Crooked little heart

By Anne Lamott
March 27, 1997 10:49PM (UTC)
main article image

in the last couple of months, since turning thirteen, Rosie had undergone what her mother called a sea change and what Elizabeth's best friend Rae called the changeover from dog to cat, from friendly and engaged and doggishly attentive to mysterious and aloof. Elizabeth knew something had changed, that Rosie had crossed some sort of threshold, when Rosie stopped looking at her. Elizabeth frequently felt as if she were being looked past, and she found it deeply disconcerting, even more so because when she first began to notice it, she heard herself say one of the things her mother had said to her when she was young, something she'd sworn she'd never say: "I want you to look at me when I'm talking."

Then Rosie would suddenly, maliciously lock onto Elizabeth's gaze like a cat watching someone eat a tuna fish sandwich. So Elizabeth didn't say it anymore. She remembered avoiding eye contact with her own mother when she was Rosie's age. It was partly, she thought, because her mother might read her mind, and her mind was so seditious, plotting her mother's overthrow. She also remembered having had the superstitious belief at thirteen, twenty-nine years ago, that if she didn't look at her mother, drunk and dramatic, or out like a light at midday, or sick and shaky, her mother might just go ahead and disappear.


Also, she had been profoundly ashamed of herself, so big and busty and heavily eyebrowed, so huge and clumsy. Elizabeth knew that Rosie was ashamed of being small and undeveloped. Elizabeth had been so ashamed of her drunken disheveled mother, and even though she, Elizabeth, had now been sober four years, Rosie was still ashamed to have a mother who used to get drunk and bring men home from the bar, and who now had to go to her endless meetings. She did not understand why her mother could not control her drinking, enjoy a beer or two on a hot summer's day, like her friend Hallie's mother, like most regular people. She didn't understand why her mother couldn't act more normal, why she needed so much solitude, why she couldn't have a lot of friends and a job, and throw lots of fun parties, smile, wave to more people. Her mother was a little like a wolf, an outsider, strange somehow, like Luther. She was ashamed to think that, but it was true.

She was also scornful of her mother's clothes and her refusal to wear makeup. "Would it really kill you to wear a little lipstick?" Rosie cried when Elizabeth showed up at school to pick her up one day. And then, three weeks later, when Elizabeth did show up wearing a little foundation and some blusher, Rosie all but rolled her eyes. "Don't even bother, Mom," she'd said.

Rosie was aware that the things she said hurt her mother, but why did her mother have to be so annoying, so weird? For instance, Elizabeth had a pair of ratty black loafers she was practically living in these days, as if the family didn't have enough money to buy her a new pair. From Rosie's perspective, those shoes might as well have been bloody rags, strapped to Elizabeth's feet with adhesive tape, advertising to the whole world that the family wasn't doing very well. Elizabeth promised not to wear them when she picked Rosie up at school or the courts, but then just last week she'd forgotten, and Rosie, spotting the shoes on her mother's feet, felt stung with betrayal. She had staggered to the car with humiliation.


"Darling, what is it?" Elizabeth asked as they rounded the corner toward home.

Rosie was scowling. "This will not do," she muttered.

School was so confusing, seventh grade. The "campus" was very pretty, covered with trees that were now in full bloom and a huge green playing field, all the trappings of an upper-middle-class school for mostly white kids. Rosie belonged to the larger group of forty or fifty kids who got to think of themselves as the popular crowd. But within that group there were the top ten girls, the cutest, foxiest girls, a little more rebellious than the others, who smoked pot and spiked their drinks at dances and parties, who made out with boys and always had boyfriends. Rosie liked a number of the less-popular popular girls, girls in the second echelon of popularity, and sometimes went along with them to the mall or to their parties. She was included in gossip and parties because she was funny and famous for being a tennis star. Mostly, though, after school and on weekends, she and Simone were on a tennis court somewhere. Rosie found most of the really popular girls spoiled and sarcastic without being funny. The boys were not at all interested in her, and this was very painful. She remembered a dance last year, held right after school in the gym, where she'd felt so wild, so desperate to be a part of one of the happy dancing couples, that she'd leapt away from the sidelines and thrown herself at a couple who were slow dancing, as if she could be in the middle of all that affection, a part of it, or maybe bump the girl away like a billiard ball and take up dancing the girl part. They had looked at her as if a monkey had just tried to cut in.


Besides this, she didn't like some of her teachers. She sometimes had the feeling that they didn't really know or care about the subject they were teaching, as if instead they had just read up on it the night before. Mr. Allen, her science teacher, was funny, though, and seemed genuinely to love science and want his students to be excited too. Rosie looked forward to his class more than any other. English right now was terrible. She had always liked English a lot, because she was good at it, good at the verbs, the nouns, the pronouns, and of course she loved reading so much and writing little stories, but right now the class was reading "The Diary of Anne Frank," and most of the class was really bored, because it went so slowly. Rosie thought it might be the best book she had ever read. The most popular girls were all passing notes back and forth to each other, and Rosie got into it too, she did not want to seem different, like she thought she was better than everyone else. But the class would be reading these entries that were so incredibly sad and hard, and the girls would be whispering, Does my hair look good? Do you have any lip gloss? I hate this jacket, I hate how my makeup looks. Even worse, the boys would be cracking up every time Anne mentioned breasts or bras or periods.

Even though these boys were so immature, she felt badly that none of them wanted to go steady with her. She kept waiting for one of her friends, like Hallie maybe or one of the other popular girls, to hand her a note that said, "Do you like so and so?" and if she said sort of, they'd write back, "Well, you better. Because he's going to ask you out." And then he would take her to the mall or a movie, be with her somewhere private like his house or hers, and kiss her. It would be a miracle, though -- no one had ever asked her out on a date. She didn't look like the beautiful girls. She was a little stick figure. Simone was beautiful and had had boyfriends and sometimes this made Rosie incredibly sad. But then when Simone was in hysterics because maybe the boy didn't like her anymore, Rosie would feel old, and safe.


After another solid week of rain, the sun finally came out and dried the courts. Peter had arranged for Rosie and Simone to play one afternoon with two sixteen-year-old girls at a nearby public park.

Riding their bikes to the court, Rosie and Simone passed a horse pasture and an old sawmill. Under the redwoods next to the bikepath, birds sang, squirrels darted out chattering onto the telephone wires, and the creek, swollen with the recent rains, burbled a wet drumbeat. The court lay in the dappled afternoon sunlight, and it smelled just as Rosie remembered it from the one other time she had played here -- mucky, slightly mildewy because of the shade of the trees and the wetness of the creek. Under the redwoods, huge knotted tangles of roots hung like baskets over the water. She remembered the smell, a little like dirty socks, in a good way, salty, yeasty, breeding life.

Rosie lived in a world of smells. She always seemed to be sniffing things for information. All these things in her life filled her with confusion -- her body, boys, how impatient she felt with her parents, her constant fear that her mother would die, thoughts of her future, memories -- but smells, smells were clear, like a powerful radio station.


Simone did not go around sniffing things. She went around tossing her chest about, watching its effect on boys and grown men. She was already fourteen, so pretty and voluptuous, with shoulder-length blonde hair that looked great when it hung down, framing her face, her pretty full lips, charcoal gray eyes, and small straight nose, and it also looked great pulled back into a sloppy ponytail, with wavy little wisps and tendrils breaking free. Rosie already knew that beauty could save and protect you, that if you looked beautiful, people wouldn't poke around and go in too deep -- if you looked the way they hoped and expected, they wouldn't look further into the dark parts that she read about in her creepy teenage horror novels. If you were pretty, the secret of your essential un-okayness would remain a secret.

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

MORE FROM Anne Lamott

Related Topics ------------------------------------------