On the afternoon of my sixth birthday, the rain comes down hard and slow - just the way I like it. It patters against the window, comforting, as comforting as fingers on a typewriter, comforting like the beat of changements against the studio floor. My party inside is cozy. Mother and I sit by the fire. She’s the only guest, which is a title she earned by being my best friend. After all, it is us two from day one. Day one like the one gift, a small flat package. I tear it apart with greedy fingers.
Inside is a little red raincoat, though it is not so small on me. It falls nearly to my feet, and the hood covers my eyes. The sleeves are like bat’s wings. My arms flap around in them.
“Now you can always dance in the rain,” Mother says.
And you want to know a secret? The raincoat crinkles when you hug people in it.
Everyone else at school wears those ugly, dirty-lemon slickers. Our school is a wash of yellow. And in the middle, a bright red tomato. Me. I am special, or weird, or whatever you’d like to call me.
I come home crying to Mother now. I’ll never fit in, I look like a stop sign, Mama, an ugly stop sign, and they hate me so guess what I hate this coat and I’ll never wear it again. Get me a yellow slicker so I can finally be normal. The red is half-muddy now that I’ve thrown it in the ditch.
Mother holds it up in the rain, rinsing off the evidence of my hurt. There is only kindness in her eyes. “Which do you like more? This beautiful coat, or the people who hurt you?”
“The coat,” I admit. “But I don’t know which I care about.”
“Then why don’t you wipe your eyes and choose?”
She leaves me alone with my thoughts and with the rain, and with no choice but to put on the coat because I don’t want to catch death.
The rain is a slow heartbeat again. My mother’s fingertips are back on the typewriter, clack-clacking in rhythm.
So I dance. I skip and twirl and kick in my stiff boots, throw my hood back to feel the water from the sky, smile because that’s what the dance teacher tells us to do and because I know that’s all that Mother wants from me, anyway. The entire world can see me in my flying color. I want them to. I want everyone to look, because I feel like the most beautiful girl in the world.
When I pause, hold, curtsy in the middle of the street, Mother gives me a standing ovation from the kitchen window. My cheeks are aflame with the joy. My ears ring with the music in the rain. Water drips from my hair in a steady thread.
“So what’d you decide?” she asked, her arms folded like she knows something I don’t.
“Well,” I pant, “stop signs actually save people.”
“There she is.”
College. A red coat, far too small, tucked away in my suitcase.
First apartment. A red coat hanging on a hook. I suppose my hat will have to go elsewhere.
First audition. A red coat in my purse, my good luck charm.
First assignment. I make him pack a red coat, his good luck charm. Stay safe.
First child. Our family is four. Two mothers, two daughters, one grandmother. And he’s there. We will give her the red coat when she is old enough.
My instructor worries about my decision to dance again. He stresses about my joints, my breasts, my lines. He is worried that under the leotard, everything will sag. He is worried that my ankles will break. He worries, worries, worries. I tell him he sounds like my mother.
He says, “Well, if you’re sure.”
I am sure.
He says, “All right then.”
We train, and I am back. Everything snaps into place. Comfort returns. It rains nearly every day.
The modern dance company adores the idea of a mother as their star performer. My instructor smiles at me from the curtain. My husband whistles from the front row; my daughter attempts to join him, but ends up putting two fingers in her mouth and exhaling messily. She is now five and a half. It is almost time. And my mother, my mother. She sits and smiles with her arms crossed like she used to at the window, with the light welcoming her from behind and the storm tousling her hair in the front. She looks like she is exactly where she belongs. I wonder if I look like that too. I feel like I do.
Then the music begins, and nothing else matters.
Sweeping sorrow to sweeping love to devastating heartbreak and back again. The music flows like a river down the street. It feels like reflecting light, like street glow and stars. It feels like gathering storm clouds and the way the earth smells after, sweet and cool and musky and still. It is all a part of healing. It is all a part of growing up. I am lightning and thunder; I am fire and I am rain. Later I will remember this as the second time in my life that I have ever felt endlessly, blazingly, truly alive.
Then it ends, and so it goes that I am pausing, holding, curtsying. My mother and a thousand others are on their feet with the emotion right along with me.
An hour later, in the taxi, Mother tells me that all she could see was that day in the rain. There was her daughter, face all made up, hair all in place, costume all black, grown all the way up, and then suddenly there was her little girl, face cherry-red, hair streaming wet, in the little red raincoat that saved her time and again and gave her these moments. The little red raincoat that she said she hated.
My own baby girl is sitting on her father’s lap, holding one of his hands in both of hers. She sleeps. Her father’s eyes crinkle, looking down at her. My mother ruffles my hair, flowing and cloud-like after the bun.
“I knew you could always dance,” she whispers. “Rain, age, doesn't matter. Always.” The streetlamps play a show on the car window.
I am maybe not as alive, but certainly this moment is perfect too.
We are Sara, Tina, and Lara. My daughter fills out a family tree.
Sara, Tina, Lara. “A family of a’s,” I say, patting her head.
It is her birthday today.
“A,” she says, pretending to think. “A like apple, apple like red, red like Mama’s big old raincoat.”
“Red like your big raincoat,” I correct, smiling teasingly at the way her eyes grow big and round.
She wraps two arms around my waist, and then, pulling her face out of my shirt, she exclaims: “But it’s way too big!”
My mother and I laugh at that one. “It’s going to be perfect, Lara.”
She squints mutinously. “My arms aren’t even going to stick out the end.”
“You’ll be so nice and warm!”
“Hmm.” She considers this. “All right.”
We more or less throw the raincoat on top of her. Her arms really don’t stick out.
“Give Mama a hug?”
“I can’t see with this hood, Mama!”
“Oh, well,” I say, and pick her up, and spin her around.
The coat still crinkles in the exact same way.
Nothing will ever stop my daughter from dancing, either.
Mother and I are right back where we began. Us two from day one till day end, or in this case, till life end, but we do our best to keep our minds from that.
We’re always dancing, aren’t we? From dancing on a stage to slow turning in a hospital. She leans all her weight into me. With her this close, with it all this real, I don’t feel I could ever lose her.
“Mama,” I say, and I feel like time has stopped.
“Sweetie,” she says, and I know it’s the same both ways.
“I love you.”
“Love you too.”
The next morning, when I wake, my neck has a pain in it from sitting up in a chair all night.
My mother does not wake up. Her hand is cold and blue.
So lovely, even in her sleep.
Outside I stand as they carry her away, both of our faces open to the rain. The sky dawns with purple and orange and red; clouds flock together like fish and rain falls, soaking through our clothes and our skin straight to our bones, hard and slow, typewriter clacking. Still I have not lost her.
Everything is all right.