Read My Not-So-Still Life Online

Authors: Liz Gallagher

My Not-So-Still Life (2 page)

BOOK: My Not-So-Still Life
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That first day of school, someone wrote “freak” on my
homeroom desk while I was in the hallway and the teacher was busy handing out locker assignments.

At my private middle school, Ocean Tides, I hadn’t felt like a freak. I hadn’t been bored, either. We’d all been encouraged to be who we felt like being. I thought that was normal. I thought everyone had talents and interests and points of view. My Ocean Tides pal Holly is all about music the way I’m all about art.

So when I saw that word, as much as it burned me—and it did—I was thankful for it. It meant they knew I was different.

I’d rather be a freak than blend into this world, where everyone goes around acting as if it’s normal to all be the same.

A lot of people are just spinning time. Just wasting it. I’m trying to live.


Nick has mastered this way of standing
so that it looks like he’s smoking, but he’s not. Real chilled out.

After I lock my bike to the crowded rack, I walk up to him. “Do we really have to go in there? When will the torture end?”

“June, two years from now,” he says, meaning graduation. As he shifts his weight, he exhales imaginary smoke.

“Yeah, but then what?”

We walk into school.

“Then we’ll be free,” Nick says.

But I want to be free now. Why not? What’s holding us back?

“Hope so,” I say. “At least it’s Friday.”

We have a few minutes, so we stand there looking around. I watch the yearbook photographer, a junior in a Gates High sweatshirt, as she circulates. A group of girls walking toward us all stop and put their arms around each other. For the second that they’re posing, they look really happy. Then the moment’s over and they just look bored.

I take Nick’s hand and we walk inside. The hallway is our runway and people notice my new hair. They’re used to it changing, but they still look.

The yearbook photographer snaps a couple of shots. I curtsy to her before giving Nick a hug and heading into homeroom.

After school, Nick and I hang out in my garage, where I have a little art studio and Grampie keeps his Chevy. Nick sits cross-legged on my drop cloth with his sketchbook, playing around with new comic characters. He’s trying to draw this guy who’s like a cross between Prince Charming and an outlaw. “If I can get him right, I might start another strip.”

“Cool.” I stand at my easel and paint cherry blossoms on a bent branch. There’s this scene in my head. A memory? A dream? Cherry blossoms float all around me as I lie flat on my back on the sidewalk. Pink petals swirling through the blue-sky air, a surreal, fantastic snowstorm.

Nick works. I work. This is so much better than school. Eventually, we head inside for burritos and to get ready for the Fremont Art Walk.

Mom and Grampie are already at the table eating dinner: tuna fish sandwiches.

“You two are going to turn into burritos,” Mom says as I pop them into the microwave and Nick pours us lemonade.

“There are worse things to turn into,” I say.

Nick says, “At my house, we have all these fancy-pants preprepared gourmet meals. Microwaves were made for things like burritos. Not shrimp in a delicate wine sauce. These burritos keep me sane.”

“Popcorn,” Grampie says.

Nick and I sit down. “Popcorn?” I ask.

“Popcorn was the first thing to be cooked in a microwave. By a guy named Percy Spencer and his team, in 1945. The second thing they cooked was an egg, which exploded into one of their faces.” Grampie takes a bite of tuna.

Nick looks impressed. “No wonder you’re so good at those crosswords, Mr. Almond.”

“I keep telling you,” I say. “Grampie is a genius.”

Mom nods. “Popcorn sounds good tonight. Have some with our movie later, Dad?”

“Air-popped,” Grampie says. “Nothing good comes out of microwaves.”

“I beg to differ,” I say, taking out the burritos.

We all eat, and it feels like the night will be just right.

Then I put on the shortest of my three black minis and a black tank. A constellation of silver glitter stars on my black bra peeks out.

Nick pops into my room and looks at my wrist string. “Still blue. Good.”

Blue is second only to purple, the best.

He shakes an eyeliner brush at me and I sit down at the desk chair.

“I really, really hope you decide to stick with this.”

“With what?”


“Like, for a career?” He roots around in my toolbox-style case.

“You’d do the most fabulous celebrities. Only the quirky ones.”

“Oh, of course. Including my world-famous friend, Vanessa Almond …”

“Of course!”

“Remind me. What are you famous for again?”


I close my eyes and let him create a new face for me.

What would it be like to use a living canvas for more than makeup? To color someone’s whole body?

When Nick’s done, I look pretty and bright. Not too wild. Intense colors, but no lightning bolts or sparkles. Just
deep purple on the eyelids and super-black lashes. Pale lips. Rosy cheeks.

“Okay?” he asks.


He closes up the box and walks out to the family room. Grampie starts talking to him about the Mariners game, how many outs.

I wiggle into and zip up my favorite-Christmas-present white twenty-eye Doc Martens. Zippers are a wonderful invention.

In the family room, Nick is hovering behind Grampie, who’s on the couch with a crossword puzzle on his lap, a pen in his hand, and the game on across the room.

Grampie says, “Nick, sit down.”

“I would, Mr. Almond, but we’re going to the Fremont Art Walk tonight.”

“And here I am, being lazy on the couch.”

“But still using that amazing brain of yours, I see,” Nick says.

Grampie holds up his crossword. “What’s an eight-letter word for a baseball team who just can’t get it together?”

“No idea.”

” I walk up next to the couch.


“He asks me that every time he watches a game,” I tell Nick.

I can’t help but think that lately Grampie looks like a little old man. He’s retired, and he’s obviously the grandfather of a teenager, but when did he start looking old? And smaller? He’s grayer. Not just his steel-wool hair, but his skin, too. He moves more slowly.

There’s a photo of him and my grandmother that sits on the mantel. It’s how I picture him in all the days before I was born, before even my mom was born. Grampie stands, laughing as she strikes a pose; she’s sitting on the hood of his Chevy, the one that still lives in our garage.

My grandmother was a beautiful woman, and this is by far my favorite photo of her. She’s so full of life. She radiates energy, you can tell just by looking.

“Nicolai says you’re off to Fremont for the art walk,” Grampie says.

“Yep,” I say. “We’re meeting up with Holly. I’ll be back by eleven.”

“I’ll tell your mother.”

“Where is she, anyway?” I ask.

As if on cue, Mom walks out of her room and slumps down next to Grampie, looking just as tired as he does. “Right here.”

Mom works so hard at the docks. She insists on being called a
. She deserves to sit behind a cushy desk in some office filing her nails and listening to the radio, instead of checking in the cargo coming off boats and
into Ballard. Instead of worrying about manifests, and stacking crates, and sometimes driving the forklift. She should get to take it easy.

Whenever I try to talk to her about that, she says how well the docks pay, and then I clam up because I know that her having me is the reason she doesn’t have the education to get other good-paying jobs.

“I’ll never understand why you would rather sit on the couch than get out there on the weekends,” I say.

“Talk to me after you’ve been out there working for fifteen years,” Mom says. One of her favorite lines.

“Grampie did it for almost fifty years. And he still has a social life.”

He keeps his head down, as he always does when this line of conversation comes up. Nick does too.

“I’m happy, Vanessa. I’m fine.”

“You haven’t even had a date in months and months, Mom. The docks are your whole life.”

Mom just shakes her head.

Nick tugs on my arm.

I kiss Grampie’s cheek, grab my faux-leather motorcycle jacket, and head out. I decide to try to live enough life for both me and my mom.

Nick skips ahead, oblivious to the fact that anyone’s even aware of him. He doesn’t know it, but I admire that about him. He lives moment by moment.

I walk behind him, let him shine.

In Ballard, there’s salt in the air, just a hint. You know the water’s not far away, and you know that fish are swimming out there, and that this world is not a new world. It’s as old as the ocean and everything in it.

Our street is lined with small shingled houses and messy yards, tulips in every garden, though they’re not in bloom quite yet, and cherry trees near the sidewalk. Those trees will burst into color soon. When they do, the city will feel fresh.

With all that salt from Puget Sound in the air, Ballard can feel worn-in. Comfy, but not squeaky clean. It’s a fantastic place to call home.

Nick’s house is three blocks away from mine and farther from the stores, much bigger than my house. When they moved here a few years ago, his parents tore down the little house on their lot to build this ultramodern thing that looks like a bank or a mini office building.

My family has lived in the same tiny house since Grampie was a boy. He grew up there. Grampie fixed up the basement when I was twelve, to give Mom and me more space.

My grandmother was already gone by the time I was born. We keep all the photos of her on the fireplace mantel. I think Mom looks a lot like her, but I don’t see myself in her. Mom and Grampie say my birth was the thing in the universe that balanced out her death. I like the idea. Not that she’s gone, but that I somehow make up for her death a little.

The bus stop is at the corner of Twenty-Sixth, just a couple of blocks back from Market Street, where Ballard stops being residential and starts being citylike.

Nick gets there first, and when I join him he says, “I love Fridays.”

“Me too.” I put my arm around him, and we stand there looking like two wild teenagers waiting for something to happen. Something more than a bus showing up, headed toward Fremont.

But sometimes, a bus and your neon friend are enough.

“I’m glad you’re getting to know Holly,” I say as we get off the bus across the street from Caffe Ladro, our first stop on the art walk.

“She’s a sweetheart.” It was Holly’s sweetness that made us into friends the first week of sixth grade. I was terrified to talk to anyone, but Holly marched right up to me during “nature exploration”—Ocean Tides Middle School code for “recess”—to ask if I wanted to build fairy houses with her.

Holly lives in Fremont—right next to Ballard but with a different vibe, less about the water and more about creativity and Thai food. Her house is taller than mine, but still shingled. Her yard is even tinier than mine, her house closer to the road.

Holly practices the cello from six until eight every
night, even Friday and Saturday. Even on the days when she’s got organized practice after school and has already played for two hours. Practice makes perfect, and Holly’s driven; she doesn’t want to accept less than perfect when it comes to her music.

We’ll meet up with her right after Ladro. We have just enough time to pop in.

We cross the busy street in the dying light of springtime. I catch a whiff of Indian spices from the restaurant by the bus stop.

“Wonder who’s exhibiting this month,” Nick says, holding the door for me. As if we’ll know the artist. An exhibiting artist wants nothing to do with two high school kids.

Even if I’m the best artist at school, I’m nothing out here in the real world.

There’s a long line for coffee, and the shop is pretty crowded, people mingling and eating free snacks. When I see the photos on the wall, I realize that we do know the artist.

It’s Jewel. The reason my insides are twisty. The cause of my one stint with the black string. He’s a high school sophomore, like me. But he has this show. And I have … what?

“Let’s just go meet Holly,” I say.

Nick doesn’t question. He can radar that I’m uncomfortable.

Nick and I weren’t that close yet when Jewel mashed my heart into my toes last fall. In fact, less time with Jewel was the start of more time with Nick. Friend-dating is so much easier than dating-dating.

“Sure,” he says. “Let’s go.”

I want to. But I don’t turn to leave.

Jewel’s biting into a cookie, standing in a huddle with his overalls-wearing mom, and with Alice Davis, whose ponytail looks as perfect as ever, and her folks, who are wearing conservationist tees I know they screen-printed themselves. Alice wears one too. Hers and her mom’s have a tree with roots, and her dad’s has a dolphin. Back when Alice and I were in elementary school, before I went to Ocean Tides, Alice gave me one about saving bees. I wore it forever.

She and I have a tiny friendship, a sort of understanding or respect, because we were friends as kids. But lately, due to Jewel, our good thoughts and feelings about each other are this cactus we’re both afraid to touch.

Jewel looks to see who Mr. Davis is waving at. His eyes—his amazing eyes that seek and find beauty in every little thing—glint as he locks on me. I feel zapped. As if there’s light, sound, and
. Jewel’s electric gaze.

Alice notices me. She gives me that look. The one she’s been giving me since the fall, simultaneously sweet and kind of cruel, because we both know Jewel wants her
and not me. She has him. She gets to be happy about that. And I get nothing.

Jewel smiles. My hand rises as if I’m a marionette, and I manage to wiggle my fingers.

I am my own puppet master.

I just hope no one else can see how those strings are the only things keeping me standing and smiling.


I can’t leave now that they’ve seen me.
I would be running.

BOOK: My Not-So-Still Life
9.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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