It's not that I'm ashamed.
It's not that I think my parent's job is embarrassing, it pays the bills and clothes and feeds me.
See, I live in Petrof. It's a seaside town of about a thousand people, maybe less. We have an elementary school, and a high school, and a straight street cluttered with tourist shops and a unisex barber and an arcade.
Theres also a tall white house near the end of Main Street, close to the sea. There's a picket fence and a tall white sign that claims it to be Petrof's Funeral Home. It's also my parent's occupation.
Yeah. I'm the Mortician's daughter.
And, yeah, I sleep in the tall, white house. I've got rotting corpses in my basement.
Go ahead, laugh. Point. Jeer. God knows all the other girls do.
"There's Saaaarah. She sits downstairs with the bodiesss."
It doesn't help that I'm pale as a ghost with grey eyes. I'd be colourless if it wasn't for my black hair.
And for your information, it's tradition to sit with a dead body through the first night. Keeps away the spirits and-
Oh, so now you're thinking I'm weird, aren't you?
Don't even deny it, I can see it.
I'm not weird. Somebody has to deal with your dead relatives. I don't poke fun at your sanitation engineer father. Somebody has to deal with your waste.
But now, I'm just the weird one. I mean, after all, I must sleep in a coffin.
"Sare?" my bedroom door creaks open and Mom is standing there, smiling. She brought me a steaming cup of chai tea.
I lever myself up with my elbows and groan. "Monday?"
"The very same."
Lovely. School. What a day-brightener.
Once Mom leaves I stretch, and brush out my mid-back length waves. Getting dressed is easy, easier than the Populars of Mulgrave High have it. I don't have to agonize about my clothes. Why would I? Nobody even looks at me twice, except to repeat a joke.
I plunge my hands into my closet and end up pulling out the soft grey cotton sweater and dark wash jeans. Comfortable, that's how I do it.
Breakfast is a plum muffin and milk. Yeah, that's right, we don't eat fingers and toes over here, what a shock.
I shouldn't be so defensive. Nobody treats my Mom or Dad differently. In fact, they're respected.
It's just the girls at school bugging me.
I asked my Dad if we could move once. You cannot imagine my embarrassment when, instead of a straight no, he sits down and gets all fatherly.
"What's bothering you, hun?" "Is school okay?" "You never talk about your friends." "Do I need to call the principal?"
It was all I could do to not roll my eyes. "No, Dad, nevermind. It's fine. I just wondered."
He wasn't convinced, but why would he need to be? He loves his work. He loves Petrof. Him and Mom live their perfect life here.
I'm always the black sheep.
School is usual. Light titters when I entered but no one turned around to say anything. There's a new boy, apparently. Straight and kind of messy blonde hair, electric green eyes. Slight build and simple clothes.
Ten bucks gives 4 days before Marina Fitch dates him.
Marina's the most popular girl in this school. She's also got the mental capacity of a tablespoon and her emotions run on three settings: Bitchy, Suck-Up and Sadness. Bitchy is one she uses frequently, suck-up's for the adults and people who actually matter to her and sadness is what she does... well, all the rest of the time. The main point to remember is that Marina doesn't actually mean anything. It's all an act.
After morning classes, I sit alone at my cafeteria table by the window and open lunch. Ham sandwich. (There's a shock.) The weird thing is that the stares I'm getting aren't the usual. No one gagging or staring blankly. It's like I'm a new kid, the way they're staring. Like I'm something they haven't seen every day for the past nine years.
And then… what? The new boy is walking over. Oh God, now I understand. They were waiting for him to make a crack comment. Oh God. There's not even a quick exit around.
"You're Sarah, right?"
Oh Gods, oh Gods. "Yeah."
He smiles. He's got a dimple in his right cheek. "Can I sit down?"
Really? No big entrance? No uproariously clever comment?
"Uhm.. yeah, okay." It'd be so easier if he just mocked me TO me. Like, without the rest of the school staring.
"I don't know if you noticed," he's talking again now. I shift slightly so my hair is in front of my face. "-But I'm in your homeroom class now. I was wondering.. uh, do you wanna show me around?"
I did not hear that right.
New Boy blushes intensely. "Sorry, just wondering, thought you've lived here a while, I said, You should ask her, Ethan."
"Sure." I say it so quietly I doubt he heard, but he did.
"Oh... oh yeah? You don't have to, if you don't want-"
"Sure. See you Saturday, then?"
And that's it. That's the entire conversation. But suddenly, I'm smiling.
"Do you know him?" Marina's at my desk. I didn't even know she had a Talk-To-Sarah program.
"Ethan, obviously. Stud with green eyes, dimple? Totally out of your league?"
"No. I mean, I guess I know him now but I didn't before lunch."
"Huh." She turns and leaves. Thank God.
That night, I call Rose. I pretty much consider her my only friend. We met when we were like, babies. She moved to the big city, about an hour's drive away a couple years back. That's when the ignoring started around here, too.
"And then he was like, 'Wanna show me around?'"
"No way!" squeals Rose. "And what did MARINA say?"
"Mostly she was just confused, I think."
"Hm." Silence on the other end and I hear her taking a bite out of an apple. Rose's loved apples since she was like, 3 years old. Maybe that's why she's so thin. Thin, a little tanner than me and eyes as blue as the sea.
"Do you like him?" she says finally.
"I don't know, I don't know him yet-"
"Cause if you don't, can I have him?"
We both laugh, and it's such a relief to laugh.
Throughout the week, I find myself meeting Ethan's gaze. Its weird, but I think I've started to actually care what I look like. The other day, I put an extra layer of mascara on. As if he cares how my eyes look!
Every morning when he enters he looks over everyone's heads and finds me in the back, and smiles.
It's been so long since anyone in this entire town has smiled at me. And since he's started, suddenly other people in the hallway, the ones who usually avert their eyes and cough into their shirts like I'm carrying Death like a disease, look at me and half smile. One girl even invites me to sit with her at lunch.
I don't, of course. I sit alone. And he sits across the room with his soccer buddies and every so often he glances my way.
Saturday morning arrives and I'm shaking in front of the mirror. I need to look okay. I need to look beautiful. As beautiful as I can but not like I'm trying. So maybe I should wear the cardigan with the faint sparkles? But what if he thinks I don't care?
I emergency call Rose. She picks up first ring.
"I was just about to call you," she squeals. "What are you going to wear?"
"I don't know! I don't know what to wear!"
"Well," says Rose musingly, "You gotta look nice."
"Yes." I say resolutely.
"But you don't wanna look obvious."
"No." I answer seriously.
"I say the blue button-up sweater, the soft V-neck one. With a white tank top underneath. The lace necklined one. And jeans."
I sigh in relief. "Perfect. Thanks, Rose."
After that, the morning flies by. Mom and Dad are so excited for me, I don't know who's more jittery.
"How long will you be, babygirl?" asks Dad, smiling.
"Huh," I think for a second. He never mentioned a time. "I don't know, is that… okay?"
Dad looks embarrassed. "Of COURSE it's okay! Stay as long as you want!"
Nausea builds slowly in my stomach, and it's not from Mom's famous blueberry pancakes. What if this is a set up? It never occurred to me before. What if he's setting this up so he can laugh at me somewhere public?
Shaking, I reach for the phone to cancel when the doorbell rings.
I run to the door and Ethan's standing there, looking windswept and smelling like the sea and some kind of honey-warm aftershave.
I nearly swoon on the doorstep. But I'm still hanging on to my theory of embarrassment.
"Hi," he says, then, a little delayed.
"Hey," I say back, feeling incredibly awkward all of a sudden.
"Shall we go? Do you have a bike?"
Mortified, I point to my banana yellow ancient bike from who knows how many years ago, with its huge chunky wheels and 80's handlebars.
"Vintage!" Ethan laughs. "What a coincidence… wanna ride for this tour?"
I look at the bike he leaned against my porch- a beaten up white bike from the same era as mine. That same smile spreads across my face again.
"Okay," I grab the helmet I keep on the swinging chair and hop on the bike. "Lets go!"
I've decided to ride down the beach trail to start, it weaves in between the salt wind-battered trees and is dusted with the sand. It's cold today, so the waves look faintly icy. We ride side by side, chatting about the weather lately and where he lived last.
"California," he tells me, eyes crinkling as he laughs. "It's a little warmer there, and a different ocean."
"Surfer guy?" I laugh back, and he smiles.
"Absolutely. Does anybody surf here?"
"Mhmm, especially early spring. The coast is pretty nice for it."
We continue riding, and I notice Ethan's got this weird bulky thing on the back of his bike, like a stack of books. He's laughing at my pathetic jokes and he keeps glancing at me with these smiles but I feel this mounting panic. Is that a video camera? Or a bucket of water balloons?
I can imagine it already, him suggesting some place, supposedly private that he's always wanted to see, and then embarrassing me and the entire grade popping out of the trees, tears running down their faces with hysterical laughter.
"Are you okay? You look a little green."
I swallow hard. "I'm fine. Hey, let's go cycling down main street."
"Okay…" he looks concerned but follows me off the path and to the exit onto one of the side roads branching off the main.
We ride past my house, the Petrof Funeral Home sign looks like its almost glowing. We pass it quickly, thankfully, but as soon as he opens his mouth and a familiar look passes across his face. The same look every kid gives me when they find out I live in the 'Dead House'.
"What's it like-"
Oh no, oh no. Please don't get grossed out about me, I was just starting to like you-
"Being the only kid with a cool bike?"
"Huh?" I could feel my eyes widen.
"Well," He grins lopsidedly and gestures towards his own. "You can have a beauty like yours, or mine, or you could have one like Average Joe over there."
He gestures towards another kid in our grade, in fact I think it was someone who he sat with the day before. He's riding down the street on the latest in elite black and blue chrome bike. The kid glances at us and pauses over my face, then breaks into a huge arcing wave, smiling at both of us.
Ethan waves back, smile twinkling even in the cloudy blue grey light.
I wave tentatively as I pass him, and he smiles at me. At me!
Warm glows spread through my chest, circling my heart. I turn and smile elatedly at Ethan, and his answering smile almost sends me tumbling.
"What's the matter? Your whole face just changed."
I blush, still smiling. "Mood flip, I guess. You know girls."
There's a long pause as we cruise, the breeze pushing back his hair. "None like you."
I don't think I've ever smiled this hard.
I show him the post office and the Weight Watcher's, the resident Coffee Shop (A Petrof Starbuck's knockoff.), the skate park (more of some concrete a truck dumped off accidentally with a bunch of doodles on it.), and all the other 'Important' landmarks.
We stop off at the candy shop, Mr. Sweet's, and pick up some of my favourite toffee-crunch chocolate bits and some Turkish Delight for him. Root beer flavor. Don't ask me how they manage to make root beer jelly… nevermind how they jell root beer.
We're riding through the park when the look I've been expecting since the first realization occurs. Kind of… plotting. And guilty.
"Hey Sarah? Can we go to… this hill? I pass it every day on my way to school… I've always wanted to see it. Its more of a cliff really. By the ocean?"
"Uhm…" So that's where it's going to be. That's where everyone is going to be hiding, and where he reveals whatever torment he's got hidden under that sheet.
"Yeah, sure." Why not? Why not get it over with so I'm not paranoid for the next weeks on when he'll try again?
He leads the way through the suburban roads, with the cheerful grandma's working on the gardens sprawled across grassy yards.
"Okay, it's just up here." Ethan says as we dismount and push our bikes up the rocky path. Summoning every muster of courage, I push ahead and drop my bike at the top of the path, and continue walking til I'm about 3 ft from the edge of the cliff, back facing the crashing ocean below.
"Here we are. Go ahead."
"Huh?" Ethan is just getting off the path.
"What you have in your basket. I know, okay? It happens with every person. Just get it over with."
"I had no idea I was so transparent," Ethan muses as he removes the sheet from the object.
It's a… picnic basket?
He walks over with it and lays the white sheet on the ground, stooping to correct an edge so it lays flat. Plopping down and gesturing for me to do the same, he opens the basket and removes a baguette, some grapes and salami, and a vast array of cheeses.
I stay standing, dumbfounded.
"I'm sorry… do you not like sandwiches? I did consider soup but that's hardly romantic." He looks concerned, his eyes wide.
"I… it's just… I thought…"
"You don't feel the same way? That's totally cool. I just figured if I was going to do it I should do it as nicely as possible but if you don't-" He's rambling. He looks so embarrassed.
"No! No, it's just… I thought you were bringing some sort of embarrassment creator. Like… water balloons and a camera." I'm blushing too now.
"And you came with me anyway?" He's not blushing anymore. "You thought I was going to trick you and you still came?"
"I guess I hoped." I mumble into my chest. He starts smiling, the edges of his mouth slowly turning up. He reaches out over the blanket and takes my hands in his.
"I would never try to make you feel bad, Sarah. I'd feel awful even if it was accidental." He holds out his arms in exasperation. "I like you. I really do. I think you're different. From anyone I've ever met."
I discreetly pinch the inside of my arm. Nothing disappears from view.
"I like you too." I whisper across the immaculate blanket. It seems like the wind will blow the words away before they reach him but his face brightens even more.
"Pretty much my favourite day ever," he tells me seriously, lips curling up.
"Yeah? It maybe makes my top ten… maybe." He laughs and I feel myself slipping into the kind of smile that infects you all day long. At least, that's what I've heard. I'd never had one… before this day.
As weeks passed, and the initial shock dwindled, everyone stopped staring at me like I was a monster. People smile at me in the hallway and Marina even invites me to a sleep over.
I decline, of course. Wouldn't want to get Popular all over my clothes. God knows how that smells.
I make friends with the Drama students, because they're fun-loving and the friendliest. I alternate between sitting between them and Ethan and the soccer guys at lunches. I stop wishing to move.
But, I still call Rose every week, because even though we're miles away we're the best friends possible.
"Sarah, do you realize yet?" Rose asked me last night, apple crunching in my ear.
"You have everything you wished for last year, before Ethan came. Friends. Acceptance. The perfect guy."
That warm honey happiness feeling doesn't surprise me anymore, it shows up frequently now. "Thanks, Rose."
"Well, everything besides me. Wanna come up this summer? The city is gorgeous, lots of air conditioning…"
Maybe I don't have everything, but I have more than enough to smile about.
Ethan and I date for the rest of highschool, into University where he majors in Journalism and I major in psychology and teaching… I want to be a councilor when I grow up and make sure nobody ever gets as hopeless as I did, back then.
When we're 24, and just out of University, Ethan takes me out on a canoe ride on the lake. He planned it perfectly, the moon glinted off the perfect round diamond in the gold ring.
We had kids, two of them. A boy named Aidan and a girl named Fiona. He wrote for the NY Times and I went to school every day. Our new best friend was the Food Network channel, and we were constantly playing with food.
The kids grew up and moved on.
Ethan and I stayed in love.
Our friends would marvel at us, how we managed to stay in love through the babies and the time together.
I've never known how to explain what finding your match is like.
But I absolutely am grateful for those horrible days in the beginning of Petrof. Because if I hadn't moved there, I wouldn't have met him.
Today is our fortieth wedding anniversary.