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Listen to your mother.

She of the red lipstick, the garish slash of mouth that looks like you finger-painted her to life when you were four and allowed make a mess. Her helmet of curls, tiny frozen tornadoes still inspire awe in the deepest well of your being even when you want to rip every last one from her scalp. String them around your fingers like trophies.

She will drag you from sleep on a Saturday. Black sky still pressed against the frost blanket crusted over the lawn. Get dressed, nothing fancy, she whispers. She has packed you a duffel of castoffs you thought she’d donated to the Grace Episcopal charity drive. Don’t fret. They still fit. The dungarees are faded. A rip nags at the collar of the shirt, but the battalion of tiny bluebirds printed across the chest keep watch, tiny pinprick eyes that didn’t dull in the wash. Don’t dawdle. Or she will remind you: You’re the one who made this mess.    

You are not allowed to eat or drink, but she forgets to tell you of these prohibitions. She will slap a glass of water from your hand in the dark kitchen. It shatters against the cupboard onto the lime green Formica. Her eyes dart to the doorway. You hold your breath. Did they hear? Your mess has expanded, a tent billowing wide enough for her to creep inside. Down the hall, the distant honk of your father’s snore, floorboards silent outside your brother’s room. Your mother exhales. The only smile you will see that day crawls across her lips, Those two could sleep through World War Three.  Her voice is louder than seems right in this whisper world that holds you both in its palm. You stand still, watch the door as she gathers the shards in her hand, wipes a moist towel over the floor to get the pieces you cannot see. You tiptoe out the front door, still thirsty.

Before you get in the car, inhale deeply. Crisp, mountain air. Smoke and pine. The cold numbs your nasal passages, pricks your lungs. The last breath of clean air you will have for the next three hours because your mother lights cigarettes from the tips of other cigarettes and doesn’t believe in rolling down a window. The wind would muss her hair, uncoil her silvering curls, and she doesn’t sleep in rollers every night for there to be a mess.

Feel relief when the car radio fades to static. You don’t know why she listens to this junk. She despises church, leaves Grace Episcopal every Sunday angrier than when she arrived, but maybe she finds her grace in the southern sermons spewing in her car. Or maybe she is punishing you. For letting Jimmy’s hip dig into your stomach like a fist. For his mouth sparking something inside of you to life. A blade that cut its way out of you, that opened you for the rest of him to enter. Don’t linger on that night. Don’t remember how the sunbaked planks of the dock left your thighs mined with splinters. How the groans in your throat sounded like pigs when they snuffle at the trough. His breath skunky, his mouth everywhere. You let your hunger get the best of you. 

When you reach the edge of the gravel driveway off a dead-end road, don’t give in to panic. Dig your fingernails into the pads of your hand. Watch white moon slivers appear and disappear. Hold your breath. It will be over soon. The morning will be a blur of pills, a kitchen table draped in a graying sheet, cold stabs in the same places that Jimmy made warm, deeper places, blood, silent tears slipping down your cheek, blood on metal, blood on the sheet, blood in the gauze the man will pack inside of you. When you emerge from the basement, still foggy, you will think that blood is smeared across your mother’s mouth. You try to call out to her, but the words lodge in your throat. She will drape you onto her shoulder, pack you into the backseat of the car. There. See? It’s like it never happened. She will drive, smoke, let you disappear into the static.

You will survive. You will not be one of the ones who bleeds to death, but when you see the pictures of other women’s carnage in your roommate’s book, you will run to the dormitory bathroom and throw up your breakfast. You will not be damaged. You will have a baby, just not this baby.

Go to college. Ignore the shaggy-haired free lovers who hand you daisies picked from the quad. The boys who glow with the fervor of their liberation. Meet a man. A safe man. Marry him. Let your father walk you down the aisle of Grace Episcopal, chest puffed in a gray tuxedo. Let your mother kiss your cheek then wipe away the mark. Let Jimmy pull you in for a hug in the receiving line. His parents are friends of your parents and you knew he would be here but the shock of his body almost crumples your knees. Smile until your teeth are so dry that your lips get stuck.

In the next room your baby sleeps. She has a way of looking at you that makes you think she already knows something, knows you. She has the mouth of your now-dead mother, not yet stained by crimson. Nestle into the crook of your husband’s shoulder, part your lips. Feel the story of the first one crowd your chest, expand in your mouth like a wad of chewing gum. Swallow. Feel it disperse into your blood, pump through you with each pulse of your heart. Breathe. Stuff it back down to where it has lived all these years. A dark nook, a basement floor. Your body is a conch shell, an echo chamber. The story resonates within your deepest cavities and sounds like the ocean. Press your head against the bulb of your husband’s shoulder. Close your eyes. Listen to the swish of blood, the dull shadow of your heartbeat in your own ear.    

image: Tara Wray