This is What I Know by Michal Leibowitz
I was a late bloomer, Aunt Nina always said, not like my mother who bled for the first time the day she turned nine. But like my mother, when I bloomed I did so violently – breasts heavy as stars, hips that curved from my waist like the prow of an ancient warship, and that telltale red-brown liquid that ran down my thighs in rivers rather than droplets, the heirloom Eve gave to all of her daughters and never remembered to take back.
My mother left when I was seven, left me alone in the apartment and didn’t come back. Nina says they found me four days later, when the woman in the apartment downstairs reported hearing a child’s screams, and the police broke in to find me lying on the floor, my chest marinating in blood, because I had found a bread knife in a drawer and I had always wanted to know what my heart looked like.
Lopsided, Nina told me later, and I nodded because finally it made sense why Momma had left me, and why daddy had left her, because everyone loved each other but our half-molded hearts made it all leak out.
This is what they forgot to say:
I’ve spent most of my life searching for something I can’t define, but when my fingers close around what I’ve been searching for, I realize it’s nothing I thought it would be. Love is never guaranteed, and the term making love is idealist’s propaganda passed down from mother to daughter, like cancer and schizophrenia and extra fingers, because there is nothing about sweaty bodies and roaming hands and a slightly-off rhythm of two bodies trying and failing to beat as one that can make love.
My mother knew that better than anyone, but it was information she never thought to pass on to me. I spent most of my time searching for love anywhere I could.
The first time, I am eight, and standing with Joey Cole in the dark of the art supply closet. As he fumbles with the light, I stick my head forward and steal a kiss, but when his hands touch my cheek he takes something from me, and I’ve been looking for it ever since. In third grade rumors spread like head lice, and it isn’t long before every boy knows what Joey stole from me, and it seems like they never get tired of trying to take more.
In sixth grade, Jamal Mein corners me outside of the building after school and grabs my training-bra encased chest. I wait to feel something in my heart, and forget to scream.
Ninth grade is the year Judah East asks me to go to senior prom with him. He has wavy hair the color of sunlight, very white teeth, and he plays second base on the varsity baseball team. When I look at him my stomach twists, so I buy a blue dress, ask Aunt Nina to curl my hair, and hold my breath. This is the year Judah picks me up in his mother’s old minivan, buys my prom ticket for me, and we slow dance until he asks if I want to get out of here.
He shows me how to roll the joint, how to light it and breathe the smoke in, hold it in my lungs until they scream. He shows me a way to forget that my heart is still broken, that it only stopped leaking because there’s no love there in the first place. He teaches me how to trick my mind into confusing weed and whispered promises for everything I’m looking for, and in return I let him inside of me. Judah doesn’t stay long, and he never comes back. I am a motel room he rented for a night, but when he finds something better (her name is Louisa Mayberry, she is captain of the girl’s JV hockey team, and everyone knows she gives earth shattering blow jobs), he leaves without remembering to shut the door.
This is how she said it:
They found her, Nina says.
She sits, puts her arm around my black-widow shoulders. Your mother. She is trying so hard not to let her words escape burning, but I can feel the heat of her anger on my skin.
There is something wrong with my heart. It beats too fast, like it is trying to speak but forgot where it put its mouth.
How do you know?
Nina’s lips press together like they are trying to disappear inside of each other. She called me, she says. She wanted me to know that she doesn’t blame me for what happened. Her arm tightens around me.
My heart twists in my chest. She didn’t change.
Mom thought she couldn’t, Nina says. She thought something was wrong with her, unbalanced, she said. I never thought so.
What did you think? I am holding my breath, like this a judgment I’ve been waiting for ever since I moved in with Aunt Nina. Ever since she found me on a stretcher in the old apartment, my chest sliced open like a turkey, and a paramedic holding a note from my mother asking her to look after me.
Nina is still for a moment. I can feel her heartbeat through the arm she still has around my shoulders. It is strong, but there is something off about the rhythm. Something not quite even. I think she was always looking for excuses, she says. She never learned to accept that she had made her own misery.
Misery. It is strange to hear myself described like that. The word is harsh, but there is something soothing about the honesty in it. It bites, but it draws out the bad. Like saltwater in a wound.
She wants to talk to me?
Nina nods. She is holding a phone in her hand. Pink, scratched. She opens it, shows me the newest contact entered.
You can call her, she says.
I take the phone. Look at Nina, waiting, but she shakes her head, dark hair billowing around her shoulders. If she was ten years younger and not tied to her dysfunctional niece with threads of blood, she could be a model. The real kind that advertises high-end sportswear, not lingerie.
I want to be here when you talk to her.
I nod. I know it is not me she doesn’t trust.
I stare at the phone for two long minutes, before Nina sighs and takes it from me. Her fingers perform a ballet, dancing across the buttons, and then she is pressing the phone to my ear.
Silence for a minute, silence like after a fire when ashes are still floating through the air like snowflakes on the perfect Christmas morning. I taste salt on my tongue, and then –
Hello? Hello? Her voice…I remember her voice. It is raspy, but soft around the edges, somehow, like she smoked a pack of cigarettes but chased it with a tablespoon of honey. Beautiful. It scares me.
Momma? Does she remember my voice, too?
Baby? My baby?
Your baby? No, not anymore.
I left you.
I want to see you, she says.
I pause, but my heart is reacting to her voice on the other end of the line, pumping my blood through my veins in triple time. I’ve always believed in following my instincts, in listening to my body. Aunt Nina used to tell me to listen to my head – that my heart is stupid – and with two broken marriages and the last divorce papers smoking in her hands she has the credentials. But she never said anything about laying my ear next to my gut, to opening my mind to the whispers of the hair on my skin, the pressure of blood pushing against the walls of my veins.
When I was young, Momma used to buy two dollar scratch-offs every Sunday, gave me quarters to rub off the numbers, and when we won the sounds of joy in the apartment rivaled those coming from the Baptist church next door. There are things in the world smarter than us, she would to say, when I came to the last number on the ticket. You have to learn to trust them.
There is a hand on my arm, squeezing like a tourniquet. I have almost forgotten Nina is here. I look at her. She shakes her head.
I need to stop thinking so much.
This is what I never thought I would find:
The building is old, made of the kind of cheap red brick that looked wrong even the day it was built. There is an old man whistling outside of the building. He does not look up from his fingers as I pass.
Inside, it is quiet. I descend the stairs slowly. She lives in the basement, which makes sense when I think about it. She has always been scared of sunlight. She never liked the way it revealed less than it promises.
There is only one door. It opens before I raise my hand to knock.
The first thing I notice is how desperate she looks. There are lumps of gray cement under her eyes, and her forehead is lined with half-defined furrows, like a field that was plowed and then abandoned. I have to search to find the memory of the woman I knew, the ghost of her in the pointed chin, the high forehead. She is still beautiful, but it is a desperate kind of beauty. The last flare from a star before it goes out for good.
She looks at me, doesn’t speak. There is something pulling in her eyes, and I am dragged in until I am drowning in the dark of her pupils. She holds me there as she searches through my eye sockets for anything that will prove this girl-woman is me. I shake my head and pull away. She is still looking for a maiden, a girl who bathed herself in moonlight and believed that her mother carved the world for her from a matching set of silver spoons. I don’t want to be the one to tell her that girl is long gone. She was kicked out of her garden paradise, and it was only later she learned that she birthed her own snake.
You came, she says.
I didn’t think you would.
You left me, I say, finally.
She looks at me, brow creased, and again I see the fragility in her face, in the curve of her jaw and the drop of her lips. I do not know how someone like this could have hurt me.
I’m sorry, she whispers. Her eyes can’t quite meet mine, can’t see exactly what they left behind. She still can’t believe she made so many mistakes.
There is salt welling on my tongue. You should be.
I didn’t want it to be like this, she says.
We are still standing in the doorway, but I can see a little into the room behind her. It is almost empty, furnished only by a card table and two empty plastic folding chairs. I look back up to her face.
Why? I whisper.
She lowers her eyes. The seconds pass, but I do not shift my gaze. When she finally looks up, her eyes are burning. I still wanted you, she says.
She is small, small and hunched against the faint glow of the light. Something to be pitied, except she has been pitying herself since the day she was born. Maybe she is something to be held responsible.
She inclines her head. No. Not enough.
My eyes shift to her hands.
This is the one part of her that has aged beyond repair. There are thick veins, running like rivers under skin that has started to sag, succumbing to gravity at last. I imagine her hands as the chinks in her armor. Every hero needs a tragic flaw. But the problem with being the product of something less than perfect is that you never cease to imitate your creator, except maybe that’s just the kind of lie I gorge on to make it easier to open my eyes in the morning sunlight.
Her eyes are confused as she traces the path of my gaze. She reaches out, takes my hand in hers. Her skin is softer than it looks, smoother. Her fingers are cold around mine.
You’re not a girl anymore. Her eyes look me up and down, taking in the body that I have slowly grown into. The one I was forced to find too early, because girls are nourished on a mother’s love and this one was left to starve. Her eyes pause when they reach my chest.
What were you looking for? she whispers.
I look down. She hasn’t forgotten what I did. She has not forgotten that I went searching for the heart I didn’t think was working. The one that I thought let my mother’s love leak out. Only now am I realizing it was her heart that had the holes.
What did you think you would find?
My fingers dance around the edge of the scar on my chest.
More than this.