I live in crazy times. If this were a song I’d put in a repeat. I live in crazy times. So do you.
Mom’s screaming at me from inside our house. “Answer me or else,” she’s shouting and soon she’ll move the heavy block box, enter, and find me gone. It’s not a fire drill. She won’t know where I am because she doesn’t know I learned to close the window behind me when I climb up on the roof. Poof, just like Houdini.
While I’m being punished, locked in my room—so she thinks (slap five with myself)—I’m supposed to be doing math homework. Fat chance. My school gives loads of homework to make the parents think they’re getting their money’s worth. Mom used to sympathize. Now that she’s turning into some kind of cartoon character (first the plastic boxes and now the Taco Bell thing), she’s more likely to bark, “Just do it.” So I decided, just a second ago—it wasn’t a plan or anything until she locked me in—to climb out my bedroom window with my journal under my arm, pencil behind my ear, crawl up the hot tar—ouch—to perch near the chimney.
From here I can see all the other big houses in the neighborhood. Most have two or three chimneys; the Sellers’ right next door is the only one with a swimming pool: lucky bastards. Mom doesn’t like me to know words like that, but who’s she kidding? They’re all over the place. At the park during the Dogwood Festival they put up those piddly little rides—purple alligators going around so slowly the three-year-old set yawns—and from the middle, where this spitting guy switches the ride on and off, rap music is blasting: thump drinkin’ Hennessy thump drivin’ Benzes thump callin’ nigger thump fuckin’ bitch. Sure it was noisy and the acoustics stunk, but was no one getting the words but me?
I wish I’d brought an orange up here cause I’d peel it, suck the juice, and spit the gobs down toward the Sellers’ pool. With a little help from the wind my gobs ‘d land, then the Sellers’ lads might not swim in it all summer, something to do with alien contamination or microbiology. They’re the most fastidious people in the whole world Mom says and Mom’s no slob herself; she gave up trying to figure out why Mrs. Sellers never let Adam play with me when we were little; she doesn’t remember that I pulled his pants down on their Yom Kippur.
Dad’s out of town again and last week Mom spent lots of the grocery money (theoretically she’s on a budget, but she can always just go get more) on plastic boxes. Still didn’t have enough though the entire back of her car was filled with 16 footlocker-like, see-through boxes stacked one inside another. Half were in the trunk and the other half hogged the whole back seat; no room for us, so Chubby Cheeks and I had to lie down in the top one like it was a coffin. Mom had to make another trip to the store later to get the lids. My baby stuff, my winter stuff, her fat clothes, Dad’s fly fishing gear, everything we owned but weren’t using got packed neatly, labeled and stored in the basement. It took Mom all week. Makes me wish she had a job like she used to before she had me.
I got the idea of scaring them all, everyone inside my house (my Mom and my baby sister), as their punishment for putting me in the lolo; lolo’s what I call my room when she closes the door and shoves the block box against it so I can’t get out. At first I denied hitting her—my baby sister—and then I told the truth. “She hit me first.”
“Well if she did, she learned it from you,” Mom said, and it amazes me how fast Mom and I start arguing.
First I’m writing all this down, sitting cross-legged on the chimney now ‘cause the tar’s too hot and I wish I’d put shoes on, then I’m going to start screaming so loudly the neighbors will look out their windows and see me here. Then I’ll stand up and do several ballet steps down to the edge of the roof. Three stories. I’ll lie down and do what amounts to a somersault while holding on tight to the edge of the gutter. I’ll hear gasps, Mom crying, but I won’t fall, see, I’ve been taking gymnastics since I was four. At first my gymnastics teachers thought I was a natural—I did a no hands cartwheel right off—but then they saw Mom before she lost weight and got wind that Dad’s like linebacker size, so they stopped making such a big deal of me because they know I’m going to get big too; it’s just a matter of time.
All my friends have already started developing. Maybe I should start swallowing tiny bits of plastic wrap. I heard on the radio that they think exposure to plastic—microwaving all your food in plastic wrap was the example they used—makes young girls get boobs early. I know I probably won’t call them that when I get them, but right now, so what.
Mom’s going to be sorry she yelled at me like that. She was cutting an apple in the kitchen when I hit Chubby Cheeks so she had a knife in her hand for god’s sake and she kept hitting it against the granite counter and that’s why I lowered the strap of my jelly sandal and kicked it off into her pale, skinny face. I hated the sound of that knife and I wanted her to stop going to Taco Bell so that she could starve herself.
Yuck, my knee just touched bird shit. Maybe the heat makes it green like that. I thought all that green stuff was mold. I point my pencil at one flying across, a jay, and warn him, don’t mess with me. “Caw Caw,” I scream back.
Mom is the one who told me about the teenager in the upper school committing suicide by hanging himself. Then Lizzy, my favorite baby sitter (she lets me see the stud in her tongue and it gives me shivers every time), filled me in about how he threw the rope over the rafter and tied a loop and climbed up on a chair and stuck his neck in then kicked over the chair and the rest was too disgusting even for me. What I’m doing barely counts compared to that, but I know I’m really going to scare them. Dad will fly home from the West Coast and I’ll cry about Taco Bell and plastic boxes and he’ll forgive me right away, his girl; his other one can’t talk.
I’ve mapped it all out. Once I’m hanging from the gutter, I’ll slide hand to hand over to the corner of the house and shimmy down the drain pipe to the lower roof and from there I’ll climb in my sister’s window. I don’t see what the big deal is that she can’t talk, she’s only three for Christ’s sake. Chubby Cheeks has the right idea, because by the time I was three Mom had the flash cards out. I learned my letters so fast she stuck me in Montessori school so that I could learn to read while I was still four and she could show me off to her friends. Now she thinks I’m too smart.
I’m not satisfied being a girl and I don’t want to be a boy either. Who says I can’t be both, just watch. When I was five I got all the girls I liked at the country club to wear boys’ bathing trunks and we called ourselves the Boyrls. You never know what scientists might discover. Take cloning. Why couldn’t they mix up the X and Y chromosomes, whisk them around, N for new. Anything might come true nowadays: remember Jules Vern made up rockets and then suddenly there really were rockets going to the moon.
Mom wishes she was still Catholic so that she could send me to Sunday school to learn right and wrong, but she’s so lapsed, she can’t. When my father gets home this time, he says he’ll take me to a Protestant church and read me the Bible before bed, but I’ve never seen a Bible in our house. Mom doesn’t like clutter and I guess books count as clutter though she’d never say that. She went to college, but those books are all torn and so they had to go into one of the plastic boxes and now the only ones are in my room and I’m supposed to keep them on the shelf, alphabetically.
Mom takes these pills, downs one every morning with a hit of black coffee. Starts with a Z or an X, or ends with a Z or an X. She says they make her happy—sort of, but I don’t think it’s the truth. She’s mostly only happy when her friends are around or when she sees that I’m pooped and want her to cuddle with me before I doze off, like most nights. Plus, during the day her eyes bug out and she talks a mile a minute. That’s how I figure I got so smart. I had to learn to follow her sentences, put the periods in myself, and it made my brain work extra hard.
I hate my Mom (not really) and I hate one of my teachers (really) so every time I decide to read a book (I’m in 6th grade but can read anything, even Plato if I had to), it’s mostly to find info to trip Sneab up. I go to this fancy private school when my parents should be saving for college. Mostly, the teachers aren’t as smart as they pretend to be. From what I hear about public school the trouble-makers are always dumb, well, in private school the bad kids are always smart—that’s me.
Hey, there’s Karla Korneisal practicing cartwheels on her front lawn.
We’re studying ancient Rome in school and we were looking at a picture of the Coliseum and suddenly I remembered something interesting. I raised my hand and Sneab pretended not to see it so I propped it up with my other hand and wiggled it until it was like a worm on the end of a hook; eventually it got tired and died and then I popped off anyway: “Did you know the Romans used to fill the Coliseum with water and stage naval battles?” And of course Sneab didn’t know that and just said, really? I don’t know where I read that, but I did. My Mom says I’m a sponge that soaks up the dirty water, and where did I come from and who do I think I am?
“Hey Karla,” I shout, but she doesn’t hear me and that’s OK, ‘cause I got more important things to do.
When my favorite computer game messed up a few weeks ago, I started watching T.V. again, constantly, though I always keep hold of the remote control in case I get bored. My favorite show lately is the local news because they actually tell you what’s what, and because I know when my Mom asks from the kitchen what I’m watching and I shout back, “Just the news,” she won’t make me turn it off.
All the kids at school think I’m the luckiest kid in the world because my grandparents own a pharmacy on the downtown mall and I can have candy for free any time I want. I love licorice jellybeans. Some parents think that if they let their kids eat all the candy they want their kids would stop liking candy, but I’m living proof that it’s not true. I’m an addict. My goal is to hoard candy in my room so I can start my own business, but I’m not mature enough yet so eventually I eat whatever there is.
“Karla, Karla, don’t go,” I say out loud. I’m going to need an audience in a minute. She’s gone and she left her goody-goody skip rope hanging from a tree. Wonder why nobody hates her, not even me.
Karla’s family inherited all their money, and when I asked her why both her parents work anyway she said something about a work ethic and something about how they think kids are cute but annoying.
My father markets bowling tournaments which is not your usual corporate job. Most people don’t see how that job could make someone rich, but it can, sort of, because he’s pretty rich. We live in Ednam Forest where all the houses are big and he just bought a new Bronco and made some payment on an $8,532.00 Visa bill. I always peek. I don’t read all of their mail, but enough to keep up. I hate it when Mom and Dad whisper, but then again maybe they should whisper more. When Dad’s home, he’s either playing golf or in his office on the third floor or taking me somewhere like a UVa football game. Soon I’ll be old enough to admit to him that I don’t really like college football—it’s always raining—not all that much anyway.
I don’t seem to be getting to the real point of this. I hit my sister. My mom yelled at me and banged the knife on the granite, screaming at me to stop, to shut my mouth, she can’t stand my excuses, and then she said it all again, that I was to stop talking back and that if I said one more word, she might, she might, and I know she wants to say “hit me” but she can’t even say it, much less do it, and she knows that’s why I’m not really scared of her and so instead she starts going on about how she used to have a job, she used to do important things out in the world and that’s when I fling my jelly sandal at her and subsequently land in the lolo, hundred pound block box against the door. If that had been all that was wrong, I wouldn’t be doing any of this.
I really will do it you know. I’m that mad, I’m lost in madness . . .
Over the past two months my mom dropped 35 lbs. It started when her friend from California arrived for a visit. Mom kept telling her she had a figure like Barbie and I don’t quite get it because Mom always told me Barbie was dumb (as president of the Boyrls I outlawed Barbie), but I kind of get that it’s this hourglass thing she’s admiring. She wants to be thin like her friend and her friend says she’s been doing it all wrong, here’s how and she writes it down for Mom on a piece of paper.
3 × Taco per day+1 × 16 ounces Pepsi1/2 - 1 lb loss per day
So after her friend left we started eating at Taco Bell every day, every single day. Mom started loosing weight—the diet was working—so I knew we were in for the long haul.
I tried everything to get her to stop. I even suggested that Chubby Cheeks was looking kind of pale, kind of green, didn’t Mom think she was getting sick from tacos? As my Mom’s butt literally shrunk (pumpkins severed from the vine shrivel and shrink too, I pointed out), she lived for Taco Bell. Fuck us. One day I pretended to have a stomachache. Take a walk, she said, and don’t slump while you eat. Straight after my school got out, she’d drive a zillion miles per hour because she didn’t have one thing in her stomach yet, she’d been waiting until 3:00 for her installment of 3 tacos and a giant Pepsi, which would have to hold her until 3:00 the next day. After a whole month of this, I didn’t even have to pretend. I threw up on my own, I mean my stomach did it of its own free will in the back of her BMW.
Now I don’t have to go to Taco Bell anymore, but it doesn’t help all that much and I realize it isn’t just that I can’t bear the greasy food smells and the greedy look on her face and the napkin stuck to her shoe, it’s that the lights are never on in the kitchen when Dad’s not here and there’s no food in the house because she never cooks. Cutting apples into four doesn’t count, does it?
Mom keeps going to Taco Bell even though when we were cuddling last night she asks me why I get so fierce and I shrug and squish my face into the only soft part left on her—her breasts—and then I tell her how great she looks and it’s time to stop dieting and she agrees, maybe soon, but just before they pick me up from school, they go, and I smell it on her breath. I wonder if my Dad will recognize Mom now that she’s skinny.
She bought all these new clothes and creams so that the skin on her legs doesn’t bubble and sag, but it looks bubbly to me either way. I suggest stockings but she’s got faith in the creams though I don’t understand why because ever since I was little she’s warned me about advertisements, that everybody just wants to make you buy things so they can get your money and now she goes and buys the stuff after reading about it in an advertisement, uses it, and wears a short skirt for the first time ever.
When Mom’s really starving, she gets to have an apple to keep down the hunger pains. But apples sometimes make them worse. When I hear her stomach growl all the way across the kitchen I’m so frustrated because even I know there are people who really are starving and so I get some of my candy stash out of my closet and offer it to her and the second time I did it she shut herself in her room so she wouldn’t strangle me I think.
Don’t write, I say to myself, listen. I think my Mom has finally stopped screaming, “Answer me, or else.” She must have entered my bedroom. I’ll bet she checks the closet first, then under the bed. She’s stunned by my absence. Chubby Cheeks probably looks up at her for an answer to the question she’d like to ask but can’t, “Where’s sister?” She looses interest cause she can shake my piggy bank without me grabbing it away from her. “On the roof,” I say as if giving Mom an answer to her crossword puzzle. I think I see her shadow move toward the window. I stand and stretch, still holding my journal. I’m ready because now I’m sure she’s watching. I hear her knock. Where am I?
When I wake up, my mother’s face is near mine, I smell her breath and it’s sweet and sour like grapefruit. My arm’s in a cast, there’s sun trapped in my eyes, and a woman I’ve never seen before in a white dress, the nurse, no it’s the doctor, is behind my mother reading a clip board, clearing her throat.
“Promise me you won’t ever do that again,” my mother whispers and she’s crying. She’s holding Chubby Cheeks, squashing her against the bed.
“Promise me you won’t ever go to Taco Bell again,” I say taking my little sister for a cuddle, figuring for once Mom might let me have the last word and in case she decides not to, I burp—honestly I couldn’t help burping—and maybe it’s like this in other American families too, we all have a nervous little laugh.