to like them, at least at first, out of friendly solidarity. She failed. Nina and Sheila thought they were dumb, which left me only Tom. The more days and weeks that passed, the more it seemed to matter—not the music itself, but our beads and our wavy dancing and the way we could blow off anything with the slightest whiff of “politics” as being “bullshit.”
At first it was all about which tape to put in the stereo. Later, it was about everything.
* * * *
Beth is my best friend and she has been since we were fifteen. We met on the first day of our second year of high school, both of us cursed with having to start the day in gym class. Do not underestimate the gravity of this for fifteen year old girls who spend the wee hours of school mornings in the clutches of curling irons. All that work, just to have Mr. Snavely smile at us, roll his eyes, and tell us to go get our gym shorts on. He was young and kind of cute, and he never questioned the way we all needed to sit out because of our periods with astonishing frequency.
Our school didn’t have that many black girls. Beth isn’t exactly black, she’s more like brown, and there weren’t that many brown girls either. Anyway, believe me when I say the eye-catching about Beth that morning wasn’t her skin tone or her curls, it was her outfit. She wore a bright yellow blouse under a scarlet red jumper—or was it the other way around? And she had enormous pink-tinted glasses, like the ones I wanted but my mom said mine were fine.
It’s not that my fashion choices were any less dubious. What does a Mennonite girl who loves school more than life itself do in anticipation of starting 10th grade? She makes herself a new skirt. Oh yes. A lovely calf-length, red white and teal striped thing, with an extra-wide waistband and box pleats. This demonstration of my domestic ability made me feel so capable. I tied a matching teal ribbon around the neck of my white button-down blouse. The dress code at the Mennonite high school forbade pants for female students from time immemorial until the year after Beth and I graduated. Seriously. The year after.
I smiled at her because she didn’t seem to know anyone.
“Hi. I’m Beth,” she said, like it was the best news of my life.
Beth was the friendliest, funniest girl I ever met. Mr. Snavely made us warm up by running around the soccer field while he studied his stopwatch. Beth and I always ran together—if you can call it running. We giggled, gossiped, and tried to trot as slowly as we could without walking. She told me that her mom grew up Mennonite in Kansas, and that her dad is from Kenya. He was a student at the university when her mom arrived in a group of missionaries charged with teaching English and Sunday School to the children of nomads. He already spoke English, and he didn’t care about Sunday School, but he liked to invent reasons to visit this certain American teacher.
Beth’s family lived in some part of New York City now, and Beth was staying here in the dorm. Beth’s mom came to this school, too, and lived in the dorm—all the way from Kansas. I didn’t know anyone from any of those places, not even the dorm. It explained to me how she got her cinnamon tan and uncontrollable hair, why she sang all the words to rock songs we weren’t allowed to listen to, and why she couldn’t believe our mall was closed on Sundays. I envied everything about her. She ate whatever she wanted and never put on a pound of pudge. I felt like a rosy pink pig next to her long, dark, exquisite sort of beauty.
Beth is pretty resilient. She doesn’t pull her own hair out or lock herself in the bedroom and refuse to speak to anyone. The whole time we were in high school, I never thought once about how having an African dad might matter to a person. Parents were parents in my estimation, a necessary evil and worthy of as little attention as possible.
A talent for mechanical reasoning doesn’t prohibit me from being painfully dumb.
Now I know she was mortified. Now I know she would have given anything to look like me—like nobody, like everybody, like all the other fifteen year old girls with two hundred years of Mennonite lineage in Pennsylvania. Now I understand that she was confused and frightened by this Mennonite high school built on the somber principles of our German ancestors, where the girls still had to wear skirts and no rock music was allowed—or lipstick, or jewelry, or dancing, and every school day began with church. Now I get that she felt like she landed on another planet. I’m sure she tried to tell me then, too, but I couldn’t understand. She landed on the only planet I knew.
* * * * *
Somebody who lived in the apartment before us forgot their red lightbulb in a drawer of The Desk. They probably thought a colored light in the living room would be cool, which is what we thought when we found it. It didn’t take long, though, for us to figure out how something as awesome as an actual red lightbulb ended up forgotten in the drawer of a desk. Although you could see enough by its glow to avoid falling headlong down the obsolete interior stairway to the first floor apartment, you couldn’t read by it, and what are we doing here if we can’t read? We had to put the regular bulb back if we were going to pass our summer classes, and the red one went into the drawer where it came from.
Until the weekend. The red lightbulb was perfect for parties. We called them Red Light parties in honor of the bulb that set the room on fire, the sultry color suggesting indecencies that each and every one of us would have been far too mortified to commit. The living room didn’t even look like ours with the red light on. Our faded pink couch became a beautiful burgundy. The splotches on our filthy carpet faded away, and even the friends we saw every day in class appeared different and somehow surprising.
Being underage and being as it was summer, we had two main problems to solve every time we went for the red bulb. One: How to get alcohol? And two: Who to invite? I was almost 21, but almost isn’t good enough so Tom had to buy our wine. That is so lame. I tried going into Reynolds Liquors myself, once, but of course the guy at the cash register asked to see my ID when I set the big jug of wine on the counter. I had to say I forgot it and act like I couldn’t believe I had been that dumb. The Carlo Rossi family size cost $7.00 at Reynolds. It tastes like sugared vinegar, but we all liked the “blush” well enough, and $7.00 split by four is $1.75 each. It’s a better deal than Boone’s Farm.
Solving the second problem was trickier, especially after the summer term ended and everyone who had someplace more interesting to go went there. Curtis and Tony Royal came to our Red Light parties before they left to backpack through Europe. Dan came while he was around. Of course Tom was always there. Dan’s best friend Colin came up until the night he kissed Beth and she was so repulsed she wouldn’t let us invite him anymore. That was us.
Sometimes Sheila’s Elementary Ed friends came. They were nice enough. A pack of future second grade teachers doesn’t exactly bring the house down, though. Sometimes Beth’s new International Student Union friends came, but they never stayed around long because Beth said at their parties they always have piles of food, and we never had any. Sometimes my hippy theatre friends came smelling of patchouli. Sometimes Nina’s skinny artist friends came with their long bangs lopped over one eye. And sometimes pretty much no one came at all. You never knew what to expect. We always tried to get Nina’s brother Anthony to come, but I think he was afraid of us.
I climbed up on The Desk to exchange the lightbulbs, Beth popped a Bob Marley tape into the stereo, Nina poured our wine into coffee mugs, and we were ready. We danced and gulped sour wine, laughed, pretended to argue and invented silly drinking games. Beth smoked cigarettes on the porch with Curtis. I tried to teach Tom how to salsa. He hated that. Colin and Dan told us stories about the missionary school they went to in Kenya—like how they got sent home from 3rd grade for putting a tarantula on the teacher’s chair. Nina, who forgot to eat again, threw up in the bathroom. That’s pretty much it.
The only thing I hated was when “No Woman, No Cry” came on. When I listen to that tape on my own I can fast-forward through it, but I can’t do that in a room full of dancing people. Everyone else loves that song. They would all stop dancing and yell, “Hey! What are you doing?! I love this song!” and then I would have to explain. Not an option. I had to hold my breath through almost the entire thing, and if I’d already drank a lot—if my toes tingled and my lips felt numb—it was better for me to go lock myself in the bathroom. That way I wouldn’t faint from trying not to cry.
He loved that song—the boy in Los Rios. The potter who I was going to forget. We put Legend and some C batteries in the tape player and sat under the tamarindo tree in the merciful night that falls early at the equator. He didn’t know of Bob Marley or reggae music. He asked me to play it again and again.
I didn’t know how to translate it. “No Mujer—No Llore,” asking a woman not to cry, or “No Mujer, No Llanto,” like women cause you to cry, and none of one equals none of the other. I couldn’t even explain my confusion. I just said “No Mujer No Llorar” and he reached his dark fingers to touch my face and said, “No llore, mujer.” Then he teased me and asked me, “Vas a llorar?” I said, “No.” He said, ”Yo sí.”
I didn’t, either. Then. Now my stomach and my heart kept doing something where they made me feel like I was choking. Not trying to push air in and out helped. Cold water helped too. Sometimes I had to stay there on the bathroom floor crumbled like I’m praying toward Mecca until half way through “Could You Be Loved.”
After we drank all our wine, smoked all our cigarettes, and danced to songs that said things like “legalize it” and “we share the shelter of my single bed,” we couldn’t think of any more rules to break. Nobody wanted the party to be over, though, so we drug pillows and blankets from the bedrooms to the living room floor, and giant gab sessions ensued.
I’m the sleepyhead. For all the enthusiasm I can have about a party at 10 PM—and I can have a lot—I’m the first one down. Beth and Sheila could discuss politics and religion until the sky paled from black to gray, but I always fell asleep while it was still black. Even Tom could stay up arguing that everyone should just live and let live. It’s not that I don’t care or didn’t want to be cool. I tried. But I would float away by accident while the words spun around me.
Morning found us all sound asleep in a giant tangle, the door standing wide open letting in the early chill, the red light burning, pale now, above us.
The parents of most normal American college students would be thrilled to discover that that their kids, on weekends, were dancing in their own living room, drinking cheap wine and falling asleep with their clothes on. Right? Not ours. Oh no. Ours would have gone into cardiac arrest. They pictured us playing “Rook” and drinking Pepsi. But our parents are not normal Americans and neither are we. Our parents are Mennonites and we are what comes after.
We have to figure out how to live in the world they tried so hard to shelter us from, with all of the martyrs they gave us. And the rules. Maybe I’ve got an extra bad case of this vertigo because my parents still live on a farm, and I’m kind of trying to make a two-generation leap, here. Everybody else’s grandparents live on farms. Their parents got day jobs and live in houses with elaborate flower beds and even though they sing four part harmony like nobody’s business, their moms wear lipstick and their dads go to things like baseball games. Not mine. It wouldn’t cross their minds. On both sides of my family, my generation is the first to unpin the coverings from our heads and go to college. Some of us, anyway.
I dreamed someone was frying bacon. As I started to awaken I could still smell it, and I tried to stay asleep. I knew it was a dream. It’s impossible that there could be bacon in this house, because we can’t afford bacon, or that anyone would be cooking it as I slept, because I always wake up first. Then I was awake, lying on the living room floor between Tom and Beth. My head hurt. Hot late-morning sun poured in the window over a pile of people with sheets and legs sticking out. I was so thirsty I thought I might die. And somebody was definitely in my kitchen frying bacon.
I untangled myself and went to see. Colin and Dan were standing over the stove fixing our motley family a home-style hangover breakfast of pancakes with syrup, eggs with bacon, orange juice, coffee and toast. They said they were trying to be quiet but they were doing a pretty terrible job of it. Colin said he woke up because he was hot. Dan said he woke up because he was hungry. Colin said he got paid on Friday and let’s make breakfast. Dan said yeah dude.
Colin is so generous I will never get my head around it. That was his paycheck. Who does that?
After a feast in which we stuffed our hangovers with foods forgotten to our impoverished diet, we had “church.” Why not? It was Sunday. We sang every Bob Dylan song Colin can play on his guitar, Nina read a Sylvia Plath poem and then I read from The Prophet: “Think you that the spirit is a still pool which you can trouble with a staff?”
Then we had to get back to our homework.
* * * * *
Here’s some Mennonite history according to me. I had to study it in high school—and I got an A—so I used to know a lot more about it. This is what I’ve managed to remember:
The Catholic Church had its panties in twist, having lost a limb to the Reformation. The Protestant Church, all zealous and new, was on a roll stamping out heresy wherever they smelled it. Nobody had a shred of patience for the blasphemy coming from a batch of rabble-rousers in Zurich. These trouble-makers called themselves Anabaptists before their sect got named after Menno Simons, and their primary offense was the new ideas they preached about baptism. You might not think that’s something to lose your head over, but Menno Simons and Conrad Grebel did. Whereas everybody else was baptizing infants, the Anabaptists said that baptism should be a symbol of adult choice to follow Christ. They required a lifestyle of simplicity and rejected all forms of violence. Even violence in self-defense.
It seems innocuous to me. How dangerous is a group of people whose hallmark is that they won’t defend themselves? I guess you had to be there.
It was a dreadful time to present a new idea—about anything. The feuding Catholics and Protestants found one thing to agree on: get rid of these Mennonites. They arrested the Mennonite thinkers and hung them above the city in cages to die in public for being heretics. For generations, Mennonites were pursued. Their tongues were torn from their throats. They were hunted, threatened, chased, captured, tortured, burned at the stake, stretched to pieces, decapitated, drowned, or dragged to death behind horses. How’s that for a children’s story?
The survivors scattered throughout northern Europe where foreign governments tolerated them but let’s not confuse that with hospitality. The opportunity to settle on another continent called “The New World” was the best news they ever heard.
In the days when Pennsylvania was still a colony, a Mennonite man named Hans Brubaker purchased 1,000 acres of land from William Penn. He came to America on a ship with 300 other Swiss and German Mennonite immigrants, praying to find peace and a homeland.
Hans cleared woodlands to create fields for planting. He married a woman named Anna. He built a house, a barn, a mill on the river for grinding grain. He fathered children, who fathered children, who lived in his house and farmed his land, passing it on to their sons and to their grandsons. The last one was my grandpa.
I played on the stairs of his rambling farmhouse and took naps on the bed in my mother’s childhood bedroom for eight years, until Grandpa sold the farm at a public auction. The city that was barely a town when Hans felled the first tree opened its jaws on all sides and swallowed the farm whole. The mayor’s office declared the house and the barn to be historical monuments and wrote into law that nobody may change their exterior structure, ever.
This is where I come from. This is who I am.
Or who I was.
Or who I thought I was.
Or who I started out as?
Or is it who my parents are?
Can a story that begins like this still belong to me?
* * * * *
Mennonites don’t do alcohol, at least not the kind of Mennonites I come from. We learn that the “wine” in the Bible was really grape juice; they just called it “wine” back then. It’s interesting. On communion Sunday we eat real bread, and at some churches they actually kneel down to wash each other’s feet. But of course Jesus didn’t mean for us to drink wine. Drinking alcohol of any kind is a sin like lying, stealing, and committing adultery. I never questioned this for a minute.
Until I got to college.
Several Mennonite colleges exist, and my parents said I could pick whichever one I wanted to obtain what I expected would be my psychology degree. I tossed out the Canadian ones because that seemed unnecessary, those in dull and distant places like Kansas, and anything that ended in “Bible College.” That left me with two finalists: the “good” one to the east, and the “bad” one to the west. Almost everybody from my school who didn’t get married and start having babies right away went to one of the two. The virtuous kids who wanted to be nurses and youth pastors went east. The troublemakers who did things like wear “Question Authority” t-shirts went west.
I surprised everybody and picked the bad one. It’s not that I thought I was bad or aspired to become bad—I’m just curious. If I go to the good Mennonite college, I reasoned, I know what will happen to me. I could already envision my life described in one paragraph like the summary on the back cover of a book. I’ll go to college, get married to a Mennonite boy, have a lovely Mennonite family, make lots of pies, get old and die. Or something like that. But if I go to the bad Mennonite college? Who knows? If I go to the bad Mennonite college, all bets are off. Anything could happen. Maybe I’ll still marry a Mennonite boy and make pie. Maybe not.
I heard that some students who graduated from our pious high school in the womb of the Mennonite motherland and went to the bad Mennonite college decided it was alright to drink. They felt fine about it, and not at all in danger of hellfire. I even knew a girl who became a feminist and stopped shaving her legs. There were male students at that college, somebody said, that sometimes wore skirts. Because they felt like it. Could that be true? The daughter of our substitute math teacher started sleeping with her boyfriend after she went to the bad Mennonite college. She didn’t lie about or apologize for it, either. I couldn’t begin to imagine how you stop thinking that’s a sin, because it says right in the Bible that it is. But I had to know. How? It wasn’t that I wanted to do all the bad things. I wanted to figure out how you decide they aren’t bad anymore. That’s all. Really.
I stopped shaving my legs almost right away. Only the dorky girls who should have gone to the good Mennonite college shaved. The cool girls said it’s sexist to define female beauty as the skinny, hairless, pre-pubescent body of a little girl. Some of them didn’t wear bras. They said that being ashamed of your breasts is assimilating patriarchal oppression. I tried that, too, but it was an unpleasant experience, and I strapped my oppression back on at the first available opportunity.
I quit going to church. Who was watching over me? Who was going to scold? We had to attend a certain number of the daily campus Chapel services, or they wouldn’t let us graduate—that should be more than enough. “Chapel” is church on a weekday.
I got invited to parties where people were drinking alcohol right in front of me, and had a riotous time with drunk people who, I discovered, instead of being scary, are incredibly friendly. But I still wasn’t interested in trying it, myself. I heard about somebody’s roommate who got drunk for the first time at one of those parties. She peed her pants on the way home. And her shoes. No way in hell was I about to risk that. Make a drunken freshman fool out of myself? Nope. I had no idea what that fire-water might do to me, and this fear overpowered my usual curiosity. Besides, not only is drinking frowned upon by my genes and forbidden by the college, but when you’re still eighteen it is also illegal. Just thought of getting busted by the cops—and I heard of this happening weekend after weekend—petrified me into complete sobriety. For my whole first year of college.
Then the theatre students packed up and followed our professor to London for the three-week History of Theatre course in the heart of a city where the drinking age is eighteen. There, in a pub called The Zetland Arms, in the presence of the friends who fruitlessly offered me every drink you can imagine for months on end, I ordered a rum and coke.
I thought they were going to faint. Some of them clapped. I smiled and shrugged.
It was strange—sweet and somehow piquant, with an end that made me shiver. I sipped it slowly and ordered another. The crisp edges in the room softened, and Tabitha, who I never really liked, became friendly as a sister. My toes tingled and my lips became slightly numb.
“How do you feel?” Mean Tabitha asked me, and in the friendliest gesture she ever made, laid her long red curls against my shoulder.
“Good,” I said. “My lips feel kind of weird.”
Shrieks of laughter erupted from her wide red mouth, and she hugged me, nearly knocking us both off our chairs, squealing, “You’re drunk! You’re drunk!” in unreasonable delight.
I wasn’t drunk, but I was somewhere I’d never been before, that much is true. And my fear of this mysterious liquid that could rob you of your senses evaporated like dawn mist in the morning sun. This is what all that fuss is about? This is the terrible soul-stealing sin? This is the devil brew? I giggled all the way back up the street arm-in-arm with Mean Tabitha thinking, “This is the last time I am letting somebody else tell me what to be afraid of.”
It pretty much was.
* * * * *
I wanted to be a psychologist ever since I outgrew my elementary-school ambition to be an acrobat or an astronomer. People interest me. Emotions interest me, and I have a lot of them. I’ve been recording them in rambling diaries ever since I was nine years old, kind of as if I were my own case study. During high school summers, I read psychology text books and Carl Jung because I wanted to get a head start.
My English teachers always said I should be an English teacher because of how much I love to read and write. I thought about it. But here’s the thing: I’m going to read and write whether I’m an English teacher or not, and at least if I’m something else, I can read and write whatever I want. The thing I most love to write is poetry and if you think I was going to go to college so people could tell me how to write my own poems, you have to be crazy. And then grow up to tell other people how to write their poems? I don’t think so. I compromised. Psychology major, English minor.
I declared my major and minor when I registered for college, but before my brand new linens lost their crunchy crinkle, I ditched psychology and changed my major to Theatre. The good Mennonite college doesn’t even offer a Theatre major. They have “Communications” which is a fancy name for the media, which is not the same.
Part of the reason I switched majors was math. On my last day of high school, I kicked my calculus textbook across the room, and would have been suspended if there’d been another day to miss. That isn’t like me. I’m usually better at self-restraint. But for twelve years I hated math with the pure blue flame of loathing, and for twelve years I did it anyway. I never imagined that that psychology required the study of statistics. I missed that in the story about Pavlov’s salivating dogs. My hatred for, and inability concerning, math is so profound that nothing was going to draw me back into its clutches, not even psychology. I was not taking any more math. Period. The end.
The other thing is that Theatre is fun. I got a student job as a stage hand for campus events, and the theatre people seemed to like me. They invited me to their parties and tried to convince me to drink beer, which I would have none of. They let me help build the set for the fall play and told me I was a natural. They told me about their exciting classes like Acting, Theatre Set Design, and the History of Theatre class that went to London every other year. This is year they were all going, and I could go too if I was a Theatre major. All I had to do was talk to the Registrar and for four years my work would be like play. Did I really want to spend my life sitting in an office listening to people’s problems, anyway? Statistics I and II, or History of Theatre in London? Could it be more obvious?
The day I changed my major I hit my head so hard that I fell flat on the floor, but that was afterward. I went to the Registrar’s office and filled out the paper she passed me. She smiled, congratulated me, and it was done. Then I bounced back to my dorm room to write a letter to my parents, telling them the happy news which I did not expect to make them happy at all. Our family didn’t go to the theatre, except for high school plays. We didn’t go to movies, either, except for ones like Mountain Family Robinson, and travelogues where somebody shows films they spliced together of national parks they visited on vacation. Theatre, like all art and music of non-religious verbiage, was overtly gratuitous. It suggested sins that began with vanity and ended with God-only-knows what.
But I had the card to trump it all: this is a Mennonite college, therefore my parents have to approve. If the Psychology program is acceptable, then the Theatre program is too. Right?
I planted myself on a stack of pillows under my side of the hinged loft-beds that Dad and I built in the garage and then assembled in the room. Four pages of giddy delight poured from my pen.
My parents and I weren’t in the habit of calling each other—we did our chatting through the mail. Mennonites are frugal like that. Long distance phone calls are expensive, and postage stamps were 29 cents. Waste not, want not. More with less. Anyway, the mail works fine unless you’re having an emergency. And it makes things like this easier. My parents called the phone in my dorm room to say things like “Happy Birthday,” but I couldn’t dial outside the area code. If I needed to ask whether or not my fever was dangerous or when my last tetanus shot was, I could call them collect on the pay phone in the basement beside the washers.
I did my earnest best to tell my parents something they wouldn’t want to hear in such a way that they couldn’t say much more than, “How nice.” Then I was ready to toss the envelope in campus mail. I folded the letter and leapt from my seat on the floor, forgetting that the loft bed was lowered into the perpendicular sleeping position. My head slammed into the plywood that held my mattress, and I landed on the floor on my back beside my own good news.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did some of both before I tried again, slower this time. I hoped it wasn’t an omen. I could always assert that I don’t believe in omens, if anyone suggested it was.
* * * * *
In May and June the college offers intensive courses with the full twelve-week curriculum crammed into three, a merciless and unproductive method for learning anything whatsoever. It’s a miserable experience for both professors and students during a time of year when nobody with any sense wants to spend their days inside. Beth and I signed up for two English classes: Literature of Transgression and Pardon, then Twentieth Century Thought in Literature. She was an English major, and at that point, it was still my minor. Sheila took Phys World, billed as “basic physics for non-science majors.” It’s terrible—I took it the next summer. Science majors aren’t required to take remedial Theatre classes, so how is this fair? Nina had her job in the Admissions office and her personal problems.
In the first literature class, we were subjected to a relic of an Irish history fanatic who could draw a parallel between Ireland and anything you can name. Poor Professor Williams lost his trains of thought or missed them completely, confused book titles, confused class schedules, confused us, fell asleep, put us to sleep, and inspired me with a profound desire to flee academia while I still had the spark of life in me. I thought I wanted to minor in English, but this was not at all what I had in mind. What an unnerving experience to hate the first class you take in your own minor. But, I reasoned, it can only get better. I’ll make sure never to have Professor Williams again—if he somehow lives to see another school year.
Professor Mary Perry, who taught our second class, is one of those brilliant eccentrics. She gives the first impression of being crazy, but it’s only because she has zero concern for what people think of her. She believes in ghosts and fairies, for example, and amused her literature students with bizarre digressions on subjects like the digestive systems of cows. I don’t know what that had to do with anything. One minute we were discussing Rilke and the next minute she’s expounding on how cows chew the grass, barf it up into their own mouths, and chew it again. I missed the connection. The fact that she became my lifelong friend did not prevent me, I’m sorry to say, from hating her class almost as much as I hated Professor Williams’. This was not a good time for me to meet up with existentialism, Nietzsche, Death in Venice and Mrs. Dalloway. When the Registrar’s office opened in the fall, I walked in and dropped my English minor like a hot rock.
Beth says that Mrs. Dalloway is a fabulous book and that I should give it another try. Then again, Beth loves all books categorically. I gave Mrs. Dalloway my best shot, but I couldn’t keep track of what was happening. Nothing made any sense. Clarissa reminded me too much of myself, maybe—everything moving at different speeds, times and places refusing to stand still, things escaping from their contexts.
Sometimes, in the middle of class, I had to hold my breath so I wouldn’t start crying for no apparent reason. Not about Mrs. Dalloway. About everything. I stepped off the plane from Costa Rica a week before summer classes started and flopped back into academia like a fish not worth frying. I tried my hardest to be okay, but somewhere inside me I couldn’t get my balance. Like when you put on someone else’s glasses and all of the sudden you’re dizzy. I tried to concentrate on inanimate objects, hoping to make the world stop spinning, but it didn’t work.
This was the wrong time for me to contemplate questions of existence. It was the wrong time for me to read the literature of fracture and confusion. I sat in those classes and wondered things, but not the kind of things my hopeful professors would have wanted.
I wondered about Abraham. When God called him to leave his people and go to a strange land, did he think he was going crazy?
What would have happened if I hadn’t left Los Rios?
How long until I am happy again?
How will I live my life?
I wondered about my deserted rainforest boy. He spread his blanket on the dry stubble near the middle of the plaza and we lie there in the dark underneath everything that ever was. I asked him what he wants to do in his life. He said trabajar like I had asked him a silly question. Then he asked it to me. I said escribir. He said escribir que? I said cosas. He said aquí puede escribir cosas.
I wondered if I was losing my mind.
I wondered if you could go ahead and lose your mind without anyone noticing. Or would it be like the guy we read about who turned into a cockroach? Would it be obvious?
I hate that story.
* * * * *
Something about him reminded me of a bird—as if he could lift, circle, and disappear into the tamarindo trees along the quebrada. There is an eagle in his face—in the set of his eyes and the curve of his lip. Something fierce and delicate, at home in high quiet places.
He bowed his head, intently drawing on raw clay vases with a nail driven through a piece of wood. The winged serpents that live in his ancestral memory crept through the sharp point into daylight. When he looked up into my face, I knew things I had no words for. Things that live in my bones.
When words are absent, everything else speaks: slim brown fingers holding the rough tool, a shiny black ceramic surface, wind, the dog scratching her flees in the shade, a hen scolding her chicks, a neighbor laughing, parakeets, breath that goes in and out of everything and fills the quiet world.
How will I say in words what I understand in silence?
If I trap it in syllables, how will it be true?
* * * * *
The last thing I expected is that while I was in Costa Rica, Beth would become such close friends with Mean Tabitha. Turns out Mean Tabitha wasn’t mean to Beth. She glowed on her like the afternoon sunshine, radiant and warm. Mean Tabitha is only mean to people she considers below her, people who do things like grow up on chicken farms in Pennsylvania and don’t know the meanings of words like tahini and sashimi, who haven’t watched all the right movies and don’t speak proper slang. Mean Tabitha, like Beth, is from the city where people are not nearly as clueless. Mean Tabitha is from Chicago. She hennas her hair and drinks gin and tonics and makes it very clear that she had slept with both men and women.
Beth loved her, this was evident. She would drop anything if Mean Tabitha called, and she always came back from their adventures draping her hair over one shoulder like Mean Tabitha, holding her head sideways and sighing in painful boredom at the ordinariness of the rest of her life.
“I invited Tabitha over to dinner.”
“She’s bringing wine.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I’ve never really—felt comfortable around her.”
“I don’t know.
She makes me all self-conscious.”
“I don’t know. I get the feeling she thinks I’m stupid.”
“She does not,” Beth contradicted me. “That’s just her sense of humor.”
“She was nice to me in London,” I said, instead of saying mean isn’t funny, which is what I was thinking.
“See?” Beth said.
“Oh, hi!” Mean Tabitha squealed at me when she came in the door. “You’re back.” She said it like I was a stray or something.
“Yes I am,” I said. I placed a brave smile on my face.
She stretched out her arms and gave her lips a big pucker, which warned me I was about to get a loveless hug and some hug urban air-kisses.
“So, where were you again?”
“Costa Rrrica!” she repeated, rolling the “R” long and loud, and giving her hips a shake. “Did you fall in love?”
“No,” I lied.
“Good job,” she said, patting me on the butt like we’re on a football team, and going toward the kitchen to find Beth. “It’s so lame to go off and think you fell in love just because you finally left home.”
“Right,” I said. I’d been in the room with her for 60 seconds and how miserable was I?
Dinner was a hooting, squealing, guffawing affair consumed in a circle on our living room floor where everyone except me talked all at once. I’d never been to Chicago, which is where they’d all been on spring break. Together. I didn’t know any of the people they were talking about. I didn’t get what was so funny. They decided to go see “Jungle Fever” in Riverside over the weekend. I wanted to go too, but I was trying to save money for the Grateful Dead show.
“That following the Grateful Dead shit is so fucked up!” Mean Tabitha said. She rolled her eyes and shook her head.
See? I told you she was mean. She could have said she hoped I had fun or something decent.
“I’m not following them. I’m just going to a show.”
“Whatever,” she said tossing her hair over her other shoulder. “I don’t think getting all stoned and peaced out is an appropriate way of dealing with life.”
Beth didn’t say anything, but she was watching her intently. And nodding. “Anyway. Sorry for you,” Mean Tabitha said. “It’s a FABULOUS MOVIE!” “Annabella Sciorra’s in it right?” Nina asked. “She’s so hot.”
"So hot!” Mean Tabitha said with her mouth full.
“Spike Lee rocks!” Beth said.
I didn’t know who Annabella Sciorra is. I didn’t know who Spike Lee is, either, until I saw that movie. I’m terrible with names. I’m terrible with movies. And I’m trying to be a Theatre major?
Mean Tabitha was right about me. I’m a nerd.
I have never been so anxious to finish swallowing my food so I can go to the kitchen and wash the dishes. I washed them all, and I made it take as long as I could. That wasn’t the only meal Mean Tabitha came to at our house, but it was the only one I stayed through. If I ever invited anyone to dinner who was that mean to Beth over her plate of rice, I would say I was sorry and never invite her again.
* * * * *
I do not know how to eat the soup.
An enormous bowl sets on the table in front of me with floating fist-sized potatoes, gristly chunks of meat, yucca, whole carrots, halved ears of corn. And a spoon.
My mamá named Hilda smiles at me because she is pleased to have made me something special. “Coma,” she says. “¿No le gusta la sopa?”
I like soup and I am hungry, but I don’t know what to do. The soups that I am familiar with consist of small-cut meat and vegetables, not these ingredients boiled whole. I look again, but she has not given me a knife. She stands smiling at me in confused expectation as I blink helplessly at my plate.
I must find some words I can use in this language, and I have so few.
“No entiendo,” I say. ”¿Cómo?”
“Ay mamita,” she says, through an accidental giggle, and asks me if I’ve never eaten soup before. ”Así,” she says, and taking my spoon, she slices off a piece of potato and offers it to me as if I were a giant 20-year-old baby.
“Ah,” I say. “Gracias.” I take the spoon.
Mamá Hilda disappears into the kitchen and then joins me with a steaming bowl for herself. The delicious broth is scalding hot, and I spill it on the table as I chop at the carrot and then at the corn with my dull utensil.
“No no,” she interrupts me. “El maíz, no. Ay mamita. No sabe comer la sopa,” and she giggles again. “Mire,” she commands. She dips her fingers into the boiling broth, fishes out the ear of corn and bites the kernels from it in the way of every summer.
“¿Ya?” she asks me, meaning do I need more help or do I get it now.
“Sí,” I say. “Ya.”
I know nothing. Not how to eat, not how to speak. All my life, I have heard people talk of being born again and although this is not what they meant, I see that this is its truer meaning.
When we are finished, our faces shine with sweat and soup.
Before we even ran out of clean underwear or decided something had to be done about the bedding, the kitchen towels presented a problem. At least to me they did. How do you clean up a mess with something that’s dirty? Believe me, I tried. It’s hopeless because no matter how careful you are, you only make the mess bigger. We had three towels at first, but were already down to two since Sheila set one on fire. They had to double as hot pads for removing boiling pots from the flames of our gas stove—an excellent way to set their little fringes ablaze, burn yourself, nearly set the house on fire, and destroy a perfectly good kitchen towel.
A coffee spill or two, cooking oil that missed the pan and has to be mopped from the stovetop, milk that landed outside the bowl, then a quick rinse in the sink, and soon the dish towels were crusty, molded, greasy rags, unrecognizable as anything intended for use near food. The classic trip through the washer and dryer wasn’t an option. We didn’t have a washer, nor had we received the revelation that we were living practically beside a laundromat. And yet something had to be done.
A thought pecked at the back of my brain. Would that work? Why not? Nothing I could do was going to make those kitchen towels worse. Who cares if everyone laughs at me?
In Los Rios, where I woke up on sunny mornings a few weeks ago, my mamá Hilda didn’t have a washer. She had soap, water and a cement wash sink against which she scrubbed our clothes to a fierce cleanliness never produced by an agitating tub of suds. I clicked off the list in my head: I didn’t have laundry soap, but I had various other kinds of soaps. I had water. No cement wash sinks anywhere, but there’s a cement slab at the base of our wobbly steps. Why wouldn’t that work? I filled a bucket with water and grabbed a small plastic bowl to use as a scoop. I never did this in Los Rios. My mamá did it for me. But I watched, and how hard can it be?
“What are you doing, loca?” Beth asked when she saw me heading toward the door with my bucket of water and supplies.
“What kind of experiment?”
“A laundry experiment.”
“I hope it works!”
“Me too. These towels are disgusting.”
“Can I watch?” Sheila asked.
“Sure. Don’t laugh. I never tried this before.”
“Did you learn it in Costa Rica?”
I had to fetch the broom and sweep the dirt from the cement before anything had hope of getting clean on it. I dumped a scoop of water on it to wet it, then spread the immoral dish towels out and poured water over them too. I squirted them with a generous amount of dish soap. Then I commenced scrubbing them back and forth against the rough cement, which—of course—produced more mud, even though a minute ago, it appeared clean. I rubbed and scrubbed, slopped and scraped, dumped more water, squirted more soap.
“Cool!” Sheila admired.
Not terribly. Two of my knuckles were bleeding. My mamá’s knuckles never bled, whether because they were so toughened by the constant necessity of repeating this task, or because she had learned to do it without scraping them on the cement, I can’t say. I had to keep washing the blood away so that I wouldn’t make the towels worse, instead of better.
Getting the soap out was the hardest part. I had to send Sheila up to the kitchen for another bucket of water and I was making an enormous mess. I somehow managed to soak my shirt, and a puddle of mud had formed around my bare feet. I wrung and rinsed, twirled and twisted, beating the suffering towels up and down against the cement with one hand while attempting to pour water over them with the other. Mamá made it look a lot easier than this. If I had to wash bath towels and work jeans this way like she did, I think I would cry.
The kitchen towels turned out a heck of a lot better than I dared to imagine. They weren’t exactly white, but they were a lot less brown. Sheila had to get me another bucket of water to wash my feet, and then I walked up the steps and draped the dripping towels over the banister in the sun.
“There,” I said, when I walked back inside.
Beth looked up at me over top of the book she was reading.
I shrugged my shoulders and went into the bathroom to check if our medicine cabinet by some chance contained Band-Aids.
* * * * *
Curtis and Dan, with their fearless dumpster diving, fed us like dime store royalty while they were in town. Their midnight expeditions yielded such harvests as donuts, bread, pancake syrup, orange juice, wilted vegetables, expired canned goods, hotdogs that still smelled okay, and, of course, the microwave. They would hit the dumpsters behind Kroger’s, the one behind the Seven Eleven and the ones in the fancy housing development on the other side of campus.
I always meant to go along and try it myself, but somehow I never did. For one, you have to go at three o’clock in the morning, at which hour I am never in the mood to do anything. The other thing is, it’s risky. Dumpster diving is illegal for some reason, a law that defies all logic. Just because someone doesn’t want something should not mean that no one else is allowed to have it. You can be fined several hundred dollars for dumpster diving in the state of Indiana. In some places, the police have better things to do than chase people stealing each other’s trash, but not in this town.
There’s one other reason that I never went along. I’m embarrassed to say this, but there is one thing about dumpster diving that scares the crap out of me, and it’s not cops or the inconvenient hour. It’s rats. I don’t know if you see rats when you dig through the garbage at 3 in the morning or not. But you could. You’re at the right place at the right time. Even though I rarely flinch over worms, spiders or little mice, I think that if I came face to face with a real live rat in a dark dumpster, I would scream my bloody head off. Something about their beady eyes and snaky tails puts me straight over the edge. Then the cops would get us for sure.
The other way to get free food is to steal it before it hits the trash. One of Tom’s housemate stole flocks of frozen chickens from Kroger’s, shoving them inside his out-of-season coat, and trying to keep his teeth from chattering as he paid for a pack of cigarettes.
But the hands-down best place to steal food was from the college cafeteria. No question. Security alarms on doors were slow in arriving to northern Indiana church colleges, and Tony Royal knew how to get in since he had been the trusted student manager for four years. He never told us how he did it—he wasn’t a complete crook—but he could get in without a sound, without a key, without a trace, and open the door from the inside to let in the rest: Curtis, Dan, Colin and whoever wanted to join them. First, they feasted. Then they hauled out pounds of meat, blocks of cheese, dozens of eggs, buckets of ice cream. I never did that, either. I kept thinking of how mortified my parents would be if I got caught stealing food from the cafeteria and I lost my nerve. Plus, what if I got kicked out of school? Then what? I would have to go home.
Beth is gutsier than I am. She went along like Maid Marion a few times, including the last time when the security guard busted them, and they had to run for their educations.
Charlie, the senior citizen security guard, must have seen movements through the shadowy cafeteria windows and come to investigate. The thieves were in the kitchen giggling in hushed hysterics, scooping chocolate peanut butter ice cream into their mouths faster than they could swallow it, their loot of food piled beside them, when the lights flipped on. I’ll bet they almost gave old Charlie a heart attack as they burst out of the kitchen at a dead run, breaking for the emergency exit on the other side of the dining hall. They were closer to the door than he, and much more agile, but had the disadvantage of having to run with their shirts pulled up over their heads so he wouldn’t recognize them. Charlie took off after them yelling, “Hey! You kids! Get back here!”
They hit the crash-bar on the door seconds ahead of him, and burst into the sweet black night where they could abandon the precaution of hiding their faces. They made it off the campus ahead of old Charlie, and lost him in the alleys and shadows of 8th Street.
The only things they scored that time were the pair of somebody’s forgotten sunglasses that Dan had stuffed into his back pocket and the ice cream scoop that Beth found still in her hand.
* * * * *
Girls loved Dan. It wasn’t only Nina. He has a sort of muddled mystique about him, which comes from having grown up in Kenya. He never saw “M*A*S*H*“, for example, which causes intense puzzlement and fascination. He has these awesome sandals that are made from an actual tire and will never wear out. Ever. When he’s pissed off, or if you startle him, he swears in Swahili. It’s adorable.
There were moments when I could see what all the fuss was about, but mostly he’s too gangly for me. And I hate mustaches no matter where their owner grew up. I never saw “M*A*S*H*” either, and that doesn’t make me cool or mysterious. I never saw it because we were only allowed to watch “Little House on the Prairie,” and we had to turn even that off if something scary happened like a house fire or a wagon wreck. Where’s my mystique?
He was Nina’s torment.
Poor Dan. He tried. He liked Nina. They went out on a few actual dates—like to dinner and the movies. Nobody else I knew went on real dates like that. They went for walks and then found a room where they could close the door. Dan slept over in our Pit of Sin with her a few times. But he had an incurable case of wander lust, so when his one summer class ended, he stuffed a backpack full of t-shirts and hit the road. He wanted to hitchhike to California and back. He’d be here again by September, he promised. We all told him he was crazy, but Dan has never cared on a day in his life what anyone else thinks of him. That’s part of what makes him so irresistible.
Nina seemed to be alright when he left. She was gloomy and lovesick, but as stable as any of us. She said she was sure that this time apart would benefit their relationship. She said she needed time to think. She said that this way, during the summer, they could both see other people. Then she painted a life-sized replica of him, wearing nothing but grapes, on the wall by her bed.
* * * * *