Easy To Love
First time I saw you, you were climbing the old cherry tree and your pink elf ears matched the blossoms. I was riding back of Gran’s sky-blue Skylark. We pulled up, I stepped out with my white quilted suitcase. You skittered down the tree, crossed the driveway, and thumped the chest of your collared shirt. “I’m Chippy Timmons!” You said it whistly, through missing teeth. Your shorts were grass-stained, and your tube socks slopped around your chubby ankles. Your face was doused with freckles. “Do you think we could play?”
Gran’s neighborhood had no other children. Saturdays, you’d stand at the curb on the quiet, empty street and watch for the sky-blue Skylark. We’d meet between houses, where impatiens bloomed patiently. You’d smile so hard your chipmunk cheeks would nearly squeeze your eyes shut. “Christy. You’re here!”
“We have this 3,000-piece puzzle. A 747 jet plane. You can come over and help on it.”
“If you want.”
The floor of your house was wood. Your toys were wood trucks, old-fashioned, with big wheels that didn’t make noise. The sun came in everywhere, and the house smelled like salad.
You sat at the table, chin in hand, reached for a puzzle piece, and set it in an airplane window, snap. Your freckled fingers were gentle with everything, okay with everything, and you always smiled.
I picked up a puzzle piece. The body was bunchy-armed, the nose pointy: a weird fish. I laid it on the airplane, tried it different ways.
You placed another piece, snap, and another, snap.
I tried my fish piece all around the white, blue, gray sky. I pushed it into bunchy-armed silhouettes. It resisted every time.
Those were the years I had to move every few months, or stay with this relative or that. Mother was sick in a way that didn’t involve coughing or sneezing or headaches. My visits gave her a break.
I never knew where I’d land.
You were a boy, and younger. You didn’t care where I came from.
“This doesn’t fit anywhere,” I told you. “Let’s play something else.”
We never had an argument; we moved in sync. You outgrew your chubby ankles and most of your freckles but kept the pink elf ears and chipmunk cheeks. I stopped caring what you knew about my family or didn’t. Gran would say things—“Christy’s mother is nervous,” or “She has a condition.” It was all right. You wouldn’t change your mind about me.
“Let’s climb the plum tree,” I said one Saturday.
“Which one’s the plum tree?”
“With the green and purple fruits. They look like butts.”
“Let’s spy on the neighbors,” I went on.
It was easy to love you. You did everything I said.
Over by the chain link fence, we slipped into leaf shadow, watching the Waverleys splash in their pool. Those rich, grown-up Waverleys. They had six hundred friends over, all with Dorothy Hamill haircuts. I would have done anything for a Dorothy Hamill haircut. “I hope Blaire Waverley belly flops,” I said.
“I hope her mascara runs,” I added. “I can’t believe her mother lets her wear makeup.” My mother was too nervous for makeup. Hers or mine.
Blaire Waverly pulled her sleek body from the pool. She sauntered to the diving board in blue bikini, white bows at each hip.
Straight brown hair fell in your eyes. “I could shoot my cap gun,” you said. “I could scare her.” You opened the silver barrel, checking the strip of red paper coiled inside.
“Okay,” I said. You held your gun in the air. Blaire Waverly raised her arms. She bent her knees.
The screen door squeaked.
Blaire Waverly straightened and peered into the rhododendrons. Our chance was lost.
Gran was standing on the porch, waving her Kodak. “How about a picture?” She seated you and me in red director’s chairs. She walked backwards, studying her viewfinder. We sat with arms dangling over the wood chair arms, unimpressed movie directors. The scene should always play our way.
“Well, I have news,” Gran said one Saturday, driving over the Queen Anne Bridge in her sky-blue Skylark. “The Timmonses are moving. ”
“A bigger house. More kids in that neighborhood. That’s the way with a growing family.” She sighed. Our own family could do anything but grow. Mother was having episodes again. I felt the weight of Gran’s thoughts, wet blossoms sagging on the ground.
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to play with Chippy,” she said, “one last time.”
One year later, one late winter Saturday, Gran drove me to the state hospital, the psychiatric ward. I stared out at soggy fields, broken-down fences, slouching barns.
We climbed concrete steps, sat on a tan vinyl couch, and watched people wander in and out of a fake living room. I figured it was fake because it wasn’t a room for living.
Gran spoke to the desk person. A middle-aged woman held a baby doll. A tall, skinny guy toddled around with a smile that gave me the creeps.
A black-haired man resembled the cop on Adam- 12. Except he was looking at the plants, saying, “The plants can’t survive without the water.” Then he laughed. Then he was quiet again. Then he said, loud to the plants: “The water feeds the plants!” like it was something he just figured out. A pause and then: “The plants have to have water,” and another small laugh.
A young woman with thick eyeliner sat at a table, smoking and staring, a zombie from The Twilight Zone. There was an old man resting his head against the wall, eyes closed, drool trailing from his mouth. Any second, a heavy bead of drool would drop to his shirt.
Then Mother came walking toward us, smiling. Gran was brisk with questions. “Do you like your doctors? Are you involved in activities?”
Mother looked far away. She held my hand.
Before we left, Mother pushed something across the table to Gran. It was a handcraft, a wooden apple she had made by gluing pieces of balsa wood. When we got home, Gran hung up her coat. She shut the apple in a drawer.
I was getting used to shutting things away, and people too. It’s what a person had to do.
I moved in with Gran full time. After winter break, I went to my new school, joining a class of fourth and fifth grades combined. Mrs. Lacey called roll. I glanced left. There in the front row: chipmunk cheeks, elf ears.
You flushed when you heard my name. I threw my Dorothy Hamill hair over my face. I opened Prince Caspian and looked down, swallowing my horror.
You’d been around my family; you knew things. What you didn’t know, you were smart enough to figure out. You could piece together any puzzle.
Mrs. Lacey called out a Martin, then a Nguyen, then me, then a Petersen.
I imagined you running up to me and wondering out loud in your honest-puppy way about my grandmother, my mother, my sick and nervous mother.
The mother nobody in the world should know about.
Mrs. Lacey got to the T’s. Timmons.
Me, I didn’t know anyone with your name.
You twisted your elf self around in your chair and scanned the room, and I looked down, away, inspecting my desk, getting up for a drink at the water fountain. So it went for days.
Friday you ran up to my desk, unable to contain yourself any longer. You smiled, bunching your chipmunk cheeks. “Hey, Christy!” Your voice was soft and happy, ready as a puppy who just knows how good you’re going to love him.
I turned a page in Prince Caspian.
“Christy. It’s me, Chippy Timmons.” You put your small white palm on the corner of my desk.
You watched me not watching you. Your voice dipped. “Don’t you . . .?”
I forced my face paper-flat. I looked up. All the feelings that would make a face on me were wiped clean.
I blinked at you. I couldn’t do harmony, gentleness. I didn’t know how to get along, or smile all the time, or keep a friend. I had too many secrets. “What do you want?”
“Nevermind,” you whispered.
You turned away, leaving a damp, shimmering handprint.
I didn’t have a plum tree to climb, but I had to pretend to be far, far above you. It was all right, though. You knew what I was telling you to do.
“I talked to Mrs. Timmons the other day,” Gran said. “She said you’re in Chippy’s class. But you don’t remember him. It breaks his heart that you don’t remember.”
The next time Mrs. Lacey called my name, you stabbed your pencil hard and never looked back for me again.