Karen Grigsby Bates recommends A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt, a selection in Day to Day's annual summer roundup of book choices.
Look at us. A family of four. Seated around the dinner table. Someone asks: "Pass the couscous." The son. The younger of the two children, he has a mop of sandy blond hair the girls in his class find excuses to touch. The older sister pretends to spit in the couscous before she slides it over to him. He rolls his eyes. The parents don't notice. They're unusually quiet tonight. Mom is at one end of the table, Dad at the other. Here we are. We do this every night. We eat our dinner together. Isn't it perfect? Aren't we the perfect family?
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Now look more closely. The mother also has that sandy blond hair, although hers is tied back in a loose ponytail, and let's face it: she probably could be more attentive to those split ends. The father doesn't have much hair to speak of and what he does have is darker, but the pictures in the hallway reveal that he was once a fair-haired boy with a suspicious glare for the camera.
Now look at the older sister. The differences don't stop at the hair. I have olive skin and almond eyes. I don't have the father's dimpled chin. I don't have the mother's husky voice. I'm a whiz in math. I can fold my tongue into the shape of a U. Did you know that the ability to do that is hereditary? No one else in my family can do that.
This is where we are all sitting, at the dining room table, eating Dad's Moroccan chicken with couscous, when my mother puts down her fork, fixes me with one of her looks, and says, "Rivka called. She wants to meet you."
Let's back up. Let me tell you about my day. When I was really little my parents used to start every morning by saying, "Let me tell you about your day." They'd go through every detail: "And then you are going to read some books, then you are going to have a nap, then Daddy's going to take you to the park to play with Cleo, then we're going to eat dinner . . ." Not exactly riveting information, but they said I had a problem with control and that I needed to feel like not every decision was being made for me. By the way, you'll notice that every decision was indeed being made for me, and telling me about these decisions wasn't giving me any real control over them, only the illusion that I had control over them. Which is kind of sneaky. Anyway. Let me tell you about my day and what preceded the Moroccan chicken and couscous and my parents dropping the bomb of Rivka on me.
School started last week. So you can probably imagine what it's like. There's a feeling like the year can go any way you want it to: teachers don't know you yet, your clothes are new, your hair is freshly cut and styled, and also Cleo's boobs got really big over the summer. I had suspected this all summer long and mentioned it to her on more than one occasion, but you know how it is hard to notice changes when they're happening right in front of you. So when we got back to school and a few of our other friends said something to her, she started to realize that maybe it really was true and maybe she should actually go to one of those old, heavily perfumed ladies in the women's intimates department at Filene's and get herself measured for a new bra because, as I mentioned, I'm pretty good at math, which includes geometry, and I can tell you with confidence that she is no longer a 32B. And then today Conor Spence, who's a total jerko jock but is also kind of hot if you like guys like that, which neither of us does, stopped and said, "Nice tits, Warner" to Cleo as we walked by him in the hallway, and she was totally mortified but also, I imagine, a little bit thrilled.
So after Cleo's boobs literally stopped traffic, we went to English, which is the only class we have together this semester. We've been friends since our diaper days. Her mom, Jules, and my dad met at the playground pushing us in those little bucket swings. They were both home with babies, bored out of their minds. They started to get together a couple of times a week and throw us on a blanket on the floor with some bright plastic toys we weren't supposed to choke on, although once I somehow managed to anyway. This is what they called a play date. And just in case you are getting any weird ideas about Cleo's mom and my dad, nothing ever happened there. Jules became great friends with Mom too, even though Mom was always working and not around for those mind-numbing afternoons of baby care. Jules would come over with Cleo for dinner whenever Cleo's dad was working late or out of town. But they never got together as couples because Dad and Mom never liked Edward. Eventually Jules had to admit that she didn't like him either, and when Cleo was five they got divorced. He moved to Scottsdale, remarried, and has two young kids. Cleo hasn't seen him since three Christmases ago.
In English class we're reading The Great Gatsby. I didn't read the chapters last night because . . . well, I guess I don't really have a good excuse other than laziness and my brother bursting in and out of my room to ask questions about his homework. I knew what he really wanted was to pump me for information about upper school, not about Algebra 1. Jake just made the gargantuan leap from the lower school to the upper school campus. It's an entirely new social order, and Jake is trying to figure out the food chain. All the people he's heard me talk about on the phone or with Cleo when she's over are suddenly flesh and blood to him. So he wanted to know if Stephanie Stark was that fat when she was going out with Mike Pine or whether her ballooning weight was the reason Mike dumped her for Heidi Kravitz. See? Jake needs me; that's why I couldn't get to The Great Gatsby. So in class I just sat there and drew in my notebook and listened to the discussion and actually wished I had done the reading because there were some things I would have liked to say. And mercifully, Mr. Nardo never called on me.
After U.S. history I had a free period. For the first month of school all the student groups have tables set up in the gym where you can go and take pamphlets (and free bite-sized candy bars) and sign up for the astronomy club or the yearbook or the mime troupe or the Pig Latin association or whatever. One thing I guess you should know about me is that I hate clubs. I was never a Brownie or a Girl Scout. From ages nine to eleven I slept with a Backstreet Boys pillowcase (I'll kill you if you ever tell anyone), but I never joined the fan club.
So my free period found me in the gym leafing through pamphlets and scarfing down bite-sized Charleston Chews looking for some clubs to join because Mr. McAdams told me that if I don't "diversify my resume" I won't get into a good college. The obvious choice for me would be to join the math club, but I don't even need to go into the reasons this will never happen, do I? I wandered around for almost forty-five minutes and was no closer to joining a club than I was when I arrived, although I did consume a staggering amount of bite-sized candy.
It's not like I don't have interests. I like to write. I read a lot. I know almost everything there is to know about movies. I make my own T-shirts. I've always been fascinated by penguins, yet there doesn't seem to be a penguin club offering free Tootsie Pops. I guess there just isn't anything that defines me enough that I feel the need to make it official. It's like getting a tattoo. They're cool and I'd love to get one, once I come to terms with the fact that my parents would throw me out of the house, but I just can't come up with a symbol or a word or an image that says enough about who I am that I can live with it forever. But today, standing in that gym, surrounded by brightly colored Xeroxed pamphlets and miniature second-tier candy bars, I realized that there is this one thing that defines me, but there isn't a club for it and I can't tattoo it on my shoulder blade or on my ankle or on the small of my back. And I stood there through the ringing of the bell for fourth period and felt the sound ricochet inside my hollow head.
Excerpted from A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt Copyright © 2006, Dana Reinhardt. Reprinted by permission of Wendy Lamb Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.