Notes on a Near-Life Experience

For Deb: my mom, soul mate, and centripetal force

Acknowledgments

Thanks to my editor, Stephanie Lane, and Delacorte Press for taking a chance on an unknown kid. I am indebted to my professors and classmates at Brigham Young University and New York University, especially Louise Plummer, Brian Morton, Breyten Breytenbach, Chuck Wachtel, and Nicole Hefner, for their input and encouragement. Mom, Dad, Erik, Anna, Lisz, Diana, David, Bekah, Michael, Zanna, and JohnEr, thank you for your love, inspiration, and patience.

prologue

G
ROWING UP
, I
WENT TO SCHOOL WITH THIS GIRL
, J
ENNIFER
Reebi, who had a mole about the size of a cherry pit in the middle of her left eyebrow. Her eyebrow, unaware of the existence of the mole, grew right over it, which made the mole that much worse, because not only was it big and conspicuous, it was hairy. Once in a while someone would show us how they could dislocate their finger at will, or they'd get an infected mosquito bite on their leg, an enormous zit on their forehead, or something equally gross that would take attention away from Jennifer's mole. But all those things were temporary, and the mole was permanent. No matter where she went, what she wore, who she sat with at lunch, Jennifer Reebi's mole was always there, obvious. You couldn't look at
the girl and not focus on her mole, like how when you pass a really gruesome car accident, you slow down without even realizing it. Jennifer Reebi could have been brilliant, beautiful, the funniest, most interesting girl ever to live on earth, but in our minds she was a girl with a big, disgusting mole in the middle of her head. That mole ruled Jennifer Reebi's life; it defined her.

The fall of seventh grade, Jennifer Reebi returned to school moleless, with a normal eyebrow and everything. She had a teeny scar, but if you didn't know about the mole, you'd never suspect a thing. She was actually pretty cute. But she was still Jennifer Reebi, Mole Girl, and whenever anyone mentioned her or tried to describe her to someone else, they never failed to bring up the ugly mole she'd had over her eye. Her mole got bigger and hairier and uglier every time it was mentioned, and there was no immediate evidence to remind us of the truth. The legend of the mole was probably worse than the mole itself. Jennifer didn't even have a shot with new people; so many people remembered her mole that everyone else was bound to find out about it sooner or later. Her mole was inescapable. Back then, I couldn't imagine a fate worse than having Jennifer Reebi's mole, or even just having to live with its ghost. Then, miraculously, just before high school, Jennifer Reebi's family moved. If she's smart, I remember thinking, she'll forget about that mole and never mention it again.

If there's a moral to the story of Jennifer Reebi, a “main idea,” as my English teacher always says—and I don't necessarily
think there is one, but if there is—it's something about identity and society and escape.

But there's more than that.

Jennifer Reebi got to leave the ugliest thing in her life behind, while most of us are stuck on the side of the road as people slow down to catch a glimpse of our tragedies.

W
HEN
I
WAS LITTLE, MY PARENTS HELD HANDS IN PUBLIC
. Wandering through grocery stores, in movie theaters, at Linda Vista Elementary School's end-of-the-year carnival. Everywhere. It was embarrassing. They held hands even when we begged them not to. As a result of this constant hand-holding and all that went along with it, I am not an only child. There are three of us: my older brother, Allen, is seventeen, I'm fifteen, and my sister, Keatie, is eight. When I was in ninth grade, the hand-holding stopped, much to my relief. Maybe I wouldn't have been so relieved if I'd realized what that might mean.

Lately, my family has been different. My full-time family has always been my mom, Allen, me, and Keatie. My dad works a lot, so I think of him as more of a part-timer. He
comes on vacations with us, is around on weekday mornings and Sundays, and occasionally stops in for dinner on weekdays. My mom complains a lot about how much he works, but the complaints haven't changed anything yet.

The full-time family has always been pretty tight, but lately things have been getting a little… loose. We used to hang out together; we'd sit at the same table and do homework while my mom paid bills, or we'd read magazines or play video games (okay, so I don't really play video games, but I'd be there when my brother and sister did). We even sat around and talked sometimes, like families on TV do. During the past few months, Mom has been working more, and Allen's been gone a lot. Keatie and I watch more TV and talk a lot less than we used to.

That doesn't sound like a big deal, probably, but it feels like a big deal to me. I mean, my family isn't boring, exactly, but we have routines:

—We eat dinner at seven o'clock every night, unless there's a dance performance or a violin recital or a soccer game or whatever going on. My dad only makes it to a couple of dinners a week—always on Sundays, and then usually at least one other day. He works a lot, even on weekends.

—Every Friday my brother and sister and I have pizza or Chinese food or some other kind of takeout for dinner, because that's my parents' “date night.” When he's in a good mood, Allen gives them an obnoxious piece of advice like “Now, remember, Maggie”—that's my mom's name—“don't think that just because he buys you dinner you owe him
something,” and then he winks at her, or he'll remind my dad to use protection, or he'll tell them they have their whole lives ahead of them and they shouldn't put all that at risk for a few minutes of fun. He's big on making people as uncomfortable as humanly possible.

—On Saturdays we clean the house. Everyone, even my dad, has an assignment, and they can't do anything fun until they finish their assigned chore.

—My mom puts us each to bed every night. She doesn't tuck us in or anything, she just likes to talk to us before we go to bed. Most nights before I go to sleep, I tell my mom about school, and boys, and who said what about whom. I guess I tell her everything.

—My dad makes our lunches for school every night and puts them in the refrigerator for us so that they're ready and waiting for us in the morning. Unfortunately, he is a big fan of bologna sandwiches, and most of the rest of us aren't. My sandwiches usually end up in the garbage. Allen's friend Julian eats his every once in a while. I don't know what Keatie does with hers.

—Keatie, Allen, and I watch
Jeopardy!
together; sometimes Mom or Dad will watch with us. Okay, so we don't just watch it. We try to answer the questions, and sometimes we even keep score. (I never said these routines weren't embarrassing or ridiculous.) Or we'll each pick a contestant at the beginning and whoever's contestant wins doesn't have to do dishes.

—My dad takes one of us to lunch once a month. I think this was my mom's idea; when Dad started working a lot, we
didn't see him much, and one night Keatie asked my mom when her real dad was coming home. My mom asked her what she meant by her “real dad” and Keatie said, “You know, the one who lives at home, like on TV. The dad we have lives at work.” Mom sort of flipped out and Dad started picking us up from school every once in a while and taking us to lunch.

I didn't realize how much I depended on these habits, on the routine, on not having to think or worry about how my family functioned. I didn't realize how much I liked or needed our traditions. I think sometimes you have to lose things to see them for what they really are. Which sounds stupid and obvious and clichéd, like that song my mom sometimes listens to in the car about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot.

I
GUESS
I
BEGAN TO NOTICE THAT SOMETHING WAS WRONG
about three months ago. The three of us, Allen, Keatie, and I, were sitting in the living room, waiting for
Jeopardy!
to come on, watching
Wheel of Fortune
and guessing at the answer to a puzzle with only three letters—all
T
s—showing. It looked like this:

Keatie guessed, “
The Cat in the Hat
… no, wait…
Stand Up to
…”

I guessed,
“Stick My Toe … Italy Is Too …”

Allen didn't bother guessing. “You guys suck. It's
Allen Rules the Universe, Obey His Every Command
.”

“Al, you always say that's what the answer is, and it never is,” Keatie told him.

About then my parents came down the hall into the living room. They were arguing.

My dad said something like “I want you to stop acting like my mother, that's all.”

And my mom said something like “I want you to stop acting like a child, then.”

We didn't say anything.

I don't know what they were fighting about. It would have been easier to guess the answer to an impossible puzzle with three
T
s showing than to even begin trying to understand what was going on between them. And at that point, worrying about my parents' relationship seemed as unnecessary as finding the answer to a puzzle on a stupid TV show. They were fine, holding hands or not. There was nothing to see; we kept on driving, didn't even think about slowing down.

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