Fiction · 01/30/2019

Blessed Are the Forgetful

I want to ask her if she remembers that afternoon like I do. If it’s sharp like it is in the creases of my mind, tucked into my brain like the way she taught me to fold a sheet, the point so precise that it doesn’t admit anything else. I can say the words in my mind, imagining the way my lips would open, and my tongue and teeth would clash.

The time that man tried to steal me.

It happened once years and years ago. We were different people then: so my science teacher says, the way that our cells die out and then regenerate, little miniature deaths we can’t even begin to feel.

Sometimes I think she remembers from the way she assembles her face. The lines beside her mouth curve down into crescents and her chin lifts, her gaze slides towards the window, and I think she must be remembering that day on the beach. But she always turns back to me and asks about something else.

“What day is prom, again? When do we need to have your dress ordered by?”

Or: “Did I tell you about Maggie dog’s cancer? Poor thing. Breast cancer. Maggie didn’t get her spayed.”

Still, the memory’s there. I’m convinced. I once rolled over in bed and asked God to make her forget, but I don’t believe in either a god or that any deity we have would give a shit.

Just ask her, dummy, I tell myself in the shower. I rehearse the way I’ll toss off the question, like it means nothing, like I just remembered all of a sudden. But when I step out, naked in front of that mirror, I see my body and the sullen flush the water beat against my collarbone. See my breasts lopsided and flat, the strange lines creased across my stomach, the flabby parts of my thighs I can’t squat away, and all of my swagger bleeds out of me. White isn’t really the word for me; white means the bright walls at school, the computer paper traced with dark ink. But white is what people see when they look at us together.

Today we’re at the mall, doing our best to be anonymous in the clothes that everybody else wears, but either we don’t know how to wear them or we have some invisible sign. Maybe because I can’t settle on how to push up the sleeves of my cardigan, and the left one keeps scuttling down towards my wrist, where the gold bangles weigh down the fabric. Maybe my lipstick is too dark, or maybe we’re just too mismatched for anyone to ignore us.

Today has been good besides that. She buys me the jeans with ragged, acid-cut lines across the thighs. I love the slight parting of the fabric, the revelation of just enough skin for me to feel bold. The earrings she argues with me over — they’re so small, she says, who will see them? What’s the point?

The way she asks means that she already suspects the answer: because other girls at school wear earrings like these. Except they don’t, not really: what I like is how insubstantial they are, copper hearts hammered thin enough that they feel invisible on my palm. I want to be an impression, a suggestion of myself; the kind of girl who wears a gray shirt that slinks down the arm to expose the black line of a bra strap, and the pale ball of my shoulder.

They’re pretty, I say instead.

She shakes her head, offers me her vanilla latte again because I ordered iced coffee that tastes like watery bitterness even with so much milk it went grainy and pale. She’s in the mood to surrender, and I’m ready to laugh or steal her latte altogether, or try again to be like the other girls in line with their mothers, when she turns and points out a child clutching a woman’s hand.

“She looks just like you,” she says. “Do you remember that age?”

Of course I do. It’s in my memory like a tattoo, every detail etched into my neurons. A surgeon might split open my skull, drill inside with a long plastic tube, and this story would fall out. Out would come the red gingham bathing suit, the ones with bows at the hips and shoulders, too ugly to put on a kid today. The height of the sand dunes, taller than I thought I would ever be. The blue ATVs whirling dust, the sizzle of asphalt on my bare feet.

I could say it right now. I was only four. I didn’t know any better. But somehow it hovers in my throat like a membrane, refusing to do anything but somersault back down to my stomach. I pick up an earring instead and hold it to my eye, moving it backwards until it swallows the fluorescent light overhead and there’s nothing but a blazing metal heart before me.

+

It was supposed to be a good day: the dunes, the bathing suit. She carried me on her hip to the top of the tallest dune. The ATVs made pretty ripples on the ground behind them, like ruffles on a wedding cake. She set me down, held my hands, and I could swear even then our hands would give us away even if they couldn’t see the rest of us. I had skinny long fingers even as a kid — witch hands, Tony Ramos had cackled at me when we were both in kindergarten. Her hands have always been square and solid. Farmer’s hands.

I remember sliding. The sand was soft enough that it didn’t burn my thighs, and when I reached the bottom of the dune she clapped and clapped.

I tumbled, better than in gymnastics class where I was too shy to get up on the balance beam. I tucked myself up like a pillbug, knees and thighs flush to my stomach. Somersault — watch me! — a half-cartwheel, clumsy legs in the air. My arms and legs coated in sand dust so that for the first time our skin was the same color. I put my wrist up to hers. Usually I was the color of an apple’s inside, or else I burned, peeling to an angry, swollen red.

I knew even then that I’d never look anything like my mother. I remember men whistling at her, ladies in the grocery store asking her: Japanese? Chinese? Korean? Where you from, anyway? No one ever said Taiwanese. I liked knowing, as if she had told me like a secret. I used to play with her hair at night, holding it between my palms, twisting it into coils and half-finished braids. It was so smooth and flat, like someone had spun the soft blackness of sky into hair. Nothing like my hair, limp as straw, splitting at the ends.

I remember my sand-skin, and the sky over the dunes like a blue ribbon, the edges of it burned with light. I think I remember, anyway, or else that image has been spliced into my memories, a digital insertion. We ate ice piece by piece so we wouldn’t get a stomachache. Nibbled the edges of tuna fish sandwiches. She handed me a towel stiff from the cooler, and the frozen edge wilted on my arms. I think she said let’s get ice cream, or else I asked.

Ice cream meant Val’s, the silver and mint-green shop where the waitresses wore red-checkered dresses and white bobby socks. They would slip me orange and lemon candy sticks before bringing my milkshake. The drink came in two containers, one glass with a striped straw, the other a stainless steel container taller than I could believe. I remember Hershey’s syrup streaking the sides of the glass, and plucking the shiny red-heart cherry off the top because I hated the squeak it made between my teeth. I offered them to her because she loved them, and I knew that any small sacrifice I made would be amplified for her.

Ice cream!

She helped me put on my jelly sandals and counted my toes, ten pink ones like the pigs. Offered to carry me, but I was getting too big, it was the last time, or one of the last that she said she could. I said no. I wanted to dance. The sand flew as I pirouetted. Grand jetés, then chain-linked turns, spinning around the parking lot. Three times towards her, then away, then back again, on until my body felt like it did off the whirligig, loosened and confused.

The man who stopped us was tall, and in my memory he stretches like taffy on the machine that pulls it. He made shadows the shape of a cartoon cactus, two hands gesturing to me. He was white, of course: reddish hair, his gums peeling back from his teeth. I wonder how she pictures him, or if she even does.

Where are you taking that little girl?

Sometimes I think he must have asked that quietly, like a gunman in a Western. Sometimes he shouts it or scratches at the back of his neck: Where are you taking her, huh?

She didn’t answer him. That’s the thing I can’t make sense of. She gripped my hand so tightly that my fingers flushed at the tips. Scarlet at the knuckles, purple in the palm. Maybe she didn’t think he’d buy her explanation: Adopted, but she’s mine. There was no way he’d believe that she’d been married to a man whose hair had been the same color as mine, and that they’d been gifted a white child on the assumption that he wouldn’t die.

I don’t remember him, my father. If that’s the word for him. I remember the day we found out. I sat on the floor by her bare feet. My hands were on the dryer to warm them — Not too long, you’ll burn them. The sound of the wind chimes muffled by the snow, the shadows of the laundry basket slatted on the floor. I remember the way she took my hand and put it over her wet face.

I could have told the man who asked, even at the age of four: This is my mother. I knew she was. I could have been better than the girls she knew in high school, in junior high, in elementary. The white girls who placed their fingers on their temples and stretched the skin taut, called out Hong Kong! Chop Suey! These days she tells me she knows how bad high school can get, but I just walk invisibly between history class with my friend Alex, who is gay but is careful not to let people know. Most people think he’s my boyfriend. Nobody calls out to me or tries to make their staring China doll eyes anything like my own. You a geisha? You gonna be a geisha?

I was just as bad, in my own way. I can hear how I spoke my next words, plaintive and high-pitched, because it’s not so different than how I might say it now.

You’re hurting me. You’re hurting me, let me go.

I could have said, Mama, you’re hurting me.

Could have said, Mama, let’s go.

I remember the man pointing to the shack by the beach. I didn’t want those off-brand popsicles that tasted like sugar and nothing else, the kind that left my lips ringed with blue. I shook my head.

I’m calling the police, he said. Where you get that little girl? Where’s your mommy, honey?

Mama, not mommy, she hated the word mommy and told me so. My fists curled and uncurled as I tried to point back to her. The scratch of sand, the wet spots where the ice had melted, the tuna fish taste in my mouth. I wanted to tell him, I really did, swear to God, but my neck burned in spite of all the white cream she rubbed onto my white skin and it was starting to hurt. I wanted a milkshake, I wanted Val’s. I wanted to be in the car. I wanted to hear her singing like she did sometimes, songs I didn’t recognize then but might have been Joni Mitchell. She told me once she used to sing Joni’s songs at karaoke.

I could have laughed at the man, could have cried in front of him. Could have even stamped his foot with my own. I didn’t. I ran toward the car and burned my fingers on the metal door handle. I don’t remember if the man followed, or what she said to get out of it. I remember her shoving the seatbelt over my lap. How fast the car went, how the sand dunes melted into fields of black rock and we couldn’t see the ocean, not for miles. Dinner was McDonald’s in the car on the way home, licking the salt off fries and biting into the thick vanilla ice cream. She put on her sunglasses so that I couldn’t see her eyes, only mirrored pools, and she said nothing, and neither did I.

Maybe, if she remembers, she doesn’t blame me. Maybe she’d only sneered at the man, or rolled her eyes at the idiot, or else, the racist asshole. We could have laughed together at him.

+

I pick up another pair of earrings. These ones are rocks that look like they were plucked off the moon’s cratered surface, edges gilded with silver.

I want to ask her. But I don’t know how much more she can forgive, how much grace she has left; she caught me smoking two months ago and just laughed, said, You were raised better than that. But sometimes she sits waiting for me, her body coiled in the rocking chair, and when I come in she snaps, You could have called. Sometimes we scream at each other in the car, fights that last as long as it takes to get to school or the grocery store, and I stare out the window. If only I had the guts I’d open the door, unclick the seat belt, see if she could catch me first, imagining the ruin that the fall might make, like rug burns but worse, maybe blood and bones exposed, and Jesus, what is wrong with me?

There’s no blood between us, not even a similarity we can fake, not even in the shape of our bodies. Sometimes the grocery clerks put a divider down between our purchases, or the servers ask if we’ll have two checks or one, and they look surprised when we say that we’re together.

Yeah, do you remember the time? At the sand dunes? With the guy? That was fucked up.

I don’t speak. I unfold my fingers to reveal the moon earrings. I think she’ll like these better than the hearts. She loves things that are strange and substantial, like the beetle wing earrings she wears.

“What about these?” I say. “Instead of the hearts?”

She smiles at me, and reaches out a finger, runs it down my nose in the old way. That’s how you soothe bunnies to sleep, she used to tell me. Today is a day that she forgives me for the jeans and the whining, the smoking, the time I slammed the car door so hard that the crack in the rearview mirror widened, and the glass split, seven years of bad luck scattered all over the school parking lot. I take a breath and hold it like I’m trying to chase a high.

The mall swirls around us in tinny pop music and the smell of expensive candles, sandalwood and ocean salt. And all the mannequins are whiter than me, their breasts and shoulders sharp underneath the slack shroud of their dresses.

“We’ll get both pairs,” she says. “I like them too.” Another girl standing near us drags her gum into a trembling string. Her mother is asking about the store credit card, and if she can combine ten and twenty percent off. It’ll be a few minutes before we have to talk to the woman working at the register. I put my head on my mother’s shoulder and she lets me, or maybe she wants me to. We’re safe together, she and I, in this bright space where memory can no longer catch us.

+++

C.A. Schaefer holds a PhD from the University of Utah, where she was a managing editor of Quarterly West. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Phantom Drift, Passages North, So to Speak, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Salt Lake City.