Venus

She was the only Venus in our neighborhood, in our school, in our town, probably. She was the only Venus I ever knew or will know. She moved in the summer before third grade and by September we were best friends. She got a barbie dream house that year for her birthday so we usually played at her house. Plus her parents were never around.

Venus’ father worked in DC but kept a home office in the fourth bedroom of their house, which had an identical layout to my own. I only saw his office once or twice because the door was always closed when he was in there and locked when he wasn’t. His desk was sprawling and tidy and had one of those clear plastic mats underneath a rolling leather chair. He had a separate phone line and sometimes called downstairs to find out when dinner would be ready.

Venus’ house was heavy in floral and wicker rattan and her living room carpet always had fresh vacuum tracks. They had a microwave and Venus knew how to use it years before my parents thought about buying one. Her little brother, Tommy, was peaches and cream blond like her. He talked with a lisp and was really into Superman. Tommy was either underfoot or holed up in his room with the door closed like his dad. We let Tommy watch Friday the 13th III with us, but he was scared of the bikers (of all things!) and threatened to call their mother at work until we plied him with a bag of Doritos, which he generously shared.

Venus usurped the position of my previous best friend, a fourth grader named Sarah. Sometimes we all played together, though it rarely ended well. When we played Olivia Newton John, Venus got to be Olivia and Sarah got to be Newton because she was also blond, which meant I had to be John. Even though John was the manager, I usually stomped home halfway through. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, my mom explained in her sympathetically exasperated voice.

One time I rode my bike past Sarah’s house and she hung out her bedroom window wearing a long blond wig with bangs. She called out to me with an unusual accent, something like Hey there darlin’. I dismounted my bike and stared up at her in confusion. She explained she was Sarah’s twin cousin visiting from Alabama and had I seen Sarah lately. She didn’t know where she’d got to.

Later that week, I was playing in Venus’ barbie dream house when she plied me with a series of unusually specific questions about Sarah. Did I like her? Did I think she was pretty or smart or mean? When a dull thud sounded from Venus’ closet and she herself didn’t react, I stopped rearranging the plastic bottles in her tiny side-by-side refrigerator and walked over to slide her closet door open. I climbed on top of a suspicious lump in the far corner and heard a muffled Get off!  I pulled the blanket down to find Sarah’s static-cling hair and sweaty, reddened face. It was the closest I’ve ever come to the villain reveal at the end of every Scooby Doo.

Venus and I fought on our own sometimes. There was the great book bag fight of 1982. It started as soon as we got off the bus – over what, I simply cannot remember (isn’t that always the way with book bag fights?).  I do remember how the bus driver lingered at the stop sign long enough that I was sure she was calling the police from her CB. Venus and I both had strawberry shortcake tote bags, but maybe hers had too much weight because she never landed it above my shoulders. The reason I know I won is Venus turned around and ran home just when I was getting warmed up. Her mother came by to tell my mother I beat Venus up with a book bag. My poor mother.  Do you know how satisfying and terrible it feels to land a good slap across someone’s face with a strawberry shortcake book bag?

There was another, non-physical, battle over ownership of a cardboard condominium we both built in Venus’ basement. This is when I learned possession is 9/10s of the law. The law doesn’t care if you hauled most of the boxes through your backyard and across the ravine and then up the big hill by the weeping willow, where you would normally stop to yank a branch and slice it through the air to make that swoosh sound but couldn’t because your arms were full of boxes.

I can tell you Venus’ father wouldn’t have taken my side when I marched over to ring the bell one evening too close to dinnertime and demand my boxes back, even if I hadn’t gotten flustered and said “Can Venus eat?” when he answered the door instead of “Can Venus play?” or whatever my big, brave plan was. At a trim 6’4” with steel gray hair and Nordic good looks, he towered over and unnerved me. He talked to me not like a kid but the pathetic little person I knew myself to be.

“Can she eat?” he said in his booming CEO voice.

“I meant can she come out and play,” I squeaked to his rumbling shudders of laughter.

“No,” he finally managed. “She’s eating dinner.” He slammed the door in my face.

Weeks later – long after Venus and I made up about the cardboard condominium, which was carefully deconstructed and probably recycled – we decided to give her Siamese cat a bath in a kiddie pool. I think Venus was the one who suggested it, but I guess no one wants custody of a bad idea. The cat had a dog name – Lady or Lucky, something like that – and they never had it fixed so for months out of the year it moaned around the house like a half-murdered ghoul.  I went along with her plan to give the cat a bath because it was a hot, boring day and the cat trusted me enough that I could walk over and pick it up. Together, Venus and I hoisted the cat through the air and into the tepid water for maybe half a split second, long enough to turn its beautiful sable coat brackish brown and set off a wave of tortured shrieks.

Venus’ father lit out the front door faster than a cat hightailing it out of a kiddie pool, his round face red and lips snarling curses I’d never heard before.  I stood wide-eyed and frozen until he sent me home, past the weeping willow and across jagged rocks, all without taking a breath.

The last time I saw Venus’ father, his shirt was caked with dried blood and his face that same reddened blur of anger. His normally neat family room was swirling with a slumber party of 10 lively twelve-year old girls. We were celebrating Venus’ birthday and he’d just come back from the emergency room. He’d totaled his Porsche in the early morning hours. There had been another woman, not Venus’ mother, in the car with him. Venus’ mother came in first through a door leading from the garage and, without thinking, I walked over and clicked the lock. It was one of those push-button locks like we had on all the doorknobs at home, which we were never allowed to lock.

I pretended not to hear his knocking, which would have been hard to hear at first over the din of 12-year old girls. Soon no one could ignore the pounding and Venus sprung from the couch to turn the knob and let her father in. Brown blood splattered his otherwise fresh looking oxford shirt, open at the collar. Who locked that door? he demanded. I knew enough to look around the room at the other girls and not at my own feet.

What if I could go back in time to tell kid me that I would one day marry a man not unlike Venus’ father? A tall man with appetites, a demand for order, and commanding voice known to stop underpaid customer service workers in their tracks. What if I told her Venus’ father would be dead from cirrhosis before his first grand child was born, but that no two people are alike, that we are all ordained with the power of choice. We are not even the same people our whole lives. I could tell her big men no longer scare me and I now hold cats with something close to reverence, often sleeping in uncomfortable positions so as to not disturb the one nestled between my legs.

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The ghostly toll collector (in hot pink)

Yesterday on my drive home from work, a young girl stepped out into the middle of the road and held her arms out at both sides like kids do when they’re playing toll collector on the stairs or in bathroom doorways to torture siblings. This road is not a highway by any stretch but is busy enough that you don’t cross the street to get your mail at night without telling your family you love them first.

The girl looked about 6 years old, but she might have been 5 or 7. She was wearing a hot pink snowsuit and knit hat. Her eyes lit with power when I stopped my car several feet in front of her. I thought about honking the horn, but it felt rude even though I honk at deer when they do the same thing.

The girl finally stepped back into what I assume was her yard and I rolled down my window and said “You know, you can’t stand in the road like that. Someone might hit you.”

Her eyes got big but not in a particularly scared way. She did not look at me but turned and walked back towards what I assume was her house, which is next to the one with the orange fish mailbox that someone inexplicably painted half black.

Later when I told my husband about the girl in the road, he said “Maybe she was a ghost.”

This hadn’t occurred to me or my daughters, probably because ghosts usually don’t wear hot pink snowsuits. He then said in his spooky voice, “It was five years ago today that a horrible accident happened just up the road…

This is one of the reasons we’re still married. It’s a real asset to be able to spin your spouse’s mundane stories into ghostly tales or anything halfway interesting.

He also had my back years ago when I took a photo of the front of our house and noticed a ghost hovering in the corner. We were living in the Poconos at the time and I got so excited about snow in October that I scurried out in my pajamas to snap a picture. It turned out to be a very long winter and I’ve never gotten that excited over a little snow on the roof since, but anyway, I showed Joe the picture of the ghost and he squinted for awhile and said “Oh yeah, you mean the reflection of Saddam Hussein in the window?”

I looked at the picture again. “No. I mean the gaunt looking figure holding a sickle in the lower right corner.”

He squinted again and said “Hmm.”

Years later the people behind Ghosthunters had a magazine and I emailed the photo to them. They featured it on a page called Evidence Bag.

One of the Ghosthunters – I think it was Steve – wrote that it might be a ghost but was probably not and next time I should try taking it with a digital camera to be sure it wasn’t a glitch in the development process. 1) I had taken it with a digital camera and 2) How was I supposed to know when and where a gaunt apparition with a sickle might be hanging around waiting to be photographed? The more I thought about it, the easier it seemed to just move.

On the drive in this morning, I will look for footprints in the snow by where I saw the little girl. Even if I see footprints, how can I be sure they don’t belong to deer or tiny elven men.

Double vision

I thought I’d done a good job of disguising it with a scarf, but my grandmother informed me yesterday that I’d gained weight.

“I know,” I said. “You told me that last time you saw me.”

“I did?” she asked, genuinely surprised.

“You did. You don’t need to tell anyone they gained weight,” I added. “They already know.”

“I’ll remember not to tell you anymore,” she said, somewhat chastened.

“We’ll see,” I said.

I didn’t tell her that I’ve been back at the gym lately. I didn’t tell her I joined a cycling class which meets twice a week in the dark and how one of the instructors yells WOOOoooo during the hard parts, which are pretty much every other minute. It’s not that I’m afraid I won’t stick with it, but I have seen myself lose and regain weight before. She has too.

She deftly changed the subject to my brother’s weight gain, though his was self-reported since she hasn’t seen him in awhile. Later I realized this most likely came up after she’d told him how much weight I’d gained and felt a fresh wave of disappointment that a pretty scarf only goes so far.

“My problem is these things that keep growing on my skin,” my grandmother continued. She then told a brief but troubling story about an elderly friend who grew “a long stick” from her nose. Kids, if you’re reading, life has exciting things in store for you too.

“How’s your cat doing?” I asked, afraid of what she might bring up next.

The cat is not really hers, but does anyone really own a cat? She has been letting this cat into her house to eat and nap, although never overnight, for over a year.

When I visited at Christmas, she had me put a litter box in her basement. “It’s too cold for her to sleep outside,” she explained, which was true, however 1) this cat is a boy, and 2) he already has a place to sleep: at her neighbor’s house, where he lives.

They have an unspoken agreement whereby my grandmother feeds the neighbor’s cat and they don’t call the police on her. According to her, they have a lot of cats. She’s not sure if they just turn up or if the neighbor brings them home to replace cats other people borrow.

This cat, the one my grandmother borrows, is pretty great. She calls him Tiger, which is a funny name for a girl cat and still not his real name. When you put your hand out to pet Tiger, he rises on hind legs to meet you halfway. Something about him standing upright makes me easily picture him in trousers and a waistcoat. He seems like a wise angel sent to keep my grandmother company.

Grandmother and “Tiger” during warmer days

The other day my grandmother said she saw Tiger in the neighbor’s driveway when she was going to get her mail. She called out and walked towards him but he scampered off when she got close, which surprised my grandmother despite this being totally catlike behavior.

Once my grandmother got back inside, she found Tiger sleeping soundly on the couch, right where she’d left him.

“He looked exactly like my Tiger. Now I know where to find another cat if anything happens to him,” she said, sounding quite pleased with herself.

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