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Let’s Say

by Ona Gritz

“Let’s say I found the key behind a secret panel,” Andra whispers.

Tonight, instead of my ten-year-old sister, she’s Julie, the beautiful detective from The Mod Squad. I’m not four-year-old me either, but an equally beautiful teenager named Heather whose foot is chained to a bed.

“Now I just have to figure out how to sneak in and save you without waking the kidnappers.”

“Hurry, Julie!”

I hear her drop to the floor and crawl toward me. Lifting my quilt, she unbuckles my leg brace, slips it off, and unties my heavy shoe.

“You better help me put it back on after, or we’ll get in trouble.”

“I promise,” she says, though I forgot to call time out. “Come on, Heather. We have to be quick.”

I nod in the dark. As Heather, I can move as quickly as anybody.

~

There have always been four girls near my age to play with on our block: Natalie, Dina, and two Lisas. But the May before I start first grade, the nicer Lisa runs into the street from between parked cars.

I hope our games entertain Lisa who must be bored in a heaven filled with grandparents, but I worry she feels like we’re leaving her out on purpose. Still, after nervous skyward glances, we go back to being nurses or newlyweds. We also play hide-and-seek and ringolevio because, Natalie says, “Sometimes it’s good to just be ourselves.”

On my least favorite afternoons, the others roller-skate or ride bikes. I watch from my stoop, a little like Lisa who used to race with them, but no longer has a body at all.

~

“Let’s walk like people who limp,” the other Lisa suggests on a day we’re the first to come outside.

I try imitating her awkward steps.

“Just walk like you always do. You walk like people who limp.”

“Oh,” I say, grasping that my cerebral palsy can be seen, not just by a ghost girl who sees everything and knows about my night brace, but by everyone.

Finally, Natalie and Dina join us. We decide we’re models for Seventeen.

“I call the name Heather,” Lisa announces before I can.

“Fine. I call looking like Peggy Lipton.”

~

At home, my mother constantly picks on Andra. Once, she even chases her through the house and beats her with a dustpan. After we both cry a while, Andra wraps our legs in sheets and we become mermaids. When I wake a few mornings later she’s gone.

“She’s a runaway,” I say if people ask where she is. Not She ran away, which would imply it’s just this once. I lose track of how often Andra disappears. After a year of this, my parents send her somewhere she can’t leave, a girls’ boarding school far from home. On her fourteenth birthday, we visit that walled campus. She’s grown as beautiful as the Heathers and Julies of our games.

~

When it’s my turn to be fourteen, my friend Kerry and I play Dirty Barbies.

“Let’s say Ken comes home and Barbie’s wearing nothing but this tiny apron.”

I’m convinced we’re the oldest girls on earth who still like make-believe and worry over who will outgrow it first.

One afternoon, as we walk with a group from school, a boy looping the street on his bike calls, “Hey, what happened to your leg?”

I pretend he isn’t there.

~

At twenty, Andra is out on her own. Through her rare calls from the rough city where she’s landed, I know she’s addicted to boyfriends. And when I finally see her—thin, pale, nervous—I understand there’re also drugs. Afterwards, at home, I browse through photos from her fourteenth birthday. Her smile holds a mystery I can’t decode.

~

A year passes. Five. Andra dies as abruptly as our little friend Lisa. A decade. Another. With my parents gone too, I seek the truth about where those yellowing photos were shot.

Boarding school, they called it, but I learn it was really a reformatory. Beatings. Solitary. Janitorial work instead of class.

I read how, to get through, inmates role-played and formed families. They exchanged coded love letters, held whispered weddings, claimed the newly arrived as their kids. Teenage girls surviving incarceration through elaborate games of house.

I consider my body, which, while never a prison, was a place I sometimes needed to escape. Likewise, my childhood home. I recall when my sister first taught me that magic. I thought she had a say about the world.

Ona Gritz’s (@ofawn) nonfiction is listed among the Notables in Best American Essays 2016 and the Best Life Stories of 2019 in Salon. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the GuardianRiver Teeth, the Utne ReaderMore, and elsewhere. Her books include the memoir On the Whole: A Story of Mothering and Disability and the poetry collection Geode, a finalist for the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. 

* This essay originally appeared in Brevity #65 (2020).

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