The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 11, No. 3

Andrea Is Changing Her Name

by Kevin Brockmeier

From the very beginning, Andrea saw the goodness of the world as something delicate and unpredictable, a slender green grasshopper that would tighten its legs and flick away from her the moment she brought herself to its attention. Her father spent his evenings carving blocks of wood into hunting decoys. Her mother lay in the bathtub listening to American Top 40. Andrea sat on the couch watching TV until the sun turned the screen into a square of blazing white foil, then went to her bedroom to play with her horses. Sometimes it rained while she was asleep; and in the morning, before anyone else woke, she would go outside to inspect the big puddle by the mailbox. She could see a picture of her face in the water, trembling and breaking apart at the edges, then disappearing as soon as she touched it with her fingers.
     When she was ten years old, she returned home from school one day to find a moving van parked at a tilt on the street, its rotund rear tire flattening the grass above the curb. Her father was staggering across the yard with a Civil War chest in his arms, her mother waiting on the porch to take her inside. It came as no surprise to Andrea how brittle her family was, how tenuously made. For years it had seemed her parents were playing a game of make believe, a game that had only one rule: they would turn away from each other bit by bit while pretending everything was the same.
     Andrea stayed with her mother, while her father moved to Colorado. In fifth grade she began to dream she was standing in a field of sunflowers that reached only as high as her knees, which meant she was in love with a boy she had not yet met. In sixth grade she won her school's spelling bee; her first period arrived while she was sounding out the word quotidian. It felt as if a tiny egg had cracked open between her legs. She knew what was going on.
     She met her best friend, Rania, in junior high. They sat in the corner of Mr. Bailey's homeroom making friendship bracelets from embroidery thread, knotting them on diagonals so the colors would switch positions: green for the boys they liked, gold for the wishes they made, maroon for the secrets they kept. They spoke every night on the telephone, often for an hour or more. On weekends Rania would spend the night with Andrea, and they would stay up late eating pizza and watching MTV, or braiding each other's hair, or making a list of the ten people they would save in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Alone, Andrea liked to lie on the carpet and read: Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry David Thoreau. She began keeping a journal. She traced the lines on her palm with the tip of her finger. She bought a poster of the Beatles and tacked it to the wall above her bed. On days when she was feeling strong her favorite was John, and on days when she was feeling weak her favorite was George, perhaps because there was a vulnerability to John that she was afraid to indulge without an armor of her own vitality around her.
     She turned fourteen the same year her mother remarried. Her new husband was a smooth-tempered, sardonic man named Jon, who brought to the house a strangely wily intimacy that slowly worked to soften Andrea's mother. One Saturday she sat Andrea down at the vanity and showed her how to apply makeup like a grown woman—a little blush beneath the cheekbones, two contoured bows of lipstick. It was a lesson Andrea followed diligently until she decided that cosmetics were all so much folly and she no longer needed to wear them. In the summer of 1989, she learned she had been accepted into the arts magnet high school with a concentration in theater. On the first day of class, as she walked into the acting room, a feeling of nervous happiness overtook her; she had fallen upon a conclave of eccentrics. There was the boy with the Watchmen button on his beret, and the girl with the silent-film makeup, a flawless white geisha mask of it; and in the desk by the filing cabinets there was me, the skinny boy with the crowded smile and the fly-away hair.

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