blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Hourglass II
     Not with a Club, the Heart is broken . . .
          —Emily Dickinson

“The truth is in the teeth,” the dentist claims. He is tall and tapered like a candle; he wears a green mask over his mouth. “They are the longest-lasting feature of our species. They carry the body’s secrets.”

“I thought that was the tongue,” I say.

Now he lets out a hearty laugh. The mask crinkles around his lips. I commit to memory the contents of his window ledge: aloe plant, abalone shell, driftwood.

“You’re an intriguing little girl.” He states it like a fact, not a compliment. He seems like a prophet to me, a man who should be standing on a mountaintop.

“Thank you,” I say. My mother has taught me nothing if not good manners.


As he cleans my teeth, Dr. Watts describes the mouth like a magic kingdom. He is in love with his profession, the way some men love their wives and children, the way prophets love the Word of God. “Did you know that paleontologists use teeth to identify fossils? From teeth, they can tell what the creature was, what it ate, who its family members were.”

He holds the little mirror on the silver stem inside my mouth. In the next room, I hear my mother chatting with the receptionist. I practice my best concentration, the dial in my mind turning her loud voice down.

“I hear you’re the finest speller in first grade,” he says. “Can you spell teeth?” I nod. “Gums?” I nod again. “What about enamel?” I think on it, then nod again. “Well, that’s very good.” Dr. Watts wipes his utensils and offers me a sip of water. “Do you think you could spell deciduous?”

I have never heard this word before. It comes over me like a wave, successive splashes of green and yellow. “What does it mean?” I ask.

“Something temporary—like leaves on a tree, like your first set of teeth.” I have lost one tooth already, and another is loose. “These are your deciduous teeth,” he tells me, “but your permanent teeth are on their way.”

My tongue moves to the new space at the front of my mouth where the air rushes in when I try to whistle. “Do you know the tooth fairy?” I ask him. It is almost time for my mother, with her dark pink lips and full set of permanent teeth, to take my place in this chair.

“You mean, personally?”

I nod.

“Well, I think I’ve bumped into him at a conference or two. Someone may have introduced us.”

“The tooth fairy is a man?” This possibility has not occurred to me. I thought fairy was a girl-word, like princess or ballerina.

Dr. Watts, guilty for revealing a secret that only the teeth should know, looks away and pretends to be interested in my X-rays. “Well, it was a long time ago,” he says. “I could have been mistaken.”

“It’s OK,” I reassure him. “I won’t tell anyone.” But I like the idea that I am privy to this truth, like the truth of angels, who are always glowing women on the Christmas tree but seem to be only glowing men in the Bible.

“We’re all done here,” he smiles, his mask removed. “You have strong, happy teeth, young lady. Let’s make sure they stay that way.”

You are seven years old and coming into your calling. For you, the truth is in the words
you study in the dictionary, under pretense of learning their forms. Yes, it delights you—
the surprise of the ‘p’ in “receipt,” the double ‘l’ at the conclusion of “quill.” You are interested in their
relationships—how the quill might be used to write the receipt in a careful cursive you haven’t learned yet.
But there is also the texture of the words, their glint in the light, their cadence as they fall upon the ear. While your
mother quizzes you at the kitchen table, you consider the bodies of words, their relative beauties. You consider their
heft and height and the other words contained within them—‘heat’ inside “sheath,” ‘evil’ inside “devil.”
Words, you marvel, are like nesting dolls, able to stand apart and also to fit together.


For Thanksgiving, we travel. We become like pilgrims (p-i-l-g-r-i-m-s), with my father at the helm and my grandmother beside him. She like the quill, he like the receipt she has written . . . My mother and I squeeze our knees close in the upholstered back seat of the company car. Together we spell and sing and stare off into the distance.

Aunt Linda is our destination. Soon, we will see her where she lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment—not a wife yet, and not a homeowner either. Do you have to be married to have a house? But I have been chided for asking about marriage before, as in the last year—when I was six and still simple-minded—and I studied the ring on her middle finger: “Is that your wedding ring? Why do you wear it there, on the wrong hand?”

“Aunt Linda may be sensitive about that fact,” my father said. “It is better to ask people about what they have than about what they are lacking.”

My Aunt Linda has my mother’s name. Their mothers christened them both Linda, and since my mother married my father and since my aunt is still a tenant and not a wife, they both sign their checks Linda Wade, though the script is different just as the letter that comes between: Linda M. versus Linda A. If my father calls out in a room, both women will turn and answer. This fact surprises me also—that there aren’t enough names for everyone to have her own.

Aunt Linda wears an apron dusted with flour. Beneath it, a mauve (m-a-u-v-e) sweater and winter white slacks. She hugs us each like we might break, and then we scatter—which is close to shatter but not quite. Scatter is a movement word; shatter refers to glass.

“Mama, I’ve got a nice hot cup of coffee for you,” Aunt Linda says, leading my grandmother to an oversized chair. My father hangs up his hat and sets to work sliding the leaf into the dining room table. In the kitchen, my mother dons an apron, adjusts the station on the radio. When I perch on the stool at the pass-through window, two Lindas mash potatoes side by side, two Lindas arrange hors d’oeuvres (spelling unknown) without speaking.

“Aunt Linda, I was wondering—”

“On my bookshelf,” she smiles, pleased with her psychic powers.

I bolt down the hallway and into her room. There are bells on the doorknob that jingle as I enter; these are not just for Christmas but all year round. Breathless, I spin around until my eyes fix on the brightly colored nesting doll (also called a Russian doll and another word that starts with ‘m’ that I can’t pronounce yet). My joy is like gratitude, my heart like the horn of plenty. I kneel on the carpet and begin to un-nest them. This is how it is to be human: to have more than one person inside you. First, I thought it was the years of life, like the little one-year-old inside the slightly bigger two-year-old, the simple-minded six-year-old inside the complex-minded seven-year-old. But now I know otherwise. As I pair each doll-body with its doll-head, I think about the me that is bad at dancing and the me that is good at spelling and the me the teacher thinks is quiet, even though I am full to brimming with words she has never asked me to say. I think also about the me my father loves to take to the park, the me my grandmother says reminds her of her dead husband, the me my mother so often finds disappointing. I was not born with natural curly hair. I have dimples, true, but two left feet. Despite the best lessons and home permanents, I will never be a Shirley Temple.

I lay the dolls out and line them up on the bed. I like to admire them just as they are—nameless, with faces that never change. The same cannot be said for the rest of us. On the nightstand, a younger version of my grandmother stands beside a younger version of my Aunt Linda. It is the mother-daughter tea at Linda’s sorority (s-o-r-o-r-i-t-y), a place where girls go to become beautiful in college. Aunt Linda has pale gold hair that slants across her cheeks and pale thin arms which she never shows now, even in the heat of summer. Grandma June has dark hair spun high like a layer cake and wears a soft pink corsage pinned to the breast of her suit. I wouldn’t know it was them if I hadn’t been told. When my father summons me to the table, I am still sitting here on my knees.

I turn to him, hesitant at the doorframe, and all I can think to say is, “Why does Aunt Linda still sleep in a little girl’s bed?” There is the wicker headboard, the flowered quilt, the narrow width for only one body. It is like my bed, or the bed that belongs to Goldilocks. I glance again at her pale gold hair. My father shakes his head but doesn’t answer.

Your mouth is always full of words, but sometimes they are hidden, your teeth like trees
in a forest of unsayable things. There are many ways to imagine it. The teeth are trees,
or they are wood pilings in the water, your mouth the harbor where words come to rest and wait.
The words are the boats, like the kind you watch from your kitchen window. There are sailboats,
which are light and breezy with bright-colored sails (the colors of Matryoshka dolls
). There are freighters, too,
big ships that are pulled along by small ships
the way your father is pulled along by your mother. These ships are
called tugs, named for what they do. You have never seen a cruise ship, but your Aunt Linda has traveled on a
floating hotel all the way to Alaska and back again. Your great aunt Ruth comes from Canada by ship, a large
ferry with a special name—the Victoria Clipper. Other words come to mind, other words you are storing
in your harbor-mouth: skiff, yacht, catamaran. The last one gleams red and gold.


My first friend is Joy, and when I say her name, I swell with the feeling the word conveys. I wonder if her mother finds it hard to scold her, struggles with an exclamation like, Joy, you disgust me! Clean this up this instant! Joy’s mother’s name is Melody, so I can only imagine she sings both punishment and praise. She has wild black curls and slippers stitched with beaded dragons. Her long, taut (t-a-u-t) body moves through the house like a dancer, which is the way Joy moves. They are women who have swallowed grace like a tablet, and now, having dissolved, the grace moves through them, a river flowing under the skin.

This will be my first time traveling away from home without my parents. My mother makes carrot cake and cries over the pan. My father warns me again about the strangers, who are everywhere lurking with malice (which contains the name Alice) in their hearts. When I have packed my small, blue-and-white vinyl suitcase, I set it at the foot of my bed. This is like the military. My mother comes for inspection.

“Where is your deodorant?” she says.

“You said it was a secret, so I didn’t bring it. I didn’t want anyone to see.”

“So, what will you do when you’re sweating in the sun? When you’re playing hard, and the odor starts to fill your clothes?”

I stand still, petrified like fossil.

“Do you want to smell bad?” She bends over me and stares into my eyes.

“No—but no one else in second grade wears deodorant.”

“Well, you’re different,” my mother decrees. “Sometimes for the best, and sometimes for the worst, but I can’t have a smelly daughter. Now,” smoothing my hair, “go get your speed stick from the bathroom, and we’ll hide it in the zippered pocket.”

Joy’s father steers the boat away from the dock while my parents stand in the harbor, waving. “When I grow up, I want to live on a houseboat,” Joy says. “Can you imagine waking up every day on the sea?”

I can’t imagine exactly, but I have always wanted a water bed. Now I see that Joy’s dream is better: the boat like a cradle, the waves rocking the sleepers to and fro, a lullaby (l-u-l-l-a-b-y) of seagulls and passing storms.

“Let’s fall asleep,” she exclaims, “and when we wake up, we can pretend it’s a brand-new day on our very own houseboat!”

Downstairs in a room like a giant sofa—nothing but cushions from wall to wall and little round windows for peering through—we stretch out and close our eyes. “Do you want to really sleep, or only make-believe sleep?” I ask.

“Whichever,” she says. I admire the way Joy is casual about everything.

Then, her little brother Raphael climbs up on the couch in the room made of couch, and we all huddle together like shipwreck survivors. This is another game we will play. We fall asleep because the sea beneath us is rhythmic like a poem; then, Melody tickles our feet to tell us, We’re here! We’ve arrived! Soon, there will be a fire on the island, fresh salmon and salty fries, a sky full of stars, and a night full of stories.

“Use the bathroom if you need to,” she says. “We won’t come back to the boat until late.”

I think of my deodorant now, how my mother says I should take every opportunity to freshen up. “I’ll meet you upstairs,” I whisper to Joy, twitchy with the first truth I cannot tell her.

“OK,” she says, suspecting nothing, guiding Raphael, chubby and unsteady in his bright orange vest, along the narrow stairs toward the light.

Even my palms are sweating as I slip the hard plastic capsule into my hand, conceal myself behind the sliding door. As I unbutton my shirt, I notice the goose bumps on my arms, a prickling sensation that has nothing to do with cold. It is the feeling of wanting neither thing at once. A renunciation (r-e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-i-o-n) of some kind. Fearful to disregard my mother’s instructions and yet, fearful to remain here, in this dark, cramped place, rubbing this grown-up paste on my body. My father talks about the devil and the deep blue sea. He says sometimes we are caught between them. I think I know now what he means.

Just then, standing in my white undershirt with the small blue violets, one hand straight up like I’m hailing a cab in a movie, the other pressing the blocked powder into the hollow place under my arm, Melody opens the door. “Oh, excuse me!” she exclaims, like a reflex, like I am older and in need of my privacy. Then, she pauses. Her eyes widen, big and brown and full of concern. “Julie,” she says, “what are on earth are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I say, which is a word that never dissolves easily on my tongue. It is a terrible aspirin of a word, a word with consequences.

“Is that deodorant?”

“My mother says it’s OK. My mother says I can have it.”

“But you’re eight years old! No eight-year-old needs deodorant. Besides,” she says, softening, “it’s nothing but chemicals. There are other ways to stay clean and dry. Natural ways.” Melody’s long, slender fingers extend toward me. I understand this is a gentle confiscation (c-o-n-f-i-s-c-a-t-i-o-n).

“Will I get it back at the end of the trip?” I ask, beginning to shiver. This too has nothing to do with cold.

She doesn’t answer. Then, over her shoulder, like an afterthought: “All things in good time, my dear.”

Most secrets you have to carry with you, hard as the teeth in your mouth. You grow a list of things
you cannot tell your mother. It is not the same list of things you cannot tell your father, though there are
points of overlap. For instance, you cannot tell your mother how you have invented an alternative family.
As a woman who struggled to have a child—a woman who could have only one—your mother would take it
personally, this need for other children in the house, other parents. But with your father, hunting for sand crabs on a
Saturday afternoon, you can talk about your sisters and brothers. You can tell him how Matthew is in the military
(the way your father was during Vietnam), how Kristen has red hair she wears in a flip (like Mary Richards), how
Vanessa is a dancer and just got fitted for braces. There is one sister, though—your twin sister—
who you must never say a word about. She knows all of your secrets, even the most shameful ones.
In a few years, she will also need braces.


I sit with Kellie in the best tree in our grandmother’s backyard. We like to pretend we are Mary Lennox and Dickon looking over the wall into the secret garden. Sometimes we climb down and pick rhubarb (r-h-u-b-a-r-b), which grows red and wild in the untended flower beds. We rinse it with the hose, being older now and a little afraid of the dirt. Then, we move higher into the rockery, just out of view, where the next neighbor’s gate is wrapped with a chain, cinched with a padlock. This is where we like to pause, tugging the rhubarb between our teeth—sometimes sweet, but mostly sour—and play our private game.

I have hidden my best treasure here, wedged between the rocks. It is something I found in an old box belonging to our mother. The keychain is a huge red heart, plastic, with the word LOVE printed in tall white letters. Attached can be no fewer than fifty keys. Most of them are ordinary to look at, gold or gray with tiny teeth made to fit some furtive lock. But one is blue as a peacock feather, smaller than all the others and many times more beguiling (b-e-g-u-i-l-i-n-g). I have already tried it in every lock I can think of, including the padlock that beckons over my shoulder. There wouldn’t be a key without a lock, would there? They must make the lock first, and then the way to get inside.

“You’re a good sleuth,” Kellie tells me. “Someday you’ll find the door for every key.”

“It’s more than doors, though. There are boxes with locks, and even diaries.”

“Sure,” she agrees. “But things tend to look like what they are. You can tell a car key from a house key after all. And diaries have the smallest keys, so if you were being interrogated, say, you could swallow that key and never have to open the book where your biggest secrets are stored.”

Kellie has a point there. Many sleuths before me have had to make bold moves in sticky situations. They have had to hold their tongues when it mattered most, to practice silence like a dance, or a tricky piano piece—silence like a concerto (c-o-n-c-e-r-t-o) by Grieg.

“Can you imagine if I died,” I say, “and the doctor took an X-ray, and there in my belly, the size of a bone, he found one of those long, elegant skeleton keys?”

Kellie smiles at me. She can picture it, too. Unlike most people we know, she appreciates the way death and beauty sometimes go together. This is no one’s fault. It is just something that happens that no one likes to say.

“My turn,” Kellie whispers, dislodging the hourglass she has pilfered from Trivial Pursuit. “Same rules as always: you have till the sand runs out to reveal a secret or announce a new mystery.”

Isn’t a secret sometimes a mystery? And isn’t a mystery almost always a secret?

“Well,” I say softly, wondering how the words will sound when I speak them aloud. “This is a secret, I guess. I’ve never told anyone else.”

Kellie leans forward, looking like the gymnastic (g-y-m-n-a-s-t-i-c) orphan with the long side braids in the movie Annie.

“You know our sister Kristen, the one with the red hair?”

“I know her. Of course I know her.” Without using her words, Kellie conveys a phrase our father often murmurs, something about two different people being cut from the same cloth.

“Well, I think I love her.”

“You should. She’s your sister.”

“No. I think about her more than the others. I think about her the way you think about Todd Lucas at school.”

Kellie adores this blond-haired boy, his baseball cap and tight blue jeans, the way he has two first names.

For the first time since I’ve known her, my sister is silent. She wears an expression like she has just swallowed a key, the bad taste of metal in her mouth. “At night,” I tell her, “when you’re sleeping, I sometimes wander over to Kristen’s room. She’s usually just sitting at the vanity, just brushing her hair. I think she’s perfect—like a model but more interesting. I can’t help it. She’s like Christmas: with that red hair and those bright green eyes.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Kellie says, blinking hard.

“I know. It doesn’t.” So maybe my secret is partly a mystery, too.

Your diary doesn’t have a lock. One day far in the future, it will be discovered by your mother, and she
will instruct you to make it disappear. She will find herself ‘scandalized’ by the content. She will tell you that
everything you have written ‘casts the whole family in a negative light.’ But long before this happens, you will become
adept at tearing certain pages out. It is enough to write the words themselves, bold in your new cursive,
to press your pencil tip into the white spaces between the neat blue lines, to see what you are most longing to say.
There are many pages devoted to Ann Reinking, the dancer who played Grace Farrell in
You love the part where Daddy Warbucks, who loves her the way you do and is not her father, tells her that her teeth
are crooked. She offers to have them fixed, but he tells her he likes them crooked. This is a sad truth for you to
face—the fact that your own teeth are as straight as the white pickets on fences, that the dentist tells you time after
time that you will never need braces. In your mind, it is the same as saying you will never be loved.


In the summer, my mother sends me to day camp. With Joy away in California, riding horses at her grandparents’ ranch, camp is a concerted effort to find new friends, a preemptive strike against the failure to fit in. This is why, I reason, camp must be short for campaign. My mother has launched this campaign (c-a-m-p-a-i-g-n) in favor of a more appropriate daughter.

“I’m not lonely,” I insist, even though it is only a partial truth and sits unevenly on the bridge of my tongue.

“I don’t care if you’re lonely or not.” Perhaps this is a partial truth, too. “I care that you stop talking to yourself and start living here with the rest of us—here in the real world.”

I raise my eyebrows, and Kellie recedes to the background.

At Camp Long, all the counselors have self-chosen names, names like Squirrel and Urchin and Inch. No matter how many times I ask them, they won’t reveal their true names, the names their parents gave them. This, I’m told, is their prerogative (p-r-e-r-o-g-a-t-i-v-e). They are grown-ups and entitled to their secrets. I look down and frown at the small square of adhesive pressed to my chest, the way I have no say at all in the words someone else has printed with a Sharpie pen: JULIE WADE. I had no say at all when my parents chose them.

“But if the counselors get to name themselves,” I protest—“just for camp, just for the duration . . . ” Inch is shorter than I am, even though she is old, a grouchy leprechaun of a woman who scrunches her face at words of more than two syllables. “Doesn’t it seem only fair that we should get to name ourselves, too?”

In military fashion, she takes my second name first, inverts them to make a point about power: “Wade,” she commands, “go stand at the back of the line.”

Then, there is Spider, after whom I will never complain again about camp. Even the word after goes slack as fishing line when I say it. Spider must stay always in present tense. I cannot imagine my life beyond her, a future that does not include her face.

The strange thing is that Kellie has warned me about this. She shakes her head as I lie to our mother about the special tasks I’ve been given, the imaginary mandate that I must arrive early each morning at Camp Long. Kellie pinches me as I perch on the hillside, watching the counselors gather together with clipboards in hand, coffee steaming in Styrofoam cups. I scan the landscape for Spider and spot her at once, her dark red hair—far more auburn than Anne of Green Gables’s carrot top or Nancy Drew’s elusive, titian color. True red, like the flame in the lantern at church, the one that burns for all time and must never be extinguished (e-x-t-i-n-g-u-i-s-h-e-d).

“It’s like a signature,” I whisper to Kellie. “The thing that makes her distinctive. A sign she’ll never be lost in a crowd.”

“She’s not even your counselor,” Kellie sighs. “If you’re not careful, you’re going to find yourself in a world of trouble.” She digs her fingernail into the gash on my knee, a quick way to ensure I’m listening.

“Since when do you sound exactly like Mom?”

“Think about it, Julie. This is worse than the thing with Kristen. Spider is a real person.” She looks at me, bright eyes and tight braids with ribbons woven through. “You aren’t just allowed to love whoever you want.”

“Why not? Why aren’t you?” But Kellie begins to vaporize, the way she does, so I bite my lip and look for four-leaf clovers.

“You’re here early,” a soft voice says. I raise my eyes, and there is Spider, peering down at me from beneath her shiny visor.

“Oh.” The word lingers on my lips until I lick it away. “I’m sorry.” It is the only thing I can think to say. (And I am sorry, the way sorry is the umbrella that covers all our conflicting intentions.)

“No, it’s fine,” she smiles, and her teeth are big and straight and white as mine—a full mouth of them, perfect and permanent.

Unlike the other counselors, Spider brings her own cup, hand-painted it seems with stars and butterflies. “I don’t like to be wasteful,” she says, following my eyes. “Styrofoam is so bad for the environment.”

“For the fish,” I nod. “We talk about it in school, and last year we even went around spray-painting near the sewer grates with stencils that said NO DUMPING.” Suddenly, it is hard to stop talking. The latch in my throat swings open, and I am thinking how this is my only chance to make my best impression. “We’re very big on recycling, too, and on making sure dolphins don’t get caught in the fishermen’s nets.”

She is smiling again, wider this time. I sneak a peek at her threadbare jeans, stone-washed and intentionally ragged. (This is the style, though my mother finds it appalling, refuses to let me take part.) With red magic marker, she has printed, then meticulously darkened, the word BELIEVE down the length of her thigh.

“What do you believe in?” I ask her, pointing.

“Oh, lots of things. Nature. Love. Karma.”

“What’s that word?” I ask. It’s one I don’t recognize, one I’m not sure how to spell.

“Karma? Well, it’s like when you do good things, and then good things happen to you. The energy we put out into the world is the energy that comes back to us.”

“Is it spelled with a ‘c’ or a ‘k’?”

“A ‘k,’” she says, bemused but still smiling.

“So, with karma (k-a-r-m-a?)—when you do bad things—is that what they mean when they say it will come back to haunt you?”

“Kind of. Yeah.” She sips her coffee and looks out over the lawn where a light morning fog rolls through. “There’s this poet,” Spider tells me. “I studied her in college. And she was so smart, so sensitive to everything that was happening in the world, even though she didn’t go out in the world too much. Anyway, she said, You don’t have to be a house to be haunted.

I think this is the most profound statement I have ever heard and can’t wait to record it in my diary, that precious little book without lock or key. This wasn’t a secret so much as a revelation.

“What was her name?” I ask. “The poet?”

“Emily Dickinson,” Spider says. “Isn’t that a great name?”

I nod. “What’s your name?” I want her to say it, the real name she was given, not the pretend name she has chosen. I want it to slip through, the way water snakes between the river’s teeth, honest and insistent.

“Oh, it’s Spider,” she smiles—as if I didn’t know, as if I hadn’t studied everything about her, listened when the other campers called for her across the field. A pink blush mottles (m-o-t-t-l-e-s) her pale white cheeks. “I should have said that to begin with.”

You learn that some keys are invisible. They are transferred in language, or image, and their purpose is
to unlock a truth in your mind. This is like karma—karma is a key. It is easier to believe than God, who is
becoming foggy, a lost form in a deep valley. While you cannot pray to karma exactly, you understand it as a quiet
law. Because of Spider, you spend a lot of time at the library reading about Emily Dickinson. You are perplexed
because there seems to be only one picture of her. You wish you had a picture of Spider. But if you could choose—
would you rather have a picture, which would last forever, or her real name, which would last forever in a different way
but ensure you could find her in the phonebook? Spider’s lush red hair is proof, to your mind, of her excellent karma,
though you wonder about her limp, the way one leg drags slightly after the other. Is this the result of something she did
wrong, some Styrofoam she used before she knew any better? You wonder other things, too, things your sister insists
you should not wonder. Does she have a boyfriend? What do they do together in the dark? What would it feel like
to lay your hand on the skin that appears beneath the frays in her denim, like light through slats in the floor?


The next year a new girl returns to camp in the guise of my body. She is taller than everyone now, as tall as her own mother, who commends her height and has been known to exclaim, “We’re hoping for Nicole Kidman here, or Gwyneth Paltrow!” These are not names she recognizes, though she suspects they are movie stars. Whoever they are, she trusts they are tall and blond.

Though I am longing to see Spider, I have already loved someone in the interim (i-n-t-e-r-i-m), someone I was not supposed to love—my fourth-grade teacher. I have also failed to love someone I was expected to love—my first boyfriend. I wear Lee’s friendship bracelet around my bony wrist, practice thinking of him when I fall asleep at night. But soon my mind drifts back to Mrs. Miller, ascending the staircase in her spacious house, which always resembles Barbie’s dream house, no matter how hard I try to make it otherwise. She is clad in a lavender night gown that trails behind her, with slippers and a robe to match. When she opens the door to her bedroom, Mr. Miller is there, propped on the soft white pillows, reading the newspaper in his undershirt, his neckline rimmed with coarse black hairs. I squint to squeeze him out of the picture, but he always returns, resilient as a tooth ache or a canker sore. He flashes her an eager smile, then reaches over to switch off the light.

Now during free time, I linger on the hill, hoping for a chance to talk to Spider. As a cover, I have my notebook with me, and even an alibi (a-l-i-b-i): I’m pretending to write a field guide for future visitors to Camp Long.

“Hello!” she waves. “Can you remind me of your name again?”

“It’s Julie,” I say, my eyes averted, but my heart climbing up in my throat.

“That’s right. What are you working on?” Spider inquires. She tucks her one sore leg under the other and perches beside me on the grass. I glance at her quickly, like small sips of water. The worst thing is to be caught gulping. I notice that she is wearing a white t-shirt with a v-shaped neck. I notice that a silver charm dangles against her smooth, exposed skin. I notice that her nails are coated with gloss.

“Oh, just a project,” I offer, trying to sound nonchalant (n-o-n-c-h-a-l-a-n-t). “I want to write a detailed guide to the campsite, maybe have it distributed to future visitors.” For some reason, when I’m nervous, I lean on my biggest words. They are like crutches, which my father says make your armpits sore if you have to rely on them too long.

“What a nice idea!” she says. “Will you draw maps, too?”

“Maybe, but I’m more of a wordsmith than a visual artist.”

Spider sits beside me for a little while, scanning the landscape for campers gone wild or astray. “Did you make that bracelet yourself?” she asks, and all at once a door—a portal to a new kind of conversation—begins to materialize.

“Actually, my boyfriend made it for me,” I reply.

Now Spider regards me in a different light. I can hear the shift in her voice, the note of reverence. “Really? You have a boyfriend? That’s wonderful.”

“It was bound to happen,” I say, “now that I’m almost eleven.”

“What’s he like?”

“Oh, you know—like a boyfriend.” This is a harder question than it sounds, since Lee is mostly just an outline to me, a blurry apparition like the Gnostic Jesus. In some essential but inexpressible way, I didn’t believe Lee’s body was made of the same earthly substance as mine.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” I ask, and this is easier now because I have established myself as an experienced woman, a potential confidant (c-o-n-f-i-d-a-n-t).

“I did,” she sighs, “but we broke up. I probably shouldn’t be wearing this necklace now, but I like it so much I kept it anyway.”

Spider has granted me license to look, to peer at the piece of silver glinting against her collarbones. It is, of all things, a key.

“Does it open something?” I whisper, the world becoming too loud a place again, threatening to drown out our conversation.

“No. It’s just—symbolic.” Her eyes are green and dreamy, but now they are moist, too, like she might cry. “You know, I think he was saying he had the key to my heart.”

“Then, why did he give it to you? Shouldn’t he have kept it?”

Spider looks at me, her eyes growing wide with genuine surprise. “I never—” she furrows her brow—“I guess I never thought of it that way.”

“Do you want to know a secret?” I say. It is more of a lie than a secret, but sometimes the lines between these are blurry, too, the truth itself like an apparition.

Spider nods. “My real name isn’t Julie.”

“It isn’t?”

“No. My real name is Juliet, like the girl Romeo loved. It’s old-fashioned, so I don’t use it. I’ve actually never told anyone before.”

Where Spider touches my arm, the little white hairs rise up, ecstatic. “I promise,” she whispers, “that I won’t tell anyone.”

“Thank you,” I say. “May I ask about your real name?” My mother has taught me nothing if not good manners.

Spider looks over her shoulder, then out at the field, then back again, her dreamy green eyes coming to rest on mine. “All right,” she concedes. “But you can’t tell anyone, or it’ll take all the fun out of the camp names.”

I smile into her face like a flower drenched in sunlight. “I promise,” I say.

“It’s Andrea.”

“I’ve never heard that name before,” I murmur, forgetting to let the air pass through to my lungs.

“Spelled like ANN-dree-uh,” she says, “but pronounced differently: On-DRAY-uh.

It is the most extraordinary name I will ever learn, better than any princess or protagonist (p-r-o-t-a-g-o-n-i-s-t). “Mum’s the word,” she tells me, a long finger with a tapered nail laid gently over her lips.

Spider presses herself to standing and pulls a whistle out of her pocket. I marvel that her name is as red as her hair, not like a candy apple or a cartoon balloon, but deeper, darker—something sacred even—blood on an altar or a sword.

“All right, everybody! Gather around!”

Andrea is the only word I write in my notebook. A-N-D-R-E-A. It becomes my first mantra, the key to an unseen door.

In school, you learn there is a text and a subtext. The teacher says there is always a subject and a theme. The theme
runs under the subject like a dark river. You picture this like the Red Sea. Your job as the reader is to part it with
your staff, to split the waters between what is obvious and what is only implied. In your first essay of fifth grade, you
will explain what you learned at Camp Long. For instance: Water lilies are not free-floating, as you had once
imagined, but tethered to the base of the pond. This is a subject. The themes beneath it, the themes that only the best
and most intrepid readers will recognize, are as follows: beauty is never unconditional; nothing is as it appears; the
surface and the sub-terrain often contradict each other; desire has deep roots that are not easily severed.

At the middle school, the Girl with your name becomes obvious. For years, she was only an implication, but now, in the combination class, eighth-graders seek her out—a patsy, a stick in the mud, a testing ground for a series of appalling (a-p-p-a-l-l-i-n-g) experiments. She will have her hair singed with an antique Zippo. She will have her arms profanely graffitied with Magic Marker. She will learn to wear a box over her head at lunch time while someone else devours her tuna and pickles. Even the seventh-graders find her at times an easy target.

“What does a door bell say?” Nancy asks, bounding toward her through the parking lot.

“Is this a riddle, or do you really want to know—”

Before she can finish her sentence, the classmate stabs her hard in each breast with the point of her finger. “Ding! Dong!

“Why did you do that?” the Girl asks, her nipples throbbing.

“I don’t know,” Nancy murmurs, hanging her head. “Peer pressure, I guess.”

“You don’t have to succumb to it,” the Girl promises.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Nancy looks up again, disbelieving, and punches each breast hard with her fist. “Ding! Dong!

The Girl will learn to spend a good deal of time standing outside her body.


Fortunately, I have a friend named April. She is sweet and soft-spoken, some might say juvenile, while others might call her a wallflower, given that she is slow to blossom and quick to withdraw from a crowd. April goes to a different school, but sometimes we walk home together. She has long, straight hair and long, painted nails and a great fondness for make-up and tiaras. She also has a sister named Kelly, though her sister is indisputably (i-n-d-i-s-p-u-t-a-b-l-y) real and spells her name with a y.

“Do you shave your legs yet?” I ask her.

“I just started,” April replies, sipping from a juice box while we stand at the intersection.

I have learned to look up to April, even though many people mistake me for her older sister. She was the one I called when the bleeding began, the one who knew what I meant when I whispered, “What’s the worst thing that could ever happen to a girl?” April was good that way. She was patient and kind and kept a whole drawer full of Maxi pads and panty liners she had stolen from the real Kelly. April even owned three tampons, but like me, she was afraid to use them.

“So how do you do it?” I prod. “People are starting to talk.”

“Is it bad?” Her chin quivers sympathetically as she glances in my direction.

“Not terrible yet, but they’ve noticed the hair now, so I expect the problems will escalate.”

“Well, can you borrow your mother’s supplies? She must have a razor and some shaving gel.”

“She doesn’t,” I say. “My mother doesn’t shave her legs. She doesn’t believe in it.”

The pink bow of April’s mouth unties itself into a gasp. “Julie, is your mother a hippie?”

“No, she’s a Republican.”

“How can she—” April fumbles for her house key, which is hidden under a crate on the front porch, the same crate where a milkman still delivers cartons (not bottles) of 1% and Acidophilus (A-c-i-d-o-p-h-i-l-u-s). “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. She thinks women shaving their legs is just a scam to get us to spend more money on products we don’t need. But that’s easy for her to say; she doesn’t grow any hair on her legs. They’re as white and waxy as a pair of candles.”

I can tell April is flummoxed (f-l-u-m-m-o-x-e-d) by this news and will probably spend some time nursing a chocolate milk as she mulls it over. “No hair at all? Not even the little downy blond kind?”

“No,” I say, shaking my head.

“Julie, are you sure your mother isn’t an alien?”

I wasn’t sure. I had been known to imagine that I was not of my mother the way most children were, that we had never been connected by the twisted, umbilical cord—my infant body tethered to her like a water lily to a murky pond. You could say that for some time now, I had been troubled by the notion of daughter as derivation (d-e-r-i-v-a-t-i-o-n). I had even tried to write this in a poem once, but my teacher said that poems were meant to be uplifting, “to instruct and delight,” and all my poem did for the reader was make her feel like I needed a good psychiatrist.

“Come to my room,” April says. “I have to show you something.”

We close the door behind us and perch on her bed. Kelly is breeding rats in the basement, and April’s dad is at work at the city dump. Her mother, who I adore, works the afternoon shift at the local Target and won’t be home for several hours.

“Why so secretive?” I ask.

“This is a whopper. We can’t take any chances with it.”

From under her bed, April withdraws a copy of a book, what looks to be an old encyclopedia discontinued from her school’s library. There is even the bold red DISCARDED stamp on the inside cover.

“Did you steal this?” I am so impressed my eyes gleam in the narrow light between the half-drawn curtains.

“Of course not. I just took it from the donations pile.”


“It’s a ‘V,’” April tells me, arching her brows to imply something without actually saying it. “As in—”

“Oh, right.” We share some vexing questions about our own anatomy.

“It turns out,” she says, taking a slow, deep breath, “that there’s this folk tale about—”

“What? You’re killing me. What?”



“Growing teeth. Down there.”

“Well, if it’s a folk tale . . . ”

“No, it can actually happen. It’s rare, but it is possible that a certain kind of cyst can develop in a woman’s—you know—” we still aren’t brave enough to say the word—“and then she’ll grow a second set of teeth. Think about it,” April says, making her nauseous (n-a-u-s-e-o-u-s) face. “Where there are lips, it makes sense there are teeth.”

“I’m not crazy about this second-mouth theory,” I say. “I need to see what the entry says.”

“There’s a picture,” April warns. “It’s artsy, but still.”

Softly, I read aloud, safe inside the boundaries of quotation marks: “The vagina dentata, Latin for ‘toothed vagina,’ describes the folklore in which a woman’s vagina is said to contain teeth, implying that sexual intercourse with her is dangerous and might result in castration for her lover.”

My mouth turns instantly dry, which amplifies the sound of each swallow. “I’ll get the chocolate milk,” April says.

What you know now is that your body will betray you. It is only a matter of time. First, there was the sweat, the new
oils in your skin; now the blood that appears from the secret orifice. You realize that some words are harder to say
because they are not meant to be spoken. You realize you admire other women’s bodies as much as you fear your own.
This is something else you were never intended to say, so you don’t. There is a transformation that happens to some
girls. It is only discussed in metaphor: the ugly duckling that becomes a swan, the gangly weed that matures into a
delicate flower. But these metaphors are lazy ones. You can barely tolerate their imprecision. Hasn’t anyone noticed
that a duck and a swan are not the same species? Neither is a weed simply another form of flower. Whatever
happens that makes you a woman at last, it can be no less terrifying than birth, and worse because you are likely to
remember it. Though now, when you think of being born, you will imagine the tunnel toothed and ridged, like pictures
of stalagmite and stalactite you once saw in a special called “The Secret Life of Caves.”

My mother kneels beside the bath tub and turns the hourglass upside down. “This is how long you have before I come back to wash your hair.” I sit on the toilet seat cozy with my legs crossed, my body hunched around a towel.

“So are you going to get into the tub, or aren’t you?” She tests the water with her elbow like I am still a baby, then turns to look at me with one of her most formidable (f-o-r-m-i-d-a-b-l-e) scowls.

“I will,” I say—“after you go.”

There is always this stand-off between us now, my blue eyes and her blue eyes locked together in a masterful vise.

“Whatever you’re hiding,” she snaps, “I’m going to find out anyway. Privacy is just as impermanent as anything else.”

My mother regards me once more, shakes her head, then slams the door on her way into the hall.

Slowly, I unravel the coil of my torso and descend into the bubbly heat. Beneath the crumple of my clothes, I reach down and find my father’s tin of Barbasol and one of his thin, terse razors purchased at the Dollar Store. Through the wall, I can hear them both, my parents, washing dishes and sweeping the kitchen floor. It is my mother who complains, my father who concurs, and I can hear this without knowing the actual words they speak. There is a rhythm to these after-dinner conversations which I keep time to; I hardly need the hourglass at all.

“So, you’re really going to do it?” Kellie asks, taking my place on the toilet seat.

“Yup.” I push my heels into the tiled wall and raise my legs up out of the water. I begin to coat them in shaving cream while my sister watches. I don’t mind if she sees, and I know she will never tell our mother.

“Don’t you wish you had some instructions?” Kellie inquires. “I’m sure we could find some—in a book somewhere.”

“How hard can it be?” I retort. “Really stupid girls at school shave their legs every day, and I’m already reading at an adult level.”

“I doubt one has much to do with the other.” Leave it to Kellie to start sounding like a professor at just this moment. Sometimes I can barely stand her—my sister, that hopeless pontificator (p-o-n-t-i-f-i-c-a-t-o-r).

“I don’t want to discuss it,” I tell her. “Let’s talk about something else.”


I slide the plastic safety from the razor and watch it float away on the foam. “Marilyn Munster.”

“OK. Why her?”

“Well, I think about her a lot.” Kellie frowns at me. “Not that way. I think about how her aunt and uncle—they loved her, but they couldn’t see her, not for who she really was. They just thought she was an ugly, hopeless freak.” The razor makes a funny sound against my skin, like the one-armed paper cutter at school slicing through a stack of dittoes—one perfectly Xeroxed (X-e-r-o-x-e-d) ream. “But we, the audience—we know she isn’t that at all. We know that, when it comes right down to it, they’re the ugly, hopeless freaks.”

“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?”

“Don’t get me wrong. I like Lily and Herman as much as the next person does, but they’re the ones who aren’t normal. They just think it’s Marilyn who isn’t.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Kellie wants to know.

“Perception,” I say. “The truth has more to do with who’s watching than with what’s real.”

For a moment, I feel proud of myself, proud of my big mind and my long legs in their state of transformation. I swoon with pride, leaning back against the soft shell pillow, watching the hair disappear from my legs. Then, suddenly, I feel the razor stick. I see the blood beginning to gush out into the water before I feel the sting, which is before I see the piece of flesh caught in the razor’s teeth, the divot I’ve cut out of my skin.

The pain is sharp and of a high frequency like someone striking a key at the very top of a piano. I try to wrap a wash cloth around the wound, but the blood keeps seeping through, and I am wincing and writhing with only one smooth leg, the other wet with matted gold hairs.

Kellie is silent, and soon my mother’s hand is on the knob, the door creaking open. “Time’s up!” she calls, and sure enough, the hourglass sits helpless on the ledge, its belly full of bright white sand.


There were moments in your early life when you had intended to be a better sort of girl. At the very least, a different
sort of girl from the girl you had become. Only some of it was physical. You could tell yourself all you wanted about
that other world where families like the Munsters lived. In that world, on Mockingbird Lane, everyone drove hearses
and kept gargoyles in their living rooms. They all had acne and wore glasses and left perspiration circles in their
clothes as a matter of course. Their legs were scarred from shaving accidents, which everyone considered a rite of
passage. In your heart, though, you knew it wasn’t true. The Munsters were one of a kind, and they were the wrong
kind; it was only their oblivion that kept them safe, and you had lost yours the way you had lost every last one of your
baby teeth. The new teeth were not deciduous. There would never be another chance. This was hard to admit, but you
had to: You were not even Marilyn Munster, misplaced and misjudged, long-suffering in your loneliness and perfect
beauty. Everyone had been right about you all along. You bite your tongue and clamp it tight to hold back tears.
You are the monster in your own closet.

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