by Tim Tomlinson
1. The Two Girls
There were two girls at the end of the block I grew up on. One had strawberry blonde hair, a pixie cut with bangs, and freckles. I don’t remember her name, I don’t remember much of anything we did, ever, but we did a lot. Or more accurately, we didn’t do very much, but the little that we did do we did often and for endless stretches of time. She had swings in the backyard, a sandbox. Sometimes we went to her room. We dropped the blinds against the sun and sat quietly on a chair with coarse upholstery. I wondered why anyone would have a chair with coarse upholstery, but I didn’t mind the way it made my thighs itch, as long as she was there. Next door was a woman with seven kids and no husband. Sometimes the woman shouted at her kids. Once, when a cat owned by the woman with seven kids and no husband had kittens, she, my friend, stole one. It was all black, and she gave it to me. I had that cat for many years, long after my friend had moved away.
When she moved away—to where I have no idea, it was as if she disappeared—she became, for me, The Ideal Girl. I can’t speak for her, but I can say from my perspective, I never felt more complete than when we were together, and after she left, I went around for months with a hollow feeling in my chest. Years later, when I was fucking a girl I’d met in AA, one I had flirted with after weeks of meetings, I looked into her face—the freckles, the hair—and I gasped. What’s wrong, The AA Girl said, and I told The AA Girl about The Ideal Girl. You’re a dead ringer for her, I said. You might even be, in fact you probably are The Ideal Girl. Don’t you remember the chair with the itchy upholstery? Don’t you remember the black cat? The AA Girl said she’d never lived anywhere near where I’d lived, and further, she had no recollection of me whatsoever. And I said maybe you just don’t remember. That’s possible, even likely, I said, because, for example, I never forgot your face, your hair, your freckles, and the feeling of total completeness whenever we were together, but even with all that, I can’t remember your name. Like at all. You could be Alice, you could be Zoë. She said she was neither, but she knew what I was: Crazy. And I was. But I wasn’t.
The other girl lived around the corner close to the highway, where there wasn’t much traffic, just a moderate hiss throughout the day, then long hours of silent road. From the first grade this girl was in my classes until, one day, she wasn’t. She had long wavy hair, and a habit of bringing her chin to her chest and looking up at you through the fringe. It was fetching. In fifth grade, she started to become absent. At the start of 6th, they told us she had died of something called leukemia. She became The Girl No One Remembers, then The Girl Who Used to Live Where the Chinese Family Lives. But for me she became The Girl Who Died. Years later, when I was fucking a girl I’d met in Sex Addicts Anonymous, I said, you look just like The Girl Who Died. Looking up through her bangs she said, I am The Girl Who Died. I told her she was predictable. Duh, she said, I’m an addict. And she was. So was I. I had habits. One was I’d recreate girls I’d lost in current girls.
You see too many movies, The Girl from Sex Addicts Anonymous told me. Or you see the same two movies too many times. Both were true. I was obsessed with Brian De Palma’s Obsession, and then, because of Obsession, the Hitchcock movie that inspired it, Vertigo. I preferred Jimmy Stewart in the Hitchcock over Cliff Robertson in the De Palma, and I hoped I was more like him: intense, crazed even, shaking the girl by the shoulders to persuade her of the urgency of my feelings and not some bland vanilla dope to whom odd things occurred. But I preferred Geneviève Bujold in the De Palma over Kim Novak in the Hitchcock. Novak reminded me of the girls I grew up with, with the exception of The Ideal Girl: over-stuffed, under-read, and no one home behind the eyeballs. Whereas Bujold was the kind of woman I hoped for: foreign and cultured with vast depths churning beneath the obsidian surfaces of her eyes. (What disappointment, I remember experiencing, when I learned that she wasn’t French, but Canadian!)
The AA Girl turned out to be partially correct. I was not crazy, but she was not The Ideal Girl. No partner ever is, she told me. She said, look at Godard and Anna Karina. I said, what about them? She explained: Godard invented what Karina had to pretend to be. It’s amazing she didn’t wind up killing herself. I said he enabled her to become Anna Karina. And that, she said, is when he left her. See, no partner is ever ideal. But The AA Girl’s failure to become The Ideal Girl—that wasn’t why we split up. We split up because she lived in an SRO near Riverside Drive. Her studio shared a bathroom with four other studios. One of the other lodgers was a waiter who skated home after work at 3:00 AM on roller blades that he didn’t bother to remove before rolling past our door. At that hour, the noise he made sounded like the Broadway Express. Plus he whistled. Another lodger brushed his teeth each night for forty-five minutes—he timed it with an alarm clock set on the edge of the sink. I wouldn’t have discovered the dental habits of The Tooth Brusher if I didn’t wake up once a night to piss, and every time I did, there he’d be in the bathroom with the door open and at the sink for fifteen, twenty, twenty-five minutes, blithely brushing away while I danced around like a second grader trying to pinch back the urge to release. He’d look at his clock and say, just another twenty minutes, then resume the blithe brushing. That happened each night I stayed with The AA Girl, and each night I wanted to smash that clock in The Tooth Brusher’s face. But, for his day job, he taught boxing. He brushed his teeth in a wife beater. His biceps displayed intimidating tattoos. The AA Girl negotiated on my behalf. For Christ’s sake will you let him piss, she’d shout, he’ll be done in a minute. Luckily, The Tooth Brusher was not the kind of guy who would box a girl.
The AA Girl never became The Ideal Girl, but in many ways she was ideal. That’s why, several years after we split, I was so upset to learn she’d passed. She’d always complained about New York City. She needed elbow room, space for projects. She took a position managing property upstate where she cared for horses and engaged with other farm-like projects, one of which was re-wiring a barn. That’s the one that killed her—she was not a trained electrician. After receiving a sizeable jolt of direct current, she plunged from a ladder and broke her neck. It could not be determined, nor did it matter, which one killed her: the fall, or the electricity. And it wasn’t the cause of her death but its fact that caused the hollow feeling in my chest to return. I thought of getting myself another cat, a black cat like the one The Ideal Girl had stolen and given to me. Then I wondered: was it the black cat all along that had caused The Ideal Girl to disappear and The AA Girl to become The Girl Who Died, #2?
2. The Chinese Family
Several months after The Girl Who Died died, her family moved away and The Chinese Family moved in. The Chinese Family had three children, a boy, the eldest, who became The Brother of the Chinese Girl, and two girls. The older of those girls was The Chinese Girl. She joined my class. She replaced The Girl Who Died, she even sat at The Girl Who Died’s desk. The younger sister became The Sister of The Chinese Girl. Before The Chinese Family, none of us knew any Chinese people, except for the skinny waiters at the Port China restaurant. They wore yellow vests and white shirts and delivered silver platters of pork fried rice and egg foo yung, or porcelain bowls holding scoops of green ice cream stuck with fortune cookies that told your future based on your past. “Your kind nature will lead to riches,” or, “Today’s sacrifice is tomorrow’s reward.”
Compared to us, The Chinese Girl was smart. She knew more math, more French, and her spelling was perfect. But she was not pretty. The Sister of The Chinese Girl, in the class behind, was smart, too, but she was also pretty. Way pretty. I can still see her pretty face, the black bangs, the narrow eyes always smiling. The Chinese Family arrived in winter. The Sister of The Chinese Girl came to school in a coat with a hood trimmed with fur and, for me, her pretty face inside that hood changed her instantly from The Sister of the Chinese Girl to, more simply, The Pretty Girl. She became The Pretty Girl for many of the other boys, too, but when we spoke of her, we continued to refer to her as The Sister of the Chinese Girl. We weren’t sure if Chinese girls could be considered pretty in the same way American girls or English girls or French girls were pretty, even when they were devastatingly pretty as The Sister of the Chinese Girl was, prettier even than all the non-Chinese girls in our school, some of whom were pretty, some of whom I fancied, but none anywhere near as much as The Pretty Girl who, I found, remained on my mind after school when I played football or sat in detention or walked home in the dark, passing close to her home, sometimes going out of my way to pass directly in front of her home and linger near the mailbox at the end of her driveway. On the late afternoons when I’d detour past the home of The Chinese Family, I wondered what I would say if The Chinese Girl or even The Pretty Girl noticed me and asked why I was walking home in a way that was so much longer than the direct way. If it was The Chinese Girl asking in this scenario, I would say, “What’s it to you?” or something equally bratty which was the way I’d respond to any girl. But if it was The Pretty Girl asking, I found that I couldn’t think of any remark, or I could think of one, but then immediately I’d think, no, that won’t work and I’d think of something else, equally inadequate. When it came to The Pretty Girl, I realized I had no words, which was terrifying, but still I’d pass by her house and hope that she might come to her fence and say something, and that whatever she said might trigger in me the ability to express all the words that I knew were in me, all the words that I felt and believed, all of which coursed through me as feelings, not words.
Back home, I wondered how I might get to know The Pretty Girl. The Chinese Family seemed so serious. The children never played with other kids. They attended school, they went home, where, presumably, they did homework. They never talked about TV, they showed no interest in sports, except in gym where they exerted diligent effort, even in calisthenics, which we all dogged. The extra-curricular things they did were the boring things. The Brother of The Chinese Girl was president of the Math Club. The Chinese Girl sang in Choir. The Pretty Girl played piano. One late afternoon after detention, I stopped for a drink at the water fountain near the music room and I heard something hypnotic. I followed the hypnotic sound and there, seated at an upright, was The Pretty Girl, her fingers moving nimbly across the black and white keys. The sound she produced—I had never heard anything more beautiful. More bedazzling. I remember being amazed that a girl, a fifth grade girl, a Chinese girl could make a sound that beautiful. Some time later I learned that it was a Bach fugue she played. I pictured the notes like falling snow rushing and whooshing throughout the air, a whirlwind of notes that caught me up and spun me in a swoon. And in that swoon I banged into a music stand that fell and startled The Pretty Girl. She looked at me and smiled, then turned the sheet music back to the beginning and started again. Years later I was driving in a blizzard on LSD. Snow rushed the windshield from infinite angles, then scattered, then returned, and that image brought back the sound of the fugue, its notes dancing on transparent music paper superimposed on The Pretty Girl’s face and I understood in that lucid kind of way of piercing acid sadness that in my life beauty of that magnitude, both the music and her smile, would never be more than hallucinations.
But in sixth grade I didn’t know that. So I developed a strategy for getting to know The Pretty Girl: I teased her sister, The Chinese Girl. I teased her in a fun way, I thought, in the hope that she might say, you’re so funny, I should introduce you to my sister. I teased her in class and out. I said every stupid thing I could think of, or that I’d heard, about Chinese people. I pulled my eyes into a slant. I stuck my upper teeth over my lower lip. I threatened her with karate. What tasted better, I asked her: dog or cat? No tickee, no shirtee, I said. Ah-so.
None of it worked, and the next time I heard The Pretty Girl playing piano, The Brother of the Chinese Girl stepped between us. He folded his arms and glowered. The way he glowered became, for me, the posture of righteousness. The Brother of the Chinese Girl was someone who believed in a cause. His cause was: keep the fuck away from my sister. His look was: you are vermin that I could, and should, stomp dead. I’d seen that look before. I’d see it a lot more in the coming years, from cops, and teachers, and my father. I came to agree with it. Agreeing didn’t make me feel better.
Tim Tomlinson is the author of Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire (poetry) and This Is Not Happening to You (short fiction). Recent work appears in Another Chicago Magazine, Joao Roque Literary Journal, Litro, and Surviving Suicide: A Collection of Poems That May Save a Life (Nirala Press). He’s a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and a professor in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies. Visit Tim at timtomlinson.org