In sixth grade, I declared my love to a boy by slipping a homemade paper doll of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust between the pages of the natural science homework I was giving him to copy. With the bright-eyed earnestness of first love, I believed I staked my entire future on the piece of cardboard decked out with a paper jumpsuit, a detachable red wig, and tall red boots—the details of the tricky costume carefully copied off a picture in TIME magazine.
“Thanks,” said Pete, grabbing the science notebook from my hands. “You’re a pal. I’ll give it back tomorrow.”
At home, when I’d been planning this handoff, I must’ve imagined it in slow motion and with deep significance to each word and gesture. It had taken me hours to decide whether to stick Ziggy between the pages with charts of moon phases or the lunar and solar eclipses.
The exchange was over much too quickly, leaving me with a queasy feeling in my stomach. Should Pete reject my overture, I told myself, I was doomed to stay forever alone, and moreover, in poverty, because I wouldn’t dare go back to school.
That evening I couldn’t think of anything but Pete’s reaction to my message. A bowl of chili slipped out of my hands and onto the hardwood floor. A few minutes later, I walked into our kitchen wall, spilling a mug of warm apple cider all over my sweater and jeans. Leaving my father to clean up, my mother took me upstairs to change and, with a few expert questions, got to the heart of the matter.
“But sweetie . . .” she started saying, then hesitated and fell silent. Before she spoke again, she sat down on my bed and took a good look at the dark window. She spoke slowly, as if to a toddler. “What would you think if you found a paper doll in your geography homework?”
“It’s not a doll! It’s Ziggy Stardust. And everyone knows Pete looks like Bowie. And Pete plays guitar.”
“Everyone? Do you really think Pete knows what you girls have been whispering about him?” I concentrated on picking at the threads of the clean sweater and didn’t respond. Mom said, “I know how much time you spend making your dolls, but, sweetie, Pete is a boy.”
I didn’t know what to say to this. After waiting for a few moments, my mother finally brought up what had clearly been her first thought: “Why are you letting this boy, Pete, copy your homework? You know that’s cheating, right?”
Today my mother reminds me about my unrequited love for Pete. Fifteen years later, our memories have diverged. “That boy used to take all your lunch money. You were so fond of him. He’d ask to borrow a textbook, and you’d slip flowers between the pages. Or love poems. You were heartbroken that he never noticed a thing.”
“Love poems? I never—”
“You used to clip my best roses and ask me to drive by his house after dark so you could sneak them onto his porch—And what about the brand new binoculars Uncle Mark had given you? I had to talk you out of re-gifting them to this boy. You wanted him to have something truly special for his birthday.”
“I don’t—What’s your point?”
We’re in the kitchen where I’ve just unwrapped a package that came by mail and have found inside six jars of Vegemite, neatly smothered in bubble wrap. This guy isn’t even Australian. He’s a Norwegian whom I met on a diving trip off the coast of Australia, the adventure a gift to myself after I received the seed investment for my startup. We’d known each other all of five days. I might’ve said that a little Vegemite wasn’t bad on toast with a lot of butter—but seriously what have I done to deserve the lifetime supply of yeast extract? An entire jar of the stuff smells like shoe polish. My first impulse was to send the package back with a note, “WTF?”
“Don’t reject this man right away. He might surprise you,” my mother says.
Sitting in my parents’ kitchen, recalling that cider spilled fifteen years ago, I’m feeling glum. When I quit my job for a go-at-my-own high-tech startup, a gadget and an app that locates lost objects, my parents offered to move me back home to save money. Several of my friends in the entrepreneurial community have made similar arrangements with their families, with encouraging results. To my parents, it apparently signified a vulnerability on my part, the need for advice. Now my mother’s guilt-tripping me about my lack of love life—
“Do you seriously think that to care for somebody means to foist on them Vegemite?”
My mother cracks the jar open and goes into the fridge for bread and butter. “Don’t look at me like this. I’m curious.”
I think back to middle school and imagine Pete turning the paper doll this way and that, tossing it aside to copy the homework. What had captivated me about him so much? He had this thick hair that stood up straight from his head: I wanted to plunge my hand into it, to see how it worked. When he was surprised, his forehead moved with the air of showmanship upward without creasing. I thought the trick wonderful.
My mother has opened the jar and is smearing the Vegemite on toast.
“Less Vegemite, more butter,” I correct. “This way.”
She tries it and shivers. “I thought it would be more like Nutella.”
“The man has a sense of humor.”
Now that the breakfast is over, I must go back to my computer. It’s been four weeks since the diving trip, and I haven’t even had time to look at the pictures. Even the most luxurious pleasures, the dives in the Coral Sea and the nights spent gazing at the Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross, fade quickly under the glow of the computer screen, rows upon rows of code. As the app is coming into its own, the bugs grow stranger, the solutions demand ingenuity.
My mother sits slumped over a plate of barely touched toast, rubbing the back of her neck. I’ve done nothing wrong, I remind myself leaving the kitchen, and think about the Vegemite guy. He maintained excellent neutral buoyancy. He was good at spotting octopi at a depth of twenty meters. His hair was birch-tree blond and showed pink scalp underneath. Without his fins and wetsuit, he looked sleepy, perpetually baffled. His mouth tasted of sea vegetables.
~ ~ ~
Olga Zilberbourg is a bilingual author who grew up in Russia and moved to the United States at the age of seventeen. Her English-language fiction has been featured in Confrontation, World Literature Today, Narrative, Outpost 19’s Golden State 2017 anthology, and others. She co-hosts the weekly San Francisco Writers Workshop.