When Maddie is born, her granddad is the one to name her.
She's heard the story hundreds of times: that her parents didn't know what to name her, but as soon as her granddad saw her, he knew who she was. "Madeline. We'll call her Maddie, for short." Her mom had liked the name, and her dad thought it was nice, too, and so they stuck with it, "easy-peasy," as Granddad says. "We knew exactly who you were, and why that was the perfect name for you."
Her childhood is shaped by her granddad. He takes care of her on Friday nights, letting her sleep over on the pullout sofa he keeps in the little one bedroom cottage he owns, a quarter mile from the beach.
"I'd live on the water," he says, as they walk down to watch the sunset, every Friday evening. "But your mom wants me nearby."
This is true -- Maddie's mom has always worried about Granddad, about his health. He broke his hip in two places, the year Maddie turned two, and that was when he sold his boat and everything on her to buy the house down by the beach, twenty minutes away from where Maddie and her parents live.
"I won't give up the water entirely, Lucy," goes the refrain to a familiar fight. "I'm still independent, I still..."
Maddie usually tunes out, around then. She knows Granddad is old, knows that his health is far from perfect. She's noticed the gray in his hair and beard, the way his glasses have gotten thicker, as she's grown up, how he's taken to walking with a cane, when the temperature drops in winter. She notices everything.
Cane or no, glasses or no, though, he's still her granddad, and Maddie knows that some things about him will never change.
His stories are one of those things.
When they walk down to the shore, Granddad tells stories about his time at sea, the strange things that live under the water.
"I was a Navy man," he might start, "and one night, when I was on watch..."
He has lots of stories, some real and some that Maddie knows, even from the time she's very little, must be what her mom calls embroidered. His Navy stories are mostly true. The others he tells largely aren't, and Maddie knows this, but she tries to believe them anyway.
Most of the latter stories, the ones that aren't true, are about mermaids.
"Now then," Granddad might start, as they walk along the shore. "Have I ever told you...", and he'll launch into any one of his myriad mermaid stories: why the sea is salty (there's a mermaid down there, still shedding tears over her granddad's refusal to go below with her), the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen (the same mermaid that supposedly cries over him), the closest he'd ever come to drowning (a mermaid saved him), the kingdom that lies beneath the waves...
"That's where I want to go," he says, sometimes, looking out at the water, the sun setting over the waves. "The kingdom below..."
"But you need to offer up a gift, before the road will open and let you below," Maddie finishes. "I know. So what are you going to offer?"
This is their game, what they play on Friday nights as they watch the waves. Sometimes Granddad is serious, and sometimes he's not, in what he says he'll offer.
"Gold," he says, or, "that green curry from the Thai place your mom loves," or else, "a half-completed crossword from the Sunday paper."
Maddie always giggles and tells him that his offering isn't nearly enough. Per his own stories, all they want is his heart's desire.
"Ah, but I won't give them that," says Granddad, and reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder. "You and your Mom, and your Dad, I'm not giving you to them."
After he says that, they head home, every time.
Maddie is ten when Granddad begins forgetting things.
It starts small. Granddad, always sharp, suddenly can't remember where he left his keys or his glasses or the cellphone that Maddie's mom has started insisting he carry with him everywhere, so she can keep tabs on him, much to his disgust.
"I was a Navy man, Lucy," he grumbled, when she gave it to him. "I know how to take care of myself."
He does, too, or he did. He used to keep everything in his house "shipshape", as he put it.
"A place for everything, and everything in its place," he tells Maddie, when they wash the dishes together, the nights he watches her, when Mom and Dad go out for "adult time", away from her. "Now, where do the forks go?"
It's a little game they play. Everything does have its own place, neatly labeled in the kitchen. Silverware here, plates here, pans here, and then the gloves and dishcloth neatly folded and put away in their spot once everything is washed.
It's a sign that something is wrong, when she goes to Granddad's and the kitchen is untidy.
Her mom, who has been so bad about noticing the other things that have gone off, notices this right away.
"Should we hire you a housekeeper?" Maddie's mom teases, and Granddad scowls.
"I can take care of myself," he grumbles. "I don't need anyone to clean up after me. I raised you alone, didn't I, and did a damn fine job of it. I don't want you to hire anyone."
Her mom lets it drop, then, but she and Maddie's dad talk about it on the way home: what does it mean and should we take him to the doctor.
"He was a Navy man," says Maddie, from the backseat. "He says everything has a place, but he's been forgetting where things go. He forgot where his glasses were again, Mom. He never used to do that."
"Perils of getting old," says her dad, turning in his seat and smiling at her. "But we'll keep an eye on him, anyway."
Whatever keeping an eye on him means, one thing becomes painfully clear, right away: there are no more special Friday nights spent together. After the last visit, when the kitchen is a mess and Granddad can't find his glasses, Maddie's parents begin making alternate arrangements, taking her to a friend's house or hiring a sitter for their Friday nights out, never letting her stay overnight alone with Granddad again.
It's three or four months after the last visit when Maddie's parents begin talking about doctor's appointments and Alzheimer's, what comes next and how best to help him maintain his independence.
"Maddie," says her mom, after a series of long conversations. "How would you feel about having Granddad come live with us?"
She doesn't have to think very hard about her answer: "Let's do it."
"He's not going to be the same," her mom adds, slowly. "He's not in the best of health, Maddie. He's not the same granddad that used to take you to the beach all the time when you were growing up. He's..."
"I know," she says. "He's sick."
"Yes," says her mom. She hesitates. "So we're going to take care of him, at least for now. Is that okay?"
"He's not going to like not living near the beach," Maddie starts, and her mom interrupts:
"I know, and you're going to have to help him adjust. There are plenty of places to see, around here, plenty of places to go walking. There's the lake, and the nice nature trail through the park..."
"It's not the same, Mom."
Her mother hesitates a moment. "I know, hon, but he can't live alone anymore. We'll take him back to his old haunts once a week. We can go on Saturdays. It'll be fine."
Maddie doesn't think it will be fine, but she knows she doesn't get a say, not really.
It takes a few weeks, but Granddad eventually moves in with the three of them. He needs a room on the ground floor, thanks to his bad hip, and so Maddie moves out of her bedroom and into the spare room upstairs. Mom helps her paint it, which is a nice gesture, but nothing can change the fact that it's not her bedroom.
"I'm not having an easy time adjusting either," says Granddad, in the odd, affected way that has come to take over his speech patterns in the last few months, with pauses between each of the words. "I mean, it's pink. I'm almost 80, and I'm sleeping in a pink bedroom."
"It's not pink anymore," Maddie corrects. "We repainted it. It's white now."
Granddad looks surprised at this, stops and corrects himself. "I meant, it's still pink underneath. I can feel it. It's your room, Maddie, not mine."
They'd repainted it two years ago, when nine-year-old Maddie, in a fit of pique, had decided that she was done with pink and wanted a grown-up room. Granddad had been the one to help her pick out the paint, put down the primer. He'd slept over on their couch, while they did the repainting.
"This is the longest I've seen you stay away from home in a decade, Dad," Mom had teased him. "Don't you miss the sound of the sea?"
Granddad had only grinned and rubbed his back. "No, but I miss sleeping in my own bed. That pullout sofa is unkind."
Maddie doesn't remind him of this story.
"Yeah," she says, after a moment. "You're right, it must still feel like my room."
They adjust. It takes a while, but eventually they fall into a new routine. Granddad lives with them. Mom takes him to the senior center during the day, where he can do whatever he likes, and at night, he stays in and does crossword puzzles or else reads a book.
If Mom and Dad ever notice that he reads the same page over and over again, they don't say anything. Maddie notices, too, but she doesn't point it out. This is the new normal.
"We'll all adjust," Mom says, over and over, her litany of reassurance. "We'll be fine."
She says it whenever Granddad looks out the window as though he's looking out to the sea, as though he's lost somewhere out there and trying to find his way back to land.
"We can go to the beach this weekend, Dad," she promises him, usually after she's said they'll adjust. "We'll go out on Saturday, all right?"
Granddad doesn't usually say anything to this, just nods, if he heard at all.
One thing that doesn't change is the mermaid stories. It's as though, with losing his true stories, Granddad is filling the gaps with more fairytales.
"You know why the ocean is so salty, Madeline?" he asks Maddie, at different points. He's taken to calling her Madeline for reasons that aren't quite clear to her, but which are important to him. "It's the mermaids..."
"They're still crying because you didn't let them drown you," Maddie finishes. "You've told me before. What were their names?"
"Oh, nothing pronouncable in the air. You'd have to go underwater to understand what their names were. Stick your head in the ocean and yell, and it'll sound right." He imitates a gurgling noise. "That's what their names sound like in the air, but underwater..."
He gets a faraway look on his face, one that Maddie has come to associate with lapses in memory.
"But underwater?" she prompts.
"Underwater, their names sound like music," says Granddad, and changes the subject to what Mom is fixing for dinner.
Time passes. Granddad doesn't get any better, but he doesn't get much worse, either, and Mom says that the drugs are working, that they've found therapy that can slow it down before he loses all of his memories.
"So he's still Dad," she says.
Maddie's in high school, by this point, and Granddad has been living with them for five, almost six years. She's grown past the point where she believes the mermaid stories, past the point where she wants to spend her Friday nights with Granddad. They've taken to spending Saturday mornings together, instead: getting coffee at the place a few blocks away from the house before Maddie carefully drives them down to the harbor so Granddad can take a morning walk along the pier.
She tries to stay patient with him. It's difficult, because while he's stayed mostly the same, there are some things that are different, and his temper is one of them. He hasn't grown to become unkind, the way that some patients do (or so she's been told), but he doesn't have the patience he once had, and he forgets his own limitations, sometimes. He'll want to go walking down on the beach proper, with all the rocks and sand and other obstacles he can't really cover now, with his shuffling gait, and it takes all of her patience not to say anything when he teases her about "only" wanting to spend time on the pier.
"It's not really the ocean," he says each time, as they walk along the weathered gray boards. "You're never going to see a mermaid here."
Maddie doesn't say anything. There's nothing she can say.
Granddad's health starts to decline the summer after Maddie graduates.
"We're going to have to put him into assisted living," frets her mother. "I just hope..."
Assisted living: the fancy way of saying, "we're putting him in a nursing home."
Maddie doesn't say anything.
Her dad finds a nice facility only a few blocks away, somewhere they can afford and which they can all visit Granddad at, fairly frequently.
"A good compromise," says her mom, hopefully. "Somewhere he can get the care he needs, and..."
Where someone can keep an eye on him all the time, thinks Maddie, because she's watched both of her parents struggle with this, over the years: how to keep him safe while letting him maintain his independence.
"He'll start in July," says Mom. "July 15th move-in date. It's a Saturday, so your dad and I can move everything in. You and Granddad can go on one last ramble together."
"Fine," says Maddie. "I'll keep him occupied while you get the room ready."
"That's my girl," says Mom.
The Friday night that will be his last at home, Granddad is lucid and wants to go out. Her parents are out, having dinner with their married friends. Maddie was supposed to have plans, but they fell through, and so she volunteers to stay home with him, instead of letting her parents call one of the senior companions.
"I don't mind," she says, when her mother protests. "I mean, it's his last full night here, so..."
"Fine," says Mom. "I've left you money for dinner. It's on the table, or you can have sandwiches."
"We'll be just fine, Lucy," says Granddad. "Tonight is an excellent night."
It must be, too: he's walking around the house without a cane, he remembers clearly where he is, and he almost seems like himself again, like the Granddad Maddie remembers from childhood, with his stories about the Navy and his little house on the shore, their Friday nights together.
"Fine," Mom repeats. "You two have a good night."
She hugs them both, and then she and Dad are out the door.
"So," says Granddad, as soon as their car has pulled out of the driveway. "Maddie. I need a favor from you."
It's the first time he's called her Maddie in years.
"I want to go for a walk along the beach," says Granddad. He hesitates a moment. "The real beach, not the pier. You remember where we used to walk?"
"Yes," says Maddie. "You want to go while you can move without your cane?"
"Okay," she says. "Let's go."
They drive down to the beach in silence. Granddad stares out the window, as they go.
As they're parking, he asks her: "Do you remember the stories I used to tell you, about mermaids?"
"Yeah," Maddie says, and smiles. "That the ocean is salty because they're still crying about you..."
"Not that," he interrupts. "The other stories, about the kingdom beneath the waves."
"Your heart's desire," says Maddie. "The game. I remember."
Granddad gazes out the window. "I have always had my heart's desire," he murmurs. "And now..."
"Tell your mother," he says clearly, "that I love her. I love both of you."
He pops open the door and steps out of the car before Maddie can so much as unbuckle. He's moving faster than she would have thought possible, like a man sixty years younger, running toward the beach, as though his hip had never been broken, as though he has never been ill a day in his life.
"Granddad!" she yells, and scrambles after him.
She ran track, in high school. Cross-country. She's fast, when she wants to be, even over uneven ground. Running on the sand is hard, and her feet keep slipping out from underneath her. She can see her granddad, see him running ahead of her, fifty yards off, untroubled by the sand, the uneven terrain.
"Granddad!" she yells again, and the wind whips the word away from her. There's a storm coming up. "Granddad, wait!"
He turns to face her. He can't have heard her, but he turns and faces her anyway. She starts crying in relief, as he does.
"Wait!" she yells again. "Granddad!"
She keeps running toward him, watching as he kicks his shoes off, carefully rolls his pants up and wades into the tide.
"Wait!" Maddie screams, afraid of what comes next, but then --
A woman stands suddenly, out of the waves. She's dressed all in white and green finery, obviously wet but designed for it, somehow, as if...
Maddie is still too far away, but she sees her granddad smile, watches as his mouth moves. He's greeting her like an old friend, whomever she is, and almost Maddie imagines she can hear music, when he says her name, and it's all too sudden, but there they are, standing in the tide, laughing and embracing like old friends, and then --
The woman extends her hand. Granddad bows, says something, and takes it. Together, they step down, and for a moment Maddie thinks she can almost see stairs, beneath the waves.
Granddad turns and looks back at her, still standing on the beach, fifty yards away, and waves.
"Wait for me!" Maddie says, and it is only then she realizes she must be crying, because her mouth is suddenly full of salt, the tears running down her cheeks and mingling with the spray of the tide.
He takes another step down, hesitates.
The woman standing beside him says something, and he nods and steps again. The water is waist-high around him now, and Maddie thinks, crazily, that this shouldn't be possible. The tide is out, and it was only up to his ankles a moment ago...
She keeps running, comes to a stop, panting, on the sand a few feet away from him.
"Granddad," she says, her voice thick. "What are you doing?"
"Remember what I always said, Maddie?" he asks her, his voice warm. "About the mermaids, and why the sea is salty..."
"The kingdom beneath the waves," she finishes for him. "Your heart's desire is your path."
He smiles at her. "I've found my path down," he says. "And I have a promise to keep..."
The woman standing beside him nods and says something in a language Maddie does not recognize. Her voice is like music.
"This is the next adventure," he says. "Tell your mother I love her. I love you, too, Madeline, my Maddie. This..."
"This is what you've always wanted," supplies Maddie. "This is -- this is it."
Granddad hesitates. "Yes."
She squeezes her eyes shut against the tears that are still flowing, mixing with the saltwater on her face. "I'll tell Mom what happened. I don't think she'll believe me. This is going to hurt."
"She will believe you," says the woman in white. Her voice is oddly accented. "If you tell her that Anaitis says hello. Your father will believe you, too, but we must go now, before the pathway closes."
"Go," says Maddie.
"We will meet again," says the woman in white. "Your heart's desire will lead you here, too."
"Someday," she says. "Not yet."
"Not yet," agrees the woman. "Now..."
Maddie sloshes her way into the water, hugs her granddad fiercely. "Be good," she says, and "don't forget about us."
"As if I could," he says. "Be good. I love you", and he steps the rest of the way down.
As his head disappears under the waves, it begins to rain.
"I will," says Maddie, to no one. "I love you, too."
She stands and watches the ocean in the rain, until the sun sets and the rain clears and the moon can be seen, half-hazy behind the clouds.
When no one emerges, when the moonlight does not make a path atop the waves that she can follow after him, then and only then does she walk back to the car.
They come out just after sunset, before twilight, when the last light of the day has gone, but the stars have not come out yet, when the entire world has gone from being rose and gold to softer shades of blue. Them.
Mary doesn't know what their names are. She asked, once.
“I’m Mary,” she said. “Mary Frances Callahan. What are your names?”
It was the way she’d been taught to introduce herself, the way her mother had shown her, smiling at her as they practiced, together.
"Names have power," one of Them said, after she introduced herself to Them. They smiled, showing too many teeth. "But we don't have much power, here."
She didn’t question it, at the time. There were other things she could call them.
She names one of them John, after her dad explains what John Doe means, as a name. Another, Bob (“but a girl Bob,” she says eagerly, when asked. “Short for Roberta,” because Roberta is her grandma’s name, and she thinks it’s beautiful).
There are others, of Them, but John and Bob are the ones she sees most frequently, plays with the most, in that magical space of time right before dinner, when they appear gently in the bottom of the garden, almost seeming to glow, their mouths smiling with too many teeth.
She’s never afraid of Them. They’ve never given her reason to be.
“You’re one of us,” John says, when they play together. “You gave us your name,” and she believes him, understands why this must be so.
They play odd games together, in the few minutes she has before her mother calls her in to dinner, different twisty little games. Time seems to flow differently around Them, slower somehow, and she can't ever remember what it is that they play together. Things with dancing, mostly, or Kings and Queens (she is never the king or the queen, but sometimes, if They're in the right mood, they'll let her be a princess). Lots of games of pretend, though she can't recall what it is they're pretending about. Everything feels very serious, when they do it, very real.
"It is real," John reassures her. "It's all very real, and very important."
She would believe him, except it involves magic, and who believes in real magic, after all? She's seen the specials on television, where they say they do real magic, then show how it's done. It's all tricks, illusions. She's seen it. She knows better, and anyway, They never do anything interesting in front of her.
She asked Bob once, why they didn't, and she only smiled at her, in the infuriating way that grownups did, and said that They did magic all the time, only that Mary didn't recognize it as being magic.
"So what am I supposed to believe?" she asked, disgusted, and she shrugged.
"Believe what you want to," she said. "We know what we're doing."
Mom usually called her inside, before those arguments could get too heated, and They would never bring it up again, the next time she saw Them.
Eventually she stopped seeing them, stopped going into the garden just before twilight, or else had other things to do. They moved, the year she was nine, after her parents divorced and she stopped believing in magic, even a little bit. That was the year she stopped reading Narnia and instead picked up all of Scott O'Dell, trying to find her way back into her own world, starting with the past and moving forward, into independence and an understanding of what had happened with her parents.
"It's not that we don't love you," her dad said, and she would only recognize it as the cliche it was years later. "We just..."
"Dad's been seeing someone else," said her mother, all matter-of-fact. "And Mom doesn't care. So."
"It's true, isn't it, Daniel?"
He gritted his teeth, tried to tell her anyway, but she only buried her face deeper in her book, hoping that Caspian would take her away with him, that she would find herself called into Narnia, and that was how the books were ruined.
Island of the Blue Dolphins was a gift, a, "we're sorry about the fight we had in front of you". She recognized this, but loved it for what it was, and that was what started the historical fiction bent.
She chose her mother, over her father, when the choice was presented to her, for no reason other than her mother had always packed her better lunches (even if her dinners usually involved the dreaded green and leafy vegetables, when Dad sensibly opted for peas or carrots or parsnips instead, recognizing that she liked these best), and they both moved out of the house with its garden, found instead a condo with a park across the road.
"I'll take you all the time," Mom promised, but she didn’t often have the time, not that it really mattered, because there was after school care, with the playground, and friends there, who also had divorced parents and could offer insights as to what to expect.
With real friends, she didn’t need Them, and she never went out into the little patch of grass that passed for the condo’s yard, in the space between sunset and full dark.
She didn’t forget about Them, not at first.
There were little things. They had always promised that she was marked as one of Theirs, belonging to Them in the same way that They belonged to each other, and that meant good luck, at least according to John.
She saw this, in small ways. The day they were supposed to run the mile, in seventh grade, they had a sub instead, who made them play dodgeball.
In eighth grade, the geography test she hadn’t studied for was delayed by a day.
In tenth, when she was supposed to be taking her driver’s test, the instructor became distracted when she was parallel parking, and passed her even though she’d clipped one of the cones.
She chalked these small things up to Them, at least at first, thanking Them for whatever help she’d been given.
“Thanks, John,” she’d murmur.
As she grew up, she gradually forgot, but she at least started off thanking Them, remembering the special space between sunset and full evening that they’d shared.
There are other things that should tip her off, maybe, but it never occurs to her just what they mean.
When she misses the flight that crashes, she considers it lucky that she had forgotten her passport, needed to back and get it and subsequently got caught in traffic, on the way to the airport. She doesn’t thank Them, but by that point, she thinks that They are only a fancy she had in childhood, that John and the rest of them were her imaginary friends. She catches another flight to Paris, and doesn’t fret about it.
The car crash that should have killed her, maybe, where she finds herself standing on the side of the road (having wrestled her way out of her seatbelt before the car caught fire) should be another sign, perhaps, but again, she thinks only of her own luck, and doesn’t say anything to Them, one way or another.
“Things always seem to work out for me,” she finds herself explaining to a roommate, after they’re robbed but her laptop (sitting out on her desk, in plain view) is somehow left behind, when the thieves have stripped the place of anything else valuable. “I don’t know why.”
In the back of her mind, she might think of Them, but if she does, she doesn’t acknowledge it out loud. She had imaginary friends. What child didn’t? There’s nothing unusual about that.
It’s not until she’s almost thirty that she realizes that perhaps there’s more to her luck than she knows, that maybe she has forgotten something important.
She’s at a bar, drinking with friends and celebrating the a huge promotion at work. She’s a project manager, now, and they’re all out crowing out about that fact.
“You’ve made it, Mary!” says one of her friends, and she grins and buys a round of shots for everyone.
It’s around that time that someone catches her eye, from across the bar. She grins at him (she’s in a good mood, after all), and he smiles back at her and heads her way.
“Hey,” he says, above the din of the bar, the low roar of the patrons surrounding them, the shitty four-piece band that’s on stage. “What are you drinking?”
“I’ll have what you’re having,” she says, and grins at him. “I’m Mary, by the way. You are…?”
He says something she can’t hear, above the noise.
He slides up beside her. “I said, do you want to dance?”
The band is some shitty local gig the bar had booked at the last minute, after the previous act had bailed for a better venue, but they can at least do decent covers of whatever classic rock the crowd calls out, so she dances with him to a weird variety of music, everything from the Beatles to Prince and back again, all weird but at least recognizable as music, as covers of whatever they’re supposed to be covering.
It’s not until the band’s lead singer, glowering and pushing his hair out of his eyes, announces that they’ve almost run out of their allotted time and will be leaving after the next song, that she realizes her friends have gone, that she’s been dancing for close to an hour and a half.
“Relax,” says the man she’s dancing with, pulling her close. “I can give you a lift home. It’s not a problem.”
“Fine,” she says, and relaxes, resumes dancing with him as soon as the music starts again.
The set ends, and before she knows it, the bar is about to close. They’re doing last call. Time has flown by, and she’s not sure what’s supposed to come next. There’s something strange about the way the hours are flying by (is she drunk? Is it something else?), but she’s enjoying the company of the man she’s standing beside, the man, called…
“I’m sorry,” she blurts, as they’re leaving the bar together. “I don’t even know your name…”
They’re outside the bar, by then. She’s sure she’s agreed to go home with him, though she’s not sure how or when that conversation happened.
“It’s simple,” he says, right in her ear. “It’s…” and he says something incomprehensible again.
“I’m sorry,” Mary says again. “I didn’t catch that?”
He smiles grimly. “Well, it’s not important, is it? We both know what this is.”
“I’m not sure I do,” she says carefully, taking a step back from him.
He reaches out, grabs her arm, and she wants to protest, but--
There’s a pained noise from the alley they’re standing next to (and when had they moved farther than the front of the bar?). “Ugh, I think I drank too much,” then the sound and smell of vomit, and--
“God, I’m sorry, dude,” slurs a man. “Like, let’s exchange numbers, so I can…”
The man she’s left the bar with, the nameless one, recoils in disgust. The front of his jacket is covered in vomit.
“Idiot,” he seethes, and stalks off into the night.
Mary thinks about following him for half a moment, but a touch on her arm stops her.
“Don’t,” says the drunk, suddenly no longer slurring. “You don’t want to go home with that one, Mary Frances Callahan.”
She blinks a little, at the use of her full name. No one calls her Mary Frances anymore except her grandmother, and even then it’s not common.
“I’m sorry,” she says slowly. “Do I know you?”
He meets her gaze. “You knew me, once.”
“Oh, God. Did we go to high school together, or…?”
“My name’s John,” he says, and there’s an odd note of pride in the way he says it. “You named me, and we named you one of ours.”
“I’m sorry,” she starts, “I don’t know a John,” and then she remembers.
The corner of his mouth crooks up in a smile.
“We knew you’d recall, someday,” he says gently. “You’re still one of ours, and we’ll still watch out for you and yours, Mary Frances.”
“Then that man,” she says. “He was…?”
“Someone who knows about us,” says John. “He knows about you, and what you mean to us. He would have done you ill.”
She shivers a little, at the thought, remembers the way that time had suddenly seemed to speed up, when she was dancing with him. “He’s...one of you.”
“From the other side,” John says. “Or close to it. That’s not the point, though. The point is…”
“What is the point?” she asks, and the smile on his face widens into a grin.
“Everything. Nothing. I guess there is no point,” he says.
He leans in and kisses her cheek. His lips are hot, hot enough that she expects there to be a mark, and while she is preoccupied with this, he disappears, back down the alley he’d stumbled out of initially.
She knows better than to follow. It’s a blind end -- she’s familiar with it, from the few times her friends have gone out to smoke -- and he wouldn’t be there, anyway.
“John,” she says, and she remembers, the space between sunset and full dark, the way the shadows lengthened and They would come out, how she’d named them all…
“I’m still drunk,” she says aloud, after a moment. “That must be it.”
She takes a taxi home, texts her coworkers that she’s just fine, she just lost track of time, and tries not to think about it again.
It’s years before Mary thinks of Them again.
She’s married by that point and has a daughter of her own, Laura.
Laura is seven and allowed to play in the fenced backyard of their house, until the stars begin coming out, at which point it is time to come inside and get ready for bed.
“Do I have to, Mom?” she asks, every night, to which Mary gently says yes, she must, unless she wants to be tired the next day. “I was in the middle of something.”
This is the excuse her father has taught her, the polite way of saying, “I’m not ready to come in yet,” instead of whining and throwing a tantrum. It’s worked since she was five.
“What were you in the middle of?” she asks her daughter.
“I made a friend,” says Laura. “He says to call him John, and he says he knows you.”
She freezes. She tries not to show it, but she still does. “John?”
“Yes,” says Laura happily. “He says he used to play with you, when you were a little girl, and he can only come out at a certain time of day. Please Mom, can I go play with him more?”
“Tomorrow,” she manages. “John will be there tomorrow,” and Laura, thankfully, does not put up too much of a fuss.
She goes out to the garden herself, after Laura is in bed, when it is no longer blue almost-twilight but deep black night. It’s October. Most of the plants are dead or dormant, and the thin cardigan she’s wearing isn’t enough to stave off the cold. She can see her breath when she exhales, but still…
“John?” she says, experimentally.
There’s a twinkling light, somewhere down at the end of the garden.
“Watch over her,” she continues, her voice steady. “I don’t know if she’s given you her full name, but...watch over her, as you’ve watched over me.”
Silence, in response.
She waits a moment, watches the lights at the bottom of the garden (fireflies, her brain says stubbornly, though it is too late in the season for fireflies), then, when there is no answer, turns to head inside.
We’ll always watch out for you and yours, Mary Frances Allen, says a voice, gentle in her ear, as she steps onto the lawn.
It’s a familiar voice, and she trusts him implicitly.
We first met when I saved him from drowning. He was on one of the boats, the ones that floated above us and left us largely undisturbed, concerned, as they were, with fishing, and not with fishing for us.
It was a calm day, and we were playing close to the surface, when I saw him topple into the water. His boots filled and nearly dragged him under.
"Leave him," said my mother, and I should have listened, but I couldn't.
I dragged him to the surface and held him until one of his companions saw him, bobbing there, and pulled him into their boat, coughing water with no shoes.
"A seal," he said. "A seal saved me..."
They laughed, and clapped him on the back as he coughed up more water, and told him he was dreaming.
"You lost your shoes and bobbed up like a cork, Bill!" said one of his companions, as I dipped back under the waves.
I didn't hear what came next, distracted as I was by my mother scolding me.
"What have you done?" she demanded.
"I couldn't let him drown," I tried, but she cut me off.
"It's the way of the world," she said. "They can't live down here, and we can't live up there."
She chided me all the way home, followed me as I dove deep, then resurfaced, again and again.
"I suppose you'll be in love with him now," she said, as though it was ordained, as though I had no choice. "As you saved him."
"He's a stranger," I protested, and she looked at me grimly.
"That won't matter," she prophesied.
We went ashore once a month, if the weather was nice, to sun ourselves and enjoy the warmth.
When we went ashore, my cousins took off their skins, but my sisters and I always kept ours on. Our mother had warned us, what would happen if we pulled them off.
"Do you want to be bound to land?" she said. "To have to learn to walk, like one of them, to never return to the water until they give you back your skin?"
We shook our heads, no. No, we did not want this.
I hauled myself onto land as soon as it was warm. My sisters came with me, all of us together. We spread out on the sand, among the rocks, found places to sun ourselves, turned onto our backs and left our bellies vulnerable. We feared nothing. The landsmen would not disturb us; they knew better. No one would hurt us, or so we thought.
I saw him before he saw me. I recognized him, even without his boots: the man I had saved.
I did not recognize the others that were with him, or what they carried, though I'd come to know it soon enough: long wooden clubs, with curved metal spikes on the ends.
They attacked my youngest sister first. She made little noise as she died. A surprised gasp, and that was it.
She was lucky. She never saw what was coming.
My other sisters, they saw their deaths. They recognized what was coming to them. I could hear them shout, in our language, what it was I had to do.
"Your skin!" shouted my eldest sister. "Enna! Take off your skin!"
I had never done it before, though I'd seen my cousins cast off theirs. There was a trick to it, some magic that I was unfamiliar with. I should not have been able to do it, but desperation served as a catalyst, and before I knew it, I was lying on the beach, huddled beneath the sealskin, without a stitch of clothing on me.
He found me that way, the man I'd rescued. There's poetry to that: a life for a life. I saved him, and he saved me.
He knew what I was, when he found me. He saw the sealskin, recognized the choice he had to make, what the others had done.
"Tell me," he said. "Tell me they were only seals."
I couldn't lie to him, and so he took my sealskin, tucked it under his arm.
"I will make this right," he said.
I didn't know what he meant, but he had my skin, so I followed him.
He did not force me to walk past the bodies of my sisters. For this, I was grateful. It was a small enough thing, and yet he did it, recognized what they had done.
"Leave the pelts," he told the other men. "Bad luck," and he held up my cast-off skin.
The others blanched, when they saw.
"Bad luck, Bill," said one of them. "Shit. Still, it seems a waste..." He looked back to where my sisters were lying on the sand.
"Do you want to curse us all?" asked the man I'd rescued.
"Nah," said the other, rubbing the back of his neck. "Just..."
"Leave the pelts," he repeated. "Bad luck. Let's go."
We went, and left my sisters on the sand to rot.
He took me to his mother, without a stitch of clothing on me, led me around the back way, avoiding the main road through the village, the stares and whispers that would come from my lack of propriety.
My feet were bare and I could hardly walk. I had never done so before. Every step was full of pain, newly-found legs adjusting to the weight of bearing me on the earth, not pushing me through water, my feet seeming to find every sharp pebble or bit of twig to step on. I had never walked before and I wanted to swear that I would never walk again, except I recognized what my life was, what the choices now before me were. Stay, and learn to walk, to stand on my own, and pretend that my world had not ended, or go, and explain to my mother just what had happened to my sisters, take the risk that it would happen to me, as well.
He had my skin. The choice was no choice at all.
"Got one for your, mother," he said by way of introduction, as he pushed open the door to her house, and gently brought me inside. "Another daughter."
She was sitting next to the fire. She stood and squinted at me. "Another daughter? Oh!"
"Found her down on the shore," he said. "There were others, but..."
"I told them not to go hunting," she fretted. "Did they leave the pelts?"
"Then they haven't doomed us all, though..."
She looked me up and down.
“You’ll have to marry this one,” she said grimly. “Hide her skin, keep her bound to the land. She’ll go running back, otherwise, and tell them exactly how to find us, and then what will we do?”
He looked as stricken as I felt. “I’m sworn to marry Clare,” he objected. “I can’t…”
“Do you want to doom us all?” asked his mother shrewdly. “Because that’s what will happen, if you let her go.”
“I wouldn’t tell anyone,” I said, finding my voice. I shifted from foot to foot, nervous and pained, as I said it. “I wouldn’t…”
I was lying, though, and she knew it: if I returned, I would tell, and my family would destroy everyone they found on the sea.
“Can’t trust ‘em,” said his mother, then: “Do you have a name, girl?”
“Enna,” she repeated. “I’m Mary. This is my son, Bill.” She gave me a meaningful look. “Will you consent to marry him, my Bill?”
“I don’t see as I have a choice,” I said softly, and he looked as though he was about to cry.
“Then you read the situation rightly,” said his mother, not unkindly. “Well. Bill? Clare will understand; she’s a good girl.”
“Yes,” he said.
The if I must was only implied, but I heard it, too.
We married in the village church. The priest refused this, at first, until Bill explained the importance of this minor ritual to him, lest they all be doomed. I was a sea-thing, after all, mercurial and not to be trusted.
God help me, I loved him. We have always been prone to ritual, my people, and when the priest said the words over us, made us promise to love each other no matter what, that was all it took. I knew my role, and I took to it.
He didn’t love me. He was kind to me, but he didn’t love me.
The only unkindness he ever did me was in hiding my skin. His mother had told him it was necessary, something that had to be done, and so he’d ferreted it away somewhere I could not find it, while she kept me occupied, teaching me the things I needed to know, as a wife.
This he did to me, to keep his village safe, for otherwise (he was told), I would take my revenge for the deaths of my sisters by telling the rest of my family, and drowning all the men of the village, one by one.
He cried as he did it. I saw his face, afterward, and how red his eyes were. He wanted me gone as much as I wanted to be gone, whether I loved him or no, and his eyes said what he could not voice: that in hiding my sealskin, he had hidden away the last hope of his own freedom.
Apart from this one cruelty, keeping me from my family, he was kind to me, always diligent in his duties. He was a fine husband, and never minded that I was not much of a wife. I couldn’t cook, but he could, and he did this, while I went out on the fishing boats.
The other villagers tolerated this oddness, our reversal of roles. They knew what was at stake. They knew what he’d had to do. They did not question.
In time, I bore him a son and a daughter. Both had my eyes, and his fear of the sea.
I thought he might grow to love me, someday. I thought that perhaps the ritual we had undergone, which had bound me to him (but never him to me) would take, and he would realize, after some time had passed, that he loved me.
When he didn’t, I consoled myself: it does not matter, you were never his first choice. He married you out of duty; he cannot help not loving you.
He was gentle with our children, he was faithful, and he never begrudged me by time by the sea, and so I never grew to resent him for his lack of affection toward me, though another woman might have.
When our son was fifteen, he twisted his ankle, helping his father remove a rock from the field near our house. He came hobbling home on his own, leaning half-over on a shovel the entire way.
“You should have asked your father for help,” I said, and he shrugged.
“We had it most of the way out,” he said, grinning. “Didn’t want to have to do it all over again with him in the morning. Is there anything we can bind this with?”
“I’ll check the rag-bag,” I said.
“What about the old sealskin Da has stashed in the attic?” he asked.
I froze. “Sealskin?”
“Wedged between the rafters,” he continued. “I thought you knew.”
“Oh,” I said, as I fetched the rag-bag. “That. It’s got moths. It wouldn’t do to bind your ankle with it.”
I fished a long piece of muslin out of the bag. “This will do,” I said.
I helped him bind his ankle, and he hobbled back out to help his father.
Once he was out of the house again, I went up to the attic and fetched the sealskin.
Bill came home to find me sitting at the table, the skin in front of me.
“I would have thought you’d gone by now,” he said, sitting down heavily. “I thought…”
“I wanted to,” I said.
He looked at it, then at me. “Then go,” he said. “Get out.”
I pushed the bundle back across the table to him.
“No,” I said simply.
He let out a breath I did not realize he had been holding. “I was unkind,” he said. “I’m offering you your freedom. I release you from whatever claim I have on you. Go.”
“No,” I repeated. “I’ll say it a third time, too: no.”
“You’re a good man,” I told him gently. “I love you, and I love our children. I would not forsake you for the sea”
He fingered the sealskin. “Then what shall we do with this?”
I looked at it, at the vestige of my old life. I remembered diving and playing the waves, the smell of the salt and brine, the way the water felt, surrounding me, how different it was to walking on land, how I had never quite taken to earth the way I had to water.
I remembered the sight of my sisters, dead on the beach, and what my mother would do, what my family would do, if they knew how I had been bound here, some seventeen years.
He clasped his hands over it.
“I’ll put it back in the attic,” he said.
He left me a path to freedom.
I have never used it.
He loved me, then, after I refused to go, once I was no longer a prisoner, but had the ability to leave if I pleased.
My mother would not have understood, but I did. In telling me to go, he had not wanted me to. In telling me to go, he assuaged the last of his fears: that I had stayed only because I had not found the sealskin.
“It had never occurred to me,” he said, in the months after its discovery, “that you weren’t looking.”
“I saved you once,” I said. “It bound you to me, and then the wedding ritual bound me further. We are one.”
“You,” he said, and laughed. “You were the seal, the one that saved me.I had never realized, before…”
“I am the same,” I told him. “I could not save you from one death, only to send you to another.”
He kissed the top of my head. “Beautiful woman,” he said. “I owe you my life twice over.”
That was when he began to love me.
When it rains, now, I sit in the attic, finger my sealskin, and think about what might have been. It has been twenty years since I last went beneath the waves, and I still dream of it.
I have thought about leaving. I have never done it.
I never will.
[explanation.]"Take a hike" can be taken in a few different ways: literally (go hiking or walking), or in the figurative sense of telling someone to get lost.
I wanted to explore both here: the physical sensation of walking for the first time, as well as the sense of alienation from being told through actions though not words that you are not welcome, closing with the push for someone to "get out" (no matter how spurious the reasons they're told to get out).
Here, Enna is told to leave by her husband, but in a twist on the original selkie stories, makes the decision to stay, out of love and loyalty. It's a gentler, kinder, "take a hike", but the sentiment is still very much there, rooted in fear: "if you don't actually love me, leave me now, and I'll face my doom alone." She does love him, so she stays, even when told deliberately to leave and given what she *should* want most: the way that things occasionally work out.
[Trigger warnings.]Trigger warning for non-detailed discussion of intimate partner violence and depiction of the aftermath of an abusive relationship.
In my dreams, I'm flying. My feet skim the treetops as I flit from roof to roof, and I laugh, with sheer joy. Gravity can't hold me down. Nothing can pin me, now that I've discovered the secret, how to escape the ground.
I dart around, and I can't believe my good fortune. I float over to our yard, to tell you what I've discovered, show you the secret so you can fly, too, except...
I see you standing on the sidewalk in front of our house, and you look so sad, I am immediately brought back to the ground.
First I met you, then I loved you, and then I was supposed to have married you.
Supposed to. I moved out instead.
I tried to get our friends to help me move, and they all wanted to know, why.
I couldn’t find the words. I wanted to explain everything, about plastic plates and pillows and the broken candy dish, the time you threw the tea kettle at my head, how I’d needed stitches, how we’d both pretended it had been an accident, because it had only grazed my temple, the stunned way you said, “too slow”, when I didn’t duck in time.
I wanted to tell them about the final incident, what had been “the last straw”, what made me sit up and go, “enough is enough”, or maybe, “fuck you and fuck this”, but neither was true. There wasn’t a final incident, not exactly.
I dithered, about what to say, and eventually I didn’t tell them anything. I’d loved you. They loved you. You needed them. Could I deny you that?
I want to say, I never meant to hurt you, except that's not true.
You told me, more than once, that if I left you, I'd be betraying everyone I cared about. You, our friends, your parents -- who had accepted me with open arms, when we told them we were together; who had given me thoughtful gifts at Christmas, told me that I was "part of the family".
I knew what was at stake, when I left you. I knew who I'd be hurting. I didn't have to see the looks on our friends' faces, when I asked them for help moving. I didn't have to talk to your mom on the phone, hear her cry, as I told her gently, thank you, but I'm not coming to Robbie's wedding after all.
I didn't need to read the messages from you, listen to the voicemails in which you sobbed over the phone and said you were sorry.
I knew what I'd done.
I didn’t tell our friends the whole story, and they didn’t help me move. My dad went with me, to do a walk-through. You were purposefully out, "getting coffee"; you said you could give me an hour. I didn't take more than fifteen minutes. We threw clothes into boxes until I, shaking so hard I wasn't sure I could walk myself to the door, said I had enough.
We loaded what little I'd grabbed into the car, and Dad drove me home. I left almost all of my stuff behind.
In therapy, group therapy, they tried to draw me out, tell me that it was okay, I was free to take stuff from the donation box. Clothes, if I needed them, or toiletries.
I had a place to stay, or they would have offered me that, too: some bunkbed to sleep on, but a space of my own, entirely my own.
They couldn’t replace the things I needed, wanted. My laptop, the duvet that my parents had given me as a Christmas gift, my books and knickknacks and personal belongings. My favorite purse, my favorite pair of heels, the ones I’d been given as a graduation present by my brother and had only worn on special occasions. The pieces of a life, well-lived.
“You can always rely on the police to help you perform a walk-through and gather anything that you can prove is yours,” they said, when I told them I wanted my stuff.
The police, who had responded to the calls our neighbors had made, about the fights we’d had, the sounds of breaking glass and screaming, with a request for us to keep it down, a gently-raised eyebrow at the idea that two women might be trying to make a go of it, in our conservative city.
“I’m fine,” I said. It was a non-sequitur, not a real answer. Fine, meaning, it’s not worth the hassle or maybe, the police won’t help me, so what’s the point, even?
Fine, because I could make it be fine.
The first few days after leaving were a blur. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, or where I was going, or really why. I doubted myself at least half a dozen times, caught myself turning the car around and driving back.
Say you’re sorry. She’ll forgive you.
Say you didn’t mean what you said. She’ll forgive you.
You haven’t even signed a lease on the new place yet. There’s nothing to break. You can go back. She’ll forgive you.
I stopped myself every time.
I’m still not sure why.
I went to stay with my parents. I knew I had a safe space there, and it was close enough to work that I didn't have to worry about a long commute. About twenty minutes longer, if I wanted to take the train, because I had to drive to a park and ride, instead of walking, but still: close.
They didn't ask, "Why are you back? What happened?"
Mom had seen the bruises. She didn't say anything, just gave the phone number for the shelter that also offered group therapy, every Tuesday at 4PM.
"It's a support group," she said, hesitating as she handed me the number. "If, you know..."
If I wanted to talk to someone, about you. If I had anything to say.
"Yeah," I said. "Okay."
I kept the number.
I called it, when work was overwhelming and I thought about apologizing to you just so I could get my laptop back.
I left once, I thought wildly, as I tried to make my Dad's Macbook work. I could do it again.
I didn't go back.
I started therapy, and that was when they tried to tell me to go back, with the police, no apology needed, and get what was mine.
In therapy, they focus on having us tell our story, reclaim what happened to us.
“We’ll go around the circle, and each of you explain why you’re here.”
I stay silent. I’m not sure what to say. She started by throwing plates at me sounds like something out of a soap opera. The last time we fought, she said she loved me so much she was afraid that one day she was going to really hurt me. She left me with a split lip and a bloody nose from shoving my face into the door, and I’m still not sure it wasn’t my fault is worse, somehow.
None of the incidents, separately, feels like what they describe as Intimate Partner Violence, the new catch-all term that doesn’t imply that you live together, or that you’re opposite-sex partners. The gender-equal, queer-friendly term.
You never beat me, not the way the other women in the group talk about. You didn’t stalk me, when I first left, never showed up at my job demanding to see me.
I was never afraid of you, until suddenly, I was.
When you asked me to marry you, you did everything right.
You’d been on your best behavior for six weeks. You fixed a beautiful dinner, and after dessert, when we were both tipsy from the wine, you got down on both knees and pulled out a ring box.
“I love you,” you said. “We’ve been through so much together, and I can’t imagine life without you.”
We’ve been through so much was code for, I’ve put you through so much.
I said yes.
I was afraid to say no, what that might mean, and I think that’s when I knew.
That last day, you had to work late. I was making both of us dinner, nothing fancy, just a pastabake, something I could throw in the oven as soon as you texted to say you were on the way. Pasta, red sauce, vegetables. The sauce was from a jar; the pasta from a box. Nothing could have been simpler, except…
You liked extra onion in the sauce. I cut one and put it into a pan with a little bit of olive oil, then I called my mom, to chat with her while it cooked down. I lost track of time, telling her about the promotion I was up for, at work, and I burned the onion. It was the last one we had, and I wouldn’t have time to finish the pasta and go to the store, not if I wanted dinner on the table by the time you got home.
I got off the phone and texted you, to ask you what you wanted me to do.
You sent back something nasty, trying to start a fight. If I cared about you, I wouldn't have let it burn. Something like that.
When I read that text, I suddenly saw, clearly, what my choices were.
Stay, and have the fight, and invent some excuse at work tomorrow, or else cover whatever new bruises with the Kat Von D tattoo concealer you'd given me, some kind of twisted gift, because: "I know you love makeup."
Leave, and in the process, hurt you, your parents, and all of our friends.
Hurt, or be hurt. No in-betweens.
I switched the burner off, turned off the oven, put the pan with the ruined onion into the sink. I didn't think, just did it.
I picked up my purse and my keys, grabbed the gym bag that had a change of clothes, and left.
There wasn't a final incident, because I didn't let it happen.
Leaving wasn't a choice. It was an avoidance of pain, but I stuck by it.
Was it the right one? I didn't know. I still don't know.
I bring this up in therapy, and my therapist says, leaning forward in her chair, that it will get better over time; that eventually, I will forgive myself for betraying you.
I'm not sure that I ever will.
I mailed back the ring, three months after I left. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I didn’t include a note, just the ring box, wrapped in tape and stuffed into a bubble mailer. If I’d written anything it would have been, “I’m sorry”, or maybe, “you know why I had to leave”, but both feel inadequate, and I don’t want to open the door, to hear from you.
You don't respond, but that Saturday, after the delivery confirmation says the ring has been signed for, I come back to my parents' house and see a box waiting for me on the front porch, addressed to me in your neat handwriting.
Inside is my laptop, the duvet, and the heels: the things I'd missed when we did the quick walk-through, got as much of my stuff as we could and got out.
There's no note. I both want and simultaneously don't want there to be a note, and there is none.
The bottom of the box rattles. I lift everything away, and there are the plastic plates I bought, so you'd have something safe to throw, something that wouldn't break, and I know, suddenly, that I have made the right choice.
In my dreams, I'm flying. My feet skim the treetops as I flit from roof to roof, and I laugh, with sheer joy. Gravity can't hold me down. Nothing can pin me, now that I've discovered the secret, how to escape the ground.
I dart around, and I can't believe my good fortune. I float over to our yard, to tell you what I've discovered, show you the secret so you can fly, too, except...
"I don't want to fly," you tell me. "You go on, enjoy yourself. I'll stay here."
And I nod and leave you, flee to flit to wherever I'd like.
I've made the right choice.
[Explanation.]When I left my abusive partner, several years ago now, I was told when I left that I was making the choice to hurt them as well as everyone else that cared about us: their parents, our friends, their siblings...
It is only years later that I am able to realize that choice for what it was: essentially asking me to make the choice to sacrifice myself for them. In the trolley problem, I was the one tied to the tracks, and they were the "other five".
I couldn't make the choice to harm myself, so I extricated myself from the situation instead.
When you're four, your mother sits you down to explain to you what your life will be like.
"Some people will try to tell you to feel bad about yourself," she says. "Because of..."
She hesitates, then skips over the because.
"The important thing to know is, you're not like the others, the ones they're trying to make feel bad about themselves. You're not one of them. You're different. You're better than they are. Don't let anyone make you feel bad about yourself because of who you are."
This is said around the time that you are obsessed with Disney movies. The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White: you know that all of these princesses have something in common, something you lack, and it's your expression of that lack that makes your mother sit you down, awkwardly talk to you, try to tell you to be proud of who you are.
All the princesses are white, and you're not. You want to know when you'll be white. When she says you never will be, that other people will try to make your life hell because of it, you only half-listen. You're better, somehow, but somehow not? It's confusing, and anyway, there are more important things to think about.
That year, for your birthday, she'll give you a beautiful doll that looks like you, but tell you you're not allowed to play with her, that she's for display only.
You'll stare at her, on her little stand, and lift her full skirts to look at the petticoats underneath, but you'll mostly obey, and the lesson that you take away is, some dolls are only for looking at, and not so much about the color of your skin, or identity.
When you're six, it's something else. Your grandmother is trying to teach you Spanish, in a sort of quiet way, and your mother is having none of it.
"It's going to be hard enough, even without you..."
You listen to the lessons, and you're wise enough not to say anything in front of your mother.
You use what little of the language you learn to play with the girl across the street.
When she disappears, later, you ask your grandmother what happened, and she says something that makes no sense to you: "INS."
You ask your mom, and she tries to explain, but it's bungled, in a way, and all that comes out is that you shouldn't learn to speak Spanish, because you might be taken, too, so you stop.
Your grandmother will ask you, later, to count for her, to make sure your accent is still good, and she will feed you tortillas and menudo with hominy, or pigs' feet, or rice with beans, but you don't talk about the family across the street, and maybe it's your mom's doing, or maybe it's your own reluctance, but she doesn't teach you any more vocabulary.
In school, it's not a big deal. You're not alone; there are lots of kids who look like you, all from the poor part of town, where you also live. You play four-square and tag and make up elaborate pretend games in which you're princesses (or later, Knights of the Round Table), but you don't talk about the complicated things, like INS or where someone's dad is, or language. Everything takes place in English, and you go to sleepovers on the weekends, like anyone else, and your dad fixes waffles for your friends, or else you toast Poptarts, and there's no weirdness. Sundays you go to your grandmother's for dinner, and she fixes all your favorites, but there's American food in there, too, and so you figure: everyone's life must be this way; you're not different from anyone else. The tow-headed kids in your class probably also eat beans and tortillas. It's not a big deal. There's nothing weird.
And then that illusion shatters.
You're doing a family history project. "Where are you from?"
"Spain," you say, because it's what your mom has told you.
"Are you sure?" asks your teacher.
When you stubbornly insist that you are, she sighs and marks you down as "unknown."
When you ask your dad, "where are we from?", he'll hem and haw a little.
"Your grandmother grew up in Montana," he says.
"And grandpa?" He died before you were born, so you honestly don't know.
More equivocating, before he finally says: "Old Mexico."
There's your answer, then, not Spain, and you don't know what to do with it. You know the geography of the United States. You know about New Mexico, and Four Corners National Monument.
"Old Mexico" you can't find on any map, and it's only later that it will occur to you, what this must mean.
In junior high, you have to pick a language to learn.
To your mother's eternal chagrin, your only choices are German or Spanish.
Knowing you have a built-in practice partner in the form of your dad, you pick Spanish.
You only realize your mistake when they lump you in with the class of native speakers, sorted by last name only, with no particular attention paid to how long they have been in the district.
Your mother has to come bail you out, rescue you again, and you let her.
They won't listen to you, not with your skin and your eyes and your hair, but they'll listen to your mom, who makes milk look tan.
"She's not a native speaker," your mom says in the front office. "Look at me. Listen to me. I'm her mother."
So they stick you with the dumb kids, and you get picked on anyway, by the teacher, because your accent is good and with your last name, something must have gone awry.
The first thing you learn to say, that you really memorize, is: Solo hablo ingles. Soy de los Estados Unidos.
I only speak English. I'm from the United States.
The fucked-up-ness of this doesn't escape you.
You manage to escape high school unscathed, apart from a few incidents: you're an under-represented minority, and so they want to tell you that college is within your grasp, after you've already been offered a place at some of the top schools in the country.
When you tell them this, they make you sit through the presentation on community college anyway, and you seethe at the idea that you're missing calculus for this, but you don't say anything further.
You've learned, without being told, that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, and if you want to escape without lasting emotional scars, it's better to keep your head down.
Later, when you're told that your photo hangs in the high school office, as a testament to one of the best students they ever had, you'll remember the presentation ("have you thought about completing a two-year degree?") and laugh, but it won't be with bitterness.
You escape college largely unscathed, too. You pick a field in which you know you will not shine, but you get the grades and get the degree and get a job, one that you have to move out of state for, that you quickly fall in love with and excel at, but also despair of regularly.
Whenever you go somewhere new, someone will ask you: where are you from?
The answer will never waver. You tell them the nearest city to the small town you grew up in.
I meant, where is your family from?
"Montana," you say, and wait for their confused look.
But I thought...
They want to slot you away, find a neat box to fit you into, stow you away somewhere dark and quiet, but you refuse to be slotted; refuse to be neatly stowed. You want to be remembered for achievements, and not skin color, not national origin, not some identity that they thrust upon you, and so you hide that you speak Spanish fluently, you answer "white" on all the stupid internal surveys, and if anyone says that your awards at work are due to skin color, well, God love them, because you raise hell. "Hostile work environment" shouldn't have to be part of anyone's vocabulary, but it's part of yours, and if it keeps them off your back, then so be it.
You escape adolescence unscathed, or so you think.
Your Spanish skills are mostly dying. The woman at the taqueria you love tries to talk to you in Spanish sometimes, and you humor her, talk a little at first, then switch to English as soon as you're both more comfortable. It's a conscious decision, though.
You watch as politics get worse and worse, as the personal suddenly becomes political, as merely existing becomes a revolutionary act. You watch as it shifts from I'm queer to I'm Latina being the thing that's hardest to disclose, as your grandmother starts carrying her papers with her everywhere, because "Montana" is not strictly true, not when "Montana" is where she got citizenship.
When the worst, or what people are calling the worst, begins to happen, and everyone asks, where are you from, you have a choice:
You can stick your head in the sand, decide you are apolitical, and tell people the old standby: Montana.
Or you can rise up and tell them: "I'm Chicana. My grandpa died without ever becoming a citizen."
Neither one is easy.
Which do you choose?
When your boss asks you, so, how do you identify? after you're hired on somewhere new, what do you say?
"Soy de los Estados Unidos."
I'm from the United States.
"But how do you identify?"
I am Mexican-American.
She's surprised by this, because your new-hire paperwork didn't include it.
"There wasn't a spot to indicate non-white Latino."
"I'll update the paperwork," she says. "We'll have you fill it out again."
And it is, it has to be.
A week after you tell her, after it becomes important for her to know, your boss will forward you a press release.
"FOR IMMEDIATE PUBLICATION", and then there are her remarks, in bold type.
Her thoughts on the "current situation".
The words themselves won't stick in your head, but the sentiment does:
We value you for who you are, not what you are. You are not a diversity hire. We stand with you, now, when the personal has become political, when continuing to exist and identify as you do is a revolutionary act.
When he said, "I love you", he was twenty-seven to my seventeen, and I didn't know enough to run.
"I love you too," I said, and he smiled a self-satisifed little smile, and kissed the top of my head, the way that you would a child, or a dog, someone in a position beneath yours. Someone you had control over.
At the time, I was annoyed that he didn't kiss me on the mouth.
The implications only became clear later.
At seventeen, I was too preoccupied with whether or not I was mature, or beautiful, to wonder at the fact that a 27-year-old loved me. I should have been mystified, perhaps, or confused, but I took it instead as validation: that I was beautiful; that I was mature. He told me I was, after all, and he was so much older than I was...
I didn't think anything of it, when he wanted to sleep with me. It was the way of the world, he reassured me, and that resonated with what I knew. The one high school boy I'd dated had also wanted to, and I'd said no, because I wanted the first time to be something special, more than a fumbled encounter in the basement of their parents' house. He had an apartment. He had a roommate, too, a woman I rarely saw, but knew vaguely, by her first name only.
"Allison," he introduced her to me, and once she had left: "She's old and boring."
Not like you, was the implication. You're exciting.
Naive as I was, I didn't think to question this. I was exciting. How else had I earned his affection? He'd dated other girls I knew. One of my sort-of-friends, the kind I mostly saw in school and only rarely talked to outside of classes, was rumored to have done it with him, once. She was how I'd met him, at one of the parties she held, when her disinterested parents were out of the house. She'd introduced us. "Since you're both weird."
The rumors that they'd slept together only came later, after I'd started dating him.
I wanted to ask her how it was, but I never got up the guts.
Truth be told, I was afraid of the act, myself. He claimed to understand this, said he would be patient, but still leaned on me, subtly. He asked me for "inappropriate" photos, over and over again. "Just your underwear. Nothing uncovered, nothing too immodest. I just want photos of you so, you know..."
When I declined, the first time, he heaved a sigh and told me not to be a prude. "They put pictures of women in even skimpier clothing on billboards."
Women, I thought. Not girls.
He only ever called me a girl.
I lied to my parents, to spend time with him. I said I had orchestra practice, or that I was painting sets for the school play. I would do those things, but they wouldn't take as long as I said they did. I'd drive over to his house, after I was finished with whatever I was doing, and curl up on his sofa, listen to him talk about the way the world worked. We had different ideas about that, about what our respective places were, but he told me he loved me, repeated it over and over again, that he wanted to marry me someday, "just as soon as you're old enough."
I was flattered. At seventeen, I loved him, thought he was The One. Wasn't my mother always telling me, marry your best friend? Wasn't he my best friend? Didn't we spend an hour or two every day, talking about just that?
"Pick out a ring," he said, as my birthday grew nearer and nearer. "You'll be an adult, we should..."
When I did, he told me he hadn't been serious, but: "I love how much you love me."
The push-pull dynamic of our relationship already had me hooked, by then. I should have been unhappy.
I was, but not unhappy enough to leave.
I want to say it started slow, but it didn't. He wanted someone easy to control, and he found it in me. I'd never had a boyfriend before, never done more than gone on a handful of dates with different boys in my classes and been bored by them. I didn't know what normal was, and he took advantage of that. I wanted him to love me, and all he had to do was ask.
"I think you should grow your hair out," when I'd been cutting it short for years, and I did so.
"You need to lose weight," and I shed fifteen pounds.
"I don't like your friend Rosie. I think she's trying to split us up," and I stopped talking to her.
On and on, the list went. Anything he didn't approve of, I changed, until I almost didn't recognize myself anymore.
"I'd like to think I've improved you, in the time we've been together," he told me.
I agreed. It was, after all, what he wanted me to do.
I wouldn't sleep with him. That was where I drew the line, what I would and wouldn't do.
"I don't want you to get in trouble," I told him, and that was certainly part of the fear, though there were other things, too. He wanted me on birth control, so we "wouldn't have to worry", but refused to help me pay for it, and I couldn't think of a lie to tell my parents to get it.
"I'd never leave you with a baby," he insisted, but I stayed firm.
"Not until I'm eighteen," I said.
He relented, eventually, but we both felt strange about it.
I turned eighteen in January. We'd been dating almost a year. I was looking at staying at college in state, to be near him, since he'd said he wouldn't follow me.
He didn't give me anything for my birthday. I drove over to his house, after classes let out, and knocked at the door. Allison let me in.
"He's not here," she said, pleasantly. "You can wait for him, though."
I was used to this, to waiting. I'd been doing a lot of it, especially over the last few weeks. He'd been job-hunting, he said, and so he'd been gone most days, right when I got out of practice, could come see him. I'd wait for a half hour, an hour, and he'd turn up. I didn't think anything of it.
Today, I was annoyed, but only because it was my birthday. We were supposed to have plans. I'd said we'd finally go to bed together, now that legality wasn't an obstacle, and I didn't have a lot of time.
"Actually, I wanted to talk to you," said Allison, as I sat on the sofa, compulsively checking my phone. "It's about Michael."
I looked up at her. We rarely talked. She hadn't said more than ten words to me, in the months I'd been dating him. "What about Michael?"
"How much do you know about him, Beth?"
I shrugged. "We've been dating ten months," I said. "So...enough?"
She grimaced. "Did you know he's been married before?"
I didn't. "Yes," I lied.
I blinked. "What?"
"I suppose I should say 'still married'," she said, bitterly. "It hasn't been finalized yet. I'm waiting on documents I need from him."
"Did he, or did you...?"
"I did," she said. "There was an incident, with someone else..."
I thought of the girl at the house party.
"He...does this," Allison said, quietly. "I didn't know about you until I put the pieces together, two days ago. How old are you?"
"When did you turn eighteen?"
"Um," I said. "Look, I..."
"He preys on younger women," she said. "He...you're easy to control. I know. I was one of you."
"How old are you?" I asked. I was curious. I couldn't help it.
"I'll be 29 in a month."
"So you're older than he is," I laughed. "It's not..."
She looked at me. "How old did Michael tell you he is?"
"He -- he's 27."
She nodded slowly. "Of course," she said. "Wait here a moment."
She disappeared into the back of the apartment. I watched her go, wondering what she could possibly be doing.
She emerged a moment later, a photo album in her hands.
"Look," she said, and flipped to a page in the middle. "Look..."
There they were, Michael and Allison, standing together in a photo, in front of a wedding cake. She was in a wedding dress, obviously much younger. She looked happy. He was holding a knife, to cut the cake, pretending at being oh-so-serious. He looked much the same.
The date was on a placard, on the table with the cake.
June 20th, 1995.
"I was nineteen," said Allison. "He was 27."
"Shit," I said. "I...he..."
"He's always done this," she said. "When I met him, he said he was 21. It wasn't until we signed the wedding certificate that I found out he was 27. He's 36, going to be 37 in March."
"I need to think," I said, faintly.
"Has he asked you to marry him?" pressed Allison, not unkindly. "He does that, too, you know."
"I'd be living anywhere else," she said, "except I don't have the money to break the lease, and he won't move out. It's up at the end of the month, and I'll be free."
Free. As though she was trapped now. In a way, she was.
"I wanted to warn you, though, because I know what he can do..."
"I understand," I said, rising to my feet. "Thank you."
Something broke in me, then. If I hadn't known before, I knew now: the lateness, the "looking for a job"--he was seeing someone else.
I even had an idea as to who she was.
"Are you coming?" he texted me, half an hour after I'd left the apartment.
I didn't respond.
"It's your birthday" he sent, as I walked into my bedroom, dropped my backpack on the chair. "We had plans"
I lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, ignoring the insistent chime of the phone as he sent text after text.
Before, I would have blamed myself, for why it had all gone sideways, but now...
He'd lied. About everything. About Allison, about being married, about where he was, even about the basic fact of his age.
I'd thought he was the one, and now I knew: he was just another asshole, some heel who would pretend to love me, while fucking someone else on the side.
"Fuck," I said to the ceiling. "What am I gonna do?"
I thought about the pictures, the ones he'd asked me to take. I thought about the likelihood that he had others, that there were other girls he had convinced to take off their clothes. I thought about the law, what it would say, where the line was drawn.
I thought about what it would mean, if I reported him. If I was doing the right thing, or if I was trying to ruin his life, out of spite.
He'd sent me messages, what he wanted to do to me. I'd saved them all.
I gathered up all the evidence I had, steeled myself for what would come next, and walked downstairs to tell my parents.
It would come out, in the course of the investigation, after my parents had convinced me (with little persuasion needed) to talk to the police, that there were many girls. I was one of six. There had been four before me, one concurrent. I was the oldest of them all. He had photos of the others. There was other evidence of what he'd done.
"I didn't think you had it in you to be a bitch," he emailed me, after it began. "I know I did wrong, but this is over the top. What did I do to deserve this? Why are you trying to ruin my fucking life?"
I didn't reply. I'd been told not to.
"You were always so sweet before. What happened to you?"
Sweet. Pliant. Ready to bend toward his every whim. What had happened to me?
You, I thought, and I still didn't say anything.
That was the last email, before they formally arrested him.
Allison called me, after the trial was over, once he'd been sentenced.
"I'm sure you've heard the news," she said. "I just wanted to say, um..."
There was a pause, loaded with meaning. Thank you for doing what I couldn't, maybe, or thank you for being a bitch and reporting him, now he can't hurt anyone else.
I can't remember a time before I loved music. To be honest, I'm not sure it existed. My mom isn't big on music, but my dad is. He played all his favorite recordings for me in the womb, introduced me to all of his great loves. Mom taught me about poetry, later, and art, but Dad was the one to give me music.
"I want to see you on stage someday," he told me, when I was just a kid. "I want to see you play..."
Usually he'd name something famous, for some instrument. Some piano piece I was familiar with, or something that had a really great violin part, or an amazing flute solo. Those were the three instruments he gravitated toward.
I think I surprised all of us when I picked the clarinet.
"'Flight of the Bumblebee'?" he offered. "'Rhapsody in Blue'? I don't know much else, I don't think..."
That he couldn't list any pieces, off the top of his head, was part of why I'd chosen the clarinet.
I picked clarinet because it was a safe option. I couldn't pick one of the others. Dad could play the piano better than almost anyone I knew. I was intimidated by him. He never tried to teach me (he knew better than that), and he never tried to force me. He offered to take me to lessons, at a few different points. There was a woman who lived up the street from us that he knew, back from the days when he'd moonlighted as an accompanist, but I always found excuses not to go to her. Same with the flute, and the violin: I loved music, but I was always afraid, somehow. Afraid that I wouldn't be good enough, that I wouldn't live up to his ideal; that, somehow, I'd let him down. He loved music. What if my squeaking and caterwauling didn't give way to beautiful music? What if I never got beyond "fifth grade band" good? I didn't want to ruin any of his favorites for him, afraid that if I never got to be good enough, he'd let go of me, stop calling me his daughter.
He got me a private teacher anyway, a white-haired old man who introduced himself as "Mr. B" from our first lesson, and cheerfully told me to get all my honks out "in private". He taught me about reeds and different hardnesses, what an embouchure was and how to hold my mouth, what "tonguing" meant, in the context of playing. He didn't let my dad sit in on my lessons ("save it for the recitals, George, you don't want to hear what her lessons are like"), encouraged me even when I was sure that sight-reading was going to be the death of me, pushed me, but never too hard. He was an excellent teacher.
I never told him why I picked the clarinet, and he never asked. He was happy that someone else had chosen his instrument, didn't dwell on the whys or hows of that decision. I loved him for that, too. I never had to disclose my worries to him, the little anxieties I had about my dad and being good enough.
"Big shoes to fill, eh?" he said, sometime during one of our early lessons. "Your dad..."
It was something I was used to hearing. Dad could have gone pro, really pro, if he hadn't chosen to get married and have a kid, give up all the time he'd dedicated to piano to a full-time job, no longer working part-time at the music store while trying to score auditions. Everyone who was anyone in the music circle of our city knew his name. I'd grown up hearing, "so, you're George's kid?" before I could even talk, alongside the records and everything else; had learned to say, "No, I'm Sarah's daughter" when pressed (a sign, Dad said, of my spunk and independence).
Mr. B didn't press. When I mumbled a yes, and didn't immediately volunteer that, at eleven, I already played the piano beautifully, or that I could sight-read like nobody's business, he wisely changed the subject.
"Well, you've chosen an excellent instrument," he said. "Much more portable than, say, the tuba."
I giggled, and we moved on to more early lessons in how to read music, how to finger different notes.
I never talked to Mr. B about my specific anxieties surrounding music. In a way, I think he knew, without me having to tell him. He didn't press me into auditions, didn't tell me to compete in State Solo and Ensemble when I was in high school. He let me come to my own decisions about what I would and wouldn't do. Yes, I would audition for the woodwind ensemble that met after school, and yes, I would compete to see if I could get the cadenza in the piece we were playing for the spring concert, but no, I wouldn't go out for musical pit, and up until senior year, I didn't go to compete at State. Mr. B accepted my decisions, even as Dad questioned them, and the worries lifted as soon as I entered his practice rooms.
"You love it," he said. "I can see that. So..."
So, he didn't say, I don't need to push you. You'll do just fine without my specific guidance. You're not one of the ones I have to worry about.
The worries I held should have dissipated over time, maybe, should have been replaced entirely by love of what I did, but somehow, that never quite happened.
Dad picked up more work as an accompanist, around the time I started to realize that I maybe wasn't so bad at clarinet after all. He said to help pay for my lessons. Mom said it was because he loved playing and had missed being able to play on something better than the old upright piano in our living room.
Somehow, I'd never really played for him.
One of the big disagreements I'd had with Dad was whether I was going to let him come to my recitals or not. I hadn't performed in any, the first four or so years I was taking lessons from Mr. B. I let Dad come to the school concerts, but those were different. School concerts didn't involve clarinet solos, and when they did, I would mysteriously get the dates wrong for the concert, so Dad couldn't come after all. Recitals were different.
The first four years, I didn't perform in any recitals. Mr. B encouraged me to, gently, but as soon as I made it clear that I was flat-out terrified of playing at anything my dad might show up to, he let it drop.
"Parental pressure can be hard, hmm?" he said.
Dad mumbled something about paying for lessons and wanting to see what I was getting out of them, but Mom always shut him up.
"You can't force her to do something she's not comfortable with, George."
He bristled at this, but since there was not much that could be said (not without making it sound as though he was going to force me), he let it go.
I thought about inviting him to one or two, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to. It was the elephant in the room: he wanted to come, on some level I wanted him to come, but I couldn't connect the dots and get over myself long enough to make it happen.
"I'm good," I'd tell myself. "Maybe not Julliard good, but how many people are? I'm good. I'm first chair in school, second chair in the entire city, I've gotten perfect scores at State Solo and Ensemble, and I've gotten into every group I've ever auditioned for. How much more of a yardstick do I need? I should tell him to come to the next recital."
And then I'd heard Dad goofing off on the piano in the evenings, and I would lose my nerve, every time.
I loved it, more than almost anything.
I didn't love it enough to let him hear me.
I didn't think anything could weather that.
Senior year of high school, when we were supposed to be picking where we wanted to go to college and what we wanted to major in, Mr. B asked me about my plans.
"I don't know," I said. "I was thinking, maybe I'll be undeclared for a while? I want to audition for the non-major woodwind ensemble though, and the orchestra, so I'm going to need help picking audition pieces..."
"Use your State solo piece," he said. He paused a moment. "Though, if you're already thinking about going out for two musical groups, I'd strongly suggest you think about majoring in music."
I fidgeted in my chair, pretended to adjust my reed. "I'm just not sure what I could do, if I majored in music."
"You'd have a few different options," said Mr. B. He elucidated them for me: performance (trying to scrape by on a musician's salary, which he thought I might be able to do, because he still had contacts with our city orchestra, and while it wasn't world-renowned, it still paid), teaching (privately or on the middle or high school levels), or minoring in something "useful" and using that as a fallback.
"I know the current lead clarinet for the city symphony," he offered. "If you want to talk to someone about what your path might look like. I'd suggest talking to your father first, though."
I looked up at him, surprised. "My dad?"
"He had to make the same choice, didn't he?"
"Talk to him, Patricia," he urged. "You're facing a remarkably similar choice to his."
"Okay," I said.
We picked up the lesson again.
At the end, Mr. B hugged me. "It's February," he said. "Our time together is nearly at an end. Another six months, maybe, and by then..."
By then I would have started college, and I would either have found a new mentor, someone to help me through the music program, or I would have decided to give it up.
I hugged my clarinet case close to my chest, thought about the beautiful wooden instrument inside, that felt like an extension of me, not merely an instrument.
"Can we delay thinking about it?" I asked. "I haven't declared yet, so..."
"Of course," said Mr. B. "Have a good weekend. I'll see you Tuesday. Remember to practice the glissando in the piece I assigned you for technical work!"
"And talk to your dad," he reminded me. "He really does have a lot of input on this."
I felt the old fear gnawing away in the pit of my stomach again, suddenly.
"Um," I said. "I'll talk to hi--"
"Good," said Mr. B, not letting me finish. "Do it. See you Tuesday."
I danced around the thought of talking to Dad for a few days. I figured, if I asked him, that meant I had to play for him, and I wasn't sure if I was up for that. What if I honked through the entire performance? What if he told me I was never going to match up to his expectations of me?
I'd picked clarinet specifically to avoid letting him down. That was the dark secret at the center of why I'd chosen the instrument I had fallen in love with, the one flaw in the otherwise beautiful relationship I had with music. It ate at me. I didn't know how to get around it.
Finally, I sucked it up. I talked to him while he was goofing around on the piano, teasing Mom by playing little snippets of songs they both remembered, the first few bars of one song melting into another, just having fun.
He played a few bars of something at my mom, then turned and looked at me. "Got a request, Pat?"
"I wanted to talk to you, actually."
He stopped playing, swiveled around on the office chair he used instead of a real piano bench, ever since his back had started bothering him the year before. "What is it?"
"Mr. B thinks I should major in music, and I was wondering what you thought."
"Ah," he said. "Well, yes. But pick a useful minor, just in case you decide you want to do something else."
I blinked. I hadn't thought the conversation would go this way. "I thought..."
"You're talented," Dad said. "You love it. Why not do it?"
"I got married very young," he said, and smiled at Mom. "You, however, unless there's someone we haven't met, aren't likely to do that. Plus, you're more talented than I was, and good clarinetists are much rarer than competent pianists."
"You've never even heard me play!" I blurted. I couldn't help myself.
"Pat," said Mom. "Your bedroom isn't exactly soundproofed. We've heard you, over the years."
"Practicing isn't the same as really playing though," I said stubbornly. "You've heard every honk, every squeak, ever swear word..."
"Including some we didn't know," murmured my mother gently.
"I figured that you'd tuned it out. I tried to practice when you weren't home. I tried..."
Dad stood up and hugged me suddenly.
"I never figured I'd be, well, good."
"That was never the point," said Dad, as he let go. "I didn't want to show you off. I knew you loved music as much as I did. I remember when you were a baby, and I used to put on Tchaikovsky, and you'd ask me to play it over and over again..."
"Romeo and Juliet," I said. "Yeah."
"I wanted you to have that same love," he continued. "And you obviously seemed to love it, so who was I to worry that you didn't want me at your recitals? I could hear you at home, anyway, and you sounded great."
"Thanks," I said. I swallowed hard, suddenly close to tears. "I'll think about it."
Eight months later, I am waiting nervously backstage at the university, warmed up and ready to go on, fiddling with my mouthpiece and practicing tricky fingering runs silently, mentally bracing myself for my solo.
"It's time," says the concert mistress, and we all file out in unison. I settle into my seat, and prepare myself for what's to come next.
"A few words before we start out performance," says our conductor. "This is our first concert of the season. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Philharmonic group, we're strictly music-majors only and highly competitive. This year, we had three hundred students audition, and twenty chosen to perform with us."
He continues on, repeating what's already in the program, and I sigh. I simultaneously want this to be over with, even as I don't want it to end. I focus on the sheet music in front of me, don't look out into the audience to find Dad. I know he's there, with Mom, somewhere in the third row. He texted me while I was warming up.
A rustle of pages, and we're due to start. The conductor nods at the concert mistress, and we begin.
I lift the clarinet to my mouth, lick the reed, and the old fear vanishes, replaced by a sense of rightness.
I love music.
I love my dad.
The old anxiety is gone. Only the love remains, and I know, finally, that I've made him proud.
Dar told me, on our first date, that I was the sort of person her parents would hate.
"Not that I care, I just..." she started, then stopped, drew a breath. "Look. I like you a lot. It's been an issue in the past, and so I'm warning you now: I'm out to my parents, and they're all right with parts of it, but other parts..."
I didn't know what she meant at the time, what it was going to mean. What out but not out-out meant.
I told her it was okay, that I hadn't talked to my own parents since I'd come out, years ago. "Because, you know, with the whole religious thing, they think I'm going to Hell, and I can't convince them that I'm happy, so if you can keep your family..."
She nodded like she understood, and it didn't come up again.
She didn't let me meet them until we'd been together a year. "You need to be prepared."
"I'm sure it'll be fine. I think I can hold my own."
I did, but only just.
"Isn't Alex a boy's name?" asked her dad, first thing, and I just shrugged.
"It's short for Alexandra," I told him.
"I used to know an Alexandra," he said, stuffily. "She went by Lexie."
The unspoken question: so why don't you?, and I dodge it with a true story: "I used to, but there are some unfortunate things that rhyme with Lexie, and I started going by Alex in junior high."
I could see him think, when I said this. He laughed after a moment.
"Let me get you a drink, Alex," he said, and I knew that was as close to acceptance as I was going to get. I saw Dar relax when he said it.
When he disappeared into the kitchen, she let out a sigh and squeezed my hand.
"I think you'll be all right," she said. What she meant was, I think we'll be all right.
"Yeah," I said. "I think so."
That dinner went smoothly, and the ones after it, and slowly we were invited to all the Sunday dinners, the little family events. We didn't have my family, but we had hers, and I could feel the pull, every time she asked me if I wanted to go: is this all right?
I knew what she wanted me to say; knew what had to happen to keep everyone happy.
"Of course? Why wouldn't it be?"
So we went, to every event, and answered every invitation with a yes, unless we had a reason not to.
So we keep going.
Every time we visit, I'm struck by how we all keep dancing around the topic. It's all right that their daughter is a lesbian. They've managed to wrap their heads around this. What they fear is that she'll date someone who doesn't look like their idea of a woman.
Whenever we go visit her family, I keep my hair down, try to dress feminine, or feminine enough, don't correct people when they use she and her. It's not a place for other pronouns, not somewhere I can pull my hair back, or hide it under a hat. I'd have cut it all off a long time ago, except she told me, sort of sadly, that if I did...
"They accept it, you know," she says, and waves a hand. Meaning, that I'm a lesbian. "They couldn't accept..."
The more generic label: queer. They don't like in-betweens. Black and white, and no shades of gray, or rainbow.
"They'd rather I was seeing a man, but, you know, they've come around on this, I don't want to push too much..."
So we dance around the edges, and I pay no mind to the whispers in the kitchen, questions about how I'm dressed, the lack of makeup.
"We have to stay one step ahead," she says, and I listen to her, because I love her, and I know how important her family is. It's one night a week. "Someday I'll tell them..."
"Doesn't it bother you?" asks someone in the support group we're both part of. "You know. You came out, your parents disowned you, and now if you really come out to her family..."
"No," I say. "It doesn't bother me."
"It should," and the subject is dropped.
I want to say, sometimes it does.
Sometimes I find myself wondering what life would be like, if I could be honest with her family. If I could cut my hair the way I wanted to, wear the clothes I want to, put on my binder when I feel like it. I know that she loves me for who I am; that she fell in love with me because I don't conform, and I don't question whether this means she wants a femme girlfriend, but sometimes...
It comes to a head around the holidays.
"Darcy, you and Alexandra are invited to the family Christmas party. Jim's going to propose to Stephanie, so please dress accordingly,” says the message from her mom.
“For pictures,” she says. “If she says yes, they’re going to take a bunch of photos. The party is usually semi-formal anyway, and I’m pretty sure Stephanie knows what to expect.”
“I don’t even own a dress.”
“You can borrow something, maybe from Janine? I think you’re both the same size. She’s a fourteen, too.”
“No, I don’t…” I pause. “Look, we’ve compromised a lot on this. I have nice clothes that aren’t a dress. Can we please…”
“It’s important to them,” she says. “Like. Appearances are the most important thing. You know I love you because of who you are, not in spite of it, but this is...different.”
Please don’t make me choose, her eyes say. Please don’t tell me I have to choose between you and my family.
“Fine. I’ll text Janine.”
I find a dress that I can wear without feeling like I’m being strangled around the middle. I leave my binder off. I let my hair down. I don’t put on makeup, but they don’t expect me to, these days.
I stand in front of the bathroom mirror and stare at the reflection of myself, suddenly transported back to high school, closeted and unhappy.
“Are you ready?” comes Dar’s voice from the living room. “I’ll go warm up the car, if you are.”
There’s a pair of clippers in the drawer. I bought them when I first came out, when I told everyone who I was by buzzing my head.
“I need a few minutes,” I tell her. “Go warm up the car; I’ll be ready when it is.”
When I meet her in the car ten minutes later, I’m wearing lipstick.
“You look, um,” she starts, lamely. “Nice?” She wants to ask about the makeup, and I can tell, but she’s polite enough not to ask.
“Thanks,” I say. I think silently about the pile of hair in the bathroom trashcan and grin. The undercut I’ve given myself is ragged and imperfect, but it’ll do to keep me centered until I can clean it up after the party.
Jim proposes to Stephanie. Her parents see that I’m wearing a dress, for the first time since they’ve known me, and compliment me carefully on it. No one notices the hair, and I feel like I’m getting away with something.
“Thanks for keeping the peace,” Dar says, in the car, and I smile again.
“I gave myself an undercut.”
“In the bathroom, while you were warming up the car.” I lift my hair and show her. “It’s not quite what I would want, but…”
“Compromise,” she says. “One step ahead.”
“I figure, if they accept this…”
“You’re moving the goalposts,” she says. “Making it okay.”
“So that eventually we can tell them.”
“Yes,” Dar says, and it’s the answer I want to hear.
[A quick explanation.]I know nothing about hockey, but when I read the quote, I was reminded of how my own relationship with my family has changed over time: how it went from, "if you ever come out to us, it's going to be a huge problem" to now where we basically all acknowledge I'm queer, but it's not something we talk about. I've managed to avoid conflict mostly by staying one step ahead and gently changing our dynamic: never quite forcing my parents to sit up and go, "our daughter is queer! Our daughter has a complicated relationship with gender identity!", but pushing just enough and staying one step ahead, recognizing patterns and knowing what will be acceptable and let me be true to myself, and what will not be.
When does it start? Is it when you're five, and you're being tortured by the other children, some kind of strange, bullying game, because you're too soft-hearted to know that they don't like you, that nothing you do will make them like you, there is no right answer? Is that when the switch is turned, or does it come later, when the teacher comes to rescue you (or so you think), and instead of telling them off, punishing them, punishes you, for crying, because, "they wouldn't do it if you didn't cry"?
Is that when you learn?
Your parents only reinforce it. "Don't cry, or I'll give you something to cry about," and the assertion of violence that contains.
It's supposed to be in reference to tantrums, but for two people who never wanted to have children, who only did so because it was expected of them, any show of emotion that is not unbridled happiness might as well be a tantrum.
"She's so cold," your mother says, later, of you, to acquaintances. "She never wants me to touch her, never wants to snuggle, the way her sister does..."
She doesn't mention the lessons that she's been slowly enforcing, that kindness is weakness; that to show emotion of any kind is to burden others with it, no one wants a blubbering mess in a time of sadness, everyone wants the calm man in a crisis.
When you, at eight, start crying sporadically, in times of stress, the school counselor suggests a bribe. "If she can go four weeks without crying..."
You pick out a doll. You'll be allowed to have her, if you don't cry.
You somehow manage not to, despite being bullied by one of the teachers, someone who had your older sibling and all the trials and tribulations teaching them contained, and is now taking it out on you.
You hold it together, even as she says you'll never amount to anything. You want that doll. More than that, though, you don't want to be punished, and it's been implied that punishment is what will await you if you have another breakdown, have to leave the classroom yet again.
You earn the doll.
You never play with her, choosing instead to let her sit in her basket, cold and unloved.
Even at eight, almost nine, you recognize the parallels, though you don't have the words for them.
When your aunt dies, and you don't cry, when you give the eulogy at the funeral, because she was the closest thing you had to a mother, everyone offers their condolences, but no one tells you to cry, no one says it's unnatural not to.
They praise you, instead, for holding the family together.
When your favorite uncle dies, you don't cry. You drive yourself to the funeral and see your mother cry for the first time, sobbing through the service, and you wonder, uncomfortable, what's wrong with you, because your mother, whom you have never seen cry before, is bawling, while you can't bring yourself to shed any tears.
"Thank you," she says, after the service is over, when she rides to the graveyard with you, because she's not sure she's capable of driving, and you're not sure just what she's thanking you for.
You drift further into adulthood. You don't cry. You can't bring yourself to show any emotion, not really.
At work, you're praised for being cool and logical.
Inwardly, you're not in turmoil, exactly, but you're not what anyone would call "calm": a twist of naked anxiety fills the pit of your stomach every time you have to clock in.
You're promoted, you win awards, you're praised for all that you do, but no one would call you happy, and you don't believe you are, yourself.
"You're so cold," your mother complains, after your father dies, and she tries to convince you that she should move in with you. "Sometimes I feel like I'm living with a houseplant."
You bristle at this, and who wouldn't, but she tells you to calm down. "It was just a joke, Lisa. Get over it."
You help her find a place in an assisted living facility, once it's clear that the arrangement isn't working for either of you. She calls you cold again, unfeeling, but without any venom behind it.
"It's just how you are, isn't it?" she says. "You always were a dutiful kid."
Neither of you comments on that further. You visit her twice a week, bringing activities that you can engage in with a minimum amount of talking, and you don't discuss your relationship with her, or her relationship with your older brother, whom neither of you ever see.
When she dies, you arrange her funeral with a minimum of amount of fuss.
Others sob through the service, but you're perfectly calm.
You meet someone.
It goes about as well as can be expected, for you. You let your guard down a little. You're happy around him; you're warm, you're affectionate. You're as friendly and outgoing as you ever are, not twisting away from his touch (so foreign to you, someone touching you, unexpected in its intensity, its pleasure), and you make an effort to be better than how you have been raised; to be kinder, sweeter, more thoughtful. You do things for him, to show him that you love him, because acts of service are the only love-language you recognize, and you slowly adjust yourself to life with another person. You manage to be more than a houseplant, to him, but it's still not enough.
"It's okay to cry," he says, when terrible things happen. "It's a normal, human response."
You tell him about your childhood, your upbringing, the difficulty you have showing any emotion, being the extremely affectionate, extremely loving partner he desires. You agree to try therapy, and you go to a few sessions, but when it's not immediately successful, when the therapist says it will be years of work because there are years of undoing, he loses patience.
It doesn't happen all at once. He tells you again and again that it's all right to cry, tries to prod you into showing any emotion, anything at all, beyond the small joy that you've grown to enjoy sharing with him, the minor amounts of irritation or frustration or anger that you occasionally let out about work. "It's all right to be sad," he says, and there's a note of irritation in his voice as he says it, as if he's asking, why don't you cry? Why can't you? What have I signed up for?, and so you can't bring yourself to believe him.
That's why it comes crashing down, later.
"I'm not sure you even love me," he says, exasperated. He packs up his things and goes, and he doesn't respond to your calls or texts after that.
Another lesson, this time learned too late, and badly: once you start to cry, you can't stop, and there's precious little that will bring him back, now that he's gone.
"Cold," echoes your mother's voice in your head, as soon as the tears stop. "Like living with a houseplant," and you laugh, even as you're crying, at the bitter irony of her, of all people, having been the one to complain the most.
The ability to divine the future, or at least the claim to be able to divine the future, runs in the family. My grandmother used to say that she could tell when someone was going to die, because she'd dream about them, the night before they passed.
"Yeah," I giggled as a kid, when my dad came home, heaved a big sigh, and said that my aunt was the next doomed to die. "She dreams that she's the one that does it."
She had a low hit rate, something like one out of three at best and only if you fudged the numbers slightly, ignoring that the only people that had died after she'd said they were going to were already old and sick, so I didn't feel guilty joking about it. My aunt was in good health, anyway, and when Dad called her to tell her, she just laughed.
"Well, I had a dream I lived to be a hundred and six. Guess we'll see which of us wins."
She didn't die. Neither did the next three healthy people Grandma said were due to kick the bucket.
"Oh, I've got a powerful feeling," she wailed. "The dreams I've been having..."
And all of us rolled our eyes and didn't say a word.
My little sister claimed, once she hit her teens, that it had skipped a generation. It hadn't hit Dad or his sisters, Betty and Dot, but it had hit her like a ton of bricks.
"I can tell you what you need to know, Tad," she intoned at me, shuffling a battered tarot deck from hand to hand. "It's all here in the cards..."
The cards, she said, could tell her anything, from whether or not Addie would go to the dance with me (the cards said no, but she said yes when I asked her), to which college I would get into (Clemson didn't want me, unlike what the cards said, but I got into the local community college, no problem, and it all worked out in the end). I asked her questions mostly to humor her, because otherwise she'd get pissed and tell me I'd never believed in her, and that was the last thing I wanted, being the only boy in a house full of girls, and the middle child to boot, so I'd roll my eyes and ask away.
"Focus on your question..." she'd say, as she did the reading. "Think about what you want the spirits to answer."
I didn't think that "the spirits" had much to do with tarot, but I knew fuck-all about it, so I shrugged and focused anyway.
That they were never right was sort of the point. I knew that no matter what the cards told me, to plan on the opposite. I put down a deposit on a tux when they said Addie wouldn't go out with me; applied to the local schools when it said I'd get into my dream school. It was useful, in a way, and it kept Hayley happy, gave her something to do, to practice using her "powers", as she called them.
"Oh," she'd say, and shiver in an exaggerated sort of way. "Feels like someone walked over my grave. The spirits want to tell you something..."
And then she'd whip out the cards, and I'd let her do a reading, and that would be the end of it.
She made money in high school, that way, doing readings for different people. She practiced on me, and then I guess she started telling people what they wanted to hear, because she made a pretty penny doing it. She stopped bothering me as much, too, which was nice, since I was in college by that point and didn't have time to humor her anymore.
Once the readings stopped, we stopped talking about all the woo-woo junk she dabbled in, the books about kitchen witchery and divining your own future. She tossed most of 'em after her first serious boyfriend dumped her, muttering something about how it was all bullshit. I figured it was cos the cards had told her he was The One, and she'd walked in on him getting a blowjob from her best friend, so obviously they were wrong. I knew better than to ask, though, and we never discussed the switch that was flipped, her sudden return to the rational and practical. If I'm being honest, we didn't talk much at all. I had a good job by that point, working for one of the big oil companies, and she was working as a CNA to pay the bills while she went to school to get her nursing degree. We'd both grown up. Grandma had died years before, having failed to predict her own death, and Hayley didn't do card readings anymore, so there was nowhere it might have come up, no way to naturally introduce the topic. I figured she'd stopped believing for her own reasons, had finally admitted it was bullshit, until the night she called me.
"Tad," she said, when I picked up. "Whatever you do, next time you're on the highway and you see a green Subaru, don't drive behind it."
"What the fuck?"
"I have a bad feeling," she said. "Like, you know, when we were kids and Grandma said she could tell someone was gonna die?"
"Yeah. You had a bad dream?"
She hesitated. I could hear the static on the line. "Yeah," she said finally. "A dream. Humor me anyway. If you see a Subaru, don't drive behind it."
"Green," I said. "Right. Well. I'll keep it in mind."
"Just humor me," she repeated. "It's a small thing, isn't it?"
Having exacted the closest thing to a promise she was likely to get from me, she hung up without saying anything else.
I shrugged, and hung up myself.
I probably would have forgotten it, but...
Next morning, my boss let me know he needed me to drive to a different site.
"Some big to-do over there this morning, they need an extra man. I said you could help."
I groaned. It was a forty mile drive, one I didn't feel like making.
"We'll reimburse you for mileage," said my boss. "Get on it."
I felt like keeping my job, so I didn't argue, just loaded into my car and headed out south. Got onto the highway without any issues, started driving, and then I saw it, one car ahead of me: a green Subaru Outback with PA plates.
"Lord," I said, and I thought over what to do.
I didn't have to think very hard, because the car that was between us got over and got off the freeway in two exits, leaving only me behind the Subaru.
As soon as the other car got off, I had a horrible feeling. A full-body coldness, a shudder, as though, like Hayley had always said, someone had walked over my grave.
"Shit," I said, pretty sure I was going to puke, and I changed lanes, pulled over onto the shoulder, climbed out of the car, and dry-heaved.
I sat for a minute, then, once I was sure I wasn't going to hurl after all, climbed back into the car and started driving again.
Before I knew it, I'd caught up to the Subaru again.
Again, the same feeling, though I powered through it. I changed lanes, so I wasn't right behind it, more off to the side of it, and felt better.
"Goddamn Hayley for making me worry about this shit," I muttered, and that helped me feel better, too.
Twenty miles to the job site, then ten, then five, and...
It was foggy, near the job site. Freezing fog, the radio said. Nasty stuff, black ice on the roads. Difficult to recognize, if you weren't from around our area. The kind of thing you wouldn't expect, if you were only visiting from out of state. No snow and roads that looked wet, not icy, made things treacherous.
Something small and furry ran across the road. I couldn't tell what it was, clearly, though the long tail looked like it didn't have any fur on it, so it was likely a possum. Whatever it was, that green Subaru slammed on their brakes to avoid hitting it, hit an icy patch, and did a 180. I could just make out the look on the other driver's face, the "oh shit" as they realized they were suddenly facing the wrong way, in the middle of the highway, the sudden fear as they looked for oncoming traffic, the inevitable.
There was no one behind him. The relief, when he realized that, must have been palpable.
He got his bearings again, got the car back facing the right way, started driving again. It took him a second. I watched him fumble with his seatbelt, adjusting it, probably, after the near-miss, and once I knew he was fine, that there was no danger, I let out a sigh and got going again myself.
It occurred to me, about thirty seconds after I'd started driving again, how close it had come to being me that was behind them, me hitting their car head-on.
"Shit," I said, and I had to pull over to dry-heave again.
I called Hayley when I got to the job site.
"Thanks for that tip about the green Subaru," I said. "Just watched them do a 180 in the middle of the freeway. Would have hit them head on if it wasn't for your advice, totaled my car."
"Yeah," she replied, distracted. "You're welcome."
There was an awkward pause, before I tried to ask: "How did you..." I started. I couldn't bring myself to finish.
"Well," she said. "It was just a bad feeling. In the dream I had, you didn't die, but they weren't wearing a seatbelt, and you had to watch them die. I figured you could live without that."
"Uh," I said, thinking about the fumbling the other driver had done with his seatbelt before he got going again. "Thanks."
"Yeah," said Hayley. "No problem. I'll talk to you later. I'm on break but it's just about up, and I don't want to get busted with my phone out."
"Thanks," I repeated. I wasn't sure what else to say.
She snorted. "Yeah," she said. "Fucking possums."
I didn't know what to say to that.
Hayley's never had a dream like that since. I've never had any like it either, though I pay attention to mine now, just in case they're trying to tell me something.
Dad once told me not to take a flight into Galveston, when my boss wanted me to, because of some dream he'd had. I listened to him, though far as I could tell, nothing happened.
I'm a little more superstitious these days, but not much else has changed.
I still hate possums. Whenever I see one, I get that weird shivery feeling, as though someone's stepped on my grave, but I don't think it's their fault.
It's an acknowledgment, maybe, of how close I came to killing someone else. How bad that could have been.