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Suzann (Zoozle)Zimmerman and her mother might as well be from different planets, for they have no emotional connection. A close look at dysfunctional families and Borderline Personality Disorder, "Stairs of Sand," is a funny, fast-paced, realistic portrait of a perfectionist mother and a free-spirited daughter.
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Chapter 1: Zoozle
The Whidbey-Port Townsend ferry carries few passengers this late on a July night. The nearly empty ferry mimics my completely empty me. I lost my job last week, and everything else before that.
I’d meditate, but Mel is singing too loud, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” trying too hard to make me laugh. She’s serious about us making some Internet porn for cash, pronounced with a long a. I’ve told her no way a million times, that I’d rather be homeless and starving or dead.
A crew man walks by, giving us a lecherous leer, calling out, “Hey, you girls. Haven’t you heard of curfew?” We’re both in our late twenties, and we both look twelve. Mel flips him off and slides closer to me. I push her away.
“Zooz, girl, I’m freezing,” she says.
As one, we look at her feet in terry-cloth flip flops. She moves over and touches the hollow in my throat, right where a lump of misery is clogged. She tries to zip my windbreaker across my tank top.
“You feel like ice. Let’s sit in the car. Quit trying to be Wonder Woman.” That’s how I mock my mom’s self-perception of perfection.
I shake my head.
“Take the keys. Get warm. I need the air.”
Mel wanders back and huddles in the car. I pass by her as I walk to the ferry boat’s stern, riding low to the water. Mel has wrapped a blanket across her bony shoulders, head tucked into her chest and the blanket is up like a hoodie. She often looks vulnerable, like someone I should protect. It took me a while to learn that was her act. Everybody acts a role. I’m totally tired of mine, and it’s only been 168 hours since I was atop a shining star, dance teacher at Port Townsend University, now placed on leave, basically code for fired.
I study the waves, watching the ferry’s wake in the darkness. That’s like me, one bubble among millions. My heart aches more because it’s a foggy night, and I can’t see that far ahead. I love our rare sunny days in Washington. If I close my eyes on a sunny day, I can make myself believe I’m still a little kid, surfing in California with my Grandpa Joe.
As the ferry chugs into the channel, a tall, skinny, old man in a tweed sports coat comes to stand near me. His Newfoundland retriever, huge, black and white and unbelievably furry, sits between us, wearing a pink halter. “Guardian Angels” is scripted across the back.
Lately, I don’t much talk except to Mel. I make an exception since he has a dog.
“May I pet your dog?” I ask him.
“We’d love that, wouldn’t we, Jacques?” He rubs his dog behind the ears.
I sink to my knees to pet the dog, who is tall enough to look me in the eyes when I do. His gaze is direct and soft with affection. Though he’s wet in the misty air, it feels wonderful to put my head on his. My heart uncurls one nanometer.
“Hi Jacques,” I say. Jacques smiles. He licks my face, my new short hair, spiky with hair gel. I push my hair with my fingers, then rub the dog’s slobber and my hair gel on my jeans, and I smile back.
“His full name is Frčre Jacques. But we cut it short.” The old man grins with the pride of a father. “I’m Phillip McKillop.” He takes off his hat and sweeps it across his heart.
I scratch the dog some more. “Hello, Phillip. I’m Suzann, Suzann Zimmerman.” I don’t know why I don’t tell him Zoozle. “I used to have a dog, a little guy, part spaniel, part Pomeranian. My ex has him now.” Javier has Boo, Javier has a house, Javier has a new life. Me, I’ve got Mel. I’ve got a roof over my head with Big Daddy, Mel’s meth-making friend, which was cool until I stopped doing meth. Now, I wouldn’t want a dog around Big Daddy. I don’t want me around Big Daddy.
“Bye Phillip. Bye, Jacques.” Holding the dog has tightened the knot in my throat. I can’t swallow it down. Despair claws with more powerful digs into my stomach. I look off into the dark night, back towards the car where Mel is tracing patterns on the fogged windows. What escape route should I take from this huge mess I’ve made? I can’t run home again. My mom wouldn’t want me there and she won’t come here, she’s made that clear enough. Life with Mel is all I’ve got, and now I am certain I don’t want that either.
Across the dark water, I see houses on the shoreline, alight with the business of living. I visualize my old life with Javier; my heart squeezes around my thoughts of Grandpa Joe in Imperial Beach. Grandpa likes to brag how it’s the most southwesterly city in the United States. It’s right on the border with Mexico. He wins bets when people don’t believe him. “Gotcha!” he laughs every time.
The ferry churns into a wave, and my happy memory of Grandpa’s folksy stories about the ocean’s waves and the currents lurches into the voice and image of my first dancing teacher, Francis, his acne-scarred face and peppermint breath, his oily hands moving my body into postures, saying “do that turn again, repeat that step, the arm like this,” each time touching my budding breasts or my inner thighs. I scrape my fingers against my pockets, trying to get the hair gel off because oil on my skin makes me shudder. The scene with Francis morphs back into Mel, whom I followed from my amazing appointment as a dance professor to emergency medical leave to the drugged-out living dead. I sold my condo for drug money. Dumb, so dumb.
I am through with do over’s.
I walk to the other side of the boat, away from the crewman and Mr. McKillop. I unzip my boots, aligning them underneath the life preserver ring. The boots are the right size for Mel.
I clamber over the chain guard and dive away from the ferry into the sea.