The Transience of Home

Salveson Prize in Prose 2015.

Published in the Waldorf Literary Review.

“We’re just like Skins,” I say, reaching a bare arm towards the falling snowflakes.

It is a typical Saturday morning in mid-December. The sky is white. The ground is white. My arms are linked with three of my closest friends; we are all in different stages of our hangovers. Kevin’s Metallica T-shirt is ripped along the bottom seam, and he’s wearing faded beige moccasins with a hole at the left pinky toe. Jaclyn’s eyes are red, a thin California sweater covering her braless chest. Haleigh has on her skirt and tights from the party, the smell of tequila and lime thick in her hair. And I am in a flowing black tank top and leggings, skipping to keep warm, catching snowflakes on my tongue.

“Wait, the TV show?” Haleigh asks, “The one with those British kids?”

Kevin and I exchange smirks. He nods, laughs. He’s the one that first introduced me to Skins, his current favorite series on Netflix, only slightly behind Friday Night Lights and Prison Break. Skins is a show about teenagers, about drugs, about drinking, about partying, about reckless mistakes and being young. I’ve only watched a few episodes but the storyline captivates me. Those characters live with abandon. The girls are dangerous, sexy. And they each live without fear or regrets, just laughter and risk-taking.

“No, guys, this is totally Skins!” I say again, surveying the quiet streets, only a few cars gliding silently past us. In the opening episode of the show, a girl walks home on a school-day morning. The roads are deserted, not a person in sight. The girl’s obviously hung over as hell, stumbling across the road. Her hair is a mess, lipstick blurred across her lips, dress ripped, heels in hand, bare feet on the slushy asphalt. She’s disheveled and doing a classic ‘walk-of-shame,’ but for some reason I found myself attracted to her, to her disregard for anything other than fun. She seemed so free.

“He should be here soon,” Kevin says, nodding in the direction of our dorm. One of his buddies is supposed to be joining us. I rub the sole of my faded black Converse against the concrete step impatiently and study the dorm front doors. This is our first year of college, our first year in this building. The exterior is not much to look at—brown brick with full floor-to-ceiling windows on each of the two levels. Small school, small dorm. In the center lobby there’s a worn pool table and two sets of plastic purple armchairs that are only comfortable if you curl up in them sideways, toss your legs over the side, and lean your head back. My room is third floor, left side, with a view overlooking the residence hall across the street and the football field a few blocks south. Only a few months have passed since the start of the school year, but I’ve already started to label this strange place as mine.

I poke my toe into a slush puddle. The ground under my Converse sole is cold; the snow seeps through the thin fabric and into my sockless feet. If I think too much, I’ll start to shiver, but the snow feels refreshing against my hot, alcohol-filled skin. I sigh, glance over at Kevin. He’s squinting down at this phone. My head is pounding, but it’s a happy reminder of the night before—vodka, dancing, drunken snow angels, being young.

I remember the start of the party. I had walked boldly up to the door where a dark, hooded figure asked me what my name was, where I was from. To this I always gave the same answer: “Marisa, Chicago” with an air of confidence. Away from home I’d established a sense of pride in who I was, where I’d come from. Being from a big city was a luxury here, something to brag about in this small town. I’d become bold, knowing I was a city girl, and proud of this. Yet I still felt comfortable here.

“Come on,” Kevin says, turning away from the dorm, “Let’s just go.”

The four of us are headed to Saturday brunch, our ritual. After blurry nights and emptied bottles, we’ll pull ourselves from our twin beds, throw our hair back in ponytails or shrug on baseball caps, swish around some mouthwash, and trek the two blocks to the dining hall.

For the rest of our walk I am silent. I watch the snow melt on my bare arms; I trace footprints leading back and forth down the sidewalks. I am a Chicago girl, used to the snow and slush. We walk by a few football players, bundled in jackets and gloves. They are not from the Midwest, maybe from California or Texas. I wonder what it’s like to be them, to hate the cold, hate the winter, hate Iowa Saturday mornings. I do not hate anything, I realize. Even the cold, which washes over my body like the beginning of a shower when I’m anxious and step under the water too quickly, not letting it fully warm. The rush of heat comes soon enough.

We walk past two girls in jeans, boots, scarves, and jackets. Their hair is pulled half-back and straightened; they look presentable, fresh. I wonder what they think of me in my tank top, messy bun, and salt-stained Converse. I smile at them, deciding that I don’t really care.

The doors to the dining hall open and I’m hit by the instant warmth and the smell of cheesy potatoes and burned bacon. From the glass windows on the opposite side I see out into the street, into the quiet neighborhood I have come to call my home. In three months of being away from Chicago, I have learned to love this place. The snowy roads that are hardly ever plowed, the mix of farmers and factory workers with camo jackets and thick boots, laces always untied. The gray-haired ladies bagging groceries, who pause for a full five seconds at every stop sign; the children that play out on street corners with their six other siblings; the mothers who smile and nod as they run by with strollers, receipts poking from their purses and toddlers in tow.

Coming from a fast-paced, McDonalds on every main intersection type of town, I am still not used to the silence of the mid-morning or the ‘Closed on Sundays’ signs that hang in three of the mom-and-pop restaurants that line the main road. I am still not used to running the country roads, pavement stretched out in front of me for miles. There’s a sense of quiet and peace I’ve never known. But in the last few months, I have learned to live in tension. Learned to embrace this peace while simultaneously disrupting it with my drunkenness. Learned to love the trees and this single-stoplight city, while still clutching onto every piece of home.

Kevin and Jaclyn step forward, arms still linked. They have been dating several months now, and seem happy. Haleigh and I stay back, let them walk first. We gossip about last night: who slept with who, what pictures were taken, who had to be carried home.

The dining hall is filled with misfits in clothes from last night; hair still curled, but flattened by bed pillows; glossy eyes. Then there are the presentable ones—athletic jackets, hair done right, faces washed clean.

Kevin, Jaclyn, Haleigh, and I find seats on the left side, middle of the room; I face the door so I can survey who walks in, give nods of approval or shake my head with a teasing smile. The food isn’t good. It’s college. But I fill my plate with it anyway, greasy hangover potatoes with ranch, slices of French toast with peanut butter, chocolate milk, sausage, eggs with cheese and salsa.

The room is divided in half by a center wall, and the left side holds the loudest of us. The room has blue-black carpet, blue chairs, blue tables. I listen to the sounds of metal forks against our plastic plates, plastic cups hitting the edge of the table in an off-time sort of rhythm. We shout over one another. We shovel food into our mouths.

“Did you see what Katy was wearing?”

“Alex had sex with her?”

“Maya stayed the night with Devaughn! Yes, I’m serious!”

I listen to the conversations with one ear, nod when I’m supposed to, laugh when everyone else does. I usually love being updated with the latest news, but today I am distracted.

To my right are glass windows, identical to the ones below, but these face the other side of the street, where the building opens into a parking lot and then the street with the library, upper-class dorm, and just slightly beyond view, the local daycare.

I have come to know these streets. The daycare is where I work in the mornings twice a week. I hold butterball babies that smell like cornstarch and milk against my chest until they stop crying. I measure tiny cups of formula and press miniature spoons to toothless mouths.

The street the daycare is on leads in one direction to the ballpark where I played my first intramural softball game; in the opposite direction is the Fieldhouse where my sweat mixes with the sweat of hundreds of other athletes and my palms rub raw with callouses.

This town is not where I grew up. Not the giant, over-taxed houses or the high school that could fit 8,000 kids. Not the backyard field where I took my first sips of alcohol, or the tiny blue house where I lost my virginity. Not the softball field where I pitched my perfect game, or 95th street, where I first drove drunk. Those places have defined me—a rebel, a mother’s worst nightmare, a child. The roads outside these windows are different. These roads are where I’ve found myself these past few months, running alongside cornfields, taking in sweet, quiet country air. I am no longer defined by the places I have been, or the memories those places hold. Three hundred ninety-four miles away, I am no longer my mother’s biggest disappointment. I am no longer the girl who gave everything to a boy in a little blue house. I am no longer a child.

Skins, Marisa,” Kevin says, laughing. I follow his gaze just to the left of where I had been staring, to a couple walking from their dorm to the dining hall. The girl is in flip flops, perched on the guy’s back. He’s wearing shorts and tosses an empty beer can into the snow. They are laughing, free.

“We’re all Skins,” I say. All different stages and pieces and mixes of where we’ve come from and who we want to be. I watch the couple, watch as he tosses her playfully over his shoulder and catches her just before she hits the snow. They play fight and I look away, smile.

I have changed in the last few months, though the change is not outwardly apparent. I’m still just as rebellious, waking up half-drunk in a dormitory bed, making snow angels at 3 a.m. But it is the freedom of this place—the decision to walk outside in a tank top in the middle of December, the ability to love and hold onto my home for what it has made me, but exist as a new me in a new home somewhere else. It is funny how place defines us, but also how we define place. How we become a part of where we are, how where we are becomes a part of us. And how we learn to call this new place ours.

I turn back to the table and shovel a forkful of salsa-eggs into my mouth. Kevin is sharing the story of how he ripped a hole in his moccasin. I laugh, smile. He’s ridiculous. We all are. But as I study the faces of my friends—a little glossy-eyed, a little disheveled—I realize I love them. And I love where we are in this moment, surreal, like a television episode.

The Worm-Stick

“A good story is a worm-stick,” my professor says.

We are sitting in his office, a room with white walls, one window, and a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf just to the right of me. I’m studying the spines of books—every shade of blue, maroon, green, grey, brown, burnt orange.

“What’s a worm stick?” I laugh. A strand of brown hair falls in front of my eyes and I push it behind my ear.

My professor shifts his chair back from his desk and turns to face me. He’s wearing his usual dress pants, shiny black shoes, and striped polo shirt. His hair is black, sprinkled with grey. His mouth and cheeks have laugh-lines.

“Picture a rainy day,” he says, “The worms all come up from the ground and cover the sidewalk.”

I glance out the window. Outside, it is a beautiful fall day. The leaves are crisp and yellowy-orange. The sun is glinting through them, casting leaf-shaped shadows his desk.

“Your story is like these worms, all spread out on a stick. The worms are the plot points of the story.”

His face is animated and bright as he tells me this. His hands gesture in the air giving me the image of this rained-on stick, these plump, brownish-pink worms finding their place along the slick bark.

“The worms are the plot points, the moments of the story. And your story becomes all of these moments strung together, not in order necessarily, but all of importance to what you’re story is actually about.”

I nod. I love his analogies, how he can take the simplest, or even the strangest of concepts and bring them to life in metaphor.

It is my senior year of college and I’m studying Creative Writing and English Education. I want to be a teacher, a recent revelation. But I also, more than anything, want to be a writer.

Winter of last year, I went to a reading by my professor. It was his first year at my college, and I hadn’t known yet what to expect. He stood up at the podium for a moment as he introduced himself, then he promptly stepped away and began his reading.

It was his expression that captivated me, his energy in reading, speaking, even day to day classes. There was something about his demeanor, the way that he could hold an audience’s attention, the way he connected with me.

My professor turns back to face his computer, apologizing about a quick email he needs to send. I spend the time studying his office. There are a few posters along the white walls, papers and opened books across every surface, and pictures of his wife across his desk.

“Do your wife and kids hate it here, too?” I ask, when he turns away from the computer. I know that he hates the sharp cold of Northern Iowa winters. He has told me several times since I introduced myself to him at his first reading. I was timid then, unsure of my writing process. I walked up to the podium after his presentation and asked him how he wrote. He said, simply, “Just write it. Too many people worry about the revising. The revising will come. It’s a part of the process. Just write it. Sometimes the best writing we produce is in that first draft.”

He is from Colorado, a state of both snow and sunshine. A place where the wind doesn’t bite at your skin, and the town isn’t a mere 5,000 people.

He chuckles. “They hate it here so much they left.”

His words hang in the air for a moment like leaves caught in a shift of wind. I glance down at his hand—no ring. I look at the pictures again. In my favorite picture, his cheek is pressed against his wife’s. His forehead is scrunched in a childish expression. His wife is staring straight ahead, beautiful, with auburn hair and the touch of a smile. It captures his personality perfectly: a man that is always laughing, always enjoying life.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, it’s alright,” he says, “That’s how these things go sometimes. Two people want different things. And it’s always more complicated than that. But, that being said, watching football alone every night on your couch does get old.”

I picture him, maybe in an old college t-shirt and sweatpants, sprawled out on a faded leather couch with a six pack of Coors Light and a half-eaten pizza. I can’t see him drinking Coors. I also can’t picture him unhappy.

“I understand,” I say. I think of my previous relationship: ex-boyfriend from California, and me, halfway across the country with a triple major and a boatload of future plans.

I glance out the window again, study the color of the leaves in contrast with the still-surviving green grass and light blue sky. To me, the world is endless. Post-breakup, I’ve been given new strength, a sense of selfish purpose, and the hope for the future, wherever it may lead me. I’m suddenly struck by my professor’s completely different mindset. The fact that we can be in two polar opposite mental places within the same room fascinates me.

I look back at him. He is a thin man with a smile that can make you forget about the fear of graduate school, student teaching, and midterm grades. He has a mind that can develop an image to explain anything—a poem is an opened cadaver ready to be explored, lost love is like a wandering puppy in an abandoned alleyway. He has a mind that can pick apart poetry and analyze a story to its essential bones. I wish I could tell him this, wish I could explain that in the past year, he has made me believe in my voice and taught me to never doubt the sheer beauty of a first draft. He has made me realize that life is full of worms–moments–good, and the ones we hope to never relive. But no matter where we end up, it will still be wonderful. It amazes me that perhaps all this time, he has felt the opposite.

He checks the clock on his phone and we’re both surprised to find that it’s class time. He grabs a stack of papers and leaves for the copier; I gather my books and backpack and close his office door slowly behind me.

In a few minutes, we will both enter the classroom—the stuffy classroom that smells like the combination of a gym locker room and a soggy dog. We will talk about fiction writing, and he will bring up the metaphor of a worm-stick. The laugh-lines around his mouth will be deep. He will make the students smile. No one will know that he returns to an empty house, a half-eaten pizza. He won’t know that I will think about that moment in his office for several days, and that later, I will write him to life. And I will start with the worm-stick.

Dependability

She’s thinking of a particular day, that snowstorm, a Saturday. She had woken to his alarm, then drifted back into a dream again. That dream she always had about clear, blue skies and the Rocky Mountains, though she’d never been. When he had leaned over to kiss her cheek she had woke, smiling. The best way to start the day. And while he had dressed and brushed his teeth, she had laid there, eyes closed, and listened to the sounds. The tap of the toothbrush on the side of the sink, the swish of the water around the drain, the brush of deodorant–familiar sounds. She had heard his steps across the living room, the loud slam of the door. That door was one of the many flaws of that apartment, always having to slam to close. So she had waited quietly there, in the moments between daydream and fully awake. And after he was gone, she had opened her eyes, stretched across the warm spot he had left on his side of the bed.

From the window to her right, she could see the streets, white, still covered with untouched snow. Those streets had been inviting, so she had pulled on a pair of his warmest sweats and gloves, her favorite sweatshirt that she always left at his place, and a silly hat she had found in the bottom of the closet, one with two furry flaps for ears. Then her gym shoes, because nothing else would fit, and she had padded lightly across that living room carpet, slammed the door, and entered into the storm.

There had been no option for a car. He had taken his to practice; she had been picked up the previous night. So she had stepped right into the snow, three thick inches crawling up her shins, soaking the bottoms of his sweats. The snow had been falling hard then, flakes in her eyes and nose. She had a goal: groceries, though the walk had been far and the ground slicked with ice. But she had been determined, tiptoeing across snowy sidewalks, climbing an icy hill until she found herself stuck at the top, no winter coat, no way down.

Somehow her friend had found her, drove up in her truck, and so she had slid down the hill and pulled herself into the passenger seat. She had been half-frozen, limbs stiff with cold. But even then, all she had wanted was to cook some scrambled eggs and bacon, to trek across that snow to the grocery store. To be someone dependable, even if the weather wasn’t.

She’s thinking about a particular day, now, in the thick heat of summer. Wondering if he remembers that day, how reckless she had been. But how she had thought not of herself, only of him. Some call it love. And perhaps it was. But she knows it’s also more than that. Dependability. There is power in being the one that people can depend on. A sort of strength in that even as snowflakes cover country roads for miles, even as tires slide across icy pavement, even as winds burn exposed, pink faces, there will be breakfast waiting at the table. Steaming eggs with bacon, just another Saturday morning.

I Know Just What You Need

Rachael pressed her nose against the outside of the soft oak door and sighed. She could smell a dirty diaper from a mile away. Inside the room, Malorie was making a combination of cooing and crying sounds. ‘Self-soothing,’ Malorie’s mother had called it, but it made Rachael feel on edge. She wasn’t one hundred percent sure when to enter the room to change Malorie, or if this was one of those, ‘just let her calm on her own’ moments. Rachael took a quiet step back from the door and held her breath. Silence. A loose strand of blonde hair fell from her pony tail. She tucked it behind her ear. This was week seven of her part-time summer nanny position. She didn’t hate it, but it definitely made her feel reluctant about having kids, which was something her boyfriend, James, was very excited about.

Rachael took another tentative step backwards and bristled as the floor creaked. Malorie hiccupped. Rachael glanced at her watch. It was a quarter to nine, right on schedule. Zelda, Malorie’s mother, wanted her down at nine and then again at noon. It seemed like a strange schedule, but Rachael didn’t mind. It gave her an hour or so to catch up on summer homework, which she had fallen behind on.

Rachael shut her eyes and listened for any sounds. She was too far to hear the baby’s breathing, but if she was quiet enough, she could sometimes hear Malorie sucking on her pacifier–one of those ‘self-soothing’ tricks Zelda had mentioned. Everything was quiet. Rachael backed away from the door and slowly headed down the stairs.

Zelda and Frank’s house was beautiful. There was soft maroon carpet on the staircase and lining the first room to the right, a fancy living and dining area with a giant cabinet of expensive crystal glassware. Rachael hadn’t met Frank yet, but she had seen pictures. Like his wife, he was dark-haired with a smoldering smile. Zelda was something Middle Eastern; Frank was tan and Italian. They made for a beautiful couple.

Rachael glanced at the couch. The soft black leather looked so inviting, and she was in need of a nap. Last night, she and James had stayed up until three fighting. First it was about school, then the new apartment, then the bills, then work. James had started the fight when he saw Rachael’s progress report stuffed in-between an empty carton of milk and a Stoffer’s Mac and Cheese box. She was failing two of the four classes. James was paying for half of her schooling as part of their agreement, so he was angry, and rightfully so. Their agreement was based on Rachael’s uprooting from Wisconsin to follow James to Florida. His real estate business was doing well, and last year’s move was good for him. And so Rachael had agreed to go with him, as long as she could continue taking graduate classes. However, failing wasn’t part of the agreement. Rachael knew this. She wasn’t sure why she was doing so poorly. She had always wanted to become a reading specialist, to help children catch up where they were falling behind, to teach them to sound out words, to make them learn the difference between a protagonist and antagonist. School had always been a priority for her, but she felt so far from home, so lost.

Rachael resisted the urge to cuddle up on the couch and walked into the kitchen instead. On the black granite counter was a top-of-the-line baby monitor, some designer brand that Zelda had mentioned in passing. It was complicated, covered with obscure buttons Rachael was clueless about. All she concerned herself with was the top right knob. She switched it to ‘on’ and waited for the beep to let her know it was ready.

On the counter was her backpack, well, James’ old backpack. He had tried to buy her a new one several times, but she felt it was a waste of money.

“James, what’s the point? I only have two semesters worth of classes. Besides, navy is a neutral color. It goes with everything.”
James furrowed his blonde eyebrows and shook his head. He was tall and muscular, with golden hair and a thick golden mustache.
“Look, Rach, you don’t have to be so worried about money, I—”
“We don’t have to worry? Do you see these bills?”
“I’m handling it.”
“Oh, are you? Because they’ve been sitting here for over a week.”
James sighed, “Babe, I’ve been busy with work. You know that. Look. Everything will be fine. I won’t buy a new bag. I’ll pay those bills and we’ll start saving up for our family.”

Rachael pulled a chair to the table and wrinkled her nose. The amount of catch-up work she had was overwhelming. That was just it, she thought, one thing goes wrong and suddenly you’re in over your head. She loosened her ponytail and ran her hands through her blonde hair. She was young looking, always getting carded at bars and restaurants, even though she was just shy of twenty-six. When she stood next to six foot three James, she looked even younger, all one-hundred and ten pounds of her. She had a plain face; freckles outlined her nose and cheeks. She had thin pink lips but crystal blue eyes. James called them her fairy eyes.

Rachael pushed her books forward, clearing a small space in front of her. She grabbed a notebook from the top of the pile and started doodling. First it was a circle, then another tiny shape in the center, like a lima bean with a deformed side. She shaded the circle, drawing small extremities from its oval shape, something that looked like tiny hands and tiny feet. The larger circle extended, growing out and up until it was a picture of a woman with an open stomach. The stomach revealing that tiny lima bean, a baby. Rachael threw her pencil down and tears filled her eyes. She leaned her head in her hands. The picture had come almost involuntarily, this mother, this child. It had been seven weeks since her last period. Rachael had known since the first day she missed it. She never missed. It wasn’t that she didn’t want a family, though she knew that’s how it must seem to James. Whenever he brought up the subject she balked, started talking work, or school. When Rachael took care of Malorie, she would imagine that Malorie was her own baby. She would clutch Malorie to her chest, whisper ‘I love you’ into her dark brown curls. Sometimes Malorie would smile, but sometimes her tiny face would scrunch up and she would begin to cry. It was those times when Rachael knew she wasn’t ready.

In bed a few nights ago, James had rolled over to her and pulled her to him. She woke to his warm breath on her neck and it gave her goose bumps.
“James.” she whispered.
He sometimes moved and talked in his sleep, babbling about problems at work, or sometimes, on good days, he would reveal secrets. It was in these half-asleep moments that Rachael learned that he loved her half-moon birthmark on her left shoulder and the way her nose wrinkled when she was thinking.
This time James seemed more awake.
“Baby?” His voice was quiet, but husky.
“Yeah?” Rachael glanced at the clock on the bedside table, the one from her college dorm room, painted an obnoxious black and pink. It was almost five-thirty, James’ alarm would go off at six.
“Sadie, if she’s a girl.” James said in a trance-like voice.
“What?”
Rachael rolled over to face him. His eyes were closed, one arm draped loosely around her frame, the other tucked underneath his chest.
“Our baby,” he said, almost too quiet to hear, “Sadie, if she’s a girl.”

Rachael looked at the sketch again. The woman’s frame was stretched, stomach swollen with the extra weight. From the baby monitor, Rachael heard a sniffle, hiccup, then a small cry. She pushed herself away from the table and headed back up the stairs. The door was still shut, sounds muffled by the wooden surface. Rachael leaned up against the door, pressing her ear to it. The room was silent. This was one of those moments where she was the most unsure. Had Malorie startled in her sleep? Or would she commence the full-blown sobbing? Rachael took a deep breath and waited, hand hovering over the doorknob. There was the rustling of blankets, but other than that, Malorie was silent. Rachael imagined her tan, chubby body spread underneath the tribal-pattern blanket. She could see the folds of Malorie’s tummy fat, her thick dark eyelashes, button nose. It was incredible to Rachael how Malorie could blink, reach up to grab Rachael’s hair, stack blocks on top of each other. She was a miniature person: a tiny body, a growing brain.

Malorie made a sniffling sound, then sucked in gulp of air and began to cry. Rachael sighed and turned the doorknob. From the opening she could see Malorie sitting upright, eyes red and puffy, and the pacifier fallen from the crib, just out of reach. Rachael stepped in, picked up the pacifier, and stared at Malorie for a moment. Her mouth was opened wide to support her full-blown wails.

“Come here,” Rachael sighed as she lifted Malorie and carried her to the changing table, the dirty diaper stench filling her nose. “I know just what you need.”

The Snow Day

The girl was angry. Angry, but unsure of the true reason why. She was sitting in her mother’s black Lexus, watching the men and women in knee-length coats and flowing scarves walk in and out of the grocery store entrance. These men and women, all bundled up, annoyed her. They all seemed so determined, so happy, so focused. They had braved the negative temperatures for simple pleasures. The young couple, arms interlocked and two cars to the left, carried a bottle of wine between them. Perhaps to toast to the snow day off of work. Maybe they would wrap under blankets and watch a romantic movie together, glasses refilling until the bottle was empty.

Directly in front of her car were two middle-aged women. One appeared older than the other, but their facial structures were similar–pointed eyebrows, high foreheads–sisters. They carried several bags each; whole wheat bread and muffin mix peeked out of the top of one bag. Maybe for a birthday, or perhaps for breakfast the following morning. Maybe one sister was visiting and they planned ahead in order to keep from going out in the cold the next day.

The girl sighed and turned away from the window. There were so many comings and goings on this bitter cold afternoon; it was surprising. She herself was waiting for her mother. Her mother who had promised to only take a minute, but had already been gone thirty. The girl lay her forehead on the steering wheel. It was soft against her cheek, covered with a black velvet material. In her own car, the wheel was cold and bare. Instead of the stiff and strong of her own vehicle, her mother’s wheel was youthful, almost childish.

The girl sighed again. It was almost as if the two of them had switched roles. Ever since the girl’s father died, she had been organizing, planning, answering phone calls, managing bills. Her mother, on the other hand, had turned to baking—pies with caramel apple filling, French bread with a cheesy center, three-layer cakes. These items were often ridiculous, and served no purpose than to be eaten by the mother herself. The girl wondered why she did it. It was highly immature, like most things about her mother.

She looked up into the rearview mirror and saw her mother approaching; her yellow hat and pink mittens in contrast to her royal blue winter coat. The mother motioned to the girl to open the trunk, and the girl pressed the automatic button, allowing the chilling winter air seep into the Lexus. Her mother, face flushed, began babbling about coupons and great deals on gluten-free baking goods. Her next project was a batch of low-fat brownie-cookies. The mother wanted to make the most chocolate she could in one dessert. The girl watched her mother put the last bag into the trunk and scamper up to the passenger door. The girl pressed the trunk button again and shivered at the air that was now trapped in the car with them. The mother slid into the seat and turned the heating dial up.
“So,” she began, turning toward the girl, “I was thinking we could make those brownie-cookies together, you know, since you don’t have work today.”
The girl reached over and turned the dial lower. The force of heat was too much. She thought about her plans for the day: organizing the rest of her mother’s bank statements, finishing a few loads of laundry, maybe taking a bubble bath later.
“I…” she hesitated, turning to her mother, “I have plans.”
Her mother’s face fell. She looked down and picked at her pinky nail.

The girl studied her mother’s features. She was just shy of sixty, but looked in her early forties. She only had wrinkles when she frowned, like this. The girl turned away and guided the car out of the parking space, one hand on the wheel and the other on the gear shift. She stared straight ahead.

Her mother let out a small sniffle. The girl sighed again, pictured her mother’s tiny hands clenched in her lap, and that puppy-dog way her eyes and nose scrunched up. Maybe sweets on a snow day wouldn’t be so bad.
She turned to her mother. “Maybe I can rearrange my schedule.”
Her mothers face lit up like a child’s, like that picture of the girl from when she was eight–the picture on the mantle above the fireplace. The girl had just gotten off one of the best roller coasters at the theme park a few towns over. Cotton candy had stained her teeth blue. It was that youthful innocence, happiness in the little things–like sweets.

The girl turned out of the parking lot and onto the main road. She thought of the men and women at the grocery store, the couple with the wine and hours to spend just being in love. She thought of the sisters, making muffins and sharing stories. Then she thought of her mother, mixing chocolate chips into brownie batter alone.

The car slowed to a stop at the light and the girl reached for her mother’s hand. It was bony, but soft. Holding that hand made her feel a little less bitter. Yes, maybe she could go for a sugary-sweet brownie-cookie…or two.

Broken

A piece of pot roast, drenched in the brown crock-pot gravy and mushrooms, rests in a lukewarm pile on my sister’s abandoned dish. The forks of my father, mother, and I scrape nosily against porcelain plates. This is the only sound.

On the stove is a heaping pot of whipped mashed potatoes. In the hours before, while I was at work, my sister had diligently stirred and pressed those potatoes until they were soft and creamy. My father and sister disagreed about the consistency. My mother insisted my father took too long getting back and the dinner would be cold. This potato pot is too big for our family; it holds helpings for a family of twenty. We are only four.

Under the table, my dog scratches his left ear and whines. My sister’s door slams shut. My father grumbles under his breath. My mother’s eyes fill with tears.

I want to scream. I want to take my plate of mashed potatoes, corn, and pot roast and throw it across the room. I want to watch the pieces of the white porcelain crash into the wall next to the refrigerator, break, and fall into a haphazard heap. My dog will shiver behind the wooden legs of the chair. My mother will gasp and raise her eyebrows at me. My dad will look up and frown. My sister will open the door to her bedroom, and peek down from the upstairs landing.

I would open my mouth and everything would come out. My frustration with my father’s passiveness, my mother’s selfishness, my sister’s bold disrespect—it would all fall out of my mouth like the soggy broccoli stems in the center of the table. But I cannot. I know, even if I threw my plate into the kitchen wall, I would say nothing. I would get up from my chair, cross the room, and pick each porcelain piece one by one.

I do not have a knack for words when they are spoken. I cannot calm the storm between my mother and father that follows this silent dinner. I do not have the words to comfort my sister, who has locked the door to her room and sits in stubbornness, her stomach growling. I only have hands to wash dinner plates, to scrape leftover gravy from the bottom of crock-pots.

I can straighten shelves, wipe down countertops, leave everything as it was before. I can walk out of the room and into my car, the heater humming to life as I rub my damp, dishwashing hands together for warmth. I can drive down the street, walk the pathway, step on the treadmill and run until my chest hurts. But I can never fix what is broken, though I keep picking up porcelain pieces, my hands red and raw.