There were gems in the chandelier right past the door of my home. I wasn’t supposed to touch the glimmering stones as they hung, but I would push up a chair and scramble on the rickety wood to brush them with my fingers anyway. It was addictive to paint the lines of my fingerprints along the surface. I would flick on the lights and watch them sway, imagining my mother on the dance floor, conjuring images of date nights when Mama walked out of the house with a black cocktail dress and her best pearls along with the smokey scent of her expensive perfume.
There was no helping how they reminded me of Mama; the clacking as they collided with one another was the same noise her heels left on the ballroom floor. It was my favorite time to watch the dance lessons she took, hand in hand with a gentleman that smelled of the ocean and spoke with an accent—watching her dance, even practicing, left me with pangs in my heart, and there was nothing I wanted more than to be able to move as she did.
And, if I could get away with it, I would pick up the little hook that clasped the jewel and tuck it in my palm, marveling at the punctures it left—red lines that showed their beautiful marks on me. Oh, the way the gold shone, like the breath of a setting sun against indigo waves, orange and bright as a flame. I wanted those marks because they made me more like Mama, with the angry indent from her bra that she stripped off with a sigh, the scars across her stomach from where the skin had pulled and made me. My god, I would’ve cut them myself. I never dared to use her lotion, never dared to do more than screw off the smeared cap and smell, but I would dig through the medicine cabinet until I found the tape and wrap my flat torse. I would go into her bathroom. I would take her razor and try my best to shave my limbs as she did, and when she came home to three red lines on my skin, she always knew.
I kept everything in a little corner of my bedside drawer, in the jewelry box she had gotten me. She never found it; she never looked. But she would sit down on my bed. Unwrap the tape with careful fingers. Bandage my cuts, and after, hug me to her chest, surround me with the softness of her skin, pressing her lips into my hair.
“You don’t have to shave yet, baby, or wear a bra,” she would say. I’d tell her I wanted to be like her, and I could feel the pull of her frown on my roots. “Like me?” Yes. “Shaving isn’t fun,” she would say, “It’s a chore. It isn’t something to want.” She never looked for the razor, though, nor the tape, and I never stopped trying to get it right.
She caught me stealing from the chandelier once. The rain pounded on the windows like sheets of wax paper on that particular night. Thunder tapped its way across the sky, and lightning flashed far away, enough to show glimpses of the darkened hall. There was makeup smeared across her face, a stain on her cheek, and lines running down her neck. Her eyes wavered with tears as she stumbled outside of her bedroom, where I could still hear Daddy groaning the way he did when the beer bottles gleamed like copper in the dining room. Her tears brought some to my eyes.
She froze at the sight of me, and we stared at each other. She looked so small from atop the chair, and the moonlight fell short of the hallway, allowing the shadows to stretch and consume her whole. A single tear fell from her eye. I tugged my hand away too fast—the chandelier shuddered, and a cacophony of clinks erupted in the air, wriggling like the sparkle sliding down her dewy cheek.
Daddy shouted something from the other room. We both flinched, and I realized that it was no stain on her cheek, but instead a bruise, and the lines on her neck were like the ones the jewels left on me, dotted with blood. My stomach churned. She whispered to me, her voice more coarse than I had ever heard. She asked me what I was doing. I had sat down in the chair, stretched out my legs to brush on the tiles, and stood with my hair covering my eyes. Mama was pretty, even when she was mad. Not like Daddy, whose face bloated and swelled like a blister, whose mouth creased and whose voice struck like a fist. Mama had anger like smoke, leaching in and burning me from the inside out without saying a single word. My hands shook, my knees wobbled, the jutting joint shuddering without my control.
She slinked forward; the nightgown slid against the carpet with a hiss. I closed my eyes. Her fingers brushed against my jaw, tracing down my neck. Her nails raked white lines down my arm, trailed into the jut of my elbow, and closed like jaws around my wrist. She examined the lines left by the jewels dropped to the floor.
“Why do you hold them so tight?” she whispered. She did not sound like herself. She sounded young. Young and hurt.
I had no answer; I could not open my eyes. The tears were falling now, dropping with puds on the ground. The thunder came again. Long hair brushed the top of my head as she looked out the window. She was quiet. I didn’t hear a single breath. She ducked to pick up the chain and opened the door, pulling me outside.
The sound of the rain tripled, folding the silence and stowing it inside the house as she closed the door. She pulled both of us into the grass and mud as the rain came down. I smelled the pine trees, the leaves, the dirt, the worms, all mixing in a humid trench dug into my chest.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” she asked me. She had to raise her voice for me to hear her over the rain. “To shave? Wrap your chest? To hold it so tightly?”
Of course, I thought.
She kneeled in front of me. Her nightgown smeared with the mud, and the light cotton clung to her as it absorbed the rain. I could see her shivering. “You want to hear a secret, baby?”
I nodded, lips trembling. I was still crying; I couldn’t stop.
“The only time I like dancing is when you’re the one watching. It’s the only time it feels real.”
And then she clasped my hands in hers and stood up. She pressed my face against her stomach and began to sway. She was whispering in my ear. The tart smell of red wine offended my nose as she said things like, “You’re my everything,” and “I wouldn’t be here without you." I didn’t understand; I didn’t understand the steps she tried to teach me: left leg forward, right leg to the right, left leg over, right leg back. She slid the instructions between “I love you”s, and I stumbled, trying to keep up. I kept my eyes open even as they burned to watch our bare feet sink into the grass. Her grip was tight on my hand, and with the little piece of the chandelier hanging between us, I was taller than I ever was before, and I imagined what I would look grown, with her by my side, ageless and gorgeous as she was then. I imagined us dancing together until the music stopped, and I came upon the realization, the words echoing in my head just as she whispered them to me, with the gold digging into our clasped palms;
“Growing up hurts, doesn't it, baby?”