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1.

On the day we call the cops on him, L. tells me he’s always been a fighter.

No guns, though.  He looks up at me from where he’s hunched, a skinny kid sitting on a rickety chair.  Not before what happened.

What happened before was L. was riding his bike and some bad boys shot him in the spine.  He wasn’t supposed to walk again.  He walks fine now.  He swaggers.  His khaki pants are too big and he cinches up his belt higher than the other boys.  I don’t think he can handle wrestling with the constant creep of a sagging waistline.

About A Bout

By JJ Keith

Memoir

“C’mon. Bare-knuckle brawl. I win, you break up with her. You win and I’ll never bring her up again.”

He put his hands on his slim hips in dramatic protest. “I’m not gonna fight you. How do you think it looks if a black guy beats up a prissy blonde?”

I wasn’t worried about how it looked. Ernie could talk himself out of anything. That boy had a candy-coated mouth and friends in every corner of our mostly white, middle-class high school. My white ass, however, had four to six friends depending on how much I had been running my mouth. Some may have called me unpopular, but the disdain was mutual. During high school I took a full load of courses at a nearby community college so that I only had to go to high school in the mornings. That summer, I had just claimed my diploma a year early and was about to leave Ernie behind to finish high school without me. Not that he minded.

“Fight me!” I jumped up and down on his bed, throwing punches into the air. “C’mon. Let’s go. I wanna be a pugilist.”

The Trance Dance

The first week of working at “the New Age camp,” as I referred to it, entailed lots of bonding exercises, standing in circles, and playing embarrassing getting-to-know-you improvisation and movement games. Most of these games included hackey-sacks. My co-counselors taught classes like Cloud Gazing and Magic Cards and Live Action Role Play and Acro-yoga and Hula-hooping and Make Your Own Moon Cycle Pad and Radical Menstruation. I taught creative writing and counted the days until I was leaving.

During the second week of camp, after the teens had formed close friendships and either felt very comfortable at camp or very homesick, we had something called Girls Weekend and Boys Weekend. The boys and girls were split up and didn’t cross paths from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon. On the agenda was a matriarchal linear circle, a power shuffle, and a sweat lodge led by a man named Medicine Bear. But what kicked off the weekend was the most daunting of all: The trance dance.

Rafe went to the City of San Francisco to tell his story. I explained that he should only say what he was comfortable with. Neatly undermining that advice, I then said it would be impossible for him to say anything wrong. Really, everyone was just excited to have him there. Talking.

When Secretary Sebelius says that Plan B could pose health risks for teens, is she really thinking straight?  After all, Dr. Megan Evans, in RH Reality Check, writes, “Tylenol is over-the-counter and far more dangerous with far more potential for adverse outcomes. Oh, and pregnancy in a ten- to 11-year-olds also has far more adverse outcomes than a small, but effective dose of Plan B.”  Wise words.  In fact, according to the Guardian, for every 100,000 American women who give birth to live babies, 16.7 of them die.  And that’s not to mention the damage that post-natal depression can cause.

Evans’s grounded, intelligent point will doubtless be ignored by many.  Witness that since news of the Plan B decision broke, parents have been stating how brokenhearted they’d be if their own daughter didn’t ask their advice before taking Plan B.  This, they argue, supports Sebelius’s decision.  But the ruling isn’t just about parents who adore their kids.  It is also about young people who come from abusive families and are afraid to turn to their guardians for support.  It’s about those who live in the middle of nowhere and can’t drive themselves to the doctor.  It’s about those who have been date-raped and can barely think straight.

And it’s also about all of us, regardless of sex, gender and age, because when you control human sexuality, you control intimacy, life and the body itself.

I’d be surprised if that wasn’t a power trip.

Given these recent events, my political fantasy world has gone wild.  I mean, what if young people felt so afraid of pregnancy that they decided to stop screwing the opposite sex, but decided, instead, to all start having same-sex relationships.  “Don’t risk pregnancy,” they’d shout, “be gay!  There are fewer risks!”  I bet parents and politicians would be hitting the roof, showing their true homophobia, and Plan B would be in the bubblegum aisle sooner than you could say FDA.

Or what about if all the heterosexual under-seventeens who live in states where sex toys are illegal each ordered a vibrating rubber duck from Good Vibes, figuring this was safer than partnered sex without Plan B?  This could prompt the Vibrating Duck Revolution of 2012.  Fifteen year-olds throughout America would be sinking into their bubble baths, pledging their virginity to their rubber ducks.  And what would the police do?  Storm into these bathrooms and arrest these young rebels?  I’m not being entirely ironic when I say they might. I’m sure families, religious leaders and politicians would go nuts.  There’d be complaints about police pocketing ducks that weren’t theirs to pocket and there’d be anti-masturbation posters everywhere.  “We do not have evidence to prove that vibrating ducks are safe for under-seventeen’s,” the politicians would announce.  “Further testing is needed.”

See the mad place this is sending me to?

If Plan B is safer for an eleven year-old than Tylenol and they can also buy condoms in the bubblegum aisle, then the decision on Plan B is definitely a political one.

So.  What’s Plan C?

 

 

A Final Note:  This is the final installment of Hot Topic.   I have so enjoyed writing at TNB and receiving all your wonderful comments.  Thank you all so much for reading!  I will still see you all on the TNB site, as part of the community.  In the meantime, please do keep up with me.  I blog, most days, at www.lanafox.com.

Be safe, be proud, be you.

-LF

 

I’ve been thinking lately about something our pediatrician told us: that toddlers are sort of like teenagers.  As my twenty-month-old daughter Harper begins to precociously behave like a textbook two-year-old, this has started to seem more and more true to me.  Now, I’ve never parented a teenager but I do vaguely remember being one, and I often see them milling about our neighborhood pretending to be unprivileged and pissed off.  And I think it’s really true, that toddlers really are a lot like them. 

BROKEN GLASS PARK

Broken Glass Park cover art

When a writer is said to be “huge in Germany,” I inevitably picture a nerdy American teen who claims to have a “girlfriend” in Canada—a distinction both dubious and impossible to confirm. However, in the case of Alina Bronsky, I can safely report not only that her debut novel Broken Glass Park (Europa Editions, 2010) is huge in Germany but that the book—unlike, say, David Hasselhoff’s music—is deserving of its popularity.

I overthought high school. During my senior prom, for instance, a whole host of gestures seemed to be called for and I performed only a portion of them.When my date and I hit a lull in conversation or a group dance number began, I waited for cues that never came as to how I should proceed.I excused myself for a drink I didn’t want.The trips to the punch bowl provided the illusion that I knew what I was doing to an audience I imagined might be watching my every move.

Then, fifteen years later, I stepped toward another table spread with a fresh confidence.I swaggered in my tux like I should have the first time.My elbows knew how far out to jut.I lifted one of the glasses from the white tablecloth.My new date smiled, on an unspoken toast.

The regular religion teacher at Santa Magdalena Sofía Barat high school was one of those middle-aged, middle-class, chain-smoking Italian men who thoroughly dominate the lower echelons of everyday life in Argentina. Father Cavallo, as everyone called him, was stout and ordinary looking, with sleeves perennially rolled up and a clerical collar that spent more time on his desk or coat hook than about his thick neck. In addition to teaching the religion and philosophy classes at Barat, he was some sort of administrator, so when he announced one morning midway through the first term that he would stop teaching religion, no one much wondered about it. Although he was nominally second in command to the perpetually tipsy Spanish headmaster, everyone understood that Father Cavallo ran the show. If he didn’t feel like teaching religion, who could tell him otherwise?

In any event, religion was low on the list of concerns for the second-year students at Barat. They were, almost without exception, a mediocre bunch, as befitted the mediocre surroundings. Barat was a squat cell block of a building, four inartfully constructed levels of plain, square classrooms huddled around a central courtyard of cracked cement and creeping weeds. It sat just outside the shabby commercial center of Castelar, which was not so much a suburb of Buenos Aires as a suburb of another suburb, the unfortunately named Morón. (Until I arrived from the United States on a year-long exchange program, no one at Barat had apparently met anyone with enough knowledge of English to tell them what “moron” means. It was probably not by accident that this bit of vocabulary never found its way into the English classes.)

It didn’t take me long to take up the nihilistic rituals of the place. For the first couple of months I was in Castelar, I was an exciting novelty: my tongue wrestled comically with the new language as my gangly, fifteen-year-old body struggled with a growth spurt that had taken me from 5’9″ to 6’4″ in less than a year, and I was full of surprising malapropisms and athletic feats. The boys brought me to parties and showed off the colorful swears they’d taught me to say, while the girls preened and flirted, my foreignness seeming to outshine my acne, my faint lisp lost under bad but charming Spanish. But after three months, I talked pretty much like everybody else, peppering my speech with the same curses my peers did and affecting without effort the Italianate gesticulations that make Argentinians an easy target for parody among Latin Americans. And so I regressed from a shining moment of exceptionalism to my own mediocre mean, and fell in easily with the boys in my class.

We passed our weekdays with desultory school attendance in the mornings, desultory work in the afternoons, and aimless wandering, drinking, and fighting in the evenings. On weekends, the boys in my group, all 15 or 16, would gather downtown near the train station, ponder making the 45-minute trip to Buenos Aires for some real action, then determine that at least one of us didn’t have train fare, or that all of us had train fare but not enough money to do anything once we got into the city. With luck, someone would know of a party nearby, or we’d retreat to one of the dingy local bodegas and pool our funds for a few bottles of cheap wine or Quilmes. When we’d drunk enough, we’d go sit outside on the benches near Castelar’s main nightclub and watch the parade of dolled up local girls and too-cool local toughs. Mart ín had developed the custom of standing and applauding in a serious way when an especially good-looking girl walked by, which never ceased to amuse us. Sometimes, as the night wore on, there would be races on the main strip involving unlikely cars like Fiats or Citroens, or wheelie contests pitting mopeds against bicycles. We cheered lustily for these events.

Some Fridays, one or another of the regulars wouldn’t appear by the station, and we’d wait around a while, angrily cursing him for keeping us from whatever fun we hoped to have that evening. Eventually we’d abandon the straggler and do the same routine as always, all of us knowing without saying anything that when we saw him on Monday, we’d craft a fantastic tale of the nocturnal exploits he missed – running from cops, scaling balconies to crash all-girl parties, and other activities at the very edge of plausibility.

The most creative teller of these tales, and the only one of our group who would create his own tall tales when he was the one who didn’t show up, was Marcelo. At Monday recess, he would take the lead, painting a picture of the western suburbs that bore little resemblance to our prosaic reality. He would start off our imagined evenings with trips to neighboring towns, usually by unlikely means like stolen scooters or in the back of a milk truck, then take us through strip joints, private social clubs, and back alleys such as none of us had ever encountered in Castelar. He was fluid with details, utterly convincing, and had a flawless sense of comic timing. In different circumstances he might have made a brilliant novelist or stand-up comic, but I think he ended up taking over his dad’s bicycle repair stand. Still, he was a genius and quick with words, so it was not surprising that he struck the blow that brought about the ruination of our new religion teacher.

The new religion teacher was, like Father Cavallo, a priest, but different in all other respects. Father Moretti was young, probably in his late twenties, and had the large, vulnerable eyes of a frightened animal. In contrast to Father Cavallo, who treated the priesthood as simply a job he’d stumbled into and kept, no different than working in a canning factory or driving a bus, Moretti clearly felt that he had found a calling. While the pedagogy at Barat was strictly old-school, with rote memorization reigning supreme, Moretti was always trying to engage with us as equals, pushing us to ask questions, to reason and explore. He was the sort of teacher I’d want my sons to have now, but back then, we saw him as nothing more than prey: He was too young, too eager, and too inexperienced to pose a real disciplinary threat, and worst of all (for him), he plainly wanted us to like him. Behind his back, we called him “el curita” – the little priest.

Religion class had been light on metaphysical questions and heavy on a lecture plan only the Pope could love. Under the guise of scholarly inquiry into the religions of the world, each unit would give a few, basic facts about a different faith, then gently remind us how backward it was compared to Catholicism. Father Cavallo had never brought any zeal to this business, but he seemed to believe it without need for reflection. “These Hindus,” he would say, pity and disinterest mixing in his voice, “believe in multiple gods,” and he would place just enough emphasis on the word “multiple” to let us know that only a fool would think such a thing.

The little priest could scarcely hide his contempt for this approach. It was evident that he thought questions of personal faith too weighty for the same soulless approach that helped us learn (and promptly forget) the names of the bones in the body or the provinces and their capitals. Where every other teacher at Barat presented facts in long, indigestible monologues, speaking at a pace that made it clear we were meant to copy down every word, the little priest was frenetic, scattershot. He roamed erratically around the classroom, musing wildly with his back turned to us, then wheeled suddenly to meet the eyes of one or another unlucky student and demand, “Why?”

After our initial surprise, we began to warm to his approach. We had not been in the custom of answering unexpected queries from teachers, and at first we were struck dumb. When Florencia, the class overachiever, was presented with the little priest’s first urgent “why?”, she waited a long moment before asking, “Do you want me to answer you, sir?”

“If you want to,” said the little priest, trying to soften his tone.

Florencia pondered a minute more, then finally decided: “No. I don’t want to.”

He turned quickly to Diego, the class clown, who just a day earlier had roused us from our usual torpor with a tremendous trifecta of insouciance: He had addressed our English teacher in Spanish, by her first name, and in the informal tense. “What do you think, Diego?” asked the little priest earnestly.

Diego’s answer, “How the hell should I know?”, was not just his usual aimless rebellion. It was a test, because that’s what Diego did. He projected a facade of unhinged craziness – sometimes, he would turn back to me in the middle of class and say one of the few phrases he knew in English, something learned from a heavy metal song, I think: “Hey, motherfucker! Get the fuck out!” But he was not stupid, and had a knack for sizing people up. So we all looked to see how the little priest would respond. He seemed to understand he was being tested, and paused a moment, drawing out our uncertainty for Diego’s fate and what it would mean about our teacher and the class.

“Good answer,” he said softly. “There’s no reason you should know – no reason any of us should know anything.” He went on about knowledge and the mystery of faith, but it was clear he had passed the test. Diego looked back at me and grinned, but I couldn’t tell if he was congratulating himself for carrying off the day’s impertinence without incident or whether he was actually admitting that he was coming to like this new teacher.

The boys in my class warmed to the little priest, but slowly. There was a long while where each of us knew we liked him, but none would admit it aloud. But he became a less and less frequent object of our casual, after-hours derision, unable to supplant villains of longstanding like the acerbic, booze-soaked headmaster, the accounting teacher with her dinner-plate face, the reed thin police lieutenant with his reputation for cruelty and the rumors that he had been a torturer under the military regime just ten years gone.

Once, on a Saturday afternoon, when a few of us had managed to raise the money to head into Buenos Aires, planning to visit a guitar shop and then get some drinks, we ran into the little priest on the train. He was sitting upright and patient like a well-mannered child, eyes bright, priestly collar and neat slacks under a dark blue workman’s jacket. There was an old camera hanging from his neck.

“What’s with the camera, Moretti?” we asked him jovially.

“I like to take pictures,” he said simply, “Pictures of people.” This was the sort of earnest statement that we would usually subject to a fair bit of mockery, but coming from the little priest it was disarming. We paused, looking at each other.

“Cool,” I said.

“Yeah, cool,” said Santiago. “You should bring some of your pictures to class.”

We all agreed, offering improvised suggestions for how pictures of people might fit into the materials we were studying, although none of us had more than a passing acquaintance with those materials. He said he would see if he had any decent prints around the house, then asked us where we were headed, who of us played guitar, whether we would make other stops in Buenos Aires. He got off at Talleres and I remember watching him through the train window, hoping I’d see him take a picture of someone, but he just walked purposefully toward the end of the platform, one hand in his pocket, one hand resting lightly on the camera around his neck.

That Monday he brought an envelope of black and white prints to class and passed them around, explaining the request a few of us had made on the train. There were a lot of prints, enough for the class to spend some time on, and the deliberation and study we gave each one was unusual for us. They were all simple portraits – children, old people, bus drivers, the vendedores ambulantes who worked their way along sidewalks and trains, hawking newspapers, candy, matchbox cars with sing song sales pitches. The subjects looked straight into the camera, sometimes smiling or laughing, but mostly serious. Some of them looked like the sort of rough characters I might not want to photograph without asking, and some were attractive young women, whom I would have felt equally uncomfortable approaching on the street. It was not hard to imagine Father Moretti doing it though.

Moretti didn’t speak for a long while, but he looked at us in a particular way – not quite plaintively, but with a mixture of forced confidence and creeping vulnerability, the look you give someone when you think she might want to kiss you, but you’re not quite certain enough to move in close and let your eyes go out of focus. Diego was the first to speak, and he said just one word: “Alucinantes.” Literally, it means “hallucinatory,” but we used it to describe something so great as to be eye-opening.

“Really?” asked Moretti. His guard was completely down. It would not surprise me if no student in the history of Barat had ever seen a teacher so emotionally unguarded – even the senior girls of years past who were rumored to have slept with our math teacher.

And we didn’t let him down. “Really!” said mousy Rosi, emerging from her perennial doodling in the back corner of the room. “These are photos are very -” she paused for a moment, “very truthful.” Others chimed in, all honest praise, and then the bell rang and we shuffled off, leaving Moretti glowing.

From then on, Moretti’s class was a little refuge for us, wedged between Señora Pennovi’s brutalist approach to English and Fabián’s amusing but slightly unsettling, pretty-girl-centered take on Algebra. We talked a little about religion but a lot more about morality, crime, and sin. Florencia admitted stealing money from her dad’s wallet, to everyone’s shock. Luciano actually asked the whole class to stop calling him “Pomelo” (Grapefruit), committing one of the greatest sins against adolescent Argentinian pride by revealing that the nickname hurt his feelings. Such was the hold that Moretti had on our thinking that we actually respected Luciano’s request for nearly a week (but his head did look like a grapefruit – it was undeniable).

Toward the end of the school year, the boys started to wonder and discuss whether Moretti was a virgin, virginity being the affliction foremost on our minds those days. This was something we couldn’t ask directly, of course, but one day maybe a week or two before the end of the term, Diego made a good opening salvo: “¿Y vos, Moretti?” – “And you?” he started, using the informal tense as always. “Have you always been a priest? How’d you get into this business?”

“You really want to know?” Moretti asked, eyes shining, and we nodded and leaned forward eagerly. It was hard to tell whether he was just reveling selfishly in our attention, or excited at the possibility of imparting some valuable lesson.  Either way, he took advantage of the spell he had cast, speaking deliberately:

“When I was nineteen, I was living a very different life. I had a job at the airport, money to spend, and no responsibility. I was going out every night, you know, drinking, using cocaine, always with different women -“

“I told you so!” cried Diego. “I knew he wasn’t a virgin!”

Everyone turned, jolted by the interruption, and Diego actually looked embarrassed for the first time in his life. Moretti said nothing, and waited. We turned back to him, and he went on:

“I won’t lie to you. It was a fun life at first.” The story was predictable but well told. His cocaine use started to get out of hand. He got a girl pregnant and she left Buenos Aires to live with family in a distant province. He started doing heroin, then lost his job. We all knew he was heading toward a road-to-Damascus moment – he was a religion teacher at a Catholic school, after all – but we were still dying to know the details (the salacious particulars of decadence are what make redemption stories so engaging, after all). He worked the build-up pretty hard, and I don’t remember all the details, but I can’t forget what it boiled down to: Moretti was coming down from a high, waiting on a train platform alone on a cold night. Suddenly, he heard footsteps behind him, but before he could turn around, he felt something hard poking into his back. A man said, “Don’t move or I’ll burn you.”

Of course, we all knew what “burn” meant in that context – even I, the foreigner, was by then well enough acquainted with street slang – and like all adolescents, we prided ourselves on being conversant with the trappings of criminality. Nevertheless, Moretti wanted us to feel the mortal desperation of that moment, like Saul on his back with his maddened horse rearing above him. He said, “So right then, I knew he had a gun.”

And just then, while the rest of the class tried to imagine confronting death alone, shuddering with cold and withdrawal, Marcelo said, “Or a match.”

Diego snorted. Florencia stifled a giggle. And suddenly, we were all laughing. A lot. It wasn’t the funniest thing I ever heard in my life, but something about the way Marcelo said it, sort of earnest as though he weren’t making a joke so much as suggesting the real possibility that this faceless bandit might have been threatening Moretti with matches, seemed absolutely uproarious at the time.

Moretti tried to pick up the thread, and he went on for another minute about how he’d asked God for help or something, but the mood was broken. Someone else posited that the bandit planned to rub two sticks together to make a fire, we started to riff on that (“maybe he had a stove!”). Soon the bell rang and we went on our way, leaving Moretti crestfallen in his chair.

And then he was gone. Cavallo came back and finished off religion class for the year, marveling at how little progress we seemed to have made. There was never any explanation, and there was no one at the school we would have felt comfortable asking, except Moretti himself. No one saw him in the building or around town.

We didn’t talk about it at the time, of course – vacation was close at hand, and the vigorous indolence of summer was too alluring to leave room for charitable thoughts. But when I recall his face as we bounced out of the room that day, I know we broke him: eyes fixed somewhere between his desk and the first row of chairs, out of focus and absolutely still; shoulders slack, like he’d just put down a heavy box. He was shocked, and his faith was shaken. He threw himself under the hooves of our adolescent cruelty, expecting passion and piety to turn us back. Instead, we trampled him.

Elise was new in the seventh grade. She was beyond nerdy. She wore little wire-framed glasses and braided barrettes (so elementary school). She favored white turtlenecks dotted with tiny strawberries; she always got straight A’s.

I used to get straight A’s. In elementary school, good grades were effortless, but in junior high, my A’s turned into B’s, then C’s, especially in math. I only did well in Composition, where we wrote stories and poems. My mother took away my radio and Olivia Newton-John tapes till my report card improved.

When you got straight A’s, you got a certificate that said Outstanding Achievement, signed by the principal. I had yet to get one, but Elise got one every time.

“That’s disgusting,” I said to her once, spotting the certificate on her desk.

She scrunched up her librarian face. “What?” she said.

I had been trying to make a joke. “Getting all A’s. It’s really disgusting you know.”

“Huh?”

I sighed. “Forget it.” What a nerd.

Since the first grade I had been friends with Susan, who wasn’t a nerd but was very smart. My father said she’d probably be a lawyer. Since the fifth grade, I had known Marie and Lauren. Marie had long curling brown hair and huge eyes; Lauren was blond, tall, and rather chubby. She played Dorothy in our fourth grade production of The Wizard of Oz.  People still talked about how well she sang “Over the Rainbow.”

It was Lauren who made friends with Elise first. I don’t even know how. Lauren was always making friends with new, seemingly quiet girls, and bringing them over to our group, like stray kittens. Aside from Elise, she had also brought over Marie V. (now the original Marie would forever be known as Marie R.), darkly beautiful, and Andi, who at 5’10” would later become a model.

By eighth grade, Elise had changed completely. She wore contacts now and had cut her hair into a cute bob. She had gotten ridden of the turtlenecks and upgraded her wardrobe to 1985. Big shirts, long sweaters, and oversized pearls. Gone was the mousy grind who didn’t get my sarcastic humor. In her place was a tall and willowy ballet dancer, a navy brat who had lived in Italy and Hong Kong, a wannabe writer like me.

I turned fourteen that April. For my birthday, we went swimming at the Y, then to my house, where we gorged ourselves on cake and my mother’s fried noodles, egg rolls, and wontons. After my parents left for an all-night mah-jongg party, we went wild – dancing, screaming for no reason, doing obnoxious imitations of our teachers and classmates.

Elise had come straight from ballet, and still had on her leotard and tights under her clothes. Overheated, she stripped off her jeans and ran pantless through the house. (Why she didn’t just take off her tights, I don’t know.) I have a photo of her in mid-run, giant sweater half-off one shoulder, a goofy smile on her face.

That was the last time I was happy. While my friends blossomed, I stayed the same. One minute Laura was in sweatshirts and jeans, her dark blond hair limp against her head, the next she was in tight sweaters and skirts, a chic short cut freeing her face. She wasn’t chubby anymore but voluptuous. Random guys stopped her in hallway. “Your legs go on for miles!” one said. “You’re so cute!” another remarked, pinching her cheek.

No one pinched my cheek except my first grade teacher when I ran into her at TJ Maxx. You could barely see my face for the glasses and braces. My legs didn’t go on for miles, which Elise was kind enough to point out at a pool party.

“I didn’t know your legs were so short!” she cried, stretching her lanky ballerina gams out to the sun.

I grew to hate my stubby limbs, round face, and small eyes. One of just a handful of Asian kids in town, I wished I were Italian, French, or Irish. I longed for big green eyes and a pert narrow nose, a quiet mother who didn’t yell out the door in Chinese, a name that didn’t sound like a body part.

The more insecure I grew, the less I spoke. The less I spoke, the cooler I thought I might be. At lunch I did math homework instead of joining the conversation. On car rides to and from the mall – where boys always eyed Lauren and Elise, never me – I stared silently out the window while everyone else chattered and sang along with Crowded House, Bon Jovi, and Madonna.

But instead of being cool, I became forgotten, like the night of the eighth grade dance when Lauren and the others neglected to pick me up. It was a misunderstanding, Lauren said, hugging me when I finally showed up. They had thought I was meeting them there. But I didn’t know that while I waited, sobbing, in my room.

Ninth grade was worse. There were even more boys to ignore me and hit on Elise, Lauren, and Marie V. One was a junior who sat behind me in algebra II.

“Hey,” he kept whispering to me one day. “Hey.”

I knew he wanted to ask me about Marie V., who had a crush on him. Bu I pretended not to hear him, too shy to talk to most boys.

When I continued not to answer, he switched his tactic. “Hey, ching chong,” he said instead. “Ching chong ching chong.” Face burning, I kept ignoring him, as I did the kids at the bus stop when I was younger.

Suddenly the teacher stopped mid-lecture. “Scott,” she said, eyes burning, finger pointing. “Get out of my classroom. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Chagrined, Scott picked up his books and left.

I didn’t feel grateful to the teacher, only embarrassed that she had heard.

* * *

That winter my father got a new job in a nearby town. He could commute, but my mother wanted a new house. We sold our old one – to the high school principal, of all people – and moved that summer.

I was excited. I’d be at a new school. I could be whomever I wanted – popular, athletic, student body president.

None of these things happened. At first I made friends with a couple of popular girls who were also new, but once they understood their standing, dropped me like last year’s jeans. But that mattered less at this school. What mattered was that I wasn’t the only Chinese girl. Far from it. Almost a quarter of the students were Asian, the children of immigrants. Having parents who spoke with an accent wasn’t weird; in fact some of the kids had accents themselves.

Boys looked at me. My braces and glasses were gone, and I felt more comfortable in my new preppy outfits. Was I – pretty? Dan Wagner thought so, and Ron Jones, but still skittish, I never said two words to them.

Later that same year, Lauren moved too. Texas. Unlike me, she was sad. She cried at school; she begged her parents not to move, but it had been decided.

After Lauren left, the group began to fall apart. We still saw each other sometimes, but mostly when Lauren visited. She had an older boyfriend who she lost her virginity to and who’d later kill himself. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. I hadn’t even been kissed yet.

Junior year, Elise suddenly decided she was a painter. I was surprised. In art classes, she had always struggled, or pretended to. Now she was producing picture after picture. I remember one: a woman with long tangled hair, painted in shades of blue. The word “blue” appeared throughout, in her locks, her lips, her arms folded over her bare breasts. Elise became so engrossed in painting, she switched to an arts high school in another town. She took photographs and started making films, often casting Andi in the lead.

Towards the end of high school, Susan and Elise stopped talking. I was never sure why. Perhaps Susan hadn’t liked the way Elise was behaving with her new artist friends; maybe Elise was tired of Susan’s judgments. Senior year, all three of us ran into each other at a piano recital. Susan and I had been taking lessons from the same teacher all those years, along with Elise’s sister. I talked to Elise and Susan separately while they gave each other cold looks above my head.

Once we all went away to college, I lost touch with everyone except Marie R., with whom I exchanged letters occasionally. From her I knew that Lauren was going to school in Dallas, Marie V. at Bucknell, and Andi at Baylor (later her whole family would move to Texas and become born-again Christians). Susan was at Harvard – studying archaeology, not law – and Elise was at NYU. Over the summers, she modeled.

I was in New York too, a hundred blocks north of Elise, but I never thought of contacting her. It had been too long. I called Marie R. once while she was still at NJIT earning her architecture degree, but the conversation was stilted. She didn’t seem interested in talking to me, and asked someone in the room for an exacto knife. That was the last time I talked to her, that I talked to any of them.

* * *

In the last decade, I’ve done my fair share of Googling my old friends. I know that Susan is a renowned archaeologist, and Marie R. a successful architect. Marie V. may live in London. Andi is married with kids, as is Lauren.

For a long time I couldn’t find anything on Elise. Surely she’d be famous soon – a filmmaker, a painter, a dancer, a writer. Whatever she wanted to be, surely she’d be.

Finally on a hot summer night in 2006, I found something.

By then I was divorced and living on my own in Manhattan. When I wasn’t dating disappointing men, I hid in my apartment, trying to write and surfing the internet.

I found it in a local paper in Virginia. Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence.

Elise? Dead?

Was is the same Elise? The age was right – she was a year younger than the rest of us – but her name wasn’t uncommon. Then I recognized her parents’ names and her sister’s.

Elise, dead. She is survived by her husband, Jeffrey Warren; children Isabel, George and Molly. Shocked I called home.

My father answered.

“Remember Elise?” I said. “My friend from my old school?”

“Elise,” he murmured. “I remember Susan.”

Of course he did. I’d known Susan since I was six. “Elise,” I pressed. I needed him to remember. “She was a ballerina. She came to our house.” She ran through it with no pants on.

“Maybe. Mom would remember. But she’s not here.”

“Elise died.”

“Oh no,” my father said, trying to sound aggrieved. But he couldn’t remember her.

The item didn’t say how she died, nor did a church newsletter I found. I called the church. A secretary told me it was cancer. I didn’t ask what kind.

“So many of her old friends have been calling,” the secretary said.

Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence. There was so much to reconcile. Elise dead, Elise a homemaker. It was shallow – after all, her husband was without a wife, their small children without a mother – but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Elise O’Connor Warren, homemaker, not world-famous director, best-selling novelist, or genius painter.

Somewhere along the way, she had decided to shed her skin again. Enough with being an artist, she had thought. Enough with modeling and hobnobbing with celebrities in Manhattan. I want to marry this man and live in Virginia and have three kids before I’m 30.

I was 34 then and nowhere near having even one kid. I didn’t know if I’d ever have any. Was I that different from who I was back then? I was still shy and still wanted to be a writer. I was less awkward and more confident. I was proud of my Chinese self. The shedding and growing of my new skin took much longer than it did for Elise.

Almost twenty-five years have passed since we were friends. I don’t know if I’d recognize any of them, or if they even remember me. I don’t know if I have a right to grieve for Elise. But when I saw Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, died, it was as though I did know her, had never stopped knowing her, and we were who were back then again, laughing and running wild.

The first funeral. It was achingly hot. The crushed sand and shells that covered the drive of the funeral home glinted and sparkled in the sun and made soft squeaking noises beneath the feet of the mourners who filed into the open air chapel. I am hyper aware of my white undershirt beneath the blouse of my Girl Scout uniform. I don’t yet have anything sufficient to warrant wearing a bra so my mother still insisted on the undershirt even though I was twelve years old. The cotton was saturated with sweat and stuck to my back between my shoulder blades where I couldn’t reach to peel it off even if I tried. The stiff green polyester blend of the uniform shirt rubbed my skin raw beneath my arms and around my waist where it was tucked into the skirt.

We had come here together in a station wagon as a troop driven by someone else’s mother. We are minus one and our leader. I hadn’t even wanted to be a Girl Scout. I would have stopped at being a Brownie. But before we left New York I had walked over that bridge, looked into the reflecting pond and pledged to be someone better and that person became a Girl Scout. When we moved to Florida, my mother filled out the paperwork I reluctantly carried home from school. She thought it would help me make friends in a new town and it only served to make me incompetent. If there had been a badge for spending all your free time in the library reading books, I would have twenty. So far the only badges I had sewn on my sash were the ones we had earned as a troop. The other girls all had individual badges they had completed or were working on. Amy had accomplished the most of all of us, individually, although I imagined, unless there were Girl Scouts in Heaven, she wouldn’t be advancing much further.

In the car on the way over Jeannie, a girl who smelled like tuna fish every single day, had shared the way, way, back with me and she had whispered into my ear as we crouched in the open trunk that she had heard Amy was buried in her scout uniform. It made me want to rip mine off my body and hurl it out the window but instead I said nothing and concentrated on breathing through my mouth until we filed into the funeral home and took our seats in the row reserved for us, as if we were special guests or dignitaries, behind Amy’s large family.

When we were seated Amy’s mother, our troop leader, turned to us assembled neatly in a row. She smiled but didn’t really look at us individually. Her face was tracked with tiny cuts made darker and deeper by threads of dried blood that had already begun to scab. Glistening over the cuts was a layer of tears, the collar of her shirt was darker than the rest from the water that ran off her face and on the floppy lapel I saw the glint of her Girl Scout Leader pin. She would lead her daughter to Heaven, I supposed, if she could.

I was so taken by her face that it took me a moment to focus beyond Amy’s family, her four brothers, three steps below her and one above and her father, who owned the Snack Shack down at the town dock. He recognized all of us scouts in Amy’s troop and always gave a mound of chips with the hot dogs or free French fries if he had extra. Today he kept his face focused forward and he wore a short sleeve white dress shirt that strained across his back. His sweat stains echoed my own and the sight of them made me sit slightly off the back of the pew, leaning forward so that whatever air the fans pushed out above my head would circulate around my body.

That was when I saw the glossy white casket. Its lid was closed and on top was a framed picture of Amy. Her school picture, I guessed. Since it looked just like the one my mother had of me sitting on the shelf above the television. Amy smiled out at us, her blond hair waved around her face and disappearing way past her shoulders. Her chin was tiny and pointed and her eyes were a pale green that echoed the color of our uniforms.

There were flowers everywhere that had already begun to wilt from the heat, which just made them look like they had given up. Tulips, roses, and carnations the ruffled edges dipped in green, spread atop the casket and around Amy’s picture.

I squeezed my eyes shut tight when Amy’s mother began to cry. Her sobs quieted the entire congregation of mourners. Even the priest who was standing at the head of Amy’s casket seemed to know that God could offer no comfort at the sound of a mother’s anguished cries. Before I closed my eyes I saw Amy’s older brother look agitatedly around the chapel. His gaze angry, embarrassed, bewildered. His father put a hand on his shoulder to calm him and he not so much jerked as slid away from his father’s attempted embrace and sat as close to the aisle as possible – one foot ready poised for escape.

I knew more about the accident than most, but I kept it to myself. My mother was a nurse and a good friend was on the emergency crew first to get to the scene. I knew something was wrong right away when I came home from the library and found my mother and Paul huddled close together in the driveway of our house. My mother was still in her uniform even though her shift had ended at three and it was nearly five. Paul, also a fisherman, had brought a bucket of crabs for dinner and it was between them on the ground baking in the hot sun. I dropped my bike, not bothering with the kickstand, as my mother reached out to me. She pulled me to her side as I stared down into the crab bucket. I watched the bodies move listlessly as she told me the details of the accident.

Amy’s mother had been driving way out on Pine Ridge Road, a well-traveled trucking route from the Sugar Cane fields, to pick up one of the boys, when they were hit. The impact forced Amy through the windshield. Her body hung there, suspended by shards of glass, and her mother panicked. Maybe, had she not pulled Amy through the window, onto the hood of the old station wagon, Amy might have lived. By the time Paul got to the scene Amy had lost too much blood. They didn’t tell me this but I pictured it: Amy’s mother covered in her daughter’s blood as she held her in her arms and told her it would be alright. Although from our Red Cross and CPR badges she probably knew that Amy wouldn’t make it. Before the priest finds his voice, before Amy’s parents realize what has occurred, her older brother stands up and runs down the aisle. His fists are shoved into his pockets, his head is bowed, and his shoulders are moving up and down. His grief is so electric it is terrifying and no one, not even his parents’, move to go after him.

 

Four years later. Another white casket. Mounds of flowers. At sixteen, mourning was something I clung to, stroked and feted like a beloved pet. For days I have barely slept, or eaten and only today have I showered and dressed in a white eyelet sundress to say goodbye to my beloved friend. In my fist I clutch a ball of tissues that have become slick with snot, but I am unable to contract the muscles in my hand to part with them. Had I gone with my friends as we had planned I would have been in the car that killed one of them and left the rest in the hospital, still so broken they are unable to attend the funeral. Instead of my friends I chose a boy who I won’t even allow to share in my grief. I blame him although he has nothing to do with it. I had been waiting a long time for him to notice me and when he finally did, I chose him. I. Chose. Him. I felt sick at the thought of what I was doing when she died. Of what, shamefully, I still want to do although I will not allow myself. His hands were all over my skin and I welcomed them. His mouth hot against my ear, my neck, the two of us twisted together on a blanket on the beach. I can still feel him all over me when there should be nothing left to feel.

When her mother and father see me they draw me to them and close their arms around me. They moan low and soft and we sway as a group before her casket. My dress swishes around my bare legs and brushes up against the metal stand. There is no air in our closed circle but I don’t struggle to get out. I deserve this, I think, turning their tragedy into mine. I have a hard time believing she is gone. I am swollen and sodden with grief and anger. I feel leaden, untouchable, as her mother whispers in my ear that she tucked all of our pictures into the casket. When I am able she wants me to come to their house to pick something out of Terri’s to remember her by. Even then I know it is something I will never bring myself to do.

 

When I extricate myself I look across the room crowded with teenagers in all states of distress. In the far corner I see him standing there. Unlike the first time he is not poised for escape. He knows what to expect. He has been here before. He has lost everything once and it is not impossible to imagine it won’t happen again. Our eyes meet across the room. He doesn’t need to say a word as he slowly begins to pick his way through the crowd to where I am standing. He knows all to well what happens next.

 

 

 

 

Ghosts

By Robin Antalek

Essay

My childhood was a combination of magic and terror.

I come from a loud, sprawling clan of first generation Italian Americans who, for the most part, resided within walking distance of each other in the hamlet of Pelham, New York, a suburb of Manhattan.

They loved food, God, their newly adopted country, baseball, and their family with fervent yet equal abandon. My earliest memories are of the wrap around porch of my grandparents’ home overflowing with cousins and aunts and uncles eating, drinking and talking all at once; of my older cousins wearing teased bouffant hairstyles, and white lipstick, their hemlines inching way above the knee; of my grandfather and his brothers drinking homemade wine and smoking hand-rolled cigars beneath the grape arbors in the backyard; of going into Manhattan, my hand held firmly in my grandfather’s, to watch the circus elephants arrive in town linked trunk to tail; of Jones Beach, of Coney Island; of rambling village parades where nearly half of those marching were related to me. Of holidays: of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, Halloween and the Fourth of July, where the house was always full of people who had known me since I was born.

When I was eight my mother did the unthinkable: she moved us to a speck of a town in southwest Florida at the lip of the Everglades. It was 1968. The world she had grown up in had changed enormously. A President had been murdered. A classmate who had gone to Mississippi to register voters had disappeared. People no longer married for life. Sex was no longer something you waited for. The town she chose was so small you had to squint to find it on a map. My relatives, whose sole relationship with the Sunshine State was firmly rooted in the beach cabana culture of Fort Lauderdale and Miami, shook their heads in disbelief as we left behind all that we had ever known.

We arrived with very little from our old life with the understanding that it just wouldn’t fit. The house in my new town was single-story without a basement, and everything inside, without shadow, was a violent bright white. Our new neighbors, parents to a roll call of children who seemed to arrive in two-year intervals, insisted we call them Miss Ivey Dell and Mr. David, and after they spanked their kids they read them Bible scriptures and told them Jesus loved them. A long black snake slithered out of our laundry basket. Bright green lizards clung to the screens on the windows. The yard didn’t grow grass; instead it was filled with mounds of crushed shells and fossilized rocks. Slowly it began to dawn on us that our furniture was far from the only thing in our new life that just didn’t fit. Still, we stayed and slowly, the new life started to take over the old.

As childhoods went back in the late sixties and early seventies, mine was fairly autonomous. On weekends and summer vacations, I remember leaving the house on my bike in the morning and not coming home until dinner. The landscape was so raw and clean that it was easy to be a pioneer. The beaches were pure back then, hardly a condo or house in sight, just long unending strips of white sand bordered on one side by the aqua water of the Gulf of Mexico and on the other straggly pine forests surrounded by clumps of sea grape and sea oats that were not yet considered endangered. As a child as I stood on the shore and contemplated the horizon, it seemed as if I had discovered the tipping point at the end of the world and Cuba, a place even more wild and unpredictable, was just beyond my reach on the other side as a dare.

I learned to shuffle my feet as I entered the water to ward off the prehistoric-looking stingrays and horseshoe crabs with the barbed venomous tail that burrowed in the shallow shoreline. I watched the waters turn blood red from a surge of bacteria known as the Red Tide, and I helped my mother cut the jaws out of sharks that had died and washed ashore, and dried them in the sun to sell to tourists who had just begun to trickle into town. I swam to the sandbar and beyond. I swung off the ropes of a sailboat. I felt the blunt bump of a shark nose as it brushed against my legs. I was young and invincible just like the lyrics to a bad pop anthem.

As a teenager, the deserted beaches held marvelous pockets of privacy. I had a bikini that made me braver and more sure of myself than my old ragged one piece. There were bonfires and boys with long hair, sun-bleached white on the tips, whose wiry bodies were bronze and toned from endless hours surfing the waves. Boys who gave me rides on the handlebars of their bikes to the beach. Boys I curved around on a sandy blanket, boys who broke my heart, boys whose hearts I broke. Altering our moods seemed innocent; a joint passed around the bonfire mouth to mouth until it was gone, a bottle of limb warming amber liquid, origins unknown.

One of those nights I wandered away from the bonfire with a friend. Walking along the beach at night, the sounds of the waves rushing the shore, the moonlight turning the sand silver. Even in the dark the air was still so warm. I was buzzed enough that my limbs felt fluid, but not so buzzed that what I saw emerge from the woods in front of me wasn’t real. Three men in white hoods, their bodies shrouded in volumes of white cloth that was folded and gathered crudely, like a child’s elementary attempt at a Halloween costume. I grabbed a hold of my friend and because we were sixteen we stood for a moment longer than we should have, longer than common sense, before we turned and took off back down the beach towards the bonfire.

I didn’t look over my shoulder until we were in the light of the fire, back among the clumps of people who greeted us with a long-neck beer and the wave of a joint. Puffed with bravado, we told our story accompanied by the roaring of the Gulf and the hiss and pop of the fire. A ragged group was formed to investigate. Someone talked about the remains of a burning cross, a lost dog, the forlorn cry of a child in the night, a stolen bike, a piece of torn white fabric caught on a branch, as if all these fragments, real or imagined, were connected. Around the fire, our faces appeared haunted and distorted by the flickering flames. We huddled under blankets loosely tented around our shoulders till dawn, until the gulls cawed and the sky streaked pink behind the slowly dilating charcoal smudge of night sky.

We had no idea what we were waiting for or what we would do once it arrived. We had no idea what was to come.

 

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23 Comments »

Comment by Irene Zion
2009-10-20 08:58:28

Robin,
What started out as a lovely family tale morphed into a story of disassociation to a new life and then into the story of a child’s introduction to hatred and terror.
Phew. I’m exhausted riding through it.
Good job.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:45:57

Irene, I had the same experience reading your last lovely piece. Thanks so much!

Comment by Matt
2009-10-20 09:32:18

Wow.

’scuse me. I kind of feel the need to go surfing now. Back later.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:03

hmmmm…… you can’t ever separate the boy from the board!

Comment by Richard Cox
2009-10-20 10:33:01

This is a dense and vivid journey. Nicely done.

As a child I always feared the moment I would forget to shuffle my feet and plant my foot squarely on top of a stingray hidden under the murky surface of the water. Luckily it never happened. Well, not yet, anyway.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:47:54

Keep shuffling…. that’s my motto anyway. Works for most everything. Thanks so much for the compliments, Richard

Comment by Zara Potts
2009-10-20 10:36:34

God, how creepy.
But what lovely writing Robin! I could almost smell the salt from the ocean and the smoke from the bonfire.
What happened next??

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:48:52

What happened next? I fell in love with another sensitive soul who stayed up with me all that night…..

Comment by jmblaine
2009-10-20 10:54:28

A professor once told me that good writers
describe well
and the touch you put on things
is magic here,
where have you been?

ps. the Klan winds through my childhood as well
but I cant find the words to write about it
yet

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:51:22

My God…thanks. I am humbled by the compliments. When I began this piece I thought I wanted my “Klan” experience to start it off – only to find the entire thing flipped around in the telling. You might find a way to tell your story yet. A wise teacher once said to me when I was stuck that I should think about…”going in the back door.” Have you?

Comment by Simon Smithson
2009-10-20 13:36:09

Wow, good piece!

Like Irene, this one caught me by surprise. It started in one place, then ended up in another.

Sort of like childhood, I guess.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-20 13:52:32

Simon – you are so right I hadn’t thought of childhood that way until I read your comment!!! I love TNB people!

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-21 04:48:08

You have a great way of letting what was then a new landscape help tell this story of strangeness and change. Beautiful, restrained portraiture. The cutting of a shark’s jaw sticks in my head. And the emergence of hillbilly hatred from the woods…it reminds me of a story my dad told me.

When I was very young, my parents — hippies fresh from Rhode Island in their red VW microbus — moved us to southwest Missouri in service of my dad’s quest to wash his hands of society to what degree he could. The Ozarks were beautiful. Some things about the Ozarks were not. He described to me an early meeting with a realtor/land guy who, upon their first appointment, met them not at a prospective piece of land, but a black graveyard.

“See that?” the man said to my mystified parents, pointing at the headstones. “That’s why we don’t have a nigger problem in this county.”

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:51:33

Your anecdote leaves me speechless. Have you ever told that story?

Comment by Col. Hector Bravado
2009-10-24 06:17:56

Only here, on this comment thread. And to a few friends.

(Comments wont nest below this level)

Comment by Autumn
2009-10-21 06:57:16

Your writing about Florida really knocked me back to my childhood: slopping through low-tide mud to hunt for urchins and horseshoe crabs, swimming past the sand bar, bonfire and boys with long hair. I was a teen in the 90s, but I guess the experience never changes.

I, luckily, never had any experience with the Klan, but racism was definitely alive and well in Florida back then too. And, I fear, sadly still is.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:56:02

When writing this, I was never quite sure if a place that held such a strong and lasting impact on my memory would translate on paper… I’m glad it resonated with you. Writing about childhood can be unsettling when you layer in adult perceptions….

Comment by LitPark
2009-10-21 10:23:41

Haunting, and beautifully told.

Comment by Greg Olear
2009-10-21 14:18:18

I agree with Susan. Haunting (they look like ghosts, after all) and beautifully told.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 09:52:39

Greg and Susan… thanks so much….

Comment by Marni Grossman
2009-10-21 19:57:49

Florida’s such an anomaly. It’s a southern state, but it’s easy to forget that amidst the flea markets of Boca and the parties of Miami. You shine a lense on a very different Florida. And you do it so damn well.

Comment by Robin Antalek
2009-10-22 10:01:59

You’re so right about that! Florida is indeed an anomaly…. one forgets that it is much more than the birthplace of Mickey Mouse! Going back to that town, which I did this summer for the first time in nearly fifteen years, was still unsettling. Although not sure if it was just me trying to reconcile past and present, or there was something else at work. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece – thanks!

Comment by D.R. Haney
2009-10-25 18:56:42

Very well described, Robin, as others have said, and I love the conclusion, which to me is reminiscent of the final fadeout of a European art film from the 1960s, though it’s hard to explain why. I think, for example, of the girl vainly waving to Mastroianni on the beach at the end of La Dolce Vita. Or maybe it’s simply sufficient to use the word “haunting” and leave it at that.