Fiction · 06/07/2017

You Are Not Like Other Children

You are not like other children. You prefer to wear suits, no sweat pants, baggy shorts, shirts with team logos. You are not a slovenly child, she tells the reporter. Your model mother lifts her chin, smiles. You are the shrunken image of him, a father who is too old to be your father, a fact you have known since you were five and were mistaken for the child of your oldest half sister. Your wool suits, single-breasted, are made in Milan in the shades of business: black, navy, a spectrum of gray. The suits hang in a closet that is actually a room — there is a velvet sofa, a small bathroom with a sink and a golden faucet, a toilet, a refrigerator with your favorite drinks, though you are forbidden to drink them on the velvet sofa — and you have spent entire days sitting in this closet that is actually a room and no one here has questioned it. You do not like the velvet sofa — it feels, you think, too much like skin — so you sit in a far corner, beneath a dozen satin bathrobes, with your laptop. You play games with strangers online, watch videos on YouTube, download movies you are not supposed to watch. Your mother is elsewhere in the penthouse, with the man who does her hair, with the woman who circles her, up and down, with an air brush that looks like a slender dart gun — something a spy or a hunter on safari might use — your mother naked before her. She mists her skin with a chemical that changes its color, followed by a fine coating of powder, a shimmer of crushed pearls. This your father insists on. You have seen photos of her when she was young, her hair dark chocolate, her face and arms and legs milky, pale. Your father’s skin is old, the thickened rind of a tangerine, pink circles beneath his eyes, blue-veined and sagging. His hair is a yellow crest, fallen and flaccid, over to one side. He is gone, mostly, and you do not mind. When he is in the penthouse, he is unhappy. He paces as if in a cage, complains about this lampshade, that slab of marble, the silken fabric of the drapes. You are not like other children, but he is not like other fathers and you are not even sure how it is that you understand this. Your only explanation: he is all you have ever known.

Still, most of the time, you are left on your own, except by the servants. The one in charge of you, Irena, speaks better English than your mother, and she talks to you as she steams your suits, polishes your shoes, puts toothpaste on your brush. Irena discovers that you like M&Ms — a forbidden candy, too messy in an apartment full of white and gold — and keeps a jar of them in your closet that is actually a room, hidden behind the row of suits. You eat them in the morning, before anyone is awake, spilling them on the mahogany table beside your bed. You lean down and touch them with your tongue, one color at a time. Red, then blue, then yellow, orange, brown, red. When you do this, you are a lizard child, insects lined up before you, a feast slaughtered by your lizard mother. You do not have pets, but your school does, and your favorite is the skink, a miniature crocodile with golden scales, a sapphire leaf for a tongue. It does not lay eggs, but holds its offspring in its body until they emerge, fully formed, from beneath her tail. The teacher makes the mistake of leaving the young with her — three of them in total — and two are gone by the next morning, no remains. The mother lizard is fat again, her scales pushing out from her sides and you and your classmates look at her, at your teacher, at each other. This is strange and not so strange because haven’t you suspected such a thing was possible?

But now you know everything about lizards. You sit in your closet that is actually a room and you research the blue-tongued skink, the veiled chameleon, the peacock monitor. You watch videos made by people in small houses, mismatched spaces crowded with reptile habitats. They love these lizards like their own children. What you learn is that some lizards reproduce without a partner and, by this, they do not mean that they are like fish and lay their eggs and leave them there, waiting for a male to fertilize them, but that their bodies have found a way to be both mother and father in one. You like this idea, that there need not be a father, but only the one being who makes you in her own image, releases you out into the world. The evening meal is at 9 — too late for a child, but not for the 70-year-old father who demands it — and you watch your golden mother, how delicately she eats and, for a moment, you see the tip of her tongue meet the mushroom on her fork, dart back into her mouth. Her eyelids blink and you see her now, your lizard mother, the long spine of her back, her tail lost to a predator. It will grow back, but what else has she lost, what else has grown back? Beauty is different in the kingdom of lizards. What matters here is that you smell the enemy on your tongue before he arrives, that the toe you lost to a snake grows back mostly as it was, that you eat your fill when you can, fade into the rocks, the trees, the dense jungle forest, an anonymity made by your own hand. Other lizards sleep close by, secret eyes keeping watch. Alone, together, one indistinguishable another. And you are happy. You are just like them.

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Angela Mitchell’s stories have been published in Colorado Review, New South, Carve Magazine and other journals. Her story, “Animal Lovers,” was awarded the Nelligan Prize from Colorado Review and given special mention in The Pushcart Prize XXXV (35th edition, 2011). In 2016, she attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar. An eighth generation native of southern Missouri, she now lives in St. Louis with her husband and sons and is at work on a novel. She is also the current director of the St. Louis Writers Workshop.