Ambrose is my neighbour. We are five and unafraid. We live in a small town two houses away from each other. The street is called Truman Road and the town is called Gibsons and this is our world. We pick strawberries through the fence together and his sister, who is diabetic and older than us, lets me play with her paper dolls. We climb a cherry tree in my backyard and hang our legs over the branches so they dip into the next neighbour’s yard. We do this until she complains to our parents and has the tree pruned. We find other places to go.
Ambrose has a pet rabbit named Peter. Peter is big and white with black circles around his eyes and ears that stick straight up. Peter gets meaner as he gets older and he chews through all the cords in their house. After that Peter comes to live with me instead, because maybe there are less cords in my house and also less children and also more adults.
Ambrose lives in a little house with his big sister and his big brother and his mom, Martha, who is the first woman I know who has short hair. They are Greek and his last name falls in backwards hops off my tongue. Peter rabbit rhythm. Am-brose Anton-op-oulos. The last two syllables are a little waterfall of relief.
His mom teaches me how to spell my name. I cry because I was certain the n comes before the e, but I am wrong. Sometimes on Saturdays she babysits me while my mom teaches dance. She takes Ambrose and I down to the thrift store below the church. It’s in a basement that feels like it’s three stories below the earth, like a cellar. Cold because they’re trying to preserve the space and keep it from all falling apart. No windows, mothball scent so strong you can taste it. We are short enough to squeeze our bodies between the musty low hanging racks of people’s old clothing. We stand still so only our ankles and feet give us away. Once we stood facing each other inside two woolen blazers. Our tummies pressed together like palms. Then—the screech of wire hangers being pulled apart, his mother’s hand on my shoulder.
I kept wondering how she knew more about my own name than I did.
Ambrose and I decide we should kiss. We’re in my bedroom and I’ve just shown him how I’ve found a rip in the middle of the orange shag carpet that lines my bedroom floor. I hide things under the rip, little notes and drawings. If I lie flat on the floor I can reach most of my arm under the carpet. I run it back and forth like a windshield wiper because I am five and I am unafraid of reaching into places I can’t see.
I remember there was a piece of fabric tacked up over my bedroom door and we pressed our little five-year-old mouths against each other and touched our tongues together like they were two blind slugs, prodding in a friendly and tactless way. We play doctor and trade body parts in curiosity. We don’t laugh, just examine seriously and try to commit the difference to memory. The kick of it was, I’d somehow come to believe that kissing meant you’d had sex because what could be more intimate than pressing your mouths together furiously—where our voices sprang from, our first entry point to the outside wordl. The natural progression of things was this—we kissed, which meant I’d had sex, it had all changed, I had to tell, I’d done something big and something wrong, and until I could tell the guilt would remain as it was—unbearable. Every time I thought of it, and of the obligation I felt to tell my mother, my stomach became a cavity and being alone was like swallowing tinfoil. I needed to hold someone’s hand, I needed to sleep curled between my parents. I needed a hand on my cheek or some proof that the falling sensation was temporary, that in this life you can go back, go up the rabbit hole, show someone your unabashed affection and drink it in return and never ever be alone, not really.
I don’t remember much but I remember this. That I didn’t sleep for so many nights because I knew that something had changed irreversibly and my mother hadn’t noticed, even though it had happened behind a sheer curtain in our house. Eventually I must have realized again that I was wrong. I never told, I stayed quiet and I watched and I learned to reassure myself, sometimes. Is it forgetting, if the lives of little girls are transparent things? Was there ever anything or anyone so solitary?
Twenty years later, I’m working in an afterschool daycare where I meet Jasmine. I take care of her for seven years—kindergarten onward she’s there every morning at 7:30, doesn’t get picked up until 6 pm because her dad is single and has two other kids. She is scrawny but not small, quiet but not shy.
Jasmine has two brothers: Paul and Aiden. One older, one younger. They all share a room. She tells me she favours Aiden because Paul stays up all night on his DS and the light keep her awake sometimes until the sky starts to lighten. She has dark circles to prove it and big, big eyes.
Early on, she must have been five or six, I find her in the bathroom surrounded by three girls. The blondes are taunting her again and I come just in time to witness her throw her first punch. I pull her out of the bathroom because she is crying and shaking and the girls aren’t even fazed.
She sits on my lap outside the bathroom on the carpet. I didn’t know where to take her so we sat down right there and the blonde girls stood solemnly a few feet away.
-Jasmine, did you punch Elise?
-Are you sure? It seems like you’re upset.
-Because she’s lying. She’s a liar. Everyone’s a liar.
The blondes back away from us. We aren’t supposed to hug the kids so eventually I lift her up and say it’s fine, just ignore them.
Sometimes I worry that I have no memory. That it’s all gone. What’s left is some phantom ache to be held. Some knowledge it won’t work.
Jasmine is older now. She is afraid that if she gets lice again, her dad will shave her head. She is worried that she will get her period soon and she asks me if it hurts. She asks me if a lot of things will hurt. Some days she stands, all arched up like an angry dog—GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY. Sometimes she and her brothers get to walk home together alone, when they’re dad can’t get off work in time. Sometimes she spend the holidays at her aunt’s house in Terrace where she says it’s so boring she wants to die, actually die, because her aunt has no sense of humour and tells her she shouldn’t fart because she’s a girl which Jasmine just doesn’t buy. She wears jeans because the leggings that the other girls favour makes her feel exposed. Her only friend is a year younger than her and suffers from some kind of growth delay that makes her small and transparent. They spend hours on the playground together and they go quiet whenever I approach.
Jasmine sits with me on the couch and she tells me she’s getting too old to be here. She’s eleven, and this is true. She’s calm and apathetic mostly. I like to imagine she’ll be like this always, that she’s laminated and the other kids’ words slip off her like rain. Maybe she was better off punching girls in the bathroom. I tell her I’d miss her if she left.
-Yeah, yeah. You guys are my second family, whatever. But I’m too old.
We’d been flipping through a kids advice book together, something from the early 2000’s that somehow found it’s way into the daycare’s library—it has a pink cover because pink is the colour of girls and of love. It has chapters like “How to Talk to your Crush” and “How to make Chocolate Chip Cookies”. I read her an outdated horoscope—she is a summer baby—and we laugh when it says she’ll get married to someone tall, dark, and handsome, and that she should give her crush the cold shoulder if she really wants him to notice her.
She tells me there’s a boy she likes and that they talk on Skype every night. She rolls her eyes at my concern.
-No he’s not 45. Yes I’ve met him at a school dance. God. GOD.
There is a fine balance. There are uncountable ways to annoy/offend/bore her now. Early on, you let go of ease.
I left her and my job for a long time. I went traveling and I went back to school. I go months without working at her school. When we meet again, I measure her growth by how short her pants are on her ankles. Time in inches.
She says she dreamt about me while I was gone.
-My teeth all fell out and you caught them and you were holding them in your palm and they started growing tentacles all up your arm.
-Freaky. Were you scared?
She shrugs and shoves her hands in her pockets and slouches away.
At first I thought it was sweet that she was dreaming of me. I felt proud, as if I had done her a favour, as if I’m not empty handed, empty voiced. As if we’re not all pulling each other along by invisible leashes—to keep someone close, to let them stray. Jasmine, me, the girls, women, palms touching then pulling apart because it’s written in our being that the burn is worse than any possibility to soothe.
I finished the first draft of a long project last week and then my body immediately gave me a huge middle finger and now I’ve been sick for about a week. When I was little, I had bronchitis a couple times and then asthma, so whenever I get this deep phlegmy, rattling chest cough it always reminds me of being a kid. It’s like it was a characteristic that I’d forgotten about—like, my hair was curly and light before I started dyeing and straightening it, my favourite flavour was sour like sucking-on-a-fresh-lemon sour, and my chest was an empty and booming metal space. Think of the scene in The Wizard of Oz when they pound on the Tin Man’s chest. Boom boom. I forgot about that space but it’s been rattling this week.
When I got sick when I was younger I had to take this sickly sweet banana medicine that the doctor prescribed. That shit was so hot in the 90’s. I had trouble getting and then keeping it down though. For much of my childhood I had an intensely strong gag reflex that I always related back to my polio vaccine. In my memory, they gave me that vaccine in my mouth, under my tongue. That can’t be right, can it? It must have been medicine I swallowed or else a normal vaccine. But last week I was having a conversation with a coworker about my phobia of needles and of the doctor (like the proverbial all-seeing doctor, not a specific one), the same conversation that I’ve had a million times where I start to sweat and feel nauseated while I describe my inability to be in the same room as those yellow, opaque needle disposal boxes on the walls of doctors’ offices, when the co-worker casually said so where did that start? This coworker is a sensible person who studies science and I looked at him and was like what the fuck do you mean, this shit has no start, this shit is imprinted on my DNA or spirit or driver’s license or dream database, it was just there when I woke up in the morning and it ain’t going nowhere. In actuality I was like dunno. But I’ve been thinking about it since then.
The project I finished was the first draft of my thesis. For someone whose first and truest love is fiction and who generally takes a long time to warm-up and open-up to people, the fact the this thesis is both non-fiction and deeply personal is kind of fucked up. I don’t really know where that started. I once had someone—an acquaintance who happened to be a lawyer—warn me to never become a lawyer. I replied that I wasn’t planning on it to which he responded neither was I, it just happened. And that’s kind of how this project coming to fruition has felt, I put a little work in everyday and then suddenly I had this deeply personal, non-fiction thesis, one that I will need to create censored versions of for my family, in particular my grandmother, if I want to maintain my calm and collected image. But maybe I don’t have that image to begin with. I have a rattily chest. I have old memories of banana medicine. And all this after taking a few days off after finishing this first draft. Strong proof as to why I should never ever stop working.
Check out my short story, Butterfly, in the Fall 2016 issue of The Matador Review. There’s breasts, and butterflies, and a bit of sex and shame and death.
TMR is a a literary mag out of Chicago–they kick ass. They are new, they are publishing interesting and emerging writers, and I am honoured to be included in this issue.
I am so pleased to be one of EVENT’s 2015 Non-Fiction Prize recipients! My piece, The Backroads, can be found in issue 44.3.