We Began to Live by Jennifer Gravley

 ~ How You Came to Me

our mother told you it’d be a week, maybe two, while she recovered from the surgery she was pretending was successful. I drove down and picked you up. Your things rattled in the trunk because I didn’t ask you to pack a suitcase or an overnight bag or even a backpack. You just made two trips to the car, arms overflowing with loose pieces of notebook paper, clothes you’d just scooped from your floor, gaudy plastic bracelets.

You stayed in the bedroom because it was easier for me to move my underwear than to clean up the computer, the piles of notebooks and embarrassing receipts for unused fitness equipment that buried my office floor. I didn’t inflate the spare mattress. A sleeping bag on the floor felt like more than I deserved.

We called Irene when we got back. I called her, and when you took the phone into my room—your room—to talk to her, everything felt final in a way that was awful and premature.

 ~ How You Didn’t Come to Me

You didn’t come happily, of your own free will. You didn’t come in the mushy heart of summer, like I did to my aunt’s as a child, overjoyed to escape my sister and parents and to claim the entirety of an adult’s attention. You had no siblings, of course, and the entirety of your mother’s attention your entire life. 

I wanted to have you come stay with me for a week when you were five. Irene said you would be too scared. You still had nightmares and slept in her bed. When you were six, she said that you still had the occasional accident and had to wear specially sized thick training underpants at night. She kept your bed and her own covered with a layer of plastic under the sheet. When you were seven, she said you’d recently had a traumatic accidental-separation incident at the Olive Garden; when you were eight, she said she’d signed you up for swimming lessons with a friendly but unreliable instructor, which necessitated your constant summer availability. I didn’t know that you’d want to come if she asked. I didn’t blame her for keeping you.

 ~ When You Came

My neighbors had small dogs who hid behind large fences and growled at the leaves falling from the sky. The lawn was often soggy, and we tramped in more bits of worm than it is comfortable to admit. It was just after the turn-over season in rentals, and I had felt self-satisfied for signing the renewal lease early. A quality of light I wasn’t used to made me want to read cross-legged under the window. You were not impressed by the light and informed me that summer had potentially been only a reprieve in what was known as my SAD or seasonal affective disorder. You threatened funerals for worms and for dogs with voices inappropriate to their bodies. 

I tried to make all the phone calls when you couldn’t hear them. I wrote all the checks while you were in another room, sleeping or pretending to. I pressed my hands into my face as I lay awake in the dark. 

 ~ How We Began to Live Together

You’d gotten make-up assignments from your teachers, but it was only September, so you were done by 10 Monday morning. I wanted to go to the movies, but you were afraid you’d be mistaken for a truant. What could I say, that I’d tell them you were my niece and that you were staying here until my sister died so that you didn’t have to see it? I said we’d tell them you were a drop-out, and you wouldn’t admit that you liked the idea of being that kind of dangerous. We had a first lunch of popcorn and chocolate chips I’d dumped into my bag on the way out of the kitchen, and then we had a second lunch of mostly breadsticks and dessert pizza from a pizza buffet.

There were only so many things I remembered about just barely being a teenager, so I took you to the mall and watched you try on very small t-shirts and tried very hard not to confuse you with the Irene I remembered leaving behind. I told myself I would try very hard to figure out what made you you and would not hate you for the parts of you that were not her.

I modeled what I thought Irene would want you to remember—dragging you to the farmers’ market while the dew was still slickening the grass, showing you how to lick your finger and rub the thread back and forth before threading a needle, allowing soda at breakfast on Sundays because a little of anything never hurt anybody. But I knew you would remember days I couldn’t remember to be like her, too—pulling the rotting vegetables from the crisper, driving to the store to buy a new needle every time a button fell off, drinking soda for breakfast on a Monday because there wasn’t any cereal. 

            We wrapped plates in dishtowels and folded all her clothes before they disappeared into boxes I had bought new and not gotten at the grocery store. I borrowed a truck and drove my stuff to the bigger place while you were at school. Back and forth in the rain. Nothing I had before was worth that much.

 ~ When We Moved

When we moved around the apartment, we tripped over our own and each other’s feet. It turned out there was never enough light. I bought extra lamps and never lowered the blinds. Irene’s hospital room seemed smaller when we moved around in it, reaching for magazines or bottles of lotion or hands, so we sat still and bent our necks back to watch the television. We wore several of my sweaters each and never sweated. 

It rained the day we took Irene to the park. The box was the heaviest thing I’d ever carried in my hands. We moved over the wet grass, looking for footing. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to set down the weight. 

I was careful when we moved the things of Irene’s that you wanted or that I wanted for you, for when you would want them. We wrapped plates in dishtowels and folded all her clothes before they disappeared into boxes I had bought new and not gotten at the grocery store. I borrowed a truck and drove my stuff to the bigger place while you were at school. Back and forth in the rain. Nothing I had before was worth that much. When we moved around the bigger apartment, we left a little space between us for a while, and then we grew into it.

 ~ Who You Brought Home

One afternoon, months after, I could hear you as soon as I opened the door. Your voice was hurried and bright as moving water, so much like Irene’s I could feel it in my throat before I could recognize it in my head. You were telling our neighbor, the woman who we regularly saw taking all the unwanted junk mail from the entryway trashcan into her apartment, the story of the time you fell from the first branch of a very small tree and your mother carried you in her arms like an infant for hours until you forgot your pain and demanded to be let down. And she let you down. 

You brought home other strays, most of them girls older than you but not old enough to be your mother—true teenagers or young adults who still wanted to be teenagers. You brought home a dog we kept until he didn’t wake up and a cat even though you knew I didn’t like them. You brought home good grades and then bad ones and then better ones. You brought home healthy lunches untouched and other kids’ gnawed pencils and thick library books you hid at the bottom of your book bag. You brought everything you took with you—the empty covers of notebooks hanging from wire stuffed with shreds of paper you’d been made to part with, the frayed thread that lay loose on your sleeve, the small plastics of lip balm containers and shoestring ends—back from the world. You brought everything back to me.

 ~ How You Didn’t Leave

You didn’t leave after a week, your three changes of clothes worn through twice or washed only once. You didn’t leave in my car, back the way you came, your things rattling loose in the trunk or in plastic world-ending grocery-store bags that I collected under the sink. You didn’t leave. I had to get used to you looking at me to forget you were watching. I had to give up the fear that I’d miss something of Irene if I didn’t stop looking at you so I could see you as you kept living right beside me, breathing through the night every time, mutable and steadfast, a girl-woman who was always going to be wrought by the both of us.

After you were born, I fully realized jealousy. In you Irene had something I knew I would never have and probably wasn’t qualified for. Because I wasn’t your mother, I could admit it to myself—I was glad you were a girl and that you were so much like her. Greedy, I held you in my arms and walked the hall as if it were a boulevard.

Know this—that what we don’t know is a comfort. Walking with your head on my shoulder, walking us both away from Irene, I believed death black and unknowable and shapeless. We had then been so far spared the sting and scrape of the tedium of grief.

Jennifer Gravley makes her way in Columbia, Missouri. She is a research and instruction librarian. Her work has recently appeared in Sou’wester and The Fourth River, among others.

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