6.03 / March 2011

Shells

listen to this story

Karen used Coquina for the wings.  It was an easy decision.  She needed an easy decision.  She took a breath before placing the glue.  Another day she might have tried Spirulas or Jingles.  But not today.  Today she chose Coquinas, shells that look like wings even in the sand.  Shell wings, already open, attached, the two sides nearly identical.

Her daughter was in love.  It was a problem, that.  It will be worse than shoes, Karen thought.  Worse than cars.

Karen put down the tweezers she held and looked at the boxes of shells in front of her.  The tiny pale Aqua Operculum, the Orange Tahiti Snail, the Tessalatta Spotted Olive.  Romy used to love the names of the shells when she was younger.  She had loved the Creamsicle Clam Shells and the Pearlized Donkey Abalone Ears best.  But that was Romy, all names and textures.  Karen put sand on a cookie sheet when Romy was younger, just to let her roll her hand back and forth over the grains.

Romy had asked her to leave, a first.  But not only that, then she’d said, Can you close the door, Mom? and it had taken Karen a minute to realize why.  Karen had never closed Romy’s door before.  Every day of their fourteen shared years, the door had been open.  Open doors, a baby monitor, a doorbell even that they’d rigged on Romy’s bed.  All Romy had to do was push the button and Karen would hear the bahm-bahm-bahm-bahm.  That’s what she woke up to.  Every day.  Romy pushed the button. And they’d both lie in their respective beds and talk for a minute through the monitor (no longer identified with the term baby) while Karen woke up.  Those minutes it took for her to stand and walk the few feet into Romy’s room, grabbing the Dixie cup and the toilet paper along the way.  It doesn’t matter if you are fourteen years old and two feet long and have bones that break like raw spaghetti; you still have to pee first thing in the morning.  Their life was worked out.  But now the door was closed.

Which was in itself ironic.  Karen could hear every word Romy was saying.  Romy used a voice-recognition computer and they shared 980 square feet.  Karen could hear every Facebook update even with every door in the house closed.  Romy was IMing.

Romifyouwanto: You smelled good today.

Romifyouwanto: I liked your sweater.

Romifyouwanto: Do we have to do question eight or nine?

Romifyouwanto: Thanks!

It had taken Romy and the computer a few months to understand one another.  It obviously wasn’t made in the UP, Romy said.  So what now, I’ve got to speak Bill Gates?

It was a battle of wills.  The computer hated Romy’s pronunciation and Romy hated the computer’s precision.  Unlike her friends, there was no OMG, BFF, or WTF for Romy.  There was only correct spelling, proper pronunciation, and avoidance of the word which.

Of course Romy already knew they had to do Question 8.  Karen, listening, picked up a White Baby’s Ear and placed it carefully on the dot of glue.  When your mother takes notes for you in French, mistakes are rarely made.

Karen had seen this coming.  The usual signs: (compliments, the need for new clothes and makeup) and the Romy signs: (bouncing and extra breaks).  Whenever Romy got excited or nervous she bounced.  As much as someone could bounce while lying nearly flat on their left side on a padded wheelchair.  Her whole body shook.  She would sometimes have a break if she got excited enough, but what are you going to do, tell the kid, “Don’t be excited!  You’ll break a wrist/ankle/rib!  It’s only Christmas/your birthday/second period French.”  Romy did it without thinking.  She did it almost every day in second period.  Second period French with Madame Rodenburg, second period French sitting next to Sam Hersberger.  Sam, the six feet six, blond curls, green eyes, perpetually tan, kind, adorable, Christian-superjock Sam.  Sam, the prom-king Sam.  Sam, the fellow senior in third year French (What languages do you take if you’ve already done Latin and Spanish at Manistique High School?) Sam.  Sam, the mere months away from a Naval Academy appointment Sam.  Sam, of Sam-and-Casey-fame (that’s Casey Music-petite and sweet future kindergarten teacher, future wife of Sam, future mother of three, future widow at twenty-four, future grandmother of seven).

Karen placed forty-five Land Snails/Cuban Polymitas to create a castle drawbridge at sunrise, listening to Romy IM Sam.  This was a day large and small.  The day of the first closed door and the first time Karen began to think of Sam-and-Romy, Romy-and-Sam.

That’s really what shells are for, Karen thought.  To hide in.  To protect you.  To wrap you up in something exactly like yourself but just that bit bigger.  Strong and fragile and created by water and land and mass and weight and motion.

Karen never sat beside Romy in class.  She always sat directly behind her-taking notes and looking as blank as possible.  Her job was to be unobtrusive.  Invisible.  It sometimes surprised her what little attention the other kids and even the teachers paid her.  Karen wasn’t small.  The last time she’d allowed herself to be weighed she was well over 200 lbs.  A big woman.  But they looked exactly alike, just in different sizes, which was why when Romy asked Mr. Griffin in fifth period if people could be fractals, Karen smiled.

That’s a very interesting question, Romy, Mr. Griffin said and he’d smiled right at Karen.  Two people-two adults smiling-in a room full of sober looking children.

But Romy was right, they did look alike-two wrong-sized Snow Whites; all white skin and black hair, heart lips and wide eyes.  Karen understood the hearts of murderers each time some stupid person said, You would be a real looker, Romy, if…  They said it right in front of her, like she was invisible or deaf or a little dumb.  But then Romy could take care of herself.  She’d answer, I’m a real looker already.  All Karen had to do was take notes.

The boxes Karen made were sometimes called Sailor’s Valentines.  Shell art.  All different sizes and colors of shells placed and glued to create a design.  The compass rose was the most popular she made.  The shells creating the eight points of the nautical compass-the rose of the Sailor-pointing to each of the cardinal directions.  North East South West.  She’d made hundreds of them, mostly boxes.  When Romy was younger, Karen worked in the living room on a card table in front of the television.  Romy on a blanket on the floor.  Now that Romy spent more time in her wheelchair, in her own room, Karen worked at the kitchen table.

Romy had always been quick and funny.  It seemed to Karen that she’d been born talking.  They used to make up mnemonics while Karen worked on her boxes.  North East South West.

Romy’s:

Naughty Elephants Squirt Water.

Never Eat Sour Watermelon.

Never Eat Shredded Wheat.

Karen’s:

Never Eat Soggy Waffles

Never Eat Slimy Worms

Romy’s:

Noxious Earwax Should Wave

Never Eat Sea Weed

My daughter is in love.

It will be worse than shoes.

It’s the first thing Karen thought.  And the second.

Romy couldn’t wear shoes, ever.  The weight of the shoes would cause a break.  Romy wore socks or bare feet.  A benefit of her disease-at least where they lived in the UP-was her body heat.  Jake had always joked that Romy could keep their entire town warm if they could just figure out a way to connect her to a battery.

Romy always wanted shoes.  Karen’s mother found (baby) socks with shoes printed on them-cowboy boots, tennis shoes, ballet slippers.  But Romy hated them.  She yelled at Karen and her grandmother.

They’re for babies who can’t stand up yet!

It’s not my fault, Karen wanted to say.  I didn’t buy them.  I knew she wouldn’t want them!

Oh well, Karen’s mother said.  She’d bought the whole set.  They were donated immediately, boxes still packed, dropped off at the Goodwill.  What is cute for a fourteen month old is not cute for a fourteen year old.

Karen had tried to fight a battle against this desire for shoes.  She blamed that perky girl from Sex and the City, the one known by her initials.  She blamed cable television and fashion magazines and brand consciousness in music.

It’s commercialism, Karen would say.  Like cupcakes, Hello Kitty, and pop music.  Just because you’re female doesn’t mean you have to like them.

I know that, Mother, Romy would say.

Romy dreamed of wearing shoes and driving a car.

Karen was surprised when Mr. Griffin asked her about Jake.  Karen ate her lunch every day in the teacher’s lounge-just a room away from where Romy ate with her two best friends.  It isn’t cool to have your mother feed you when you’re a senior, but your two best friends sure can.

Romy’s Dad? Mr. Griffin asked the question in the same way someone else might have said Hello or Is this seat taken? He’d sat down across from Karen and pulled out a gas station ham sandwich.

Is her father in the picture?

What normally would have made Karen angry suddenly just made her laugh.  She actually answered.

Yes.  He lives down the street with his wife.

And then she laughed even harder.

Mr. Griffin looked confused.  He normally had an air of confusion about him, but this answer had proved too much for him.  He was, as Romy noticed, a positive picture of perplexion.

Sorry.  We’re divorced.  Her father remarried.

Everyone’s happy? Mr. Griffin asked.

Most certainly.

Karen used to say, when people asked, More people to love Romy.  More people for Romy to love.

Mr. Griffin kept asking questions.

And Karen kept answering.

Osteogenesis Imperfecto.  The name itself.  It sounded Latin and full, Italian (Im-per-FECTO) and Biblical (Genesis).  Not all that different from the names of her shells.  Interesting names, rich and crunchy in the mouth.  Emerald Nerites. Those Squilla Claws.  The Cardium Cardissas.  And of course the Tessalatta Spotted Olives.

It shouldn’t have surprised Karen.  People always asked her questions.  Inappropriate questions.  Strangers, sure, but also people who should know better.  They would ask her how Romy went to the bathroom.  How Karen kept Romy clean.  How they lifted her out of bed.  They asked her if she’d taken some sort of medicine while pregnant with Romy.  If Romy-the fact of Romy, the OI, the care she needed-had caused the divorce.  Yes, people actually asked these questions.  And most of the time, in front of Romy.  Because for the last fourteen years wherever you found Karen, you’d most likely find Romy.  Or maybe it was wherever you’d find Romy, Karen would be there too, somewhere in the background.

But there was something about Mr. Griffin that made you forgive him before he even opened his mouth.  At least that’s what Karen thought.  He’d liked Romy’s questions about fractals and he’d been tough on her during the last exam-he hadn’t made her extra credit questions easy either.

Romy is fascinating, he said to Karen over another lunch.  Gas station egg salad this time.

Karen didn’t completely understand why she wasn’t angry with this man.  She just said, Yes, she is.

She has a greater aptitude perhaps because of the OI, doesn’t she?  I mean she’s fourteen and finishing high school-that’s rare in itself.

They aren’t certain about the connection, Karen said.

It could just be Romy, Karen thought.

But it makes sense though, doesn’t it?  Mr. Griffin continued, his mouth full of yellow.  The blind with their heightened sense of smell.  The blind musician.  The deaf painter.  It’s proven.

Karen nodded.  She would not commit or comment.  It quite simply didn’t interest her all that much.  Romy was Romy.

But Mr. Griffin was on a roll.

I’ve heard that you know more about it than some of her doctors.

Who told you that?

Common knowledge.

Karen laughed.

The diagnosis itself must have been difficult, especially up here.  You take her to Chicago sometimes, don’t you?

Karen never blamed Schoolcraft Memorial or the Medical Center.  They had asked the questions required of them-had she been beaten while pregnant? Had she or Jake beaten their infant?  And these were doctors and nurses who knew them.  But what can you expect when your baby is born with seventeen broken bones.  Afterwards, the nurses kept repeating that it was a miracle she’d even come through alive.

We would have opened you up if we’d known, the doctor said later.

And there was Romy.  A baby who looked like a baby.  Perfect. Broken but not shattered, almost just like anybody else.

There was irony in all of it, Mr. Griffin said.  How, after the divorce, Jake had married a nurse.

No half-siblings?

No. She and Jake help out a lot.

And.

Sure, the help was great-yes, it took more than one person to lift her in the morning from her bed to her wheelchair and at night again from her wheelchair to her bed.

Romy started her period.

Mom, do I smell?

Of course not.

Karen loved the way Romy smelled.  Like yeast rolls and sweat and talcum powder and orange TicTacs.

I want to start taking a bath every other night, okay? Twice a week just isn’t cutting it.

Lesley had been helping with the baths for the last two years.  Romy outlawed her father when she turned ten.  But it wasn’t until she turned twelve that Lesley had to help every time.  That was the year Karen couldn’t lift Romy by herself anymore.  She could do it if she needed to, but it was better if someone helped, safer.  Less chance for breaks.  If someone else held Romy’s feet gently in the palms of their hands, separating them slightly, letting them neither fall nor rub nor touch each other, Karen could do everything else.  She’d loved bathing Romy.  Always had.  When other mothers stopped bathing their children, Karen still could.  Romy loved her bath.  She was a mermaid in the bubbles-not too many bubbles or she’d sneeze and have a break-all wet hair and chest and lovely fin feet forever at tippy-toe.  Her body buoyant, she felt free, her hands and feet in quiet motion in the water.

But then when bath time became a communal event and more often, it didn’t feel as special.  At least not to Karen.

But Lesley was great with Romy.

Do you ever get a break? Mr. Griffin asked, his mouth crunching corn chips.

Fourth period.

No, I mean a vacation, a night out?

When Jake and Lesley took Romy places, they borrowed the van and Karen stayed home.  It takes a long time to make a Sailor’s Valentine.  Four months, sometimes five or six.  Some pieces held 12,000 shells.  Glued one by one.

I’ve always wanted to go to Barbados, Karen answered.

She’d never told anyone that before.  Not even Romy.  Especially not Romy.

A reconstruction artist had found pieces of a Barbados newspaper inside the backing of an old Sailor’s Valentine.  Bought by some Sailor to send home.

Someplace warm, Mr. Griffin said.

Yes, Karen nodded.

Every Sunday afternoon, Karen painted Romy’s nails.  It was similar in some ways to her boxes.  The nails were so small like the shells, the polish and brush so like her glue and tweezers.  Romy loved blue and glitter green the best.  Her feet and hands were objects of pride. Along with her hair.  Black, princess black and long.  Both Lesley and Karen’s mother had suggested that Romy cut her hair-it was growing thin in sections, but Karen wouldn’t hear of it.  Romy takes pride in her hair, Karen whispered.  She understood.  They both had beautiful hair and hands and skin.  Poreless, unmarred.  Romy had trouble with her teeth.  But what a smile, people said.

She didn’t expect Sam to do it.  Maybe that was the problem.

OH MY GOD! Romy yelled.

Karen was in Romy’s room before she even took a breath.

He asked me to prom! Her daughter was not only bouncing, she was flushed and shaking.

He’s not going with Casey?

Thinking back, at night, night after night, she wished she could take it back.  That one question.

Sam would dance with Casey too, but Romy would be his date for the evening.  They would go out for dinner together, they would pose in front of the sunset backdrop-two poses one with Sam standing beside Romy in her wheelchair and the other with him kneeling close to her face, their faces only inches apart, both smiling towards the camera.

It was the kind of boy he was, but Karen wished he hadn’t done this.  Wished Sam and Casey had never thought of it.  It was exactly what they were: sweet, kind, thoughtful.  But something about it was cruel.  At the end of the night, the spell would be broken and Sam would return to Casey.  They were going to after-prom together.  To the silly booths the parents set up in the high school.  For duckpin bowling and the all-you-can-eat ice cream sundaes.  Romy would go with her two best friends-the Pentecostal girl with the long jean skirt and the girl in the thick glasses and frizzy hair who would be the Salutatorian and become an accountant.  They were all nice kids, but it was the do-gooder quality-of their friendship, of their conversation, of their attention-that unsettled Karen.

Sure, Romy was fun.  Karen knew that better than anyone.  Romy was sharp and smart and spontaneous and funny.  And she had amazing style.  That was important to the other kids.

Thank goodness they made little girls clothes now that looked like a mix of hooker and Miami Matron.  All fake Chanel jackets and jean skirts.

Romy worked her look.  And it isn’t easy to dress when you’re barrel-chested, two feet tall, and perpetually on your left side.

Karen tried not to listen.  Tried not to imagine.

Romifyouwanto: Do you think he’ll kiss me?

He was that nice.  Sam just might.

Romy was specific, but that was nothing new.  The dress had to be white.  The bag gold.  And she wanted shoes.

Karen often saw Mr. Griffin walk past their house.  He walked his dog twice a day down their alley.  It made sense.  They lived on Garden, he just lived a block away on Stueben.  And it was his first winter.

I’d always heard this was the land of underground tunnels, alcoholism, and domestic violence, Mr. Griffin said.

No jobs in Florida? Karen joked.

Surprisingly, no.

The rumor around town was he inherited the house from an aunt.  He’d visited some summers as a child and always romanticized the life.  Fishing in the summers, a truck with oversized wheels and a snowplow on the front in winter.

I wanted a fresh start, he said.

Better than a stale middle, she answered.

The door to Romy’s room was closed a lot of the time now.  There was too much to talk about.  With her friends, with Sam, even with Casey.  What color are you wearing?  How are you doing your hair?  What nail polish are you using?

Romy and Sam had it all worked out.  Sam would come to their house and they would take some pictures there.  Then Karen would drive them in the van to Floyd’s Family Restaurant-there wasn’t much of a choice.  The Applebees wasn’t finished yet.  So it was either Marley’s Pub, the Pizza Hut, or the Big Boy on Lakeshore.  Floyd’s was better.  At least you could get a steak.  Karen knew Romy wouldn’t be able to eat, she’d be too excited.  Karen wondered if Sam knew to cut the bites up small.

The local newspaper took their picture.  It made Karen sick.  Romy loved it.  Miss Romy Monroe and Mr. Sam Hersberger attended the Muskitique High School Prom together last Saturday night.  Mr. Hersberger and Miss Casey Music were elected Prom King and Queen last year, but handed over their crowns this year to-and the rest didn’t matter.

Miss Romy Monroe is the daughter of Karen Monroe and Jacob and Lesley Monroe.  Mr. Sam Hersberger is the son of Jim and Jane Hersberger.

Two weeks before prom, Karen began to string them, one by one on clear fishing line, the tiniest of holes drilled in the tops of each shell.  They were tiny.  Only three small millimeters of shell, all curved, spotted, and beautiful.

Karen knew better than anyone that it was dangerous to surprise Romy.

How about I use some Augers (Karen skipped the word Baby) or some Brown Melissas?  Or Phillipine Melissas, all those corals and pinks would look good.

No?  Mixed Nassa?

They would look so Jennifer Aniston with my white dress, Romy mused.

Why not use beads? Lesley suggested.  They’d be lighter.

It felt weird to use beads.  Romy picked out the tiniest gold beads they made.  Karen finished the shoes in one night so Romy could practice wearing them at home.

A white dress.  Not turquoise or hot pink.  Not even the red one that looked the best with her skin and hair.  She wanted a white dress.  One gold earring in her right ear (the other ear she laid on).  Gold nails.  And the almost weightless gold sandals-barely any weight at all around each ankle connecting with an invisible bit of fishing line to her first gold painted toe.

Then you’ve been, Mr. Griffin asked her.  To the ocean, he prompted.  Karen nodded.  Once, she said.  A high school vacation with her parents.  They’d driven just south of Myrtle Beach.  They stayed for three days and then drove home.  And what did you think, he asked her.  I remember putting my hands into the ocean, digging them in, and when I lifted them up I was holding a fistful.  It felt just like soil, only it was bits of shells.

Just that one time, Mr. Griffin asked.

Yes, Karen answered.

That night, Karen knew trouble.  She knew it by the whites of Romy’s eyes.  Just before a season of bad breaks, the sclera of Romy’s eyes would turn a milky blue.  Romy rarely looked in the mirror up close.  She’d wheel in front of the mirror on her bedroom door to look at the whole outfit but rarely did she ask to see herself in the hand mirror.  She trusted her mother’s steady hand with eye shadow, with mascara, and in the applications of blush and lipgloss.  But it wasn’t an ordinary day.  She asked for the mirror.

Please don’t let me get a break tonight.


Eliza Tudor is relocating to Silicon Valley (and the novel she is working on just happens to be set there). Her work appeared, mostly recently, in Hobart 11.
6.03 / March 2011

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