There is one last-resort summer job into which the unluckiest of the unlucky fall, and I was headed straight toward it. Corn de-tasseling crews move through endless Indiana fields pulling tassels from ears of corn, getting cut by sharp leaves, bitten by mosquitoes, crawled on by beetles, soaked by the rain, burnt by the sun, screamed at to hurry; hungry, thirsty having to pee. Desperate high school and college students do this every year because they pay you well if you survive. The stories that came to us from the unfortunate souls of other summers made us shiver and cringe.
Nina was safe in the Admissions office. Beth and Sheila escaped into the refuge of Campus Maintenance jobs when classes ended, where they washed windows and painted walls in the dorms. Due to an absurd stipulation in some financial aid policy, I was ineligible to earn full-time pay from the school because my parents own a farm. I don’t own a square inch of it, mind you, and was in danger of having to sell my body for bread, but the school refused to pay me for more than 20 hours of work per week. Period. Forget it. And who, but cornfield bosses, will hire full-time summer help three weeks into June?
Right before my own eyes, I was turning into the prodigal daughter. I could imagine myself, in a matter of days, eating corn silk through my tears as I wrenched it off the ears.
Tina Corning saved me on the eve of the de-tasseling sign-up. She’s the peppy young religion prof who hired me to transcribe the hours of boring conferences she attended and interviews she conducted as research for her doctoral dissertation. She’d spoken with every important Mennonite in the fifty states about some giant church merger that may or may not be about to occur—surprisingly stuffy subject matter for someone so lively. I’ve never typed for more hours about something I found less interesting. But who cares? There were no bugs, and no one shouted at me.
I loved Tina’s house. I loved Tina. She had a full refrigerator and sometimes even ordered pizza for which she never allowed me to pay a penny. She never ran out of toilet paper or dish soap or anything, as far as I could tell. I don’t like typing at all, but considering the alternative, I uttered not one word of complaint from my comfortable chair.
Each morning I biked to Tina’s house and typed until my eyes crossed. I could work as long as I wanted—there was no chance I was going to run out of boring interviews to listen to. The recordings of presentations in large rooms took me forever to get through. The voices sounded like they were coming from the bottom of a swimming pool and I had to listen to the same garbled segments ten times, trying to make sense of the bubbles.
In the afternoons, or when I couldn’t sit for one more minute, I did yard work for the professors who so recently released me from the clutches of their dismal reading assignments. It seems that, having failed to convert me to their cult of over-analysis, these professors decided to take advantage of my stubbornness by pitting it against their lawns. In the end, they who had worried that I was witless, and I who had diagnosed them as almost-dead, ended up laughing over iced tea together, eating cookies and telling stories. How can you not love quirky old people who worry about their irises and the bald spots in their yards? And how can you not give cookies to the girl who appears to enjoy the muddy jobs in your garden? Even if she didn’t pay a speck of attention in your class.
* * * * *
Beth said smoking pot looks boring. All it does is make you stupid. Look how stupid stoned people are.
I can’t say I thought it looked boring. I thought it looked fun. Everybody at the Dead show was smoking pot and I guarantee you nobody there was bored. The hair-wrapping guy beside my illegal necklace display didn’t look bored. He was happy as a clam. Sometimes I wished I hadn’t chickened out.
Nina said Anthony and his friends used to smoke pot when their parents were gone, and the horrible smell gave her headaches. Then she went outside to smoke a cigarette with Beth. Whatever. Sheila said she would never smoke pot because she’s sure she would get caught. That’s probably a good idea. Poor Sheila suffers from enough paranoia without doing anything that could risk making it worse.
But curiosity nagged. What would it do to me? Would it be scary? Would I see weird things that weren’t there? What if I went completely crazy and ran naked through the streets? What if I loved it so much that I couldn’t stop, and ended up a drug addict shooting heroin in back alleys? They say that can happen. It all starts with the first time. What if I started crying? What if I accidentally told Tom all about the boy in Los Rios? What if I called my parents on the phone and they could tell I was on something?
Finally I couldn’t stand it. I had to know. I hadn’t become an alcoholic when I tried alcohol. Why would I become a drug addict if I tried drugs? Everyone else tries pot when they’re a rebellious teenager, but when I was a rebellious teenager, I sneaked a Talking Heads tape to a church youth group retreat. How embarrassing to be twenty years old and never to have smoked a joint. Tom hadn’t either, but he was pretty sure marijuana would provide him with new enlightenment. He started calling it “herb” like Bob Marley. We decided to try it together the way we were trying everything else.
As the last summer classes ended, Beth had a marvelous idea: we could throw a party downstairs in the empty apartment. All we had to do was go down the interior stairway between the apartments, walk over to the front door, and open it wide. That, and pray that Barb the landlady didn’t bust us. Beth had the inspiration just in time too, because soon afterward Troy and Brenda moved in with their Megadeath posters and almost nobody except us was left in town.
Tom had the joint stuffed in his pocket, and after enough cheap wine to embolden us, we went out onto the porch to light up. I already knew what to do—you hold your breath for as long as you can after you suck the smoke in. I guess it’s easier for smokers than for non-smokers like me. And it probably helps to have decent weed.
I coughed so hard that Tom had to get me water. Each time my pink lungs met the sketchy smoke, they had an ipecac reaction and it came spewing back out. I had to concentrate with all my might to hold down the tiniest wisp for two seconds. But I made up for my lack of duration with my diligence. I smoked and smoked, hacked and gulped. I hadn’t expected this to be difficult.
I could tell Tom wanted somewhere to hide. “You feel anything?” he prompted, rubbing my back.
“My throat is killing me,” I rasped. “No. You?”
“Yeah. I feel kinda...nice.”
That’s Tom for you. He wasn’t any higher than I was, and we both knew it. He always acts like being positive helps everything. It doesn’t.
When we were burning our fingers on the roach, we went inside to see the movie on the TV that Colin brought over from his parents’ basement. The movie was one of those trippy films that are supposed to be funny to high people, with no recognizable storyline or plot. I added my body to the clump of warm wiggly friends on the floor and waited to see what would happen.
Maybe I’m having a delayed reaction. Did I not do it right? Wait. Is that it? Is it starting? I kept asking myself if I felt like doing or saying anything weird. I kept waiting to think everything was funny. I kept checking to see if the movie was getting interesting.
After a while I gave up trying to follow the movie. It was too stupid to be worth the film wasted on it. My eyes were dry, my throat burned and my head felt like a pumpkin. Tom was being an imbecile, trying to act the way he thought a stoned person should, giggling and saying “yeah, man” between every sentence.
What an anti-climax. I coughed my lungs out for nothing. I heard some people don’t get high the first time. I don’t know why. You can get drunk the first time. You can get pregnant the first time. Why can’t you get high? The only unusual thing that happened is a sleepiness as gummy and thick as bread dough pushed me flat onto the floor, from which I don’t remember getting up and going to bed.
* * * * *
Nina’s brother Anthony is three years older than she is, and seems to be completely normal. We thought he was the coolest, and worshiped him with the starry-eyed adoration that only your friend’s inaccessible older brother can evoke. He could get into the liquor store too, which only deepened our devotion. He thought we were a pack of silly girls with no taste in wine. We didn’t care a bit what he thought as long as he got it for us and brought it over himself, pressing the change back into our eager hands with his scratchy fingers.
He raised one eyebrow and cocked his head sideways at us the night Beth and I hit him up for a fifth of Jose Cuervo Especial. We decided to splurge. The end of Twentieth Century Thought in Lit deserved proper celebration, and there was no use trying to throw another party—everyone left town like an evacuation as they wrote their final exams.
He’d come over to pick up Nina and take her out to dinner, not to do our illegal shopping, but if you smile and twist your hair when you ask him, he never says no. He nodded his admiring approval at our sudden improvement in beverage choice and sped off to Reynolds’ while Nina finished accenting the dark circles around her eyes with black eye makeup. Whew. That was close. Otherwise we would have had to ask Tom to go pick Jose up for us, and if we’d asked Tom, then we would have to invite him to drink it with us. Don’t get me wrong, there were advantages to drinking with Tom, but this was between us and twentieth century literature.
With Nina out to dinner, and since Sheila only drinks pink wine, it was just Beth and me—like back in old times except we didn’t drink then. We filled up our bedroom with candles in spite of what Smokey the Bear would say, and from the start we sat on the floor so we wouldn’t have anywhere to fall. We opened the bottle and passed it back and forth, making up a toast for each round. Beth started.
“To us. For being done with classes.”
“To us again. For getting summer jobs that are not in the cornfield.”
“You can’t say amen with tequila, dumbass.”
“Okay sorry. Cheers!”
“To Harriet and her unborn kittens.”
“To Harriet. God bless her vagina.”
“To Harriet’s vagina.”
“You said it first.”
“But I was blessing it.”
“Okay. God bless Harriet’s vagina.
We had to stop and laugh for a little while.
“To Professor Williams. For still being alive.”
“And to Camus and Sartre for being dead!”
“Oh my God! Cheers!!”
“And may they never return.”
“How old do you think he is?”
“Oh. I thought you meant Sartre.”
“Don’t know. The same as Sartre?”
“To Mary Perry for living her whole life with a name that rhymes.”
“And for being crazy.”
“And for being crazy.”
“Hey wait! And to the cows! For having a lot of stomachs.”
“Oh my God! Why did she say that?”
“I have no idea.”
“She is so weird.”
“But she’s very smart.”
“Do you think she’s senile or do you think she’s always been that way?
“I think she’s always been that way.”
“So do I.”
“Can you imagine when she’s senile too?”
Then we had to fall over on the floor and laugh hysterically.
“Okay. I got one.”
“To Nina and the carrots in the Co-op.”
Beth fell over laughing again. “Be nice!”
“I am nice!”
“Oh my God. The carrots!”
“And to the garden.” I was trying to pour our shots but the bottle wouldn’t stay over the shot glasses.
“What are you doing?”
“Making a mess.”
“That garden was never going to work.”
“And those fucking pear trees!”
“Wait? Why are you fucking the pear trees?”
We both fell over and Beth was trying to say she wasn’t fucking the pear trees, she just wanted a few damn pears from those trees that were taking forever, but she was laughing too hard to talk.
I knew what she meant.
We were on, “To Sheila for being our first friend to go bald,” lying on our backs kicking like Kafka’s cockroaches and screaming with laughter when Nina and Anthony came home.
“Whoa,” he drawled, nodding at us as we coughed and sputtered and tried to regain control. “You are two tequila mamas.”
That, we were.
“Y’wanna a shot?” we asked him.
“Naah. You girls look like you’re doin’ fine.”
“To our moms. For having us.”
“To the Mexicans. For inventing tequila.”
“And big sombreros.”
“To being roommates in the nursing home when we’re 95.”
* * * * *
It was driving me crazy that Methuselah still had to live in an ice cream bucket. I cracked his fishbowl last year trying to scrub the algae out of it in the dorm sink, and it was high time for him to have a decent home that he could see out of like other fish. But how? The glass aquariums at Wal-Mart cost $10.99, which equals two weeks of food for me. Unless I came up with a better idea, he wasn’t going to get a glimpse of the wide world until Christmas.
I spied the solution on top of our overflowing trash: the jug of Carlo Rossi rosé that we emptied on Saturday night. Of course a fish could live in that. It was big enough, transparent, and free—or already paid for. The bottleneck presented the only problem, but there has to be a way to get that off. I scoured the premises and came up with a Neanderthal repertoire of tools comprised of rocks, sticks, and a hammer.
I was outside in the yard kneeling on the wine jug with one knee, trying to knock the top part of it off with the hammer, when Troy came out of the downstairs apartment. He said he wondered what that weird and dangerous-sounding noise was.
The idea didn’t seem so bad until I started trying to explain it. I mean, maybe I would be lucky enough to break the top off without bashing the thing to shards and slitting my veins. You don’t know until you try.
“Are you trying to break that?”
“Well. I’m trying to get this off,” I said, pointing to the spout with the cute round handle.
The way he chewed on his lip made it clear that he wasn’t a believer.
“I want to put my fish in it. My goldfish.”
I think he was speechless, which made me start talking fast.
“It’s because his fishbowl broke a long time ago and he’s in this plastic bucket he can’t see out of. And I feel bad for him.”
I felt stupid, now. Just go mind your own business, Troy-With-A-Mullet.
“I got something you could use,” he offered.
“Yeah. It used to be my hamster cage, but he died. So you could have it. It’s plastic, but it’ll hold water.”
That was even better. What was I thinking, anyway?
“That way you won’t cut yourself,” he said, and went inside to get it.
Talk about nice neighbors. Troy isn’t the world’s smartest guy. He bolts things onto Winnebago’s all day, if that tells you anything, but he had me and my half-baked college degree on that one. Mechanical reasoning and all.
* * * * *
If I were the child of my host parents, the man called Chino would be my uncle. All day he sits outside his little store where the men and children congregate, selling soda pop, single cigarettes and mint candies. He laboriously reads the sports and human interest stories in the newspaper he pays for every day from his till. At night he sleeps on a fold-up cot in the back of the store to discourage thieves and ambitious coons from helping themselves to his wares.
He has an impish grin on his face when he says to me, “Quiero hacerle una pregunta.”
“Okay,” I agree.
“¿Usted cree que un hombre fue a la luna?”
He repeats the question, asking if I believe that a real man went to the moon, and then adds, “Un americano.”
“Sí,” I say, perplexed, thinking, doesn’t everybody know that?
Then Chino does something I have not imagined. He throws back his head and laughs a deep belly laugh, not of mockery, but of genuine mirth, as if I have performed an amusing and clever trick. It’s one of those contagious laughs that make you giggle even when you don’t know what’s funny.
“¿Usted no lo cree?” I ask. I have never heard of anyone who flatly disbelieves what we all know to be true.
“No, no, no,” Chino shakes his head. “Yo, no.”
“¿No?” I ask, a burst of laughter escaping me, too.
“¿Cómo puede ir un hombre a la luna?” he asks, looking at me as if I have told him I am certain elephants can fly.
But didn’t you see the pictures? I start to say. Then I stop. But they showed it on TV, flashes through my mind. Sweet Lord. Listen to me. These are the stupidest reasons on earth to believe anything.
“Pero ellos trajeron rocas,” I try.
“¡Rocas!” Chino scoffs. “¿Quién dice que en la luna hay rocas?”
Now I am the one who cannot stop the laughter. He has left me speechless.
Delighted to have such a cheerful audience for his musings, Chino continues. “¡Son mentiras! Puras mentiras. No se puede ir a la luna.”
The more I think about it, the more I can’t stop laughing. Because who even cares? One of us is right and one of us is wrong, and in the end, down here in the shade of Chino’s front porch a hundred miles from nowhere, what’s the difference?
When the moon climbs round above the trees, glowing its milky light over the houses that circle the plaza, I imagine Chino’s moon in place of the one I have always known. I tell myself that the news clips and photos shown to me as truth are Hollywood productions, entertainment.
I summon the virgin moon, the one untouched by men, the one Chino says tells them when to plant the seeds so they will grow, when to prune trees and set fences, the one who brings babies into the world and tells the old people when to die.
I stare at the silent white orb until I see it born.
My skin prickles in the warm night, and a giddy laugh flutters in my chest.
Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Chino’s moon smiles roundly down, mysterious and new.
Life improved a bit after we discovered split peas. It wasn’t that we liked them so much; it’s that they were cheap—even cheaper than lentils, which we thought were the cheapest. I spied them in Kroger’s in the bean section, lying on the bottom shelf looking forlorn and a little yucky. The name sounds like something your grandma would make you eat, but at that price, who cares? This is why God made curry powder. I held them up and asked Beth if she thought we should try them. She said she remembers hating them as kid. But not to worry. Kids hate everything that isn’t candy.
Split peas look like lentils, so that’s how we cooked them. We scooped them into a pot to boil with salt and spices, onion and garlic, until they yielded up a scalding green broth. We piled them beside the rice on our plates, and dug in. What a sorry disappointment! No wonder Beth hated them when she was small. We hated them now, but lacked the courage to admit our enthusiasm had been blind. They weren’t yummy and soft like lentils. They were coarse and crunchy and tasted like straw. Why does cheap food always have to turn out to be disgusting?
But hungry girls will do what they must. Beth worked to perfect the flavor of this nasty-textured dish and make it palatable. When you have no cookbook, you make things up as you go along. Any spice was a step in the right direction. Soy sauce worked wonders. Circuit-shorting amounts of cayenne pepper at least masked the gristly taste behind a different sort of pain. I put Velveeta cheese on top and named the dish Hungry Hannah’s Cheese Peas. They were slightly less horrible that way than they were plain.
Much later, after gnashing through pounds of them and giving up hope, I found out the truth about split peas. They aren’t like lentils at all. They cook to a succulent softness, but they take three hours like other dried beans. No wonder they crunched in our teeth and didn’t taste as good as we pretended. We were eating them raw. I’m sure our moms or Grandma Friesen would have been glad to share this little secret with us when we needed it, but we never thought to ask. We suffered and chomped in our self-inflicted misery of independence.
We didn’t really ask our moms things. We told them things. Or more likely, we talked about the cat.
* * * * *
Thank God for the porch roof. If you prop the kitchen window open with a stick, you can climb out and sit on the blazing shingles. We ate out there when it was too hot to eat inside, drank there on cool evenings while we waited for the stars, talked, shouted, told secrets and sang. We also found the porch roof to be a great spot for sunbathing—much better than the yard with its tickling bugs. We couldn’t afford bikinis, so we basked on the porch roof in our underwear. What’s the difference? No one could see us anyway because we were lying down. And if they did, we didn’t care. Up there, they couldn’t get us.
The underwear sunbathing ended after the night of the bicycle episode.
Beth heard it first. She and I were in our room sloppily folding laundry in our shorts and our bras. The night was too hot for shirts. And besides, bras are clothes.
“Is that a bike?”
“That. That sound.”
I stood still and listened. There was the spinning sound of a10-speed bicycle coasting along the dark street in front of the house.
“Yes,” I said, and dropped to the ground where no one outside could see me in my ratty old undergarment.
“Turn off the light,” Beth said, jamming a shirt over her head.
“Why?” I asked. I thought putting on shirts covered it, so to speak.
Beth turned the light off, herself. First we heard silence, but then it came again—the sound of a slow bicycle coasting in the opposite direction.
“Somebody’s out there. That’s the 4th time that bike went by.”
I went to the open window and pulled the curtain across, then fumbled around for a shirt.
“Shit,” I said. What dumb-asses we are, I was thinking. We never pull these curtains. Ever. “I’m locking the door.”
I went into the living room to shut the door that stood open to the porch and the steps which connected us with the dangerous world. As I turned to walk back to Beth in the dark bedroom, I heard it through the living room window above the alley by our steps: the sound of a bicycle coasting. My hand reached before I knew what it was doing and smacked the light switch, plunging the living room into shadow.
“Turn off your light,” I said to Nina, who was kneeling on her bed with a bouquet of paintbrushes, turning Dan with Grapes into a one-breasted Amazon.
“There’s somebody outside.”
“A stranger?” she whispered, reaching for her lamp.
“Yeah,” I said.
Now the only light in the apartment came down the hall from the kitchen.
Beth walked into the living room and sat on the floor with her back against the couch.
“Shouldn’t we call the police?” Nina asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, lying on the floor under the window from where I could listen in hiding.
There it went again: the sound of a bicycle coasting by below us, first one direction, then the other.
“I think we should,” she disagreed. “Someone is stalking us.”
A creep, maybe, or a curious kid captivated by girls in bras. But a real rapist or murderer on a bicycle? I had a hard time summoning that kind of terror. Would the police even come if we reported somebody riding a bicycle up and down a public street?
“I think we should keep our curtains shut,” Beth said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
Up until that moment, we believed ourselves to be invincible in our perch on the second floor, the sole point of access over which we imagined that we exercised complete control. Amazing how quickly those illusions crumble the minute you suspect something unpleasant might walk up the steps and stand on the other side of your one way out.
“It’s hot in here! Why do you guys have all the curtains shut?” Sheila asked when she got back from the surprise birthday party Neil’s girlfriend threw for him. Thank God she missed the spooky sound of that bike. She would have locked herself in the bathroom for four days if she heard that, even though it went away almost as soon as the house was dark.
“We decided to shut them,” I said. “We heard somebody outside on a bicycle.”
“Just riding back and forth.”
“Who was it?”
“A strange man,” Nina answered.
“Oh my God.”
“It’s okay,” Beth said. “We shut the curtains and he went away.”
“Oh my God...!”
“It’s okay, Sheila.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Were you scared?”
“Not really,” I lied. “More like annoyed.”
We were a lot more careful about our curtains from then on, especially after dark. And we didn’t sunbathe on the porch in our underwear ever again. We didn’t make a rule or anything, it’s just that no one felt like doing it anymore.
* * * * *
Tom was a sociology major, which is ironic considering how much he bitched about society. Governments disgust him, religions annoy him, and he was suspicious of every kind of “ism” there is except Communism. We thought Communism was a fabulous idea, even though we secretly realized it would never work. He wanted to run a homeless shelter someday, or something like that, to help the people our evil society chews up and spits out. Part of me wanted to point out that to run a homeless shelter he was going to have to have rules and cooperate with things like the state. But I’m not big on arguing over hypothetical situations. In the meantime, he had a full time summer job helping his uncle paint houses.
He was almost always in a crappy mood after work because he hated spending summer days inside. He liked the checks that the painting company cut him, but suffocating in the smell of paint gave him headaches. In my opinion, he gave himself the headaches by thinking too much in all those fumes.
My favorite thing was when he went home to shower first and came over when he felt better about life, exuding sandalwood instead of turpentine. I kind of wished he wouldn’t come over when he was grumpy and morose because of course it was my job to cheer him up. Sometimes I got my wish, sometimes I didn’t.
We climbed out the kitchen window and sat on the porch roof in a patch of shade from a lazy pear tree. Work clothes and turpentine. No shower. No good mood.
“Are you okay?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. I guess I’m feeling depressed.”
“You are? Why?” I didn’t see what Tom had to be depressed about. He had a real job, a car, and housemates who aren’t crazy. And what am I? Chopped liver?
“’Cuz. I don’t know.”
Fear shot through the middle of my chest like an arrow. He wants to tell me something he doesn’t want to tell me.
“Well... I don’t know. I’m just confused.”
“You want a beer?” I almost never have beer, but that day I did.
“Yeah. That would be great.”
I climbed into the kitchen again, forcing myself to breathe. Is he going to dump me? Can he somehow sense what I said in the last letter I mailed to Costa Rica? I got two beers form the fridge and climbed out to sit beside him on the roof again. The hot breeze felt like dragon breath.
He was going to have to talk, since I’d produced beer, and he knew it. He wiggled a little, squirming with an inner discomfort that spilled over into his back and legs.
“I just don’t know anymore. I mean, I’m just not sure about anything.”
I couldn’t look at him. I thought I might faint.
“I mean like Christianity and all. Sometimes when I’m with you, I think about the church and everything they say. Like my stupid Sunday School teacher when I was a kid. I don’t know what I believe anymore.”
A tidal wave of relief swept over me. Suddenly, I loved him a hundred times more. I promised myself never to write any more letters like that.
“I hear you,” I said, trying not to sound delighted. “Me neither.”
“I’m so confused.”
“Everything used to make sense, and I knew what I believed. Now I don’t know anything. It’s scary. And depressing.”
“I know what you mean. I feel the same way. But it first hit me last year, so I guess I’m getting kind of used to it.”
He took an enormous draw on his beer and tried to make the burp quiet.
“I don’t know what I believe. About anything. Like this,” he said waving his beer in the air in front of us, as an example. “I don’t know if we’re going to hell. I don’t even know if I’m a Christian—if I want to be one.”
“I don’t know anything, either,” I said. “But that’s why l like it here—at college. Back at home, every question has only one right answer. Everything else is wrong. And I don’t know is not an answer. Here, questions can just be questions. Y’know?”
But not for Tom. Not then.
“But a question has to have an answer,” he smirked at my silliness. “Right?”
“Oh, so then nothing is true, and nothing matters, and the whole universe is random, and we can all go around doing what we want? What if I want to kill someone?”
“Okay,” I said, backing down.
“You can’t say that.” He glared at me, needing the answer to his question not to be another question.
“I’m just trying to say I agree with you,” I said, smacking an ambitious mosquito. “I don’t know anything either.”
Tom has a paper-thin line between being for him and being against him. The smallest step can land you on the wrong side of it by accident.
“Something has to be true,” he insisted, and there was agony in his voice.
“Yeah,” I said, thinking about Chino’s moon, not one bit convinced anymore.
* * * * *
August broke over us like a freshly poached egg, thick and scalding. Matthew, who we adored for having introduced us, called Tom from his parents’ house in Iowa. He and his girlfriend Skye were done following the Grateful Dead now, and the VW bus where they live was parked until September in his parents’ driveway. Obviously, Matthew’s parents are way cooler than mine, or any other parents I knew of. They didn’t claim to like that he lived in a bus with his girlfriend, but they were ready not to make a big deal about it. He asked if we wanted to come out for a visit and said we could sleep in his old bedroom in the house. No one else was.
A road trip sounded like the perfect solution to my stir-craziness, so the minute Tom delivered the invitation, I began cramming things into my backpack. Beth asked me what was going on, and I told her Matthew and Skye invited us to Iowa.
“You want to come?” I asked, knowing she would rather be dragged behind wild horses than stuck in a car with Tom, me, and the Grateful Dead all the way to Iowa and back.
“Well...” she said, raising her eyebrows, and staring past the profanities on the wall, “Can I?”
“Of course!” I could have kissed her, I was so happy. With Beth, you never know. But when she glows on you like the sun, everything in the world is right.
I almost wrecked the car on the way there, and I got stopped for drunk driving on the way back. The near-wreck happened because I drifted to the left while fiddling with the cassette player, and when I realized it, I panicked and overcompensated to the right. Then I had to swerve left again to stay on the road, and right again in a terrifying zig-zag, wider each time. Speeding around Chicago on the freeway, all I could do was brake, and pray not to be rear-ended.
I wasn’t drunk when the cop stopped us on the way home. I was trying to open a stick of gum, the only weapon I found with which to fight the horrible sleepiness that claimed first Beth in the back seat, then Tom beside me. I guess I was weaving. The two o’clock sun hammered down on us like a punishment and there was no air conditioner to temper it. At 60 miles per hour with the windows half way down, the pressure of warm air on my face felt like a feather pillow, lethal and inviting. The cop didn’t even make me take a breath test or get out of the car—I guess my sleepy, cherub face was convincing enough.
After my first pull-over by a cop, I stayed wide awake for a long time and Tom stayed awake with me in case I needed someone to open another stick of gum for me. It was the day after the night we went skinny dipping so we weren’t exactly functioning on a full night’s sleep.
The five of us were sprawled in Matthew’s back yard under a suffocating blanket of night speculating about the new school year when Skye had an idea.
“Hey. Let’s go swimming!”
“But we don’t have swimsuits,” I stupidly said.
“Who needs swimsuits?” Matthew asked.
“I hate swimming with clothes on.” Skye made a face to show how much she hated it.
“Right on,” Tom said. “Where?”
“My dad’s friend has a pond we can go to,” Matthew said. “If no one’s home.”
I was a little worried, but I wasn’t going to say so. Beth and I went skinny dipping in my parents’ farm pond once after everyone was asleep, but that’s different. It’s a familiar pond. The idea of swimming in an unfamiliar place with nothing at all between, well, me and whatever else lives there is somewhat terrifying. I didn’t care about being seen naked. Half of us had already seen me naked anyway. I did, however, care about the risk of getting arrested for trespassing with no clothes on. Do they let you get dressed before they handcuff you?
“I think we need some tequila,” Skye added.
Excuse me? Drunken naked trespassing? Oh well. They aren’t my parents’ friends.
Tom went into the liquor store, then we zoomed off down the road singing “Friend of the Devil” at the top of our lungs while Beth unscrewed Jose Cuervo’s cap.
Matthew cut the lights and shushed us when we got to the gravel farm lane. We crept along, trying to be unobtrusive in our bus, until the farm buildings came into view and we saw that the house was dark.
“Score! They’re not home!”
“Or they could be sleeping.”
“Do they have dogs?” I asked.
The lane curved away from the buildings and into the endless Iowa cornfield. All evidence of danger passed, Matthew turned the lights back on to avoid driving the van into the pond.
It was gorgeous. The water waited, a primordial black in the opaque and breathless night. A wooden dock equipped with a diving board and rope swing beckoned hot sticky people who spent their last dime on gasoline and tequila to come find free relief. Matthew let the van door open and the American Beauty tape playing.
Poor Beth. But weird music is a small price to pay for something to do. Desperate means call for desperate measures.
We piled out of the van with the tequila bottle and stripped on the dock. I tried to leave my clothes in a pile so I could find them later, and in the order I would want them back: underwear on the top, then bra, shirt, and shorts on the bottom. Matthew dove off the dock and came up in the middle of the pond. The rest of us followed, throwing ourselves into the cool milky water and surfacing to catch our breath from the sudden chill. It took us ten seconds to forget that we were naked in front of God and everybody in a stranger’s pond.
Those bottles of tequila look gigantic when you take the first shot, but it’s amazing how fast they disappear when you share them between five thirsty mouths. The night got warmer and brighter, and our self-consciousness evaporated. We decided to play “Jump or Dive.”
We were stifling hoots of laughter at the belly-flopper exectued by Tom, who jumped as Beth called “Dive,” when the dusty lane leading to the pond became illuminated by bouncing lights.
“Somebody’s coming!” I hissed.
“Shit!” said Beth.
Matthew and Skye both said what the fuck.
I struggled to my feet as fast as my clumsy limbs would move, watching for Tom’s head to surface. The lights were getting closer, shooting terrifying yellow beams at the open bus and toward our four wet bodies as we scrambled to dress in a bumbling frenzy. I hoped, for a moment, that the lights might turn and drive toward the house. They didn’t.
I grabbed my shirt, jumbling the order of things I carefully placed an hour ago when I was sober, and jammed it over my head. Everything stuck to everything, and only one arm hole presented itself. Beth was giggling uncontrollably, mumbling, “OhmyGod. OhmyGod.”
Skye tried to kill two birds with one stone. She found her flowy tie-dye skirt and pulled it over her head in attempt to wear it like a dress, but became caught like a fly in a web. She thrashed around, trying to get her arms through the top while keeping the bottom down, but it stuck to her wet skin in all the wrong places. Matthew stood behind her, fighting to find the leg holes in his shorts. Tom surfaced, saw the lights, and swam to the dock where he remained motionless in its merciful shadow.
I stuffed my underwear into the pocket of my shorts and was dancing a strange two-step, trying to coax denim up wet legs, when the vehicle rounded the corner and blasted us with light. There we stood, plain as day on the dock, half naked and frantic, not sure if we should laugh but how could we help it?
The car stopped. I waited for the flashing lights to ignite, but whoever it was, it wasn’t the cops. Maybe they were disappointed lovers in search of a place for a romantic encounter. Maybe some other bored students hoping for a swim. Night fishing? I guess it’s possible. Somebody else who goes to Matthew’s parents’ church? That’s when I remembered the tequila bottle sitting at the edge of the dock, almost empty, the dregs reflecting a lovely yellow light.
“Shit! The bottle!” I said as I closed my shorts and stuffed my bra in the other pocket.
“Whatever,” said Skye, who now had her entire skirt wrapped around her neck.
Maybe it was the farmer, who, having heard a noise or sensed that something was amiss, came to check out what was going on at the pond. Whoever it was, they didn’t try to join us, and they didn’t roll down the window to yell at us.
The car executed a three point turn in the dusty lane and the yellow beams were replaced by two red eyes that vanished into the corn. We sighed, gasped, giggled, cursed. Tom came up out of the water and polished off the tequila in one gulp.
“Who do you think that was?” Tom asked.
“How would I know?”
“Not the cops.”
“What if they call the cops?” I said.
“Why would they call the cops?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe we should leave,” Matthew said to Skye.
“Yeah, we probably should,” Tom agreed.
I thought leaving was an excellent idea. It was all fun and games until we don’t know who that was, or what will happen next. And four of us are drunk twenty year olds.
“Do you think they saw the tequila?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but they saw my ass!” Matthew answered.
“I bet they’re laughing their asses off,” Beth said, wringing out her hair.
“I hope so.”
“Yeah, let’s get outa here while we can.”.
We climbed into the van and headed out the lane. We drove all the way to the road with the lights off, bursting to shout out our relief as our tires hit the pavement of public property.
And so, to complete the spree of criminal activities, we finished off the evening of trespassing, indecent exposure, public intoxication, and underage drinking with the crime of driving under the influence. I don’t remember a thing about the ride home, but I do remember how hard we tried to act sober when Matthew’s mom came down to the kitchen at 3:00 in the morning to see what in the world was going on as we clumsily scrambled her carton of eggs.
* * * * *
Poor Colin met an awful fate. I don’t mean he died or got maimed or anything—I mean we had to stop hanging out with him. And he got a smudge on his reputation that nobody in their right mind would want. His single moment of bravery didn’t go at all the way he must have hoped.
This was no real loss to me. It’s not that I disliked him, I just thought he was about as interesting as a cardboard box. He isn’t ugly or obnoxious—in fact, he’s smart, unreasonably generous and occasionally funny. He’s the last person in the world who you would expect your roommate to make you stop inviting to parties. We kind of needed him. With so many people gone, our Red Light parties had become rather disappointing and we needed bodies, especially males ones, to fill our house and make us feel like we were irresistible, grown up, and a little bad.
Colin did not make me feel irresistible, but he worked pretty well on Nina, being as he was Dan’s best friend. And Beth said she thought he was kind of cute—at least until he made his fatal mistake. Colin’s allure, which he shares with Curtis and Dan, is that he grew up in Africa. They all went to the same English school together in Kenya, a missionary school at which their parents taught. That’s how you know your town has a lot of missionaries: you have to start up a school for all their kids. Beth didn’t grow up in Africa but she did live in Nairobi when she was four, so she had things in common with Colin that were lost on the rest of us.
At the last Red Light party he came to, I saw him laugh until he couldn’t breathe—that one time. We were playing a drinking game we made up as we went along, and I’m going to venture he was losing. The game involved trying to guess what word somebody else was thinking, and having to drink a big slug of wine when you got it wrong.
After the wine ran out, the discussions began—the part that made me start yawning and nestle up against Tom. Before I could open my mouth and display my infinite ignorance, Tom and I slunk off to the Pit of Sin. Everybody else must have wandered home or to bed, leaving Colin and Beth on the couch under the red lightbulb reminiscing about the Africa of their childhoods.
Beth informed us the next day that Colin was, without exception, uninvited from our future parties. She could not bear to see him anymore.
“Why?” Nina asked, her eyes widening. Then a terrible thought occurred to her. “Did he do something to you?”
Beth set her coffee on the floor beside her, covered her face with her hands, and started giggling. “No.”
“Uh-oh,” I said. “What?”
“Did he say something?” Sheila tried.
“Okay, you guys,” she said, looking up. “You can’t tell anyone.”
We swore ourselves to secrecy. Cross our hearts, hope to die.
“Well. Everybody else went to sleep or went home. We were sitting there,” she said, pointing at the couch, “talking about Africa. When we were little. Then all of the sudden he—um. Started telling me how beautiful I am.”
“Oooo,” I hooted.
“Shut up, guys. Wait. And then he said he wanted to kiss me.”
“So, did you?” Nina asked.
“Of course,” Beth answered like it was obvious. “Johan is an ass and Curtis is gone. Why not?” Then she collapsed into giggles again, and pulled the neck of her t-shirt up to cover her face.
“What’s so funny?”
“It was disgusting!” she gagged, coming out of her t-shirt with a face like Mr. Yuck. “Aaagh! He just poked his tongue out all squishy and gushy! Bleagh!” She almost wretched through her laughter.
“Gross!” we all howled, making more faces like Mr. Yuck.
“I’m sorry Nina. I’m sorry guys. But I don’t think I can look at him again.”
“But isn’t he in your major?” Nina asked.
“Oh no!” Beth wailed. She covered her face again and curled on the floor in a fetal position. “Yes!”
There wasn’t much to be done about that, but indeed we didn’t invite him to our house anymore. I felt a sorry for him. I wonder if he heard we were having parties and not inviting him. I wonder if he ever suspected the reason.
Poor Colin, the boy who couldn’t kiss. That’s one of those things you’d better do right the first time, or you may never get to do it again.
* * * * *
My papá Tito tells me we’re going to the neighbor’s house where we will have vino de coyol. I don’t know what this is, but the beginning word is wine, and I am interested. He knows that I’m not supposed to have wine, that alcohol is forbidden by my college, and that as my host father he is to forbid it for me, too. He does, to the best of his ability.
There are people gathered around a felled tree. It is a palm, long as the arm of God. I would not have suspected that, outside of the pages of a story book, wine could come from a tree. Don Lazaro and his sons have lopped off the enormous leaves with their machetes and carried them away so that the neighbors will not be stung by scorpions, and they have propped up the tree’s bald crown, slanting its length slightly downward toward the severed trunk. Dusty children in mismatched clothes clamber up onto the long tree and leap off, shrieking. Careful mothers sit along it clucking like hens. Don Lazaro stands proudly by with a tin lid in his hand, covering and uncovering the square hollow he has cut in the lowest end. He dips into it with his tin ladle and pours a thin white liquid into a glass, which he hands me. He dips in again, and hands another dripping glass to my papá Tito.
My face must well reflect my incredulity, because Don Lazaro laughs, and my papá Tito says, “¡Tome! ¡Tome!,” reminding me of what I am going to do. He takes a long draw.
I can feel dozens of eyes on me as I lift the tepid liquid to my lips and taste it. Sugary palm tree sunshine brewed in the dark of a thousand starry nights slides into my belly, and I come up for air laughing. Who would have guessed? It isn’t wine at all. It is sweet milky sap from veins of wood.
Don Lazaro lifts the lid again, so I can see how the liquid pools in the cut he has hollowed. He points behind him to the capped bottles sitting on a little table under a mango tree and explains that the milk, if left to ferment, does indeed turn to wine—a strong, devastating liquor that will make you dizzy like this, he says, and laughing, shows me a stagger.
I try the wine as well. Not then. Later.
Not with my papá Tito, but with the boy and some of his cousins and some of our friends. We walk up the scalding dusty road one wind-still afternoon, to the next town where no neighbors will be spying. Or if they are, the news will arrive too late to my vigilant hosts.
The shocking taste of strong palm liquor is solid as the trunk of a towering tree, forceful and untamed. We laugh through bottle after bottle at the little table with uncomfortable benches in the shade of next year’s wine.
I forget the clock, the calendar, the suitcase under my bed. I forget that I am speaking another language, that I was not born here, that I will not die here, that everything I am will disappear like a dream.
A blinding headache splits my skull by the time I arrive home late to dinner, happier in spite of the pain than on any other day before or since.
I knew that letters were going to come but wasn’t prepared for what happened when I found one lying in my campus mail box. I flashed hot, then cold, then nauseous, and I had to go somewhere to read it—somewhere that is not home. No one must look at me.
Across campus on the other side of the railroad tracks that run behind the theatre, there is a tree I sometimes climbed. It’s a scruffy old pine with branches that are naked near the trunk—a hiding place I discovered last spring before I met Tom, when the guy I’d been in love with all year started going out with somebody who wasn’t me.
I rode my bike to my tree with the letter in my pocket and climbed up to the seat where I mourned that other heartbreak.
Don’t cry. Whatever you do, don’t cry.
I didn’t want to go home with red eyes and snot on my shirt.
The problem wasn’t my housemates. It was Tom I was hiding from. Obviously, at our house you could cry if you wanted and you didn’t owe anybody an explanation. But Tom would expect one. One I didn’t have. When he said he loved me, I said it back. And I meant it. I did.
I didn’t cry.
I read the letter, and read the letter, and read the letter. I held it to my face. I pressed it to my arms, to my cheek, to my heart. All I could do was think about breathing. All he asked was for me to come back, but I couldn’t move from that tree.
Can you love two people? If you love two people, is one fake and one real? Which one? Or are they both lies?
Can you fracture into a thousand pieces on the inside, and outside no one will know? Can you die and still appear alive? Can you live without understanding anything?
What is happening to me? Why can I not let go? Why does it matter more than air? How will I live my life?
Can you ever be alright again, ever, after you are absolutely broken? How can so much pain fit into a heart the size of your fist?
It was like the day in Los Rios that I reached from the shower for my towel and was stung on my pinky finger by the scorpion hiding there. I stared in dumb disbelief at my hand, as a blinding pain surged through my tiny finger and exploded into the entire room. It charged the air around my body like electric and shook the walls of concrete. All the while, my smallest finger looked exactly the same.
* * * * *
Sometimes Grandma Friesen lent Sheila her car. It was a pickle-green monster from the 1960s, wide enough to fit the four of us across the front seat. Sheila would tell her that we need the car to go to the grocery store or that she had to return a book to the library in Riverside, and Grandma Friesen almost always said yes. Whatever Sheila said was always true. She would not have lied to Grandma Friesen for all the rice in China, although Grandma Friesen never would have known the difference.
We loved having our own set of wheels because when we did, we were free and independent women. We could go anywhere we wanted and do whatever we felt like, as long as it didn’t cost any money and wasn’t illegal—like drinking—because Sheila was petrified of getting caught.
The car was parked outside on the sweltering Saturday night that we congregated in Sheila and Nina’s room, while Beth tried on Nina’s clothes. There wasn’t much else to do. We didn’t feel like throwing another lame-ass party. We didn’t have a television. There were no on-campus activities.
Beth pretended to be a mean, haughty model, teetering around in a pair of heels that were 2 sizes too small for her. Nina has sexy little dresses that are even sexier on Beth, because Beth’s legs are twice as long. One after the other, Beth pulled them on and wrenched them off, probably tearing Nina’s heart out by prancing around in her underwear. Sheila and I pretended to be judges, giving her outfits numbers like “9” or “7.5,” and we had to say why. The only things of Nina’s that would ever have fit me or Sheila her were her socks.
The worst thing about being poor is how boring it is. You can have a heart of gold and be as smart as Albert Einstein, but if you have no money, you have no choices. You get to stay home and watch the grass grow. You get to brew another pot of coffee and tell Beth the blue top is a “5” because she got the buttons crooked. Pretty soon, it gets old.
“You guys, we never do anything,” Nina complained, and flopped down on her bed. The parade of her cute clothing in disuse depressed her.
“I know,” I said. “I’m so bored.”
“Yeah,” Sheila said. She was laying on her back with her feet up the wall, like a worm trying to go up backwards. “We’re too poor for everything. I hate being poor.”
“I wish we could go out dancing.”
“Me to,” Beth said, posing in Nina’s little red dress. “I feel like getting dressed up and doing something fun. I haven’t put on makeup in like a month.”
“Me neither,” chimed Nina.
“Me neither,” I said hoping someone would laugh. I never wear makeup.
“Ten,” I said to the dress. Beth tossed her hair and turned to Sheila.
“You guys are so lucky you’re skinny!” Sheila burst out, tumbled by a wave of negative self-esteem. “You look great in everything! I could never wear a dress like that. I’d look like a cow!” She sat up to sulk properly.
Things like that are bogus, because what can you say back? That’s true, Sheila, you would. Or lie? No, you’d look great. Really!
“Yeah, but you have boobs,” Beth said. Beth is so quick it’s amazing. “Look at me. I look like a boy.”
“Shut up,” Sheila said, but a giggle escaped her.
“It’s true! You look hot in everything because you have boobs.”
Sheila told her to shut up again, but you could tell she’d never thought about it that way.
I have plenty of complaints about my body too, but at that moment the miserable inadequacy of my wardrobe eclipsed them all. I can’t help having all these hefty German genes, but there is no excuse for me not to own some decent clothes. All my clothes are ugly and dumb. That’s nothing to cry over, but suddenly I thought I might.
“Hey you guys, let’s go somewhere!” Nina was serious.
“Like where?” Beth asked, now that her modeling career had ended.
“I don’t know. Like... Riverside!”
“What do you want to do?” Sheila asked, worried that Beth would say something she didn’t like, or that Grandma Friesen wouldn’t approve of.
Riverside isn’t big enough to be a real city, but it’s a big town. It has a movie theatre, restaurants, bars, a museum and many other things we couldn’t afford.
“I don’t know. I just want to dress up and go somewhere. Can we? Do you think your grandma would mind?”
“But like what are we going to do?”
“Let’s drive around and see what happens,” Beth suggested. “Maybe there’s something free in the park, or we might see someone we know or something. Anyway, it’s better than sitting here. We can all dress up. It’ll be fun.”
Sheila was convinced. She jumped up and headed for the closet.
The only one who wasn’t convinced was me. I wanted to go somewhere, but does it have to be a fashion show? I had nothing to wear. Nina and Beth wanted us all to be sexy, and I know that I’m about as sexy as a sheepdog. I’d rather stay home and watch Harriet gestate. I’d rather stay home and wash our mountain of putrid dishes.
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Why?” Beth made her voice sound horrified.
“I’m not really in the mood to go out.”
Everybody stopped and stared—like now I was ruining the party.
“I don’t know.” They all just looked at me like I had gone completely crazy. “I don’t feel like it right now, guys. Plus, I have nothing to wear.” I had to stop talking so I wouldn’t cry.
I wished I could disappear. My special clothes were flowy Grateful Dead skirts. Tom thought they were sexy, but I knew perfectly well they weren’t. I hated my wardrobe. I hated my body. I hated myself for being so hateful. Sometimes you get in these moods where you can’t pretend to be happy when you aren’t.
Did you know that it’s already dark in Los Rios? I wanted to say. My mamá Hilda is in the kitchen straining hot black coffee into a glass. My papá Tito is telling her something about the cows and he makes her laugh. Do you know they call the owls “solococos” because that’s what they say into the night? Don’t you think the cooking fires look like constellations glimmering through the trees?
“Hannah you hafta come.”
“Come on Hannah, it’s a house thing.”
“You’ll find something. Anyway, who cares what you wear?”
In the end I gave in, not because I wanted to, but because it was easier than making them let me stay home. Music blasted and girls ran everywhere: trying on, grabbing this, dropping that, sharing mirror space. Hairspray and perfume filled the air. I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth when I heard Beth’s scream and the sound of crunching plastic.
“Oh! No! Methuselah! I’m so sorry! Hannah!”
I ran to the bedroom holding my toothbrush. I love Methuselah, my little fish. He loves me.
There was Beth, bubbling apologies so fast I couldn’t understand a word. There was Methuselah, my precious fish, flopping in the half-inch of water that remained after Beth accidentally stepped on his new home and broke the side off. I ran to the kitchen breathing curses at my stupid idiot friend, filled the old ice cream bucket with water, and hurried back to save Methuselah.
Poor fish. He must have been terrified. How could she do that? Methuselah has always been in the same spot. Today she forgets where he is and steps on him? I was too mad to even look at her. All I could do was stare at my beautiful little fish swimming in the horrible old bucket again, and thank Jesus she hadn’t smashed him flat. Beth got towels and cleaned up all the water and I didn’t say, Oh that’s okay.
We drove around Riverside a few times with the music turned up and the windows rolled down. It was by far the stupidest evening of my life, even more stupid than staying home with Harriet. When you’re lonely, being around people who don’t get it only makes it worse.
No free activities, or paid ones, were taking place in the park. Of course we didn’t see anyone we knew. What? Driving down the street? In Riverside? Even if we did see someone, what were we supposed to do? Slam on the breaks, leap out of the car and say hello? Too young for bars and too poor for restaurants, we settled for the drive-through at TCBY.
We should have gone to Walmart. At least then, we’d have gotten to walk around and show off the outfits we went to so much trouble to pick out. All that fuss and we never even got out of the car.
* * * * *
Mary Perry invited Beth and me inside for orange juice and cookies after we finished watering her flowers. She and Beth got to talking about books, which can take a long time, so Mary had to keep getting us more orange juice and more cookies. I don’t have as much to say about books as Beth does, but I can nod while I chew. We weren’t going anywhere as long as the free food kept coming, so by the time we got on our bikes to ride home, it was almost dark.
As we crossed the alley and approached our house, we could see that something was amiss. The whole apartment was lit up like Christmas, every available bulb burning brightly in the deepening dusk. Sheila sat outside at the top of the stairway snapping off what remained of the bitten nails on her fingers and toes. When she saw us she jumped up so fast she almost fell down the stairs, her overloaded nerves sizzling like stir-fry.
“Oh you guys! Oh you guys! Something happened to Nina!”
“What?” Beth asked.
We couldn’t help but imagine the worst. Was there blood? Is she alive? Was that the ambulance siren we heard as we left Mary’s?
“I don’t know! You have to come see this,” Sheila sputtered, hurtling herself back up the stairs.
“Where is she?”
“In here,” Sheila answered, and stopped with her hand on the door.
Oh. That confused me. If Nina was safe inside with Sheila and her nail clippers guarding the door, then nothing too awful had happened.
We hurried up the stairs behind Sheila, mumbling curses. I had a feeling I was going to need Tom’s car again to take her either to the hospital for crazy people or the hospital for sick people.
Sheila, shaking and pale, lead us straight to the kitchen where we stopped short and sucked in our breath with horror.
The wall. The whole grimy yellow wall was transformed into a crimson and black mural of agony and death. Some ghostly being, larger than life, writhed there in blood and smoke, dying a death unidentifiable and unimaginable.
“She’s in our room with the lights off and she won’t talk to me,” Sheila wheezed.
Without another word, Beth disappeared into the dark room which I would not have entered to save my mortal soul. There I stood, speechless, in the kitchen with Sheila who was losing it herself and the ghoul on the wall.
“Let’s go out on the porch,” I said. I almost turned the light off so we wouldn’t be able to see that thing in its aguish, but the thought of it hiding in the dark was a thousand times more terrifying. We climbed out the window and sat with our backs against the house in the shadow where it couldn’t see us.
We left it on the wall. We couldn’t paint over it, seeing as it was Nina’s creative work and the rule was there are no rules. We cooked while it watched over our shoulders. We washed dishes while it suffered beside us. Our lucky lack of a kitchen table saved us from having to eat our cereal with it. We got so used to it that we barely noticed it anymore, except when we brought visitors into the house and heard them catch their breath. I even tried not to smudge it as I wiped the wall when Harriet got diarrhea and shit all over its foot.
If Dan would have loved Nina even a little, maybe she wouldn’t have had to take that little Pine View detour and then spend the summer insisting she was done with men. She might have spared us the horrible thing on the kitchen wall. I know all about unrequited love and how miserable it is, so don’t call me unsympathetic. I’ve just never been quite so public about it. I guess that’s the difference between a painter and a poet: one writes morose metaphors in her notebook, self-conscious about how much they suck, and the other depicts her pain in living color beside the refrigerator.
Why would you paint a horrible monster like that in your kitchen? Because you don’t want it in your bedroom? And the living room walls are too full for a life-sized likeness? And because you need to look at the face of the beast in your mind? I thought about the cave people, and how they supposedly painted portraits of their prey on their walls.
In my next life, I’m going into anthropology. I have a new theory. If you take Nina’s artistic impulse and stretch it back a zillion years, you could propose that they painted the shapes, not of the beasts they hunted, but of the beasts that hunted them.
* * * * *
The most important difference between Nina and me is that I never had the desire to hurt myself like she said she did. Her hell, kindled by whatever it was, looked velvety and luxurious to me. At least she could scream for help. I opened my mouth, but no sound came out.
I was desperately jealous of her ability, her permission, to let go and fall apart. I wanted to crumble too but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. My eyes felt like marbles in my head, retrieving information which kept me from falling down the stairs or barreling through stop signs, but which was devoid of all coherency. Nothing made any sense.
The last thing I remember, I got on a bus to leave Los Rios. I was sad, but I was alright.
Now, I am nowhere. I am not in Los Rios. I am not on a bus. But I am not in my body, either. My body is hollow. Where am I?
I climbed the tree where I read the letters and waited to feel myself crack but all I did was get terribly hungry, after a while, and crawled on by a caravan of ants.
What can be done for me? Who could help someone like me? No one can give me the answers. No one can give me the questions. The past and the future don’t belong to each other and I don’t know where I am.
What good would it do me to crack, scream, shave off my hair?
Who can solve a riddle with no words?
* * * * *
Beth went for a walk with me because there was nothing else to do. The whole time, I kept searching for words to ask her if we were alright, but everything I thought of sounded clingy like Nina. We stopped at the park and sat on the worn-out kiddie toys in the afternoon shade. Beth picked the faded pink elephant and I got a galloping greenish horse. She lit a cigarette.
“Can I have one?”
“You don’t smoke.”
“Are you serious?”
Beth raised her eyebrows and handed me one.
“If I breathe in mostly air and just a little smoke, I can do it.”
“Ooo,” Beth said, mocking my feeble attempt to be bad, “Go girl,” and lit my cigarette.
“I hate this town,” she said, exhaling a cloud at the pink elephant.
“So do I.”
“There’s nothing to do.”
“I wish we had a car.”
“I wish we were in a real city.”
“Yeah. Let’s don’t stay here next summer.”
“Where should we go?” Beth brightened.
I smiled because she said we. “Montana.”
“I knew you were going to say that.”
“It’s so beautiful there. You have to see it to believe it.”
There was no way Beth would ever go to Montana, but it was fun to imagine. And to talk about something different. My parents took us west when we were kids, and I fell in love with the mountains the minute I saw them lifting from the plains.
“We could get summer jobs.”
“Where would we live?”
“I don’t know. We could get an apartment.”
“Are there jobs there?”
“We could follow the wheat harvest.”
“The wheat harvest. Didn’t you ever hear of that?”
“No silly! Following the wheat harvest.”
“You sign up, and then you spend the summer harvesting wheat from south to north. And you get to go everywhere.”
“But what would we do?”
“I don’t know. Learn to drive combines?”
Beth burst into laughter.
“We’ll kill ourselves! Or someone else!”
“You’re right. We would,” I said. The cigarette was making me dizzy in a good way.
“But there might be a lot of hot guys,” I tried.
“What if we went to Montana and got regular jobs?”
“What if we didn’t want to come back?”
“Well, we have to graduate.”
“How will we get there?” She was pretending to be interested, so I pretended she was serious.
“Bus. Train. We could hitchhike, but we might have too much stuff.”
Beth laughed again. “Two girls by the road with twelve suitcases!”
“The train would be fun.”
“The train would be fun,” she agreed. “Do you know anybody there?”
“My parents do. There’s this nice old couple they know. We stayed at their house. And they have an extra room.”
“Would they let us live in it?”
“I don’t know. They might.”
“You want to go all the way to Montana to live with old people?”
The coach turned into a pumpkin right there, and the white horses turned into mice.
“You’re crazy.” Beth rolled her eyes and crushed the butt of her cigarette on the pink elephant’s head.
“I’m going to go to Chicago,” she pronounced, leaving me all alone by the road with my suitcases on the way to Montana. “My cousin Kyle lives there. I can sleep on his couch. And waitress or something.”
She didn’t say we.
“That would be sweet,” I said.
I thought we loved this town. I thought we loved our apartment together. Now, she hated it here so I said I did too, but really, I didn’t. I only hated that she didn’t love it after all.
“Let’s go home.” Beth got up. “I have to pee.”
I stamped my cigarette on the green horse, and looked up at the humid white sky.
* * * * *
“Bájese de allí,” my papá Tito says to me on my perch in the tamarindo tree. “Se va a convertir en una mujer mona.”
I think he is joking, so I throw my head back and laugh my best carefree laugh. He is teasing me as if I were his little girl. In my country, we tell children they’ll break their necks if they aren’t careful. Turn into a bad monkey woman! How cute.
“Bájese de allí.” He says it again. “Es malo subirse los árboles en Semana Santa. Se le puede salir la cola de mono.”
“¿Yo?” I ask. Is he serious? This grown man thinks climbing a tree in Holy Week could turn me into a monkey? Oh my. I smile my most reassuring smile. No chance.
”Sí. Bájese de allí. Ya.”
Do I have to obey him? I’m not a baby. And I’m not going to grow a tail.
“Vamos,” he says.
His eyes are shifting, and they won’t look at me. His voice has gone cold, and his face is turning dark as night. Everyone has grown quiet. Everyone is looking away. Only the radio continues to blurt out tinny salsa music.
Suddenly, I sense the fear.
I try to swallow my disgust as I swing down out of the tamarindo, embarrassed. How in God’s name was I supposed to know that climbing a tree in Holy Week puts you in danger of becoming a monkey, here? How?
And don’t tell me they really think that.
“Vamos a la casa,” he says, and it isn’t a suggestion. It is a command. We start back to the house. His face is dark and fearful.
Tears of humiliation begin to prick my eyes and nose like pins. I am being escorted home like a disobedient child.
I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I can’t say any words or I will cry.
“No se puede subir los árboles en Semana Santa,” he explains. “Es malo. Se cree que se puede convertir en una mujer mona.”
“Lo siento,” I say, my lip quivering out of control, as if I were the child I feel I am being treated as. “Yo no sabía.”
“Yo lo sé,” he says. “No llore.” He pats me on the arm and laughs nervously because he doesn’t want me to cry. “No llore.”
“Okay,” I say, wiping my nose with the back of my hand and feeling the start of a flood. I want to turn into a bug and crawl away.
When we get to the house, I go into my room and try to muffle the storm of frustrated tears. I don’t want to be a bad monkey woman. I want to be happy and good. I try, but I don’t know how.
On one hand, his believing I could turn into a monkey and my crying about it are equally ridiculous, but he can’t help it, and neither can I. Thinking about how funny it is makes me cry harder.
I’m one of those unlucky people whose face turns into a potato when I cry. My nose gets red and thick, and my eyes swell shut like little pig eyes. It’s pathetic. No glamorous, beautiful movie tears for me. The day Beth yelled at me for making fun of her, I couldn’t stop crying. I thought our friendship was over, that I’d murdered it with one stroke and for no apparent reason. I was sure that on top of being white, I had accidentally aligned myself against her growing black identity. Or she thought I had. I’d now proven how ignorant I really am.
I wished I could die of remorse right there on the couch. It was even worse than the time I tripped that guy in the cafeteria when we were freshmen. I was goofing around like an eight year old trying to get him to notice me, and I tripped him flat on his face in the aisle in front of everyone. Which did not lead to a friendship or get me a date. I wanted to die then, too. What do you say? Sorry sounds so stupid. I didn’t mean it? Well then why did you do it? That’s how I felt on the day I told Beth she would end up like Kelly. It was another terrible thing I did by accident.
Kelly is my sister. She’s a year younger than I am, and my complete opposite. She was always the perfect daughter, the perfect sister, and the perfect student. She’s the kind of girl who loves kittens and babies and teaches Sunday School. She got straight A’s in every subject every time, went on church mission projects in the summers, and wrote me letters about her “walk with The Lord.” Yeah. My actual blood sister. For her birthday she wanted a subscription to Newsweek. See what I mean? A whole magazine about nothing but politics—and a new one each week. Gross. Her boyfriend was a farm boy who studied agriculture and did not have long hair like Tom. Kelly embodied the opposite of everything I believed to be good and right. I thought she was a total nightmare. So did Beth.
Every day the house shrunk smaller and smaller as we broiled under the roof. Restlessness festered. Sheila took to sitting on the porch, humming absentmindedly in loud monotone and filing her destroyed nails. Beth would fly into rages that I couldn’t understand and rarely saw coming. She painted FUCK THAT SHIT in huge letters right in the middle of the living room and I don’t even know why. When I asked her, she said she didn’t know either. Nina decided we all needed a lesson from the Kama Sutra, so she got it from the public library and set about painting stick figures in unmentionable positions on every available inch of wall space. I was just hungry. I kept opening the refrigerator, but there was never anything to eat. It was like being trapped on stage in Sheppard’s play, “Curse of the Starving Class.” Sam Sheppard is a genius. I decided to marry him.
The riotous walls closed in us. Our colorful flowers choked in a jumble of profanity and pictures. Now, when you walked in the door, you felt like you were stepping into a pen inhabited by wild animals. And everything was dirty. Beyond dirty. As in, it’s been piling up since I got pissed about the carrots.
Beth, Sheila and Nina were sitting on our floor painting their toenails fire-engine red, talking about the movie “Do the Right Thing.” We all went to Tom’s house the night before to watch it for the 4th time—no lie. It’s a great movie and all, but I pretty much got the idea the first time around. In fact, since Tom’s housemates were all in the living room watching the move, we went upstairs and tore each other’s clothes off. When we came back down, the movie was over and everyone was arguing about whether or not Spike Lee is saying that violence is the right thing.
It was as hot in real life as it is in the movie. Everything that drives you crazy is worse when it’s hot. I sat in a corner of the couch with my bead-making project spread out beside me. It was almost too hot even for beads. The red and yellow flowers kept turning into orange blobs.
Beth was saying that the media always blames racial violence on black people and never on anybody white, and she wasn’t looking at me—only at Sheila and Nina. I guess my demonstration of disinterest last night had consequences. I watched her and she wouldn’t look at me. I tried saying “mm-hmm” and “wow” sometimes, to show I was listening and that I did care. I shook my head sadly about all the bad things in the world. Nothing. I was in plain sight on the couch with piles of colorful of clay, but I might as well have been in Costa Rica.
I decided to try to be invisible. Maybe if they forgot I was there, I could forget I was there.
I hated when we had to talk about racism. It made me want to crawl in a hole, especially when Beth started flipping her ponytail and wagging her finger and wouldn’t meet my eyes. She was mad. She had every reason to be. I just wished I wasn’t one of the people she was mad at. What am I supposed to do about being white? I wished we could talk about something else and I knew it was wrong of me to think that, so I felt twice as bad. Sheila is every bit as brown as Beth, but she didn’t look away when I tried to say something. When she got mad, I didn’t get the feeling she was mad at me. Nina is white. But she was a lesbian now, which somehow redeemed her a little. She suffered her own types of discrimination. Or if she hadn’t yet, she would as soon as her parents found out. The house brimmed with their righteous anger.
If only I had kept my mouth shut. After trying so hard to become invisible, I almost had it. Then I shot it all to hell.
“So what do you think will happen in South Africa now that Apartheid is over?” Sheila was asking. Speaking of racial disasters. “Do you think they will make Mandela president?”
“I hope so,” Nina said.
“Hell yeah,” Beth said. “You know he will get elected. If he doesn’t get assassinated or something. Everything is changing so fast now in South Africa. And the American news networks SUCK. You never find out anything unless you read Newsweek.”
I should have kept my smart-alek comments to myself. But no. I didn’t.
“If you start reading that,” I said, clawing for something that might spark, in the new Beth, a flicker of my old Beth, “you’ll get like Kelly.”
It was stupid thing to say. Stupid. Ridiculous. Dumb. I’m such an idiot.
“That’s not funny, Hannah!” she snapped at me like a complete stranger. “I am NOT going to get like Kelly. Just because someone reads Newsweek does not make them like HER.”
I realize that. Sorry for trying to be funny.
She forgot that I was her best friend.
“If you don’t care what’s going on in the world, that’s your problem—but some of us do. You can go off with Tom and be a hippy, if you want. But these are my people I and care about them. Okay? So do NOT make fun of me!”
She forgot I’m the one who yanked her arm to set her jammed elbow back in place the summer we worked at camp. She forgot she’s the one who taught me to swear without flinching. She tried, anyway. She forgot about being nursing home roommates, and the time we went to the Halloween party as Siamese twins with all our hair braided into one big braid.
She kept on not-looking at me the rest of the day, and she wouldn’t talk to me. Then she went to hang out at Mean Tabitha’s and didn’t come home. All night, I kept waking up and she wasn’t there. I blew my nose so many times that I used up a whole roll of toilet paper and in the morning I looked like I’d been stung by bees.
It was supposed to be a joke. I though you would laugh and roll your eyes, and do one of your awesome impersonations or something. You could never be like Kelly, even if you wanted to. I take it back, okay? I take my whole self back. I wish I could erase myself and leave a clean, blank spot in the world. Don’t worry—I hate me way more than you ever could.
* * * * *
Back in the beginning, Beth was like my twin, my other half. She escaped from the dorm to spend as many weekends at my house as my parents would allow. In the extra bedroom upstairs, we zipped two sleeping bags together to make our own cocoon, where we giggled louder and louder until mom woke up to scold us and hiss that it was three in the morning.
We wrote silly songs and tape recorded ourselves singing them. We did homework together and stayed up all night trying to study for tests. We went to the mall and tried on something in every store. We went on church youth retreat weekends and pretended to come home sick so we could skip school on Monday. In warm weather, we pitched the pup tent by our farm pond and went skinny-dipping while blank windows stared at us like eyes from the house. I suffered with her the nervous anticipation of her first date. She suffered with me through my first heartbreak, writing me mean, funny poems about the heartless boy. Strangers, for reasons I cannot comprehend, asked if we were sisters, although we don’t look the slightest bit alike. We wrote a silly song about that, too.
She taught me to dance. I taught her to dive. She taught me to put on makeup. I taught her to shoot soup cans with a BB gun. She showed me how to flirt. I took her fishing. I let her, against all the rules, drive the car around the parking lot of K-Mart one night, and she told me all about how it was when Dylan kissed her. She even showed me, with a sweet little peck on the lips. We proclaimed that we came in two flavors like Life cereal: Plain and Cinnamon.
She picked the bad Mennonite college too, but at the last minute, she told me she didn’t want to be my roommate. She wanted to keep Gabi, the same roommate she had in the high school dorm. Gabi was coming too.
I couldn’t breathe at first. I turned to stare through the window even though nothing was interesting so she wouldn’t see the water in my eyes or how mad I was. I thought she was only roommates with Gabi because she couldn’t be roommates with me. I guess not.
So Beth kept Gabi, and I had to take whatever random girl the college decided to assign me. Then, I knew I loved Beth more than she loved me. I would never have picked somebody else and let the college give her first a girl from Malaysia, who didn’t show up, and then a nursing major who had to study so hard she never left the room.
In the end, it didn’t matter because our rooms were right next door. Beth and Gabi’s room turned into the meeting place for all the girls on the hall, and we piled onto their beds like a pack of puppies to gossip, study, make extra-strength instant coffee, argue about feminism vs. post-feminism, and paint each other’s nails.
Now, finally—half way to graduation—Beth and I had a real apartment together for the summer, and were roommates like I’d always dreamed.
But some sort of deluge or earthquake changed the map I thought I knew. Beth was black, now, and I was white. She was the same Beth, but she was also different, with prickly edges in places where they hadn’t been before. I was dumbfounded, lost in a familiar country. She had new music. She had new friends. She had a bright new anger in her walk. She didn’t think our old jokes were funny anymore and she scowled at me for saying the Plain and Cinnamon thing.
My dear and only Beth. I would have cut off my hands to keep from hurting her. I would have done whatever she asked. Now I had injured her with my big, ignorant mouth. She told me to go off and be a hippy with Tom, and called somebody else “her people”—not me. I didn’t know what to do. It had never mattered to me what color she was.
That was exactly the problem.
How do you start over in the middle?
* * * * *