Charlie and I met through my sister Abby and her sister Dakota. It was 1987: Kindergarten. Abby came home with a new best friend. They glowed together; inseparable, tiny humans. Who knows how they met? A shared laugh, maybe? A moment at the cubby hole, or during nap time on the required nap rug (which looks like suitable bedding for a domestic cat). It’s been a while; I can’t quite remember how these things begin.
And then we met: Charlie and I. I went over to play once. My mom probably took advantage of free childcare, as Charlie and Dakota’s mom was a push-over and always ended up having all of us for days on end. It was a two-for-none deal. Charlie and I were the slightly-older-but-we’ll-always-pull-the-“we’re older”-card ones in the group. It brought us together wholly. Charlie always had an ambiguous aura about her, one that I’ve noticed since the beginning of our friendship. I was in first grade, she was in second. And she carried that mystery with her all the way through our adolescence and young adulthood. Her strange decisions, her problems, could only be explained, or hidden, by this mystery. The excused blur, if you will. The partial stories, the loaded smile, that signaled that she knew something, about herself, that I just wasn’t allowed to know. But her secretive nature was never malicious.
The smell of burning popcorn always knows how to awaken my senses. As I look over at Charlie through the hallway, I see a body sprawled on the brown flowered couch. Her foot hangs over the edge, resting in a chunk of grayish-white couch stuffing that has been holding on for about a year now. She is completely unconscious, one hand draped over her forehead while the other lies extended away from her. Her neck glistens with sweat, for the heat becomes sweltering by evening once the sun escapes the sky.
‘Good.’ She’s not conscious enough to realize that I’ve burned the popcorn, again. It’s that damn popcorn machine from 1980. It just overheats, spitting out popcorn the color of different shades of brown and black, sometimes beige. Charlie’s father refuses to buy a new one. I think he can’t afford a new one.
“Charlie! Help me out; this popcorn machine hates me. It just hates life…” I say this, my face stern and pensive as I absently inspect the outside of the machine. Laughing at the useless machine, or me, Charlie approaches the kitchen with a casual authority. “Move over,” she mutters, a half smile crawling over her face. She approaches the machine, grabs a blackened cooking mitt (a mitt that seems seasoned at this sort of thing), and swats the machine profusely. Charred pieces of popcorn carcasses spill out of the top, crumbling to the counter with every swat of the mitt. Her streaky blond hair drapes down over her eyes as her freckled hand continues to swat. Her freckles are so bold right now. Maybe the orange flames accentuate them. Charlie is insecure about her freckles. She always comments on my smooth, clear skin. But it’s her freckles that give her this glow, that hide her secrets hidden behind her look. I envy something about Charlie; maybe it’s her sense of leadership. She deals with situations instantly, it seems. Then again, we’re always in her house when situations arise. Her smile is silly, appearing calm and fixed as she puts out the growing flames rising out of the machine. She kills the flames, the blackened popcorn. She’s ruthless.
“See ya, Mom!” I run out of my mom’s white Mercury Sable with my overnight book bag hugging the small of my back. A warm, homey feeling sweeps over me as I speed up the rickety, patchy stairs. The squeaks whine underneath my L.A. Gears, pink lights flashing from my heels in the darkness. I look back as I’m scurrying up the stairs, just to make sure my mom is waiting until someone lets me in. Charlie’s neighborhood isn’t the safest. My muscles are tense until I get inside her house. The squeaks persist even as I stumble into the front door, my oversized NFL Cowboys jacket scraping against the white chipped paint. Part of me finds the decaying paint absolutely atrocious. My mom scoffs at filth. Then again, my mom has O.C.D. and despises anything with a dull surface (which sadly includes me). The other part of me basks in the squeaks, the white plaster residue flaking onto my exposed skin. It tickles when pieces of the plaster lightly dust my arm, as every knock on the front door brings small powdery explosions from the porch ceiling. It’s not winter, but sometimes it feels like it while I wait on Charlie’s porch. I love the snow.
“She’s in her room…” Her older sister says this with half hearted conviction, as she opens the door from a sitting position on the couch. I glance at her quickly, a polite smile prepared in the case that she exchanges any looks. But her eyes remain fixed on MTV. I look down instinctively, just to see the floor that I’m standing on. I have this mild phobia, of rabbit poop. It’s a new phobia, really, that developed ever since Charlie and her sisters bought those two rabbits. I have to consciously check my neurosis at the door when I get here; if I didn’t, then I’d be sure to have a child heart attack. My house is a museum compared to Charlie’s place; but Charlie’s place is more fun.
I hurdle my way up the winding staircase that leads directly to Charlie and Dakota’s room. The laundry basket that rests next to their bedroom door is surprisingly low today. Only some wrinkled green and pink sweaters lay intertwined in a heap. The grid of the plastic basket seems barren, unfamiliar. As I lift my fist to knock on the closed door, I hesitate for a second. Sisters don’t knock, sisters obnoxiously barge in. I push the door and stumble into a musty room, realizing immediately why the laundry situation in the hallway is curiously tidy. Clothes, fabrics and toys of all kinds, sprawl over the entire room, leaving patches of baby blue carpet to accent to layered floor.
“No need to comment; we’re going to clean it up…” Charlie’s words seem sarcastic, absent. I smile. Charlie always has this quiet, yet sinister way about her that I find comforting. She gives me this look saying, “You know I’m not the one who made this mess.” She is the neatest of all her family members. Maybe that’s why she’s the oddball. I throw my bag across the room at Charlie’s head. Boredom sets in almost immediately, and we soon find ourselves propped on the top bunk of the bunk beds, writing on the ceiling with glow-in-the-dark pens. The neon yellow seems to glow endlessly, as I drag it across the surface higher and higher. I reach the ceiling, but my hand stays there, probing the indent with the thin pen. Charlie breaks the silence with, “You’re sleeping over, right?” “Yeah, I brought my bag…and the movie When Women Had Wings.” For some reason we love that movie. More or less, the story depicts a white-trash mom raising her two vulnerable kids in a trailer. I guess we relate, on some level.
Charlie nods her head knowingly at my response, and then lets out a satanic laugh. “Did you bring extra underwear?” “Oh man, I totally forgot!” I start cracking up. Without fail, I pee my pants every single time I sleep over Charlie’s house. My mom attributes this ‘isolated behavior’, as she calls it, to some ‘unconscious anxiety that surfaces only when I am at that disgusting house.’ ‘It’s the filth, sweetie,’ she always says. But, I really just pee myself because Charlie makes me laugh so hard. She could say “Peanut butter and Pinot Grigio”, and I would lose it. I doubt it has anything to do with any ‘unconscious anxiety’, or whatever it is that my mom was talking about.