Melanie lived in the house I most liked to sleep over. It was a boxy old three-story house. Nothing fancy, just lots of room with not much of anything special or expensive to fill it up. Her couch was the only one I ever saw in real life with plastic shrink-wrapping the entire velour cushions and arm rests and backing. Even the round gold pillows. Not fun to sit on in summer when my denim shorts barely covered my behind and my favorite red tank top left my back exposed. But it was so different from the velvet sofa in our living room, I just had to stick to it.
The kids were let loose in open attic space on the third floor. Five mattresses with unmade sheets and blankets stuck out from the walls, brothers and sisters all in one space—bean bags with duct tape patches, glow-in-the-dark posters, baseball cards, Barbies, GI Joes, and Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls. But when I stayed over, Melanie and I got to sleep in the first floor guest room.
For dinner, they had food like corn on the cob and homemade potato salad and hot dogs. Oscar Mayer. I always had two. With ketchup. At home, my mother never served pink hot dogs for dinner, because of the food coloring. If you were lucky, on your birthday you got “White Hots,” basically colorless hot dogs, served with mustard at the dining room table. Melanie’s family ate lunch and dinner in the backyard, on a huge weathered picnic bench family style, in tall grass her father never got around to mowing. The kids just trampled it down playing. They had a huge German shepherd, too, a female one, I can’t remember her name, that was really very sweet and gentle but rubbed its butt along the kitchen linoleum. I couldn’t imagine my mother letting any animal do that to her Spanish-tiled floor. Melanie’s family just said it was the dog’s time of month, and ignored it. Those are the kinds of moments that teach you how different some people look at things.
So in the daytime we’d play with her dolls (I begged to play with Barbie as she was not allowed in our home), or would wander around in the wooded area that met up with the tall grass. Joey and Mikey, her brothers, had carved out dirt trails and built dirt ramps for their bikes, and made a huge mound of fake highway tunnels for their Matchbox cars. We’d guide the little cars through the tunnels, around the fake mountains, down the steep roads. The bright metallic colors got chalky from the dust.
At night, we tripped across the mounded grass with her two younger sisters, chasing fireflies with empty peanut butter jars. Then Melanie and I would crawl into the pull-out bed and read together from the “dirty book,” as she called it. Her mother kept it high on the bookshelf, but Melanie found it and wanted to share its secrets. We read together. We fell asleep with careful distance between our pulsing bodies.
One night away was all I was allowed at a time. After this one visit, when her mom dropped me back home the next day, I walked very slowly down the gravel driveway. No one came to the door when I walked in. I went to the bathroom, closed the door, and pulled out from the pillowcase that held my nightgown and toothbrush a tiny blue Buick—top down, doors that opened, a little plastic steering wheel. I washed the dirt off under the tap and used my towel and a Q-tip to clean the tiny interior seats. Then I found my brother in his room, and I gave it to him.
You should have seen his face.