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Winter Haven, Florida, 1984 photo

The Pizza Huts are the same here as in Ohio – red checkered tablecloths, vinyl booths, a jukebox – and for a minute I trick my mind into believing we are a short car ride from home. Then I remember how a month ago we dragged everything we owned out onto our lawn for people to go through and buy: the badminton set my grandparents gave me for my thirteenth birthday, our record collection and stereo, both our beds and television set, my Donny and Marie dolls, books by Gloria Steinem and Adelle Davis and Anais Nin, my roller skates and bicycle.  

“It’s only for one year,” my mother says. “Mike knows people in Arizona.”

I want to point out to my mother that neither one of us really knows Mike, that it was supposed to be “You and Me Against the World,” like the Helen Reddy song we sang together in the front seat of her car before Mike came along, but I know it won’t do any good. When I look at her, she is already gone. An hour from now they will be on the highway, headed west, one suitcase lighter, and I’ll still be here, in a city I am unfamiliar with, in a state half a world away from the one I know.

“A year will go by like that,” she says, snapping her fingers.

I stare out the window and then up at the ceiling; try to believe. My mother comes and sits beside me in the booth. I stare across at Mike. I can’t figure out what makes him so special. We haven’t even known him two months.


The day before we leave for Florida, I find a vial of coke in my mother’s purse. I am sitting on our porch with a bowl of shredded wheat. She’s gone in to make coffee. It’s morning and the sun is so bright I can’t look straight ahead without shutting my eyes. I take the vial across the driveway to the cornfield and watch the contents dust the soil. I return the vial to her purse and eat the rest of my cereal as though nothing has happened. Under normal circumstances, I would expect some sort of retaliation for a crime of this magnitude. I would fear for my physical safety. But these aren’t normal circumstances.


Mike has a daughter in Ohio, a year younger than me. Her mother’s name is tattooed on his arm and I wonder where my mother’s name will go next. I don’t see his daughter’s name anywhere. I don’t see how a year will go by like [finger snap]. I get up and walk over to the jukebox. There are all the familiar songs.


A month ago she was careful to blame this all on my father. “I’m not the one who’s sending you to boarding school,” she said. “I’m not the one married to a woman who won’t allow my daughter into my house.”

I didn’t say anything to that. There wasn’t anything to say.


My father and stepmother make my half-sister Leanne go with them to take me to school, even though she has been complaining about the trip all weekend.  It’s a ninety-minute drive through orange groves and not much else. There isn’t much to look at and nothing much to say. She could be at a roller skating party with her friends. She could be at the mall. She could be doing anything else but this. This is what she is reminding us with her silence.

Over the weekend her mother took me to K’Mart and I followed behind the cart as she filled it with towels and a comforter, sheet sets. Leanne hates K’Mart because our father makes her buy her underwear there.

“That’s where I draw the line,” he says. “I’m not shelling out more than a buck for something no one should see anyway.”

When we get to the school my stepmother’s natural, southern instinct for hospitality suddenly takes over and everything is “honey’ this and “darlin’” that. She carries in the bags of bedding and arranges them neatly on the bed herself while Leanne and my father buy snacks from the vending machine on the first floor for the drive back.

“Can you think of anything else you need, darlin’?” Bobbi says when she’s finished, and I find it impossible to hate her the way I know I should, the way my mother would want me to.

I watch through the small window over my desk as they leave. It’s like watching a sitcom family on TV, and I am left with a feeling similar to the one I have turning off the television on the nights my mother does not come home until long after I’ve gone to bed.


Two hours later the dorm is full of teenage girls’ voices. This is not an elite boarding school in the Atlantic northeast. We will not be wearing fancy uniforms or applying to Ivy League universities. The reasons we have been sent here have nothing to do with academics. Somewhere inside, each one of us knows this, and we will bond accordingly. We will bond easily like orphans. But some of us will hate each other first.


Every girl here has at least one problem she’s trying to exploit or hide: Bulimia, anorexia, alcoholism, suicidal tendencies, drug addictions, kleptomania, nymphomania, feelings of abandonment, feelings of privilege, feelings of inferiority, an inability to feel anything. The popular girls have two or three. I haven’t figured out what mine are yet. I’ve never been anything close to popular.


My first roommate, Terri, has overly-bleached white hair and bad skin, which she keeps covered with a thick layer of foundation and blush. She’s brought a portable record player from home and a milk crate full of albums and every night before she can fall asleep we have to listen to Stairway to Heaven twice. Some girls here are from old money but most are from new. The Cruz sisters flew in by helicopter. Terri says her father invented a bra for a Porsche.

No one in my family has done anything for three generations. My great-grandfather started a pump company in the middle of the depression. Every time we go to the mall my grandmother points up at the ceiling and says, “Thank you, J.C.!”

But that is on my father’s side. I have never lived with my father. I visit him and my grandmother once a year in the summer.

In Ohio my mother worked two jobs and I qualified for free lunches at school. No one I know in Ohio comes from money, new or old. Most of my friends’ fathers work in factories or are gone like mine. We find our Halloween costumes by climbing in the Volunteers of America box by the library. I was a hobo three years in a row.


It’s after lights out and Terri wants to know who I think is the prettiest girl at Grand Blanc. We each make a list and at the top of both of ours are the Harmon sisters – Heather and Josie – who are tall and blonde and have been told by several agencies in New York City they could model if they lost twenty pounds.

After that it’s a crapshoot. We go through the rooms of the dorm one by one, considering each inhabitant.

We are still discussing the rest of our lists when Janice comes over to yell at us for making Chelsea cry.

“The walls are paper-thin,” Janice says. “Chelsea can hear everything you’re saying.”

Janice and Chelsea share the room next to ours. Janice looks like Janis Joplin and tells everyone she worships the devil and Chelsea is pretty, but not in the traditional way like Heather and Josie. Chelsea was number five on Terri’s list and number two on mine. We both agreed that without makeup she is probably a seven but with she is a nine or ten.

We follow Janice back to her room and sit on Chelsea’s bed. We tell her we are sorry. We tell her neither of us would make anyone’s top fifty list, with or without makeup. But Chelsea doesn’t care about that. Chelsea only cares about being number one.


A week later Chelsea asks me to move in with her. Maybe she is afraid of Janice and her devil-worship. Maybe she wants someone who will worship her instead. I don’t stop to think. I start packing right away. I can’t believe my luck. Chelsea is the most popular girl in school. I feel like I have won the lottery. I feel luckier than if I were asked out by Tom Delaney, who is the most popular boy and already dating Heather Harmon.

I say goodbye to Terri and her Led Zeppelin albums. I pass Janice in the hall and try not to think about how much she hates me. I sit on my new bed across from Chelsea’s and try not to stare, but Chelsea moves as though she is on a stage or movie screen and my eyes follow like a camera, documenting the slightest change in facial expression, the twisting of an ankle or extension of an elbow.

She seems to exist to be watched. It is already clear I am not to do homework or read in front of her. If my interest wanes for even a second, she senses this and responds immediately. She bunny hops over to my bed and sits down firmly in my lap, displacing my book, or takes the pen from my hand and writes her name all over my folder and homework and blank paper, until I am paying her my full attention again.

I will learn to complete my homework in study hall or in class. I read only when Chelsea is out with friends or after she has fallen asleep.


It’s years later before I realize this was my first time falling in love. The first fifteen years of my life there was my mother and then my mother was gone and there was Chelsea.

Written in Chelsea’s handwriting across a 10th grade binder I find twenty years later:

Chelsea. Chelsea. Chelsea. Chelsea. Chelsea. Chelsea. Chelsea. Chelsea. Chelsea. Chelsea! Chelsea! Chelsea!


There are girls here from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic and the Cayman Islands and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Tunisia and the Bahamas and Curacao and Dubai. Chelsea was born in St. Croix, which she tells me is in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She shows me pictures and everything looks green and lush and tropical like you’d expect it to. All my pictures are of Ohio: cornfields and farmhouses and snow. One whole photo album is dedicated to our pets: barnyard cats and geese and dogs no one else wanted. We never had any of them longer than a year. They got run over by cars or ran away or were given away or left behind when we moved. But people kept giving them to us anyway, and we kept taking them.

There aren’t any animals in Chelsea’s photos, just boys with tanned skin and eyes that seem to reflect the water. Chelsea is a year younger than I am but in the photos you would never know it. She is seated at bars and large restaurant tables with half-filled glasses in her hands and jewelry that looks borrowed from her mother on her ears and neck and fingers.

In a picture taped to my mirror, my mother is standing in a field of marijuana, a terrycloth headband around her forehead, the top of our Irish setter’s head skimming her fingers. My mother is in jeans and her shoulder-length hair is permed and she’s not wearing makeup or a bra.

Chelsea’s mother resembles a brunette Grace Kelly. She wears stiff-collared shirts and pearls and pants my grandmother would call slacks. Chelsea says she used to be a model but she doesn’t say what she is now. She is back in St. Croix and there is a stepfather there, too. Chelsea’s real father lives somewhere in Florida also. It occurs to me Florida is where men go when they need to start over. Florida is a state for new wives and children, stucco homes and backyard pools.


Chelsea has black lace dresses with big pink satin bows and espadrilles from Spain in all the primary colors. She has thick black belts that she wears slung low on her hips and a bottle of Giorgio perfume she sprays overhead every morning. Her nails are bitten down so far there’s only pink, no white, and she waddles like Charlie Chaplin instead of running when she’s excited, which is most of the time.


In the mornings Chelsea puts in Prince or Bob Marley and stands topless in front of the mirror while she blow dries her hair and puts on her makeup. We are in direct contrast to one another on opposite sides of a mirrored room. She is all jutting hipbones and small, perfect breasts and charcoal liner while I am soft curves and rimless eyes. I have never stood topless anywhere. My breasts are larger, heavy and uncomfortable outside of a bra. Even alone in my bedroom at home, I am quick to throw on a shirt. Here, I dress in a bathroom stall or shut into my tiny closet. I avoid mirrors. I have a small compact in which I check to make sure nothing is blatantly out of place; that there is no food or toothpaste on my face.

In the evenings, after her shower, Chelsea stands in the center of our room, a towel cinched on her hip, and bends at the waist, slapping me with her long strands of wet hair.

“You’re such a retard,” she says, laughs.

 I laugh, too. I don’t want her to stop. I like the way this feels, like I’m standing in the middle of a downpour.


Afterward, the button up, broadcloth pajamas my grandmother bought me three sets of are damp and smell faintly like Chelsea’s Vidal Sassoon shampoo. I don’t change them. I leave them on and watch Chelsea roll her hair in pink plastic curlers. I sit on my bed with my stuffed cat Flower on my lap. Flower is ten years old, her fur grey and matted instead of white and fluffy, as it once was, the stuffing gone out of the middle where I have curled her over my arm as I sleep. I wait for Chelsea to finish rolling her hair, to bound over onto my bed, to throw Flower in the air, not caring if she lands on the floor or in the wastebasket or closet. I wait for Chelsea to snuggle up next to me, to nose her way under my ear, her hair and body still damp, the curlers swinging awkwardly against my neck.


After lights out she sits cross-legged on her bed in her mother’s satin gown, rubbing the inside lining of a bra with thumb and forefinger. She likes Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz; dirty romance novels about rich girls like her. We are halfway through Hollywood Wives. We’ve already read Scruples and Princess Daisy.

I turn on my flashlight and read until her fingers stop moving. I stare at her in the moonlight the way I imagine her father stared at her mother when she wore the gown for him. I will not leave, I whisper. That is how I know I am different. I want her to know it, too.


Saturdays our dorm watches horror movies in the rec room on the main floor: Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Piranha and Halloween. It’s dark and damp and reeks of mildew and we pile onto the couches and carpet in front of the TV in our sweats and pajamas and eat potato chips and banana moon pies and whatever else we can buy for a quarter from the vending machines and wait for Mrs. Beal, our weekend dorm mother, to remind us that “massages of any kind are forbidden at Grand Blanc Academy.”

Mrs. Beal is around eighty and wears thick glasses and never seems to have any idea what’s going on, and consequently, we all prefer her to our weekday dorm mother, Mrs. Meyers, who is nosy and stern and reminds us of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Chelsea is never near me on these afternoons. Chelsea is on another couch, snuggled up with other girls - thin girls with delicate features and long hair and makeup that sparkles - girls who look right through me. I watch them from across the room. They are holding hands, resting their heads in each other’s laps, French braiding each other’s hair. I am on a couch with girls no one else talks to. I am sitting upright, breaking my moon pie into tiny pieces to make it last longer.


The week before school started my grandmother took me to lunch to discuss the upcoming year.

“You know, Erin, I specifically chose a coed school for you,” she said. We were at the department store restaurant at the mall, the one that overlooks the makeup counters on the first floor. “Half the girls at those all-girl boarding schools end up lesbian by the time they graduate.”

“I just don’t want you to have a harder life than you need to,” she told me. It was the same speech she’d given me when I was nine or ten and she caught me rolling around on the bed in my bathing suit with my half-sister, our tongues in each other’s mouths.

I thought this was funny coming from her, since most of her best friends – Uncle Tony and Uncle Elmo, Aunt Margaret and Aunt Bess – were gay, and most people who met my grandmother assumed she was gay as well, dressing as she did in pantsuits, with no makeup and short, cropped hair. Going to dinner with women who looked the same.

“You don’t want to be a lesbian,” she said. “Trust me. It’s a tough life.”

But I didn’t think I was a lesbian. I didn’t have a preference for girls over boys. (Once, while playing with a younger, step-cousin, I had pushed my tongue into his mouth, too.) 

I was just desperate; for love or sex or physical contact of any kind. I wanted someone with whom I could reenact love scenes I’d watched in movies and on TV, someone I could moan for the way my mother moaned for the men she married and brought home, someone who would moan for me.


A bunch of us are standing around the rec room, waiting while this old guy Vance fills the vending machines. He’s been here half an hour, taking his time, looking over at Faith every couple minutes because Faith has enormous Dolly Parton breasts, so everything she wears makes her look slutty, even the baggy sweatshirt she’s wearing now. Maybe this is why he forgets the locks.

Justine is the first one in line after he leaves so she notices the door. She only has to use one finger to pry it open and then we’re all between the glass door, grabbing whatever we can reach, like contestants on a game show. We take stuff we don’t even want, just cause it’s free. We stuff candy bars into our shirts and pockets and waistbands.

Half an hour later, word has spread through both floors of the dorm. By the time someone finally snitches to Mrs. Meijers about what’s going on, there’s nothing left in either vending machine.

The next day the chaplain calls each of us down to his office individually. After that, our weekly allowances are docked and Vance is more careful when he comes to fill the machines. He triple checks the locks. He barely looks at Faith.


The Halloween dance is tonight. Chelsea is going as a flapper, borrowing a costume my mother wore in some play before I was born because she’s petite and flat-chested and we both know it will look better on her. She puts her hair up and darkens her eyes and slings on a long strand of pearls. I sit quietly on my bed and wonder if the pearls are real. I am trying to decide what to wear to the dance, or if I am going to go, or if I am going to stay in the room eating vanilla sandwich cookies like every other night.

 “You have to go,” Chelsea says, using the back of my hand to blot her lipstick. “Everyone’s going. Don’t be such a shut-in for chrissake. You’re going to make me look bad by association.”

Outside of the dorm, we hang in different cliques. Chelsea is friends with all the popular girls in ninth grade: Maggie and Allie and Coco. They hang out with older boys like Mauricio and Javier and Oscar at the student center after school or at games on weekends. I stay mostly in our room, waiting for Chelsea. Sometimes after dinner I go for a walk with one of the other quiet girls in tenth grade: Jill or Kim or Faith. I never talk to Chelsea outside of the dorm. I don’t approach her if I see her at the cafeteria or pool or on school grounds. This isn’t something we’ve ever discussed out loud. It’s just something you know.

Chelsea is leaving. She is late for meeting Javier, who is from Saudi Arabia but who looks Italian or Hispanic. Most of the Saudi Arabian boys are taller, leaner. Javier is short and stocky and walks with a cockiness shared by the Hispanic boys. His hair is dark and curly like theirs too, and he hangs with them instead of the other Middle Eastern boys.

 “I better see you there,” she says.

 “Seriously,” she says. “Don’t be a shit-head.”

I stand in my closet looking for something to wear. I don’t have a costume. Some of the girls are putting their hair in pigtails and wearing pajamas, carrying oversized suckers and teddy bears.  I consider dressing like a hobo for the fourth year in a row but then grab a pair of leg warmers and an old sweatshirt instead. I get out my scissors and cut the sleeves and around the neck. I tie a headband around my forehead. I put on a black leotard and tights. I am slightly chubby but not yet fat. I suck in my stomach, try to stick my ribs out of my chest.


I walk with Jill and Kim to the dance. They are both wearing pajamas. The first thing I see when we walk in the gym is Chelsea and Javier standing by the punch bowl looking mildly bored. The way the flapper costume is cut, half of Chelsea’s ass is hanging out. Suddenly I am overcome with self-consciousness. I bend to pull up my leg warmers. I don’t know why I am here; why I thought I would feel okay dressed like this around these people, around my peers.

Kim and Jill pull me along, past the punch bowl, out onto the dance floor. A song by The Pointer Sisters is playing and I try to close my eyes and dance the way I used to dance around my living room when my mom worked nights and no one was home.

I don’t know when Toben joined us. At some point I open my eyes and he is across from me, dancing and smiling and something about his smile reminds me of Mike’s, there is a certain slick similarity. And I don’t know if it’s Toben or the music or the dancing or Kim and Jill whispering in my ear that Toben likes me or Chelsea looking more miserable as the night goes on, but for an hour and a half I am able to forget myself, forget my awkwardness, my body, and dance.

I dance to Madonna’s Borderline and I dance to Footloose and I dance to Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark and before the night’s over, Toben and I slow dance to Phil Collin’s Against the Odds and the theme song from Endless Love.

I dance until my clothes and hair are soaked with sweat and I have to take my leg warmers and shoes off and carry them back to the dorm. I dance until the last song has been played and the lights have been turned on. Kim and Jill and I are the last ones to leave. Toben has already gone; left with another boy, the one Jill was dancing with.

“See you tomorrow,” he said, and I walk back to the dorm thinking about this, the implications of seeing Toben tomorrow, and suddenly I feel self-conscious again, like I won’t know what to say or how to look at him without Madonna playing, without leg warmers, in regular light.


When I get back to the room, Chelsea is already there, a towel around her waist, wiping the eye makeup from her eyes.

“Well,” she says. “Someone has a boyfriend!”

And I can’t tell if she’s making fun of me or jealous or happy.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” I say.

“But you like him,” she says. “I can tell.”

“He’s alright,” I say, shrug, because I’m not sure how I feel.

“Nope! You like him! You like him!” she yells, and then she runs over to me, sits in my lap with her arm around my neck. I’m still hot from the dance and her skin is cool and damp from the shower.

“You better not screw this up,” she says, taking my face in her hands, kissing me on the cheek. “But of course you will! I know you. I know you’re going to screw this up. You shit-head!”


Toben and I meet one time after the dance. We go for a walk after dinner and sit on a bench. He holds my hand and I try to think of something to say. But nothing comes. I have never been alone with a boy my age. We sit and there is nothing but the silence. No music to dance to or sing along with. No reason to move. I can feel that I am failing him. I am screaming inside my head. I am staring at my hand wrapped somewhere in his. A boy’s hand, sweaty and callused.

Before he leaves to cross the road back to the boys’ side, he says my name slowly, drawing it out as though there is a whole question or sentence in there, before letting go of my hand. As soon as he’s gone I know I have blown it. I know Chelsea will be mad. She will tell me I am a loser. She will tell me she’s already heard from Javier that Toben said I am too slow. She will hop over to my bed chanting “too slow! Too slow!” and pull back the covers and climb in beside me. She will grab the book from under my pillow and hold it over my head and say, “Read! Read!”

I will open the book to the last page I marked. I will look down, see her fingers working the fabric of the bra in her hands, her forefinger and thumb circling the satin together over and over. I will take a deep breath, thinking how perfect everything finally feels. I will find my place, begin to read.


Chelsea wakes me up in the middle of the night; says the cramps are worse than ever. Chelsea gets horrible periods. She takes Pamprin, Midol, Tylenol. Nothing helps. She bleeds through everything. Her closet is full of bloodstained pants and underwear. At home, back in the Virgin Islands, someone washes them out for her. I have only seen her do laundry here once. No one wants to loan her clothes anymore. Everything comes back stained.

“Come on,” she says. She still has the bra in her hand. She’s still working the fabric.

“Where are we going?” I say.

“To the bathroom,” she says. “Come and sit with me.”

She takes my hand and pulls me silently down the hallway. We don’t want to wake Mrs. Meyers. We don’t want to talk to the chaplain again either.

There are six showerheads grouped together in a big open room and a seventh showerhead separated by a four inch wall you have to step over to get in. There are no bathtubs and what Chelsea really wants is a bath.  She hangs her robe on a hook and turns the water on in the seventh shower. She waits until it is steaming hot and sits down cross-legged over the drain in the middle of the floor.

“Sit down,” she says and pats the edge of the four inch wall. I am in my pajamas and the tile is already wet from the shower but I sit on it anyway. I sit beside her and hold her hand while the water fills up around her.

Half an hour later we are back in our room. I am changing my pajamas. I am soaking wet and cold. Chelsea is already in bed. By the time I am in mine she is already asleep. I roll onto my back, slide my hand under the covers. I arch my back and my legs fall open on their own.


The Wednesday before Thanksgiving my grandmother comes to collect me in her white Cadillac. I would rather stay with Chelsea and the other girls who don’t have relatives nearby but my grandmother does not offer me this option. It is a two hour drive to Clearwater and my grandmother wants to conduct conversations as though she is both the guest and host of a talk show the entire time. I have been scolded in the past for reading or sleeping on car trips. “It is selfish and rude,” my grandmother says, “to sleep or read while another person drives. It is the passenger’s duty to entertain the driver.”

As part of our conversation, my grandmother informs me that the country club she belongs to is having a Thanksgiving buffet dinner tomorrow night and I am expected to accompany her. All of her friends will be there and there will be cocktails and dancing after dinner. I fantasize briefly about being left alone in my grandmother’s condo, eating whatever leftovers I find in the fridge and watching sitcoms and Johnny Carson on TV, but the fantasy is brief. Too long a silence and I will be reprimanded again for failing to fulfill my passengerial duties.


My grandmother’s condo is on the 17th floor.

“Take off your shoes,” she tells me before we enter. “But leave on your socks. I just had brand new white carpet put in and the oils from your feet will stain it.”

I leave my socks on and walk to the guest room. On the bookshelf are books like “The Happy Hooker” (which I read on a previous visit) and “Mommie Dearest” and a coffee table book full of Asian pornographic art (which my grandmother showed me the last time I was here).

I undress and lay my clothes flat on the bed. I step into my bathing suit and it is tighter than I remembered and I have to keep sucking in.

“Hurry up!” my grandmother says and I grab a towel and wrap it around me.

Physical exercise is very important to my grandmother. She has been the same weight since high school. When I walk out into the hall she will be standing there in a two piece bathing suit. She will make me put a bathing cap on my head. “The old ladies at the pool insist,” she will say. She will count the number of laps we swim out loud.

At dinner she will say, “No rolls, no potatoes, no dessert.”

She will have two vodka martinis after dinner and then we will go home and she’ll have another vodka martini while we watch Johnny Carson and I drink a Diet Coke.

Later, I will fall asleep in the guest room, wondering who is reading to Chelsea, who is sleeping in my bed. I wonder if she’ll wake them up in the middle of the night if her stomach hurts, if they’ll sit with her in the shower.


My grandmother has bought me a dress for tonight but I have gained weight since she last saw me in August and it is tight. We do more laps in the pool before dinner, go for a walk on the beach.  In the past my grandmother has bought me tennis lessons, tried to get me interested in golf. Both my parents are natural athletes. My mother was the state champion in racquetball when I was ten. My father could have been a professional golfer. I can’t seem to catch a ball or run more than a quarter mile. I am clumsy and timid and awkward.

“Have you been playing any tennis at school?” my grandmother wants to know.    I lie and say, a little. I know she would love an athletic granddaughter. Someone like Jennifer Capriati. Someone with a muscular body and short hair. Someone she would like to be, if she had it to do over.

At the country club it is all of her straight, married friends. I don’t know where her gay friends go for Thanksgiving, but it’s not here. I miss Uncle Tony and Uncle Elmo, their beagle dog, Charlie Brown. I would rather be eating Thanksgiving dinner in their apartment, walking Charlie Brown.

I go into the ladies’ room and sit on the couch and eat the mints they have set in a bowl in front of the mirror. The mints are pretty colors, like M&Ms, and packaged by twos. You are supposed to take one. I manage to open and eat eleven packages before the bowl begins to look empty.

I go back to the table and my grandmother is saying, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” and holding her glass in the air as though making a toast. I take my seat and try my best to go unnoticed. I have to keep holding my breath so the seams of my dress won’t pop.


When I get back to school our room is a mess. My bed is unmade and there are candy bar and gum wrappers on it and Chelsea is nowhere to be found.

I start cleaning and find a pair of my pants balled in a corner of my closet. The crotch is blood-stained and the waist has been rolled down to sit on Chelsea’s hips. She is at least three sizes smaller than me, probably four now that I have gained weight.

I could never fit into her size 4 Guess jeans. I will never have a perfect, heart-shaped ass like her either.

Years later I will google her name and pictures of her standing with her arm around Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson will appear on my computer. Her bio will say that she works for a major cable network, that she produces award shows, oversees programming.

Her hair will be exactly the same.

I will picture her sitting on a fancy bed in a fancy apartment, rolling it in pink plastic curlers before she goes to bed at night.

I will find her email address and write her and she will write back. She will say I should come to New York City, that we should have a sleepover at her condominium. But six months later, when I actually have a reason to visit New York City, she won’t write back.

I will write her once more. I will never hear from her again.


Every day at lunch Mrs. Meyers hands out mail. There is almost always something for me. I get more mail than any other girl in the dorm. Because my mother was married three times, I have multiple step-grandparents and step aunts and uncles, along with my real grandparents and aunts and uncles, and all of them write me because my mother left me and they feel sorry for me. Even my mother’s second husband, who I haven’t seen in four or five years, starts sending me postcards, two or three a week, from different cities in Europe where he travels on business.

There is never anything from my mother.

I hang the postcards on my wall. There are already a good number of them: the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben and Trafalgar Square and Notre Dame.

My mother’s second husband lived with us from the time I was nine months until I was six or seven. I used to call him daddy and sit on his lap while he watched basketball and we ate hot dogs cold from the refrigerator. I wish I could remember at what age I became aware he wasn’t my real father.

He signs the postcards, “Love, ----.”

I call my biological father Frank. I have no memory of Frank before age eight. There are two pictures of Frank holding me when I was a baby and then nothing until I am in the third grade.


The Saturday before Christmas break I come back to the dorm after lunch to find our door locked.

“Hey,” I shout and knock on the door.

“Hey,” I say again, louder.

I push my ear against the cheap wood grain. I can hear muffled voices and rustling. I know Chelsea is in there. I don’t have my key and she isn’t answering.

I knock one more time before giving up. I walk down the hall to the TV room and sit on the couch between Jasmine and Stacey and Martha. They are watching one of those after school special type movies. This one is about a girl who is bulimic and I can’t help wondering how many girls are secretly taking notes in their heads, how many girls will become bulimic after watching this versus how many will get help.

Later I go back to the room and the door is unlocked. I open it and find Chelsea and another girl, Jody, sitting up next to each other in Chelsea’s bed. There hair looks messy and their makeup is smeared.

“Sorry,” Chelsea says. “We were playing house.”

Jody laughs a deep, southern sort of chuckle. Jody is from Georgia. She has an athletic body and short, punk rock, white-blonde hair, and multiple piercings in her ears, even though at Grand Blanc we are only allowed to wear a single set. Jody plays volleyball and basketball and her room is covered with Stevie Nicks posters. For Halloween she went as the guy from The Eurythmics and her boyfriend Mauricio was Annie Lennox. My grandmother would probably be happier if Jody were her granddaughter.

I stand there staring at them, not knowing what to say. I’m jealous, but I know I don’t have reason to be. I feel like I should leave the room, but I don’t want to. I want to stand my ground. This is my room, too. Chelsea is my roommate. Chelsea loves me.

“Maybe next time you can play, too,” Jody says, still laughing.

“Yeah,” Chelsea says. “You can be our daughter.”

“Or son,” Jody says.

“We’ll be one big, happy family,” Chelsea says.

“Come on,” she says, pulling back the covers. “You can get in bed with us now.”

She and Jody scoot closer together and pat the empty space beside them. I don’t want to, but I like Jody. Everyone likes Jody. She is good-natured and affable and she has that big, southern laugh. I sit on the edge of the bed with my back to them and Jody says, “Oh, come on,” and pulls me closer. She wraps her strong arm around me and I can’t help but smile and soon we are all laughing and Janice is coming in to see what’s so funny and then Terri and Heather and Josie. 


At Christmas, I fly home to Ohio, stay with my grandfather and his wife. My mother does not call and there is no mail from her either. We have no address or phone number for her. We assume she is still in Arizona but she could be anywhere, really, with Mike or someone else.

I am larger now by at least two dress sizes, and my hair is short and permed tight to my head. Before I flew here, my stepmother reluctantly took me shopping. I had no clothes that fit me properly and had taken to wearing the same pair of elasticized pants that had been baggy on me at the beginning of the school year.

“I can’t keep buying you clothes like this,” she said when we got in the car and I noticed she didn’t call me darlin’ or honey anymore like she did back in August.

In Ohio I don’t call my friends, who would want me to go with them to basketball games or house parties, until they got a look at me. They have boyfriends and older brothers who buy them cheap beer and little white pills that help them stay up all night so they can drink more. I am now the only virgin, the only one who doesn’t drink or smoke or take pills.

My grandparents don’t mention my mother or my weight gain. During the day I read and help my step-grandmother bake pies and cookies and at night we watch old movies and play board games and I eat as many treats as I want to and no one says anything.


Two days before Christmas, my step-grandmother’s son, Teddy, flies in from Atlanta. Teddy is only thirty, a bachelor, just fifteen years older than me. He is tall and thin and smokes cigarettes in the basement and doesn’t seem to notice I’m overweight or only fifteen. We sit in the backseat of my grandparents’ car beside each other on the way to and from holiday parties and laugh at jokes he tells only loud enough for me to hear. He’s the funniest person I’ve ever met, funny like Bill Murray in Stripes or Eddie Murphy on SNL, and I write in my journal that I believe our age difference is surmountable.

I start staying up later, after my grandparents have gone to bed. Teddy drinks beer, one after the other. We play Gin rummy at the dining room table and I follow him into the basement and sit cross-legged on the floor when he smokes. I am in my ankle-length flannel nightgown. He’s in jeans and a T-shirt. I am impossibly impressionable. If he wanted my virginity, he could have it. I am always waiting for him to try to kiss me.

The day he leaves I go into my bedroom and cry. I spend that night writing Teddy’s name in my diary. I fill two whole pages with his name.

I don’t think about Chelsea, how she would be mad if she saw it, how she would grab the pen and cross every one of them out.


When I get back, Chelsea is not in our room but there is a piece of notebook paper scotch-taped to my mirror:


Hey, Shithead,

How was your Xmas?

Did you miss me?

You better have!

What did you get me?

Your one true friend & love of your life,



Chelsea’s is the first boombox I’ve ever seen, a present from her father. She plays reggae and rap, Kurtis Blow and Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and The Sugar Hill Gang. It’s the first time I’ve heard any of them.

Back in Ohio we listened to Van Halen and Til Tuesday and Dire Straits. Here we listen mostly to songs by New Edition and Chaka Khan and Ashford & Simpson. We put in Prince’s Purple Rain and skip to Darling Nikki. We have hand signals to go along with “I Would Die 4 U” and practice them while standing in line at the cafeteria.

In March, “We Are the World” comes out and it’s all anyone listens to for a month. Jody and the rest of the girls on the basketball team put together a group and sing it for the talent show. Jody sings the Michael Jackson part. She has a sequined glove and everything. 


It’s after midnight on a Saturday and Chelsea has to go to the bathroom. This is why she has woken me up, to tell me this.

“Dare me to pee in the hallway?” she says. I am lying in my bed and Chelsea is sitting on top of me, sitting on my stomach, bouncing like a young child, bra in hand.

“No,” I say. I was asleep or almost asleep.

“Come on,” she says, grabbing my arm. “Come with me.”

I get up out of bed and Chelsea pulls me down the hall. She pulls me all the way to the end, just outside Heather and Stacey’s room, and then she widens her stance a good foot and pulls her nightgown up around her waist.

I let go of her hand, take a step back, and she smiles real wide like I’m taking her picture; like she knows she’s going to be famous someday and this moment will be part of her biography.


In the morning Mrs. Meyers will call a floor meeting. She will demand to know who is responsible for the mess in the hallway. When no one comes forward she will tell us we are wild beasts, undomesticated, incapable of training and rude in manner. She will say it’s no wonder our parents have sent us away.

She says if it were up to her, the chaplain would color each one of our spoiled bottoms. Instead we are each assigned an extra chore. Chelsea’s is mopping the bathroom floor, but Chelsea says she has never used a mop, that she wouldn’t know what to do with one. I complete my chore – emptying all the wastebaskets – and then start on hers. I am used to doing housework. I have been mopping our floors and doing laundry since I was in the third grade.

Chelsea sits on the sink in the bathroom, as though she is going to keep me company, but after a while she grows bored and hops down. She says she is going to see what Jody is doing. She says she’ll be right back. But I don’t see her again until after dinner. I spend the afternoon in the laundry room, reading The Color Purple in front of the dryer. My problems are nothing compared to Celie’s. The thing is, I actually like doing laundry and reading and being by myself.


It’s study time and Chelsea is mad at me. I know this because she is sitting out in the TV room with Mrs. Meyers instead of in our room with me.

Janice knocks on the door and hands me a folded up piece of notebook paper. On the outside it says “To Shithole, Love, lovely me.” I unfold it and inside Chelsea has written:



I’ll only come back if you read NOW!

If you are going to read NOW just yell!





P. S. I’m not mad, I just wanted to scare you. HAHA!


Friday night I come back from a walk with Jill and there is music blasting from my room. I open the door and Maggie and Allie are standing on my bed and my stuffed cat Flower is hanging by her tail from the ceiling. Chelsea is sitting on her bed, her bra in hand as usual. She does not stop laughing when she sees me. She does not ask Allie or Maggie to take Flower down or to get off my bed.

I don’t know whether to get Flower and run or just run.

I turn around and walk down the hall. I walk past the TV room where Jill and Faith are watching TV. I go in the bathroom and sit in a stall with my face in my hands and wait for Maggie and Allie to leave.

Later Chelsea will tell me I’m being stupid. She will tell me I need to grow up. That I shouldn’t let little things bother me. She will be holding Flower in her hands with her bra. She will toss Flower at me like a basketball and I will flinch and look away.

I will sit on my bed and face the wall and pout until Chelsea says, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, I’m sorry,” and barrels over onto my bed, snorting like a pig with her nose under my neck and ear and in my hair.


I am not doing well in my classes. I have gone from an A and B student back in Ohio to an A, B, C, and D student here in Florida. I keep waiting for someone to call, to be yelled at or punished, but no one seems to notice, and my grades go from bad to worse. I am too scared to ask my teachers or anyone for help. Instead I fall farther and farther behind, like in one of the dreams I’ll have over and over as an adult. I’ll go to school unprepared, dreading the next test or quiz.

Only in World History will I surprise both myself and my teacher by getting a 100% - the highest score in the class – on the final exam, after a year of B’s and C’s and D’s on the tests and quizzes that were true and false, fill in the blank, and multiple choice. I’ve never been good at remembering cities or dates. But the final exam is an essay question: tell me everything you learned this year. I guess I learned more than I thought.


Chelsea’s father comes to take her to dinner, but I don’t see him. She says he is waiting in the car. She runs down the stairs and I go to look out the window but they are already pulling out of the drive.

When she gets back she has a white Styrofoam box in her hands. “Here,” she says. “I brought you the leftovers.”

“What is it?” I ask, opening the box.

“Just try it. It’s delicious.”

She has a sly smile on her face and I know not to trust it, but I am curious anyway. I use a plastic knife to cut a small piece. It tastes salty. Like a piece of steak soaked in the ocean overnight.

After I’ve swallowed, Chelsea tells me it’s alligator. I’ve never had alligator, but I’m not averse. Back home, my mother spears frogs from the pond in the summer when we have hog roasts at our house. Alligator doesn’t taste that different from frog. I smile and sit down at my desk with the plastic utensils and finish what’s still in the box and Chelsea just snorts. I can tell she’s disappointed. Her practical joke failed.


In my journals from this time I write that I went to the Valentine’s Day dance with Cameron Hoey. I don’t know why I would lie in my journal. The lie surprises me, makes me wonder how much I can believe myself. I can’t remember ever talking to Cameron. But there it is in my own handwriting, “Cameron Hoey, 2nd boyfriend at Grand Blanc.”

I get out my yearbook and in the back, on a page devoted to “campus couples,” is a picture of Cameron with one of the Cruz sisters, Ana or Bianca, it’s hard to tell which, and I have some vague memory of them dating part of that year.

I want to believe it’s possible I went to the dance with Cameron. I remember having a big crush on him after Christmas, of seeing him on school trips, eating at a nearby table in a McDonald’s. He was athletic, but quieter than the other athletic boys. Something about his eyes always seemed sleepy, like a large animal that’s been tranquilized and moves in slow motion.

Later, I get on my computer, Google Cameron’s name. The first thing that comes up is a mug shot. I check the name, the middle name, the date of birth. It is the same person. The charge: domestic battery. I can’t recognize Cameron in the photograph. The man on my computer looks ten years older than it says he is. He looks like someone’s down and out father, rather than a forgotten peer.

The next thing that comes up is an obituary dated September 12th, 2008, and the words “found dead at his residence.” Catty-corner, on the same page, is an obituary for the writer David Foster Wallace. Both Cameron and David were from small towns in Illinois; both committed suicide on the same day.

I remember that day well; where I was when I heard the news of David Foster Wallace’s death. It was all anyone talked about for weeks.

I hadn’t thought about Cameron in so long. I want to call up my friends from Grand Blanc to tell them, but I don’t know anyone to call or if anyone would remember.


Jill and I are sitting on my bed, reading my mother’s poems. There are several about me that she wrote when I was a baby and one that she wrote for my seventh birthday. The rest are about men or how it feels to be a woman or Yoko Ono.

In seventh grade we were required to memorize a poem to recite and I memorized one of my mother’s.

My mother wrote all of these poems years ago. She sent a couple out to magazines and they were rejected and she stopped sending them anywhere and then she stopped writing.

Sometimes I think about sending them out again. I think that if I can get one published, it will inspire her to write more.

Jill reads one and says, “This is really good” and then reads another. Chelsea has never read any. I haven’t shown any of the other girls here either.


On the wall above our desks Chelsea writes,


“Money is the key to end all your woes,

Your ups, your downs, your highs

And your lows.”


It isn’t until years later that I figured out these are the lyrics from a rap song; that she hadn’t made the words up herself.


The school is offering a trip to Europe over spring break and my grandmother says it would be a good experience for me and that I should go. My grandmother has been all over the world. She takes the Concorde to Paris twice a year. She plays in Bridge tournaments and is invited to have cocktails by people like Princess Grace and Prince Rainier.

I don’t want to go to Europe. I don’t know anyone who is going. But I don’t have anywhere else to go either.

Chelsea is going to St. Croix and everyone else I know is going home or to stay with nearby relatives. I still haven’t heard from my mother and no one in Ohio has offered to fly me home.

My grandmother sends the check and my stepmother comes and takes me to get my passport. I have never been out of the country. Over the course of ten days we will be going to England, France, Switzerland and West Germany.

Chelsea says Allie is going. I don’t want to room with Allie, mostly because I know she won’t want to room with me. But neither of us knows anyone else. Later I find out Allie’s boyfriend Ed is going and Allie will spend most of her time with him. I will spend the majority of our “free time” shopping or going to museums by myself.

Allie will get drunk five of the ten nights and we will watch our first porn together in our hotel room in Switzerland and smoke our first cigarettes on the balcony there as well. Some of these nights I will have to help Allie to the bathroom or her bed or both. I will begin to feel closer to her. I will help her out of her clothes and pull back her hair and wipe her face. 

The night we get back to the States there is no one else in the dorm, not even Mrs. Beal or Mrs. Meyers, and Allie will ask to sleep in my room and I will say yes.

The next day Maggie is back at lunch and then the other girls are back, too, and I don’t talk to Allie after that. I see her at the cafeteria or in the rec room downstairs but we don’t talk or say hi or smile.


Chelsea is mad again, only this time she is mad at Charles, not me. Charles is a boy in my grade. He is in all of my classes except one. He is from the Bahamas and slightly chubby and likes to joke around. He is the only person I talk to at school and now Chelsea is pissed at him. She says he is spreading rumors about her; rumors that aren’t true. She writes me a note during quiet time. The note says, “I want these rumors stopped!!” She wants me to tell Charles. She says she has already taken care of the girls, that Charles must take care of the boys. “And not the little shitwads that I don’t care about,” she says. “I want him to start with the Varsity Basketball team and end up at the soccer team!”

I say, okay, I’ll tell him.

I don’t know what the rumors are but I know Javier broke up with her last weekend and now she is trying to get him back. I figure it has something to do with him, something to do with that.


My grandmother comes and picks me up for the weekend. I don’t want to stay with her but I don’t have a choice. She drives me back to her condominium in Clearwater and the first thing I have to do is take off my clothes and stand on a scale in my bra and underwear so she can see how much weight I’ve gained. Thirty-five pounds.

“How are you ever going to have a boyfriend?” she asks. “How are you ever going to have a job?’

I don’t have an answer. I just stand there, looking up at the ceiling. Waiting to put my clothes back on. I can’t look at my grandmother. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next two days. If I’m ever going to make it out of this state.


On the drive back to school my grandmother stops at Publix and fills a cart with thirty cans of liquid meals that are supposed to make me thin. We carry them to her car and then carry them to my room at school. She makes me promise I’ll drink one a day, instead of eating lunch or dinner. She says she is just trying to help me; that she wants me to be successful and to have a good life. She says the easy thing to do is let me eat whatever I want, like my other grandmothers. I say okay. I say I will try. But as soon as my grandmother is gone Chelsea grabs a can off my desk and says, “What the Hell is this shit?” She looks at the label. Then she opens it. She takes a whiff and then she starts her Little Tramp walk to the bathroom and I follow.

“Oh, no,” she says. “No, no, no, no, no. No roommate of mine is drinking this shit. No way. I won’t let you.”    

She dumps the contents of the can in the toilet and flushes.

“Don’t ever let me see you drinking any of that shit, you hear me?” she says.

I say, okay, and shove the rest of the cans in the back of my closet and they’re still there in May when I pack my things to leave.


Some of the girls here eat baby food instead of real food to lose weight. They have Mrs. Beal bring them jars of bananas and vanilla pudding and cherries, which they say taste the best, then sit around eating them in the rec room while the rest of us eat chips and candy bars and pop.

Most of these girls were thin already, but they want to be thinner. They say the school food made them gain five pounds. They pull up their shirts and stick out their stomachs, try to convince you they’re fat.

I take my chips and pop and go in my room. I shut the door, eat alone.


In April I turn sixteen and my mother sends me a dozen long stemmed red roses. I haven’t seen or talked to her in eight months. I don’t have an address or a phone number for her. She is somewhere in Arizona, working construction with Mike.  I don’t know which town, so I picture desert: a single cactus, a cliff. The flowers sit in a vase on my dresser for a month until they start to smell and Ms. Beal tells me I have to throw them out.


By springtime, everything is beginning to unravel. On a school shopping trip to a nearby mall, Jasmine and Faith are busted for shoplifting. Three days after that, China, who everyone knows is bulimic, who has Mrs. Beal bring her whole pies every Friday night, is hospitalized. She’s 5’11”, 105 pounds. She was 140 when she got here in August.

Then Terri is caught in the boys’ dorm one night at three in the morning.

And another girl on our floor, Anna, slits her wrists. They take Anna to the hospital in an ambulance. Mrs. Beal says she is okay but she doesn’t come back to school and we never see her again.


We each have a safety deposit box in the rec room downstairs, next to the vending machines. For my birthday my aunt and uncle send me two gold bracelets and I put them in my box with some cash and a ring my grandmother gave me.

I keep the key to my safety box in my penholder on my desk. I never think about hiding it. I barely ever use it.


I don’t remember who tells. If I went to Mrs. Meyers or one of the other girls did. I wish now none of this had been brought to the authorities. If I’d known how it would turn out, I would have forgotten all about the damn bracelets, the forty bucks, the ring.

We only had another three weeks. We were almost home.


They start calling girls out of classes. Interviewing us. Searching our rooms, our purses, our boxes. I never suspect Chelsea. I think maybe Jasmine, Faith, Coco. The girls who have been caught shoplifting. Girls I don’t know that well, who aren’t my close friends, who don’t mean anything to me.


They call my name over the loudspeaker and Mrs. Garcia, my Spanish teacher, tells me to get my things and go. Chelsea is already in our room packing when I get there. She’s wearing a pair of boxers rolled on her hips and no makeup and her hair is in a ponytail like she’s getting ready for bed even though it’s the middle of the afternoon. Her grandfather is on his way to get her.

I don’t know what to say.

I don’t want her to go.

I want to tell the principal, Mrs. Meyers, our parents, everyone, that it was all a mistake. A practical joke gone wrong. An enormous misunderstanding. Chelsea was gong to give the bracelets back. She forgot they were in her purse. Someone else put them there.

I try and speak. I get out the words: I’m sorry. Her back is to me and I don’t know if she has heard me. Her skin is paler than I’ve ever seen it. The back of her elbows, the back of her neck. I think about her sitting in the sun in St. Croix with her best friend Jessica (“Only I can call her Jess!”), about the boys who will be watching her.

I think of Javier’s face after he hears that she is gone; Jody’s.

I’m sorry, I say, again. I say it over and over, but I can’t tell if I’m saying words out loud or only in my head.

Then Chelsea’s grandfather and aunt are in our room and they’re using their bodies to shield her from me, or me from her. They keep their backs to me the entire time. No one says goodbye.


Later, after Chelsea’s gone, Janice comes looking for me in the TV room. She tells me it’s my fault Chelsea isn’t here anymore and I don’t say anything because I know it’s true. Everyone is looking at us and Janice leans forward and spits and I can feel the wetness on my face. I wipe my cheek with the back of my hand and walk back to my room. I spray a little of the Giorgio Chelsea left on her dresser and close my eyes and it’s not like she’s still here but it’s not like she isn’t either.


In my autograph book, girls write things like, “Sorry it was such a hard year for you” and “ you went through shit you didn’t deserve” and “you need to get out more” and “learn to be more independent” and “you’ve really changed since Chelsea left, and, oh yes, I mean for the better.”

I stare at their words, wonder who I was in their eyes.

The only memories I want to hold onto are the ones of Chelsea and me. None of the rest of these girls matter. That’s what they don’t understand. That’s what they’re not getting. The only thing I will take from this year is the time I spent with her.


On the way to the airport, “Caribbean Queen” comes on the radio. I am in my father’s car. I am flying to Arizona. My mother and Mike have moved into a two bedroom apartment in Mesa where I will attend eleventh grade. I have never been west of the Mississippi. Everyone says it is a dry heat, the exact opposite of Florida, but I don’t think it matters.

It’s been two months since I saw Chelsea. This song was becoming popular right before she left. She said it was about her. When I laughed she said, “Listen to the lyrics, shithead.” I stare out the window, ask my father to turn it up.