by M.M. Adjarian
As a child, I didn’t like living in the real world. It was a place where I heard, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that,” especially from my mother. I couldn’t stray too far from the small patio just outside our house, where I made bored circles on my tricycle. I couldn’t go outside the chain-link fence that surrounded our house unless one of my parents was with me. When I started kindergarten at the elementary school two blocks from our house, I couldn’t go with my new classmates to see the monkeys chatter and the lions pace and prowl at the Los Angeles Zoo. “She might get lost or hurt or worse,” my mother said to the kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Dockeray, who could only shake her head and look at me with pity.
* * *
I was three years old when I started watching Star Trek on the black-and-white television in the family library. There, I would often slide across the brick-colored Mexican floor tiles that my mind transformed into a beautiful frozen lake. If my parents or older brother tried to talk to me while the show was on, I never responded as myself. “I am the Captain!” I reminded them. My name was James T. Kirk and I was on a mission to save the known universe.
I started to read a year later. The better I got at making sense of the words that sometimes accompanied the images and sometimes stood alone from them, the more I realized that words had even greater power than the images that flickered across our TV. Eventually, imagining alternate worlds like those depicted in the two books I loved best—The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales—wasn’t enough. By the time I was five or six, I wanted to live in them. Even more absurd was the first character I sets my sights on becoming: Charlie Brown’s bulb-nosed pet beagle, Snoopy, hero of the Peanuts comic strip.
Snoopy inhabited other selves at will. Sometimes he was a WWI fighting ace who flew combat missions against the dastardly Red Baron. Sometimes he was a writer bent over the typewriter where he hunted and pecked his great American novel into existence. And sometimes he was Joe Cool, the kid in dark sunglasses who radiated Zen-like hipness by leaning against the nearest wall or tree. All it took was him projecting to the world that he was someone else and the transformation was complete.
Taking my cue from this canine master of shifting identities, the first thing I did was change my name. “Call me Snoopy,” I told everyone.
My mother thought this was hilarious. “But I thought you were the Captain!”
“No, Mama. My name is Snoopy.”
My second-grade teacher, Miss Dane, refused to humor me. “Please put your real name on your homework,” she said when she saw my new name scrawled in big, bold letters across the top of my assignments. “You are not a dog.”
While my father didn’t call me Snoopy, when I asked him to make me a playhouse where I could indulge my comic strip fantasies, he did. “Like this, Papa,” I said, showing him a picture of Snoopy’s doghouse that I had culled from the newspaper.
“Oh, so you want a place like the one Lucy has?” he asked, referring to our German Shepherd.
“No, Papa,” I said. “Like Snoopy.” Snoopy never drooled, slobbered or shed. He was far too dignified to do any of those things.
“How about we put your doghouse in the tree just outside your room? That way Lucy won’t think it’s hers,” my father said. He gathered scrap wood and heaped it by a pine tree outside my window. When he was done, he hammered together three walls and a roof made from sheets of plywood. From my perch on the steps outside the French doors to my bedroom, I surveyed his handiwork. It didn’t look like Snoopy’s doghouse, even when I squinted my eyes. But it would do.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“It’s not finished.”
I went into my father’s workshop to look for some black paint, returned to my new house and climbed up onto the platform where it sat. Minutes later, “SNOOPY” appeared in clumsy capital letters over the doorway. Then I looked up at the roof. My hero claimed ownership by lying on his doghouse. But I was too tall—and the roof too steeply angled—for me to ever to do that. I would have to settle for lying on the platform with my feet hanging over the edge.
* * *
By the time I reached third grade, I wanted to be Paddington. I’d stumbled across him in a storybook I had found in my brother’s library. Like Paddington, the Peruvian-born bear who lived among humans in London, I was an alien in a world I often didn’t understand. I even looked different from the other children I knew. Where most of them tanned, I freckled and burned. I often found myself wishing I had fur instead of skin the other would tell was so pale and white they could see the veins climb my legs and thighs like blue tree branches.
The transformation from brown-haired girl to hairy brown bear would only happen in my room—and this only after I had carefully closed a door that wouldn’t lock behind me. The orange straw hat with raffia streamers and fake flowers that my mother wore to the beach but now kept in the back of her closet became Paddington’s battered old fedora. A rain jacket lined in checked fabric that my mother had inherited from my father became his duffle coat. Looking ridiculous but feeling triumphant, I plopped onto the floor and disappeared into Paddington’s world through one of his books, riding subways in London and getting lost, but always managing to find a way out of all predicaments.
Being Paddington—even if only for an hour or two—took work. For one thing, I had to make sure my mother was occupied so she wouldn’t interfere. But I also needed her to buy orange marmalade for me to make the jam sandwiches Paddington ate. That meant having to ask her to buy a jar of it for me, which she wouldn’t do unless we had no other jam. Even I after I managed to get the marmalade, I had to make sure to clean up after myself, which I sometimes didn’t do. And I had to take the sandwiches I made into my room without letting any crumbs fall onto the carpet my mother kept so fanatically clean.
I began to wonder whether the effort was really worth it. If no one except my alternately amused and annoyed mother saw me, had I really accomplished anything? I could go to school dressed as Paddington, but after my Snoopy experiments, I already knew that place was a minefield. If my classmates could steal and hide my Peanuts lunchbox for fun, I could only imagine what they would do to my mother’s orange raffia hat. Besides which, try as I might, I just couldn’t bring myself subsist on the too-sweet orange marmalade sandwiches Paddington stuffed into his mouth at every opportunity. So not long after I decided to evolve into a bear, I bid my Paddington persona goodbye.
* * *
My final incarnation was as Harriet from Harriet the Spy. “You’ll like her,” Mrs. Mason, the school librarian, said. “She’s different, too.”
I carried the book home like a secret and devoured it in one sitting. Harriet wore glasses just like I did. But unlike me, she stood on the sidelines watching people, then wrote down the meanest, funniest things about them and their behavior that I had ever read. Madly in love with her spunk and spirit, I decided I would become Harriet. So I bought a spiral bound notebook, took it to school and began writing observations in it about my classmates during recess and lunchtime: He’s got enough metal on his teeth that you could probably use his mouth to light up an entire city. It’s easy to tell she loves horses because she sometimes she comes to school smelling like a stable.
My classmates were used to seeing me off by myself, but now they saw me hunched over my notebook, scribbling furiously and giggling. Robert, a classmate, grabbed the notebook out of my desk when I wasn’t looking. When I searched for my notebook, I saw him paging through it, his mouth open in a wide “O” of surprise. He flashed me a wicked grin through his braces and then gave it to our third grade teacher, Mrs. Haynes. “She’s saying bad things about people,” he told her. My teacher flipped through a few entries. All of my former boldness deserted me.
“Please, let me have it back!” I said, the sweat collecting on my upper lip.
Mrs. Haynes looked up from my notebook and fixed me with a hard stare. “I should call your parents.”
I thought about my mother. Seeing the fear in my face, Mrs. Haynes softened slightly. “You’ll get it at the end of the day,” she said, her words touched by the Oklahoma lilt I loved. “But don’t bring it to school again.”
When the afternoon bell rang at three o’clock and Mrs. Haynes handed back my notebook, I stuffed it into my school bag and hurried home. I ran to my room without saying hello to my mother and buried the book in the drawer that held all my baby clothes. It would be high school before I finally dug it out again. By that time, though, all I wanted to do was forget the shy and awkward child I’d been, so the notebook and all its outrageous musings ended up in the trash.
* * *
Until first grade, I didn’t sense anything was wrong in my family, even though both my parents slept in separate rooms. Then my brother began going to friends’ houses so often that he became like the invisible man, disappearing and reappearing at will. My parents’ faces registered none of the problems they were having with each other and with the family, although they would fight after I went to bed. Because I couldn’t see them, I imagined them as Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali going toe-to-toe in matches like the ones my father and I sometimes watched on TV. But instead of duking it out with their fists, Smokin’ Joe and the Greatest assaulted each other with sharp words and shrillness. Back and forth it went, round after round, sometimes in English, sometimes in French, their voices always escalating towards an abrupt silence. While I could never quite make out what they were saying, I sometimes caught references to “ Was I somehow the cause of the ugliness between them?
* * *
At around the same time I noticed the fighting between my parents, my mother said, “I have to go to the hospital and see the doctors. You need to promise me that you’ll be a very good girl while I’m gone.”
“Why are you going, Mama?”
“It’s something I need to do to get better,” she said.
I didn’t like that my mother was going to the hospital. I didn’t even know she was sick.
On the day she had the surgery she wouldn’t tell me about, the phone rang a few times before going silent, a sign that my father had answered the call from the workshop attached to our house. I quietly picked up the receiver and listened in.
“The surgery went well,” I heard my brother saying to my father. “But they found more tumors inside than they thought were there. They were all over.”
For a moment, my father was silent. Then he began to curse under his breath. I put the telephone down, shaken. I wasn’t exactly sure what tumors were, but the strain I heard in both voices told me they were bad. It would be many years before I connected the things growing my mother’s body to the heavy mass of tissues I would sometimes find blooming like red and white spotted flowers in her bathroom toilet.
After she returned home, she could barely walk and clutched her abdomen when she moved. Sometimes she broke down into great gulping, red-faced sobs. She would tell me later that the tiny sac inside her belly that had carried my brother and me needed to be taken out. But even when I was an adult, the woman I used to imagine as a champion boxer never made reference to that moment of weakness again.
* * *
The autumn after my mother’s operation, and one evening after I had gone to bed, I woke to the sound of voices I didn’t recognize. I walked down the short hallway that led to the living room and saw my mother standing over my father. His skin looked white and waxy against the purple wool rug where he lay. Two brown-haired men were squatting down beside him.
“Why is Papa on the floor?” I asked.
My mother put her hand on my shoulder and shuffled me back to my room. “Go to bed, now,” she said, closing the door quickly behind her.
I whimpered, softly at first, and then more loudly. The door opened and a tall man in a fireman’s uniform peeked inside.
“Your father’s going to be fine,” he said.
I dragged the edge of the bed sheet up to my face and wiped it across my eyes.
“Really. You’ll see. Everything is going to be all right.”
On Star Trek, Captain Kirk faced enemy aliens without so much as batting an eye. And when Snoopy became a WW I fighter pilot, he always fought to the bitter end, even after the Red Baron would riddle his Sopwith Camel doghouse with bullet holes. I closed my eyes and visualized the brave canine flying ace and bold spaceship captain I idolized by my side. There we stood, shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to defend my family against illness, pain and sorrow.
But in that narrow bed and darkness that separated me from people who had far less power than my heroes to protect me—or themselves—from the unforeseen things of this world, I was just a small and frightened child who trembled.
About M.M. Adjarian
M. M. Adjarian has published her creative work in The Provo Canyon Review, The Milo Review, The Baltimore Review, The Prague Revue, The Eunoia Review, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, Crack the Spine, Vine Leaves, and Poetry Quarterly. Currently, she is working on a family memoir provisionally titled The Beautiful Dreamers.