I sat on our front porch steps and watched anxiously as the moving truck sat in front of the house across the street. I saw a small toy box being unloaded and I just remember thinking, "Please be a girl my age!" I so badly wanted a best friend that I could play dolls with, have tea parties, and share our strong dislike of boys with. I wanted someone that could plan sleepovers with me and tell secrets to. I had figured out our entire life all the way up through high school by the time I realized that my popsicle was melting all over my hand. I began to lick up the sticky, red syrup and I didn't even notice my mother had come outside until she said, "For heavens sake Joanie, stop it, you're worse than a cat!"
Her strait brown hair was pulled up into a neat bun, and she was wearing khakis and a nice shirt. "You don't want the new neighbors to think we're dirty people do you?"
I rolled my eyes and huffed a breath at her before I went inside to wash my sticky fingers. My mom wanted to give people the impression that she was the perfect housewife. She always had to be the best, and I'm not saying that it was such a terrible thing, but our house was utter chaos behind closed curtains. I'm talking about full-out food fights, broken vases, spilled milk, and temper tantrums. You know, things that happened in everyone's house, but no one ever admitted. It was like we were lying to the world by giving off the impression that we, the Adlers, were perfect citizens of Wisconsin. Because let me tell you, although we were not 'dirty people,' we were crazy ones. I had three brothers. The twins were just starting the fifth grade and they did everything together. And I mean everything. They played the same sports, liked the same foods, and both got into trouble. Jesse was the brains, and Alex was the go-getter. They loved pranks, and I was their favorite target. It might seem a bit rough for me, but when you're in the business long enough, you learn a few tricks of the trade. I was almost as crafty as they were. Caleb was the baby, and all he did was poop, eat, and cry. I wasn't a fan. Then again, I was seven.
That evening before dinner, I cleaned my room and arranged my tea set. I wanted to be prepared in case my new friend hadn't had the time to set up her toys to play with yet. My hair was brushed-which was extremely rare- and I put on a dress that had been stuffed away in the back of the closet. So, after I smoothed out the wrinkles, and discovered that my nice white shoes didn't fit anymore, I stuck my callused feet into some cowboy boots from the playroom. And then, as all nice families should do, we marched ourselves across the street to meet the new neighbors. My mother bore a fruitcake as some kind of offering. I couldn't understand. No one even liked fruitcake. The little heels of my boots squished into the grass and my heart thumped a million times a minute. My excitement had suddenly transformed into nerves, and my palms were sweaty. The door bell echoed through the empty house and after all the awkward "Hellos" and "welcome to our neighborhoods," we were all sitting in their unorganized living room. There were brown boxes and packing peanuts scattered and stacked awkwardly around the couches and chairs. I began to daydream about playing hide and seek with them or building a fort. The grown-ups were talking about the regular boring old stuff and I let my eyes wander around the big room with its mint colored walls and fancy white trim around the fireplace.
"Joanie, answer Mrs. Carver's question!" I heard my mother scold me impatiently, as she jerked her chin ever so slightly to tell me to sit up straighter.
"Oh please, call me Anne. How old are you sweetheart?" she asked politely, her soft, green eyes met mine own blue ones. She was a small woman and had a very quiet voice. There was something so gentle about her, it made me want to go hug her, but I was afraid that she would break in my arms.
"I'm seven," I replied sweetly, less shy now.
"Oh that's wonderful, so is Andrew," she smiled.
"And how old is your daughter?" I asked expectantly.
She laughed softly to herself, stroking the tiny bump on her stomach and answered, "I don't know if they're a she or a he yet, but you can certainly meet them in a few months. Andrew is our only child for now, dear."
I could tell that she saw the disappointment in my face, and even the tiny sparkle of a tear in my eye, but I couldn't hide my feelings. I wanted to cry so badly, to escape this room, this house and run back to my own home. The living room was nothing now but blurry, brown, shapeless boxes and distorted faces all running together like wet paint dripping down a canvas. I felt silly and young, like I was upset about nothing, but that wasn't true. It felt like I had just lost a friend. My hopes were on such a high pedestal, that when they all came crashing down, I was bombarded with disappointment. My mind had made itself up and I had come up with this image of how my life would play out, but at that moment, it was as if the rug had been pulled out from under my feet. I got up off the couch and ran as fast as I could across the street and back to my house and no one even followed me or said anything to me as I left. After yanking the door to my room open, I began to throw my tea set back into its box and put my stuffed animals onto my bed and let the tears run down my cheeks and felt the shaky sobs escape my chest. I thought to myself that I must be the only girl in the whole world who had to be surrounded my dirty, rude, trouble-making boys, and it wasn't fair.
I sat on my bed with my legs crossed and realized that my boots were crusted with mud and grass and I kicked them stubbornly off, which streaked the hardwood floor with dirt. Just as I was about to unbutton my sundress, I heard a knock at the front door. Naturally, I would have ignored it since it was probably Jesse or Alex being stupid, but for whatever reason, perhaps curiosity, I changed my mind and went to open the door. I almost regretted it at first because when I looked, no one was there. But then I saw it- it being a tiny, plastic ring with a pink little stone and a blue band, sitting on the doorstep that I assumed was for me. I picked it up and it fit perfectly on my middle finger. It had probably come from a cereal box, but it was magnificent. The only question was who had it come from?
I woke up the next morning to the smell and the sound of bacon sizzling in a frying pan. I heard dishes clanging together and loud voices in the kitchen as I opened my eyes to see the sunshine raining down through the trees outside my bedroom window. It was summer, and if I remember right, it was a hot one. I smiled when I looked down and realized that I had slept with my new ring on. I quickly rolled myself out of bed and made my way to the kitchen before all the breakfast would be devoured. The one lesson that had been essential to learn in order to live in my house was; speed equals survival. Some people call this Darwinism, I think.
"Well good morning sleepy head," my mother said, setting a plate in front of me.
"Sorry Joanie, you're too late. We took the last of the bacon," Alex teased.
Jesse laughed, "Yep. Looks like somebody's missing out!"
"I don't care, you big fatties, I'll just eat eggs" I replied absentmindedly as I spun the ring around my finger. I couldn't stop thinking about where it had come from. The boys were too shocked by my nonchalance to say anything more.
"Listen Joan, I know you are upset about yesterday, but it was very rude how you just ran out of the Carver's house like that," my mother started. I rolled my eyes behind her back while she measured the pancake mix.
"So, I think that you should go over there today and apologize to them."
"What?!" I exclaimed. That was one thing I was not going to do.
"It's not very lady like to act so childish. You will go over there and that's final."
"Well I'm not a lady, so I will not go over there." And that was final.
An hour later, I was standing on the doorstep of the Carver's house waiting for someone to come let me in. When I considered making a run for it, I looked back to see my mother watching me from our front window. How did she always know? Anne opened the door with a smile that I didn't return. I was still upset about having to come over.
"I'm really sorry about running out of your house yesterday," I mumbled, staring at my sandals. "It was rude of me." I had rehearsed this with Mom a few times after losing the fight at breakfast.
"Oh please, don't worry about it Joanie. That was an entire day ago. I'm not much of a grudge-holder anyways." Then she winked at me, and I realized that apologizing was much easier than I thought it would be…until she continued.
"But you should come in and meet Andrew. I think you two might get along."
I must have had a weird look on my face that told her I didn't feel like meeting him but she pressed on, "He doesn't bite, honey. Follow me."
So I went inside and lingered after her down the white, airy hallway with three open doors leading to three sunlit rooms all filled with more moving boxes. There were bold, black labels on each box, and I noticed that when we came to the last room, the labels read; 'Andrew's Stuff'. His bed was set up in the corner and had blue racecars on it, and the dresser was already half packed with clothes. The room was otherwise empty.
"Oh, he must be outside! He was just playing in here not too long ago," Anne thought to herself shrugging.
I looked around and tried to think of what he would have played with. Nothing was unpacked yet, and the only box that had been labeled 'toys' was a small unopened one that was set aside with the rest of them. It made me wonder what he did for fun. I had dolls, kitchen sets, and stuffed animals to play with; in fact, my entire room was littered with toys. As we made our way out to the back yard, I realized how much calmer it was here than at my own house where it was so hard to relax. Perhaps the amount of kids was a contributing factor. We stepped out onto the little patio and I could see a little boy lying there in the grass, face towards the sky. Anne had to repeat herself a few times before he turned to see who was calling his name.
"Sweetie, you have a visitor!" she sang out, her voice was like wind chimes.
He sat up so that I could see the grass in his light brown hair as he smiled daringly at me and looked strait into my eyes with his big green ones until I got embarrassed and dropped my gaze. I giggled sheepishly to myself before I peeked back at him from under my eye lashes. A faint buzzer went off in the kitchen and Anne practically sprinted to take her cookies out of the oven in time, so then it was just him and me left out there and suddenly, I became very shy.
"It's nice to meet you Joan," he offered after a slight pause, still gazing at me pleasantly.
It was odd that he seemed so casual, as if he and we had known each other forever. Then, he laid back down in the grass, and kept his eyes fixated on the soft, white clouds above. I didn't know if that was the end of our conversation and that I could go home, or if he had just lost interest in me. That thought made me upset. He didn't get to judge me so quickly. He hardly knew me. I stood there undecided about what to do next. I was a fish out of water, flopping awkwardly in some stranger's yard.
"It's Joanie," I blurted out before I was aware that I had said anything. I paused for a moment, slightly embarrassed and tried to explain, "Joan just makes me sound…"
"Old?" Andrew finished. His head was tilted toward me so that I could see the freckles on the bridge of his nose now. He laughed softly to himself and stared back up at the sky. He was peculiar in the way that he was not shy at all, but I felt so awkward talking to him. It was like he was in his own little world, and although I found that to be a bit odd, it fascinated me.
"What are you doing?" I began to question him as I shuffled my feet closer to where he was fanned out on the overgrown lawn. I tucked a lock of my unruly blonde hair behind my ear as if to get a better look at him.
"I'm cloud gazing, he answered, a bit surprised that I didn't know what it was. "People do it all the time."
"That sounds boring," I said flatly.
"Well it's probably because you've never tried it."
I still had no idea what to make of him, so I just stood there uncomfortably and tried to decide what to do next. And as if he was reading my mind, he told me to just lie down, and to my surprise, I listened to him. All I could see was blue sky covered in clouds. I saw this every day when I looked out my window, and I didn't need some fool showing me something I see every day. It was beginning to seem like this kid had lost his mind.
"Okay, this is stupid-"
"Shh! Let me explain the rules first." He interrupted with a smile, obviously entertained that I was going along with the game. "Alls you have to do is close your eyes and remember a time when you felt really, really happy. Then you open them back up, and the clouds will come to life. But don't worry, they aren't really alive, they're still just clouds," he added so that I wasn't confused about living things falling on me.
Seriously, did he really think I was that dumb? I sat up to stare at him and make sure he wasn't just trying to be weird and trick me somehow. I half-expected the twins to be waiting in the bushes, ready to throw water balloons at me when I wasn't looking. His eyes looked strait into mine and I knew that he wasn't kidding. All he wanted was for me to trust him. I fell back into the grass, squeezed my eyelids shut and tried to think of a happy moment in my life. I had a lot of happy times but nothing really popped into my mind. I vetoed Christmas mornings that ended in broken toys, or birthday parties that I never got what I asked for. So, I thought of something recent- like last night when I found my ring on the doorstep. I couldn't figure out why it made me so happy though. Maybe it was just the fact that someone had done something nice for me when I was feeling sad. I let the cheerful mood sink into my body, and when it felt like the right time, I opened my eyes to the brilliant blue sky. It really did look different this time, like I was like putting on glasses without ever realizing that I needed them. The clouds looked like cotton candy floating on the wind, so impossibly close that I was surprised to see my own hand reaching up to try and touch them. It was like I had it all wrong; instead of looking up at the sky, we were falling into it.
"What do you see?" he asked in a dream-like voice.
"Well that one looks like a kitten," I answered him thoughtfully, pointing strait in front of us. "And that one looks like a train. Oh, can you see the smoke coming from the top?"
He then pointed to the same clouds and said, "I see a turtle there, and that one is a dragon." He seemed completely sure of his observations. I was just as sure as mine, but confused about what he was saying. Hadn't I just told him what they were?
"Andrew, I just told you, they are a kitten and a train," I said crossly. "You're just trying to annoy me now aren't you?"
"No, no I'm not!" he corrected me quickly. "Don't you get it? Just because you see it as one thing, doesn't mean that I can't look at the same cloud and see something totally different." Then he added in a matter-of-fact tone, "Not everyone has to see the world like you do, Joanie Adler."
The words hit me like a hard punch to the gut. I was shocked at how he assumed he knew even the tiniest thing about me, and I couldn't decide how that had made me feel, or what it even meant, but I took it as an insult. As soon as I sat up, the color was drained from the sky and the clouds lost their bouncy shapes. My hair was a tangled mess around my face, and I didn't bother getting the grass out since I was too busy working up a tantrum. I found that I didn't know what to say so I began to walk away from him, just lying there peacefully, as if I had never been there next to him. He didn't even turned his head to watch me go.
Did this mean that my bluff was empty? I expected him to at least tell me to come back or that he was sorry. But…nothing. I decided to give him a little more time, so I walked all the way around the house and waited for him by the hedges, but he never came. Angry now, I marched back and stood right in front of him, casting a shadow over his surprised face, almost like he had never seen me before. Again, he looked strait into my eyes with the same intense curiosity as before. I don't think he knew how awkward it made people feel, or how strangely intimidating it was. But I had to stand my ground.
"Aren't you going to ask me where I'm going?" I asked hotly. His eyebrows knotted together as if he were deep in thought.
"No," he answered simply. "If you want to leave, then leave."
His tone wasn't the least bit hostile, but calm and gentle. Each of his weird responses puzzled me more than the last, and I just couldn't seem to grasp the way his mind worked. And for some reason, his words made me feel extremely selfish at that moment. I don't think he knew how to argue either, which was rather strange to me, but made sense since he was an only child. Part of me still wanted to make a grand exit and storm back to my house, except I knew that he wouldn't follow me so there was really no use to that plan. But the dominant, curious side of me just wanted to lie back down next to him so that we could play games and watch clouds again. Plus, I expected a best friend out of the kid living here, and being the bullheaded girl I was, I figured it was worth a try. After I settled back into the grass and when I peeked at him out of the corner of my eye, he was smiling from ear to ear.
"What?" I asked defensively. He looked as if he had just won an argument, even though he didn't. How can you win an argument if you don't even fight in return?
"You came back."
"No one ever comes back."
I was quiet for a very long time. I just didn't know what I could say to that. The part that got me was that he wasn't looking for pity, he was just honest.
"Oh, and Joanie?" he asked thoughtfully.
"I like your ring."