Tick tick tick tick tick tick.
Six months. That’s how long I’ve got until the time bomb inside me goes off and I self-destruct and explode into a million little pieces.
Because Mom tried to hide it from me but I noticed that telltale bump and that her sweaters were beginning to look tight and I asked, accusatory —“Are you gaining weight?”
I was right, she was gaining weight. Just not in the way I thought she was.
I’m pissed at her. She knows it, too, but she tries to act like nothing’s wrong, like every day is just another day and there’s not a human being the size of a small watermelon growing in her stomach. I can’t even look at her anymore, the bump’s gotten too big. Everything about her repulses me from her swollen feet to her bloated tummy.
It’s supposed to be the teenage girl who sits her mother down for the talk, hanging her head in shame, confessing through her tears: “I’m pregnant.”
Instead it’s my mother who does all this, because Mom has always been the teenage girl. She was the teenage girl when she had me, and she never got a day older.
So now here I am with the powder keg rumbling inside my chest:
Tick tick tick tick tick.
“It’s not her fault she’s pregnant,” Darla tells me in her soft, sighing voice. That girl says everything with a sigh. It’s not a sad kind of sigh — it’s a pretentious one, kind of apathetic, kind of condescending. She could manage to say I’m going to Disney World tomorrow! and make it sound utterly indifferent.
“It is, though,” I start to say, before remembering that it’s completely not worth arguing with someone like Darla. She’s too passive. She’ll always just end up agreeing with me with a haughty shrug, and I find that’s worse than anything. Because she walks away with all the cards and I’m left angry and unsatisfied. So I leave the conversation at that and instead cope by grabbing a handful of fries from my tray and shoving them into my mouth.
“Don’t be all down in the dumps, Cleo,” Alden tells me playfully through behind his cheeseburger. He’s the only one who’s still not finished with his food; Darla and I have only got fries left. Alden’s always the slowest eater because he talks too much, and then he ends up having to shovel the rest of his meal down in a frenzy just to keep us from waiting another hour for him to finish. “Babies are gifts.”
“Babies are gross,” I sniff sulkily. I droop down dramatically until my face is buried in my arms, muffling my voice in the fabric of my sleeves. “In fact, reproduction in general is gross. Humans are gross.”
“Humans are beautiful,” Darla says.
“Gross,” I repeat without missing a beat. “I hope that in my next life I’m reincarnated as a bird.”
Alden looks amused. “Why a bird?”
“‘Cause they don’t give birth, they lay eggs. Plus they don’t have any feelings.”
“You’re crazy,” Darla says. “Feelings are awesome. I wanna be reincarnated as a dog, so I could keep my feelings, but I could just lie around naked all day and not pay taxes.”
“You’re sixteen,” Alden points out.
“You’re talking with your mouth full,” Darla counters readily. “You pig.”
Alden slaps his palm down on the table so suddenly that my empty milkshake glass rattles. “I’ll be reincarnated as a pig!” he proclaims. Darla cracks up at this and gives his shoulder a little shove. She squawks in mock-outrage when he reaches over the table and snatches a french fry from her tray and pops it in his mouth.
I slouch a little deeper into myself, pulling my eyes away from them and instead staring at my dirtied shoelaces. It shouldn’t bother me but for some reason I’m wishing he’d steal fries from me instead, so I could be the one squawking and laughing and shoving his shoulder.
“You thief,” Darla’s saying. “I’m gonna start fining you for every fry you steal. You already owe me six dollars from last week.”
They’re laughing again and there it is, that glass wall that sprouts from the table and seals them into their own personal little bubble. Conversation unintelligible. It’s like they’re on a different planet together and I’m just watching from a fuzzy monitor with a radio in my hand — hello? Earth to Alden and Darla? — but all I’m getting is static.
I can’t stand being around them like this so I slide out of the booth suddenly. Both of them look up at me, still giggly. “Where are you going?” Alden asks.
“Bathroom,” I force out. “Be right back.”
I march indignantly from the booth, listening to their laughter fade out as I duck into the little hallway that leads to the bathroom. The ambience of the diner gets sucked away into silence when I close the door behind me.
I look up at myself through the rusty, scratched-up mirror and brush back the mop of my inky pin-straight hair. My eyes look dead inside. I reach up and probe at my acne-scarred cheeks cautiously, fantasizing for a moment that my face is not my face, but Darla’s face. Her smooth dark skin instead of my ragged, red skin. Her golden eyes instead of my black ones. If I looked like Darla, I might think humans are beautiful too.
When I blink it’s just me. Gross as ever.
I freeze this moment, this image in my head; of myself, in the mirror, caught in my reflection, a picture fixed within a frame. I title this painting:
“Portrait Of A Bird, Trapped In A Miserable Human Girl”
I scrub my face a bit before heading back out into the warm chatter of the restaurant. My footsteps come to a stop when I look on towards the booth and suddenly the breath rushes out of my lungs.
Alden and Darla are leaning into each other over the table, faces mixed into one.
Tick tick tick tick, goes the bomb.
The gel on Mom’s stomach is mint-colored, but it becomes clear like glass once it spreads over her bare stomach.
On the screen a tinny image comes into view; it looks like a bleary splotch of faded white against black.
“A girl,” the nurse says with a smile.
“A girl!” Mom gasps. And she starts tearing up, because she’s overemotional, and cries over every little thing. She cried when my pet hamster Jeffrey ran away — my pet hamster! She sheds more tears in a month than I have my entire life. Normally it’s the daughter who cries and the mother who’s strong, but I think it’s because Mom never really grew up, having me so young, navigating the world with me all by herself.
Mom turns to me now, and when I look into her eyes all I can see in her is a girl… a girl…
“You’re gonna have a little sister, Cleo,” she whispers.
The doctor and my mother stare at me in silent awe, like they’re expecting me to say something.
Tick tick tick.
Mom’s baking cookies. I can smell them from my room. The scent is like summer, salt, warmth. It fills me with a longing for something I can’t place but I know I don’t have.
I emerge from my hibernation cave and saunter down the hallway like a zombie. Mom is standing bent over at the waist, wearing a lime-green apron with pearly frills.
She straightens at once, turning to look at me, and wipes her palms on the apron, making white handprints.
“Oh! Cleo,” Mom huffs breathlessly. “I’m making cookies. Triple fudge.”
“I don’t like triple fudge.”
“It’s Alden’s favorite.”
I go still at the mention of his name. I drift over to the dining table and sit down. Of course she made them for him, not me — Mom loves my friends, but especially Alden. I think she wishes he were her kid instead of me. He’d be a lot nicer with his dimpled smiles and easygoing jokes and perpetual laughter. If Alden is a rainbow I am the rain.
I think maybe the reason why Mom likes Alden and Darla so much is because she doesn’t get along well with the other moms; they all look down on her. In a sense, Alden and Darla are just as much her friends as they are mine. Just to prove this Mom asks, “Why don’t you invite Alden and Darla over?”
“No,” I say, so quickly that Mom looks up, her brow knitting together in confusion.
“No?” she echoes. “Why not? I baked extras, Cleo.”
“Well, I didn’t ask you to bake extras.”
Mom breathes deeply through her nose. She pauses for a moment, eyes rolling up towards the ceiling as she thinks.
“Cleo,” she says slowly, “just because they’re dating now does not mean — ”
“Shut up, Mom,” I growl, standing up with a violent jerk.
Mom meets me with a cool, level stare. “Does not mean you can’t still be friends with them,” she finishes.
“I don’t like them being together,” I grind out behind clenched teeth. “I can’t handle their PDA. It’s so obnoxious and gross.”
“It’s young love, what do you expect?”
Yeah, you’d know a thing about young love, a frustrated voice says in my head. My real voice protests, “No one wants to be a third wheel, Mom!”
“Cleo,” Mom says sharply, glaring at me now. She’s so mad that smoke is rolling off her shoulders…
Smoke is literally rolling off her shoulders.
The smoke detector shrills through the apartment. While Mom yelps and stumbles away from the oven, I’m the one who has to be sensible as always. I rush forward and pull the oven door open; puffs of thick black smoke billow out from inside, and I fan it away with my hand. Then (so much for sensible) I reach into the oven to take the tray out.
Blinding, stabbing pain jolts through my hand. “Shit!” I shout, dropping the tray back into the oven. I stumble out of the kitchen and race for the bathroom sink. I run cool water over my skin; already a red welt is beginning to form across my palm.
“What are you doing, Cleo?!” Mom demands —
And I just snap—
“What are you doing?!” I yell over the running faucet and the screeching alarm. “You’re supposed to be my mother! You’re an adult, Mom! Why are you sleeping around? Why did you get pregnant? Why are you having a baby?!”
Mom’s eyes fill with tears faster than I can even blink. They drip down her nose and cheeks like rivulets. “I don’t understand,” she says. “Don’t you want your baby sister?”
“I don’t want a sister who’s sixteen years younger than me!” I scream. “You already have a baby, Mom!”
Mom goes silent all of a sudden, deathly silent, like someone’s pulled a plug on her radio station. She stares at me with glass rivers streaming down her face.
When I storm out of the apartment the alarm is still going off.
“I want you to stop dating Alden.”
I glance down at my palm, at the once angry streak of red across my skin that is now faded and shiny pink. Darla is sitting next to me on the stone park bench. Her face, too, is made of stone. She tilts her head slightly but the features stay in place, unmoving.
“Why?” she asks slowly.
“Because he’s my friend.”
Darla is still for a moment, and then she breaks out into a laugh. I don’t laugh. There’s nothing funny. “Cleo,” she says, “I’m your friend too, you know.”
“Well,” I scoff, “Alden and I were friends before we met you, so I just think that you’re overstepping your boundaries.”
Darla narrows her eyes a bit, although she’s still smiling. “Do you like him?”
“Yes.” I pause. “No.” Another pause. “I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter, because I know that you two are destroying our friendship.”
“Okay. Except it does matter.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“It does matter,” Darla says, “because we’re not talking about Alden and I. We’re talking about your mom, aren’t we?”
Now I hoot out a laugh, because oh boy — “Where the hell did you get that from?” I ask incredulously. “Since when was this about my mom?”
“It’s always been about your mom.”
That genuinely catches me off guard. My breath hitches and gets stuck somewhere in my chest, and I say nothing.
I want to say a million different things. I want to say how dare you and what do you know about me and I hate you and stay out of it. The thing that comes out of my mouth is the truth:
“I’m scared,” I blurt out before I can stop myself. “I’m scared of the baby, Darla. I didn’t want my mom to get pregnant. Everything was fine before. I don’t want the baby to be born. I don’t want to be left alone.” My voice falters and I suck in a deep, shaky breath. “Because I know life is supposed to be beautiful but for me it’s not, it’s never been — life has always been ugly and rotten and I hate it and I don’t want the baby to see it too.”
And suddenly I’m bursting into tears and I lay my head in my hands and I begin to weep, silent shudders racking my body.
“I’m so selfish,” I sob out, “but damn it, I’m so scared.”
I’m distantly, sluggishly aware of Darla putting her arms around me, but it feels distorted and faraway, like we’re thousands of feet underwater. Somewhere I’m not thinking about her or about here, but something else.
I’m thinking about how three months had passed before I found out… I didn’t even know Mom was pregnant for three months…
I have never been there for my mom.
I am not there when her water breaks. She is driven to the hospital by our neighbors.
By the time I get there, Mom has already been ushered into the delivery room, alone. And I am not there with her. I sit in the lobby in a row of empty seats, waiting, anxious.
A doctor lets me into Mom’s room. I find out through medical jargon I can only half-understand that it didn’t work — they’re going to rest for a while before trying again. Mom is lying in a bed, white as sheet, skin slick with sweat, hair matted to her forehead. She’s breathing heavily as she looks up at me.
Wordlessly, her damp fingers wrap around my hand, the one with the faded burn from an eternity ago, and she squeezes so tight that everything that had been inside of me before comes pouring out and melts away.
Finally I find the words to say. There are only two that are right.
I say them again, hoping to bring any sort of meaning to them: “I’m sorry.”
But those words can never truly express what’s going on inside my heart so I give up and I just lean forward and rest my head in Mom’s lap and let tears fall down my face until my time is up and I’m forced to leave the room once more.
Alden and Darla appear and sit on either side of me, holding both my hands. I’m sandwiched between them, and I can feel their love radiating through me in waves.
Just months ago I would have been jumping up and down at the chance to feel loved like this. But now, with the two of them at my sides, I’m realizing —
I have always been loved like this.
The portrait of myself falls away, breaking and shattering into a million tiny pieces and then disappearing forever, because that is not me at all. This is me, here, between my two best friends, not trying to measure love.
How can you enumerate something that is endless?
This is me.
Cradling a crying infant against my chest, looking down into her face. Inside her I see my own face, my own eyes, and I am not myself but my mother. I wonder if Mom looked the way I do now, when she had me for the first time at about this same age, holding me while I cried.
The baby’s hand reaches up, soft and fleshy and pink, and it strokes my cheek. Her tiny, delicate fingers do not find any scars or faults on my face — just warmth.
The bomb stops ticking at last — and I wait for it to go off — but it never does, and I realize —
There was no bomb ticking. Just my heart beating.
And Alden and Darla are standing before me, whispering about something and breaking into fits of laughter but I don’t mind at all. Mom is sitting behind, and she’s crying like always, smiling like there’s no tomorrow. Maybe there isn’t, I don’t know. But maybe there is…
So I make a promise in my head now, looking into the baby’s onyx eyes:
I will be your sister and I will care for you and I will be here for you and I will love you, today, tomorrow, and the day after that, forever… even if the bombs should go off and the world should collapse, I will still be here with my ticking, beating heart to love you.
She cries and cries.
I am not a bird after all.
Alden and Darla laugh, Mom smiles, Baby cries.
As I pull Baby impossibly closer to my heart, I retitle my painting: “Portrait of a Human Girl”.
And Darla’s right, it is beautiful.