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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.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


by Kathleen Patton

            The view to the west was always my favorite; a softly dimpled blanket of green during the summer that faded into the purple and blue haze of Rip Van Winkle country. Sitting on that side of Slide Mountain, it’s easy to imagine falling asleep for years, wrapped in the warmth of the sun and the cool touch of the mountain breeze. There is a nook that is carved from a boulder placed right before the mountain heaves up cliff-like and finishes its journey at the peak of the range. I liked to stop there and sit in the perfectly shaped indention and look out across the emerald colored foliage below. Everything breathed easier there.
            Growing up, I could see Slide Mountain from my gable bedroom during the months when the maple and apple trees just outside stood leafless and dead. It rose up starkly from the softly sloping and rolling mountains and held its notched peak thousands of feet above the others. When I was old enough for the long hikes to its crest, my dad would bring me to the massive base and we would make our way to the top, choosing the trail that had the marker I fancied that particular day—some days the more modern wooden ones, other days the old, worn down stone ones that were so weathered we could barely read them. It was on one of these excursions that I discovered the boulder that has found me coiled in its arms many times over the years.
            I was always at peace there. I would sit, cradled above the world, listening to the orchestra of birds, and breathe. The air was filled with a glacier-like chill, but carried the smells and sounds of summer—dew-soaked ferns, leaves from past autumns deteriorating under more recent layers, water gurgling up from underground, squirrels rampaging through the treetops. During the colder months, the smell of wood smoke mixed with the scents and, sometimes, a single spiral of gray, heated air rose through the woods around it.
The last time I trudged to my rock was almost four years ago. It was May, just after graduation. The leaves at the base of the mountain were still young—adolescent-looking, just as I was. I took the stone-marked trail that day.

Trail to

Someone named A. Ford had scratched in an illegible message underneath the neatly engraved directions. I smiled at the familiar graffiti and placed a pebble on top of the marker, letting it teeter on top of the pile of similar stones before whistling to my dog and heading to the winding “trail” up the mountain.
“C’mon, Black Jack. Quit chasing the squirrels.”
Something that sounded like a herd of bison resonated as my two-year-old, gangly-legged lab mix tumbled up the trail, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. He knew where we were going. I had started taking him on hikes after he turned a year old, and this one was our favorite. He darted up the trail ahead of me, knowing the turns and twists of the mountain. I brought a map and a compass, but buried them at the bottom of my pack, knowing I wouldn’t need either.
            I was going up to celebrate—my own private party that consisted of Black Jack and the mountain I had watched through my window. When I reached it, I sat quietly in my niche and looked out over the trees. I smiled triumphantly.
The pack I had brought for my day trip was light, containing only a light lunch, three bottles of water to replenish the canteen on my belt, a flashlight, a collapsible water bowl for Black Jack, matches, and, under the map, an official looking letter that I had held on to for two years. I pulled it out, along with the matches.
My parents started homeschooling me in third grade due to my health. When I was well enough to go back to school, I decided not to. I felt that I was learning faster at home. When I was sixteen, I wrote the superintendent of the local high school a letter, requesting her to go over the transcripts that we had been required to send to her over the years, and grant me a letter of equivalency to take the place of a high school diploma. Several weeks later, I received a short, curt letter back from her. She refused, stating that it was impossible for a sixteen-year-old, homeschooled student to have the same level of education as one of her seniors.
Sitting at in my alcove, I unfolded the letter and lit a match. A week before, I had graduated with an Associate’s Degree and high honors from S.U.N.Y. Sullivan, as well as received my G.E.D. through earning more than twenty-four credit hours. I was eighteen.
I smiled smugly as I watched the paper burn.
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington had accepted my application, and I was leaving in two months. There were, in my mind, big things ahead in the glamorous city of Wilmington, North Carolina.
At the time, I could not see beyond the years that I would spend earning my Bachelor’s Degree and privately thumbing my nose at the people who said I couldn’t. Graduation found me quickly, and life after college enveloped me in the discovery—and rediscovery—of real life, with its darker bits, but especially its bright ones. I still remember that day on my favorite mountain, but not as the day I stuck it to the system. I remember it as the day I shifted into the next phase of my life, and watched the last one drift away with the paper ashes.

Kathleen Patton grew up in rural New York nestled in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. She earned her BFA in Creative Writing at UNC Wilmington, and currently lives in Florida. Kathleen draws her inspirations from the mountains she grew up in and her experiences as a military dependent and sister during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Unnecessary Lessons

by Kirsti Sandy

In a scene from one of my favorite movies, The Jerk, the nouveau-riche Steve Martin urges his wife, Bernadette Peters, to “take unnecessary lessons.” Her choice: knife throwing, and she’s not all that great at it. When my parents moved from Lowell, Massachusetts, to Andover, when I was twelve, I finally got the joke.  Although it was a fifteen-minute drive from our old house, everything had changed, including how we spent our weekends. People in Andover did not sit in front of the TV on Saturday afternoons, watching candlepin bowling, boxing matches, and Solid Gold while referring to the dancers as “sock crotch” or “tomato bum.” They did not linger near neighbors’ houses in a bathing suit on hot days in the hopes that they might, by chance, be invited for a dip in the pool. They did not stretch out on the kitchen floor and moan about having nothing to do while their mothers stepped over them to dry the dishes. At least, this is what my mother told my father, my brother, and me. And then she signed us up for lessons.
I wanted to learn the cello but compromised and went with violin. My brother wanted karate but settled for Cub Scouts. What my parents chose surprised both of us: disco dancing. Now, I could see myself as a violinist, in a white shirt and velvet skirt, looking regal and serious as I concentrated on moving the bow across the strings. I could easily picture my brother in the blue scout uniform, gold scarf on his collar, ready to earn his badges. Yet the idea of my parents as disco dancers was all wrong. While they both loved disco music, family lore had it that my father was so averse to dancing that he danced only the first song at their wedding. Plus, disco hardly seemed like the kind of pastime our lawyer neighbors next door, the ones with the purebred Irish setter and the twin maroon BMWs, had in mind when they had suggested community education at the local high school.
It was only a matter of time before one of us quit our lessons, but I was the first.  I could not understand how the sound that emerged from my violin squeaked and whined so, when I was pulling the bow across the strings just like everyone else.  That and I had become distracted by the act of rosining the bow; the sticky rosin felt had the appearance and texture of butterscotch candy and it was soothing to move the bow across it, back and forth,  as though spreading it with crystallized pine pitch.  My parents did not put up much of a fight, especially after listening to me practice, so the violin went back in the velvet case for good.
Next to quit was my brother, but even this did not deter my parents. Their disco lessons had a new purpose:  to prepare them to take the floor with their actor friend Tom at Studio 54. They prepared in secrecy, as though not to jinx their chances. Although we saw them walk to the car and return from their dance lesson, we never actually saw them dance, not once, even though they practiced at home a few times a week. They made sure that we were out of the house before they danced in the living room, and I suspect they drew the shades, turned on the “Disco Hits of 1980” compilation I was always taking out of the sleeve to play in my room, and got down to business.
Studio 54 was for them, as I’m sure it was for many, a disappointment. My mother, bless her justice-loving heart, returned with this complaint: “We waited in line and they just kept letting other people in!” If you ask her now, she will tell you that of course she knew they weren’t getting in, but I remember that she was upset about it. My father seemed more relieved than angry, describing the men in high-heeled sneakers carrying balloons who stepped right from limo to door, the people they met in line “from all over—you wouldn’t believe it! China, Mexico, even California!”—the doorman who looked exactly like the actor on Taxi, the food they ate before and after and in between: “real New York bagels, Kirsti! You should have tried them—like hot pretzels!”
Bagels aside, I could not fathom waiting in line for two hours while someone else got to sail through the door with no delay at all. It went against everything I had been taught—even the seventh graders at my school had a code of “no cuts, no buts” that was strictly followed by even the most popular kids. It seemed to me that this gave the people in charge tremendous power, power that intrigued and appealed to me, so I set about creating my own version of Studio 54, but not with dancing—I was in remedial gym, after all—with something I was good at, even without lessons: roller skating.
My parents were great sports about it; they let me string up the Christmas lights in the basement and play records on the wood-paneled stereo. I would be the DJ and the bouncer, and also the hostess. Kids in the neighborhood would wait in line to come to my skating rink. Never mind that there was a big skating rink in nearby Lawrence, called “Roll on America” which, despite the fact that it sounded like a deodorant, was very popular. Mine would be free, with no strict rules about skating backward or doing tricks and none of those “skate bouncers” in mesh shirts who thought they were so big and liked to blow the “get off the rink” whistle at the younger kids. It struck me that I could also reject anyone who was a better skater than I was, or who was thinner, or who had better hair.
On opening night, I set out some warm Polar Ginger Ale (I had wanted name brand soda, which my mother nixed immediately) and a plate of E.L. Fudge cookies. After attempting to bribe my little brother to plug and unplug the lights while we skated to produce a strobe effect, I ran upstairs to answer the door: Leslie and Kelly, skates in hand, talking faster than they could listen, then the boys from down the street, then my cousins. One of the neighbor boys had removed the knob from the front of his skates, the one that served as a brake “to make them more aerodynamic.” We watched as he demonstrated, whipping forward and using a support pole to keep from crashing into the wall. Kelly wore the ribbon barrettes from the movie Xanadu, so I put on that record first, the opening chords of “You Have to Believe in Magic” filling the room as we spun and twirled across the floor.
It wasn’t until the evening was almost over when I realized that I had not turned a single person away.  At some point during the night, they had all stopped skating and started joking around, climbing the furniture, and turning cartwheels. I had lost them. As Leslie and Kelly left, Kelly (likely coached by her mother) thanked my mother “for the roller skating party.” That should have been my first hint that my friends would never view my basement as a real roller rink—it was a basement, and we were all pretending, especially me. If my friends were going to get a ride somewhere on a Saturday night, it was going to be to a real skating rink, which had boys from different schools and where they could play Ms. Pac Man and eat French fries.  I could not compete.
The roller rink turned into a makeshift haunted house the next October and finally served as a temporary apartment for my dad’s down-on-his-luck friend from California. Like the real Studio 54, my roller rink had been overtaken by a coked-out weirdo, but I had already moved on to classier pursuits:  English riding lessons. Elocution. Baton twirling.
“Toss the baton in the air the way Mary Tyler Moore throws her hat,” the baton teacher shouted, making the motion with his hand. He was fed up with our lackluster tosses, our deflated twirls. Not a beauty queen in the bunch—acne-marked, greasy-haired, brace-faced, four-eyes we were, all of us, yet we held on to thin hope that lessons might transform us, because wasn’t that, after all, what lessons were for?
“Throw that hat!” he demonstrated, with a vigorous toss and a satisfied smile. “The world is yours! You are Mary Tyler Moore!” And in the instant the baton made a perfect spiral in the air before crashing back down on my head, I almost believed it.
Kirsti Sandy is an English professor at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire, a town that once held the world record for having the most lit jack-o-lanterns in one place. She has published essays in the online journal of Freerange Nonfiction, Freshly Hatched, and in several academic journals and books. She recently purchased a pair of "Roller Derby" brand skates for her two-year-old daughter.