Note that this story is fairly long, and I’ve only added the first chapter here. It’s something I wrote as a teenager/young adult. I can see how my writing style has changed quite a bit. The title “Mt. Sapo” is just a thought.
My daddy told me a piece of trivia when I was five: According to the Romans, Mt. Sapo, a mythological sacrificial mountain, had washed-off wood ash and animal fats, which resulted in the first soap ever. I wondered why the aftermath of death and destruction resulted in the matter of cleanliness. From that young age and onward, I wanted to smell good wherever I went, which was usually bicycling around the neighborhood just north of Del Obispo Street near Paseo Adelanto in San Juan Capistrano, California.
I then ventured out to Los Angeles, where I would have Mother or Daddy take me to obscure little shops so that I could find almonds and peppermint and glycerin and eucalyptus and all kinds of irritants and spices and oils and other things. I took long baths during my early years and handed out awkward-looking soaps with glitter and tiny smiling faces to relatives for birthdays and Christmases.
I was doing this in the name of science and smelling good and old sacrifices. I learned of fixatives, additives, cold and hot processes, rebatching, saponification, and all these other terms that normally a five-year-old does not come across. Until age twelve, I had my own backyard business of making and selling home-made soaps of all kind – lavender, lilac, jasmine, pinyon, you name it — to the neighborhood. I made 100 dollars in one summer. Then my world changed.
It was 1982, and I was 13 then: Holly Hemlock hailing from an emerald beach town of returning swallows, and there I was, with a passion for the Dead Kennedys and old Michael Jackson music, surfing, sunshine, and scented soaps. I had dreams of opening my own real shop when I grew up. It would be in an antiquated neighborhood somewhere with soft palms above me, and I would study chemistry at college.
Everything changed when my mother found my dad with another man, kicked him out of the house, and started sexing up random strangers she met on business trips to New York City and Chicago. One of these men, Larry Fishook, would become her new husband and the reason we would move East.
I forgot about making soaps for about ten years.
We moved East, where I met Kate Doherty during pre-registration for 8th grade in early August that same year I stopped making soaps and we moved 2,000 miles.
I hated this town already. My superiority complex came from the fact that I was born and raised in a much cooler place, a place that grew stars and famous people, a place where we surfed in the summer and skied in the winter, a place where everything was grand and sparkling. Chicago was so uncool, and my stepdad. Oh, my God. That man was the most boring and pretentious jerk I’d ever met. Of course, my mother was all over him and stopped paying much attention to me. Come to think of it, when had she paid any attention to me before?
I wasn’t to the point of wearing dark clothes and imitating Sylvia Plath or trying to be a punk bitch with purple hair; I was way too civilized for that. My musical interests were punk and rock, but I didn’t follow any fashion because of it. The only fashion I’d ever clung to was genuine: Roxy clothing. I’d surfed all my life, but out here it didn’t matter. I wasn’t blond and tan and giggly. I wasn’t a Valley Girl either. What I was? An observant, reserved girl who had golden skin, a few freckles, dark brown hair, and weird hazel eyes that turned between brown and green and an almond color. Pretty plain. My California status was lost the minute I landed in Illinois. I was too shy to meet people, so it was Kate who brought us together. She wasn’t shy at all.
Anyway, the day I first met Kate, she and I were standing in an outside line at the school, and the humidity was overbearing. I was wearing a cotton sundress that my mother had made for me. It was a pretty unhip thing to wear, all lacy and light, but I wasn’t looking to fit in here, not yet. I saw Kate first. It was impossible not to notice her. She was arguing with a mousy-looking woman who was standing behind a registration table and allowing the kids to sign up for their classes. I heard Kate say “I know I took Spanish last year, but this year I’m taking French.” Her voice was poised with determination.
The lady behind the table said, “Well, perhaps you should talk with your counselor. We recommend…”
“Fuck that,” Kate said loudly. “I’m taking French!” Kate’s cold eyes turned a piercing blue and she rested a fist on her hip. “I can decide my own courses as long as they follow the requirements, and there is no rule on here that says you must take the same foreign language more than one year in a row.”
“Of course not, dear, but it’s just our advice that you stick with the same …”
“Not going to do it. Now, sign me up for French 1, and we’ll be done quickly.”
I noticed that other people were now staring at Kate. She was wearing jeans that had been bleached in places and a t-shirt that said “The Ramones”. She wasn’t budging.
The lady rolled her eyes and sighed. A man came over to see if he could help, and Kate let out another string of profanities and demands, until finally they took her name and her parents’ number, but did allow Kate to sign up for French. Kate did have a point, of course, and I’m sure if she would have been sweet about things, they would have just signed her up with no problem. Nevertheless, this tall skinny chick didn’t seem the least bit afraid that her parents would be notified of her behavior, nor was she intimidated by anyone.
When she turned away to leave, she caught me staring. “What are you looking at, bitch?”
I was startled and squinted my eyes. I said nothing. What was there to say?
She passed me and then stopped. “You new here?”
“Where ya from?”
“See ya around then.” And then she was off.
The Doherty house, whose inhabitants included an aloof mother Grace, her alcoholic husband Liam, and their six children, was set apart from other homes in the near-West Chicago bungalow neighborhood, due in part to its grandness of frame and structure as well as its inner surprises, mysteries, and secrets. The large Victorian had been built by a great-grandfather of Liam’s, but in the early 1980s though retaining its elaborate essence, had undergone the evolution of Doherty wives who had inhabited it–most notably now by Grace’s eccentric decorating, which her eldest daughter Emma referred to as “The Clash”.
It was true. When I started getting to know Kate in junior high and she invited me over to make brownies after school one day, my sense of observation was illuminated by an interior design style that I grew enlightened with quickly. Forgetting for a moment that I had met a real friend in the area since my move from southern California, I followed Kate on her “grand tour,” stunned by the existence of perks and quirks behind every corner.
The front room, the only space in the house that even remotely contained a hint of what a Victorian room might look like, seemed suitable for high tea parties and entertaining, though Grace and Liam were not exactly socialites. Antique mahogany tables were delicately carved and moulded, some with imported Italian marble as their surfaces; French reproduction chairs arched gracefully and bragged fine upholstery; and brass and teak figurines lazed shadow-like on tabletops and shelves. Odd lamps, which cast a somewhat somber glow about the room, had been placed in just the right places for reading or small talk in the evening, but didn’t send out enough light to hide the room’s many ghosts. On the west wall was an old black marble fireplace, which was only lit on the coldest evenings, its blaze warming the otherwise perpetually cool room. A large maroon, gold rug, with tiny posies and plaited fringe, covered the exotic maple floor. A bay window, which leaked sunshine that cascaded across the large wrap-around front porch in front, shed light on a grand piano, upon which Kate and I would eventually learn to play songs such as “Santa Lucia.” Kate’s younger sister Eve was the only great piano player in the home, though all the children had been forced to take lessons at one time.
Beyond the Victorian area were two other rooms that might be described as family rooms, though the first was more like a library or den. It was unkempt and terribly cluttered but luscious and alive with plants, incense burners, and effigies. Large vases and bags of potting soil and fertilizer were always leaking in the corner with color and dirt, next to a sliding glass door that led out to a little marvel of a stone-patio garden, where Grace could be found often, clipping hedges and roses, and wiping sweat and gnats from her brow. One night I went out to the patio by myself and saw, on a small, round cocktail table, a single saucer with two partially smoked cigarettes and a half-burned candle. There was a distinct odor of jasmine, whose vines crawled a nearby wrought iron fence, and a fainter odor of fine wine. The picture never left my mind; it seemed as though a secret, quick rendezvous had taken place beneath the canopy of over-running leaves and flowers. Essentially, that image also described the way I would come to feel about the Dohertys and the things I discovered with them.
Back inside, a plush futon faced a small television, and two mismatched chaise lounges sat near large bookshelves that held complete Encyclopedia Britticanica’s (which third-eldest daughter Eve had purchased without permission, from a door-to-door salesman) as well as entire volumes of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton. There were other books as well, and though the rest of the room often appeared disorderly, Grace had taken great care to organize the library–not alphabetically nor by time period, but by what she called “the ages at which a book is read.” The bottom shelves held childhood classics; the next highest shelves contained reading essential to high school; the next, more complex college reading, and so on. The top shelves consisted of reference books, old and new, about art, history, war, photography, gardening, travel, and so on. Kate’s wild paintings had been framed with expensive wood and gold-plated material, and hung, many of them slightly lopsided, on the rose-colored plastered walls.
The family room beyond the library had an early 70’s theme, which neither Grace nor Liam cared to change anytime soon. A white fireplace centralized the room, while brown leather sofas and chairs circumvented an expensive entertainment center. It was here that Liam kept his bar, and here that he spent the most time. A large backdrop window revealed the wooden deck outside the back of the house, as well as a jadey lawn spiced with various attempts at landscaping by Grace, but in reality was full of weeping willows, poorly designed and strange gardens, and overflowing foliage. It was nearly impossible to walk a straight line in the Doherty’s back yard.
Circling back to the rest of the first floor was a tiny back foyer with mosaic tiling so beautiful that it might have been polished daily by a maid, which the Dohertys did not have, but instead was peppered in the warmer seasons by muddy shoes and flip-flops and in the colder seasons by hockey and ice skates as well as snow-mucked boots and shoes. Beyond that was a dining room so dark and plain that even to this day I cannot recall it vividly, perhaps because I never ate in the room. Large brocade curtains dimmed everything; what I do remember are dark shadows of a large oval table and fine chairs as well as a china cabinet of some sort that had various and numerous types of tumblers, shot glasses, beer mugs, and so on. I knew this because Liam had a habit of needing the correct type of glass for each drink, and during his binges would mix different types of alcohol, thus escaping often to the dining room for a different cocktail glass. Sometimes by the end of the night, if Grace had already gone to bed (for if she stayed up late, she would have cleaned up after Liam), there would be a montage of glasses stacked on the glass coffee table between the leather sofa and loveseat. The first time I noticed this, I also saw an overflowing ashtray and could hear the light sounds of Handel still emanating from the stereo.
By contrast, the kitchen was soulful and airy and bright. Its decor was modern to the 80s, and included all the most expensive appliances and doohickeys. Even so, Grace had taken great care to make the kitchen cozy, as she thought a kitchen should be. She hid appliances in cupboards until they were used, and hung copper pots and pans, as well as a spice cabinet, in various spots along the yellow walls. Grace always had something cooking, which meant the kitchen, and the rest of the large first floor, exuded a great scent at all times, even after meals were finished. Grace knew the right spices to make this so. Kate said it had to do with bay leaves and thyme, or fresh cilantro, depending on the ethnicity of the dish. Near the kitchen’s one large window was a built in booth and table, where we would eat and snack, and set brownies out to cool.
Between the kitchen/dining area of the home and the living areas were two bathrooms and two staircases. One staircase, leading from the front foyer, was the main access to the second floor. Somewhere near the back–it seems like a maze now–was a spiral staircase so narrow in width that we were glad we were willowy and thin, as were all the Dohertys; otherwise we would not fit nor be able to ascend the tight, swirling stairs.
Upstairs was a conundrum of bedrooms and bathrooms circling a sewing area. All I remember well was Kate’s bedroom, as we often dreamed and laughed and talked there. Her room contained her distinct personality, that of a girl whose interests ranged from horses to painting. Kate was definitely not mainstream; neither was I, and perhaps that’s why we connected so well. While her room was a feminine one with lacy curtains and soft bedding, her paintings were abstract and her horse figurines numerous. Kate’s room was the first on the left of the circle, and faced the front of the house.
I had gone into the other siblings’ rooms only a few times, mostly sneaking in with Kate to see what was “up” while the party was away. Privacy was a large concern in the family, and was mostly upheld with respect. But I did get a sense of personalities extended to each room. The parents’ room in the back was huge and overlooked the deck and lawn below. The bathroom was full of lights, mirrors, perfumes, pills, and cosmetics.
Abigail, the youngest daughter at age ten, had the smallest room. In it were collections of butterflies and beetles. Some dead, some alive. Posters of insects and animals covered the otherwise pink walls, and Abby’s dressers were always open and leaking clothes. The dresser drawers personified Abby: perpetually open and bubbly and distracted. As the baby of the family, she was both spoiled and not taken as seriously as the others. However, her innate oneness with the outside world was a boon to her young mind, and everyone in the family appreciated this trait. Because of Abby, the family had two lazy, quiet cats (usually found sleeping in Abby’s windowsill), and a Beagle named Boomer, also a native of her room.
Eve, age eleven, had a room next to Abby’s. Eve was the quietest of the Dohertys, the bookworm, and she had collected a large amount of books from the downstairs library and stored them up in her room, scattered amid bookshelves that Liam had built five years prior. Sometimes Grace collected these books and took them down to their proper place, but Eve constantly refilled her selection. Eve was a dreamer, much like Grace, but more polite and gentle, and wrote in a diary every night. Once Kate and I passed her room, and peeked in to see that Eve was sitting like a princess next to her window, looking out to the stars, pausing, and then writing in a notebook. Her only light was an old lantern. Eve heard us, and nodded, but kept her door closed after that, though sometimes we could hear her playing her small upright piano that sat in the corner of her room.
Next to Eve’s room, following the circle around the sewing room, was Emma’s room. Emma seemed old to us then, but she was only seventeen. It’s just that she was senior in high school already, and had been accepted to Harvard. She wore glasses and, though snooty, retained an air of the utmost sophistication and maturity. All the Doherty children were bright in different ways, but Emma was the only Ivy League material in the family. Her focus was literature, but unlike Eve, who read romance and mystery novels, Emma studied Russian novelists. Like Eve, she had also gathered books from the downstairs library, and stored them on her own shelves: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekov, Gorky, the rest. When I met Kate, Emma had just finished writing a dissertation of the subservient role of women in Russia after the Japanese war. Grace never bothered the books that Emma brought to her room.
Besides the secretive master bedroom that Liam and Grace shared and which I only saw once, the second floor of daughter rooms was filled with what you might expect from so many girls: patterns and frilly or leather fabrics scattered about the central room, dried flowers, nylons hanging on wooden banisters, scents of soaps and perfumes, Cosmopolitan magazines left half-read on sunny rugs, the smell of female sweat and long showers–an array of sunshine, oval rugs, bath salts, lipsticks, powders, and dead butterflies .
A third floor, or what Kate called the attic, had two separate rooms: one for Alex, age fifteen and the other for Joshua, the only adopted child, age sixteen.
The story is that after having Emma, and wanting many more children, Grace and Liam put off childbirth for a year so that she Grace could finish her Ph.D. Grace took a sabbatical that year to publish a book, and meanwhile felt sorry for a young friend who had died in childbirth. The father of the baby had deserted, and Grace, in one of her last acts of true charity before bearing more children and becoming stern-faced, was to adopt Joshua. She had fallen in love with him right away, desired a son, and since Liam agreed to whatever Grace decided, they found themselves with a second child when Emma was only a year old. Later, they would have four more children, nearly one a year (Abigail was an accident), until Grace grew tired, got a tubal ligation, and left her children with a nanny so that she could continue her career as a language professor. By the time I met Kate, Grace was teaching only part-time. Perhaps the years of raising children, growing used to her husband’s drinking, and trying to teach had gotten to her. By the time most of her children reached their teenage years, she focused on gardening and cooking, and keeping to herself.
Joshua was unlike the other children in that he wasn’t too eccentric, nor did he carry any shade of the blond to red hair that the rest of the family had. Joshua was gentle and sweet, unlike the rest of the Dohertys who could be moody, cynical, sarcastic, and blunt. Joshua was their “good child,” one who never did wrong, at least as far as they knew. He was the typical suburban kid who played hockey and helped shovel driveways. He was good with his hands, always building something and helping Liam with plumbing and electric problems. When I first met Joshua, whom I later called Josh, I felt as though he were my own brother, a sibling I had always desired. His eyes were green and round, and innocent looking; his hair short and no-nonsense. I found a soothing pleasure when gazing at Josh and talking with him. Outside of Kate, I would end up being closest to him and often spent time lounging in his attic room, which held nearly no personality–unlike the boy in it, whose kindness, intelligence on a wide variety of subjects, and friendship I cherished.
Alex, the only biological son of the Dohertys, went rebellious the year I met Kate, but he got away with it. His room was filled with posters of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, and Foghat. Alex grew out his strawberry blond hair, his large blue eyes became perpetually stoned-looking, and his room was definitely off-limits because of his expensive guitar (which might have well as been an original painting of the Sistine Chapel) as well as girls he’d sneak in after school, whom I sure were not as prized as the Fender. Alex hardly spoke to me at first; I was, like Kate, an “uncool” junior high schooler who would just be entering high school that fall. Even so, I saw him with a girl only a year older than me named Ingrid once. I’m sure they were fucking, that week at least. Alex never had a regular girlfriend, only different lays.
Unlike the house in all its variations, shades, and difference, the Doherty children’s appearance, other than Josh’s, was similar. Each was tall and slender, just like Grace and Liam (though Liam had established a small gut by the time I met the family). Each had some shade of blond or red hair, and blue or hazel eyes. Abby was a towhead, with bright blue eyes that never changed color. Eve had the reddest hair and the greenest shade of eyes. Kate’s hair was dark blond with a hint of auburn, and her eyes were blue-green. Emma’s hair was auburn, and her eyes dark blue. Alex’s long hair was beautiful, rich, wavy, and a light brownish blond. The Irish family, I used to call them; their faces were heart-shaped, their mannerisms quirky, and their noses long. I thought Joshua was the most handsome, with his big green eyes, sensuous mouth, and dark hair–so in his beauty he fit in with the rest. Of course I would have never let him know such a thing, at first.
In the summer of 1982, I had moved with my comparably boring family (no siblings, just my mother and stepdad) to a red-brick bungalow home on Kensington Avenue in Geneva, Illinois. The Dohertys lived one block up and two streets away. All summer I kept to myself, being the shy person that I was back then, and curled up in my room day after day, missing California and the father we left behind. My mother had dumped him a year earlier; I can’t blame her, I suppose now, because he had been cheating on her–and she soon married a stockbroker who she’d met on a business trip to Chicago. My entire life was rearranged, and I spent dogdays hiding away, listening to the Smiths, to Devo, to old California punk bands that Chicago had never heard of, and sneaking cigarettes from my mom. I missed the beach, missed Louis and the gang and my best friends Shell and Danielle, and spent days planning the great escape back to California and nights dreaming of the ocean and how it looked after sunset. This was my routine for the first two months. I got a job babysitting four nights a week, and by August had saved 150 dollars. This would be my plane ticket home, and them some. I was going to break the news to my dad soon that I’d be coming home.