Saturday, April 26, 2008

Katie Hartman -- Featured Writer of the Week IX

Katie has spent her 7th grade year focusing diligently on developing beautifully written, plot-driven short stories. She entered her first piece into the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards event this past January and won a regional gold key for her work. Please help her celebrate her accomplishments by reading:

The Cookie Jar
By Katie Hartman, 7th Grade

Marissa’s bright green eyes could watch you gently with warmth and love, or they could stare at you like a rattlesnake shaking its tail, warning you to back off. Her champagne colored hair fought against the blow dryer every morning until it gave up and became stick straight; her true face was something people rarely saw, for it was always sheltered with a layer of products she had read about in her teen magazines. As for her style, Marissa Patterson wore the kind of clothes her friends wished they had. She wore designer jeans and outfits she copied from movie stars. When your mom’s name comes up on google because she is the editor in chief of the most popular fashion magazine in America, people always expect you to look incredible.

Marissa’s mother always took her shopping and to the office on weekends during big photo shoots. The fun days with her mother made up for the fact that they only had each other. Her mom played many roles she was the parent, older sister, and best friend. No one is here to help me with this science homework. Marissa thought on countless school nights. No one is here to tell me and my friends to stop talking on sleepovers. Since her mom usually didn’t care. (And then, not surprisingly they always woke up too tired to walk.) Marissa longed for someone to take her to sports games, and explain to her why the teams had more than one outfit. She would never forget the memory of the first day in P.E. when all of her friends were hitting home runs because their fathers had taken them to play catch in the park. She could still remember that day and the embarrassment she tried to hide when she realized that she was wearing the glove on the wrong hand.

Everyone stopped and stared whenever Marissa walked into a classroom. They were always admiring her new outfits. Everybody smiled at Marissa; they always did. Her friends told her she was the most popular girl in the whole school. Everyone liked Marissa; they all wanted to be just like her. Her friends tried to strut down the hallway like they were on a fashion show runway, but no one could strut like Marissa. She had everything a teenage girl “should” want: a pretty face, nice clothes, good grades, and self-confidence. But Marissa ignored her popularity. It was just something that had always been there. What Marissa did notice was that all of her friends had two parents; therefore, they got double the love. They had both the x and the o, and they didn’t have the tears she had cried from wanting it all.

Her father was not part of her life. She could remember asking her mom about him. Strangely all she said was: “Marissa, Never leave me. You promise you will always be my little girl?”
“Can Daddy come too?” Marissa asked, puzzled by her mom’s response.

“Why don’t we talk about something else?” her mother replied in that tone Marissa knew meant: “this conversation is over because I said so”. Later, when Marissa was nine, she asked her mother again. This time her mom replied with, “Marissa there is homework for you to do and much better things for me to do then talk about your father.”

“What do you mean?” Marissa questioned her mother.

“I mean that we should not waste time on this subject. Do you want help with your project or not?”

Now Marissa was thirteen. She was smart enough to know not to ask.
When Marissa got home from school she helped herself to some candy from the little glass box on the table in the foyer. Marissa’s tan hands glided over the tiny cursive words engraved on the front of the box. She had never actually bothered to read those words. Frankly, she didn’t really care. Today, because she was bored, she decided to read the box. It read:

Mr. and Mrs. David Patterson Request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter Layla Rose Patterson to Mr. Mark Phillip Shwarmalyn
Saturday, the first of July at Seven
The Four Seasons Hotel
Miami, Florida

Wow, was Marissa’s first thought. That had to be her father. Marissa wondered why she had never asked for a name. She decided to google him. (This was Marissa’s second favorite game. Her first was calling the celebrities on her mom’s contact list.) She typed in the name on google, and clicked on the first option. It was about the owner of Shwarmalyn Real Estate. The strange part was there were pictures of a man named Mark Phillip Shwarmalyn. Marissa thought to herself, how many people have the last name Shwarmalyn? Probably only one. She scrolled down and saw a picture of this man, his wife, and his two little girls. She read the caption below the picture. It read: Mr. Shwarmalyn with his wife, Kate, and his twin daughters, Rachel and Regina.

Marissa’s jaw dropped, and she stared at the girls for a long time. She couldn’t get over the fact that they both had her champagne colored hair and the same bright green eyes. Whoever this guy was, he looked just like her too. She stared at the pictures for what seemed like forever. She just sat there, unable to swallow.

Could all this really be happening? Could this man really be her dad? Hey, if she found this guy and his family she could have triple the love! She would have a mom, a dad, and a step-mom. She would also have two half sisters that would make five times the love. She would have an x, an o, another x, another o, and a final x. Could her mom really have been lying to her all this time? Could she have lived her whole life not knowing more than her mom chose to tell her? Marissa wondered if up until that moment her knowledge of the world had been as limited as her mother pleased. Marissa questioned her mom in her mind. Was this the only lie she had ever told Marissa?

Marissa thought of her current situation as she walked into the kitchen. It was like she had lived her entire life thinking that the cookie jar on the top shelf was empty, so why bother trying to get up to it. She would just have to be satisfied with what was already on her plate. Now that she knew those cookies were up there; she wanted them. The only problem was they were a little out of her reach. She would just have to wait until she grew taller. Marissa was unsatisfied with this solution. No, not this time she decided. Marissa had to reach. This time she was hungry.

Marissa thought about what it would be like to live with two cute little girls. She thought of the life that was just a phone call away. She knew their number or at least the office number. She could call them and they would become part of her life. She would finally be part of a full family. It all seemed so simple.

Marissa now thought of what Brittney, her ex-friend, who once told her “Don’t always be so sure of yourself. You’re nothing special,” in response to her self-confident attitude. For the first time in her life Marissa began to wonder if Brittney was right. She shouldn’t always be so sure of herself. She felt guilty for doing so. Questions came into her mind. What if this family didn’t want her? What if they were happy the way they were? What if this guy she thought was her dad wasn’t after all? What would she say? Sorry, I must have the wrong number. Marissa thought of the worst possibility yet. What if her dad didn’t love her anymore? What if he never had?

Marissa’s hot pink cell phone started playing her ring tone “Pick up the phone, pick up the phone, pick up the phone”, it rang. Marissa answered it.

It was her mother. “Marissa, I am just reminding you I’m not going to be home until later. I am going to a party in celebration of my anniversary. Ten years I have been working for this magazine! I am still sorry you couldn’t come! But I am proud that you are willing to study so hard. I love you!”

“I love you too! Have Fun! Bye!”

Marissa thought about how awful it would feel to have to celebrate your work anniversary while never having a wedding anniversary to celebrate. Marissa thought about what it might be like for her mother to go to parties by herself. This was certainty not the first time. At the Goldsmith’s holiday party, the charity benefits, the vacations, and on every other occasion Layla was alone. She curled up into a ball in her chair and suddenly felt as if she was going to throw up. She was mad at herself for wanting anything more than the beautiful life her mom provided.

The next day Marissa wasn’t herself at school. After class she was talking to her best friend, Stacey.“I really liked the essay you wrote for English class,” Stacey said.

“Thanks,” Marissa said but really she wasn’t sure if Stacey was telling the truth. Does everyone lie to me just because it’s easier than the truth?

“Well, I really like your outfit Stacey,” Marissa said.

“Oh, thanks. My dad bought it for me.” Marissa’s heart sank.

During math class Marissa couldn’t focus. Her thoughts drifted off. Marissa thought there must be a reason why her mom had never talked about her dad and avoided the subject. A dad was an important part of a young girl’s life. So why had her mother avoided talking about hers? Marissa pondered this thought for a while and as each minute passed she knew more and more of what would happen if she contacted this man. She would end up feeling even guiltier. Guilt was the only problem Marissa couldn’t solve. It ate away at her. She was Marissa Patterson; she was supposed to do the eating. Marissa imagined herself in a courtroom, and the judge had just declared her innocent. “But I don’t deserve it,” the imaginary Marissa screamed. The judge had said she did nothing wrong, but she still felt guilty. No one else knew how she felt.

When she arrived back home Marissa looked up at the unreachable cookie jar and down at her empty, foodless plate. She was still hungry. Marissa walked into her room and exited out of the Shwarmalyn Internet page. She knew it would be there tomorrow, and she didn’t need it now. Oh, how Marissa wished she could talk about this with her mom. Her long body could be used as a ladder to reach the top shelf. Then climbing up that ladder rung by rung, she could help Marissa reach.

Marissa decided to call her dad. She didn’t have to meet him or make him part of her life she reasoned. She just wanted to talk to him. She picked up the phone and dialed 1-3-0-5. Marissa sat up as straight as possible in her chair, and breathed heavily. 5-5-3. Marissa tried to gather all the confident energy in her body. 4-6-1-1.

“Hello, Shwarmalyn Real Estate. This is Mr. Shwarmalyn’s secretary Mandy speaking. How can I help you?”

“I would like to talk to Mr. Shwarmalyn, please.”

“May I ask who is calling?”

“Tell him it is,” Marissa stopped not knowing what to say. “Tell him it’s his daughter.”

“Sure, please hold.”

“Hello.” said a deep voice.

“This is Marissa Patterson.” The line went dead. The person on the other end had hung up. Marissa instantly hit the redial button.“I would like to talk to Mr. Shwarmalyn, please.”
“What do you want? I am trying to work here. If you’ve called to yell at me for all the awful things I have done to you and your mother, I don’t want to hear it. I am not that person anymore and I intend to treat Kate, Rachel, and Regina as nicely as I should have treated you. Are you happy knowing that? Knowing I’ve become a better person. I learned my lesson, the one I thank you for teaching me. If you called for an apology consider this the closest you’re gonna get. If you called to ask me why I acted the way I did… my answer is I don’t know. I was young, stupid, and wrong. If you called so we could become one happy family again, here is a lesson for you life isn’t all smiley faces, rainbows and happy endings. I have thought an awful lot about this, and this is all I have to say to you. Now, could you let a man get back to his work?”

Marissa was shocked. “ I just wanted to talk to you. I just wanted to know you existed. I actually don’t have any clue what kinds of awful things you could have done to my mom. Thanks for your time.” Click. The other end hung up, but Marissa would not put down the phone; she wanted to keep this moment forever. The closest I will ever get, Marissa thought pessimistically. All of a sudden a voice came from the phone.

“Looks like somebody should have a little talk with her mom,” added his receptionist who had been listening all along. And that is exactly what Marissa intended to do.

“Who is this?” Marissa asked holding back her tears.

“Hey kid. If I were you, I wouldn’t want Mr. Shwarmalyn to be my dad. I think you should try the guy at Buy A Home Real Estate Agency. He is much nicer. But that’s only if you’re sure you want a father in the real estate business. Usually, bankers are nice, too.”

“But he is my real dad. I promise.”

“Even if he is your real dad. I still wouldn’t want him if I were you.”

“Why not?”

“Yeah, well he could support you. I mean he is a decent boss. But he isn’t that great a father at least not to Rachel and Regina. He always tells me to tell them he is in a meeting when they call, even if he’s not. And on take your child to work day, they spent the day with me playing on the computer. There is nothing wrong with his girls either. They are perfectly sweet children deprived of attention from their father.”

“Oh, so they’re deprived? What about me, the child who didn’t know her father was alive until she googled him?” Why am I having this conversation with a stranger? Marissa thought. She hung up the phone.Was the cookie jar reached? Marissa wasn’t sure.

When Layla Patterson arrived home that evening Marissa told her they needed to talk. The conversation began with Marissa explaining to her mother what she had been doing and how she had been feeling about her dad in the last couple of days. But instead of the expected lecture all that Marissa got in return was her mom nodding her head, listening. It was as if she had expected Marissa to do this.

“So, I am now assuming you would like to know what happened. Well it is your right to know.”

“Mom, it really is okay.”

“No, I insist you don’t keep secrets from me and anyway I should tell you,” with tears in her eyes, Layla reached for Marissa’s hand, “You deserve to know. Marissa, he didn’t want you. Well, he never met you, but he didn’t want a baby. He suggested you go to the orphanage and crazy things like that. Since the day you were born I have loved you with all my heart. I could never love anyone who wasn’t willing to love you too. We come as a package, you and me, but your father wanted to split us apart. I realized that someone who would even suggest that you be sent away was not worth loving. I never told you because I wanted to protect you. And I didn’t want you to think there was something wrong with you or that there was one unlovable bone in your body.”

Marissa was more surprised than ever. What is wrong with this man? Marissa thought to herself. What is wrong with me? I really messed it all up this time. I went looking for someone who didn’t want to be found. Why do I even want to know my dad?
“I love you too mom… I know he probably isn’t Mr. Perfect, and I’m sorry. But I just wanted to know him. I wanted to have a father. I wanted us to have a whole family. I felt like I was missing something that everyone else has. I know he is probably not gonna spend time with me on weekends or help me with my science homework, but I guess I just wanted to know that there was a man out there I could call dad. A man I could call my dad… And I sort of can now. ”

As she hugged he mother she realized that the x was perfect without the o. Suddenly Marissa thought to herself these cookies are better than I could have ever imagined.


Lily said...

The cookie jar symbolism is really cool! I also loved the conversation with the receptionist because of that odd poignancy and truthfulness that can be achieved when you talk to a "complete stranger." Coming from parents that got divorced and then each eloped again--meaning there are multiple "x"s and "o"s in my life--I can understand what Marissa's missing. Still, there must be advantages to having a single person who is everyone to you and would do anything for you.

El Profe said...

Katie: Your piece is at once both sad and mature. You have captured the angst suffered by some children of single parent homes. The strength in this story is how you showed us the way Marissa changed as she matured from not knowing who her father was to suspecting her mother of lying to her, to understanding the deep love her mother has for her. And this new knowledge comforts Marissa and makes it easier for her to live with herself and with her mom. Congratulations on a difficult story well told.

Emma said...

Katie- this is such a beautiful piece. You dialog is wonderful, your characters are so relateable and your cookie jar symbolism is simply stunning. Wow! congratulations!