Once upon a time, there was a girl. She’s always happy because her life is lovely. She has nice friends and nice parents and her house is big and sunny. When she’s older, she gets a boyfriend who is always sad and just a little angry. She doesn’t know and thinks he’s nice so she keeps him.
One time this girl becomes pregnant with a child and she becomes very scared and cries a lot. Her friends remind her that she doesn’t have to keep it, so she doesn’t. It’s perhaps five years or so later when she becomes pregnant again, the child pressing into her skin insistently, so she has it even though there isn’t a father. The girl who used to be very happy becomes very sad. And she isn’t as brave as she was before.
It is not easy for her. Her daughter is beautiful and perfect, but she always wakes up in the middle of the night, her squeaky voice raised shrilly in protest of sleep, and the girl has to drag herself out of bed to get her. The girl is barely more than a child herself, most of the time.
The girl is losing money and she goes to her family. She has not seen them since she became pregnant (for the second time, what a scandal) but she hopes they’d be willing to help her, at least for the sake of her daughter. But the family says no. They tell her not to come back, and that she cannot return home again.
The girl cries all the time and isn’t happy, not at all. Her friends go to parties and she stays home stirring milk and changing diapers. Her money is shrinking to nothing, and there’s no boyfriend who would at least hold this little girl he’d created. The girl is sad, with no idea what she’s doing.
She makes a choice.
She tells her daughter over and over that she loves her, that she cares about her, and that is why she’s doing this. Her daughter, just a year and a half, barely understands, but clutches her hand and looks up at her with trusting brown eyes.
The girl finds a family with frizzy hair and big smiles, who are sad to see her have to say goodbye. They promise to take care of her, and her two new siblings took her daughter’s hands. She looks at them both, then at her mother. She is puzzled by these four strangers who don’t look like her, holding her and preparing to take her away.
Her confusion fades to screams when they put her in the car and away from her mother, and she scrabbles at the window like a cat, and the girl who is no longer happy cries but turns away.
Her daughter rides off, and the girl returns home to grow up the best she can.
The girl goes to bars with her friends and snuggles on the couch with boyfriends, but she feels as though there’s an icicle in her heart, blisteringly cold and painful and doomed to never melt. Her family continues says that she can’t come back, and the girl lets herself be crushed by their words for a few years. Then she wriggles out from underneath the boulder and makes her own family out of the people around her.
Sometimes, rarely, the girl receives an email from her daughter’s family with a photo or two attached, photos she only opens when she’s very drunk. And then, when she quit drinking, not at all. Or so she says.
She looks at her daughter’s face, as it changes. Her pale skin tans in the California sun. The pink bikini she had bought for her disappears and is replaced by a blue one. She’s not very tall, but her waist is slender and her body beautifully formed. Her face matures, narrows into a heart shape, her light brown hair taking on pink highlights then no highlights. She starts wearing glasses to read. Her friends are all laughing and pretty and smile at her with an affection that tells the girl her daughter is sweet. Her birthday cake when she turns seventeen is blue with a surfboard on it and in the background-- the girl’s heart stops-- her daughter is kissing a boy with waves of blond hair, a tiny smile lingering on both their faces.
Her daughter is beautiful.
The girl stays trapped in the past for a while, letting the regret crush her. Then she decides not to let it anymore.
She meets a man who talks loudly and loves hiking and drives a cute little Prius to pick her up, sticking his head out of the window with a dopey grin. She falls in love and they have a wedding with a blue cake.
He wants kids; she always knew that. When the subject is broached, she fights it for a long time, not because she doesn’t want them too but because she’s afraid of breaking them again. He drives her to therapy and she works through it, week after week.
The first one comes, and it’s a son. He’s perfectly built with small, steady limbs and blue eyes like his dad. He grows up to be adorable and funny and so patterned with freckles, the girl thought she might be able to count a constellation in there somewhere.
The second is another son, quiet and gentle, and the third is a girl-- skinny as a wire, round glasses perched on her long nose, a booming, joyful laugh, and a waterfall of beautiful blonde hair. Four children, the girl sometimes catches herself thinking, on movie nights or car rides or camping trips with her husband’s voice warbling into the trees, I have four children.
The girl lives her life and her daughter lives hers, two separate worlds that coexisted once but don’t anymore. The girl wonders if she misses her, if she remembers. Sometimes at night she whispers I’m sorry to nowhere at all, but then she wakes in the morning to her children’s squalls as they try to fry pancakes, and she manages to cast the thoughts aside.
She never loses the icicle in her heart, but the pain of it changes. Some days it melts a little bit, like when her sons come back from camping with their father, wild-eyed and recounting adventures which may or may not have happened, or when her brother sends her a tentative Merry Christmas card, or when she sees her second daughter, proudly marching over the shyest, most nervous girl in her middle school for a declared, “Abby’s coming over for a sleepover tonight.” (Abby turns out to be wildly funny and excellent at imitating accents.)
Sometimes the icicle is colder, like when her mother dies in a car crash, or her sweet son comes home crying because a girl called him fat, or when her daughter’s family sends a picture of her, beautiful in a wedding dress, kissing that same blonde man up front with those tiny smiles on their faces. Twenty-six, the girl thinks, studying the picture through watery eyes, reflecting on the bitter truth that she had missed it. My daughter got married at twenty-six. Such simple facts seem incredible to her.
The girl’s life marches through patterns of normalness that seem devastatingly interesting only to its inhabitants. Her son ships himself off to Egypt to study archaeology, and her other son devotes himself to raising his triplets while his socially awkward, too-smart wife clacks away every morning in heels and a pantsuit.
Her daughter marries someone else’s daughter, and Abby, laughing and the life of the party, stands proudly as the maid of honour. The girl claps in the stands, smiling through tears, and tries not to think about the other wedding she’d missed. The girl and her husband start to fight, then separate for a while, then come back together again. She hugs and kisses her grandchildren while wondering if she has others hiding a world away.
The girl is draped in skin like cobwebs when she leaves, reclining in a white hospital bed, crying as she holds her family’s hands and crying because there is someone missing.
She lives a good life with an icicle in her heart, a family that left her behind, and a question pounding her temples through every moment of her life: will she forgive me? She’s scared to find the answer.
The girl ascends the steps into heaven, draped in a white gown soft as bunny ears, guided through gates with riotous patterns and designs. She looks for the others, and they’re standing there in a group, waving at her and calling her name. She recognizes her grandmother, her mother, her brother. And one other face.
Smiling at the front, her heart-shaped face shiny with tears, is her, dressed in pale blue robes. The girl recognizes her instantly by the curve of her grin and she hears a voice, a voice that takes her back to just yesterday, it was yesterday, wasn’t it, so long ago but not long at all, beautiful and clear and echoing in her ears with that trace of a grin, she swears:
“Mummy! You home!”