A Doll’s Curse
She was born in a brilliant glow of red: bursts of blood, my raw throat, and the fuzz of rose-colored hair. I named her after the halo that shrouded her head.
Her father was not there for the birth, and that should have been my first clue.
“Ma’am, is there anyone I can call?” a nurse asked between contractions. “Your husband?”
“Dead,” I lied. Or maybe it was the truth. There were times I caught his transparent figure wandering the hallways, the TV’s light splashing blue on our white walls when I left for work in the mornings. But his absence wasn’t the reason for the goose-bumps on my skin and the cold sweat on the back of my neck. His appearance did that. I was being haunted in my own house.
The birthing nurse’s eyes watered. I didn’t want her to say anything else so I asked for ice to cool my mouth. My daughter decided that was the perfect moment to show up. Fashionably late, of course.
My Aunt Gale once tried to explain to me the basics of having a child by throwing a doll into my arms, flickers of ash from her cigarette sticking to the toy’s velvet dress. I had been ten and perhaps too old for a doll, but it was a gift and that was good enough for me. It was supposed to have one of those voice boxes that whined, “feed me,” and “change me,” or maybe even “I love you, Mommy,” but it was clearly broken. It could only hiss and sputter phrases slowly, drawing them out as if a spirit were crawling through its frozen, parted lips, syllable by syllable. I held it far away from my body, pinching it between my strongest fingers like I was pinching my nose, which I used to do whenever my aunt sparked a fire between her two lips.
“What if I held you like that when you were a baby, hmm?” she asked, her breaths wheezing between each word, turning the basement gray and the air heavy. “You have to hold its head or it’ll break like an egg.”
“Ma…” it started. I pictured the hard dome of its head breaking in two and suddenly wondered why I had been disgusted with it in the first place. I pulled it to my chest. “Ma…”
With the live wire loose between her teeth, my aunt waved her hand at me. “There. You’ll be ready for your own soon. Take after your bitch of a mother—don’t repeat that word.” I wondered which word she meant. “Don’t just stand there. Bounce it around!”
I didn’t understand the command, so I jumped up and down, jostling the toy enough that it cried out: “Change—change me…”
My aunt huffed and the doll’s complaints grew louder, dancing with the smoke in the air, twirling faster and faster until I couldn’t distinguish which one made me dizzier. She yanked the yapping baby out of my arms and turned it over before smacking it on the back with the flat of her palm. “Mommy…” it drawled once more, then went silent.
Aunt Gale laughed low and hard, her voice rattling all the way up her throat and out of her lips. “Sometimes you have to do that, too.”
She wasn’t wrong. When my daughter was born after a long seventeen hours, the doctor cut her cord and hit her on the back until she cried out. I unfurled my arms, wiggling my fingers as if that would bring her to me faster. I put her against my naked chest and felt her shallow gasps slow to a normal speed. We were in sync.
I took in her every breath, felt her tight fists try to uncurl on my skin, and heard her small whines. I couldn’t contain my smile. “It’s okay. We’re okay,” I said, my cheeks tingling from stretching the muscles around my mouth that had never been worked quite so hard. I could tell immediately that she had fire in her core from the way she warmed me. She was an inferno so bright that only I could hold her. She appraised me skeptically, asking with her river-colored eyes, Well, what now?
“We’re in this together,” I told her. And I intended to keep my word. I clutched her closer to my body. I would never let her go, I would never let her burn me.
There was a moment where my daughter finally quieted enough to sleep, her warmth spreading from where she rested in the center of my chest. Dust particles hung suspended in midair, the sound of the nurses’ scrubs brushing together disappeared as they ran to a patient that would not make it, everything was alive in that moment. I was alive, at last, after twenty-five years. I felt my chest flutter like a baby bird trying to fly for the first time. I didn’t realize what was happening until I felt it in the spots right underneath my jaw, around the pale veins in my wrists, and in the place where Rose slept. My heart beat that day with her against me.
She was the only thing worth loving.
I was eight when I learned about my family’s curse.
Jeremy Shumaker had passed me a note on the playground, its corners smudged with Oreo crumbs, asking if I wanted to kiss him. I was supposed to circle “Yes” or “No.” The “n” was backwards—that should have been my second clue. I had no pen or pencil to fill out his form, so I ran to where he was pushing a Kindergartener off of the tire swing. After the kid went down crying, Jeremy hopped onto the black rubber and patted the spot next to him. I wiggled onto the seat, feeling as though I was sitting on a throne.
We were a hot item for the rest of recess.
By circle time, my seat next to Jeremy Shumaker had gone to Ramona Reynolds. I came home in tears, my fragile heart no longer touched by his snot-coated fingers.
“Girl,” Aunt Gale said the moment I walked in the door, “stop your crying—my soaps are on.”
I sniffled and dragged my backpack across the floor in front of her propped- up feet. I knew I was being as slow as molasses, something she told me often, but I was weighed down by a sorrow I had never felt before.
She sighed. “How am I supposed to see Rodrigo’s evil twin if you’re blocking the view?” Then, softer: “Cassandra.”
I faced her, wiping my eyes with the rough canvas of my jacket’s sleeve. I left streaks of red across my cheeks.
“Jeremy Shumaker—” I began.
“Ungh!” my aunt scoffed. “That’s what this is about? A boy?” I nodded. “No point there, sweetheart. Boys give our family nothing but trouble. Your grandpa left before your mom popped out. And have you ever seen an uncle walking around here? That bastard took everything from me, down to my last cigarette. They say they love you until they find someone else with bigger—uh, hair. Don’t even get me started on your mother. She followed your daddy around like a puppy until he squeezed the last breath out of her.” Her mouth turned into a tight screw. “Cassie, you listen to your aunt now, you hear? There’s nothing worth loving. Boys, kids, not even me.” She turned back to the television, cranking up the volume. “All we’ll do is break your heart.”
“Rodrigo!” the pixels on the TV screeched. “I thought you left!”
“Rodrigo? No. Rodrigo is long gone.”
I should have known in that moment that my daughter would face the same fate.
I wanted to listen to my aunt but I could never seem to keep a safe distance. Broken things were too pretty and my husband was the fairest of them all: his evaporating tears, calloused palm around mine, and the promise of a child were the ingredients to a sweet concoction that I drank like ambrosia.
Before our daughter and frantic nuptials, he convinced me to sneak into a New Year’s Eve party where beer was flowing like Niagara Falls. His hands were at my hips, my waist, the small of my back. He never stopped touching me. As long as there was contact, the spell was at its fullest power. The countdown was an omen. The party’s chants mixed with my beating heart, making me believe that it was racing more than it truly was.
Ten. I was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.
Nine. Was I cold? He gave me his jacket.
Eight. He was too tall for me to look into his eyes, where they wandered over to the college girls doing shots faster than the seconds left in the year.
Seven through three were each of his fingers intertwining with mine.
Two. He asked me to kiss him.
One. I said, “Yes.”
He lasted as long as the New Year, but he was gone once the countdown started again.
Now, I count my knocks on Aunt Gale’s door: one, two, three, four, five. Each rap is two years that have gone by since I’ve seen my aunt.
I used to take Rose to see Aunt Gale as often as possible when she was younger, but when she was eight I saw her gnawing on a cigarette butt that was freed from the cracks in my aunt’s hardwood floor. She thought it was candy, or maybe she simply wanted to try it to see if it would light on its own from the fire within her.
She stuck her tongue out, pinched her eyes together, and shook her head as if she could physically shake the tar off of her taste buds. “Mommy,” she said, “I think this is expired.”
Aunt Gale walked into the hallway and froze at the scene: Rose’s sour face, my nostrils flaring, and the soggy end of a cigarette still in my daughter’s hand. She doubled over, placing her palm on the strained spandex over her gut. I might have been worried, but the volume of her laugh cracked holes in the walls, slapping me in the face like she would do if I had misbehaved.
“That’s the funniest shit I ever saw,” she said. Tears streamed down her face. “How dumb can you be, girl?” I couldn’t count the number of times she said the same thing to me. I placed my hand over my cheek. “We’re leaving, Rose.” I grabbed her hand. And we never returned.
So why am I here? A paint chip sticks to the knuckle on my left hand’s ring finger. I look at it with detached amusement. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to wearing a wedding ring.
The door opens. In front of me is a woman whose head would not meet the middle of my chest. She’s wearing a decade-or-older leopard jump suit. Her stomach no longer protrudes. Her cheeks aren’t colored with pale pink blush, but instead hollow, stretched tightly against her skull. She is bald, and she has a lit cigarette in her mouth and the next one on deck between two fingers on the hand that rests against her hip. She recognizes me immediately.
“Well, shit.” The words spell out in front of my nose in smoke. “Who died?” I notice that the cigarette she held onto dropped to the ground. She must be dying herself, I think, to let go of that.
“Gale,” I say, tasting her name in my mouth. It burns like a pill going down dry. “I don’t know what else to do.”
She raises her eyebrows—or at least, I think she does. Her forehead wrinkles into an accordion. “Spit it out, child.”
“It’s Rose.” I let the words fall from my mouth like the start of a mudslide. “She’s missing.”
I have no evidence besides a feeling in the pit of my stomach.
The feeling had only happened once before, when I woke up to an empty bed for the second morning in a row. It wasn’t like it was the first time Rose’s father went away for longer than a night—he left for a week once and came back and said, “Where’s my sandwich?” I pointed to the fridge even though it was mostly empty, he grabbed a beer instead, and that was that.
But one morning I opened my eyes and put my hand to my bloated stomach. I could tell that emptiness was swishing around in there like a tidal wave, and I thought that I should have tasted salty tears but my face was dry. I lifted myself out of bed and spread my fingers on the line just below my belly button once, twice, until I could feel the bloating resist against the pressure. I went over to Rose’s crib, scooped her up, and held her to my breast, walking to the kitchen with her wrapped in my protection.
I checked the refrigerator—he had taken all the beer with him. That told me that it was a permanent arrangement.
My hands are wrapped around a plastic cup with lukewarm tea slowly coagulating like blood. (“I don’t got those fancy-schmancy mugs, girl—you sure you don’t want this Irish whiskey? Mm, suit yourself.”)
“Still driving buses?” Gale asks. I nod. “How’s that?”
“Fine.” I don’t want this small talk but I feel distanced from my body. Whose hands are these? I flex the fingers. The nails are covered in red polish. Rose’s choice, I remember, she wanted to paint my nails last week: “Mother, you cannot deny yourself the joys of getting pampered!” and “Red is your color. You’ll have everyone falling all over you—even your professors.”
They’ve started to peel. “I’m taking night classes at ECC,” I say.
That was also Rose’s choice. “Mom,” she said once, popping her head into the bathroom when I was taking a shower. “Have you ever thought about the importance of a college education for yourself?”
Before I could reply, her mouth was running faster than the waterfall over my head, explaining how to apply, where to go, and which major to choose. Education, she said, because I loved children, and besides, I was good at lecturing.
“I’m trying to shower,” I said, suds in my eyes.
“You should go to college.”
“Aren’t you late for school?” I asked.
“It would change your life.”
And, in the end, she was right.
I was content with our humble life, even the nights we spent fishing for loose change in the pockets of the couch: pennies were copper koi, and the silver scales of slippery minnows were an enviable twenty-five cents. But I wanted her to be proud of me.
“When’d you see her last?” my aunt says, snapping me out of a haze.
“Two days ago. She—” I hesitate. “She tried to introduce me to her boyfriend.”
“It’s the curse,” she says, shrugging, trying to light another cigarette with the bones at the end of her hands.
She shakes like the last leaf on a tree right before winter sweeps through to coat its pulse in thick ice. All at once, I can’t bear to stay another minute in this house, with my dying aunt and the smell of Death’s laughter on her skin.
There is a layer of grit on the floor that Rose would have loved. She was always polished: her fiery hair fell in perfect curls, framing her round cheeks or sitting on top of her head in a bun like a crown; her fingers, with manicured nails, were slender and danced fearlessly on the keys of a piano; and her outfits were planned a week before she wore them. But she didn’t wear shoes. She loved the feel of gravel and dirt in between her toes, as if they were sparkling grains of sand, warmer than a blanket.
Is, I correct myself. Rose is always polished.
I stand up to leave, knocking over the cup of tea in my hurry. It spills over the round table and onto the floor. The liquid seeps through the cracks like blood at a crime scene. I don’t bother cleaning it up.
“Cassie, wait,” my aunt says, following me to the door. She catches my gaze for a moment. I think we have the same eyes: still, dry, and as gray as the clumps of dust in the corners of her house. Her eyes have always been clouded. Perhaps mine are the same. She opens her mouth before quickly shutting it and looking at her feet. “Light this for me?”
I can still feel the indents on the pad of my thumb from striking the flint when I was only six years old and she was too drunk to do it herself. I light it on the first try.
“Shouldn’t you…” I trail off, glancing at her gaunt cheeks. She sucks her death through those thin lips so deeply that her face might cave in. Don’t die, I think suddenly. You’re the only mom I have. But I know that this will be the last time I see her.
“I’m already dead, Cassandra.” She pauses. “Best if you think that for Rose, too.”
After checking the apartment one last time, I drive to the police station, remembering when Rose wanted to introduce me to her boyfriend. She never told me his name.
“Can I invite someone over for dinner?” she asked. I took my jacket off, and started walking into my room to change out of the bus company’s orange polyester uniform.
“One of your friends from school?” I called with my door mostly closed. I would have to dip into the money set aside to buy Rose a new charm for her bracelet—which I got for her on her thirteenth birthday and added a charm each year—to have enough food. Her birthday was only in a few days.
“Well,” she said, “not exactly.” I finished changing and walked to the living room.
She was looking down at her phone but spoke when she heard my footsteps. “He graduated two years ago. And he’s…sort of a boyfriend.”
My stomach clenched.
My aunt’s laugh echoed in my ears from when she met my husband for the first time: “Good luck keeping that one, honey.”
“What do you mean a boyfriend?”
Her eyebrows pulled together. “Why are you upset with me?”
“I’m not.” I folded my arms over my chest. “I just think you’re too young to date.”
She put her phone down. “Too young? I’m turning eighteen in two days.”
“You have school to think about, your grades, and you don’t want to lose your friends, and you have college applications—”
“Why can’t you let me be happy?”
“He has nothing to do with your happiness—” “Yes, he does! Mom, I think I love him!”
We were both screaming. I felt my heart disconnect, unravel at the seams, as a blue vein struck down my forehead like lightening. I heard rain outside.
“You don’t know what love is, Rose.” But I knew. I knew what it was like to wake up for the first time. I wanted to scream, You’ll be dragged down. He’s a drug. You might think you’re awake but it’s only a dream. Aren’t I enough? Don’t you feel alive with me?
“I’m leaving,” she said, the anger dripping out of her mouth as steady as the storm she would walk into. She pocketed her phone and rushed past me to grab her coat. Her feet were bare.
The slam of the door was an expletive against my ears.
I paced, made soup for when she came back but I didn’t eat, and finally settled in the armchair, staring at the wall. Rose didn’t need me the way I needed her. That was my third clue.
She started having fantasies about leaving, finding an adventure, when she was five and she wanted to be Tarzan, meaning she tried to run around in nothing but her underwear. I made her a costume using her old clothes so that it looked like she was wearing a loin cloth. The other girls in her class were princesses, but she had other interests. I hoped that meant that she wouldn’t wait around for a prince to save her.
“I’m going to live in the jungle,” she said Halloween morning. “Like Tarzan!” She was so matter-of-fact that I saw her transform right before my eyes. Her hair was unkempt already, knotted with her forgotten dreams. I tried to smooth it down but a wild girl, after all, cannot be tamed.
“What would you eat?” I asked.
She considered the question. “Bananas.”
“Where would you sleep?”
“In a tree,” she said. She had all the answers.
I walked away from the sink and picked her up, bouncing her against my hip. “Wouldn’t you miss Mommy?”
“The gorilla would be my mommy!”
I pursed my lips. “But could your gorilla-mommy kiss your tummy when it hurts? Or make you toast and chocolate milk? And you would have to hang upside down all the time—like this.” I wrapped an arm around her stomach and grabbed one of her legs so her head was pointed towards my bare feet. She laughed and squealed, exclaiming, “More! More!” until her face bloomed the color of love.
I positioned her right-side up after a few seconds and gave her a serious look.
“What about school?” She shook her head back and forth hard enough that her arms swung with her. “Well, wild girl,” I said, putting her back on her feet, “the bad news is that you live in the city, so you have to go to school.” She pouted, then brightened.
“What’s the good news?” she lisped, her front teeth still missing.
“The good news is that it’s Taco Tuesday.”
She curled her lip and snarled at the prospect of eating the cafeteria’s meat. I didn’t blame her. I reached behind me and grabbed the brown paper bag with her lunch in it. I looked around for a Sharpie marker and when I found one, I wrote in big letters across the bag: The Real Good News.
From that moment on, it became our gimmick. We delivered the bad news and then the good news: “I have good news and bad news, Mom,” Rose would say. “The bad news is that I fell asleep in class and I have detention. The good news is that I aced the midterm.”
“Rose, bad news: I have to stay late at work. But you can order a pizza for dinner, that’s good news!”
“Uh, the bad news is that I broke the vase we have in our living room—did Aunt Gale get that for us?—but I’m not hurt.”
Before long, we stopped telling each other the news face-to-face. Sometimes Rose would forget the system. My phone would buzz with a message: I’m not going to make curfew, was the bad news. I waited for the good news but there wasn’t any. Rose often forgot the punchline to the joke.
After our fight, I heard the door unlock at two in the morning. She rounded the corner and stood, soaking wet, at the entrance of the living room. I couldn’t tell if she was crying or if the tears were raindrops glistening on her cheeks. The clock inside of my chest started ticking again.
“I’m back,” she said. Tick, my heart said.
“I’m sorry. My fault,” I choked out. Tick.
I walked over to her and wrapped her in my arms. She hugged me back. The inside of her wrist was gilded with the stain of alcohol, but her eyes were clear and her breath smelled like coffee beans. I didn’t notice that her bracelet was missing. Tick.
“I’m wet,” she said.
“I love you.”
“You worry too much.”
“I know,” I said. She detached herself from me. There was a moment where my hand grasped at hers and we were finally connected again. She didn’t look into my eyes as she let go.
The next morning was my only day off of work. I rushed to the jeweler that was crafting Rose’s birthday present before she woke up. I couldn’t wait, and I planned to give it to her a day early. That morning she ran through the kitchen, slipping on shoes that she would not leave on.
“Where’s the fire?” I smiled to show her that I meant no harm. She leaped over to me and kissed my cheek. Her lips left a searing imprint on my face, and I placed my hand over it to keep it there. I expected to feel my cheek turn to ash, and to smell smoke billowing from the burn. I felt only the sticky texture of her lipstick.
“See you later!” she called, walking away from me before I could stop her. Wait! I wanted to shout out. Don’t leave, don’t leave, don’t leave. She didn’t notice the present.
Tick. I thought that time was moving forward but the clock was unwinding, spinning in reverse like a piece from Dali: melting, drooping, before stopping all together.
“I’m here to report a missing person,” I say to the receptionist at the police station. She hands me a form and sits me in a room that is empty apart from a woman with a baby carrier at her feet. The woman is bundled up with a scarf around her mouth and a hat pulled nearly all the way over her eyes. My coat sits at my feet.
The form is standard: my name and contact information, relationship to the missing person, and, finally, Rose’s information: 5’7”, red hair, blue eyes. I realize that her birthday was yesterday when I put in her age. Eighteen. Legally an adult. My mouth goes dry.
After I attach a recent picture to the file of the two of us, I stand to return the form to the receptionist. On my way to the desk, I notice the woman holding the infant in the crook of her arm. She tries to lift the carrier in the other arm but the handle sticks. The diaper bag falls off her shoulder, the baby starting to wiggle in her arms. I walk over.
“May I…?” She nods. I press a button on the side of the carrier and click the handle into place. “How old?” I ask her with a smile.
“Three months,” she says through the material wrapped around her neck like a boa constrictor.
“She’s already holding her head up,” I say.
Her eyes wrinkle in the corners. “You must have kids of your own.”
Yes, I should answer, a daughter, who hasn’t been that small in a very long time. Instead I say, “No, no kids.”
The woman’s baby coos before wrapping her small fist around her mother’s scarf. She pulls tight. The left side falls away from her skin, exposing her throat and mouth. There are bruises on the side of her neck, as purple as a plum, in an outline of five fingers. The corner of her mouth is scarred—or maybe it is an open wound: drops of blood dribble out like a teething infant’s drool when she gasps.
“Oh!” she exclaims. “I’m so sorry.”
I want to tell her that it isn’t her fault, that she is a good mother, doing the right thing, but my name is called and I walk away. I look behind me but her eyes are only on her baby.
There are two officers that ask me questions about Rose. What her after-school activities are, and the names of her friends, and if she’s seemed different lately.
“Now, it says here that she’s eighteen,” one of the cops says. His partner exchanges a look with him. “Do you two fight often?”
“No,” I lie. “She’s a perfect daughter.” He makes a note on the file.
“Does she have access to a car?” I tell him that she has a bike. It’s still in the garage. “Has she ever threatened to run away before?”
What does it matter? “I want to find my daughter,” I say.
The cop closes his notebook, gets to his feet. “Ma’am, we will continue to look into the case, but more often than not they come home when they’re hungry or when their boyfriend breaks up with them.”
“Rose wouldn’t leave me,” I say, “she wouldn’t—we have a bond. It was just the two of us growing up and I did everything by the book. She wouldn’t just—just…”
“Ma’am—ma’am? Take a deep breath.” What a ridiculous request. My only source of oxygen has been taken away from me. I think about Rose and how she doesn’t wear shoes even when there’s snow on the ground, and how she needs an inhaler during the start of spring, and chicken noodle soup was always her favorite but not without crackers. I think about Aunt Gale and this is how it feels not to be able to breathe, and I can’t break Death’s choke hold on her. I think about the woman in the waiting room, with a baby and bruises as cold as the tendrils of winter. I think about my curse and how it has never been about boys not loving me enough. I have a doll’s curse: I am loved, and I am left. My lips shape around the words “No, no” or it could have been “Rose, Rose” but I see stars on the ceiling, and I tip backwards. A second before I hit my head on the corner of the table behind me, I see a flash of red hair in the reflection on the window. Then my world turns black.
The hospital is nice for the first day, wiped clean of any traces of the real world. I am a shell of a person that says “please” and “thank you”—especially when they distribute the meds. I’m not allowed to have shoelaces still, even though I was brought in for a head injury, so I walk around barefoot like she used to. Turns out the hospital isn’t as clean as I originally thought. I collect dirt like a vacuum.
The next two days are uneventful. When the doctors decide that I won’t fall asleep and never wake up, they slap a bandage over the ragged staples on my skull, decreasing the pain medication. I can feel again, but at least I have my shoelaces back.
The doctor that discharges me feels it necessary to call me a cab, and she slips me a twenty dollar bill, “for the ride home.” It isn’t hard to visualize the pity I invoke. Air whimpers in the empty spaces within my chest, looking for contact but finding nothing. I am surprised that the doctors could hear a pulse. My heart is missing, my eyes as empty as a doll’s and my skin as hard. But I have no voice, no string to pull back. There is no way to hear my cry.
As I walk to the front of the hospital, I see a woman cloaked by shadows around a corner. She unties a scarf around her neck and my entire body pings. The woman from the police station.
She looks up. “Fancy seeing you here,” she says. Her words slur and she gives me a lopsided smile.
“They brought you here, too?” I ask.
“The cops? Yeah, they didn’t think I was ‘fit’ to take care of a child until I got checked out.” She holds her arms up to make quotation marks with her fingers but she has a bottle of wine in one hand and a flask in the other. She shrugs instead. “I’m—” she belches, “fine.” Now that her scarf is removed completely I can see a jagged hole above her top lip, and a tooth is missing.
“You’re drunk,” I say stupidly.
“Amen to that. Come, sit, drink.”
I fold my legs underneath me on the sidewalk and take the bottle of wine from her. I lift the whole thing to my lips and take two gulps. Heat trickles in drops from my tongue into my chest before rolling to my stomach. I haven’t felt warm in over one hundred hours.
I wipe my mouth. “You are a mother, aren’t you?” she says. It’s more of a statement than a question.
I shake my head. “My daughter died,” I say. I don’t know why I say it, only that there’s something sad about the way she snuck out of the hospital in the middle of winter with her white scrubs still loose around her frame and scars on her pretty face, getting drunk off of cheap wine.
She winces. “Drink.” So I do.
We sit in silence for a few more moments and my stomach already begins to slosh. My head swims and I think about Rose.
“It’s not fair,” the woman says suddenly, “that we can lose the one thing that we really love.”
“You’ll get your daughter back,” I say, “she’ll come back.” I nearly believe it myself. When my fingers start going numb, I get up to find my cab. To go back to an empty dollhouse. Maybe to throw up in the hospital’s shrubbery, too. I almost laugh. Rose would have.
“What was her name?” the woman asks before I’m out of earshot.
I don’t think I’ll be able to say her name, to make it real, but without hesitation I reply, “Rose.”
She lifts her flask in the air, pulling at the top like a baby with a pacifier. Then she pours wine into the cracks where I was sitting: a sacrifice to the gods. “To Rose,” she says.
The moon is out and I look at it with wonder. It is whole, luminous, hundreds of thousands of miles away. Yet I can see it clearly, held perfectly in the middle of the night sky like my breath that fogs out in front of me. I can see the moon as it wanes, and Rose is nowhere: her scent barely lingers in the air and I know that it will be gone before too long. The sound of her voice as she spoke passionately about books and her twinkling laugh as she said, “Mom, listen to what happened to Jenny O. today. Three boys asked her to the dance and she said yes to all of them!” is only a memory.
I can see it through the window in the apartment, and Rose is everywhere: books spilled out on the kitchen table, their spines cracked and their usefulness dying with them, laptop out of battery and open on the couch, pictures in every corner. She is beautiful. The moon is, too, even when it hides during the day, behind clouds, playing with the stars. They wink at me as if they have a secret to share. I listen with rapt attention.
There’s something in the fact that the moon is always there, bathing our kitchen floor in light, following me when I drive my bus in the early mornings like a thumb on the side of the highway. People have gone to the moon, taken pieces home with them, and it still sits in its spot in space, galaxies away. Whole. Glowing.
And maybe that is the good news.