New Elise

February 6, 2008
Cold. Gray. New. Why was New York so drab? Elise thought of Florida, and her old house. Shell-pink with a red clay roof and a large leafy palm tree. So different.
The middle school here was like a monster made of dull red brick, sprawled between several dusty playing fields and caged in by a chain link fence. The people were cold and gray too. And their clothing. Everyone looked like everyone else. Elise looked away from Melody Lake and looked at herself. Worn out jeans with rainbow patches. A red shirt she made herself. Elise frowned. She’d always loved this outfit because of how very Elise it was. Elise was very bold. Bold colors. Bold girl. But now Elise wasn’t quite so sure. When she got out of the car the people on the sidewalk looked at her coldly. Who are you? their flat eyes seemed to ask. What are you doing here? Then they turned away as if they might catch it.

Elise’s sister was already hurrying into the front door.

“You can bring in your suitcase,” she snapped. “I’m not your slave. And quit staring at the street. You look dumb.” Elise watched as Laurie slammed the front door. A few minutes later a light came on upstairs. A pale, florescent light. In fact, the entire house was pale. The white painted wood was faded and dusty, and when Elise touched her hand to it she half expected it to vanish into the air like a ghost. This town was a ghost.

And then she got her suitcase and lugged it inside. She wanted to get away from the cold world.

Elise’s room was nothing like her old one in Florida. It was slightly smaller because Laurie couldn’t afford a big apartment while attending college, and it was cold and gray and drab. Elise scowled, thinking of the move once again. It had been for several reasons— so her mother could go back to school without any disruptions; for Elise to meet some new people, see different parts of the world; and to, as her mother said, spend time with her sister. Ha.
Elise flung her patchwork quilt over the bed but the colors seemed to stand out just like Elise herself. Too much. So she stuffed it and her suitcase under the bed, closed the curtains, and lay down. Everything was so cold. So different. Elise closed her eyes, searching for her old warm self. Maybe she could paint a picture. Or draw. But the old Elise was nowhere to be seen. She was left behind in Florida. And Elise was frightened-- she was frightened of the gray town, because the old Elise was gone, and she was frightened because she was frightened. The old Elise was never frightened.

So the new Elise pulled a pale pillow over her head and closed her eyes from the world. She was tired of being frightened.

On Monday morning the old Elise was definitely gone. Elise felt this as she woke up, seeing the gray room and feeling her gray self inside her. She felt this as she got dressed, pushing her bold colored clothing to the back of her dresser and instead donning a Disney World tee shirt, even though her old friend Casey and she had decided that logo tee shirts were dumb. She felt this as she sat down at the kitchen table and poured herself a bowl of tasteless Cherrios.

“….I told you I was doing the laundry,” Laurie was saying.


“I said, I told you I was doing the laundry,” Laurie said impatiently. “I could have washed one of your nice shirts.”

“What do you mean?” asked Elise. “Is this shirt dirty?”

“No,” Laurie told her. “It’s just that you never wear boring shirts. You are such a not boring person. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way.” The old Elise might have chuckede back a response. Or she might have bitten it back. But the new Elise didn’t have to bite back anything. She had nothing to say. And that was another way the old Elise was dying.

At school Elise shuffled from class to class like a robot. She looked like everyone else and she felt like everyone else. She was everyone else. Cold, gray, and unhappy. At lunch she sat at the edge of a group of chattery girls so she didn’t have to sit alone. As she ate she looked around the courtyard. She looked past all the gray people and saw a girl, sitting alone against the wall with a sketchbook balanced in her lap, drawing while she ate. For one wild moment Elise thought this was herself, because that’s what the old Elise did during lunch. Sometimes the old Elise was with friends, sometimes alone. But it didn’t matter because she always had herself. But now…. Now Elise really was alone.

Then the girl looked up and locked eyes with Elise, only for a moment. Elise stared back. Then the girl shook the hair out of her eyes and pushed her pencil behind her ear while she studied her drawing. Elise saw the courtyard through the girl’s eyes for a second. To the girl, Elise was just another gray student. A new student, but a gray student. And then Elise was herself again. Well, not herself. Just the new Elise.

“Who’s the girl in the corner?” Elise asked the girls she was sitting by.

“Oh, that’s Josie. You know, the art freak. You can go sit by her, but…” the girls exchanged glances. “You know: she sits alone everyday. That kind of thing.” As if that explained everything.

“Oh.” Elise looked back down at her sandwich. She used to be the art freak. The bold, funny art freak. The old Elise, the bold one, would have marched right over and said hi to Josie. But the new Elise was too shy. So Elise stayed alone on her side of the courtyard, wishing she was someone else.

That night was Elise’s turn to make dinner. When she put the plate of food in front of Laurie, Laurie frowned.

“Are you feeling okay?” she asked. She looked down at her plate of macaroni and apple slices. Then she looked up at Elise.

“What?” Elise asked. “You don’t like the food I made?”

“No, it’s just not like you. Back in Florida you made the weirdest things, and this is just…. to normal or something.” Laurie shrugged. “Mind you-- I didn’t mean weird in a good way.”

Elise looked down at the plate too.

“What kind of things?” she asked.

“Oh, stuff like vanilla ice cream on half a raw onion. They were really gross. Once you made sweet and sour soup but spoiled it slightly by putting olives in.”

“Oh.” Elise thought about the old Elise, the one who made food so interesting that people remembered it. The old Elise sizzled and sparked with life. The new Elise simply sat on the plate looking up at you.

This continued for the next few days. Elise shuffled around school, watching Josie the art freak but never gathering the courage to sit with her, and making plain dinners. Finally on Friday night Laurie took the box of pasta from her hand and ordered Chinese food.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked. “I called Mom-- she said maybe you aren’t adjusting very well.”

“Maybe I don’t want to adjust,” said Elise testily.

“Of course you do. Don’t you want friends and stuff?”

“Maybe I don’t need friends,” said Elise.

“It’s weird,” remarked Laurie. “You are so different than you were back in Florida. Come on, it’s not that hard. Just be yourself.”

“That’s a little bit harder than you think,” yelled Elise, running into her room and slamming the door. Then she fell asleep early for the second time that week.

In the morning when Elise woke up her sister was sitting beside her, stroking the hair away from her face. Elise blinked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

“Is that really you?’ she asked.

“Of course it’s me,” replied Laurie. “God, you must be sicker than I thought.” Elise laughed for the first time in more than a week.

“I know it’s you,” she said. “You’re just acting nice.”

“Thanks,” said Laurie. “I was just getting worried about you. You’re really acting weird.”

“That makes two of us,” muttered Elise. She yawned and slumped back onto her pale pillows. “I don’t know. It’s just so different here. And it’s freezing and only September!”

“I think it’s mostly you acting different,” said Laurie gently. “Gosh, just give it a chance. And act yourself. You are a lot more fun than who you were this past week.” Laurie tousled her sister’s hair. “Anyway, I was sincerely getting bored of macaroni and apples.” As she watched Laurie leave the room, Elise thought about what she had said. ‘You are a lot more fun than who you were this past week.’
Later that day ss Elise stood in front of the mirror, looking at herself in the reflection, she wondered why she had hid from herself. She thought of all those dull gray people and felt sorry for them. She pulled on her red shirt, the one the real Elise wore, and smiled at her reflection. She felt sorry for herself for being one of them, if only for a week. And now, the room didn’t feel so pale anymore.
Elise went into the kitchen and opened the fridge, wondering what to make for dinner. Then she grabbed an onion, a carton of vanilla ice-cream and a jar of olives. She grinned. Laurie sure asked for it.
On Monday, instead of sitting with the gray girls again, Elise marched right over to Josie the art freak and asked if she could sit down. Josie looked up and once again their eyes locked.
“Hi,” said Josie. She smiled shyly. Elise glanced at her drawing. With a start, she realized the face on the paper was hers.
“Me?” she asked.
“I like your eyes,” said Josie simply. “They have spark.”
“Thanks,” said Elise. She looked again at the sketch and smiled. Spark.
“Oh, by the way, I’m Josie,” said the art freak, patting the cobblestones next to her. Elise sat down.
“Hi,” she said firmly. “I’m Elise.”

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