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 and light 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 own family did. She had a little brother, Tommy, who was peaches and cream blond like her and who 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.