Friday, October 24, 2008

Tish Cohen: INSIDE OUT GIRL


The stench in his daughter’s darkened room nearly brought Len to his knees. Nothing quite pierced the nostrils like the harsh tang of death. Especially death four days later. Len held his breath as he threw back the curtains and leaned down over the bed.


“Olivia,” he said, shaking the sweaty ten-year-old’s shoulder. “Time to get up and get ready for school, princess. It’s Thursday. Drama and music class.”


Olivia groaned. Tangled in a mass of The Incredibles bed sheets and twisted pajamas, she rolled over—long, reddish-brown snarls strewn across her pale face like a net; doughy stomach with impossibly deep belly button, luminous in the morning sun. Half of a bandage dangled uselessly over a scratch nearly healed on her forearm. As usual, she’d refused to allow her father to count to three and yank.


Olivia rubbed her eyes and stretched. Squinting into the sunlight, she grumbled, “Wish it was Saturday,” and slithered off the bed, knocking to the floor her beloved Birthday Wishes Barbie, who, like Olivia’s other Barbies, had long been stripped of the finery she arrived in—violet gown, full-length gloves, dainty shoes—and been obliged to endure a perpetual state of nakedness ever since.


The child stumbled across the room to her gerbil cage, the source of the rotting stench. “Need to feed Georgie Boy.” Yawning, she reached her hand inside and unclipped the water bottle, holding it up in the sunlight. Olivia groaned. “Empty? The pet store lady said we should access to water him daily.”


“Give him access to clean water,” Len said. “But it’s a little late for that.” He could see the gerbil on its back, stiff as Indian rubber. The concept of death was not coming easily to Olivia. Her mother died when she was too young to understand, and this gerbil was the child’s first conscious experience dealing with the intangible reality of someone, something, being there one minute and gone the next. So when they’d found the little rodent claws-up on Sunday afternoon, Olivia flatly refused to bury him.


In the supposed five stages of grief, the child was besotted by the first—denial—and her fidelity showed no signs of waning.


Len moved closer, sank into Olivia’s desk chair, and wondered if the air might actually be alive with stink. A soupy fog of putrefaction so strong he was damn near certain he could taste it.
He glanced at his watch. He wasn’t late for anything in particular. The senior partners of Standish, Bean and Roche could, technically, stroll in when they pleased. Trouble was, they didn’t. By the time Len jogged in at 9:30 each morning, desperate for a coffee, the other partners were already elbow deep in divorce and custody files, calling out to their assistants or mollifying jilted spouses on the phone.


There had been a time when Len prided himself in being the one to turn on the office lights each morning. He’d arranged his life in such a way that dedication to his family and his career were perfectly balanced. Until his wife died. A widowed parent loses the luxury of balance. And on this particular morning, confronted with a festering rodent, family won.


Taking Olivia’s free hand, Len said, “It’s never easy to say goodbye to our loved ones. Do you remember that song that used to make you cry? What was it called…The Circle of Life?”
Olivia’s silver eyes, far too big for her delicate face, shone. She nodded. “From The Lion King.”
Good. We’re getting somewhere. “Yes. The Lion King. Do you know what that means?”




Blinking furiously, Olivia looked up to the ceiling and concentrated. “It means he was king of the jungle.”


“No. I mean, yes,” Len said. “What I meant was, do you know about the circle of life?”


Olivia had already lost interest. She poked Georgie Boy in the stiffened haunch and watched him rock like a tiny, stuffed, upside-down moose. Then she stopped. “Hey!” she squeaked. “I can see her penis.”


Len leaned back, sighing. “Where did you learn that word?”


“From Callie Corbin and Samantha Hyde. I tell them stuff about rodents, they tell me stuff about penises.”


He’d have to speak to Olivia’s teacher. Again. “Do me a favor, Olivia, stay away from those girls. They’re bullies.”


Olivia reached for the chipped antique milk bottle on her dresser and, squinting, held it up to the window. Pebbles shimmered in the morning sun—some smooth and round, some pitted and veined, others pure black—filling the bottle by a little more than a third. “Callie Corbin called me ‘Inside Out Girl’ again and everybody laughed. I hate her.”


“Where was Jeremy?” Jeremy Knight, the scruffy-faced teacher’s aide in Olivia’s classroom, had made it his personal objective to shield her, as best he could, from the taunts of other children. He’d come up with a way for Olivia to stand up for herself, if only in private, by encouraging her to write the bully’s name on the chalkboard when the other kids were at recess, then erase it with all her might. By the time she’d wiped out any trace of the offender, Olivia was usually giggling, drunk with power. Ineffectual, after-the-fact power—not much more than an expired salve really—never quite soothing the underlying pain, but doing a decent job of drying the tears.


Jeremy’s influence didn’t end at school, however. A few weeks prior, he’d introduced Olivia to a girl band called Aly & AJ, or, more specifically, to their song titled “Sticks and Stones,” which was about being bullied and refusing to be a victim. Olivia had come home insisting Len drive her to the mall to pick up the CD and had played it endlessly. Ever since, she’d called Jeremy her “special person.” Her hero.


“He wasn’t at school that day. Is Jeremy going to be there today?”


“I’m sure he will, sweetheart. You know, I’m wondering if maybe I help you get dressed before school each day…”




“I DON’T need help!”


What was better—derailing his special needs daughter’s critical attempts at independence or watching her march toward her classroom wearing her t-shirt backward, knowing full well the kids would eat her alive? It was a question for Dr. Kate.


"I’m only inviting nice kids to my birthday party,” Olivia said. “No Callie Corbins.”


Len sucked in a deep breath. “I thought we’d do something extra special for your birthday this year, something even better than a party.”


“No, I want a party. You never let me have a party!”


When Olivia was very young, at the age when kids attended anyone and everyone’s birthday parties, she’d had a few successful showings. But that was back when the parents called the shots. Things changed as the children got older and realized Olivia Bean’s social skills weren’t evolving in quite the same way as their own. Eventually, it became social suicide to be caught speaking to Olivia, let alone attend her parties. Len never stopped trying to throw birthday parties—he simply sent out invitations without the child’s knowledge. That way, when every parent RSVP’d with a “conflicting engagement,” Olivia didn’t have to bury herself under her covers and cry. Year after year, the child blew out her birthday candles with only her father and grandparents huddled over the cake.


“Your birthday isn’t for another six months,” said Len. “We’ll discuss it later.”


The girl seemed to wilt. Her narrow shoulders sagged and her stomach jutted out further. She exhaled long and hard. “I thought it was tomorrow.” Olivia turned back to her lifeless pet. “Come on, Georgie Boy. Time for breakfast.” Olivia’s voice had always had a lilting, sing-song quality. It rose and fell like a happy little train chugging across hilly terrain.


“What the circle of life means,” Len continued, “is that, as living, breathing beings on this planet, we’re born, we live and we die. Do you understand me, Olivia?”


She nodded. “Sure. The earth’s round. Like a circle.”


“No. Well, yes. What I mean is, Georgie Boy died. It wasn’t your fault, or mine. His circle of life was complete.”


Olivia waved a shriveled carrot strip in front of the animal’s nose. “Circles have no end, Dad. They just keep going and going. And going.” She pulled the carrot out of the cage, tore it in half and held the fresher end in front of Georgie Boy. “Anyway, I know he died. I’m not stupid. But it’s time for him to wake up and eat so he doesn’t die again.”


“Olivia, when we die, there is no waking up. Georgie Boy is gone.”


“He’s not gone!” Olivia shouted, her face pressed against the bars of the cage. “He’s right here!”


“His body is here, but his soul is gone. We need to bury him.” Len leaned back in the chair, hoping to catch a fresh breeze. “Soon.”


“No. You can’t bury my gerbil. It’ll kill him!”


Len couldn’t take the odor anymore, he pulled his tie up over his nose. “Olivia…”
She turned and looked at her father. With no warning, the girl sucked in a jagged breath and screamed the scream that, without fail, scrabbled up Len’s spine and caught him in the throat. It was impossible to grow accustomed to such a sound.


Dropping the tie, Len pulled her onto his lap and tried to hush her. “Shh. See my mouth now? It’s just Daddy, it’s just me!”


Twisting away from Len, Olivia burrowed into the furthest corner of her bed and heaved with sobs. “Why did you hide your mouth?” she wailed.


“I know, I forgot. See me now?” He crawled onto the bed and stroked the child’s shoulder.
She jumped from her father’s lap and ran out of the room. Sighing, Len rubbed his face. He needed help. His time and patience were stretched to the limit and the last day of school was quickly approaching—eight weeks away. The two weeks of rodent camp at the local zoo would help in a tiny way, but Olivia would not be pleased to hear she’d be spending her summer at KidFun, the after-school program run out of the staff room at school. Asking Len’s parents for assistance was out of the question, they’d only suggest he try hiring another nanny and that he should offer top dollar so the next one wouldn’t quit.


If only money were the issue.


The last nanny, some two years prior, a hard-working grad student from NYU looking for a summer job that allowed for quiet evenings to work on her thesis, had arrived with two overstuffed suitcases and a sleek silver laptop. Len prepared Kimmie as he did all the others. He explained that Olivia’s needs were out of the ordinary. That, in order to prepare his daughter for a life fraught with obstacles, her self esteem needed to be better than solid. That, for Olivia, navigating an ordinary day was akin to traversing the rainforest.


Like the others, Kimmie was impressed first with Olivia’s extraordinary beauty. Behind an avalanche of auburn hair that seemed to crinkle itself up in knots moments after being brushed, was the wide-eyed face of an angel. Other than the odd smear of jam or dirt from the garden, Olivia’s skin was almost chaste in its creaminess, untouched by so much as a freckle.


Like the others, Kimmie made myriad attempts to dress Olivia in a manner befitting such a face. Summer frocks and matching Alice bands were pulled from the closet with great hopes of transforming the child into an elegant young lady. And while the dresses made it over Olivia’s head, they would be promptly tucked into tattered SpongeBob sweatpants, which, in turn, would be tucked into the musty woolen liners of her winter boots.


The Alice bands went straight into Georgie Boy’s cage to make a corral.
Right away, Kimmie discovered Olivia was enormously knowledgeable, gifted even, in reading, the rules of certain sports and all things rodentia, and despite Len’s warnings, she lulled herself into thinking the child’s competence spread to other things, like brushing her teeth, dressing herself or even walking up the stairs while carrying on a conversation. But it didn’t.


By the end of the first week, Len steeled himself for Kimmie’s complaints: “Olivia doesn’t listen; she won’t stop talking; you aren’t paying me enough; she steps on my feet; she’s ‘lost in space;’ I need a day off; she’s like a four-year-old; I need a raise;” and the definitive—“she screams bloody murder, too bloody often.”


Week Two typically brought some kind of catastrophe. In Kimmie’s case, she’d run Olivia a bath and gone down to the laundry room for fresh towels. She came back to find Olivia in the tub, fully dressed, humming The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Between great mountains of bubbles, Olivia’s naked Barbie dolls executed synchronized loop-de-loops and freefall drops, navigating the most perilous of acrobatic maneuvers onto a partially submerged makeshift stage.
Kimmie’s silver laptop.


Len heard the scream over the sound of the lawnmower from the very back of the yard. Tearing upstairs, he imagined every possible sort of catastrophe except what he found in the bathroom—Kimmie on the floor, crying into the clean towels and Olivia sitting in the tub, her t-shirt covered in bubbles. Len tried everything, apologies, offers of financial compensation, but nothing could soothe Kimmie, who’d never before seen the point of backing up her work.


“Daddy, help!” Olivia called now from the hallway. Her voice sounded strained. “I can’t reach the soap that smells like Mommy…”


Len raced from the room to find his daughter shoulder deep in the linen closet, teetering atop a wobbly, three-legged barstool she’d obviously dragged in from the kitchen. Just as he scooped his little girl into his arms, one of the stool legs snapped and the whole thing crashed to the floor.


2 comments:

ChrisEldin said...

I love this chapter. Love it.
I know a boy like this, it's a long story, but he moved away. As a grown-up, it's heartwrenching to think of what he's going to face as he approaches teenage years.

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