1/96—It is the year of the rat. In school you learn about chemical reactions, metaphors, write your seventh-grade language arts essay on the black rhino. You begin: Already, 92 percent of the rhinoceros population has been killed for decorative ornaments and sexual stimulants. Your teacher returns the paper with a note: Please use appropriate language! It is a bad start to the year. Doctors have found a tumor inside your mother’s colon. They talk about options: chemo, surgery, radiation treatment. “Everyone has cancer,” your mother says, wistfully. A blizzard hits. Your father trudges two miles to the general store for propane, water. At home, your older sister types 80085 onto your graphing calculator. You hit “clear,” begin again. Hale Bopp scratches across the sky, will remain until 2020, when it will disappear for what might as well be forever. At night you hear soft, musical weeping. You lay in your bed with the cat, listen to the rhythm, create songs. You title them “I’ll Love Ya,
Tumorrow,” and “Chemover Here, Baby.” You stay awake, you eavesdrop. You know everything.
2/96—Casseroles appear on the doorstep in disposable aluminum frames, cards with generic well wishes, scripted by Hallmark, American Greetings. The cat throws up on the landing, and your mother pours the entire gallon of undiluted bleach over it. “It’s the cancer,” your father explains. She uses the get-well cards as coasters for her tea. At night you hear her wail, “I know you’re seeing that woman!” and your father answer, “This is all in your head.” Skin hits skin, glass breaks. “I wish it was you,” she is screaming. You write: In many nature reserves, black rhinos are now under 24-hour armed guard. Heavy poaching in the 1970s and ’80s left the rhino population struggling for survival. You compare portions of your body to magazine models, deciding what you will become. “You have all the large Polish genes,” your older sister says. She stretches her slender fingers wide against the air like Chinese fans. At school you pal around with strays: kids on welfare, kids who collect free lunch. You forge signatures, field trip forms, detention slips. You are a master of deceit. “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” your mother says to you, emptying a green bean casserole into the dog bowl. “Now that would be a rare gift.” It is a leap year. You develop a crush. Everything is funny, inchoate, newly touched.
3/96—March is in like a lion, out like a lion. Your time is spent reading pre-teen romance novels, singing loudly to the boom box until it is confiscated, then listening to rain drip from the gutter like a heart monitor. When you hug your mother, she tells you your hair smells like rancid fat. She wears a blue turban, looks like a small, lost traveler, like Lazarus unwrapped. Chemo is hard on her. Your father clasps your mother’s hands, tells her that she is the strongest person he knows, that she reminds him of Ava Gardner. The cat is forced outdoors, weaves speckled paths in the snow, paws at the windows. At school, Mrs. Wenecki sets her glasses on her head, later asks the class if they have seen them. She cries. She gives detention to the entire class. Everyone laughs. At home, when you make cookies without washing your hands, your mother dumps all of them into the trash. “Now,” she says, “what will you remember?”
4/96—You squander your lunch money on vending machine food, sugar highs that last for hours. Classmates copy your algebra homework, and you listen to how other girls talk, how they flirt. They say things like, “I couldn’t care less,” and “as if,” raise the pitch of final syllables as though perpetually asking questions. You try it on a boy you like. You impersonate. “Have you done something to the cat?” you ask at dinner. She is missing. Your sister catches you wearing her jeans, hits you in the face with her purse, grabs your breast so hard it bruises. It is out of character, but so is everything. When you tell your mother, she says, “This is a big problem.” You start wearing baggy sweatshirts, extra layers. Your mother asks if you’ve been eating your lunches and you lie. During attendance, your teacher calls out, “Helen” and your voice, without fail, cracks like a boy’s.
5/96—You have lipstick on your teeth, size tags left on your jeans, a big number 16. You steal a razor, slice your thumb, the inner skin of your knee. Manifest scars. In biology the class dissects earthworms, pins their translucent skins open like trench coats. Your partner does all the work while you cry out about injustice. The formaldehyde lingers in the air for weeks. Sex ed is a one-day meeting in an auditorium where a “How to Know Your Body” pamphlet is handed out. The diagrams are black and white and look like jumbled mazes with no way out. When your mother hugs you, it is as if you are a buoy and she is a shipwrecked survivor. The style of the year is bowl cuts, leotards, bell-bottoms. Alone in your room, you dissect a maxipad, a tampon; you want to know how things work.
‘This is slavery,’ you hear your father shout. ‘This is madness.’
6/96—You finally turn thirteen, have cupcakes with strawberry frosting. You have never had a period. At night, you pick your mother’s wilted red hair from the drain, like some creature that has finally died. In your bedroom, you write songs like “Cancertain I’m Leaving,” and “Men-screw-ation.” When your mother asks what you’re doing in there all alone, you say “solitaire.” Your father turns forty. Your mother buys him a “Weight Loss For the Middle Aged” booklet; he passes it between hands like a malnourished football. When your favorite jeans go missing, you retaliate by throwing your sister’s blush in the toilet; you read all her notes from her friends, realize that she refers to you as “the rat.” Then you tear them up, throw them like confetti over her bed. She furiously picks up the pieces, tells you how fat you are, such a fat little roly-poly pudge muffin. She pulls at your stomach, yells in your face. You yell back, start wearing ankle weights, and she asks if you are now anorexic, and will you please make up your mind? You take them off, pile them in front of your closet. Late at night, your parents argue. “This is slavery,” you hear your father shout. “This is madness.” There is still no sign of the cat.
7/96—For meals, your mother serves soup, twice-heated macaroni, tuna sandwiches. Her body has the consistency of a plant deprived of water; her face is patchy. “Old Faithful,” she calls herself. You lean into her. Everything around you begins to sound like weeping: the coffee maker, the dishwasher, eggs sizzling in a pan, your sister’s clarinet. A boy at summer band practice tells you that pads are just tiny diapers. When you finally get your period, you read the instruction inside the box of tampons twice before a failed attempt. You attend your first concert with your best friend and her mom, who wears leopard print and embarrasses you both. “I love this band!” she screams, buys you both T-shirts, claps her hands, hugs you like a daughter.
8/96—Words like “Lynch Syndrome” and “reoccurring tumors” circulate through the house. “Perhaps the cat is hiding,” your mother says, like someone who is trying to convince you of a lie. Jake Adams kisses you at a birthday party; you stick out your tongue, not knowing what to do. At sleepovers, you pile into a bathroom with nine other girls, lock the door. You chant “Bloody Mary” three times. Nothing happens. When your mother is upset, has what you and your sister call an “episode,” you find that it is becoming easier to go somewhere else, to let your mind float upwards, like a raft on a swell of water. Your sister nicknames you Hel on Earth. You call her a psychotic. “I will not get in the middle of this,” your mother says, exhausted.
9/96—Mrs. Davis asks you to make a list of your family members and their defining qualities as part of an eighth-grade icebreaker. For you, it is easy. I am an orphan. I used to have a cat, you write. A globe sits by the window, painted with its extinct countries: Rhodesia, Siam, Zaire. Your teacher sends a note home: Am concerned about Helen’s depiction of family events. Would like to set up a meeting with the school counselor. You write a note back: Not interested, thanks! I have bigger problems, like cancer, sign your mother’s name, which is full of loops and love and all the empathy in the world. In the Children’s Encyclopedia, you look up male parts, which have the cartoonish appearance of a fishing rod, labeled: corpus cavernosum, prostate, scrotum. When someone walks in the room, you flip from “reproductive system” to “Ronald Reagan.” You are hard at work.
10/96—“It’s too early for the flu,” your mother says, but you have it. She brings you apple juice with ice, chicken broth. Her bony hand cups your forehead. You dream of barometric pressure, a crashing surf. Your father returns home from his business trip with Belgian milk chocolates, and your mother insists: “I only eat dark.” At school you play the wrong songs during band practice and giggle at the cacophony, hide in the bathrooms during lunch hour reading Cosmo, eating Airheads, Gobstoppers, anything sweet. The cafeteria guard, who wears deep blue eye shadow, tells you she’s spoken to your mother, that she has her eye on you and two others. In front of your friends she yells, “Eat. Your. Lunch!” Everyone is too loud. Everyone loses recess. At home, when you refuse to set the dinner table and instead take a long shower, your mother loses it. She picks the lock, wielding a metal spatula. It smells like lamb, fried onions. You have pubic hair, are still covered in soap. It never occurs to you to fight back.
When someone walks in the room, you flip from ‘reproductive system’ to ‘Ronald Reagan.’
11/96—You and your mother list all the illnesses that are more interesting than cancer: ebola, elephantitis, progeria, multiple personality disorder. She says: “If only I could have contracted mad cow disease.” You both moo, make horns with your index fingers. When you give a history report, you forget the details, make up silly facts like, “Guatemala is the lead exporter of chocolate chip cookie dough.” You have chronic blushing disease, sweating palms disease. Amber Ringer suggests you party with mature guys, and you agree. One of them sticks his hand down your pants. At night, your mother professes: “I just want it to be over, whatever it is.” She smells like alcohol wipes, vomit, tells your father to go to hell. “This is hell,” he says, looking sad. Your sister sits in a chair and says nothing. Only ten western black rhinos are left in the entire world.
12/96—Your mother is in and out of the hospital, appears childlike, disoriented. At home, in her absence, Christmas is canceled. “There is no New Year’s, either,” your father says loyally. At school, teachers stare at you sympathetically, overturn detentions, let you retake exams. They draw smiley faces on your homework. You wear the same black stretch pants three, four times a week, too much makeup, never fix your hair. Teachers call your name during attendance and you reply, “Absent.” Some days you visit your mother and she says, “I refuse to get up. I’d rather die than move from this bed.” Other days, she is feeling stronger, says, “My two beautiful girls, my babies.” Outside her window, blue lights wrap the trees like clouds. This is a year when no countries change names, no animals go extinct.
Photograph: David K