Today Write Livelihood features four petite essays by Susan Henderson, a lovely writer and one of the nicest champions of other writers I know. Enjoy.
SUMMER OF THE BIKE
I babysat her last year, when she was four and pestering me about taking the training wheels off her bike. I saw her at the pool with her dad the summer she started chemo and couldn't stop staring. Her head was misshapen from the carving they'd done to get the tumor out. It was like a peach in back, dented in and fuzzy. I'd always thought she was like me: stubborn, usually wrong, cute enough to get away with a bad attitude. Now she teetered just trying to stand in place.
The doctors removed things that help her balance, her dad explained, and would I consider babysitting again?
I said, yeah, then called the guy I liked, and bragged about my good will. My code name for her was BT (short for brain tumor).
Summers in our town were about bikes; kids covered them in stickers, day-glow straws on the spokes, action figures tied to the handlebars. If you wanted someone to play with you, you rode around the neighborhood hoping you looked cool. BT's little sister was learning to ride with training wheels. I rode that summer, too: something I'd sanded the paint off of and steered with my forearms, dragging my toes and trying to look all "So what?" But when no one was watching, I'd fly down a hill so fast the bike would shake.
The first day I began to babysit B.T. again, I was thinking we'd do the same old stuff: Candyland, coloring, pretend-Olympics. I was there five minutes when she fell down the stairs. I tried to help her up and she yelled, "Get off, I can do it!" She could, but it took a while, and her eyes fluttered and crossed, a new glitch with her brain, something that would eventually require another surgery. I stared at her freckled nose, the part of her face that was still pretty.
Her mom stayed home while I was there, sometimes napping but usually making frantic calls to find the right doctor or medicine to save her child. Every chance she got, she'd tell me about CAT scans and blood tests and special ed. Maybe my contribution to this family was that I didn't have the maturity to be overwhelmed with grief and fear. I just wanted to get out of the house with the kids and have some fun.
The girls and I dragged their bikes from the garage and went to the cul-de-sac. We went there every day. By mid-August, BT could actually sit on the seat of her bike, leaning and wobbling, her hands reaching for me instead of the handlebars. I leaned her bike against me and held her around the waist, carrying all her weight and steering. "Pedal! Pedal!" But once she got the knack of pedaling she'd forget to steer, forget to look at the street. All this time, she was leaning into me so hard that the training wheels were interfering more than they were helping. Her sister would coast by, now out of training wheels and learning to ride standing up.
BT would yell, "No fair!" And her sister, not meaning to brag or tease, would say, "It's easy. Just push and then coast." But BT's body couldn't do it. Didn't look like it ever would. She'd shake the bike like it was to blame and we'd drag it back home, this time her little sister the one yelling, "No fair!"
The guy I liked was my boyfriend by then. We were driving around in his car until my curfew. "How's BT?" he asked. Hearing him call her that shocked me, though I was perfectly comfortable calling her that myself. I corrected him, "It's Bridget," and noticed for the first time how pretty a name she had, the way it must have sounded to her parents when they poured through baby name books and family trees and finally settled on the name. I told my boyfriend what I'd done with the training wheels, how I'd looked all through the garage for the adjustable wrench and practically beat them off the back wheel. "For what?" he asked. "She's just going to fall."
I knew that. I also knew she'd never pumped down a steep road till the pedals whipped too fast to keep her feet on. Never felt how the speed and the pavement flying by and the chance of wiping out makes you forget everything that's bugging you. I couldn't explain it so I stayed quiet, moved my finger along his seat belt. I liked to touch him when he couldn't touch back, watch him hurt for me, sometimes twitch his leg funny and swerve to get back in his lane. I was pretty that summer—the first year I looked great in a bathing suit, and just learning the power of it. It had been a long time since I sat around the pool, worrying about my tan.
Near the end of that summer, Bridget's hair had grown back in tufts, but not over the scar in back. All summer I'd been holding her bike by the back of the seat without letting go, but now her balancing—her jittery steering, way over-correcting, then swerving back—was good enough for a pilot test. I pushed her off and hoped the way I remembered hoping Santa Claus was real after my friends told me I'd been duped. The bike spun out from underneath her and Bridget fell with the grace of a dancer. She fell better than anyone I knew.
I'd spent the evening with Bridget's little sister, tucked her in and waited for them to come home from the hospital—another checkup, more shots for Bridget. They carried her in. She was asleep, band-aids over the fresh needle pricks. She looked dead.
I wasn't stupid. I knew what was going on, why they were all scared. I wanted to be the hero, the one who turned her back into the kid she used to be.
It had been a long day. A long summer. I called my boyfriend after work and we escaped our neighborhood and its troubles in a way Bridget's parents never could. I went ahead and let my boyfriend unbutton me because I loved him more than I didn't like being touched. As his hands went where they wanted, I imagined I was on my bike pumping so hard I couldn't keep my feet on the pedals. Sometimes you have to ride away from everything. With my legs out to the side, I weaved down the center of the road.
LAWRENCE AND HIS BROTHER LARRY
I build muscle quickly, which is a drag, because I want to have little widdly arms like Gwynyth Paltrow. But in high school and college, I gave in to my body type and built up with weights. This will become important later.
Freshman year, I dated an art student—6 foot 7, not counting his mohawk, and he painted his nails black but wouldn't tell me why. Lawrence was a sweet guy who wasn't half as bothered by the height difference as I was.
He was a local, and as I got to know him better, I met his family, including his older, biological brother named Larry. Meeting the family showed some of the differences we hadn't yet encountered in our relationship. Brother Larry (as well as Larry's friends), for example, were missing teeth due to fights they'd gotten into. And Lawrence was the family oddity and the first to go to college. In my family, graduate school was a given. Same with teeth.
One evening Lawrence and I were at a fraternity party with its beer-sticky floor and a strobe light and someone in the corner with a turntable when brother Larry and his toothless friends showed up, and following them were the genuine thugs who'd been chasing them. Shortly, we'll get to the weight-lifting connection, and I have to say it's impressive.
Brother Larry and his friends were asked to leave by one of the fraternity brothers when a fight broke out. Brother Larry was repeatedly kicked in the head and looked near death. This is not an exaggeration, though I'm certainly prone to it. It is also not an exaggeration that all 6 foot 7 of my boyfriend simply stood against the wall, crying.
Now, unlike my past memories of heroic effort, this one had witnesses who made it a legendary tale without any of my own embellishing. What happened was I grabbed the guy doing the kicking by the hair. And then, and I was kind of surprised myself, but I picked him up and threw him, I mean THREW him, on a table—unfortunately the table the record player was on. But who cared at the time, right? This allowed the fraternity boys to jump on him and carry him out of the fraternity house. After, they gathered round me and began laughing—not just for my impressive body-throwing moves but due to what I held in my fist: a big tuft of hair (with skin attached).
The secret to my strength is a silly little visualization trick I used to do at the bowling alley. I was the one always dropping the ball into the gutter. Then one time I pretended I was on Bowling for Dollars, and immediately bowled a strike. Aha! It's all about visualizing your audience. So all I did in the case of the deadly frat party was pretend I was the star of a TV show, kind of a Charlie's Angels thing, and I could have taken on anybody. It's what I choose to believe, anyway.
I offered to buy the fraternity a new turntable but they were so impressed with my skills as a bouncer, they just poured me a beer.
Later, by the way, Lawrence and I broke up over the nail polish.
WHAT TO WEAR
I had a date with my professor. We were going to see the play he wrote; I didn't know it was a date till he added, "Wear the red dress."
I had already said yes, but now was determined not to wear the red dress because—of all the professors I wanted to think of me as hot—this was not one of them. The dress he liked was tight, uncomfortable, and unfortunately the only one clean. My favorite dress was made of denim with a round skirt that came down to my ankles. The hem was frayed. In the summer, I wore nothing underneath. In the winter I wore thermals and combat boots underneath. It suited most occasions, and with tights and smaller boots I made it suit this one.
With my dress still damp from washing it in the sink and then sneaking it into someone else's dryer at my dorm, I left my room in time to meet him around the corner, as he had requested. I carried a book but forgot my key. (I always carried a book, to look casual and preoccupied because being "non-plussed" was "in" that year.)
My hair was long then, down to where my back dipped inward, and when I left my dorm, my hair got caught in the door, and I was locked there. So I read, waving occasionally to people I knew and asking them in a non-plussed way if they knew where the R.A. was.
I was eventually released. And even with the delay, I was nearly on time for the date. When my professor put his hand around my waist, I was damp. He didn't look proud to be walking with me. I regretted immediately not wearing the red dress, realizing I preferred to blow him off rather than vice versa.
TOO MANY STAIRS TO LIBERTY'S CROWN
In fourth grade, my class took a train ride to New York City. We were going to see the Statue of Liberty, but my goal was to get lost from the group. You did this, too, right? Trying to lose the group and then see if you can find them again?
I was sitting on the train with the girls I planned to get lost with. Plus Mrs. Bryson, who always sat close to me, waiting to stop the fun. The moment we started whispering, she split up our group of girls and sent me and my friend Karen to another seat.
I don't know which of us noticed first, but Karen and I immediately looked at each other. She was about to crack up, and so was I. Because the woman sitting across from us may have looked normal at first in her Annie Hall suit and the silk scarf around her neck. Hair was covering half her face, sure, and it was a little stringy.
But, see, there was something else. I had to look again to be sure.
Under the stringy hair, she had one very small and wrinkled eye. And when she turned toward the window, just enough hair moved so we could see her face was burned right off. All that was left looked like pink tree bark. We were taking it in, it was building within us, when out of her pocket, this lady pulled a package of M&M's. She tore it open and poured some into her hand. Then she spoke. "Would you like some, girls?"
I don't know who ran faster. Probably Karen. I was always better at the bar hang than the 50-yard dash. We ran the length of the train until we got to the cafeteria car. No one could have stopped us from laughing.
Karen, panting, said, "I dare you to go back and ask for an M&M."
I can tell you that we did go back. Because Mrs. Bryson pulled us back through the cars, and she was so angry her hands were hot. She told us to apologize. So we did. And I took the dare. That was the worst, most burned-tasting M&M I ever ate.
We had no opportunity to get lost in New York because Mrs. Bryson held our hands the whole time and didn't take us up to Liberty's crown because there were too many stairs. When we got back to the school that evening, all the other parents were there, waving to the bus. Mine forgot to come. I panicked so much, I forgot my name and phone number and just sobbed at the back of the bus until my teacher called home for me. I could still taste the M&M, and I felt small, every bit of me.
* * *
SUSAN HENDERSON is a 2005 Pushcart nominee, a recipient of an Academy of American Poets award and a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She recently helped judge the "20-Minute Stories Contest" at McSweeney's. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story Extra, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, The MacGuffin, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, North Atlantic Review, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Opium, Other Voices, and The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney's Books, 2004), edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers. Her novel, "Such a Small Lie at the Time," is represented by Michelle Tessler at Tessler Literary Agency . She is married to a costume designer who, in his spare time, makes short films with their children.
Read a story by Sue HERE