It was starting to become a thing, my going up to the wrong person. I would go up to a guest, for example, thinking it was one of my parents, and only when the person responded would I realize that it wasn’t one of my parents. It had happened four times in the past five months.
There was no reason I should have faced this particular struggle. I wasn’t hard of hearing or careless. I didn’t wander. Yet somehow I found myself going up to them and whispering, “Is it okay if I let Frankie out of his cage?” Or burrowing my head lovingly in their belly, and they would say, “Oh?” and I would look up in horror at the face I had fallen prey to.
I had an especially hard time shaking off disasters like these because I was very shy and never, ever, on purpose, talked to anyone except my parents. Not even my big brother, Bo, or my big sister, Tania, except at Christmas.
Like this Christmas, when my parents were loudly making dinner in the kitchen and I was sitting alone on the La-Z-Boy in the living room long enough for Bo to say to me, “You know this house isn’t normal, right?” He was fourteen, a child, like my sister, from my mother’s first marriage. “I’ve been going to a lot of other people’s houses lately, and let me tell you, there are big windows everywhere.” He had been sensitive about how dark all the rooms were for a while now.
And it had occurred to me to attribute the problem of thinking people were someone other than they were to the inadequate amounts of light in our home. We lived temporarily in a trailer at the end of a long, long driveway in the middle of the woods, while my father actively planned to build us a log cabin on the property. Every time I had mistakenly approached a guest, the guest had been standing in a shadow.
But I didn’t want to admit that now. I wanted to defend my parents’ honor.
I worked up all my courage and what came out was vaguely close to what I meant to say, which was more than I could have said last year. I said, “I’m not afraid of the dark anymore.”
Bo, evidently seeing a green light in my having spoken at all, asked conversationally, “How did you get over your fear?”
But I didn’t answer. I pulled the lever that launched the footrest of the La-Z-Boy, reclined, and stared up at the ceiling.
“I’m gonna go play with the darts. Tell Mama not to bother me,” he said, using “Mama” ironically, as he always did, leaping up to touch the ceiling with his palm. A new trick.
The ceiling of our trailer was made of removable mineral fiber panels that rested on top of a network of square metal frames. When my brother touched it with his palm, one of the panels lifted a little, releasing small particles of foam and dust into the room. I watched them floating around in the light of the late afternoon sun.
I figured my mother and father liked the way things were, had meant for them to be exactly this way: the window, the VHS player atop the television, the decorative parakeet clipped to the curtain. And so I liked them too, no matter what my brother said.
As I continued to stare up at the ceiling, something entered my eye. I sat the La-Z-Boy up and rubbed at it with my fist. But I got the feeling that was only making things worse. “Mom?” I said, wary, hoping she’d hear me from the kitchen. “Something’s in my eye!”
“You’ve got something in your eye, Diane?” She came in wiping her hands on the front of her apron, which was really a worn-out Little Mermaid towel she had sewn neck and waist strings onto. She was keeping her voice calm and low, using the technique my father had been urging her to use around the kids, which was to explain what was happening and then suggest an emotion that might be accompanying it. This technique was meant to correct my mother’s tendency to overreact, which had begun making everyone hysterical.
“You have a piece of something in your eye,” my mother repeated. “An eyelash or a bit of dirt. You are feeling angry at that thing.”
I saw my father nod once, approvingly, through the wooden latticework that separated the kitchen from the living room. If I had been feeling angry, which I hadn’t, I was now feeling lonely, abandoned even, as if on a small island, left to the mercy of this particle, which was lodging itself deeper and deeper and deeper and might never come out.
I brought my fist back to my eye, starting to panic.
“It’s still in there!” I said, frustrated with my mother. But then I remembered I was to be defending her honor and felt bad about being frustrated.
“You know who’s really good at getting things out of eyes?” my mother said.
I shook my head. Not because I didn’t know who she was talking about, but because the person she was talking about was the last person I wanted to see at that point.
My mother called Tania’s name down the dark corridor.
By the time Tania was exiting her room and approaching, my mother had shouted to her that “Diane has something in her eye” and “could you give Diane some advice?”
“Diane doesn’t even want my advice,” Tania said beckoning at me, but not looking.
I knew that of all the people I offended by not speaking, Tania was offended the most. She had allegedly sang the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” to me when I was really little, often until I fell asleep. There was a photo of her feeding me yogurt on a rubber-lined spoon.
Some said it was that very same brand of synthetic utensil lining that did it, some said it was genetic, and some said it was just one of the mysterious ways in which God worked on our lives, but approximately eighteen months after the photo was taken I was diagnosed with cancer, and then relapsed with the same cancer again after a short interim. My mother dissuaded my siblings from coming to visit me at the hospital because there had been an 85 percent chance I would die and she didn’t want them to be more attached to me than necessary when I did.
Big surprise for everyone when I didn’t die. It meant that more or less five years later I returned to my siblings as a time capsule of who they were then. Bo, for example, on the morning of my return made farting noises with his hands for me at the breakfast table, the Fart Monster. It had made me laugh a lot when I was two and three, but not at all by the time I was going on nine. Tania glanced at me silently, eating a bowl of Pops, as if she had noticed a bald alien who would poof into nothingness if spoken to.
The summer and fall had passed since then.
I whimpered on the La-Z-Boy about the irreversibility of the particle in my eye, and Tania said “Fine,” and sighed a little. “Come to my mirror with me.”
At this, my mother clasped her hands together and brought them under her chin. I sat the La-Z-Boy up slowly and looked straight ahead, willing any excitement I might be experiencing to not seep out the corners of my eyes or lips.
I was more than terrified to go and I didn’t know what would be asked of me when I got there, and I hoped, at least, my mother would accompany me, though I knew she couldn’t. But all these fears were outshone by the prospect of getting to go to Tania’s mirror.
It was an enormously wide mirror with an oak frame attached to the top of a large oak dresser. It sat up against the wall so that you could not see it by just passing by the room. In other words, you had to go into the room to even know it was there.
Its drawers were curved and ornamental. There were long ones down the middle and shorter ones on either side, and no one, especially Bo of course, got to open the drawers to see what was inside, and no one got to use the mirror.
Earlier that summer, Tania had been baking a chocolate birthday cake and she asked Bo to go into her room to get a picture of a horse she had printed out at school. She was planning to draw the horse on top of the cake in white icing. It was for Mel from equestrian camp. I liked Mel very much, because she talked a lot and expected nothing from me in return.
Bo found the picture immediately and then said, “Drats!” He used old-people expletives ironically too.
When he got back to the kitchen, Tania asked what was wrong.
Bo pointed to his face and said, “I must have cut my forehead on the ceiling of the barn loft.” He was referring to the blue barn that was left over from the previous property owner.
Tania turned to Bo with cake batter on her hands: “Did you discover that by touching your forehead with your fingers? If so, why isn’t there blood on your fingers? Did you wipe it on your pants? If so, why isn’t there blood on your pants?” Bo wasn’t wearing a shirt.
“No,” Bo said, “I saw it in the—”
Tania smeared cake batter over his eyes and nostrils and shoved him against the wall, which, because it was made of thin plastic plywood painted to look like real wood, his shoulder broke through. He ran away giggling and both of them got in trouble.
I passed by the hole now as I followed my sister towards her mirror. A chill, like the chill you could feel when you stepped into our barn, emanated from it. Sometimes when no one was looking, I put my ear up to the hole and could hear a Gregorian chant, like the ones in the scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame that accompany the “blazing” feeling Esmerelda has caused inside of Frollo, which, he sings, is “out of all control,” before sniffing her scarf. A spooky scene.
No one had ever tried to fix the hole I guessed because, again, we wouldn’t be living there much longer.
When we got to Tania’s room she told me to wait for her in there. She slipped her snow boots on and stepped out the front door, which was just beside her bedroom. I looked at the chaise à porteurs she sat on to do her cheeks and eyes and whatever else she did in front of the mirror when she had her door closed.
Once at dinner in an ebullient mood, Tania explained to the family that the French words chaise à porteurs referred to one of those intricate boxes carried by two men, that princesses, and probably the Pope, were carried around in as a mode of transportation.
“Did you ever think about where they were going in those boxes though?” Bo had asked. “I mean, they probably couldn’t have made it farther than the length of our driveway.”
“And incidentally,” my father said, “I’d imagine the cushion would have been more of a rectangular shape. Am I wrong about that?”
Tania left the table and slammed her bedroom door.
Her own chaise à porteurs was just a barstool that her aunt had gotten her at a yard sale. It had a sparkly, round red cushion as if from an old-fashioned diner. The cover had split at the top and some yellow foam was visible through the split, so Tania usually kept it covered with a hoodie from Myrtle Beach, which was the farther away beach.
She reentered the house with a stepladder in hand, stomping off snow, placed the ladder in front of the mirror, and told me to climb up. And I did.
We looked at our reflections. “Are you… having a good Christmas?” Tania asked me.
“I am,” I said. I was good at answering yes/no questions like this because, with only two options to choose from, I knew exactly what was expected of me. Unlike other questions, when there was a third, fourth, fifth, and sometimes uncountable numbers of ways to answer, one way being mysteriously better than the others.
“Except for this thing in your eye, I guess?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then look into your eye.” She turned on a directional lamp clipped to the top of the mirror. “The white part. It’s called the sclera. It is important to know the parts of the body and the names of things in general.” She didn’t pause. “This town is a piece of shit, Diane. Learn as much as you can.” She had said all this in a very kind way.
But then she looked at me as if accusing me of something: “Did you know I’m embarrassed to bring people here? They put the plastic flamingos in the front yard as a joke?” she scoffed.
I realized she wasn’t accusing me, but possibly asking me to relay the accusation to my parents. I tried to grasp it properly, though I didn’t quite follow. I was admittedly distracted, looking in the mirror, hoping that she didn’t think I looked like a weird little boy. My hair had been growing back for five months, but then there had been the time a few days ago when my dad brought me to the post office to send presents to my cousins in Georgia. One of them was my adult cousin, Dennis, who had visited us during the summer. He was one of the ones I had mistakenly gone up to. With thoughts of Dennis putting me into a state of shame, I began testing the weight of my body against the weight of the post office door, and just when I succeeded in getting the door the whole way open, a man came walking through, thinking I was holding the door open for him. He chortled, rubbed my head, and said, “Thanks, buddy.”
My sister brought her attention to her own reflection and said, “Now look at your sclera. Do you see anything in there that shouldn’t be?”
“I don’t,” I said.
I then became aware of the fact Tania might think I was too stupid to see whatever was in my eye, or worse, that I was making the whole thing up. I wanted to ask her to look for herself, to see if she could see.
But she must have believed me and been asking me if I could see something only as a formality, because then she said, “Here’s what you do.” She looked at herself and closed one eye. “Close your eye. Keep the eyelids closed together with two fingers. Then pretend Mom just said something really dumb and you’re rolling your eyes at her.”
It seemed like an exclusively teenager kind of activity, but I wanted to show Tania that I was grateful to her for letting me use her mirror, so I went through the motions.
After rolling my eye the entire way around five times, I opened it and involuntarily brought one of my fingers to the corner closest to my nose where, if you press down, you can always feel a little bump. On the bump, I felt a small particle—the small particle!—and pulled it towards the bridge of my nose. I looked at it on my finger in the light of the directional lamp.
It was the smallest stone I had ever seen. It stuck to my finger with some sort of miraculous eye liquid as I held it up towards Tania. She smiled. And I smiled too.
Just then from the kitchen: “Oh my God, not on Christmas!” An overreaction.
“Calm,” we heard my dad say.
“Girls,” said my mother, who was somehow already at Tania’s door, speaking fast. “Deborah broke through the fence.” Deborah was the name of my cow, who I had wished for as my Make-a-Wish wish. “Tan,” my mother raised her eyebrows in a plea, “can you get her?”
“Fine,” Tania replied, uncharacteristically not slamming anything at all.
My mother kissed her on the cheek and said, “Thank you, Tania Anne!” before running back to the kitchen where a timer was going off.
Tania was reaching for her jacket on the back of her door. “All better?” she asked me.
I watched her put each arm through the jacket and bring her long, black curly hair, which was inside the jacket, out of the jacket.
I started getting nervous realizing what I wanted to ask her. I looked down at my brand new Christmas socks and rolled the tiny eye stone back and forth between my pointer finger and thumb: “Can I come with you?” I asked quietly, then looked up to see her reaction.
Her eyes widened for a second, and her skin became momentarily suppler somehow. She shrugged. “Go get your coat.”
And in that moment, I wanted to hug her around the waist.
But I curbed my enthusiasm in order to march silently down the corridor, past Bo’s room, past the kitchen, past the living room, towards my parents’ room where I had recently begun sleeping on a little bed all my own. Above that bed was where my coat was kept. I retrieved it and came silently back through the house, taking care not to drop the eye stone, which I still held between my fingers. My mother noticed me now, zipping up the coat. “What’s going on?” she asked, then leaned her head down the corridor. “Tania, what’s going on?”
“She wants to come with me,” Tania said, ignoring my mother’s making a big deal of it. There was a stillness in the house, which I myself tried to ignore as I slipped my boots on and followed my sister down the cinderblock steps and onto the gravel driveway. All of it covered in snow.
We walked silently through the long portion of the driveway that was shrouded by trees, then as we were approaching the clearing, my sister said, “You know that our old Labrador, Duke, is buried over there? Do you remember him? He died while Mom was in the hospital with you. She told us how to bury him ourselves, over the phone.”
I felt sad to have missed this memory, but I didn’t say anything. I continued to roll the stone back and forth between my fingers in time with my steps, which were in time with my sister’s steps. We now had an indoor dog. A Chihuahua named Frankie.
When we got to the clearing everything was so bright I felt like I was seeing how big it was for the first time. To the left were neighbors’ farms all the way to the horizon. To the right were more woods with a path that led to our blueberry bushes. Recently, a neighbor who my mother referred to as “the weirdo,” had begun claiming the bushes were legally his. He had a chip on his shoulder, my mother said, because he had recently broken off ties to his family’s local soft pretzel business in order to start his own local soft pretzel business, and though the recipe was exactly the same, his pretzels weren’t selling as well.
I looked towards my sister’s hair in the light. It reached all the way to my eye level. Everyone said she was not pretty, but “beautiful.” Her hair was as black and voluminous as a gypsy like Esmerelda’s I had recently come to see. I started walking closer to her and thought I could feel the heat coming off her thigh.
“Do you,” I said, almost skipping at the sound of my words and how easily they were starting to come out, “see Deborah anywhere?”
“Cows are so stupid, there’s never any way to figure out which direction they might go. They just wander around with the wind or something, like blocks of wood on wheels.”
This made me laugh.
She smirked and let out a puff of cold breath.
“She must have been in the woods when Mom saw her. What’s a cow doing in the woods?”
“Yeah,” I said, laughing. “Cows don’t eat trees.”
My sister shook her head to show she agreed and turned around to peer through the thickest part of the woods.
Just then I saw Deborah, walking across the horizon not far away, headed for the path that led to the blueberry bushes. She looked somber and dedicated, moving at a steady pace. I pointed straight ahead of us with my finger then looked up at my sister.
“You found her,” my sister said. “Good job.” She patted my head in a kind of weird way and I realized that she liked me. She beckoned me to follow her, starting to run. That’s when I consciously dropped the tiny eye stone, leaving it behind in the snow.
When we got to Deborah my sister yelled, “There’s nowhere for you to go, dumb cow!” I laughed again. My sister took hold of Deborah’s collar and pulled her in the direction of the barn. “Come on,” she said, but Deborah didn’t budge. My sister went alongside Deborah and slapped her back. She yelled, “Dumb cow!” a few more times, pushing her with real exertion. Each time I laughed harder and harder. Still Deborah didn’t move.
I remember a time not long ago, though I don’t remember when exactly, I saw my sister push my father. She pushed him so hard, he fell over and cut his face on a drying rack. It had been during one of the rare times I had been on release from the hospital for more than two weeks. I had happened on the scene as I was making my way to the bathroom. I was wearing a blue hospital mask over my mouth, which added a heavy-breathing sound effect to the wrestling match as I watched from a distance. I didn’t understand at all what they were arguing about, and in fact it seemed just about the most arbitrary thing to do at the time. But my mother summarized the problem to me afterwards as I was sitting in the La-Z-Boy under my favorite fleece blanket, which was caramel-colored with the name “Jack” stitched onto the corner in dark brown cursive letters. It had belonged to my grandpa in the old folks’ home. He had died there, just before I got diagnosed. My mother was kneeling beside me, hand on my knee through the blanket, head resting on the arm rest, explaining that Tania didn’t like my father telling her what to do, especially when he couldn’t even get a log cabin built. “Things are getting worse between them,” she had said to me. “I think I made a terrible mistake.” My mother squeezed my knee, and by that point I was falling into a warm, morphine-induced slumber.
I ran up behind Deborah. At which point my sister right away said, “Don’t do that, Diane, she could kick you from back there,” but I didn’t register what she said, as I was completely caught up, for the first time I could remember, in the feeling that I could effortlessly do anything, say anything. Be anyone.
“Stupid,” I said, laughing so hard I drooled a little. Then avoiding her tail, I slapped Deborah on her butt.
My sister shouted, “Diane.”
But Deborah still wasn’t moving, and so I kicked her. At random, just to kick her anywhere. To get her moving. The point of contact with my boot happened to be her knee crease. She mooed and collapsed, all the way to her belly on the ground.
I let out a sigh, as if of success, before I realized this was not the effect we had been trying to achieve. I thought my sister would start laughing.
But then I realized something had changed. She looked at me with furrowed brows as if she were confused. She was concentrating, building something up, but I didn’t know what. I looked at her with all the panic but none of the joy with which I played the game I had invented for myself of watching the second hand on the clock in our kitchen. The game was to will the hand not to go past the 12. Every time, one second before it went, I gasped aloud, albeit at a low volume, wondering if, hoping, that this time it would not go past.
Tania shook her head back and forth. “Why did you do that exactly?”
I opened my mouth, trying to think of what to say.
“No,” she said, crescendoing harshly, wagging her finger in front of me. “This isn’t a joke. This is a big deal.” Deborah moaned soulfully beside me. “Her legs are fragile because of the cold and you probably just did permanent damage.”
I hadn’t known about how the coldness would affect her legs. My eyes grew immediately hot.
“What if we have to put her down?” she said.
I looked at Deborah who was looking ahead, peering into the expanse of farmlands, as if she saw something there she wanted to call our attention to.
“Come with me,” my sister said, and tried to grab my shoulder.
But I said, “Get off of me,” and turned to the side.
From the corner of my eye I saw that she brought her teeth towards her nose in a look of disgust I had seen her make many times before. I whimpered under the force of it.
“You are such a baby. I’m going to have to be the one to deal with this. Me,” she said, pointing to her chest, shaking her head back and forth.
“Stop it,” I said, losing myself. I had done it. I had let myself be a participant in all of this, this world in which I had never belonged. And look what happened, I thought. I dropped down on my knees beside Deborah, pressed my eyes into her side and let my whole body go into tears. Her tail swung towards my head and brushed over my face as it fell.
I had never before felt more afraid of impending consequences, like I was at the edge of a dark, unknown ravine, about to fall in. I squinted the tears into a blur and tried to grow smaller within the narrowness of it. I wanted to transport back into the trailer, into the bathroom, into the bathtub, with blankets on top of me, my mother there to tell me it would be okay, waiting until everyone else went away, as far as they could go.
After a few moments I came up to catch my breath, and when I did I looked behind me to see that Tania was stomping away. She was going to get, I didn’t know what, the wheel barrow or the rake or the hunting rifle my dad and Bo used to shoot neon clay pigeons with at the shooting range.
I scrambled on top of Deborah. Splayed my arms and legs over the ridge of her back and willed her to rise. “Get up, Deborah,” I whispered. “Please get up.” I pressed my cheek to hers. “If you get up, it’ll be like it never even happened.”