The Carrot Problem
Nina planted a garden. Or let’s say Nina meant to plant a garden, but she lost her grip before she got any seeds in the ground. I guess that isn’t very nice of me. Her problems were clearly real enough, although to me they were invisible.
The joke was on the rest of us. We all laughed and said, “Nina is insane!” never intending to be right. Nina, the girl who never had a dirty fingernail, who would die at the thought of injuring a worm, not only announced that she was going to plant a vegetable garden but that she was going to excavate it herself. She found an old rusted rototiller in the shed and hauled it out. The rototiller was such a dinosaur that it didn’t use gasoline and could presumably till the earth with the bare force of human muscle behind it. Nina had precious little of that. It weighed more than she did, and her chosen garden plot beside the shed had a thick mat of grass.
She must have felt her grip loosening, and found a need to push hard against something. I rolled my eyes at her for thinking of backbreaking labor as fun. I remember summers on the farm where “gardening” meant being obligated to haul offensive rocks out of the potato patch, and to hoe rows of vegetables that struggled in pure shale. There’s nothing charming or entertaining about it. God knows that at her home Nina never had to do anything she didn’t want to—she said so herself. Her parents are Mennonites, but not the kind that populates Pennsylvania. They’re the kind that don’t have to wear out-of-fashion clothes or grow their own green beans. That’s why I laughed at Nina out in the “garden.”
Ha,” I smirked to myself. “She thinks she’s going to make up for nineteen years of being spoiled by killing herself in the dirt.”
Turns out I was right.
“Hey, Nina. Let me help you,” I offered. At least I weigh more than the rototiller. Just because I thought she was full of shit doesn’t mean I didn’t feel sorry for her.
“No,” she sang out, “I’m fine.”
She wouldn’t let any of us help her—not me, not Sheila, not Beth. This went on for a couple of days, and we started to believe her. A rich stripe of earth began to emerge beside the shed. It grew in width until a row of tomatoes could conceivably be planted there. Sheila caught the garden fever, and Beth too. They talked about the carrots and corn and cucumbers we would harvest, all natural and homegrown. I didn’t want to be a wet blanket so I tried to say supportive things, but I know a lot more about the travails that gardens face than these girls from suburbia. For one, they don’t weed and water themselves. Plus, there are several million species of bugs in the world that like veggies every bit as much as we do and don’t mind eating them green.
That night Beth and Sheila and I lay sprawled on our furnitureless living room floor. I was supposed to be doing what they were doing—reading for class tomorrow—but I wasn’t. I gave up hours ago on Seamus and the Bog People, and commenced making little colored beads out of bakeable clay. Colors always cheer me up. It was far too hot to learn anything but of course professors don’t consider that when they compile their reading lists. Nina was in her room where she spent a lot of time taking naps at absurd hours and then wandering around the house when normal people are sleeping.
Sheila, I could handle. She’s quirky but amusing. Nina, on the other hand, is beyond me. Yes, she’s a talented artist, smart, and sparkled with the electricity of newfound feminism. But seriously? In college, everyone is smart, everyone has some sort of talent, and any woman worth her salt finds feminism like a convert come to Jesus. Why this child-sized bearer of imaginable angst appealed to Beth so much is not a question for which I ever divined an answer.
Sheila sat up from her reading and said in a voice so loud we all jumped, “Hey you guys!”
“Can we get ice cream?”
“You’re the devil…”
“Do we have any money left?”
“How much is it?”
And then, before we could even calculate the consequences of this proposed misdemeanor, the door to Sheila and Nina’s room opened, and Nina emerged. She looked normal to me.
“Hey Nina! Wanna get ice cream?”
“You guys,” Nina said, ignoring or missing the question, “I think I need to go to Pine View.”
We all shut up and the ice cream melted right out of our minds.
“Pine View?” Beth asked, to be sure.
“Right now?” I asked, thinking logistics.
Why?” asked Sheila, without hesitation.
But Nina answered her. “I’ve been having some problems and I need to get help. I’m afraid I could be dangerous to myself.”
She was as calm as if she were announcing that she wanted to go to Seven Eleven for a coke. This was the last thing any of us anticipated. Pine View is a mental hospital. I knew Nina wasn’t a glowing ray of sunshine, but I guess I thought she was acting the part of the tormented artist. Who knew she’d been sitting alone her dark room feeling suicidal? She just walked out of her room and asked to be taken away.
It was a bit of a problem because we didn’t have a car.
I went from my general mild annoyance with her to feeling sorry for her in fifteen seconds. How much would you hate to have to ask your housemates to drive you to the mental hospital? She seemed tinier than ever, like a sad, pitiful child.
I told her not to worry—I would be right back with Tom’s car. I went out into the night, unlocked my bicycle and flew down the dark streets, not even pausing for stop signs, praying that Tom would be home. He and his housemates were watching some TV murder mystery and drinking Labatt’s Blue.
“Hey, Hannah,” he beamed when he saw me through the screen door. “Come in. Want a beer?”
“Actually, no. Can you come here a sec? I have to ask you something.”
“Sure. What’s up?” Tom stepped outside with me.
“Can I borrow your car?”
“Yeah. What’s the matter?”
“Nina says she needs to go to Pine View.” I mumbled the last part so that no one else would hear me.
“Oh! Oh my God. Is she alright?”
“Well...” I shrugged my shoulders. That was a dumb question.
So I drove Nina to Pine View in Tom’s car. I can’t imagine what we talked about on the way. I doubt we said much. I never had any idea what to say to her unless we were having a disagreement.
I stayed close beside her while she talked to the sleepy-eyed night receptionist. I put my arm around her. I held her hand. How weird to feel yourself love a person you thought you didn’t even like.
The receptionist wrote things on papers and paged the night nurse over the intercom.
The night nurse peered over her glasses at us and told us to go home.
Nina didn’t budge. “No,” she said. “I will hurt myself.”
I stood by her, pressing back into her clenched palm. My heard pounded and I felt faint. She will, I wanted to say. You should see what she did to the yard with the rototiller.
Holy God. What if they won’t take her?
A lot of people had to talk to a lot of other people about letting someone self-admit without a doctor’s signature. But we weren’t going to find a doctor with office hours at this time of night, and I wasn’t taking Nina back home just to have to sit on her until morning so she wouldn’t slit her wrists. We could spend the night in the waiting room for all I cared.
The night nurse called her away to another room where a doctor could talk in private with her. I stood at the reception window in the common area where patients were watching animal documentaries on TV, and answered questions about Nina.
“Yes, she’s a student.”
“No, her parents don’t know she’s here.”
“I don’t think she’s on any medication.”
I waited for a while on a flowered couch that was itself almost enough to drive you mad, until the receptionist came to tell me that Nina would be staying. She must have convinced them that she was ill because she didn’t come back from the room, and I drove away alone in the car.
* * * * *
Having to pay bills is a wonderful misery. It’s the price tag on no one being able to tell you what to do. We suffered it joyfully, like martyrs singing hymns as flames lapped our toes. The $88.00 we each had to pay for rent took us ages to earn with part-times student wages and odd jobs. And then there were the utilities on top of that. To spend the afternoon on required reading, or earning a 20 dollar bill—that is the question. Our laments rose to heaven as the flames moved closer, but we would not re-cant. No price is too much for your freedom. Our singed eyebrows were living proof that we could take care of ourselves.
The good thing about the rent payment is that you always know how much it’s going to be. It’s the biggest bill, and therefore the worst, but at least there’s never a surprise. The other ones, like the phone bill and the water, depend on who you call and how long you stay in the shower. You might think you’re being careful, but when the bill comes you find out for real.
Our gas, electric and water bills went to the office of Barb the landlady, instead of coming to the house where careless renters might lose them or do something hair-brained like let the water get cut off. Each month when I took Barb the rent money, I brought the utility payments too, and she gave me the next set of bills to divide.
The phone bill came to the house. I set up the line myself because somewhere in the back of my mind I already suspected that I would not move back to the dorms on campus, ever. When the phone bill came, we took turns pouring over its pages, circling our long-distance calls with different-colored pens, and then adding up how much we owed. Landlords don’t care if you get your phone cut off, so you can take care of that one yourself. It’s not like the water, which, if it got cut off, would cause your house to be more disgusting than it already is, or the gas. In the summer the gas bill isn’t a big deal but in the winter it is, and if you didn’t pay it, you would freeze to death among the exploding pipes.
On the first of each month, I put $88.00 each, plus utilities, into an envelope and rode my bike across town to Barb’s office at Century 21. I pedaled up 9th Street and along the railroad tracks, past the Winnebago factory, across the overpass above the highway—far away from the familiar safety of the college campus and out onto Lincoln Avenue.
I arrived soaked with sweat, and tried my best to project serene adult confidence as I pushed against the heavy glass door. The blast of icy office air made me shiver. I handed over the precious envelope and waited for the signed receipts with our next bills, anxious to burst into the muggy sunshine again and pedal as fast as I could back to the familiar safety of our own private chaos.
* * * * *
Sheila’s grandma Friesen must have thought we were one uncivilized set of girls. She’s almost more like a mom to Sheila than a grandma. She lives at the retirement community near the college and, being as we were Sheila’s friends, she wanted to get to know us. At least, she thought she did. I’m sure Grandma Friesen never saw anyone eat the way we ate the night she took us to Ponderosa Steakhouse—especially not girls. She must have thought we were pigs. Nina missed the feast because she was in Pine View, but I’m sure they feed you well there. Unbalanced people must need a balanced diet even more than the rest of us. We tried to mind our manners but Beth kept making us laugh with our mouths full, then Sheila choked on her diet coke and some came out her nose.
At Ponderosa, you can eat all you want for one price at the buffet, plus you get a slab of steak, a baked potato and a bottomless Coke. We were so hungry—not only in our gurgling stomachs, but in our minds where empty pockets and empty pantries haunted our dreams, and then we woke up to them. We were hungry in our blood cells, where a diet of rice and ramen is not good enough. Tossed salad, fruit salad, potato salad, chicken wings, fish sticks, tacos with meat and cheese and salsa, spaghetti and meatballs, mushroom soup, vegetable soup, macaroni and cheese, egg rolls, tuna salad, green beans, sweet corn, sauerkraut, baked beans, sweet and sour pork, fried shrimp, carrot sticks, and an ice cream sundae for dessert: didn’t Mother always say you must at least try a little bit of everything?
Again and again we got up to fill our plates, chattering with Grandma Friesen about our house, our summer classes, and how none of us really knew how to cook. No matter how much we ate, there was always more.
In the car, I thought I was going to throw up. I felt like I was suffocating because I couldn’t get a deep breath. Sheila sat still as a corpse. Beth was pale green. I slipped my hand out the open window and let go of the complementary lollipop I was licking. No way. Not even.
When Grandma Friesen dropped us off, we thanked her, trying not to gag, and lumbered up our rickety stairs. I guess she satisfied her curiosity about us that day, because we never saw her again. She often invited Sheila to her house for meals, but I’m sure she was scared to try to feed the rest of us.
I wish people were like camels that can store their food and water for months. Even to be like one of Professor Perry’s cows that passes it all around a few times. But we’re girls, and in the morning we were starving again. They don’t give you doggie bags at all-you-can-eat buffets. The next day you’re on your own.
* * * * *
Curtis and Tony Royal grew scruffy beards and lifted a “Let’s Go Europe” from the public library. They made lists of cities and flipped a coin to decide if they would stop there or not. Then at the beginning of June they stuffed their backpacks with t-shirts and took a bus to Chicago O’Hare with every intention of flying standby to Europe. It must have worked, because they didn’t come back.
I hate to say this, but I barely remember them leaving. I should have been paying more attention since Beth is my best friend and Curtis was her boyfriend. What kind of terrible friend doesn’t attend to you with tequila and tissues when your love walks out the door?
I imagine we threw a party the night before, with the red lightbulb, to say good-bye. We must have danced and drank wine. The rest of us slept in a pile in the living room while Curtis and Beth filled the Pit of Sin with wickedness until morning. They must have hugged and kissed at the bottom of the stairs before he walked away. They promised to write, that much I know, because they wrote to each other for years—epic accounts of their adventures, inspirations and other loves.
None of us imagined they would get married. None of us imagined marriage, period. We called it bullshit, and a stupid convention to which we would never bow. Boyfriends? Yes. Lovers? Absolutely. Husbands? Hell no.
I thought he was just some guy she liked. I expected that she would forget about him or begin to find him somewhat gross, the way you do when you stop liking someone. If I had known, then, that Curtis was the love of her life, I would have tried to be nicer to him all along. I would have paid attention to him instead of tolerating him. He always complemented my poems, so I said I liked his sculptures. That’s about it. I did like them. I didn’t understand them very well but they were beautiful in a confusing sort of way.
To be honest, lost as I was in my own labyrinth, I wanted Beth all to myself. Good for me if her stupid boyfriend left. I didn’t say that, but I thought it. So, yes, later when I was crying through boxes of tissues, berating myself for being a terrible friend—I deserved it.
Beth is better than I am at masking her sorrows. After Curtis was gone, she danced around the house with her cigarettes, and on the wall she painted an enormous cupid taking aim at the door. She and cupid were on the hunt. Almost right away, she started going out with a guy named Johan and pretended to get over Curtis so fast that I assumed she never missed him.
* * * * *
“Can I ask you a question?”
“What is it that you liked so much about Los Rios?”
I took a deep breath and watched the steam from Beth’s first cup of morning coffee curl around her with her hair. We were sitting on the porch with our bare feet on the top stair. She hadn’t asked me much about Los Rios yet and I hadn’t volunteered. I didn’t know how to bring it up.
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, besides warm weather and all. Because I don’t think it’s just the weather you fell in love with.”
“Right. It’s not just the weather.” I took a deep breath. How am I supposed to explain something I can’t get my head around? “I’m trying to figure it out too.”
“Is it the boy?”
“No,” I said, staring past my coffee at the grass below us. “I mean yes, but no. Not just him. Yeah, everybody was nice and everything was all gorgeous. But. It has something to do with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“About how I was.”
“How were you?”
“I was—just me. Nobody there knew me. At all. I was just myself. And it was okay for me to be a little weird, because I was a foreigner. You know?”
She coughed a laugh and raised her mug for a coffee toast. “Good point.”
“Nobody expected me to be any certain way. I could just be.”
“Were you different?”
“No. Not really. That’s why it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Who says it has to make sense? You can love anything you want.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“I know. I...” I’d wanted so much to try to tell her everything about it—every minute. Now she was asking, and where were the words? “There were no parents. Or somebody who might know somebody who goes to their church. Y’know? No professors. Nobody who knows anybody I know. Nobody who ever even heard of a Mennonite. I never... had that. I’m used to people taking one look at me and asking if I’m from Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, they ask me if I’m a Zimmerman.”
Beth nodded and blew into her mug. She has problems in life but that’s not one of them.
“People there kept asking me if I’m related to Madonna.”
Beth wasn’t prepared for an explosion of laughter and she spat hot black coffee all over the stairs. That made me laugh too, and I spat my coffee off the side of the porch, down onto where our waiting bikes were parked.
“Did you spit that all over my bike?”
“You spit on my feet!”
We had to set our mugs down or the rest would have been on our feet and our bikes as well.
“I’m so sorry!”
“What did you say? Did you tell them she’s your cousin?”
“Why not? I would have.”
It’s true. She would have. Beth thinks of everything. To be honest, it didn’t even occur to me. I could have been Madonna’s cousin.
Hell, I could have been her sister.
* * * * *
The hands, the voices, the brush of coco palm leaves across the hot tin of the open workshop roof keep the same steady rhythm. The abuela, Doña Delfina, forms a giant tinaja from the same clay her bones are made of. Her arms move steadily, doing this earthen art practiced by her mother and her grandmothers ever since the time when jaguars lurked in this forest. Her son called Chino is leaning against the door frame of the house. The other son, my host papá who is called Tito because he is the youngest, sits on a small wooden stool by his wife, Hilda. She bathes a finished pot in red slip by dipping a strip of cloth, and dragging it in wide circles. This work is as indispensable as it is unhurried.
Pedro, the son of the woman next door, will come back today from the capital city in a box to be buried here with the old people. Something went wrong on a wet mountain road far away, and the motorcycle he bought with the lottery money came to rest under the bus.
“Pobrecita, la señora,” Doña Delfina laments, without looking up.
“Dejó tres chiquillos,” Chino says. He shakes his head and scuffs his sandal against the dirt floor of the workshop.
“¿Será que andaba borracho?” asks Tito.
“Quién sabe,” says Hilda, dipping. “Tal vez.”
The old woman Doña Delfina pronounces the city to be a dangerous place. One by one, they agree.
Then they wait, and she will continue. “Mucha gente se muere en la ciudad,” she muses.
Muy peligroso,” cautions la abuela as her hands press and stroke the cool earth. “Se muere mucha gente, allí.”
“Aquí, se mueren solo los viejos.”
“Se muere mucha gente en la ciudad,” the old woman chants to herself and her children. I think of the hen tied by her leg to the jocote tree and how she calms her chicks.
“Quién sabe por qué,” Chino wonders, staring out across the dry yard where the sun is pounding like thunder.
“Quién sabe,” agrees Tito, aiming a lazy slap at a mosquito that tickles his shin.
“Quién sabe,” repeats Hilda, pulling the paint cloth around.
The carrot problem reared its ugly head soon after Nina came home from Pine View. It wasn’t even a carrot problem; it was a general vegetable problem, but carrots became the case in point. Sheila missed it because she was at Grandma Friesen’s house, safe from the monotony of our rice and lentils. The rest of us were sitting on the living room floor scarfing exactly that.
“You guys,” Nina said to Beth and me, “I think we should start buying our food at the Co-op. They have such fresh vegetables, and they’re all grown organically. I think it’s important to support farmers who don’t put chemicals into the earth.”
“That’s great,” I said, pretending to consider this while I chewed. “The only trouble is that everything at the Co-op is so expensive.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Beth agreed.
“But, think about it. Where would you rather have your money go? Who would you rather support?”
Money? What money? My five dollars a week, on which I was perpetually hungry? Beth could see the storm clouds gathering right there in the living room, as the hot and the cold air of Nina and me began to collide. “I think shopping at the Co-op is great,” she said, clawing for middle ground, “but it’s true that it’s more expensive than Kroger’s.”
“But, don’t you think it’s worth it?” Nina persisted. “Pesticides are killing our rivers. They kill fish and animals and hurt our Mother Earth. Also, it’s healthier for us to eat organic food. Think about the chemicals.”
Is this supposed to be some kind of newsflash? Hello. Does she think we’re stupid, or did she just arrive on this planet, herself?
The problem is that we had a kind of commune among the four of us. We each put five dollars a week into a kitty. This yielded a total of twenty dollars with which to buy staple foods like rice, ramen noodles, coffee, eggs, and other necessities like dish soap and toilet paper. Any luxuries, like canned tuna, apples or cheese, were the additional expense of the individual. The kitty was “our” money, and no one person had the authority to use it on anything we hadn’t all agreed on. Five dollars isn’t much, but it was the best we could do if we wanted electricity and a phone. Nina’s full time job in the Admissions office paid two dollars more per hour than the rest of us made, so of course she could afford more. And she barely ate.
“I think the Co-op is cool,” I said. “And I hope someday I have enough money to buy everything there. But right now I don’t. We need to get as much food as we can for as little money as possible. How many organic carrots can you buy at the Co-op for a dollar? Three? That’s fine. People should do that. But if it’s my last dollar we’re talking about, I’m taking it to Kroger’s where you can get a whole bag. You know? If we buy our food at the Co-op, we’ll go hungry.”
I was serious. And I was pissed. Just because she still gets an allowance from her parents, she’s going to preach to me about vegetables. Hold me back.
Nina cracked out her extra-quiet, extra-pathetic angry voice. “Well I would rather eat one carrot from the Co-op than a whole bag from Kroger.”
“I’m not trying to be a bitch, Nina.” I said. I’m trying to say we can’t afford it. We won’t have enough food. If you want to buy yours there and be separate, it’s okay. It’s up to you. I just can’t. I’ll starve.”
So she did. She seceded from the commune. Nina supported politically correct produce while the rest of us proceeded to poison the planet. She still had to chip in, though, for dish soap and toilet paper. Her appetite being what it is, she probably spent less shopping for just herself.
Every single time I see a carrot, I think of Nina. I don’t know if we ever forgave each other for our respective insensitivities, and the dumb thing is: we couldn’t afford vegetables anyway, except onions. We never bought carrots at all, even from Kroger’s. Nina never once brought them home from the Co-op. She brought dried beans which she never cooked, small tomatoes that sprouted fuzz in our warm refrigerator, and suspicious-smelling tofu that she picked out of the box with chopsticks.
* * * * *
Nina taught me the joy of cleaning. She did it accidentally, like all the other things she taught me. Cleaning something is the closest to starting to over that a person can get, most times, and I learned this from Nina on that day. We were both just being ourselves—in very close quarters. In ridiculous heat.
The day we had the carrot fight, I couldn’t read a word of the four million pages assigned for the next morning. Instead, I marched into Beth’s and my bedroom and put it into Spartan order. It’s not that I wanted to clean, but I was so mad that I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I snatched the broom from the porch and swept our bedroom floor, but I was still furious. So I crawled around pulling a bucket of hot soapy water and washed it with a rag—the whole disgusting wooden floor. I’d bet my liver it’s been ten years since someone did that. The grime I removed was shocking. After that, I washed the windows.
Then I stormed into the kitchen and washed the dishes. I swept the kitchen floor, washed it on my hands and knees, cleaned the bathroom and scrubbed the toilet. The process took hours.
And then, after all that, I wasn’t mad at Nina anymore for being the waify, snotty little twit that she is. I was too tired.
I couldn’t resist the temptation, though, of painting a fat orange carrot on the wall. I painted it in my room so it wouldn’t start another fight.
Sheila’s voice woke me up when she got home from work.
“Wow! The kitchen looks awesome! What the...? Oh my God! The bathroom!”
Exhaustion still glowed in my limbs.
“You did all this?”
“Wow, Hannah... Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I just got in the mood to clean.”
The mood to clean. That’s a good one.
“I’ll say you did!”
When Beth and Nina got home, they both told me how awesome the house looked, too.
If I’d have been any madder I’d have rubbed holes in the windows, but I didn’t say that.
Poor Nina. Somehow, with all that soapy water, I managed to put out the fire. I sweated the poison out of my blood and felt alright again. Nothing like cleaning to wipe away the feeling of helplessness and create the illusion, at least for a few hours, that you are in control of something. And, of course, you also get the self-righteous pleasure of everyone else having to recognize that you cleaned up their mess without being asked, and for no apparent reason.
* * * * *
My friend John who drives the bus with curtains inherited Harriet from somebody who graduated, and the mean kitty next door to him was trying to murder her. He asked me if we would take her before she lost a leg. I said yes without hesitating, and then had to go home and announce that I had sort of agreed to get a cat. Sheila worried about Barb, but Beth and I convinced her that Barb wouldn’t care. To prove it, Beth painted an extra-large cat on the wall on the wall behind the couch. Nina, with her cautious new optimism and a freshly-shaved head, set about creating the ideal kitty-home for our feline family member among the clutter in the Pit of Sin.
The first problem we had with Harriet was how to get her home, and there were plenty to follow. I should have taken a box to John’s house, not a string. I swear I knew this, but I didn’t remember until it was too late. As Beth and I walked up to the back door, we called “kitty-kitty-kitty,” and Harriet materialized before us. We looked at each other, both hoping this wasn’t going to be our cat, that this was some stray out trolling for treats.
Harriet was not exactly your dream cat. On the day we all met, she was a lean, mean year-old alley cat that somebody named after Harriet Tubman. Ironically, this Harriet is white. She has random orange and black patches, but they make her look more mismatched than pretty. And she has a deformed tail. It takes a permanent U-turn to the right just above her butt, so it always points sideways. I asked John what happened to her, and he said, “Nothing.” She was born that way.
We envisioned the kind of kitty that would let you hold it in your arms and carry it around with you, but that was not Harriet—especially not strangers with suspicious intentions. She let her stiff body be petted, but when she felt her four feet being lifted from solid ground, she twisted like a snake, sunk her back claws into the flesh of my arm, and was free. That’s why I brought the string.
What a terrible idea. What was I thinking? You cannot lead a cat, no matter how hard you try, by means of a string on its neck. I know this. She’s not my first cat.
"You want to try?” I asked Beth, when it became clear that Harriet did not like me, nor did she want me to hold her.
“Hell no! You’re crazy!”
“She might let you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“She thinks I’m a monster.”
Beth tried, but it didn’t go any better for her. Plus she screamed when Harriet scratched her, and then Harriet was more scared than ever.
It took us an hour to get her home, and John’s house is six blocks from ours. The journey was excruciating. We developed a procedure that worked like this: carry Harriet three steps, let her jump down and run ahead until the string caught around her neck, catch up to her, pull her six inches, pity her, pick her up, repeat. It would have been easier if she had always run in the right direction when we let her down, but she didn’t. By the time we got her home we didn’t even want her anymore.
The last steps of the journey proved to be the hardest—the ones where I lifted Harriet, pinned her terrified clawing body against my precious chest and climbed the stairs to our apartment. Nina opened the door cooing like a new mother.
“Awww! Hello, Harriet.” She reached out to touch the bristling neck. “What took you guys so long?”
Inside the door, I released my death grip on the spring-tight body, and Harriet leapt from my clutches in a desperate race for she-had-no-idea-where. Nina screamed and withdrew a trembling hand. Sheila, who was running from the kitchen to the living room to see the new arrival, collided with her in the hallway, screamed even louder than Nina, and sent the poor animal fleeing into Beth’s and my bedroom.
She hid in our closet all day and, like a turtle frightened into her shell, she would not come out. No amount of milk, no amount of tuna, no amount of falsetto sweetness convinced her to show her face. She didn’t budge until all of us had gone to sleep and she could explore her new digs on her own terms.
In the morning, cat food lay scattered all over the kitchen floor, and the precious loaf of bread that had been on a shelf in the pantry was on the floor too, gashed open in several places, huge chunks of it missing. Once a scavenger, always a scavenger. John didn’t warn us Harriet was a thief, but she was. That cat would have stolen candy from a baby. We learned to lock her food in the cupboard under the sink and we had to keep our bread in the refrigerator. She chewed through a pizza box, once, to get at the left over crusts inside, and it wasn’t because we didn’t feed her. We did. It’s that she was a lot like us—always hungry.
* * * * *
“Coffee: Nectar of the Goddesses,” Nina painted in brown swirly letters above the door to the pantry. Then she painted some wispy-looking goddesses.
We bought that nectar in the largest cans they sell and planted seeds in the emptied tins since the garden project withered. We drank it in beer mugs and pint jars and quart jars after we ate all the home-canned goodies my mom sent in them. We added milk when we had it. We added sugar for a treat. We drank it black for hangovers on easy Sunday mornings. When we could, we added rum.
Coffee, what which props open tired eyes so that you can force them across page after page after page.
We drank it to wake up in the morning. We drank it to go to sleep at night. We drank it for energy before class and to relax after work.
Precious coffee, hot and black: fount of every blessing, source of energy and life, measureless and strong, substitute for sleep. Drug of choice, liquid joy, legal for all, cheap enough for the poor.
That’s what was wrong with Nietzsche, we decide. He didn’t drink enough coffee. Who could be sure anything exists without it?
* * * * *
Professor Williams’ voice wavered on about human remains petrified in mud hour after interminable hour. I tried to focus but it was a losing battle. A critical situation, brewing in the depths of our closets, kept sneaking into the spotlight of my attention, eclipsing the mysteries of The Bog People. We had a laundry problem—a serious one. Our dirty clothes piled higher every day, and my stack of acceptable t-shirts on the shelf was almost gone. The questions consumed me as Professor Williams rambled. How are we going to get our clothes all the way from our house to the laundromat on campus? A mile is too far to walk with your laundry. How do you carry a laundry basket on a bicycle? I measured the space between the seat and the handlebar. It won’t fit. Of course, there was one obvious solution: borrow Tom’s car. But no way were we about to do that. Depend on a man for something necessary like laundry? We would rather gash open our veins. Jugs of wine are one thing; clean underwear is something else.
When the idea hit me, I sat bolt upright in my chair. Had Professor Williams noticed, he might have thought that at last I understood the beauty of The Bog People but he was gazing past us at something only he could see.
The plan was simple and the only thing we needed to buy is string. Using four equal pieces of twine, we could tie the corners of my pink Rubbermaid laundry basket between my bicycle and Beth’s. Why not? It’s the principle I learned in Los Rios—when the object is heavy, carry it between two. Ladies carried buckets of steaming tamales for sale suspended from a broomstick passed through the handle. The walked the streets each holding an end, the bucket swinging between. My sister Estefani and I each took a handle of the sack of dirty dishes and lugged it from our house to the home of the neighbors who had a well on the days when the tap produced no water.
Beth laughed when I told her. She rolled her eyes. She called me loca and she said if you say so.
Tom got mad at me for some reason, probably insulted that we wouldn’t accept his offer of the car and embarrassed in advance for the awful bloody mess he imagined we would make. He stood on our porch as we prepared for take-off, scolding down at us like a magpie. “Guys, you can take my car you know. Guys! Take my car! Hannah, I hope you realize you could hurt yourself!”
Yes, I am aware of that. Like anyone ever died of a scraped knee. And there’s no way we were going to ride fast enough to break our necks.
Sheila came out to watch too, amazed at our complete willingness to make fools of ourselves. I could hear her wondering, if the system worked, how in the world she was going to repeat this operation with Nina. Beth was the one who had the sense to put the clothes into a trash bag to avoid leaving a trail of socks and underwear down the street. We tossed the bag into the basket and mounted our bikes.
“One. Two. Three. GO!”
It was not as easy as I thought. Beth wobbled a lot. I wobbled a lot. You had to lean your bike against the weight of the basket, but not too much or you would lose it the other way. You had to ride far enough apart to keep the basket off the ground, but not so far as to rip a string or yank the other person off balance. And always at the same speed. We left the house shrieking and wobbling, laughing until tears blinded us.
Corners were the worst, because the outside girl has to hurry up, the inside girl has to slow down, and you must stay the exact same distance apart. On the first of three I went too fast, got ahead of Beth, and we crashed. On the second, howling with laughter and gripping the handle bars with white knuckles, we calculated better and made it. The third and last turn presented us with a dilemma: a bus was coming, opposite us, into the intersection. Is it more important to obey the traffic signs or to keep our rhythm? We both had stop signs, after which the bus had the right of way.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” we screamed.
“There’s a bus!”
“What should we do?” I asked, because we had to both do the same thing.
“It has a stop sign.”
“So do we!”
“Yeah, but we’re not stopping!” Beth decided.
Who would run over two innocent girls who were willing to risk their lives to do their laundry? In a perfect parallel, we swooped out onto 9th Street in front of the bus that sat idling at the stop sign. The driver yielded the right of way, staring in open-mouthed disbelief.
The moment the bus pulled onto 9th Street behind us, something went wrong. Beth screamed. I screamed. The basket bounced and swung wildly. Beth held steady but for some reason I braked and sent us down in a pile of wheels, legs and string. The bus driver blew the horn and passed us in the other lane.
“Are you okay?”
“Ow, my leg,” Beth said through gritted teeth. She showed me the pink rope burn blooming on her calf.
“Are you okay?” I asked. Because we were kind of in this together.
“I thought we were going to make it,” I said, helping her up.
“Me too,” she said.
“Don’t tell Tom.”
We got ourselves together and pointed our bikes toward campus. We managed a synchronized grand entrance into the college parking lot where our friends and people we don’t know turned to look, and then look again. We even took our last corner without falling, although we hooted and squealed a lot.
Our friend Camila came over to where we landed, her leather boots and bag squeaking sophisticatedly as if she were riding a horse with a fine English saddle.
“What are you guys doing?” she asked, with one eyebrow raised.
“You’re crazy. Why don’t you go to King Arthur’s? It’s right behind your house.”
“King Arthur’s? You mean that video arcade place?”
That’s where all the town juvenile delinquents go to smoke cigarettes and write bad words in the bathrooms.
“Yeah. The other half is a laundromat,” she said.
Well how were we supposed to know? We don’t play video games, and we write bad words on our own walls.
So after that we did our laundry at King Arthur’s, which turned out to be four blocks away. We put our clothes in trash bags and slung them over our shoulders like Santa Clause bringing a nasty surprise to naughty children. I could even ride my bike with mine, driving with one hand. It was considerably easier than the tandem method, and much safer.
* * * * *
Harriet didn’t get much friendlier as timed passed. She did appear to remain with us voluntarily, however, probably because of the absence of terrifying toms and because we gave her the one thing she loves: food. In exchange for these favors, she endured our attempts to give her affection. She did not love any of us in the least, and we, to our immense disappointment, did not love her. Cats are supposed to purr themselves to sleep in your lap, but Harriet never purred. She did not like us or our laps. When she wanted to sleep, she would go hide somewhere.
“I think Harriet is emotionally abused,” Nina said, with that soft tone she picked up at Pine View.
We were all lying in front of the fan in the late afternoon heat. It was our only fan, otherwise I would not have been in such close proximity to Nina. Since she got back from Pine View, she was driving me crazy. Everybody was either “co-dependent,” or “passive-aggressive,” or one of her other new diagnostic words. Then there was the carrot thing. Now our cat was emotionally abused. Somebody please shoot me.
“I think she’s a bitch,” I said.
Beth coughed so the noise she made wouldn’t sound like a laugh. “Why do you say that, Nina?” she asked. This was her way of telling me to shut the hell up.
“Because. She seems to ask for affection, but then when you approach her, she rejects you. I think she has negative associations with touch.”
“Maybe she wasn’t petted enough as a kitten,” Sheila speculated at the ceiling, dead serious. “Maybe she was taken away from her mother too young.”
“But I think she has been abused by people,” Nina insisted. That fake voice made me want to give her a little smack and say, Talk right!
“I can see that,” Beth said. “I don’t think she likes us.”
“Bitch-cat,” I mumbled. I tried not to, but it popped out before I could stop it.
“See, like that,” Nina said to me. “You always say negative things about her, Hannah. And animals have spirits like people do. I mean, it’s not just you—it’s all of us. We laugh and say she’s ugly. And we make fun of her tail. I think it hurts her feelings.”
“Do you think so?” Beth asked. I know she was trying to stay in the middle of the conversation in order to keep me out. I can tell you Beth doesn’t believe there’s a cat in the world that cares what you say about its tail.
“Yes, I do.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think she can understand language that well.”
“It’s not the language. It’s the vibes.”
Vibes. But of course.
“If I offend her when I say she’s ugly,” I said, “I hope she remembers I’m the one who rescued her ass from John’s house.”
“Oh, I’m sure she does!” Nina assured me.
“But I think we should speak more kindly to her. About her.”
That night in our room Beth and I did to Nina what she accused us of doing to Harriet. It was one of the good nights, just like old times, when Beth and I were best friends and there was no one else to complicate things.
“Can you believe Nina?”
“Oh my God!”
“Can you believe her?”
“I thought I was going to laugh right out loud when she said that about Harriet. It was awful! Did you catch how I coughed?” Beth asked.
“No. I was too busy trying to keep my eyes from rolling out of my head!”
We burst into whispered hysterics.
“I can’t believe you said she was a bitch!”
“I know,” I gasped. “I can’t either! I just couldn’t help it. That girl is too crazy.”
“She is, Hannah. I think she came out of Pine View crazier than she went in.”
“I know! So do I! And that voice!"
Beth touched my arm, widened her eyes, cocked her head to a concerned angle and did a perfect impression of Nina: “I really think you should speak more kindly to Harriet. She understands English, you know.”
Beth is a brilliant impersonator. It’s one of her most amazing abilities, of which she has a lot. We laughed until we were wiping away tears.
* * * * *
Sheila burst in the door with a cardboard box under her arm, breathless after pedaling all the way from the campus mail room as fast as her stout legs can. When she plopped it down on The Desk, it rattled.
“Omygod!” she gasped in one breath.
“You got a box!” I said. I closed my diary, interrupting the treatise on my adventures with Tom in The Pit of Sin, and tossed it to the floor beside my feet.
“Omygod!” Another gasp.
“Do you need me to get your inhaler?” Nina offered.
“No. I’m okay.”
“What is it?”
We knew her mom wasn’t in the box but we had to wait to find out what was until Sheila had gone to the kitchen, drank several glasses of water, and washed her face in the bathroom. Then she sat down on the floor and gashed at the packing tape with her keys. Getting a box in the mail is the best, especially when it isn’t even your birthday. Nina knelt behind her, watching over her shoulder. Even Harriet sidled over for a sniff.
Beth missed it because she was off with Johan someplace. I worried a little about letting her out of my sight with him because something about him made me nervous. But he was so ridiculously hot that what can you do?
When she pulled back the cardboard flaps, Sheila groaned, Nina gasped and Harriet walked away. She tipped the box over, and out onto the floor tumbled bottles and bottles of vitamins.
“What is that?”
“Are those vitamins?”
“Yes. You guys, I’m sorry about my mom.”
“Don’t be sorry, silly.”
“Why is she sending you vitamins?”
Sheila was reading the folded sheet of notebook paper that appeared among the supplements. “She’s on a health kick, now,” Sheila said. “She says the right vitamins can prevent cancer and aging, so she wants me to take these. Every day.”
“You’ll kill yourself!”
“She says she went to a homeopathic doctor who told her about it.” Sheila slapped the paper down and rolled her eyes. “Oh, you guys.”
“Homeopathic medicine is the best,” Nina nodded.
There was vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B complex, calcium with vitamin D, fish oil capsules, garlic oil capsules, iron supplements, selenium, magnesium and an enormous container of protein powder with a little scoop. It must have cost her a fortune. Plus postage. Sheila was already stuffing them back into the box, red with embarrassment that there was nothing “good” like cookies or chocolate or a loaf of homemade bread. That’s what my mom sometimes sent.
“I’m sorry there’s nothing good.”
“What do you mean there’s nothing good?”
“My mom is so weird. She’s always does this.”
“Vitamins are good. We probably need them.”
“Well...” Sheila stopped stuffing and looked up with a question on her face.
“Think about it,” I said. “When’s the last time we ate fruit?”
“Gina brought strawberries to the office yesterday,” Nina said.
Nice. Like Nina’s strawberries helped any of the rest of us.
“That’s true.” Sheila perked up a bit.
“I think you should take them,” I told her. “Not all at once, though.”
That sent Sheila into a little storm of incapacitating giggles.
“We can all take them,” she brightened. “Here!” and she deposited the box of compressed nutrients on The Desk beside the stereo.
We could have eaten for the rest of the summer with the money Sheila’s mom spent on that box of remedies for things that weren’t wrong with us. But we took them, and perhaps they saved us from complete malnutrition. They didn’t make us feel any better or any less hungry, though. Isn’t it ironic how a plate of pure starch can fill your belly for hours on end and costs almost nothing, while a belly full of vitamins costs a fortune and makes you feel like you might puke, yet you could still swear you are starving? Although, I have to say, no one became wrinkly that summer or developed cancer.
* * * * *
I cried my eyes out the day I had to sit down and write to my parents for money. I tried my best to figure another way out of my predicament, but nothing worked. Our second summer class was just beginning, and who are we kidding? There is no part-time job that would allow me the time I needed to study and still pay the bills—at least not one I’m qualified for. I thought about becoming the world’s first Mennonite prostitute but the truth is I didn’t exactly qualify for that, either.
I ran the lights for weekend events in the campus theatre. Professor Williams hired me to mow his yard every week and mulch around his beloved bushes. Professor Perry heard about my green thumb and offered me her yard work as well. For the rest of the summer, she managed to find a never-ending list of tasks for both Beth and me, involving pruning, clipping, snipping, spraying, weeding and watering. She also paid us to dig up all 400 of her iris bulbs, soak them in bleach water, and plant them again because she was convinced they had slugs. Which, they didn’t.
It still wasn’t enough.
I tried so hard to get by on my own. I gave up everything I could think of except food. And wine. I washed my clothes without soap and winced through the sunburn I got without sunscreen. Tom said I could eat at his house so sometimes I did, but that didn’t solve anything. June was about to begin. What kind of adult writes to her mom and dad asking for money to pay the rent the first month it comes due? A false one, that’s what kind. One who is trying to be something she’s not. I was sure I could do this if I tried hard enough. But I was trying my best, and even somebody with my remedial math skills could see the numbers were not going to work out.
I didn’t expect to be trampled a stampede of sobs when I opened my notebook to a clean page and wrote, “Dear Mom and Dad,” on the first line. It blindsided me. I knew I was poor; I didn’t realize I was angry. Turns out I was furious—with everyone.
I was mad at Mary Perry for talking about existentialism while I’m trying to figure out how to exist. I was mad at Nina for managing to be miserable in spite of having everything. I was pissed at Beth for acting like having to write your parents for money is no big deal. And at Tom for trying to help me solve my problems when I wanted him to hug me and shut up. And at Harriet for needing cat food which is way more expensive than dog food. And at my mom and dad. None of this was their fault, but I was angry at them too. For frowning at me and folding up their wallets, which they never did, but I always feared. So I was angry just in case.
I was angry at my mailbox for never holding the letter I waited for, the one written by delicate fingers that destroyed me without meaning to. I gave him my left-over airmail envelopes. He promised. I believed him. Did he forget me already? I was mad at myself for waking up again from dreams of Los Rios. I was mad at myself for getting on the bus. I was mad at myself for being wrong about everything.
My mom is better at math than I am, so she must have expected that letter sooner or later. When you’re twenty, you can’t imagine that others have swashbuckled through the jungle before you, and you refuse to believe it no matter who tells you, or how. My parents sent me the money in a card with a kitten and a Bible verse. They even said I didn’t have to pay them back, which made me feel both better and worse.
When you’re a kid, you obey your parents’ rules, they feed you, and everything makes perfect sense. Eventually, I guess, you grow up and you have to find your own food and you get to make your own rules. But what about the awful place between the two where you have to obey your own rules or you’ll go crazy, and you have to obey your parents’ rules or you’ll starve? Nobody warns you about this. Nobody warned me.
When my parents called on the phone one night during my senior year to ask if the rumors that floated east across 600 miles were true—that I was sleeping with my boyfriend—I froze. It was midnight in Pennsylvania when they called, and they are never up so late. I thought they were going to say somebody died. And then they asked me that. My face burned and my heart pounded. I could tell, through the silence on the phone, that there was only one answer that would get me to graduation, even if it sent me to the special level of hell for girls who lie to their parents. It was the perfect trap.
I cried my eyes out that day, too. If we didn’t love each other so much in spite of our irreconcilable differences, all of this would be so much easier. It would be nice to have fights like normal people once in a while, but we can’t. We’re Mennonites. We don’t know how to fight. Besides, when every question in the world boils down to What The Bible Says versus Anything You Could Possibly Say, what’s the point?
* * * * *
A few weeks after Harriet moved in, she disappeared. We kept her trapped inside at first so she would understand that we were her new mothers and that she didn’t live at John’s house anymore. When we decided to let her out I thought we might never see her again, but all we had to do is rattle the cat food bag from the porch and she appeared like a magic genie. Sometimes she wanted to be inside; sometimes she wanted to be outside. Personally, I can relate.
Then one night she didn’t come back at all. I called kitty kitty and shook the bag of food until the whole thing was reduced to crumbs. She did not appear, yowling at the screen, at any point during the night, and she wasn’t on the porch, pissed at us for locking her out, in the morning.
Nina said she ran away because we were mean to her. Sheila was sure she went back to John’s house. Beth thought she got hit by a car. I had another theory that I didn’t want to think about. I called John, instead, who said he hadn’t seen her. We weren’t that sad, but we were a little insulted that our cat ditched us. On the third day, however, like a resurrection, she returned.
“I’ll bet you fifty bucks she’s pregnant,” I said.
“Pregnant?” Beth burst into laughter.
It was an amusing thought. A creature that skinny and unappealing?
“Oh no!” Nina clapped her hand over her mouth. I knew she was thinking rape! Her face said it plain and clear.
“Why do you think that?”
“Because,” I shrugged. “That’s what cats do. When they go in heat, they disappear. Then they come back. Pregnant. Anyway, we’ll see.”
I was right. We had a whole barn full of cats when I was a kid in Pennsylvania.
Harriet’s scrawny body began to fill out and she became kind of pretty. Except for her crooked tail, she looked like a normal cat. But she kept on growing until she was as ridiculously fat as she had been thin, until she resembled a football with a head. All she could do was lie around.
Strangely, she seemed to enjoy her prenatal pudge. She would squint at us and purr with something like love in her eyes. She ate more cat food than you’d think possible, and we gave her special treats like dishes of milk and scrambled eggs. She stopped jumping up and running away if we sat too close to her or if a door slammed—whether because she liked us more or because she decided it wasn’t worth the effort, who’s to say?
I don’t know much about cat gestation, but those kittens seemed to be in there an awfully long time. Either she was carrying a dozen, or they were going to be born grown up. I had a dream that she exploded. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but that dream gave me a bad feeling.
* * * * *
I was lying in bed trying to get through No Exit, when Beth walked in and told me what Nina said. No Exit is a book about being miserable, which I didn’t need any help with, and we were supposed to finish it by tomorrow. Beth and Nina spent the entire evening outside on the steps having some private conversation they did not want anyone else to overhear. At first I tried not to sulk, but it didn’t go well. Finally, I gave up and sunk into bed with Sartre.
“Is that a good book?” Beth asked me, closing our door behind her. She had a funny expression on her face.
“If you like hell.”
“Good. Because I have to interrupt you.”
“Thank you!” Relief seeped into my bloodstream.
“But you have to promise not to laugh, Hannah. You CANNOT LAUGH.”
When you say it like that, I start laughing before I even know what’s funny.
“Well.” Beth plopped down on the bed next to me, making everything in the world alright again. “You won’t believe what Nina just told me.”
“Oh no. I’m sure I won’t.”
“We were sitting out on the steps and I asked her if her time in Pine View was, you know, helpful to her.”
“And she started talking about how their concentration on spirituality made her realize that her spirituality is neglected.”
“And then she said suddenly it all clicked with things she read about The Goddess in her Women’s Spirituality class.”
“She’s a witch!” I guessed. I couldn’t resist.
“Shut up. You don’t even know. And she says she felt the Goddess calling her.”
“So now she’s super into Goddesses and women’s spirituality.”
“Okay?” I asked. Beth was trying not to laugh, but I hadn’t heard anything funny.
“Which is great. But she said she thinks she might be a lesbian.”
“Oh my God.”
“Can you believe her?”
“Yes. What about Dan?” It wasn’t that I cared whether Nina liked men or women, it’s that last I heard, she was in love with a man.
“That’s what I said! And she said that wasn’t love. She said it was a desire for affection. Because before, she couldn’t accept her attraction to women.”
“Oh,” I said. “Maybe that’s true.”
Beth started giggling. I was glad to have thrown Sartre on the floor, but I don’t really think being gay is something to laugh about.
“I think it’s great if she’s a lesbian,” Beth said. “Good for her. But then she said she realized she’s in love with ME!”
Laugh? Why did Beth think that would make me laugh?
“Oh shit, is right! She wants me to go sleep with her in The Pit tonight!”
“Are you going to?”
“No! Just because she’s a lesbian doesn’t mean I am!”
“What did you say?”
“Ugh. God. It was awful. I didn’t know what to say. I was so shocked. Not the lesbian part, but that she said she’s in love with me. And she wants to go get in The Pit with me!”
No kidding. What’s wrong with her? Beth is my friend.
“She’s one of my best friends and I love her. And I mean, she’s beautiful but...she’s too unstable! For one second, I almost said yes. For the hell of it. But then she would latch onto me like a leach and drive me crazy. Look at Dan.”
“Anyway, I told her I love her but I’m not in love with her, and we should just be friends.”
“Ugh. I would throw up,” I confessed. If I was ever going to get busy with a girl, something I couldn’t quite imagine, it would have to be a different one.
“You should have seen her. The way she looked at me with her huge eyes. You know what she reminded me of?”
“Harriet, when we first got her.”
We stuffed our faces into or pillows to smother hoots of laughter.
“This is definitely better than No Exit.”
“What am I going to do?”
“I don’t know! What can you do?”
“Why couldn’t she be in love with Sheila?” Beth begged the fat orange carrot on the wall. “That would be perfect!”
“Oh please. Do you think she’s really a lesbian? Or she decided it would be cool to be one?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she is. Maybe that’s why she was so unhappy.”
“Well, for her sake I hope so. I hope she figures out how to feel better. I guess we’ll find out when Dan gets back from California.”
We turned the lights off, and I lay listening to Beth breathe as we fell asleep. I always expected she would have boyfriends—boys love her—and I tried my best to like them. I endured them. I shared her with them. But a girlfriend? Why is that different?
I lay there a long time wondering how I would survive if Beth and Nina became lovers. I didn’t care if Nina liked girls. But please not Beth. I don’t know how you share a girl with a girl.
* * * * *
I’m dead asleep when I sense the movement in my bed and at first I think it’s Tom. Then I’m awake. I’m in Los Rios, Tom is not in my bed and the whole house is moving. I hear my sister, Estefani, in the bed bedside me, start to scream, “¡Mami! ¡Mami!”
The bed is shaking, and the floor and the walls and the roof. Someone screams in the neighbor’s house next door.
The wall, I think. O God, the cement wall. Please don’t let it fall on me. Please don’t let me be crushed here under the rubble in this place where no one will ever find me.
“¡Está temblando!” squeals mamá Hilda from her bed. In our house where the inner walls do not meet the roof, we are all in one room.
Then it stops.
For one unforgettable second, a complete stillness descends over the world. Until that silent second I haven’t noticed the noise in the grumbling belly of the earth.
Then the tiny town bursts to life. Petrified dogs bark warnings from every porch. Confused roosters commence madly crowing an hour of their imagining. Disturbed hens cackle from their perches in the jocotes. Mamá Hilda and Papá Tito, in their bedroom, have turned on the light, and yellow beam streams over the wall to where Estefani and I lay in our beds.
“¡Qué temblor! ¡Qué miedo! ¡Muy malo!” Estefani exclaims to me over and over, as if I have missed what happened. “¿No tiene miedo?”
Mothers and sisters call to each other from windows and porches. Doors slam. Somebody kick-starts a motorcycle. Everybody is up and dashing around calling out to neighbors to be sure everybody is okay. I do not move from the cocoon of my bed draped with its mosquito net.
Radios and televisions come on up and down the street. My brother Diego, in his room on the other side of the house, turns his radio on loud and over the ruckus of the awakened town comes a voice saying words that penetrate the fog in my brain:
“...la calma. La cosa más importante es mantener la calma. La calma. La cosa más importante es mantener la calma.”
It’s two o’clock in the morning, the radio voice says. I roll over under my mosquito net and thank the wall for standing there beside me. Everything in this flustered little town is alright.
In the town on the other side of the hill, we will learn tomorrow, clocks leapt from their nails on the walls. Houses twisted away from their front porches, but no one is injured. No homes are lost.
The only casualty of this quake is my notion of the earth as something definite and unmovable.
Tom and I bought tickets to see the Grateful Dead. Okay, to be honest, Tom had to buy them and I paid him back. We invited everybody else too, but neither Sheila nor Beth nor Nina wanted to spend their hard-earned money tagging along with the hippies, even for 48 hours. I was kind of relieved. You know how it is when you have different kinds of friends that don’t go together well? And you don’t want to push them apart, but having them all together at the same place at the same time gives you a stomach ache? Right. I wished more than life itself that we could all be one smiling happy family of Deadheads, but seeing as we weren’t, I didn’t want a bellyache at the show.
I threw my backpack into the bus with the tie-died curtains and a squirming bunch of braided, beaded kindred spirits. The two and a half hour drive to Deer Creek is long enough to merit an overnight camping trip where we could practice being Deadheads and see if anyone would guess we were really wayward Mennonite college students. The campground buzzed with tunes drifting from VW buses and long-haired barefoot girls selling hummus on pita bread. We pitched our tents among hundreds of other pilgrims, feeling at home in the throng of stoned peace lovers. We could wear our beads, forget our shoes, share our beer with the neighbors, and not take showers. Give peace a chance.
Menno Simons would be so proud.
Laura, who is two years older than me and has been to lots of Dead shows, told me I should bring my homemade bead necklaces to sell.
“Are you serious?” I asked, skeptical of what genuine hippies would think of my efforts.
“Oh yeah. People will love them!”
“But they’re not that...”
“Shut up.” She gave me a little slap. “They’re gorgeous.”
Then it clicked—she smokes a lot of weed and she’d already bought three.
“Okay. I will.”
“I bet you’ll sell all of them. Bring a blanket or something and if you see the cops coming, quick roll it up and act like you’re just sitting there. That’s what everyone does. You’ll see.”
Subversively selling necklaces under the noses of cops? That sounds way too exciting to miss. The worst they could do is to take away my necklaces—you can’t get thrown in jail for that. Can you?
“You mean, during the show?”
“No, no! Outside. During the day. Just bring them. You’ll see what I mean.”
It wasn’t hard to figure out, once you get there. And I wasn’t nervous about the cops, either, after about ten seconds. A benevolent microcosm sprung up on the grounds surrounding the amphitheater: people in costumes with their dogs, their lovers, their friends, their children—milling about, mulling it over, sunbathing, napping, doing tricks, playing instruments, dancing to the music, passing by, staying a while, and lined along the thoroughfare selling cold water, clandestine beer, t-shirts, swirly skirts, sandwiches, concert bootlegs, books, bumper stickers and of course every imaginable variety of jewelry. It’s like dreaming and being awake at the same time.
I found an open spot beside the busy lane between a guy with huge dreadlocks selling colorful hair wraps and two girls who appeared to be sound asleep. I knelt and spread out the quilt my mom made me, and then arranged my flower necklaces in a semi-circle around my knees. I pretended I was sitting in a garden. I smiled up at each admiring glance and did my best hippy-girl glow, asking, “Flower necklace? Five dollars.”
Laura was right. I sold almost all of them, and traded one to the guy beside me for a hair wrap that lasted two years before it fell off—the one and only dreadlock I ever owned. I paid Tom for my ticket and bought flowy rainbow skirts and a bumper sticker that says “My Goddess gave birth to your God” even though I had nothing to stick it on.
Sure enough, the cops came by, but it was all a part of the circus going on around me. Their somber stroll down the lane provoked a wave effect that ran ahead. When the guy with the hair wraps suddenly whisked his wares into his tie-died sheet and rolled everything into an innocent-looking ball, I flipped my quilt in half and stretched out, pretending to bask in the lovely summer sun. The cops strolled by, scowling in their uniforms behind their dark glasses.
A guy with long dreads and a big Rasta hat was leaning up against his bicycle smoking some sort of cigarette on the other side of the road. Minding his own business, as far as I could tell. Some more guys with dreadlocks and Rasta hats wandered up to him and started chatting. I couldn’t believe my eyes when they grabbed him and threw him on the ground.
I thought he was getting mugged right there in broad daylight.
“They’re cops,” the hair-wrapper informed me when he heard me gasp and saw the shock on my face.
I stared in horror as one of the fake Rastas kept the real one pinned, and the other took his backpack. He pulled from it a package of something I couldn’t see but I got the idea.
“Poor guy,” I said.
“It’s a damn shame,” the hair-wrapper agreed. “You be careful.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I will. You too.”
I guess he couldn’t tell by looking at me that I didn’t know which of the potential evils had been confiscated from the guy with the bike, or that whatever it was, I had never sampled it.
The fake Rastas led their distraught victim away in handcuffs shouting something about his bike.
Even though pot smoke hung heavy in the air everywhere we went, I didn’t try any. I could have. Some of the braver renegade Mennonites rolled joints and passed them around, but neither Tom nor I had the nerve for even a puff. We were too scared of getting caught. After I watched the cops jump that guy, even my curiosity about being stoned evaporated. Are you kidding? Risk that in order to be even more muddled? I’ve never needed any help to lie around giggling at cloud shapes.
The hippy scene gave me something easy to be, something to have in common with somebody. It’s kind of like being Mennonite—as long as you’re nice, you’re at least half way there.
Every day I could think of fewer things I had in common with anybody. Being brokenhearted does that to you. Even in my house, I felt alone. Right before my eyes, I was turning into the straight white girl while everybody else was transforming into lesbians and women of color. All of us wanted a new world, but mine was different. The world I wanted had a little house with a red floor, and on the back porch in the afternoon shade, a potter with skin like a baby’s cheek and the fingers of a pianist pulled vases from clumps of clay. I didn’t know what to do besides stare at the geometric designs I painted on the wall. They read Audre Lorde. I read Sam Sheppard.
A sympathetic community of lost souls was a perfect fit for me. And even if the Deadheads were actually dead like that weird guy said, so what? I thought I might be too. If they smile at you, tell you your dorky necklaces are beautiful and offer you a beer, let’s not get lost in the details.
* * * * *
“Sometimes I’m afraid.”
“Of what?” Beth said over her book.
“This is going to sound dumb,” I confessed. I figured she would laugh at me, but I didn’t care.
“That I’m going to hell.”
“Yeah. Aren’t you, ever?”
“Well... Sometimes. I guess.”
“I know it’s stupid. I mean, I don’t think I even believe in hell. But sometimes, I’m scared anyway.”
“I don’t know. I guess because I do so many things you’re supposed to go to hell for. You know.”
“Yeah. I think it’s bullshit, though,” she said, and acted like she was going to start reading again.
“Oh, I know!” I hurried. “I do too. I hope so, anyway.” I wasn’t done and I needed her to keep listening. “But it was so ground into my brain my whole life that drinking is a sin and premarital sex is a sin—even dancing is a sin. Well, dancing I don’t worry about.”
“But you guys don’t actually...‘have sex’. Right?”
“We might as well.”
“But it’s not just that. I mean, like, in general. If my parents saw me—or anybody else from back home—they would say I’m not living a ‘Christian life.’ That would mean I was going to hell.”
“Well, I don’t think you are,” Beth said.
“I hope not. But sometimes I’m afraid I could. You know? What if they’re right? They could be. We don’t know.”
“Man, I keep forgetting how much your parents made you go to church,” Beth marveled, laying down her book to fix her ponytail.
“Yeah. A LOT. But you did too.”
“Not like you, girl. My dad wouldn’t go, so my mom only took us sometimes. Mostly she made up Sunday School lessons for us at home. And, yeah, she talked about heaven and hell. But... I don’t think she believes in hell either.”
I never heard of a grown-up Mennonite who didn’t believe in hell.
“You’re lucky,” I said, and I meant it with my whole heart. I wished I could blow off eternal damnation like that, but I was too scared.
“Yeah I guess so.”
“It doesn’t seem fair that you can say ‘oh yes I believe in God and heaven, but I don’t believe in hell and Satan.’ You know? Don’t they, like, go together? You should have to believe all of it or none of it.”
“Right. I guess I’m not sure I believe any of it,” she said.
Had I gotten anywhere? Not really. Did I feel any better? No.
“I like the eastern religions better.” Beth said, opening her book again to show me we were done. “Like Buddhism.”
“They don’t have heaven and hell—just people and Nirvana.”
“That would be great,” I said, getting up to make more coffee. “I wish we could have that.”
* * * * *
When I was in sixth grade, I stood up in church during what we called “Revival Meetings.” This decision to stand to my feet, while the congregation sang a final hymn of “invitation,” meant that Jesus had moved my heart of stone and that I wanted to confess my sins, accept God’s forgiveness and now be eligible for heaven and church membership. The preacher, called an “Evangelist,” was George R. Brunk III, and he pasted a paper inside the front cover of my Children’s Living Bible—a Bible with color pictures of The Good Shepard carrying a lost lamb back to the fold, and Daniel gazing up to heaven from the lion’s den. The paper has my name and the date written on it in George R. Brunk III’s handwriting. It says that on this day I decided to follow Jesus and that my sins are forgiven. And he signed it, I guess, as proof.
This little paper, he told me and the other sixth graders who knew that sixth grade is the time you should stand to your feet during Revival Meetings, is in our Bibles for us to look at because sometimes Satan taunts us, telling us that maybe God hasn’t truly forgiven us, that our souls really aren’t saved. Now, when the devil tells us our salvation isn’t real, he smiled, we can open our Bibles to this reminder that the devil is a liar and that we are going to heaven when we die.
I didn’t bring my Children’s Living Bible to the upstairs apartment on 11th Street. It sat proclaiming my salvation from the bookshelf upstairs in my parents’ farmhouse hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania.
Tell me how a church that once suffered bodily torture for insisting on adult baptism now baptizes sixth graders and calls their decision an “adult decision?” Other decisions I made in 6th grade include putting chewing gum on the seat of Chris Kreider’s chair and pretending to throw up chocolate éclairs in Kathy Hershey’s front yard.
How is a piece of paper like that supposed to make you feel better if you start to suspect that heaven isn’t real—or hell either? I can’t imagine that George R. Brunk III’s signature will get you through the pearly gates if you decide it’s all a crock but then you turn out to be wrong.
* * * * *
The morning Sheila came home from Rajesh’s house covered with self-conscious smiles, she went straight to bed and slept half the day. When she woke up, she ate several fried eggs and assured us repeatedly, through mouthfuls, that “nothing” happened—that they talked and made out and slept curled together in his bed, but when he tried to undress her she had to get her inhaler.
Then she waited for him to call. And she waited.
A whole day passed.
Two days passed.
She came home from work and wouldn’t leave the house. Every time the phone rang she jumped like a startled rabbit but she would never answer it.
This became so painful to watch that even though I knew, I asked, “What’s the matter, Sheila?”
But she couldn’t quite say it. She made sounds that didn’t equal any words I knew.
“Did Raj ever call?” I prompted.
“He could’ve lost my number. Do you think I should call him?”
“No!” Beth commanded.
“Well...” I hesitated. I would. I would have caved days ago. Maybe that’s why, at 20 years old, I was on my first boyfriend.
“Why?” Sheila begged.
“Because. Men like when a woman plays hard to get.”
“Because. You don’t want him to think you’re desperate.”
“But I am desperate!” She was not kidding.
“I think you should call him if you want,” I said. “What does it change?”
In the end, she called.
Yes, he said, he’d lost her number. So she gave it to him again, and he said he’d call her as soon as he was a little less busy.
She bounced around the house for the rest of the evening.
But he didn’t call. And he didn’t call. She almost collided with him coming out of the library the next week, and he said hello, but didn’t invite her over. So she invited him. He said he couldn’t make it.
I could see how so much hair twisting might produce a bald spot in the middle of a girl’s head, and her nails were bitten down to the skin. Beth forbade her to call him again and threatened to disconnect the phone.
“He’s not worth it, Sheila,” Nina sighed. “Men use women like that. It’s accepted by society for a man to use a woman for his pleasure, and then throw her away.” I couldn’t help but notice how her eyes flickered from Sheila to Beth, to see if this news would cause Beth to reconsider the benefits of loving women.
“Forget him!” Beth scoffed. “He’s hot, but he’s a jerk. You don’t need that shit.”
Sheila reached for another Kleenex and blew her nose.
“He doesn’t deserve you,” Nina said.
Sheila told her to shut up.
“He doesn’t,” I agreed, and I didn’t agree with Nina all that often. “You’re beautiful and funny and smart and sweet... What’s he? He’s all handsome and fancy. So what? You deserve somebody who treats you like a queen.”
“He just... I mean... I never...” Sheila does not have a way with words. “I thought he liked me.”
“So, make him jealous,” suggested Beth. It always works for her.
“Find someone else. Who else do you like?”
“Well who could you pretend you like?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who’s on your team at work?”
“Hey, maybe you could be a lesbian too!”
“I don’t think so. I mean no offense, Nina! I mean... I think... I just...”
“It’s okay. I’m kidding, silly.”
“So?” Beth insisted.
“Sammy,” Sheila mumbled. “And Neil. Truman Wise.”
“I don’t like Sammy.”
“He looks like a rabbit when he laughs,” Nina said.
Sheila giggled a little.
“Neil’s cute,” Sheila said.
“Do you like him?”
“Well... I don’t know.”
“Could you like him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t he have a girlfriend?” I asked.
“Who the fuck cares?” Beth practically shouted. “It’s not like you have to marry him. Just pay attention to him and let Raj see you having fun with him. Girlfriend smirlfriend.”
I know Neil, and he most definitely had a girlfriend—a boring girl named Katie who wore boring clothes, had boring hair and hung out with boring people. Neil sometimes worked with me as a lighting tech in the campus theatre and he was somewhat boring himself. Sweet, but boring. He didn’t come to any of our parties and he frowned at me when I told him I didn’t get up for church on Sundays anymore. He wasn’t a match I could see for Sheila, but Beth was on a mission that she didn’t seem to want my opinion of.
It worked, kind of. It solved the problem with Rajesh, anyway. He never did call, but while Sheila waited for him to feel jilted, she fell hopelessly in love with Neil.
* * * * *