Authors: Lisa Ann Sandell
In loving memory of my grandmother
omewhere, things must be beautiful and vivid. Somewhere else, life has to be beautiful and vivid and rich. Not like this muted palette—a pale blue bedroom, washed out sunny sky, dull green yellow brown of the fields. Here, I know every twist of every road, every blade of grass, every face in this town, and I am suffocating.
So, I stay in. I don’t have to leave the house to trace the picture of this town. I know it all by heart. I can map all of these houses that look so similar, practically identical to my own, with their dusty aluminum siding, sagging porches, and buckled sidewalks; the curves and lines of town and county roads curling between homes and farmsteads; the straight-as-an-arrow line of the highway heading straight out of town; Union Street with its bank and bakery and video store, weathered wood slats and dark windows. I can also see the slippery bank of the creek, the water lower than usual; the wide gray rocks populated by turtles and singing frogs; the gnarled old weeping willow tree, her branches yellow and soft, skimming the surface of the stream.
All of these things that I have seen countless times in my life will be there. All of it known and certain.
I sit in my bedroom, on the pale blue-and-white braided carpet, and sigh. If a sigh had a shape, a taste, a color, it would be a salty yellow triangle. And sitting here, in the triangle patch of weak sunlight falling through the window onto my rug, is summery enough for me. I could leave the house, go to the tennis camp at the middle school around the block, but I don’t. Because I know that if I go, tennis racket in my hand, the ordinary
of racket on ball, the
of sneakers scratching across courts would quickly grind to a halt. Silence. And a dozen pairs of eyes would focus on me, follow every swing and every serve, every missed volley. Stares would hold me captive, paralyzing me. Pitying me. No thanks, I do not want that.
I could put on my swimsuit, bike to the town swimming pool, and carefully spread out my towel on the poolside grass. I might ready myself to dive off the board into the cool, blue ten feet of chlorine-and-pee filled water, submerging myself, becoming a blurred streak, watching dozens of legs kicking above me. The thought of all those goggled eyes watching me with their hard, plastic stares makes my head swim, my legs feel leaden, and my fingers too tired to open the door. And I’m sitting here in the air-conditioning.
I could step out, but I don’t.
I do have a window onto escape, though. Onto that somewhere else, where colors and smells and winds are fresh and delicate, vibrant and new.
A free map of the world arrived in an envelope of junk mail at the start of summer, and I rescued it from the trash and pinned it up on the wall over my desk. I look at that map every day, as if my life depends on it. It very well might.
I like places with lots of vowels in their names, like Ulaanbaatar. The Isle of Man sounds like an important place, a place for adults. And the “stan” countries are fascinating—Kyrgyzstan, with all its consonants, is smaller than South Dakota, but contains the largest walnut forest in the world. A walnut forest must be a very romantic kind of forest.
Basically, what all of this map studying amounts to is a belief…no, a certainty that the world—well, the world outside of Lincoln Grove—is an exotic and alluring place. And it beckons to me. So, for the eighty-one days of summer vacation, during which I’ve stayed at home, stayed indoors, I pore over this map and push little green bubble-topped pins into the country and city names that catch my eye, catch my fancy. I know there is no chance my father, who once would have had a small coronary at the sight of all these pins stuck in the wall—“Do you know how much it will cost to fix that wall!” he would have barked—will ever even open the door to my bedroom, let alone set foot in it now. I’m safe.
For each bubble-marked spot, I imagine a whole vista, letting the sounds of the names and the topographies suggest a scene. I like to go online and look at the Web sites for different countries or cities. It’s amazing how even the most remote countries have their own Web sites. But thanks to the World Wide Web, I learned that
means Land of the Thunder Dragon, and the Himalayas intersect with the northern portion of the country, and from this I can imagine a picture of a cold snowy land of fierce mountains and dusty rock, ancient temples with curving horns perched on the steepest ledges. Perhaps a sleeping dragon lies in the most remote of craggy caves.
Now enter my pad and pencils. I draw pretty well, I think. As I take careful crosshatch strokes, brushing the lead over the brown paper, following the silhouette of borders and natural boundaries, cityscapes and mountainscapes and roiling seas, within and without the lines of each map, slowly emerge. A cobblestone alleyway slick with rain, lined by sidewalk cafés and shops, a flower seller, the flutter of a red scarf on a beautiful lady, and a bustling newsstand caught up in the unfurling snail’s shell shape of the city—this is Paris. I can practically smell the bread baking, the rich scent of coffee. I want to be there so badly.
Day after day, while the heat and all that is known festers outside, threatening to choke me, I make my escape into the unknown as I draw my maps of the world.
But time is fleeting. Time is fleeing. School begins in just four days.
When dusk comes, my parents come with it. First my dad arrives, the tires of his Volkswagen squealing in the garage. He enters the house, depositing his rumpled jacket and tie on the nearest living room chair, and without a call of greeting, proceeds immediately to the refrigerator. I can hear the freezer door swing open, and the
clink, clink, clink
of three ice cubes dropping into a glass, the squirt of gas from the tonic water bottle, as my father mixes his first gin and tonic. Silently, he retreats into the den, from which I can hear the low hum of television babble.
Then my mother gets home, and the door flies open, slamming loudly into the wall behind it. She calls out to me, “I’m home! Cora? Where are you?” her voice cracking with concern, as if she’s scared I won’t be here to answer her. Every single time. She flings her jacket and worn leather purse on the same chair as my dad. And as I join her in the kitchen, she inquires about what I’ve done today.
Once, dinnertime in our home was warm, important, ordinary. My mom used to take pleasure in cooking and trying new dishes. Duck confit, chicken tikka masala—I think she had the soul of an explorer, too, once. She would light candles, her hazel eyes catching the firelight and reflecting a radiance and gladness that suffused the room. I would help my father choose
a record—yes, my dad’s the last man on earth to listen to
—to play softly in the background.
He would run his thumb across the spines of every album in his massive collection, pulling them out and holding them up for me to judge. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s
merited a nose wrinkle, head shake, and a
eye roll. Next, Earth Wind & Fire’s
“Dad!” I would squeal with a giggle. “That’s so lame! No way!”
He’d give an exaggeratedly aggrieved sigh, “Ah, youth. What has it all come to? Okay, Rabbit, how about this one?” Then, the Beatles’
I’d nod vigorously. “Blackbird” was one of our favorite songs to sing together.
Music chosen, dishes steaming on ivy-leaf trivets, our whole family would sit around the big oak dining table and take turns recounting the events of our day. I took those dinners for granted.
Now, though, I just look on as my mom prepares a frozen meal, microwaved for five and a half minutes on high, and, peering at her taut face, I try to think quickly of an answer to the question of what I’ve done today that won’t make her cry. I’ve taken to lying. Sometimes I tell her that I played tennis or I went swimming—never mind the fact that I never have a bathing suit hanging to dry over my bathtub or sweaty smelly shorts and T-shirts in the laundry. She doesn’t notice those missing details.
We sit down at the kitchen counter to eat our microwaved
peas and chicken, while my father takes his on a tray into the den, the only sound the clinking of ice cubes.
When my dad comes back into the kitchen to fix himself a second drink, I scrutinize my parents’ faces, taking in their matching gray pallor, pinched foreheads, and deadened eyes, his hair gray and thinning, hers limp and greasy. They both look as though they have been broken into a thousand pieces and never properly mended. My mother’s face is sewn too tight, while my father’s face has become fuzzy in outline, like a cloud, with all of these little particles loosely holding on, floating, floating. But when he pours himself a tall glass of gin, those pieces come back together, just momentarily, again.
I wonder how my parents look at work, if they shed their brokenness outside the house. My own skin, the walls of this house, the
of ice cubes, are all a prison. I must look broken, too.
Everything fell apart because of Nate. I try and try not to think about him, but as the start of school looms near, he keeps trespassing into my head. He always trespassed.
It happened six months and twenty-three days ago. Eight things went wrong on that eighth of February. Eight things that started out small. First, I slept straight through my alarm, so I was running late. Then, when I couldn’t open the orange juice carton and punched a misshapen hole through the container, juice dribbled down the side, spilling all over the counter
and floor and the front of my jeans. Next, I missed the bus as a direct result of the orange juice incident. The series of eight continued as I forgot my Spanish homework and flubbed a math quiz; my favorite pen broke and leaked all over the bottom of my backpack; I got into a screaming match with my older brother, Nate; and then he died. Yup. There it is. Number eight. It’s a big one. My big brother got killed when he stormed out of the house that night, the night of February 8, drove his black Honda Civic in the dark without the headlights on, skidded around an icy curve in the county road, and wrapped this Honda Civic around a tree.
And the last words Nate said to me were, “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya, loser!” to which I very maturely responded, “Up yours, jerk!”
I had the last word.
But those words banged around and echoed in my head as the screen door banged shut. When the hospital or police, or whoever it was, called, those words thrashed around and rang in my head some more. In fact, they haven’t stopped knocking and pounding in my head these last six months and twenty-three days. If there is one thing besides the certainty of all the houses and trees and creeks and streets that lie right outside the front door, I am certain of the fact that I cannot forget those angry, careless words.
In four days’ time, I’m supposed to start at Lincoln Grove High, where my brother should have been entering his senior
year. Nate Bradley made sure that every student, teacher, and administrator at LGH knew who he was. He was the Juvie D of LG. Always getting in trouble, getting detentions, getting arrested for stealing and trashing and tagging and generally being where he shouldn’t. Nate never did anything really terrible, but he sealed his seat in infamy by sneaking into the teachers’ lounge and spray painting the walls with the postulates and theorems of geometry. He picked up all of the fallen street signs along a two-mile length of the county road that were knocked over during a storm, and kept them. He pried the placard off the principal’s office door and rehung it on one of the stalls in the second-floor boys’ restroom. He talked back to teachers, forgot homework, flunked quizzes, sped in his car, violated his probation, and then started all over again.
I had grown used to the constant fighting between Nate and our parents. But I couldn’t get used to the terrible anger that seemed to have taken hold of him after his fourteenth birthday. From then on, he was a stranger to me, to all of us, I think. I never really figured out where the older brother whom I used to follow dutifully on bike trips across town to the Wyatt cornfields where we would play spies, or whom I would trail to the creek, watching in awe as Nate hopped from stepping-stone to stone, sweeping up minnows and toads in his mesh butterfly net, went.
So I must start high school, where Nate’s friends and teachers and ex-girlfriends will all be. If he had still been alive, I
might have had a fighting chance at being able to distance myself from him, but now there is no escape—I will be known as Nathaniel Bradley’s little sister. It’s bad enough being the daughter of parents whose son died, every single minute of every single day, trapped in the house with their overpowering sadness. Now I’ll be the girl whose brother died.