The Taste of Dust

It is 1969—a dry summer, as are most Spanish summers. The group of American teenagers takes day trips to Segovia, Toledo, and El Escorial, the bus dragging a cloud of dust behind it. Sometimes they stop at a roadside café for lunch or refreshments. The fine grit mingles with the sangria in the pitcher, coats the sandwiches of ham and fried eggs inside crusty bread. The dust isn’t a bad thing. It softens the edges of the austere whitewashed buildings and burnishes the distant barren hills. It is acceptable, inevitable.

When the group first gathers in the lounge at the Heath School to prepare for their trip, Susan is awe-struck by the others. Most are older and seem worldly, cool. Students of East Coast prep schools, they are already smooth with strangers. Susan worries about whether to shake hands or not and smiles her Midwestern smile too eagerly; they ease into conversation with each other, finding common friends, trading jaded complaints.

Patience is assigned to be Susan’s roommate in the apartment of the Madrid family that will host them. Patience parts her lanky dark hair down the middle of her skull, leaving an uncompromising white slash. Her wide face has a squashed look, giving her a permanent scowl.

You’re tall, she complains to Susan when they stand up after the introductory session. I thought you were short like me.

Susan doesn’t know what to say. She’s not that tall—several of the older girls are taller—and she hasn’t been trying to disguise her height. She feels unjustly accused but also vaguely guilty. In confusion, she apologizes.

You’re just a little short-waisted, Susie, says Dolly, one of the two girls from a Virginia boarding school. Y’all looked petite sitting there, but you’re not, really.

Dolly makes it sound like a minor flaw. Dolly herself is flawless but Susan doesn’t take her remark as criticism. It was stated as an observation, not an accusation.

Patience narrows her eyes.

In the late 60s, American girls have a certain reputation in Spain. Susan is 15. She’s had boyfriends before but only as a sort of home science experiment. They’ve made-out and to her discomfort one once tried to touch her breasts. Her knowledge of passion comes from novels. So it is a new experience for Susan to step off the plane in Madrid and become a sex object.

The attention is occasionally annoying but not particularly frightening. On a crowded Madrid subway, she feels a warty hand sliding under her skirt. Dolly and the other girls have already told her how they grind their heels into the instep of these old lechers. Susan hears a muffled gasp and the hand is withdrawn.

When the American girls go to a discotheque, Spanish guys crowd around them, begging to buy them a drink. On the street, the omnipresent Guardia Civil officers flirt with them. Guapa, guapa, they say as the girls walk by. It’s the equivalent of a corny American come-on: Hey, Beautiful. The soldiers offer to walk with the girls and protect them. The girls look at each other and laugh.

Do they need protection? Some of them will undoubtedly lose their virginity on this trip (some already left it behind). But it will be willingly lost. In one or two cases it will be lost to those same Guardia Civil officers so eager to provide protection.

Susan herself is awash in a slop of hormones suddenly activated. She and Patience land in the apartment of a Spanish family with two teenage sons—a curious choice on the part of the trip organizers. Patience immediately falls in love with one of the sons, Mario, who is short and squat. Every night Susan endures a boring discussion of Mario’s merits and the miniscule indications he has made that prove he is swooning equally over Patience, which in fact he is not.

Meanwhile, Susan lies on her narrow cot, suffused with a paralyzing secret desire for the other son, Carlos. Carlos, the artist. Only 17, he already has his own skylit studio on the top floor of a nearby building. He has taken Susan there and shown her the paintings leaning against the walls, the brushes stashed in clouded glass jars, the stretched blank canvas set upon the easel. The studio is appropriately cluttered; a layer of dust covers the less-used implements. To Susan’s untutored eyes, Carlos’s work looks likes Picasso’s. Carlos himself looks like a young Pablo, with the same bumpy features, the same intense bulging eyes.

Carlos calls Susan, Susanna, the “s” soft, the “a” broad and gentle. Her Spanish quickly improves from the rudimentary form with which she arrived in Madrid. They wander around the city: she sits and watches for hours in the Prado as he copies a Goya; they walk for miles in the Retiro. Talking, always talking, his hands moving, shaping the space in front of him but never, it seems, interested in touching Susan. His warm smiles are disappointingly platonic, though she would faint from desire were he to place his hands on her shoulders and plant a kiss on her mouth.

Ah, but Susan is fickle. She also entertains a less-weighty crush on Peter, one of the prep school boys. For those American boys, Spain is a training session in early alcoholism. Beer, wine, hard liquor—it’s all available. They go out drinking every night. Sometimes the girls can get them to dance at a discotheque but most of the time they are too shitfaced to stand and move their feet. Peter is no different but he has panache as a drunk. His blond curly hair is tousled, his white button-down shirt rakishly untucked, his eyelids heavy. He dances, too, when the other guys can’t. Unlike Susan, Peter really is tall. When Susan stands next to him, she can imagine pressing her palms against the wrinkled rough Oxford cloth of his shirt and sliding them up to his collarbone, her eyes not meeting his. She finds the combination of his solidity, dissolution, and grace almost irresistible.

***

Sydney sits in her room. The music is loud, a moaning rumbling sound which disturbs the earth-tone calm of the rest of the house. On her walls are posters, most in black and white but some tinged with shades of mossy green or slashes of scarlet. The people in the posters wear leather clothing with needles sticking into it. The females have touches of black lace and fishnet, and kohl-rimmed eyes. One man sports a huge dragon tattoo on his arms and back. A woman has wrapped a boa constrictor around her neck as if it were made of feathers. Pelvises jut. No one smiles.

Sydney is texting with her friends. Pa-link, pa-link: the lilting tones sound the alert that new messages are arriving. Sydney chews on a piece of her hair as she reads the messages and writes back. Her hair tastes like a mixture of apricot shampoo and henna, an earthy taste almost like some sort of fresh dug vegetable. Sydney types rapidly. From outside her door, a constant clicking runs under the music’s thrum, punctuated by the light-hearted and arrhythmic pa-link, pa-link of new messages coming and going.

Sydney’s messages are full of odd little abbreviations and signs, some only known to her friends and their cohorts. In this secret language they carry on prosaic conversations, complaining about their teachers, parents, or other kids, or raving about new CDs they have discovered. But sometimes they share secrets. Sometimes the typing slows down a little and Sydney looks out the window for a moment.

Last summer Sydney went to Italy with her cousin and great aunt. Italy was dusty, too, but the light was less harsh—more golden than it is in Spain. There was wine to drink but Sidney didn’t have any. Her great aunt didn’t think Sydney’s parents would approve. Sydney didn’t really think she’d be allowed to have wine at age 15; it was the waiter in the trattoria who suggested it.

At each hotel, the first thing Sydney does is to figure out how to plug in her iPad so she can get on WiFi and contact her friends. Gd, ths s sooooo boooring L, she taps out to her friends. They sympathize.

It isn’t all that boring, not all the time. In Rome, Great Aunt Julia takes Sydney and Alexi to a disco. Julia sits at a table and nurses a drink while the two cousins pretend that she isn’t there. They dance for two hours straight. Sydney thinks the euro-techno music kind of sucks but it’s fun just the same. There are several interesting guys. One has a cool British accent; she is flattered when he singles her out for attention. They compare their jeans—same brand. And they both are wearing black tee shirts with the name of a band on the front. That’s what starts their conversation. You like Dogleash? he asks Sydney. When she nods, he says, me too.

Sydney has to get close to his chest to read the tiny writing on his shirt. He smells faintly of cigarettes and sweat. Fracas? she asks. Who’re they?

They pronounce it “frah-cah,” he explains without making her feel stupid. Brilliant band. Quite new. They’ll be big in a year or two. If you like Dogleash, you’ll adore them. It’s Luke, by the way.

Huh?

I’m called Luke. That’s my name.

Oh. Sydney.

They hang out together for the rest of the time at the disco. Sydney tries to give Luke her Gmail address but he evidently doesn’t remember to write it down. He never contacts her.

Instead, in Italy she is plagued by a constant stream of emails from her parents, sometimes more than one a day. Are you having a great time? they want to know. Are you getting along well with GA Julia and Alexi? Aunt Julia can be really fun if she lets her hair down. Isn’t the food amazing? What did you think of the Sistine Chapel? The Uffizi? Siena? Positano?

Sydney doesn’t know what her parents want from her. Of course, she’s having a good enough time. The food’s ok. It’s better than sitting at home but not earth-shattering. Nothing much happens. Great Aunt Julia plans each day to the minute and worries about whether a taxi will come to their hotel or if she should have tipped an insolent waiter. Alexi wants only to shop every minute and makes fun of Great Aunt Julia behind her back.

Sydney takes four rolls of film in Italy, some of odd subjects, like a tangle of tree trunks near Florence. Though she’s proud of how some of the more experimental shots turn out, she dreads having to describe everything to her parents. They want to know it all.

Sydney stops in the midst of a flurry of emails and closes the computer. She looks in the mirror over her bureau. In the glow of her lamp’s red light bulb she looks grayish, she thinks. Mom, she calls out, but her voice doesn’t carry over the music.

Mom! Sydney leans over the banister in the upstairs hall. Mom, there’s a party on Saturday at Elizabeth’s. I want to go.

Sydney’s mom stops writing checks for a moment in the kitchen and thinks. She has heard that Elizabeth smokes a lot of marijuana. I’m in the middle of doing the bills, Sydney, she says. Let’s talk about it at dinner.

***

After spending eight weeks in Madrid, the American group heads to the Costa del Sol for the final two weeks of the program. Here there are no Spanish classes and the field trips are few and far between. The chaperones stay in one apartment in a high rise along the beach, the boys occupy two others, and the girls stay in another two. To Susan’s relief, Patience has chosen to stay in the other girls’ apartment. The apartments are all on different floors. Susan’s apartment has a bidet in the tiled bathroom, which the girls use to rinse their sandy feet.

Susan writes a last postcard to her parents: it takes so long for mail to arrive from Spain that she’ll be home before any postcards she writes after this. We did this, we saw that, she says. My Spanish is improving. Everything is fine. It was hard to say goodbye to the Guttierez family—they were so nice to Patience and me. She imagines her mother reading it aloud to her father at dinner. She doesn’t miss them.

Susan does miss Carlos. In her bags are several paintings, carefully rolled up. She tries calling him from Fuengirola the day after they arrive but Carlos seems startled to hear from her, and she finds that her Spanish isn’t nearly as fluent over the phone as it was face-to-face.

The last time they are in his studio, the day before Susan leaves, Carlos kisses her. Susanna, he says, and presses her against the wall. It isn’t a weak kiss, or unenthusiastic. In the hours that remain, Susan tries to find a way to ask Carlos, without actually asking him, what he meant by that kiss. Either he doesn’t catch the innuendo or he decides not to answer. Susan takes the train to the south coast in a haze of infatuation, her breasts tingling, her underwear damp. Carlos quiere  Susanna,  Susanna  quiere  Carlos, she writes over and over in her journal.

After a few days in Fuengirola, Susan’s erotic longings for Carlos subside. Peter invites her and Dolly to sleep on the beach with him. They stay up all night talking, lying on hotel sheets that they spread on the coarse sand. There are shooting stars. Susan thinks that she catches Peter giving her meaningful, soulful glances, but it’s hard to tell in the dark. When the gray early morning light filters in, the fishermen push painted dories into the water. Later, when the sun is hot, the three of them buy fresh grilled sardines from the kiosk set up on the beach where the fishermen bring in their catch. Susan drops one of her fish in the sand. A fisherman washes it off for her in a bucket of seawater and puts it back on the grill.

Dolly leaves to take a shower and change her clothes.

I have an idea, Peter says, turning his clear blue eyes on Susan. Want to do something really wild?

Like what?

Like take a fucking ferry to Tangiers.

Really? Susan is thrilled that Peter has asked her but scared at the thought of doing it. How far is Tangiers?

Not too far. I have some friends who went last year. They said it was totally cool. You like hash, don’t you?

I’ve never tried it. I like pot, though.

Oh, hash is like pot but 100 times better.

Wow. Susan nods.

Anyway, my friend said that you can buy it all over the place in Tangiers. We could go there, spend a night, score some hash, and get back by the next afternoon, and no one would ever know.

Wouldn’t they notice we were missing, though?

Not if we plan it so that they think we’re here. Nobody noticed that we slept on the beach last night, did they? Really, they’re so fucking stupid, they’ll never find out.

How much would it cost? I’m almost out of money.

No problem. I’ve still got tons.

Would we bring it back? The Spanish are really paranoid about drugs…

We’d have to figure something out. Either use it all there or find a secure hiding place for it. What do you think? Would you dare to do it?

Of course I would. Of course. Why not?

As Peter and Susan walk off the ferry, they are surrounded by a horde of beautiful small dark-haired boys in caftans, some as young as 6 or 7, crying out, You want some sheet, man? I got really good sheet for you. Follow me, I get you really good sheet.

Susan is enthralled and terrified. She stays close to Peter. First things first, he says, guiding her toward a shop with caftans hanging around its doorway. They each find one that they like, discover that the price is unbelievably cheap, and buy several more.

Next, a place to rest our weary little heads, he says, squeezing Susan’s arm. He seems to know of a hotel. Susan follows him, holding onto a piece of his caftan as they weave through the crowds clogging the alleys. The hotel is also incredibly cheap—the equivalent of a few dollars. They go up to check out their room and find that it has a door out onto the rooftop. There is a sink in the room, but no toilet. That’s down the dimly lit hall. Susan hopes she won’t have to use it in the night.

Now, to score some hash, says Peter. Off one of the alleys in the maze of the casbah, they enter a dark room. Old men sit nodding around a bubbling hookah. Susan is momentarily startled when Peter disappears but in a few seconds he returns, a great smile creasing his face. We’re fucking golden, he says.

***

Sydney picks at the pork chop on her plate. She knows her mother thinks she doesn’t eat enough. Her mother doesn’t know that Sydney keeps a stash of candy in her room. The cleaning lady has noticed all the wrappers in Sydney’s trash but doesn’t mention it to Sydney’s mother.

Sydney jabs the pork chop again. A pink fluid comes out. Blood. Gross, she says. I can’t eat this. She retires her fork.

Sydney, tell us about this party you mentioned earlier, says her mother.

It’s at Elizabeth’s. I don’t know much else.

Well, who’s going? Will her parents be there?

Yes, Sydney sighs. They’ll be there. Everyone’s going. You know.

Do you think it’s a good thing? Will people behave, do you think?

Jesus, Mother.

Sydney, watch your language, her father says. He shakes the ice in his glass.

Well, honey, I don’t want you to get in situations that are dangerous for you. Sometimes those parties can be pretty wild. She turns to Sydney’s father. What do you think about it?

Between bites of pork chop, Sydney’s father says, It’s probably fine. Elizabeth’s parents are good people.

***

When the sun sets, the tempo in Tangiers picks up. Plaintive music swirls through the air. Susan and Peter sit on the roof and look at the rooftops around them. Below, a family prepares its evening meal on a brazier. Oil lamps twinkle in the dusky air. Thrusting minarets gleam in the last of the sun. Charcoal and smoke ride the breeze. The air is soft on Susan’s skin through the loosely woven caftan.

Peter has just shown her a large brown cube that he says is the hashish. He’s trying to decide whether they should smoke it or simply eat it. He pulls his bong and his jackknife out, cuts off a small piece of hash, and sets it alight in the bong. Susan takes the pipe and gingerly inhales. Instantly, she chokes on the acrid smoke. Tears stream down her cheeks.

Not a smoker, eh? Peter cuts another small piece from the block and hands it to Susan. Just eat it, he says, laughing.

It tastes like dirt, Susan says. But she eats it anyway.

***

It’s past 11:00. Sydney’s parents have gone to bed after watching PBS all evening, effectively barring Sydney from watching television. She worked on her homework in an uninspired fashion. Now she’s lying on her bed, listening to a depressing song. Sydney doesn’t enjoy the music so much as feel mesmerized by it.

She worries that she’s not contributing much to the world. She wants to, but she doesn’t know how. Her parents are so smart, so good at everything. When they talk, they have strong opinions. There never is room for her thoughts, not that they’re probably worthy of being stated. Someone is always ready to correct or adjust them no matter how gently or politely. Her thoughts are uninformed, stupid. What’s the point of it all? she wonders. What’s the point of my life?

Now it’s past midnight. Sydney is thinking about Elizabeth’s party. Maybe there will be some weed there. Should she? Probably not. She’s never managed to get high on it, anyway. Her parents would be so disappointed if they found out she smoked. And they would. They always find out everything. Sydney feels like she lives in a glass box. Every minute is accounted for. Everything that goes into her mouth is examined as closely as when she was two. Every action she takes is leading up to her freaking “future,” whatever that is.

It sucks, she thinks. Thank God I don’t have a boyfriend. They’d be all over me—afraid I’d get pregnant or HIV. Not that they’d need to worry. All the boys I like don’t even notice me. What’s the point?

Sydney’s stomach rumbles. She reaches for a piece of candy from her stash, then stops. Candy isn’t good for me, she thinks. Maybe if I didn’t eat candy, I wouldn’t be so fat. I could wear size 3 instead of 5. Maybe people, like that English guy Luke, would take me more seriously. She gets up and looks in her mirror again, sucking in her cheeks. Yes, she thinks, I do look more serious. She lies on her bed and makes a mental list of all the things she’s no longer going to eat. She feels strong. Maybe life will have a purpose after all.

***

Eventually Peter and Susan stumble back into the hotel room from the roof, barely remembering to lock the door. They fall into a deep, drugged sleep. At some point in the night a hand jiggles the doorknob from outside. They stir, Peter shouts something, and the jiggling stops.

When they awake in the morning, it is late, almost noon. They have to rush to make the ferry. Peter asks Susan to hide the remaining hashish in her new Moroccan leather bag, between the lining and the leather. When they pass through Spanish customs, Susan is trembling in her caftan, but the stocky uniformed lady only throws her a dirty look.

***

Sydney hasn’t eaten much all week, just a few pieces of candy, and now she’s thrown the rest of that away. She likes the emptiness, the gnawing feeling in her stomach. She can stick her hand between her jeans and her waist. Already she thinks she can see elegant hollows developing in her cheeks. She decides not to smoke any weed at Elizabeth’s because it might make her want to eat something. At the end of each day, she makes a list of all the foods she could have eaten but didn’t.

On Saturday evening, Sydney’s mother drives her to Elizabeth’s house. You sure you don’t want to eat anything before you go? she asks Sydney for the third time. Sydney doesn’t answer. Her mouth feels dry and tastes of dust.

Sydney wears a black bandanna. Everything she has on is black, including the thick-soled laced boots that clump up the walk. What? Jesus, are you coming in, Mom? she asks as her mother follows her.

The door opens. Elizabeth’s mom is standing there in a light blue sweater. Welcome, she says, welcome. How nice to see you, Sydney. And Susan, you look lovely. How’s Peter?

Very well, thank you, says Susan. She watches as the tall thin black form of her daughter evaporates into the crowd of kids.

 

[© Barbara Burt; Word count: 3925. Not yet published]

Passion and Freedom

I lived that summer underwater. My days were filled with submerged somersaults and handstands landed on the sandy bottom of the lake; at night, rain thrummed on the roof that sloped a few feet above my head.

On occasional gray days, my friend Louise and I lay on the sagging twin beds next to the rafters in the loft, drowning ourselves in old paperback romance novels we found on shelves that spanned the unfinished walls. Speckled with insect remains caught between brittle pages, the books had a musty smell. Mildew rose from the scratchy blankets whenever we shifted our feet. I detested the way my bare legs stuck together in the dampness. Sometimes I would read the love scenes in whispers to Louise. We giggled, each secretly hoping that someday the same pleasures would come to us.

On sunny days, when our skin had finally become wrinkled and waterlogged from swimming, we would drag lawn chairs to the end of the dock and read there. Paperback romances were left behind. Instead, thick serious novels like Exodus and David Copperfield, also mined from the cottage’s bookshelves, were considered suitable. I knew the derision the romances would raise: my mother would suck on her cigarette in disgust and Artie, my older brother, would tease.

It was a rented camp; the books belonged to someone else. To me, it seemed as though we were living in a chaotic library, books spilling from the walls and side tables. One bureau held drawers full of books. The collection’s arrangement had no method, except that all the romance novels resided in the attic bedroom where Louise and I slept.

The lake was small. Modest summer camps lined the shore, which alternated between narrow sandy beaches and heaps of boulders mixed with bayberry and juniper. On a point of land near the cottage, a stand of pines grew tall, shading the ground so thoroughly that only a carpet of pine needles was left. On warm days, pitch dripped from the trees and the scent of pine resin rose from the point on hot air, blowing past me as I swam from the dock to the big rock.

If there was a light wind, Louise and I were allowed to take the sunfish out. Louise didn’t like the boat to heel, and sometimes I pushed on the tiller and yanked in the sail until the little boat was practically standing on its side. Louise would go silent for a couple of hours afterwards and I would pretend not to notice. I would rather have sailed alone but I knew my mother would never allow it. I imagined that the boat would skim across the lake like a skipped stone if Louise’s bulk were removed.

This is a fact: Louise was fat. She was fat in the way that twelve-year-old girls sometimes are. Solid, like a rectangle—no breasts or hips interrupted her sturdy outline. This caused her agonies. She already knew the calorie count of a bowl of Jell-O, and knew the recipe for a thick shake made with ice cubes and frozen fruit chunks. She was a junior member of Weight Watchers. She carried packets of saccharine. The one thing she wanted most in the world was to be thin and beautiful.

Another fact: I was not beautiful. But I was not fat, and I was glad for that, though it didn’t seem fair. Louise and I ate the same things: hotdogs, Hershey bars, endless sticks of Beechnut gum. I considered myself rather plain. But not fat, thank goodness.

If it was a windless day, Louise and I might take the canoe out and play around in it. We would tip it over, creating an air pocket—a sanctuary where we could talk without being heard. The first time we tried it, my mother was scared to death to spot the canoe upside down with no sign of us, but by August she had gotten used to it.

On August 20, my mother got up at 7:30, made breakfast and cleaned up but did not take her books out to the chaise by the lake. Instead she announced that my great-aunt and great-uncle, Aunt Hope and Uncle Charles, were coming to visit that afternoon. I explained to Louise that Aunt Hope and Uncle Charles always stopped by in the summer on their way to a summer gathering somewhere north. Artie interjected that it was a commie camp and our mother said, no, it was a camp for peace and world understanding.

Louise looked a little worried about meeting commies, so I told her about Aunt Hope’s paintings of African nobles and her dangly ivory earrings and her dresses made of African prints. I made the pair sound exotic but lighthearted, like something out of a black-and-white movie. I didn’t mention that I was slightly afraid and very much awed by the two of them. Though Aunt Hope and Uncle Charles made a fuss over Artie and me and often brought us clever little gifts, I had a hard time understanding the conversation once they began chatting with our mother.

At four o’clock, as I was coming out of the water to get a snack, I heard the crunching sound of a car coming down the camp’s rough gravel driveway. My mother and Artie and I walked out to meet the ancient rounded sedan. Louise stayed behind, content to swim and watch the progress from the water.

Uncle Charles greeted me first. You look like a soggy angel, he told me, clasping me by the shoulders and looking right at me. He pushed my dripping hair behind my ears and turned to Aunt Hope. I knew it, he said, she doesn’t.

Doesn’t what? My mother looked from him to me and then to Aunt Hope.

Well, you certainly do look grown-up, my dear, said Aunt Hope, gathering my hands in a little bouquet. You’re taller than me. Isn’t she, Charles?

Where’s Louise? My mother looked around the group and then spied Louise paddling around by the beach. Come on, I’ll introduce you to Rachel’s friend, she said to my great-aunt and uncle.

I caught Uncle Charles’s expression as Louise emerged from the lake. He was disappointed, then deliberately charming. Louise blushed from the attention.

Caroline, he said, turning to my mother, may I speak with you for a moment? The two of them walked a few steps away and he spoke softly in her ear. My mother looked doubtful and glanced at me. Just think about it, Uncle Charles said, as he turned back toward Louise and me and Aunt Hope. Artie was carrying a box from the car into the camp, at Aunt Hope’s request.

We all trooped inside. Our mother fixed drinks for my great-aunt and uncle, while Artie, Louise, and I opened the box. Inside were carved pieces wrapped in paper, all making up a street scene in Africa. The wood was smooth and dark. I rubbed one of the camels on my cheek and it felt cool.

Once all the pieces were unwrapped and the scene was set up on the table, Artie and I thanked Aunt Hope and Uncle Charles and immediately ran for the lake, all three of us splashing in and finally diving when the water was deep enough. We played catch with an old tennis ball until we were called for dinner and told to change into something dry.

Dinner was slow. Artie, Louise, and I weren’t often included in the discussion. After the main course, Uncle Charles turned to me. Since I’ve talked your mother into it, he said, I have something to show you. He pulled out a small box that looked like a sewing kit. Through the clear plastic lid, I could see many straight-pins, each with a bright colored ball on one end. There was also a small pen and tiny red rubber cylinders.

All we need now is some ice and rubbing alcohol, said Uncle Charles.

You old fool, said Aunt Hope, you’d better tell her what you intend to do. After all, it’s her body.

Yes, added my mother, and you don’t have to do it, honey, if you don’t want to.

Do what?

All three of the adults began to speak at once. Then Uncle Charles put up his hand. I will speak, he said. Rachel, do you like the earrings that your Aunt Hope wears?

Yes, but?

Have you noticed that she has a hole in each ear where the earring goes?

Yes, I know she has pierced ears. I looked around toward my mother. Mom doesn’t, though.

That’s because your grandmother wouldn’t let me get them pierced, said my mother. And then, when I was older, I never got around to it.

Uncle Charles turned back to me. Would you like to have pierced ears? This is a kit for piercing. I’ve done many, many young girls. Some half your age. In Africa, in Europe, here in America. Your second cousins, Saskia and Cecilia. Hundreds.

Don’t exaggerate, Charles, said Aunt Hope.

Doesn’t it hurt? Louise looked at the kit, white faced. I glanced at her, then looked back at Uncle Charles.

Here’s what I do. First I make a mark with my pen on your ears where you want the hole to be. Then I numb the earlobe with a piece of ice. I quickly poke the needle through the numbed part, snip off the pointed end of the pin, and place a rubber back on it. And voilà, you’re wearing earrings before you feel a thing.

Of course, you never feel a thing, Charles, said Aunt Hope. Sometimes it stings a bit. And we have to put rubbing alcohol on it, Rachel, so it doesn’t get infected—that can sting, too.

I looked again at Louise’s stricken face and was suddenly filled with the desire to be as different from her as possible. I’ll do it, I said.

Splendid, said Uncle Charles. Let’s make a real ceremony of it. Louise, would you be the bearer of ice?

Uncle Charles got up from the table and walked out of the cottage, carrying his kit. The rest of the group followed, Louise a little behind because she’d stopped at the refrigerator for ice. Uncle Charles kicked off his huaraches and waded into the water up to his knees. I felt the water lap at my legs as I stood next to him. He held my face between his hands, then took the pen and made a mark on each ear. Louise passed two ice cubes and he held them on either side of my left earlobe. Then he threw the ice cubes into the lake and held my earlobe with one hand. This one is for passion, Rachel, he said. May you know great searing heart-stopping passion. I heard Louise swallow the same moment I felt a sharp pinching of my earlobe. Uncle Charles repeated the procedure with my right ear. This one’s for freedom, he said. Remember, freedom is always worth fighting for. Guard it. I heard Louise gasp as the pin punctured the skin; she had a better view on this side.

Now Charles, oh great white wise man, said Aunt Hope, may we go back inside and escape these mosquitoes?

I heard the sarcasm in Aunt Hope’s voice. I backed away from the group into the deeper water and let myself slowly sink. My hair welled up before my face, swirling, and the sky became blurry and disappeared. My earlobes were burning. I didn’t care.

 

[© Barbara Burt; Word count: 1921. Not yet published.]

On the Road with Miss Rumphius: A Children’s Book Tour Through Coastal Maine and Islands

Nita, my youngest daughter, shyly climbed onto the swing in the dim, cavernous barn and began to pump her legs. High, higher, soon she was flying to the rafters, looking exactly like Fern in Garth Williams’s illustration Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. If I could have peeked into her imagination just then, perhaps I would have heard contented grunts from Wilbur down in the piggery and seen an intricate web being woven by the world’s favorite spider, Charlotte.

Nita and I were on a quest. We were scouring the Maine Coast for sites and signs of her favorite children’s books. E.B. White, Barbara Cooney, Robert McCloskey, Rachel Field, Margaret Wise Brown—these authors and more have lived in and taken inspiration from Maine’s isolated and hard beauty.

Maine, as everyone knows, is an excellent place to vacation with children who thrive on outdoor adventure. But you can find more than beaches, mountains, wildlife, and forests; emanating from the Maine woods are echoes of some of the most beloved children’s books of all time. By combining visits to some of these evocative sites with a reading of the books and related activities, you can weave together outdoor activities with literary exploration, creating a vacation that will increase your children’s sense of the fun of literature and build family memories that will last forever. Today, a picture of Nita riding on Fern’s swing is a prominent feature in our collection of family photographs.

All of the following locations are on or near the coast. For an historical perspective of life near the sea, begin your trip with a few hours at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, about forty minutes northeast of Portland on U.S. Route 1. Here you can learn about the craft of wooden boat building, the proud heritage of tall-masted schooners, the lore of the lobstering trade, and more. Children particularly enjoy climbing in and out of the various boats exhibited for that purpose.

Then head back onto U.S. Route 1 for about twenty minutes and turn off at the exit for the twin villages of Damariscotta and Newcastle. Drive slowly down the ramp, for ahead you’ll spy a distinctive square steeple topped with four gilded fleurs-de lis. This steeple appears in Barbara Cooney’s classic picture book Miss Rumphius (Penguin 1982), as do many spots in this area.

In the picture book, Miss Rumphius vows three things, “To travel around the world, to live by the sea, and to make the world more beautiful.” (Like her heroine, the late Barbara Cooney had a waterside cottage on the Damariscotta River.) To fulfill the third promise, Alice Rumphius walks about the countryside scattering lupine seeds. If you are lucky enough to visit in mid-June, you’ll see thousands of lupines adorning the fields, descendants perhaps of seeds planted by the woman who provided the inspiration for the title character. Stop in at a garden center to purchase a packet of lupine seedlings so you can plant your memories at home. You might also want to make a stop at the Maine Coast Book Shop on Main Street in Damariscotta. They have a close affiliation with Barbara Cooney and always carry a good supply of her books.

Another of Barbara Cooney’s books, Island Boy (Penguin 1988), is full of imagery from this region. The islands of this area were settled long before the mainland (some before Plimoth Plantation!), and island life is still a rich element in the Maine imagination.

As is so well depicted in Island Boy, life on an island is a unique existence. While you’re visiting the coast of Maine, make a point to get out on the water, for our coast is only fully appreciated from that perspective. So, after you’ve visited Damariscotta, drive down the Pemaquid peninsula on Route 130 to New Harbor and board the Laura B. ferry to Monhegan Island, ten miles out to sea.

Monhegan is inhabited year-round, but in the summer the population swells with artists. Well-known New Yorker cartoonist Charles Martin used Monhegan as the setting for a series of picture books. In Summer Business (Greenwillow, 1984), Sam Saves the Day (Greenwillow, 1987) and others, resourceful island kids tackle and solve problems. Bring these books on a treasure hunt to find the island locations pictured by Martin. Along the way you’ll see ospreys and other sea birds, lobster boats and sailing sloops, dramatic cliffs, artists’ studios, deer, wild roses, and an historic lighthouse/museum. You can make a day trip to Monhegan from New Harbor, Port Clyde, or Boothbay Harbor. Or make reservations to spend the night at one of the island’s inns.

Farther down the coast (as you go northeast along the coast of Maine you call it going “downeast” because, due to the prevailing wind, you’re traveling “downwind,” an important benefit for sailors) you’ll soon get another chance to travel by ferry to an island. Stay on U.S. Route 1 past Damariscotta (but take a quick glimpse of the river as you pass over it; along its banks are the ancient oyster heaps or shell middens built up by feasting Indians for thousands of years), and travel on to Rockland in Penobscot Bay, about forty minutes down the coast. Here is the home of the Vinalhaven ferry. You’ll find that Vinalhaven is a year-round community that has retained much of the flavor of a Maine fishing village. You’ll want to bring bicycles or a car, as the island is too big to traverse on foot. Vinalhaven was once the summer residence of Margaret Wise Brown, author of many classics such as Goodnight Moon (Harper, 1947), The Runaway Bunny (Harper, 1972), and The Little Island (Doubleday, 1946). It’s a good bet the latter was inspired by one of the many small islands dotting Penobscot Bay. While on Vinalhaven you can swim in old granite quarries and watch eagles diving for bluefish in secluded ocean inlets. Don’t miss the Lanes Island Preserve, a marvelous place for a picnic and exploring.

When you’ve returned to the mainland, jump back on U.S. Route 1 and drive a few miles up the road to Rockport, hooking a right down to the harbor. There you’ll see the real home of a seal named Andre, the main character of the eponymous book by Lew Dietz (Down East, 1979). (By the way, Rockport is not to be confused with the setting for the movie about Andre, which was shot on the coast of California.)

After you’ve inspected the late Andre’s home port and peered over the railings of any windjammers tied up to the dock (consider taking a day sail, if time and budget allow), swing back onto U.S. Route 1 and head for the Camden Hills State Park (several miles beyond the bustling town of Camden).

       All I could see from where I stood

       Was three long mountains and a wood;

       I turned and looked another way,

       And saw three islands in a bay.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote these opening lines to her poem “Renascence” as a teenager in Rockland in the first decade of this century. Abandon your car, stretch your legs, and take a mile-long hike up Mt. Battie in the Camden Hills to see a similar view. Bring along your binoculars and a copy of Millay’s poem, and while you munch your snack at the summit, imagine yourself a literary-minded Maine girl at the turn of the century. When you’ve returned to the real life and the bottom of the mountain, you can view Millay memorabilia at the Whitehall Inn in Camden.

Then it’s time to return to U.S. Route 1. Meander through Belfast, Bucksport, and Winter Harbor. Then turn down Route 15 to Blue Hill and Deer Isle, home of E.B. White and Robert McCloskey, among other prominent authors.

Blue Hill and surrounding villages will seem quiet after the traffic and crowds of Camden, yet there is much to see and do here. E.B. White’s farm, where he wrote Charlotte’s Web (Harper, 1952), is on one of the main roads from Blue Hill to Deer Isle. Perhaps there’s still a swing in the barn same as when Fern “lived” there, though the house and barn now belong to another family. If you happen to plan your trip around Labor Day weekend, you can attend the Blue Hill Fair, a real country fair like the one where Wilbur the pig was awarded his $25 and “handsome bronze medal.”

Then pull out your copy of McCloskey’s One Morning in Maine (Penguin, 1952) and head for Buck’s Harbor. It’s in the town of South Brooksville on Route 176. You’ll be astounded to see that Condon’s Garage is still there, some forty years after Mr. Condon joked with Sal about her new tooth. After you’ve scouted the harbor (keep an eye out for a dory with two little girls, a hard-rowing man, and a busted engine), get back in the car and drive across the big bridge over Eggemoggin Reach and out to the western tip of Little Deer Isle, where you can look back at Buck’s Harbor and imagine what a long “pull” it would have been to row that distance.

Another McCloskey book to help you savor island living is Time of Wonder (Penguin, 1957). If you drive to the southern tip of Deer Isle to the town of Stonington, you can take a boat excursion among the islands and see many sights similar to those seen by Jane and Sal as they skippered their sailing skiff in nearby waters. And don’t forget to find a beach where you can try your hands at clamming. If you’re traveling in early August, you might like to do some blueberry picking a la Blueberries for Sal (Penguin, 1948) at Bayview Farm on Ridge Road in Sedgwick. Keep an eye out for wandering bear cubs!

If you’ve gotten as far downeast as Blue Hill, you might as well go a bit farther to visit Mount Desert Island (this Desert, by the way, is pronounced “dessert”) and Acadia National Park. Author Rachel Field spent her summers on Sutton’s Island, just south of Northeast Harbor. Her historical fiction Calico Bush (Macmillan, 1931), a great family read-aloud, tells the story of a mid-18th century family and their “bound-out” girl who settled on Swan’s Island, which can be reached today by ferry from Bass Harbor. Consider taking the ferry, too, from Northeast Harbor, past Sutton’s Island, and hop off at Isleford on Little Cranberry, where the Little Cranberry Museum will give you a sense of island history.

These are just a few of the places and ways that you can partake of Maine’s rich heritage of children’s literature. As you wind your way along roads lined by beach roses or tall pines, you’re bound to make some more connections of your own.

© Barbara Burt

[Word count: 1775. Unpublished.]

The News from Maine for Summer Folks

As I drove home this afternoon along Route One between Brunswick and Newcastle in my mud-splashed car, I thought about those of you who descend upon our town in August, confiding to each other how you adore Maine.

What would you think if you saw us now, I wonder. For five days in a row I have worn the same outfit: black knit pants and a gray knit sweater. A perfect expression of the way I feel right now, the sweater is the same color as the concrete-like snow banks that line the lumpy road. It’s the same gray as the clouds bearing down on the horizon. It matches the Damariscotta River reflecting that sky. The shape of my sweater is as unspecific and secretive as the snow that has buried the stone wall in my yard.

Come summer, I may resent your oversized SUVs—here we tend to drive Subaru wagons or pickups—but I will appreciate your fresh faces and your appetite for blueberries and corn. I will welcome you. Now, in an April that seems more like late February, I dream of your arrival. For those of you whom I count as friends, I imagine hosting a magical evening twinkling with witty conversation as we sit in wooden chairs in the firefly-lit grass or lean against the slumbering rocks on the shore under stars. You’ll carry news, and new ways of thinking. And you’ll bring to me an excuse for laughing, for drinking gin and tonics and cracking open lobsters on a dock. For you I will rip the bilious blue plastic off that bulbous mound of white fiberglass that balances on its toe in my yard, and set it afloat.

Yesterday I was visited by an explosion of color. A flock of goldfinches, twenty or more, invaded the birdfeeder by the dining room window. As I read the newspaper, a flash of yellow caused me to look out at the landscape I had long since lost interest in. Do me a favor. Wear a tee-shirt that shade of yellow when you come, will you?

 

[© Barbara Burt. Unpublished]

It’s the Thought That Counts

When KayLee opened her Christmas present, she looked at the book, looked at me, looked at the book, then rolled her wheelchair over and gave me a big hug. “You’re the best,” she said. I was embarrassed. The book only cost $1 at Goodwill.

Christmas went downhill from there. Dad gave me some money—too late for my Christmas shopping—and a bicycle pump. “You might need to get places, Court,” he said. I didn’t say what I really need is a new bike.

And Mom gave me a bunch of sparkly hair twisties. I tried to act pleased. She said, “I’m going to do your hair all up pretty before we go to Grandma June’s.”

“Great,” I said.

Mom works at Joyce’s salon—when she can get customers. Her clients get mad when she doesn’t show. Everyone says she is talented; Joyce even says Mom makes old hags look gorgeous. Dad says that Mom likes Jack Daniels more than she likes her job.

I tried it, whiskey. When I was seven. I thought it was apple juice. Mom fell out of her chair laughing but Dad got mad. Usually you can almost forget he’s there. That time he yelled at Mom. Then KayLee started bawling and the neighbors pounded on the wall.

Anyway, KayLee and I were excited about going to Grandma June’s for Christmas dinner. Grandma June is nice and she always has lots of food. Including things like biscuits and homemade dessert. So we were really looking forward to it. Dad was, too, but not Mom. She and Grandma June don’t get along. Mom said she might just stay home but me and Dad and KayLee said that wouldn’t be right on Christmas.

Before we left, Mom did KayLee’s and my hair. She was singing and dancing around and said didn’t I look gorgeous. But then she poured some whiskey in her coffee. Dad glared at her but she ignored him.

When we got to Grandma June’s, Mom said, “Hi, June. I should call you December, not June,” and giggled. Grandma June didn’t say anything. She just pulled me into the kitchen and gave me a big hug.

Yeah, so it was a great meal. We had some kind of meat and potatoes and a salad. The table even had candles and each place had a little present. And Grandma June baked this humongous chocolate cake with vanilla frosting and little candy canes decorating it. We were sitting around the table, totally stuffed, and Grandma June said to Dad, “Now, Charles…”

Dad pulled on his collar and cleared his throat. Mom was leaning back in her chair and her eyes were almost closed.

“Um,” he said, looking at me. “Grandma June was wondering if you would like to live with her. For awhile.”

“What the fuck!” Mom sat up straight. “Why didn’t anybody talk to me? Who the hell do you think you are? Court is my kid, not yours, Charlie.” Which wasn’t fair because Dad has been my dad for as long as I can remember.

Dad was going to say something but Grandma June held her hand out and told Mom to simmer down. “We only want what’s best for Courtney.” They were talking about me like I wasn’t there. Then Grandma June turned to me. “Wouldn’t you like to try living here for the rest of the school year?”

I felt far away, like I was watching a TV show or something. Everything was quiet and everyone was staring at me. The only sound was Mom muttering shit, shit, shit.

Grandma June’s guest room has a big bed and the bathroom’s right next door. I thought about how much Grandma June loves me, how she’s always buying me things I really want. How calm her house is and how dinner is always ready at 5:30. How she has pictures of KayLee and me on the mantel and over the sofa and on her bureau.

Then I remembered Mom singing and dancing around while she fixed my hair. How she tells me I can do anything because I’m brainy and beautiful. How funny she is, and how nice she smells. How she says things to people like, “Courtney’s only 12 but she’s already way ahead of me.”

I thought about how I love them both, Grandma June and Mom, but how hurt Mom would be if I chose Grandma June.

I knew I really only had one choice and I went with it.

 

© Barbara Burt

[Word count: 742. Not yet published.]

America Speaks — Let the true message be heard!

It is our American habit to arrive at what we think by talking things out together…. These discussion centers are the actual birth places of public opinion — they are where the American mind, harnessed to the American will, goes constructively and critically to work. –Frances Perkins, People at Work

I spent a surprisingly entertaining day yesterday at the AmericaSpeaks: Our Budget, Our Economy daylong national town meeting. More than 3,500 people gathered in a number of cities around the country; Augusta, Maine, was my location. As Alice Rivlin, a much honored participant, said, “Who would believe that thousands of people spent 6 1/2 hours on a summer Saturday talking about the deficit, and had fun doing it!”

One of the things that made it fun for me was the realization that the entire group was not going to be co-opted by ultra-conservative deficit hawks. In fact, it turns out that moderate-to-liberal-leaning folks are more willing to spend a Saturday in June talking about the U.S. budget with strangers. I know this because we were all outfitted with keypads upon which we answered poll questions, and the results were instantaneously beamed to all the town meeting sites. So we immediately learned that as a group we were slightly more male than female, slightly more affluent than average, very slightly less diverse than the general population, and somewhat older than average.

While the discussion was tightly channeled and there were serious deficiencies in the way some topics were presented (particularly health care and Social Security), I think that the results are of great interest, particularly the fact that 64 percent of the participants favored creating a carbon tax and 61 percent favored a securities transaction tax. Considering the way these taxes have either been discounted or little discussed in the mainstream media, that’s impressive.

Another nifty feature provided by AmericaSpeaks was a printed Preliminary Report we could pick up on our way out the door that contained all the polling results from the work we had just completed. So, I don’t have to remember exactly how all 3500+ of us felt about cuts to Medicare or new taxes; it’s all collected in the Preliminary Report in black and white.

That’s why I feel well equipped to point out the ways in which the publicity released by AmericaSpeaks about the polling results from the national town meeting is misleading.

AmericaSpeaks received much of its funding for the Our Budget, Our Economy national town meeting from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which also has pushed hard for deficit reduction in the form of cuts to social programs like Social Security. The press release sent out after the town meetings sounds as if the results were spun by someone sharing the perspective of the Peterson Foundation. (It’s also interesting to note that all the experts interviewed or taped for the video presentations came from the “deficit hawk” side of the table.)

Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

Reforms that were preferred by participants at the National Town Meeting included options that:
• Raise the limit on taxable earnings so it covers 90% of total earnings.
• Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%.
• Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million.
• Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69.
• Reduce defense spending by 10% – 15%.
• Create a carbon and securities-transaction tax.

And here are my main arguments with that portrayal:

• Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%.While the majority of those supporting reductions in Medicare and Medicaid spending voted to reduce that spending by 5 percent (instead of 10 or 15 percent), a much larger percentage — 38 — voted for “no change” in health care spending, no doubt due in part to the very poor way in which this question was posed. Although people around me and some who spoke on the live transmission from other sites believed that healthcare spending needed to be cut, they were not happy with the options provided in this exercise.

When it comes to non-defense discretionary spending, again the highest votes went to “no change” — 32 percent. I suppose they are adding up all the people who voted for 5, 10, and 15 percent cuts and saying that all of those people would have supported a cut of “at least 5%” but that seems disingenuous.


• Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million.
 If they use the standard above, conflating categories, then they should report that 66 percent would raise the personal tax rate for everyone in the top two brackets by at least 10%. In fact, the vote was 18 percent for a 10% increase and 48 percent for a 20% increase. That’s newsworthy — especially as this group skewed toward a higher average income. This group would raise taxes considerably on those earning more than $209,250, not just millionaires.
• Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69. Of course, there’s no reason why Social Security should even be considered in this discussion, since it is a pay-as-you-go program by law and thus has no impact on the deficit. That said, once again, the press release fails to go by its earlier method of conflating categories. If you do follow that convention, then you can say that 67 percent were in favor of raising the payroll tax gradually to at least 13.4%. That’s worth pointing out.

Also, although mentioned in the first bullet on the list of findings, it was a huge majority (85 percent) that approved of raising the limit on taxable earnings to 90% of total earnings in America. At my table, the vote for raising the age of retirement lost steam as people thought about those jobs involving physical labor, the lack of jobs for 60+ workers, and the need to free up jobs for younger workers. Others reported the same thing at their tables. Perhaps with more time for discussion, this vote would have gone the other way. As it is, as one of the options for changing Social Security, with only 52 percent in favor it ranked behind raising the payroll tax (67 percent) and far behind expanding the limit on taxable earnings (85 percent). But you wouldn’t know that from the press release.

• Reduce defense spending by 10% – 15%. This is an understatement. 51 percent approved cutting the defense budget by 15%, certainly another newsworthy fact. Another 18 percent approved a cut of 10%, and 16 percent approved a 5% cut. Here’s the staggering number — only 15 percent voted for no change in defense spending. (Compare this to 32 percent who voted for no change in non-defense spending, 23 percent who voted for no change in Social Security spending, and 38 percent who voted for no change in healthcare spending.
• Create a carbon and securities-transaction tax. Again, this is true but understated. As I mentioned earlier, the approval for each of these new taxes was more than 60 percent.

Finally, I would quibble with this statement from the press release:

Sixty-one percent of participants said that in the short-term they believe the government should be doing more to strengthen the economy. Participants expressed more mixed views about the recent stimulus bill that failed to pass the Senate last week. Fifty-one percent of participants supported the legislation, while thirty-eight percent of participants said they were not supportive of it.

Why is 51 percent “mixed”? It’s a majority. Can we now also say that the attitude toward raising the full retirement age to 69 was also “mixed”? (52 percent voted for that.) And to break down further the polling on the failed stimulus bill, 32 percent said they were “supportive” and 19 percent said they were “somewhat supportive.” Twelve percent were “somewhat unsupportive” and 26 percent were “unsupportive.”

What’s so bad about a press release skewing the results just enough to shift the emphasis and bury the big stories? This description of yesterday’s results is laying down the track for the story that will be spun, as we were repeatedly told, to the president’s deficit commission (the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform), and to House and Senate leaders.

Here’s the real story: More than 3500 people in cities across the United States came together to sit at tables with strangers for six and a half hours to work on reducing the 2025 deficit, and this was their overwhelming answer to the problems we face: “We do not shrink from raising taxes on those most able to pay. This means those in the top two tax brackets. This means Wall Street. We do not shrink from cutting the military budget. And we do not shrink from taxing the use of fossil fuels.” What a challenge to Congress, which dares not do any of these things. May it give our representatives courage.

There’s no question that the thousands of people who came together across the country yesterday to wrestle with difficult questions of the budget and the economy did so with all good intentions. What remains to be seen are the intentions of the organizers.  Let the true message be heard!

[You can find the quoted press release here: http://usabudgetdiscussion.org/press/]

[This piece originally appeared on June 7, 2010 in the blog The Best Possible Life.]