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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Blood Sisters

by Clementine Till
Amelia had an earthy, impish face and a mysterious smattering of warts on both of her knees. Her scraggly brown hair was so long it occasionally tucked into the back of her pants. She was born in Ireland but moved to the States by the time she was two. When she was four her dad died in a car crash and at six her mom married Greg, my kindergarten teacher.
It took us a single conversation (one that meandered over warts, guinea pigs, and her mother’s impending marriage) to discover that we were soul mates. When Greg and her mom left for their honeymoon, Amelia stayed at my house where we consummated our bond, alone in my basement, with a blood-sister ritual. Smearing blood between our palms we gasped at the realization that our hands were exactly the same size.
The school that Amelia and I attended, and where her step-dad taught, was a small Montessori elementary school. For the most part Amelia and I were symbiotic. She was the leader, I was the follower, and we didn’t need anyone else. However, this didn’t stop Amelia from commanding a significant audience when she felt the inclination.
It was relatively common at recess for Amelia to give spontaneous performances of Shel Silverstein’s poetry. She had committed an astounding number of his works to memory and she was particularly known for her interpretation of the classic epics: Peanut Butter Sandwich, The Crocodile’s Toothache and Sick. She employed suspenseful pauses, whispered for dramatic effect, and held nothing back in terms of sound effects. At the end of her chosen arrangement she accepted requests. Rarely did anyone shout out a poem she couldn’t execute on the spot.
At home I poured through my Shel Silverstein collection, rehearsing for hours before delivering a mediocre rendition of There’s a Polar Bear in my Frigidaire in front of my mom and brother. But my recitals were only hazy replicas, certainly nothing to flaunt on the playground. 
I don’t recall often feeling jealous of Amelia. When I sat with my schoolmates to witness her stunning presentations, my dominate feeling was pride. Amelia was my best friend and everyone knew it. We were a couple.
On occasion, Amelia struggled with teachers or staff who didn’t understand her. They dismissed her sensitivity and raw emotion as mere dramatic flair but I, her best friend, knew that drama had nothing to do with it. Amelia was authentic. Her sadness, her compassion, her sense of humor, the entire gamut was spawned from true life and I wanted nothing more than to feel things as fully as she did. She was born with a high range antenna, a satellite dish tuned to emotion. I was a black and white TV with bunny ears made of tin foil.
One Friday afternoon in September I heard her sobs before even opening the door to her room. I stepped in to find her sitting cross legged on the bed fashioning a cross with two twigs and a rubber band.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Another goldfish died!” 
Just the preceding Saturday Amelia and I each acquired about a dozen goldfish at the fair our school organized as a fund raiser. The most popular event was the goldfish toss where rows of fish bowls containing red, blue, or green water were arranged on a large table. Inside each bowl a single fish swam resolute circles occasionally disrupted by the splish of a ping-pong-ball. It cost a dollar for five tosses.
Behind the booth there were large boxes bubbling over with plastic bags, like depraved water balloons, each containing a despondent fish. Upon Amelia’s insistence she and I spent about three solid hours and every dollar of our parent-allotted money at the goldfish toss.
Teachers and parents who witnessed our fervor spoke gently to us with furrowed brows. They warned us that the goldfish would probably die within the week. Doubtlessly a premonition involving Amelia and all this sobbing was unfolding for them like a tragic movie. But what could be done? We were already hooked. 
When the grown-ups told Amelia about the goldfish and their fragile constitutions, her toss of the ping-pong ball became even more purposeful. It was her valiant objective to rescue every single fish from the noxious waters of their meager existence.
Here it was, only Friday, and her mission had all but failed. “This is my Eighth... Dead… Fish,” she intoned.  Even in grief her timing was gripping.  She motioned with her head toward the back yard, “soon I’ll have an entire graveyard out there!” and she fell into a revived wave of anguish.
I didn’t know what to do besides put my arm around her. Most of my goldfish had died too. I hadn’t fashioned any crosses or dug any graves. I’d flushed them unceremoniously down the toilet.
I perceived our varied responses to life’s tragedies as a blatant indication that she was far wiser than I. Adults faced tragedies head on, while children remained innocent and unaware. Amelia had a relationship with grief, ecstasy, and humor that I wasn’t sure I’d ever develop. She was living and I was fumbling dumbly like a mannequin. The truth of her maturity was further magnified one Saturday afternoon just after she turned nine.
Both of our households participated in the “if it’s yellow let it mellow” philosophy so it was common knowledge that Amelia’s mother’s pee consistently maintained a bright golden hue. Amelia was certain that this was a symbol of adulthood and I believed her because… Amelia just knew these things.  We both waited for the day that our own pee would attain the saffron tinge of maturity.
I vividly remember the afternoon she shouted ecstatically for me to join her in the bathroom. My heart sank. I knew without even looking that her pee would be yellow. I peered into the toilet with a counterfeit smile and a nod of faux nonchalance as she assured me that I, too, would have yellow pee… eventually.
Truth be told, I was terrified of adulthood, but I was even more terrified of being left behind, so I began to study Amelia. I watched every movie she loved, repeatedly, and I read every book on her shelf… including her diary. That’s how I learned that she wanted to kiss Frank Walker: a bit of information that shook the foundation of my nine-year-old reality. What? Kids kissed?
Later that year it was decided on the playground that Amelia and Frank actually were going to kiss. It was common for decisions of this nature to be made in playground forums. In most cases the “should’s” or “should-not’s” were hashed out in the absence of the designated kissers. Usually their feelings and opinions were communicated by representatives who spoke with an elevated sense of authority and who dismissed themselves, frequently and importantly, to consult with the “kissers.”
I did not participate in these forums. I was embarrassed by them. Besides, there was an understood contract that anyone involved could, potentially, become the next targeted kisser.
Once the decision was made and the time announced, word spread like wildfire. I was notified only four minutes in advance by a completely unassociated minion of the rumor mill. I had no idea how to react.
I was hurt that my opinion hadn’t been included or even vaguely solicited. I’d been aware for some time of Amelia’s evolving sexuality, but I was dumfounded by a sudden recognition that our best-friend status was ambiguous…at best. On top of that, I had four minutes to determine my next move.  My desire to boycott the event was conflicting utterly with my reluctance to further ostracize myself from the momentous occasion of Amelia’s first kiss.
 In the end I plodded over to the woods (a six-foot-wide strip of trees on the edge of the playground) where the event was scheduled to take place. I stood at the back of the crowd where I refused to stretch on my tip-toes or otherwise display any sign of curiosity for the proceedings. Therefore, I saw nothing.
Fortunately, there was an announcer. I’m pretty sure it was Emily Weinstein. She was in possession of a stop watch and she counted the seconds loudly and with mounting fervor. By the fifth second the rest of the crowd had joined the count. This is probably what drew the attention of the playground monitors… if they hadn’t already noticed the sudden pilgrimage of half the school to the far-back corner of the woods. I think Emily Weinstein had reached twelve seconds by the time the monitors broke us up.
Following our sixth grade graduation Amelia and I attended different middle schools, though distance was not our ultimate dissolving factor. Amelia started having sex and experimenting with drugs. I was too naïve and timid for such antics, but far from ill-judging her choices, I was held rapt by her self-reliance, her charisma, and her seductive allure. I desperately hoped she would eventually grieve our separation the way I did and that she’d solicit my company on just one of her brazen debaucheries. It never happened 
Suddenly I understood about suffering. After a lifetime of rehearsing Amelia’s emotions as though they were Shel Silverstein poems, she was, at long last, gifting me with the real deal and it sucked. For years the very sound of her name made my insides crumble, so I kept a calculated distance from anyone else who knew her. It wasn’t easy. Amelia could stir things up in a way that even defied school district boundaries.
Once I inadvertently sat across a cafeteria table from a girl named Carrie. Over her bagel slathered in pink cream cheese and my salad drenched in government issued ranch, we correlated that Amelia’s new favorite confidant, Stacia, was Carrie’s estranged, childhood best friend. I had zero interest in bonding with Carrie over our mutual “rejected best friend” status so I kept her at a distance. 
Nearly a year later she called me at 11:50p.m., on a Tuesday night.
“What’s going on?” I asked, wondering if she was drunk.
“I just heard something…weird.  I thought I should tell you.” Carrie sounded nervous.
“What is it?” I braced myself, knowing it had to be about Amelia.
“Stacia called me today. We haven’t talked for a long time.”
“Yeah?” I hoped I sounded detached.
Carrie spoke quickly, “Stacia said that Amelia woke up in the middle of the night and that Greg was sitting on the edge of her bed with his hand down her shirt.”
“What?” Greg? My preschool teacher? The most significant man in my life besides my dad?
“And she said it’s happened more than once…” Carrie was going on. I was having a hard time listening.
“Well, Stacia is lying” I interjected. “She doesn’t even know Greg. She’s spreading stupid rumors!”
“I think this is the first time Amelia’s ever talked about it…” Carrie went on, ignoring my accusations. 
It was too much. I told Carrie I had to get off the phone. It was midnight and I was ten years old again, learning from a stranger that Amelia was going to kiss Frank Walker in four minutes. I knew that I was probably supposed to do something… tell my mom? Call the police? Call Amelia?
In the end I did nothing.
Over the next decade, Amelia and I both moved frequently. Once she sent me a very concise, and rather vague, poetic letter. It was accompanied by a striking black and white headshot of her looking wise and gorgeous… Athena-like, the way I always imagined her. I saved the picture in a shoebox and lifted the lid a few times a year when I wanted to feel romantically dejected. Her mother and Greg drove 1,500 miles to attend my wedding. 
We eventually settled in adjacent towns where we both studied herbal medicine and avoided each other until Amelia’s school scheduled a field trip to the farm where I interned. After the tour Amelia stayed behind. We made egg-rolls and edamame in the outdoor kitchen and then wandered the gardens where we talked about everything except our past.
A few weeks later we met at a café. As I stirred way-too-many packets of artificial, dehydrated creamer into my coffee, I told her about the phone call. 
“I need to know if she was telling the truth.” In that brief statement my cadence switched gracelessly, like the vacillating tones of a pubescent boy, from a demand, to a plea, to an apology.
Her response was an understated, “Yup.”
I wanted to respect the fact that this was her story… to tell or to keep to herself. But after agonizing for a solid decade, I felt that some piece of the story must belong to me too. 
 I wanted to say, “How long was he doing that? Was he doing it when we were seven? Did he do anything… worse?” But I settled with, “Did you tell your mom?”
“I’ve talked to Greg about it.” She said. “He apologized.”
“Do you hate him?” I asked. But what I really meant was, “Should I hate him?”
She shrugged. “He takes care of my mom.”
Somewhere along the line Amelia’s mom was diagnosed with M.S. and it was true, Greg cared for her pristinely.
I nodded. Then Amelia made one of her trademark eye gestures insinuating that the conversation was over and barreled full force into an elaborate account of a 2:00 a.m. Echinacea poaching caper.
So much for the speech I’d been rehearsing for weeks in front of the mirror. The one entitled: I sort-of-get-it-now but it was really hard when you randomly chucked me out of your life for no apparent reason.
Now she lives on one coast, I live on another, and we talk about three times a year. I ask about her boyfriend and nursing school. She asks about my kids. The space between our words is raw and swollen with the disparity of two people who know each other too well and simultaneously not at all.
I often remember the simplicity of our first conversation: warts, guinea pigs, and a life on the verge of change. There weren’t any subtexts that day. I pray that there is still a place for that youthful candor somewhere amidst the haggard mistrust of our adulthood. The persistence of our tentative phone calls reassures me that we’re both striving to reclaim that sincerity.
 We both have a memory of two little girls standing in a cold cement basement, palms pressed together in a promise of sisterhood. I hope that someday, in honor of those children, we’ll again share our lives with the frankness of six-year-olds.
Clementine Till spends the majority of her life at very particular table in a very particular café where they begin brewing Earl Grey the second she walks in the door. She counteracts this substantial caffeine intake by consuming equal amounts of water and, consequently, borrows the bathroom key so often that they’ve begun nodding her admittance to the “employees only” area where she retrieves the key herself.

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