The rock tumbler: two black plastic barrels lined up like train cars, turning, day and night, turning like a concrete mixer turns on a truck, even at stop lights, always turning, turning on the windowsill of the room I shared with my sister. My sister who hated the rock tumbler, hated the grinding sound of it, the idea of it, the so-called “boringness” of the “stupid, stupid rock tumbler.”
I found it soothing. Things were being perfected in those black plastic barrels. Things were being smoothed to a shiny, pretty luster. It took a long time, but it was worth the wait. It was much faster than the ocean, than the natural way. Also: it couldn’t happen without me. I stopped the turning, according to schedule, to rinse out the barrels and add different grains of sand. The first packet was coarse and red, the second was brown and fine, the third soft and beige like the beach at my grandfather’s house.
The right amount of water was important. As were the rocks, which I’d collected from my driveway back home, where we had had a driveway, and a house, and a yard, before we moved to New York City, before we lived in a tiny apartment with a spicy smell in the hall, before I was the only first grader who didn’t speak Spanish, before I had to share a room with my sister who hated the rock tumbler.
The rocks were mostly gray when I put them in the barrels, but by the end, they would be beautiful. They would disclose hidden secrets like my geodes, they would reveal what was there all along. Like the very young dancer in the book, A Very Young Dancer, which I had on my shelf, right under the New York City Ballet poster illustrating first through fifth positions. Beautiful things took time and also practice and perfection, I knew. As the rock tumbler turned I could imagine the gentle heft of the stones in my hands, their shiny smoothness, their coldness, their quiet stillness.
We found the kittens in a wire garbage can in the park near our apartment building. They were there, under some newspaper, there, sticky and wet and mewling, in the trash. Neighbors crowded around, saying tsk tsk. People were taking them out of the trash, taking them home. I said, “Please, Mom,” and we took two striped sisters. I wrapped them in washcloths and fed them milk with an eyedropper and held them close, but not too tight. I petted their soft fur. I did everything the book said, but two days later I came home from school, I came home from school to see the kittens and my mother pulled a shoebox out from under the bed, with the kittens inside, the kittens curled against each other still and cold.
The rock tumbler kept turning. It turned all weekend, and all the weekends my dad worked on his films for film school. We didn’t see him much during the week but we were the stars of his short movies, my mother, my sister and I. In one, my mother lay on the bed with slatted shadows across her face. In another, I dropped a wooden doll off a bridge at the Cloisters--over and over, I pulled it back up using the fishing line tied to its neck. In my favorite, my sister and I walked in the snow forward, then perfectly backward into our own footprints, “like Indians,” my father said, so it would appear we had simply vanished.