Chapter One There was a time before. There is always a time before. It was a time we can all look back on with a certain nostalgic affection. Not because things were easy, but because we all knew our place in relation to Dad. It was before I turned ten. Jenny was seven. We slept in the same bed. We bathed together.
Dad referred to us as "the children," and because we were "the children," because there was nothing distinguishing us from each other, we fought on the same team. Dad appeared to us as stubborn and erratic, but he was our dad and each of us was desperately trying to feel our way to his heart. Mom was her own person. She had a laugh that filled a room. She set up watercolor paints on the kitchen table, clay on the floor, mixed newspaper with water and paste so we could make papier-mache masks. We lived in a house with a yard. We had a dog. We traveled frequently. We saw our parents above us, our protectors, the people who turned our lights on in the morning and off again at night so we could sleep. Jenny and I hurt to hear them fighting, to think there might be something wrong with the foundation upon which we built our images. It was normal stuff that concerned us all back then. But things were beginning to change. Mom was losing her footing. When I was eleven and Jenny was eight, we attempted to smuggle our Barbie dolls across the Mexican border, to vacation with us in Cancun, where they could sunbathe and swim in the bathtub. Jenny's Barbies were in better condition. She didn't stick their heads in bowls of blue food coloring like I did. She didn't chew theirfeet off. We married some, divorced others, baptized their babies and threw bat mitzvahs. We traded their clothing and the high-heeled plastic shoes that never quite fit their overly arched feet. We pulled their arms off and taped them back on with Dad's duct tape. We broke their legs so we could build wheelchairs. We gave them names that we'd wanted for ourselves: Brigitte, Kimberly, Tina. The dolls got as far as O'Hare. In the baggage-check line, Dad caught sight of the circular cookie tin under Jenny's arm. His face soured. "Ellen. What's in the tin?" Mom looked at it as if it was an alien object she'd never seen before. We were standing behind a family of four with a boy and a girl around our age. Bratty-looking, I thought. The girl's fingers were wrapped around the neck of a pink stuffed animal. The boy wore a Hard Rock Cafe shirt that came down to his knees. The dad toted golf clubs. The mom wore heels. The ticket agent motioned us toward the counter. "How y'all doing?" she asked. No one answered. "How many bags y'all checking today?" she asked, smiling at Dad. I watched her thin, frosted lips move automatically. Not very good at reading people, I decided. She didn't seem to realize that something was the matter. "Sir, how many bags y'all have?" Probably she wasn't from the South but had flown there several times and enjoyed the sound of the accent. Dad gestured for the ticket agent to hold on as he waved the three of us out of line. We moved off to the side. Mom stood with her mouth agape, hands on her hips. Dad examined her as if she were a piece of art he found only slightly interesting. "What's in the tin, Ellen?" Mom fumbled with her purse. The next family stepped up. Kids with yellow headphones stuck on their ears. "The girls' stuff," Mom said. "Stuff?" he said. "What kind of stuff?" Jenny and I knew when it was going to get bad. We could always feel it. Dad was about to launch an attack that Mom could not deflect, and we waited, anxious and excited that it was Mom he was mad at and not us. "What's in the tin?" he asked. Mom looked hard at it
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