I ’m kneeling in the foyer lacing my sister’s boot when I hear my mom muttering in the hallway. This time it’s not about the shoes in the living room or my father’s late child support. She’s talking about me. “Thirteen,” she says, “and you think you’re all grown up.”
She wanders into the kitchen in her faded green bathrobe. She’s only been up ten minutes. I already made sure Sarah ate her cereal and combed her hair. I feel like marching into the kitchen now and yelling, “Since when do you care?”
Sarah pats my head. “Hurry up. It’s hot.”
“You could have to do this yourself,” I say. I yank the lace tight across her leg. If my mother had any sense, she wouldn’t buy a six-year-old boots with laces. Sarah needs Velcro.
My old bedroom in Wisconsin had cushiony blue carpet and a lock on the door. Slam — that’s what I’d like to do right now, slam that door in everyone’s face and click the lock. If my mother hadn’t rushed us out of that house last summer, maybe she wouldn’t have to teach so many nights.
When I look up, Sarah’s eyes are forming little puddles. “Don’t worry. I’ll finish,” I whisper. “Just stand still for another second.” As soon as I’ve tied the last knot, Sarah clomps away toward the kitchen.
I hear my mom pouring her coffee. I picture her clenched teeth and frizzy hair, the coffee steaming under her nose. I want to go before she finds my bloody jeans balled up in the hamper, or the phone bill from when I called Dad last month, and gets mad at me again. If I hurry I can drop Sarah off with the other first-graders in time to smoke a few Virginia Slims with Maria in the park. We’ll trade stories about our parents and laugh until our stomachs ache.
Finally, Sarah comes back, and Mom calls out, “Allison, honey, go straight to school and bring Sarah straight home this afternoon. I don’t want to wait for you two and be late for class.”
Sarah grabs my hand and squeezes it as I close the door behind us. “I gave her a kiss for you, too,” she says.
In art class, Maria raises her hand and asks, “When do we get to paint nudes?”
“Maria, get back to work,” Mr. Kinerium says.
She covers her mouth and laughs, kicking my stool so that I almost fall. My wet brush bumps the center of my painting.
“Damn it, Maria,” I say under my breath so Mr. Kinerium doesn’t hear. I think he has a thing for Maria. The other male teachers keep their distance when they talk to her, like she has some secret on them she’ll tell if they aren’t careful. Maria glosses her lips and wears her black curls in a ponytail streaming to her waist to spice up her uniform. Only two nuns still teach at Saint Gregory’s.
Our easels are arranged in a circle around buckets filled with fake daisies. Mr. Kinerium comes over and plants his one-story-tall legs behind me, putting his hand on my shoulder. I stop dabbing at the streak on my canvas and bend over so that my body covers as much of the painting as possible. I haven’t painted the still life he arranged for us. My picture is of a naked woman with long braids full of daisies. They take up the whole canvas, spilling down her shoulders and bleeding right off the edges. Two little girls are crawling up her braids with roses in their teeth.
“What’s this, Allison?” Mr. Kinerium taps my head for me to lean back.
I move, but I don’t want to talk about my painting or what it’s supposed to mean. It’s just what I felt like doing. He bends down to study my painting, his hand still on my shoulder; I can smell his coffee breath.
“Allison, see me later,” he says. “This is something special.”
When he looks at Maria’s painting, he says, “Maria, pay attention to the light on the daisies.”
He moves on to the next student, a freckly boy who’s spent most of the hour trying to finish one daisy, and Maria turns to me and says, “You’re just brilliant, Allison.”
“Give me a break, Maria,” I say. “So I’m good at one thing.”
After class some students, mostly girls, mob Mr. Kinerium, trying to show him their notebook drawings and asking him about our spring art fair. The boys throw wads of paper at each other and toss their paintings on the drying table. Maria’s already long gone. I look at my watch. I’m going to be late for math.
Mr. Kinerium raises his head above the swarm and catches my eye. “Allison, I’ll talk to you next time — Wednesday, first thing.”
When she was pregnant with Sarah, my mother quit rocking me in the late afternoon and took long naps instead. I’d hear her crying in the bedroom. When Sarah was born, I missed school and rode with my father to the hospital. On the way home, I sat between my parents and held Sarah carefully because my father had warned me about the soft spot on her head. She kept her eyes closed the whole way home, as if she hadn’t yet decided she wanted to be there. Looking at her pumpkin face, I believed she was mine. If she wasn’t mine, I wondered, why was I the one holding her?
When we got home, my mother plucked Sarah from my arms and left her in the new white cradle with spindles like bars. Sarah screamed so the entire neighborhood could hear, but my mother just piled diapers near the changing table, and my father tapped his cigarette pack on the nursery windowsill. I ran from the room and covered my ears with my pillow. Later that afternoon, while my mom slept, I tiptoed into my former playroom to look at Sarah. She slept on her stomach under a pink-and-white blanket, sucking her thumb. Her fingers were half the size of a crayon. I held my hand beside her nose for minutes, making sure her breath touched my palm.
Wednesday morning, I go see Mr. Kinerium in his office. His walls are plastered with thumbtacked papers, except one, which is glass from the waist up and looks out at the classroom. I keep checking to make sure no one sees me and thinks I’m a teacher’s pet. I shift around, crossing one leg in front of the other and examining my cuticles. He pulls a brochure out of a file and hands it to me.
“I got this in the mail last week. I think you should go. It would be perfect for you.”
He watches me read the cover: Interlochen Youth Art Camp — I’ve never heard of the place. Inside is a map of a grassy campus and pictures of kids sitting under trees with drawing boards across their laps. Most of these kids look like juniors or seniors in high school. Mr. Kinerium is obviously excited. I can smell his deodorant or cologne or something.
“You’ll be a little younger than the average student there,” he says, “but this is a place you’ll fit in, Allison. These kids have an eye for art. Just like you.” His smell whirls inside my head while he speaks. I imagine listening to voices like his at camp all day while I paint.
“How much does it cost?” I ask.
“Don’t worry about that yet.” He pauses for a second. “Six hundred dollars. But if you want to go, we’ll find a way. I’ve got a few ideas on how to help you pay for half.” I must look doubtful, because he adds, “Just think about it first.”
The other kids are straggling into the art room, banging their stool seats up and down, screeching the legs across the floor to arrange them in a circle. Mr. Kinerium and I are on display for the whole class. I look for Maria, sure she will show up any minute and quiz me on my conversation with Mr. Kinerium. There isn’t much space between us — only inches. I can count the black hairs spilling over his long-sleeved T-shirt onto his neck. Clutching the camp paper, I back into the doorknob. My heart beats so hard between my breasts it hurts. I blush, wondering if he notices how they’ve grown this semester.
“I’ll talk to my mom,” I say.
“I have to know by April 1,” he says.
I settle onto my stool, hiding the Interlochen brochure. I can’t imagine my mom letting me go. What does Mr. Kinerium think, we just happen to have six hundred dollars? All I can see right now is Sarah with her curly blond hair. She burned a pink streak on her palm last night trying to pour water for hot chocolate. I ran cold water over her hand and cuddled her on my lap until she felt well enough to color. By the time my mom got home and said good night, Sarah had forgotten all about it.
A finger pokes me in the boob, and I look up, ready to kill.
“Were you sneaking in early for some action with Mr. K.?” Maria says. “What about Emil?” Emil is my only friend at school besides Maria.
“Leave me alone,” I tell her.
Black branches pound the windows. This icy Chicago winter is ready to blow us all to pieces, but in Wisconsin snow covers everything until it is soft and white.
My mom stands in the foyer with her coat on, about to leave for work. She’s reading Sarah’s latest literary masterpiece and smiling. I close my sketch pad and toss it on the couch.
I’m working on a drawing of Mr. Kinerium, so I can’t finish it at school, although it’s pretty abstract and he might not even recognize himself. I’ve given him a blue beard and an eye patch that shoots off his face. Behind his head are rows of canvases, and a woman with swirling hair peeks from behind one. I’d like to draw him nude, but I’m afraid someone would find it. I grab the pad, flip through the pages to hide this drawing, and pick one I can show my mom.
“Isn’t it a funny story, Mommy?” Sarah bends over and slaps her leg. She must be mimicking someone on TV.
“Yes, it is. Can I take it with me, honey?” My mom folds the story into her bulging tote bag, then leans down to kiss the top of Sarah’s head. Sarah skips into our bedroom for something else to show off before our mother hurries out the door.
“What, Allison? Did you finish your homework?”
I study her for clues: the ripped hem on her skirt, the balls of fuzz on her angora scarf. Her braid hides the gray in her hair and makes her seem young for a minute.
“Do you want to see one of my drawings?” I haven’t shown her my sketch pad for a long time. “Mr. Kinerium thinks I should go to an art camp in Michigan.”
She half-closes her eyes and pulls in her chin. I can’t think of anything to say to that look: like I should know better than to come to her with this when she’s trying to leave.
“I’m sorry, Allison. You know what time it is. This weekend, OK? We’ll sit down then.” She slams the door behind her, catching her tote bag in it before the latch clicks.
Hearing the door bang, Sarah runs into the foyer. “Hey — where’s Mommy?”
“Work. Where do you think?” I say, then catch myself. “She had to go; she had to drive slow because of the ice. But she told me your story was the best she read all week and to give you an extra kiss.” I hug Sarah and smear kisses on her cheeks. “Who wants to play Mrs. Rosenberg?”
Mrs. Rosenberg is a game where I blow up balloons and squeeze them down the front of Sarah’s and my sweaters to make enormous boobs; then we look under the couch, the chair, Mom’s bed, asking if anyone’s seen our dear little pooch, holding our noses, screeching, “I can smell his poo!” Mrs. Rosenberg’s poodle shit in the hallway once and stank up the whole floor. As usual, this game causes Sarah to laugh so hard I think she’ll pee in her pants.
When Maria phones, we talk about Emil and other boys, and try to top each other’s stories about the weirdos we’ve seen on the streets lately. Maria says that on her way home from school today she saw a man in a tank top shaving his armpits. I tell her about the man I saw pissing in the alley, and the woman across the street who never shuts her blinds and does jumping jacks naked. Maria tries to change the subject when I bring up my old friends in Wisconsin.
“A bunch of cheese-heads that don’t even know how to ride the el,” she calls them.
Sarah plays alone in our room until I get off the phone. I could call our father, but I don’t. I wash Sarah’s hair, making sure to rinse out every last sud.
We stay up later than normal. Sarah crosses her slippered feet on my lap while I finish my homework in front of the television. Her eyes move rapidly underneath her closed lids. I watch her arm jerk, her face contort, then soften. I hope she’s not having nightmares.
“Sarah,” I whisper, but her veiny eyelids keep swishing back and forth and her arm reaches up for something in her sleep. At this moment, I know that I will never leave Sarah to be ignored by our mother.
I get to art class early to tell Mr. Kinerium there’s no way I can go — he’ll have to pick someone else. But Maria’s already in his office with him. She’s laughing and throwing her head back. His hand is on her arm. He’s looking at something in her sketchbook. She moves closer to him, pretending to see what he’s pointing at in her no-talent work. She tosses her hair over her shoulder and looks my way before turning back to him.
I sit on my stool and sketch the whole period, refusing to speak to Maria. There’s nothing Mr. Kinerium could say to get me to that art camp now. On the way to pick up Sarah, I find Emil before Maria can catch up to me, and I invite him over tonight while my mom is teaching. I think he knows what I mean.
All evening long, while Sarah crawls around pretending to be a puppy, I’m thinking about having sex with Emil. Before we knew each other he used to smile at me at Halley’s Comix. Later he asked to see my drawings and told me I was the first fun girl he’d ever met. I put on my headphones to drown out Sarah’s barking in my ear. By the time I take them off to paint her fingernails, I have decided.
I’ll be fourteen in three months and I’ve got big enough boobs to sleep with a guy. I’ll be the first girl in my class to have sex. Maria is all talk. She tells me about her older brothers and sisters; they do it on the couch with their dates after her parents go to bed.
Emil knocks softly on the door, and I leap to answer it, afraid the noise will wake Sarah. I pull him by his sleeve to our couch, holding one finger up to my lips. “Shhh, my sister’s sleeping.” I cringe as his boots stomp across the wooden floor.
“Where’s your mom?”
“Teaching.” I’ve told him a thousand times that she doesn’t get home until 11:00 or 11:30.
We sink into the couch and he takes off his Bears jacket; he always has new clothes from helping his brother tow cars on weekends. I light a cigarette and inhale. Emil fans his nose and coughs.
“Your ma doesn’t care if you smoke in here?”
Even though he’s a grade ahead of me, he looks like a little boy the way his bangs are combed over his forehead. He’s got a sharp dimple just under his lip. When he wrinkles his nose, his freckles disappear.
“No. She’s cool to it.”
My hand shakes as I stub out my cigarette. I let my shirt gape open so he can see my bra. We talk about comics awhile and I put my hand on his thigh but don’t look at it.
“What if your sister wakes up?”
He leans over to kiss me and bumps my nose. I’m barely breathing. My hand floats over his thigh, then over his shoulder before coming to rest on his arm. The next kiss is warm and soft, but more messy than I thought it would be. Still, I’m doing it.
“Your breath is smoky,” he says, wrinkling his nose again.
He’s just a boy, I tell myself and bite my lip.
“I like kissing you and all, Allison, but I’m real sensitive to smoke. Maybe we should brush our teeth. Or we don’t have to kiss. It’s up to you.”
He’s ruining my whole plan. I hear a spring creak in the bedroom and my heart kicks.
“Stay here,” I whisper.
I hold my breath and push open the bedroom door to peek at Sarah. She’s sleeping on her side, her curls tumbling over her face. When I return to Emil, my teeth are brushed. I lean over and breathe spearmint into his face. He laughs.
When I sit back down, he locks his arms around my shoulders and mashes his face against mine. His tongue slips between my lips, his leg between my thighs. I try to pretend he’s Mr. Kinerium, but it’s not working. Maybe if we had looked at my drawings first.
“What’s wrong? Do you want me to stop?” He doesn’t move away.
“I said I wanted to make out tonight, didn’t I?” He’s the cutest boy in the entire middle school. I can’t stop now.
He puts his mouth back on mine. My jaw is sore from trying to fit his. His hand slips inside my shirt, his chest pressing against me as he tries to undo my bra. His weight hurts so much I reach around and undo the hook for him.
I wonder what time it is: 10:30? 10:45?
Emil pushes me down on the couch and lies next to me, putting his tongue in my ear. He unzips his pants. I don’t look. He takes my hand and pulls it toward his open zipper.
I yank my hand away and climb over him off the couch. My unfastened bra flops against my breasts every time I inhale. “I don’t think I said all the way, Emil.”
He smiles but makes no attempt to zip his pants. “What’s your problem?” he says, and I don’t even know him anymore. He’s nothing but a stranger in the dark.
I step backward into the middle of the room and fasten my bra. “Fuck you, Emil.”
As he sits up on the couch, the hall light hits his face, and I think maybe he is a nice boy and I just imagined things.
“Jesus. Fuck you, too. I was just joking, Allison.” His voice cracks. “If that’s the way you feel, maybe we should break up.”
“Fine,” I say. I run to the bathroom, lock myself in, and cover my face with a washcloth to hide my sobs. I don’t answer when he knocks on the door.
“Fucking tease,” I hear him mutter. I breathe slowly through the washcloth until I hear him leave.
Later, I curve my body to Sarah’s, my shaved legs pressed together under my cotton nightgown. Her neck smells of shampoo and sweat. I dream my father lifts Sarah into a washing machine and slams the lid. I can’t move. When I finally look inside, I see it wasn’t Sarah at all, but Mrs. Rosenberg’s yippy poodle.
As I step off the concrete steps leaving Saint Gregory’s, Emil yanks me by the elbow so hard I trip. The other kids plow onto the sidewalk, laughing and shouting, not paying any attention to us.
“Come here. We’ve got to talk,” Emil says.
Emil and I haven’t seen each other at all since Thursday night. He drags me by the elbow around the corner and backs me up against the brick wall. I glare at him. I don’t need this from a boy, I don’t care who he is. I have Sarah. I can paint. When I want to have a boyfriend, I’ll choose an older boy, not some prickly-faced, pushy fourteen-year-old. I blink my eyes, hoping Emil thinks they’re tearing from the wind.
“Don’t you have something to say to me?” He juts out his jaw and tosses his head upward, making himself look oh so cool.
“Oooh, what a stud. Did you copy that move from one of your comic books?” I’d like to punch him. “You don’t know the first thing about having sex with a woman instead of a fold-out magazine.” Then I hear what I’ve just said and I hold my breath so I don’t say more.
“Maria was right. You are a little bitch.”
His words kick the wind out of my chest. I gasp to get my brain working again.
“Forget I even bothered,” he says, pulling the hood over his head. He walks away slowly at first, then shuffles to catch up with another guy.
I slide down the wall, hearing my backpack scratch on the brick, my butt thumping the frozen dirt. I don’t rub my tears away. I let them fall down my cheeks and splatter on my coat, let my nose run until it drips on my upper lip. I’m ugly when I cry, but I don’t care.
The city looks like someone scribbled all over it with charcoal. I think about how I’m supposed to be everyone’s doll and bend into poses and play their games. I try to think why Maria would have said that about me, and what I did to her. Pretty soon the sky seems darker, and then I notice parked cars on the street that weren’t there before. The schoolyard is quiet. That’s when I remember Sarah is waiting for me at the elementary school.
I run down the broken sidewalk, not feeling my feet hitting the ground. When I get to the chain-link fence around the playground, I expect to see Sarah, or maybe even my mother, who paces in front of the apartment if we’re fifteen minutes late, but no one is there, just a pile of gray snow. My eyes scan the uneven teeter-totter, the motionless swings, the tall metal slide, the yellow-brick school behind it. All I can think is My God, she’s not here. Holy Jesus, someone’s got her; she wouldn’t walk home alone.
Back in the far corner of the square, I see two boots nudge out from under a concrete turtle. A hand pats the ground and Sarah’s head peeks out.
Sarah crawls into the open as I run toward her. She sucks her bottom lip and rubs her red, wet nose with a mitten that’s clipped to her sleeve. She stands and shoves her fists into my stomach.
“I hate you,” she says.
I’m shaking, keeping my tears inside, but then they just burst. Sarah wraps her arms around my hips. I’m afraid to say how sorry I am, afraid that once I say it she will see that it’s my fault and never forgive me. She’s carved a rut in the earth under the turtle. How long did she wait, alone and afraid that neither I nor our mom would ever come for her? I tug her chin, smooth back her curls, wipe her eyes and nose with my sweater. I will stay with her forever. I will read all of her stories.
I look up and see my mom in her unzipped winter coat thundering down the sidewalk, no boots, just her tennis shoes and jeans, and I flinch as if knocked on the back of my head.
Sarah turns around. “Mommy!” She leaves me shaking in the corner of the playground and hurries through the open gate to our mother.
“Mommy, Allison couldn’t come and then she came,” she says, catching her breath.
My mom kneels to hold my sister and looks at me over Sarah’s shoulder. Something warm and pasty climbs to the back of my aching throat. She strides across the yard holding Sarah’s hand. I close my eyes. I don’t know if she’s going to beat me for every bone I’ve got, and I don’t even care anymore. I deserve any punishment. But then I hear myself say, “Mom,” low and begging.
And I hear my mom’s slippery coat glide against mine, feel Sarah’s arms around my legs. When I pry my eyes open, I’m looking at the moles on my mother’s neck and the gray-brown hair hanging loose behind her ear.
“It’s OK, Allison,” she says.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I say, and I wonder if there’s hope for me, or if I will be just like her: blank and sad.
“Let’s get you girls home,” she says.
We plod along the chalky sidewalk, my mom in the middle, Sarah and I holding her bare hands on either side. My mom doesn’t ask me where I was. I know that will come later when we get home, maybe when Sarah’s tucked in bed. I try to imagine lying on my mother’s double bed, talking to her about it, about Emil, about the art camp and how I’m not ready yet, and about my dad. I can see this as if it’s real. She’s lying next to me under her fuzzy blankets. I’m lying beside her on top of them in my bathrobe with her fingers flat on my thigh. She stares at the ceiling and listens.
My mom speaks so quietly to us that when traffic rushes past, I lose pieces of her words in the rumble. She whispers about the macaroni she’s made for supper, about how she’ll teach one less class this summer, and about all three of us going to the Art Institute on Saturday. I don’t think she’ll live up to it, but I don’t interrupt her. I understand what it feels like to have screwed up and want to serve penance.
When we get home, she pulls a lumpy towel from bathroom cabinet and caresses the pink back into my legs. Sarah squats on top of my foot and scrubs the leg my mother’s finished, imitating her as carefully as she can. For a second, before I’m embarrassed at being thirteen years old with my mother taking care of me, I am warm inside.