Stephanie and her mom were
going to pick me up and we were going to go somewhere teenagers go—the mall,
the movies, ice skating, I can't recall. What I remember clearly is running
around the house trying to make some order of the disaster scene that was the
living room. I collected pieces of clothing—an entire outfit down to bra,
underwear and earrings; three shoes—no two a pair—and a bottle of hair spray.
The coffee table was littered
with papers: unopened bills and crumpled receipts, beneath which hid a plate
with unidentified food dried on it. I finally found what I knew was there
somewhere: a pipe, a bag of weed, and a pack of rolling papers. I put them on
the plate and scurried around to see if any other incriminating evidence was
lurking in plain sight, unnoticeable to me since I saw it all the time. I piled the
clothes on the sofa and fluffed the cushions, then straightened the papers. I
grabbed a shirt from the pile and wiped the table with it. I took the dirty
dish and drug paraphernalia to the kitchen, which looked even worse, but what
could I do? They would be there any minute. I tossed the dishes into the sink,
then ran to Tanya's room, opened the door and tossed everything else in. Before
I could catch my breath, the doorbell rang, and I ran to my room, grabbed my
bag and coat, and ran to the front door.
Both Stephanie and her mom
were there. I smiled and tried to step out onto the porch, but they did not
Mrs. Reynolds had a pained
look on her face. "Kari, do you think I could use your
I gave Stephanie a
"Please! Help me out here!" look. She just shrugged.
"Oh, my mom is sleeping.
We probably shouldn't disturb her. She works nights." Every part of that
was a lie, but even Stephanie didn't know that.
"It’s an emergency."
What do you say to that? I reluctantly
led the two of them inside and pointed the way to the bathroom. Stephanie's
mom ran down the hall and—I am sure she did this on purpose, because she was
never confused in her life—went all the way to the end of the hall and opened the door to Tanya's room.
"Oh, my! That’s not the
I glared at Stephanie, who was
oblivious. She was busy taking in the thinly veiled disaster of the living
"How long have you lived
here?" she asked me.
"Too long. Way too long."
"It’s nice." It was
hard to tell if she was trying to be polite or actually found some charm in the
"No, it’s not. It’s a
dump. But thanks."
Stephanie was unfazed. "Well, at least you don’t have to spend your Saturdays
Before I could reply, we
heard the bathroom door open and, thinking Mrs. Reynolds was done, we stood up
to leave. Then Mrs. Reynolds screamed.
Tanya, as if she had just
bumped into Mrs. Reynolds at the grocery store, said "Sorry! Didn’t know
someone was in here. And you are?"
Stephanie could not possibly
have been more mortified than I was, but she looked pretty mortified.
We heard Mrs. Reynolds say,
"If you please! May I have a moment?"
"Oh. Sure," Tanya
said in a fake-polite voice, then shuffled into the living room, right up to
"Hi. I’m Tayna, Kari’s
mom. I’m guessing that’s your mom in my bathroom."
"Mom, This is Stephanie."
Mrs. Reynolds returned, doing
her Good Housekeeping best to hide her embarrassment.
"Hi, Stephanie’s Mom. I'm
Tanya. Sorry about that. Not used to having guests in the house." The
stricken look did not leave Mrs. Reynolds' face, so Tanya tried again: "Oh
don’t worry. I didn’t see anything I haven’t seen before."
I moved everybody to the
door. Tanya followed us. Extended her hand to Mrs. Reynolds.
"I still don't know your name, but it was very nice to meet you."
She gave us her own Good Housekeeping wave as we walked to the car, into the
quietest ride I think I have ever taken in my life. I felt I had to say
something, offer some explanation or apology, but all I could think of was,
"Well, now you know why we don't have sleepovers at my house."
Denise and I shared a table
in first grade, and so we became friends. One day she invited me to go home
with her after school. She did this via a note that her mom wrote to Tanya. One
Monday, Denise handed me a light blue envelope and said, "This is for your
mom. It's a letter asking her if you can come home with me afterschool on Thursday
and if your mom can pick you up from our house before dinner. You're not
invited to dinner."
The envelope was small but weighty;
the paper had a softness I had never felt on paper before. This small thing,
from Denise's mom to mine, itself a surprise, was a prelude to a revelation.
That afternoon, I handed it to Tanya while she had her pre-dinner cocktail in
the living room. When she saw the dark blue script on the outside, she
snickered. "Mrs. West! Oh, this is going to be good." I cannot say
this was the first time her words started to sting, the first time I felt her
reproach without being able to see what I had done to provoke it, but it is one
moment I remember distinctly, maybe because it led to bigger illuminations.
Tanya put down her drink but
kept the cigarette in hand and opened the envelope. I watched her eyes dart
left and right, then she looked up at me.
"Did you read
I shook my head no.
"Well it looks like your
friend Denise would like you to visit after school on Thursday." She took
a drag and held the smoke back as she asked, "Do you like Denise?" I
nodded. She exhaled. "Would you like to go to her place on Thursday?"
I nodded. "Well don't sound so excited about it. What can you tell me
about Denise? Have you met her mom? Or I should say, 'Mrs. Peterson.' Is she
older? Is she nice or mean or crazy?"
Tanya always had something
more to say, and so I learned to wait until she was finished. At a certain
point, I just stopped talking unless I was sure she wanted me to. It was too
tiring and too disorienting to start talking only to be interrupted with
comments or questions that might take the conversation off in another direction
altogether, making my remarks useless. And before long, I didn't have much to
say to her anyway.
She put the note on the
coffee table and picked up her drink. "All right. I will call Arlene—Mrs.
Peterson to you—and let her know it's a date. And I will let her know that
nobody, but nobody calls me 'Mrs.'"
Cream Island was true to its name: It was a shack floating in the middle of a
gravel lot between a dentist's office and a vacuum cleaner repair shop. The
chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream cone that spun up out of the roof was visible
from half a mile away. It looked like it had been there forever, but probably
appeared in the '50s. It had not been painted since.
was not the kind of guy you would expect to own an ice cream stand. He was over
50, had a scruffy face and a gravelly voice, didn't much like kids who were his
biggest fans and liked their parents even less. And yet he would turn on the
charm for the customers. Kind of. He would lean through the window of the shack
to smile face-to-face with the five-year-old stretching up on tippy-toes to
tell him what she wanted. He would ignore her parents if they tried to cut in
and hurry her up. And if kids in the background got testy, he would shove his
whole head through the window and bellow, "No ice cream for rude
kids!" And he meant it. The tale was passed down through the years of a
boy who flouted the warning and sassed Santos, then felt the breeze of the
window being slammed down before him when he reached the front of the line. No
one dared test the man again.
saw something in me from the start. The first time Tanya took me there--well
the first time I remember—I could tell he liked me, and I could tell this was
something special, even though I was too young to have heard the tales. As we
stood in line, Tanya blabbed with another mom, bragged about her job and her
snooty important clients and described a vacation we were never going to take.
I watched the other kids in line. They were not standing quietly. They were not
being patient. Their parents were ignoring them, but they were ignoring what
the kids were doing wrong. Tanya ignored what I was doing right. I wasn't being
good to be good. I was being good because I had no friends to be bad with. And
Tanya also did not notice this.
watched the teenagers dispensing soft serve from machines, ice cream made for a
small mouth to eat fast. It is hard to say which was more exciting: the
prospect of eating the ice cream or the dream of one day serving it. Was that
what Santos saw? A future earnest, hard-working employee? Or did he see what
all men saw when they looked at me: a way to get to my mother?
application and interview process was unlike any I have been through since. I
walked up to the window at 10 p.m., and when Santos said, "We just closed,
but what can I getcha?" I said "I'd like a job." He stared back
at me for a moment, then said, "you want to start now? You can help me
close." It was one moment in my life I can point to where I got what I
wanted, just for the asking, without having to give something in return.
Pinkie got placed, too, and
we kept in touch for a while. I invited her over after school once because she wanted
to see where I lived. She wandered from room to room and touched everything she saw: books, a stone coaster on the coffee table, an empty vase. Pictures on the mantle. Chazz and Marlene didn't have a lot of stuff, so you actually
could touch it all. And everything they had fascinated Pinkie. She touched each item
with reverence, as if it were as fragile or volatile as she. She took a hand-carved wooden
tribal mask from the wall and gently drew it to her face. She looked around for
a mirror, and I pointed her to the hall.
"Where is this
I knew, because I had asked
the same question my first night here, but I had not taken the mask from the
wall and put it to my face, though I had wanted to.
"Marlene and Chazz got
it in Bali. They went there after college."
Pinkie nodded, as if that
were something she herself had done or might do. She walked back to where the
mask belonged and hung it with care. I had felt the same fascination with this
house and all the evidence in it of a life I had missed, and seeing Pinkie's
expression embarrassed me. I saw on her face and in her movements my own ignorance and naiveté.
I saw what I had looked like to Chazz and Marlene the night they brought me
home. I discovered another facet of this new world and something else I had to hide so that no one would know I didn't belong. It was as easy and automatic for me to put on as any of the other deceits had been. By this time in
my life, I was a pro.