Image: “The Vintage Dress” by Gerburg Garmann, 16×20 in., acrylic and charcoal, 2018
By Prisha Mehta
There is a room painted yellow and a crib painted white and a child in the crib with a sputter of freckles that will fade and mellow as she grows. There is the scent of baby powder, the rock of distant voices. Her eyes are closed. Her hand is clamped around a stuffed rabbit’s left ear, and the blanket that covers her is the same slow pink as the first eye-rubs of dawn.
In a matter of hours, she will wake up to a white lemon cake and an ocean of red balloons. Her grandfather has told her mother that they are all red because they represent the joy of youth and, really, because he noticed that the multicolored pack cost twice as much at the dollar store. She is two years old today, just old enough to know her own name and her mother’s. She can laugh and cry and dump corn over her head, and she knows how to ask for a sip of water and how to chew gum without swallowing it. Her brother, four, sometimes tugs at her hair, and her father sometimes reads to her. He tells her stories of princes and knights, of dragons and snow-kissed plains.
Two years from now, in winter, she will throw a snowball at her brother, and he will fall backwards into the rush of the river behind the house. His red coat will flutter like the wings of a wind-blown cardinal. She will run to the edge and wait for him to surface, and she will scream when he does not. In the hospital, she will clutch at her mother’s arm and bury her face in her father’s warm shirt. She will watch from her chair as they clasp their hands together and kneel down at the foot of his bed. Later, while he is sleeping, she will make her own attempt at prayer: She will climb under his covers and press a fresh stick of gum into his cold palm. He will come home the next morning.
Five years from now, she will meet Maria on the swings. She will find her all alone there halfway through lunch break, hair done up in two round buns on either side of her head, sneakered feet dragging trails into the dirt and scattering the wood chips. When she brings her home two weeks later, her mother will smile a little too widely, ask her whether she is Christian and whether her father is a citizen. Maria, seven, will ask her what a citizen is, and her mother will grow pink and make sandwiches and make a fuss.
Eight years from now, in August, her father will teach her how to fish. He will take her up to a lake in Michigan, to a cabin that his brother owns. It will be cold, but he will have packed jackets. He will tell her how his father taught him to feel the line under his thumb, to wait like a stone and cast like a hawk and reel only when you are certain. He will tell her about the books he has read – the one about the old man and the marlin, and the one about the boy who sails down the Mississippi on a raft. When he’s finished with those, he will tell her about the news – they’re shutting down the local Borders bookstore, and the NBA is still in a lockout, and, oh, get this, they’re letting the gays get married in New York.
Three hours in, when her back is stained with sweat and her arms are limp with the weight of the line, she will catch a silver minnow hardly three inches long. He will whoop and laugh like a bell in the night and swing her up onto his shoulders. Then he will close his eyes and tell her to give thanks to God. For years, she will remember his words, his breath like a dragon’s against the cold.
Ten years from now, she will find herself shivering at the way the evening light paints circles into the curl of Maria’s hair. She will find herself carrying Maria’s books, holding doors open and trembling when their hands brush. She will find her thoughts ricocheting away from her. She will find a tension rising in her – a tapping in her hands, a knocking in her knees. At dinner, she will keep her head down, keep her mouth shut during grace. Her brother will notice, but he will not ask.
One night twelve years from now, she will slip into her brother’s room and ask him if he has a minute. Her eyes will be wide and ringed like a ghost’s, and the light will play yellow circles into the floorboards. He will be tired, he will have work due in the morning, but he will move aside and make room for her on the bed. They will talk about John Lennon, about nothing at all. Around half past two, he will ask her if she remembers the time he fell into the river and the stick of gum in his hand.
At church on Sundays, she will feel far away. Her eyes will be open when theirs are closed. Their mouths will flutter in time to the priest’s, and hers will follow a moment later. She will notice when the microphone stutters, when feedback screeches through the pews.
Fourteen years from now, she will teach herself how to kiss a boy who smells of mint and tastes of last night’s chicken. He will be white and he will be Christian and he will not be bad looking. He will play soccer for the high school two towns over, and he will bring her flowers every Friday. He will make her mother smile. He will sometimes rest his hand on her waist, and when he does, she will force herself to look up into his eyes. But when she does, she will feel the sun in her dulling, and he will say her name like he is trying to steal it.
Fifteen years from now, she will wrap a rubber band twice tight around her wrist and snap it every time Maria smiles. Some days, she will break skin. She will learn to look away and to kill the color in her cheeks. At dinner, she will fade away from the mutter of voices and the din of questions and stare at the place in the corner where the wall meets the tiles. She will see nothing and imagine the light dissolving.
Fifteen years from now, there will be pills. Six of them, not even half of what she will have planned, but it’s all she will manage to swallow before the dizziness grows too large to think through. She will not remember the sirens or the screaming – the next thing she will know is the lightness of a hospital sheet, and after that the hard, quick sound of her father’s pacing footsteps. Minutes later, she will feel a cool hand on her forehead, the mutter of voices, a lullaby. Hours later, in a room with dimmed lights and aching shadows, her brother will press a fresh stick of gum into the palm of her hand.
She will come home. Not the next morning, but she will come home.
Sixteen years from now, there will be a heaven made of streetlights. There will be a half-iced can of lime soda in her pocket. Imagine a hearth-flame. Imagine nothing. Imagine Maria’s gloved fingers clutched in her own. Maria will run her thumb over the last of her freckles – pale, but still sharp as the tang of cold in the air – and they will each take a fresh stick of gum, and they will talk about nothing at all, about how her brother’s red coat looked when he fell and how her mother held her in the hospital and whispered lullabies into her hair. They will see dragons and knights in their breath. Their hands will shake, and they will walk together into the sound of the falling snow.
But that is all tomorrow. For now, let her sleep.