My little sister Ashley officially took custody of my doll Gingerbread on my seventeenth birthday. You may say that seventeen is a little old to finally be relinquishing a childhood doll, but Gingerbread was no ordinary doll. She had been my lifelong soul sister number one, the cherished rag doll that was the one decent thing my bio-dad, Frank, had ever given me that wasn't a trust fund, genetic mutant tallness, or a summer in New York just spent with him that revealed he was a world-class dawg. And anyway if you did say How old are you to still be carrying a doll? I would just give you a blank look back like, Why do you care?
I was dead asleep b-day morning when I felt my new futon mattress shaking. My dreams told me to get out of bed and into the doorway: earthquake. The feel of flannel pjs rubbing my arms and the smell of hyper munchkins' Cocoa Puffs breath told my sleep otherwise. I opened my eyes to see the faces of my half-sibs, Ashley and Joshua.
"Happy Birthday, Cyd Charisse's Pieces!" Ash said in what sounded like basic yelling but was probably an attempt at a song. The futon frame creaked under her weight as she jumped on the bed. Ash is a second grader in age, but a fifth grader in weight percentile. The actual fifth grader, Josh, attempted to roll himself into the futon mattress, as if he wanted to mummify himself in it. Perhaps asking for the new futon as a birthday present to replace the old puke princess four-poster bed that used to be in my room—my mother's decorator's plot to curse my sleep—was not my smartest idea ever.
Ash said, "Guess what Mommy and Daddy got you for your birthday!"
"You're ruining it right now!" I groaned. I grabbed her and pulled her down onto the bed next to me. Ash and Josh were asleep when I'd returned the night before from New York, so this was the first time I'd seen them since getting home to San Francisco. I'd only been gone a few weeks that felt like an eternity, so I needed to see if Josh and Ash looked as different as I felt. They looked the same, maybe cuter: Josh, with his Buster Brown cut of light blond hair and baby blue eyes, got our mother's Scandinavian good looks. Ash, with her round cherub face and brown curls, takes after Sid-dad, who has a few brown hairs left on his mostly bald head but, like Ash, is always rosy-cheeked and happy to finish your dessert. After this past summer, I am well aware that I am a skinny, freakishly tall, black-haired clone of my bio-dad Frank, at least in looks. In personality I aspire elsewhere.
Ash rubbed her head of brown curls against my shoulder, then turned her eyes onto Gingerbread, lying on the pillow next to me.
"I think Gingerbread should effin come live with me," she whispered in my ear. Ash's summer camp must have had some kinda charm school effect to result in the successful downgrade of Ash's favorite F-word to effin. And, she'd had the decency to know not to speak such thoughts aloud in front of Gingerbread, although Gingerbread probably knew anyway. Wow, progress.
"No effin way," I whispered back. If I hadn't left Gingerbread behind in New York with Miss Loretta, her gingerbread-baking spiritual mother, why would I leave her with Ash, who is a holy terror? Although Gingerbread was getting cranky about my gallivanting around and had hinted that she might prefer a more laid-back lifestyle, like lying on someone's bed and watching over the other dolls.
Josh climbed on top of my stomach. "Mommy and Daddy got you something else besides this new bed. They got you a crappuccino machine." His mouth blubbered out a farting noise.
"It's CAPP-U-CCINO, not CRAPP-U-CCINO," I said. And ugh, I appreciated the idea behind Sid and Nancy's b-day prezzie, but not the reality of it. The whole point of my grand master plan to one day become the world's greatest café owner is to get out of the house, not stay in it. That's why one says, "I'm going out for a coffee," not, "Oh, let me whip up some decaf capps for the parentals and let's all watch a feel-good chick flick together." *Shudders.*
"Did you see the cupcakes last night?" Josh asked.
When I returned home from the airport, Ash and Josh had left a present on the dining room table for me: mini chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting arranged on the table to spell out the words HAPPY BIR . . .
"Ash and Josh ran out of cupcakes after bir, Cupcake," Sid-dad had said when he found me in the dining room. He wrapped me in a bear hug, except I was the bear; he just comes up to my chin. My stepfather, but more than that cuz he's the only dad I've ever really known, was giving Ash and Josh credit for the cupcakes, but I knew the idea was his. When my mother and I first came to live with him, to his Pacific Heights house that when I was five seemed bigger than any castle I could have imagined in the Magic Kingdom, he took me by the hand to my new bedroom, where a tray of cupcakes were waiting for me on the dresser. The cupcakes spelled out, WELCOME HOME CYD CHARISSE. Nancy had tipped him off that I had a thing for cupcakes, which I have always considered infinitely superior to whole cakes. Cupcakes are their own little independent beings. That's why when Sid-dad isn't calling me Little Hellion, he uses his other pet name for me, Cupcake. If Frank, my bio-dad, ever had a nickname for me, it would probably be a Native American one, like Relieved When She's Gone.
I told Josh, "Yes, Hyper Boy, I saw the cupcakes, and thank you very much." I flipped down the bedcover on my other side and he plopped down next to me. I was trying to imagine ever lying down in bed with lisBETH and Danny, my half-sibs in New York. LisBETH and Danny are adults and there just wouldn't be room for all three of us in the bed anyway, but I still couldn't see the three of us close like I am with Ash and Josh. LisBETH, not Elisabeth, not Beth, lisBETH, is sort of like my mom—annoying, but there for you when you need her—but no way would I feel comfortable having a morning convo with lisBETH, eye-to-eye with bed head and teeth that hadn't been brushed yet. I barely know her. With Danny—maybe, someday.
Josh said, "If you were in New York this summer visiting your other sister and brother, how come they aren't our sister and brother too?"
Honestly I am all for being the cool big sister lying in her birthday futon in the middle of an Ash-Josh sandwich as they played with my hair on either side of me. But I do not think it is my responsibility to explain to them about how Nancy, our mom, was a twenty-year-old dancer-turned-model in New York who got pregnant by a married man, had me, dumped the married man, and later moved to San Fran to marry Sid-dad and procreate Josh and Ash with him, then waited almost seventeen years to send me back to New York to meet my bio-dad and his two grown kids. So I just told Josh, "Because the stepmonster fairy who lives in the attic decided I was the chosen one."
I was saved from further explanation by Nancy standing in the doorway to my bedroom. She was wearing a pale pink yoga outfit. With the pants cut low to show off her flat stomach and matching pert pink bra top, her blond hair pulled into a ponytail on top of her head, and a face of pink lip gloss and pink cheeks, she looked more like a teen queen than a close-to-forty mother of three. For a moment she looked happy to see the three of us lying together on my new bed, then her perfectly plucked eyebrows burrowed in and she frowned just a little, her classic joyless society wife pose, like she'd just bit into a lemon.
"I will never understand why you wanted that shoddy mattress and frame over the exquisite antique bed frame and premium mattress the decorator chose for your room. I guarantee you'll develop back problems within a week on that futon." She let out one of her vintage sighs, then, in what had to be a premenopausal mood swing, said, "Happy birthday, honey. Welcome home." She wandered away down the hallway.
I thought I felt Ash and Josh both flinch on either side of me when Nancy pronounced the words welcome home and honey at me. Before I left for New York, when I was grounded to my room owing to certain Little Hellion, not Cupcake, ways, Nancy and I were in a state of war. The pleasantries Ash and Josh last heard Nancy and I exchange mostly involved ear-curdling yelling followed by room-shaking door slamming. But since Nancy's unexpected NYC visit while I was staying with Frank bio-dad, since she really helped me there through my little meltdown incident there (note to self: Little Meltdown Incident would make excellent band name; must get musical talent), things are cooler between us. For now. Nancy has only recently upgraded Shrimp, the love of my life and one of the causes of the aforementioned grounding, from being referred to as that boy to calling him by his actual name (which really is Shrimp; I've seen his birth certificate). Who knows how long the new peace with Nancy will last once the new school year starts and fate undoes that cruel joke whereby Shrimp dumped me at the beginning of this past summer and returns him to his role as my one true love.
"What are you doing today?" Ash wanted to know.
"Wandering," I said. Wandering is like the biggest gift of all after the past lockdown sentence in my room. Now I am free to go where I please. And in New York I learned that wandering, with no specific destination and a bio-dad who can't be bothered to show you around, is the best way to feel the streets, even when the weather is sticky hot and the streets smell like baked garbage mixed with street vendor honey-roasted cashews.
I've never had a birthday to myself and I wasn't sure what I should do with it. I had no friends my own age with whom to celebrate, to go to the mall or to get fake IDs or whatever it is normal seventeen-year-old girls with friends do on their birthdays. I hoped to hear from Shrimp, but I don't know if he even knew it was my birthday. For all that we were muy manifest destiny last spring, the fact is I never even told him about the things in my past that led to my little meltdown incident, I never saw pictures of or found out the names of his parents who were off in the Peace Corps. Plus, since we were technically broken up and all, I had no right to expect a present or even a phone call from him.
I told Ash, "I don't know where I am going today, but if Mom and Dad say okay, you can come along with Gingerbread and me. We're going to walk these city streets and just see what happens." I looked out my bedroom window high atop a hill in Pacific Heights to the view of the real Alcatraz island in the distance: This former prisoner would cherish this simple freedom.
Ash was dressed and out the door with me pronto. She was not going to mess with the simple freedom either, and did not complain once as we climbed Divisadero Street, a street so steep not even buses will navigate that section of it—and "Diviz" is a major city thoroughfare. We walked up, wheeze, up to the crest of Diviz at Broadway on top of Pacific Heights, then down, deep breaths, down toward California Street. Back when I was in boarding school in New England, I used to dread coming home to San Francisco even more than I hated stupid old New England. Now The City (as the natives call it) felt different. As Ash and I wandered past the Victorian houses I was seriously digging the cold Bay air whipping through my body, that oceany breeze mixed with the smell of eucalyptus and chimney smoke from all the houses with fireplaces. The feel and smell of the cold air made me warm all over, reminding me of Shrimp.
Ash took my hand as we crossed over to Fillmore, where I decided we should pick up the bus to the Castro, the queer cool capital of the world. My first order of business would be getting a decent cup of joe on Castro Street, then we could go to the Mission for burritos. You can get a decent cup of coffee in New York, at least at Danny's café, but there are no good burritos to be found in that city. Burritos are just an art form that should be left to the West Coast, I suspect. New York's got plenty of other things to brag about.
Of course, all the wandering time Ash spent on best behavior, attached to my hand and not complaining about the walking, turned out to be part of her scheme to butter me up. Later that afternoon, after we'd returned home, Ash invited me into her room. Gingerbread was lying on Ash's bed, obviously kidnapped during my shower. "She belongs here now," Ash pronounced. Then my little sister went in for the big kill.
Ash has a huge customized Barbie collection. Aside from Horror Movie Barbie (head lopped halfway off, torn and bloody clothes), Commando Barbie (camouflage bandana, pistol-whipping Ken with toy guns stolen from Josh), there is my personal favorite, Fat Barbie (dressed in a muumuu, sporting extra body girth and a double chin, thanks to the discreet placement of Silly Putty). I think Fat Barbie is genius but Nancy flipped out when she saw her. Our mother, whose statuesque blond Minnesouda beauty makes her look like a Barbie, is a size four on her bloated days. Nancy is so concerned about Ash's weight that she won't let Ash have the I Left My Heart in San Francisco Barbie, who wears a most excellent gold jacket with a long flared black skirt—very retro '50s—because the Barbie is made specially for See's Candy stores and Nancy was all worried about the subliminal message Ash might be getting. Maybe Nancy should take a step back and worry more about the not-so-subliminal message the smiley-faced, skinny, big-boobed Barbie female ideal gives a seven-year-old girl, but what do I know, as Nancy reminds me often.
But Nancy really would have lost it over Naughty Barbie, Ash's new creation that she outfitted while I was in the shower. Naughty Barbie, laid out on Ash's bed for me to inspect, was inspired by our time on Castro Street earlier that day. Shame on me for allowing my caffeine fixation to impair my judgment long enough to let Ash wander to the store next door while I was ordering a latte. Naughty Barbie, decked out in a form-fitting black leather bodysuit opened in a V-shape from her shoulders down to her navel, clutching a rubber whip in her hand, was inspired by the Barbie-sized leather outfits, whips, and chains that Ash bought without my knowledge at what turned out to be a Barbie fetish store next door to the café. My bad. I've only just been allowed to take the bus, and my birthday dinner was the point at which I intended to make my case for a driver's license. And Ash knew that I wasn't about to jeopardize my new freedom by admitting that I let my little sister wander into an adult store while I was feeding my coffee habit.
"What does S&M stand for?" Ashley asked, all angel-faced.
"Sugar and Mallomars," I told her. She shook her wide head, indicating she didn't believe my answer. I had no choice then. "What's your price, evil genius?" I asked.
Ash pointed at Gingerbread.
So I took up the issue with Gingerbread, who is somewhat of a telepath. I told her, You know Ash only wants you because she wants everything that is mine, and you know she will get bored in like a week because you will not plot with her to destroy the universe that is her room, but the thing is, I am kind of stuck here. I am on a Shrimp mission, and I cannot let some S&M Barbie fetish accessories mess that up. And Gingerbread was all, These old rag bones are tired of traipsing around in your handbag every place you go now; gimme some rest and the remote control clicker already—yep, let's do it. I said, You are kind, Gingerbread. We know Ash will make every best effort to torture you, but I will let Ash know in no uncertain terms that she can trash her room, her dolls, and Mom's Christian Dior lingerie collection, but heads will roll if she tries that nonsense with you. Specifically, Barbie heads.
And just like that, Gingerbread graciously accepted the new living arrangement.
I was sitting on Ash's bed handing over Gingerbread to my little sister, explaining the ground rules—Gingerbread is strictly a queen who shall reign from Ash's properly made bed and will not be found dangling upside down from Ash's dresser drawer handles, ever— when Nancy walked past Ash's room and then doubled back.
"I don't believe it," Nancy said, eyeing the exchange. She has been after me to ditch my doll almost since I took possession of Gingerbread, when I was five and my bio-dad Frank gave her to me the one time I met him before this past summer. "Did hell just freeze over?"
What else could I do?
The stakes are higher at home now with the new peace.
Excerpted from Shrimp
by Rachel Cohn
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provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
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