In 1995 I turned thirteen and my mothers bought a farmhouse near Ledbetter’s Orchard. White paint peeled off the clapboard, groundhogs tunneled through the front lawn, a mysterious crack in the living room ran from the floor to the ceiling. Mom wanted to hire someone to paint and retile the kitchen, but Sadie was confident we could fix everything ourselves. The first thing to do, however, was find a tenant for the carriage house. It wasn’t really a carriage house, but that sounded nice for the classifieds. Much nicer than renovated chicken coop. The previous owners had cleaned out the chicken shit and feathers and converted it into a one-bedroom bungalow with a kitchen and living area. My best friend Stephanie and I practiced our dance routine in the cavernous living room and took quizzes about what seasons we were (both winters) and our signature styles (hers, sporty; mine, romantic).
Stephanie and I had known each other since preschool and although she must have known about Mom and Sadie, she never said a word about it. The rest of the world didn’t seem to mind either, but to be on the safe side, Mom told me to tell everyone at school that my parents had gotten divorced when I was a baby and that Sadie was a cousin.
One day Sadie said she’d found a tenant for the carriage house. Andy was a nurse at the hospital and worked with Sadie in the psychiatric ward. With his neatly trimmed beard, round potbelly, and deep laughter, he easily passed as Santa Claus. Each year Andy visited the children’s hospital unit loaded with candy canes. His boyfriend Nathan was a waiter at a steak- house in Lexington. Mom said it’d be nice to have some men around and wondered if they’d mow the lawn if we took fifty dollars off the rent. In those days Mom always seemed to be mowing the lawn, or sitting at the kitchen table drinking a 7Up, her hair dusted with plaster.
Andy and Nathan swung by after lunch. They parked their red truck in the grass by the barn. Sadie was on rotation so Mom and I went out to greet them. Nathan had already stepped out of the truck, and as we walked towards them, I could sense Mom having second thoughts. “Nice to meet you!” She smiled with too much enthusiasm. At first I couldn’t tell what it was about Nathan that Mom didn’t like. Then I supposed it was the way he dressed. He wore tight cut-off shorts and a paisley cotton shirt; oversized violet grandma sunglasses; and, most alarmingly, black clogs, identical to the pair Mom kept by the front door. He was blond and tanned, with smooth hairless legs like a Ken doll. “Linda,” he said, and pushed up his sunglasses and brushed back his bangs.“You are stunning. Just as beautiful as everyone says you are.” He kissed my mother on both cheeks.
“Oh please.” Mom turned red, but I could tell she was happy. She both relished and denied compliments about her appearance, which she took great care of, putting on makeup and drying her hair in front of a mini-tele- vision each morning. I looked nothing like her. We assumed that my looks had been inherited from the anonymous sperm donor. By subtracting my features from Mom’s, I could determine what the sperm donor looked like, and that he wasn’t very attractive: I was short and pudgy, with ears that stuck out a like a mouse and teeth that would need braces next year to cor- rect the gap in the front. My eyes were narrow and slightly slanted and a color people had to search for. Hazel maybe. An in-between, not-anything color. In fourth grade, I wore a furry hat my mamaw bought me, and when my teacher saw me she clapped her hands together, exclaiming that I looked like a little Eskimo. She had meant it lovingly, but from then on, I was teased for my slanted eyes and regularly asked if I got them that way from eating Chinese food. My only beauty was my long, thick brown hair, like Jo’s inLittle Women, and so I made Jo_1864 my AOL screen name.
I waited for Nathan to pass his gaze over me and smile, fumbling for a compliment and finding none. Instead, he put a hand over his heart and dropped his jaw. “And look at you! My god, Andy—isn’t she the spitting image of Björk?”
I had only recently started watching MTV and found the video of Björk singing in the belly of a stuffed teddy bear to be so frightening and strange that I’d changed the channel to VH1, where they mostly played Mariah Carey. Still, Björk was pretty.
“She’s an Icelandic singer,” Nathan told my mother. “Beautiful, like your daughter.”
My face grew hot and I crossed my arms. No one ever called me beautiful. Mom’s eyes searched me up and down quizzically, but Nathan regarded me with such admiration that I wondered if I had ever really seen myself.
“You don’t happen to sing, do you?” asked Nathan.
I shook my head.“My talents lie elsewhere”…