I had been running away from my entire life, and Olympia was supposed to be just another temporary stop. Your mama was ten minutes late. I was twenty minutes early. It’s only coffee, I thought. I’ll meet her for coffee and leave. At the time, I was pretending to find a place to live, a place to stay in case I wanted to stick around. I had no idea this was such a critical moment in my time stream. I didn’t know you were the beginning of, well, everything.
You gave me this glance, peering from behind a beloved oversized purple rain jacket that faithfully served as your shield. Those big blue eyes looking up at me, curiously outlining the awkward shape of my body behind an orange gingham dress. There was a bit of a hesitation… for both of us. I was your first giant. You were my first kiddo. Neither of us quite knew what to do with each other.
That’s when I started bouncing. I hopped up and down and up and down, until my everything hurt. It was worth it. You laughed and joined in on the adventure. Soon we hobbled our way into the grocery store, laughing and smiling and being.
We had an understanding, you and I. Almost like we always had an understanding, before either of us even existed.
* * *
“Alex, she’s calling for you.”
This became our unexpected routine in the months after moving in. I would be downstairs hiding in my room, sometimes studying, sometimes netflixing Next Generation for the one-hundredth time. There would be a knock on my door. I always opened it. Bedtime had arrived. My family likened it to a kiddo nightcap: one last ounce of connection before drifting off to dreamland. Your mama, on the other hand, simply believed you loved me so much there was no way to properly sleep without saying goodnight first.
“You know the rules, Kiddo. Legs under the covers. Head on the pillow. It’s time to rest your mind and your heart.”
I gently pulled the blankets around you, knowing you would feverishly toss them away in your slumber. But that didn’t matter. You needed your fortress of solitude, built by our hands together, to make it through the evening.
When you first got home that day, I asked what your favorite memory was from school. You couldn’t stop talking about volcanos. I didn’t know geology was a thing they taught in grade school, but I also didn’t remember much of my childhood at all.
I turned off the overhead light in your room, leaving an amber star lamp as the only light source. Afterwards, I picked up your favorite book and started to read the first page.
“Once upon a time…”
“Alex?” you asked.
“Yes, love,” I said.
“Sometimes I wish I could fall into lava.”
Breathe, I thought. Just breathe.
“Has the bullying in the bathrooms gotten bad again?” I asked.
“I just want to melt away from this world,” you replied.
A sudden, sharp pain ripped across my chest. It was almost as if every tectonic plate in my body had subducted and crumbled away. An eruption of tears was the only thing left behind.
“I love you, sweet girl, with my whole heart.”
I gently swept away your bangs and kissed you on the forehead. I could feel something lifting. Maybe you were transferring the weight to me: the weight of being a girl in this world, a girl like us.
Stepping away from your bed, I re-opened that beloved story. We were going to read it again, right then and there, and for years to come until you finally grew out of it.
“Once upon a time…”
With those four little words, you fell asleep.
* * *
Two years passed. We were visiting my family, merely ten blocks away from home. They were my sanctuary, the place I would go to feel held when nobody else could. You were in my care that day, so I decided to take you along for the ride.
The four of us — my cousin Sophie, her boy Finn, you and I — were all sitting together in the living room. It was too damn hot to do anything. You were in the corner, happily admiring my extra-long, rosy-pink flip flops which seemingly by accident matched yours. The shoes dripped off your still tiny feet, but they were mine and you were you, and the opportunity to wear my sandals was almost better than opening presents on Christmas Day.
“I remember when I used to wear my mom’s shoes.” I smiled, then sighed. “They were always too big.”
“And uncomfortable probably,” piped in Sophie. “She seemed like maybe the kind of person to wear uncomfortable shoes.”
“Always uncomfortable,” I replied. “Always.”
Finn stirred for a moment. I couldn’t see his eyes — his back being against mine — but I knew the stillness of a nine-year-old boy in that kind of silence was anything but restful. Suddenly, with such tenderness, and lovingness, and sadness, he poured it out. All of it.
“Alex, did your mom tell you not to talk about being a girl?”
I swallowed my breath ever so slightly. Okay, this is big, I thought.
“She told me a lot of things that were not okay, and that was one of them.”
The sandal on your left foot dropped in mid-air, leaving it frozen and bare. Your whole being remained still for a moment, stiff and unable to move, as if all the oxygen in the room had somehow disappeared. But cautiously, life came back. You carefully stumbled across the room, constantly tripping against my oversized shoe on your right foot, until you reached the couch Finn and I were resting against. You were listening but saying nothing. You kept twiddling your thumbs, half smiling and maybe half crying.
I looked into your tender blue eyes. There was an ocean living inside them.
“So Kiddo, what Finn is referring to is, when I was a little girl, my mom thought I was a little boy. All she could see was how I looked on the outside. She told me not to talk about it — who I really was — to anyone. So I didn’t until I could get away, until I could figure it out for myself.”
You climbed into my lap and rested your whole body on my chest, almost like it was made just for you in that moment. My belly slowly rose up and down, up and down. You kept getting heavier with each passing second, each passing breath; your arms holding on like your life depended on it. We both closed our eyes. I thought at the time that I was carrying the weight for the two of us, like a good parent always tries, but I now know you were holding most of mine. My heart had cracked wide open, once imprisoned by overwhelming fear and hopelessness. Somehow you managed to unlock it, the impossible door with the key that was impossibly you: love.
I never cried like I did on that couch. Not before then, and never after.
* * *
“Are you fucking kidding me? You can’t make me go back. Nobody can ever make me enter that house again.”
“Kiddo, listen, it would only be for one — ”
“NO. I WOULD RATHER DIE THAN LIVE WITH HIM AGAIN.”
“Okay.” I shuddered, briefly. Sucking in a deep breath, I paused and then sighed. “Okay love, I hear you.”
“Please don’t call me ‘love.’”
You were fourteen-years-old. Long gone was the jacket shield of your youth and the blonde locks you once called home. Instead, your hair was now pitch black, though sometimes I could see the light roots peeking out ever so slightly. Your bright blue eyes had changed over the years. They now felt very brown, dark, and full of profound sadness. A heavy plate of armor always seemed to sit across your chest.
“I promise to protect you for as long as I can,” I said.
And so I did, or at least a part of me would die trying.
Things were different in those days. I went from being an auntie to being your parent… kinda. I was part of a tribe that had all the responsibility of you for thirty days. Thirty days, I kept telling myself. I just need you to survive school for thirty days. Thirty days until winter break, and this would all be over.
“I don’t want to go to bed yet.”
You curled into your favorite red velvet blanket and sunk into the couch, falling deep into its broken frame. Funny now, thinking about that couch. . . it was broken long before you ever slept there, but it seemed apropos given the circumstances.
I switched off the light, just like I had every night that past week. At least we still had that, I thought. At least we had something familiar among the chaos.
“Good night, Kiddo.” I love you.
Later, my phone buzzed. It had become my heart’s bat-signal that month, preparing me for battle at any given moment — which, honestly, felt like every moment. I hated it. Well, not the bat signal. That phone. But it kept us connected, you and I. There was a message from you, which was hilarious given you were no more than ten feet away in the other room.
“Please watch Outlaw Star with me?”
Apparently, the nightmares had won again.
Soon we both sat on that couch together, staring at a tiny laptop screen, devouring an entire carton of not-so-gluten-free cookies. I should have known better, to be up past midnight, consuming enormous amounts of wheat and sugar with you. My adulting brain knew better, but my instinct kept defying logic.
That was half of parenting, I discovered. Follow your North Star, no matter how crazy, and straight on until morning.
“Today, I made sure everybody would call you Emma from now on. I know that’s been on your mind a lot. Your name.”
“Thank you, Kiddo,” I replied.
“I’m trying,” you said.
A long silence entered the room. Suddenly, it felt like a gigantic chasm had somehow formed in the quiet pause, and that it would stay forever between us on that broken, shitty couch.
“It’s just — ” you spoke, pausing with hesitation. “I mean, I’ve been really selfish lately. So I think, I mean, I think I need to try to stop asking.”
“Well, you give so much to me. It’s been all about me. It’s always about me. That’s selfish, isn’t it? Doesn’t that make me — ”
“Honey, I’m making a choice. I’m choosing to do this. So, no, you are not selfish.”
I can still see your eyes welling up. Your cheeks began to uncontrollably quiver in this way that felt very distinctly you. At the time, in that second, there was an earthquake waiting to happen.
“I promise, Kiddo. You’re worth it.”
* * *
We were at my favorite airport, the airport that always smelled and felt like freedom. I loved being there in that space, whether I was arriving in Washington or leaving it. But this time, I wasn’t the passenger. You had a one-way ticket to another life in California. You couldn’t stay with me, but you wouldn’t go with him. Something had to give. This was the best compromise we could find together.
I stayed until your plane disappeared over the winter horizon. That was the last time I saw you, until seven years later.
Another kiddo had come into my life by then. This time, it seemed pretty permanent. At least, that’s what I told myself. This kiddo, my kiddo, she had sparkling red hair and bold hazelnut eyes that were always carefully tracing the lines of everybody and everything she met. She was obsessed with trains, swords, dragons and faeries. She reminded me of you a lot. She reminded me of me, too.
“Kiddo, let’s hold hands while we cross the parking lot.”
Without even blinking, she put her palm in mine and squeezed it. My flat, raggedy, barely-brown bear clung to her other arm. There was a cool, drizzly mist rolling through the air, but not solid enough for an umbrella. Both of us had on matching pink winter coats, protecting us from the endless wet and maybe even from the dry.
She was so easy, my sweet girl.
We were waiting in line for the register. It was one of those days when everybody needed to shop exactly at the same time. This made the lines so long that you thought you were never going to escape.
Fucking Safeway, I thought.
That’s when I saw you.
You must have been about twenty-one, but you still looked like the little girl I had fallen in love with so many years ago. You were the cashier, a little taller than the last time I had seen you and slightly more round. It was a good kind of round, though.
“Oh my god. Emma. Is that really you?”
We stared at each other for at least thirty seconds. Neither of us quite knew what to say each other.
“Kiddo,” I said, “It is so good to see you. How is your heart?”
“I moved back a few months ago to try to figure it out,” you replied, “You know, with him. I had to give him one more chance. It felt like the right thing to do.”
The giant bun on your head was a disheveled mess, but I loved the disaster. It was pretty amazing, with pink and purple streaks flying in every direction. Your hair suited you perfectly — where you were, where you were going, who you were to become.
“Living together?” I asked.
“Never again,” you replied.
You packed up the rest of my groceries. I watched as you gently moved each piece, like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, into an order that made so much sense. You were still an expert about me, it seemed.
I grabbed the bag of stuff and took my little kiddo’s hand. She was still holding the bear. You were watching us. She was watching you. There was a smile in your eyes that I hadn’t seen in forever. I turned to face you, for what may have been our final moment.
“Be good to your heart, yeah?” I asked.
“I will, Emma. I promise.”
Good night, Kiddo, I thought. Good night.
originally published in the Percival Review in Olympia, Washington