(Grants Pass, Oregon 1983)
“We’re moving again.” I don’t look at Emily when I say this. It’s too hot to turn my head.
We’re lying in the grass, staring up at the dying oak tree that marks the edge of my backyard. This is as far as we’re allowed to go without asking.
Between us and the house is a mosquito breeding swamp that used to be a pool, a swath of unwatered grass, and then the oak with its rope ladder leading up to a cobwebby tree fort. If I shut my eyes, I can conjure a flickering image of what it all used to be: another kid’s dream yard.
The corn-colored ranch house is the biggest we’ve lived in, but more than any other, this one whispers to me that it’s not really ours. That we’re renters.
Emily rolls to face me. “Did your dad get a job?”
“No. The owners sold the house.”
“Oh.” She sits up. The back of her hair is matted with oak leaves.
I met Emily the summer before first grade. My family had moved into the house next to hers and for days I watched her through the fence. Her yard was always crowded with neighborhood girls. I thought there was no way anyone so wonderful would be my friend. But then she came over and said “hi” and I said “hi” and it turned out she’d been watching me too.
The first thing we loved about each other was the contrast between her wild blond curls and my neat brown braids. As we got to know each other, we noticed more differences. She liked to jump off the swing from its highest point. I preferred just seeing how high I could go. Yet, we never had to explain things to each other. Like, with most girls, you start a game by working out the rules: “Let’s say we’re detectives and the neighbor is a spy and we have to search for clues.” Emily and I just became detectives. The neighbor became a spy. When she was miserable after getting a tooth pulled, I made her laugh by pretending to trip and fall across her couch. When I had my appendix out, she sat next to me in my bed and we colored.
Now it’s the summer before fourth grade. Emily is my number one best friend, even though I don’t live next door anymore. This year, we got our ears pierced and walked in the Montgomery Ward fashion show — but Emily still can’t be bothered with a hairbrush.
“Where are you going this time?”
This is the bad news. I wouldn’t mind leaving this house, except, as I explain, “We’re moving over by Lincoln Elementary.”
Emily doesn’t respond.
I sit up and watch her walk to the lopsided fence separating our yard from an empty lot littered with abandoned cars. She stretches her foot through the space between the ground and the bottom rung and drags back a broken headlight that she swings around by wires sticking out of the back. “You’re changing schools? Your parents just decided to move and now you have to go to a new school?”
“Do you know anyone at Lincoln?”
“Katie. But…” I’d only admit this to Emily, “I told her this morning I’m going to her school and she said she couldn’t play with me at first. She has to wait and see if I’m popular.”
Emily hurls the headlight at a blue Chevy pick-up. I knew she was going to do it, but it still makes me jump. The light thuds against a broken windshield. “Katie’s stuck-up. I never understood why you were friends with her.”
After a long pause, she takes a few steps back and does a wobbly handstand. “Let’s play Orphans and Runaways.”
We know there’s more to say about moving, but not out here.
When she flips back up, I laugh. “You look like Medusa.”
She yells, “Better not look at me!”
I scream, hold my hands in front of my face, and freeze. For a little extra drama, I collapse to the ground, still frozen in a “horror” position.
She grabs my arms and drags me toward the house.
Emily is a genius; Orphans and Runaways is perfect. If we can make it to the end, we’ll figure out what to do.
It’s our longest running game. When we lived next door to each other, it mostly involved sneaking away from my big sister aka the orphanage and running to Ogle Park. Then we had to create a world we could survive in without adults. Our hideaway was an open space under a juniper bush. I wanted to stash supplies there — broken teacups, plastic forks, like in The Boxcar Children. We never got around to it, though.
There’s no park near this house, but we’ve adapted.
I dash to the patio, pretending to slam into the sliding glass door without seeing it. Emily laughs and tries it herself before pulling the door open.
“Quiet!” The voice comes from the front room. Where my dad is.
I roll my eyes and we shuffle to my room.
The house is sort of Y-shaped, with no section really relating to any other. My room dangles at the far end of the Y’s outstretched left arm. Some former occupant decorated it with stars and stripes wallpaper and a red, white, and blue shag carpet. It looks like an American flag exploded.
I pull my backpack out of the closet so we can pack our meager belongings. Emily suggests my red Annie cardigan. I throw in a notebook and crayons. We’re ready.
And trouble finds us right away.
The head of the orphanage is off the phone and her door is open. There’s no sneaking past. Running makes her mad. So I try casually walking by; just a regular kid, walking down the hall.
I turn and stand in her doorway.
My sister Jenny’s room is pink. Hot pink shag carpet, candy-striped wallpaper. Like my patriotic nightmare room, this space was meant for someone else. But Jenny is stronger than the phantom girl who actually chose the color scheme. She made it her own. A rosy velour comforter adorns her waterbed. Pale-pink toe-shoes hang on the wall next to a poster of a ballet dancer doing an arabesque above the words, “If you can dream it, you can become it.”
Jenny’s on the bed, wearing a pink bathrobe. Our baby sister is next to her, drooling on my stuffed panda.
Emily pokes her head in the door. “Hi Jenny,” she says in her sweet voice. She has the most convincing sweet voice of any kid I know. Sometimes it’s even sweet enough to charm a fifteen-year-old.
“What are you two doing?”
“Just playing.” I can’t muster a sweet voice.
Jenny is in the worst kind of mood: Bored. When she’s like this, she’ll flip between mean and generous without warning and all we can do is decide if the good is worth the bad. Sometimes it is, but today I just want to play Orphans and Runaways.
“If you change Anna’s diaper, I’ll give you a piece of candy.”
I sigh. “I don’t want candy.” I’ll end up changing the diaper and not get candy, but the words are out of my mouth before I think.
“God, you are such a lazybutt. Just change her diaper.”
“You’re the one getting paid to watch her.” I jump back as a hairbrush flies past my head and hits the wall.
Emily slides into the bedroom, picks up Anna, and chimes, “I’ll do it.”
“No,” Jenny flops back into a pillow, “lazybutt will.” She grabs a pink and gold Almond Rocha tin from her headboard, looks at me, and smiles, “Maybe if you were more like Emily and not such a lazybutt, you wouldn’t be so much fatter than Emily.” She laughs like I’m supposed to join in the joke with her.
I just take my little sister from Emily and, holding her with straight arms, head for the bathroom.
Emily’s beside me, holding out her hand for the pins. “I can’t believe Miss Hannigan made us change Molly’s diaper — just wait until we’re gone.”
I try to pretend with her, but it’s hard with Anna here. This easygoing creature, who’s never happier than when I pay attention to her, marked the end of everything good; the end of my reign as cutest little sister, and the reason we moved from the house next to Emily’s — that only had two bedrooms — to this rambling, mildewy place. She’s an interrupter of Orphans and Runaways, the source of Jenny’s bad mood.
But we have to make it to the end of the game. I can’t go grumpy because of one interruption.
Emily carries Anna back, cooing and making her laugh with silly faces, while I slosh her diaper in the toilet, rinsing off as much poop as I can before putting it in the hamper.
I’m washing my hands when Emily darts back in. “That was good. It’s more realistic if the orphanage really is bad.”
“What’s Miss Hannigan doing now?” I whisper.
“On the phone — probably with one of her boyfriends.”
The perfect time to embark on the next phase of the journey.
We creep down the hall, bare toes making melodramatic arcs over the olive shag. As we approach the living room, I put out a hand to stop Emily. I’ll make sure all’s clear.
The house has two living rooms, one in front of the other. I imagine them as the base of the “Y”. Me and Jenny’s arm of the house butts up against the back living room. This is the safe one and looks pretty much like every living room I’ve known — TV, bookshelves, bric-a-brac. This is where my family actually does our living.
The other we call the Yellow Room because of its wall-to-wall lemon shag and flocked golden wallpaper. It’s bigger and always feels far away. You can enter through a swinging door in the kitchen, or through the front hall via an iron gate that looks like something from a theme-park castle or old timey pizza parlor. The yellow room contains nothing but a sunken rust-and-green plaid couch and my father.
“Cover me,” I say, pressing my body against the wall before leaping into the empty room. When I make it past the coffee table, I motion for Emily to follow.
She tosses me the backpack and darts into the room on tiptoe, flapping her arms and twisting her face into a cartoon version of concentration.
I laugh and immediately clap my hand over my mouth.
If I’d just giggled, it might have been OK, but Emily’s lower lip was practically touching her nose. Her arms were flailing and her hair still looked like Medusa and I couldn’t help it. There was a rumbling in my stomach, then my throat, and then this noise came out of my mouth…
…And I’d awoken the dragon of the yellow room.
I run behind Emily, put my hands on her back, and push her towards the kitchen. We’re both choking back laughter, but the urgency is real.
“What’re you doing in there?” The dragon yells.
Emily heads for the refrigerator. She slips her fingers under the seal on the door to keep it from making the tell-tale suction sound as it opens.
I remain frozen until I’m sure the dragon has returned to his crossword puzzle. I’m about to help Emily in her fruitless attempt to pillage our food supply when the phone rings and I freeze again.
This is Jenny’s territory, but for some reason she isn’t answering. After three rings, I figure out she’s in the shower.
“Sara!” the dragon roars. “Where the hell is your sister? Why won’t she answer the goddamned phone?”
Emily gives up on the refrigerator and moves to the cupboards.
The less my dad thinks about Jenny, the better. So, with a sigh, I trudge to the bar that separates the living room and kitchen and answer the phone.
It’s my mom.
I try to push it back, but there’s a catch in my throat when hear her, a stupid little something left over from when I was a baby in preschool and seeing her walk through the door with her long blond hair and big leather purse was like witnessing an angel descend from heaven.
“Hi mom.” I climb from a barstool onto the counter.
“Hi sweetie. What’re you doing?”
“Just playing with Emily.”
“OK. What’s Jenny doing?”
“She’s in the shower.”
Emily emerges from the pantry with a handful of Wheatsworth crackers, her face silently asking if they can go in the backpack.
Mom sighs, “At noon? What’s your father doing?”
I nod at Emily. Yes, the crackers can go.
“I don’t know. Crossword puzzles.”
“Is he dressed?”
I’m not sure how to answer. My dad sleeps naked, so technically any clothing counts as dressed. So, even though he’s wearing a stained Detroit Tigers T-shirt and sweatpants that are held together at the seams with duct tape, technically, compared to how he sleeps, he’s dressed. “Yeah,” I say.
“Well, ask your father if he can go to the grocery store or if I should do it after work.”
“Is that your mother?” I hear my father shifting on his couch.
“Is your father still on the couch?”
A simple “yes” satisfies both questions.
“What’s for dinner?” I know she hates when I ask, but something makes me do it anyway. Every day.
“I haven’t had time to think about it. Ask your father what his plans are today.”
My heart collapses into my stomach. If I play this wrong, the game will be over.
Dad yells, “Ask what we’re having for dinner.”
I’m thrown off guard and answer poorly. “She hasn’t had time to think about it.”
Any more yelling will make him mad. I have to enter the yellow room.
I slide off the counter, approach the swinging door, and open it just enough so my toes are on yellow shag, but my heels are on linoleum.
The yellow room used to be my favorite part of the house. It has a big round window that, mixed with the gold wallpaper and yellow carpet, made it feel like being inside the sun. I could do ten somersaults in a row in that room.
Then the couch appeared and it became the dragon’s lair — but instead of treasure, dad filled it with crossword puzzle books and wine-stained coffee mugs.
“Mom wants to know if you’re going to the store?” I attempt my own version of the sweet little girl voice and brace for the worst. Whether he gets mad at me or mom or, as happens most often, at Jenny, it won’t matter. The game will still be over.
There’s a pause. There’s always a pause between asking my father a question and getting an answer, time stretching out while I wonder which way it will go.
He frowns at his crossword puzzle as if he’s forgotten about me. Emily stops raiding our cupboard and watches me watch my dad. If I remind him that mom is waiting, it might sound like whining. He might get mad and make Emily go home. If I wait too long, mom might get impatient and want to talk to him herself. My heels make a soft ripping sound as I shift on the linoleum.
If he leaves the yellow room, it will be the end of everything.
And then a fog sort of lifts from his face and he smiles at me. “Hi ya sweetie. Yeah. I’ll go.”
And that’s it. Dragon appeased.
I risk asking if me and Emily can have popsicles.
The fog is already descending again, but he mutters, “What do I care?” which is basically a yes.
By the time I hang up the phone, Emily has unwrapped our favorite twin-pops — orange for me, cherry for her. Not knowing how long peace will last in this most dangerous section of our journey, we move on before enjoying our success. From the kitchen, we walk down two stairs, through a utility room, and then around a corner, up three stairs, to the hallway outside my parents’ room.
Our destination is tantalizingly close, but our popsicles are melting, and it would be hard to do the necessary climbing one-handed. So we sit in the hall to eat.
“I hope we didn’t miss it,” Emily says, returning us to the world of our game.
I pretend to pull a watch out of my pocket. “We have just enough time. But we’ll have to be careful of the guards.”
Emily nods knowingly and licks her popsicle.
I bite into mine. It’s almost gone. “You always take forever to eat popsicles.”
She licks up a drip running down her hand and sticks out a bright red tongue. “You always take forever to eat ice cream.”
It’s true and it’s important. We are, as always, the same, only different.
Popsicle consumed, I wipe the stick on my shorts and throw it into the backpack. Emily does the same.
We stand up together and face the closed door at the end of the hall.
We don’t imitate caution now. If anyone finds out what we’re doing from this point on, the game will be over — forever. We’re too old to invent a new version. So, Emily’s head peering over my shoulder, I creep to the end of the hall, slowly turn the doorknob, and we slip into my parents’ room.
We call it my parents’ room out of habit. It’s really my mom’s room, and even though she doesn’t have any more say over her décor than the rest of us, it suits her perfectly.
It’s blue: royal blue carpet, cornflower wallpaper, turquoise curtains. She added an aqua quilt that looks like ocean waves floating lazily over her king-size waterbed. The sky-like blueness together with the three stairs we climbed to get to here makes the room feel like it’s hovering above the rest of the house.
Emily grabs my hand and smiles. We’re almost there.
We edge along the wall to the big walk-in closet.
There’s a row of clothes on either side of the door. The floor is lined with shoes and boxes. But what really matters are the shelves.
Over each row of clothes is a strong, deep shelf, hidden by an orange canvas curtain. Maybe because they’re so high up, my mom doesn’t use them.
I noticed when we first moved in that they looked like the sleeper cars on trains I’d seen in old movies. Each shelf is exactly the right size for hiding one nine-year-old orphan.
We pull boxes out of each side of the closet and climb as high as they’ll take us. This is just enough so, with a hop and pushing on our elbows, we can get one knee onto the shelf and hoist ourselves into our cubbies.
The air is still and smells of warm fabric and old paper. The wood is cool against my back and legs.
Sitting in the shadowy cave, hidden by a thick orange curtain, Emily getting settled a few feet away while I scrunch up my backpack like a pillow and wait for the train to leave, something I didn’t know was tense relaxes.
“Where should we go?” Emily asks.
The last two summers, me and Jenny spent a week there with my dad’s rich aunt.
The more I explained about Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum and Fire Island, the further away from Emily it was and the more frustrated she got. But if we could go together…
She says, “I think we should go to L.A.”
She goes there to visit family every year and comes back full of stories of Disneyland and beaches and cousins — a whole world where Emily exists minus Sara.
“Can we do both?” I pull back the curtain and shift to my side to see what she thinks.
She’s lying on her back, hands folded under her head. “Yeah. New York first, then Los Angeles. I want to go to FAO Schwartz.”
I roll onto my back, fold my hands under my head, and scuff my feet on the ceiling. “That’s a good plan. We have to go to L.A. to be movie stars anyway.”
We’re quiet for a while. As I imagine the train pulling out of the station, I start to drift into sleep. I think Emily does too, because she bumps her head when we hear the bedroom door open.
It’s Jenny. “You guys in here?” she calls.
Emily and I look at each other and silently agree to stay hidden. We pull our curtains all the way shut.
“If you’re in here, I just want to let you know that he’s gone. I was thinking we should walk downtown and get ice cream.”
The trouble with Jenny is there’s no way of knowing if she really feels like buying us ice cream, because a lot of times she does. But it could just as likely be a trap, like the scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the child catcher lures the kids out of hiding by pretending he’s giving away candy.
When she leaves, a look from Emily says let’s risk it, but not yet. The train hasn’t reached the station.
“Isn’t there any way you can stay at Highland? Your dad could drive you to school.” Emily’s voice echoes in our secret railway car.
“I asked about that. I guess it costs money if you go to a school outside your district.”
“You could say you live with me. Or maybe you really could stay with me during the week? My mom wouldn’t mind. I think she likes you more than me sometimes anyway.”
“No she doesn’t. And I asked all that. I think we have to just wait until we’re sixteen and can run away for real.”
This is our plan. Emily’s dad is a mechanic and he’s saving a red VW squareback for when she can drive. Then we’ll run away to California, live on the beach, and be movie stars.
“You’ll be way more popular than Katie, you know.”
I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve thought about being popular. I’d walked to the bus on my first day of first grade hand in hand with my best friend. At Highland, I’ve always been the quieter half of Emily-and-Sara.
A small piece of plastic hits me in the face. She’s thrown a barrette at me.
“We’ll still be best friends though, right?”
I stare at her, too shocked to answer.
“I mean you’ll have new Lincoln friends…”
Then I know she knows how worried I am, and she’s trying to make me feel better by making me feel like I’m making her feel better. It works. It’s so obvious we’ll stay best friends.
I throw Emily’s barrette back at her. She clips it in her hair and chants, “Lincoln stinkin whatcha been drinkin, whiskey wine or turpentine?” It’s the song Highland kids sing about Lincoln kids.
The second time around, I join in louder. It doesn’t matter anymore if our hiding place is discovered because we made it to the train, and the train is moving, and we’re not orphans anymore.
“LINCOLN STINKIN WHATCHA BEEN DRINKIN WHISKEY WINE OR TURPENTINE?”
“Wanna see if we can still get ice cream?” I ask.
“Yes!” Her feet are over the side as she says it, and she slides off in one quick motion.
On our way to my sister’s room, we make a plan to convince our parents to let me stay the night at Emily’s even though we’ve spent most of the week together. The red VW is in her garage. It doesn’t have an engine. We can’t really be runaways yet, but it’s OK. For now, we’ll sit in the car, roll down the windows, imagine ocean breezes, and plan. We’re good at making plans.
Sara Tatyana Bernstein, Ph.D. is editor and co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. Her writing can be found in Catapult, Buckmxn Journal, Vox, BuzzFeed Reader, The Outline, and more. Her current project is a memoir-in-stories about best girlfriends and the worlds they create together. In addition to writing, Sara teaches fashion and cultural studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon.
Vivid, funny, tender. Congratulations on a great piece.
This is such an evocative picture of little girls and their friendships. While I was reading, images of my older sister and my best friend appeared.