It never fails. Its like he has a sixth sense. A spider sense, that makes the hair on the back of my dad’s neck stand on end whenever I’m holed up in my room trying to accomplish something. For whatever reason, the electricity that courses through him is compelling enough that he must climb the steep wooden stairs into our attic, rummage through our junk, and chase the ghost of Christmas Past through paper mache tree ornaments made at school, and old car parts. Here I am, trying to be the good girl, the good student, the good daughter with good grades, cuddled into the corner of my bed with my books and the occasional cat, but its impossible with him moving stuff around up there. My marks in geometry have been “less than stellar”, is what he said, so I told him its because my teacher spends all class inches from the whiteboard, talking into it, paying no attention to us at all, but really its because I have trouble understanding the material. I know I should talk to him after class, but he always reeks of stale cigarettes, which I hate, which doesn’t help me overcome my initial shy reluctance when asking for help. Maybe there’s a hint of ego involved, I’ve managed straight “A’s” since elementary school, and asking is to admit the time has come for me to devote more energy to studying. This whole thing isn’t fair, I’m way smarter than my friend Shawna, and she doesn’t study at all, but she still pulls a 4.2. She says its because both her parents are doctors, and she has good thinking genes. I wish my parents were doctors, instead of cramming for class tomorrow I could be curled up on the couch with a mug of Teh Tarik tea, which my friend Karen brought back from Singapore, making my way through whatever happens to be on my night stand this week.
Offering some solace against the rigors of math class, I tell myself that someone with my vocabulary, I know that appropriation means to take something that isn’t yours, wasn’t meant to struggle with tangents and congruence. After some experimenting, I’ve figured out that if I write my answers in lightly on my home work, Mr. Dunn can’t tell that I make changes during the review everyday. When he brought up my grade on the test we had last week, a big fat “D”, he attributed it to a case of nerves considering I usually do well on work I turn in. He’s offered to let me retake it, with a “B” being the best I can hope for, but how I am going to explain away the reason for getting home late from school on Thursday? My mom and dad are suspicious of any deviation in my schedule, and are super strict when it comes to grades and the whole school thing; I’ve lost privileges for more than month before because of poor performance. Just thinking about this reaffirms my need to get out of this house. God, math is stupid. When am I ever going to need to know the diameter of something? More than anything, how can there only be one right answer? If my 15 years have taught me anything, its that there is never, ever, just one single answer for anything. For instance, if the walls are starting to breathe, and my mom says no, asking about my chores and homework, I know that dad, he wasn’t the studious type either, will agree to an hour’s reprieve, often spent in luxurious solitude at the tree swing.
When I was younger, the idea that an empty space, laden with old memories, decorations, and car parts, resided directly over me while I struggled for sleep really messed with my head. Maybe, all those years I spent staring at the ceiling, wide eyed, was really a subconscious fear of the ceiling caving in. I’ve been told I have an over active imagination, that often lends itself to mental renderings of catastrophic events ripping my home and family apart: devastating earth quakes, floods, tidal waves, especially after what happened in Japan, which leads me to crawl into my sister’s bed even though she’s younger than me, just so I know someone is there who can rouse me if I stop breathing. I wake so many mornings blurry eyed, sporting deep, dark bags that my parents deemed it bad enough to see a sleep doctor a couple of years ago. He told my parents that the onset of insomnia during the teenage years is common, especially if its in the family. He also mentioned a rather atypical heart rhythm, with sensor readings indicating a spike in adrenaline commonly associated with fear. His solution was a sleep aide, taken whenever I’m having trouble, he assured my parents its extremely mild, and more time talking with them about what’s going on in the world. He felt I was bottling everything up I saw or heard, and allowing my imagination to get away from me. Whatever the reasons for my nightly spells, I’ve taken to seriously considering who I want to be, and where I want to go in life, and when I’m too brain dead to think I get up and watch TV. Its easier to fall asleep if I don’t concentrate on it so much. My issues with sleep, or more accurately, not sleeping, have spilled into the wider reaches of my life. One of the reasons for my lack of progress in geometry is because I’m too exhausted to put up with Mr. Dunn’s stupid little quirks. How many times must you blink before your eyes are cleared? God! Even though the doctor said what I have could turn into full-blown insomnia before my teens are over, my P.E. teacher pooh-pahs the explanations for my apparent lack of effort, dismissing me with a shrill blow of his whistle for extra laps, even after a detailed recitation of my prognosis. The only thing I can think of is he must sleep soundly every night.
I can hear dad shuffling something around above me, apparently dragging a heavy object, whatever it is, towards the trap door. The inevitable muffled swearing has just kicked off, he always forgets about the beam that hangs a little lower than all the rest. Our builder said it was necessary, part of California building code, but a friend of ours who worked in construction in his 20’s, he had to stop because he fell off a roof and broke his back, said it looked more like the framers made a mistake and noticed it too late to make any corrections. Somehow, knowing the potential reason for the perpetual knot on my dad’s head gives him comfort, like knowing that the men who built this house were idiots allows him to except a larger truth. Who cares why its like that; I always remember to duck after nearly knocking myself out in 5th grade. And shouldn’t the men have taken the time to go back and fix the problem, no matter its size or complexity? That would have been the lecture I received if my dad had gone up to inspect the roof after I’d poured my heart and soul into it. For as much as I’d like to, I still can’t tune my dad out completely. Once, he got trapped under some boxes, and spent nearly 2 hours yelling for someone to push them off him. It was an annoyance at the time, but the reality of what could have happened set in later that night after my shower. I was 12, still daddy’s little girl, and my over active imagination brought all sorts of horrific things to life. So today, I keep my ears perked just in case, no matter how much I hate geometry.
Apparently he’s found something of even more importance, and even more weight, and is now calling me; I just got comfortable too. I have a good mind to tell him what I think: interrupting me while I study and then having the nerve to get on my case about my grades. I’m an adult now, and should have the right to be left alone, especially when I’m doing something they has been harping on me about. Muttering to myself, brewing the ultimate “I’m too big to do this” speech, brings me to the base of the stairs. Indignantly I stand there, not even bothering to look into the attic, and shout “What do you want?” I can hear that he’s still moving something around, engrossed in whatever it is he’s doing, and receive only a muffled, distorted answer. So I shout it again, this time a little louder, with a little more indignation. Despite his intense interest in wrestling whatever it is free, my attitude brings his head to the square opening in the ceiling, along with a swift reminder to watch my tone. Even with the pep talk delivered on the walk to the garage still fresh in my ears, and before I could stop it, I apologize and call him daddy.
God, I hate myself.
When I’ve become sufficiently covered in dust bunnies and allergens its time to report back to my corner, lit by a small lamp with a real life horse shoe hung through its wiry outer frame I got from my grandpa when I was little. My dad, for whatever reason, decided it would be a good idea to reorganize the whole attic, and conscripted my efforts to speed the process. It turns out my role was one more of support and look out rather than a helping hand. I’m much smarter than I am strong, plus I’m a little on the small side, even for a girl. I think he realizes this, but still asks for my help just to annoy me. Timmy Morrison, a boy in my English class does the same thing. He calls me over to help him with his work, but he’s one of the smartest kids in there, in fact, he usually ends up having to explain the project to me. Its ok though, I think Timmy is really cute, especially when he asks a question he knows I can’t answer, and then smiles slyly while I flounder and fight back torrents of embarrassment. Sometimes, I think he likes me too.
Settled in my favorite nook in my room, nursing a lethargic cat and a dense text book has brought about nightfall and the smells of dinner. I can hear my sister just returning from the parade she marched in down in Santa Barbara, noisily and irritatingly dragging the case with her beloved saxophone tucked safely inside down the hall. For as much as I hate to admit it, and give that little pain in the rear any credit, my sister seems to have a talent for it. The parade was supposed to end at lunch, but I’m guessing my mom and her took advantage of being down there to hit a few of the stores “we love so much.” Just that phrase is enough to set me off again, and unable to concentrate on the book propped open in my lap, my thoughts wander to a common daydream I have of traveling to London and Paris. It seems like these little moments of wishing I was somewhere, anywhere, else are getting more frequent, and more alluring. Its high time that I, a woman of 15, blow this pop stand for the magical streets of Europe. Unfortunately, I have a hyper active metabolism, which my mom explained as the reason for my skinniness; the only people who can eat more than me are the boy’s JV football team and Bryan McKay, but he’s 6’5″ and just a freshmen, so I’m tied to this dump until I learn how to cook more than hotdogs. The worst part of being like this is that all the other girls are “developed”, and receive much more attention from the boys than I do, even the stupid girls like Krystal Johnson, but I heard they only like her because she puts out. All my friends say I have a pretty face, which doesn’t make me feel any better because all these stupid, hormone crazed little boys pay attention to is how big your rack is. Maybe that’s why the boys like Krystal so much, hers are huge. I saw those things plop out of her P.E. uniform while she playing volleyball last year, its a wonder she doesn’t have back problems.
The kitchen, illuminated to the point of nearly blinding me, is strewn with the days activities. The gloves my dad used to terrorize me in the attic are on a corner of the counter, near the day’s mail my mom brought in, with their stiff fingers awkwardly hanging off the ledge; my sister’s instrument of torture looks to have been thrown carelessly near the door that leads out to the rest of house, if I did that I would’ve received another lecture on the importance of discipline, but its not hard to understand why my parents let her get away with it because she looks exhausted; the bags, from their adventures down State Street, are smaller than I was expecting, Steph, evidently royally pissed, explained it was because “mom ran into an old friend, and spent the whole afternoon catching up at Starbucks.” The only good to come from my sister’s day was a triumphant performance by her school band, which she is an integral part, being one of the senior members, that led many private high school band recruiters to offer a handshake and formal introduction. Who knew being in band was such a big deal? All the kids I know at my school that tote their instruments around are hopeless virgins, and entirely too involved with the majestic world of Magic.
When I came in my mom was huddled up close with my dad, her waist delicately pulled into his with one arm while he mixed a boiling pot of the day’s greens on the stove. When I was little, such honest exhibitions of intimacy grossed me out, but over the past couple of years my tune has changed. Maybe Timmy will do that with me near the lockers over by the science lab, that’s where everyone goes to make out, which is strictly against the rules, because the teachers can’t easily see around the corner, but I have to get brave enough to ask him out first. Its this damn flat chest; if I had some big bazooms, some knockers, a great pair of tits, I would have the confidence to walk right up to Timmy and plant a big wet one right on his lips. Like that’s ever going to happen, the boobs I mean. If these things don’t sprout soon I’m going to have pull out the big guns and start dressing like Missy Shelton.
Catching me out of the corner of her eye, my mom disengages herself from my dad’s grip and comes over to give me one of her patented side/rear hugs. I think she does this so I can’t fight back or wiggle out of her grasp, but I’m tired after spending all day studying and just let her get her fill. Sometimes its just easier to accept the inevitable. Plus, it feels good when my mom holds me tight and whispers questions about my day in my ear. Since nothing happened, except a sharp reminder that I’m a total dunce when it comes to math, the hug ends quickly, but not before one last mega squeeze. While my mom is attempting to make my eyes pop out of their sockets, my dad starts in about what he was able to accomplish, and how much help I was. Her curiosity piqued, she turns to him, still rubbing my back, and says “Oh, do tell.”
My dad, ready to be the hero, replies “I separated all the decorations from the garage stuff, and even organized everything by holiday. Now, Halloween is on the right side, right at the top of the stairs, then Thanksgiving, and so forth. I also found some old photographs of us, before the kids and house, they brought back a lot of memories.”
“I forgot those are up there. Its been ages since I’ve looked through them,” she says, “I know, let’s go up there after dinner and have a look, what do you say girls?”
My sister, quick to excuse herself, says “I’m tired and sweaty after marching today, and want to shower before I go to bed.”
“What about you Lizzy?” she asks, imploringly.
“I still have some homework, so I’m gonna have to pass”, I tell her. Thank god for math.
Dinner, some grilled chicken, boiled broccoli and garlic mashed potatoes, goes off without a hitch as my mom recaps her chance meeting with Edna O’Keefe. It turns out this mystery woman used to live on our street before we moved, and would babysit me when my mom would go shopping. According to my mom, Edna was one of my favorites, and I would coo and babble like crazy when I saw her coming. It turns out she was there for my first word, sitting in the kitchen with my mom when I was about 14 months old, when I came stumbling in shouting for my daddy. It was funny to hear her tell it. Edna, whose oldest boy is a little older than me, is going to Foster High, and quarterback of the JV football team, and her youngest, a seventh grader at Peamont Middle School, is on the debate team and hoping to be captain his eighth grade year.