My 12th summer my best friend abandoned me. She twisted her straw-colored hair up into a bun and held it there, pledging to write from her grandmother's in Ponca City. I imagined our pink, strawberry-scented stationery like twin exotic birds flying across the dirty plains of Oklahoma.
That summer it topped 100 degrees 10 days in a row. Each digit over the century mark had its effects. If you stayed still, you could read them. The difference between 101 and 103 was in the way the hairs on your arm quivered, how the hot air tickled the insides of your nostrils. Every day the thin, trampled grass revealed more treasure: crown of bottle caps, silky cigarette filters, jewel-colored candy wrappers. I lived in my wet bathing suit. Though there was water rationing, we weren't affected. We could ignore the part of the TV news in which the watering schedule was announced because we lived in apartments. Our grass was already colorless and dead and the leaves were falling from the small trees. It seemed that nothing would ever grow again. That summer Julie and I wrote each other exactly one bald letter about the weather.
It was the summer I found out my mother wanted to kill herself. But I thought it was me she was bent on destroying.
Mornings, I baby-sat while the mother, a night nurse, slept in the back bedroom behind windows of foil. I opened cans of beanie-weenies for lunch and fed the baby disgusting versions of real food with a long spoon. Because the boy was only 2, the mother said I had to aim his penis with my thumb so he wouldn't squirt everywhere. I hated touching his squishy thing. Sometimes I did it, and sometimes I didn't. When he was napping after lunch, I had the baby girl to myself. I held her in my arms and danced between the living room and eating area to the music of a soap opera. We waltzed and fox-trotted, and if she was crying she stopped, and if she was not she laughed. Only once, I held her in my arms on the couch, pressing her diaper the way I had learned to do myself to see if she could feel the pleasure too.
In the afternoon, I walked home and read the library's Treasure Island list, racking up dozens of books while watching Truth or Consequences and Gilligan's Island and masturbating. I sweated in a dozen ways and places. I ate spoonfuls of marshmallow creme straight from the jar. My body was a pudding I sloshed around in. I listened to John Denver records and dreamed of a place crackling with ice.
I was supposed to be doing my chores because my mother wanted our new home to be as pretty as a magazine. She said that because we were divorced, people would look at us different. In the way we dressed and acted, she explained, we had to prove that we were as good as anybody. When we'd moved to our new two-bedroom apartment a man from church who was an interior designer came over and gave her some tips for free. He must have said that lamps could dress a place up, because one thing she did was replace our old ginger jar lamps from Japan, where I'd been born, with modern ones. I had a tube light on my desk, there was a spherical one in the living room, and a yellow rattan shade hung above the kitchen table.
So each afternoon, there was something: the bathroom, the laundry, the kitchen floor. I had a trick of cleaning only visible dirt; it was much faster picking up individual hairs and crumbs from the floor than wiping off the entire surface. After the toilet flooded the apartment one night I developed a fear of flushing and took to using the kitchen sink instead. I became very thorough at cleaning sinks.
Once a week I dragged the basket of clothes to the Laundromat instead of carrying it. While the machines did their work I read the soft pages of The Mystery of the Attic Trunk or The Hoax at Huntington Manor. If I finished my book, I counted the tiles on the floor, first by multiplication and then by just counting. Then I watched out the window for something to happen. I wanted to be like Harriet the Spy, who had deep suspicions requiring perseverance and observation, not like Encyclopedia Brown who just knew things. I watched a pale, red-headed man who always carried a rolled-up newspaper, beating it on his leg as he walked by. I watched a mean-looking woman slowly walk her white-faced Irish setter on a long length of rope. I imagined that these two were partners, she luring children in with her worn-out dog and he beating them with whatever was hidden inside his rolled-up paper. When the clothes were finished I pressed them, hot from the dryer, against my chest like a lover. Then I lugged home the heavy basket of folded clothes. When the plastic handles started eating into my fingers I stopped in the middle of the parking lot.
When my mother got home she kissed me, looked at the mail, then said she needed 30 minutes alone to unwind, that's the least she deserved. She slipped off her shoes and wound her deflated panty hose around her hand.
"Did you get a snack, dear?" she asked before she went to lay down.
But sometimes before she got to her room she would discover something -- crumbs on the table, a dish in the sink, the dishwasher in need of running or unloading -- and then she would explode. All afternoon I had been awaiting her arrival like a bored dog. When she finally appeared in the doorway my body was alive with nerves, sensing the first sign of her refusal. Oh, no! There it is! The bath towels are folded all wrong. Again.
How many times do I have to tell you? Honestly!
She throws them at the couch. The pile starts tumbling off in slow motion. I move quickly to rescue them.
Don't touch them! Just leave it!
She slams the door to her bedroom, and I can hear her on the other side swearing at me. I sigh, turn off the TV and clean things up until they are perfect. I go lay on my bed and wait in the silence. Later she will come out and her make-up will be run blue with tears. We will make dinner quietly together and though she will not apologize, what has happened will be over. We will watch TV together on the couch and tell about our days.
The way I found out about my mother was in a letter. One afternoon when I was taking out the trash I noticed the torn corner of a piece of paper wedged inside the brown bag. There was handwriting on it so I pulled it out. In a pretty cursive I didn't recognize, a phrase which had gotten wet and run caught my eye: deep despair. I pushed back a wet coffee filter and the grounds and pork chop bones from the night before and found another piece. I laid them out on the sidewalk like a puzzle until I had them all and only then did I realize it was from Daddy Don. When we had divorced him it was as if a heavy curtain had opened to let us back through and pulled closed right behind us forever. But I knew that sometimes my mother talked to him on the phone late at night. I discovered this when I got up to use the bathroom once. I wasn't sure exactly what had gone wrong between them but my mother said that as soon as we got back to where we started, Tulsa, we would be headed in the right direction again.
Now I was less sure. I carefully dried the pieces between paper towels and laid them out together. The message was hard to read because the writing was small and in some parts only a ghost of the letters was there. But after a little while I got it. It said he was sorry my mother was so sad but that things would get better, they always do. You deserve to be happy as anyone. I saw my name and tears leapt from nowhere. Think of Robin. Suddenly the watery letters became a tunnel whirling around me. Spinning by was my mother yelling and crying. Everyone was looking at her because she was the wheel, squeaking in a high-pitched, dangerous way. She wanted and needed more. In the center was me, trying hard as I could to be truthful and clean. Look how I had failed her with my lying stories and my filthy laziness. Just look at me.
I taped the letter together and put it in my diary, which I hid in a different place in my room every week. I pledged to change myself entirely to please her. I used the mop on the kitchen floor. I was quiet and attentive. I brushed my hair and didn't push it behind my ears. I told jokes and showed off my running start and round-off down the front sidewalk. She laughed and hugged me and asked me to sit in her lap. I knew it was working.
On the back side of each bad thing, there is always something good. I learned this from my mother: to be always like a coin, with a head for knowing and a tail for turning away. Inside this long, lonely summer I had my hideaways. For two weeks in August the sleeping nurse and her children went on vacation. My mother registered me for classes at the art museum.
After she left for work, I walked through the apartments to the corner and waited for the city bus. I carried a bag that my aunt had sent at Christmas specially embroidered with my name on it. It contained my wallet, my spiral notebook, and a snack: two "space sticks," which the astronauts had enjoyed on the moon. Riding the bus made me feel both grown up and far too young. I watched the people seated around me, sleepy and old, their laps weighed down with heavy bags. Outside the window, neighborhoods swayed by, changing from regular to storybook. I had to keep reminding myself not to forget to pull the cord the block before my stop. I was the only one who ever got out at the street of mansions leading up to Philbrook Art Museum. I walked up the hill past houses with double wooden doors, circular driveways, fountains, columns, and chimneys.
The first week I learned drawing and enameling. In the morning we lugged tall sketch pads outside and lay in the grass, drawing with soft sticks of charcoal. After lunch, we sifted dull color onto copper shapes, to make a mobile, or a flat copper bowl, or an ashtray, arranging rocks bright as candy for decoration. The next day, they came out of the oven with all the colors melted in. I made my mother enameled copper earrings. The second week we painted indoors on easels and then sat in high tractor seats perched over spinning globs of clay, learning how to throw pottery.
There are some times when life opens up and lets you in. You hover over your own shoulder and you admire that girl that is you. You have never seen such beautiful colors as the ones she chooses. The clay has never been so smooth or eager to cling to itself as when she plies it. Those times, sitting at lunch on the stone wall that overlooked the gardens, crouching by the creek that ran below the gazebo, breathing in the woody smell of the galleries themselves, I found my own place. It wasn't my mother's or Jody's.
That place in the world, I found it and lost it over and over again like a hidden room in a repeating dream. I could never remember which panel was the right one to push to make the wall swing open again.
Before the end of the summer my mother started going to see a counselor after work. She explained that sometimes people get sad and they need special help. My grandmother came over and taught me five new versions of solitaire. My mother never knew I found the letter from Daddy Don, and as far as I know after he finished saving her life he never called again.
When Jody came back from Ponca City she was different. It was like when our whole class tried to draw a still life, a group of old wine bottles arranged on a wrinkled tablecloth. Even though we were all looking at the same thing, our pictures never turned out the same. Our different personalities, how we saw, always entered in. Jody had only been away for two months, yet I hardly knew her. She wore her hair in higher, more buoyant pigtails, and was always stretching herself out like a wishbone. She had perfected her back handspring. But we still rode our bikes and pretended that other people's dogs were ours and slipped notes into each others' handlebars. I went along with it all. I wore sticky lip gloss. I worked on touching my nose to my straightened knees. I perfected my crab walk.
There are things I necessarily have forgotten; there is only so much space in your brain. I choose the things I like: the heat of wet cement on a bare stomach, the whip of Jody's ponytail as she rounded a back handspring, the sound of water trickling from the art museum fountain down to the creek, my own fingers and wrists black with charcoal dust, and the bold shiny colors that enameling powders can turn when they're heated to the highest, most dangerous temperatures.
Robin Bradford, an O. Henry Award winner, has published numerous stories and essays. For the Chronicle, she most recently wrote about Austin writer Laura Furman.