A red bulb of blood rose from my skin. I watched with exquisite satisfaction as it ballooned from the tip of my razor. If I pressed even a little deeper and swiped it across, it would cut a line and throw my skin open. Then the truth would bleed out, staining everything.
I drew in a ragged breath. I rubbed the ancient marks along the inside of my left arm. As my fingers pressed through the lattice of scars, a burn soared up from within, surprising me. Like one last breathing ember. Like it had been wanting to be the one noticed, sparked again. Like it had been waiting for me to traverse adolescence, survive it, or think I had, then seduce me like this, asking me to do this. To cut myself. To break open my skin. I looked up to the mirror, caught a quiver in my eyes, a distant kindling fire. Her. I could see her promise, a flicker of light through bare moonlit trees. Me, thirteen. I disappeared.
I closed my eyes and drew in another breath. Not me. Not a waif.
Me. An ingénue. An oracle.
Not a wood nymph slipping beneath the branches. That me was ether. Maybe an ash of me. But not me now. At nineteen.
This is the story about how I began to sing. Afternoons, I would return alone to the house on Prytania Street to trade my books for my guitar. The house was its loneliest then. It would be hard to convince my sister or any one of our housemates—the foodies, poets and musicians who filled up our lives—that this loneliness ever happened. But it was true. The house grew forlorn in the heart of the day, when no one was watching.
I dropped the razor. I turned from the sink and walked to the front room, hearing the heels of my boots clack against the hardwood floors like a lead-in beat. I reached for my well-worn Gibson Hummingbird.
At Good Earth coffeehouse, the sounds of grinding beans and frothing milk filling the space, I sat on a stool clutching a guitar pick, the plastic thin between my two fingers. I poised the pick so near to the tremble of steel strings, so near the sound of desire. I balanced the guitar beneath my beating heart, and I heard myself already singing that song, the one I’d written for him, the man in Austin. I knew which version of the song it would be, the one that answered his question. In the pads of my fingers, I felt the familiar split as I pressed strings to the fret board, holding future sound in the place where I wanted it to be, waiting for me to strike.
“I Know How to Love You,” that had been the song, and I would sing it the way I had sung it the second time in Beaumont, because I knew after I heard his song in College Station, one Mr. Isaac Santillanes of the Frontrunners would be in the crowd, and he had been. The new lines had snaked their way in. Isaac had received my message, and then I knew why my song had changed. Someone had been listening.
The barista manager met my expectant face with eyebrows that scowled. “What have you got for me?”
“I’ve got a song I …” I wanted to tell its story, how it got here.
The manager waved me off. He nodded. I should just play it. So I did.
When I struck first chord, I felt a parting. It sliced into the sea of frothing milk for the earnest and the caffeinated, because then the few afternoon inhabitants of Good Earth Café in New Orleans, Louisiana, turned to listen, their faces lifted to the sunlight pouring through the windows. As I sang, I wondered if they knew what they desired, or if each person was pretending to desire something else so they wouldn’t have to desire what they desired. I would sing, not arriving at the answer, until my sister, Paulette, joined up with me.
That morning, my father had packed up all his belongings in a U-Haul to head to Phoenix. The autumn air was on the cusp of cool. It was fall—my second year at Tulane, my sister’s first—and college had seemed to usher in a strange tutelage in solitude and survival. My parents had been divorced for exactly four months.
My dad rolled out a map as though it was necessary for me to see where he was going and how he would get there. “I’ll go through bayou country, Interstate 10, straight through bluebonnet territory, across Texas. Then it’s Tucson.” He jabbed two fingers at Arizona. “And up to Phoenix.”
It was all just territory to him, exotic terrain that pleasured him.
“I don’t get it, Phoenix.” I knew to be blunt with him. Direct, provocative opinions. No questions. No nuance.
Zane turned his chiseled face to me, and I felt that familiar sense of breaking in its presence. But then I remembered he wasn’t looking at me. He was looking past me. I told myself if he didn’t see me, he couldn’t shatter me.
“Phoenix is the future,” he said. “The future’s not here.”
I could have said a lot about what hadn’t been here, who hadn’t shown up for the future. But I didn’t. If he didn’t love New Orleans the way I did, I wasn’t going to argue with him. When our mother left him, there was no more waiting for him to save us.
“You belong here, I guess,” he said, like this was regretful. But he still wasn’t looking at me.
I knew to be careful around him. I knew not to seek his gaze on me, not to want that. I was the dutiful daughter loading up the last boxes in his trailer. I had worked hard to make sure that only one fact registered with him: I, Tara, was unwritten.
“I’ll still pay for everything,” he said. “Tulane, your business degree.”
I nodded. I was written on the inside.
“She’s gone too far.”
I knew this next part would be about Mom. The instant the divorce was inked and done, Mom had gotten herself on a plane to Greece for a summer mosaic workshop; she would be returning soon, next week. I knew my father was not talking about geography, though. This part of the conversation was not going to require a map. The idea of what Mom had done was like lightning to my soul. When I thought of her now, I saw her like a white statue looking out at the crystal blue waters of the Aegean Sea, her eyes aster-blue and her lips blood-cherry red, golden hair curling to her soft hips. I saw her as a saint, yet I reviled her, too. I saw her as sober, clear, serious, an unrelenting marble gaze. I felt the violence of her absence. Moms don’t leave. I felt the betrayal, but I submitted to it every day when I didn’t cut my skin and I sang instead. I felt uncanny and careless, wondering where the next bright bolt of her would fall. She had gone too far. She had escaped him.
“She will return,” my father said, and I said nothing so he could let it be true.
I lifted his last box and placed it in the back seat. When I turned around, I saw he was already pulling open the driver door, keys ringed on his fingers, jangling a little.
“Best to get out ahead of that tropical storm,” he said, nodding meaningfully past me an imagined southern horizon where the lines blurred between land and sea. With a jut of his chin, he turned his back to mai tais and he said, “Time to shut this show down.”
“A show?” Paulette would say later when she met me at Good Earth and she drove us back to Prytania Street, weaving through the trolleys and the live oak trees. In the kitchen, Paulette packed a basket of oyster stew and crab cakes we would take to our grandparents. That morning Paulette had refused to say goodbye to our father. I couldn’t decide if that made her weaker because she couldn’t or it made her stronger because she wouldn’t. A man of his means, an architect who had been celebrated for leaving an elegant post-modernist mark on New Orleans, traveling across the belly of Texas with everything in his life stripped down to these few objects in a rented trailer—it had rankled my sister. “The rich are so cheap,” she had muttered under her breath.
“A show?” Paulette repeated now as she tucked a jar of remoulade in the basket. “That’s it? Our parents’ marriage was a show?”
“I guess that tells us a lot.” I placed my hands on my hips as I stood on the porch looking out at Prytania Street. The house was different now—not lonely. Defiant. It had something to say. I called back to Paulette. I relished this part of the day, the hour before we would go to Grace and Thompson, when my sister and I each prepared our offerings to them—Paulette oyster stew and me the new version of my song, the one I had written for the man in Austin. Isaac. I held his name there, on my tongue. Isaac Santillanes. He was Spanish, exotic to me. I shouted back to Paulette.
Late afternoon, and our street was awakening, my favorite time to watch, when people came out to stroll under the relenting sun, delighting as it faded back into a violet sky. My father had never belonged here. He had notable buildings here, crafting the skyscape of New Orleans, but all with the dint of an outsider, someone who could never quite be intimate with the place. Had that been it? He didn’t love it like she did, our mother, who had gone far but would be coming back. But when I thought about that, that was the beginning of the burn on my skin, hissing at just that spot, where I had cut before, seven ragged pink lines. But not today. Not since I was thirteen. Not since then.
It was happening every day now, the not-cutting and the singing instead. Sitting at the edge of the coffeehouse stool, I had faded out my voice as I struck the last chord. I would switch my degree to music, which my father would hate. Music had become a delicate subversion.
My mother had booted my father out in spring. One afternoon, I had returned to our childhood home at Lake Vista, Gibson Hummingbird strapped to my back and a new song to play for her. All my life, I had been accustomed to looking forward to my mother’s faithful audience, to count on it. Instead, that day I could hardly approach the house. Three pickup trucks were parked on the street, and a furniture van was positioned at an angle on the front lawn to line up with the door. I had to park two doors down. I rushed up the sidewalk and squeezed by workers toting a ladder out the front door. Blue plastic tarps and scaffolding filled the family room. In the dining room, a worker bent over the floor hacking away at the old linoleum.
“I’m putting in hardwood floors.” Isabel turned from the kitchen sink clutching a glass of iced tea. Her golden hair fell loose, so long it was almost to her waist. “I’ve always wanted hardwood floors.”
In that instant, I had truly seen her. She wasn’t my mother anymore; she was Isabel. There was no turning back the clock to home as I knew it. My childhood had been revised. I drew in a deep, delicious breath.
For weeks, the signs had been there. Isabel had started with curtains—nothing to cause alarm, really. Every day more curtains emerged from boxes kept in storage for years. I told myself I could get used to that, each discovery—the dyeing, too.
One morning I found her in the backyard, Isabel now, bent over stainless steel tubs filled with violet and melon liquids that reminded me of Polynesian mai tais. Jabbing at the organza with a broom handle, Isabel had worked folds of fabric through the cocktail, shifting the vivid colors through a syrupy swamp. The curtains emerged looking like pale, flattened jellyfish. By afternoon, my mother was touching fingertips to the freshly hued curtains to check them on the clothesline, explaining nothing to me about the divorce.
If there were statements, they were arguments in colors: Orange sherbet, rose and violet. During the years Paulette and I were growing up, the colors of the house were stark, masculine, a carefully managed color palette. Ebony and white furniture, a band of burgundy or a stripe of bittersweet orange, walls painted in putty and battleship gray. Sleek modern tables and bookshelves, geometric and modular chairs with compact slab-like cushions. White gladiolas in a glass vase. Beveled mirrors with art deco patterns etched into the glass. One day, my father had had a black leather sofa delivered, surprising my mother. Isabel had hated it but held her silence. “I’m an architect,” my father had said, and somehow this had ended the conversation. Entertaining guests in the front room, my mother had sat in full obedience at the edge of the black leather sofa with a teacup balanced on her knees, her black pumps parallel, as if she could make herself a straight line, an extension of the lines on the abstract accent rug. With her hair knotted in a French chignon, she had sipped her tea, holding herself carefully in the grid of the room.
Curtains dyed, that spring she let her hair grow out, strands of white threading through gold so that she took on not the dint of age but a new glow. By April, the colors in her art took a deepening turn: cherry, sun-gold and indigo. By May, she was in Greece, and this was the language of her offerings, the only trail of reason I could follow.
Twilight neared, and Prytania Street came awake with evening strollers. The colors of the leaves were just starting to change, the gingkos and sweet gums. I closed my eyes, and I saw Isaac in the audience, his full attention on me. “I Know How to Love You” was my song. I had changed the lines the night before, asked my lead guitarist Jackson to let it wail. To the west, the sun blazed low in the sky. I closed my eyes again and let the heat trill through me. Mom was calling from Greece.
I flipped open my phone and held it to my ear. Mom explained it, but I didn’t hear her right the first time. I asked her to repeat it.
“I believe I must stay,” she said in a gentle voice.
“How long?” I think I sounded plaintive. I urgently wanted to remind her that Zane left New Orleans today, but I didn’t.
“I think … indefinitely is about as accurate as I can be right now,” Mom said after a pause. “It’s just time for a change.”
This was backward, the parents leaving the children, emptying themselves from the nest. I looked down at the inside of my arm, seven bars of seven cuts. I wondered, did I have to contain it? It was their blood, running through my veins, their strange blend.
Something else. I remembered something else Isabel had said on that day I discovered her at work reimagining our childhood home.
Soon after the new hardwood floors were in and the living room neutralized, Isabel started in on a mosaic that ran the full length of the wall. Shimmering glass tiles of sea greens and blues unfurled on the now-blank wall.
“It looks like a wave, but it’s her tail,” Isabel had explained.
“A mermaid?” I had guessed.
Isabel stepped back to look at her work.
“I can’t hold it back,” she said.
Isabel’s words had not been defiant. They had been wondrous. I had never seen our mother more alive. The living room with the picture window was filled with boxes and boxes of broken glass sorted by color, cobalt, sea mist, emerald, turquoise. As Isabel affixed shards to the wall, she did not notice the tiny scratches the sharp edges left on her fingers, but I did, and I remembered the euphoria, that first fine moment of breaking skin. I could almost taste it. I had stepped back as our mother spackled grout over a section of tile, pressing it into the cracks, filling in all the neglected spaces. Isabel had discovered something not fixed in place. It had been wild and alive, living on the wall of our living room the whole time. The small slots between the tiles, each a pore into a deeper world.
“And I won’t,” Isabel had said that day. “I won’t hold it back. I will allow it.”
To have cut myself again, just this one last day, would have been another kind of subversion. I could have hidden it under my sleeve. It would be a way of preserving my no, but no to what …? It was time not to keep any of their secrets or my own. It was time to not be defined by no; instead to be defined by yes. I had dropped the razor. It slipped from my fingers onto the lip of the sink. It would have been just one little cut, maybe a row of three.
After the call from Mom, I stood in the doorway of the kitchen as Paulette tucked four plaid linen napkins on top of the food in the picnic basket. “Grandma Grace will love this,” she said in an even, calm voice, which is just the way Paulette is scribed. “And you can sing for Thompson.”
“Mom’s staying in Greece,” I announced.
I saw the dimple on Paulette’s face that quivered every time she bit her cheek on the inside. Maybe she had already known Mom was staying longer, or maybe she didn’t, but I could tell she wasn’t surprised.
“I guess Grace and Thompson are our only family here now.” She looked up at me not to tell me this was true, but to see if I saw it that way, too.
I nodded. That was part of it. I looked into my sister’s face, and I saw the parts of her that were like our mother, the neat-trimmed eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes that held her in a composure of dignity. If I could pour myself into the innocence of Paulette, I could find Isabel, and she would soothe us through this. She would tell us how resilient we were, that we were ready for this.
I hadn’t cut. I had reached for my guitar. Now I was the container for everything, and I would stay that way.