When I was eleven, I shared a room with my sister Kathleen, who was twenty, bipolar, and entering a manic phase. We’d moved from a big house in Texas to a little one in California, and, as the only other girl in the family, I got stuck with her. I didn’t know the words ‘manic phase,’ of course. In our family code, she was ‘getting upset.’
One sure sign that she was getting upset was that she slept very little. She stayed up most of the night, reading and smoking one Salem after the other. My father had forbidden her to smoke in bed, because she might fall asleep and set the house on fire. But she felt that she needed to be in bed, because being in bed might make sleep come. And since she also needed to smoke, there was no place to smoke but bed.
There was only one window in our room, a narrow one like a transom, above her bed. She didn’t like having the window open. She kept the door shut so the smoke wouldn’t snake its way down the hall into our parents’ room. I got used to the haze, but I couldn’t fall asleep with the light on.
“Kath,” I said. I used her nickname, trying to appeal to the old Kathleen, the one I’d known the first seven years of my life. That Kathleen came back for at least half the year, and sometimes longer.
“I can’t sleep with the light on.”
She kept her eyes on the page.
“I can’t sleep either. I have to read. Just shut your eyes.”
“I’ve been shutting my eyes. Can’t you go read on the couch?”
“You try to sleep on that couch and see how you like it.”
“But you said you can’t sleep anyway.”
She took a sharp drag on her cigarette, and exhaled out of the side of her mouth in my direction, without looking up from her book.
“You have no idea what this is like. I want to go to sleep, but I can’t. It’s horrible. Leave me alone.”
This is where any other little sister might take action: she’d storm out of the bedroom in her white cotton nightgown stand before her parents, and demand justice. That wasn’t how it worked with us. Mama and Daddy had explained to my brothers and me that Kathleen acted like this because she was sick. It wasn’t her fault. She couldn’t help it. Arguing with her, our parents said, would only make her worse. Making her worse meant that she would move from ‘getting upset’ to ‘going off.’ ‘Going off’ meant she would go to the hospital. She’d been there before, when I was seven, and again when I was nine.
In the spring of 1967, school was my blessed escape from Kathleen, even though the low brick buildings of Margate Junior High, Palos Verdes, California, looked like a prison. It was nothing like little Seabrook Elementary, where the grandfatherly principal, Mr. Bay, knew all the children by name. There, I had been an important child. On standardized reading tests, I scored four years ahead of where I was supposed to be. I was even allowed to skip third grade.
Here, I was invisible, not because the other kids were so smart, but because there were too many of them. You got noticed if you were a troublemaker, but not if you behaved. Only one teacher seemed to recognize me for who I was: Mr. Tullar.
Tall, thin, and angular, Mr. Tullar stalked the aisles between our desks, turning his head with its large, beaky nose from left to right, like a heron looking for frogs. I liked his clothes. He was from Boston . Unlike the other male teachers, who wore short sleeve shirts, he always wore a suit. He wasn’t a handsome man: his pink scalp showed through his patchy blond hair, and he had bad skin that he tried to cover up with what looked like Clearasil. But I didn’t expect teachers to be handsome.
His appearance was not the only thing that set him apart from the other teachers. He didn’t seem to have moods. I hated teachers with moods: you never knew what you were going to get. But most of all, he took his subject seriously. Language Arts with Mr. Tullar was not an easy class, even for a reader like me. We were taught to analyze what we read, to hunt down topic sentences and similes and metaphors that were trying to hide in their paragraphs as plain old words.
Despite his lack of warmth, Mr. Tullar and I had a special relationship, or at least I thought so: he knew that books were as important to me as they were to him. During one of our class’s rare free reading periods, he saw me deep into Beverly Cleary’s The Luckiest Girl . This was a teen coming of age story, in which the heroine, like me, had just moved to California , and didn’t feel at home.
I looked up from the book and saw Mr. Tullar frowning in my direction.
“You shouldn’t read junk like that,” he said. “Teen novels. You’re capable of reading better books.”
I was embarrassed but pleased, even though I knew he was wrong about my book. Nothing Beverly Cleary wrote was junk. Still, he cared what I read, enough to say something about it. I was flattered, too: teen novels might be good enough for other girls, but they were not good enough for me, the girl who read well above her grade level.
Half way through that year, in the spring of 1967, we began our study of Greek mythology. We learned that the ancient Greeks made up stories to explain things they couldn’t understand, because science hadn’t been invented. The answers they came up with were wrong, but they didn’t know it, so they didn’t care. They had a myth about why we have seasons, a myth about where lightning comes from, and one about why the sun moves across the sky, and makes the sky look fiery when it sets.
There were other myths that weren’t about the weather. They were lessons about why it was not a good idea to get too big for your britches, as we said in Texas . Humans needed constant reminders that they were not in charge. The gods were in charge, and the way they proved it was to squash mortals, whether or not they’d done something wrong. If the gods wanted to get you, they would. Some of the stories had happy endings, but only after a lot of bad stuff had happened.
I really took to these stories. They were sort of like what we learned in Catechism, which is what Catholics called Sunday school: if you are bad, you get in trouble, which has the additional benefit of teaching other people a lesson. What was different about the Greek myths, though, was that the gods let people be punished or killed when they hadn’t done anything wrong, even innocent children. Jesus didn’t let that happen.
To wrap up our study of Greek myths, Mr. Tullar told us to write our own. They were supposed to be like the myths we’d been studying, but be original and creative, too. We had to use the same gods as in the real myths, but we could make up our own humans.
I decided to explain something in nature: how the moon came to be in sky. But I knew you couldn’t explain it in any old way. Somebody had to suffer. You couldn’t even have a semi-happy ending unless somebody suffered first. Take King Midas: he had to be really sorry that he’d wished for a golden touch and accidentally turned his daughter into a statue. Only then did a god take pity on him. Hades kidnapped Persephone, poor girl, but she only got to escape the Underworld for half the year, and then only because her mother Demeter told Zeus she’d kill every living thing on earth if her daughter were taken away from her forever.
I don’t remember much about my many years of schoolwork, but I remember every detail of my myth. It went like this. There were two brothers. I gave them Greek-sounding names: Decodorus and Antidolus. Decodorus was married and had a young daughter. Antidolus had no children of his own, but was a devoted uncle. He was so happy when his niece was born that he gave his brother a gigantic globe made of silver as a baby present.
The little girl spent a great deal of time in her adoring uncle’s company. One day, with her father Decodorus’ blessing, Antidolus took her swimming in a nearby river. At some point his attention was distracted, and he took his eyes off his niece for a few moments.
When he turned back to her, she was gone. He searched the riverbank, thinking she was hiding from him. He called frantically for her. And then he saw her, in the water. She had drowned.
Weeping, he carried her in his arms to his brother’s house. I remember my exact phrase: “He carried the dead and dripping girl to her father’s house.” I thought that sounded really good.
When Decodorus saw his dead child in his brother’s arms, he let out a cry of grief so loud that the gods themselves could hear it. Antolidus didn’t even get a chance to explain to his brother what had happened. Decodorus refused to listen to him. He was so enraged and crazed with grief that he ordered his brother from his sight, telling him never to come back. Then, still furious at his brother, he picked up the enormous silver globe that Antidolus had given him to honor his daughter’s birth, and threw it into the sky with all his might. The gods kept the globe suspended in the sky, as a memorial to the dead girl.
I was proud of this story. It had everything: a terrible event in a family that was nobody’s fault; the gods sitting on their hands while it happened, but happy to help out afterwards; and a workable explanation for something big in the sky, like sunsets or lightning. I thought it was too good to wreck by making the daughter a constellation, or having the girl’s father forgive his brother. It seemed more real just to leave everybody miserable. Ah, the dead and dripping girl. I could just see her, arms hanging limp, her white tunic soaked, eyes shut forever.
A few days after I handed in my myth, Mr. Tullar came over to my desk in the middle of class.
“Mrs. Bishop wants to see you,” he said. His pale blues eyes were blank. I didn’t ask him why she wanted to see me; one did not ask Mr. Tullar why. Another teacher came in to watch the class, and I followed Mr. Tullar down the hall to Mrs. Bishop’s office.
I knew Mrs. Bishop only as someone who strode into class from time to time to talk to Mr. Tullar. She was unlike any teacher I knew, or any woman I knew. She told men what to do. When she came into the classroom, he stopped what he was doing and walked over to where she stood by the door. She pointed to papers she was holding and spoke in a low voice while he nodded his head silently. In her high heels, she was almost as tall as Mr. Tullar.
So I was led to Mrs. Bishop. Her office was a smaller version of our classrooms: fluorescent lights, linoleum tile floors, everything either beige or brown. I was pointed to a chair in the middle of the room. Mrs. Bishop wheeled her chair out from behind her desk, and parked about three feet in front of me. Mr. Tullar stood to my left, but slightly behind me. I glanced quickly over my shoulder to see his face, but he was looking steadily over our heads at the wall, his arms crossed over his chest.
To me, Mrs. Bishop was well past the age when she could be considered pretty. That is to say, she was probably in her late thirties. But she was a striking figure, slim and toned, like a gym teacher. Her orangey tan and her short, carefully styled bronze hair set off her blue eyes. Her lipstick matched her hair. She sat with her legs crossed, swinging one calf lightly back and forth. I couldn’t look her in the eye, so I stared at the toe of that pointy black shoe.
I still had no idea why I was there. Then Mrs. Bishop said, “Where did you get it.” It wasn’t a question, but even if it had been, I couldn’t have given her an answer. I didn’t know what she meant.
The leg stopped swinging. She put both feet on the floor, and leaned forward, so that her head was closer to mine. “Where did you get it. Come on. Tell me.”
Now I had to look at her. “Get what?” I asked.
She sighed. “Look, let’s not waste any more time. The story. The myth you gave Mr. Tullar. Where did you get it?”
The words ‘get it’ suddenly had no meaning. Did she think I bought the story from somewhere? Or did she think I lost the story, and then I found it, and she wanted to know where I found it? Was that what ‘get it’ meant?
She tried again. “Now, look. You couldn’t have written that by yourself. You copied it, didn’t you?”
Oh. I looked at her in amazement. I couldn’t believe that I was being accused of cheating. I didn’t need to cheat. Cheating was for the dumb kids.
“I didn’t copy it.” I was ever so slightly indignant.
“You didn’t, hmm?”
“No.” After the first week in school in California , I’d stopped saying no, ma’am , as we were required to do in Texas . The other kids laughed, and even the teachers looked like they were trying not to laugh.
“Are you sure? Not even some of it?”
“No. I made it up. On my own.”
She looked at me for another long moment. Then she leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, then,” she said, “I’m sorry.” She lips were curved into a smile, but her eyes were no softer than they had been before. ” I was wrong. I accused you of copying this story, and I was wrong.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
She leaned forward again, not smiling. “It is not okay ,” she said, “It is not okay!”
I didn’t know what rule I had broken now. I shrugged, trying to smile. When someone apologized, I thought you were supposed to say, “That’s okay,” unless it was your brother and it wasn’t too late to tell on him. But something else was going on with Mrs. Bishop. She needed me to agree with her that what she had done was not okay. Grownups were not this confusing in Texas. They did not encourage children to tell adults that they were wrong and they had better be sorry.
I looked down at the floor. I started swallowing very hard, and I pressed one hand into my cheek. I realized that I might be about to cry.
“You can go back to your class now,” she said quickly. If I’d started crying in her office, I’d have been there all day telling her it was not all right. “Greg,” she said to Mr. Tullar, indicating the door with her chin. I had forgotten he was there.
When we left, he let me get a drink at the water fountain, and then he walked me back to our classroom in silence.
I don’t remember what I told my friends when they asked me why I had to go see Mrs. Bishop. I didn’t tell my parents about it at all, because I knew that my mother would go to school and raise hell. She was not afraid of any teacher, or, as far as I could see, of anyone at all. But I didn’t want to be in the middle of a shouting match between Mama and Mrs. Bishop.
I got my myth back. Mr. Tullar had written an A on it, but no comments. At first I tried to see what had happened in a positive way, as a left-handed compliment: Mr. Tullar thought that my myth was too good to have been written by an eleven year old. But that didn’t hold up very long. He had turned me in, without even talking to me first, and he hadn’t defended me. An apology from him would have meant something, but he acted as if nothing had happened.
After the unit on Greek mythology, we studied folk and fairy tales. When it came time to produce one of our own, I stitched together something about a poor girl who finds an old pair of shoes that turn out to be magic shoes that grant wishes, blah blah blah. I made sure to keep the story very predictable and ordinary. I got the B I was aiming for. I stopped caring about Mr. Tullar’s opinion of me. If he thought I was just another kid who cheated on homework, fine.
I decided something else, too: I was tired of bearing the brunt of Kathleen’s insomnia. One night, I got up and silently gathered my pillow and blanket, without looking at her. She must have thought I was finally being reasonable by choosing to sleep on the couch, because she didn’t ask me where I was going.
I went in the bathroom and dropped my bedding on the tiled floor. I rubbed the tub down with a towel until all the little leftover beads of water and hairs—four kids shared this bathroom—were gone. I went and got another blanket from the linen closet in the hall, next to my parents’ bedroom. I put the two blankets in the bathtub, folded them double to make a sort of mattress, propped up my pillow at the end of the tub, and climbed in. My plan was to be found asleep in the tub the next morning, like an orphan with no place to go. That would fix Kathleen, with no risk to me. Once in the tub, however, I realized I had to get out again and turn off the light. But when I stepped back in, the blankets slid under my foot on the slippery tub surface, and I fell. I didn’t hurt myself, but I made enough noise to wake up my parents, whose bedroom was on the other side of the wall.
“What in God’s name,” I heard Daddy say. He and Mama came in and turned on the light. There I was, pitiful as all get out, big brown eyes looking up from the tub like a give-away puppy in a cardboard box by the side of the road. My mother bent over me as if she needed a closer look to believe what she was seeing.
“Liz, what are you doing ?”
“Kathleen wants to keep the light on. I thought I could sleep in here.”
In two seconds they were in our room. I stayed in the tub, feeling very pleased with myself. Kathleen was getting yelled at in stereo, for smoking in bed, and not reading in the living room so that I could sleep.
I was ordered out of the tub. My mother helped me remake the bed while Kathleen glared at us. My mother turned off the light and left without another word.
“Thanks a lot,” Kathleen hissed. “Thanks a lot.”
In a few weeks, Kathleen’s condition moved from ‘getting upset’ to ‘going off.’ That was a pretty apt description: she’d been ticking like a time bomb, and then she exploded. She screamed at Mama and Daddy, saying that they were keeping her from doing wonderful things, because they hated her. She heard people talking about her, people that we couldn’t see or hear. She smoked and stared into space, the tears rolling down her cheeks.
They took her away. As before, Mama carefully instructed us not to tell anybody: “People don’t understand. Just say that she decided to go back to Texas.” I knew that lying about something meant you were ashamed of it. And I was. In those days, no one thought there was anything wrong with calling mental hospitals “loony bins” or “funny farms.” I didn’t want anyone to say that my sister had to go live in a loony bin, or a funny farm.
At school, I began to experiment with failure. I got a C in Social Studies, for doing a half-ass job on a major assignment, on purpose. That was the worst grade I had ever received in my life. A few weeks later, I got a D in science for our final project on the solar system. It wasn’t just half-ass; it was handed in three days after it was due. The words late and incomplete had never been anywhere near my name, but there they were on the top of the page, in red letters. In fourth grade, after skipping third grade, I’d had a hard time getting the hang of the multiplication, but I’d never tried to be bad at anything. I was amazed and a little shocked at how easy it was. All you had to do was not do anything. I kept waiting for my parents to say something about the deviant C and D on my report card, even if it meant they’d be mad at me. I wanted them to be worried about me. But I knew that it was an odd thing for a kid to want, especially a life-long good kid. So I let it slip away into the unmarked flow of summer.
Not long after Kathleen left, I saw a horror movie in which a severed human hand chased its victims, skittering along the floor like a spider, trying to grab people and throw them down the stairs. I don’t remember how or why the hand got that way, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Whenever I opened a drawer in the bureau Kathleen and I had shared, I was sure that it would pop out at me, fingers curved like claws. I had trouble falling asleep.
Superstition Review, Issue 3, Spring 2009.