It's freaking surreal. Like my father never died, like last summer never happened.
At the end of May, the sun came out, and Anastasia's mom called up their pool boy going, Fernando would you be a dear? And—just like always—Fernando drove up in his truck with his chemicals. When Mrs. Wicke left to get her checkbook, he arched an eyebrow at Anastasia, said 'Sup, Mama? while she rolled her eyes at him and texted me "Creeper's creeping. Must b summer." Next thing I knew, Anastasia had emailed everyone a Paperless Post. A blowfish in lipstick. Its lips SWAKKED the ether; a caption bubbled from its mouth: Don't blow off the first party of summer!
I texted her, "Have fun; I'll be in my turret, cross-stitching my memoirs." My parents got married at Dunnottar Castle, Scotland. Dad thought the place was just terrific, and he had an architect design our house to match. Crenellated turrets and all. Mom said she worried they'd be laughed out of the club, but Dad told her all those tight-asses could go screw themselves. Now Mom, Imogene and I rattle through the arched openings of our stone faux-castle like lost keys.
Even though it's not important historically, culturally (or—face it—in any way at all) our house is the centerpiece of the annual Mission Ridge Home Tour. The year I turned thirteen, I threatened to slit my wrists if Mom didn't make my room off limits. This was a low blow because Mom actually did slit her wrists when she was a teenager. She considers herself an authority on the subject of teen suicide. She says all intelligent women must endure a Sylvia Plath phase, and she's constantly on the lookout for signs of its emergence in Imogene and me.
If you ask me, Mom's suicide attempt was as faux as our castle. You can hardly even see the scars. She waxes on sometimes about her six months in "The Sanitarium." How she floated like a fog around the immaculate grounds. Spent whole mornings tracing her name into her bowl of cafeteria oatmeal. "Dr. Renault was the most handsome man I've ever known," she says, picking at her sleeve and sighing about their long, charged hours of psychotherapy. When she was finally released, Mom matriculated to Vanderbilt, met Dad, and threw herself into Nancy Regan's war on drugs. She burned her copy of The Bell Jar and came to believe—firmly—that everything happens for a reason.
Still, Mom is constantly harping on Imogene and me to drink kale juice and exercise. "It's that or Zoloft," she says, "and once you start relying on psychotropic drugs, there's no going back." Then she'll arch an eyebrow at us and pop a Xanax into her mouth, cocking her head back like a Pez dispenser in reverse; sucking them down.
Playing the suicide card could have easily backfired and landed me in some version of The Sanitarium, but I was desperate. Imagine having to endure your Sunday School teacher's hirsute twin sons gawking year after year at the dollhouse you inherited from your grandmother when you were five. ("Actual embroidery on the miniature bedspreads!" Mr. Joplin always exclaimed while the twins snatched my Barbies out of their beds and pretended to make them fuck.) The year I turned thirteen, I finally had hysterics—wailed for two straight days—until mom took a Xanax, and dad hired Fernando to install a deadbolt on the inside of my bedroom door.
Living in a fake castle is embarrassing, but having a turret as a bedroom has its advantages. When Anastasia and I were six, we discovered that if we trained our binoculars over the long hedge of hydrangeas that separates her property from ours, we could see right into each other's windows. We developed a flashlight language, three-quarters Morse code, one-quarter little girl. I'd signal:
• • • • • — — • —
("H.A.K.," hugs and kisses) and from two backyards and one hydrangea hedge away, Anastasia would ceremonially circle her upper body with her flashlight, hugging herself with light. By the time we were twelve, we'd taken to speaking almost exclusively in code. We'd tap messages into each other's white-tighted thighs in church. Snap our flashlights off and on from the backseat during car trips. At our parent's card parties, we'd signal each other across the table. Mr. Wicke would try to translate: "LMBO? What the heck does that mean?"
"Ignore them Ward," Dad would say, fishing the olive from his martini, "They're a couple of Soviet spies." To which I'd reply by flashing:
• — — — — — — — • • • • — — —
('182," translated, I HATE YOU, which probably sounds harsh in retrospect, but my Dad could be so lame. You'd probably — — — • • him too.)
Anastasia and I both got iPhones when we were fourteen, which put an abrupt end to our Morse Code phase. Now we just text. "RU rly not coming 2night?" she just texted me. I haven't answered.
Anastasia and I haven't talked much since Dad died. After the funeral, things got all weird. We'd be driving around in Anastasia's Fiat, singing along to Katy Perry's "Firework" at the top of our lungs, and suddenly she'd jerk the car across two lanes of traffic, fumbling to turn off the music. I guess certain lyrics ("Do you ever feel already buried deep six feet under?") suddenly hit a little too close to home. Her eyes would fill with tears and I'd squirm in my seat because:
a) my dad was dead
b) my BFF was the one crying about it
c) I felt impenetrable and strange, like our stupid stone house.
I'd gaze out the window of Anastasia's car, forcing myself not to blink, desperate to squeeze out a few tears. But then I'd notice we were passing Smokey Bones BBQ (on Gunbarrel Road, I shit you not) and I'd have to stuff my fist into my mouth because I was suddenly dying (dying!) laughing. I couldn't help it. I swear. I'd be doubled up, laughing so hard I could barely breathe, and Anastasia would give me this look, like she was inches away from forcing a kale smoothie down my throat.
There have been way too many scenes like that this year. I can tell I'm freaking her out. She's my BFF and she doesn't want to seem like a bitch and all but we're sixteen, it's the summer before senior year, and—let's face it—I'm harshing her mellow. I can feel her dying to tell me she thinks Parker is smoking hot and they're this close to—you know—but then she remembers I'm the girl with the dead dad and her face jigsaws apart: A broken corner of smile, one knitted brow. It happens practically every time she looks at me. As far as I'm concerned, not showing up to her party tonight is an act of mercy on my part.
Anastasia and Tree and Pill have been out by the pool all afternoon hanging paper lanterns. I've been watching them through my old binoculars. They keep bursting into impromptu dances, sloshing their Red Bulls over their heads. The silver cans flash like Morse Code over the hydrangeas. I'm picturing tonight: The sea of kids around Anstasia's pool. A mosh pit with a sapphire center. Backbeat rattling the collection of South Carolinian face-jug pottery Anastasia mom has displayed up and down their curving stairwell.
Last year, Chester caught Chuck making out with his girlfriend and he shoved him through the Wicke's pool house doors. The safety glass imploded with an earsplitting crash, and all hundred of us swiveled to watch the French doors pixilate into randomness. And then Mrs. Wicke was crunching through the debris in her puffball-toed slippers, exclaiming, "Really!" while Chester and Chuck wrestled on the floor, broken glass sparkled through their hair. Mr. Wicke grabbed them both by the scruff and drove them home.
Then the party really began.
Back in our faux castle, my father lay dying. He couldn't find his keys. Then he couldn't find his car. And then he punched Mom in the face. Turns out, he had a brain tumor. Dr. Inéz Nannés—oncologist extraordinaire—said the tumor had probably been growing for years. Dr Nannés was a regular visitor on the Mission Ridge Home Tour. While Dad crinkled atop the white paper of her white examining table, she hinted that our faux-castle might have been an early sign that the geography of daddy's head wasn't entirely normal. "Great conversation piece," she said of our house, "But I've always wondered about the resell value."
"I thought you were being romantic," Mom said to Dad on the drive home.
"I was being romantic!" he said, " And anyway, what kind of name is Inéz Nannés? It's like a goddamn mouthful of zippers."
Imogene and I sat in the backseat, not looking at each other. I kept glancing at the way the little lights in the soles of her sneakers flashed pink when she kicked at the back of Dad's seat. I wondered if she'd even understood what Dr. Nannés had said, that our father would probably be dead before the summer was out.
At the top of our curving driveway, I hurled myself out of the car. "I'm going to Anastasia's," I called over my shoulder, ignoring the way Imogene's fingers—the nails painted glitter pink—whitened on her door handle. Dad started to say something to me, but Mom put her hand on his arm and I heard her tell him, "Let her go."
I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my shorts and ran duck-footed across our immaculate lawn. I pushed through a gap in the hydrangea hedge and collapsed in Anastasia's yard on the other side. Breathed in the sharp, bloody scent of dirt. I kept thinking of my grandmother, the only other dead person I knew. Before her stroke, my grandmother was an amazing seamstress. She taught me to cross-stitch when I was only five. She showed me how to draw cotton floss through Aida fabric, count the threads, embroider x's. By the time I was seven, I could execute a Leviathan stitch more perfect than anything my mother had ever managed. Grandma was triumphant about my sewing prowess. She'd sit propped next to me on the couch, glancing at mom out of the corner of her eye as I zipped perfect uprights into the centers of my cross stitches. Mom would stand at the kitchen island ignoring us. Grandma would say, Iris look at Eleanor's piecework, and Mom would mumble a little parody of Sylvia Plath:
Any more, how to sew.
Grandma lived with us for six months after her stroke. Her room smelled like peppermint and unwashed hair. Every night Mom would hold baby Imogene with one arm and shove me between the shoulder blades with the other one, forcing me through her door to say goodnight. Grandma's lips were fishy and blue. Her mouth gaped like a lopsided box stitch. I'd stare at this one fantastic, curling hair sprouting from her chin, mutter 'Night and duck under Mom's arm to get away.
The day grandma was buried Mom emptied the room where she'd died, gathering all her sewing things to take to the attic. I added my own needlework to the pile. "What are you doing?" Mom asked, and I just shrugged, gnawing on the dull end of a red Twizzler. I kept tapping the sea grass hall runner with the toe of my funeral shoe. I was spelling out • • • — • —, "S.K.", Silent Key, the transmission you send when an amateur operator dies.
"English, Eleanor," Mom said, flinging embroidery hoops and knitting needles into a plastic bin. But I just rolled my eyes and walked away, masticating my Twizzler.
For years, I'd wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and think about a book of embroidery samplers that Grandma used to like to show me. "Some of these date back to the fifteenth century," she said, pointing at banded bits of fabric stitched together by medieval and Victorian seamstresses, by accused witches in Puritan New England, by Quakers and Shakers and slaves. The samplers were yellowed and strange, covered in alphabets and animals. Grandma called them records of a woman's creative life. She'd turn the pages, pointing out examples by Jane Bostock, Loara Standish. "Sewing is subversive," she said, "Remember that, Eleanor." I'd lie awake remembering that, fingering the machine stitching on my pink and white store-bought bedspread.
It was August. I was eight. The moon spilled in through the window and lit up my hands. Under the sheets, my whole body felt alive.
And I can't really explain but for the past few months, certain nights—while Mom swills wine and floats like a fog through the rooms of our faux castle—I've been slowly divesting my bedroom of all its furniture. I'll tuck Imogene into bed then listen at the top of the stairs for the cork to pop in Mom's bottle. Once I'm sure she's distracted, I'll shift my things across the hall and up into the attic.
The first night, in the attic, I snatched a canvas tarp off a stack of plastic crates and discovered my dead grandmother's sewing stuff. I pulled out a scrap of fabric, traced the fleur di lis. I sank to the floor, holding it to my nose. I don't know what I expected—whether I thought it would smell like peppermint or what—but (dust to dust) suddenly I was seizing into my own knees, letting loose an incredible volley of sneezes. My nose kept banging into my kneecaps and I couldn't stop thinking, OMG, What if I break my own nose sneezing? It was freaking hilarious. I stood upright, hefted the sewing crate into my arms, and sneezed my way back down to my turret.
Thanks to Fernando and doors that lock from the inside, no one has noticed that my room is now a wasteland. I dismantled my canopy bed, moved it out piece by piece. Mom's old vanity table, stacks of books, armfuls of dolls, the purple beanbag: all gone. Grandma's dollhouse was the worst. I had to drag it, tipping it end over end up the attic stairs, chipping the antique eaves. The only things left now are the rocking chair where I sit and sew and the hulk of my mattress, leaning against the wall. I'm sure Anastasia thought I was being snarky when I told her I couldn't come to her party because I'd be cross-stitching my memoirs, but I wasn't kidding. I've been sewing for weeks.
I'm knitting old scars into napkins. Into doilies. My fingertips are killing me. Every afternoon, I haul my piecework across my lap. I sit. I sew. I try to fill the space between stitches, but I'm like the sun that leaks all day across my room—chasing the shadows it creates and can never disappear. Outside, across the hydrangea hedge, Anastasia has turned the music on. I can hear Tree and Pill shrieking by the pool. I'm embroidering the goodbye I gave my father before I left for last summer's soirée.
"I'm leaving," I called to him from the entrance to the great room. I stitch in the doorway's pointed arch. The exposed brick wall. The ceiling's vaults and ribs. The morphine dripping from its metal rack. My father under an old afghan, his bare feet propped on the buttoned arm of our leather couch. Little straitjacketed hummingbirds blooming from his mouth.
"It's a miracle!" Dad called out to me, "I wish you could see—" but his speech degraded into a series of pops and clicks, and the ruined Morse code of it echoed in my head all night, mixing with last summer's music. Katy Perry's "Firework." Going oh—oh—oh.
Tonight Mrs. Wicke will escort Jackson and Parker through the repaired French doors and out onto the pool deck. Tall, polite boys in pastel Penguin shorts, flasks tucked into their waistbands. They'll hand Mrs. Wicke paper cones full of flowers, and she'll pat their chests, purr at them. They'll air kiss Anastasia's cheeks, and—if she's had enough vodka in her Red Bull by then—Anastasia will turn her head, kiss their mouths. Tree and Pill will whoop and cheers their Solo cups, while Mrs. Wicke teeters away on her puffballed high heels. In a couple of hours, like clockwork, Chester and Chuck—banned from the property after last summer's fiasco—will crawl through the hydrangeas on their hands and knees.
I'm remembering a photograph from when I was three. Dad was trying to hold me but I kept twisting away, flailing to be put down. I was a chubby kid, freckled, with a skein of wild red hair. I stab the fabric with my needle; glance out the window, picture Anastasia and Tree and Pill dancing around the pool. I am asking myself: Would it have killed you to let yourself be held?
And then Imogene knocks on my door. Scares the shit out of me, so that I stab my own finger through the fabric. A bloody balloon blooms in a sky of gridded white. I realize I've been clucking my tongue against the roof of my mouth:
• — — — — — — — • • • • — — —.
(I'm so lame you'd — — — • • me too.)
"Eleanor," she calls through the keyhole, " I'm making smoothies. Want one?"
And I don't expect it—I shock myself saying this—but what comes out of my mouth is:
BIO: Gerlinda (pronounced like "Geronimo") is a writer and a musician from Atlanta, Georgia. Follow her on Twitter at @gerlindagrimes.