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Still life with tornado, p.18
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.18

           A. S. King
 
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  “Hi, Bruce. It’s Sarah. I don’t know if this is normal, but I feel guilty because, out of all of us, I’m the only one who wasn’t beat up.”

  “Hi, Sarah. It’s Bruce. Please don’t feel guilty. It’s normal to feel this way, but there was nothing you could do about it. They put you in a role and you had to play that role.”

  I hang up my hand-phone. “That’s the problem,” I say. “I’m acting.”

  Meat Grinder

  I have no idea who I am. I’m a character in a sad movie about my parents. I’m a character in a sad movie about an art show. I thought I knew what I was doing.

  I had no idea what I was doing.

  When you learn the truth late, you doubt everything that ever happened in your whole life because your whole life was a lie.

  I try to imagine going home tonight and seeing Dad. I think about Mom and I know I shouldn’t be angry with her, but I am. I am so angry with her.

  “I can’t go home tonight,” I say.

  “You have to,” Bruce says. “They’ll worry.”

  “You’ve been gone six years and they don’t worry about you,” I say.

  “I’m not sixteen.”

  “Mom took me shopping today. She was so normal.”

  “She is normal. All this stuff we just talked about is old. It all happened a long time ago. I’ve healed. Mom’s healed. It’s—”

  “Mom hasn’t healed,” I say. “She’s still living there. She has to deal with him all the time.” When you learn things late, you put everything you ever knew through a completely different meat grinder and you end up with totally different meat. The sliver of tissue was a test. This is what abuse looks like. It looks like weeks of waiting for your wife to say Why can’t you vacuum up that sliver of tissue? so you can tell her she’s a bitch. It’s a trap. Everything Dad does is a trap. Every shrug, every night he sat and watched TV when there were dishes in the sink—everything was a trap. And Mom knows because after twenty-six years, how could she not know?

  I think back to every time Dad was cocky around Mom. I try to picture her reaction. She would shrink. I understand now. I understand that hitting a person is the same as screaming at a person, is the same as head games and traps and bait and all that hard-to-define emotional abuse. This is why I never said anything about Miss Smith. It’s why I never took my headpiece seriously. It’s sneaky. It hides under other words and other actions. It’s power. That’s all abuse ever is. That sliver of tissue is power.

  We lighten the conversation for a while. I try to see Bruce as my brother again, not a victim. He’s the kid who let me win half of our Ping-Pong games in Mexico. He’s the brother who showed me shooting stars.

  He tells me about Oregon and how much he loves it out there. He tells me the people are different—he can’t explain how, but they’re just different. He tells me it rains a lot. I contemplate telling him that I am Umbrella, but I decide against it. He tells me about his job and his kids. That’s what he calls them—“my kids.” He tells me about an eleven-year-old girl who’s addicted to meth and a fifteen-year-old boy who keeps getting arrested for arson. He talks about these things the way Mom talks about retrieving random things from patients’ rectums. He seems happy—with his job, with his life.

  “It must be so cool to know what you want to do with your life,” I say.

  “You’re only sixteen. You’ll figure it out.”

  Bruce asks to see the dessert menu even though I didn’t eat but half of my ravioli. It was delicious, but I’m not hungry. He insists on cake.

  “It’s the best chocolate cake, Sarah. Trust me.”

  I take a deep breath. I think about Mom with a broken arm. I think about the number of times I’ve heard Mom say “Would you just let me sleep?”

  “You will come to terms with this,” he says. “I promise.”

  I’m still putting my entire life through a meat grinder. The meat that comes out makes no sense. I just sit there, grinding meat.

  “Hi, Sarah? It’s Bruce. I want to know what happened at school.”

  “Hi, Bruce. It’s Sarah. I’m kinda preoccupied right now because my entire life is a lie.”

  “Sarah? It’s Bruce. I think it would be a good idea to talk about school. And you’re being so quiet about it I’m starting to worry.”

  “Hi, Bruce. You don’t have to worry. It wasn’t a big deal. It was just a stupid art show.”

  “And?”

  I take a deep breath again. “It feels so stupid now.”

  “What does?”

  “You used to get beat up. My problems are stupid.” I am putting myself through the meat grinder. My own meat doesn’t look the same anymore.

  “Don’t compare,” he says. “If it made you leave school, it’s not stupid.”

  “It didn’t make me leave school. I left school because nothing ever really happens. Nothing new. There is no such thing as an original idea. That’s why I left school.”

  “You said something happened.”

  “I’m having an existential crisis,” I say.

  “Shit.”

  “Yeah.”

  “That’s a big deal.”

  It is. It’s a big deal. It’s an even bigger deal now that I realize everyone I ever knew has always been lying to me since I was born. Maybe I was built to get screwed over. Maybe I was trained to be omitted over and over and over again. Exclusion: not at all original.

  The cake is warm. It’s fresh. I concentrate on the cake because it’s not a lie. I bond with the cake as I eat it. I decide that eating the cake is my first action as a real human being. I have been reborn. Baptized by a chocolate cake. The cake is proof that ingredients matter. Anyone can put flour and cocoa and butter and eggs into a pan, but it takes the right mix to make this cake. It takes the right temperature, the right amount of time, the right whisk. If parents cared as much about raising kids as the chef cared about making this cake, the world would be a completely different meat grinder.

  Bruce can’t take a bite of his cake without moaning a little. We let it melt in our mouths. We don’t talk. I stop putting my life through the meat grinder. I feel lighter even though the cake is making me full.

  By the time Bruce pays the bill I feel happy. Like—content-on-the-other-side-of-the-meat-grinder happy. Not the fake happy. Not the pretending happy. Not the playing-a-role happy. Exhausted but happy for real.

  We walk slowly and quietly back to the B&B. We sit on the stoop and Bruce burps. This makes me laugh because Bruce always had the best burps. If I try to burp, I give myself a stomachache.

  “I don’t have the energy to pretend to leave voice-mail messages,” he says. “I ate so much I can’t even lift my arms.”

  We’re sitting side by side looking across the street. “I made this headpiece out of wire for sculpture class. I wove it. It’s hard to explain but it was cool. I got an A plus. Miss Smith was impressed, you know? She said she wanted it in the annual art show.”

  Bruce nods for me to go on.

  “I didn’t tell Mom and Dad about any of it. My plan was to go to the opening on Friday night and then bring Mom and Dad over the weekend to see the show. I think I might have thought I had a chance to win a prize, I guess. Dumb, but I thought I had a chance.”

  “It’s not dumb to think you might have won. Sounds like it was awesome.”

  “It was,” I say.

  “So you didn’t win?” he asks.

  “No, I didn’t win.” I can leave it here. I can leave it here in the place where I didn’t win and Bruce will console me and he’ll say that it’s normal to feel this way and I’ll go home. As we sit there, still looking across the street as we talk, forty-year-old Sarah walks west on Pine. She doesn’t look over. She doesn’t have to.

  “That’s not all that happened, is it?”

  “No.”

  Bruc
e burps again and excuses himself. “So? What happened?”

  “I went to the opening. I even dressed up a little. It was my first art show and I wanted to look like an artist, right? So I dressed up,” I say. “I got there and walked around and saw the ribbons on the winners and mostly it was the seniors in the art club who won and their work was great and all, so I was happy for them, you know? They’re my friends. Or they were then—or whatever.

  “I couldn’t find the headpiece anywhere. When I realized it wasn’t there, I found Miss Smith and I told her it was missing. She said, ‘Oh, I’m sure it’s here somewhere.’ And then she went back to shoving those mini quiches in her mouth and laughing it up with the seniors.” I think of forty-year-old Sarah. “Especially with Vicky-the-grand-prizewinner.”

  “Well, where the hell did it go?”

  We’re still sitting side by side, looking across the street. It’s easier this way. I don’t really want to look at Bruce. I feel pathetic, really.

  “It was just gone. But I saw the Styrofoam head I’d mounted it on used as a decoration in some stupid display. Our Art Is Out of This World! They made the Styrofoam head into an alien head. I went back to Miss Smith and told her that the Styrofoam head was there, but my headpiece was gone. She told me to calm down, but I wasn’t freaking out or anything. She just said, ‘Calm down. I’m sure we’ll find the answer.’ But the judging was over and the whole point of being in the show was over and the headpiece was gone.”

  Bruce puts his hand on my shoulder. I continue to look forward like we’re at a baseball game and I’m telling him this story with my eye on the game. In reality, I’m watching forty-year-old Sarah walk east down Pine now, trying to get me to talk about the right thing.

  “So you never saw it again? Someone just took it?”

  “I went early to school that Monday and went to Miss Smith’s room and started looking for it. She was kinda rude about it. Told me good luck and have fun and stuff. She told me I could search the whole room, which I thought was weird because I was only going to search the obvious places.”

  “She sounds bitchy,” Bruce says.

  “The seniors came in for first-period class and they laughed at me the whole time I searched. No one offered to help. It was so weird. They were my friends the Friday before. Now they just seemed to be Miss Smith’s friends. Even my sophomore friends wouldn’t help. Not even Carmen during second period. She just played it cool.”

  Bruce squeezes my shoulder.

  “I found it in the end,” I say. “No one expected me to find it.”

  I feel deep shame. I have no idea why. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t hurt anyone. I wasn’t being mean or weird. I just wanted to find it. Why am I so ashamed of wanting to find it?

  “It was in the bottom of the big trash can behind Miss Smith’s desk,” I say. “It was crumbled into a ball and someone had taken a wire cutter to the middle of it. It looked like they were trying to cut it in half but then gave up.”

  Bruce took his hand off my shoulder and put his hands in front of him. “Hold on. Hold on. Someone took your art project and tried to cut it in half and then crumbled it into a ball and threw it in the trash?”

  “Yep.”

  “That’s the weirdest shit I ever heard.”

  “I know, right? And they had to do it Monday morning because the janitors would have emptied the trash on Friday night.”

  “So what’d you do?” he asks.

  “What could I do?”

  But I know what I did. I said, “I found it!” and pulled it out of the trash can. When I saw someone had cut it up, I said, “Oh my God,” because I guess that’s just what came out of my mouth. I remember sweating then. I remember feeling like someone had cut me in half and never finished. I remember wishing someone would have put me in the trash. It was the day I first saw ten-year-old Sarah, only I didn’t let myself see her. She was sitting on a bench outside school chewing bubble gum and blowing bubbles. At the time I thought it was a hallucination, but now I know she was real.

  Bruce doesn’t know any of this. He just knows I found it. I don’t know how to explain my breaking to someone else—not even him.

  He asks, “Did you ask if anyone knew who did it?”

  I shrug. “No matter who I talked to about it after that day, they said I had to ‘let it go’ or ‘stop obsessing.’ I tried to talk to the guidance counselor. He said, ‘There are always other art shows, Sarah.’”

  “Not if someone cuts up your freaking projects! What kind of psycho does that?”

  “Then the art club stopped talking to me. They wouldn’t even hand me tools in class if I asked. They pretended I was invisible. So I stopped going to school.”

  I wasn’t going to tell him about the pear. There was more to it than I couldn’t draw the pear. There were a lot of reasons I couldn’t draw the pear.

  “The principal should know about this,” Bruce says. “That’s bullying.”

  “Nobody beat me up.”

  “They destroyed your art project.”

  “They just ignored me.”

  “Exclusion is bullying. I should call.”

  “Don’t. Seriously. I don’t care anymore.”

  “I do.”

  “It’ll just make things worse.”

  “You’re talking like Mom. Yeah, maybe it’ll make things worse, but in the end it’ll make things better. Maybe we can get that teacher fired. Or we can find the kid who stole the project. A lot of good can come from this.”

  “Just hold off, okay? I’m already excused from school until next year and I don’t want to go back there and I don’t want more shit from the seniors.”

  “Fuck them,” Bruce says. “Fuck them!”

  He’s all riled up and he stands and looks at the sidewalk like he’s trying to figure out a plan. I know if I told him about Vicky and Miss Smith—about seeing what I saw—that he would be able to get Miss Smith fired. But I don’t want to tell. They already hated me. How bad would they hate me if I told about that? As if he knows what I’m thinking, he says, “I want to get this woman fired.”

  “I really don’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s not the only reason I left school. It’s a big part, but not the only part. Okay?”

  Bruce paces and burps for a while. He says he misses Philadelphia and says Portland smells different. He talks a little about how he’s thought about moving back home one day. I yawn. I don’t mean to, but I guess I’m tired and I want to go home, too.

  My home. I live in ruins. I have always lived in ruins, but I only found out today. “I missed you,” I say. I say this because I realize Bruce is probably the only person who ever really saw what I am. I am a human being. I am sixteen years old.

  “I wish I could go back six years and change everything,” he says.

  I consider telling him about ten-year-old Sarah, but I don’t.

  But I decide they should meet.

  It’s a Hole

  I tell Bruce, “You’re wearing too much aftershave.”

  He says, “I am not.”

  “Do you plan on picking up a date at the Mütter? Because that’s creepy.”

  “You’re my date. And aftershave isn’t for dates. It’s for feeling fresh after you shave. That’s why they call it aftershave, smart-ass.”

  “What’d you do this morning?”

  “I slept off my jet lag and then ate a really stellar breakfast. You?”

  I think about telling him about meeting Earl and how Mom saved his life and how everything is art. Instead, I say, “We should get going. They close at five.”

  “Can’t leave the skulls waiting.”

  “But I have to tell you this one thing,” I say. “I think Mom and Dad are getting a divorce right now.”

  “Right now?”

  “Like—right now.”

 
People can’t just get divorced,” he says. “You can get married fast, but you can’t get divorced fast.”

  “Well, they are. Right now.”

  “Did you hear this?” he asks. “I mean, did they tell you or something?”

  I think about telling him about the Sarahs. There is no way to tell him about the Sarahs. So I say, “Mom told me today was the day.”

  I don’t want to get him too excited. I’m not even sure if I’m right. And Mom didn’t tell me anything. But she told me she didn’t love him. I never thought I’d wish for something bad like this. But then I realize that the only person who thinks divorce is bad is me. It’s my idea. But sometimes divorce can be good.

  I think about playing tooth fairy to Bruce in Mexico. I ask him, “Did you ever get your tooth replaced?”

  He presses on his cheek with two fingers. “No. I wanted something to remember him by.”

  It’s a hole. In his mouth. A hole where a rat used to be.

  The Whole Stupid Story

  I can’t figure out how I’m supposed to look my parents in the face today. How do I do that? How do I look at them? Two chefs who made this lie-stew I’ve been simmering in for sixteen years.

  The clock says 6:55 a.m. I don’t hear anyone awake in the house. I slept in my clothes again. I get up and pull my hair into a braid and tiptoe out the front door to find ten-year-old Sarah.

  • • •

  I walk around the block a few times. I walk to Broad so I can sit in a bus shelter. I loop back through Rittenhouse Square. I can’t find ten-year-old Sarah anywhere.

  I lose my breath thinking about never talking to her again. I don’t know where to find her. She can’t just leave.

  “I’m not going anywhere,” ten-year-old Sarah says.

  I am so elated, I hug her. She’s not fond of hugs. I know this because I’m not fond of hugs. She squirms a little until I let her go.

  “I want to see Bruce.”

  “You can’t see him yet. But maybe later. Tonight.”

  “Why’d you hug me so hard?”

 
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