Mallot's mother dies in March from cholera and the day after, she comes to class and tells me about her father who lives in a city far away. She doesn't know him that well but she can guess he is fine. As we walk home under the flaming sun, she elbows me and laughs and I think about losing my mother too; how each touch and exhale would cease at that moment. Sometimes I let my mind stray to that thought and how simple it would all be to lose a part of my soul.
"Why aren't you crying?" I ask her later when her laughter has dipped low.
She looks at me as though I've made a mistake in asking her a question with no answer. She says nothing even as we get to the crossroads that divide our paths and I wish she does. When I get home, my mother is in the kitchen smoking. I ask her about grief and how helpless one can be losing a family. Then I tell her about Mallot.
"We all grieve differently," she says to me. "Let her be, Su."
It sounds like something anyone would say and while the satisfaction in her answer is bleak in my mind, I let it slide. Mallot has been my best friend for years. She lives with her grandmother and the man who could have been her father. Her mother used to sell clothes in the market and sometimes when Mallot and I would go to see her, she'd press two-colored dresses into my bag.
Her death does not come suddenly as all deaths do in my mind. Two weeks before her death, I'd known, somehow, she would die. It hadn't been a prophecy of some sort, no, but that thought had settled within me as I watched her calling out to strangers in the market. She'd looked so feeble and lost and barely holding on. Mallot says she wasn't even sick and I suppose it might be true.
The teacher reads a poem about growth in class on the day of the funeral. Mallot isn't in class to hear but I listen, attentively, so that I can tell her about it. The teacher tells the class that one could grow up without knowing, without understanding, and without feeling. She says growth comes suddenly if one doesn't take note of it. Then, she asks John Johnson at the front to tell her how he knows he's grown.
John Johnson lives with his parents in a big house and every morning his mother drives him to school in her blue sedan. He's the only one at lunch who eats two apples. It isn't because he's the one with the most money. Mallot has told me already that his mother has enough connections to allow that fault.
John Johnson tells the class his age. He's only fourteen, he says, but he's growing.
"How do you know?" the teacher asks, her insistence unbecoming of her. She's probing him for answers she knows he can't tell. In a way, she reminds me of myself asking Mallot about her version of grief.
The teacher has a stern expression. Her face is plain, almost forgettable, but her eyes are the rushed color of melting sunlight. Her voice is deep, suffocating, and yet tender. That combination is upsetting to me.
John glances around the class, taking it all in like a second skin. He's nervous. He's grown too and has started to develop a beard. When our eyes meet, he nods and turns back to the teacher.
"I've grown taller," he says to the teacher as if he's telling a little child a secret. His voice is a whisper of nothing and his hands are pressed forward like a prayer. Everything about him now is effortless.
She keeps staring at him. It's his cue to tell her how he knows for sure.
He tells her about the small room in his house where his mother hangs flower pots and sickly photographs. Before, he says confidently, he couldn't reach for one of the photographs even when he stretched.
"And now you can?" she asks.
He nods. She tells him to sit down and she takes chalk from her table. We expect her to write something on the blackboard but she doesn't. Instead, she tells us to write about growing up with our mothers. The essay is inconsiderate to the people who've lost their mothers, like Mallot, but when I tell Mallot about the assignment, she stifles a yawn and tells me it's good enough.
Her mother is buried outside of their house. When I go to see Mallot, I find the grave sitting idly by the corner. The house smells of clothes that'll never be sold and never be bought. The man who would have been her father gifts Mallot a book with rosy designs and tells her she can write down her thoughts on it.
"It will help you with your essay," he whispers.
Outside when we run through the trees that line the house, I think about the story of loss and how ugly it would feel if I couldn't express a love lodged in my heart. We find a spot on the grass to sit and Mallot lies down face first in the broken grass. They brush against my skin as I bend and when I trail my fingers along her back, she sighs.
"How do you know you've got a mother who loves you?" she asks.
She sits upright and looks straight at the dancing trees. The sun is high in the sky, almost dark, almost covered by stray clouds and the wind rips at our clothes. She cuts the bead around her waist and they fall, rolling around the grass. She says nothing.
"I don't know if I'm growing, Su," she says after a while.
The bleakness of a future without the worrying eyes of our mothers falls neatly against our throats and Mallot starts to cry before the rain falls. She grabs her head and she flings her body forward like a figurine, absorbing the heat and the cold of water against sweat and mother against nothingness.
When I grab her wrist, she pulls away. She doesn't say anything but it feels like she's saying everything all at once. I see her shiver in the clothes she's wearing and feel the dirty need to wrap her in my arms.
I tell my mother about this event and how desperate Mallot had seemed as we walked back to her house. My mother is not my mother but she has love to give. And though her version of love has been redefined in small bouts of anger and nameless apologies, she has a dozen time stashed away. She asks me if I loved her. I tell her yes without hesitating.
"Good," she says. "What if I was to die tomorrow?"
"Don't ask her that for goodness sake," my father calls from the doorway.
My mother shrugs. In the middle of the night, she comes into the room to wake me up. "You don't know what love truly is until you've got too much and no way to escape."
When she leaves, I tiptoe out of bed and stare at the stars. First, a star drops, then another, and then my mother's voice rises from the living room.
"You think she's smart enough?" I hear her ask.
"She might be," the reply is quick.
I tell Mallot this, like a messenger, passing messages and wordless hope between two people. We are standing at the back of the class because the teacher is in a meeting. John Johnson strolls over and hands us each a lollipop.
After he leaves, Mallot leans over and I think she's about to kiss me. I've seen it in movies I'm not allowed to watch but which I watch anyway and I know too much to understand how wrong the kiss would be. Suddenly, she stops. Then she leans back and opens the wrapper on the lollipop.
"I've begun writing," she says.
As we walk home I ask her if she'd been about to kiss me.
"We're fourteen," she says, laughter in her eyes.
"That doesn't stop a kiss," I say.
She nods. "We can't be kissing."
My mother and Mallot's mother had been friends, just like us, but as they grew and times changed, distance crept in. When they discovered Mallot and I were best friends, they shook hands. Mallot reminds me of this when we get to the crossroads.
"I don't love you," I whisper to her. "Not like that, I mean."
I discover, four years later, when Mallot and I are no longer friends that she'd not said anything about her emotions and how cowardly my words had been. By this time, Mallot has birthed a child and living alone with the man who could have been her father. The rumor had spread that he was the man who'd gotten her pregnant but Mallot has said nothing.
Mallot doesn't graduate with us because she dropped out a year ago but I go to see her regardless. She's sitting in the verandah of her new house when I meet her. It's the first time I'll be meeting her since we parted.
When she sees me, she smiles and waves. She's holding her child in the crook of her elbow and when she unlocks the gate, the baby begins to cry. She pats the baby across the back until he falls asleep.
"You are here," she breathes after she's put the child to sleep.
We sit in the verandah, cross-legged and exhausted and she asks me if I want tea or lemonade.
"I've even got roasted beef in too if you want."
I tell her no. She sees my painted toenail and asks if I've graduated. I hesitate.
She smiles and her eyes paint the picture of regret. "I've missed you," she says. "How did we stop being friends?"
I want to tell her we'd stopped because she'd read a love letter I'd written for her and cried and cussed. I want to tell her that while we'd been good friends, her mother had died and she'd been unable to write the growth essay. I want to tell her everything but what comes out of my mouth is a pained I'm sorry.
Me too, she says and touches her hair.
The boy begins to cry again and she rolls her eyes. Before she stands, she tells me she can barely hang on. She means it as a joke, she says laughing but I can see it in her eyes. She isn't joking.
She brings the child back to the verandah. Then she sits and pulls her left breast in his mouth. The baby keeps sucking as though his life depends on it. She leans her head back and sniffs.
"I mean," she says, quietly. "How do I raise this child with love when I have nothing to give?"
"What do you mean?"
"I keep wondering if I'll love this child as I loved my mother."
I tell her there's nothing wrong with loving the child in that fragile way and she shakes her head. "Everything's wrong, Su."
She arches an eyebrow. "I did not love my mother because I wanted to. I loved her because there was nothing else to do and Su, there's always a difference."
At home, I stare at my mother and my father as they argue about the stains on the couch and for the first time, find myself wondering if perhaps I had no love and this thrust for dependency was nothing more than a necessity.
My mother finds me staring and asks about school.
"I just graduated," I say.
She clasps her hands and swallows. Then, with a flick of her tongue, she changes the topic. "I've kept a few of your old clothes on your bed. You should give it out to the children down the street. You've grown, you know."
My father says nothing and I think about my old teacher and her poem on growth. I find that I'd forgotten the process, and had let go of the thoughts and feelings and memories which could have ultimately helped in growing and it breaks my heart. Most of the dresses are the ones Mallot's mother had gifted me, ones I'd grown out of.
I hand them to the half-naked children down the street. They don't tell me thank you. The sun marks the way back to the house and back to my mother and father and I think about love and grief and colored happiness when I pass by a red-bellied lizard.