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Kristi Coulter

List Maker

My father hated me. Some nights he would straighten himself up in his leather chair and say, "Who do you think you are?" He asked over and over, his voice rising each time, until he got an answer.

I knew my lines. "I'm Emma," I said flatly. Crying was beneath me.

He set aside his scientific journal. From the corner of my eye I saw my mother in the kitchen, her head on the Formica counter. "Okay," he said. "You're Emma. Who named you?"

"You and Mommy." This was untrue. My father named me; my mother was supposed to name the second child.

He scratched his beard. "Technically, that is false," he said, "as I think you know. I named you. I gave you a name. Right?" I nodded. "So you're Emma because I told you so. Does that make sense?"

"I'm not stupid," I snapped. I could say anything. He never touched me.

"No," he said, "you are not at all stupid. Stupid is not what you are." He adjusted his reading glasses, and sometimes that ended it.

In my family everyone was alone. We lived at the top of a mountain, in Los Alamos, with one dusty supermarket and a McDonald's. Everyone's father was a physicist and sworn to silence. Everyone's mom was a housewife. There was nothing for the mothers but pottery classes and discolored produce. They gassed and shot themselves, two or three a year, in the winter months. My own mother read thousand-page novels, took her turn in car pool, tried to defend me. But none of us had much energy to think about anyone else.

She helped me turn my walk-in closet into a fort. We stacked sleeping bags on the floor and lined the walls with pillows. She found an old trunk at a garage sale, painted it pink, and let me cover it with stickers. It became my closet desk. My room desk was for homework, but at my closet desk I kept lists. One list was reasons why my father hated me. At the top of the list was NOT GOOD AT MATH. Below that: DON'T LISTEN WHEN HE TALKS TO ME. DON'T LOOK AT HIM WHEN HE TALKS TO ME. AFRAID OF SKI LIFT. DON'T WANT TO BE IN SCIENCE FAIR. COMPLAIN ABOUT LIMA BEANS. HE'S CRAZY. HE'S DUMB.

She bought me a lock for my closet. "It can be like a secret hiding place," she said. Once a week after my ballet class, we went out to lunch at the one nice restaurant in town. "Your dad loves you a lot," she said as we ate our tea sandwiches. "He just doesn't know how to tell you." Her brow furrowed. "It's a thing about grown men. They're very unhappy people."

There were so many things he didn't believe in. He didn't believe in churches. He didn't believe Robert Oppenheimer was a hero or a villain, just a guy who was doing his job. He didn't believe in waiting in line, in credit cards, in food that was pretty to look at. I listened for these things and wrote them down. I tried to keep my lists in alphabetical order, so I could always find the one I needed right away.

The lists were my psychiatrist's idea. "If you write things down," she said, "you can understand them better." She gave me a diary with a lock and a necklace to wear the key on. I never used the diary; it only had five lines per day. Instead I stole my father's graph paper and legal pads. I brought the diary with me when I saw her, though, so I wouldn't hurt her feelings.

"Sometimes, when adults are unhappy, they take it out on their kids," she said at one of our first meetings. We were sitting on beanbag chairs under a poster of the Eiffel Tower. She had blocks and Fisher-Price people if I wanted to play with them, but I was too nervous. "I don't think that's fair of them. Do you?"

"I guess not," I said.

"You guess not?" She leaned forward. "Let's say you had a dog, and you had a bad day at school and you came home and were mean to your dog. Would that be fair?"

"They won't let me get a dog," I said. That summer, coyotes had come up from our canyon and eaten the golden retriever next door. We had two parakeets named Pete and Repeat.

"But if you did have a dog," she prompted.

"Well, no," I said. "But it's not the same."

"Why not?"

I was finding her a little slow. "Because a dog's not a person."

She sighed. Children weren't her specialty, but she was the only psychiatrist in town who didn't work exclusively for the Lab. "That's true. That's good. Okay, what if you had a little sister?"

My father said that because of me they would never have another child. But I didn't see the point of getting into that with her. "It would be wrong," I said. "Completely bad." She nodded. We had had a breakthrough.

My psychiatrist's job, as I saw it, was to make me happy. My father said that if I were happy, then he would be happy and we wouldn't have to have those talks. He said if I were happy, he and my mom wouldn't fight anymore. Sometimes when he told me these things I was scared. Other times, it was when we were doing stuff together. He sledded with me in the backyard now and then, or we'd watch something like Pillow Talk or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on Sunday-afternoon TV. Then things seemed simple enough. But the other times, when he showed me his gun and told me how much I made him want to put a bullet through his head, I wished he would kill me, too.

I told him that once, and my mother was listening, and that's how I ended up with a psychiatrist. The first time we visited, she asked me why I wanted to die.

I didn't want to die. And I was mad at my mom for dragging me to a psychiatrist. She was always telling me that when people got angry they said things they didn't mean. "I'm just sick of everyone fighting all the time," I said.

She did her list. Did he hit me? No. Did he come into my room at night? He never came into my room at all. What did these blobs look like? Puppies and black people. Would I like to play Green Measles, where she put dots of green lotion on my forearms and we rubbed it in together? If she really wanted to, I said.

I started to feel sorry for her, and guilty. She hadn't made me happy yet. "There's this thing he does that makes me really mad," I said. She raised her eyebrows. My arms were greasy; I tried not to let them touch the furniture. "He asks me who I think I am," I said, "and then he won't let me tell him. I don't think that's fair. Is it?"

The big list started that way. It was her idea, but I kept it going. TEN-YEAR-OLD, I wrote. FIFTH GRADER. GIRL. DAUGHTER. AMERICAN. FRIEND. GOOD CITIZEN. GOOD SPELLER. GOOD STUDENT. I worked on it late at night, when I couldn't sleep. GIRL SCOUT. BALLERINA. BROWNIE BAKER. BLONDE. KICKBALL PLAYER. READER. SLEDDER. Three or four times I showed it to my psychiatrist. After that I kept it to myself, locked in my trunk. My mom bought me a dictionary and a thesaurus. INSOMNIAC. SAD PERSON. MENTAL PATIENT.

A few weeks before Christmas my father sold an article to one of the journals he read. He was in some of the journals all the time, but this one had never liked him before. To celebrate, we all ate dinner together. I set the table the way we'd been learning in Girl Scouts and my mom cooked chicken and squash on the indoor grill. We ate in the dining room by the picture window, looking out on the white yard and white sky. I didn't complain about the squash.

He was in a good mood. "Maybe we can take a trip this summer," he said to my mom. "She should see the Grand Canyon."

I blushed. It was like he had a plan for me, a way I could turn out all right. It made me feel safe. "Can we go on the helicopter ride?" I asked.

"Emma, you won't go on the ski lift. Why do you want to take a helicopter over the Grand Canyon?" He was smiling.

"You can't fall out of a helicopter," I said. I waited for him to finish chewing.

"Well," he said, "that's only partially correct. You certainly can fall out of a helicopter, and I'm sure many people have done just that. I concede your point, though. In a helicopter you have walls around you, and a roof."

"And your feet don't hang," I said.

He looked at my mother, his lip curling slightly. "And your feet don't hang."

After dinner I locked myself in the closet. SQUASH EATER, I added to the list. DAUGHTER OF GENIUS. CONVERSATIONER. I was up to ninety-eight. If I got a thousand, I thought, I'd learn calligraphy and rewrite them all in a book with gold pages.

The psychiatrist wanted to meet my father. She said it would help her know me better. So on Wednesday the week before Christmas, my mom and I picked my father up outside the Lab cafeteria. I was already in the backseat, where I played with the empty ashtrays. I thought he would yell at me for messing up his day, but he was quiet.

We all sat on beanbags, which I thought probably made him mad. He didn't know how to smush his up to make it comfortable like ours. The psychiatrist asked him a bunch of easy questions, like how long had he lived in New Mexico and what kind of a scientist was he. The first real question she asked was "Why do you think you're here?"

He rubbed his chin for a minute. "Well," he said, "my daughter's a very unhappy person, and I guess you like to talk to all a patient's relatives." He paused. "I've never believed in psychiatry. It seems to me people should just do what they have to do. But Emma's problems are starting to wear us all down." He crossed his legs.

The psychiatrist watched him. "From your point of view, what would you say Emma's problems are?"

He leaned forward. "She's just unhappy," he said. "She's a downbeat, morose kind of person, and she drags us all down with her. Emma is thirty-three percent of our household, but she takes up ninety-nine percent of the energy." He shrugged. "She's my daughter and I love her, but this misery has got to stop."

I rolled a Fisher-Price girl around in my hand. I had thought we were going to talk about him.

"Emma, what do you think about that?" my psychiatrist said.

"I don't know."

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Well," I said, "I would feel better if we were friends."

My father leaned forward. "This is exactly what I mean. Emma, you and I have different personalities. We've been over this a thousand times."

I nodded. "It's a personality conflict," I told the psychiatrist.

"Are you friends with everyone at school?" he went on. "No. Because you can't be compatible with everyone, just like you're not compatible with me. It's not a big deal." He turned to the psychiatrist. "This is how we get into trouble. Because she takes these simple facts and gets them twisted around in her head and wastes a houseful of energy over who's her friend and who isn't." The psychiatrist played with her silver ring. "I work twelve hours a day, every day, under stress you can't imagine. I don't know who she thinks she is that I can't have a minute's goddamn peace for once, just once in my life." He pushed himself up from his beanbag and walked out to the waiting room, where my mother was reading a magazine and looking not surprised to see him so soon.

ROLLER SKATER. BARBIE DRESSER. FATHER HATER. FATHER HATER. It was like the time I'd written "fuck" on the inside of my pencil box, just to see how it felt. I leaned back in my nest of sleeping bags and stared at my hands. They looked not quite human.

My mother and I went Christmas shopping in Santa Fe. In Los Alamos my mother looked funny; she wasn't gray enough. In Santa Fe she looked like everyone else, and I was proud of her. We went to the Plaza, where she bought my father some fancy ski clothes he would hate. Later we went to McDonald's for sundaes. "Do you feel like your doctor's helping you?" she said.

I shrugged. "She's a nice lady."

"But is she making you feel better?"

"Maybe it's too soon to tell," I said.

She nodded. Then she reached across the table and adjusted my barrette. "I've been a bad mother," she said. My stomach flipped over. I thought she was going to quit right there, just leave me alone at McDonald's forever. I was always waiting for her to quit.

"You have not!" I said. "You're great. You're a great mom." I grabbed her wrist. When she smiled, I relaxed and let go.

"Remember something," she said. "You're going to grow up and leave someday. Go to college, whatever. When you do, you don't have to come back." She paused. "Do you understand? If you don't want to, you don't ever have to come back here. I'll come and visit you at your house, with your own family. And your fifteen dogs."

She folded and unfolded the tin McDonald's ashtray. "Okay," I said. "We can go to Paris." I didn't think he could possibly live long enough for me to have to leave him.

Later I asked her to buy me some nice notebooks, the kind that looked like hardback books but were blank inside. We got one that had some angels on the cover and one with Winnie the Pooh. On the way out of the mall, she asked if I wanted to visit Santa, but she was only teasing.

I listed the two hundred things I was in the angel book. I couldn't wait for a thousand; a thousand could take too many years. What I had I wrapped in Santa paper. The night before Christmas I walked through the living room, bypassing our dark spiny tree, and put my present deep inside his left ski boot in the hall closet. That way, I thought, that way he would be sure to find it before we all had to begin another year.

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