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The Peculiar Philosophy of Handstands: Chapter 1
One tired mother and a soapy bath is how it began.
It’s another listless Saturday afternoon spent at the mall, pacing the cement tiles and window shopping without interest, just another one of the herd. It seems that Brianna and I are the only ones without something to do, somewhere to go. Everybody else walks fast, head down, shoes scuffing and clicking the floor.
“Come on,” Brianna drags me into a Hallmark, “I need to get a cute birthday card for Kailey.” We slouch into the glass-fronted store, alive with cheap statues and sappy cards. Brianna’s brother, Cameron, whines, “I wanna go to the Lego Store! You promised we’d go to the Lego Store!”
“Shut up, kid. We’ll go later.”
“I wanna go NOW!”
“Jeez, be quiet for a second, wont’cha?” She turns to me and rolls her eyes. “He’s so annoying! Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a brother.” She hums tunelessly as she inspects birthday cards, oblivious to my reaction.
I spin around to the rack of name mugs so she won’t see my face, frantically brushing at my watering eyes. I tell everybody I have allergies. I flick through the mugs. Wally, Frank, Neil, Simon, Jake. Ryan. Softly I stroke each plastic handle, remembering.
“Mariah?” Brianna taps the side of my head with one lavender nail. “You in there? I was asking if you wanted to go to the food court and grab a slice of pizza or something?”
“Oh. Oh--yeah, sure.”
The mall is packed with kids of all ages. Some are sweet and quiet, holding Mom’s hand. Others range freely, nearly tripping up shoppers. One young boy climbs over the back of a bench, straddling it precariously. His mother is too busy talking on her new iPhone to notice. “Watch out,” I want to tell them, “hold him tight and don’t let him go. He might fly away when you’re not looking.”
We ride the escalator up to the food court, into a land of overwhelming choices illuminated with neon. Japanese or Thai or Indian or Italian, rehydrated and tossed in the deep-fryer specially for you. Just a bunch of chemicals held together with ethnic cuisine breadcrumbs, but I’m hungry. I order a hot dog (98% artificial flavor, $3) and a lemonade. Brianna gets a salad with low-fat, sugar-free dressing. She’s dieting.
I never get why. The people who are already skinny eat carrot sticks and the larger ones dig into plates of fried chicken wings. Is there no halfway point? Brianna starts jabbering about good carbs and healthy fats, so I let my mind drift around.
“So, what do you think? Mediterranean diet or South Beach?” She twirls an iceberg lettuce leaf on her fork.
“Uh...” I take a big bite of my hot dog so I don’t have to answer. I haven’t heard of either of them, and, frankly, I don’t care.
Just as my mouth is stuffed to bulging with synthetic meat product, Mr. Egocentric walks up. Okay, that’s not actually his name, but it fits him so much better than Kyle, don’t you think? One of the most happening guys at our school is wearing those obnoxious boat-sized sneakers and a ratty shirt and jeans that hang practically around his knees. It’s obvious that he spends more time on his hair than I do on homework.
Brianna thinks he’s cute, I can tell. One in three hundred other girls, me not included. He’s not too bright, no good at music or sports. The only thing he’s got going for him is his charm, and even that’s creepy, makes me want to shrink and hide.
There’s no point worrying, though, because he never pays attention to me.
“Hey, Brianna. What’s up?”
She blushes visibly, giggling. OMG, he knew her name!
“Nothing much. We’re just hanging around.”
“Cool,” he grins that grin, “cause there’s a showing of Inception at 2:15. You wanna go?”
She glances at me, excitement crackling from every pore in her skin. “Sure. We’d love to.”
“Well, uh...” He fidgets slightly, not looking at me. “Actually, I could only get one extra ticket. And I’d really like to go with you.”
Her face falls. Dang. I feel bad. She really likes the guy, slick as he is. I’d been looking forward to spending the afternoon with her, my first friend in high school, but whatever.
“Nah. It’s good. You guys go.”
“Thanks a bunch! You’re so sweet, Mariah!” She twinkles, then starts toward the cinema with Kyle. “Oh, wait-- Can you take care of Cameron for a little bit?”
“Sure. Have fun.” I can’t blame her for being vapid. Well. Not that much. I had meant for her to go, but a little hesitation would’ve been nice, for Pete’s sake.
I take Cameron to the Lego store and watch as he and every other seven-year-old male in the mall gather around the testing table. There’s pushing, shoving, and some grumbling, but no real harm done. I wait long enough to ensure that Cameron has got a good game going, then retreat to a close seat within close range.
Brianna. Kyle. Brianna and Kyle. The girl doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into. I hope she’ll realize soon. All that romaine lettuce and rice for lunch... seriously. Get a grip. But who am I to be saying that? Not after--
“May I sit here?” A lanky guy, about my age, standing awkwardly in front of me, holding the hand of a young girl.
“Sorry to bother you--” he adds, sounding like a sophisticated character from a Jane Austen novel. “I don’t have to, if you mind.” The crisp English accent just adds to his fictitiousness.
“No, no, go ahead, it’s fine.” I feel my cheeks heat. The Amazing Mariah, able to trip over her tongue whenever a member of the opposite gender is around.
He sends the little girl off to the Lego table to play. We sit awkwardly for a while. I fixate my eyes on Cameron, pretending I’m not thinking about the guy next to me. Why doesn’t he look uncomfortable?
His sister, I would guess, is playing vigorously at the Lego table. She constructs a crazily tall tower, which, Cameron, being the suave lady’s man that he is, knocks it over. She starts screaming at him in a foreign language, Mandarin, I think. He responds in kind, and they circle each other like tiny mad cats. Then Cameron gives her a shove. Really? Before she can push him back, the Austen boy and I rush over to them.
“Cameron, honey, you can’t hit people. It hurts their feelings.”
“You also don’t knock over other people’s stuff!” The little girl hisses through the gap in her front teeth. “You--” She starts up a stream of insults in Mandarin.
Austen boy looks mildly shocked. “Ashlin-- how’d you hear -- never mind. I’m sure he feels very bad. Now maybe he can help you put it back together?”
Cameron shuffles his feet. “Yeah, okay.”
“Lovely.” Austen boy says primly, and we return to our seats.
“Sorry about that--” I feel inclined to apologize. “He gets crazy sometimes.”
“Oh, don’t worry.” He nods sagely. “Brothers are like that.”
I drop Cameron off with Brianna, who is now thoroughly Kyle-obsessed, jerk that he is. I can’t stand a second more of Kyle says this and Kyle says that, so I tell Brianna I have to be home for dinner and call my mom for a ride.
She picks me up in the minivan, such a cliché mom car. I sit in the front seat as she chatters with her friends on her law-abiding hands-free headset, glossy and silver, very sci-fi. I watch the trees swoop by, a panorama of blurry scarlet and gold. Everything’s so simple when you look at it like this, just brief snapshots of happy families taking a walk, playing Frisbee with Spot the All-American dog, having a good old-fashioned barbecue.
My family looks like that too. From a distance. Big-shot corporation job Dad, stay-at-home Mom who scrapbooks and quilts when she’s not whipping up some tarte tatine. A nice two-level brown suburban home with a government-regulated square backyard. The only problem is me. Me and that one sky-blue room over the garage that everybody wants to forget.
Mom heads to the kitchen to make a quick dinner of butternut squash ravioli with a light yet creamy Gorgonzola sauce, and I go up to my room. It’s still pale pink from when I was seven, with a canopy bed and a window seat. There aren’t any posters on the walls, or pictures on the white cork bulletin board. I like things clean and blank. It’s easier that way.
I think about Brianna and Kyle a bit. I feel so sorry for her, caught up with his aura and popularity. Then again, she probably feels sorry for me. Poor little Mariah. Such dull hair her mom won’t let her color it i wonder why and her clothes so blah i know right too bad she could really be cool dont you think.
I could take up a sport, get some new clothes, wear makeup. But it’s useless, because that’s not who I am. And however much I am jealous of the stylish peacocks in my school, I don’t want to be. Can’t be. Like them. They flit through life like so many jeweled butterflies with nothing on their conscience. I can’t. I am heavy and burdened by something that happened yesterday and a lifetime ago. It won’t just fade like me.