I like to tell stories. I’m not sure when it started, but it was early on in life. There is one story that I’ve told again and again. I remember when I was maybe about seven or eight-years old. My best friend Becky lived two houses down from me. We had this reoccurring game that went like this. We owned a pizza restaurant. The restaurant also featured live entertainment. Naturally, we were not only the owners, but the also the performers. We each climbed up onto either side of the metal A-framed swing set in Becky’s backyard and removed the caps from the main pole to which both swings were attached. This was both our microphones and the restaurant sound system. We put our mouths an inch away from the horizontal pole and sang into them at the top of our lungs.
We had one song and one song only: “Islands in the Stream” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I can’t remember if I was Dolly Parton or Kenny Rogers. But we each took turns singing our parts. Harmonizing. There was a creek behind our houses and we changed the song to “Islands in the Creek” to reflect the locale. Occasionally, while one of us hit a high note, the other paused to announce “Table number 34, your pizza is ready.” We got really good.
One day my brother was playing pizza restaurant with us. Joe was three years younger and played with us often. Playing with us usually entailed me telling him what to do and him doing it, as I was rather bossy. The only Polish words I’ve retained from my family heritage are “dupa jasia,” which basically means “dumbass,” and “boska” which means “boss lady” (thanks Patti!). Anyway, there we were, playing in Becky’s backyard. Joe never got his turn on the swing set stage. We were the main attraction; he was relegated to greeting invisible clientele near the swings or making sure the kitchen staff was working efficiently near the sandbox.
Becky and I were sitting in the grass preparing for our big number. Suddenly, I heard a voice from above me. “I’m going to sing!” my brother yelled as I turned to see him climbing the A-frame and removing the white plastic cap. What happened next remains ingrained in my memory like an ugly stain. Little Joey pulled off the cap and cupped his tiny hands around the pipe. He inhaled deeply and opened his mouth. He began to yell, a solid C-sharp echoing down the length of the swing set. Vibrating. One long note, one beaming, open mouth. And then it happened.
A swarm of bees came pouring out of the pipe and engulfed my brother. They swarmed his body and flew into his mouth. His long C-sharp became an animalistic scream as he flailed his limbs wildly, falling from the metal A-frame.
Becky and I froze in shock. We could only watch as Joey thrashed about on the ground, rolling and yelping. It seemed like an eternity, but eventually he got up and started to run across the yard, swatting and screaming. My feet unfroze and we started running after him. I remember laughing. Uncontrollably laughing! A pit of fear in my stomach, too tense and sickening to stay put, so instead burst out of my throat in the most inappropriate of noises. We ran and ran, across Becky’s yard, across that scary neighbor’s yard that was in the middle of ours, into my backyard. I felt like my chest was going to burst, laughter pouring from my burning throat, tears streaming down my face.
That’s where the memory ends. I can’t remember what happened after that.
Only a few years ago, my brother and I were visiting my parents at home. “Hey,” I said, “remember that time we were playing at Becky’s house and you climbed up on the swing set and yelled into the pipe and all those bees came out and stung you?”
“No.” he said.
“You don’t? How can you not? We were playing Pizza Shop and singing ‘Islands in the Creek’ and you climbed up and yelled into the pipe? And all those bees came out of it and chased you all the way home? How can you not remember? It was awful!”
My brother looked at me for a beat. “That never happened,” he said. “What really happened was that I yelled into the pipe and one bee came out and then flew away. Then I jumped down and went to go play in the sandbox.”
“What?!” I yelled. “What are you talking about? I remember it! I remember like a million bees coming out and going into your mouth and stinging you all over! You were like, 5-years old! You ran home crying!”
“Nope,” he said. “Never happened.”
“You’re crazy!” I said.
“You always do this,” he said. “You always re-remember these things that never happened. One bee becomes two-hundred bees.”
I was silent.
I swear that it happened. I can remember it. I can remember it. I remember how the white cap was cracked and how you had to pinch it open a bit to get it to fit back on the pipe. I remember tearing across the yard of the scary middle house, how we feared that the neighbor, who looked like Rocky Balboa, might inexplicably appear on his deck with a shotgun and start shooting at us, furious that we cut across his lawn. I remember the fear that my brother might die by bees just like Macaulay Culkinand in My Girl and how my chest hurt and how it was so funny but I was so scared. I remember Dolly Parton.
How do I explain this? Did my eight-year old imagination reinvent the events of that summer day? Did my fear of What-Could-Have-Happened become my memory of What-Really-Did-Happen? Or am I just a storyteller? A weaver of reality and myth, of truth and invention? A ginormous liar?
There are things I remember from my childhood that are so clear but later I’ve realized would have just been impossible. I remember this spotch of paint above my bedroom closet, but my Dad tells me that was on the wall at our first house when I was three, not at the one I grew up in and remembered it being. I’ve read this is common. We take other people’s memories and stories and make them our own without even knowing it. Maybe we are all storytellers, in one way or another.
The fact is, my brother is probably right. It was probably just one stupid bee. But I like my version better. It makes for a better story.
Islands in the creek
That is what we are
No one in-between
How can we be wrong
(Table number 21, your pizza is ready)
Sail away with me to another world
And we rely on each other, ah-ah
From one lover to another, ah-ah.
Images courtesy of wikipedia.org/wiki/Islands_in_the_Stream