by Donna Miscolta
For most of my childhood, I never ate toast.
I don’t remember why I said this. I wasn’t one for non sequiturs, but looking back, it’s hard to construct a context for my confession. I was eleven years old when I divulged this to Ella, a watchful and intense thirteen-year-old, with whom I was in love. We were sitting at the table in her gleaming kitchen with its shiny appliances, its double-door refrigerator, large-capacity microwave, six-slice toaster. Ella herself glinted in the sunlight that streamed through the window behind her. I tried not to stare every time she put her lips to her Pepsi can and tilted her head back.
“You’re still a child,” she told me, which I supposed was intended to give me hope that I might yet eat toast at my family’s breakfast table. I refused to believe the alternative – that she was being heartlessly condescending.
Still, I reminded her, “I’m advanced for my age.”
“When did this discussion become about you, Alexander?”
We were at her house to come up with a project that would help save the environment. We were in the Environment Club at school, though that afternoon we had severed ties with our faculty advisor and we were now a renegade club. Ella had joined the club because she believed she could make a difference. I was in it because it didn’t require physical coordination, ability to carry a tune, a sense of spatial relations, or other skill missing from my repertoire. But that aside, I was interested in the environment, though my concern up until then had not gone beyond a diligence in removing contaminants from our family recycling bin, continually compromised by my sister’s chewing gum which she aimed indiscriminately into any available receptacle.
I was rarely self-indulgent, so Ella’s reprimand stung.
“Tree-planting,” I said, getting back to the subject. “I vote for planting a tree.” Ella wrinkled her brow, making delicate impressions in her forehead. “Is that what we’re about, Alexander? Symbolism?” she said. “Aren’t we capable of something more?”
I hadn’t known Ella more than a few days, and I certainly had doubts about myself, but I was smart enough to answer yes.
“Then let’s go for my plan.”
She raised her Pepsi and when I raised mine to meet hers, my hand shook.
As I walked through the gate to my family’s house, I peeled off a piece of the rotting wood, not maliciously, but absentmindedly, and carried it inside with me. My father sat at his worktable in an alcove off the living room, which he called his office, a space Mia claimed should have been a yoga room and my mother maintained should have been just an alcove and pointed to its lack of electrical outlets as proof. Telephone and computer cords snaked from the alcove office across the living room, tangling with the television and lamp cords in a crowded electrical strip. The visible wires gave a sense of exposure and vulnerability to our lives.
“Home already?” my father asked from his desk which wobbled from a loose screw.
My father said that every afternoon when I came through the door, even on Thursdays when I stayed for Environment Club. He just got so absorbed in his work that the space between my leaving for school and coming home passed quickly for him. My father and I lived in separate time zones. He regretted it more than I did, which was only right.
“Got any homework,” he asked.
I still held the piece of rotting wood and now tossed it into a potted fern, itself rotting at the edges.
“Yep,” I said, settling down in the permanently reclining recliner chair to watch TV, since my father had turned his attention back to his work. My mother would not be home for a few hours and Mia was at volleyball practice spiking balls across the net at the heads of her opponents, so I watched reruns of Gilligan’s Island. The remote control was broken, preventing me from channel surfing during commercials, and I stared at the ads for laundry detergent and furniture polish that showed families in spotless, shiny homes with furnishings and appliances that had all their arms and legs and buttons and knobs intact.
My family’s toaster broke when I was six, and that’s when I realized that when something stopped working in our house, it never got repaired. Not really repaired. There would be duct tape or scotch tape or rubber bands, Elmer’s glue, staples, Ace bandages, dental floss – some kind of emergency first-aid administered as a temporary measure. Sometimes temporary was a few days, sometimes it was years. And when temporary was over, the failed object would sit ignored and untouched, until someone set it out of sight – under the table or on the front porch. Eventually it would find its way to a pile of junk in the side yard where it would rust and rot, and fallen leaves would compost in the rifts and hollows.
Things were rarely replaced. We just learned to go without toast. And without hot water in the bathroom sink, without a screen in the screen door, without the use of three out of four burners on the stove. We were neither indolent nor indigent – just, I think, immobilized when it came to fixing the daily mishaps of our lives, never thinking about what it all added up to. “You’ve got to take the long view,” said my father who had plans to one day remodel the family home into an architectural jewel, which is how he justified the slow disintegration around us.
“Sacrifice now for future gain.”
My mother disagreed. “We could die tomorrow,” she grumbled, “without having had an unbroken sofa to sit on.”
“Or the house could burn down,” Mia said, like a mediator putting an offer on the table.
My mother shot her a look, though, of course, Mia, despite her worst intentions, was not capable of such a solution. But I knew my mother worried just a little.
When Mia came home, she dumped her books and gym bag on the floor and switched the TV channel to Sally Jessy Raphael. She liked to watch the exhibitionism of the guests – the thirteen-year-old sluts, the obese women who strutted in bustiers and mini-skirts, the drag queens. I wondered about Mia’s social life. Worried about her, in fact.
“Hey, loser, did you do your homework?” she said, without a trace of affection.
“No.” Stupidly, I always answered her.
“You are such a disappointment.” She sighed deeply, threw a ratty pillow at me and stretched out on the couch, her feet at the end that was held together with packing tape. We watched the misfits on TV, comparing the discord in their lives against our own.
My father was an architect, my mother an office manager in an insurance firm, and each was in the wrong career. And then there was my sister, who was in the wrong family. Me, I was in the wrong grade, having been skipped a year in elementary school and so at eleven years old, I was the smallest, smartest boy in the seventh grade, and had embarked on a comfortable phase of ignorance, low expectations and invisibility, with no reason to change. Until Ella moved in down the street and joined the Environment Club.
As I watched the shrieking and hair-pulling on TV, I tried not to think of Ella’s plan and what consequences might ensue. Sally ended, and we heard our mother’s car pull up, so Mia jumped up to shut off the TV. She was still wearing her practice shorts and jersey, but after her hour on the couch, she had lost that breathless glow of physical exertion. She did a few jumping jacks and then some toe touches to make the blood rush to her head, so that it looked as if she had just schlepped her books, her gym bag and her athletic, but fatigued, body the eight blocks from the high school.
When our mother walked in, she, as usual, directed her first words at Mia, since anything less would provoke an accusation of disinterest, neglect, or the highest crime – favoritism toward me. “How was practice?”
“It would be a lot more convenient if I could drive,” Mia said, stomping out of the room and dragging books and bag.
“I feel like a mule,” she yelled behind her.
“I think she means ass,” I said.
My mother was not amused. Very little amused Nora Ramos at the end of a workday. She stared at me. “She doesn’t turn sixteen for eight months.”
My mother always presented these arguments to me as if I was the one in need of logic. I nodded sympathetically.
“Have you finished your homework?”
“Almost.” I could get away with such fibs because I knew my mother still wanted to believe I was living up to my potential.
“Well, do the rest after dinner.” She patted me kindly and I let her. She was afraid to touch my sister. Mia had grown too loud.
We ate dinner in the battered and broken living room as Tom Brokaw delivered the evening news about the latest disaster or scandal, the downturn in the stock market, the human interest story that brought lumps to our throats, because even as we sat amid our deterioration, we knew there were people out there less fortunate than we were.
“And you kids think you’ve got it bad,” my father would say, shaking his head.
“It’s all relative,” my mother would say back each time.
It was an exchange as automatic as achoo-gesundheit, or thank you-you’re welcome.
I met Ella a few days after she moved in down the street. I was walking to the bus stop for school when I saw her emerge from the big house. It was the biggest and newest house on the block, on the lot where a house much like ours had once stood, and the Franklins, a family totally unlike ours, once lived. The Franklins used professional landscapers for their yard and each summer held a neighborhood party and served barbecue outdoors against a backdrop of dahlias. From the patio, we could see inside to the graceful, well-kept interior, where afghans draped across sofas were merely decorative and not camouflage for tattered upholstery. When they put their house on the market to buy a bigger one, a developer bought it, stripped it to its foundation, and built a new one, both quaint and imposing in its farmhouse style and bulk, and incongruous on our suburban street. When the seller held an open house, the neighborhood trooped through to see what they could not afford. Mia and I accompanied our dad, but our mother declined. We reported to her the features – hardwood floors, coved ceilings, gourmet kitchen, five bedrooms, three and a half baths, walk-in closets, utility room, family room, study, all of which my mother listened to with pursed lips and pained brow. My father assessed it all with a critical eye. “Shoddy workmanship,” he said. “Second-rate materials. Inefficient floor plan.”
“Yeah,” Mia said with the sarcasm honed since she was three, “that house is totally disgusting.”
That morning as I followed Ella to the bus stop, I thought of how I knew what the inside of her house looked like and I felt privileged with knowledge as I observed her movements, her clothes, her body. Ella was slim but sturdy. She wore flared jeans, a white crewneck pullover and Reeboks. She wore what most kids wore, but everything looked different on her – better, more natural. And the backpack slung over her shoulder was neither a burden nor an accessory. Her hair was sleek and short, though long enough to bounce as she walked.
I told myself I was interested in girls only insofar as they offered a comparison against which to measure my sister and her high-strung sensibilities. Mia, first-born, was first in loudness, meanness and stinginess. It wasn’t just an adolescent thing. It was in her bones, her fingernails, in the hairs she left in the bathtub after shaving her legs. I didn’t hate her. That was in my bones – not to hate. Even so, my sister had long discredited girls in my eyes. While I knew that not every girl was going to stick her foot in my path to trip me, put Friskies in my cereal bowl, or steal my allowance, I regarded most with suspicion. Even the quiet ones. There seemed to be among all of them a scheme which involved my humiliation or exclusion. Ella, I would find out, was different. She needed me for other things.
I was looking at the back of her neck when she turned around and then I could see the blades of her collarbone, and, for the first time, all of my family’s imperfections seemed so plainly pathetic.
“I’m Ella,” she said.
Most girls didn’t talk to me unless they had to, like Morgan Hansen, the cheerleader who told me to stay ten feet away from her locker, which happened to be right above mine.
I looked at Ella, or rather, her collarbone. “Hi,” I answered, fixed on this surprisingly engaging part of a girl’s anatomy.
“Is your name Alexander?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling stupid that I hadn’t introduced myself. “How’d you know?”
“It says so on your math homework.”
I looked at the paper sticking out of my book. I never put it in my backpack in the morning since I always finished my homework on the bus.
“What, are you a detective?” I asked, forgetting for a moment who I was talking to and falling into the sarcasm I used as a defense against most girls.
“No, just observant.” There was no conceit, no sarcasm, no malice. Just a statement.
I wanted to say something to let her know that I was observant, too. Because I was. It was my defining feature. But someone else had claimed her attention and I watched her mingle easily with the other kids at the bus stop as I stood alone.
On the bus, I watched Ella some more and in second period I turned in an incomplete math assignment.
Ella wasn’t in any of my classes and she wasn’t on the bus home that afternoon. When I walked past her house, I looked straight ahead, but I thought of Ella, impeccable, singular Ella, inside its newness, its unbrokenness.
The next morning Ella wasn’t at the bus stop, but I saw her go past in a car, an elegant looking woman, probably her mother, driving. Ella waved and I stared dumbly back, unsure if she was acknowledging me or the bus stop crowd in general. Even without Ella to watch on the bus, I didn’t do my math homework. She was a distraction even when she wasn’t there in front of me. It was Ella I was thinking of when I failed to answer when called on in history class, when I blurted out of turn in English class, when I accidentally sent my pencil airborne over two rows of students in Spanish class. “Discúlpame,” I said, though my plea for forgiveness was rather half-hearted. It would all earn me a visit to the seventh-grade counselor by the end of the week. They kept a close watch on me at school, concerned about any mismatch between my advanced academic placement and my social readiness. I occasionally transgressed on purpose, maybe for the attention, maybe to test the system.
But I had an ally in Ms. Noonan, who stood up for any and all members of the Environment Club. She was the faculty advisor for the club, the membership of which fluctuated from a low of one (me) to a high of five or six when we had our end-of-the-quarter party at the Pizza Palace, Ms. Noonan’s treat. By school policy Ms. Noonan could disband the club for lack of participation, but she generously proclaimed that if even one student was interested in saving the environment, she would gladly give her time. I doubted that her motives were so pure. I knew mine weren’t. The club made us feel as if we were doing something worthy without having to do much of anything at all. Our weekly meetings were spent writing cliché-ridden opinion pieces for the school newspaper and thinking up slogans for Ms. Noonan’s bulletin board.
After not seeing Ella all that day, I was ready to put pen to paper in a fiery tirade against every conceivable threat to the planet. But when I walked into Ms. Noonan’s classroom after school, Ella was there, seated at a desk in the front row. Ms. Noonan sat across from her, beaming, gratified not only for someone other than me showing up, but for someone like Ella, to give credibility, even glamour to our otherwise dubious club.
“Look who’s joined our cause, Alexander.” Ms. Noonan was almost giddy. “This is Ella.”
“We know each other,” said Ella.
This declaration from Ella ensured my loyalty to her. I sat down smugly next to Ella. But Ms. Noonan was still the boss.
“Ella,” she said, “why don’t you start the discussion, something in today’s headline, a special interest of yours. Just anything you want to talk about.”
“Talk about?” Ella asked, her face softly scrunching.
Ms. Noonan nodded her head in encouragement.
“What good does it do to just talk?” Ella looked at me as if she didn’t trust Ms. Noonan. I couldn’t say that the Environment Club was just a nice opportunity to complain about the problems of the world and the self-absorbed, tunnel-visioned people in it. I couldn’t say that I was satisfied just to point out the wrongs, that I had no compulsion to right them. So I feebly pointed out the poster that hung on Ms. Noonan’s bulletin board.
“What else?” Ella asked.
“Ella,” Ms. Noonan said, her voice patient, “our group is small so our impact is small.”
“Well,” Ella said quietly, “I think the effort is small.”
“We need to be reasonable in our undertakings. After all, we have limited resources.” Limited resources was what we used in our slogans on our posters, in our editorials in the school newspaper, in our letters to our elected officials. Limited resources was our anthem, our rallying cry, and now our justification for our feeble actions to save the environment.
But I was on Ella’s side. “I think the effort is small, too.” I could see that Ms. Noonan was taking the criticism personally, and for an instant I regretted my words as I foresaw the end of the pizza parties. But only for an instant, because then I blurted, “Infinitesimal, in fact.” I rose from my chair and left the room in a disappointed shuffle I copied from Mia, whose repertoire of postures and exits I had been witness to since my high-chair days.
I waited in the hall, expecting Ella to follow, but she didn’t. At least not right away. After ten minutes I was about to give up, questioning my action and the motive behind it. What principle had I stood up for, what ideal had I pursued, I wondered. Then Ella came out of Ms. Noonan’s classroom. We were the only ones in the hallway and I listened to Ella’s soft soles pulse against the unswept floor, and watched dust motes halo at her head as she came toward me.
“That was quite a dramatic exit,” she said.
“Cinematic,” I said admiringly.
Ella looked at me, puzzled. “I meant yours.”
“Oh.” I wondered if I looked confused. “I was making a statement,” I said, almost defensively.
“That’s what I was explaining to Ms. Noonan. That we are not about words. We’re about action. Come on. We have work to do.”
I followed Ella out of the building and onto the street where we caught a city bus. I was aware of the half inch of space between us on the seat, and as Ella looked out the window I looked at her up close – the small ear lobes, the slim nose, the fine lashes, all lending a fragility to her face, all balanced by the resolute chin. Her left hand anchored her backpack to her lap, and I thought of what it might feel like to lay my hand over hers.
“It has to be meaningful,” Ella said, suddenly turning toward me.
“I know,” I said too earnestly.
“We need a project that will stir people to action.”
“I know,” I said again, though not as earnestly.
Ella eyed me curiously, then turned back to the window.
“We could plant trees,” I proposed, borrowing a suggestion from a poster I had done for Ms. Noonan’s bulletin board, Breathe free, plant a tree.
“Maybe,” Ella said with a small shrug.
I decided to wait for her to come up with an idea. Maybe I would shrug it off.
Then she was tapping my knee. “Look,” she said, and I stared at her hand on my leg until I realized she meant for me to look out the window. The bus was stopped for some dawdling pedestrians and I was able to read the sign that sprung up at the edge of a weedy lot. It exclaimed Coming Soon! For Your Shopping Convenience! Six New Boutiques! The sign made Ella grimace. I myself found all those exclamation points irritating.
“That is so unnecessary.” Ella was indignant and I nodded in support, but kept my mouth shut.
“All that stuff,” she said, shaking her head. “It just encourages buying and using and…”
“Wasting,” I said, finally catching on. “It’s criminal.”
Ella stared at me. “Of course,” she said softly. “Someone needs to bring that sign down.”
“Vandalism?” I asked. “It’s criminal.”
And Ella shrugged, never giving me a chance.
It would take all of three minutes to throw kerosene and a match on the sign and spray-paint the sidewalk in front of it with some pithy slogan. I would’ve settled for the all-purpose Save the Earth which required less paint, but Ella insisted on Stop Consumption, though consumption made me think of a character wracked with cough and spit in a Dickens novel. I said this out loud to Ella, but she gave me an icy stare. Humor or showing off, whichever I was guilty of, had no place in the mission, as Ella called it, which was to be executed on Saturday, early in the morning when traffic at that corner was practically non-existent.
Friday evening I was feeling restless, so I wandered into the living room where my father was reading the paper. He seemed untroubled by the ruins of our living room, even though the broken recliner he sat in leaned farther back than it should have. His long frame overshot either end of the chair. He had been a pole-vaulter in college. Mia had inherited his athleticism. I got his nearsightedness, though I didn’t require glasses yet. I expected they would come in handy if one day anyone suggested I join the pole vaulting team. I would point to my corrective lenses in their fragile wire frames and, with feigned regret, decline. I didn’t care to know the feeling of lifting myself 17 feet in the air, just to come crashing down on my back, the sky farther away than ever. On his desk in his alcove office, there was a picture of my father in mid-air, but still, you knew it was inevitable, the fall back to earth.
I hadn’t sought advice from him since I was in the second grade when I had taken it upon myself to redesign my elementary school. I suppose it was as much approval as advice I was seeking when I presented him with my blueprint for what resembled an amusement park.
“Very imaginative,” my father had said. Then he tousled my head playfully and he chuckled in a way that grown-ups do when they understand something kids don’t. “Not very realistic.”
My father was Ben Casey, not the TV doctor of 60’s television, but Ben Casey, Architect for the Future. It was printed on his business cards, stacks of them in his desk drawer and whenever he had the opportunity to pass one along to a potential client, he would always be dismayed by the person’s response to his name. If the person was my father’s age or older, he or she would invariably make a joke. “Switching careers?” “Got tired of saving lives?” My father would perform his chuckle, but underneath he would panic at the thought that he indeed was in the wrong career, because he wished he really could save lives – maybe ours, at least his own. If the person made no mention of Dr. Casey, then my father would know he was dealing with a person much younger than himself, and he resented that too.
My father lowered his newspaper. “Something on your mind, Alexander?”
“Kind of.” I sat on the edge of the broken sofa so I wouldn’t sink back into its springless cavity. I looked at my father who had not tousled my head in years. “No, not really,” I said.
I decided to go down to the basement to see my mother. I took a cup of peppermint tea, but she was in the throes of concentration, her foot pumping the potter’s wheel, her hands persuading clay, her face muscles tense. I set the tea down on the worktable where she painted and glazed her creations, and then I sat on the bottom of the basement stairs to wait. And to watch my mother.
She didn’t seem like my mother then. She seemed someone different, and I sometimes thought this is who she wanted to be – someone other than the office manager who directed the flow of claims and policies on life and health and property, someone other than the mother in our house of broken things. She had gone underground, turning the dank and musty basement into a gallery of pots and vases, bowls, butter dishes, cups and saucers. Around the walls where my mother had installed shelves, colors and patterns swirled in garish, unchipped, uncracked perfection.
I watched a bowl emerge from my mother’s hands. She held it up to admire and I thought of a photo I’d seen of her holding a baby Mia all new and clean after a bath.
“What do you think, Alexander?”
“Excellent,” I said, genuinely admiring the bowl before it would be covered with immoderate strokes of color.
I decided to go to my room and ponder my situation. Mia’s door was open when I passed her room. Incense burned on her dresser and chanting came from her stereo. She was in a backbend, her upside-down face level with my shins. Still, she managed to direct her gaze up at me. At that angle she looked almost friendly, and I considered asking her for advice. But then she exhaled and offered her philosophy unsolicited. “Get enlightened, loser.”
I left Mia to her posing and went to my room, which was really a loft, only a rail where a wall should have been, and, of course, no door to slam shut against the world. When I was younger, I would create my own privacy by building a fort fashioned from blankets and rearranged furniture, until I realized my makeshift walls were superfluous in our house.
I puttered around in my room for a while, moved a few chess pieces, played air guitar to Carlos Santana, practiced bathroom graffiti on a piece of notebook paper. Eventually I heard my parents go to bed. Then Mia’s door closed, but I knew she wasn’t asleep. I wondered what she did when she didn’t have an audience, when she had no one to bully, when she felt safe. What would she say if she knew that tomorrow I would carry out a crime for a cause? I set my alarm for 5:30 and went to bed, thinking of Ella.
We were to rendezvous at the site by separate routes. I arrived first, lighter fluid sloshing in the container zipped into my sweatshirt. Rather than loiter at the sign, the object of our planned destruction, I hid behind the Port-a-Potty already in place in anticipation of the crew that would soon bulldoze the weedy lot. The corner was deserted except for a few pigeons that bobbed along the sidewalk. Six new boutiques would bring traffic and noise and litter and more pigeons and their gluey shit. But wasn’t it inevitable, I thought. And what would our little act of eco-terrorism accomplish? I dug in my pocket for the book of matches I had taken from our kitchen drawer. While I waited for Ella, I practiced lighting matches, each time letting the flame burn down nearly to my fingers before extinguishing it. Ella was late. I began to wonder if she’d chickened out. Just when I hoped that she had, just when I could start feeling betrayed, I saw her slim figure in blue jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt slink behind the sign. She leaned into one of the posts as if trying to blend into it. A lost cause, I thought, and then I found myself jerking backward when she turned to look my way. Shielded by the Port-a-Potty, I stared at the spent matches in the dirt in front of me, sat there counting them over and over, until I knew that when I stood up Ella would be gone.
When I got home it was still early, though I knew my parents were up, my mother in the basement, my father in his alcove. Mia was still in bed, awake and daydreaming, plotting her fame on a TV talk show. I didn’t want to go inside, so I veered off to the side yard and sat near our pile of discards where metal rusted and wood rotted far too slowly. I took the book of matches from my pocket and struck a match and watched it burn to my fingertips before blowing it out. Ella had been late, I told myself. I could very well have given up on her and left. She was the one with explaining to do. I struck another match, blew hard on it as it singed my skin. I struck a third and this time when it threatened my fingertips, I dropped it on the pile of decaying cast-offs. It flickered and seemed to go out, but then glowed yellow as it skittered around the remnant of a legless stool. I waited and watched the flames grow confident and incontestable, begin to blister the paint on our house, then catch the wood. I waited some more. Then I ran inside to rescue my family.
Donna Miscolta’s story collection Hola and Goodbye was selected by Randall Kenan for the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman and publication by Carolina Wren Press in 2016. She’s also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Excerpts from her novel-in-progress The Education of Angie Rubio appear in The Adirondack Review and Crate (now the Santa Ana Review).