I am in the third grade. I cross Pickwick Road to wait for the bus. I have shoulder-length, feathered hair, waist-high shorts, a tank top with green trim, and pink Reeboks that smell slightly of pee. I wet myself at a sleepover a few weeks earlier. My brother has already been dropped off for his special smart-kid morning at a different school, so I am alone. I feel what it is to not be a twin. It is a Wednesday. I bounce a small rubber ball I got out of a machine at the grocery store. My mother is in our duplex getting ready to bike to work. We don’t have a car. She is no doubt standing in front of the mirror trying to tame her hair and eyebrows. I think she is beautiful. I always tell her she looks perfect without makeup. I am an expert at studying her face. She plucks her eyebrows to be pretty. I know this and the way beauty and wholeness are fragile and the importance of the width of an arch.
The air outside is still and the sky is gray. It is silent as if everyone around packed up and left. The big man catty-cornered to our house isn’t even sitting on his porch smoking his cigarette. My ball is the only sound. A rubber whisper on the concrete echoes slightly against the wall of an empty morning. A car pulls up next to me on the corner, stops at the stop sign. I glance into the car. A man with wild gray hair and a long beard touching his dark T-shirt is looking at me. He is fiddling with something in his lap like a small wiggly rodent. He drives away before I can decipher what type of animal he is holding.
I look at myself in the mirror too sometimes. Like my mother. I wonder if I am pretty. I smile. First with my lips shut with a slight curve that could be mistaken for a smirk or sadness. Then I try with my mouth open to show the top row of teeth. No. That is too wild. Too much. I am not pretty enough to smile with my whole heart.
Mushrooms grow beside our bathtub. Sometimes I sit on the toilet and talk to my mother while she shaves her legs. She wants to hear all the details of my day, but there is too much to tell. My day is like a birthday cake smashed up and eaten horridly by a one-year-old. Or it’s an open breezy day with no thoughts except the fantastical ones everyone would laugh at if they heard. My elbows are propped up on my desk. I think myself away while my teacher drones on about the states and capitals and times tables and reading groups. Her voice is flat and dull. Her eyes are narrow. I want to float away through the window and climb onto my dreams. That old building. Roundtree Elementary in Springfield, Missouri, has no air conditioning so my teacher huffs and puffs up the windows when someone says it’s hot. I feel somehow responsible for her trouble.
Sometimes in class I stare at Shannon and wish for her short, blond, whimsically messed-up hair and blue eyes, and even the way she sits with one leg folded under her body and turned in her seat seems so cool and casual and like she’s unbothered by how a girl should sit in class. A girl must not be rowdy or slung over her seat or raise her hand too often, begging to be heard, but quiet and straight and with both feet on the floor. I turn around and stop staring at Shannon. I sit tall, pretending.
The man comes around again. I think maybe he is lost as I continue to bounce the ball, and I peek into his car again. He watches me with eyes like a sad animal, and he is still fiddling with the creature in his lap, or is the creature moving independently of him, elongated in an odd way—trying to get away from his owner? Why has he taken his small pet for a ride, outside of a cage? We have three gerbils in a cage in my kitchen. One has taken to escaping. Once, she caught fire under the water heater, and we watched as her flaming body scurried across the kitchen floor. If we had a car, we wouldn’t take our gerbils for rides, I think. It’s weird. I wrinkle up my forehead and look down, step back. His gaze makes my heart beat like a stumpy dog tail in my chest. He pulls away again.
When I was seven, my mother chopped her hair off in the middle of the night. Her beauty was unaltered in my mind, but I was shocked to see her this way. I was dressed and ready for another day of second grade. She lifted her head to look at me. Her hair was short and black and curly all over. Her face was puffy, and I think I backed away at first then leaned down to hug her. I wanted her to look up at me and say she’d be okay. The way I now know my own kids look at me sometimes when the cave of my heart darkens and the stone is locked into position, no space for the light to come in. “I’ll get up and make breakfast,” she said. I shook my head, thinking I can make my own breakfast. I can stick two waffles in the toaster. Pull them steaming out with the tips of my fingers and drop them on the orange Tupperware plate.
My daughter used to be energized by cutting her hair short. Her beautiful red hair framed her butter-skinned face and freckle-scattered nose. She stopped doing this when she learned what the world says. Until she figured out that boys like long hair and she couldn’t quite be herself anymore and say fuck you world in this small big way. Because it’s always big when you can rise up, unearth something from the depths of your body soil.
The man comes around again. I look in his car this time and see his eye still on me, his mouth, though just barely visible beneath his facial hair, is contorted in a look of concentration and anger at the same time. All at once, I know that what is in his lap is not a small rodent. It is not his pet. It is his penis. My mind does this thing that I think is like a near-death experience. All of my small and big moments flash in my mind like a roll of film. I can hear his motor putter. His car is old and blue. I stop bouncing my ball.
I run across the street into my house where my mother is standing by the door, her satchel slung over her shoulder, ready to leave. I lunge into her body. And she holds me. I cry, but I don’t fully know why. I don’t know then that I have died for the first time. The man’s eyes, the look of his thing—as I called it when I told what happened to the police later that day—seared into my body and remained there, a memory that will be like a drop of blue turning a whole can of paint a different color.