Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Happy Family

Written by Miriam Cohen
Varicose veins bulged from the white backs of knees. Cellulite rippled through nylon shorts. Her mother was on the treadmill, and this was one thing that made Grace basically want to give up.
 
“He’s at it again,” Grace said. She heard someone say that once, in another context, and so here she was trying it out.

“What?” Her mother was distracted. The pale, crepe papery skin of her upper arms swung briskly.
Varicose veins bulged from the white backs of knees. Cellulite rippled through nylon shorts. Her mother was on the treadmill, and this was one thing that made Grace basically want to give up.

“He’s at it again,” Grace said. She heard someone say that once, in another context, and so here she was trying it out.

“What?” Her mother was distracted. The pale, crepe papery skin of her upper arms swung briskly.

“The noose,” Grace said. She was laughing just a little. “Dad hung another one. The living room.” She was laughing pretty hard. She had a feeling like she was in a play.

The treadmill beeped; her mother wiped some sweat off her upper lip. She had two minutes left, she said, raising her fingers into a V. Her mother was barely at an incline, Grace observed, and was breathing like some sort of mountain climber. Like what she was doing was incredibly difficult and important.

Grace folded her legs beneath her and straightened her spine in a way that was both uncomfortable and wonderful. It opened up the possibility for her of becoming the kind of girl who always had good posture.

The nooses had started maybe a few months ago, something like that. He’d never used one, just hung them. Someone always took them down. But it was true, she thought. The nooses had become less startling. They had begun to blend into the background of the house, like paintings or pictures.

The treadmill beeped again. Damp strands of hair fell off her mother’s forehead. Grace let her shoulders drop.

“All right,” her mother smiled.

They went upstairs together, but at different paces.

In the kitchen, Jason was eating onion and garlic potato chips out of an industrial-sized bag. Crumbs powdered his fingertips like pollen.

“Chip?” Grace reached into the bag.

Jason shrugged. “Take the whole thing. I’m finished.”

But she had only wanted one, and the idea of the entire bag in her hands made her tired. “It’s OK.” She wrinkled her nose in a way that she thought probably looked stupid. But she also felt like the expression might be on the fringe of some kind of beauty. She’d watched other girls do it.

Jason readjusted his shoulder blades. The kitchen faced the living room; right across from them, there it was, gently quivering in almost stillness. He started to laugh, and a warmness filled her. It was nice, she thought, wasn’t it nice, standing in the kitchen with her brother, laughing.

Their mother farted. The sound, rickety and dry, made Grace feel helpless, in a desperate, almost satisfying way.

“I can’t help it!” Their mother crossed her arms in half-hearted authority.

“Those shorts are too tight,” Grace said. She looked at Jason.

Jason didn’t meet her eyes. “I’m out of here,” he muttered. He reached into their mother’s wallet and took some bills. He waved them in her face. “OK?”

She hesitated, nodded. “Have fun.” She smiled widely.

Before he left, she reached out her arms. “Do boys need mommies too?” Her voice was giddy.

Jason awkwardly tapped her back, as if burping her. Grace decided to take the bag of chips. She sat at the kitchen table, next to the window. She watched Jason jog down the driveway. His jeans were just slightly too long. He’d cuffed the bottoms, but one leg had unraveled.

“Mom,” she said.

Idly, her mother reached for a chip. “Do you need your camp T-shirt washed? I was going to do a load.”

Her breath smelled of onion and garlic. Grace tried to breathe through her mouth.

“Yeah,” she said, even though she didn’t.

Her mother nodded. They stood in the kitchen for a while.

The noose reflected on the window, making a shadow on the wall. Her mother turned the TV on to a talk show. There was a ripple of applause, laughter.

Grace went downstairs to change into sweatpants; when she came back, the noose was gone. For dinner, there was Chinese takeout. Her father wore striped blue and green pajamas. Jason wasn’t back yet. There was beef, shrimp, and chicken in brown sauce, Chinese vegetables, white rice. The dish was called Happy Family. In a restaurant, it would have come on a sizzling platter, the oil popping and hissing right in front of them. But it worked as takeout too.

Her mother took small portions of everything, and then seconds. She ate off of Grace’s plate. It occurred to Grace that her mother still had not showered, and there was now a kind of fishiness. Ice clinked. Her father’s water glass emptied. His Adam’s apple went in and out. When she reached to clear his place, he looked up.

“Hey sport.” He ruffled her hair.

At the urging of her school guidance counselor, Mr. Zimmerman, Grace was spending her summer as a junior counselor at Camp Kayak. The camp was a day camp, not sleepaway, and this had been the compromise. Her bunk was called Harmony; the kids were five. She had been told the tips might be generous. Jason’s summer would consist of lazy, unstructured basketball games and stick hockey in the park; no one forced him to get a job.

The thing about the summer, she felt, was that friends during the summer required a kind of impossible effort. When school started up again in the fall, she would have a table to sit at in the lunchroom, a partner for lab. It was the extracurricular aspect of friendships she didn’t understand. The mechanics seemed complex. The shrieking of hellos, the desperate parting hugs, the time spent with a phone burning heat into an ear. When all was said and done, it seemed less than worthwhile.

When Grace walked into the bunkhouse and found her senior counselor already there, she felt a throat-catching heaviness that made her almost homesick. She’d known he was eighteen, that he’d already graduated from high school. But she had also thought there was no reason why he couldn’t be ugly, or at least deformed in some way.

Instead, he was just vaguely toned, as if his muscles were nothing more than lucky accidents. On someone else, his height could’ve been gangly, and unquestionably, an extra inch or two would have destroyed him, she thought. But the facts couldn’t be avoided: His height was the answer to a math equation, the plug in a formula that brought seemingly disparate elements into order.

“Hi,” he said. “Steven.”

“I’m Grace.” She reached out her hand for him to shake, and the gesture was so wrong she wondered if there was anything left for her to do.

He kind of laughed and swatted her on the arm. “Ready for some fun?”

Grace tried to think of something to say, but too much time passed.

They were assigned ten children, six boys and four girls. Grace blushed at the thought of taking care of children with a boy. The boundaries crossed would be exorbitant. She thought it would be like pretending to be married, pretending those children were theirs.

Children in general made her uncomfortable; they always seemed expectant to her, as though waiting for some kind of answer. Also, there was the fact that children were people who would become teenagers and then adults. Often, when she looked at children, she imagined them older, prettier, popular. She felt embarrassed about herself then, like by talking to them, she was taking unfair advantage.

The boys seemed to Grace like small animals of another species, and for that she loved them. The girls made her ache a little. They all had ponytail holders colorfully matched to their outfits. She imagined them all wiggling with excitement as their mothers’ fingers separated their Johnson’s Baby Shampoo-softened hair into even parts. One had a note safety-pinned to her shirt. When Grace opened it, in impeccable penmanship, she found this:

“Madison sometimes finds pool water too cold. She was born premature and is sensitive. Please do NOT force her into the water. Yours, Laura Smith (Madison’s Mom).”

Grace felt a small prick of excitement. “Steven,” she said too softly. “Steven,” she said twice more. By the time he heard her, she realized it wasn’t worth it.

She handed him the note, fingers carefully arched to avoid contact, just in case her hand against his gave him the impression that she liked him.

Steven looked at the note and half-smiled. She had been right. It hadn’t been worth it. He clapped his hands together and asked the kids to put their knapsacks away in the bunkhouse’s wooden cubbies, and then to circle up.

Grace put her bag in a cubby too, feeling ridiculous. In a plastic shopping bag she had packed suntan lotion, a towel, and a change of underwear. Her one-piece bathing suit was already on underneath her clothes. She’d also packed a chocolate chip granola bar, just in case. She almost tripped over some of the children.

Steven asked everyone to introduce themselves and say their favorite color. Panic momentarily seized her, until she realized his instructions didn’t include her. She folded her hands and tried to look adult.

She heard him say her name and blushed; it felt unearned; they had only just met.

“Hi guys!” she squealed in a voice that wasn’t hers. Her smile hurt her jaw. She wondered if she was even smiling at all. She wished for a mirror.

“I’m Grace, your JC,” she said.

The children seemed to believe her. She was so tired. She checked her watch. It was 9:16. Three o’clock barely felt like a possibility.

******************************************************

Her father had hung another noose. This time, he’d tied it over the doorway to the kitchen. In the beginning, the places had been less obvious. In the beginning, they’d had to look. It was even possible that her father had been hanging nooses for longer than they knew, in places so private and hidden none of them had thought to search.

The noose lightly whipped the top of her ponytail as she stepped into the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of milk. She scratched a mosquito bite on her thigh. The itch intensified in a way she found profoundly gratifying. A dotted line of blood opened with a small rush, smudging her leg.

Downstairs, she heard the whir of the treadmill, the huh-huh pant of her mother’s breathing. She puzzled over the tastelessness of her milk. She leaned into the sink and drank from the tap, to compare. The water tasted like less than the milk. She left her glass on the counter. On the way out, she stood on tiptoe, allowing the tiny hairs of white rope to brush her cheek.

For dinner, there were leftovers. Jason was out with friends.

Her father was in a wonderful mood. “How was camp?” His eyes were very bright.

She shrugged.

“The first day is always the hardest.” He folded his arms over his starched dress shirt. His tie slung over his shoulder like a tongue.

“Yeah,” she shrugged again, feeling catlike.

Her father reminded her of the boy campers, the way they stood with sticks waved in the air. His face looked open in that same way to her, suddenly unlined. She could see how much he wanted for her, how much both he and her mother wanted for her. The bud of a chance unfurled before her with glory, with splendor.

“Actually, Dad,” she smiled shyly, her heart flapping. “I made a boyfriend.”

Her father shaped a visor out of his hands. “Oh?”

His carefully contained eagerness, she thought, was like finding an exactly intact shell at the beach.

“I mean, not an official one or anything, but like, we’re going to go out. To the movies.”

Her normalcy spouted before them all, a sparkling waterfall of relief. She felt almost pretty. Both parents beamed at her as she ate. Her mother gave her seconds. Her father spoke about the stock market, duck sauce a slow drip of orange down the nail side of his thumb.

“Tell us about this boy,” Grace’s mother smiled, raising her shoulders into her ears.

Her excitement made Grace lonely. She chewed until there was no point even in swallowing. “I don’t know,” she said.

Her parents exchanged a knowing look. There were things they thought they knew. Grace pictured Jason out with friends. Out with a girlfriend. She felt a certain way, and it made her excited, like anything might be true, like she might, after all, get to see the world.

She folded her napkin into quarters. Systematically, she described his hair first, then his eyes, the kind of clothing he wore. Her parents sat across from her, listening. Their heads bobbed forward. Grace just knew that if people passed their window in this instant, they would have no choice but to take in the neat place settings, the gathered family, and think, "Well!"

Grace knocked on Jason’s door, and he didn’t answer. He had a sign with a skull dripping black blood that said, “Fuck Off: This Means You.”

Because Jason was younger, it was unsettling for Grace to see that girls liked him. It made everything seem too easy. The fourteen months between them had once seemed vast; now she worried that Jason was more authentically a teenager than she was. She had always imagined what her life would be like at sixteen. She’d envisioned herself driving a convertible packed with smiling friends, hair streaming in the wind as a beach gleamed into focus. She failed her permit test once, and it became too hard to try again.

There had been a time when Jason had begged her to play with him, when he’d snuck into her closet and stolen her dresses. There had been a time when he’d carefully rocked her baby dolls, before placing them gently into her arms.

When she was five and he was four, they’d held a mock-marriage ceremony. She’d worn a white pillowcase on her head, topped with a crown left over from a birthday. Jason had worn their father’s tie, and later got into trouble for the way it dragged over the floor. They had kissed on the lips that time too. She knew it didn’t count.

She opened the door. Jason’s room was a boy’s room, she thought, a room that some girl who wasn’t his sister might be excited to be in. She knew that it was weird, but she lay down on Jason’s bed. His sheets smelled male. She pretended she was a boy. She looked at his posters, and thought, "These are my posters."

Women with breasts like bowling balls grinned toothily at her. She tried not to associate the breasts, in their hugeness, with the engorged blue-veined paleness that sometimes slipped inadvertently from beneath a nursing blanket in horrifying and intriguing snatches. She tried to focus, like a boy, on the women’s nakedness. Their eyes sparkled. They wanted her. They would give themselves to her. She tried not to imagine the women in the posters pushing strollers and wearing aprons. She didn’t want to think about their names, and the parents who had named them.

She swung her legs over Jason’s bed, feeling a slight head rush. The room tilted, then resumed its stillness. On Jason’s desk was an aquarium filled with soil. A plastic tube of oxygen snaked through a careful opening. Green sprouts poked through the dirt, each bud its own promise. Studying the plants, she thought she understood her brother better than she understood anyone else on Earth.

She went back downstairs and sat with her parents. Jason wasn’t back yet, but she was there.

The TV hummed; the hours passed; it was night. She sat with her back against her bedroom door to stay awake. A Hello Kitty clock that shouldn’t have still worked slid numbers into each other, ones curving suddenly into twos, twos delicately swirling into threes. It was just after three o’clock in the morning when she heard a key in the lock, the steady pound of sneakered feet. She brought her knees to her chest. All were accounted for; everyone was home.

The next day, Steven greeted her with a schedule. The day, broken into neatly timed squares of activity, made her feel better. She folded the paper in thirds and passed it from one hand to the next.

The first half of the morning was spent in the arts and crafts tent. Engaged in activity, the children seemed willing to talk to her. They asked her for help with things like cutting and pasting. She knew it was ridiculous of her, but every time they came to her, their small faces staring up at her, she felt flattered.

The last activity before lunch was swim, and though there were lifeguards to supervise swim, the counselors needed to be there anyway; that was the rule. They needed to be there just in case, waiting to be asked for chaperoning to the bathroom, or to the nurse. Sometimes, the request was more elaborate: someone was hungry; someone wanted a snack. In deference to allergies and in a nod to health, there were only two possibilities at the snack pavilion: a peach or plum, culled, on alternating days, from an ever-present cardboard box fuzzy with flies.

Grace laid out her towel. She thought there might be something to say to Steven. Other counselors had become friends. All around her, people who days before had been strangers, treated each other’s skin as extensions of their own. Lazy arms linked; careless fingers brushed hair out of eyes and dusted lint off of shirts.

When a camper tugged at the bottom of Grace’s shirt, asking for a snack, she felt terrible, like somehow, her role in the kid’s childhood was becoming too large. His hand on her shirt had made her nervous, like he’d meant the gesture for someone else. She didn’t know what else to do but to look at him.

Even though he was only five, the little boy’s two front teeth were already missing, a tiny heart of gum formed in absence. She tried to focus on his eyes, but really, she saw only the strange square of darkness that changed his whole face. It made her wonder who he’d be, how he’d get by. Clutching his camp knapsack to his chest, he spoke quickly, gulping air at random intervals. His voice went up and up. She hated the way he reached for her hand.

When they got back from the snack pavilion, the kid’s lips ringed red, and Steven was talking to a girl.

“Oh, hey,” he said. “This is Bella.”

For a fraction of a second, Grace hoped.

“My girlfriend,” he continued.

Bella was a senior counselor too. She had on a red bikini. Grace was wearing her one-piece suit with a T-shirt over it. She didn’t even know people who were not celebrities could wear red bikinis until she saw Bella’s.

Bella. Bella. Grace repeated the name over and over in her mind like a song. It was the loveliest possible name, she thought. Like a ballerina, like a symphony of bells. She made Grace think of a China Doll she’d once owned, whose skin, no matter the temperature of the room, had always been cold. Next to her, Grace felt oddly masculine. Bella was the kind of pretty that was almost unbelievable; Grace kept sneaking glances at her just to make sure. Every time Grace looked at Bella, her own flaws seemed to magnify. Her hair became frizzier, her cheeks puffier, her teeth quickly shading an embarrassingly unhygienic shade of corn-niblet yellow.

Bella’s JC was a girl named Andrea with whom Grace knew immediately she could never be friends. Andrea was not particularly pretty; in fact, Grace thought, she was closest to ugly. But Andrea wore plastic glasses that looked dorky but were cool, and despite the homeliness of her features, seemed to Grace the most aggressively socially adept individual she had ever met. When Andrea spoke, Grace found she could only ever stammer in response. The other thing about Andrea was that she was also sixteen, and therefore, a baseline example of what a sixteen-year-old should be like. At least with Bella, Grace knew the possibility of any kind of emulation was impossible: Bella was older.

Grace pretended to be interested in the campers blowing bubbles in the shallow end, their arms stiff with yellow water wings. She felt her nose begin to burn, but was embarrassed to ask if anyone had suntan lotion.

Steven turned to her, and Grace’s toes clenched in excitement.

“Think you can hold down the fort for a bit?” He smirked in the direction of the head lifeguard, a woman in her forties who had lectured them ceaselessly about the importance of their attendance at the pool.

“Oh,” Grace said. “No, sure.”

“Awesome.” His legs sprung forward like a frog’s. He nodded to Bella, and then they were walking away.

“Ten bucks says what they’re doing,” Andrea said.

Grace wondered if she was supposed to say something back.

For dinner, there were still some half-eaten cartons left. Her father was resting. Earlier, there had been a noose that someone removed. The rice was dry, and though Grace thought the smell was close to rancid, there was something delicious about eating out of a carton, taking care, in this way, not to waste.

“I’ll bet,” her mother smiled. “This will be some great fodder for conversation tomorrow!” Her mother gestured with her hands to the ceiling pipe in the foyer where the noose had hung. “I’ll bet that boyfriend of yours will get a real kick out of all this!”

Her mother giggled girlishly, and then her laughter deepened. It seemed to come from the deepest space of her, these wracking sounds, these echoing timbres. Grace also wanted to laugh. But she wanted Jason there too. She felt like her chair had lost its backing. Her spine felt loose.

“You’re very lucky, you know,” her mother said after a while. “You’re just beginning.”

“I know,” Grace said.

Later, her father came downstairs. In his pajamas, he looked like a boy. He sat at the table. He stretched out his arms and yawned. Grace’s mother put a plate in front of him. He stared blankly at the plate. His fingers circled his temples.

“Tell me,” he closed his eyes like he had a headache. “Tell me about your boyfriend.”

Grace tightened her ponytail. She liked the way it bobbed when she nodded.

Her mother gave her father utensils. There wasn’t any takeout left, but there was bread; there was peanut butter.

“We went to the movies, Dad, and it was a good movie. I liked it a lot.”

Grace looked at her mother, the way the bread tore beneath her knife. “Maybe, a different time, you and Mom will go.”

Her father’s eyes were still shut. “Tell me about the boy.”

She studied the wall above her father. She wondered how her eyes had learned how and where to focus, when there was so much else.

“He bought me popcorn. It had butter on it.”

Her mother cut the sandwich in two, diagonally. While he ate, Grace spoke.

“He’s wonderful. He’s so handsome. He laughs at all my jokes. He can’t wait to meet you.”

“I do,” she said when her father asked. “I love him.”

******************************************************

Grace was overcome with the feeling that if she asked, Steven, being only a person, might say yes.

“Hey,” she said. She swatted at the air carefully. There wasn’t a bug, but what else, she thought, could there be to do with her hands?

“Yeah?” Steven didn’t look at her.

“I was just wondering,” she bit her lip. “What number would you give me? Like, from one to ten, you know, if you were ranking me.”

Steven scratched at his knee. He didn’t say anything for so long, Grace decided he hadn’t heard her.

“What number,” she started to say, and then he coughed.

That was when she realized something irreparable had happened. She thought it would be important not to smile.

Steven looked at her too nicely, like she was his sister. He started humming a song from the radio.

“Eleventh grade,” he let out air. “PSATs and everything, right?”

Across the sports field, where their campers were lining up for T-ball, she could see Bella walking two of her campers to the bathroom. Their arms swung with the jauntiness of waves. The little girls looked like they could have been Bella’s daughters.

Grace slid off her flip-flops and traced her toes over the grass.

“Right,” she said.

Camp had been going on for one week. For five days, Grace had ridden the bus, there and back, back and there. She had sat in the sun. She had eaten hot, greasy food in outdoor pavilions. Her guidance counselor thought he understood; he thought he could help. His suggestion had seemed at the time so simple. Working at camp! How much sense that made! How easy, how normal.

There were people, she knew, who came from families. Steven, Andrea, and Bella were that kind of people. Maybe even Jason was. But there were also people who lived inside their families, she thought, and maybe no one would ever understand, but that was her. She would not go to camp the next day. She would not call. She would not call, and would not call, and would not have a job.

The world would, for two months, recede. For these elastic, sun-stretched days, she would stay home. Her mother would be there. At some point, her father would come home, and then Jason. There were ways to make things clearer, easier. There were ways to be there when her father took out the rope and tied it so perfectly, so fatherly.

She reached into her backpack. The walk to the hardware store had been long, but worth it. She skimmed the rope over her legs and arms, not hard enough to burn, but instead, so slightly, to tingle. She knotted the rope and thought the space inside looked holy.

Above her bed, she had a hook in the shape of a flower. It was made of glass, or plastic; she wasn’t sure. It was pink. She hung the noose from the hook, but it was too low. Her noose was so much sloppier than any of her father’s.

She took down the noose and lifted her neck toward the white circle of space. She placed the noose on her head. She tugged it down, past her forehead, her nose. It glided over her chin. The noose wrapped nicely around her neck, like a dog collar. And she felt, in that moment, the comfort of being someone who belonged to someone.

Grace could hear her mother eating in the kitchen. Dinner was in an hour, but her mother was eating rice cakes. She was eating one, and then another, and stopping, and reaching again. She was eating an entire bag of rice cakes, and soon she would be eating peanut butter. She would take some on a spoon. Just a little, and a little more. Then there would be dinner.
 
 
Illustration by Rebecca Rubin

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