One summer we spent part of our daylight hours scouring the back alley for clues. The clues could be just about anything. A loose brick, a mark on the cement that looked like it had been made with charcoal but might have been tar, a broken clothespin. It wasn't easy. One day we found a sheet of looseleaf paper with writing in blue ink. I don’t remember what it said. It’s possible we did the writing ourselves, though that suggests we were planting evidence, which means there was some other kid we wanted to fool. But mostly our search was genuine. We were convinced that real, actual clues were out there. How serious we were. How earnest.
For a while the living room floor was lava. Then it was quicksand. We made our way carefully on bare feet from one piece of furniture to the next. Our survival depended on not falling. So many people I know did this too when they were kids. The memory is particular and thrilling. The thrill is particular and unrepeatable.
Young, attractive, an excellent secretary, my mom worked for a congressman in his local office, right in our neighborhood. One Saturday he had something he wanted done before he returned to D.C. She had to go to his summer house. She made me go with her. I didn’t want to. Why did I have to? She was adamant, unusually so. I remember a daunting place an hour's drive away - polished wood, lots of glass, high ceilings. He let us in and they worked in his study. I sat outside the room. I can still see the open door, the two of them on either side of an enormous desk, and a book in my hand, that I'd likely brought with me, but not the title.
Some days, driving on the Belt Parkway, we took part in a race no one knew about but me. I was in the back seat. My dad was the driver. We were always at the front of the pack and we always won. Any car that passed us, I counted as part of the race before ours. Whatever exit we took was the finish line.
Wires under the dashboard caught on fire. We were going down a street not a highway. My father was driving. My sister and I were in the back. My mother opened her door. My father was yelling “Jump!” so I jumped. My mother grabbed my hands. I was dragged along until the car stopped. “Are you hurt?” someone said. We were in a gas station. They sold packets of antiseptic. They burned my scraped knees with them. The scabs that formed made it difficult for me to keep my legs straight when I walked. At school I wore a skirt. It took a couple of days to heal. It must have taken longer. It was bright in the gas station. I don’t know what happened to the car. I don’t know who put the fire out. It wasn’t the kind of fire that destroys a car. I don’t know if there was really a vending machine that dispensed antiseptic but I like the idea of it. It would be wall-mounted, and you’d put in your coins, and twist the chunky metal handle. Instead of a toy or candy medicine would come out.
For years my sister and I shared a room. We liked rearranging the furniture. Each new configuration felt like a new start. I was around six or seven when our beds were in a line, like cars on a train, and flush against the wall. The wall abutted an identically shaped bedroom on the other side where our neighbors’ twin boys slept. The idea to tunnel, to connect, that I now know many kids have, came thrillingly fresh to us one day. We used thumb tacks. The wall kept crumbling. The holes took the shape of tiny shallow bowls. Eventually we gave up. I don’t remember when, or why.
The New York Times used to publish Counselors Wanted ads on the back pages of its Sunday magazine. The spring my parents separated, two of my male friends and I wrote letters expressing our interest. We were sixteen. We wanted to get away, from the neighborhood, which felt increasingly claustrophobic, from our families, maybe even from each other. We wrote by hand on sheets of looseleaf paper. We addressed envelopes and licked stamps. I remember gathering up the letters. I’ll mail them, I promised, already pretty sure I wouldn’t. I tore them in half as soon as I got home. At the time, it seemed inevitable.
I don't remember what motivated us to volunteer. I'm guessing something to do with school. We felt brave. We felt important. There were three of us. We walked together. We kept close. It was October and already dark at five o'clock. The unfamiliar building that hosted the local Democratic Club was in our neighborhood, but outside our usual territory. We were girls. We were around twelve years old. Inside were men. Fluorescents burned the room white.