By Irene Keliher
Featured Art: Orchid Blossoms by Martin Johnson Heade
Only a few students competed in Kingston Junior High’s first geography bee and nobody came to watch. We lined up in the band room submerged in our flannel shirts, fidgeting, happy to escape sixth period. Pine trees pressed the window. No one expected to win except me, though I wouldn’t admit it and tried my best to look bored. I tucked my hands into my baggy Adidas jacket, the only brand-name clothing I owned—I almost never took it off—poised to triumph if I could answer the next question. Mrs. Raymond, chubby purveyor of the world to our damp county, read us questions from a stapled packet stamped National Geographic Society.
“What world river has seen the greatest number of refugees cross its shores?” She pronounced ref-u-gees in three careful beats and looked mournful, as if uncertain there could be an answer to such a question.
I closed my eyes. I knew it was brown and slow-moving and had once been clogged with bodies. I’d just read a book about a Cambodian refugee girl. My mother, the reading teacher, had given it to me. Perhaps a peace offer ing in the wake of my father’s disgrace and her new marriage, or a symbol of commitment to my education—we’ve buckled but we will not break—or just because I was more receptive than her remedial English students, who often brought her to tears.
“The Mekong River,” I answered.
Mrs. Raymond looked up at me, smiling, startled.
I wasn’t surprised. I dreamed the world I’d never seen: blue, yellow, green, the long inky rivers, the mountain ranges like zippers pulled tight. I knew the capitals of every country in sub-Saharan Africa and key information about their dictatorships, major languages, and terrain. I loved to spin the globe and see where my finger landed. Paris or Sydney or Calcutta looked tiny, but I knew each dot was a mass of people, writhing and writing and wishing and walking. My own dot was not there, even if I opened the atlas to the individual states. My town was too small to appear on the curved belly of the peninsula, around which Puget Sound wrapped its blue fingers.
When my family played Trivial Pursuit—at my grandma’s house, on some one’s birthday, after cake, the dogs at our feet, elbows pressed into the vinyl tablecloth—I didn’t win. I could never best my youngest uncle. But I could beat everyone in the People and Places category. I named cultural groups in Southeast Asia or instruments commonly played in the Australian outback. I knew about Bosnia, Belarus, and the contested area between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Iron Curtain had only just fallen. It was 1993. There were a lot of new countries to learn.
I won a chance to compete in the state competition. When I passed the written exam, my mother announced it was time to study. I thought I’d rely on my memory; I’d never studied for anything, not intentionally. But my mother set her red-rimmed blue eyes on my success. “You might as well try,” she said, and by this she meant, do your best or nothing.
Our study sessions began like this: the lamp reflected in the window, the brown carpet and old couch, my mother across from me. She sat small and alert, legs tucked under her, with a book propped in her lap. My little brothers and sister were upstairs, fighting and running the sink over my stepdad’s annoyed rumble. My mom cradled a mug. She drank black tea with cream, every day, even if she’d been crying and not eating.
“You have to take notes,” she told me.
“I don’t need to,” I said. “I’ll remember everything.”
“Do you want me to help you?”
My mother did not yell back. She understood, I think, my vast reservoir of anger. As the oldest, I remembered my violent father best: his cruel mind games, erratic behavior, drug use, and abuses of power, at home and at the hospital where he worked. My mother discovered his diary one day when I was nine and called the police. He was sent to prison. She collapsed on the couch.
But my mother, though plunged in sorrow, would not let our lives unravel. She had recently renewed her efforts to regulate and organize me, and was determined to direct my energy into something productive. “You have to write down every single assignment,” she’d say. “It’s not an excuse to say you forgot.” She’d purse her lips over a scribbled teacher’s note—Irene has potential but does not complete assignments. The word potential seemed to peel itself off the page and float before us.
“I won’t ever!” I would yell. I kicked and screamed, and she would go into the bathroom, lock the door, turn on the fan, and say I was being irrational. I would scream louder. “I am not,” kick the door, “being irrational,” kick, “and I am not,” punch the wall, “yelling!”
I wanted to move haphazardly through school, avoid that which scared me (sports, for example, so much so that I failed PE for not “suiting up”), stalk sullenly through my house, build forts with my cousin, and dream in the woods with the trees lacing fingers above me. And I wanted to escape in novels. My favorites were Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and Anne Frank, my taste running to the grim and historical, though tough, smart girls would do, too: The Great Gilly Hopkins, Cassie Woodlawn, Harriet the Spy. My mother had always taken us to libraries; my earliest memories involve filling a canvas sack with books.
“Do you want to win, or not?” my mom asked. Simple.
The state competition felt far away, but I did want to win. So I consented. I would try and colonize my knowledge of the world, add to it systematically, categorize it.
We used newspapers, atlases, and science books. Often it was a stiff green tome that listed scientific geographic terms in alphabetical order: the Coriolos effect, cumulus clouds, currents. I felt cheated. I wanted geography to be peo ple, alive, the whole exciting teeming world. Not science. I hated science.
I took notes on scratch paper, sometimes dropping the marker, annoyed—“I’ll remember!” We got a subscription to the Christian Science Monitor. It came daily to our narrow post office box, and I read it over bowls of Grape Nuts before school (we were not allowed “sugar cereal,” which winked like an illicit drug from the grocery store shelves, expensive, leached of nourishment). My mom subscribed to the Monitor with a student rate; she’d read that the previous Washington State winner had studied it every day.
On the way to the State Bee in Tacoma, crossing the bridge from the peninsula to the mainland, my mother handed me a copy of that day’s Monitor.
“I’m too tired,” I said. “Do I have to?” I was strapped next to my sister in the middle of the van. My brother kicked the back of the seat. They were excited, because we’d all go to Chuck E. Cheese after: this was the consolation prize for driving two hours to watch me compete.
“It can’t hurt,” my mom said. Her tone was not urgent but I heard the steady excitement running underneath it, and I understood. I opened the paper and read the international news.
The state competition took place at Tacoma Community College, a low, concrete campus with utilitarian classrooms that housed each successive round. We registered in the echoing auditorium: ninety-nine contestants besides me, much neater and more serious than my opponents at school. They scanned notecards and books; their mothers quizzed them with flashcards. Their smart, steady voices made me nervous. I shrank into my jostling family.
I don’t remember the details of each qualifying round. They remain a ter ror-tinged blur. Yet I advanced through my competition group, changing class rooms through to the semifinals. The final question of that round asked which African country is surrounded on three sides by a neighboring nation.
“Gambia,” I said. I’d read Roots the year before.
When it dawned on us that I’d secured a place among the ten finalists, my mother wrapped me in a hug. I was shaking. My brother asked for a snack and Mom produced a plastic sack filled with squashed peanut butter sandwiches. He whined.
“If you’re really hungry, you’ll eat these,” my mother said.
The finals were held on a stage in the auditorium, the seats at least fifty rows deep. The contestants sat in a semicircle behind the announcer and trooped one by one to the microphone to answer questions. One wrong, and you were off in hot-faced shame to the wings. Each time I approached the microphone I thought I might die. Actually just die, collapse in front of that audience, the life force drained from my veins, blood spurting from my eyes, gruesome enough to make the watching mothers scream and faint—except for mine, who would dial an ambulance and hold my hand.
But I kept getting them right. I didn’t always know how I knew the answer. It seemed to come from inside me, somewhere vague and all-knowing that I couldn’t grasp directly. A cloud that revealed just the word I needed. With three of us left, the announcer asked me to name a certain rock formation left in the wake of a glacier.
I looked at my feet, then at my fingernails. I had no idea. Glaciers, I thought, over and over. My wiry younger sister sat in the front row, watching me, smiling, gripping the sides of her seat like she had the answer. “Tell me,” I wanted to shout. I still had no idea. Then I looked at the distant back wall, painted a dull yellow, and I knew.
“Moraines,” I said.
The applause startled me.
My next question came fast. Name the first former Soviet Bloc country to join NATO. That day’s Monitor headlines flashed into me. Lithuania. I could see the faces below me, a blur of middle class Northwest mothers in raincoats, the Christian home-schooling moms with big perms. I spotted my moon-faced stepdad and hoped he thought I was smarter than him.
The competitors drooped off the stage one by one, until it was only an other girl and I. We sat in opposing chairs with pads of legal paper for a writ ten showdown. During the short break beforehand, Sara, my opponent, leaned toward me, dark hair swinging evenly around her jaw, neat silvery glasses hug ging her face. “I’m so glad I got that question about the Rio Negro,” she said. “I was like, thank God, duh, the biggest tributary of the Amazon.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said, but my stomach clenched. I wouldn’t have known. I was used to being the smartest in my class. How could this girl know more than me about geography?
As she was whispering, the wrinkled, powdery-cheeked State Bee orga nizer seized the microphone with glee. “This is the first year,” she said, her voice booming across the auditorium, “that our final competition comes down to two girls!”
Sara and I looked at each other, assessing our mutual girl-ness.
Two final questions decided it. Name the current-day country the Strait of Formosa was named for. Taiwan, we both wrote. And the determining factor, the tiebreaker, the great decider: What cold ocean current mixes with the Gulf Stream to create fog along the coasts of New England and Southeastern Canada?
A science question? But I knew it, because my children’s atlas recorded the names of currents swirling along the brightly colored masses of land. The Labrador Current, I wrote.
Sara didn’t know. A tear slid down her flushed cheek.
Everyone roared and I stood up, limp, sweating, suddenly shy, to shake the moderator’s hand. My mom jumped from her chair, skinny in her red turtle neck, hands clasped. My sister, my brothers, my stepdad, were all clapping. I felt dizzy and hot and strange and thrilled. And I wished nobody at school would have to know.
It soon emerged that I would be the only girl to compete at nationals. Newspapers covered my win, emphasizing that I was the first girl ever to win our State Bee. Why, these reporters mused, weren’t girls good at science? They quoted the organizer, saying that girls aren’t taught to be competitive. I wondered if I was competitive. I certainly wasn’t good at science. I wanted to be a writer. That’s what I told the reporter from the Tacoma News Tribune. “Putting Girls On The Map!” the article proclaimed.
My biggest interview was with USA Today. The reporter called while I was still sleeping. “Quick,” my mom said, clutching my shoulder, waking me. I answered the phone in my mom and stepdad’s bedroom, the darkest and quiet est part of the house, blinking and watching the trees swim into the gray light. “Sorry to call so early,” the reporter said, “but we’re on East Coast time.”
I didn’t know if I was supposed to feel different. I felt suspicious of the attention, and shy. A local reporter came to take my picture. The black-and white shot shows my tight, false smile and the wind picking at my long hair, which my relatives described as “dishwater blonde.” I’d pulled the middle third back, into a triangular-shaped wedge on top of my head. My expression looks something between bored and sick.
Other pictures would embarrass me: my red cheeks immediately after win ning the state bee, the toothy grin—how I hated my nose, my teeth—for the Washington Times article, underneath which the caption read: “Keliher says she doesn’t hide her intelligence to fit in.”
“I do not say that,” I told my relatives. “I never said that!” I felt semi hysterical about the accusation. I’d never say such a patently nerdy, damning thing. (Though I probably had; the reporters dazzled me and I wanted to im press). I did hide my intelligence, all the time. I wasn’t eager to raise my hand in class. In high school I would rebel, wear black, decide the popular kids were soulless, and aspire to living in mysterious New York; then, I wanted to be one of those pretty laughing girls wearing Esprit shirts and sitting on boys’ laps. I wanted to be brave enough to dance to Ace of Base in the cafeteria. I did not want to be myself.
Besides that Adidas jacket I owned nothing cool, subscribed to no fashion magazines, and did not wear makeup. You have exactly ninety dollars to spend on school clothes, my mother would say, so don’t you want to look at the con signment store? She would come into the dressing room at the local mall and put her fingers between my belly and the waistband of the jeans, tugging—is this loose enough? Try sitting down. Maybe you need a bigger size. I’d never seen a music video, had no idea how to shave my legs, and didn’t date. All of this mattered, suddenly, acutely, terribly.
Junior high greeted me just as it always had when I returned from the State Bee. I scuffed down the hallways avoiding the older kids, who might push a random “sevvie” for sport. No one had witnessed the state competition. It was a feat neither cool enough to envy, nor weird enough to prompt teasing. It was just—strange. Even my friends, shy Coleus whose hippie mother had saddled her with that botanical name, and skinny Jessica who cross-stitched me a pencil that read “Good Luck” in crooked block letters, didn’t ask for details.
Seventh grade was fixed and endless. Seventh grade and I was fascinated by Amy, the pregnant ninth-grader, her belly swollen beneath her sweatshirt. Seventh grade and my father had been gone three years. Seventh grade and we already knew our roles in the family. My stepfather had been fired. He was taking computer classes at the community college, gathering the resentment about money and work and fractious children that would propel him away. My younger brother was in trouble every day, my sister stubborn and secretive, my littlest brother mellow and trying to please; and I was the smart kid who couldn’t hold her temper at home but walked quiet and skittish in the outside world.
The school held an awards assembly. The principal announced I’d won a free round-trip ticket to Washington, D.C. for the national competition, along with the teacher who’d moderated the school bee. They gave me a heavy plaque to commemorate my success. I raced down the creaking bleachers, accepted it, and fled back. My fellow students shifted and poked each other, waiting for the end of the day, for freedom.
My mother could not believe Mrs. Raymond got the free trip to D.C.
“She does not get to take credit for this!” she said into the phone, to her friends in Spokane and Seattle and her sisters-in-law and my grandmother.
When she complained, the school helped us by holding a car wash to raise money for her airfare. The local paper advertised it and the cheerful student government girls brought their metallic middle-class smiles and parents’ business. We scrubbed cars in the school parking lot and raised most of the fare. Then the coup de grâce—my mother called the national bee organizers to get a place in my hotel room. Other contestants shared three to a room, “but naturally,” my mother said earnestly, firmly, into the phone, “she can’t be expected to do that. She’s the Only Girl.”
I didn’t tell my fellow prep school competitors that I’d washed cars to raise money for my mom’s trip. It was less through class consciousness than some growing sense of self-preservation, learned and honed during the pain of my parents’ divorce.
I arrived in D.C. to a flurry of attention. Outside the Vista Hotel down town, where the competition would be held, stood rows of boys, some tall as gawky teenagers and others who looked younger than my ten-year-old brother. They all wore crinkly baseball hats emblazoned with maps and a National Geographic Society logo. Eyes swiveled toward me along with whispers every where: “The girl! It’s the girl!”
A portly woman seized my hand, gave me a hat to match the others, and pulled me in line. “We’re filming a segment for Good Morning America,” she said, “so on three, lift your hat and shout ‘Good Morning, America!’”
A camera crew stood on the steps above us and I waved. My mom stood on the sidelines, shaking hands, suddenly suburban and charming.
The boys and their mothers and teachers and coaches surrounded me after. My opponents were nerdy, most of them, chubby or thin, awkward. Nervous little Jeffrey from Pennsylvania, serious, groomed Steven from Maryland, mousy Robbie from Ohio, lanky Germanic Anders from Montana. Social events for us included a picnic with horseshoes and basketball. We exchanged metal pins representing our states. Mine were a series of tiny Washington shaped squares featuring snowy peaks or apples. For these events my mom had purchased me two special outfits: flowered culottes, one navy blue, one green with white daisies. I wore stretchy cotton headbands and Birkenstocks with them.
I met the Washington State senator, Patty Murray, for a minute. She’d won on a platform of being “the mom in tennis shoes.” She shook my hand in her office but looked at the camera the whole time. The resulting glossy picture shows her careful grin, angled directly at the flash, and my embarrassed smile in return, arm stretched stiff to shake her hand, long hair hanging around my face.
I made it to the tiebreaker round of the quarterfinals, and once again, to a written set of questions. This time, I didn’t know the answer to the final one. I remember it was The Aleutians, and I wrote The Bahamas; I think the question concerned volcanic islands. What I remember was the shame, the sadness, feeling shaky, and rushing to sit next to my mom, burying my face in her shoulder. It was over quickly, brutally, but my mother didn’t flinch.
She wrapped an arm around me and whispered. “Did you see that other boy? He was cheating.”
Robbie from Ohio had been peeking at other kids’ notepads. He didn’t win in the end. Just deserts, my mother said.
She made sure we took advantage of our free trip, especially the museums with no charge. We saw them all, even the new Holocaust Museum. The pile of old shoes I remember most clearly, along with a hollow feeling in my stomach and the sense that I knew nothing about the world.
I had never been to the East Coast. I soaked it in: the pink forms of the Hare Krishnas on the Mall, the frozen faces of the statues, the White House from behind its gates, me posing in front of it wearing my mom’s huge rectangular sunglasses and sandals with socks. Our most anticipated visit was the Library of Congress, but it had closed for renovations. We were allowed only on a top level, to peer down at the shelves and the honey-colored card catalogue that didn’t look so different than the one in my local library. When we left, the muggy day filled with rain. Torrents tumbled from the sky and we were soaked in an instant; even our hardy Northwest selves were too cold to walk back to the hotel. It was the only time we took a taxi during our stay. I loved the cracked vinyl seats and cheerful cabbie—just like the movies.
The trip to D.C. showed me wealth and a different world, but it also made me aware, newly, of my mother: powerful, weak, maddening, comforting. I so rarely had her to myself. Ten days of uninterrupted time was enough to make me dizzy with pleasure and a certain pain, the pain of close observation, hers and mine. My mom sometimes embarrassed me. We took the metro and she stopped to talk at length to the token seller, who left his booth to show her the map on the wall. I lingered at the base of the stairs, pretending I didn’t know the woman whose voice echoed in the midday quiet of the station.
She also surprised me. On our last full day, she took me to the National Gallery. I had never been to a big art museum before. I remember the hushed voices and polished wooden floors, the confusing modern art—soup cans, really?, my mother laughed—the misty Impressionists we loved easily, generously—and the café. We ordered a chocolate mousse to share. Expensive, thick, velvety. A profusion of green surrounded us, hanging flowers and ferns obscuring the elegant patrons. I dipped my tiny spoon into the delicate bowl and listened to the fountain splashing softly, and for a moment, I felt that I belonged there.
Irene Keliher is a fiction writer, essayist, and 2018 NEA Literature Fellow. Her work has won the Tobias Wolff Fiction Award, the Potomac Review Fiction Prize, and others, and appeared in Narrative, Salon, The Millions, The Weeklings, and elsewhere. She’s a content marketing manager by day, which is not a career she knew about when studying for her MFA at the University of Houston.
Originally published in NOR 8