Fiction

The Journal on the Train

Sebastian found the journal on the train. It was an ordinary Monday morning, and he caught the train to work, just as he always did. It had been a lackluster weekend, and all he really wanted to do was sleep, but work beckoned, and he never missed work if he could help it. He was a librarian, and genuinely enjoyed his work. He took a seat by the window and opened his book. Within minutes, he was lost in the story, mostly oblivious to the other passengers on the train. When his stop was announced, he surfaced from his book and stood up to leave, but as he did, his gaze fell on the empty seat next to him, where there lay a slim book, bound in light brown leather. Curious, he picked it up and looked around, but saw no sign of its owner. Without quite knowing why, he slipped it into the pocket of his overcoat as he got off the train.

Bracing himself against the chilly wind that blew fluffy snowflakes into his face, he walked the three blocks to the library. By the time he got there, he had forgotten about the book entirely. He nodded vaguely Elizabeth, the woman working the front circulation desk, and made his way to his office in the reference section. He hung his coat up on the coat rack just inside the door, and plugged in the electric kettle to brew a cup of tea. While he waited for the water to boil, he sat down behind his desk and booted up his computer so he could check his email.

He read a few emails, nothing urgent, and then got up and prepared his tea, lemon, two cubes of sugar, and settled himself back behind his desk. Slipping into his usual morning rhythm, he mechanically filled out the seemingly endless paperwork his job seemed to generate, pausing occasionally to refill his mug. After a couple of hours, he leaned back in his chair and sighed, removing his glasses to rub his eyes, already tired from staring at the computer screen.

He stood up and stretched, walking to his window to look out over the snowy cityscape outside. The snow seemed to make everything glisten with crystalline purity, and he thought to himself that the city was beautiful right now, even as he mentally acknowledged that most of it would turn to dreary gray slush before the day was out. Just then, there was a knock on the door of his office.

Daydreaming, Sebastian?” asked a woman’s voice.

He turned and smiled at Meredith, the young woman who worked the reference desk. “I guess I was, sort of. Thinking about the temporary nature of beauty as demonstrated by snow in the city.”

I need to pull some books from the back stacks. Can you cover the reference desk for me while I’m gone?”

Sure,” he said, smiling affably, “I don’t mind at all.”

He followed Meredith out into the reference section of the library, and took a seat behind the reference desk as she gathered up a small pile of call slips. “Be back in a few minutes,” she said, and he nodded in acknowledgment. The time behind the reference desk passed slowly, since the library was always quiet on Monday mornings, and Sebastian found his mind wandering. Somewhere in the meanderings of his mind, he remembered the book he had found on the train, and he began to wonder about it. There had been no title or author embossed on the smooth leather cover. He wondered who it belonged to or what sort of book it was. He thought it was probably a journal, and made a mental note to check and see if there was a name or an address inside, so that he could return it.

When Meredith returned from the stacks, pushing a cart full of books, he relinquished his place at the reference desk and wandered back to his office. He poured himself another mug of tea and then retrieved the small book from his overcoat pocket. He settled into his chair and opened the book. There was no title page, no name or address to be found on the inside cover. Feeling vaguely voyeuristic, he decided to read the first page, in case there was any clue to who might have left the book on the train. He read the first paragraph and froze. It said:

“If you’re reading this, please don’t feel guilty or that you’re invading my privacy. I want you to read this. I want someone to read this. When I’m done writing, I plan to leave it somewhere where I hope it will be found, maybe by someone who loves books, or at least by someone curious enough to open it and see what’s inside. Nice to meet you. My name is Sarah.”

 

Sea Glass And Amber

I am 32 years old, and I am sitting in the great room of my mother’s house. It is an unusual dwelling, being fifteen-sided, and utterly devoid of right angles. One full wall is windows and sliding doors, and the room is dominated by the huge stone fireplace, with its irregular shapes and varied colors. Crowded on top of the piano are a variety of framed family photos- fragments of our lives trapped forever under glass. I am playing music on my computer in hopes of keeping my daughters entertained for a few moments, but no luck. It was fine when they were dancing, but they have progressed to untrained gymnastics on the unforgiving hardwood floor. Even as I open my mouth to tell them to stop, the youngest loses her balance, and falls headfirst. I shake my head at them, tell them no more horseplay, and they nod, contrite for the moment. My eyes are drawn, as always, to the bizarre inkblot-mosaic of the fireplace. I half squint, and the shapes form themselves, standing in relief, a face, a woman’s bare legs, a bird. This fireplace has been my Rorschach test since the first time I saw it, revealing fragments of me to myself. My wandering gaze drifts back to the gallery on the piano, and this time, a particular photo catches my eye. It’s a portrait of me from half a lifetime ago, almost. My hair is straight as a pin, and glossy black, like a raven’s wing, cut even with my jaw. I’m smiling, but I don’t look happy, not really, not around the eyes. The sounds around me grow faint, distant, the music and the children’s chatter fading.

I am 17 years old, and I am sitting in an Olan Mills portrait studio in a K mart in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am with my father and stepmother, taking a portrait because I didn’t have a senior portrait like my brother or stepbrothers. I didn’t even have a senior year. In my normal rush, I had graduated at the end of my junior year, forgoing the glory of being a senior for the electric promise of college. The man taking the portrait is trying to coax a real smile out of me, but what he doesn’t know is that it’s hard to smile when there’s a heavy, leaden lump of dread in the pit of my stomach. He doesn’t know that the shopping bag my dad is clutching holds a pregnancy test. He can’t know that in an hour, my life will be irreparably altered; in that hour, I will age 5 years, lose a fiancé and best friend, and gain a child. I am 17, and terrified. If you know what to look for, you can see it. The smile doesn’t reach my eyes, and the skin around those eyes is tighter than it should be. I’m just a little too pale, and the curve of my lips is very nearly brittle. I am faking it, but not well. The photographer excuses himself for a minute, and I relax, no longer trying to pose for the freaky cyclopean eye of the camera. My gaze drifts aimlessly around the studio, taking in the various props and backgrounds. On the wall, is a framed picture of a little girl holding a bouquet of flowers with a butterfly perched on top.

I am 6, and it is summer. I am playing in the yard, dancing in the sprinkler with my pink bathing suit on. The drops of water catch the sunlight, flinging fragments of rainbows into my delighted eyes. The air is fresh and clean and sweet, and the mingled smell of newly cut grass and gasoline from the neighbor’s yard is the most delicious thing ever. I am laughing and spinning in circles. Our ancient Old English Sheepdog lies on the porch, keeping watch over me, as always. His tremendously shaggy coat has been clipped very short in deference to the heat of the summer, and he looks ridiculous, but I love him totally, foolishly, absolutely, the way only young children love. He has been my constant companion this year, meeting me at the bus stop everyday when I come home from school, patiently herding me down the street and up our driveway, onto the porch and through the front door, his lone sheep. My hair is cut as short as a boy’s, making my penny-colored eyes look huge in my small face, and my body is still lean and taut, innocent of curves or sags. I laugh at the dog and spin once more through the spray. In my mind, I am a princess, dancing alone in the moonlight of a midnight garden, waiting breathlessly for my prince to come. I spin around and around, growing dizzier and dizzier until I collapse, delighted and lightheaded, on the lawn. I open my eyes, and there, right there, is a butterfly. It is so beautiful, with its black and orange wings, so close that my gasp of wonder gently flutters those wings, and I hold my breath for a second, sure it will fly away, but it doesn’t. I wait, and wait, and wait, but the butterfly is still there. I reach out, so slow, slower than the last minute of school before summer break, slower than the moments between waking and sleeping on Christmas Eve, slower than anything, and the butterfly is still there. Enchanted, I gently pick it up, and surge to my feet, butterfly on my finger, and, balanced on that razor’s edge between hurried and careful, race-creep up the porch steps and into the house, calling out to my parents. My father comes first, to see what I have. I show him my prize, and he smiles widely and darts off to grab his camera, snapping photos as he comes down the entry hall toward me, shutter whirring as he frames picture after picture. I settle the butterfly gently on my shoulder, and stand up tall and proud, my face breaking into a huge grin, as I hold my head at the perfect angle and my father zooms in to catch the shot. My mom comes down the stairs and sees us there, smiling fondly at the picture we make, butterfly girl, and camera man. In that instant, we are all happy- no one cares about the water dripping onto the floor from my damp body, or the flecks of grass transferring themselves from my bare feet to the rug by the door. That instant is still pure, still pristine, with no yelling or frowns, no echoes of the word divorce. I don’t know yet that my miraculously tame butterfly is actually dead or dying. My dad still lives with me and my mom, and not half a country away. My dad snaps one more picture, and the flash blinds me.

I am 9, and it is a wonderful weekend afternoon. I have spent it having a solo picnic on the lawn of my elementary school, starring in a play that exists only in my own mind. I write fabulous roles for myself, with stunning lines, which I deliver flawlessly, nailing every single word and gesture. It is improvisational theater at its best, dynamic and reactionary, constantly shifting in response to my environment. My school is near the heart of the city, encircled by cracked, weed-ridden sidewalks, the lawn wide and gracious before the old-fashioned, pillared facade of the school, and it wraps around the sides before giving way to the chain link and blacktop of the playground. Lost in my own little world, I have not noticed the gradual darkening of the sky as ominous thunderheads roll in. I have gathered the remains of my lunch, and stood, planning to make my lazy, dreamy way home, when the downpour begins. In an instant, it is dark, truly dark, and the rain is coming down in hard sheets. The lighting is like a thousand simultaneous camera flashes, and I am completely caught up in the drama of it all, writing myself a soliloquy of defiance to be shouted into the wind, boldly declaring my lack of fear. I am walking down the sidewalk toward home, soaked to the skin and totally exhilarated, when a noise intrudes on my interior monologue. It is loud, and angry, and out of place, and suddenly, my mother is there. Wet and furious, her fingers dig into my arm as she propels me toward our little rented house. I am jarred, shaken, stunned by her anger, suddenly very cold and wet and small. I am too young to understand the righteous fury of a worried mother, who has realized that the storm is raging outside, and that the beloved is somewhere out there in it. All I know is that I am resentful that she has interrupted my reverie, brought the curtain down prematurely on my own personal masterpiece, and then, suddenly, I am afraid, too. My tears mix with the rain as they slide over my cheeks, barely brackish when they brush the corners of my mouth.

I am 18, and the same weak, salty flavor is there, but this time, it isn’t tears. I am in the shower at my lover’s apartment, hugging myself, as the water washes the sweat off my face. I am hugely pregnant, and completely overwhelmed by the fact that I have a lover at all. I have been alone since my announcement of my unplanned pregnancy sent my fiancé packing for parts unknown with my best friend, but tonight, finally, the man I have been dating and I have made love for the first time. It was awkward, and I was shy, but he kissed me and said he loved my mother-goddess body, and that was that. Now I am standing in his shower, all but dancing with barely restrained glee. Then, the pain. Quick, but sharp, and unexpected, like a cramp in my side. I turn so that the shower pounds on it, and it goes away. I towel off, and pull my clothes on, and curl up on his ragged but beautiful leather sofa with a book. The cramp returns, and I shift in my seat, irritated that anything is distracting me from my post-coital glow of book and sofa and the quiet sound of his breathing from the bedroom, and again, it passes. Half an hour and six twinges later, realization dawns. This might be labor. Crap. I pad, barefooted, up to the side of the bed, and stretch out a hand to touch his shoulder. “Wake up.” I say, “I think it might be time.” He jolts awake, beautiful green eyes wide, blond hair tumbling across his forehead, moving suddenly with great urgency as he pulls on clothes and shoes, then he’s holding my arm as I walk carefully down the stairs to the car. He asks if I think I should call my parents, and suddenly, I am panicked. My father and stepmother have just left, today, for a church convention in Dayton. My mother is still in Virginia. I am not due for 3 and a half more weeks, and she was going to come up to stay with me in two, but two weeks is much too late, now. I start to cry, suddenly afraid, but he brushes my tears away and says, “We’re here.” The time passes quickly as I am whisked from the emergency room up to labor and delivery, there is my mother’s voice, comforting, on the phone. She and my brother will leave right away, and should be in Cincinnati in about 10 hours. Someone calls the priest, who calls the hotel in Dayton, and my father is eventually found and sent to my bedside. They have given me narcotics to ease the pain, and they start the epidural. My lover has called my college friends, and soon the room is crowded with them, ten or fifteen of them at a time, listening to music, playing cards, drawing, feeding me ice chips. There is really no pain at all now, just the drugged haze of waiting. My phone rings, and it is my mother. She says my brother must have found a rip in space time to drive through somewhere in the mountains of West Virginia while she was sleeping, because now they are in Covington, only half an hour away. The doctor comes and tells me that it is time to push, and I look at him, uncomprehending, and ask if I can wait for half an hour until my mom gets here. His eyes twinkle, and he shrugs, says no one has ever asked him that before, but that we’ll try, and sits down beside my bed. Efficient nurses clear the room, and then my mother and father are there, one on each side of my bed, holding my hands and strangely peaceful with each other 11 years after the divorce. I am pushing now, bearing down with all my might, flopping back onto the pillows to rest and then again, and suddenly, the doctor is handing me a tiny, living, crying thing. He solemnly introduces me to my daughter, and I stare at her wonderingly. In that instant, there is nothing else, no nurses, no doctor, no parents crying softly but happily, just me and this tiny girl. In three days, I will get up, and get dressed, wrap her in her first real clothes and take her in my arms, my mother by my side, out of the maternity ward and into the tiny capsule of the elevator. I will stand in the hospital chapel, and hand her to another woman, the woman she will call mommy, and I will wave goodbye. But right now, she is me and I am her, and there is nothing but the miracle of her tiny hands and blue blue eyes and perfect little pink mouth.

I am 32 again, and now it is the day before Halloween. I am standing in my mother’s kitchen, helping one of my daughters get ready for her very first middle school dance. A boy has asked her to go, so this is a huge event. She is dressed in her costume, all shades of green- pale green fitted bodice over forest green leotard, kelly green skirt like flower petals falling to the knees of green cotton tights. I take a length of forest green ribbon in my hands and weave it into her hair, braiding and braiding until the top of her hair is woven with ribbon and the underside tumbles over her shoulders like waves of gold. I am painting her lips a beautiful pink, smudging green eyeshadow over her eyelids and up to her brows. I draw green swirls at the corners of her eyes with eyeliner, and dust delicate white glitter on her forehead, her cheekbones, the bare expanse of her chest, the skin there so pale and delicate I can see the fine tracery of veins beneath it. I step back, and take in the whole picture of her, all green and gold and sparkles, all innocent blushes and twinkling eyes. I take her hands and lead her to the couch in the great room, pulling her down beside me, as I carefully paint her fingernails with a pale yellow-green polish. Her hands are so small, so delicate, and yet the polish makes them suddenly older, more sophisticated, the hands of a stranger. I paint and file, and when I’m done, you’d never know she bites her nails. She smiles up at me, practically vibrating in her seat the excitement. There is time before we go, but she is wired, wrapped tightly as a coiled spring, poised on the edge of a grand adventure. I laugh at her, and turn on the music, and there she is, dancing in the middle of the great room, twirling and dipping, the glitter on her wings tossing light around the room. I turn off the bright overhead lights, and the room is dim, and she is a shining thing, a creature of fantasy, caught and reflected again and again in the bank of windows behind her, 8 or 10 reflections from different angles as she spins and spins and throws her head back and laughs.

I am 30, and very irritated. I am hot and sweaty and scratched and miserable. I have spent the last 2 hours wrestling my mother’s nine foot artificial Christmas tree into its place of honor beside the fireplace. It is a towering thing, pre-lit and entwined with wires, heavy boughs decorated with false pine cones. I have scraped my hands to shreds on its needles, pinched my palm trying to slot the sections together, stared down my slight fear of heights to shove the top into place. I have fussed and groomed and smoothed branches into place, so that there are no bare spots. The children have spent the last half hour asking me every five minutes if it’s ready for ornaments yet. I have snapped at them a thousand times to shut up and stay out from underfoot. I look at my mother, curled in her favorite white leather recliner, reading a book, blissfully unaware of the amount of effort I’ve put in over the last little while, and I dig down deep inside myself and somehow find the strength not to strangle her. I take a deep breath, and, because I am endlessly masochistic, ask my mother if she’s happy with where it is. She looks up, cocks her head, studies the tree. She stands, taking it in from all angles. She sits on the window seat, in her chair, by the computer, on the couch. She goes out onto the porch and then comes back in to see how it strikes her eye in that instant when she first walks through the door. I am becoming impatient. She has me shift it left, then back right, forward a bit, away from the wall. I make a hundred minute adjustments. My teeth grind, my hands fist, and I wrestle and shove and push and pull. I remind myself that she is 64 years old, that she cannot do this herself, that if she has to wait for my brother to help her, her tree might get put up on Christmas Eve. Finally, she pronounces it perfect, and settles back into her chair with a contented sigh, adjusting her glasses with one hand as she picks her book up with the other. The children spring forward, ornaments clutched in their hands, eager to begin, and I collapse into a chair, vaguely wishing for a cold soda, or better still, a bourbon and soda, to offer sage advice about ornament placement. Ten minutes later, I know I will be repositioning every single ornament the children have hung tonight after they’re in bed. I sigh, wondering why I do this, having lost every shred of the holiday spirit. I drift into a fantasy where some fabulously talented person does my decorating for me, caterers prepare wonderlands of perfect cookies and delicious dinners, and I don’t have to worry about a thing. Somewhere in there, my musing is interrupted. The children have finished with the ornaments, and it’s time for me to place the angel and plug the whole thing in for the final reveal. Arms aching with fatigue and stinging from tiny scratches, I stretch up, up, and put the angel on top of the tree. I fidget and rotate, trying to get her face toward the door, her skirt even, balance her so she sits up straight and tall, not leaning at all. I step down, and motion for my kids to turn off the lights. I plug in the tree and it blazes to life. My children squeal and hug each other and jump up and down. My mother puts her book aside, and a soft smile steals over her face, smoothing away years of worry to make her a young woman again. The tree is reproduced over and over again in the dark windows and sliding doors, and the whole room seems to sparkle with fairy lights. In that moment, I am not irritated, hot, sore, tired, resentful- I am filled with wonder and awe and love and peace and all good things as I stare at this miracle of a tree and my daughters begin to softly sing, off-key, as they stumble sleepily toward their beds.

I am 20, and I am standing in my living room beside my Christmas tree. It is December 28th, and I am, once again, very, very pregnant. There is a knock on the front door, and I open it to admit a smiling older man with a teenage boy in tow. He shakes my hand, introduces himself and his nephew. I call down to my mother in the kitchen to let her know he’s here. She comes up the half-flight of stairs from the kitchen, smiling, and shakes his hand. Behind her is the man who will be my husband in another twenty minutes. He looks so handsome to me, tall, with dark, dark hair and bold blue eyes. He is wearing a white shirt with a mandarin collar and black slacks. His hair is still damp from the shower, and I can see the nick on his throat where he cut himself shaving this morning. He comes to stand beside me, taking my hand in his, and together we face the justice of the peace. A mutual friend stands with us, acting as best man, and my mother is there, matron of honor. Aside from the teenage boy, there is no one else. The justice of the peace is solemn now, opening a small book and beginning to speak slowly and seriously about love and commitment, faith and marriage. He speaks without looking at the book in his hands, his attention focused on our faces as we listen to him. His words are beautiful, sincere, and they make a strong impression on my young mind. I listen to him, rapt, and when he asks me to, I repeat after him, making promises that will bind me for life to the father of my second daughter, saying words that will make me a married woman, the words that will spare me the shame of bearing a second illegitimate child before I am old enough to drink. My cranberry red knit maternity dress is hot and itchy, and my feet and back are sore from standing, even for just these few minutes, but I don’t care. He pronounces us man and wife, and gives my newly-minted husband leave to kiss me. As his lips brush mine, I think to myself that this is the last man I will ever kiss this way, and suddenly, I am an adult, no longer a little girl playing house, but a wife, and, in about two weeks, a mother. This time, when I leave the hospital, I will bring my daughter home with me instead of waving goodbye. This time I will have a ring on my finger, gleaming gold respectability, and the nurses will call me ma’am instead of honey, and will smile fondly at me instead of avoiding my eyes or looking away, faces covered with poorly veiled sympathy, or worse, condemnation. I kiss my husband again, shake the hand of the man who married us, wave goodbye to him from the doorway as he gets into his car with his nephew and leaves. We go down to the kitchen and cut the cake our friend has brought. I eat hurriedly, because I have to be at work soon, and then I dash from the kitchen, changing quickly into jeans and a sweatshirt and sneakers, running my hands through my short-cropped hair. I hug my mother, my friend, my husband, and then I am out the door and in the car, driving through the ugly gray drizzle to the florist where I work. In the car I marvel at how little time it took to change me into a wife, and, to my newly-wedded eye, the raindrops on my windshield seem to form a soft-focus heart.

I am 23, and I am seeing shapes in water droplets again, this time in the condensation on a glass of water on my mother’s kitchen counter. It is late spring, and lovely outside, but my eyes are blurred with tears and I don’t care, because all I can see is that glass of water, sweating on the tile, bending the light so it looks like there is a lightning bolt, a skull, a wilted flower on the outside of the glass. I would say that my heart is broken, but that’s not quite right; it is heavy, sore and aching, filled with poison that the medicine can’t chase away. I have been hospitalized three times in the last six weeks, but the drugs aren’t helping, the therapy isn’t doing anything, and the pain is a wild, screaming thing, clawing in my chest, eating me alive from the inside out. All I can do is sob and wail, beating my hands against the wooden floor until they bruise, tearing at the insides of my arms with my own fingernails, leaving bloody gouges that look like long, jagged red mouths. The medicine hasn’t been helping, but I have decided to make it work, to make it take the pain away and quiet the screaming in my head. I open the bottles of pills and dump them out on the counter, Ativan and Geodon, Prozac and Depakote and even Tylenol, strewn like a spilled bag of children’s candy on the ruddy tile, brightly colored and tempting, promising relief. I snatch them up by the fistful, swallowing and swallowing, chasing them with the cool water, pills and pills, hundreds of pills, until they are all gone, and the water is all gone too. I drop the glass into the sink from too high, accidentally on purpose, and it shatters there. As it fragments, I realize what I’ve just done, and I begin to gather the jagged shards from the sink, cradling them gently in my hands as I throw them away, as if cleaning up the mess will somehow undo the massive overdose I’ve just dropped into my system. The telephone rings, and it is my husband. Even though we are separated now, he can tell by my voice that something is wrong, and he asks me over and over what I’m not telling him, pushing and badgering until the truth spills from my lips. He hangs up, and I imagine that he hates me now, is disgusted with what I’ve become, doesn’t believe or doesn’t care. I sit down on the floor and lay my head in my hands and rock and rock, and then my sister-in-law is there, putting me into the car and driving away, and all I can do is sit in her backseat and watch the scenery fly by, growing gradually dimmer and more distorted until all there is is a pinpoint of light and then that goes out and the blackness swallows me and I’m so out of it that I’m not even thinking anything at all as I slide into unconsciousness.

I am 10, and I am pretending to sleep, stretched on the backseat of a gleaming black Mazda RX-7, being piloted through the darkness by a man that I am hopelessly in love with. It is late, late, close to midnight in Ocean City, Maryland. I am visiting my aunt who is not really my aunt but my mother’s best friend, and the man at the wheel is her son, a nineteen year old god with one worshiper. He and I have spent the evening on the boardwalk by the beach, eating ice cream and hot dogs and playing rigged midway games. He won a stuffed frog for me, and it is cradled against my chest even now, listening to the secrets of my wildly fluttering heart as the engine purrs like a contented cat and the tires whisper against the pavement. I am pretending to sleep because I am hoping that he will scoop me up and carry me inside when we get home, lay me on my bed and pull the covers over me, and then, somehow, seduced by my beauty and innocence, press a kiss to my curved, sleeping lips. I crack one eye open a tiny bit, trying to see out the window to get an idea how much farther away we are, trying to gauge how much longer it will be until we turn into the driveway, but I can’t really see and I want him to think I am sleeping, so I close my eye and relax my face, trying to look angelic and lovely. As I lie there on the seat, streetlights flickering over my body, I am completely still, but inside I am tumultuous, busy, spinning and on fire. I am Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, every princess who has ever lain dormant for hours or days or centuries, waiting for true love’s first kiss to wake her, stir her, bring her back into the world of life and laughter and noise. This has been quite a year for love; my much adored older brother just got married a few months ago, and my father will remarry in just another week, to a woman who may or may not turn out to be my wicked stepmother. That’s the reason for this extended beach vacation- my mother thought that I needed some time, some fun, since in some ways I am losing the only two important men in my life so close together, and she’s not wrong. My father and brother have been cornerstones of my existence all along, and now I see them sliding away from me, distracted by this pair of pretty blonde interlopers who are so unlike me, and who seem to have attracted all their attention, warping the fabric of my life like great black holes. The engine slows, the car turns, and I know that the moment is at hand. I hear his voice from the front seat, calling my name, but I pretend I don’t, lying still and willing him to be my prince charming, to replace the men I am losing, and then he is opening the car door on my side, leaning over me, smelling softly of cologne and soap. And then I am sure that it is going to happen, my eyes are closed but I can feel him leaning over, closer, closer, and then, then, I am waiting breathlessly and the seconds stretch longer and longer, pregnant with possibility. He shakes my shoulder gently, telling me to wake up and come inside because it’s late. My hopes are dashed. He is clearly not going to sweep me up in his big strong arms and carry me inside, so I push my cloud of dark curls away from my face and sit up, then climb gracelessly out of the car, feet leaden with disappointment, and trudge behind him, through the front door, staring glumly at his back. I mumble goodnight and turn into my room, stripping off my clothes and pulling on my nightgown, and I climb between the covers and wonder if I need to be blonde to be loved, but even at ten, I know that is stupid. It’s not my hair, it’s that I’m still a child, and no one healthy thinks of falling in love with a child, but I have lived and walked among the adults for long enough that I sometimes forget that I’m not really one of them. There is a knock on my door, but I don’t answer, thinking he will go away, but the door slowly creeps open, and I see him silhouetted there in the darkness, hesitating in my doorway, and then he walks quietly to the side of my bed, and leans down, and brushes my hair off my forehead and kisses me there, and then, as if he can’t help it, he lightly brushes his lips over mine, then pulls away as if burned, straightening and whispering into the night, “Pretty girl.” Then he turns and walks out, pulling the door behind him, and I hug his kiss and his words against my heart, smiling in the darkness, because now I know that sometimes the grownups forget I’m not one of them, too.

I am 15, and I am thoroughly sick of having plain, boring brown hair. I can’t even call it something like chestnut or mahogany to make myself feel better, because it really is just plain, boring brown. It’s nice that it’s wavy, but the color is so bland, so mousy, so quiet. My greatest ambition in life is to be not quiet, so I have decided to dye my hair, and, since it won’t be my natural color anyway, I want to dye it a color so far outside of what occurs in nature that no one will ever look at my head and wonder whether the color came from a bottle or not. My mother has finally stopped arguing with me, stopped trying to convince me of how pretty it is; she has resigned herself to the fact that I want to do this, and since it is summer and I am not in school, she will let me. I wanted to bleach it so the color would take better, but my mother has drawn a line in the sand- color is okay, but only temporary color and no bleaching, because bleaching is not temporary. She offers to take me to the drugstore, and I snort at her, rolling my eyes at the idea that I would choose a color that middle aged women use to cover up those stubborn grays. That kind of color is for hiding, and I want color that screams, so I am headed onto the college campus, to a shop called Exile, in search of a product called Manic Panic. I am tall for fifteen, and heavyset, and the extra height and weight make me look older than I am. I can pass for a college student, and not just a freshman, either, and I have cultivated this, learning to talk older, to walk more confidently, and now I can move among them almost unnoticed, as if I were an adult. I have spent years practicing, honing my impersonation so that it is almost perfect, hours spent dawdling in coffee shops on campus, studying mannerisms, gestures, speech patterns, so that I can duplicate them. Even my regular schoolbooks could pass for college textbooks now that I am studying Trigonometry and French Lit, Ancient History and Mandarin Chinese, and the novels that I read are not something you’d expect to see in the hands of a child, either. My disguise is nearly perfect, and last week I even bought a pack of cigarettes at 7-11 without them even asking for my ID. I don’t smoke, but the point here is that they sold them to me without even blinking, as if I were over 18, and totally entitled to poison my lungs and court cancer. I walk down the sidewalk, and the campus is quiet except for the few students who are enrolled for summer session. The dorms are still empty, their blank windows looking out over the street like lonely eyes, waiting, purposeless, until late August when they will be crammed with students again, crowded full of life and noise. I smile at people as I walk past them, and I turn my face up to the sun as I wait on the corner for the light to change. I think about what color I want, teasing myself with the idea, imagining myself with hair that is blue or green or bubblegum pink, even though I already know what I will choose- a deep, dark burgundy that is almost a plum. I have seen myself in dreams with this hair, that looks as if it were coated with rich cherry wood stain, a striking and unnatural color, but one that is rich and appealing and touchable, and, daydreaming about it, I accidentally overshoot Exile by half a block. I don’t want to look like an idiot, so instead of just turning around and walking back, I duck into the comic book store beside me, as if that were my actual destination. Inside it is dimly lit and musty smelling, with old posters of superheroes on the walls, slightly yellowed with time, with curling corners that make them look sort of like they are trying to pull free of the walls. There are rows upon rows of cardboard boxes, filled with comics lovingly bagged and boarded, collector’s items carefully shielded from the ravages of time and the grubby, sticky fingers of people who don’t really respect them. My older brother collected comic books, and I have been in this store many times over many years, all the way back to when he was a freshman here at this university and I was six years old and visiting him on the weekends. I recognize the man behind the counter, and I smile at him, and he smiles back at me, not realizing that I am the same little girl he used to give lollipops and sodas to nine years ago. I linger, walking around among the boxes, looking at the covers of random comics whose titles I recognize from all those years ago, wondering if my brother still has my old collection of Thundercats comic books, whether they’re worth anything anymore except as sentimental reminders of a childhood that I have spent the last six years trying desperately to escape. In my head, I am calculating how long I need to stay here before it will seem to an outside observer that this was where I planned to go all along, not that there actually is any outside observer, but at this age I an a little paranoid, obsessed with how I am perceived by other people, still self-absorbed enough not to realize that most people fail to perceive me at all. I decide that I have killed enough time here, and I stroll nonchalantly back to the front of the store, nodding to the clerk as I leave, the bells on the door jingling in my wake. I walk the half-block back to Exile, a store that I have heard of but never been to, a store that is legend among the disaffected punk rock kids who hang out at the coffee shop. I eavesdrop on their conversations, pretending to read my novel but really studying them, learning from them about the world of young adults, and I have learned to maintain a completely passive expression, no matter what they are talking about, no matter how shocking or titillating it is, I develop the ability to look uninterested while they are talking about heroin overdoses and facial piercings, and who slept with who last weekend. On the door of Exile, there is a sign that says that no one under sixteen will be admitted without a parent, but I ignore it and walk in as if I were clearly an adult and belonged there. No one stops me or questions me about my age, and although my face is bored and blasé, I am elated. My disguise is holding. The hair color display is easy to spot, large and garish, and I wander over to it, zeroing in immediately on the color I want. It is called Vampire Red, and looks like partially congealed blood, but I don’t want to look too eager, so I pick up other jars, looking at other colors and pretending that I am not utterly hypnotized by the deep deep red. The sales clerk eventually comes over and asks if I need any help, but I shake my head, say thanks, and then pick up the red and take it to the counter. She rings me up and hands me my bag, and I walk out of the store calmly, but as soon as my feet hit the sidewalk outside, I abandon all pretense that I am an adult, and run for home, bag clutched in my sweating palm, long hippie skirt whipping around my ankles as I fly over the sidewalks and across the streets, half-tripping over curbs in my haste, then I am pounding up the stairs to our porch, bursting through the front door, flinging myself into my bathroom. I speed read the instructions, jump into the shower and then out again, pull on latex gloves, perch on the counter in front of the mirror, and begin slathering my head with deep red dye. When it is all on, the whole jar, I sit and wait, and the 20 minutes seems like forever, and then I am back in the shower, rinsing and rinsing, and the bottom of the tub looks like something out of a horror movie, and the dye runs over my back and breasts like blood to pool around my feet, and I rinse and rinse until the water is clear again, then step out, rubbing my head with a dark purple towel that my mom bought for me when she said I could dye my hair, so I wouldn’t accidentally ruin the mint green ones. I am impatient to see what it will look like, but I don’t feel like using the blow dryer, so I just rub my hair until it is damp, not dripping, then go curl up in my room with a book to pass the time. The book is interesting, engaging, rich, and I lose track of time. I read the whole afternoon away, and I’ve totally forgotten about my hair, and then the front door slams, and my mom is home, and I go downstairs to say hi to her. I walk up behind her in the kitchen, and say hello, and she turns around with a coffee mug in her hand, which she promptly drops when she sees my hair. Dear God, she says, that’s bold. Do you like it, I ask, and she waffles, not knowing what to say. Finally she says that what matters is whether or not I like it, and I go into the little half bath off the kitchen and flip on the lights and look in the mirror, and there it is, my new hair, just as I hoped it would be, deep burgundy, wild and tangled from air drying, flowing over my shoulders with a life of its own. I stand there, staring at myself forever, intoxicated by my reflection and high on the realization that I am finally in charge of who I am, and that I can remake myself a million times, molding myself into whatever I want, and I think, in that moment, that I will never be unhappy again, because whenever that I happens, I will just slide into a new skin, a new persona, a new self, and the sadness will wash away like chalk on the sidewalk in the warm summer rain.

I am 9 years old, and I am visiting my father in Texas for Christmas. He has asked what I’d like to do while I am there, and, with a typical lack of understanding of what’s involved, I have said I want to go to Mexico. My father doesn’t really know what’s involved either, but apparently he doesn’t care, because we are in his car, driving from Austin to Laredo, where he plans to park and he and I will walk across the border and then catch a train and go to Mexico City. We arrive in Laredo about mid morning, and the sun is shining and it’s a gorgeous day. The border town strikes me as a place where the line between the U.S. and Mexico is so blurred as to be almost nonexistant. The buildings look like someone has colored them with huge versions of the chalk pastels my mother sometimes lets me draw with, faded by the strong sun, but still somewhow bright. Spanish and English are spoken seemingly at random, often mixed within the same sentence, and the town is busy and crowded with people, all bustling around with luggage and parcels and handfuls of papers. It’s very exciting, and my eyes are huge as I try to take it all in. My father takes me by the hand and walks me to the border checkpoint, where an official smiles at us, looks over the papers my father hands him casually, and waves us through the gate. I hold my breath and take one huge step, and suddenly I’m in Mexico, and the border guard is laughing at me and waving, saying “Bienvenida,” and I say gracias, because I think that’s the right thing to say, and then we’re off to the train station to buy tickets. The train station is a ramshackle wooden building, with paint peeling in the sun and chickens scratching and pecking in the dirt, and my father and I duck inside, out of the sun and into the dimly lit main room with desks crowded around the walls and a ticket counter with three windows on the far side. We go to the window and my father asks for two first class tickets to Mexico City in stumbling Spanish, and then asks when the train will leave. He nods, and leads me back out into the sun, tickets in hand, and we wander around aimlessly for a little while, just killing time until we leave. The train ride to Mexico City is a long one, over 18 hours, and there are no sleeping cars. At one point, when the train stops in a small town and we get out to stretch our legs, there is a mix up with our tickets and we have to ride in third class to the next station. Third class is an open railway car with upturned crates to sit on, and chickens and donkeys and a toothless old woman who mumbles to herself in Spanish, and I don’t care that it’s uncomfortable because it’s all so new, such an adventure. Later, my father plays chess with a student on the train, and I watch, and then the student asks if I want to play, and I am so excited because I’ve never played against an adult who wasn’t a relative before. The student is just trying to be nice and help my father keep me from getting bored on the long trip, but I am focused on the game, and he is somewhat surprised when I wrestle him into a stalemate after half an hour. Then we sit and I help him with his English and he teaches me some Spanish while my father takes a nap, but then we are at his station, and he gets off the train. I expect now that I will be bored, with no one to talk to and not much to do, but an American businessman gets on at the same station, and sits near us, and talks to my father. They talk in that polite, aimless way that strangers do, and the man finds out that we are planning to go to Mexico City. He shakes his head, and explains that we don’t want to go there- it is large and dirty and dangerous, and more like New York than Mexico, and he invites us to come with him to a tiny little town in the middle of nowhere to visit a friend of his, an expatriate American writer who has a villa in the town. My father asks me what I think, and I say that it seems silly to have spent this long on a train just to go to New York, and he laughs, and it is decided. Our plans change, and we rearrange our tickets so that they don’t continue on past San Miguel Allende, which is the name of the town. I sleep fitfully now, for several hours, tired from the travel and the excitement, and my father and the business man talk long into the night. When we finally arrive in San Miguel, at first I think that we have just stopped in the middle of the desert. The railway stop here is not a station, just a tiny wooden platform set up in the sand, and I don’t even see the town, just the large garbage dump outside it that is near the platform, but we get off the train anyway, committed now, and stand on the platform with our luggage around our feet. I wonder how anyone will know we are here, since there is no telephone to call from, no taxis waiting, not even a ticket booth, but my father smiles and puts an arm around my shoulders, and tells me not to worry, and in a few minutes, I can see a cloud of dust not too far off in the distance, and the businessman says that that’ll be our ride now, and then I see a little old man driving a wooden cart pulled by donkeys, and then we are piling into the back of the cart, which is full of hay that smells sweet and dry and tickles my nose a little, and we ride bumpily into the town square. The businessman gets off with us in town, wanting to see us settled in, and we go to the only hotel, but it’s the day after Christmas, and there is no room in the inn. I start to get worried, but the man asks to use the phone, and after a brief conversation, hangs up and smiles down at me, telling me that he guesses I won’t have to stay in a stable after all, because his writer friend has plenty of room and would be happy to have us stay with her. We walk through the town, carrying our luggage, and I am hot and my arms are tired and I am sore from sitting so long in the train, and then we are standing outside a huge wooden door at the biggest house I have ever seen in real life, and a woman opens it, smiling broadly at us, and hugs the man and kisses both his cheeks, then kisses my father too, and me. She is beautiful in an exotic way, long dark hair shot with gray and caught up in a long, tangled braid, and her skin is dark from the sun and covered with lines and her eyes crinkle at the corners when she smiles, just like my dad’s. She is barefoot, and wearing a long, brightly patterned skirt and a white blouse with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows, and she laughs as she leads us inside. We are shown to rooms, first my father’s, and then mine, and my father stays in his room to unpack while she shows me mine. It is a beautiful room, with a large bed with a bright, multicolored spread, and a large, comfortable chair, and large windows with heavy curtains that she throws back to let in the light. I turn in a circle, taking it in, and open my mouth to thank her, and then she says that I haven’t seen the best part yet, and points to a wooden ladder that leans against the wall and leads to a trapdoor in the ceiling. She goes up the ladder ahead of me, beckoning me to follow, and pushes up the trapdoor, and I follow, stepping out into a beautiful rooftop garden. I can see the town square from here, and there are flowers growing, and a tree even, right there on the roof, heavy with small orange fruit, and there is a lounge chair under the tree in the shade and the tops of the walls around the edge of the roof are spiky with pieces of broken glass that have been cemented right into the walls. The glass is blue and green and brown, worn smooth by the rain and the sand and the passage of time, and the woman says that it was originally there to keep invaders from scaling the walls of the villa to get inside, but that now it’s just pretty. I turn to her, my eyes wide with excitement, and thank her for letting us stay, for giving me such a pretty place, like something in a story, and she just smiles and says that spontaneity should always be rewarded, and I don’t really know what that word means, but I think that what she’s saying is that sometimes it’s good not to have a plan. She gathers me into her arms on the roof, and drops another kiss on the top of my head, and tells me that I should make myself at home, that there is nowhere in the villa I can’t go, and that I should have a nap, and then do some exploring, and the freedom of it all is just huge, and I grin up at her like a fool, and then she disappears back through the trapdoor and down the ladder, and I stand on the roof looking over the town for a while, then climb back down the ladder and tumble into the bed and fall asleep, still smiling.

I am 25, and I am sitting on a the back porch of a friend who is not home, reading a book and chatting with a man who is something I can’t quite label yet. Two of my daughters play in the backyard, laughing and running around, gathering sticks to fence with, bringing pretty stones to show me, quartz and smooth pebbles, even a pale green piece of sea glass stranded far from the water that smoothed it. I am happy, peaceful, smiling, enjoying the sun and the sounds of the children playing and the company. The telephone rings behind me in the kitchen, and even though it’s not my house, I answer it, and it’s the friend who owns this place, and his voice is tight, strange. He says he’s glad he caught me, and not to freak out, but there’s been an accident. My husband, who is spending the day whitewater rafting, is in an ambulance and on his way to MCV. I ask how bad it is, and am told that he wasn’t breathing. Suddenly, everything is sharpened. I am focused, as I tell the man with me that we have to go, now, and take the children to my brother, that we have to get to the hospital and that we mustn’t frighten them. We gather up the girls, and then we’re in the car, speeding to my brother’s house, where I drop them off, saying that I have to get to MCV, something’s happened, I’ll call later. I am not driving, because even though I feel possesed by an unnatural calm, I know that I am not steady enough to drive a car. The man with me says little as we drive, knowing that there’s nothing to say, and that I can only pay attention to staying calm and holding it together during the longest 45 minutes of my life. We pull up at the hospital, and he drops me at the emergency room, going to park the car. I walk through the doors, and explain that I’m here to see my husband, that he was in a rafting accident. The waiting room is crowded with people, everyone who was on the trip, inculding the woman my husband was sleeping with and her two teenaged children. She is crying, and saying she’s sorry, and then the doctor comes and tells me what I already know, that he is gone, there was nothing they could do, that I am a widow. The room around me erupts into crying and cursing and shocked gasps, and I am standing there, rooted to the spot like a tree, still wrapped in the unearthly calm that has posessed me since the phone call. I am not in shock, not really, just in a strange place, with this sense of deja-vu, like I knew when I touched the phone what was coming, and am somehow unsurprised. His parents arrive, and his mother is crying, and his father is screaming at me, blaming me for this, and then a nurse comes and takes them to another room, and the doctor is there, and I ask when I can see my husband, my voice smooth and even. He says to give him a minute to clean him up a little, and then I can go in, so I stand, and wait, and then I am standing next to an examining table in a small room off of the ER, and there he is, draped in a sheet, lying so still and so cold, and I stand beside him and take his hand, which feels so strange now that there is no life in it. I brush his hair back from his forehead, brush at the grains of river sand stuck to his neck behind his ear. I stare at him for a long time, half expecting him to open his eyes and laugh at me, but I know that it’s too late for that. Those beautiful blue eyes are closed forever, and he will never look at me and laugh again. People file through the room, saying goodbye to him, squeezing my hand or shoulder, his mistress stands next to me and sobs, and I feel nothing at all except this strange, awful finality. At last, it is time to leave, and his parents have told me which funeral home they will use, I have signed the forms to release the body for an autopsy before the funeral home can take charge of it, and I ride home, so still and calm and quiet, not crying or shaking, as if the walls have come down around my heart and I can’t feel at all. The trees flash by, and it is early spring and the whole world around me is bursting into life, all except for the one life that is suddenly over, and nothing will ever be the same.

I am 18, and it is my confirmation day, and I am standing in my father’s church in Cincinnati, waiting for the service to start. The morning sun is pouring through the stained glass windows, casting little pools of color onto the pews and the carpet. I am kneeling, praying, asking God to help me find direction because I am feeling a little rudderless. I ask myself if I am doing this because I want to or because it’s expected, and I’m not really sure, but my faith is real, at least. These people have been so kind to me, so nurturing, so accepting, and my father and stepmother are up by the altar with the rest of the choir. I get off my knees and settle into the pew, and my father catches my eye and winks, and I know that he is proud of me, at least for the moment, and I feel good, as if I have made some small amends to him for all the disappointments. The music starts, and I am on my feet, and the choir is singing, and the priest is walking up the aisle behind the acolyte bearing the cross. The rhythm of the liturgy settles over me, like a comforting blanket, and I am relaxed and calm and sure of myself for the first time in a long time. I sing the hymns and recite the prayers, not just mumbling the words by wrote, but thinking about what they really mean, and I can feel the long history of the church like a gentle pressure on my shoulders, uniting me with something much bigger than myself. I go forward to the altar with the other candidates for confirmation, and promise to try and live my life in a way that is pure and real and true. I hope I am not lying, that I can actually do this, but then I see my father’s face again, and his smile is beatific, even as the tears flow over the laugh lines beside his eyes and down his wrinkled cheeks, and suddenly, I believe. I can practically feel the approval of the congregation, wrapping around me like a hug, and then we turn, to be welcomed by the church, and everyone is smiling, and then it is time for the passing of the peace, and I shake hands, hug, fitting in, feeling like I belong. After the service, there is a reception in the parish hall, and I am drinking lemonade and nibbling on a cookie, thanking people as they congratulate me and listening to people chat and laugh and tell stories, and it really is like one big family, with its in jokes and its petty rivalries, and I understand why they call it a church home, because that’s really what it is, a second home, a sprawling extended family, full of hands to hold and shoulders to cry on. I think again that I might want to be a priest, and I wonder if I am really called, or if I just want to be at the center of this. I push the worry aside, because there is plenty of time for that later, and I sit down in a chair a little way off from the main group, and look down at the bible in my hands, tracing my fingers over the gold lettering on the cover, then reaching up to finger the cross around my neck, a confirmation gift from my father. I feel clean, and good, and righteous, and I finally get why it’s called being born again, because I feel new, cleansed, as if my soul is a blank white sheet of paper without a single blemish, and I look out the window to see the light falling through a tree and dappling the grass by the parking lot, and I see a bird perched on my car, and it is a sign, I think, that God is there with me, and I smile to myself, feeling for once that I have absolutely done the right thing.

I am 16, and moving into my dorm room at college on a hot day in late August. My roommate and I have been talking on the telephone for a couple of weeks now, planning who will bring what in terms of the things we will share. She is bringing a mini fridge, and I am bringing a telephone and my computer. My mom and I are moving things from her car into my room, which is on the second floor, and one of only 2 air conditioned rooms in the entire dorm, because I have hyperthyroidism and can’t thermoregulate properly. As my father would say, there’s a gift from God in everything. I carry up a battered footlocker, bedding, computer parts, clothes, and begin to arrange things. I won the toss for the bottom bunk, thank God, and I have the desk closest to the door. I’ve been arranging stuff for about an hour and a half when my roommate gets there, and it is painfully obvious that we don’t have a lot in common. I have half my head shaved, and am wearing black jeans and my boyfriend’s oversized T-shirt with the combat boots on it. All of her stuff is color coordinated, and she is a beautiful black girl from southwestern Virginia in a pretty flowered baby doll dress and strappy high heeled sandals. She is already 18, but she makes me feel old and jaded, fluttering around our room, hanging clothes up neatly according to some complex system that seems to have to do with color and, for the skirts at least, length. Her shoes are lined up in the closet in individual clear plastic boxes, and her desk has a pretty desk calendar with roses on it, and a matching pencil holder. My desk has a halfway assembled computer on it, and an ashtray, and my olive-drab messenger bag with the anarchy symbols painted on it in whiteout is slouched in my desk chair. Still, I like her, despite her fashion magazines and neatly organized pink caddy of toiletries, her pink silk bathrobe with the flowers on it. I make a mental note to buy some pajamas that are at least reasonably cute, so that I’m not always hanging around in my boyfriend’s boxers and t-shirts. By the end of the afternoon, our room looks like someone with a serious mental illness decorated it- one one wall are her posters of horses and hip hop singers, opposite are my posters of sketches by M.C. Escher and the one of Einstein with his hair all messed up, looking deranged and brilliant. She smiles at me and waves goodbye as she heads over to the student commons for the freshman meet and greet, having changed clothes three times and spent an hour on her hair and makeup, and after she is gone I look around and shake my head. I didn’t bring any makeup at all, unless you count chapstick, and I settle down at my computer to write and smoke, killing time until I can call my boyfriend and nag him into coming to get me so we can drive around in his car and listen to Nirvana really loud. In my own mind, I am cooler than cool, edgy and modern and ahead of my time, 16 but already at college, more sophisticated by far than my sweet little good girl of a roommate, and I smile to myself as I write really bad nihilistic poetry and blow smoke toward the ceiling.

I am 9 years old, and it’s early afternoon in Mexico, and I jump out of bed and set out to see what there is to see. The door to my father’s room is ajar, but it’s empty, so I hurry past it, opening doors and peeking into rooms, clattering down the staircase, weaving through hallways only to find myself in an open courtyard in the exact center of the house. I look up at the sky, so blue, with no clouds at all, and I put my arms out and spin around and around, watching the sky spin above me until I fall down onto the uneven cobblestones, and I hear laughing. A young Mexican woman is standing in a shadow, watching me, and I smile at her, and she comes over, speaking Spanish so fast, and I can’t understand her, so I just shake my head at her and say, “Ingles?” and she shakes her head sadly, and then I remember something and ask her in Spanish where my father is, and she smiles and nods, seeming so proud of me, and leads me out of the courtyard and into a huge kitchen where my father is sitting at a rough wooden table with a cup of coffee in his hands, talking to the writer woman. She sees me first and waves me over, asking if I’m hungry, and feeds me fruit and chocolate and cold, rich milk and tortiallas while my father watches me and sips his coffee. She and my father talk about the town, its history and what there is to see and do, and for once, I am quiet, just listening to them talk and savoring the food, which is simple, but strange to me. I’ve always been a picky eater, but here, in this place, all bets are off, and I am eating fruits whose names I don’t even know, and marveling at how rich the milk is, and being surprised because the chocolate is not like candy at home, slightly bitter with a strong, strong smell, sort of like my father’s coffee. Eventually, he and I set out to see the town, promising to be back by dinnertime, and we walk together through the narrow, crumbling streets that are only paved in places, often giving way to packed dirt, and laundry flaps in the breeze on lines strung over our heads between houses, looking like bright flags. We duck into small, crowded shops, looking at beautiful things, napkins and dresses and skirts covered with bright embroidery, silver jewelry shining and bright with turquoise, lots of turquoise, and we smell food from a cafe and go in, even though we aren’t hungry, and we sit down and the man at the bar makes me iced coffee thick with sweet, sweet syrup that smells strongly of vanilla. My father introduces himself to everyone, says that we are Americans staying with the writer, and I am hugged and kissed over and over by strangers, my hair is petted, my cheeks are pinched. My father buys me an embroidered dress of unbleached cotton, and a pair of leather sandals, and a beautiful silver ring with a bird made of turquoise with tiny ruby eyes, and the woman at the jewelry store braids my hair while my father talks to her husband and takes a thousand photographs. We go back to the villa for dinner, and that night, after sunset, there is a party in the town square, with music, and people dancing, and vendors with handmade toys spread on bright woven blankets on the ground, and I am allowed to stay up until after midnight, dancing and eating and listening to conversation swirling around me in a language I don’t know. The next several days pass in a happy blur of wandering the streets and shops, throwing coins into fountains, sunbathing on the roof while reading and eating fruit directly from the tree. The town is small, and everyone knows about the little girl visiting from America- they call my name and wave to me as I walk by, they press ice cream into my hands, they kiss my cheeks, tug on my braid, help me find my way back to the villa when I get lost. One day my father and I take a taxi way out into the desert to the hot springs there, and spend the day playing in rock pools filled with water that is silky and warm and smells faintly of dissolved minerals, and then discover that we have to hitchhike home because there is no way to summon back the taxi that brought us, so we walk along a desert road, waiting for a vehicle to come our way, and we end up riding in the bed of a pickup truck that jolts its way across the sand, and I sit in my father’s lap, curled in his arms, drowsy from the warm water, and watch the sunset paint its drama over the vast horizon where the sand meets the sky, and I close my eyes and wish that it would always be like this, formless days of pleasure, meandering without plan or purpose, just me and my dad.

I am 26, and I am graduating college with an Associate’s Degree in Computer Science, and everyone is very proud of me, because I have made Dean’s List every quarter since I started this program, and am poised to graduate with highest honors. I have a portfolio crammed with certificates of achievement, and papers, and letters of recommendation from my professors, and I have already landed a job with a software company in Northern Virginia. I am an unqualified success, my achievements impressive even out of context, and when you add in the fact that I was widowed last year, discovered that I was pregnant 3 days after my husband died, had a baby, and got married, well, what’s not to be proud of? And still, it is bittersweet, because somewhere inside I know that this school is a diploma mill, that the coursework was too easy, and that my grades are probably artificially high, and that some of the people standing beside me on stage write now can barely string together a coherent sentence, but it’s all about appearances, and it looks great on paper, so why worry about the reality of it. I have ridiculous amounts of debt in the form of student loans, but I got the job, so it’ll all work out, and I have time before I have to start paying on those loans, never mind that I now have three daughters to support, and I’m standing there in my cap and gown with a smile on my face and worry in my heart, hoping no one notices that my teeth are gritted as I cross the stage to shake the dean’s hand and receive my diploma. I smile and wave and nod, my eyes picking out my family in the audience, mother, father, brother, husband, children, all there to show how much they support me now that I’m finally doing something with my life besides failing out of school and holding crappy dead end jobs and having babies that no one but me and maybe their fathers think are a good idea. Maybe now it’ll be enough, and I’ll be a grown up in their eyes instead of the perennial problem child, maybe this time it will work and there won’t be any more disasters and whatever messed up karmic debt I had has been paid and I will finally be happy and satisfied. The dean smiles his big toothy smile and presents us to the audience, the graduates of the class of 2004, and we smile and cheer and throw our caps in the air, and the audience whistles and claps and we are all heroes in that moment, and I decide that I just won’t think about it anymore because I know it’s all a lie but I need so badly for it to be true that I just pretend it is, telling myself that truth is subjective anyway.

I am 6 years old, and I am at the Young Authors’ Competition awards ceremony for my state, because the book I wrote for my 1st grade class has won an award for its category and age group. I am excited, because this means that people like that I wrote, that they think it is good, and I get to wear a pretty dress and go up on stage and get a ribbon and a certificate and shake hands. It is my first real exposure to storytelling in which I am the one telling the story, and I love it, the freedom and power of just making things up and talking about them. I stand outside the building where the awards ceremony was, and I climb up into a tree that is growing next to the sidewalk, and my dad takes a picture of me there, perched in the tree, certificate and ribbon in hand. He is smiling at me in the bright sunshine, but I don’t really notice it because he smiles at me all the time anyway. He swings me up onto his shoulders and carries me out to the car, and when he hugs me and kisses me, I push him away because I just want to go get ice cream. I take so much for granted, secure in his love and my place in his life, and I babble at him across the table over ice cream, and he doesn’t get mad even when I talk too much and too loud, or when I get chocolate on my dress. He ruffles my hair and laughs at me, reminds me to use my inside voice and dabs at my dress with a wet napkin. His dark eyes sparkle down at me, and I smile up at him, ice cream on my chin and my nose, and he wipes at my face and I twist away, but he tickles me and then cleans me off while I’m catching my breath.

I am 18, and I am exhausted, getting back to my house after 2 in the morning after a long shift washing dishes in a fancy restaurant. It was Valentine’s Day, and the restaurant was packed with couples, and now I am worn out and sore and a little sad that I spent it working instead of with my boyfriend, but maybe I’ll see him later after I get some sleep and we’ll do something together. I fumble my key into the lock on the front door, and open it, and there he is, standing in the front hallway, surprising me, his face half in shadow. He gathers me into his arms and kisses me as if he could swallow me whole, and I kiss him back and cuddle close, greedy for the comfort of his arms after a long day. He takes my hand and leads me back to the kitchen, pulling out a chair for me at the table, handing me a cold soda, pulling the dinner that he has cooked for me out of the oven where it is staying warm for me, and the thoughtfulness of it is overwhelming. I look at the roses on the table, breathe in the delicious smell of roast chicken, and it feels like home and my eyes tear up, because I am so happy, and feel so loved and cared for. He passes me a plate, and the food is delicious, rich and savory and I was so hungry but didn’t really know it because of the fatigue. He sits across from me in the candlelight, asking about my day, telling me about the new project he’s working on for art class, and it’s like we’ve been together forever, so casual with each other, sharing a meal and conversation, and I think to myself that this is what love is really about. When I am full, and my eyelids are drooping, he piles the dishes in the sink and leads me up to my bedroom, snagging a rose from the table with one hand, and when we get to my room he unbuttons my shirt, pushing it off my shoulders and smoothing the skin there with his long fingers, artist’s fingers, perpetually stained with charcoal or ink or paint, holding me slightly away from him in the moonlight. He pulls my hair free of my ponytail and scatters it over my shoulders, lacing his fingers through it and pulling me in for a kiss, and then I am lying back on my bed, and he is sitting beside me, tracing the petals of the rose gently over my belly, up my arms, across my breasts. He sets the flower on the floor by the bed and lays down beside me, curling me into his arms, my head pillowed on his chest, and he strokes my hair and there are no words now, just a soft contentment as I am lulled by the steady beat of his heart and I slip gently into a deep, dreamless sleep, wrapped in a cocoon of love and shared body heat.

I am 15, and I am involved with an older man. He won’t have sex with me, even though I am no virgin, because he says I am too young, and that it would be wrong, so we kiss and cuddle close, napping together on weekends or in the afternoons, having long meandering talks about everything, love and philosophy and science and history, and he shows me new parts of the city I’ve grown up in, and he is my very best friend. We’re pretty careful not to be too affectionate in public; we don’t hold hands or kiss, and I try not to stand too close to him, because no one would understand. He’s 27, and they’d think he was some kind of pervert, and see me as a victim, even though I am the agressor in this relationship, the one who is always pushing for more, testing his limits over and over, but because of some awful trick of time, I am 15 and still technically a child, even though I haven’t felt like a child in a long time now. So we don’t go out a whole lot, but when we’re home and it’s just the two of us, we’re so relaxed and happy, so together, cooking meals is a shared task, and sometimes we’re so silly and roll around on the floor together, play wrestling, until he manages to pin my wrists over my head and I am laughing and breathless and then his eyes go dark and smoky and he kisses me, and I feel like I could drown in it, but as always, he pulls away too soon, setting a limit that seems ridiculous to me. Just like that I am angry at him, demanding to know how he can kiss me like that and still treat me as if I were a baby, pushing him away and storming into the kitchen, standing hipshot leaning against the counter and scowling at him. He runs his hands through his hair and sighs, frustrated with me. We’ve been over this and over this, and I keep pushing and he won’t bend, and this old argument is such a waste because we’re trapped in this stalemate, and he says, can’t we just be happy with what we can have, and his eyes are so sad that I am sorry, and I go to him, wrapping my arms around his waist and laying my head against his chest, and then I look up and push the heavy waves of hair back from his cheeks, and I tell him I’m sorry, and that I love him, and he kisses my forehead and holds me tight. We go on like this for what seems like ages, until finally he says he thinks we should try to get involved with other people, people closer to our own ages, and I ask him scornfully if he really thinks I’d be happy with some teenage boy, and he concedes the point, because he knows I’m right. Still, we agree that we should try to be with other people, since we can’t really be together now in any kind of honest, open way, and I ask him if he’s saying this because there’s already someone else, and he says no, of course not, he loves me, he wouldn’t do that, and I believe him, because the one thing I know is that he never lies to me, even when I wish he would. I ask him if he’ll do one thing for me, and he, careful as always, says he can’t promise until he knows what it is. I pull a brightly colored friendship bracelet from my pocket, made from string that he gave me a long time ago when I first started making them, and I offer it to him, asking him if he would wear it, sort of to remember me by, and he takes it from my hand, and his eyes are damp, and he says, of course he will, and I tie it around his wrist, kissing the knot as if to seal it forever, and then I give him one more hug, and he drives me home, and I stand in the soft glow of the porch light and wave to him as he drives away.

I am 5, and I am not running away from home. I am looking for another place to stay for a while, that’s all. My older brother has menengitis, and my parents are fighting a lot and things at home are tense and everyone seems overwhelmed, so I have decided that it would be better if someone else looks after me for a while. I have packed my backpack with the things I will need, some clothes, a few books, a picture of my mother, so that I won’t forget her if I’m gone for a long time. I set out down our street, and begin knocking on the doors of our neighbors’ houses. I avoid the ones where I know other children live, reasoning that those people are already busy enough. The first few houses are empty, no one home, but a couple of streets over, a woman opens the door when I knock. She is older than my parents, with gray hair and a kind, lined face, and she is wearing an apron over her clothes and even though I don’t know her, she is not really a stranger, because she lives in our neighborhood. She looks puzzled as to why I’m on her doorstep, and asks if she can help me, and I explain that I am looking for a new place to stay, just temporarily. I speak slowly, clearly, outlining the facts and trying not to talk too fast, and to remember my manners. The woman nods as I explain about my brother and my parents, and invites me in, and we sit in her living room, and she serves me milk and homemade cookies, still warm from the oven, that she was just pulling out when I knocked. She excuses herself for a moment, and while she is gone, I look around, trying to get an idea of what kind of person she is from the things in the room. Her furniture is soft and comfortable, and slightly faded, and there are lots of photographs around, smiling people grouped together, and I recognize the woman in the apron in several of them, even the ones where she looks much younger and her hair is still dark and her face is smooth. I fidget slightly on the couch, hoping she’ll come back and tell me whether or not I can stay, because if she says no, I need to find another place before it gets dark, and I know that not everyone wants to have a child to take care of and that I may have to ask a lot of people before I find someone, and then she is coming back into the room and sitting down with me, reading to me from a book of fairy tales with bright pictures, and I don’t have the heart to tell her that I can read on my own, and that I already know these stories, because she seems to be enjoying it. A few minutes later, the doorbell rings, and she goes to answer it, and my mother is standing there at the door, looking angry, and I realize that the cookie woman must have called her and told her I was there, and I’m a little mad, because the whole point of me leaving was to make things easier for my mom, and now she’s interrupted whatever she was doing to come get me, but I thank the woman for the cookies and put my hand into my mother’s and allow myself to be led away, back toward our house, and my mom is yelling at me in a whisper, so that no one else will hear, telling me how embarrassed she is, and asking my why I would do such a thing, asking what is wrong with me, and I don’t know how to say that I was just trying to make it better, and now it’s even worse than before, and the frustration of it tears at me, squeezing angry tears out of my eyes that just hang there, distorting my peripheral vision.

I am 14 years old, and I am auditioning for the dance troupe at my school. I like to dance, even though I’ve never really had lessons, and anyway, if I get in I won’t have to take gym class anymore, with its awkward locker room scenes and hateful uniform that never fits quite right. I’ll be able to wear whatever color leotard and tights I want, and I won’t have to run laps or play dodgeball, or be picked last for anyone’s team, because dance is not about competition. I have changed into my dance clothes, black and grey, and am standing barefoot in front of the mirror in the bathroom, trying not to be nervous, telling myself I can do this, and I manage to convince myself that it will be fine, and I step out onto the wide wooden floor of the dance studio, and take my place in the line of girls facing the mirrored wall. The dance instructor stands in front of us, her back to the mirror, her long, lean body held perfectly straight, and she smiles and welcomes us to the audition. She begins counting, setting the beat, and then demontrates the steps she’d like us to do. I watch her closely, committing the steps to memory, and then it is my turn, and I begin to move, counting in my head and trying to copy exactly what she did, and when I am done, I look at her to see how I did, but her face is somehow empty, betraying nothing but a sort of Zen calm, and so I look in the mirror, and I am suddenly struck by something. I am standing in a line of perhaps 16 girls, and I look totally out of place. A song from a children’s television show starts in my head, “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just does not belong…” I try to smother a giggle, but I look in the mirror again, and it is so ridiculous; all of the other girls are lean, with delicate bones and brightly colored leotards and tights, like a flock of tropical birds, and there I am, the lone rhino in their midst, heavy boned and overweight in my black and gray, with my messy ponyatil that doesn’t really hold my hair off my face because I am growing out my bangs but they are still to short to pull back and so they straggle across my forehead, ends brushing my cheeks, limp with sweat. The laugh bursts free into the hush of the studio, and the instructor looks up from where she is looking through tapes by the stereo, selecting music for the next part of the audition, and the other girls move subtly away from me, creating a buffer zone around me, as if it will contain my impropriety, and she puts a finger to her lips, smiling faintly, and I fall silent again, blushing brightly, sure that I have blown it, so when she puts the music on and tells us all to just move, however feels most naturally to us, I do it, not thinking about how I look to her or the other students, just feeling the music, since I have nothing left to lose anyway. At the end of the audition, she says she will post the final cut on Thursday, and then she thanks us all for our time, and reminds us that if we don’t make it this year, we are free to audition again next fall. I smile and nod, but as I turn to go, she reaches for my wrist, and asks me if I have a minute. Some of the other girls snicker when I say yes, and I assume that they are thinking the same thing I am, that she will tell me that I’m just not cut out for dance, and that it would be better if I saved myself any future embarassment and didn’t audition again next year. Perhaps she’ll suggest that I take up some other hobby. I trail behind her and into her office, and plop gracelessly into the seat she waves me towards. She hands me a bottle of water, and sits on the arm of a chair, and asks me what was so funny, and, since I figure I’ve already blown it, I tell her, and I’m sitting there, singing the song for her, and she starts laughing, and I’m laughing with her, and we laugh until we’re out of breath, and then when we’re quiet, I thank her for asking me to stay. She looks at me for a long minute, and the silence stretches out, and she seems to be considering me. Finally, she asks me if I’ve ever had any training, taken dance classes, and I say no, and explain to her that I like to dance, and that I hate gym because I feel so stupid and she nods. I stand up to go, mutter something about needing to catch the bus, and she stands too, and then, out of nowhere, she hugs me. I am surprised, but I hug her back, and then she pulls back and looks me in the eye and tells me to be at rehearsal on Monday. I ask her what for, and she winks at me and says, you made it, and I am stunned, disbelieving, and I leave her office in a daze, mechanically changing back into my street clothes and walking to the bus stop. I catch the bus and stare out the window on the ride home, happily imagining a whole year of no gym and getting to dance instead, every day, thinking about music and possible choreography, my mental eye blinded by stagelights, and I almost miss my stop, and then I’m walking home, hugging myself and grinning broadly, more full of pure happiness than I can remember in what seems like forever, and I walk into the house and dump my backpack carelessly by the door, homework forgotten, and walk into the living room, toeing off my shoes. I turn on the stereo, and I dance there on the smooth hardwood floor, twirling and dipping, feeling music like blood in my veins, the bass like a spare heartbeat, until I am out of breath and drenched in sweat and shining joy, standing in a shaft of light from the window like my very own spotlight.

I am 23, and I am having a nervous breakdown. I lie in my bedroom, curled under the blankets, aching and exhausted and unable to sleep. The tears come over me in waves, clogging my throat and stinging my eyes, harsh, ugly sobs that seem to fill the room up with black fog, and I can’t seem to make it stop. I have been in here for days, barely eating, unable to get up and function, mechanically feeding the baby at first, not meeting my husband’s eyes when he asks if I’m feeling ok, and my world shrinks down slowly until I am barricaded in this room, leaving all care of the children to their father, posting a sign on the door that says do not disturb, closing the blinds and slipping timelessly in and out of sleep in a rhythm that has nothing to do with the cycle of night and day, unmoored from my usual routine. My thoughts spin in my head, throwing nightmare images at me whenever I close my eyes, and I am fitful and pathetic and so ashamed of myself, but I can’t seem to shake this bizarre melencholy that rests heavily on my heart, crushing the life from it. I think a lot about dying, about ending all of this once and for all, and I imagine how much better off the world would be without me in it. I see my husband laughing with another woman, my older daughter’s face free of the worry that marks it now, my baby well and happy and fed, my mother finally able to let go of wondering whether this is her fault, a world perfected by my very absence from it. I am seduced by suicidal ideation, turning plans over in my mind, rejecting methods, trying to find some loophole that I can slip through and just vanish, leaving only the slightest ripple in my wake. I imagine that my loved ones’ outrage over the selfishness of my exit will fade quickly, at first replaced by a slightly guilty relief, and that, finally, they will remember me only vaguely, perhaps with a half smile at some endearing thing I did when I was young, that my death will whitewash all the old hurts and they will be left only with a mild lingering fond recollection of me. I hear the doorbell ring, and I know that it is my mother, come to pick up my older daughter for a weekend visit, and I hear hushed voices in the living room that grow louder, my mother telling my husband to do something about me, that this isn’t healthy, and then the door shuts, and I hear her car engine fire in the parking lot, and then the door to my room is opening and my husband comes to lie on the bed, telling me that the baby’s down for a nap, asking if I want anything. I shake my head, and then he is pressing the phone into my hands, urging me to call the doctor, to see if there’s anything that can be done for me, and I am too tired to argue with him, and don’t really care anyway, so I call and leave a message with the receptionist, then hang up and curl back in on myself, simultaneously totally self absorbed and utterly detached from myself, watching as if from outside, and I take the scene in, my husband frustrated and worried, body embracing mine as if he could shield me from the pain. I see the darkened room, me huddled in the bed, hair unwashed for days, eyes bloodshot, face blotchy, and the part of me I haven’t lost yet is horrified- I look like a crazy person, I obviously need help, and that is the part that takes over, driving me out of bed and into a shower while I wait for the doctor to call, speaking calmly to him when he does, describing what’s happenning in a detatched monotone, nodding to myself when he tells me to pack a bag and go to the ER, that he thinks I need to be in the hospital for my own safety. I hang up the phone and explain what is happening, mechanically shoving clothes into a bag as my hair hangs damply around my face, and then I am packed and I am riding in the car to the hospital, checking in at the emergency room, explaining the last few days to a soft-voiced nurse and then a social worker, barely feeling it when they draw blood, but wanting to die of shame when they ask me to promise that I won’t hurt myself or anyone else while I’m in the hospital and then station a security guard in my room, just as a precaution. My husband asks if they’re going to admit me, and is informed that they’re just waiting for a bed in the psychiatric unit, and those words seem to hit him like a fist, and disgust slides across his face like a cloud over the sun, and then he’s telling me that there’s nothing else for him to do, so he’s going to leave, and I nod, wanting to ask him to stay with me, but unwilling or unable to, and then I’m sitting in the sterile little room, more than a little afraid, and the time ticks by relentlessly as the bored security guard pointedly avoids looking at me. Finally the nurse comes in again, speaks quietly to the guard, and then says that I can go up to the unit now, patting my on the shoulder and saying she hopes I feel better soon, and I feel like saying that I’d settle for feeling nothing at all, but I just nod mutely, and the man picks up my suitcase and leads me to an elevator, and we ride up in silence, then step off and walk down a long corridor to a large, locked door. He buzzes to be let in, and the door opens and another nurse is standing there, who takes my suitcase and some papers from the guard, who turns to go, then turns back and looks at me kindly, telling me that it will be okay now, I’ll see, and then he is gone and I walk through the door behind the nurse, and my heart stops for a second when I hear it lock behind us and I realize that there’s no going back from here and so I take a deep breath and try to just go with it.

I am 16, and I am being expelled from high school. I have blown my last second chance, not merely violated the honor code but mangled it beyond all recognition, and I am standing in the office of the Dean of Students and she is looking at me, shaking her head, picking up the phone to call my mother. I am both relaxed and terrified, glad to be free of this school, but certain that I will only survive to enjoy my freedom for as long as it takes for my mother to cancel her clients, get here, and strangle me on the Dean’s tasteful oriental rug. I tune it out as the Dean begins to speak, explaining the situation to her, voice heavy with the gravity of the situation, I watch her lips move, but I’m not really paying attention to what she’s saying, and then her expression changes, surprise breaking like a wave, and I tune back in in time to hear her say that my mother would like to speak with me. I take the phone from her, and I’m ashamed to note that my hand is shaking a little as I put it to my ear. I murmur something largely unintelligible to indicate that I’m on the line, and then my mother is there, and the first thing she says is that she loves me, then asks if it’s okay for my boyfriend to come pick me up from school instead of her. I say sure, and she says something about talking about it when she gets home, and miraculously, I’m not dead yet, may even have a few hours of reprieve to spend with my boyfriend, and I hand the phone back to the Dean, so that my mom can tell her what the plan is, and then security is escorting me down to clean out my locker, while the Dean calls my boyfriend to ask him to come get me. Now I am standing on the sidewalk in front of my school on a crisp midmorning in early autumn, all my school artifacts piled around my feet, not really feeling much of anything and wondering abstractly if I’m in shock, and my boyfriend pulls up to the curb and gets out of the car, hugging me tightly and helping me load my stuff into his trunk, asking me if I’m ok, and if my mom is freaking out or not. I respond with some glib, noncommittal answer, because I don’t really know what my mom is thinking right now, and I’d rather not pay any attention to that idea, because it sets the anxiety to clawing at my stomach. We ride through the city together, not really talking, Kurt Cobain screaming on the radio, passing from the tony West End of Richmond into the more ecelctic confines of the Upper Fan, moving closer and closer to the university at the heart of the city and the house where my mother and I live. We arrive and park, and I open the front door and drop my things inside, then, restless, sit out on the porch swing with my boyfriend in companionable worry while he chain smokes and I fidget, wondering what will happen now, where I will go to school, if I will go back to school at all or just get a GED and get on with life. I had thought that I wanted to be free of my school more than anything, but now that I’ve managed it, my victory is hollow and uncertain, tinged with trepidation and the awareness that I will miss my friends, who almost certainly won’t be allowed to hang out with me once word of my expulsion gets to the ears of their parents. I try to console myself on this point, mentally conceding that I didn’t have all that many friends anyway, so it’s not like I’ve really lost much, but that’s not exactly a cheerful thought either, and finally the awful reality of what I’ve done sets in, and I am shaking and crying helplessly in the arms of the man I love, clinging to him as if he’s the only safe thing in the world, and he pets my hair and rocks me in the porch swing, brushing my tears away with nicotine stained fingertips, whispering to me that it will be all right.

I am 26, and it is my wedding day. I am upstairs in a bedroom in my fiance’s father’s house in New Kent, getting dressed with the help of my fiance’s sister, a beautiful young woman with sleek blonde hair and lovely blue eyes, who sits next to me in front of the mirror on the vanity and helps me put on my makeup. It is her childhood bedroom that we are occupying, and it has been lovingly preserved, with photographs of her friends and paintings she has made on the walls, and her hands are soft and steady as she paints my lips, darkens my eyes, adds some color to my pale, nervous cheeks. She is a vision of spring in her pale lavender dress, ethereal and magical, and I know that later, in my wedding pictures, she will be the one your eye is really drawn to, but I don’t begrudge her her fresh, youthful beauty, because she is so kind to me. Finally, my makeup and hair are done, my veil is adjusted, my dress smoothed, and she goes to get my father and bring him up to take a few pictures before it’s time to go to the church. My two older daughters are downstairs, also heartwrenchingly cute in their white flower girl dresses with the pastel flowers embroidered on the skirts, and my mother is down there too, patiently feeding a bottle to my youngest and absentmindedly dropping kisses on the top of her small, downy head. Unlike my first wedding, which was thrown together on about 18 hours notice, and so tiny as to be almost nonexistent, this is a traditional affair, with me in a long white dress, with 3 bridesmaids and 2 flower girls, and will be held in my fiance’s family’s private chapel, presided over by a priest who is a friend of the family. We even have guests this time, and I don’t have to rush off to work after the ceremony, but get to linger and have a reception, there is a honeymoon planned, and although it’s not particularly extravagant, I still have a vague feeling of unreality, as if I’ve stepped into someone else’s fairytale just in time for the happily ever after to begin. My father comes in, takes my hands, kisses my cheek. He poses me in a shaft of light by a window, and takes pictures of me, his nimble fingers adjusting the lens, and then he asks if I’m ready, and I nod. We head downstairs and out to the car, to make the short drive from the house to the chapel, where everyone is waiting for us. It is a beautiful day, the first of May, and the sun is shining, the grass is green, the flowers are blooming outside the chapel, and the priest is there, offering me a hand out of the car, and then I see him standing there, the man I’m marrying, laughing with two of his childhood friends, standing clumped together, resplendent in their grey tuxedos, and my heart is in my throat because he is so beautiful, with the sun glinting off his blond curls, his dimpled cheeks faintly pink as he laughs, and I know in that instant what it means to love someone so much that your heart feels stretched by it. Of course, I sort of knew, because I love my girls with that same intensity, but the love of a peer has a different flavor, heady and rich, more like chocolate than the cotton candy adoration I feel for my daughters, and then he sees me, and he smiles again, and we take our places with our respective attendants at the doors to the chapel, and then the music is playing and I am walking down the aisle toward the priest, and I look over to see him walking beside me, keeping pace even though we are separated by a row of old wooden pews, and then we are meeting at the front of the church, and my father is taking my hand off of his arm and tucking it into the crook of my fiance’s, symbolically surrendering me to a new life.

I am 32, and I am meeting my sister-in-law so that I can see the dress she has chosen for her wedding. I am driving south to Chester in my mother-in-law’s car with her in the passenger seat, because she is not feeling well and didn’t want to drive herself. We get to the bridal shop just as my sister-in-law and her future mother-in-law arrive, and we all pile out of our cars onto the sidewalk in front of the store, hugging and kissing cheeks. We go inside the store which is fragrant with several subtle perfumes, and my first impression is of color and shine, dresses in glossy fabrics hanging on racks, looking like gardens of exotic flowers, then a salesclerk bustles up, laying a proprietary hand on my sister-in-law’s arm, welcoming her back and introducing herself to the rest of us before she hurries off to get the dress we have all gathered to see. The mothers and I go back to sit on settees covered in floral upholstery, and I listen as they chatter brightly about nothing of consequence, talking about the minutiae of their lives, dropping names I don’t know, and I feel sort of distant and outside of it all. Both of the older women are beautiful, with trim bodies that look mature, but not old, with subtle makeup and well-coiffed hair, one silvery blonde, the other richly brunette, and I see myself from an outside perspective, hair scraped back in a ponytail, my face bare of makeup, squatting on my settee like a bloated toad in a long sleeve t-shirt and blue jeans, ridiculously out of place, an intruder on this cozy, feminine scene. I shrug, mentally, telling myself that it is what it is, hoping they aren’t embarrassed by me, the shirttail relative at the fancy dinner party, and I slouch even more, as if I could somehow make myself smaller, less obviously out of place. The curtain of the dressing room is whisked aside, and there she is, the blushing bride-to-be, and she is timeless, amazing, perfect in her long ivory dress with its halter neckline and empire waist, simple and elegant and glamorous, and the clerk fluffs her train behind her as she steps up onto the low dias before the three way mirror. She smiles, and is so lovely that is is hard to breathe for a second, difficult to look directly at her, and she shines like the sun, bare arms long and graceful, hair swept into a messy bun, and I have no trouble imagining how she will look on her wedding day, how stunned her lucky groom will be, and the mothers are on their feet, fluttering and fussing around her, fingering the fabric of the skirt, admiring the sparkly detailing at the edge of the veil, full of compliments for her, and for a moment I feel lost, the eternal ugly duckling who will never be a swan, and then I push away my futile self-pity and smile brightly at her, praising her choice of dress, debating the merits of updos versus flowing waves, shifting my focus back where it belongs. Most of me is happy for her, and so I wall away the small ugly part of me that is jealous, and smile and joke and tease, and later, when we go to lunch, I sit quietly and pick at my food while the mothers offer advice about bridesmaid dresses and photographers, and if part of me wonders how it feels to be fussed over like that, to be the golden child, then so be it, and I push it away. Lunch runs longer than I expected, and I am due at my brother’s birthday party, but the chatter winds down and we say our goodbyes, and I drive my mother-in-law home, dropping her off with a hug, then get into my car and head off to another gathering of people, frustrated because I am already late and still have to stop on the way, and then I am crying, my eyes flooded with bitter, self-indulgent, jealous tears, and although the voice in my head berates me for being such a petty little whiny drama queen, I cry anyway, until the tears dry up on their own.

I am 17, and I am in serious trouble. The man that I am involved with has turned from my sweet, attentive prince charming into an abusive, sadistic bastard, and I have no real idea how or when it happened, but I am in completely over my head and have no idea how to get out. Even if I could think of someone to tell, somehow overcome the shame of it, who would believe me? I berate myself for not picking up on the trend sooner, long ago, when the flattery turned into gentle teasing that shifted into subtle criticism, when he started wanting us to stay in, and then claimed to feel left out when I wanted to get together with my friends. I can’t believe that I didn’t just walk out the first time he hit me, but we were fighting and he was so sorry and I really believed he wouldn’t do it again, and it’s the same old story from every battered woman everywhere, the way your own mind can fool you into believing that it’ll stop, or that it’s your own fault, or that you’re somehow different than those poor sad women you hear about on the news, because of course this can’t be happening to you, and on some level I know all of this, but I still can’t figure out how I’m going to get away, and now he’s cutting me with razor blades and burning me with cigarettes, and I’m worried about how far he’ll take it, if there’s an upper limit to his cruelty or if this is how I’m going to die. I should call my mom, tell her the whole story- she’d believe me, make it stop, but even as I think it, I recoil, imagining her horror, my shame, and my mind takes a turn for the very dark because I realize that he is a very dangerous man, and that anyone who helps me try to escape him may become a target for his wrath. Who would I risk to save my own skin? No one, because at this point I don’t even really believe I’m worth saving. He has told me, over and over, that this is happening because I permit it, because in some twisted way, I know it’s what I deserve, that if I don’t like it, I can walk away, that if I can look him in the eye and tell him that it’s over, that he’ll let me go, and it sounds so simple, like turning the key in the lock and opening the door, but I look at his face and open my mouth to tell him he’s gone too far, that I’m done, and the words turn to dust on my tongue, and he smiles when I look away because he knows I’m good and caught. Part of it is pride, not wanting to admit that I could be so foolish, and part of it is knowing that if I tell anyone, they’ll want me to go to the police, and I’ll have to admit it over and over, be asked to relive it, to explain the inexplicable. So I lie here, alone in my bed, bruised and sore from last night’s punishment, not even sure what my transgression was this time, and I imagine getting up, gathering my things, calling my mom and telling her to come get me. He’s not even here now, this is the perfect time, I can avoid confrontation entirely and be gone before he knows it, and if he comes for me I can play my trump card and say I’ll report it, but even as I hatch this plan, the fatigue and the inertia are catching up to me, and my eyes drift closed and I tell myself I’ll just nap for a few minutes, and then I’ll do what needs to be done, but sleep claims me and hope dies again.

I am 32, and I am struggling again with the feeling that everything is collapsing. I woke up this morning on the verge of tears for no apparent reason, chest heavy, throat tight, eyes prickling, and even though I am fighting it, it feels hopeless, futile, like the dying struggles of a moth caught in a spider’s web. I am so tired of nothing being sustainable, the endless frustration of having what feels like a normal life for a few months, and then this slide into depression, and everyone’s oh-so-helpful advice about that I should or shouldn’t have done that might have made a difference this time. I know better, though, wrapped in my sour dismay, I accept the reality that this is never going to stop, that there is no magic formula that will make me normal, no pill I can take or technique I can use that will keep this particular wolf from that particular door, and I berate myself for making plans, dreaming dreams, thinking in the long term. I chide myself for being in denial about my condition, and the internal voice that keeps me aware of all my faults and failings grows ever more shrill and strident. How dare I think about returning to college? Am I mad? That’s a major commitment, one that says that I can be stable and functional for nine or ten months at a time, and that I can do it for four straight years, and why would I even attempt to delude myself? Also, what’s with this stupid writing thing? Bad enough to sign on for fifty thousand words in thirty days, but I had to chop it down to twenty one days, and do it at a time when I’m already juggling about as much as I can handle, and so, of course, I’m failing at that too, my novel stalled and stagnant while I fritter away time installing Windows Updates and playing Facebook games, unable to put the words down on paper, retreating deeper into myself, and endless feedback loop of failure and shame and lack of motivation, like some sort of treadmill from hell that never goes anywhere but down.