Chapter One

My Boring Life

     Three years ago, the world stopped spinning. It stopped for me anyway. My big brother Jack deployed to Vietnam. The only thing that kept me together was the promise I made to him to do big things with my life and the hope that one day, the world would start spinning again. That day is today because he’s home. He survived a war and lost a leg, and I’m about to tell him that I’ve failed my first year at Barnard College.  

     The bus ride east from the Portland Airport looks exactly the same, and somehow very different. The bus lumbers through small town USA, reminding me that New York is another world away. Something strange happens when you near your childhood home after a year away. The faraway memories burst to the surface to remind you how little your life has changed.  

     When I was twelve the neighborhood troublemaker dared me to ride a rope swing. I landed at the bottom of a ravine, watching the life drain from my body. OK, to be fair, I got the wind knocked out of me and broke both my wrists. But it might as well have been death because I couldn’t write all summer. Or wipe my own ass. 

     As I stared at the sky from that ravine, I wasn’t scared. I thought, well, it's been a nice twelve years but I guess it's time to kick the bucket. Farewell, fairly boring, uneventful life. If you think I’m being cheeky, I’m not. I’ve always seen my life like a sparkler on Fourth of July — barely noticeable, and better in theory than delivery. 

     I was a strange child alone in her room most of the time with her nose in a book. I hung around with the grannies who congregated at the Boring Diner talking about Geritol and grandkids. Did I mention my hometown is appropriately named Boring, Oregon?

     The bus lurches to a stop with a sputter. Just like my academic career. My big sister Carolyn smokes a cigarette, leaning against a telephone pole at the bus stop, waiting for my arrival. Her big smile matches her big hugs and she always has a look of urgency, like there’s a crisis that needs dealing with. 

     She reaches her arms out. “Heya, kiddo!”

     “Well if it isn’t the next Gloria Steinem,” I say. “Been arrested at any protests lately?”

     “Not since last week. I better get back to it.” 

     “You look great, Car.”

     “You too, kid. When did our little Gavenia grow up?” Carolyn puts her arm around me and walks me to her canary yellow VW Bug. “You’ll be pleased to know Mum made cabbage with salad cream for your arrival.”

     “Gross. She knows I hate it.”

     “Of course she does. But she thinks it’s the bee's knees. Hearty British taste buds, the both of them. You mean you didn’t miss the blood pudding?” she says.

     “I’m the American kid, remember? I don’t share your love of peasant food. The way you Mancs can stomach jellied eels is beyond my comprehension.”

     “You sure you’re ready for this?” she asks.

     “I’ve missed him so much. I can’t believe he’s home.” My voice catches on the words.

     “I’m talking about our lunatic parents. Dad actually called Jack Hot Wheels and asked him to race the vacuum cleaner.”

     “He didn’t!”

     “Of course he did,” she says.

     We both shake our heads in horrified acceptance.

     “I see nothing’s changed around here.” I stop mid-step. “How does he look?” 

     She tilts her head to the side. “Different.” Her voice drops as she says it. “Now come on, he’s looking forward to seeing you.” 

     “Car?”

     “Yeah?”

     “What do I say to him?”

     “He’s your big brother. You tell him, welcome home.” I look down to my feet and she hugs me tighter. “Hey, you’re a tough New Yorker now, right?”

     “I’ve missed you, Car.”

     “I’ve missed you too, kid.” 

     The car bounces down the country road as Carolyn sings to The Mamas & the Papas on the radio. The way Carolyn said different keeps rolling around in my mind. Big, strong, charming Jack, our town’s MVP of everything, is now a disabled veteran. I can’t wrap my brain around it. 

     Carolyn turns down the volume. “Remember when Jack used to take you to get ice cream when you had a bad day?” 

     “When the kids teased me, he’d splurge on a banana split.”

     “You must have eaten a lot of banana splits.” She laughs. 

     “The years I had braces to correct my oh-so-British teeth, I had one continuous cold headache.”

     “My poor little book nerd. You really did have a rough childhood. How’s the Ivy League world treating you?” 

     “Don’t think I don’t hear that judgment in your voice.” A brilliant social activist has no need for academia, you see. She shrugs and lets me off the hook. 

     Truth is, I was not prepared for the bullying that followed me across the country and right on into college. If I let myself think too hard about it, Barnard was the only thing holding me together, and without it, I might just float away into a cloud of red hair and lost dreams.

     I can’t tell her that, so I change the subject. “Remember the day I left for school?”

     “You were so ready to bust out of this place. Like all the answers to life waited in New York or something.”

     “I thought they did.”

     “Do you remember what you said?”

     “Come on, not that again. I was a late bloomer, OK?”

     “Please, say it,” she says.

     “Fine.” I throw my hand to the air and scream, “Take that, high school girls. You can have your breasts, because I have New York!”

     We both snort with laughter. “That will never stop being funny,” she says. 

     “I’m glad Jack wasn’t around to hear me. He would have been mortified.”

     Her laughs turn quiet. So do mine. 

***

 

     And here we are. Back at my childhood home. A place where I am not a (failing) New York novelist. Here I am Gavenia, the quirky daughter of dirty Gerty and jovial John, the lovable but misguided folks who need a translator just to order a butty. That’s sandwich in Mancunian. 

     “OK, Fanta. Let’s get this over with,” Carolyn says. 

     One summer, Carolyn and her friends slathered baby oil and iodine on their skin. In an unfortunate display of my ignorance, I covered my body in oil, my hair in lemon juice, and held foil-lined cardboard to my face. I should mention that my skin has always been as pale as a baby’s ass which makes my freckles practically glow. My skin blistered and my hair turned an unnatural color. To my family, I looked like Fanta, the sugary pop, and the name stuck.

     Through the front door, the smell of a Sunday roast fills the air, bringing me back to the meat and veg of every single one of my childhood dinners. The family picture on the entry table was taken at the height of my awkward phase. Looking at that picture, I can almost hear my fifteen-year-old thoughts, Hello breasts, where art thou?  

     I drop my bags to the floor with an audible exhale.  

     My parents barge into the living room, arms out and already pissed — that’s Manc-speak for drunk. Dad with his thick glasses and Mum with her bouffant. Everything about Mum is big. From her hair to her personality. 

     “Well, look at you, Fanta! You’re right grown-up, you are.” Mum pulls me into her giant bosom, her floral polyester dress scratching my skin.

     “Hi, Mum.” She kisses the air around my cheek as she spills her cocktail. She pours me a glass. “You know I don’t drink.” 

     She shoves a gin and tonic into my hand, bopping to Herman’s Hermits spinning on the turntable.   

     “Hiya, love.” Dad puts his arm around me. “Your Mam has fixed up a lovely spread.” He points to the cubes of tinned pineapple and cheddar cheese on sticks, stuck into a melon to look like a hedgehog. 

     Mam is a Mancunian word that sounds too odd to American ears, so we’ve adopted the less offensive Mum. The parents still like to give the “piss off” to a few American traditions, so they hang on to it.

     My heart lurches when Jack wheels into the room, his left leg cut off above the knee, his jeans tied in a knot hanging sadly off the seat. There’s a scar across his cheek and he’s thinner than I remember. I see what Carolyn means. It’s his eyes. The vacant stare doesn’t match his big smile, which looks the same, thankfully.

     “It’s no mither. Me children are home, all in one piece.” She elbows Jack. “Mostly!” 

Mum and Dad erupt in laughter.

     “Aye, it’s a good fing that toe popper just bit your leg and left that handsome face intact,” Dad says.

     “The girls won’t care about your nub when you still look like Paul Newman.” Mum grabs his chin for a closer look. “You still got the nub that counts, eh?”

     Bellows of laughter again. I raise my eyebrows and look at Jack, who nods through a closed-mouth smile. Honestly, after a lifetime of inappropriate teasing, I shouldn’t be shocked by anything my parents say. Why would a war injury be any different?  

     “Don’t look so scared, Fanta. I got off easy, trust me,” Jack says. 

     I hold his hand, feeling a slight tremble. Is it his hand or mine? “It’s good to see you, Jack. Welcome home.” It takes everything in me to hold back tears. I want to throw my arms around him, but I can’t seem to make them move. 

     Mum boogies her way over to us, singing, “I’m into something good,” as she knocks her big hips into mine, spilling my untouched gin and tonic onto the shag carpet, where she proceeds to dance over it. 

     “Is it weird to be back?” I ask him. 

     “Nah, after the shit rations we lived on, I’m happy as can be to dig into that hedgehog.” Breaking a smile, he gives my hand a squeeze. “How’s the big city treating my little Fanta? You a big-time writer now?”

     “Not hardly.” A twinge bites at my heart. This year was such a fantastic failure, and so am I.

     “You should join our anti-war protests,” Carolyn says to me. “I’m gonna get Jackie to fight the good fight with us.”

     “She’s gonna parade me around like the poster boy for Vietnam,” Jack says as he waves his stump at her. “A cautionary tale of war.”

     “That’s great, Carolyn, but it's not my thing,” I say.

     “Oh, you mean saving innocent boys like our brother is not your thing?” she snaps. “Are you too busy writing great literary works on the power of menstruation?”

     She’s referring to my satirical short story, “Lady Menses,” that caught the attention of the Barnard admissions director last year and launched my now dwindling chance to be the first Platt to graduate college.

     “Menstruation was last year. I’m into aging spinsters now.”

     She pinches my arm. “Stop it! I’m only twenty-six.”

     “Me stomach thinks me throat's cut,” Mum bellows, signaling mealtime. 

     There’s something strange about coming home and getting cozy with the food you grew up with, wretched as it may be. The neon red Jell-O mold crowns the table. Mum only commits to time in the kitchen if it involves Jell-O. It’s the height of celebration as it comes out for birthdays, anniversaries, and, obviously, when your kid survives a war. Mum even dusted the bowl of plastic fruit for this special occasion. 

     Reaching into the mustard yellow refrigerator for a Double Cola, I’m reminded of the odd taste sensations of British immigrants that formed my childhood.

     Going to other kids’ houses for forced playdates that my mum planned, I was shocked to discover that other houses’ produce drawer was, in fact, used for produce. Ours was chockablock full of British chocolates brought back from their yearly visits to Manchester. 

     “Honestly, would it kill you to buy a vegetable?” I ask Mum.

     She slaps down a can of boiled potatoes on the counter. “That’s a vegetable, innit? Lasts for years, too.”

     My parents’ attempt at navigating America was as rough as their Mancunian accent. They never let go of their love of mushy peas and black pudding but found a place in their hearts for Swanson TV dinners of Salisbury steak and cherry pie filling in a microwaveable dish. 

     The TV is on, as it always is. Walter Cronkite’s voice ripples through the living room, detailing the blood and devastation of the day. Carolyn knocks over a chair on her way to the television. Mum and Dad look at each other and then back at Jack, who stares at the TV, motionless. My heart races watching the fiasco unfold. 

     Carolyn manages to turn the dial just as the images of bandaged limbs and panic flash across the screen. All eyes float to Jack. He doesn’t even flinch. He stares at the screen, completely devoid of reaction. 

     “I’ll grab myself a highball then,” Carolyn says. The only sounds are ice cubes clanging against a glass and Seagram’s glugging out of the bottle.

     “Stop pace-egging about and get your arse to the table,” Mum says. 

     We all sit, trying to move on from the awkward silence. Jack rolls back and forth, forcing his wheelchair under the dining table, knocking it a few times with determined eyes.

     “It’s lovely yous all are home, innit, love?” Mum gestures to Dad.

     “I’m well buzzin’ with all me family at me side.” Dad raises his glass. “Me brave son is home. Me daughter is out to save the world. And Fanta, you’re home, too!”

     The laughs reverberate off the wallpaper. 

     “Nah, John. Gavenia’s gonna be a brilliant writer, aren't ya, love?”

     “Um, that’s right, Mum. I am.” My eyes can’t stop from flicking a glance over to Jack to make sure he’s settled in. “A brilliant writer.”

     “Don’t know why you need some fancy college to tell you that.” My chest begins to pound. “Snobbery. Who needs it?” Mum waves her hand. “Not you, Gavie girl.”

     “You go to Columbia’s sister school,” Carolyn says. “The school for girls. Why do they have a school for girls? Oh right, because they’re a bunch of pretentious jerks who believe women are inferior and don’t belong in such a prestigious university.”

     I’ve been home less than an hour and I already want to run screaming out the front door. Am I getting smaller? I feel smaller. 

     “Nah,” Mum continues, “you’ll do all right, Fanta. Eventually.”

     “If the death brigade has anything to say about it,” Jack teases.

     My best friends happen to be a wonderful trio of grannies Jack calls the death brigade. I’ve been having lunch with them since I was twelve and they are the coolest women around. No one understands, but I don’t care.

     “Oh, those old biddies kept you from ever getting a boyfriend,” Carolyn says. 

     “Who cares about getting a boyfriend?” I say. “And those biddies are my friends. I’m excited to see them.”

     “Spending all your time wif the old blue hairs. Gavenia girl, glad to see you haven’t changed a bit. You’re exactly the same, aren’t ya, love? Maybe New York isn’t the place for you. You don’t belong there. Let’s get you back to reading alone in your room. Back in the old swing of things, eh?” 

     You know you have a Manc dad when he takes your deepest fears and uses them as fodder for family entertainment. 

     The dinner goes on like this for a while. No mention of Jack’s missing limb or the ugly war or my failures at Barnard. We talk about how Dad did just fine for himself without college, thank you very much, and who needs the big city, anyway? And how the neighbors got themselves a brand new telly, and how Boring will be buzzing to see Jack home, small town hero and all.

     “Jack, the news coming out of Vietnam is just awful,” Carolyn says. I kick her ankle under the table, and she shoots me a stern look.

     Jack opens his mouth to talk, but Dad cuts him off. “None of that rubbish! He’s home now. No more mention of it.”

     “I’ve got the puddin’.” Mum presents the Spotted Dick, and I know that I am most definitely home. 

My Boring Life

Release date April 17