i miss the certainty of us.
the way that we carved our names in picnic tables,
mementos of the defiant proclamations
that we were there, we existed,
we lived loud enough to leave
parts of ourselves behind.
i still marvel at every line etched
somewhere that it shouldn't be.
in the bathroom stalls,
the worn park benches,
the railing of a bridge
overlooking a bustling freeway.
every one of them a piece
of the person who marked it.
the optimistic permanence
of the letters we leave behind.
The sun hung low in the sky, illuminating the tall grass and flowers, and painting the modest farmhouse in a golden glow. A small girl strolled through the cow parsnips in a daze, feeling blissfully alone with only the flowers and her own thoughts. Unaware of the two women on the porch who marveled at her radiance, yet clucked disapprovingly at the supposed danger of her beauty. Their whispers stirred the air, but the girl paid them no attention. Instead, she gazed across the field in a listless stupor, eyes flickering across the flowers with a bored indifference. She didn’t even seem to notice them. Instead, she remembered the image of a young boy, holding out a blood soaked hand to her as an offering.
The porch of the farmhouse had long ago grown accustomed to the whispers of women, exchanging the gossip of the day and reflecting on the anecdotes of their past. Knitting by the faint glow of a lantern, the older woman, Alice, shared the day’s incident at the schoolhouse. With hushed incredulity, she recounted how the boy had scarcely even flinched as he plunged the blade into his own palm. And how Helen’s reaction was alarming, a keen interest overtaking her as she stared alertly at the blood dripping onto the unpolished wood floor. The younger woman’s rocking chair stopped creaking as she leaned forward to catch the whispered words that hung heavy in the evening air. Clinging with morbid fascination to every word that Alice knit into her recollection of the event. All the while, flowers bloomed from Alice’s knitting needles. Her yarn slowly morphed into something the women regarded as both beautiful and complex.
Alice stopped knitting. The porch suddenly felt empty in the absence of the noise, the silence threatening to overtake them. With a resigned sigh, she passed the needles off to the other woman. Another moment passed, before the rhythmic clicking of the needles began again. Resuming their conversation, the younger woman began speculating more about the boy’s reasoning behind his behavior, and Helen’s curious reaction. She pictured the scene in her head and relayed it out loud, adding in her own details as she went along. Alice nodded along in vacant agreement, and their story grew larger the longer they talked together.
The girl kneeled in the dirt nearby, gazing emotionlessly at the ants scurrying across the grass, and absentmindedly twirling a blade of grass between her fingers. Over and over, she heard the voice of her grandmother cautioning her, “People - male people - will try to give you strange gifts Helen. You do not need to accept them all.” Helen couldn’t even begin to unravel the implications of her grandmother’s odd advice, but she resented it nevertheless. It was as if Helen herself was being blamed for what the boy had done. It was an unwelcome thought, and not one that Helen wished to entertain. The buggy ride home from school that day had been overtaken by a forced stillness, every attempt at conversation extinguished by Helen’s unrelenting silence.
Still dazed by the day's events, Helen didn’t hear her mother’s soft footsteps walking toward her. It wasn’t until the woman softly tapped at Helen's shoulder, that she turned to acknowledge her. All of her thoughts about the boy froze, and she turned to give her mother full attention. The woman beamed as she held out a hand-knit sweater with satisfaction, rotating the garment so that the girl could admire it from every angle. It was a new pattern, one that Alice had been wishing to try for a while, believing that the simple imagery of the flowers would suit young Helen, and serve to complement her beauty. The woman held it out to her, urging her to try it on, and suggesting that she wear it to school tomorrow. Looking over at the sweater with a curious glance, Helen took in the new design. She didn’t like flowers, although they adorned nearly all of her clothes. Once again, she heard her grandmother's warning, echoing from that moment in the schoolhouse, “Be careful what gifts you take.”
Helen hesitated for a moment, wavering before she clasped the sweater in tiny fists, and put it on over her head. It itched. The rough material made her skin crawl, and it fit poorly. She felt weighed down by the overwhelming heaviness of it, as if it was pulling her down towards the earth. Tugging uncomfortably at the sleeves, the girl smiled up at her mother, and thanked her for the thoughtful gift.
The woman returned to the porch, seated herself comfortably in her rocking chair, and looked at the young girl from a distance. Both women admired the sweater that they had created together, remarking on how it brought out the color in her eyes. Complimenting each other on how perfectly it fit her, they gazed in admiration at what they had created, believing that Helen would simply adore it. Never thinking to ask her if she did.
My dad is trying to reach out to me. He contacted my aunt a few days ago over a Facebook message request. She still sounded shaken up hours later when she called me to tell me. I knew from her voicemail that something was wrong but still she tried to pretend that everything was ok by making small talk about what courses I'm taking this semester. I think that I've been afraid since her first missed call, I was certain that she was calling to tell me that my sick family member had died.
I took the news rather apathetically, as I've learned to be as far as my father is concerned. If I don't care, he can't hurt me. That's how I got over the grief of him leaving the first time. Granted, it took me years to accept it, but I was a child then, still learning the survival strategies that I'd need to get cut my way out of the webs of manipulation.
I never was a fan of spiders. Any bugs, really. I live on my own now, with no younger brother to come kill them for me. Last year there was a huge one in my living room, and that fucker was fast too. I managed to trap it under a glass, but couldn't work up the courage to lift the cup and kill it. I suppose it's a little bit cruel, or maybe just cowardly, but I left it there for weeks. I'd check on it sometimes, hoping that it had died already and I could stop walking around this cup every day. But he was persistent, clinging to life even after I'd trapped him in with what must have been such a confusing and odd barrier for him. Eventually a friend of mine came over, and offered to kill it for me. She lifted the glass and finally put the poor thing out of its misery with a bunched up Kleenex.
According to the screenshot of the Facebook message that my aunt sent to me, my dad is still blaming my mom for "keeping the kids from him." I don't remember much about him, but I do remember that he was never able to admit fault for anything. There's a lot of things that my memory is blocking from me, and I can't ask any of my family for help filling in the blanks. But, I remember how I felt. I know that I was scared to walk to school in my new town, and a part of me still panics every time a car slows down next to me. I know that he lied to me. I know that I felt betrayed by him. I know that he hurt me.
My heart still aches for the younger version of myself who was so confused, and couldn't figure out why their own father couldn't love them. Didn't know why he didn't care enough to figure something out.
I want to forgive him, but I don't even know what he did. I want to have a relationship with him, so then maybe my eyes won't tear up in the grocery store when I hear a father tell his little girl "I love you." He missed so many of my milestones, so many of my accomplishments, and now he wants back in my life? Now that I'm an adult and can sneak around behind my mom's back?
The worst part is, I know that I'm going to do it. I'm still not entirely sure on how I can do it safely, or how I'm going to protect my own mental health. Maybe I'm just setting myself up to hurt again, but I want to try.
Maybe if I care less, it wouldn't hurt so much.
Maybe this time will be different.
You lived just down the block from me, I could see your house from mine. We weren't friends yet, but my parents told me that you were born in Kenya where your parents converted people to Christianity.
I went to Sunday School at the time. My parents had a complicated divorce but my mom found comfort within our church community.
Your mom didn't walk you from the car to the doors of the school, like mine did. I was intimidated by your independence. We weren't in the same class that year.
You invited me to your birthday party. I was so impressed by your hand drawn invitation and the obvious effort that you put into it, always the artist. You were worried that if you invited me I would only talk to Bailey; I promised I wouldn't. We played games in your basement, little competitions with candy prizes.
My family stopped going to church.
You found me by myself during recess, and invited me to a Halloween event at your church. From that day forward, we were best friends. We spent every spare moment together, running to and from each other's houses after school. Now, whenever I think back on my childhood, I'm drawn especially towards that year.
Tracking footprints in the snow during recess. Playing with stuffed animals in our bedrooms. Singing ridiculous songs that we came up with together. Doing every school project together. Any reason, any time. I knew back then, we were going to be best friends for life.
You switched schools. Went to an art school while I stayed behind a befriended a new student. You were still my neighbor though, your bus took longer to bring you home. We could still have sleepovers during the weekend though.
I moved out of the city. I was mostly excited for the change, ready to transition to a small town lifestyle, but I knew that you were upset. You gave me a photo of yourself, in a small frame shaped like a flower. You later admitted that you thought that we would never see each other again.
Seventh Grade, Eighth Grade, Ninth Grade
We saw each other a lot less than we used to, but our parents helped by driving us to each other's homes often enough to sustain our friendship. Despite the distance, I still considered you my best friend.
I realized that I wasn't Christian. None of my new friends were either.
We went to summer camp together. It was centered around horses, and having never ridden, I didn't want to go alone. You agreed and we spent a week together in tents, with no showers or bathrooms; cooking our meals over an open campfire.
There was a girl there, her name was Sarah. It was the first time I'd ever questioned my sexuality.
Between the pandemic and my mom's husband gaining more control over my life, I didn't get to see you much anymore. I rarely even had the opportunity to call you after they took my phone away during our 4-5 months of quarantine.
I started coming to terms with my identity as a queer person.
My friend gave me an old laptop so I was able to call people over discord whenever my parents left the house. With my step-dad's new rules I didn't get a chance to actually spend time with you, but we still made time to call each other and check in.
My parents took me into the city so that I could get more familiar with the transit system there. I snuck around behind their backs and met you at the mall. I deleted all the messages about us meeting up. They never found out.
I came out as queer to my school friends and my brother. I didn't tell you.
I moved back to the city. You're a province away, in bible college, but now we can finally spend time together without my parents controlling me. We meet up when you're home from school, but I can't help but feel like I've already lost you.
Last time I saw you was a day before Christmas Eve. You drove through a huge blizzard to pick me up at a train station and back to your house. (in hindsight it was an awful decision, but we made it anyway) Before supper, you asked me if I was worried about Heaven and Hell. I never told you that I stopped believing in God because I was afraid that you wouldn't want to be friends with me anymore. I left your house that night with a bible that I buried in my closet.
When I spend time with you now, I feel like I'm hiding. I'm so tired of having to hide myself, taking my pride flag off of the wall, stashing it back into the closet whenever you come to visit. I'm hiding my religious beliefs (or lack of), hiding my queerness, hiding all the aspects of my personality that would make you uncomfortable.
All because I'm afraid to lose you.
But realistically, I already have.