Freshmen year over, Marmalade’s ready for some summertime peace and quiet along with her favorite pastime, getting lost in good books and cozy cups of tea with Granny Blue. When the object of her affection, Luke, the all-star quarterback, notices her walking out of school and invites her to a party, Marmalade is shocked and starstruck. She barely recovers from this unexpected overture when she meets Bon-Hwa, the mysterious UFC fighter who inserts himself into her life as her new downstairs neighbor, taking over her second home in Granny Blue's Kitchen, forcing Marmalade out of her comfort zone. Marmalade is soon bouncing between broody, coffee shop Bon-Hwa and fun, flirty summer camp Luke, caught in a delicious tug-of-war.
As Marmalade struggles in the deep end with new love and longing, will her emotions get the better of her, or will she find the courage to choose the path that leads to her dreams? Will she flounder, tread water, or gracefully glide as a girlfriend, a friend, a novice poet, and a summer camp counselor, as she searches for her place in the universe.
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Chapter One: A White Lily
I was born between pages 252 and 253 of “Whispering Pines”, a romance novel in which Scott Banks, the cocky, experienced, brawny cowboy who lives in Montana on his 1,000-acre dude ranch, which he inherited, was finally seduced by his much younger, hotter and hopeful, Latina neighbor, Celia Raez, the naive girl who lived next door, who was always underfoot and constantly trying to prove to Scott that she was woman enough for him. They just so happened to be in his office one night, sharing a bottle of Scotch, discussing cattle and grazing rights one moment and then falling into unbridled lust the next. With all of this going on minutes before I was born, surely my life was destined to be filled with love, longing and boyfriends by the dozen. Nothing could be further from the truth, all of which will be revealed in due course.
My mother is an avid reader of books, especially those with dark and brooding men gracing the cover, brazenly bare-chested, looking completely conflicted, even though there’s a gorgeous woman resting against said bare chest, looking lost and confused, or helpless and stupid. Well, that’s what I like to think anyway. Like the man doesn’t know what to do with a beautiful woman looking up at him like the only purpose she has on this earth is to serve his every need. No thank you. There’s more to this life than serving the weaker sex.
My name is Marmalade Impatiens Elata Nelson. I live in a small Northern coastal city which has less than 6,000 residents. Every morning I wake to my most favorite scent in the world. No matter what the weather, my window remains open, allowing the scents of far-away places like China, Japan, India, Africa or Taiwan, to trickle into my little corner of the world on the morning breeze as it tickles my toes, dances across my knees, and eventually comes sneaking up to my nose, whispering in my ears, “Tea’s on, dah-ling.” Granny Blue’s teapot holds my heart, because no matter what kind of day I’ve had, it all disappears when she fires up her little oven and starts brewing some tea.
My mom and I live together in an upstairs apartment above Granny Blue, who isn’t actually my biological grandmother but is the only grandmother I’ve ever known. She’s an eccentric old soul who shares her house with seven cats, yards of yarn, enough knitting needles to put your eye out, a weathered teapot, and one previously single pregnant woman who was neglectfully left on the side of the road like an empty pack of cigarettes; but that is another mystery to be revealed at a later date.
My life is an open book with too many half-written chapters. Like my mother, I also love to read. At the moment, my interest lies mostly in tea. I spend hours poring over article upon article on the variations of tea, how they’re made, where they’re grown, and whose hands bring in the harvest. It is Granny Blue’s affinity for tea that has been my inspiration. And since her eyes are “old and tired”, she relies on me to keep stock of her inventory. Granny Blue has a wonderful pantry, and behind its magical door are shelves and shelves of tea. I keep her pantry well stocked and tidy. Everything has its place because I need to be in control of one thing in my life, even if it’s only managing tea. At first, I arranged the teas in alphabetical order, but soon discovered that this wasn’t appropriate. Then I tried organizing them according to their taste, which was another colossal mistake. Granny Blue knew that straight away. She understood why I was continuously pacing the floor, converting the pantry entrance into a revolving door as I went in and out, in and out, my fingers tapping my chin, as if trying to figure out a puzzle which had some missing pieces.
I was sitting at her kitchen table, drinking a cup of Earl Grey from my favorite teacup, the one that Granny Blue almost pitched because of its perfect imperfections: a chip in the dainty flower petal adorning the ridge where my lip fits just right; a jagged edge on the handle that pinches my fingers just enough to remind me I’m alive; and the best part, a crack in the bottom, dead center, that holds me on the glorious threshold of quivering suspense, wondering when the day will come when it will split wide open, dumping a scalding bit of tea into my unsuspecting lap, when the idea suddenly came to me. The tea should be sorted by country and terrain. I researched every kind of tea, where it was from and how it was grown, and rearranged the pantry once more. Now when I enter the pantry, I can imagine the mountains of China, Japan and Taiwan. I see the lay of the land as I bend over at the waist to reach the Ruhuna Ceylon black tea on the very bottom shelf, picturing a lady who lives in the valley in her little colorful house beside the field of tea leaves. I can feel her wrinkled hands moving gently over the leaves, choosing only the top layer, as she carries her wicker basket at her side. She hums a low and soothing tune to herself as she passes her day in the sea of green.
As I reach up to the top shelf, to put the Gaoshan Oolong tea away, I envision a boy who lives in the mountains, shuffling the basket at his feet as he goes down the rows picking the leaves. When it’s full, he carries the basket upon his head, which is a careful balancing act, weaving in and out as he goes, wearing a big smile on his face. He carries a small canteen of water around his neck, water that he has collected from the cool mountain spring earlier that morning on his way to the field.
I have to watch myself that I don’t get too comfortable in the enchanting pantry as it’s the only place I feel in complete harmony with myself and the world around me, something which I’m currently explaining to my mom. I want her to understand my great love for the pantry, my utopia.
She shakes her head and laughs. “Marmalade, what an imagination you have.”
I’m more than a little rankled. “What do you expect? You gave me the name Marmalade, a tart sauce you spread on bread. And then you named me after two different flowers. The only thing normal about me is my last name, given to me by a man I’ve never met.” I regret my last words as I glance over at my mother and see the same look I always get when I mention my father. Sadness and pain.
She clears her throat and picks up her book, “Taming a Scoundrel”, by H.Q. Nielsen, her favorite author, and returns to reading.
I sigh heavily and walk up to my small bedroom behind the panel. We live in a studio apartment. My mom does her best to give me my privacy, and I do the same. I don’t have worry too much about privacy for my friends because I don’t have any, at least not any friends who are my age. My mother is a beautiful, willowy African American woman with skin the color of black tea, but inside, she’s more like a white tea—all delicate and eloquent. I think it’s because she had me when she was twenty, after dropping out of school to care for her dying mother when she was just sixteen, though she did fulfill her mother’s one wish by getting her GED. To hide her lack of education, my mom often talks like the women in her romance novels who are from old England or something; the beautiful parlor maids who have forbidden love affairs with the aristocratic dukes, or like in a fairytale, when the frog turns into a handsome prince because of true love. After all, a true princess always gets her prince in the end. That didn’t really happen for my mother; her toad remained a toad, and like all toads do, he hopped away.
I, on the other hand, have pasty, white skin and hair the color of a bleached overripe peach, which is why my mom named me Marmalade. She said I came out kicking my little feet in such a beautiful dance that she just had to name me Impatiens. But then, when she saw my beautiful full lips, a second name came to her, Elata, after the flower, which is shaped like a cosmetic surgeon’s dream. My lips look like they have so much collagen in them—no more could possibly fit. And my hair is like an Afro, but it’s the color of Marmalade. I inherited my mother’s chocolate-colored eyes, long skinny limbs, piano-playing fingers and a narrow waist. Or, as Granny Blue likes to say; “Child, you are all knees and elbows. But just you wait, one day your sharp points will mellow out into smooth curves.” I didn’t really believe her, especially as I was so focused on trying to shrink down and not stand out. It seems I’ve always worn high-waisted jeans and crop tops. Not because they were actually high-waisted jeans and crop tops, but because that’s how they fit me. However, everything’s still too loose around my waist, and I constantly have to put bandanas through my belt loops to hold up my jeans.
But this morning, I woke up and everything felt different. Something had changed overnight, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I stepped out of the shower and put my training bra on, like I usually do. Yes, I still wear one because they’re comfortable, plus, I’ve got nothing to brag about. But all of a sudden, it’s too tight. It doesn’t fit me right at all.
I race to stand in front of the full length in my bedroom in my underwear. I have hips! I have a chest! I thought this day would never come! I throw on some clothes I always wear. They still fit, but they’re tighter in some places. Now I feel self-conscious. This is a new feeling for me. I’ve never felt self-conscious before, even though most of the kids at school, at one time or another, have asked me why I’m so white, especially after seeing my mom.
Once I had a girl in my class reach out and actually touch my hair because she’d never seen hair like it before. Another time I had a friend for two weeks, before she finally got up the nerve to ask me if I was adopted, because everyone wanted to know but no one wanted to ask. After that, she stopped being my friend. As terrible and traumatic as all that sounds, none of it really got to me.
But having to go to school with this new body; I don’t want to. I don’t want to be noticed, not for this. I walk by my mom who sits at the breakfast table drinking her coffee, eating her toast, buried in a book with a big, burly man in a kilt, with his arms around a busty blonde lady gazing at him with her lips barely parted, as if she’s going to whisper something to him any second. Suddenly, my imagination takes over and I pantomime fanning myself, whispering, all breathy, to my mother, “Excuse me sir, with your long brown locks, your bulging biceps, and your big bare chest, would you mind passing me the butter?”
My mom doesn’t even blush as she glances over her book at me with her long eye lashes, sighing heavily. “Are you done?”
I shrug my shoulders, giving my front a little shake, just to test the waters. But there’s no reaction from my mother. I give an exaggerated twirl, sticking my new curvy backside out like an exclamation point, feeling ridiculous, and glance at my mother, whose nose is buried in her book once more.
Wordlessly, I grab my bag and head out the door. Off to school I go. The one good thing about living in a small town is nothing ever changes; nothing except for me and this betraying body that I woke up in. I head straight for my locker, and no one says anything. I breathe in and breathe out as I walk down the hallway, thinking to myself, How silly are you, Marmalade, to think that anyone will notice a slight change in your shape, when no one notices you anyway? I grab my books and head into the classroom as the first bell is ringing. Everyone is in their chairs. That’s weird. Normally I’m the first one here.
Davis’s eyes stare from the back row and get really big as soon as I walk through the door. “Damn, Marmalade. Your railroad tracks just turned into big S curves.” He moves his hands in an hourglass form, and the guys beside him laugh.
Great, just great. I don’t know what to say, so I sit down in the first empty chair I see, ramrod straight. I hunch over and try to hide my front. Why are boys so immature? I tell myself I will ignore the new stares I feel on my backside. How ironic. I’ve wanted to be seen for so long; I’ve waited for someone to look me in the eye. And now, all I want to do is disappear. I lean over and dig through my bag to get a book to read, like I do every day. I look up to see a boy’s side-eyed stare go right down my shirt. I glance away from him, feeling like a spaz as I jerk up in my seat. I flip my book open on my desk and stare a hole through the page, reading the words over and over like a meaningless mantra.
Of course, the teacher doesn’t notice anything that is going on, hears no unwanted words coming from the idiots, ignores their pervy stares in my direction. Today is like any other day and if anything is amiss, the fault is mine. Whenever I received any questions at school for looking different, the teachers always side-eyed me, like I can change my appearance, like I chose to be born this way. No one ever thought to correct the rude child who stared, or laughed and pointed, or ran away from me in the schoolyard when I tried to play with them. The fault is mine for being born in a different skin as foreign as an alien from outer space in a science fiction movie.
The thing is, this is my life, and it’s real. And I’m real, even though people look at me like I walked out of the Powder movie, waiting for me to start fires with my eyes or reach out and heal someone. It’s hard to understand how people who seem to have all the common sense in the world freak out when they see me, like I’m something to be explained. Usually, I can amuse myself with the realization that if I’m not careful, it will go to my head, all this power. I swear there are days when I feel like Moses parting the red sea, only in my case it’s a high school hallway, or a crowd at a football game. Sometimes I want to yell at them that I’m not contagious, that being albino isn’t a virus or a disease that they can catch. Neither is it a curse, although most days it feels like it.
As much as I hate it, Davis’s words ring in my ears all day. I guess there are worse things than being called an S curve. It’s just irritating that the one time I’m noticed is because I’m no longer straight as a pencil. The rest of the day passes uneventfully. I sit in my last hour class daydreaming. I can almost taste the Chamomile tea I’m going to pull off the shelf at Granny Blue’s. Chamomile tea is perfect for days like this, days when my spirit needs soothing, when I need to feel the calm of still waters gently lapping the shores, the fat bubbles of foam swirling about inside me, taking over until I’m still all over and the ugliness of the day is gone.