Everything was going to be perfect, just as soon as I became a Butterfly.
Or a Hollyhock.
What kind of hallucinogenic do you have to be on to want to be an insect or shrubbery?
None. Unless you consider reading an altered state. I was fifteen when I cracked the spine of Slapstick, the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, and I experienced that kind of "everything makes sense now" ding that went off in Don Draper's head when he cooked up the Coke commercial in the final episode of Mad Men. Vonnegut spins your typical dystopian future, except that something wonderful has come from the slew of catastrophes that has befallen society. The world's citizenry has reorganized into clans: Butterflies, Orioles, Chickadees, and assorted botanically inspired fraternities.
Each of us instantly linked to hundreds of thousands of cousins spanning the globe. Hence the subtitle of the book, Lonesome No More. We'd all become one big happy family. Well, more like lots of big happy families. Or lots of unhappy ones: the Hollyhocks, Chickadees, Orioles, and Butterflies, each unhappy in their own way. This sounded even better than caffeine and wedge heels, both of which I'd also just discovered and still pledge unwavering allegiance to.
Reading Vonnegut wasn't my first case of family envy.
Mrs. Brownstein, my fifth-grade teacher, was a fresh-out-of-college hire at River Road Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware. If you were an outstanding student in Mrs. Brownstein's class, you'd get the privilege of receiving a dinner invitation to her home. My mother, who has diligently saved the writing assignments from my childhood, sent me a report I wrote in Mrs. Brownstein's class. It was on how I wanted to be a teacher and be pretty, kind, and have good penmanship just like her. I got an A, but Mrs. Brownstein added, in her excellent script, Okay, Anne, you don't have to try so hard!
Lady, you have no idea.
I was included in the first group of students chosen to come to dinner. She and her husband, also an elementary-school teacher, served meatloaf and an iceberg-lettuce salad. The Brownsteins were sweet but a bit on the boring side. They were exactly the kind of people I wanted to bunk in with. They seemed so orderly, so stable, so … unlike my family.
We'd landed in Delaware a few years earlier, without enough money for winter coats. After my father's latest get-rich scheme had belly-flopped, we'd lost our house and all but skipped town in the middle of the night. Camping out at my mother's sister's home, my father tried to find work, while my mother took to her bed and my grandmother slipped our aunt money for luxuries like food, shoes, and shampoo.
The only thing is, in my memory, Mrs. Brownstein looks a bit too much like Carrie Brownstein, and her husband too closely resembles the comedic actor David Krumholtz. I remember us as seated around a circular white plastic table on white plastic modular chairs, but that's also a description of the dining room set in my Barbie Malibu Dreamhouse. Memory can be a trickster. What I am certain of is that I wanted them to adopt me.
This plan was thwarted because halfway through fifth grade, my dad announced we were moving to Florida, where I found plenty of enviable families, parents with recognizable jobs, steady incomes, and homes that felt like secure harbors. Even though we had a tony address on a private island, there was always a sense that the bottom might drop out again. On any shopping excursion, I'd hold my breath while my mother handed her credit card over. Every purchase required a phone call to confirm the charge. Many times it would be turned down, and I'd hope no classmates were nearby to witness.
I wasn't privy to the details of the slew of businesses my father failed in, but his bankruptcies spanned everything from fast-food chains to soft-core porn. He was truly an overachiever in the realm of money mismanagement. Having your father lose your bat mitzvah money at a poker table falls under the category of first-world problems and white privilege on the scale of global suffering, but still, my mother's depression, my father's rage, and the volatility in the house were palpable and contagious.