When the inflatable bouncy castle I’m jumping in with a handful of five-year-olds is lifted off the ground by a gust of wind, I think of my cousin Garnet and her story of being snatched by a hawk. Six years ago, when we were twelve, we were both sent to Camp Spruce in New Hampshire, and it was there that she began to tell lies, starting with the one about the hawk. Our parents requested that we bunk in the same cabin, and I assumed I would be the cool one, the one who knew about pop music and movies and had a stack of Seventeen magazines in my duffel bag, and Garnet would be my loser cousin—a homeschooled girl from Kansas in long skirts and Birkenstocks whose family didn’t even own a television—that I would grudgingly be nice to.
But on the first night, a group of girls from our cabin, the Bluefeathers, gathered around the campfire with boys from the Arrowhead cabin, and the boys spilled stories about stolen cigarettes and sips of whisky pilfered from their parents’ liquor cabinets and pocketing their older siblings’ car keys to take a spin around the block. “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?” said Logan, one of the Arrowheads, and Garnet looked down at her lap for a moment, and I thought she’d have nothing to say because the craziest thing she’d probably ever done was go to bed without flossing. But then she looked up, her eyes reflecting the flickering campfire and after a second she smiled. Then she told everyone that when she was three she was on a beach at the Jersey Shore and a hawk swooped down, sunk its claws into her shoulders, and lifted her into the sky. I immediately knew the story to be untrue because she was in New Jersey in the winters, not the summers. We usually only saw each other once a year, at our grandmother’s house in Cape May on Christmas. But Garnet claimed she’d been hunched over working on a sand castle and the hawk grabbed her and flew with her clutched in its talons. It arced into the air over the blanket where her parents were just beginning to lay out a picnic. Her mother stood and then her father, and each of them raised their arms but already she was too far up, beyond their grasps. A lifeguard stood on his elevated chair and grabbed Garnet by the waist, tugged until the hawk released her, and then he held her tight, climbed down the rungs of his chair, and delivered her safely to her parents.
“I will never forget,” Garnet said with a hand over her heart, “that he had a tattoo of SpongeBob on his right bicep. I stared at it the whole time he was rescuing me.”
“Wow,” said Haley, one of the Bluefeather girls. “That’s amazing.” I bit my lip so that I wouldn’t say no, it wasn’t amazing, it was a lie. And even if it wasn’t a lie, Garnet hadn’t actually answered Logan’s question. This wasn’t the craziest thing she’d done; if it had been true, it was the craziest thing she’d had done to her.
Garnet pulled down the shoulder of her t-shirt, revealing a purple bra strap, which surprised me since I hadn’t known she’d started wearing a bra. “Here’s a scar from the talons,” she said, pointing to her shoulder, and the Arrowhead boys leaned in close to look, and I shook my head because the scar was not from talons but from her cat, Marie Curie, that she tried to dress up as Martha Washington to make a video for some homeschool history project. Needless to say, Marie Curie didn’t take well to the dress Garnet tried to shove on her, and she slashed Garnet’s shoulder. I wondered what grade her mother—my Aunt Cynthia—gave her for that failed project.
I waited for the other kids to laugh at her story, but no one did, and Victor, one of Arrowheads, said, “So cool. We should call you Garnet Hawk,” and then everyone called her that for the rest of the summer, in an impressed way as if she was someone really special. Throughout the summer, Garnet told stories, making herself out to be a female Daniel Boone-type character hunting and foraging in the wilds of Kansas—all of it lies because she lived in the suburbs—that fascinated everyone and made her one of the most popular girls at camp.
Throughout most of my life I could ignore Garnet and only interact with her for a few days a year at Christmas break. We never really got along. She was too weird, always reading and then spouting off facts that she’d read as if she were some living, walking reference book. During the spring of my senior year of high school, I heard that Garnet had gotten into Stanford, then Harvard, Amherst, Yale, and Wellesley. As news of her successes trickled down to me, I was met with rejection letters, one after the other until there were no more schools left. I won’t mention where these rejections came from, but rest assured there was some overlap with Garnet’s acceptance list. Maybe some of these schools were a bit of a reach, but I had an A- average, had taken five AP classes, was the secretary of my senior class, played flute in the band, and was a member of the debate team. I was one of the smart kids at my school. I tried to convince myself that Garnet got in because she was homeschooled and from Kansas, and colleges were desperate to recruit intelligent people from Kansas, and I was from New York, which was filled with overachievers and even dumb rich kids whose parents paid for them to take Princeton Review courses time after time until they knew all the tricks to getting good scores on the SATs, so the admissions standards for someone like me were higher than for someone like Garnet. Plus, since Garnet didn’t go to school, she had all this time to learn to juggle and make cheese and weave tapestries, useless skills that would make her look interesting to college admissions committees.
During my senior year, Garnet’s parents were going through a divorce that my mother called messy, and I overheard my father talking about how Garnet’s dad, my Uncle Carl, was camped out in their backyard in a teepee he ordered online. He showered at the gym at the university where he taught sociology, ate his meals in the school’s dining halls, and each night he stood outside the front door of the house where he used to live playing the banjo and singing love songs. Aunt Cynthia changed the locks on the house after she realized Uncle Carl was cheating when she found incriminating text messages on his phone from a woman in the Biology Department, and no matter how long Uncle Carl sang, she refused to let him back in the house. One night she even called the police while my uncle was singing, complaining about noise pollution.
In June, Garnet flew east to visit our grandmother in New Jersey and then came up to Schenectady for my graduation. Then the plan was that she’d stay until she left for Stanford in the fall, which would allow her parents to sort out their issues in Kansas. After my graduation, when my parents and Garnet and I were having dinner at Imperial Dragon, and I was seeing how many lo mein noodles I could wind around a pair of chopsticks, Garnet said, “What I don’t understand, though, is why you didn’t at least apply to one safety school.”
She said it innocently, and then she took a dainty nibble of a vegetable egg roll, reminding me of a video I saw online of a hamster eating a kernel of corn clutched in its tiny paws. My mother had ordered a plateful of the vegetable egg rolls since Garnet didn’t eat meat and I wasn’t allowed to order the shrimp and pork egg rolls I liked. I just shrugged in response to Garnet’s question. I’d thought this a million times, the word safety running through my mind again and again. It was the safe thing to do, a safety net when all the other schools said no, safety, safety, safety. Only an idiot would think they didn’t need a safety school. But I didn’t need Garnet reminding me of my own stupidity.
“It’s fine, though,” Garnet said. “You can just tell people you’re taking a gap year. Maybe you can go to Europe, take the Eurorail all over, and write a blog about your adventures. Or I know someone who’s going to New Zealand to work on an organic farm for a year before going to college. Do you want her phone number so she can tell you about the program?” She picked up the soy sauce bottle, poured a puddle on her plate, dipped her egg roll into it, and took another hamster-like bite.
“Maybe I’ll just go hang out with your dad in his teepee,” I said, and my father shook his head and glared at me. “It’d be a swap. You live here, I live with your parents in Kansas.”
Garnet kept nibbling on her vegetable egg roll and said, “He could probably use an assistant. He was talking about hiring one of the graduate students from the Sociology Department to run some statistical data about non-traditional living arrangements for married couples, but he could probably teach you how to run the program. And it’s a yurt, not a teepee.”
Later, my mother chastised me, saying I shouldn’t give Garnet a hard time, and I told my mother that I thought Garnet was a pathological liar and her lies were going to eventually catch up with her, but my mother said, “Have you ever thought about how Garnet’s lies are a way to comfort herself? It’s not exactly easy being Garnet.”
I immediately said, “Oh, yeah, it’s so hard to be accepted to Stanford and Harvard and Wellesley and have to figure out where to go,” but I hadn’t thought before about Garnet’s life being not so easy, with the home schooling and no friends and her fighting parents, and, well, even that name, Garnet, kind of was a problem too.
A week after my high school graduation, I took a job babysitting for Bridget Shaver in Loudonville, watching her two kids in the afternoons while she went to her yoga classes and then trained for a marathon she was going to run in October, and I also watched the kids on weekend nights when she and her husband went out to dinner at fancy restaurants. Bridget asked if I’d stay on and nanny for her in the fall because she was thinking about going back to work. The kids were fine, spoiled and a little demanding, but the Shavers paid well, and what else was I going to do? I would collect paychecks from the Shavers, live at home, and work on my college application essays and apply all over again.
Courtney Shaver was having a princess party for her fifth birthday, complete with a guy who dressed like a prince in a velvet robe and walked a white pony around their property giving kids rides. It was August and steamy outside, and I couldn’t believe the guy had to wear that thick velvet robe all day. An inflatable bouncy house that looked like a castle was on the expansive front lawn. After lunch, a few kids went inside the bouncy house and Bridget asked me to watch them. It was loud inside with the air that kept the castle inflated and it was hot and smelled like warm plastic, and at first I thought it was gross and my bare feet on the inflated plastic floor felt sticky, but then we were all jumping and I was into it, jumping up and landing on my butt with my feet in the air, the gold plastic tiara I’d put on earlier falling off, and I was laughing just as hard as the little kids. But then it felt like something was wrong, like we were on a rocky boat, and one little girl tumbled out through the mesh curtain at the entrance, and I reached for her, but it was too late, she was gone, and I tried to huddle the three little kids who were still in the bouncy castle near me, and we held hands and moved to the middle and I felt the house lift off, even though two hours before I saw a man from the party rental company hammer in metal stakes to hold the castle to the lawn.
Now I look through the mesh-covered windows and see that we are high up in the air and first I see the white pony and then the top of Bill Shaver’s head, with his bald spot, and then we’re above the roof of the Shavers’ house, higher than the trees. The wind blows like crazy, maybe enough to be a tornado, and the sky turns suddenly gray. Leaves are ripped off trees by the gusting wind and they swirl through the sky. I think of the black-and-white spinning house in The Wizard of Oz and of Kansas and of Garnet and her story about being lifted by the hawk and how that story transformed her into something different from a scared, friendless homeschooled kid almost two-thousand miles from home, and I think about her story about her father’s backyard yurt as a sociological experiment and how it maybe makes her feel better to lie than to think about her parents’ impending divorce. We are up and twisting away, and I am scared and unsure of what will happen next, but I pull the kids closer to me, smile, and say in a steady voice, “Aren’t we lucky that Mr. and Mrs. Shaver rented this flying castle ride? Aren’t you excited to see where we’ll go?