Monday, December 10, 2007


Category: Life Winners, Issue 8

Chelsea walks across the crosswalk with the little (and bigger) kids: poking, prodding, and offering assistance when they seem to want or need some help. With one hand, she fiddles with her eye-brow piercing. It looks good, but it’s getting on her nerves.
“Chelsea!” one of the kids, Brian, yells. He’s yelling really loud. He’s way in the back of the whole procession. To stop, to answer him properly, she’d have to stop everybody. Keep walking.
“What, Brian?” she tosses, over her shoulder. Chelsea is holding Shelly’s hand, and Shelly looks up at her, questioningly.
“S’alright, Chelsea, I’ve got it,” yells Mike from behind. He’s another one of the care workers, taking up the back.
“It’s OK,” Chelsea says to Shelly. “That was just Brian.” Shelly has already forgotten about Brian, and is looking at a bird in a tree about half a block away. She’s trying to head over towards it, dragging Chelsea by the hand. Chelsea holds tight, and they keep walking in the right direction. Everybody gets across the crosswalk.
Chelsea feels the gentle, rhythmic tug of Shelly’s little hand in hers. They continue back from the playground towards Gail’s House. Gail’s House is a residential facility for children with autism, and Chelsea is volunteering to help. She hadn’t really wanted to volunteer, but none of this has been up to her, really.
“You have a couple of choices,” Mrs. Whitmore had told Chelsea. Mrs. Whitmore is Chelsea’s Youth-Protection Probation Officer. It is not Chelsea’s fault that she even has a probation officer at all, much less Mrs. Whitmore, who is fat and old and seems to think she knows everything.
“Right,” Chelsea said, looking down at her hair, which had grown too much, and picking at her split ends. (“I have choices? Right!” she thought.)
Mrs. Whitmore continued. “I’m going to repeat this for you, Chelsea. You have to do some community service work. You can spend twenty hours picking up trash with our clean-up crew, or you can help out at Gail’s House.”
“Forget it,” Chelsea said. “I’m not going to pick up any more of anyone else’s garbage, ever.” She slumped further down in the chair beside Mrs. Whitmore’s desk. There were some threads, she noticed, coming loose from the hem of her jeans.
“Excellent,” said Mrs. Whitmore. “Gail’s House, then.” She closed Chelsea’s file with a snap, and riose to her feet, looking happy. Smug. As if she knew everything.
None of this is fair. Chelsea’s been caught shoplifting for a second time. A few tubes of lipstick – so what? It wasn’t even her idea, and she’s the one who’s gotten caught, every time. She’s pretty sure she saw the other girls, Rana and Sandy, laughing at her from outside the store, last time, when the blonde, angry-looking shop detective clamped her hand down on Chelsea’s shoulder.
She doesn’t even know Rana or Shandy very well, either. Otherwise, she would have at least phoned them afterwards, to ask them why they’d just left her alone in the store like that, or at least to get some sympathy. As it is, though, Chelsea thinks bitterly, she already knows why they took off on her like that. They’d just been using her, to pick up the lipstick while they “caused a distraction.” They didn’t even try to “cause a distraction”. They saw the shop detective, and they just left.
They’d figured out that Chelsea was pretty new in town and wanted to fit in somewhere. They have used her.
And Chelsea’s fallen right into it. She’s been used. She knows what that means. She’s a B student. She’s not stupid. She looks at Mrs. Whitmore, and Mrs. Whitmore’s face looks completely blank and unhelpful, with a fake, encouraging smile. Just like everything else.
Chelsea thinks, well I am desperate to fit in somewhere.
At fifteen, at her tenth public school in nine years, she’s been the new kid in town all her life. It was easier when she was just a little kid. At six or eight or nine years old, you just walk up and say hi, and start playing whatever game the other kids are playing. You might not know every game, and some kids can be mean, but sooner or later someone will show you how to play, and then everybody has fun.
But high school is different. In high school, everybody already has friends; and they hang around together in pairs, or threes, or gangs of five or six; they talk about clothes and boys and each other, they go to crazy parties or already belong to clubs. Most of the kids in high school have known each other for years. They don’t need or want any new friends, unless the new person is particularly interesting or cool.
Chelsea, by the time she arrived at this latest school for grade nine, and met Sandy and Rana, had (been) moved twice already in the same year. She hadn’t felt interesting or cool since the end of grade seven, where she’d actually been allowed to stay, long enough to join the choir and learn all the songs. She had just had time to perform a solo at the latest assembly, and everybody had been pretty impressed. But the day after that, they’d had to pack up and leave. Dad had a new job posting. Again.
“I’m not going!” Chelsea had said, fighting back tears, when her Dad broke the news after her solo performance. “You can’t do this to me! I have friends here! This isn’t fair!”
Her Dad had looked sad, but Chelsea could tell that this wasn’t going to help. “We don’t have any choice, honey,” he’d said. “You’re too young to look after yourself, and we only have each other. If you had grandparents, or aunts or uncles, or if your mom were still alive… we might have other options. I’m sorry about this, but we just have to go.”
Chelsea loves her Dad, and she knows that he always does his best, but this hadn’t helped matters at the next couple of schools. The first school, at the beginning of grade eight, didn’t even have a choir; and in the middle of grade eight, when she’d changed schools again, there was a choir – but it was too late in the year to join it. Chelsea spent most of that four months just, well, waiting. It wasn’t as easy to make friends anymore, and Chelsea was busy trying to catch up with the differences in the schoolwork, anyway. She’d known they would probably move again pretty soon, so there would have been no point in trying to make friends, or anything like that.
But then… they moved again – to Brentwood: here. Her Dad had said that this time, it looked like they might even be able to stay permanently.
At first, Chelsea was really excited, but that wore off in a hurry. They arrived in October, and there was a choir for grade nine at Brentwood. It wasn’t too late to try out, so Chelsea practiced her solo for a week in advance, getting better and better at it. Even better than she’d been back in grade seven.
But then, when she finally performed her song, in front of Mr. Walsh, the Choir teacher at the new school, and the rest of the class… nothing happened. Nothing good. Her song – from “Annie” – the one that had received all the applause before—didn’t go over well at all. Nobody said anything. There was a long silence after she’d finished; even Mr. Walsh didn’t say anything, and then there was some tittering and laughing from the back of the room.
Chelsea remembers standing there. She’s waiting – for applause, or something. She’s puzzled, at first. Then she realizes, with dawning horror, that the other kids are laughing at her. Of course, she thinks, none of them, not even Mr. Walsh, have ever been to her old school. Only she has. They don’t understand about “Annie.” She knows she did it properly. She knows she did a good job. But she sees that that is not going to matter. It’s not going to help.
“That was very nice, Chelsea,” Mr. Walsh finally says. “You have a lovely voice.” He pauses and clears his throat. “We’re just working on traditional folk songs here, right now, but I’m sure you’ll continue to practice your Broadway musicals at home.”
Chelsea remembers standing there, feeling the blood rush to her face. She looks at her feet. For a couple of seconds, Mr. Walsh actually looks at his feet, too. She has no idea what this is about – she only knows that this is not working. Not for her.
Chelsea was admitted into the choir, but it isn’t the kind of music she is used to, and she started skipping class. Nobody seemed to notice; she just shows up in time for her math class, when the music class is supposed to be over. Her first report card didn’t report any absences at all, even though she’ed missed almost all of Music. Her Dad asked her how she was doing, but she was getting all A’s and B’s. He was busy and seemed, as usual, pleased and satisfied with her. “Keep up the good work, honey,” he had said. “Wow, I’m tired.”
“Thanks, Dad,” she answered. She could see that he wasn’t going to be any help. Not in this matter.
At first, when Chelsea started skipping out of Music, she just went to the cafeteria and did her math homework, by herself.
She noticed, after a week or so, though, that there are two other girls—the same two girls, who always seemed to be there in the cafeteria at the same time. They sat together, a few tables away.
Rana has short, platinum blonde hair and dark, delicate features. She has a stud in her nose, large earrings, and always has her chin lifted up, as if to avoid some bad smell. She wears shiny, glittery sweaters and tight-fitting jeans. She is impeccable. Sandy, on the other hand, is just that – sandy. She has sandy-brown hair that hangs loose and often uncombed down her back, a sandy, freckled complexion, and usually wears a sandy-brown sweatshirt, or a green tee, with baggy pants.
Chelsea, casting sidelong glances at them from her math book in the cafeteria, marveled at how different they were, and how obvious it was, just from that, that they’d known each other for years. They’re always laughing about something. Chelsea wished she had a friend like that, like either of them, too. One day, Rana and Sandy started singing something, and then they burst into a particularly loud fit of giggling.
Chelsea recognized the melody from her first week in Music. She realized that Rana and Sandy are skipping out of Music, just as she is.
Chelsea thought about them later, at home in the bathroom. She looked at herself in the mirror. She looked just like herself: as usual, she had shoulder-length dirty blonde hair that she usually kept back with a headband, and eyes of no particular colour. She looked alright, though. There was nothing wrong with her, except that she didn’t have any friends. She began to get angry. Not at anybody in particular. It’s just that it’s not fair, she thought.
She was becoming terribly lonely, and she couldn’t figure out what to do about it, without changing something. She didn’t want to change anything important. Nothing important is wrong, she was thinking to herself.  I’m not stupid. I’m a B student. “B” means GOOD. I should be able to think of a solution to this problem.
Her cat jumped up on her lap. She pushed him off. He jumped back up again. She let him stay, this time; it’s easier than arguing with him. Besides, he’s the only friend she’s got.
A few days later, after school, she raided her savings and went to a salon. “Short,” she said. “Black. Purple streaks.”
She clenched her teeth and shut her eyes. When she opened them… there she is. Short, black-and-purple spiky hair. Eyes, well, still no particular colour. The hairdresser sold her some mousse and explained how to use it.
Her dad was going to have a fit anyway, so she decided to get everything done at once. She went next door and had her eyebrow pierced. She was tired after that, and decided to postpone the tattoo.
She strolled home slowly, poking and gingerly fingering the new ring in her eyebrow as she walked. At home, Dad wasn’t back from work yet. She dropped her backpack by the door and stumped up the stairs to the bathroom.
In the mirror, there she was. Again. Her new, angry self. Still the same eyes, of no particular colour. For awhile, she watched herself, starting to cry, and then weeping, in the mirror. Her eyebrow didn’t hurt. She just looked so different. “But I’m still me!” Whatever that means.
“When Dad gets home”, she thought to herself, “I’m just going to pretend that nothing different has happened. I’m just going to pretend that nothing has changed. Because enough things have changed in my life, that this should be nothing in his.”
So when her Dad arrived, she acted like nothing had changed. Nothing, really, had—just her hair. And her eyebrow. She sauntered down the stairs and interrupted his T.V. dinner. It didn’t help that he started crying.
“What is your problem?” she asked him. “Are my grades not OK?”
Her grades are OK. He is busy, and tired, and hopes that she is right, that this really is just a matter of what all the kids are wearing.
She wishes that he would worry a bit more, but she can see that he doesn’t have time. She has reassured him nicely, and he had to work the next day. There is no point complicating matters by complaining about Mr. Walsh.
“Honey,” her Dad said, “I don’t like this at all. But I’m going to trust you, because I know that I can. I know that this hasn’t been easy,” he added. “And it hasn’t been your fault.”
“Thank you,” said Chelsea, coldly. She was trembling, but she wasn’t sure why. She cleared up the dishes, washed them, trudged up to bed.
Chelsea woke up early the next morning and bumbled sleepily over to the mirror. She saw herself, didn’t recognize herself, and screamed. There was a responsive thud upstairs (her dad, most likely) which resolved back into snoring. Chelsea observed her new self.
“It doesn’t even look like me,” she marveled. “Maybe this will work.”
It does work, sort of. Rana and Sandy have been sitting in their usual spot in the cafeteria when Chelsea walked in later that day during Choir-avoidance. When Chelsea sat down, she could see them out of the corner of her eye, looking at her and talking to each other.
Chelsea pretended to be rereading the third page of her math book, as the two girls sauntered over to her table and look down at her.
(“Don’t mess this up!” she hissed, to herself.)“Hey, there, Goth Chick!” Sandy said. “You look like you’ve finally seen the light!”
Rana laughed. “Don’t mind her,” she said. “She means you’ve finally seen the DARK!”
Chelsea looked up, trying to appear unconcerned. She is a B student, and she knows how to sing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.” She doubts that they would have appreciated this. Still, she wants to be friends with them. She wants to have some friends.
“Can I help you?” Chelsea said, sarcastically. It’s the first chance she’d had to be sarcastic since grade seven.
Sandy and Rana both started laughing. Chelsea tried to contain her gratification.
“She’s got what it takes,” Sandy said to Rana. “Listen,” she said to Chelsea, “I think we can all help each other.” Chelsea looked back down at her math book. Her heart was pounding, but she knew, she believes, that Rana and Sandy could’t tell. “Good,” she said. “That could work.”
They all nodded meaningfully at each other. In retrospect, Chelsea thinks, it could be a John Travolta movie or something, with all that meangingful nodding.
“That’s good, Mark,” she says to Mark. Mark has been persuaded to hold a toothbrush in his hand and raise it towards his mouth. He has a twinkle in his eye, which indicates that it’s not going to be an easy go of it, to get him to actually brush his teeth. Fat chance. Chelsea doesn’t think there are any hidden cameras in this bathroom – who would pay for that?—but she wishes she could get Mark to at least get the toothbrush closer to his mouth. It would make her feel better, about her responsibilities. Autistic people, she’s decided, are like cats. Try getting a cat to brush its teeth.
Shelly is asleep, and Chelsea’s job is to wake her up for school. Chelsea opens her door and watches her as she sleeps. She has short, dark hair and looks like a little Italian woman in her sleep. She’s only nine.
Chelsea has to rouse her a bit – well, a lot—to get her up to go to the bathroom. When Shelly finally wakes up and sees Chelsea, they beam at each other. You can’t really resist Shelly. She’s just a nice little Italian person.
Sometimes Shelly goes to the bathroom properly, and sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she already has, in which case you just deal with it. If she’s already gone, that’s tough. If she goes properly on Chelsea’s shift, then it’s kudos for Chelsea. You write down what happened, either way, every time.
Shelly is friendly and sweet; that’s what Chelsea thinks. She always looks forward to her shifts with Shelly. Shelly was her first autistic kid, the first one assigned to her, probably because she is the easiest.
Help each other! For awhile, it seemed like they could. Sandy is going to be Hippy Chick, Rana is going to be Supermodel, and Chelsea is going to be Goth-Goddess. Sort of like the Spice Girls. Every day in the lunch room, during Choir, they discussed their plans.
“I can’t sing, and neither can she,” said Rana, pointing to Sandy. “But she, she…”  They are planning to drink beer, over at Chelsea’s place. They will just have a couple of whatever there is in the fridge, and her dad is always so tired, he won’t notice.
“Sandy can play drums,” Rana continued, “and I can dance. As you see.” She did a little dance. Chelsea laughed. Sandy banged on the table. “And you, Chelsh, you can SING. The sun will come out tomorrow!”
“Tomorrow,” Chelsea sang. She sang it properly, and they seemed to enjoy it. It’s fun to have friends, finally. She feels something reverberating somewhere, some vibration. There’s something wrong with it, though. She knows there is, but she doesn’t know what it is, and she ignores it, for the moment.
Having friends turns out to be kind of nerve-wracking. There aren’t any boys, although there has been a lot of talk about boys, to start with. It turns out that Rana has done some bad things, or other—is not popular, in spite of her beauty—and that Sandy, having helped her, is kind of on the outs, too. Chelsea never finds out exactly what happened – it wasn’t murder – but still, she ends up not feeling that things are perfect. On the other hand, who expects perfection?
It has only been a month since she started hanging out with Rana and Sandy. Chelsea can’t figure out what they are talking about, at first.
“What do you want from the drug store?” she asks, stupidly. “I mean, what do you need? I’m sure I could just buy it for you. My dad….”
Rana and Sandy just laugh.
“We don’t want your money honey,” Rana says. “Do we?” She looks over at Sandy.
“That’s right,” says Sandy. “Cheer up! We just want you.”
Richard is doing his best to stay asleep. It’s Chelsea’s job to get him up for school. You have to remove him, by bodily force, if necessary, from the bed. This is not easy, because he is over six feet tall. Let’s face it; he doesn’t want to get up. Can you blame him?
“Get up, Richard,” she says. “I’ll just keep doing this,” she threatens, in the normal way that you do, in the morning. Richard moans and turns over. Chelsea grabs his feet and starts hauling on them.
Chelsea takes a break. The sun will come out… any minute. She can still sing, Any time she wants. In fact, the kids like it when she sings. She’s thinking about Mrs. Whitmore. She wasn’t very nice to Mrs. Whitmore, and maybe she should have been nicer. She’s thinking about her Dad, too, who is probably still mad. He’s agreed to let her transfer to a different school, he has even said that she can have formal singing lessons eventually. But he says that that will have to wait until she finishes her probationary period.
Well, she, Chelsea, is not still mad. In fact, she is enjoying the new school, and she isn’t really looking forward to the end of her community service work. She is going to ask if she can stay on as a permanent volunteer.
Nobody understands what it’s like to deal with these autistic people – they’re beautiful, and she loves them. She loves them, and she wishes she could explain that to Mrs. Whitmore. And to her Dad, whom she loves.
She doesn’t know what happened to Rana and Sandy. She’s written to them, but they haven’t written back.