Short Stories

NCW takes on Stratmosphere! A public reading from The Great American Novel: A Girl I Walk By

Stratmosphere: Fort Collins Public Reading

There is a girl that I walk by every day. I’m guessing she’s around ten. My daughter is nine. When Lillie was born she was a foreign, little creature that had come from my body taking me aback. All of those weeks of pregnancy, I relinquished control of my physical form; I’d talk to that creature growing inside of me. Hours upon hours of endless debate, minutes and seconds of trivial nonsense and countless songs in the shower, in the car…wherever. Finally, a scapegoat for those undirected comments I say aloud. It’s why I have my dogs today. Talking to the baby, yeah, talking to the baby. Somehow, from some place I recognized her presence. I even dreamed of her once. A vivid dream of a two or three year-old girl with small pigtails standing on the back seat of a truck, bouncing and dancing. Déjà vu before the moment happened. Inside of me was someone connected to me in a unique, unfamiliar way. Someone whose emergence into my life would fit without question.
38 weeks of communion, 50 lbs of weight gain and 31 hours of bone crushing, exhaustive labor I laid my hands on that spiritual force in the form of seven pounds and eight ounces of flesh. For all of our connectedness, I looked on the wriggling, squalling bruised and wrinkled creature and felt…. nothing. She was a complete stranger. I was shocked. Don’t get me wrong she was a beautiful baby. Bruised forehead, purple and wrinkled loveliness. From the beginning I knew that the baby was a girl No ultrasound, no test to reveal something I intrinsically knew. The space between what I expected and what I discovered was a gaping, looming chasm. I expected to know her the way I had known her while she was in my womb. Some time between amniotic fluid and air a discreet, but powerful connection had dimmed.
Walking back to my car in Fort Collins after class, I pass this girl, every day at this time, the same girl. This girl, this young stranger feels more familiar to me than my own, infant daughter did when she was born. The girl’s a mirror into which I feel compelled to stare. Sandy brown hair, too long bangs shoved to the side covering one eye and a sideways smile that could be taken as a greeting, but it wasn’t. The whole motherhood gig was a horrible disappointment. The reality didn’t match up to the expectation. I recognized my features in her tiny, infant face. The genetics were inarguable, but there was nothing familiar in the coal dark, almond eyes replicas of my own. Eyes inherited from my great grandmother. I spent endless hours those first few weeks staring, searching for a glimmer of the familiar presence I had shared the past nine months. I read somewhere that mothers blindfolded can identify their babies by the feel of their skin. I thought that memorizing her face; her smell and the texture of her skin would unlock something within me.
“Are you sure there isn’t anything wrong?” I asked my mother.
“I didn’t like you much either!” Came the sarcastic reply.
“Very funny. You aren’t making me feel any better.”
“It could just be post partum, you know baby blues.” She suggested, taking the bundle lovingly into her arms. “Felt like drowning anyone lately?”
I couldn’t help but laugh, “Don’t be gross. It’s not hormonal.”
“Give it time. I really don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. Motherhood doesn’t come naturally to anyone in our family. I was afraid my mother would eat us.”
The girl is slender as girls are at that age. Coltish and gangly, she walks past me. Our eyes meet and time slows. I’m reminded of Lillie’s too long legs and her genuine smile. Somewhere along the late night feedings and lukewarm baths I developed a love for my baby girl that became obsession. The obsession of a mother for the soft, velvety smell of baby skin after her bath, the obsession for her so bright, soul deep smile when I picked her up in the morning, the obsessive ache for those blurbs, goos and ahhs that came out of her mouth as she tried to tell me the secret to all happiness. I loved her, but the symbiotic connection was dim. In its place, as Lillie grew older, an unease began to scratch at the back my brain.
“Lillie honey, could you scoot over a bit. Mommy doesn’t like to be crowded like that. Your elbow iss hurting my knee, ouch, no, it’s ok, just scoot a bit.”
“Lillie baby, please don’t choke me so when you hug me. It hurts. We don’t hurt people when we give them love. Love is gentle.”
“Lillie, my goodness, you’re three years old. Do you need to be on my lap? Mommy’s tummy is full of baby and I don’t have much a lap left.”
“Lillie, here’s a pillow for you. Yes, we’ll put the baby on it so you can hold him. Yes, this is Reilly…remember you picked his name!”
The girl keeps her head high as she passes me. On some days I can tell it’s slung low and silent tears building in her eyes. This girl has her emotions in a straight jacket, in a padded room with a bolt, a lock and an electric fence. In my mind’s eye, I hear Lillie’s crazy laugh and see her collapse to the ground as she lets everything within her loose.
I can’t remember feeling that way. Some families don’t offer that chance. Crazy strolls through my family grazing its fingers casually across both maternal and paternal lines. My world was built on crazy. Crazy and lies. I don’t blame any one person any more. I didn’t have this problem with my son. I was prepared for the feeling of warm, soft weight under my chin curling into a roly poly ball of trust, certain that nothing would harm him. I was conditioned by Lillie to love him on sight because I knew what transformation would take place. I was anticipating the stages that Lillie pioneered for him. I knew without a doubt how that mallow, little hunk of flesh would grow and become unwilling to cling to me. I began to worry about my daughter and what I wasn’t giving her.
“Mom, I think I’m in trouble.” I start the conversation with this vague statement. I know this is dangerous territory, but sometimes I forget the ice is thin.
“How Julia?” She says looking over the sale ads from the paper.
“I feel cut off from Lillie. I push her away. Sometimes I get claustrophobic when she’s close to me. I think it has to do with me. She’s four and I was four.” I hold my breath.
“Look, Target’s having a sale on bath towels.” She looks up at me, “Do you need some new towels? We could see if they have any in purple. You like purple, right?”
CRAACK, the ice gapes open under the weight. I plummet into the frigid water. Sliding under the ice, succumbing to hypothermia, I look at my mother through the distortion of that subzero lens, “Sure, Mom, I could use a couple of new towels.” She knows I only buy white towels so they can be bleached clean. In that moment, I’m certain that Lillie won’t ever feel that kind of cold.
This girl is damaged. I can see it in the swing of her arms, hands ready for fists. The boy who damaged me was broken by our father, his mother, who else he only knows. I was damaged too. Our father, my mother and many others that I know too well participated, most unwitting accomplices. This girl that I walk by, she doesn’t know that there’s a way out. I could be imagining her reflection of my ten-year-old self. Imposing upon her, the persona I’m remembering through the fog of perspective and adulthood.
“ I’m going to a therapist.” I tell my husband and await the shock wave from the bomb to overwhelm me.
“What?” He replies in that time-honored way that buys a person time to think.
“I’m going to see a therapist.”
“Why? Things’re fine.” I resist the urge to roll my eyes, knowing full well what it might earn me.
“Things are not fine with me. I need to figure out what’s wrong with me. I don’t want to shut Lillie out like I’ve been doing.” It won’t mean anything to him, but I say it for myself.
“That’s crazy. You know a therapist will tell you that you’re crazy and that you’ll have to change all sorts of things. We’re doing fine.”
I knew the answer before I started. I don’t know what inside of me pushes the urge to step out onto that ice. I was surrounded.
“Maybe I am crazy. That’s why I need to go.”
“Fine, whatever, but don’t be surprised to find out it’s something wrong with you” the terse reply came as he snapped his paper back up in front of his face.
Alone, I began the journey from that emotionless void. Like a recovering paraplegic, I began those terrible, sweating steps. Holding my own weight up with the parallel bars, muscles burning in agony as I moved millimeter by torturous millimeter.
“It’s all right, Lillie. You can sit there. Scoot closer and we’ll read it together. Yes?” All the while I was struggling with the claustrophobia.
Nothing hurts this girl that I walk by because nothing surprises her, not walking down the sidewalk past a middle-aged woman pulling her books behind her on wheels. She’s toughing it out. I grew tough too. Tough, but wounded. Damaged people find partners that reinforce their injuries. I learned that after thousands of hours of therapy. I moved from one controlling, functional household into another. Walking old worn paths is easier than bushwhacking. I was afraid of everything, but I never flinched. I stuck my chin out to the world and dared it to punch me. It did. I stood back up.
I love Lillie. I’d walk though fire for her. Rip your head off if you hurt her. Charge elephants to protect her. She was young, but she knew. I realized later on that she and my son, Reilly, knew everything. Even when I didn’t know. Casual comments spoke volumes.
“Mommy, without Daddy here I can spread my arms this wide!”
“Mommy, we can listen to the music as loud as we want without Daddy here.”
“Mommy, you never smiled that way when Daddy was home.”
I felt stupid later on that my children could see more than I could. That’s the grace of childhood, clarity. My theory is that as infants we are shocked by the drastic change of circumstances after our birth that we go dim. That’s why the intimate connections that I felt with my unborn children were so strong and why they dimmed those first few weeks out of the womb. They were in shock. The beauty and danger of existence is that human beings change. The power of change is terrifying. Each step we take in that direction causes vertigo that can paralyze. That’s without extra damage. Those changes I made with Lillie broke open a wound that I didn’t realize was festering. Like lancing a boil hurts with a hot, bubbling pain that provides relief at the same time. Each move I made toward Lillie seared through my wound, opening its raw, gangrenous edges the poisonous infection seeping out a little at a time.
“Yes sweetie, I would love to paint your fingernails.”
“Get the umbrellas out, we are dancing in the rain!”
“Sure you can have candles in your bath like I do.”
I forgot to pick her up at the bus stop once, but I also let Quincey toddle about with a broken arm for a couple of days before realizing something was wrong. I’ve heard similar stories from every parent I’ve met. I was tripping along like every other parent. As my wound reopened, I began to see what good, healthy pain was. I saw how life could be if I could breathe. I was an emotional asthmatic finally getting their lungs in order. Each movement I made to close the space between Lillie and myself cracked the claustrophobic boundary I had allowed my husband to squeeze me into. My hesitance with my daughter increased his power over me.
I’m surprised by my affinity for this girl that I walk past. I’m surprised to recognize myself in every aspect of her. I thought nothing could surprise me. She walks shrouded in cynicism. Her lenses are as dark and uncompromising as my own. There’s nothing I can do to help her. No warning I could offer that she’d listen too. My own kids rarely take my advice. I’m dark, cynical and uncompromising. I can live with that because I know that I can turn my head, changing my perspective, to let in a bit more light.

Copyright © 2013 by Julia Cecile Lynne.