Freak

Marcella Pixley

Square Fish

Freak
1
REMEMBER
You do it anyway, even if it hurts, reach back into the attic, through the smallest opening, and you look around in there. I can remember some things so clearly, I could trick myself, imagine that I was falling all over again. The sound of wings, of feathered voices, whispering.
Sometimes when you try to make sense of things, they're foggy, and you have to reach way back to pull up the shadows. Even then sometimes they're too dark to really see. Other things are clear as pain, so recent that remembering takes over, and all you can do is sit back and let the memories come. When I try to write down what happened to me, this is what it's like: a symphony blaring allthe parts at once, a gigantic puzzle that you have to put back together piece by piece. And all I can do is write it down fast so I only have to do it this once, and then maybe, just maybe, I'll be done with it forever.
 
If you asked me how the whole mess started, I would tell you it happened around the same time Artie came to stay. Artie's parents had decided to spend their sabbatical in India. They were always saying they wanted to do something good for the world, and suddenly there was this organization that was going to install hot and cold running water in a village somewhere. They asked Artie to come with them, but he wasn't about to spend his senior year digging ditches, for goodness' sake. Artie's father asked my father, and my father asked us. But before we made any decisions, we had a meeting in the living room to discuss whether or not Artie could stay. My parents call these meetings living room democracies. They're essential to our family dynamics. Each member of the family has to vote yes or no.
During living room democracies, I like to sit in the orange armchair and read the Oxford English Dictionary. I'm trying to memorize every word in the English language so that one day, when I become poet laureate, I can say it's because of all the words I learned when I was in seventh grade. My mom is proud of my big vocabulary. She says that when God painted me, he spent so much time making me interesting he didn't have the energy left to make me beautiful, but that's fine with her because there are more important things in life than a pretty face. I know I'm nothing like Deborah, who discovered she was beautiful when she was twelve like me. Now that she's a freshman in high school, she seemslike a flower when she walks into a room, all fragrant and blooming. It used to be that Deborah would read the Oxford English Dictionary with me. We'd make a pillow fort on the living room rug and find all the Latin roots. Deborah used to say them out loud, and I'd write them down in our notebook so we would remember them forever.
Now, my reading the dictionary drives Deborah crazy because it reminds her that she used to be intelligent like me. Deborah says boys are intimidated by women who are cerebral, so I'd better work on my Feminine Attributes, the parts that make boys turn their heads and whistle when you walk by. Deborah has a lot of Feminine Attributes. She wears everything low and tight so no matter where you look, you can see skin. As for me, I like feeling cuddled up in soft cotton. I'll choose a loose flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up over a skimpy little tank top any day. Mom says it's good that I know how to be comfortable.
That evening, I was reading the Ss all alone and I enunciated each word toward Deborah so the sound of them spit out of my mouth. "Surreptitious, surreptitial, surreptitiously ..."
"Very nice," my father chuckled. "Now put your book away for a minute because we have something important to talk about."
My father is what our gym teacher, Mr. Montane, calls a die-hard liberal. Mr. Montane says this like it's a disease. Like your political beliefs can kill you. Being a die-hard liberal means not getting cable television on purpose. It means riding a bike five miles to Kenmore College because there are enough cars on the road already, for goodness' sake. It means being a little shaggier than other fathers. It means National Public Radio and chamber music concerts and a compost heap in the backyard. I pushed thedictionary away with my bare feet and looked at him while he talked. I like to watch his eyes twinkle.
"Okay, girls," my father said. "Your mother and I wanted to include both of you in this decision because it's going to affect us all." He looked straight at us, and I caught a glimpse of what he might be like as an English professor, talking in his soft voice, sipping on his coffee with a book of poetry in one hand. "Sid and Barbara called last night. They told us their application has been accepted. If all goes well, they'll leave for India at the end of the month. Of course they've invited Artie, but it's his senior year, and things are going so well he just doesn't want to go."
Deborah picked up the dictionary and started riffling through pages, but when she caught me watching she put it down.
"You know how important his acting career is to him," my father went on. "He has auditions for NYU in December, and the Shakespeare festival this fall. Sid asked if we would be willing to let him stay here so he could finish his senior year in peace."
"It could be healthy for us," my mother joined in, her voice smoky and tired from too many late nights in her studio trying to get ready for her opening at the Carlton Community Center. It wasn't anything special, but it was the first show she had given in years. My mother says she would have gone to art school if she hadn't had Deborah so early, but sometimes God works in mysterious ways. My mother's paintings are an acquired taste. They are filled with blurred lines and dusty colors. My mother always has paint under her fingernails and her black hair always has hints of color from her work the night before. That day she had a strand of yellow just behind her ear that made it look like she had dipped her hair in mustard.
"I was telling your father last night. It could be good to have another man around here. A little testosterone to balance the energies."
Deborah rolled her eyes. "Oh, I think he'll bring more than a little testosterone. Artie's totally girl crazy these days."
Artie didn't used to be girl crazy. When he was in middle school, he would come over to play chess with me even though I was only eight. He was pretty good at chess, but sometimes his mind would wander and he would lose track of how I was plotting my attacks. Then I'd win. Or maybe he let me win. I was never sure.
"Judy Clarke told me Artie's the hottest guy in the drama club. Even the popular girls are noticing him now," Deborah said.
"Whatever that means," sighed my mother. "The point is, Artie needs a family. We've known him his whole life. I think we should let him stay."
My father held his cup of coffee. With his other hand, he pushed a mop of hair back onto his head. I know my father is going bald, even if he'll never admit it. He's letting the curly hair on the sides of his head grow long so he can brush it over his bald spot. At first you couldn't really tell, and the extra hair just looked like misplaced bangs, but after a few years the bald in the middle got bigger and the hair on the sides got thinner.
My mother licked two of her fingers and smoothed my father's hair. She's always licking her fingers for one reason or another: either to taste a drop of spilled coffee or to twist her paintbrush into a point or to rub a smudge of dirt off my cheek. I hate it when she does that. She'll lick her fingers and then grab me by the arm so I can't get away. Then she'll rub my cheek hard with wet fingers.There, she always says, that's better. There is nothing worse than having your mother's saliva on your face. Except maybe having it in your hair.
My father didn't seem to mind it, though. He stretched his bare feet on the coffee table and offered her a sip of his coffee. It was espresso. It made our living room smell like a bohemian café. My mother wrinkled her nose and waved his hand away.
"Just think of all the good times you girls had whenever we visited Artie's house," my father said. "Think of all the dinners and slide shows."
"And all the memories of Thanksgiving," my mother sighed. Her voice always sounds like it's sighing. All her sentences dip down at the end like they are falling slowly down rabbit holes, trailing away. "Think of that wonderful Thanksgiving a few years ago. Can you remember it, girls? All those candied yams."
I remembered one Thanksgiving, but not because of the candied yams. We were all in elementary school, and Artie showed us real dead monkey skulls and told us this was how we looked on the inside. Deborah thought it was inhumane to dissect monkeys, and I did too. But the dead monkey skulls had jaws that opened and closed. While everyone was eating apple pie, Artie and I brought a couple of skulls to the dinner table and popped them out in front of Deborah while she was chewing. Opening and closing the jaws, we made them say monkey see, monkey do ... until Deborah threw down her fork and marched off, announcing, Don't be disgusting. It was wonderful.
"I don't care as long as he doesn't take a long time in the shower or walk around nude," Deborah announced from the carved rocking chair.
Judging from the length of her showers since she started high school, it was hard to imagine that anyone could take longer than Deborah. I started to think of what Artie might look like in the nude, but that made me blush. I picked up a National Geographic and flipped through the pages. I stopped for color pictures of Pygmies in skimpy loincloths. I didn't want to contribute to the family meeting. I couldn't possibly be part of this living room democracy. The thought of Artie living in our house for a whole year was too horrible--and too wonderful--to imagine. He was the only high school senior I had ever known.
Artie was old enough to shave and drive a car, and he knew the names of all the Star Trek episodes. He could recite Shakespeare with a real British accent. And best of all, he loved poetry. He had books and books of poetry on his bedroom bookshelf. One time when I was a little girl, he let me look at his collection of Dylan Thomas. I sat on his floor for hours and memorized the poems until Mom called and made me come home. Apple boughs. Lilting house. Dingle starry. Heydays of his eyes. I still remember how it felt to say those wonderful, delicious words.
"What do you think, Miriam?" my mother asked.
"What?" I looked up from the National Geographic.
"What do you think about Artie coming to stay with us for a while?"
My mother and father leaned forward and waited for me to speak.
"I don't care," I said.
"We all have to vote," Deborah told me, her voice irritating and superior. "If we don't all vote then it's only a partial democracy, and any decision is null and void." She leaned forward on the rockingchair so that she was balanced on its wooden tips and I could see down her shirt to her lacy pink bra. The rocking chair creaked under her weight.
I reached over the table and grabbed my father's espresso with both hands. The smell was so strong I almost dropped it onto the rug, but I closed my eyes tight and, taking a deep breath, downed the whole thing.
"Yes!" I cried. "Yes, I think he should definitely stay here!"
"You are such an alien," Deborah said, rolling her eyes.
I picked up the National Geographic and pretended to read, but inside, my heart was pounding. Artie Rosenberg was going to move into our house. Artie with his monkey skulls, Artie with his rehearsals and his scripts, Artie with his yellow Volkswagen Bug and his books of poetry, Artie who knew how to swear in Arabic! Artie Rosenberg, in our house, for a whole year. I turned the page of the National Geographic. There was a Pygmy man, standing with a spear in his hand. And he wasn't wearing anything. Not even a loincloth.
Copyright © 2007 by Marcella Fleischman Pixley All rights reserved