Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2019  Vol. 18 No. 2
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Walls: How to Raze a Girl

I am thirty-seven years old, and my youngest daughter wants to stay in this house. She is too young to understand back taxes and memories that want to be repressed but can’t. She understands the magic of nooks and crannies and wide-open spaces, things our two-bedroom condo in the city lacks. I don’t know what my oldest daughter wants because she isn’t currently speaking to me. Whether she is still angry because her father moved out or because I have been lying to her for the entirety of her existence is still unclear. I let them explore on their own because I am a coward in this moment. I sit on the sturdy wooden bench—built with my father’s own hands—in the mudroom where my garden boots still sit, caked in twenty-year-old grime. I listen to both of my daughters run across the floor above me, calling to each other as they find treasures. Without me up there, they can pretend that this is an adventure and that maybe our lives can just start over here. I haven’t yet forced upon them the lesson that fairy-tale endings aren’t meant for the likes of us, though I’m certain my older daughter has already figured this out without me.

I am six years old, and the oppressive, dank air dampens my shirt, making it cling down my back, as I pedal faster to keep up with my big brother and Owen, the boy who lives across the road. Both boys are two years older than me and their long legs make this an impossible task, but they have agreed to let me tag along if I can keep up. I don’t even ask where we are going; I only know that I want to be there. I lose control on the dirt road that leads to the pond and limp the rest of the way behind them, pushing the bike that used to be my brother’s and is now mine. My shin is raw and bleeding, but I shrug it off and peel my shirt up over my head to drop it on top of the boys’ shirts, which they have tossed aside in a fervent desire for the silky relief from the humidity that threatens to swallow us. I cannonball in and splash them. They laugh, and the three of us, bare-chested, devour the hot summer afternoon as if we already know days like this are gifts, limited in supply. My father finds me there. He throws my bike in the back of his truck and tells my brother to be home by sundown. During the ride toward home, I learn the definitions of shame and modesty. I learn because someday I will have breasts, I will never experience another shirtless afternoon. When my leg later becomes infected, and I can’t go swimming the rest of the summer, even in my bathing suit, I learn that this is what I deserve for having no shame.

I am twenty-eight years old, and my new husband teaches me how to make love with the lights on. He kisses my abdomen, which has not yet begun to swell. He asks me if I hope for a son or a daughter, and I tell him I know it is a boy, and I want to name him after my brother. I don’t actually know this. I will learn how wrong I am the day my first daughter is born. But I know the power of saying a thing aloud. Being a girl is too hard. Raising one must be harder. I will only grow boys, I am determined. My husband laughs and nuzzles my neck. He doesn’t ask why. He respects my secrets. He believes me when I say that I and the girl I used to be are not the same. It’s one of the many reasons I married him.

I am seventeen years old, and I am limiting myself to the duffel bag my mother bought me for Bible camp three years earlier. If it won’t fit inside the bag, it won’t be coming with me. I have given myself a window of two hours to disappear. My parents are at church and will attend the potluck afterward. I was supposed to go, but I’ve been cursed with crippling monthly cramps. My mother said she, too, suffered when she was my age, before she had children. She promises it will lessen after I become a mother. My father tells me it is not a suitable excuse to miss church, that if it is too much for me to bear, that I should examine my conscience to find out why I am being punished. My conscience does not fit in the duffel, so I leave it behind. I take my wardrobe essentials and almost four years’ worth of babysitting money. I wrap a sweatshirt around a framed photo of my brother and me standing in our front yard when I was eight years old. It was taken on Independence Day, and we’re both wearing patriotic T-shirts and holding large slices of watermelon. Our heads are cocked to one side at exactly the same angle. It’s the only family photo I take with me. I don’t leave a note because there is nothing left to say. Owen is waiting to drive me to the bus station. He doesn’t try to convince me to stay, and I thank him for that. The drive is mostly silent. Neither of us reaches for the radio knob, which would only pick up twanging country stations out here anyway, and I’ve got enough sorrow in me already. He eventually asks me if things might have been different if my brother hadn’t died. If he could have better protected me. I can hear the doubt in Owen’s voice, and I realize that he might blame himself. That he failed as my surrogate big brother. I lean in to kiss him after he pulls up to the bus depot. It is meant to be a soft thank you, a brushing of lips, but he deepens it, and I am no longer his surrogate little sister. Maybe I never was. As he drives off, I press my hand to my mouth.

I am thirty-six years old, and I ask my husband to repeat his words for the third time. For some reason, they will not penetrate the fog that has settled around my head. I understand he is unhappy, but I can’t comprehend how and when it happened. He tells me he is tired of waiting for my secrets, that I am locked away someplace that he can’t reach. He thinks we should talk to someone, work on our communication. I shake my head. His parents will be dropping the girls off soon. I won’t cry in front of them. I get up and go sit on the rug in my daughters’ room. I pull my knees up to my chest, rest my chin on them, and admit to myself what I have known all along: I don’t deserve this life I have made, and so I will lose it. For the first time in more than twenty years, I am tempted to pray.

I am nine years old and have been for four days now. My black dress is pretty, but the lace collar itches and the skirt is too stiff to poof out when I twirl, but that’s okay because the day of my brother’s funeral is no time to twirl anyway. Our house is full of familiar people who act strangely. Owen hovers, void of the chatter and noise he never failed to import into our house whenever he and my brother saw fit to bring their play indoors. At one point, he reaches out and squeezes my hand. He tells me he’ll look out for me. That my brother would have wanted him to. The minister’s wife gives me a present—a porcelain doll with sausage curls and unblinking green eyes. Her dress is also stiff and itchy, and she cannot twirl either. I place her on the highest shelf of my bookcase and sit on the edge of my bed, staring at her. I think that this must be a message from the minister’s wife, telling me that with my brother gone, it is up to me to be the perfect child so my mother and father will smile again. This doll is the image of perfection and what I must strive to be. In the months following my brother’s funeral, I look for pictures of porcelain dolls in the inserts of the Sunday paper and in the ladies’ magazines that come in the mail for my mom. There are so many dolls that can be ordered, but I don’t ask for them. Instead, I cut out their pictures and tack them to my bedroom wall. My collage grows, and it is perfection. The cutout portraits of all the dolls stare at me every night as I say my prayers, unblinking eyes reaching into my soul to remind me of what I must be.

I am twenty-six years old, and I am on my fifth date with the nicest man I have ever met. He leans in when I talk as if missing even one of my words would be a tragedy. I’m not even worried about getting spinach in my teeth or spilling wine on my dress. I’m too busy laughing into my napkin, and I believe him when he says that it is the most beautiful sound in the world. He asks about my parents. Brothers and sisters. The town I grew up in. At first I am resigned to giving him the standard story. The half-truth, half-lie I have concocted that makes it clear that my past is my past and has nothing to do with my present or my future. But something is different about this man. I am pretty sure I might want to marry him someday. I stop laughing and put my napkin on the table. I tell him that I’m not ready to share about my family. That I’ve been on my own for a while now. That they are no longer part of my life. Without them I have begun to build a life, a career. I’m slowly getting my education and moving toward goals I didn’t even have when my parents were still part of my life. He reaches across the table and squeezes my hand. He tells me he will listen whenever I am ready to talk. I ask him if he is okay with the fact that I may never want to talk about them, that some barriers aren’t meant be knocked down. He squeezes my hand again. His eyes look soft in the candlelight. I almost trust him.

I am thirty-four years old, and I have received an email from Owen, who I haven’t heard from in years. I have seen him on social media. His wife is pretty. She’s a dental hygienist. He works for his father. They have a little boy. He has tracked me down to tell me my father has died after a brief stint of cancer, diagnosed too late. The funeral will be over the weekend. When I call the house to speak with my mother, no one answers. Apparently she still hasn’t gotten an answering machine. I drive three and a half hours to see her. On the way, I stop at an outlet mall and buy a new black dress and shoes. At the house, I don’t know whether to use the front door or the back. I don’t know whether to knock or just let myself in. I knock on the front door, and it is the wrong choice because my mother tells me I am not welcome. That I will never be welcome again. On the drive home, I consider returning the dress and shoes, but take them home and put them in the closet, assuming someday I will have a different depressing occasion to dress up for. I don’t tell my daughters where I was. They do not know that they still have a grandmother on my side of the family. My husband doesn’t even ask, though I think he wants to. I want him to hold me, but he sits on the edge of the bed, waiting. He’s been waiting a long time.

I am fifteen years old, and I am standing in my father’s study. It is after midnight, and my dress is torn. I was driven home by Owen, but he is not the boy I left with. My date for the evening was in no condition to drive. I’m pretty sure Owen broke his nose. But my father doesn’t ask about any of that. This is not a discussion. I am only to listen. I am a disappointment. It is the longest word he calls me. It is the only word that could be repeated in church. It was my fault for not demanding to come home immediately after the dance. For accepting that first beer. For thinking that my words were louder than my cleavage. Tears prick my eyes, but I won’t let them fall. I make eye contact with the deer head mounted above my father’s desk. He’d shot it himself. We had venison for Thanksgiving dinner that year. It was the same year we had rabbit for Easter, and my brother had convinced me we were eating the Easter Bunny. I gave up meat for a while, but my father wouldn’t let my mother fix me special meals. He said I’d get over it when I got hungry enough. Now I silently send apologies to the deer for eating her. I understand that she and I are the same. A naive part of me still waits for my mother to come in and rescue me, but I am not surprised when she never even checks on me once I’m back in my room. I’ve come to accept the fact that part of her died with my brother. The soft part. She must have wrapped it around him before they put him in the ground because she has no softness left for me. I don’t say my prayers before bed because I am afraid of the things I want to pray for.

I am eight years old, and I can’t sleep because I’ll be nine years old in just a few hours. My brother and my father will be returning from their hunting trip in time for my brother to join my party at the skating rink. I told him he can bring Owen, too, so he’s not the only boy. I’m finally in a half-sleep, half-wake sort of dreaming state when I hear the phone ring. It rings and rings and rings, and I worry it will ring all night because my mother doesn’t like answering machines. I’m ready to go answer it myself, though I’m afraid of who might be calling so late, when finally I hear my mother’s muffled voice speaking into the phone. The sound that comes after has me flinging back my covers and running to my mother’s room, certain she is hurt somehow. I find her sobbing into the cordless phone. The only word I understand is my brother’s name. I don’t know what has happened, but I understand there will be no skating party. That we may never have reason to celebrate anything ever again. I want to go to her, to put my arms around her, but I’m too frightened of the ghostly wails that are escaping from her. She turns and looks right at me as I slide down to the floor in front of her closet. I’m crying, but I don’t know why. Her eyes are locked on me, but I somehow feel like she doesn’t see me, and I wonder if I somehow have disappeared.

I am thirty-seven years old, and my youngest daughter calls down through the house I was raised in, begging me up the stairs to see what she has found. She and her sister are lying on the bed in my old room, and I am shocked to discover it is exactly as I left it two decades before. There is still a water glass sitting on the white-painted desk where I had once spent hours bemoaning the tortures of Shakespeare. The glass is, of course, empty except for the layer of dust. Everything in the room is covered in dust, and I realize that my parents must not have ever come into my room after I left. I wonder how long it took them to notice I was gone. I must say this out loud because my oldest daughter corrects me and says they must have been waiting for me to come back and claim it. Apparently she has moved past giving me the silent treatment, though I am under no such delusion as to think I am forgiven. I don’t meet her eyes because I want her to be both right and wrong, not knowing which truth would alleviate this shame that is beginning to engulf me. My daughters ask me about the collage of porcelain dolls, and I don’t know what to tell them except that it will need to come down before the house can be sold. My younger daughter asks again if we can stay. My oldest daughter asks why her father didn’t come with us. She knows, of course, that we are separated. That there is talk of divorce. But she reminds me of our promise that we’d always be a family. This is a family thing. She’s convinced he’d like the house. And she’s right. He’d probably like the town too. It was the kind of life he has always talked about for his children, without even knowing it was exactly what I’d fled from. Not that his ignorance is in any way his fault. I wonder if showing him the house would even make a difference at this point. If showing him the literal walls will help me sledge the figurative ones. If he even wants me to anymore. I almost want to be angry at my daughter for bringing him into this thing that was supposed to be just me and my daughters, even if she is right. I suppose being cursed with a daughter who is both more insightful and smarter than me is karmic justice. I pull her to me and don’t feel the least bit guilty when she tries to squirm out of my embrace. My youngest daughter piles on as well. I know when I get the strength to let go of them, I will pull out my cell phone and hand it to my older daughter. I will tell her to call her father and tell him that we are at the house I was raised in because the grandmother they never knew is dead and the mother they thought they knew is a liar and a coward. Something tells me he will come.  

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