It began with the charm bracelet. If Mom hadn’t been jobless, having quit the diner for the fifth time that year, she wouldn’t have bought all our back to school clothes at Goodwill, and I probably would have never developed a habit of checking the contents of pockets. A habit that was later extended to include purses, dresser drawers, and anything else that was normally kept closed. I was eight and I learned that good things were often kept hidden.
On that afternoon in late August, my mother came home with a bag of mismatched garments: a pink-and-blue striped shirt, a yellow denim skirt with a small stain near the hem, green jelly sandals only slightly worn at the sole, a purple windbreaker, and slightly battered pink running shoes, and various other items that all clashed with each other.
My older sister did not take this well. “I’m going to start junior high looking like a freak!”
“Sandra, honey, you know that money is tight. When I get a new job, you’ll get some new clothes.”
This did not placate my sister whose face was red and furious. “You won’t get a new job. You’ll go back to the diner as soon as Sal sends roses to the house!”
Slam! Went the bedroom door.
I had nothing to say about my mother’s questionable relationship with her boss, so I sat on the couch and turned on the TV to watch The Cosby Show. Like Sandra, I knew that Mom’s relationship with Sal was bad. Grandma always lectured Mom about her boyfriend whenever she thought Sandra and I weren’t in earshot. Mom put up with it because Grandma was the only one willing to watch us when she and Sal needed an overnight date.
I brought the windbreaker with me to the couch, partly because I liked its color and partly so Mom wouldn’t think I minded used clothing. It smelled like cigarettes, like Grandma’s house, and the fabric was crinkly. Then I felt something hard in the pockets. I unzipped the right side pocket and pulled out a charm bracelet. It had three charms – a horseshoe, a four-leaf clover, and a heart – plus a dangling circle where a fourth charm had once been.
I rubbed the bracelet on my face. It smelled metallic. I knew by looking at it that it wasn’t valuable. The chunky chain was a bronze color with silver revealed in tarnished areas. Yet the discovery of it thrilled me. It was as if I’d made something extraordinary happen by checking the pockets, and now I had treasure, even if it was only treasure in my eyes.
I pictured the girl, the one who had bought the windbreaker new in a store, selecting the purple from among other colors, and wondered if she missed her bracelet. Perhaps she had tried to figure if she’d left it at her friend’s house or if she’d lost it at school. She probably had a bedroom of her own, and was able to hold sleepovers on her birthday. She wouldn’t live in a trailer like me. I was glad I had the bracelet instead of her.
Mom didn’t get another job. She worked at the diner off and on and bought us secondhand clothing. Once she learned how much she could save shopping secondhand, there was no going back. I always offered to go with her to the thrift stores, while Sandra was terrified someone from school would see her going into the Goodwill. I went along partly to make sure she didn’t buy me anything overly embarrassing but mostly so I could run my hands inside the pockets of various garments and into battered purses. I didn’t find much – receipts for chewing gum, pennies, movie stubs. Every now and then, I’d hit the jackpot and find a twenty-dollar bill, but I knew better than to expect that. I was a thrift store archeologist, and I speculated on people’s lives through their discarded possessions.
In the mid-nineties, both our financial see-saw and thrift store shopping days came to an end. Sal gave in and proposed to Mom, and we moved from our trailer into his three-bedroom house with its peeling porch, Budweiser signs, and basement full of broken appliances. My snooping, however, only increased.
Whenever my mother’s behavior confused me, I’d pour everything out of her purse and put it back, item by studied item. Lipstick in Freshest Fuchsia; receipt for gas; box of matches swiped from the diner; a red patent leather wallet containing $13.51, a MasterCard, a Minnesota driver’s license, insurance card, and a wrinkled grocery list; Doublemint gum; and what I would later recognize to be birth control pills.
If a friend left me alone in her bedroom, I’d look inside her desk drawers and find what she hid beneath her bed. As a teenager, I’d learn my boyfriends’ locker combinations and break in between classes, checking coat pockets and notebooks. My discoveries were threads in a web that connected me to the people in my life. I was their priest, taking their confessions, even if I was the only one aware of the transaction.
No one ever caught me when I snooped. I prided myself on my swiftness, my stealth, and my attention to detail in leaving things exactly as I found them. I figured I was on my way to becoming a prize-winning journalist. I did well in my English classes, and I decided The New York Times would be my final destination. I was a girl who never left a drawer undiscovered or a door unopened. I was a truth seeker.
I never became a journalist. Instead, I attended community college, worked retail, and eventually opened my own vintage store.
“Haven’t you had enough of smelly clothes?” my sister asked me.
I was twenty-seven when I met Chad. I’d had my store for two years, and I lived in a small rented house, surrounded by items that had once belonged to other people. I had no roommates or cats. I liked my space. I didn’t have any boyfriends either. I preferred one night stands, sliding into someone’s life easily and sliding out even more easily.
My friend, Andrea, had convinced me to join her bowling league, using persuasion tactics she could have only learned from someone very shady. Bowling is a working class pastime, and like all working class pastimes, it reminded me of my mother, and I didn’t care for it. I showed up, but I dressed like a fifties librarian out of protest. I liked how my twinset and pencil skirt contrasted with my bowling shoes.
Once I had my rented shoes laced up, I went in search of Andrea and found her with a couple of bleached blonde, chain-smoking women, both wearing vividly colored shoes.
“Hi,” I said and smiled.
“Everyone, this is Jenna, who I’ve been telling you about.”
“What’s your score?” A woman with lime-green shoes and a matching scrunchy in her hair asked me.
“My score?” I hadn’t bowled since a blind date in college. Of all the vivid memories I had of that catastrophe, my bowling score wasn’t one of them.
“Just an average of how you typically do in a night,” a woman in lemon colored shoes chimed in.
“Uh . . .” I glanced at Andrea.
“Jenna has been on a bit of a hiatus from bowling,” she said.
The women looked sympathetic.
“Don’t worry,” Lemon Shoes said. “I’ve had to take breaks after rough games too.”
I was grateful that they stopped questioning my bowling credentials and began relating the latest bowling alley gossip. Kelly, from a competing league, had discovered that her husband was having an affair. Jerry, the General Manager of the bowling alley, was in trouble with the IRS due to the creativity he displayed while filing his income taxes. Alexis, who was someone evidently loathed by all, had just got a boob job.
I found the women were all impressive bowlers. They all got strikes; I got a gutter ball.
“Jen-na,” Lime Shoes said to me, “you’ll have more control of where your ball goes if you toss it like this.” She demonstrated with a phantom ball.
I disliked her for drawing my name out. “Thanks. I’ll try that next time. It’s been a while.”
“Can you move in that skinny skirt?” She frowned at my attire.
“Not much,” I said cheerfully. “I guess I’m not dressed properly. I’ll do better next time.” Next time should be some time around 2054. “Say, I love your scrunchy. I’ve been looking for one for simply ages, but no one has been selling them since the nineties.”
Andrea gave me a shocked look, which I ignored.
After three gutter balls, I was exhausted. I wasn’t sure how long a bowling game lasted, but I hoped the third gutter ball was the final strike that would toss me out of the game. I might have looked defeated because Lime took that moment to announce that I threw my bowling ball like a crippled granny.
“This game has me parched,” I said. “I’m going to get a drink.”
I followed the cigarette smoke to the bar. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my friends. When Andrea broke up with her boyfriend a week before, I had gone to her house immediately with Phish Food, her favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor. I was there when she needed help moving into a new house. But this, this went beyond the call of friend duty. If Andrea couldn’t be bothered to defend me from the scratches of crazy women who special order their bowling shoes in shades of citrus, then I certainly wasn’t going to enroll in the Masochists’ Academy of Bowling Arts for her.
“What kind of beer do you have?” I asked the bartender.
“Budweiser and Miller Light.”
“Uh, anything else?” I asked, feeling conspicuous in my ‘30s rhinestone brooch and slate gray skirt.
“They have Corona in a bottle. Just not draft,” said the guy behind me.
I flashed the bartender a smile. “Sold.” I turned to the man behind me. “Thanks.”
“No prob. Getting a decent drink in a bowling alley can be a challenge.”
We talked awhile. He was Chad, a cable installation guy and former philosophy major. He looked like someone who might be in a band, like a guy who spent a lot of time trying to look as if he just rolled out of bed. Sure enough, when I brought up the subject of music, he told me about all about his new band and their most recent gigs. He was self-conscious, earnest, and cute, exactly the type of guy I liked to know. For a night, anyway.
“A friend of yours?” Chad asked, looking toward my bowling lane.
I looked up and saw Lemon glaring at me. I waved. “BFFs,” I told him.
Ten minutes later, I found Andrea and made an excuse of illness as if she couldn’t see I was leaving the bowling alley with a man. Her lips were tight as she nodded, not saying a word. I felt a quiver of guilt, but I told myself that I’d make it up to her.
The next morning, I woke to the sound of the shower, which meant I only had a few minutes to examine the apartment. I pulled on the nearest item of clothing, which was a hoodie of Chad’s with Saint John’s University stamped across the front. I wondered a moment if Chad was a Saint John’s fan or if a Saint John’s fan had purchased it for him. I hoped it was Chad; Catholics always had the best shit. Only in a Catholic’s bedside drawer could you find a rosary, a biography of Jack the Ripper, and a pair of handcuffs all mixed together.
Where to begin snooping? The closet, I decided. Men’s closets could be frightening. They could contain issues of Playboy going back to the nineties. Having moved in with Sal in the seventh grade, I’d learned at an early age where men typically hid their porn. Or worse than porn, a closet could contain an entire row of Prada button downs in the exact same shade of blue, a fashion dream for the robotic yuppie.
I listened to make sure the water was still running, and I opened the door. Shirts, sweaters, blazers, and dress pants were all neatly hung. Too neatly, I thought. Since when are band members neat freaks? Chad would never be able to trash a hotel room like a true rock star. He’d be the one holding the drummer back, saying, “No, not the television set!” A shoe rack held everything from hiking boots to Chuck Taylors to dress shoes. I felt the top shelf to see if there was anything I couldn’t see. Nothing.
Well, that was disappointing.
The bedside table would normally be my next stop, or maybe under the mattress, but I felt compelled to try his desk instead. In the second drawer, I found three wadded up sheets of paper. Jackpot. I smoothed one out and began to read.
Dear Mom and Dad,
I know that you won’t understand why I had to do this, any more than you understood when I took too many Advil back in high school. You’ve always acted as if the ulcer I got as a result of my failed suicide was good, that it would “teach me a lesson” and help me to be grateful.
I’m sorry I couldn’t be the son you wanted me to be: the doctor with a pretty wife and two kids. I’ve never wanted that life or understood its appeal. I’ve spent my life looking for something real, and always I’ve found nothing but smoke and mirrors.
I’d like to be the guy who enjoys life and little pleasures: the afternoons with friends, the sunsets, and the beginnings of spring. I didn’t decide to be this way, living with a gray blanket of unhappiness suffocating me daily. I’ve tried everything – the pills, the books, therapy – but I’m just wired this way. If nothing else, please believe that I’ve tried to be different, but ultimately, I couldn’t be someone that I’m not.
Please try to understand.
I read through the other two sheets. Also suicide notes but different in tone. One was very non-confrontational, doing no more than hinting at vague sadness and loss of hope. The third was the angriest, full of accusation and swearing. All three were addressed to his parents.
I remained there, kneeling on his floor, with my stomach constricting until the shower clicked off. I quickly wadded up the sheets and returned them to their place. I took off the hoodie and draped it over the chair where I found it, then I slipped back into bed, pretending to sleep.
The next day, I visited my mother and Sal, something I don’t do very often and never without calling beforehand.
“Well, isn’t this a nice surprise,” Mom said upon opening the door. Instead of letting me in, she stepped outside and began whispering. “Jenna hon, don’t mention the diner to your father. Well, you know those pesky health inspectors. So picky.”
I nodded. It wasn’t the first time Sal had his diner closed for health violations.
“Well, come on in.” My mother beamed at me. Once we were both inside, she yelled, “Sal, guess who’s dropped by for a visit?”
My stepfather came out of the kitchen, an apron stretched over his wide belly. “Hiya pumpkin.” He crushed me in a hug. “You’re just in time. I’m making my famous sloppy joes.”
A while later, after my mother showed me the merchandise she recently bought from the shopping channel, prefacing each item with, “Oh, this is nice. You should get one,” and Sal told me stories about his new short-order cook, we sat down to a late lunch. Sal’s sloppy joes were accompanied by handfuls of sour cream and onion potato chips and baby carrots.
“Mom, remember when we always used to shop at thrift stores when I was a kid?”
“We only did that once. Remember, when I was broke just before the school year?”
“No, we did it regularly. Sandra will back me up with that one.” I popped a chip in my mouth.
Mom waved a hand dismissively. “Your sister will say anything to make me out to be the World’s Worst Mother. You were always the good one. But why do you bring that up now?”
“I just think I picked up a bad habit during that time in my life.”
“Like what? Thrift? A little bit of thrift never hurt anyone.”
I saw no point in telling either Sal or my mother that I spent years of my life going through their personal possessions. A sane person would have stopped when she found edible underwear in her mother’s drawer. A sane person would have never found the suicide drafts in Chad’s desk and wouldn’t have been sitting there, eating sloppy joes with guilt.
“A bit of thrift? From the woman who just bought a fajita maker from the shopping network?” Sal asked.
“A fajita maker? Wouldn’t that be a skillet?”
Sal nodded. “That’s what I said.”
“Skillets don’t have detachable tortilla warmers!” my mother snapped. “Honey, what’s eating you? I hate to see you so sad.”
“I just became part of something that is more complicated than I’m prepared to deal with.”
I hadn’t lingered at Chad’s the day before. I pretended to wake up minutes after he got out of the shower, quickly dressed, gave him a kiss, and then left. But I also did something highly out of character. I left him with my phone number. This left me terrified that he might call and terrified that he wouldn’t.
I’d always been vaguely aware that my investigations left me connected to others. A little cobwebby thread would stretch from me to them and around their secrets, only to wrap itself around me. I was always weaving a web of stories, but never before had I felt the weight of secrets blanketing down on me.
My phone rang, the sound muffled in my purse. I put down my half-eaten sloppy joe. Mom and Sal looked at me questioningly.
“Are you going to get that, Jenna?” Sal asked.
Hastily, I wiped my hands on a paper napkin. Even as I answered the phone, I knew that I wasn’t ready for this. Yet my entire life had been leading me to this very point, with every opened drawer and lifted bed ruffle, and I could only move forward into the unknown.
Stacy Wennstrom is a nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2010, Stacy Wennstrom