What you have to understand, when I say it doesn’t matter, is that some days I honestly don’t know. A poor memory and a good imagination can do a number on your past. I remember the day Sam was born down to the letter, from the song that was playing on the radio when the car turned on (“Love Shack,” the B-52s) to the shoes I wore out the door (sparkly purple jellies, the first pair I grabbed) – everything except whose body it was up there on the table, suspended in stirrups, surrounded by nurses, bloated and dilated and waiting for something to give.
What happened that year? Why did we move to Florida for such a brief time? Was it my mother’s body there, suffering the aftereffects of a missed pill or a broken condom or careless timing? Was she crushing my father’s hand and soaking the pillow with improbable sweat in the too-cold delivery room? Was I watching it from the doorway, seventeen years old, unable to look but unable to look away? Was it true what we told everyone, that I’d gotten to see my baby brother born that day?
Or is it my hand inside my father’s? Do I remember the room from the head of the bed, my own body stretched and laid out for casual medical display? I can imagine both camera angles with equal precision, see the scene in my memory from both sides. I heard the whispers around me at school, at that volume where every word reached my ears and everyone could pretend it might not. Enough of hearing anything makes the possibility real – until my past has an entire room in it in which I am twice, or not at all.
How much of anything anyone tells you do you think is true, anyway?
* * *
As much as I remember anything, I remember the day I found out what it means to be a pretty girl. I was two months shy of my twelfth birthday and I’d just finished my second period, which my mother said made me ‘a woman’, but which practically mostly just made me a mess. I was seated cross-legged on the floor of the Waldenbooks at the Padre Staples Mall, browsing through the bottom shelves of the romance novels while my mother ran errands in the Woolworth’s two stores down. She’d asked if I’d wanted to come to the mall, and I’d said yes, because it had been a Sunday in March after church, and I hadn’t had anything else to do.
I’ve always liked the kind of books my father dismissively called “bodice-rippers”, even if I hadn’t known back then what a bodice was. I’d imagined it was the kind of paper they were printed on, because sometimes my hands would get hot and sticky with sweat, and instead of turning the page, I’d accidentally tear its edge. They were my mother’s books, and we’d agreed that I could keep reading them so long as I didn’t tell my father and I returned her copies to where she’d left them when I was done with them.
So there I was on the floor, cross-legged but with my church dress still pulled down modestly over my knees, thumbing through the epic, generic romance of a long-haired Highland baron and the buxom, be-bodiced common wench who caught his eye. I remember feeling the scratch of the carpet against the backs of my thighs, even through my hose (I was a woman now; women wore hose, not tights). My knees were cramping. It wasn’t even a good book.
Someone said something.
“Pardon?” I asked, turning my head up toward him.
“I said, I see you like to read,” he said. He wasn’t a tall man, though everyone looks the same kind of tall to an eleven-year-old sitting on the floor. He wasn’t even much of a distinctive man one way or another. If someone told you to picture a man, he’s the man you would have pictured. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t look like he knew me.
“Oh. Yeah.” I closed the book with shaking fingers and put it back on the shelf. I was struck with a sudden fearful knowledge that he was from Waldenbooks Police, about to read me my rights and throw me into Waldenbooks Jail (or, bare minimum, booting me from the store) for the capital crime of Reading Without Buying. “Sometimes.”
I stood then, and at the same time he held out a hand to help me stand. Problem was that by the time he did, I was already all but upright on my own power. It seemed rude to just ignore the gesture, though, and I had been raised never to be rude, even to strangers, so once I was already all but on my feet, I reached out and awkwardly put my hand in his.
He clasped it like a handshake, but didn’t let go when it was over. “I like smart girls,” he said.
That was nice. I didn’t know why he was telling me that, though. “Oh, that’s good,” I told him. I could feel that my palm was starting to sweat already where my skin touched his. Any minute now he’d be able to tell too.
“What’s your name?”
“Holly,” he repeated, like it was a kind of wine, like something anybody would want. “Can I buy you a drink, Holly?”
Something inside my brain exploded; I heard it, even if no one else seemed to. I had no context for his question. I couldn’t be rude, especially not to a grownup. I probably had brown spots on my panties from how I hadn’t learned when in your cycle you could finally stop putting on pantiliners just in case. He still had my hand.
“I think I hear my mom,” I said, and I gave him the sweetest smile I could before I very politely yanked my sweaty hand from his and started walking out of the store at a measured pace, so he didn’t think I was showing him any disrespect. Thank God he didn’t follow me.
I waited by the Woolworth’s door, chewing off my lip gloss, glancing every so often over my shoulder to make sure he hadn’t decided to follow me.
When my mom finally came out, bags in hand, she took one look at me and her eyes went wide. “Sweetheart, are you okay? You’re so pale.”
What was I going to say? “I don’t feel good.”
She put the back of her hand to my forehead and my cheeks. “I think you’re running a fever. Come on. Let’s get you home.”
I didn’t go to school the next day; my grandmother came over instead and tried to get me to sip on some ginger ale as we watched daytime game shows. I couldn’t tell anyone, but I also couldn’t stop worrying that that man was going to somehow be upset that I’d been discourteous to him. The fact that he’d upset me never entered into the equation.
I never did go back to those bodice-rippers, my mother’s or anyone else’s. I started reading more magazines instead, things like Seventeen that told me how I was supposed to do my makeup and wear my clothes and talk to boys. It just seemed safer.
* * *
When we came back after the year in Florida, everything was the same and different at once, a funhouse-mirror version of itself. We moved right back into our old house; we hadn’t even tried to sell it. Florida had always been just a temporary situation, a brief reassignment as part of Dad’s Air Force career. I enrolled back in my old school. We went back to our old church. And all the same people in those same places treated us like we’d never even been gone. Unreal.
Sam made sense, though. He was five months old and purely selfish, and I admired that about him. He slept in my room, and when he cried in the middle of the night, I was the one who got up to feed him. Either my mother’s breasts or mine had dried up after only a month, so either way, he was raised on formula. I even had a little mini-fridge by my bed, where his bottles were right next to my bottles of Diet Coke. I learned to sleep by grabbing naps whenever I could. I’d go to bed right after dinner and at midnight, I’d be awake with a baby in one arm and a biology text in the other. I’d strap Sam to my chest at four in the morning when both of us were awake and neither one of us wanted to be, and I’d go read my assigned English novels out on the porch.
That was how I met The Kid Across The Street.
I’d met The Kid Across The Street before, of course; I’d grown up in my house, and he’d grown up in his, and even in a neighborhood where most people didn’t go around introducing themselves to one another, there was still no way not to at least have peripheral awareness of the folk around you. I even knew someone had told me his name once, probably more than once. Hell if I could bring it to mind, though, and by this point, there was no polite way to ask.
He was out before dawn like me, scouring the grass of his front lawn with a flashlight. I walked down to the end of the driveway, until I was as close as I could get without treading barefoot on the sharp street surface. “What are you doing?” I asked.
He jumped, literally jumped, caught at least a foot of air and dropped the flashlight. He was only three years behind me in school, but when you’re that age, three years is basically forever apart. I was about to start being a senior after a year of being homeschooled, and he was about to begin life as a high school freshman. Forever doesn’t get much bigger than that.
“Looking for something,” he said at last.
I could see that, but I didn’t want to point it out and sound snotty about it. “Before dawn?”
He sighed and retrieved the flashlight, which was still going. “It’s my friend’s. We were playing – just horsing around with it, you know, having fun. Kid stuff. Maybe. It was a while ago. And I think we dropped it here.”
Truth was, I’d had crazier things drag me out of bed. “Okay,” I said. “Well, good luck.”
“Thanks,” he said, and then he cleared his throat. “Hey, Holly?”
“Yeah?” Sam reached up and grabbed a loose thread of my hair, yanking it with all a baby’s stubborn determination. I winced as I tried to untangle it from his chubby grip.
“I’m glad you’re back.” He pointed to the house, as though there might be any doubt about what he’d meant.
That meant it was my turn to be grateful. “Thanks,” I said. I smiled at him, politely.
* * *
Even though I never did that well in it, part of me always liked school. You got report cards, you always knew where you stood. I didn’t have to guess at my math aptitude; at any time I wanted, I could to go Mrs. Ortiz and ask for my average, and she could do some quick calculations and tell me I was due for a respectable 82. There was no guesswork.
Real life sucked in that respect. I would hear my friends tell someone her dress looked great only to make gagging faces after she left the room, then play it cool when some other girl walked in looking really good.
Some days all I wanted was to pass out little scorecards and have them tally me up, then figure the average. I didn’t even care what the grades were; I just wanted to know where I stood.
I guess that was why I started hanging around boys more in middle school. It’s not that they were any more honest or any less judgmental assholes, but they also didn’t need a lot of guesswork. You could pretty much just assume that a guy wanted to fuck you and then proceed from there to unpack his comments. Whatever he said he thought about you could be calculated, like the scores Mrs. Ortiz’s gradebook, into an average of how much he wanted to fuck you.
So I wound up with the ones who wanted to fuck me a lot. And that was how I got myself in at least one kind of trouble.
* * *
“You walking home?”
“Yeah.” I turned behind me to see The Kid. He had that sad soft-pity look boys sometimes get before they grow up and figure out how to lock their faces until nothing shows through. He felt sorry for me, that much was apparent, but he also clearly didn’t know what to do about it. It might have been cute if it weren’t kind of my whole life.
He nodded. “Is it okay if I walk with you?”
“Free country,” I said, but I slowed my pace enough that he could occupy the other half of the sidewalk. I could almost summon the energy to feel sympathetic to his adolescent plight. Fortunately, my own face had learned to control itself years before.
“So,” he said after a few minutes, “how was Florida?”
“Hot,” I told him, laughing at how anyone could say that while outdoors in a South Texas August. “I saw some flamingos, though.”
“Cool,” he said with the kind of enthusiasm that he would have done everything to keep out of his voice, had he known it was there. “Any alligators?”
“Yeah, some of those too.”
I had not, since the Waldenbooks lesson, let myself be stupid enough to not know when someone was hitting on me, so I’d known about The Kid’s crush for a long time. There’s no missing the way a ten-year-old boy looks at you when he doesn’t know how he looks when he’s looking at you, even – or maybe especially – when you’re the thirteen-year-old girl he’s looking at. He was now right on the cusp of being able to rein that in, but not there yet.
Maybe that’s all that happens to us as we grow up: Little by little, we become self-aware, until at last our faces are paralyzed completely by the horrible knowledge that our inner selves might, if we let our guard down for even an instant, become visible.
“So how’s your brother?” he asked, and I heard that little hitch in his voice between your and brother. I would have been more surprised if he hadn’t heard the rumors. At least nobody doubted to my face that we’d moved to Florida for my dad’s job. Most days I didn’t even doubt it myself.
I shrugged. “He’s fine. He’s a baby. Sleeps and cries a lot.”
“That’s cool,” he said. I could see him glance out of the corner of his eye at me, trying to see through the fabric of my outfit the parts of me that would give him the crucial final clue, the one that would let him solve the mystery of whether or not Sam was mine. I wished I could have told him I’d spent much longer than that in front of a mirror, without the interference of clothes, trying to see the same things myself.
He didn’t have anything to say to me, of course, or at least not anything of substance, though I suspect he could have asked about Florida wildlife indefinitely. But the truth was, I wasn’t actually supposed to be able to talk to him, or to talk at all; he was learning that lesson every second we walked together, every step I took further from the unreachable girl who’d no doubt been the object of many of his romantic adolescent dreams. Like a dog who’d caught a car, he didn’t know what to do with me. And like a car, I was supposed to be admirable, selectively functional, and mute.
But I couldn’t tell him to fuck off, even politely. I told myself it was because he didn’t deserve that, and not because I wouldn’t have known where to begin to do so.
I asked him some questions about himself, his family, his first year of high school. I even half-listened to the answers, which was honestly more than most boys expected me to do. I learned that he and his friend were having some falling-out, the same friend who’d lost a thing worth looking for by flashlight. I think I remembered that boy, seeing the two of them play their war games at one another across the enemy trees and bushes of our neighborhood, the battlefield.
When we got to our houses, we said our good-byes and went our separate ways. He didn’t go inside, though, I could see as I peeked back out through the living room curtains. Instead, he stood there in the shade of his front porch, staring at my house. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but I could guess.
I lay down on the couch and shut my eyes, falling just as far into sleep as I could without deafening myself to Sam’s cries. I didn’t mind giving him my full attention, though. I didn’t mind being needed; it was the being wanted I couldn’t stand.
* * *
There were so many machines reaching into the high plexiglass crib that I almost couldn’t believe he was in there. But then I saw a little foot move down at the end, and I didn’t make it to the nearest trash can before I threw up.
I want to lie about this part, too, but the truth is that I remember it in agonizing detail: the pot on the stove, the high chair too close, the handle in just the wrong place, tiny fists around the silicone grip, the boiling water coming down. Sometimes in my dreams, I cross the kitchen quickly enough to stop it. Most times I don’t.
That’s where it goes fuzzy, though, and the next several weeks become a wall of white in my memory: windows, gauze, coats, machines. I think I yelled at a dog-collared chaplain who came by, or maybe that was my father. I don’t remember eating anything, even though I must have. I surely don’t remember sleeping.
I remember the guilt, though everyone said it wasn’t my fault. It was an accident, and accidents happened, especially around babies and younger/older mothers, the doctors said, switching their platitudes depending on which of the women by the bedside they assumed had given birth to the boy now on the ventilator. What was important now was not blame, but healing. Sam would need everyone’s support for the long road ahead of him.
My parents didn’t blame me. Of course they said they didn’t, but they also meant it. They hugged me and we all cried a lot, and together our three selves blurred into one collective experience of grief and worry. Phrases like “not out of the woods yet” and “round-the-clock observation” became our common language. We learned to speak with the doctors and nurses, to understand them and then to make ourselves understood
But mostly we waited. I think that’s the worst thing for humans, to have nothing to do about a situation. Whether it’s a conversation or a problem or a crisis, we always want something to do. Having to be told you’re helpless is awful. Having to tell someone the same is just as bad.
I walked the halls at night, when things were quiet, sometimes peeking in the other open doors. There were other children in all those other beds, too, and I couldn’t help them either.
* * *
When I heard the front door, I didn’t budge. I thought it might be some intruder, or maybe I hoped it would be. Home invasion, parents at the hospital, daughter the only victim. A compound tragedy, to be sure, but also possibly for the best.
It was The Kid. I remembered then how my parents had asked him to come over and look at the house, water the plants, feed the cat. None of that involved being in my room, though, which was why I was surprised to see him standing in my doorway. He didn’t turn on the light, and when he stepped forward inside, I knew he must not have seen me.
He reached for something on my dresser. The room was all but pitch-dark, but I’d been lying there for several hours, so my eyes had adjusted. This was my version of obeying the command to go home and get some rest, as though I’d sleep any more here than I would at the hospital. It was one more thing for us to lie about, then one more thing to lie about lying about.
“Hey,” I said.
The Kid did a replay of how I’d scared him on the lawn. He didn’t drop the object like he’d dropped the flashlight, though, and as he turned to me I could see he had was a framed picture of me and Sam, taken just before we left Florida to come back here. Just a picture in a plastic dollar-store frame. About as petty as petty theft got.
“Keep it,” I told him before he could start making excuses.
“Are you sure?” he asked, but he was already shoving it into the pocket of his hoodie like he didn’t care what my answer would be anyway.
“Yeah,” I said. Maybe he wanted a memento of the nice people who lived across the street. Maybe he wanted to jerk off over it. Neither would have surprised me.
“How’s Sam?” he asked. He’d learned the name somewhere in the interim, which was still more than I could say for me to him.
“Going to be okay,” I told us both. He didn’t speak my family’s new language; I couldn’t make him understand what it all meant. I couldn’t tell him I didn’t know if I was lying or not.
“That’s great,” he said with a smile. “I bet you’re glad.”
“Yeah,” I said. Was there any other appropriate response?
“My mom is really worried. She says she wants to come by the hospital and visit, but–”
I shook my head. “No visitors. They’re not allowing anyone in who isn’t family yet.” They absolutely were, but I didn’t want anyone to see Sam like that. I didn’t want anyone to see us like that. “But soon,” I added, so I didn’t seem ungrateful. Ingratitude was an even bigger sin than impoliteness. “Soon, yeah.”
I can’t reconstruct the trajectory that got us from that point to us both naked, him kneeling between my legs, his hand shaking as he tried to find a way to fit his penis into the hole that would make him ‘a man’. His version of the process seemed a lot more pleasant than bleeding through all your jeans, but what did I know? I was just the hole.
As he pressed into me, I didn’t even bother to put on a show about how good he felt, how big he was, and so forth. He wasn’t paying attention to anything but his dick. Maybe it seems awful, but I was actually glad. Talking about anything else seemed ridiculous, and talking about Sam was … no. This, though, was a set of dance steps I knew by heart. I could do them in my sleep. I was almost sure once or twice I had.
He wasn’t any good at it, of course, but that wasn’t the point. I wasn’t the point. He was fucking the girl in the photograph, the one he’d been staring at for years, the one he didn’t have to worry about talking to. We were doing this because we’d never learned to be boys and girls – or men and women, for that matter – around one another and not do something. Talking worked sometimes; fucking filled in all the other gaps. And right now, neither of us had anything left worth saying.
I’d never considered before that moment how maybe those women in the novels didn’t really want their bodices ripped. They always seemed so excited about it at the time, but in their defense, the book never even gave them any other option. I lay there, staring at the ceiling and thinking, you know, I bet that Scottish girl would have seriously considered staying at home with her cats and her friends, and maybe her little brother too. It might not be much, but it didn’t have to be.
He pulled out when he was done and got dressed, and it occurred to me then how he’d tell this story. No, what really occurred to me was how this was his story, just like it was always someone else’s. It was never about me so much as near me, around me, in me, through me. He’d probably just taught himself some valuable lesson about himself and life, and he’d pat himself on the back for it for the rest of his days.
He’d gotten the girl. Good for him.
For a moment, he stopped at the door as though he were going to say something, but in the end he just left, taking the picture and the lesson with him, and leaving the living, breathing, troubling hole behind. That was probably smart, all things considered. Stories always ended much easier that way.
* * *
I learned lots of lessons during those days, weeks, months, lifetimes in the hospital. I learned to drink hospital coffee. I learned all the nurses’ names. I learned how to change a bandage. I learned not to faint at the sight of third-degree burns.
I learned to see the edges of my real face, too. Sam was eventually moved into a private room, so sometimes when everyone else was asleep, I went into the tiny bathroom and looked at myself under the fluorescent lights, staring into the mirror above the sink until my eyes adjusted.
I looked like hell. I’d barely showered or changed clothes in weeks. My lips and nostrils were chapped and peeling. I had wide dark circles under my eyes, pretty and dusty, as though I’d been punched expertly twice in the face. Bristly brown hairs grew unshaven on my upper lip. Acne sprouted in little clusters around my jaw. My eyebrows had become wild forests that began to spill their bounds, trying to meet. I ran my fingertips over all the contours, tugging and poking and memorizing. I pulled the corners of my eyes down, pushed the fat behind my chin up, drew my lips back from my teeth, flattened my nose until my eyes watered. I made myself hideous, grotesque, inhuman. It’s only Beauty who’s supposed to learn to love the Beast. Men and boys leave monsters alone.
I looked like Sam, too, or maybe he looked like me. We’d always had the same brown eyes, the same dimples in our chins, the same bump at the bridge of our noses, the same smile. Parts of his were gone now, but we could bring them back. I started to think of my own face as a bunch of bad grafts; see, here’s where someone burned my mouth off and plastered on a smile. Alone in front of that mirror, I stretched my lips wide in a scream, almost unhinging my jaw, and at last felt that false flesh tear. I wanted to rip it all away, slough off the layers that other people laid on me. I wanted to see what there was before everyone else told me what there was to see: the photograph, the rumors, the score, the wine, the woman.
Down beneath all the dead skin, Sam was something pink and tender and true. I was too. We could learn to be patient, to wait for ourselves to arrive. It didn’t matter whether we’d ever been the same flesh before; we were now, as I held his tiny, gauze-wrapped hand in mine and sang lullabies to us both in the white quiet of the hospital night.