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Usually, it’s hard for me to wake up at this hour, but then again, nothing about the past 24 hours has been usual. My father’s away, again, leaving my mother alone with the three of us. My mother’s a strong woman – there’s no doubt about that – but every strong woman has a few weak bones. For us, it’s always been black and white. When we’re on good terms, everything is perfect and there’s not a gray cloud in sight. But when the storm comes, thunder and lightning get into a frightening argument that fells trees and knocks out power. Nothing I do or say is ever heard. My opinions don’t matter as long as I am beneath her.
I turn the shower handle and the water comes raining down. I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this. I notice the razor sitting there, begging me to pick it up, to make it useful. But in this moment I am neither weak enough nor strong enough, and I turn back to the water. I let my face become submerged, allowing the water to fill my mouth and nose and ears, trying to find some tangible action to describe the feeling that I haven’t been able to put into words. Drowning in the shower feels better than the real thing anyway.
Across the bathroom, I catch a glimpse of someone in the mirror. She’s a ghastly, translucent figure with empty gray eyes and stringy hair. It takes me a second before I realize that I’m staring at my reflection. I don’t know how I got to the point where it takes a complete analysis to recognize myself. I guess that somewhere between school and work I’ve left myself behind. If only I could pinpoint that moment in time.
Last summer at camp, I was happy. Or at least, I think I was. I remember one night, it was late. Two o’clock, 2:30 maybe? My tent-mate Becca and I were bored. We hung Christmas lights along the rafters, illuminated our tent and turned it into a stage. We’d blasted music, danced, and sung until our feet were sore and our lips were numb, and then stayed up for hours talking about who we wanted, what we wanted, our aspirations, our goals, the little things that made us happy and the things that were too heavy to share with anyone else.
The third girl was always asleep in the corner, a quiet little mouse-like creature we loved to toy with. We’d poke and prod her, with our hands and with our words, and we knew she hated us. We craved the agitation that resonated off her. We fed on it. But she routinely dismissed our playful torture and turned herself over to sleep.
Becca was the alpha dog of our pack, and she loved to break the rules. She loved the thrill, the mystique of being bad. She looked at life through a different lens than I did, and saw the romance in rebelling. She drew satisfaction from this charm, this sense of allure in her life. To me, the idea of a nonlinear and insurgent lifestyle was ridiculous. They called me a worry-wart since I didn’t like the idea of being caught. I saw the practical side of things, the side that most girls at camp didn’t see.
The sky was the color of coal, and the ground was covered in frost, and my eyelids were begging me to let them stay closed. All I could think about was getting under the covers and grasping onto what little warmth I could. On the far side of the tent, the mouse-girl looked so peaceful and warm. I secretly envied her.
So there we were, sitting on our beds doing nothing. Becca said we needed to make our nights count since we only had a few left. She wanted to go out, see boys, play Truth or Dare. But I liked our nights in together. I knew that after the summer, we’d go back to living on opposite sides of the country, only FaceTiming a couple times a month. I wanted to make memories and build our friendship so that in 50 years we would sit around a table at a little café laughing and reminiscing about the summer of our seventeenth year.
But Becca continued nagging, calling me boring, a loser. It didn’t take long for me to give in and agree to go. We peeked our heads out the flap and ran. The chill air hit me, turning my toes into icicles that would surely break off at any moment. The wind howled in my ears, filling them with stinging pain, and my already blurry vision became further impaired by the fog. Becca was gleaming, a grin plastered across her face like a diamond necklace. I remember thinking that she reminded me of a raven, carelessly soaring through the campground. I knew how she felt: liberated, free.
Now I smooth the shampoo through my hair, rubbing my scalp until it is red and itchy. It will take forever to comb through the nest I’ve created; a new task to focus on once I run out of things to wash.
When I think about that night, a million stills float past my vision as if I am watching a slide show. Becca’s head thrown back in laughter. The two of us running across the frosted field. Desperately trying to conceal our laughter when we got caught. But perhaps it is what’s missing from the night that matters most. Perhaps it was the lack of excitement in my eyes, which was replaced with fear and obedience. Or the fact that with every step, I had to whip my head around to make sure no one was watching.
There’s dirt under my fingernails. I choose a scrub brush from the shower rack and navigate the bristles around and toward the infinity of brown flecks. Fingernails are the most challenging part of the body to clean. You can see the debris as clear as day, but no matter how hard you scrub, they are impossible to sterilize completely.
I remember one time, when I was six or seven, my mother was going to take us to a fair that had stopped over in our town for a couple of days. It was only Jada and me back then, and she wanted to see the monkeys and I wanted to see the elephants. For weeks, it was all we could talk about. Jada drew beautiful sketches of trapezists and acrobats and tigers jumping through flaming rings, and I drew pictures of the four of us – me, Daddy, Mother, and Jada – with smiles that stretched the span of the pink cotton candy we held.
The day before the fair my parents got in a fight. I don’t remember knowing what it was about, but I remember Mother shouting and Daddy leaving with a single suitcase in hand and only a sad wave for us to remember him by. That night, we sat with our ears pressed against the wall that connected our bedroom to our parents’. Mother’s weeping lasted hours, and eventually her soft sobs coaxed me to sleep.
Jada and I didn’t see her for a week; it was only when we had eaten out our entire fridge that I got up the courage to knock on her bedroom door. When I asked where Daddy was, she told me he had gone “home,” which to a seven-year-old didn’t make a lot of sense. How could his home be different from ours? But within a year, my mother was remarried to her new, brilliant businessman husband, and we had moved from our small two-bedroom into a castle of a house on the West Side. Mother made sure that before my heart healed from the hole Daddy had left, it was filled up with a new father and a new baby sister soon after.
I turn the tap slowly so the water dies out in increments. Soon, the only sound is the slow drip of the faucet, and I stand very still, listening. I heard the news last night. The way my mother’s eyes dulled when she answered the phone, I knew. Upstairs in my bedroom, I listened to the conversation. The funeral would be tomorrow in Victoria. Would we be attending? Would either of his daughters like to say good-bye? My mother told the woman on the line that we had already said good-bye 10 years ago when he left.
I dress in a black wool turtleneck and a long black skirt, braiding my wet hair down my back the way Daddy taught me. Mother won’t be awake for another couple of hours, so it will be easy for Jada and me to slip away unnoticed to the silent sound of our car’s engine. Out the window, the sky is dark and gray, and monstrous clouds hang over our house, but further south, there appears to be a hint of blue skies. I was never good with directions, so I pray that that is the way we’re going, away from the storm.
Between all the shouting that went on that day, Mother might have said good-bye. But we never did. I scrawl a quick note and leave it on the kitchen table for when she wakes.
“Gone home. Don’t wait up.”