The last installment I’ll be sharing here of the thrilling memoir I wrote at sixteen. For chapter one, click here. For chapter two, click here. I don’t always remember my teenage self fondly, but she seems pretty decent in this story. And her name is Fern.
In the car on the way back from the coffee shop Mom wants to discuss my life. Specifically my education. Her favorite topic. I’m so exhausted from my coffee shop ordeal I can hardly keep my eyes open. She’s mentioning geometry a lot. History, too.
“… Responsible for at least a complete public high school educational equivalent,” she’s saying very seriously, glancing over at me. I’ve heard it a lot. I nod several times.
“I’ll have to start assigning reading,” she says.
“Ok,” I say. We both know I’m not going to pursue history all the way to the library myself.
“You have three credits in writing already this year, you need to focus on some other subjects. Such as geometry, history, and chemistry.” I record the amount of time I spend doing stuff on a chart, so that we can calculate how many and which credits I would be receiving in the school system. Colleges like that stuff. Apparently they don’t like it when you get more than one credit per subject a year, though. They think you’re lying if you show up with more than seven credits for any one high school year. I got twelve last year, a lot of them music and writing. Now Mom’s trying to figure out how to divide the stuff I like to do into littler categories, like composing, classical studies, and performance for piano, and poetry, short story, and novel for writing. And she wants me to “focus on other subjects.”
“Uunnggghhh…” I groan loudly, unable to stay agreeable any longer. Mom takes this in stride and begins listing her new idea of my daily schedule. “Get up before ten,” it starts. I stop listening. It’s unrealistic. I wonder if she knows by now. She never seems to. Every month or so she has a new idealized homeschooling dream plan. She makes me write lists, draw up charts, talk everything over again. Then we both forget about it a few days later and I’m back to writing poetry and she’s back to her life.
Back home, I swear if the chin of the woman I’m painting does not begin to resemble a chin within three seconds I will coat the entire canvas with mars black and leave it. It’s Tuesday. Max is whining about math downstairs. He keeps complaining about geometry and I really don’t want to hear it because I feel somehow that this is a personal area and not something I want to share with my ten-year-old brother. I have to constantly resist the urge to test his knowledge against my own. I’m afraid if I do I’ll come out humiliated, and besides, I should be encouraging.
Abel and his friend Walker are playing Bach and they sound bored. They sound effortless for a while, then Abel botches a trill, Walker pauses a fraction, and I hear them telling each other they are idiots. Abel’s voice is clear and high, Walker’s low. They are in the music room below my bedroom.
“Sounds wonderful, boys!” cries Mom enthusiastically from geometry with Max. She’s always all bright and piping about music. I growl at the canvas.
“When is the concert?” asks Mom.
“Never!” yells Abel.
“The 18th at 7,” says Walker politely.
“You moron,” says Abel. “Why’d you go and tell?”
I use the last of the brown red mix on my palette; drop my two fat brushes into the water jar and head down for food. Plus, I like being around Walker, since he’s in love with me, which is good for my ego. There is brown and coral all over the backs of my hands and some hair on my arm is colored a soft orange.
“Hi,” I say to Walker. He’s been here awhile, but I’ve been in my room.
Walker freezes and smiles at me like I’ve just descended from above, which I have. A paint streaked angel wearing a Star of David and jeans, with a bumpy nose and the most knotted hair ever.
“Hi,” he says, a bit late. I’m already in the kitchen.
A bagel!! Walker is forgotten. I’m amazed that Abel and Max haven’t got to it yet. Oh, it has raisons. Damn. That means only butter, no Swiss cheese and gerkins and Russian dressing. I put it in the toaster and spin around. Walker is staring at me. I sigh. He’ll be staring at me while I’m eating and I hate that.
“Measure 26,” says Abel, pointing in an exaggerated way to get Walker’s attention.
“Yeah,” says Walker. Phew. The music starts again.
The boys play for a couple minutes more, and Max finishes his lesson with much whooping and celebration, then bounces over and asks who ate the last bagel. I admit to this and his face falls.
“Fern! You didn’t even ask me! I’m hungry now and there isn’t a bagel.”
“What?!” yells Abel, stopping mid note. Walker’s delicate musical line crashes behind him with a faint, controlled squeak. “You ate the last BAGEL?! Did you even ask?!”
I raise my hands defensively. “It was my first one today and it was raison and I’m sorry, but why shouldn’t I? How many did you guys have today?”
They think on this, remembering tediously back through the morning.
“One and a half,” confesses Max finally. I smirk. He shrugs in defeat and slinks off to the refrigerator. Abel’s still thinking, and he looks sly.
“One,” he says at last.
“Sure you did,” I prompt him. He lowers his gaze. “Ok, one and a half.”
“Yeah right, Abel!” calls Max, getting out chicken and cheese.
Abel slumps even more. “Fine, ok. Two.”
“Ha,” I say, with an air of closure. We turn away from one another.
“I’m hungry,” says Abel, who’s always hungry. “Mom, can we take a break and eat?”
“How about in ten minutes, Abel?”
“Noo…. Hey, guess what, Mom?”
Mom walks into the kitchen. Our whole house is very open inside, there aren’t really any doors except for bedrooms and bathrooms, so you can see and talk to people several rooms away. Mom puts on a quizzical look, but I can tell she wants Abel to be practicing.
“Walker won the conservatory scholarship competition this week for strings.”
Walker looks at me modestly. Mom smiles. I smile.
“That’s wonderful, Walker,” she says warmly. “You must be excited.”
“Yeah, I guess…” says Walker slowly, blushing. Mom gives him a look that says she’d like to continue the conversation but doesn’t think he’s up to it so she’s considerately refraining. Walker misses the look because he’s staring at me again. Mom gets a glass of water, instructs Max to write in his journal (“An entire page, with real descriptions. I don’t want to see any ‘it was cool’ or ‘I had fun’s.”). Then she goes down the hall into her office to make some calls.
When Walker’s mother arrives I hear her inviting my family to a Christmas (“that is, a holiday”) party at their house next week. Mom accepts cheerfully. Goodbyes and thank yous are said and the door closes, then opens again a second later for Max, returning with the mail and panting. He’s run the driveway again.
“Letter for you, Mom!!” he yells. “Another letter for you!! ANOTHER!! Here’s one for Daddy. Here’s one for the people who used to live here. ABEL! NATURE CONSERVANCY WANTS YOU TO SEND THEM MORE MONEY! THEY’LL GIVE YOU A STUFFED ARCTIC TERN WITH REALLY COOL EYES!”
“Cool!” Abel calls back from the bathroom.
“FERN!!” shouts Max. I run out onto the balcony, starting to fear for his vocal chords.
“What, Max? I can hear you.”
“Hi, Fern. Here’s a letter for you from,” he pauses and squints down at the envelope. “From Your Test Preparation Organization.”
I groan. The course Mom made me take for the SATs. They keep sending me stuff.
“Oh,” adds Max, “and something from Drew. The stamp’s on upside down again. He keeps messing it up.”
“He’s not messing up, Max. He does that on purpose. It’s supposed to be a sort of secret way of saying ‘I love you.’”
Max rolls his eyes and snorts. “Drew’s pathetic.”
“Thanks so much. Why don’t you bring the letters up here and write in your journal.”
“I’m hungry,” he protests reflexively, and hops up the stairs.
I open the letters on my bed, Drew’s first. It’s actually a note, not a letter. It says “Hey Fern! How are you today? I been missing you a lot. Really missing. I wish you were here, beautiful. You would have so much fun out there. We could have a picnic. At the logde. I miss you!! I love you!! We’re goin to be together always girl because we rock!! I love you, Drew.” I toss the note aside and it floats onto my carpet and settles there, folding slowly back into itself.
“Whatever,” I say. I’m not in the mood for Drew. I open the other envelope.
“Congratulations, Fern!” proclaims the letter in big type, my name in a different font. Obviously this is not a personal letter. “You have taken the SAT. The testing process is over. You can relax. We hope that our program has aided you in this endeavor and we are confident that you will be satisfied with your results. Please consider enrolling in our program again for any further testing assistance you may require. We provide courses on the SAT II, the ACT, and other standardized tests.” Etc etc. I stand slowly and walk slowly out the door.
“Mom,” I say. No answer. “MOM!!!!” I yell. “I THINK I MISSED THE SAT!”
“If you would like to speak with me, Fern, you may come down into my office!” Mom yells back. “I can’t understand you from up there.”
I rush down the stairs, the letter flapping up and down in my hand.
“You what?” asks Mom, sounding as if she almost actually believes it. She shakes her head. “You missed the SAT. When was it? Well, it doesn’t matter. You’ll just have to take it next time it comes around.” It sounds like a medicine or, more likely, a sickness.
“Ok,” I say. Any amount more of SAT free time is cool by me. Very cool.
Mom sighs a long sigh. “Sometimes I despair of this,” she says, rubbing her temples. I know what she’s talking about. Homeschooling.
“I’ll turn out great,” I tell her encouragingly. “Don’t worry.”