My father flew overhead in a plane to Ireland, and Ruth May looked up at the plane passing and drove her tricycle into the paddling pool and broke her arm. Was that the year my friend was hit by a car and taken away in an ambulance one day? I don’t remember her name, only that she lived in a cheaper apartment complex than we did, across the road, one with broken lights in the stairwells and the smell of urine permeating the dark walkways. We always walked home from school together, till a car hit her as she was crossing the road, and she was taken away in the ambulance. The EMTs bribed her with chocolate and after a while she went willingly, but I will not forget her tears, nor the smell of burning rubber in the air, which brings back — every time — the lonely wail of the siren and my own sense of complicity in her accident.
Ruth May, howling in the empty paddling pool, looks up to the sky. The plane is gone, carrying my father. My mother picks her up, and off we go to the hospital. Ruth May comes back from some mysterious room with a cast, and she is smiling.
We spend nights in the living rooms of friends who live in a commune. Do I imagine it? The smell of incense; the sound of a guitar playing; laughter and clinking glasses. My mother is touched by firelight, and her long hair glows golden in the shadows. She is far away, although I could touch her if I tried.
And then we are going to Ireland. We are still in school when we leave. No. We have just gone back after the summer, and my father has been gone for weeks, and suddenly Mum says, “It’s time. We’re going to Ireland.” Dad is back, and we pack up the van, and he drives the Volvo. We take the ferry, and he fills the little head with bottles of alcohol, and we have to stay quiet when we go through customs.
Before we left, my teacher gave me a book about a flower. It was called Marguerite, and it was in French, and everyone in my class signed it. I kept it for years, till my mother gave it away in a frenzy, the way she did sometimes. We were each given a new stuffed toy, too, and Ruth May got the biggest one, and Leah the next biggest, and Rachel the next biggest. And I got the smallest one. I loved that little bear, even after the dogs tore it apart years later, and my mother had to sew it together again, make a mouth and eyes for it, and a dress to cover its shredded belly.
Ireland was damp and gloomy after the sunshine of Switzerland. We lived in a temporary apartment, a townhouse in Dublin, and I remember a square outside the front door, a patch of grass, and metal railings. We could have walked to school, but we didn’t. On the first day, the teacher asked me to translate something in French. I remember fromage. Cheese. I could barely read, and everyone laughed, because they thought I couldn’t speak French. It wasn’t that. I was eight, and didn’t read well, and then I remembered that people thought I was slow in Switzerland, and that Mum spent hours helping me learn to read, and I remember that I was the odd one, the hyper one, the one who didn’t track conversations sometimes, because I was living in my own world where words didn’t matter — a place of sensation and yearning.
Years later I learned that Mum wanted to leave Switzerland because they track people vocationally there, and she was sure I would never get to follow an academic path. Not with my reading difficulties. Not with my inability to sit still in a classroom.
Still, in Switzerland I didn’t know I was stupid. It wasn’t till I got to Ireland that I figured it out.