Of the contemporary minds that I admire, one that stands out is the author Zadie Smith. I find it insane (and frankly unfair) that someone that brilliant is also that beautiful. It can be difficult to know which is more dazzling, her beauty or her brilliance, when you watch an interview with her, but it all comes through in a rare, bold, and piercing eloquence. I mean, seriously.
Recently I took in a conversation from a few years ago, with Zadie Smith and the wonderful Paul Holdengraber of the New York Public Library. At one point in the conversation, talking about how the idea in hip-hop of “keeping it real” applies to literature, Smith said, “If you’re extremely honest, you will always be extremely weird….The honest expression of experience is always strange.”
I’m really glad she said that. It gives me a lot of courage, and will help bolster my telling of the following small story:
When I was 18…
Many years ago, which can sometimes seem like yesterday, when I was 18, on a sunny day in San Francisco, I went to a hilltop park with two friends. Gwen and Lily, and I sat in the grass and ate little graham crackers shaped like teddy bears; we were out for a day of art and adventure. Eventually we made our way to the playground, the sand and the play structures scattered with kids.
Gwen had brought a camera with a roll of black and white film, and we took turns with it. I was absorbed in taking pictures of some kids on the swings when I noticed Gwen climbing all over one of the play structures and laughing her head off. Gwen and Lily and I had the advantage of being teenage girls, and white, in that we could hang around a playground without anyone suspecting us of being dangerous, even playing with two random kids, as Gwen was now doing.
The kids were a sister and brother pair, Iona and Melvin. Iona was the older, eleven (Melvin was only seven), and confident in the way that eleven-year-olds are, at the apex of mature childhood, before adolescence starts to sneak in and undermine things, and she was directing the game: obstacle courses.
“First you climb up this ladder, then you slide down this pole…” she explained, along with numerous other directions, and I quickly got on board. So then we were all over the bars, one after the other, breathlessly finishing one sequence and then starting another.
When the game came to its natural end, Melvin had a lot of sand in his hair, which I tried to help brush off. He was a quiet guy, though smiley, but Iona had a lot to say. We sat on a curb between pavement and sand.
“My Rocky Robot won first prize,” she said, filling me in on the science project she and her dad had made in the garage, and a lot of other things. I was generally interested in meeting people with stories to tell, and Iona was a really, really cool kid. I got my notebook and a pen from my backpack and began to take notes.
I liked kids. I had no siblings and always wished I did. I had a big, unspent love for a younger sister, that somehow I always felt was missing. When I myself was eleven my dad had a girlfriend named Barbara, who had two little daughters, two and four years old. I hoped my dad and Barbara would get married, so the girls could be my sisters. The older one, Addie, was especially charming. If she couldn’t pronounce a word, she’d put an “FR” at the beginning. That summer we spent a lot of time “frimming” in pools, or sometimes “friving” in the car to a lake. But it wasn’t to be. I lost them in the wake of change, like I’d already lost so many people I had wanted to keep.
Sitting with Iona, talking about her life and writing things down I was mostly quiet, especially when Iona told me that her mother had died. I was struck, and so sad. The revelation took me by surprise and I didn’t know what to say. I would know now, maybe, almost 30 years later, having slowly acquired some social skills. But that day, that moment, I just watched her face, her eyes looking down, listening to the tone of her voice as she said the words.
I don’t know how long we sat there, but at some point Iona said that she and Melvin had to go; they were expected at home. Gwen and Lily and I collected our things and walked with them down to the corner. On the way, down a long set of wide concrete stairs, Iona sang “Rockin’ Robin.” I knew that song too and sang along.
Rockin’ in the treetops all day long
Hoppin’ and a-boppin’ and a-singin’ his song
All the little birdies on Jaybird Street, love to hear the Robin go tweet tweet tweet
Rockin’ Robin, tweet, twiddly-deet, Rockin’ Robin…
Gwen took a picture of me and Lily with Iona and Melvin in the middle, and someone took a few pictures of Iona by herself. And then we said goodbye and went on our separate ways.
“The honest expression of experience is always strange,” said Zadie Smith. I’m sure it will sound weird if I say that every time I’ve thought of Iona since that day, I’ve missed her, like I missed that younger sister I never had. Too bad we couldn’t have met as neighbors or something, and maybe I’d help her with her homework once in awhile, if she was working on it on her front steps, or we’d go to the park and do her obstacle courses, and sing songs. If she didn’t have a mother, and I didn’t have a sister, then maybe, in that alternate reality, we could have kept each other.
I still have a few pictures from that day. At some point, shortly after saying goodbye to Iona and Melvin, Gwen opened the camera by accident and the pictures of them got over exposed. There are two dream-like portraits of Iona, one where she must be in the middle of a monologue, and another in a reverie, with her scarf blowing like the Little Prince on his asteroid.
Somewhere out there, in the real world, I hope, Iona is alive and well, and almost 40, and Melvin is 36 or so. I hope they are happy.
Jenny Jaeckel is the author of House of Rougeaux, recently published and available in print and audio.
Publishers Weekly called House of Rougeaux a “rich tapestry of a novel” in their starred review.