By: Bonnie Lykes
I was barely ten when we lived on the side of an Arizona mountain, in the very last house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. That year, Pop left to marry someone else. After the divorce, my mother wanted us to “grow like flowers” without “micro-coercion, excessive grooming, or physical punishment.” But the long dirt road to the bottom of the hill and the harshness of the desert felt like punishments. I was left alone most nights. My loneliness sharpened, and the peculiarities of the house seemed to compound my anxieties. The walls curved to vanishing points that gave way to a series of half-round windows; the eccentric lines combined with the rough desert magnified my longing for security. The property—a showcase of artistic vanity— sprung from a bed of tough granite. All around me, I felt the ego of grown-ups. I didn’t know I was neglected.
That year, swarms of difficult moments rearranged my world. Fresh confusion plagued me as I walked to and from the school bus through the gray slate. Left to my own wits, I became a kind of creature with tangled hair and dirty ankles. Right after the divorce, mom switched me from a private to a public school, so I’d “blend in with other kids.” No one engaged my interior world, and I assumed I was broken in some unfixable way. Later that summer, there would be a hazing—like a payment to some hell-bent force. I would face a crossroads to my self-worth that took shape like a distant thunderhead: its formation began when Mom knocked on my bedroom door at the top of June.
She wanted to discuss the month of July. She told me I’d stay with Mrs. S. at some doublewide trailer near Tijuana. Mrs. S. was a funny, outgoing British lady whom my mom had met at a party the year before. She was divorced too and had become Mom’s favorite acquaintance. Her American daughter, Chimmie, also ten, would also be there. Chimmie had crystal blue eyes and stunning white hair. She went to a Catholic school, so I only saw her when Mom sent me to their Phoenix house to play the role of “friend” at their beautiful adobe in a gated community. Mom pruned her eyes and shot a look she’d use to evoke sympathy at charity functions, “Chimmie needs a playmate.” I nodded, but a pit of anxiety expanded in my gut because Chimmie mocked with a particular math. Years later, I finally told Mom how mean she was. But these days, I never told Mom anything. Her mind was too full.
For her July, Mom was set for China. She was off to an Asian folktale workshop, having studied Mandarin for years. My brother would visit another friend’s family. My nineteen-year-old sister had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She ran down the mountain in her nightgown and broke the window of a small church. She drank furniture polish later that night. I remember the day she left forever to a halfway house. Her chemical vomit left an amber stain that went right through to the mattress.
As if to prepare for the worst, I packed my red suitcase for Mexico, days before the trip. I thought of Chimmie’s games where I’d jump over a big stick and she’d hit my calves in midair. But sometimes there were Clark Bars and swimming in their turquoise pool, so I’d go numb. I shoved my feelings down to what felt like a dry towel. It burned in my gut, but there was another consolation.
I really liked Mrs. S. She had curly orange hair and made me laugh, even though I didn’t always understand her jokes. She acted in London theaters and played bit parts in movies. I loved the drawing of her exaggerated cartoon face that hung on their kitchen wall.
Twice, Mom sent me to their house in town for a sleepover. I learned to brace myself for Chimmie’s dares, her jabs at my natural way. On the second visit, I ran down their hall and told Mrs. S. I was homesick and wanted to leave. She never seemed to notice anything Chimmie did. She just said, “You’re from the mountains; we live in town. It’s alright, darling.” Then she patted my cheeks. Her hands smelled like Pall Malls. She’d habitually snatch them up from a spinning spiral holder on their coffee table.
On both visits, Mrs. S. disappeared past the kitchen’s swinging door for long stretches. I thought she was baking something complicated, maybe baked Alaska. Eventually, she’d go upstairs to bed. I knew Chimmie would always get me, tripping me, ripping stuff from my hands. I just wanted Mom to take me back to the mountain and the dirt road.
Mom’s psychiatrist told her to go out as much as she could to get back in the world. She’d head out the door for folk dancing, singles’ parties, alumni retreats, bridge games, luncheons, and sculpture unveilings. Sometimes, maybe I’d get dropped off at a weird church for a talk on Buddhism or sex education.
And before Mexico, I mostly stayed in my room. In days of summer, who would care? I meandered past Ocotillo at dusk, sat on flat rocks looking out on the valley, tanned myself with baby oil in 105-degree heat, played Alice Cooper loud. I ate TV dinners and ice cream. I might talk on the phone with my legs slung high on the wall. I ran down the long hallway of shag carpet like a rail that connected food and sleep. My hair had enormous mats as big as doughnuts but became a gold halo when my sister would brush it out, before they sent her away. At night, no one heard the portable black-and-white TV blaring ads for burgers and detergent. My brother yanked it away if I went to the bathroom. I’d shriek. He’d slap my head.
The nearest neighbor was a half-mile down the hill. I’d check windows for Mom. We’d say hi in the front entry, if I was still awake. Mom’s silky shirt collars offered a kind of affection. Her perfume, sharp with gardenia, floated like a drug; helped me feel love. I watched her dress or undress by her vanity. Did Chimmie really need me in Mexico? She might turn a tennis racket into an electric guitar, so I’d focus on zany games. It was finally time to leave.
On the plane, I sat next to a man with a red face who chewed a ton of ice. I hated his noises, his belching, his weight shifting, and smacking face. Grown-up men made me nervous. Mom knew a man who lived down our road, Mr. Saks, who kissed me too hard on the cheek and sent me flowers on my birthday. His dark suits and rough face scared me. I tried to sleep in the seat, but the man stole my armrest.
I landed late, around nine at night. I stood at the Mexican airport. Beautiful Spanish faces shone from ads. I felt bread-white. I held my suitcase like a dead balloon. Past the gate, Mrs. S. lumbered over. “Did you fly alright, darling?” Chimmie smirked when she saw I’d really come. She pushed the ends of her white hair. “We’re going to Tijuana tomorrow.” Then she looked past me, like I’d already left.
Mrs. S. guided us along, her large lips greased with dark lipstick. Outside, her big hand steered us to a small rental car. We whizzed off on a quiet highway. Spanish billboards flitted by, sparking my curiosity. I stayed quiet in the back. I heard them mumble between the headrests. We came to the trailer park. The tires crushed gravel, and salty sea air surrounded the car. Soon, my head stuck out from cot covers at the foot of Tracy’s bed. Before I knew it, morning pushed in with loud light.
Stepping into the living room, it felt like I stood at the top of a slide with no bottom. There was a green, oversized shark poster and flat, tan carpet. Mostly cheap furniture; fine for a summer home. Chimmie and I shared a room on the left side and Mrs. S. was way on the other end.
In the fingernail kitchen, Chimmie slid a bright plastic bowl of flashy cereal toward me. Why did the trailer smell like fish? Chimmie looked sweeter than I’d ever seen her. She watched my face like a funny paper. I took a bite. Her eyes prickled, “It’s just a little crawfish juice.” The first strike. I looked down and pushed the bowl toward her. I swallowed fast. She looked so happy. Mrs. S. came in and smiled too. Her orange curls were wild, and she whisked eggs. I looked at the cereal and felt the towel twist inside me.
Soon, we got in the car and headed into the long, busy neck of Tijuana. I stared out at palm trees by the road, some ratty others bright green. I saw round, brown mamas in loose cotton skirts who didn’t hurry toward a thing. We parked and started down the main street, eyeing the lay of small shops. Small kids ran in and out of side doors. Adults sat on the pinkish rim of a giant fountain and spoke in complicated clucks.
Young men pointed down alleys to get Chimmie and me to make a run for it and go with them. They chirped and whistled, “Puta! Puta!” Some hissed from dark archways. Chimmie whispered, “Puta means whore.” I knew they saw us one better than street dogs. They wanted us dumb. I felt like Sunday morning bacon. Like special tangy meat they wanted to consume down grimy alleys. Chimmie said it was our blonde hair. School flashed behind my eyes; I thought of the boy who followed me at lunch and threatened to rape me. Whenever I saw him, the towel in me burned.
Mexico was hotter than Phoenix. My cheeks flushed as I followed Mrs. S. past doorways with my eyes half shut. Chimmie darted to whatever caught her eye. The sidewalk had chunks missing, so I watched my red rubber thongs. Shop owners waited in red and blue doorsills. They tugged wooden toy snakes on the dirty cement. Clothing, fresh and orderly, was folded tight in plastic bags on high shelves. I thought about my leather school shoes on our gray dirt road. A rock broke one heel so it spun in a circle and finally came off. I went to school anyway. My ankles were now white but usually tattooed with gray slate.
I knew the Mexican people saw my shame. I looked at the curio and big-eyed dolls strewn across the walls. Their hair brushed; their alabaster legs and arms, so clean. I tried to comb my hair out before getting on the plane but hid the mats in braids. The part on top of my head was a crooked clue. I looked up at a row of carved faces and leather coin pouches. Money really upset Mom after Pop left. I remember her cleaning the bathtub; tears streamed down her face. I put a rock in my lunch bag, so I could leave more bread in the fridge.
As we walked along, the dilapidated stucco buildings and dark alleys pushed their smells in our faces like an invisible fist. Poverty mixed up with bright colors overwhelmed my senses. I figured the entire town wanted Mrs. S. to pull an endless roll of cash from her big red tote bag, usually pushed tight to her rolling hip. She did pull Pall Malls out and lit the tips with cheap flicks. Her sandals snapped as she led us in her long, blue shorts hemmed above her bulbous knees, with Chimmie and me in our sundresses. We turned the corner and saw the groceries Mrs. S. bought that morning were gone. She’d forgotten to lock the car. She yelled, “Bugger!” Her voice sounded like a kazoo.
We saw taco stands selling peso tortillas with mysterious fillings. Of course, Chimmie wanted me to buy one and chuck it down. “No, you,” I mumbled back. Down the street, older men lined up outside a crumbly stadium for jai alai. I knew how they’d chatter at our hair if we went close. Tired of feeling so white, we faced the traffic and headed back to lot nine.
As the dusty dark settled on the trailer, we opened our shopping bags on the coffee table. We took out brand-new embroidered peasant tops, feminine and fluffy, set free from factory pouches. From thick, tan paper, I unwrapped a puppet with a sombrero. Chimmie admired a blue bead bracelet against her tan wrist. Then Mrs. S. sat on a stool in the center of the room. The air slowed down. She had a blue ceramic cup in her right hand she’d brought down from a high shelf. Chimmie’s cheeks changed color slightly. I felt a change coming from Mrs. S. A pretend theater curtain, strung high with dark velvet and fringe, slowly opened on imaginary cables to show her in a new way. Now she was ready to begin a surprise. I wondered, Will she sing? She held the cup tight; her tan knuckles curled around the rim. She hid a bottle behind her, but I saw it. With robotic motion, she turned and poured. She drizzled in the cup, then into her face while her shoulders stayed stiff. She tipped the cup down her throat fast in expert, measured sips. Chimmie started to rummage in the drawers of an end table. Two minutes passed. Mrs. S. had things to say.
She began to gurgle half-sweet insults. “Why don’t you girls put on your bikinis and show yourselves off down at the beach?”
Chimmie rolled her eyes, “It’s way too late to go swimming.”
Mrs. S. shot back, “Why should you girls take up so much room inside here, after I took you everywhere, following your every whim?” Chimmie pulled out a board game. She started to inspect the pieces.
The air was charged. It felt like an agreement was being broken. Mrs. S. was no longer a grown-up who looked after us. She became more agitated. “Must I sit here and twaddle through the night like some ridiculous auntie?” she spoke like she scored a prize for each syllable. Chimmie and I sat cross-legged on the hard carpet under the lamp’s haze. Chimmie knew how to mind herself. We both knew we had to play the game with minor fascination. I hated board games, but not now. Mrs. S. wanted to give us everything she had, as though a hidden director lived in the acid of her gut. When she stood, the trailer boards creaked beneath her long, bent toes. Her lips, juicy with chewed lipstick, tightened. Chimmie and I limped half-mindedly over the rules with the fake money mostly missing. We both wanted inside the two-dimensional plot on the floor.
Cigarette smoke pulsed from Mrs. S.’s nostrils like a canon at rest. She spat a bead over the hedge of her stiff bosom. “Don’t bother to pretend, girls! I don’t give a damn bang if you have fun!” Now she eased into a real swagger. Her body relaxed. She interrupted herself only to pour, away from our line of sight—why bother?—behind a chair, straight into the cup. The air crackled with chemical change; the light turned gray. Her performance framed by the thin trailer walls meant to tell a truth; her truth. The alcohol loosened envy from the dark side of her brain; the unblended bits from her dark kitchen held down in the day. Her large jawbone, now well-oiled, wanted to slam us hard and good. She wanted expose things that would hurtle beyond this moment.
She bellowed how perfect little Chimmie popped farts like a pellet gun all through the night. How we both had nothing but bird scat between our ears and would never learn what we need to know about what makes the world worthwhile. How we understood nothing of what it meant to be intelligent or useful to anyone. How we ate like pigs and were, in reality, two perfect goats. How we thought we were beautiful but were only broken, dumb dolly-dolls with “stuffing for purpose.” She moved the angle of her body and pitched herself toward me. I felt an imaginary red dot on my forehead. She leaned low, right in front of my nose, “Chimmie is faaaar more practical than you!” Spit hit my eye.
Practical? It was nothing to make me run out the door and cry. I looked down then saw her turn for me again. Her eyes sharpened, “Poor you, you could walk outside and get lost and no one would miss you!” Chimmie smirked at the game board. Mrs. S.’s spine straightened, “You’d be lucky to be like Chimmie—she’s got far more reason to exist!” The spotlight on me felt like an apology to Chimmie. A burnt offering, an unspoken, “I’m sorry I drink, darling. We’ll make this other girl a sacrificial lamb, from my blood to your blood.”
But, like the absurdity of fish oil on Fruit Loops, none of it added up to a real world. I worried. Was she telling the truth about me? I remembered Mrs. S. from all the hours earlier. The one who smiled in shops when we held ponchos against our chests, checked in with my mom on the phone, recited a silly poem to soften a hard minute. She was gone. Gone, like the planes that flew here. The towel burned and twisted in my gut and shot a question to my brain: Can I still like Mrs. S.?
I stared at the red gamepiece in my hand. In the world of the game, it was my move. Sitting cross-legged beside the pilly sofa, there were no other moves off the painted board. White buds of saliva pressed out of Mrs. S.’s mouth corners. “Just what the high holy hell do you girls expect from me?” Then she slumped over with a thick exhale, her performance complete. The imaginary curtain bumped shut on the thin carpet. Chimmie snapped, “Good night!” But the night was not good.
Long after the days of this time, we learned Mrs. S. was Chimmie’s grandmother. Chimmie’s sister, Grace, was Chimmie’s real mother. If the world were right, perhaps neither Chimmie nor I would’ve been in that trailer with Mrs. S. at all. Grace lived on a ranch somewhere in Arizona. But we didn’t know this in Mexico, or on any other visit. The night or the cup never mentioned.
I saw Chimmie only one more time. Late in the summer, weeks after Mexico, Mom and I went to their turquoise pool for a barbeque at their Phoenix adobe. There were Clark bars. I remember meeting Grace there, too. She sat quietly, her pale blue eyes watching Chimmie swim. Her striking white hair beautifully arranged.
Eventually, in the next few years, as my moments flung gradually toward adolescence, my days became brighter. I learned how to care for myself. I made real friendships and found love in new places. And so did my mother.
That Mexico night, under the cot covers inside my minds theater, Mrs. S.’s misery made an encore. I watched her painted lips twist and smile. I changed my thoughts out, like currency, into shredded sleep. I decided, that second, how nothing could matter unless I said so. Soon, it all traded for sun through the thin curtains. Chimmie’s flaxen hair looked like a soft cocktail onion through the top of her bedspread. I looked at the small digital clock on the nightstand: 6:00 a.m. They, and the trailer, were still. The outside air sent a cicada’s chirp through the window. I slipped out the front door, not letting it hit the metal frame. I knew the beach was very close. I chased the smell with bare feet.
Bonnie Lykes has been published with outlets such as Crack the Spine Literary Journal, The Penmen Review, “Strange Recital” podcast, and most recently, her work was chosen for the annual book collection Crack The Spine VI. For two years, she hosted and produced “Non-Fiction Railroad Hour” on the “Writer’s Voice” on WIOX 91.3 FM in Roxbury, New York. She co-founded a 501c3, The Reservoir Food Pantry, in Ulster County and provides children’s grief support in Shelton, Connecticut. She is currently enrolled in the graduate writing program at Sarah Lawrence College.