We move and I do not start school until the end of October. The months when I should be wearing new school clothes and covering my books in paper bag covers are filled instead with what feels like one long, empty summer. Even watching the Jerry Lewis telethon does not bring school any closer. To fill the time, I go antiquing with my New Stepfather.
We drive long distances in his old Scout. I have to be careful when he takes right turns because the passenger door has been known to swing open. We travel to old barns and houses that are surrounded by fields, where leathery men chew tobacco and sell us oil lamps and dusty Pepsi bottles. Time stops as I hold our loot in my lap on the way home, back to feed the donkey with her twisted hooves, back to water the goats with their diamond eyes, back to my mother who is waiting and not waiting for our return.
First day of school is my birthday. Pip befriends me and I let her. At recess, we hang out on the monkey bars and she calls me, “Pal.” I’m reminded of another girl, the one who swore a lot and waited for me in the tree—the monkey girl who clung to me like I was made of wire, covered in an old towel, egg carton eyes, electronic squeal when you touch me. I feel a friendship between Pip and me is already doomed. She wants it too desperately. I balk.
The other girls whisper to me about her. They tell me I should not be her friend. Tell me she has lice, scabies. I feel sorry people are mean about her. I feel Christ-like in my sorriness, but acquiesce anyway.
An older boy sits next to me on the bus. He is in my sister’s class and he is a fox. He tries to make me laugh but I know that he really wants her to laugh. She sits in the seat across the aisle and stairs out the window, wishing she were back where we used to live.
That night I am given two rabbits from my New Stepfather as my birthday present. They are California Giants—white with black ears. We name them Sweetie and Poopsie. Later we have to keep them apart because they fight endlessly, skinny teeth yellow against the white fur of their bodies. When they draw blood, their necks are stained red until the blood dries to rust. I try to teach one of them to walk on a leash; it scratches me in its fear and a pale scar marks the outside of my right wrist.
I spend the winter weekends out in the garage making a rabbit hutch with my New Stepfather. The days are frigid and he drinks blackberry brandy. I am cold all the time. We never ski because he does not ski. He is a chef—so he only drinks and cooks.
The snow is higher than the roof of the school bus, but there is never enough water. Our well is dry. We have to run hoses up to the pump house. The hoses freeze. We often cannot bathe. Everything smells like cigarettes and fried meat.
Rats enter the garage because of the rabbit food and because I have not done a sufficient job cleaning up. My New Stepfather puts poison out for them and they die.
One stumbles into the driveway where I am making rivers from the melted snow. It falls over and I watch as its side rises and falls, rises and falls.
Keith sits lotus style in his chair, astounding, as he is so heavy. The crotch of his Wranglers forms a bridge from thigh to thigh. He rubs himself down there and smiles— in general, but also specifically at me because I am sitting next to him.
At McDonalds, where the kids all have Polaroids of their birthday parties, Keith’s photo features only him, his sister, and his parents. His parents look like each other. Keith looks like his sister. His sister looks like their mother and their father. Their heads are shaped like eggs, but not really, more like what you would think an egg looked like—an exaggeration, round on the bottom, leading to the point of a pin atop which sits thin brown hair. To make up for the sorrow I feel—the photo of him alone in his paper party hat too big for his pointy head—I resolve not to notice when Keith fondles himself.
The music teacher yells at me in front of the whole class because I am laughing. Actually, Jackie makes me laugh because she sees Keith is touching himself and looking at me. The music teacher blames me for disrupting the class and says that I am a bad influence. Says Jackie was her best student before I came along.
Doesn’t she know I am the only one at my old school who turned in an extra credit report on birds in third grade? Doesn’t she know the teacher didn’t even suggest we do extra credit reports and I took it upon myself? Doesn’t she know the songbirds are my favorites?
The teacher is the mother of redheaded sons. Her face is munchkin-like and mean. She and her sons sing songs from “The Sound of Music” as a family.
Keith gives me a miniature rocking chair made out of clothespins for Christmas. He has burned a cross on the front of it and our names on the back.
The Winter Olympics are at Lake Placid. My sister falls in love with Eric Heiden. They say his thighs are the size of hams.
My mother and New Stepfather are eating dinner when I try to kiss my New Stepfather good night on the cheek but he turns his face and meets my lips, wedging them open with his tongue and pushing the piece of liver he is chewing into my mouth. I let it sit slimy and metallic in my mouth until I spit it out. He and my mother laugh. They know I do not like liver.
None of us are in costumes at Halloween anymore. They are for kids. Instead we run through the streets with shaving cream and eggs, bombarding each other. This one takes me aside, behind the post office. He kisses me and at first I don’t understand what’s happening. His tongue is in my mouth. And then I realize it is my first real French kiss. He is the French Kisser.
There is a whole underground of writing notes to a friend and passing them off, clandestinely. There is a way to do it and if you do not write back you will be scorned.
Jackie and I laugh at the poor spellers, their over-large loopy handwriting–saying “sweaty” instead of “sweetie.” She is my VVVBBBFFFAAA.
A company brings in roller skates, which we rent and use to skate around and around the gym. We crack the whip. We look for the ones we like.
It is spring; I am wearing my overalls. I make out with someone behind the tennis courts—he tastes of milk and bazooka gum. He is the age of my sister. Three years older. A farmer’s son. A farmer. He milks cows and has beautiful hair.
Later in the summer, the French Kisser calls me. It is the day Diana is getting married to Prince Charles. We are both watching it on TV. He tells me I remind him of her. I know he is lying.
On Christmas day, my New Stepfather pulls my sister down the stairs by her hair and says that her mouth is just like a cunt. I’ve never heard this word coming from the mouth of an adult. He is small to me now, like an angry boy. Deadly.
Later, he takes me to the bar to pick up Reggie. Reggie eats holiday meals with us now. He has no teeth and has taught my sister and me how to play pool.
The owner of the bar has a grandson who looks like the younger Walton brother— Ben, the tall gangly one. Not the wiry, redhead. And not John Boy. Ben, right? He is Ben Walton. I want him to love me. I want him to tell me that I should go to the Barbizon School for Models.
Jackie and I are stoned for the first time when we go to Montréal to see Genesis. I am the crowd in their seats. I am the instruments. I am the music. I am all color.
On the way home, we are heading the wrong way—north instead of south, away instead of to. The boy driving does a U turn over the median. We head back home. We head back to the country where the lights of the city are far away, and there are cold rivers between us and them.
I am on the Scarsdale Diet even though his mistress killed him. Grapefruit, dry toast, one hard-boiled egg, broccoli, squash. I lose 20 pounds in two weeks. My clothes are too big and I will only eat an apple or Ramen noodles for dinner when I go to Jackie’s house after soccer practice and before confirmation class at church on Monday nights.
My sister goes through a dark period. She spends a lot of time in her room drawing, listening to music. She punches the wall until there is a hole in it. She is angry. She sees ghosts. She is a poet. I want to be her. I want permission to be angry.
Jackie and I are confirmed in late fall. Her father gives me a locket. I cherish it. I stop my diet and eat and eat and gain weight. I am suddenly fat when I never was before. I want to eat everything. I want to eat the world.
But I have been confirmed and so this year I have confessed my sins. What I have said to the priest is this: I have taken the Lord’s name in vain, I have had bad thoughts, I have spoken back to my mother, I have had bad thoughts I have had bad thoughts I have had bad thoughts.
I have lied.
I let this last one hang between us because we both must know I am lying now as I do not tell him the full extent of my evilness—all I have done. The parts of boys’ bodies I have touched and seen and what they have touched and seen of mine. I have not told him what I sometimes do to myself. It is wrong and bad and he is old.
Who Understands Love?
My mother comes home from the hospital and says that it is pre-leukemia which is making my New Stepfather sick. They are not sure. He might survive. It is possible. But he withers and the only thing left is his face hanging above a pale chest. All this time we have shared this house and it has been quiet in the afternoon as he naps and at night there is his mean, mean laugh on the other side of the door.
He dies and I am glad. It is St. Patrick’s Day. God has spared me from becoming a murderer.
My mother weighs 90 pounds. At night she calls out for my New Stepfather. I foster the shell I’ve been growing. I let it fill itself in and cover me over. I crawl back into the egg. I eat and eat. A bag of cookies. Roast beef. White bread. Toast with butter, with peanut butter, with both.
Who understands love?
Velvet and Diamonds
When I meet this guy home from the Air Force, the sky is perfect velvet and the stars are diamonds. Okay, this is stupid, but I am 17 and drunk and it’s okay to think this way about the sky and the stars. We drive in his Trans Am to where the dam is and we sit in the parking lot but there is nothing we have in common so we make out until he falls asleep and so do I. When we wake up it is early morning, sun rising gently across the lake. He drives me home and kisses me goodbye, says he’ll call me. He is the Fall Asleeper.
My mother is up and pretends to be angry but how can she be? She is dating someone, someone married but estranged from his wife. No one is allowed to make rules.
I decide that I will not kiss the Fall Asleeper again. There is something about his pillowy lips that feels like kissing a marshmallow or like kissing yourself—there is too much give. There is not enough tension.
Running with the Devil
I take up running and lose weight. The French Kisser is home on break from junior college where he has a basketball scholarship. He brings his guitar sometimes when he picks me up and we park off a dirt road in a clear spot some farmer has made for his tractor. He plays Van Halen songs on his guitar. I find myself shy. I find myself uninterested.
We have sex in the back seat of his car. It feels like nothing. Like not anything. And he asks me if I’m sure this is my first time. I say, yes, I am sure.
Suddenly, there is water whenever I want it. I can shower. I can brush my teeth. I can drink it. I can flush the toilet. Water. There is no well to worry about. No hoses to run to the pump house. There is no well to run dry or no well to lose pressure. There is only this water, a found treasure, an unexpected bliss.
I am at college in my dorm room, which I share with a girl who, other than on television, has never seen a cow and never seen a rainbow.
Water is about the only good thing about college. All else is large and concrete. There are tunnels underneath the quad or from quad to quad. We could spend our days underground if we wanted to.
I get nickel bags from a guy in another quad. He shows me his gun and we have sex but do not speak afterwards.
I smoke something that might be laced. My roommate has a friend from home visiting her for the weekend. One of a pair of twins. This twin is sleeping on our fl oor in a sleeping bag.
Here, I will say to them, see this cow? This rainbow?
I want to stop. I want to be in a sleeping bag. I want to be cowless, rainbowless. I want to be young and to always have water. No fear.
Instead, I enter the room and tell them I am having a heart attack. They take my pulse, get me to lie down. I tell them to lock me in the room so I won’t do anything. I picture myself running down the hall naked. I picture myself climbing the mountain back home and jumping off the fire tower. It will be winter and I will land in a snowdrift so deep that no one will find me until spring.