blackbirdonline journalSpring 2018  Vol. 17 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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1981 begins with the birth of Polly Klaas, who would have been nothing but some blank-eyed bundle of need to me (because I am seven and going places). Dynasty premieres, and though I see photos of gold-shouldered Joan Collins in the pages of TV Guide, the show airs past bedtime. Reagan takes the throne, and I learn that movies are reality, or that reality is a movie. I cast myself in role after role: leader of the free world, legal eagle, damsel-in-distress, librarian, temptress, the most talented singing/dancing orphan who ever lived.

In the dark, wet gray of an Indiana February, I burrow in the basement and type on my parent’s electric typewriter. I bang bang bang and listen to the hum, pausing to pull words from air like a magician birthing rabbits from hats. By the time the sun makes an appearance, my first novel about an extraordinarily talented and lonely young girl named Molly (who is also Bruce Springsteen’s biggest fan) has been abandoned, all three single-spaced pages.

March ends with the almost–assassination of our president. By mid-May someone has taken a shot at the Pope. In between, the space shuttle Columbia hurtles into orbit and back again. In between, what-is-this-world-coming-to headshakes pass from my mother to her friends as I watch slow-motion snippets of gray suits falling on Reagan, pushing him into his limousine. Suspicion confirmed: life is a movie! I memorize words from the dictionary while lounging on brown carpet in front of the TV, planning my first-grade spelling bee outfit, down to the color of lace on my bobby socks (though I’ve already decided I am going to be an actress).

With summer comes a trip to Grandma Betty’s house in the woods of Brown County. Because I am exiled by my brother and cousin, I take to sitting on the floral sofa in the great room of the A-frame, weaving bows and ponytails into Grandpa Don’s white Afro while watching the ball bounce back and forth. Chris Evert rules the U.S. Open. Maybe I will play her in an ABC biopic when I grow up. Maybe I will be a tennis star.

Three days after my brother’s eleventh birthday, Betty positions a KFC bucket on the coffee table between us. I nibble the fried part off all the legs while Princess Diana drags that impossibly long train down the aisle. The only difference I can see between her and Chris Evert is the style of clothing. I make note to play them both in their made-for-TV movies. At night, in the loft, I open the windows and practice saying “I do” to the applause of so many cicadas.

In second grade we learn about nuclear warheads and the rings on Saturn. In October I turn eight and spend the morning burrowing through red leaves, shaking bugs, grass, and dirt from my hair like Lazarus. One day, my mother tells me that the princess is going to have a baby (See? Life is a movie!). One day, the girl from Miracle on 34th Street, who is no longer a girl but a beautiful woman, drowns in a lake. My mother cries. I want to tell her that it will be all right, that I have plans to play Natalie Wood in the movie of her life. Instead I notice how the tears roll down but no sobs come out. Later, my mother makes the whole family watch my self-choreographed rhythm ribbon routine to the Olivia Newton John song “Physical.” My brother informs me the next day that my leotard has been involved in a terrible accident. He hands me the burned remains, the pink polyester melted down to cartilage.

Soon December fills our days with Christmas lights, dog-eared catalogs, handwritten gift lists, and our mother’s smiles. My parents’ old best friend comes to town, all the way from Wisconsin. He tells about babysitting me, about hiding under my crib while I slept, trying to crawl out on all fours, then hands over my first gift of the season: a journal covered in calico fabric. I crack the spine, dedicate the book to my mother and Bruce Springsteen, and begin my first collection of poems. Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali loses his final fight, the first American test-tube baby is born, Polly Klaas’s family prepares for her second year of life, my brother builds his third set of nunchucks, and Kurt Cobain turns fourteen. I learn that life rhymes with strife, that most everything I can imagine is like a flower or a shadow, and that line breaks are more fun than Broadway songs. By the end of the month, my journal is full, and I know my place in the world (though my acting career continues in my dreams): I am a shadow in the background, a blossom on old wallpaper, Cassandra, cipher, a watcher and namer of things.  

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