on the page magazine

issue no. 2, spring 2001


Vermont Is So Unlike California

by Samantha Schoech

In Vermont, my school's play yard doubles as a parking lot, and our basketball court is also the town hall where we hold the science fair and where my dad's guru once came to speak but showed up late and drunk and did not impress many people.

I walk three quarters of a mile down the hill with Tracy and Gesar from the meditation center to the road to wait for the school bus. The only other kids who get picked up at our stop are the Warrens. There are five of them. Stringy blond boys who do not know that Gesar, who is nine and loud and likes to get in fights, is the son of a Tibetan Rinpoche, that he is practically royalty. The Warrens are poor and mean, with badly trained dogs and a mother who screams at them from across the road. Vermont is so unlike California. People are poor in a different way. With more space around them on which to collect the evidence of their poverty.

I am thirteen, wearing blusher, not dressed for the weather. It is my first winter in Vermont and it is not the cold that bothers me so much, although for the first time I experience frozen snot, but the chance that I might learn something I don't want to know.

When I am eleven, I step off the plane in Boston and discover my stepmother is hugely pregnant. My father had not mentioned this to me on the phone, and, because I am disoriented and unsure, I say nothing. We weave our way through the airport, my dad's arm over my shoulders, and in the car I ask him about my friends. About the kids I see every summer at the meditation center, the kids who share with me an understanding of gongs and incense and who, like me, can chant in Sanskrit. Some of them have arrived, but it is early June and some won't get there for a while still. My summers in Vermont at the meditation center are the best three months of my life. So much better than sixth grade and my single mother and the California summer heat that smells like asphalt.

We have just crossed the New Hampshire border when my dad says, "So, Lora's pregnant." I am embarrassed because I know I should have mentioned it. Her belly is immense. I can't think of anything to say. I am only eleven and although I know how people get pregnant, I don't want to say anything that might bring it to mind. I say, "Yeah."

"You're going to have another brother or sister," my father says.

"Cool," I say. I think about my half-brother who is eight years younger than me, who I only see during the summers, who is only five and boring. What I want more than anything else in the world is a sister and although I have begged my mother to adopt a baby girl, Lora's big belly is no comfort to me. I can't bring myself to say another word.

The next summer I meet my baby sister, Ella. She is almost ten months old and she is bald. When she sees me, she grabs my ears and pulls my face towards hers. She chews my cheeks, and even though she has some teeth and it sometimes hurts, I laugh so hard my drool mixes with hers. She is my sister and I let her bite me until I feel like crying. We love each other instantly.

It is my job to watch her every day from nine to noon while Lora and my dad practice. By practice they mean meditate. There is a lingo and we speak it as if the rest of the world understands. Practice, shrine room, dordje, Rinpoche, zafu, kasung, Shambala Day.

I take Ellie to the child care center where me and my friends hang out. It smells of old apple juice and the powdery scent of nursery school paints. Ella is as soft and fuzzy as an apricot and she has what we are already calling a big personality. I change her diapers and feed her bits of pear and cracker. She is everything I've ever wanted. I covet her. When I fight with my friends, I put Ellie in a stroller and go for a walk. I show them. I don't come back for an hour. By that time, Ellie is mad and hungry and won't stop yelling.

The girl I fight with most is Tracy. She is only ten and she is spoiled. Her mother, who sometimes gets drunk at dances, feels guilty about moving here and lets Tracy have a TV in her room. When we are getting along, I get to watch "Dallas" with her. We sit on the edge of the bed and watch it silently. We have nothing to say. There is not one thing on it we recognize as true.

When my mother calls, they have to come find me. As I run through the meditation center, ignoring the signs asking me please not to do this, I picture her sitting at our kitchen table in California. Behind her is the ugly, stained wallpaper left over from the Italian family who lived there before us. My mother asks me questions about Vermont. She is not a Buddhist and I am exasperated when she asks me, "What is orioke? What does aloka mean?" She asks if I can go roller skating there and I am ashamed to tell her that the skates she gave me last Christmas are going to waste. That most of the roads around here are made of dirt.

Before she hangs up she tells me cheerfully that she misses me. When I think of California, I think of parking lots, of Longs Drugs, of the school I will have to start next fall.

Some things take a while to grasp. It takes me a week after I am told to understand that Ellie is not really my sister. Tracy and I are fighting. Something about how spoiled she is, about how her mother buys her frozen pizzas and lets her eat them at night while we have miso soup and baked tofu. I tell her icily that when she speaks, people roll their eyes because she sounds so dumb. After that, Tracy, who has nothing left to say, shouts, "At least my sister is really my sister." I stare at her and frown. Tracy has no siblings. "Ask anyone," she says and turns around to go to her room where she can watch TV and eat Snickers bars. Where her mother will take her side.

The realization that she is talking about Ellie rises in me slowly, like a blush. I stand on the huge expanse of lawn outside the child care center and feel my face prickle with sudden humiliation.

For days I say nothing. I am too nervous to look at my father. I cannot stand to catch him in this lie. I take care of Ellie and eat dinner at night at a table with my father and Lora. Here, time is measured with gongs and conch shells. Morning chants, evening chants. Days off when we can drive into town and eat burgers at the Woodsman. Maybe see a movie.

After a week, I find Aaron. He is fifteen, one of those slight, sensitive boys who will grow up to be gay but not swishy. He is a teenager and might know something I don't. I interrupt him practicing Tai Kwan Do in one of the empty shrine rooms. When I ask him what he knows about Ellie, he looks worried. Then he says, breathing hard from his practice, that Ellie's real dad is a German guy named Jorgen. Everyone knows, he tells me. Everyone. Jorgen went back to Germany and became a monk. I am speechless. I realize how much can happen when you are in California getting your first period and smoking what you think is pot but turns out to be something else. Oregano, maybe.

For the rest of the summer, I say nothing to my father. I take care of Ellie everyday while my dad and Lora practice, but now I see her bossy side and cannot stand her crying. Sometimes, when she won't stop, I leave her at childcare and go for a walk by myself.

I go home at the end of August. Back to California where my best friend has been waiting for me, writing me letters informing me of her new favorite song ("Eye of the Tiger") and her new favorite movie ("Reds"). I don't say anything about Ellie. Instead I tell her again about the meditation center, the swimming hole, the dances. She says she would like to come with me one of these summers. That it sounds nice there, spiritual. She is four months younger than me and still as skinny as a child.

I hate my rotten-colored school where girls throw maxi-pads at each other in the hall and boys grunt rudely when girls like me walk by. I hate the scabby California hillsides where I go with other kids after school to play truth or dare and drink grape soda. Seventh grade is worse than any news I've ever gotten.

On my thirteenth summer, I step off the plane in Boston with plans to stay the school year. I am convinced that the four-room schoolhouse and the play yard that doubles as a parking lot will save me. My mother, who does not know about Ellie or the boys that grunt or what the soft green summers of Vermont look like, cries when she takes me to the airport. She has tried and failed to convince me that things will get better.

My father is waiting for me with a woman I have never seen before. When we are almost to Concord he says, "Lora and I broke up. Marie is my girlfriend." Marie is small and pretty with stylish hair. She tries to offer me gum but I can only sit in the backseat of my father's ancient Saab and cry silently. The lush green roadside suffocates me and makes me feel sick and when we stop at the state liquor store to buy sake, I go into the women's room and gulp water from the faucet, until a lady with eyelashes like insect legs says, "I wouldn't drink that if I was you."

When we get back on the road my father tells me he has another surprise for me. Bile wells in my throat and I press my ragged fingernails into the palms of my hands. "We got horses. Two of them. You can ride them as long as you're supervised." My relief is so pure I think I might cry again. Instead I smile and tell Marie that I like her hair. She turns around in her seat and tells me she has a daughter my age. "You guys will be just like sisters."

Samantha Schoech is a contributing editor at On the Page.

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