A Drowning Moth

by Jennifer Dickinson[easy-media med=”8476″ mark=”gallery-qUDj0e”]

A Drowning Moth

Last fall, when my sister Adelaide went away to college in France, I got out all her diaries and read them one by one.  It took me a while because she’s kept a diary since the third grade.  I was way behind Adelaide.  She’d already hooked up with two boys by the end of her seventh grade year, and one of them played drums in Orphan Rats, her favorite band.  She made the Honor roll and got inducted into the Honor Society.

I finished seventh grade with a C in Pre-Algebra and a note from Mr. Donovan: “I fear that Lily is so preoccupied with walking in Adelaide’s shadow that she fails to find merit in her own high school experience.” 

Mr. Donovan thought he had me all figured out because he caught me reading one of Adelaide’s diaries during chapel.  He asked me why I had it and I told him I liked reading about her.  He made a big speech about how he’d noticed that I’d started wearing Adelaide’s old clothes and that they looked strange because she’s so much shorter than me.

Then he took me into his office and pointed to a picture on his desk of him and his blonde wife and two dimply twin babies.

“You should remember that not everyone has a good high school experience. I didn’t and now I have this.”

I knew I would never have a good high school experience.  Not like my sister.  She used to spend every Friday night at Einstein’s, the nightclub down by the beach where all the public schoolers went to party.  My parents would’ve died if they knew she did that.  I knew marijuana made her legs shake if she smoked too much and I knew by the time she graduated she’d slept with five guys.  She got voted Most Fearless by the senior class and I wanted to remind her of that when she climbed into bed beside me, shaking and crying.  How could the former queen of the synchronized swimming team ever shake and cry about anything?

Mom said that Adelaide lost her mind in France, that the older man she dated ruined her forever.  But Adelaide told her journal that Olivier made her feel like a real woman when he brought her brioche and held her hand while they walked along the cobblestone streets.  I wanted to write Olivier a letter:

“Dear Olivier, I hear you have the gentlest touch a girl could ever know, but you should know that there’s a baby growing inside Adelaide with your name on it and you should man up and come to Florida and take care of it.”

One night Dad grasped me by the shoulders and stared too deeply into my eyes.

“Lily, you’d never let us down, would you?”

My dad didn’t know that I never read one bit of Summer Of My German Soldier because I could look at Isaac Broner’s test.  He didn’t know that I spent lunch periods lying in the crawlspace under the Art house, just biding my time until the bell rang.  It only took five minutes to eat my peanut butter and jelly and then the rest of the time was all mine to think about Melanie Harper’s bottom lip, and the way she sucked on it when she didn’t know the right answers.

Melanie only talked to me twice.  The first time she dropped her pencil and it rolled under my desk and she asked me to get it for her.  But the second time we were in the locker room after P.E.  The room was wall-to-wall sweaty girls.  I couldn’t take my eyes off Melanie.  She only wore her lacey pink bra and underwear and I wanted to press my tongue against the mole on her collarbone.  She asked to borrow my deodorant and after she used it, I never used it again.  Just the thought that it had touched Melanie’s skin made me lie awake in the dark.

I went with Adelaide to the midwife.  She said she wanted to “share the experience” with me.  She told the midwife she wanted to give birth in the bathtub and the midwife clapped her hands and told Adelaide she’d made a wise decision.  When we got home, Adelaide asked if I thought she’d be a good mother.  I said yes even though I didn’t know.

I have more bad memories of my sister than good.  I wish it was different but she’s never had much use for me.  When I was four, she liked to lock me in the closet of my bedroom and play the Vincent Price portion of Michael Jackson’s Thriller on our record player.  I could hear her and her little friend giggling while Vincent growled and I sobbed.  Or there were the times I was lucky enough to be invited to sleep beside her only to be tricked into believing her body had been inhabited by a ghost named Madeline who could predict my death. “In six weeks, you’ll be in the ocean and a big wave will pull you under and you’ll drown,” she’d whisper, her eyes rolling back into her head.

As we got older, I only tried harder to make Adelaide like me.  I left notes under her door asking her to meet me in the kitchen where I promised to make fresh squeezed lemonade.  I cheered on the sidelines at her synchronized swimming meets, hoping that afterwards she would put a soggy arm around me instead of one of her zillion friends.  The harder I tried to get her attention the more Adelaide ignored me, until one day I cornered her in the hallway. I asked her why she hated me and she smirked:  “I don’t know why,” she said.  “I just do.”

But something about being pregnant made Adelaide want to spend time with me.  She converted her room into the baby’s room.  Since she wouldn’t know the sex for a few more weeks, she picked Sagebrush Green.  I helped her paint and I helped her hang a giant street map of Paris.  She drew a heart on Olivier’s street.  He wouldn’t return any of her calls but she said it was because he needed space to get used to the idea of being a father.  She said she would teach the baby French and that it would only eat organic food and it would never, ever be allowed to watch television.

I heard Melanie Harper telling her gang of friends that she would be working as a lifeguard assistant at the Seahorse Club for the summer and I pictured her in a red one-piece bathing suit swinging a whistle around her swan neck.  I asked Adelaide to go with me, but she said she’d rather die than go to that “bloody awful” club again.

I showed my membership card to the man at the desk and then I walked down to the cabana and ordered lunch.  I ate by myself at one of the little tables next to the beach. I’d decided to eat very fast and then find Melanie.  But the twins, Tenley and Taylor, showed up.  They’re the kind of people who would knee you in an alley if they thought no one would catch them.

“We heard your sister’s knocked up,” Tenley said, tossing a fry back into her mouth.

Taylor elbowed her horse of a sister. “Tenley, stop it.”

“My sister’s business is none of your business,” I said.

“My brother says she gave it up to half the boys in school before she left for college,” Tenley said.

I marched right over to that pudgy beast and grabbed hold of her yellow hair.  I shoved her face into her plate of ketchup.  I got kicked out of the club.  The manager demanded I apologize, which I refused to do.  He took away my card and threatened to call my parents if I ever came back.

I never saw Melanie.  Thank God.

Adelaide wanted Pop Tarts.  Strawberry ones with the white frosting and pink sprinkles on top.  She said she’d been craving them all day and that if she didn’t get one, she might die.  So even though it was practically midnight, we climbed into her car and went to the store.  My eyes had just adjusted to the blinding grocery store lights when I saw Melanie standing over by a display of crackers.  She reminded me of a stallion with her long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail.  She smiled when she saw me and I walked over to her.

“I heard about what happened with Tenley,” she said and held up her hand.  I’d never high-fived anyone before so I stood there like a giant worm until she grabbed my hand, pulled it up, and slapped it.

“I hate that bitch,” she said and we both smiled big.

A tall woman came around the corner.  She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail like Melanie.

“This is Lily,” Melanie said.  “Lily, this is my mom, Karen.”

“Hi Mrs. Harper,” I said.

“Call me Karen.”  She held up a roll of cookie dough.  “We got a craving.”

She said I should come over for dinner sometime.  I felt my insides go mushy.  What if I chewed with my mouth open or what if a big piece of lettuce got caught between my two front teeth?  I didn’t have to worry about saying anything because Adelaide grabbed my arm.

“We have to go now,” she said.

I said goodbye to Melanie and Karen and followed Adelaide out of the store.

“I think I’m bleeding,” Adelaide said.

I called my mom.  She said she’d meet us at the hospital.

The baby was eleven weeks old, about the size of a fig.  The nurse stroked Adelaide’s hand and told her that one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and it didn’t mean she couldn’t get pregnant again.  Adelaide cried so much her eyes swelled shut.  Mom stayed on the edge of the bed and Dad showed up with a bouquet of daisies, like Adelaide had just won a blue ribbon at a swim meet.

“Don, I think you should take those flowers out of here,” Mom said to him and he said he could never do anything right and left.

Mom blamed the mood of the house on the heat wave and not on Adelaide’s situation, which was how Dad referred to the miscarriage.  No one talked at all.  Dad worked.  Mom played talk radio.  I braided my sister’s hair and gave her foot massages. I took it upon myself to pull down the Paris poster and paint the green walls white.

Eighth grade started and Tenley and Taylor loved to ask me about my sister and cackle, cackle.  I couldn’t go to the crawlspace anymore because the art house was being renovated.  One Friday in the middle of Earth Science, Melanie Harper passed me a note.  Do you want to come over for dinner tomorrow night?  I checked the box marked yes and passed it back to her.

Karen ordered pepperoni pizza for us.  After dinner, we all watched Friday the 13th.  She screamed with us during the murder scenes.  Karen drove me home and Melanie walked me to the door.

“Thanks for coming over,” she said and touched my hand.  I felt like I might faint.

Upstairs, Adelaide lay in my bed, flipping through channels.  Her long hair was pulled back in a messy bun atop her head and she wore the same old Dartmouth shirt of my dad’s.

“Have fun?” she asked and I said yes.  My hand still felt warm from where Melanie had touched it.

It happened like this: one trip to the movies and then one trip to the bathroom stall of the movies.  Melanie said she wanted to tell me a secret and then she planted her lips on mine.  I was embarrassed because we’d been eating popcorn and kernels were stuck in the crevices between my teeth.  Melanie didn’t seem to care.  She ran her fingers through my hair the way people did in the movie we’d been watching.  We heard the door to the bathroom open and I backed away from Melanie.  She didn’t say: “Don’t tell.”  She took my wrist and led me out of the stall.

Adelaide hadn’t left the house since the miscarriage so I leapt off the sofa one evening when she said she wanted to take a walk on the beach.  It was windy and we walked close together, our arms intertwined.  We climbed up onto the lifeguard chair and sat side by side.  She told me she felt bad because a tiny part of her was relieved she wouldn’t be a mom after all and then she called me the one friend she had in the world.

“Lily, I don’t know what I’d do without you,” she said.

I told her I had a crush on someone.

Adelaide made a bunch of guesses—horrible ones—and I finally said: “Melanie Harper.”

Adelaide stopped smiling.  “Don’t make jokes like that, Lily,” she said.

I said, “I’m not.”

She patted me on the shoulder:  “It’s normal to get crushes on girls sometimes.  It doesn’t mean you’re a lesbo.”

Back at home she got out one of her old yearbooks.  She pointed out a girl named Sasha.  Mouse teeth, thin hair, nothing special.  Adelaide said she’d looked up to Sasha because she got accepted to Vassar and Yale.

“I wanted to be her,” Adelaide said, her eyes widening.  “And a few times I dreamt I kissed her.  But I never did it.  Don’t be so dramatic, Lily.”

How could I tell Adelaide that I’d already kissed Melanie?  And that the reason I wore Adelaide’s fancy flowered scarf around my neck was not because I wanted to feel French but because Melanie had given me a hickey the size of a quarter on my collarbone?

Melanie wanted me to tell my parents what was going on between us.

“Your sister got pregnant by a guy in Paris and miscarried.  All you’re doing is kissing a girl.  I bet your parents will say so what if you tell them you’re gay.”

But I knew my parents would freak.  They laughed about the waiter at their favorite restaurant because of the way he “talked like a girl.”  My mother cracked my father up by doing imitations of the way he walked, shaking her butt back and forth.  And once I heard her say that she loved her hairdresser even though he was “as queer as a three dollar bill.”

How could Melanie ever understand? Karen made her a “coming out” cake the day Melanie said she liked girls.  Melanie said maybe Karen could call my parents and have a talk with them about us.  But I knew my parents.  Nothing changed their minds.  Especially not a mother like Karen Harper, who made her living working as a massage therapist and who had decals of fairies on her car windows.

Maybe I was being too dramatic.

I broke up with Melanie in the locker room while everyone else was at P.E.  I forced myself not to look at her face when I did it.  I stared at the concrete floor and when she started crying, I walked right past her and out the door.  That night Adelaide climbed into bed beside me.  We shared a Mounds and I told her what I’d done.

“The right thing isn’t always the easy thing,” she said and then: “I’m proud of you.”

I didn’t tell Adelaide that I’d come home from school and cried in the shower for twenty minutes.  I rested my head on Adelaide’s shoulder and I stayed that way until I fell asleep.

Adelaide bought a cookbook and made it her mission to conquer the entire desserts chapter.  Lavender crème brulee, brownies specked with mint chips and sprinkled with sea salt; every day after school she greeted me with a plate.   She even got out my father’s old fryer and fried Mounds bars.  She helped me write my essay on Iago.  She let me wear her old sequined bathing suits and taught me moves from her synchronized swimming days.  With daily practice, I got the hang of extending a perfectly straight leg out of the water.  It got easier and easier to hold my breath and by the time it was too cold to stay in the pool anymore, she swore I could go out for the team at school if I wanted.

She began working at an Italian ice stand and pretty soon after started dating the manager, a guy with pink-tipped hair named Cameron.  Mom kept Cameron’s age—twenty-five—from Dad because she was so happy Adelaide had started wearing lipstick again and combing her hair.  Mom didn’t care that Cameron had a baby daughter in El Paso and she didn’t care that Adelaide needed to go back to the gynecologist for birth control pills.

“Your sister’s herself again,” Mom said with tears in her eyes as we stood on the porch and watched Adelaide get in the car.  “My prayers have been answered.”

Cameron had a little brother named Lucas.  Lucas was fourteen, a year older than me.  Adelaide thought it would be a good idea for us all to go on a double date.  I let Adelaide put blonde streaks in my hair.  We went to a Moroccan restaurant with belly dancers and we all sat together on big pillows on the floor.  Lucas wore round glasses and had his wavy hair pulled back in a ponytail.  He didn’t look at me much.  Mostly, like Cameron, he stared at my sister.  Adelaide flirted with the waiter.  She made silly jokes and tottered around on platform high heeled shoes.  She hardly ate a bite and after dinner Cameron drove us to the boardwalk.  At first, Cameron and Adelaide walked behind us, but then they disappeared down into the sand dunes.  Lucas bought me a vanilla ice cream cone. We sat together on a bench, not talking, watching other couples walk by.  Arms slung around each other, kissing, giggling—this was what I should’ve been doing with Lucas.  Instead I focused on eating my ice cream, hating my sister for leaving us alone.

Lucas suggested we walk down to the playground with the little aluminum swings shaped like circus animals.  I climbed on the back of an elephant and he climbed on the back of a tiger.  For a minute or so, the only sound was the rusty clanging of the swings moving.  Then Lucas said he’d be right back and ran off—I assumed he left because he hated me but he returned holding a camera. He asked me to tilt my head this way and that and took Polaroids of me on the swing.  I’d always hated smiling for photos and I liked that Lucas didn’t make me do it.   He laid the Polaroids out on top of a wooden table and we stood over them together, watching as my image slowly appeared.

“You have pretty eyes,” he said. Melanie had said the same thing once and then she’d kissed the tip of my nose.   I turned to look at Lucas. He kissed me softly at first and then he wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me to him.  I wanted to like kissing him.  I wanted to like it so bad that my stomach hurt.  But it felt like when I was seven and married my cat Oscar.  My friend Amanda announced it was time for the bride to kiss the groom and I pressed my mouth against Oscar’s nose.  Kissing Oscar just felt cold and it was the same with Lucas.

Adelaide and Cameron were waiting at the boardwalk.  Adelaide’s mascara was smeared a little and she carried her shoes in one hand.  She wagged her finger when she saw us.

“Hope you guys weren’t getting into any trouble.”

Lucas showed her the pictures of me and she said I looked beautiful.  Cameron did, too.

At home, Adelaide grilled me about my time alone with Lucas and when I told her about the kiss, she jumped up and down.

“Lily’s got a boyfriend,” she teased at breakfast the next morning causing my father to blush and my mother to clap her hands.

She begged me to get the Polaroids and I brought them downstairs.  My parents crowded around the table to get a closer look.  My mother picked out her favorite and hung it on the refrigerator.  In Adelaide’s clothes and with the blonde streaks in my hair, it was easy to pretend the girl in the picture wasn’t me.

Lucas and Cameron started coming over on Saturday nights when my parents went out for their weekly date.  Adelaide cooked a big dinner and after we finished eating Adelaide and Cameron disappeared up to Adelaide’s room.  Lucas and I stayed downstairs and he took pictures of me.  I’d gone to the thrift store and bought a bunch of flowered granny dresses and cat eye sunglasses that I wore in the pictures.  Lucas called me his muse.  He said he thought about me all the time at school.  He gave me a blood red bracelet to wear that meant we were a couple.  Kissing him became routine—like peeing or brushing my teeth.  Lucas told me I had skin as soft as his rabbit’s.  The only way I could handle being with him was by drinking my father’s St. Germain liqueur mixed with Hendrick’s Gin.  We called the drink “Saint Lily.”

One night I drank too many Saint Lilies and decided I wanted to show Lucas some of the synchronized swimming moves my sister had taught me.  I put on the suit with the sequins stitched to look like the American flag. I twisted my hair up in a bun and jumped in the water.  It was late February and still pretty cold, but all the alcohol kept me warm.  Lucas clapped as I twisted and turned in the water and then he stripped down to his plaid boxers and jumped in.  He started showing off, doing different strokes.  He said he used to be on the swim team.  The only stroke I knew was freestyle and when I told him this told me he wanted to teach me how to do the butterfly, his favorite.

It turned out doing butterfly was much harder than it looked and I flailed around for a while before Lucas grabbed me by the waist and pulled me to him.

“You’re a drowning moth,” he said.  His breath smelled like the four drinks we’d shared.  He tried to wrap his body around mine, but I swam away. I could only take being close to him for a short time and that night he’d reached his limit.  Lucas got huffy and went back in the house and I floated on my back and stared up at the stars.

Even though I wouldn’t sleep with him, Lucas took me to the Winter Formal.

I let Adelaide pick out my dress.  Tight at the top with a fluffy skirt.  I whirled around in the department store mirror and pretended to like the way the dress squeezed my ribs.  Adelaide told me I was the beautiful one in the family.  The night of the dance, she applied black liner to my eyelids, and dusted my face with powder that smelled like peach ice cream. At the end of the transformation, Adelaide jumped up and down and my mother cried.   I caught sight of myself in the mirror and gasped.  I looked like a clown.

Lucas wore a tuxedo he’d found at the thrift store.  He fastened a rose corsage around my wrist and took Polaroids of me standing in the middle of my mother’s garden.  I’d told Lucas I didn’t have many friends so not to be surprised when we got to the dance and no one wanted to talk to us.

“You’re the only person I want to talk to,” he said.

Like me, the cafeteria had been transformed into something ridiculous.  The theme was disco and my teachers wore bell-bottoms and frizzy-haired wigs.  Dr. Sarvis, the dean, wore roller skates and zigzagged around the room, breaking up couples that grinded up against each other during the slow songs.  Only Mr. Donovan noticed my new look.  “Lily, you’re all grown up,” he said.  He turned kind of red when he said it and I introduced Lucas and ran off to the bathroom where I wiped the sweat off my forehead and applied more powder.  Lucas and I went through the buffet lines and got big plates of fried chicken.  I barely touched mine.  I felt like the tin foil-wrapped walls were closing in on me.  I couldn’t breathe.

Lucas went off to take pictures of the iron lions that flanked the front entrance of the school and I slunk down in my chair and closed my eyes.  When I opened them, I saw her.

She wore fishnets on her legs and the silver dress hit just above her knees.  She stood in shiny black patent leather high heels in the middle of her gang, swinging a purse.  I started walking over to her just as the music changed to a song with a fast beat.  Kids flooded through the cafeteria, making a break for the dance floor.  When I reached Melanie, I put my hand on her forearm.  I pulled her to me.  I kissed her lips.

I wish I could tell my grandchildren someday that the moment ended with Melanie telling me she loved me.  But instead Dr. Sarvis skated right into our bodies, knocking Melanie off balance, making her fall to the floor.

“Hey!” I shouted at Dr. Sarvis and then before I could think twice about it, I pushed her.  I pushed the grey-haired dean of my school.  She fell back, her roller skates flying up out from under her.  The teachers descended upon us like locusts.  I remembered the scene in my father’s favorite movie, The Graduate, when the couple locked everyone in the church.  I wanted to do that.  I wanted to run off with Melanie. But unlike Dustin Hoffman and his brunette girlfriend, I never wanted to look back.

Melanie and I waited for our parents in the principal’s office.  I didn’t know where Lucas went.  I didn’t care.  I tried to touch Melanie’s arm again but she pulled away. “I’m dating someone new,” she said.  I started crying hard.  I thought of all those afternoons in the pool alongside my sister, learning to hold my breath and extend my leg.  The blonde streaks in my hair, the dress on my body.  Lucas. I’d done everything to be like Adelaide and I hated myself.

Melanie’s mom got there first.  She hugged me and told me it would be all right.  But I knew it wouldn’t be.  I knew I was going to get kicked out. I heard the putter of my sister’s old Diesel Mercedes through the glass door of the office.  Mr. Donovan had removed his wig and his fake handlebar mustache so that now he was back to looking like his same sad-eyed self.  When he saw my sister, he said: “Nice to see you again, Adelaide,” and then he explained what I’d done, how it looked like Dr. Sarvis had a broken coccyx.  The color in my sister’s face disappeared the way it had in Food Party the night she miscarried. Adelaide apologized and they both looked at me. I folded my arms across my chest.  When we got in the car, I reclined the seat.  I stared up at the ceiling and when Adelaide told me I was in big trouble, I told her to stop being so dramatic.  I told her to leave me the fuck alone.

7 thoughts on “A Drowning Moth

  1. Tammy Kline says:

    A well told story about the struggle to not only to find one’s own way but to do it in the shadow of a faltering, albeit larger than life, sibling.


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