Birds in the trees, singing like there would never be another sun, a white house by a gravel driveway, dew on the grass, the dogs still sleeping; the world held still the day you were born. Somewhere a child let go of their balloon, and it floated up above the clouds, going to the moon for you. A whale rolled over down under the dark mountains of blue water, and it sang a song meant for you. The stars burned brighter because of you.
There was no moon in the sky that night. The stars drowned in a swamp of black clouds. Cold wind bit the earth, a wind to rip gravestones out of frozen ground. The dogs howled, the creatures of the wild hid themselves. But the whales were still singing, and above the lightning that sliced jagged letters across the dark as you were born, the stars were dancing a dance for you that no one on earth could see.
There were swings and busses and park benches in the sun. She said her numbers, she said please, and she didn’t like the dark. She could sing Puff The Magic Dragon and painted her nails with spaghetti sauce. She had a brother on either side, and one was mean and one was cute but she didn’t like his Elmo doll, and he had a little box of M&Ms for when he went to the potty, and she always wanted to eat them, thought of them all, all, all the time, but when she did eat them, she felt she ought to die. Then she lay awake in the night, and the world was big and terribly dark, and her insides were hot, and an awful sweating weight kept coming over her head, and her eyes stared wide, even when she tried to close them tight, and she prayed to God, please, please forgive me, I’m sorry, I promise I am, please help me go to sleep, until finally, as if a hand had reached down, she was propelled out of bed, flying in scared bare feet along the hall. She stopped outside her mother and father’s door. It was a big door. But when she stood still, the dark sweating feeling began climbing into her chest, and she knocked. And she went in and confessed, and immediately, before the reproof, before the forgiveness, the weight was gone. Gone like the dark goes when you turn on a light, so fast you can’t feel it, and there’s no dark left anywhere.
There were alleys with dirty walls. There was cold and blue tarps and a cinnamon roll with most of the frosting still on. She said no, learned to say no, had to say no, but they said yes anyway. She hadn’t done it, no, but yes she had. They taught her to steal, then hit her when she stole from them. A night when the wind was warm and she saw the stars. She cried because they weren’t ugly. She could lie, and she could run, and once she ran for so long she was lost. There were cars everywhere, their headlights cutting through her, and the smell of food cooked in oil on a stove and a man asking if she was lost and she saying no, no, and running and running until there was nothing left in the world but running and the smell of that greasy food, hanging on her clothes. She sat on the ground in a patch of brown grass beside a dead fountain, and everything hurt even though she hadn’t hurt herself. Then the world was a trap made to catch her, and she put her face on the ground and said help me, but she didn’t know why or who there was to hear. But then she sat up and looked at the fountain and remembered seeing it once before, and beyond it an alley she had slept in, and she knew where she was, and she stood up and danced.
There was the doll she wanted. The doll with long, curly brown hair, soft dark eyes and freckles, wanted so long she could hardly bear it, and they would do everything together and sleep together and they would be friends and she would talk to her and sit with her and take her in the car but never, ever lose her, and finally, at last she got her, but by then she was too old. The magic of everything she’d pretended faded away when she held the hard plastic in her arms and looked in the clear plastic eyes, and felt the soft, curly plastic hair. She set the doll on her shelf and tried to love her, and could not.
There were letters painted in thick, pink stripes on the alley walls and the backs of dumpsters. On the days the old man in the tent was awake and outside, he taught her their names. She learned to read from graffiti, her first triumphantly lisped out words were obscenities. She said them to herself, nothing more than a rhythm of sounds, and once a woman walking past her in a whole dress gasped and stared at her and hurried away. She heard them in the night, pressed against the wall, buried under trash bags, her fingers pressed in her ears telling herself she couldn’t hear, that no one would find her ever, while she saw what happened in the alley as clear as if her eyes were open. She didn’t say the words anymore.
A boy with orange hair and lashes the color of the sun drawn in crayon sat next to her in the grass. She said something and he said she was smart and the world exploded in a soft, quiet burst. He was her friend; he thought she was smart, and they would always play together when they met at the park, and then with her behind a tree making a castle of leaves, he told another boy she kept following him around, that she liked him, that she was annoying. And he laughed. The world exploded again, but this time it landed on top of her.
Among the egg shells and orange peels, clinging to paper bags and wrappers and the dirt emptied from vacuum cleaners and mice and moldy sour cream, she found a tiny doll. It was naked, and one arm was gone and fuzzy hair was nearly ripped off the plastic head. The big blue eyes looked like they were full of tears, and yet, the doll was smiling. How could the doll be smiling? She took it and tore off some of her own shirt, torn anyway and too long, and wrapped her up. Stroked the ragged yellow hair with a grimy hand and smiled at her. Promised to take care of her.
Summer afternoons, when the house smelled like baking bread and they ate pasta with cheese for lunch, and everyone lived outdoors, those were the days she remembered. Holding a grass blade, touching the world with wondering hands, knowing it belonged to her, and she had the power to hurt and to fix, and she could make things and break them if she wanted to. She stood in the creek and caught a frog in her hands, and he was so small that suddenly she looked around and she felt small too, wondering if she was sitting in a hand, the great invisible hand of someone who could kill her with a touch, but protected her instead. She let the frog go, and then wondered if she should have kept him, should have made sure nothing ever hurt him.
There were other times, at the edge of the hunger in her mind, when sometimes the woman who was her mother took her to places with food on tables and people gave them things, offered work, and the woman who was her mother would work for a while and there would be a new sweater with a puppy on the front and a room full of picture books and a clean lady smiling at her, telling her she could take one, and she not understanding because that was stealing and the clean people didn’t steal, and once she rode in a car and a man with a beard in the front seat winked at her and pressed a button and music played, sweet and hot, music that made her breathless and sad and happier than she could bear and made her want to sit down and to stand and twirl around and around.
Then there was sliding in the leather seat; sitting up, gripping the wheel, slick sweaty grip, don’t touch the gas hard, press the brake, no that was the gas, you pressed it harder, it’s okay, put it in reverse, we’ll try again and again and again and then she is doing it all the time and the wheel is in her hands and she doesn’t think about it because really it is so very easy.
There is the taste of money. The feeling of having it in her pocket, the thrill of someone handing her a roll of bills, no matter what for as long as they paid, and then there would be takeout chicken and a shower at a Laundromat, new clothes, but not too new or too nice, or she would wake up in the alley with them gone. There was the hot, pounding in her chest as she worked, the thrill of being good at what she did, the sickening knowledge, pushed down in the cracks that she was garbage, and she was making herself garbage, but she needed money, needed it more than her own heart or mind or body, so she gave them all.
A boy came who didn’t laugh, who didn’t run away, who stayed and was kind. Shops full of white things filled her dreams, and she tried on shoes and laughed, and tasted what love was like. Her arms full of flowers, wearing overalls, listening to the music, pinning up paper bells, comforting a crying little girl, afraid of the long aisle, spinning around, sneaking out on the lawn during dinner, his arms around her, dancing to the rhythm he made up, the smell of his old shirt filling her nose, looking at the stars and being unable to wish.
Finally there is running. The running that she wouldn’t come back from. The running where you are being hunted and it makes you an animal, strong and tireless in your inhuman fear. She ran down the train tracks because they would lead somewhere in the end. She ran until she found a town and she went into a gas station, the sleep of weeks haunting her, and she sat on a bench and ate a package of donuts as the sun rose. A man walked past her, then turned and looked at her. He was a tall man with white hair and a red mustache and he stopped and leaned against the wooden post on the porch and said it was a beautiful morning. She said yes and saw that it was. He looked at her for a while longer then commented that she was new in town. Not a question, just a statement. Then he asked if she was looking for a job.
Two women passed each other one morning on the street. One woman was hurrying along, holding a grocery bag and a child’s hand. The other walked slowly, smelling the morning air, a library key in her hand, a stack of books under her arm. They pass within two feet of each other. They smile. One says good morning. The other says yes, it’s a beautiful day.
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