Chameleon - UBC's Journal of Children's Literature
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Spring 2003

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by: Jennifer Scott

         There are things that I am not supposed to know. Like the time in grade seven when Carrie and her family went to Toronto on vacation, I wondered why Carrie wasn't very excited. I would've been. But when she got back she told me that her dad had stopped talking to them on the morning they were to come home. Silence. They woke up and packed and he wouldn't say a word to her mom or her. He kept that up all day long, as they went to the museum and had lunch and drove to the airport, and the whole five-hour flight home. Not a word. Carrie came over as soon as they got back and I knew right away something was wrong. She was scratching her nails down her arm, over and over, and she had a hard time looking me in the eye. She didn't cry, though. She said her mom had just whispered pretend it's normal and Carrie just did. That's what they do, and I know that I'm not supposed to know that either, because this is what Carrie and her mom have always done when I'm around, and when I'm not.

         Normal is how her mom sits in the kitchen and watches the television that sits on the dishwasher. Every so often she'll light up a Craven A and smoke it till the ash is almost as long as my thumb. It always falls onto the table, and Carrie always cleans it up with the dishcloth. Carrie's mom doesn't even notice that she drops the ashes - maybe she's just so used to Carrie wiping the table clean that she doesn't even notice that her cigarette burns. Or it's just the opposite - that's supposed to be normal, too - and Mrs. Lawson has every single dish out on the counter and she is scrubbing out the cupboards with vinegar and lemon while all the drapes are outside on the line, getting whipped by the wind, and in the background is the sound of the washing machine going full tilt and the house is full with the smell of lamb and potatoes roasting slowly in the oven.

         I am not supposed to know about that time Carrie's dad didn't speak to them for almost two weeks because he thought the pork loin was dry one night, and that Mrs. Lawson had spent too much money on it anyways, and he made her throw it all out - vegetables, potatoes, roast and all and told them he didn't care what they ate, he was going to go out where he wouldn't have to smell the crappy dinner or look at Mrs. Lawson's face. Carrie came over that night, and my mom fixed her some pasta with cheese and veggies, but she wouldn't say much other than that. I didn't even know that he'd ignored them for that long - Carrie just said, about two weeks later, "oh, my dad's talking again." Just like that. She asked me if I wanted to come over but made me promise not to talk about it in front of her mom. Normal.

         Normal is how I'm supposed to pretend that Carrie doesn't have nightmares where she dreams she's in her Mom's tummy and she tries to get away from her dad who's trying to cut her out. Or that there are creatures under her bed that hold her down from each leg, each arm, and try to pull her apart. Or that I haven't seen the place where Carrie used to hide under the stairs until she was too big to climb through the small hole. She showed me that back in Grade Four, and we haven't talked about it since. That's the way it is with Carrie. She has to be the one who brings it up. Most of the time I try to understand but I still get mad sometimes when she won't talk about things or worse, when she starts to, and then stops and won't budge.

         Normal is how when Carrie's dad walks into the kitchen it feels like someone has just dropped the blender into the sink and we are all getting electrocuted. I feel like I'm wearing rubber soled sneakers so the current just sort of zips through me like when I used to race down a long slide and then touch someone - ZAP! When I look at Carrie I can tell that the volt is creeping through her slowly, burning a trail of scars that I can't see but can feel when I touch her. And Mrs. Lawson - well, she is jumping up and down in one spot, like she can't help it. She's jumping here to turn on the stove, and jumping there to light him a cigarette, and she's already pulled the ice out and into his favourite glass that is always clean and untouched by anyone else but him, at the edge of the sink, upside down, on a clean napkin, just waiting for the lady on fire to pour him the Beefeater.

         Ladybug Ladybug, fly away home, the kitchen's on fire, your children are home… See, this is normal at Carrie's house. The tension. The quiet. I feel it squeeze the back of my neck the moment I walk into her house, even if her dad isn't home. It's like he's there all the time, hiding. Carrie tells me how he says that if anybody pretends that they have a normal family, a family who doesn't fight, then they are lying. That everyone has something to hide and that he is doing the right thing by yelling really loud or blocking the doorway so no one can get out of the room or breaking all of Carrie's mom's favourite Shirley Bassey albums that she's had since she was a teenager, before she met Carrie's dad. Like there's nothing wrong with a man showing his temper in his own house, now is there, when Carrie or her Mom really pisses him off. He says that anybody who says that it's not normal is a goddamn liar and they are the ones to be afraid of.

         There are things I am not supposed to know. There are things that I do know. My name is Samantha Avery. I am sixteen years old. My brother Cameron is eighteen and graduating this year and contrary to what people say about older brothers we do get along. I'll be sad when he goes to University in the fall. My mom and dad were divorced when I was six and Cam was eight and I believe them when they say it was an amicable break-up. We all spend holidays together. I'm afraid to talk to my mom about how I feel, sometimes. She is a psychologist so she has this way of talking that can drive me crazy sometimes, but more than that she is just always so together, so cool, that it's hard to tell her when I'm feeling sad or scared or kind of…hopeless, I guess.

         She says things like "I'm here for you but ultimately you have to work it out for yourself." And (my least favourite) "There's no need to defend your reality, darling; I just want you to look further," and "Adolescence is the time to discover and accept who you really are - I'm so proud of your journey!" Which, I admit, is nice to hear sometimes but mostly I just want to go off on the kids at school who think I'm weird even though I've known them all since Kindergarten and you would think that by now they would just be used to the way I dress and do my hair (or don't do it, actually) - who cares if I shaved my head, the dye really screwed it up so I thought I might as well just shave the whole damn thing - but it seems the older we get the more everybody just tries to be like everybody else and even that is a competition so somehow I get the reputation of getting weirder even though I think I'm the most normal of all of them.

         So you can see how it can be really frustrating when my mom seems to think that I should understand that this is just all a stage of growth, really, instead of her getting it that I'm actually living this life.

         Anyways, I know that I am really lucky to have Carrie as a best friend. There are tons of reasons why we are, and it's not just because we think the kids at school are boring and pretentious. Well, maybe a bit. But also:

  1. Carrie has known me since grade three and she always gets it. Me, I mean. Not that there was a lot to understand in grade three, but when we went to high school and all the other girls started wearing makeup and getting all - weird - you know, like straightening their hair orcurling their hair (always long and looking strangely like everyone else's) and wearing really tight jeans and stilettos…Carrie was totally cool with going to the Sally Ann with me. She bought a pair of old man pants (that look really good on her. She just has to hide them from her dad) while I got a totally cool pair of vintage men's silk pyjamas. She doesn't even ask me if I'd rather go to Metrotown.
  2. Carrie doesn't say things unless they are important. It took me a long time to figure this one out, but now I know it's not 'cos she's shy, or anything, it's just she waits to say something until she really thinks it needs to be said.

         We plan to move away as soon as we graduate, which will be (thank god) in thirteen months, not counting summer. These are things that I know. There are more. But right now, right here, I want to keep talking about the things that I am not supposed to know.

         I know for a fact that I am Carrie's only friend. I know that her Mom doesn't have any friends. I know about dinners in the garbage and nightmares that keep Carrie up all night. I know that one night, when they were downtown, right in the really bad part, Mr. Lawson pulled the car over and told them to get the hell out. He never came back. Mrs. Lawson didn't have any money - her purse was in the car - and they had to ask someone on the street for bus fare. These are things I'm not supposed to know.

         None of this is normal. But then, what is? What I do know is that it's true.

Chameleon: UBC's Journal of Children's Literature

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