If you are a child looking into the flames trapped up in the wood stove that keeps your paltry house warm against screen-door rattling winds, it is okay to wonder for a moment what those flames would feel like if they lapped at your fingertips. It is, I daresay, normal to fantasize about bodily harm at your age. You are just learning that you are as human as anyone else. Do not trust anyone who claims they have never once had the urge to put their hand through fire. They are lying to you. They may have good reason to do so, but they are lying just the same.
Your parents are keepers of a horrible secret. You are complicit, even if you don’t know what it is you are so uneasy about letting slip. Is it about you, some disaster or crime of your birth or conception? Maybe. Is it an unspoken memory of a single glance of absolute hatred, observed by one, knowingly or unknowingly perpetrated by the other, either way, still unaddressed? Likely. Is it about a dead kid, goat or human, that no one can quite forgive or place blame for? That is just as possible.
Know that children die sometimes of accidents or of illness. They drown. They get cancer. They fall from trees or into wells. But mostly, they drown.
Know also that some parents have no qualms with their dead and living children sharing bedrooms, pajamas, or even names. Check your bedroom shelves for soccer trophies and trinkets you do not remember winning or stealing that your parents claim belong to you. There will be a porcelain doll with perfect twin pigtails and thick eyelashes that curve into two black fans. She will be dusted and clean, as though from regular use. You will ask about her often and your parents will exchange a look over the edge of your father’s mask of shaving cream. She is too expensive, just a decoration. You will know eventually that you are not allowed to touch her, ever. This will not bother you as much as you think it will. One day you will be able to pretend that you cannot feel her glassy eyes following your comings and goings.
Your father will give you regular beatings and you will come to know when you deserve them. The beatings will not be meant to harm you. They will begin to seem only as inconvenient as dentist’s appointments. You will learn to scream in theatrical protest against not quite convincing blows that prove that your father is more exhausted by his secrets than he is by your antics. As you run up the stairs in mock indignation, you will promise to run away forever the moment the first bruise blooms. But, a tray outside the door will beckon to you before they have a chance to appear. A tall glass, sides thick with chocolate syrup is all it will take. Sandwiches your mother spent time cutting the crusts from will be too tempting.
You will go on your very first train trip with the intent of buying your very first fuzzy, blue angora sweater from the City. You will meet a man on the train. He will be of immediate and confusing interest no matter how he treats you, or whether he tries to touch you with thick, country soap-washed fingers with bristles of dry skin that you assume would not feel dissimilar to a beard. That will be the same of any of the men you may or may not meet on this specific train ride: the same kind of soap. But he may only sit across from you and fall asleep with his nose dripping in a mucous yo-yo, long breaths fogging the insides of the window. He may not stir no matter how much you wish and fear that he would come to and do something awful and shocking and wanted that could pull the cloying ache of teenage girlhood out to the other side of itself. When you return, your mother will ask you how the trip went. You will tell her about the pineapple sundae you ate, watch her run her palms over the arms of the pink sweater you ended up with. You will not talk about the man or else it will mean she was right about the world, or at the very least, the four-square blocks surrounding the train station from which you were too frightened to stray. The fuzz will come off in pills after the sweather’s first wash.
Time will pass. You will grow from a girl to a woman and feel very much the same about it. Bras will be a relief and a curse, as they mean you are beginning to be taken more and less seriously.
You will find that the things you are supposed to be the most grateful for are the things that most embarrass you. The college education you attain through extensive need based scholarship, the job you find caring for an eighty-five-year old lung cancer patient who will leave you an enormous raincoat hideously durable enough to never require repair, and part of an enormous fortune she never mentioned to you. The love of your doting boyfriend who compares you to meek browed washerwomen and shepherdesses and minor goddesses will become far less interesting when cryptic love letters begin appearing between the pages of your library books. They will be your favorite secret to tell when they follow you from town to town for years to come.
Graduation. Learning to drive. A fear of taxidermy. Cleaning hotel rooms. A news clipping about the day local children found a floating car in their camp lake with a dead optometrist bloating out the front window like a calm and grotesque balloon. Scattering your father’s ashes from a bridge other than the one he requested. You will realize if you don’t have the money to fly to Scotland ten years after his death, you never will. Marriage. Divorce. No particular order for any of these things. You will remember the events differently every time, altering cause and effect for years to come. It is your story.
You will have a brother. Or maybe you will have a sister. It will matter both profoundly and not at all which. They to the wayside of every narrative because this story is about you. You will grow apart. When you are old enough to be only described as ‘unwed,’ they will not be surprised, after all these years, when you knock on their door after traveling across the country from a home now uninhabitable for reasons you would never discuss with them. They or their spouse will make a fuss of laying out an extra towel and linens in the guest room. Knowing they have excess to give out of spite will seem a greater injustice than whatever it is you fled. You will sleep prostrate, on top of the sheets, as not to give them the pleasure of seeing physical evidence of whatever filth they sense radiating from your skin.
You will move to a town because your first husband points to it on a map. It will not matter where this town is, only that it is across the country, sufficient enough distance to drive his luxury car and leave tracks of watching, jealous eyes. He will have grown restless in the praise of the familiar. You will be dismayed to find yourself agreeing with him. It will be the first twinge of anti-love you can put your thumb on and push like an ejection button. He will find a job in a factory that is satisfying in its masculinity. You will not work, not here. This will be a part of your life you will characterize with a love of gardening you are never able to recapture.
In this new town, people are sometimes decapitated by industrial equipment. They will return as ghosts, but not until many years later. This is also normal. Townspeople warn you that there will not be any place to go that the ghost of your husband will not follow, but you will know that already. You will take your husband’s car and drive elsewhere anyway. You will take with you a tulip bulb and the folded address of the factory floor manager who picked your husband’s head up in a sweater and put it on ice to send home. You will promise to call on him if you need anything, anything at all, even someone to blame. You will slip it in the pocket of your raincoat.
You will drive. You will stop. You will leave your husband’s car at a gas pump because you are just too tired to bother with it anymore. You will board a bus. You will not miss the car as much as you think you will because you will miss looking out the window.
You will have sex with a man on this bus and will be more embarrassed about being a woman who is unsurprised by such a proposal than by the act itself; you will ask him to start and stop many times as you try to trick yourself into being appalled at the publicness of it all. He will run off the bus when you stop at a rest stop, belt flapping, to buy more condoms and you will laugh when he comes back with an economy sized box— who do you think you are? You will not cringe at his youth, but rather at the fact that he is a man your mother would refer to as exotic. When you will try to describe him to your daughter ( his daughter, too) she will point out that you describe his features in terms of food. Coffee skin. Caramel eyes. Licorice hair. You will feel pained that the English language cannot allow you to forget that you consumed him.
None of the men you will meet for brief periods after that will be interested in hearing about your dreams. Dramatic scenes of falling down your kitchen drain, going to your daughter’s parent-teacher conference naked. Robert, Samuel, Rahim, Clemson, Gavin, others. You will not love or even particularly like them, and you will often forget why you let them in the house in the first place. When you try to get them to talk about their dreams, they will pick at the frayed edges of your patchwork quilts with bored fingers. It is when the holes get noticeable that you will decide you don’t want them to touch you anymore.
Your daughter will be a confusing thing. You once believed that being a little girl once would make you an expert in little girls. This will not be the case. You will carry around a tote of crayons and coloring books long after she needs that type of entertainment. She will walk and run and pout and lie on the couch upside down, soles of her feet planted firmly against the acanthus wallpaper, and ask questions, but will be content in the life of singleness and fifth floor walk-ups supported by a job at a bookstore run by someone who used to know you through a vague family connection (this country is smaller than you once thought in the years you spent driving back and forth across it. You can find your people anywhere.)
You will realize out the man from the bus is not her father at all. He will be a man named Jim who was a visitor, soon after. You tore down the wallpaper with him and repainted your room in a velvety red. How could you forget? You will get in touch with him when you remember this essential fact of being, revealed to you in the extended moment when your spoon is between the honey jar and your cup of tea. You will introduce him to his daughter. He will bring a gift and it will go better than you anticipated or hoped. He will become a family furnishing, if not a family member.
You and your daughter will go through parallel stages of very different types of puberty. She will scream and pull at her hair and pound her matchstick thighs with her fists and blame you. Her face will glow red with shame and zits, but you will have the advantage of knowing she will molt into something beautiful. You will have a second puberty that is less kind, less fair. Your teeth will begin to press forward in a riot. Your hair will pepper and frizz in all weather, and the intersection between your stomach and your two legs will converge into something that will require traffic signs to navigate in a mirror. You will grow older and less beautiful, just like any other human would. You will not buy creams or salves because it does not seem important to spend money on those things when you could spend it on handmade pottery or long-distance phone calls or things to help your daughter through her more painful transformations. But catching your reflection in the mirror, the ordinariness of someone who makes grape jelly and goes to PTA meetings will be a stabbing pain between your ribs because you know you used to be exceptional, somehow.
One day you will lose her in the grocery store. You will turn around to tell her about how you used to grow tomato plants, grow them high in the town of decapitated factory workers (at this point, the ghost of your first husband will have taken residence in the front hall of your apartment. He will be a low maintenance haunting who you walk by and ask to hold your umbrella.) But she will not be there. You will stand on your toes and peer into the endless hallways of the supermarket. You will have no idea when she stopped listening, but will be a little hurt she was not listening to you. You will have raised her to be your best friend.
And so you will run, will weave in and out of cheese displays, knocking over a pyramid of cantaloupes as you turn a corner. Adults will stare aghast as your hips check against the sides of their grocery carts and their wet-lipped children will remain fixated on the promise of candy if they don’t say a word. Every man wearing a long coat becomes a suspect and you scream at them and their carts of frozen meals and club soda, but they are used to being accused of things by angry women and they will say nothing either. You will glare down each aisle and have the desire to cuss out every stranger with the audacity to not be your daughter.
You will find her in the cereal aisle, scaling the shelves. She will be clambering for a last box of shredded wheat. You will grab her by her waist and pull her down, flailing limbs at all, and you will yell and yell at her for scaring you like that, for not understanding that the world is frightening and bad sometimes even though it isn’t her fault. The fifteen seconds of panic will make you into a monster, and you will be unsure if you are angrier at her for vanishing, or at yourself for being so unreasonable. You will have taught her about kidnappings because they will have premiered nightly in the dreams you tried to tell men. You will have taught her to swim, so you know that she can stay afloat, at least wherever there is water.
But in the end it is nothing like that. She will hand the shredded wheat to the older woman that you did not notice, back hunched and toothless mouth gaping. The woman will teeter off with a huff and a squeal of grocery cart wheels. You will realize that your daughter was just helping, just as you taught her. Just helping when asked. You will apologize to everyone you encounter and be tearful as you pay for your carrots and lentils. It will be cold outside, but you will stop and hug your child as tight as you can, even though your arms are laden with heaviness from guilt and groceries. She will say nothing; she will know that she will forever hold the burden of being what is yours and she will accept it with more grace than you alone could have given her. She will say she is sorry as she slips her hand in yours to guide you home. You will be glad that she seems as though she is an improvement on who you are, that she will be better than you are even though she was unfortunate enough to be raised by someone with open secrets. You will not know if it was your love or your failings that make your daughter so strong.
You will age. You daughter will age into a woman who loves other women and you will be baffled and proud. Your mother will age out of herself and die. It will have been a long time since you have gone cross-country, gone back that way again. Your daughter and her partner will pick you up from your house. It will not be any of the apartments that your daughter grew up in, but someplace in a town that is not meant to be lived in all of the time. It will be a lake town you chose because you claimed you wanted to start painting, but truly you just enjoy having a fireplace. You will take your medication off the countertop, douse the fire, put on your hat, and lock the door against the wind. That is done in a specific order, because there is no leaving otherwise.
You will realize you never did see that man from the first town and the first marriage; you will never go back to the address the factory manager gave you, the paper long gone to gum wrappers and lint in that giant raincoat. You will be at ease with your lack of complete satisfaction in what life has brought you. It is a small price to pay for never putting your hands through fire.