Nonfiction | June 01, 2000
Some Aprils in upstate New York school was canceled because of snow, and my brother and I imagined what life would be like if summer never came again. There were a lot of years like that, but I can only think of two amazingly warm Aprils, and this, the year of Wayne, is the second. It’s late afternoon, and I’m sitting in the woods out back, on a log at the edge of a small stream, thighs pulled close to my chest. I’ve been here for a while and have no intention of moving yet, so determined am I to show everyone. Right now there’s no one around to show, but I lay my cheek against my knee anyway, in the pose of someone wronged.
I’ve been posing a lot lately, acting out my emotions in a way that has everyone else rolling their eyes. Since December we’ve lived in a crowded house in the country, while the house I used to call home sits more than half empty on a suburban street eight miles away. That’s my father’s house now, and in it my old room echoes. The sun-faded carpet is darker where the bed and dresser used to be, and tape marks from my posters mar the walls. My brother’s room echoes too, and the living room shows signs of a house divided: a couch but no coffee table, a standing lamp with no olive recliner beside it.
My new room, in the house behind me, the house I’ve just run from, is small. It’s L-shaped, with my bed on one end and her bed on the other. I’ve never shared a bedroom until now, and the only thing that keeps me from choking Jean’s daughter is that she spends most weekends with her father, so I get some time alone. I’m twelve, and time alone feels as necessary to me as food.
Altogether, seven of us live in this house. There are my mother, Matt, and I. And then there are Jean and her three kids—two boys and the girl who keeps leaving her things on my side of the room. We’ve been living together for five months now, and we’ve taken on the shape of something like a family. My mother and Jean are the parents, and we five kids are the know-it-alls, the ones who think no one, anywhere, ever, will understand what we’re going through. I’m undeniably the worst of the bunch.
But I don’t care. Sitting here stabbing at the muddy bank of the creek with a maple twig, I don’t care what anybody thinks of me because for once in my life, I am so right it’s not even possible to argue. I don’t care how hard my mother tries to make a go of it with Jean, or how worried she is about my father suing for custody. I don’t care that she works every day in a printing factory from seven until four and then comes home to kids fighting and threatening letters from lawyers and a lot of uncertainty about the future. I just care about what’s right.
My exit was dramatic. I made sure the screen door flew all the way open and slammed hard. I made sure everyone heard me shout, “Leave me alone!” I locked eyes with Jean’s mother before I left, appealing to her in a way I could see worked. She’s on my side, and that’s the only thing that has made me feel better in a long time.
Jean’s mother is called “Ma” by Jean and her three kids, by all their friends and relatives and by my mother, Matt and me. Ma is a hardnosed woman with a wrinkled face that doesn’t smile unless something tickles her, and I like that. Lately I’ve grown tired of trying to figure out the adult code, the way to read adults’ words and expressions in order to understand what they really think. With Ma I know that if she smiles something’s good or funny, and if she doesn’t, it’s not.
Ma likes doing things for other people. This April she offered to stay at our house every day of spring break. Jean had insisted that we kids would be fine on our own, but Ma disagreed. She kept saying the older kids need a vacation; they don’t need to spend their time baby-sitting. As one of the older kids, I had to agree with that. This morning Ma’s husband dropped her off at six-thirty, and he’s picking her up after work, right about now. He’ll do the same thing tomorrow and each of the remaining days of break, which gives me something to look forward to, at least.
At first I was worried about having Ma around every day. What if I did something wrong, or got fresh? What if it was cold and rainy and all of us kids had to stay in the house for a week, with Ma trying to keep order? What if my brother and Jean’s older son, Brian, started fighting and Ma couldn’t break it up? Last night I was so preoccupied with what might go wrong that I didn’t fall asleep until late, and by the time I woke this morning it was nearly ten.
Even before I got out of bed, I could tell things were different than I’d expected. The sun fell in streams across the bed, and through the window opposite me I could see the grass in the back yard, greener than it was yesterday. And there was a smell in the house that took a moment to identify: cinnamon.
Downstairs in the kitchen, I stepped into a breeze, warm and soft and promising, from the open back door. Ma was reading the paper in the living room, and when she heard me, she came into the kitchen, said good morning and asked if I wanted French toast for breakfast. I didn’t know what to say. Did she mean she was going to make it for me? Ma tried again, asking whether I liked French toast, and I said that I did.
She wouldn’t let me help, so I stood looking out the window and wondering if I would always feel this awkward around her. Then out of the blue Ma asked if I’d ever had the chicken pox, and the breeze, the breakfast, her question swirled together and enveloped me in a dizzy rush of memory. I’d had the chicken pox two years ago during the first of the warm Aprils, and it was the happiest time I could remember. The weather had been unusually warm, our new color TV had arrived earlier than we’d expected, and even though I’d felt fine except for itching, the spots and scabs on my skin kept me home from school for two glorious weeks. I remember the breeze through the living room, the sounds of my mother preparing a midday dinner in the kitchen while my father got ready for work. From upstairs came the splashes of his shaving routine, the faucet going on and off, his deep voice humming old army songs and Patsy Cline. And later, after we ate—my parents at the dining room table and me in the olive recliner with a plate on my lap—my father brought me a giant navel orange, peeled it for me, held his hand against my forehead to make sure the fever hadn’t returned. For two solid weeks, I felt tended to, cared for, in a way that makes me nostalgic still.
After a moment I told Ma that yes, I’d had the chicken pox, and she asked me to go look at Jean’s younger son. His name is Matt, just like my brother’s, so for the last five months we’ve been calling him Little Matthew to distinguish the two of them. It’s a practical way of dealing with the name confusion, but it’s bothered me from the beginning. It seems like evidence of how quickly and easily circumstances can change who you are.
“Go look at Little Matthew,” Ma said, gesturing toward the living room, “and tell me what you think.” He was asleep. I could see the spots starting on his face and arms. For five months I’d considered Little Matthew the biggest pest in the world, but watching him sleep, I suddenly felt sorry, the kind of sorry that starts small and can, if you dwell on it, become an umbrella, a canopy, an overarching sympathy for everyone and everything. Because of spring break, the poor kid didn’t even get to stay home from school.
Back in the kitchen, I asked Ma where the others were, and she said they went for a bike ride with Wayne. Wayne’s the kid next door. On a back road where the houses aren’t very close together, “next door” means a quarter mile down. He hangs around a lot, playing ball with my brother and Brian. Lately Wayne’s been in our front yard every afternoon and most of the day on Saturday, talking to whomever will listen to him about how much he likes me.
Ma pushed a folded-up piece of paper across the kitchen table toward me and said cautiously, “I found this pinned to the bush outside the front door.”
I took the paper, grimacing in an exaggerated way, and Ma’s face relaxed.
The note thing has been going on for about three weeks now, mostly on the weekends, when Wayne won’t have to face me at the bus stop. I’ve told Brian—which effectively means I’ve told Wayne—that I’m not interested. But Wayne is stubborn. So while Ma made my French toast, I flattened the page against the table and read to her about how much Wayne loves me, how beautiful I am, how he really wants to be better friends and how he wants me to hang out with just him once in a while.
When I finished, I rolled my eyes and said, “Give me a break.” Then Ma and I both smiled.
I read the note twice before I noticed the number 10 in the upper left-hand corner of the page. I showed it to Ma, and she said it must be the tenth note I’d gotten. I said no, it was maybe the fourth, and then Ma wondered if he’d meant to put ten notes on the bush all at once. “Ten notes?” I said. “Believe me, Wayne Johnson does not have that much energy.” Ma thought that was very funny, and as we sat at the table laughing, the sweet breeze floating along our arms and necks, spring break seemed to have arrived in spades.
We moved into this house on a cloudy afternoon in December, with just enough time to unpack the basics and decorate a Christmas tree. We worked well together that day, carrying boxes to their designated rooms, saying “thank you” to whoever held the door open. We were polite, cooperative, desperate to believe that this could be the life, and the home, we’d all always wanted. That was back when we were each a bit smitten, when my mother and Jean were in the early stage of infinite possibility, before my father started to make good on his threat to sue for custody, before Brian and my brother started to have fistfights and I started to hang out with the girls at school who smoked pot in the bathroom. It was way before I realized that Wayne sometimes sat on our front steps in the dark, listening for bits of my conversation from inside—before he started leaving me love notes in scratchy boy’s handwriting on crumpled paper pinned outside the door.
The day we moved in, Wayne kept riding his bike past the house as we unloaded the car. Back and forth, back and forth he went without ever looking our way, just marking his territory. He looked like the boys in my old neighborhood, wearing a sweat jacket on a cold winter day, no gloves, proving he was tougher than eighteen degrees. He looked like the boys from my old school who called each other “faggot” and “jerk-off” and called every girl “fat ass.” The first time I saw Wayne, I thought, stay away.
It turns out he’s not as bad as the other boys. But he’s unpredictable: nice one minute and scowling mad the next, if things don’t go his way. He can be funny sometimes, though. He’s the kind of kid my mother calls a “character.” He’s also the kind who smokes and drinks and rolls joints in the back seat of the school bus, the kind who says “fuck you” in front of the principal, then laughs about it on the late bus home after detention.
I don’t know what my type is, exactly. I just know it isn’t Wayne. And it isn’t Jeff Fields either, who earlier this year passed a note to me during English. It was written in thick pencil that hadn’t been sharpened in a while, and it said, simply, “Want to go out with me?” I pretended to think about it for a minute, then wrote below, “No thanks,” and handed it back. After class, I told Jeff’s best friend that Jeff was cute but I liked someone else, fixing it so they wouldn’t be mad at me. Then I told my own best friend that Jeff was too short, which was sort of true. But really it was the way those thick pencil marks looked—too needy, too uncontrolled—that turned me off. Wayne always writes his notes in pen, but something in the handwriting reminds me of Jeff. Wayne seems to like me without knowing why, to want something that even he doesn’t understand.
All day today Wayne hung around our house. My brother and Brian were with him, sometimes on their bikes, sometimes pitching a baseball in a triangle in the front yard. Now and then I looked out the window and saw Wayne squinting toward me, but all day I stayed inside, even though by midafternoon it was almost eighty degrees.
Ma kept busy. She did load after load of laundry, made a pile of tuna sandwiches for lunch, scrubbed the bathroom, mopped the kitchen floor. I kept offering to help, and she kept saying no, it’s too nice a day, you go out and enjoy yourself. But I didn’t want to go out. I wanted to stay inside with her, so I pretended I had homework to do, a big project. All day I carried a notebook around and sat near where Ma was working, trying not to bother her.
She asked me questions: How is school going? (Okay); Why don’t I visit my best friend anymore? (Because she has a new best friend who lives close to her, in my old neighborhood); Am I nervous about the custody hearing in two weeks? (Maybe a little). She also wanted to know whether I thought it would be all right for us to move the TV into Little Matthew’s bedroom so he could be more comfortable while he watched cartoons. I told her that was a great idea, even though I knew Jean would have a fit. Jean’s rule is that if you’re sick, you rest; you don’t watch TV. In my father’s house, there hadn’t been any rules about illness. My parents didn’t agree on much, but they both believed sick kids belong in front of the TV, eating whatever they happen to ask for. It never occurred to me before we moved here that being sick was like being punished.
Ma also asked about Wayne. She was dusting the top of the TV, and I was sitting in the olive recliner, the notebook open on my lap. Brian and my brother asked me the same questions every night—what about Wayne? What’s wrong with Wayne?—and every night I told them to shut their big fat heads. But Ma’s questions were different. She wasn’t trying to convince me to like Wayne; she was trying to figure out what girls wanted these days. I told her what I hadn’t told the boys: “He’s gross. He spits all the time, and he doesn’t wear a coat.”
Ma laughed and said that spitting was one thing, but the coat? Maybe he didn’t have a coat. But I knew he did, I said, because he’d carried it with him a couple of times on the really cold days. Ma said, “What do you care if he doesn’t wear a coat? Maybe he’s not cold.” He is, I told her. He’s always cold, shivering with his hands shoved way down in his pockets, except when he’s smoking, and then he tucks the hand with the cigarette under the other arm, the cigarette sticking out in back. He wears flannel shirts with quilted flannel shirts over them, plaid on plaid, and a bandana around his neck, but he’s always cold. I said, “I’m not going out with anybody who doesn’t know enough to keep himself warm.”
Ma stood still for a second then, one hand on her hip, the other holding the dust rag. She looked surprised. I thought, I shouldn’t have told her Wayne smokes, or I should explain that “going out” doesn’t mean we’d actually go anywhere. But then she grinned and said slowly, “You are one smart cookie. Your mother doesn’t have any idea how smart you are, does she?”
I said no, she doesn’t, and bent quickly over my notebook to hide my smile.
All day I kept Ma company and waited on Little Matthew. I brought him lunch in bed, which seemed to make him happy and suspicious all at once. Throughout the afternoon I moved back and forth between his bedroom at one end of the house and the kitchen at the other end, walking slowly through the living room each time. Wayne was still in the front yard, and I knew he could see me. The living room is long and narrow, with two picture windows, one facing front, one facing back, so that from a certain angle the house is transparent. At night, when my mother clothespins the curtains together so no one can see into it, the living room seems like a hiding place. But during the afternoon, with Wayne pining away for me in the front yard, it felt like a stage.
I was on that stage, carrying a glass of 7-Up toward Little Matthew’s bedroom, when my mother and Jean pulled in after work. Wayne and my brother and Brian were standing by the edge of the road, their heads bent over Wayne’s hands. Something in the way Jean veered around them and sped into the driveway made me stop and watch. The car was still running when my mother got out without closing the door and stomped toward the boys. I looked harder to see what they were holding. It seemed logical that whatever it was had something to do with my mother’s anger. It did not seem logical, or even possible, that I was involved.
I could hear my mother shouting, but I couldn’t make out her words. I could see Wayne stepping back into the road, my mother’s hands waving and pointing and Jean calmly walking over and taking her arm. Then Brian hurried toward the house, up the steps and in the door shouting my name. He didn’t have time to explain before my mother came in the door behind him, and Jean behind her. Ma stood beside me, staring as uncomprehendingly as I was.
My mother doesn’t lose her temper often. She ignores a lot of things, does a slow burn about others and then once in a great while she just explodes. This was one of those times. She threw her purse onto the kitchen table, glaring in my direction, and shouted that she wasn’t going to put up with this. Ma looked at my face, then said to my mother, “She doesn’t know what you’re talking about,” but my mother wasn’t listening. She was pacing back and forth, living room to kitchen to hallway and back, and Jean was following her with a worried face, pausing just for a moment to ask what had happened to the TV.
My mother looked like she might cry, but she continued to shout about not putting up with this and working hard and not being able to watch me every minute. My stomach tightened the way it used to when I woke in the middle of the night to my father’s booming voice, my mother’s high-pitched comebacks, the sounds of fists on the kitchen table. (In the months since we’ve lived here that’s one thing I’ve been grateful for—the fact that my mother and Jean don’t fight, at least not loudly.) Suddenly all I wanted was for the shouting around me to stop for good. I stepped out of myself and watched my own mouth open wide in a wailing scream. Then I flew upstairs to the L-shaped bedroom.
Ma was right. Wayne had written ten notes. And he had pinned all ten to the juniper bush so that on the first morning of spring break I would be impressed by how much he thought about me. My mother and Jean had left for work this morning and seen the notes, and out of curiosity my mother had plucked one off the bush, opened it, and gotten a glimpse into the way twelve-and thirteen-year-olds sometimes talk to one another. Or rather, the way thirteen-year-old boys sometimes talk to the twelve-year-old girls they love, or think they love, or lust after, which is basically the same thing.
Horrified, my mother and Jean had taken all the notes, accidentally missing number ten. They had gone off to work and spent the whole day thinking about how to deal with the problem. They’d come up with some sort of a plan, but when they got home and my mother saw Wayne at the edge of the yard, she lost her mind. She told him to get off our property, leave her daughter alone, never speak to me again, never even walk on the road in front of our house again, or she would kill him. She actually told Wayne Johnson that she would kill him. After Brian followed me up the stairs and explained all this, the dirty notes and the threats my mother had made, I almost laughed at how ridiculous it all was. But something in Brian’s face—his obvious expectation that I would laugh along with him—turned me cold. I hissed, “Get out of my room,” and he said, “Geez, lighten up,” and I hissed again, only louder, “Get out of my room, dirtbag.”
I was angrier than I’d ever been before, and I didn’t exactly know why. I just kept thinking that Ma had made me French toast, that it was the warmest day since October, that this was spring break and had started out better than I’d thought possible, and then all of a sudden it changed, the way everything lately keeps changing without warning.
I heard the stairs creak, and then my mother was in front of me, looking pale and very, very tired. She sat down on the bed, and I alternated between glaring at her and glaring out the window toward the back woods. Finally she said in a pleading voice, “Honey, you cant believe how filthy those letters were. I had no idea Wayne was like that.”
I felt the sympathy umbrella begin to open again, and I struggled to snap it shut. I wanted to say, “They’re all like that, Mother, all the boys I know,” even though I had never called her “Mother” before. I wanted to use the language of TV shows, of after-school specials in which episodes like this one, like all the ones we’d been living lately, turned out okay in the end.
Instead I said, “Please give me the notes that were addressed to me.” She said no, she didn’t want me reading that stuff, and I said, “They’re mine, and this is none of your business.”
She said I was her business, and I replied, with perfect TV enunciation, “No, I am not.”
After a long silence, my mother’s eyes teared, and she sighed and handed over one note. She watched me as I skimmed down to see what could possibly be so bad; I found it right away. In letter number six Wayne had copied a table—which he footnoted as coming from a men’s magazine—outlining the number of calories burned during various sexual acts. Blow jobs were something like 210, though it didn’t say how long it took to burn that many calories or who was burning them. Intercourse was broken into three levels: slow, medium and vigorous, but I didn’t pay attention to the calorie counts because I was too busy wondering if Wayne was trying to tell me I was fat.
Below the table was a series of questions about my sexual preferences—did I like blow jobs, for example, or having sex while standing?—and I could see that this was what had terrified my mother. Wayne assumed I had sexual preferences. Nothing could have flattered me more. I suddenly felt mature, almost sophisticated. There wasn’t anything remotely alluring about the note in terms of Wayne—I was a little embarrassed for him, actually—but at the same time I was seduced by the image of me it presented. I had never even kissed a boy on the lips, and yet Wayne Johnson didn’t think of me as a virgin. How worldly I must seem, how much more intimidating than I’d even intended.
I made sure my face didn’t change from the moment my mother handed me the note. I was determined not to register surprise or pleasure or interest; I pretended just to take it all in, as if there were nothing here out of the ordinary. I didn’t want to give my mother the satisfaction of knowing I understood why she was upset because I was still too angry about how she’d been absent from so much of my daily life recently and about how she’d chosen today, the warmest, most beautiful day in a long time, to march back in.
The tears didn’t leave my mother’s eyes; they just sat there glistening above the bottom lashes, and for a moment she seemed confused, like she couldn’t remember how she got here or how to go back. And then I couldn’t remember either, how we got to all this hostility, and the sympathy began to grow and unfurl.
I looked down at the page again, trying to think how to respond so that my mother and I could both feel okay. When I glanced up again, her face had changed. In place of anger I saw relief. I understood then that she’d seen the truth in the way I read the note: that I wasn’t the girl Wayne thought I was, that I couldn’t possibly be. There wasn’t a smile yet, just a hint of one around her lips, and her confidence infuriated me all over again. I imagined her thinking that I didn’t even know what a blow job was because she’d never defined it for me. I said, “The letters were addressed to me. They’re my problem, and I would have taken care of it.”
She sighed. “Well, now you don’t have to.”
I flung note number six just past her hand, onto the floor, and stormed down the stairs. My mother called after me, and when I got to the kitchen I called back, “Leave me alone!” My anger almost softened when my eyes met Ma’s, but then I saw Jean’s stern face behind her and before I knew it I was running down the back steps, across the yard toward the woods, the screen door slamming hard behind me.
Now, sitting on the log, the sun beginning to sink below the hill behind me, below the transparent house and all the things I can’t bear to face, I’m filled with self-pity. Two years ago, on a day like today, I had the chicken pox and was happy. And now I’m not. I know that crying would be cathartic, but I’m not even close to tears. The sun fades and the water trickles past and the air cools, and I just sit here on a log, poking and poking at the ground with a twig, without crying and without wanting to stand. I lay my cheek against my knee, imagining that if anyone could see me, they’d have to feel heartbroken.
I think about my father and the custody hearing in two weeks, about how much he wants us to live with him and how wrong it is that I might be forced to. I think about him living alone, about Christmas when there wasn’t a tree or any decorations, just two piles of presents on his kitchen table, one for Matt and one for me. On that visit, and on the only other visit I made to him in the last five months, he kept trying to get information from me. How many bedrooms in the house? Who shares? Do you like Jean? Does she ever yell at you? What he really wanted to know was whether my mother and Jean sleep in the same bed, and if he’d asked me straight out I would have wrinkled my eyebrows like, are you crazy? and hoped he didn’t push it. But if he did push it I would have lied, because otherwise the custody hearing would be over before it started. I think about that, and about how unfair it is that my father never asks me what I want. He just talks to his lawyer and her lawyer but not to me, except to call and make me feel bad for not visiting because, he says, my mother is turning me against him.
I sit here for a long time because I cant imagine what else to do. What I really want is for someone to come get me, to come and see if I’m okay and make it easier for me to go back. I want my mother, specifically, to appear and say she’s sorry and ask me to come back, but of course she wouldn’t even know where to look. It’s still spring break, I think, so at least I won’t have to see Wayne at the bus stop for a while. If only I’d found the notes myself, this all would have been easier. I would have chewed Wayne out, told him to his face that he’s gross, and then everything would have been fine. But now, because my mother got involved, I’ll have to apologize to Wayne for the scene she made.
I’m getting chilly, and I can’t go home without a plan. I could stay out here until someone comes to get me, but what if that takes all night? I could announce to my mother that I’m going to live with my father, but what if she doesn’t argue? I think about all kinds of crazy stunts to make her understand how sorry she should be, but in the end I decide simply not to speak to her. I won’t speak to anyone, not to my mother or Jean or anyone else in that house for the rest of the week. Except for Ma. She’s gone by now, but tomorrow she’ll be back, and I’ll talk to her but not to anyone else. By the end of the week they’ll all see how wrong things are and someone will do something to make me happy.
I get up, toss the twig into the stream, turn around, and glance up the hill.
By the way he stands, arms crossed, leaning against a bare oak tree, I can see that he’s been there a while and that he wasn’t coming any closer. He’s backlit by the setting sun, hazy around the edges, and with his button-down shirt billowing in the breeze, he looks like the cover of a romance novel. I can’t see his face clearly, but the hair is long and blond; it’s Wayne, and he’s standing defiantly on our property.
For a minute I don’t know what to do. Cross the stream and follow the path farther into the woods? I’m afraid Wayne will follow, though. Sit back down? But then he’ll think I want him to approach. Finally I start up the hill, looking at the ground, and halfway up I glance at Wayne again. I can see his face now, and he’s not laughing at me, not grinning or frowning, not looking angry or sad. He’s just watching me.
And then he lifts his eyebrows the slightest bit, a question, and I start to jog up the hill to the crest, shaking a little.
As I near he moves off the trail, making room for me to pass, and in that courtesy, that stepping aside, I sense danger for the first time with Wayne. There’s a smile threatening my lips, but I manage to frown instead, and as I jog past I say, “What are you looking at?” But I regret the words even as I hear them because no one else has come looking for me, and because maybe there is, after all, something about Wayne.
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