Sometimes, life just hands you a jolt. You might wish it was a Jolt cola, cold and frosty, more speed in that bottle than a gram of cocaine, but you might not get that wish. You might get, instead, a jolt to the brain, 10,000 volts running through your head. Once you had a boyfriend who liked to quote what you didn’t know then was a country song, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Not that they do those anymore. You hope. But this is you, post-arrest, post-sentencing, and people like to scare you with their Cuckoo’s Nest stories, like the man who had such violent seizures during rapid detox his eyes actually blew out of their sockets. People are mean here. They’re pissed at life: aren’t you? Haven’t you come to this: sweet Wendy Alright, the queen of perky prime-time preteen pulchritude, rosy apple of every wistful grandparent’s eye, pigtailed May who’d starred in a thousand pervy December’s wet dreams. Now just another clever headline, squinting in the flashbulb’s glare with your eyes unfocused and your hair all bed-head from that cop bitch who’d shoved your head into the car: THE KID IS NOT ALRIGHT! Soon you won’t be a headline anymore. Soon (you can see it in the puffy eyes, the poochy belly, circled in red in some quarter-page tabloid clip and labeled CELLULITE, in case anyone missed it) you won’t even be cute anymore.
But you haven’t given up the war yet. You’re still fighting in your own quiet way. When the counselors get on your case you draw them as the animals they most resemble: whiskery Don as a grey squirrel with a red fez, hippy chick Marta as a long-faced llama. There are too many greys in this place and way too much beige, so you cherish color, paint your nails goth eggplant, stain your lips orange, draw sharpie tattoos on your arms. Squiggles and swirls. Circles inside circles. Bluer than blue, bluer than you. They’re cerulean, azure, they’re pool-bottom aqua.
You lived in a house with a swimming pool once. It was never filled anymore, no money, but you and your brother Brian loved that pool. You’d climb down the rusty ladder and chase each other across the dry, cracked blue bottom, playing Jedis with old pool noodles you found in the shed. You find it remarkable now, how unsupervised your childhood was, how many hours of glorious neglect you enjoyed. This was before you saved your family. Before you were cast as wise-cracking, level-headed Andi Cook on Too Many Cooks!, America’s tomboy sweetheart.
Your mother was broke. Your father was gone, Benelux or the Bahamas, someplace without an extradition treaty. The housekeeper disappeared, then the gardener. Weeds grew tall and spiky in the yard, while grass burned and flowers shriveled. On the day you had to move, Brian disappeared. Your mother pulled boxes aside, sweating and swearing at the father you barely remembered. She screamed Brian’s name until her voice broke and took two Xanax and said she was through, tired to death of both of you, and it fell to you to find your brother hiding in the old pool with the tarp pulled back over it.
We could live here, Wendy, he said, and how you wanted to, for a moment. He had it all worked out: oranges picked from the trees, for food, and the Piggly Wiggly down the street, for a bathroom. You’d live there together, forever, foraging, growing tall and spiky like the weeds.
You knew you couldn’t stay but you sat with him for a while in the heat of the tarp-filtered sun, Brian crying himself to sleep finally with his head in your lap saying I don’t want to go with her, I don’t want to, and even now you think, what if you hadn’t made him?