Posted by: holdenlee | September 7, 2012

Two Sides of the River


First chapter of a medium-length story I’ve been working on. Comments would really help. Thanks!

1 Hiding

Every once in a while, Suzie didn’t log directly into iChat when she got home but instead sat in front of her closed laptop, stuck her hand into her hamster Peaches’s cage, took her out, and watched her navigate the calendars populated with post-it notes of birthdays to remember, the photo frames ringed with beads and macaroni and Yasmin’s pressed flowers, and the toppled birthday cards on the desk. Today she opened her history textbook, took out the caricature Elena had drawn of her in English class, and studied it, leaving alone both Peaches and her computer.

Mr. Jones, her 12th grade English teacher, had arranged the desks so that two rows faced each other in the center. Suzie sat opposite Elena and tried to hold a slight smile for the duration of the class. Elena nodded as if to say: hold that pose. Naturally, she missed the teacher’s introductory sermon on the wrong way to write an essay. Elena turned her sketchbook around at the end of class, and Suzie stared into a picture of herself with astonishment. Elena had enlarged Suzie’s eyes, and drawn them to such a level of detail that Suzie could see the black filaments swimming away from the center like tadpoles in clear water.

“I always choose one part which shows most of a person’s soul,” Elena said. She’d said something like that yesterday: In drawing things you look for the spirits of things, animate and inanimate.

“Just like you’re doing now,” Elena said as she tore the paper out of her sketchbook bit by bit, with one finger held against the seam. “Drinking in everything.”

“Wow,” Suzie said, “You must have been drawing for a long time.”

Elena didn’t reply but tilted her head in a farewell gesture. “I have physics now. See ya.”

Despite her drinking eyes, though, Suzie had apparently never studied her own face closely in the mirror. She only now noticed how her nose, thin at the top, flared into wide nostrils that twitched like a clumsy ballerina.

Suzie went down to the basement—careful to hop over the squeaky stair—to the bookcase in the corner that housed the photo albums and the books her dad had bought for cheap at yard sales and hoped the girls would read, like The Star Gazer’s Encyclopedia.

As she flipped through the second-to-second replay of her tenth birthday, she found that she did open her eyes wider than her relatives did. It was natural. She tried to half-close her eyes, but was unable to stop them from twitching up and down. It took a lot of muscle effort to turn your eyes into slits. Why did people bother?

What Dad didn’t have in photography expertise he made up for in quantity of photos. In the margin her mom had written 6-7-2004, with the same uniform script that she used to date insurance documents. Her sister Maura and she sat side by side, each blowing out ten candles on one of the cakes. They had very similar eyes, Maura and Suzie, though Maura’s glasses made her eyes seem just slightly smaller and more focused. Maura blew her candles out first, while Suzie smiled at the camera, her bucktooth missing, donated to the tooth fairy just a few days back.

Her classmates from California were there. There was Mickey, who wanted to be an actress and starred as Lucy in the school play A Charlie Brown Christmas. There was Fenzie, who refused to speak up when the teacher asked what he wanted to be in the future and drew pepperoni slices on the circle diagrams which they were supposed to shade in to represent fractions, and gave Maura and Suzie both handmade pop-up birthday cards in lieu of a present. Mickey posed with three fingers up on each hand (“because three is more than two”) and Fenzie curled his fingers like claws and put them over Maura’s head. They had gone to the beach later that day, and played in the water, except for Fenzie and Maura building sandcastles out of pails. The photographs stopped, though, because Fenzie had tripped over one of the towers and Maura had thrown a temper tantrum and attacked Fenzie with a stick. The two of them were in tears the whole way back. Their dad, though, had salvaged the birthday by putting on a Kids Pop Songs CD, and the rest of them sang along.

Suzie put the album back on the shelf and made her way back up the stairs, forgetting to skip the squeaky stair this time. It had been a long time since she’d connected with some of those friends. She could see it already, Fenzie typing, Oh, I remember, you’re the one with the crazy sister!

The next day, Suzie asked Elena to draw her sister Maura, too, as a favor. Maura didn’t participate in class but still sat near the front. Her hair was too long and she always faced the teacher, so that Elena had to work from memory and imagination, stabbing her pencil’s eraser against her teeth as she thought. At the end of class Elena revealed the picture to Suzie. She had drawn Maura with her glasses reflecting the light so that two stripes of white slanted across where her eyes would have been.

“Her eyes,” Suzie said.

“She looks mysterious that way, don’t you think?” Elena said. “She’s still beautiful, even if you can’t see her eyes.”

Suzie suspected Elena hadn’t looked at Maura closely enough to remember what her eyes looked like. Maura didn’t have the type of face that people looked deeply into. But Elena had made the most of her limited information, and Maura’s picture was beautiful. Her smooth hair hid all but the tip of her ear, and Elena’s pen had treaded slowly over that curve.

Elena started tearing the paper out.

“You can’t give away everything you draw,” Suzie said.

Elena nodded, her substitute for smiling, and shut the sketchpad. Her lower lips were cracked; maybe it pained her to move it. When her mouth moved it was like the mouth of a wooden puppet. Suzie would have offered lip balm, except she didn’t have any right now. She put a mental post-it note in her brain, to bring a tube tomorrow.

“I would have never guessed you were twins,” Elena said.

“Yeah, we’re pretty different.”

Suzie slowed her pace, so Elena could walk out of the classroom door first. But Elena turned around suddenly. “Is that true? She keeps the most beautiful bits to herself.”

“Yes, you could say that.” She stopped and watched Elena put her sketchbook back into her backpack. “You want to know what they are?”

“Oh, I keep a lot of drawings to myself,” Elena said, and nodded before darting off a side hallway.

Maura kept the most beautiful bits in a room, in fact. When Suzie’s mind wandered she would see Maura in her mind’s eye, sitting in the middle of the carpet with her reflective, silver-framed glasses, hunched over so that her hair that trailed to the ground. Elena’s picture stuck in her mind in that sense: whenever Suzie imagined Maura light would always obscure her eyes, so that you couldn’t tell whether she was following her toy train chugging across the room, or imagining the high-rise buildings she was about to erect on an empty patch of carpet.

Maura was the omnipresent yet inscrutable goddess of her little world, a blend of medieval castles and modern skyscrapers, Western churches and Eastern pagodas. She had foot-tall mountains made of plaster and painted to look like weathered stone, neighborhoods made of Lego and Lincoln Logs and cardboard taken from the backs of notepads, and a castle cut from wood, carefully copied from the Amazing Book of Cross Sections (one of Dad’s yard-sale books). A clay dragon leaned over its battlements, and a remote-controlled helicopter assembled from a Build Your Own Helicopter Kit sat on a landing pad on its northeast corner. On the walls hung maps of places that didn’t exist, with carefully drawn compass roses and purposefully torn edges.

*

Suzie tensed when she heard Maura’s door to their shared bathroom creak, and held her breath so she could hear better through the wall. As if sensing Suzie’s worry, Peaches scrambled up her sleeve, clutching at her skin fat with his tiny claws.

“This is amazing,” Emily said.

What was Emily doing, pushing open her sister’s door?

Suzie held her breath but Maura responded in a civilized manner. “Thanks.”

“You must be Suzie’s sister.”

“Maura.”

Her computer rung out another IM message. By reflex, her eyes darted down, to catch a speech bubble rising to the top of the window, screaming out sOOZY! in Comic Sans. She missed what Emily said, only caught Maura’s shriek and heard the door slamming. Suzie got up so suddenly that Peaches fell out of Suzie’s sleeves and onto her rump, looking dazed.

Emily ran back, excited, “I didn’t know Maura built things.”

Suzie looked up from her Kevin’s monologue about the boringness of his first few days of math class. “Maura’s room is off bounds, you hear?” she said loudly, for the benefit of Maura listening through the walls.

“I just peeked in her room.”

“Just don’t do it again. She leaves her door closed for a reason.” Suzie checked that Peaches was alright, and indeed she was, scrambling across the floor. Deciding that Emily meant no harm, she continued, “Yeah, Maura’s been building stuff ever since she was a kid. There’s this story Mom likes to tell about her…”

“Go on,” Emily said.

Suzie reached over to fence in Peaches before she got too close to her anime collection, and then continued. “Maura never likes it when Mom tells the story in front of her. She says Mom’s always too show-offy.”

Emily twanged Peaches’s whiskers, first the left side, then the right side, and watched as Peaches shook her head and squirmed away. “Well she’s not here and you’re not her mom.”

“Alright.” Suzie dropped Peaches back into her familiar woodchip nest and lowered her voice. “We were around three years old, at our family reunion during Christmas. Sis and I each got a dollhouse, and our cousin Henry got a Lego set. We were all playing together when Henry asked where his present went. Our parents started hunting around the room looking under the abandoned wrappers, and they realized Maura wasn’t around either. They started a frantic search around the house, though it didn’t take long to find her. She had wandered off into one of the spare rooms and she was on this chair, building on top of this three-foot high tower of Legos. It wasn’t anything fancy—just rectangular and straight up and up and up—but it was her first time touching the things so everyone was surprised. Grandpa decided to go out and buy another Lego set for her as a present. And I ended up with two dollhouses, because she wasn’t interested in hers.”

Emily took out her camera from her purse and turned it around so Suzie could see. “She’s like those young geniuses at Lego-world, then. Jeez, she even has aqueducts in her room.” In the photo Emily had caught Maura in mid-stride, her toes finding the spaces between the houses and wooden arches with ease.

Suzie reached out her palm and Emily deposited the camera there. Before Emily could react she pressed two buttons, delete, confirm.

Emily snatched her camera away. “What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry, she doesn’t like people photographing her stuff.”

The “no-picture” rule never made sense to Suzie. In fifth grade Maura had turned her room into Redwall—a medieval world of woodland creatures—for several weeks and reenacted five of the books there, complete with hares’ ballads that she memorized and sang to tunes she made up on the spot. Suzie and her parents made up the audience. Their dad brought his tripod and videocamera the first day, but Maura refused to start until he took it away. She hadn’t quite done anything like that again, and Suzie wished she could see it again sometimes, but there were no tapes. If Maura had ever wanted to go into acting, the video could have made an impression.

Maura had a few of these odd requests but Suzie was her sister, so she went along with them.

“You don’t just delete photos from someone else’s camera like that.” Emily dropped the camera back into its case and dropped the case back into her purse, which she zipped up. “Gosh, I can’t have the freedom to photograph what I want?”

“That’s Maura’s stuff you’re photographing,” she said, again, in the decibel range that would transmit through the wall, but she looked at Emily squeezing her bag underneath her shoulders and sighed. No more photo-sharing today. Emily always took photos when people weren’t looking, of math-nerd Kevin with a noodle hanging from his mouth during lunch, or June trying to extract a pencil from the floor without getting up from her seat. Her classmates didn’t object, because the pictures could always be made to look adorable, if Emily was showing you the pictures and saying, “Isn’t that cute?” Suzie could, of course, find all the captioned photos on facebook later on, but that would be like eating cookies that had been in the fridge.

Emily leaned back into her laptop and popped her earphones back in. Suzie looked at Emily and tried to think of something to say. She would entice her with Peaches again but Peaches was sleeping now, curled up with her nose against her side, twitching in hamster dreams.

Finally Suzie said, “It would be nice to be that good at something since you were a little kid.”

Emily flicked one earphone out, and let it hang against her chest. Her face lit up. “I never told you, did I? About that time I stole daddy’s camera when I was four?”

Emily ended up showing all her photos to Suzie, and when the camera looped back to the first one she didn’t give any hint that there had been one at the end, now deleted. Her friends all had stories to tell. Suzie collected them, it seemed, without trying.

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