The house was never silent after I was born, but not because of baby wails or shrieks. It was because of the TV. TV whispers woke me every morning and swayed me to sleep. The flickering light filled the hallway in a comforting glow that made the dark seem less menacing in the midst of night. It cloaked the actual silence, the short but frequent absences. More so, I’d come to know the TV as my mother. She switched it on before she left in the morning, locking the doors behind her. The house was only silent when Mom came home, creaking stairs with tired feet and I switched the screen to black. She sometimes fell asleep on the couch, remote fallen from her dangling hand. I always switched it off when she dozed, just to hear the whistle of her nose when she breathed in her sleep.
TV dinners were a staple, filling my lunch bags, waiting in the freezer every evening. I had to carry a dining chair into the kitchen to reach them and then wait as they buzzed in the microwave. The TV conversed with me at the dining table, verbose and persuasive as it convinced me to buy the newest brands of cars and other various products. The TV loved to gossip. I knew all the dirt on celebrities and politicians. The TV taught me all of my Spanish colors, thanks to Dora. I sang along with Elmo and followed the lives of Arthur and all of his furry friends. But it was the discovery channel that I really loved, and I begged my mother for a dolphin, and then a panda, and then a tiger. She, of course, said no.
And then at age four, I lost my only friend. The screen buzzed into a whir of neon greens and pinks, breaking the sound into a slurred ramble until finally it froze into a black screen. The television had passed on. The house was silent again.
The tangle of dark vines dangled from the back of her chair, nearly dragging onto the floor as she battled with taxes and checkbooks. The ends were split and fraying, and I sat on the floor behind her, running the wilting strands through my fingers as she cried. The braid swayed as her shoulders shook with every gulp and hiccup that tried to suppress it all. Mom sniffed a lot, complained of allergies and twisted her lips into a forced smile when she knew I was watching. She sometimes fell asleep in that chair and I crawled onto her lap, wrapping my arms around her tired neck. Her arms swung limp at her sides and I wished she’d wrap them into a blanket around my waist like she used to.
Insomnia lined her pupils during the day when she plugged her ears with headphones and tapped her toes against the carpet. She wasn’t one for dancing. Sometimes she unplugged the silent music machine and cranked up the volume, watching me wiggle in circles until I fell down, dizzy from dancing. Only then did she laugh. It was more like a raspy giggle and she ran her fingers through her hair, leaning her head against the wood.
She wore thimbles on her fingers and used her shirt as a pincushion. Sewing. That was one thing she liked, threading needles and mending holes in our clothes. There were patches all over my jeans. There was no need for new clothes when you had a needle. She knitted scarves that never ended, forming rings on the rug. Mom made me a teddy bear for my fourth birthday out of scraps from a dress she never wore. She gave him button eyes and a Sharpie smile that rubbed off as I dragged him through the weedy garden.
Mom stopped locking the doors when I went off to preschool. I disappeared in the muddy patches behind the house, splashing in puddles with bare feet. I wasn’t afraid of rain or thunder. I stayed up late at night watching lightening slice into the sky. In the winter, my sneakers became pulp that clung to my toes as I made snowmen, wearing an old hoodie that came down to my knees.
In the spring, Mom brought home a bundle of fur that squeaked and meowed at me. The little thing clung to her sweater with its claws and rumbled like a motorboat, flaccid in her arms. He fed on dead mice that ventured in through the walls, and once those ran out, she gave him scraps of fish from the table. Cat food cans lay open in the kitchen sink for days. I grew accustomed to the smell that had become the staple scent of our house. He napped on her shoulders while I built my teddy a house under the trees. When teddy’s Sharpie smile wore away, I smeared my fingers in black ink in attempt to draw it back. It formed zigzag lips that made him look afraid whenever I lifted him up.
Once while I was sleeping, the kitty dragged my teddy up the stairs and into my bed. The threads on his neck began to unravel and there was a damp hole where the wiggly smile used to be. I found a needle on Mom’s desk and managed to push some yarn into his deformed face. The stitches were jagged and teddy looked like he’d had a nasty trip to the hospital. I pricked my finger ten times till I gave up and cried. Mom ripped out the stitches and I watched as she made the thread disappear in the fabric, giving teddy a new mouth. This one was permanent in red threads that formed a straight line just below his nose. He would never smile or frown again.
The neon lights flashed blinking words above my eyes, words I couldn’t read yet. Posters of hotdogs and hamburgers hovered above the place. She tried to take me there once after preschool, sneaking me into the back where I sat on a stool with my crayons, alone with the smell of grease and chicken nuggets.
“It’s only for today,” she promised them. “Nina’s quiet.”
And it was true. She snuck me back French fries and glasses of water, pressing her fingers to chapped lips before putting on an apron and disappearing for a couple hours. The sink was taller than me. It sat filled to the brim with dishes and bubbly soap that slowly popped away. I stood on the stool with my hands full of crayons, examining the ketchup stained dishes. Then out from under my elbow slipped a single red crayon. It plopped deep into the water, disappearing beneath the plates. The crayons fell to the floor and I dug my arms deep into the bubbles, searching with my fingers. The plates slid and crashed against the metal with such a clatter that a man came running back, pushed me out of the way as the plates cracked into porcelain pieces.
Mom dragged me wailing through the door. She didn’t say a word on the bus. I gripped onto her leg, pushed against bodies on the bumpy ride home. We walked back in the dark and she didn’t hold my hand. I trailed behind her, gripping the red crayon, now wet and broken into two pieces.
I never went back. Mom stopped locking doors on the weekends. She left me to the yard and the trees. She left me to bloody knees and grass stains while she waited tables into the evening.
Milo’s skin was only three weeks old, raw and red in the bundle that peeked over his mother’s shoulder as she swayed on the porch swing. He was strapped to her chest in a harness and I leaned over the fence that separated our houses, tippy toes crushing weeds. The wooden edges of our planter box jutted into my bare soles. I’d never seen a real baby before. I’d only watched the ones that appeared in nappy commercials, cooing and crying on cue. They weren’t as pretty in person. The foreign thing stared at me with bulbous eyes, unblinking in the blanket. I stared right back.
A strand of drool drizzled down his chin onto the white blanket. His mother patted his back until the slit of red opened into a startling belch. My feet slipped on the wood, sending me tumbling backwards into the weeds. The porch swing stopped creaking and I crouched in an attempt to hide from the hands that appeared on the edge of the fence as a lady peered down at me. The bundle was wailing now, face swollen into a furious red. There were dandelion seeds in my knotty hair and mud stains on the T-shirt that I’d been wearing for two days now, but she offered her hand and waited till I was on my feet.
“You ok?” she asked, but I was too distracted by the wailing creature to answer her. She looked at the grass in my blonde head and the scratches on my knees, eyes drifting up to the empty house behind me, and finally said, “Where’s your Mom?”
I didn’t say a word.
They had scented soap in the bathroom, floral curtains and a rack just for shoes. She tacked Band-Aids onto my swollen knees and rubbed my hands in fuzzy towels. I chewed on baby carrots and goldfish while she lulled the baby back to sleep. I extended a finger towards his head and instead of jerking away she watched my two fingers graze his skin. I’d learned on our preschool fieldtrips to the museum that two fingers were used for delicate, fragile things. They made us hold up two fingers to pet the taxidermy bears so we wouldn’t get them dirty. This baby was brand new, a prized possession, a precious thing. His cheeks pressed against his mother’s chest, using the curves of her breasts as a pillow. His flesh felt like the skin of boiled eggs, smooth and hairless.
“What’s your name?”
My response barely left my lips, lost in a breath of whisper.
“What?” she asked.
She leaned towards me and I whispered into the studs that lined the side of her ear. “Nina. That’s pretty.”
She turned to the baby now drifted to sleep, slumped against her shoulder.
“His name is Milo.”
Nina and Milo. Nina and Milo. Nina and Milo. I watched his first steps on the sidewalk in front of our houses, tied his shoelaces so he wouldn’t trip and carried him around on my back as I crawled on all fours. I made him laugh in great toothless bursts, tickling his chubby armpits. I pulled him around their backyard in a metal wagon that clanked with every step.
Mom frowned when she first learned about the neighbors whose house I’d started visiting regularly.
“You can’t just invite yourself over,” she told me. “It’s rude.”
Milo’s mother didn’t seem to mind though. She fed me snacks and read the newspaper while I entertained the baby, and eventually, Mom gave in, politely nodding to the neighbors before saying goodbye and rushing off on the weekends.
Milo’s mother watched his every move, overly protective of her prized possession. She dressed him in overalls and little sneakers that lit up when he ran. She groomed his curly strands and wiped his runny nose. Milo’s daddy dug his nails deep into our tummies when he tickled us, chasing us up the stairs and sweeping us into his hairy arms. He was the only man who had ever hugged me. Maybe he felt sorry for my cracking shoes and knotted hair, but I didn’t care either way when he crossed his legs to let us perch on his knees and listen to his stories.
The yolk wobbled as I poked at its flesh with my fork until it popped into a burst of yellow ooze that trickled across my plate. Eggs. Milo’s mother managed to transform the delicate spheres into unimaginable shapes and sizes: scrambled, over easy, sunny side up, hard-boiled. Mom never tried cracking eggs in the morning. She bought them ready-made in boxes. They were flat and spongy, forming yellow slivers on my plate.
Five years old and I slipped an egg into my pocket when I knew Milo’s mother wasn’t looking, cradling its frigid form against my hip. She’d done it loads of times, so why couldn’t I? She sliced the shells with the curves of her palms, transparent gel slipping into the pan where it fizzed into a crispy white. Today I would fry an egg.
I brought it home like a treasured gem, walking cautiously to avoid brushing the delicate lump against the furniture. It had survived the journey and I cupped it in my hands. Mom kept the pots and pans in a cupboard under the sink where dish soap and sponges should have been but weren’t. The pan sat caked in dust so I rubbed it against my sleeve. The stove was up to my chin, staring me down with dark disks for eyes. I leaned over on a stool with the egg in my fist, placing the pan on the stove. The knob on the stove was cold in my small hand but burst into a flame that flicked beneath the pan and stung my foolish thumb, too close to the heated metal. The egg fell smack into the pan, yolk staining my hands and drizzling into a burning smoke. I turned off the stove, buried the burned pan in the sink and sucked on my swollen thumb.
I never fried an egg again.
I never took baths for fear of drowning. The swirl of dark hair that lined the drain jiggled in the water, tapping my toes with soggy strands. The walls wore mold and grimy fingerprints. I sat precariously on the edge, feet dangling over the water so only the tips of my toes would be touched. I dreamt of sharks and stingrays squeezing their way up the drain and swimming in circles around the tub. Spiders lived above the faucet and made their webs on the ceiling tiles. I wasn’t surprised that they’d invited themselves in. I gave them names and pretended to have conversations with them.
Milo had an inflatable swimming pool filled with rubber ducks and squeaky fish that squirted water. I couldn’t swim but it didn’t matter. The water was shallow enough to sit in, but still I preferred to sit in the grass, reaching over the edge for the rubber toys.
Water was the enemy. This was one thing the kitty and I had in common. Mom used to plug my nose and press my face under the faucet when she bathed me. I could never hold my breath long enough and the water seeped into my eyes and nostrils, stinging my throat. She grew tired of my tantrums and eventually stopped trying. I hated having water in my eyes, feeling it slide into my ears, and tasting the dirt follicles on my lips. I washed my face with my hands every morning, avoiding the tub at all costs.
There were clumps of grass floating in Milo’s pool and they reminded me of the swimming strands of hair in our tub. I was glad one day when the pool finally popped and disappeared with the rest of the trash.
The School Bus
The bus driver said good morning as we climbed up the steps but I didn’t respond because it wasn’t a good morning and it wouldn’t be for the next 180 days. Mom didn’t pull out her camera and tell me to grin for a first day of school photograph. We didn’t even have a camera. Instead, she lifted me onto the bottom step, kissing the palm of my hand. It was from a book that we’d read, The Kissing Hand, about a little raccoon and his mother. She used to read to me, snuggled up on the couch, kitty melting into our feet. I would squeeze the flesh on her arm and peer over her shoulder at the pictures. That kiss would last the entire day. I had it trapped and embedded in the heart of my palm.
First grade was sitting alone behind the bus driver, the voices and laughs a jumble behind me. ABC banners, assigned seats, and books. So many books. I sat on the edge of my heels when the teacher read us stories, craning my neck over heads and hair to see the pictures. I couldn’t read. The words and letters always lay in a blurred jumble of ink on the page. One sentence took me a minute, and she called on me frequently, waiting for painful breathy moments as I tried to transform the undecipherable images into sounds.
In our class, there was Danny M and Sophia B and Kristen W. Sure I had friends but they never lasted for more than a year. I never went to birthday parties and when I brought home invitations from other parents in school, Mom always seemed to forget about them. Milo was the only playmate that stuck around and stayed for good.
There were fish everywhere. Scales and flopping fins lined the now soggy carpet threads. The fish tank lay open on its side, rocks sliding onto its walls and squeezing into floorboard cracks. The tennis ball rolled under Milo’s bed, the only thing unharmed in the ruckus we’d caused. Our feet were wet, the floor was wet, and the fish were wilted lumps.
“It’s like a game,” I told him. “We have to save the fish!”
Milo crawled on his hands and knees, grabbing their gasping forms. I let him do the reaching and touching. The scales were wet and slippery, and I feared the bulging eyes that seemed to be watching me with every dying breath. At three years old, Milo didn’t know that fish needed water to survive. He placed them on his desk and continued searching on the floor. When he finished, the fish were frozen forms.
We watched as Milo’s father flushed them down the toilet. Milo cried as we waved goodbye, wishing them on to a watery afterlife.
Milo’s garden was weedless, overflowing in sunflowers that grew along the edge of our fence. Mom didn’t bother with the backyard, watching the weeds grow into thick unruly stalks from her seat in the window. The grass was our sea and we were the captains, balancing on picnic blankets, warding off sharks and piranhas and stingrays. We made huts in the trees for our teddies, rubbing bark and pine needles away from our eyes. We whistled at the neighbors till they turned their heads and we ran back squealing into the house.
Grass and steep hills didn’t scare me. Seven years old and I’d had my share of bee stings and bruises. Milo had a foam rocket that launched from a plastic pump, sending it soaring with a thump above our heads. We counted the seconds it spent in the air and Milo laughed as I tried to catch it. Once he sent it flying high over the fence and down the overgrown hill that made its way up to the road. Milo climbed onto the edge of the fence, pointing to the red that peeked out from leaves.
“There it is!”
I saw it too and I also saw the three leaves and red stems that surrounded it, which at the time meant nothing to me. I waded through the weeds, knee deep, gripping trees for support. Eventually I slid down on my bottom until I reached the rocket and held it proudly above my head.
It wasn’t until the next day that I woke up covered in rashes from the poisoned weeds. Milo didn’t have a single rash, but at least he had his rocket, which would soon be thrown away.
“Poison ivy,” Mom said, rubbing pink lotion up the backs of my thighs.
I scratched for two months and Milo’s mother made me wash my hands every time I entered her house, even though it wasn’t contagious. I wore long pants to hide the red swells that covered my legs and was grateful when autumn came and I could hide my hands in gloves.
“Nina, are you excited for tomorrow?”
I was eight years old and we were knee-deep in autumn leaves, crushing them into mulch with our rakes and rain boots. Milo’s mother ran her fingers through his hair, flicking away the mix of sticks and stems. Tomorrow, tomorrow, what was tomorrow?
“Halloween!” she reminded me. “Or does your family not celebrate it?”
Of course we did. This was that time of year when Mom pulled out my dusty witch’s hat, plopped it onto my head, grabbed our biggest pillowcase and marched me through the neighborhood. I’d grown up dividing the brightly colored goodies into piles. In the end, we counted the candy and she stashed it on a high shelf, only pulling it down when we ran short on grocery money. I could never reach them on that shelf. Mom made sure of that.
One time I saw her up late at night, chipmunk cheeked, lap covered in cheap chocolates. The flashy wrappers lay discarded on the floor beside her feet. She was no more than a child with chocolate glued to the corners of her lips and smeared on her chin. She didn’t bother wiping her face; just lay there on the couch in her sweatpants and messy bun.
Milo was a bumblebee for his first Halloween and then Tiger from Winnie the Pooh and then a robot. This year his mother was making an elaborate Mario outfit. I went home and begged Mom to buy me a new costume. I was sick of the same witch’s hat, now too small for my head. The sleeves on the black dress squeezed my arms whenever I bent my elbows. We were having a third grade parade, which was really just an excuse to show off expensive costumes.
She used a single sewing needle to transform the old white snowsuit I’d grown out of and puff it up. This Halloween I would be a snowball. Arms and stomach and neck puffed so thick I could’ve rolled down the street if I wanted to. I bumped into walls and knocked over books with my bloated snowflake arms.
I wouldn’t let her come. Told her this year I was going trick-or-treating with Milo and his parents. She sulked in the doorway of my bedroom, watching me squeeze into the puffy suit.
“Bring me back some Hershey’s,” she begged, handing me the pillowcase, “and Kit-Kats, and M&Ms…”
I waved her away. I could barely walk down the street in that puffy suit. Everyone thought I was dressed as that kid from A Christmas Story, but it was worth it when the pillowcase swelled from the weight of the candy into a bulbous bag that dragged along the ground beside me.
At four years old they took him trick-or-treating for the first time. They never told Milo that the wrappers were filled with chocolates.
“It’s bad for his teeth,” said his mom.
“It’ll make him bounce off the walls,” said his dad.
“But that’s a lie!” I insisted.
“He’ll figure it out sooner or later,” they said.
I stashed my candy under my bed where Mom couldn’t find it. I ignored her protests and cravings. She snuck in one time to steal a piece.
“You’re fat,” I told her.
She couldn’t argue with that.
My bedroom curtains wore clown faces, rosy cheeks and sinister smiles that grinned and swayed from the window. They came with the house and Mom never bothered to change them. I greeted visitors with closed eyelids after she switched off the lights and mumbled goodnight. The ceiling man visited me every night, crawling upside down like a spider. He dangled his lanky arms above my head, cupping his palms as if begging. Each time he asked me to pass him books from the shelves he couldn’t reach. After books it became strange things. He craved spearmint chewing gum and collected pennies from Mom’s purse. When my room went bare, he asked for a lock of my hair. He disappeared in the morning with the buzz of my alarm but appeared again when I closed my eyes.
The clowns on my curtains swelled into swollen cheeks, cackling into my face as I tried to brush them away from my dreams. They sang spooky songs and threw flowers that burst into splashes of water that seeped into my eyes. The ceiling man swung around in shadows until I finally grabbed my teddy and the blankets and raced into Mom’s room.
When I asked her about the ceiling man who showed up every night, she said he only lived in my mind. I still spent the night by her side.
Milo’s silver slinky curled as it stepped down the stairs. There wasn’t a speck of dust or a strand of hair on those stairs. They were spotless. The stairs in our house were layered in old crumbs and bits of fuzz. Mom shed hair with every step, but she was too lazy to vacuum, so they just gathered in piles.
In Milo’s house we played with our toys at the very top. I was nine at the time but never too old for my teddy. He was five and had a stuffed monkey he’d brought home from the zoo with long dangly legs that stuck together with Velcro. They were best friends too, his monkey and my teddy.
I loved the stairs. We covered them in his stuffed animals, made loud goofy voices and raced down the steps with our hands and feet. I always won, until one day when he slipped in his socks and slid down three steps, landing on his bum. He cried in loud gasps, till his mother came running and scooped her poor little baby into her arms. The stairs became a safety hazard, a dangerous thing. She accused me for the fall. I was the older one. I should’ve known better.
“No more playing on the stairs.”
“Where were you last night?” I wanted to ask her but never did.
Where were you last night when Milo and I overflowed the dishwasher, poked at spoons and knives with our fingers, twisting their metal into disfigured rods? Where were you yesterday when I ate expired gummy worms for breakfast after trying to fry an egg but only managed to fry the edge of my sweater? Where were you today, and yesterday, and the day before that? Where will you be tomorrow when we decide to paint the walls in peanut butter, shred your office papers with sloppy scissors? You no longer seem to exist, just a lingering presence I used to need but no longer want.
She was hardly ever here, left her keys in the doorknob when she cranked up the engine and drove away. I stayed awake sometimes, waiting to hear the click of the door when she came in. It was quiet now without the TV and I ran around the house turning on all of the lights before I went to bed. She’d started taking extra shifts and I knew she was tired. She tossed and turned in her sleep. She scolded me for little things and heaved irritated sighs when I asked questions. It wasn’t until after I disappeared and left her alone that she called for me, panicked and worried that I’d finally left her for good.
“Maybe I will,” I told her once, filling my little backpack with toys and clothes.
She watched from the doorway and then took it from my hands, closing the door when she left.
Our refrigerator couldn’t make ice, old fashioned and handicapped, it simply opened and closed. She came home early that day, slamming the door shut.
“What did you do with the ice pack?!”
“It’s in my lunchbox. I left it at school…”
She’d wrapped the wound in paper towels, smothering the peeling skin in mustard to keep the swelling down. That’s what the diner told her to do. Burned on the job, she lit into me in a torrent of words. Her booming voice shook the windows as she slammed drawers shut and rummaged through the cupboard for Band-Aids.
“Where are the Band-Aids?!”
“I don’t know…”
It was my fault. Ten years old and my fault there was no ice. My fault she couldn’t find the Band-Aids. My fault her thumb was red and filled with puss. My fault that she cradled it against her chest and groaned as she ran it through icy water. My fault. My fault. My fault.
“I hate my job!” she declared. “I hate this old house! I hate having to wait on you hand and foot! You can’t even remember to bring home your lunch bag! You can’t even do that much for me!”
The words wouldn’t stop, irrupting lava from her volcanic mouth but I didn’t let them sting me.
She never said sorry.
It was summer and I remember the scent of her coffee that morning, the dryness of her chapping lips against the mug’s rim. Sleep never warmed her wanting eyes. She’d spent the night chewing on her nails, spilling crescents, losing them on carpet floors as her fingers typed away and she fell into a world I could never understand.
While she was away I practiced cursive on the pages of dusty novels that sat untouched on the shelves in her room. A pair of scissors lay on the windowsill, wings spread apart for my wanting fingers. There was an old notebook sitting precariously on the edge of one of the shelves in her office. I’d seen her write in it many times late at night and whenever I asked her what she was writing, she never replied.
The pages felt like flesh as I ripped away and sliced into the papery skin. It lay in shame, a wingless bird fallen in pieces on the floor. I placed the scissors back where I’d found them and hid in my room until she returned.
Forgiveness was not a game she played. Her fingers clawed into my back and I wondered if she’d returned from work a hawk in disguise. Her lips screamed words I’d never heard before as she clutched the pages in her arms like dead children. Her eyes became foreigners as they gripped hold of my guilt.
No dinner that night. She blocked away my words of protest. She slammed the door the next morning, startling me awake. She was gone before I stepped out of bed. That evening she never came home for dinner. I called her phone over and over again until the recorded words on her voicemail became a blur of unrecognizable syllables.
Three days went by. I started eating old Halloween candy for dinner, stopped showing up at school. She’d disappeared without a trace.
Maybe she wasn’t wrong. Maybe it was my fault.
The door stopped slamming in the mornings and creaking in the evenings. I slept in her bed at night, burying my face into the pillow to smell the traces of her shampoo. I hugged my teddy and made him soggy with tears and snot. The cat curled around my arm, lost in buzzing purrs as he tried to replace my mother but couldn’t suffice.
And then in a matter of five days, a car pulled up into the driveway in the rain and the door opened up again.
She showed up on a cloudy day in June after the end of fifth grade, carrying a single suitcase. Aunt Carol was married to her vacuum cleaner. She carried him through every room of our house, tackling the spider webs and fallen strands of hair that had moved in with the years. She filled the refrigerator with organic fruits and vegetables, whole wheat bread, and skim milk. The house no longer seemed like a hole in the ground and I was never alone. She seemed to always be there, popping into my room. She insisted on walking me to the bus stop and drove me to school when it rained or snowed. Carol smelled like old people’s perfume and spearmint gum. The gum peeked through her teeth when she spoke, chewing out every word. Carol loved to wrap her arms around me till my stomach compressed, and squeeze my chubby cheeks with her prickly nails. She wore rings on every finger, big bulky rings that waggled when she talked and clanked against the table when she sighed.
Her heels clonked against the hardwood as she bustled around in the kitchen, buzzing in constant conversations. There was always music playing, slow plucks of guitar strings and rustling wind while she stretched into downward facing dog and curled into the fetal position. She left the rings in front of the broken TV and they sat and watched as she inhaled deeply, becoming one with the world.
I became a broken record. “When is she coming home?” Soon that became, “When are you going home?”
She told me she wasn’t going home. She had come to stay indefinitely.
She forgot to brush her teeth. Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t talk to me. I could feel her breath on the hairs on my neck, lips smacking together as she sucked in spit. She yanked at matted strands of my hair, weaving the brush through the knots.
“I can do it myself,” I insisted.
I could feel her fingers on my scalp, long spiny nails slicing against my scalp.
“Nina, honey” she cooed, “I’m your aunt. I’m doing it because I love you.” She whipped the brush into the sea of knots. “Your Mom might not care about your personal hygiene, but I certainly do!”
I didn’t want her to. I wanted her to disappear into the bathroom, smear peppermint paste onto toothbrush bristles and brush away the sour coffee stench. But instead, she continued tugging as I tried to suck in my nostrils and hold my breath.
I never stepped on the cracks coming home from the bus stop. It became increasingly difficult when I turned onto our street where the concrete chipped into pieces with jutting rocks and grassy patches.
“Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back! ”
She was already broken. I couldn’t break her anymore. They put her in a room with other broken people. A room for the cracked and the wilting. The walls in that place wore egg shell skins and she lay like a chipping porcelain doll in that bed. I’d never seen her eyes so wide when she stared at us terrified. Carol said there was something wrong with her mind.
There was a painting on the wall beside her bed and my eyes drifted through the colors as Carol harped on and on. I’d trained my ears to drown out the sound of her voice.
“Van Gogh, Potato Eaters, 1885,” the sign read.
The oil figures sat around a table, distorted faces and aging mouths. They wore bonnets and ancient dresses, holding potatoes in their hands. The light above them faintly glowed, a flicker amidst the surrounding darkness. It reminded me of our house. Hungry. Empty. Quiet. Those were the words I’d grown used to.
Mom wrapped her clammy fingers around my wrist. I was sorry. Sorry for the ice. Sorry for the Band-Aids. Sorry for the notebook and the scissors. But I didn’t tell her any of that. I let my arm lie limp against the thin white sheet as she clung onto my arm and wouldn’t let go.
In the winter the world froze into sunless skies, gray fog blotting out the clouds. Winds sucked away leaves and flowers, nothing left but exposed sticks and stems. The trees became naked ghosts at night, huddled in woody clumps as they swayed and clacked against our roof. Raindrops splattered into soggy watercolors, tap dancing me to sleep.
I couldn’t say I missed her. I’d grown used to her being gone. Frequent absences had become the norm in our lives. The years had caused me to become used to the sound of silence, how loud it sometimes could be when she never returned. But now Carol’s voice filled the space that should have been Mom’s.
She’d moved into Mom’s room, spreading the sheets in musty perfume. She wasn’t really my aunt. More like a great aunt who never wanted to celebrate her birthday for fear of people counting the candles and discovering her real age. So I called her Carol. The name was still ancient and hardly ever heard. It showed up in December around Christmas time and then became forgotten again for the next twelve months. She was the only Carol I knew and she made her presence known. I could feel when she walked into a room, distinguish her clonking footsteps from any others. She breathed constantly, big gusty breaths that buzzed in the background as I tried to finish homework. Her snoring and whistling nose kept me up at night.
In the winter, the evergreens never lost their leaves, remaining untouched through the seasons. They stood upright like a row of proud soldiers, not wavering or bending in the wind. They were the only things that stayed the same.
“They’re all so unrealistic,” said Carol, fiddling with an old and battered watch on Mom’s dresser. “That’s not what love is really like.”
The watch ticked on the dresser where Mom used to line her eyes in makeup before she stopped trying. Its wristband frayed at the end, metal clamp snapped off. The minute hand ticked as Carol grazed her nails against the glass, picking at a piece of loose thread on the band. She picked and picked until the threads unraveled into fuzz.
I was in the midst of telling her about The Little Mermaid. We’d watched it in Milo’s basement, my teddy on my lap and his monkey on his. He often insisted on playing imaginary games, but they’d started to bore me. I was eleven with homework and quizzes. Movies had imagination that didn’t need creating. It came ready-made. In the basement there was a shelf covered in old VHS cassettes, black and boxy. I loved to pop them into the player and watch the TV whir into life.
“It’s unhealthy to fall in love frequently.” Aunt Carol sighed. I could smell stale coffee on her lips. “Or else you’ll just end up like your mother.”
I was eleven. The word love was locked in an unopened box. It meant nothing to me. Mom had never said it nor did I ever expect it.
Carol often smothered me in I love you’s, three words that could solve any problem. She said those words so frequently that I’d started to wonder if she knew any other way of expressing her feelings towards me. There was something artificial in the way that she said them. It came out in a rush when she was afraid or wanted something. She loved to complain in long breathy rants that bounced off the walls in a dull endless drone. Then shortly after, she’d suppress them in flowery compliments that made my stomach churn.
She looked up to the frown beginning to form in the corners of my lips. I’d usually go blank-faced, fearful that she’d question my emotions and rush to try to understand me. This time I’d failed to suppress them.
“But you are such a precious, special little girl, Nina!” She squeezed my cheek with her wrinkly fingers. “Your Mom might not have done the best job, but at least we have you! I thank God every day for bringing you into this beautiful world!”
She rubbed my hair between her fingers and moistened my cheek with a kiss. I jerked away, rubbing away the lipstick stain she’d surely left, and moved towards the door. Still at the dresser, Carol now wrapped the watch around her bony wrist. The strap was too long and she tried in failed attempts to clasp it.
“Damn thing won’t close,” she muttered. She looked up, pursing her lips in a toothless smile. “I’ll have to buy a new one. One that’s much less expensive. Your Mom probably bought this one at an outrageous price. She never did know how to manage her money.”
She flicked the watch off the dresser as if it were an unwanted tissue. It fell with a clank against the hardwood floor.
The hands kept ticking behind the now cracked glass.
She said saving was the key to success and buying was proof of giving in to the materialistic and commercial society that we lived in. She read articles and books, insisting that I read them too. When she discovered I struggled in school, she insisted on teaching me, hovering in front of my seat at the dining table until I answered her correctly. But I didn’t want to answer her.
I could see the back of her throat, her uvula dangling as she read aloud from the novel, changing her voice for each of the characters. Her lipstick was starting to peel.
“Now you read.” She pushed it under my nose.
The letters blurred together. I couldn’t understand how everyone did it so smoothly. Managed to transform the blur of ink into colorful, exciting words. They only managed to put me to sleep. She’d never understand that I didn’t care anymore.
She was a retired college professor.
“I know what I’m talking about,” she often said.
She gave me bulging eyes and a smile when I answered correctly. Heaving sighs and saying the usual, “Hmm, are you sure about that?” when I’d made a mistake.
I’d heard that “hmm” too often. It was the sound she made when she disagreed. It was a warning sign, flashing red lights that a speech was on the way. She said it now and I inwardly groaned as she grabbed the book and began rambling.
I stared at the tablecloth as she spoke, running my hand against the cloth. We’d had it forever, printed in strawberries that scattered in rows of reds and greens.
“Nina, have you even heard a word that I’m saying?”
I looked up into the green eyes that flickered behind her glasses. They used to scare me, sear into my skin when she looked at me.
“No,” I muttered.
She gasped in shock and opened her mouth to begin again, but I was already out the door and off to Milo’s house.
The ball of needles stared me down from its perch on the top shelf. Carol had transformed the sunroom into a botanical jungle to cloak the dusty skies and storm clouds that brought a frown to Mom’s face. Mom came home on a Monday, after two months of being away. She came on the worst day of the week, without a smile on her face until she saw the sunroom. She never returned to her old room. Carol resided there permanently. Instead, Mom glued to the bed that now lay surrounded by vines and flowers that Carol had plucked from the garden. A single medicine bottle filled with little white pills sat untouched on the table beside her bed. Two pills every morning to gulp down with water. Carol was strongly against medication that altered one’s mental state, but she obeyed the doctor’s wishes just to see a smile on Mom’s face.
Carol had managed to charm the seeds in the sunroom into tall flowering stalks and yanked out the weeds. The flowers in that room made me sneeze, but Mom was in her own little world. The sunflowers were bright when it rained outside, a grain of hope, a reminder that the sun was sure to return in a of couple days. The cat chewed on the grass and the tips of leaves then vomited in soggy heaps on the sunroom carpet. Carol made me wipe away the frequent messes with tissues and sanitizing wipes.
The cactus stood prickly in the corner, a ball of quills. It must have been lonely up there, isolated from the other plants. It was a dangerously ball of needles. Carol told me never to touch it or else I’d get my fingers stabbed. It was her favorite plant. She’d even given it a name.
“Celestine is looking a little dry today,” she’d say. “Nina go water her.”
Her? How did she even know the ugly thing was a girl?
That cactus watched Mom every day as she leaned against her bed and drew crude sketches of the flowers in a spiral bound notebook. She seemed to forget the old one that I’d destroyed, the pieces of paper once shredded in the garbage can upstairs. I wondered if I could tape them back together, rummaged my fingers through lint balls and used tissues to search for the scraps, but it was too late now. Carol had already emptied it in one of her cleaning phases.
One morning the cactus lay on its side, pot tipped over on the shelf. The poor thing was smarter than I’d imagined. In a hurried attempt to escape it must have lost its balance and toppled over. Every day Carol watered the prickly roots, putting her face so close to its olive skin. It must have been afraid of her pale wrinkly cheeks and blue eyeshadow. It must have been afraid of Mom’s frequent tears and restless nights. I knew I was.
I couldn’t bear to spend time with her, pretending not to hear when she called me. When she asked me to bring her things or just engage in chitchat. I didn’t want to talk, guilt filling me with shame for the mistake that I’d made. Not after I’d seen her wither away in that hospital bed. I was afraid of who she’d become. Her face had distorted into lines and creases too old for her youthful face. I even spotted a gray hair in the midst of smoky strands when she brushed her hair, spilling strands onto the bed sheets. She was there but she wasn’t, a shadow in the background that I no longer wanted to see. I both pitied and resented her, sometimes wishing she’d wrap her arms around me and other times wishing she’d leave.
I tried to place the cactus upright, careful to only touch the pot to avoid getting pricked. Unfortunately, one of the long dangly arms had dragged over the pot and was refusing to return.
“Come on Celestine,” I muttered.
But Celestine wouldn’t budge. Finally I pinched the arm between my fingers and shoved it into the pot. I examined my hand expecting to be rewarded with a thumb full of quills, but much to my surprise there was nothing. Her arm was silky against my skin in that brief moment that I’d made contact. She must have been grateful to me.
At age twelve, the seeds in my legs had sprouted leaves. I was a monster. Swollen hips and thighs stared at me with bloated eyes as I dressed for school every morning in front of the crooked mirror. My ankles peeked below the bottoms of old jeans now tight against my waist where belly flesh squeezed over the belt. T-shirt sleeves stuck to my sweaty armpits, flush against my pasty arms.
The mirror had become my enemy, a daily reminder of my shameful exterior. It chased me through reflective windows as I walked through school.
“Looks don’t matter,” insisted Carol, “brains do.”
Mom agreed. But I knew they were wrong. Every day came with little reminders of how very wrong they were.
Here comes little Ms. Piggy!
Better make room, Nina’s coming through!
I pulled out two Sharpies and Milo helped me color until the glass morphed into a black slate on the wall.
Carol must have been allergic to salt, or sugar, or really any kind of spice that added flavor. The lumps on my plate sat shriveled and soggy. Styrofoam potatoes, cardboard carrots, plastic pasta: these were a staple. Today it was bland beans.
“You’ve got to lose weight,” Carol told Mom, “that goes for you too Nina.” I scowled in response. “You’ve been eating unhealthily since you were born. Get over your picky habits and eat what’s on your plate.”
Mom tolerated the food, tolerated the frequent insults.
“Don’t eat that, it’ll raise your blood pressure. Don’t go outside in this weather, you’ll catch a cold.”
She had become Carol’s puppet and Carol monitored her every move, protecting her from the dangers of the outside world. Mom shot me disapproving glances whenever I started to twist my face into a scowl at the dining table.
“She’s done so much for us,” she whispered to me, “show some gratitude.”
At nine years old Milo wasn’t skilled when it came to forcing the food down in gulps, washing it down in water or smothering it in salt and pepper. He scrunched his nose into a pig snout and curled his lip into a frown.
Carol pretended not to mind his honestly. She praised it in the way that you praise a person for vomiting, fakeness to an extremity.
“You’re always playing with him,” Carol whined. “Why don’t you ever get together with some nice girls from school?”
I ignored the comment as usual.
The air was thick with bumblebees. Popsicles dripped onto the grass between our bare toes. Birds carried summer in their wings and we pushed our heels against the ground and soared into the sky. The chains squeaked as we swung, creaky and old, they had rusted with the years. The playground slide was soggy from the previous night’s rainfall, a puddle forming at the bottom. The morning mist had swabbed away gray skies and streaked sunshine between leaves and onto our heads. We rode the swings every day that summer. It served as an escape from Mom’s delicate state and Carol’s hovering protection.
Hardly anyone ever visited the place. Broken-down and unloved it lay in a heap of wood and metal at the very end of the street. A pair of cracking swings and a lonely slide stood atop grassy patches in the dirt. We discovered a pair of plastic planes that sprung from a spring under the ground below some shaded trees in a neighbor’s house. The children had long moved away and were now replaced with an elderly couple that closed the blinds and stayed inside. I was too big for the plastic planes. Now bulky and plump, I weighed them down. Sometimes I squeezed myself into the seat, causing the plane to fall backwards, just to hear Milo laugh in bursts of squeaky giggles.
I was thirteen and he was nine, not yet reached the changing phase, his voice still one octave higher than mine.
Carol practiced yoga on our front lawn where all the neighbors could watch her stretch her knees and flex her toes. Flabs of skin sagged from the bottoms of her arms as she spread her limbs into wild shapes and then folded her hands in silent prayer.
Carol said that God was in everything, to never waste what was on my plate or be quick to throw away leftovers.
“He’s always watching,” she reminded me frequently.
I sometimes wondered if that meant he was watching while I peed on the toilet or changed my clothes. Was he watching when I brushed my hair and fell asleep at night? I lived in awe of this God that she spoke of. This walking rulebook who knew the answer to every question that existed. I wrote a list of questions I had on a loose sheet of paper that I folded and placed under my pillow, just in case he decided to pay a visit one night.
I imagined him wearing a top hat and suit and tie, very businesslike as he paid me a visit before I went to bed at night. Or maybe this God wasn’t a he, but rather a she, dressed in a gown and slippers. I would ask him or her all of the questions I had.
What did Milo’s mother keep in the locked drawer below her desk? Why does Carol forget to brush her teeth? What would I look like with purple hair? What was the name of the 17th US president? Etc. etc. etc.
Milo didn’t know what God was. His parents were atheists, never stepped foot in a church or temple or mosque. Mom had never mentioned the word in my presence, but she took Carol’s comments as matter-of-fact as if she were commenting on the weather.
Carol was all-knowing when it came to these things, but I never could understand why she worshipped someone she couldn’t see.
“God is everywhere,” she said. “We all see him.”
How he had managed to squeeze himself into everything was a mystery to me. I suppose that meant he lived inside the forks and spoons we used at dinner, inside old stinky garbage in the trashcan, inside the washing machine. It must be a dreary life.
Milo wanted to fly. He jumped from the top of the apple tree in his backyard just to feel those two seconds of time in the air, that sense of weightlessness. The plastic airplane came in a white package, wings and limbs enveloped in Styrofoam and packing peanuts. It flew at the command of his thumbs on a little remote control. He made it zigzag around the yard, whiz past windows, sometimes landing between branches in the trees. It flew with an annoying whir that could be heard through closed doors. It flashed when he sometimes flew it past my window in the evening, red lights blaring through the glass.
“Nina!” he yelled from outside, jabbing his fists against the door.
I rolled my eyes and ignored him, hoping that silence would send him away. The fists persisted and his voice transformed into an irritating whine.
“NINA!” Finally Carol opened the door.
He came soaring, cradled that airplane in his arms. He didn’t even bother to remove his shoes, feet stomping up the stairs and into my room.
“I have homework to do,” I said.
Truth was, I didn’t have homework to do. Playing with Milo had become entertaining Milo or watching him do crazy things until I could no longer force a laugh. I sometimes felt like the babysitter, as if we no longer connected. He couldn’t engage in mature conversations or answer the questions I always had.
“I need your help,” he told me. “I think it’s broken!”
I turned to see one of the wings bent and caked in mud. I’d told him not to fly it in the rain, warned him not to wear out the batteries. I knew one day that plane would fall in mid-flight and tumble to the ground.
“Ask your Dad to fix it.”
“No, he’ll get mad at me. He’s working.”
I sighed. “I’m working too. Just—leave me alone.”
He kicked the back of my chair and stomped down the stairs. I watched him sulk outside under the apple tree, cradling the broken wings against his chest. I could hear him sniffing when I later followed the muddy footprints outside. He didn’t try to conceal tears as I’d trained myself to do. They always came quickly for him, running rivers down his cheek when he was mad at his parents or didn’t get his way. But this time, I felt a wave of guilt as I plucked it from his arms and began rubbing the muddy wings with my T-shirt, transforming his glaring pout into a toothless smile.
Milo hid her glasses in a plant pot behind the house. We’d spent the first fifteen minutes in my room, giggling as we tried them on and posed in front of the mirror. I felt like a child, making faces and imitating Carol’s pretentious speech, and yet, I watched in glee as the glasses submerged into the dirt, dry clumps fogging the glass. I didn’t have the heart to rip them in two, as much as I wished I could bend back the wire and push out the glass frames.
“She won’t be able to see and then she’ll have to leave,” Milo explained.
It seemed like perfect logic for a nine year old, until Carol spent the day bumping into things and mixed up the recipe for dinner. Mom found them in the pot the next morning as she emptied it out to fill with a plant.
“Where were they?” Carol asked.
“Lying in a corner of your room.” Mom handed them to her. I saw a glint in Mom’s eyes when she said it, raising one eyebrow as I looked up innocently from the couch. I didn’t know why she’d lied for me.
Cardboard everywhere. Empty but starting to fill. The worst kind of boxes. The kinds that stripped the rooms bare of their belongings. Milo’s room became stark naked that August, exposing wallpaper and lint collections on the floor. I missed the shelves of books, the bed covered in stuffed animals, and the tyrannosauruses printed on the carpet.
I helped carry those horrible boxes out to the huge van that pulled out in front of the house. The calendar on my wall was marked in a red circle for that terrible day. Milo didn’t know. He didn’t know what a new job really meant. He didn’t realize that boxes were cruel and heartless things. He didn’t realize that boxes meant I’d lose my only friend.
That morning we lay in the grass under the apple tree in his yard. It was like any other day in Milo’s mind, but my stomach quivered with every tick of the clock. Milo’s daddy enveloped me in his burly arms. His mother kissed my cheek. Milo hugged me goodbye, head at my shoulder, short arms struggling to wrap around my chubby waist.
And then they were gone. Car bumping down the road off to a new life, leaving me to grow unruly with the garden weeds.
- Paws and claws: the kitty—now a cat.
- Mashed potato pulp sagging between my knees, he twitched when he dreamed.
- He left a whisker on my pillow.
- Purred me to sleep, no longer meowing for Mom’s company.
- I squeezed him under blankets, wetting his fur in silent tears.
It bent at the corners where the tough paper curled forward. The ink blotted in the rain as I pulled it from the mailbox. The first postcard addressed to me: my name in perfect cursive letters—his mother’s handwriting. I leaned against the fence, no hood or umbrella to shield my head. Water tapped at their perfect faces, the sand below their feet, the waves at their backs, the horizon backdrop.
I stared into the now empty house over the fence. The sunflowers and daisies she’d spent days laboring to tame into bouquets now drowned in the sea of storms we’d been having since the day they left. It seemed as if the sun would never return. The house looked spooky, no longer lit in cozy lights and quiet chatter.
Milo. His name diagonally scribbled at the very bottom of the postcard where it almost trailed off the page. Milo. He’d somehow managed to squeeze in the O. I slipped it into a book on Mom’s office shelves. One that was thick with pages where no one could find it: Moby Dick.
It must have cried when he left. Cried for the loss of children’s spidery legs and feet to wrap around its skinny trunk to pluck the apples from its leaves.
Carol loved to honk its shiny horn and heave great gusty sighs and roll her eyes. The seats and seatbelts were squeaky clean, but she’d failed to clean the windows. The glass lay caked in creamy bird poop, forming slithers along the windshield.
“Car washes are so overpriced,” she complained. “I’d rather do it myself.”
But she never did. A lot of things were too expensive for Carol. She took pride in not needing material objects to be happy, irritated by the clutter that had accumulated over the years. Mom had always collected strange knick-knacks that lay scattered around the house. Ceramic pots found at yard sales. Elaborate feather hats and pretty porcelain dolls. Things she couldn’t afford but bought anyway.
Carol swerved and cursed and kept the air conditioning off, leaving the windows open for unwelcomed flies and mosquitos. Up at the windshield our bodies were so close. She was there when I turned my head, there when I looked at my reflection in the window, there when I walked home from school. Sometimes I purposely dilly-dallied in the mornings getting ready for school, just to irritate her so she’d threaten to never drive me again, but she never did.
“You shouldn’t take the bus,” she said. “It’s not safe. Especially not at your age.”
What did she know? I’d grown up on the bus, squeezed poles in my hands to keep from falling and listened in on conversations. Mom had trained me to pop coins into machines, sit on her lap against the window, and learn to appreciate the sound of bus tires down the street after hours of endless waiting. I whined to Mom, urging her to convince Carol to let me ride the bus again, but as usual she went mute and ignored my protests. And so, at the end of ninth grade, I slipped out of the house before anyone could stop me and started riding the bus to school.
I sent him an email every night, cheerful and optimistic; they were written in white lies. Milo replied when it was convenient. He was eleven years old, in the midst of middle school. His Mom still packed him peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. His Dad still tickled him when no one was looking. He still slept with his stuffed monkey, hiding it under his pillow when his friends came over after school.
An email from Milo got me through a day of tenth grade homework and lectures. I woke up at the crack of dawn to groggily check my inbox for a response. Sometimes he sent me postcards from the places they visited during summer vacations. I never talked to him on the phone for fear of Carol listening in on our conversations. Besides, the line was always busy with Carol twisting the spiral cord around her fingers as she guffawed on the couch. Even Mom threw her an occasional glare.
Eventually he stopped responding to my emails, now absorbed in his sunnier life with brighter beaches and happier friends. I sometimes wondered if the teddy was my only friend. Still sleeping against my ribs, I sometimes squeezed him tight at night when I missed Milo the most and slipped out of bed to stare into his empty backyard, shadowy under street lamps.
In the shower, I held conversations with myself, talking to imaginary friends, complaining to the faucet and sink. Carol had managed to transform the tub into a welcoming thing, scrubbing away the slime and mold. She worked miracles when she had a sponge in those hands. Water no longer scared me. I welcomed its soothing warmth after hours spent shivering at bus stops. With the faucet running, I could speak to anyone and Carol couldn’t hear me. My eyes welled into tears at the thought of the way time used to rush by when Milo lived next door.
I first saw the umbrella man on a day without clouds. He gripped the old and battered thing by its cord as if it were an unruly dog. The umbrella wouldn’t close and he battled with the Velcro strap while staggering onto the bus. He sat down beside me, cursing at the stubborn umbrella that refused to close.
“It was supposed to rain today,” he muttered to no one in particular.
He spent the ride squeezing it between his legs to keep it from opening.
The second time I saw the umbrella man it was raining and despite the old umbrella’s frequent inability to close, it managed to drape fully over his balding head. The old man stood beaming at the bus stop, aware that he was the driest of us all. He never offered to share the umbrella, wide enough for four or five people, just paced back and forth in slow dragging steps, head hung low as he muttered to the ground.
The third time I saw the umbrella man he was paying in pocket change: pennies, dimes, and nickels he dug from a battered wallet. Blue grocery bags strung from his arms as he struggled to pry out the change, only sending it scattering onto the floor in a jingle of music.
“Here hold this, will you.”
He turned to me, thrusting three bags into my hands as he bent down to collect the fallen coins. The bus driver sighed in frustration as the old man crawled on his hands and knees, searching for pennies. Back to his feet, he slipped them into the machine and exited the bus, heading home.
“Your bags!” I cried, but he was already on his way.
I paid my fare and ran after him. He dragged his feet, cursing at the old umbrella.
“Damn thing won’t close,” he muttered.
“Here are you bags,” I gasped, “you almost forgot them.”
He looked up, annoyed. “Well we’re almost there. You might as well help me carry them home.”
I opened my mouth to protest.
“Oh, is that too hard for you? You’re young. I think you can handle carrying a few groceries. You kids should be more willing to help out old folks like me.”
Carol often warned me to stay away from strangers but the umbrella man seemed too old to really count. He moved in slow robotic steps, as if his legs were struggling to remember what they were programmed to do. I gasped when he stopped at the gate beside our house. It was Milo’s house!
“But that’s—,” I tried, but he was already fiddling with the keys.
I waited awkwardly outside, handing him the groceries once he opened the door.
“You can set ‘em down on the kitchen counter,” he called from inside.
It was like walking through a ghost house. The musty odor of dying roses surrounded me as I entered the doorway. Milo’s mother’s spotless floor now wore soggy footprints. He never took off his shoes. I stared at the stairs where we used to play, now lacking Milo’s leaping footsteps. The room sat dusty and naked without their furniture. He’d forgotten to draw the blinds. Every creak and cough could be heard. His coat lay scattered on a wooden chair, one sleeve dragging onto the floor. The room was mostly bare, a few boxes scattered here and there. He had just moved in.
I found him in the dining room, leaning over a newspaper as I handed him the bags. I couldn’t help but stare at the walls, repainted in a scorching red and sprinkled in paintings. They covered every inch of the cement, an assortment of shapes and sizes. They were all unusual, something off and not quite right. A man with an apple shielding his head. A brown and white pipe. A pupil surrounded by the sky.
“Magritte,” he said, following my gaze. “René François Ghislain Magritte, greatest Belgian surrealist. I’ve got a whole collection of his paintings. Just couldn’t let myself leave ‘em behind.”
I couldn’t have cared less about the bizarre paintings, squeezed so tightly on the cement that the room had become almost claustrophobic.
He pointed to another wall, this one less crowded. “These ones are my works. Used to really have a knack at painting, but these old hands won’t work for me anymore.”
Fading colored pencil sketches like a watercolor but in lead as if he’d lightly soaked them in milk. My eyes stopped at one of an opened umbrella, lying on black space.
“I call it, ‘Floating Umbrella.’”
“I’d better get going,” I muttered. “I actually live next door, so I guess we’re like neighbors.” I pointed through the window at our house.
“You know that woman?” He pointed at Carol, absorbed in the balancing act of yoga in our back yard. The tree pose.
“That’s my aunt.” I felt my cheeks burn.
He chuckled. “Before you go, take this. I give ‘em out to everyone.” He handed me a postcard with his “Floating Umbrella” painting printed onto the front.
“Thanks,” was all I could say. I discarded it in the dumpster outside of our house.
He played in the evening when we sat down to eat.
“He’s weird,” I said, as Carol served us Brussels sprouts.
“Don’t be rude,” said Carol. “He’s just a lonely old man with nothing better to do with his time.”
The man next door was named Paul and he sent trumpet bellows through his living room window and into ours. I didn’t know how he still had power in those now ancient lungs to curve the music into grace notes and triplets. His breathy jazz kept me up at night. I missed the gentle chatter, the glowing lights that filled the cozy house in a welcoming spirit. Now even with a new presence, the house seemed as old as our new neighbor. Flowers now replaced with weeds that wound around our apple tree.
“I’m glad there’s someone new to fill that old house,” said Mom. “I know how much you miss Milo, but you can’t resent an old man. It’s not his fault that Milo’s gone.”
She didn’t know and if she did, she’d never tried to find out or ask me how I was. She had become a shadow in the background of my arguments with Carol. She gave in easily, no longer standing on her own two feet as she’d used to. She didn’t talk much nowadays, let Carol fill that silence with critiques and speculations. Mom was too busy watching the birds outside, taking walks around the block. She’d taken to gardening, helping Carol water flowers and plant seeds.
Mr. Paul rode the bus every Tuesday to get his groceries. I sat in the back of the bus, shielding my face behind my backpack so he wouldn’t notice me. I got off at the stop after his so I wouldn’t have to help him carry them home and enter that sad house again.
It was spring but the heat was still on full blast. I squeezed my arms against my sides to hide the sweat stains. The desk squeaked as we sat in wooden chairs and watched Mr. Owens fidget awkwardly in his seat.
He pushed a stack of papers towards Carol.
“I’m not seeing much improvement since the beginning of the year.” He was a beefy man, sweating excessively as he scratched his balding head. “I mean, she’s failing my class.”
My stomach churned. The papers were marked in red ink: D’s and E’s and F’s. I’d tried to hide them from her. Pretended to accidently leave them behind in class, or slip them into the nearest trash can, but he’d been filing them away just for her.
Carol gasped and tsked as she flipped through them. “English class. That was my favorite class. Really, Nina! This is shameful!”
“I don’t like to criticize my students,” Mr. Owens said. “Nina seems like a nice girl. Very quiet and respectful in my class. But she rarely participates and her work is really below what I expect from my students.”
“I’m disappointed, Nina,” said Carol as we walked towards the car.
She told Mom when we got home and for the first time in her life, Mom actually cared. She looked up from the cold beans on her plate and somehow I felt ashamed when she furrowed her eyebrows and shook her head several times in so slight a motion. This erupted into a battle with Carol, concluding with my bedroom door slamming in a shudder. She was there when I didn’t want her to be, there to fill my head in a buzz of disappointment and critiques. She yelled at Mom for never helping me with my homework, never urging me to try harder, never disciplining the wild child that I’d become. That I always had been. Mom didn’t say a word in response. She gave in to the criticism, accepting it as the truth.
That night when Carol and I battled over my knotted hair, Mom called me to her bed. I sat in the space between her legs as she brushed my hair with gentle fingers, careful not to pull away the strands, and twisted it into two scrawny braids. It was strange to sit on her lap as I’d used to. She’d never tried when I was younger, always left it to tangle and mat into an unruly mess.
“You have to try in school,” she said, securing the braids with hair ties. “I don’t want you to end up like me.”
I wanted to tell her that trying was hard. That Carol made trying even harder when she shouted, but somehow I found myself nodding in response to her words.
That night when I brushed my teeth in the bathroom mirror, trumpet whispers fading in the background, I rubbed the blonde braids between my fingers, this time not ashamed of my reflection.
The Bus Stop
The bus stop was a place for the wet and wandering.
Benchless. Shelterless. Empty, crooked newspaper stand. Graffiti sprayed on fire hydrants. Slipping on un-shoveled icy streets. Running with half-eaten apple cores and stale bread. Screeching cars and catcalls. Stinky sewage drains and rain. So much rain that I stood foot deep in puddles, squishing my sneakers into soggy socks.
The man lurked in my peripheral vision, but my head froze in place, unable to shift in his direction. I glued my eyes to my feet. One of my shoes was untied.
I flicked away an eyelash, digging my nails into my pockets. I crossed my fingers, the only sign of good luck that I knew and internally prayed to whatever God Carol believed in that this man wouldn’t come any closer.
“Cat got your tongue?”
I could smell coffee on his breath. He sounded half asleep, still groggy. I inched away, prompting him to further pursue me. When I finally turned to face him, he spread his lips into a leering yellow smile. He didn’t seem to care that my hair twisted into a crow’s nest bun or that my coat missed three buttons. He didn’t mind that my stomach swelled over the edge of my jeans or that my face eroded in swollen pimples.
“You’re so pretty.”
That was a lie. I wanted to run but my feet remained planted. The bus was three minutes late. Three minutes late. Three minutes. Three. It started to rain. I forgot my umbrella. Water poked at my eyes as I squinted to see. The blurred figure continued to inch closer.
And then suddenly the rain subsided, cleared from my head and tapped frequent beats until I realized I’d been shielded by an umbrella. The umbrella man stood shorter than me, gray hair hidden behind a raincoat hood, arm extended in front of us as he proudly raised his umbrella. I almost jerked away when I saw his face, but somehow having the umbrella slide against my hair dissolved all of the fear.
“Don’t let them scare you,” he told me. “Just give ‘em a scowl. That’ll show ‘em.” The metal wires at the end of the umbrella poked into my arm.
He squished his bottom lip into a pout and furrowed his eyebrows, squeezing his palm into a fist. As much as I tried to suppress it, I couldn’t help but laugh.
“That’ll be sure to send ‘em running.”
When I heard that Milo was coming home for the weekend, I pulled out my teddy and leaned him against my pillow. I knew we were technically too old for stuffed toys, too old for make-believe and pretend, but I still hoped he’d still bring his monkey along. Just for old time’s sake. He was thirteen now. The age I’d been when he’d left and I wondered if he still liked to climb trees, count birds outside, and make up stories.
It was raining outside. He was now too big to climb into the apple tree leaves. We sat in my room. The awkward silence was unnerving. There were so many questions I’d had but now they’d managed to escape my mind. I wanted to tell him about the old man next door, the weird ways that he’d managed to transform their old house. I wanted to complain about Carol and the power she held over Mom. I wanted him to fill the empty space when I spoke, become a presence that would listen and respond. But Milo wore unwelcoming eyes, hidden under shaggy bangs that surrounded his head, extending past his ears.
“It looks exactly the same,” he said in a startling deep voice, “your room’s like totally the same.”
I looked around. He was right. The room still wore clown curtains and pink wallpaper. It hadn’t changed since he’d left. His eyes landed on my teddy. He picked it up and held it for a while before saying, “You still have this?”
“Yeah… do you still have your monkey?”
He laughed and tossed the teddy bear back onto my bed. “I dunno. I think Mom gave it away. I don’t really do any of that baby stuff anymore.”
I ignored the knot in my stomach. “Yeah, neither do I.” I pushed the teddy under the pillow, cheeks burning in embarrassment. I’d replayed this encounter so many times in the past week. I’d trained my mind to believe we’d remain unchanged. Time couldn’t put a dent in our friendship, but it had.
He didn’t say much at the dining table, politely ate the food on his plate. Mom laughed for the first time in a while as our mothers flipped through old photo albums, pointing to pictures of us doing silly things. There was a picture of the two of us, squeezed on the couch. His front teeth were missing, wearing a gummy grin and on this rare occasion, my lips had twisted into a smile.
“They sure were cute,” said Milo’s mother.
We sat in the grass afterwards, and he stared at his phone while I stared at the stars.
They left in the matter of a week and he sent a polite email, thanking us for the invitation. We’d become formal acquaintances. His parents had forced the burden on him. Somehow I didn’t have the heart to reply.
She stopped talking to me. Stopped talking to Carol. Spent hours on the couch glued to her computer screen, typing away. Even spring couldn’t bring cheer to her face, wearing a quiet smile that sagged at the edges of her lips. Sags that I had seen for the past three months, but Carol never seemed to notice until now.
“You haven’t been taking your medication,” the doctor said.
“Those over-the-counter depression pills aren’t doing any good,” Carol interjected. “She needs a change of lifestyle. Her mental state shouldn’t be unnaturally altered.”
In the heat of June, I’d stopped coming home from school, spending hours in the old park down the street, finishing my homework under trees. My mind replayed memories of Milo now replaced with a sulky teenager. A complete stranger. Time certainly had a way of twisting people.
Carol started paying even more attention to Mom. It was as if this newfound ailment gave her an excuse to excessively worry. With her presence and prodding, Mom never had a moment to herself. Carol didn’t know that Mom’s favorite thing was having time alone.
My backpack slammed against the hardwood floor, resonating through the silent house. The bookshelves were half empty, books carefully lined to fill the boxes. Carol sat kneeling in the kitchen, digging her hands through the kitchen cupboards.
“We need a change of scene,” said Carol, wrapping a ceramic teapot in newspapers. “Your mother isn’t happy here. We’re going to sell the house and start afresh.”
I stood rooted as she yanked a drawer out of the cupboard, spilling silverware in a jingle of clanks into the box. A single spoon toppled onto the floor behind her, but she didn’t notice it.
“You heard me, Nina. We aren’t leaving until the summer. You’ll finish school and everything. It’s always good to get an early start though.” She pulled out a stack of plates from the cabinet. “I know it’s kind of weird to have to spend your senior year of high school in a new school, but I think it will be good for you. I know how much you hate school.”
The bees in my mouth that I’d been holding back with a gasp of breath started buzzing.
“Are you crazy?” I cried. “We can’t leave. I’ve lived here all my life.”
She stopped packing and stared at me, sensing an upcoming storm. “Don’t talk to me like that, young lady. You’re not happy here. Anyone can see that. But I know nothing I say will satisfy you. You just want to argue.”
“I am happy,” I muttered between gritted teeth, “I don’t want to leave.”
“Oh really?” She raised one eyebrow in mock amusement. “That’s news to me.” She curled her lips into a tight smile. “You’re barely ever at home and sweetie, last night I overheard you talking in your room. You were talking to yourself! Aren’t you a little old for imaginary friends? Ever since Milo left, you haven’t even tried to make new friends.”
I stared at the spoon on the floor to avoid the gaze in her eyes. I could feel an upcoming headache. I suddenly felt like vomiting.
“I don’t want to have an argument with you. Think of your mother, Nina. She’s not happy here. She needs a fresh start. She needs a new life. She’s spent her life in this old, messy house. You’re just being stubborn. Deliberately trying to be contentious. No wonder she’s depressed. You make things so difficult for her.”
And then the storm came, all of the bees and wasps and hornets I’d kept bottled up inside released from my mouth in a swarming hive.
“It’s you, Carol! It’s always been you! It’s not me or the house. It’s you. She’s not happy because you’re here, constantly controlling her life!”
Carol looked like she’d been socked in the face. I’d never directly told her what I thought but now the jumble had sprung from mouth in a helpless attempt to be heard.
“Nina.” I heard a creak. Mom stood like a ghost in the doorway behind me.
There were tears in my eyes. I didn’t want them to see me cry, had tried for years to tuck the water behind my eyelids, but now my cheeks flowed in rivers.
“Tell her, Mom. We don’t want to move. All of our memories are here. How can you leave it now?”
“Nina.” This time it was sad and firm.
“You never defend me! You never even bother to hear me out!” I rubbed my palms against my soggy cheeks. “You’re so weak and pathetic. You give in so easily, let other people rule your life.”
I ran through the door, ashamed and afraid. The house was what I knew, had always known for seventeen years. Moving away would be like ripping away one of my limbs. It was like replacing my life with a new world without memories or anything to hold onto.
The sun shined on the wilting apple tree, leaves sadly curled and wrinkly. Milo. Even he had changed. The boyish grin now replaced with a sour sulk in my memory. My world seemed to swirl in a sea of changes, and yet, I was the only thing that had stayed the same. And now the one thing I knew was to be ripped away. Plucked just like that, just like Carol had done with my mother.
I walked down the street, headed to the playground. I quickly dragged my feet as I swatted my pouring eyes with the backs of my hands. And then I saw him straight ahead. Arms loaded with grocery bags, head to the ground. Dear God it was the umbrella man. I hadn’t seen him since that rainy day at the bus stop when he’d shielded my head with his umbrella. Now fully preoccupied with new gloomy memories of Milo, I’d completely forgotten about him. I almost turned around in a hurried attempt to escape, but he’d already noticed me.
“Your eyes are all glossy,” he said.
“I’ve got allergies,” I lied.
“I see.” He was doubtful. “Would you mind giving me a hand?”
I found my hands full with grocery bags for the second time. The old man went a different way this time, having me lug the groceries up a steep winding hill to a street I never knew existed. He didn’t talk as we walked, just gasped and stopped every so often to catch his breath. I didn’t mind the silence, preferred it, in fact. It reminded me of our house. A time before Carol had appeared to take away the silence.
I’d never had a real childhood. Spent the first ten years of my life fending for myself while Mom tried to put food on the table, and yet, I almost missed it. Just the two of us. Never having to explain when I slipped into her bed at night. Never criticized for jumping in puddles or climbing trees. I thought of the sink and the tub, the dining table and the broken TV. I thought of the piles of untouched books, the cactus and the woody fence. I thought of apple trees and crooked bricks, doorknobs and autumn leaves. I’d stay behind. Glue myself to the door if I had to. She couldn’t make me leave.
Mr. Paul had led me to an old folk’s home, flooded in people like him: wrinkled, shrunken, hunched over. Some wore smiles and others, you couldn’t tell what they were thinking. They walked, leaning against helpers for support and clutching cans in their thin hands. The skin from many of their faces sagged below their chins and crinkled into aging lines and folds.
We rode up the elevator, surrounded in the hum of classical music until finally stopping with a ding on the third floor. The room wore floral printed wallpaper and she sat slouching in her wheelchair, mouth slightly opened as she snored. Her hair was paler than his, swan feathers cut short around her head. Mr. Paul dropped the groceries on a table beside the old woman’s bed and patted her cheek, causing her to wake with a start.
“This here’s my wife, Peggy,” said the old man, leaning his umbrella against the wall. “She’s lived in this place for the past year. Figured it was time for a change for the both of us. So I packed up my things and left our old house so I could be closer to her. It’s Alzheimer’s.”
Her face was bland, expressionless. Empty eyes clung to the skin that sagged on the sides of her face. She sat facing the window with a little veranda. Strung along the edge of the window was a thin little clothesline and dangling from the string were…wrappers.
The umbrella man sent her wrappers of all the things she used to eat but no longer could. Wrinkled and tearing at the corners where they’d been sliced open, they lay on his kitchen windowsill above the sink. He’d washed their insides and rubbed them with towels, filling them with notes to her and little photographs of the people they used to be. I couldn’t help but wonder how they hadn’t managed to flood the place with mice and cockroaches. There were expensive and exotic chocolate foils, gum boxes still stained in tinges of mint, and chip and biscuit wrappers from all the different places they’d traveled together.
He hoped she would remember when she saw them, watched him string them from the clothesline on the veranda that she never used, so she could watch them flutter and waggle in the wind from the bed where he spooned applesauce into her mouth as she stared at him with empty eyes.
“Alzheimer’s don’t change a thing,” he said. “It’s just an ugly word made to scare people. Sure she’s lost most of her memory, but it’s still her behind all that. It’s still her. Some things never change.”
The sun was starting to set and I couldn’t imagine facing Mom and Carol again. I couldn’t believe Mom hadn’t defended me. She’d weakened under Carol, incapable of disagreeing.
“I love my new house,” the old man said. “It’s quiet. I like that.”
“My best friend used to live in your house.” I was surprised at the sound of my voice. I’d kept quiet most of the time. “He was like my little brother.”
“I’ll bet you miss him.”
I frowned. “I saw him last week and he’s nothing like he used to be. We’ve grown apart.”
The old man stopped walking. “That’s no reason to stop loving someone. You can’t blame a person for changing. I can’t blame my hair for going gray no more than I can blame Peggy for losing her memory. It’s just a way of life. He might be different on the outside, but he was still your friend at one point in your life. That won’t ever change.”
It didn’t feel like empty advice like the kind that Carol sometimes gave me when she didn’t know what else to say. I was surprised that he took his wife’s illness as a way of life without resentment or nostalgia. It seemed that I’d spent my life doing nothing but the opposite. Blaming and criticizing things for changing while I stubbornly remained the same, unable to let go of the past and move forward.
I pressed my fork between my lips, taking slow swallows, wishing I didn’t have to sit with them. They were surprisingly calm as if they’d forgotten my earlier outbursts.
“Where were you for so long?” asked Carol, not looking up from her plate.
“I helped our neighbor with his groceries,” I said. “His wife lives in a nursing home.”
Mom looked up. “My grandpa ended up in one of those places.”
The silence returned. Our spoons clanked against plates, until finally I dropped mine.
“I’m not moving,” I said. “You guys can leave, but I’m staying behind.”
Carol laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Nina. Quit behaving like a child. It’s time you grew up and—”
“Carol,” Mom interrupted. I looked up startled. “Please.”
“You really don’t know how to discipline your daughter. You behave as if her rudeness is acceptable. Well, I won’t tolerate that type of attitude in my house.”
“This isn’t your house.”
“Excuse me?” Carol looked at Mom in disbelief.
“This is our house,” said Mom. “My home.”
The word “home” sounded sweet from her lips like it had been aching to speak for so long.
“We aren’t leaving, Carol. I can’t just pack up and start somewhere new. I’ve thought it through and it’s just not for me.”
I sat in awe. She wasn’t weak. She was strong and finally, finally she was standing on her own two feet.
“It’ll be better for you!” Carol insisted. “You’re not well. A new life would be good for both of you!”
“This is our home,” said Mom. “I spent most of my life screwing up and now I realize I can’t make another mistake. Nina is almost an adult. I don’t want her to end up like me. I want to start afresh, Carol, and I will. I want to go to college next semester.”
“What?” Carol threw down her spoon with a clatter. “Now you’re talking nonsense!”
“I never had the chance after Nina was born. When I came back from the hospital, I realized that I’ve been a terrible mother. I’m grateful for what you’ve done for us, but it’s not your job to fill my shoes, Carol.”
“But you’re unwell!”
“I need this, Carol. Please. I’ve spent the past couple months submitting applications and writing essays I should have written years ago but I never did. This is my chance.”
I remembered the notebook I’d shredded, the days she spent typing away at the computer and I’d never even bothered to take a peek. She’d received an acceptance and a scholarship. I looked at my mother. Through her weakness, she’d managed to prosper into a strong and beautiful thing.
And then Carol did an astonishing thing. She didn’t open her mouth to protest or dive into a torrent of lectures. She simply nodded her head, finishing dinner in silence. The next week she packed her bags and drove away, but not out of spite. She realized that her work here was done. Her indefinite stay had rolled to an end. She sent money every month, generous amounts that brought food to the table and got us through the week. She visited once a month until the school year started up again.
The apple tree was a late bloomer, shedding its leaves after the old man had finished raking. I offered to give him a hand after painfully watching him sneeze and sweat.
“I’m not as young as I used to be,” he admitted, handing me the rake.
It had been so long since I’d stood in the yard where I’d once played as a child. The leaves crumpled under my boots as I dragged the rake against the muddy grass. My foot rammed into something hard poking out of the dirt below the apple tree. I swept my bare hand against the grass, fingers landing on damp plastic. It was a painted chip and I cupped it in my palm, running my finger over the blue and white stripes. Milo’s plane. I remembered the day that we sat under the apple tree as I tried to clean the muddy wings and glued the tail back in place. He’d grinned with glee when it flew again, soaring in circles above the house.
I still missed Milo sometimes. The old Milo. This tiny piece of plastic must have broken off one of the wings in the crash. It had survived a good many years, remaining hidden and unchanged in the grass. It served as proof of our friendship. Proof of years of our childhood, proof of shoelaces and poison ivy stings, Slinkys and squeaking swings. The umbrella man was right. The past could never change.
It was the only thing that we really owned. That truly belonged to us.
“My Grandpa built it for my Grandma,” she said. “Isn’t that romantic?”
He’d left it for her when he died. I didn’t have a grandma or a grandpa. I just had Mom and she just had me, plus our elderly kitty. The bricks on the roof were still intact and the paint hadn’t peeled. The weeds in the backyard were hidden behind the fence as we lay with our elbows in the grass. From the sidewalk it looked just like another home.