Box of Crayons

Every morning your little brother, after slapping down the velcro on his sneakers and pulling on his backpack, grabs his box of crayons and runs to the bus stop. He never waits for you, so as soon as you see those crayons slide off the table and that little hoarse voice calling, “Bye mom!” you have to drop everything and run so he won’t run into the street.

On the bus he shoots straight for the window seat – fourth row, on the right. After he hops up and scoots in, his backpack scraping the dirty green seat backs, you slide in next to him. With a squeak the bus door slams shut. Then, with a puff of air the buss starts to roll forward and you’re off. Your brother’s little fingers cling to the edge of the window as he watches the world go by, mouth hanging slightly open, eyes wide. You watch him watch the houses and sidewalks and trees and occasional dos and you wonder if he’s seeing houses and trees or just blurs of color. Half way to school, though, his fingers start twitching for his crayons. You put a hand on his head. When he looks up at you with curious, innocent eyes you mess his hair and grin. Don’t fall out you tell him. He frowns and whines your name because he’s more careful than that and besides that’s impossible because the window’s closed. You laugh and give him a pat. Then he goes back to gaping out the window and you watch over him until the school bus pulls to the right into the school drop off circle.

*

When the bus pulls up to your stop you brother climbs over you in a rush to get out. Hurrying behind him on the steps out you yell at him not to do things like that. They hurt. Once you’ve reached the safety of your driveway you stop to pull your pants back straight. While you’re at it you readjust your backpack and unbunch the back of your shirt, then slowly make your way down the driveway, back to your house. Half way down, though, you see your brother. Your stomach drops. In his left hand is his box of crayons, open. His arm hangs limp and the crayons are starting to slide out. In the other hand is his dark blue crayon, his favorite. He holds it up towards the sky, moving it around in lazy circles. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

You bite your lip. You rush towards him and grab his shoulder, spinning him around to face you. His arm falls and he drops the crayons, the box. The crayons bounce across the asphalt and skitter down the driveway, chips breaking off, the points dulling down to rounded stubs. Your brother’s head tilts to the side when he looks up at you. His eyes are big, wide, glazed over. And even though he’s looking at you he’s not really looking at you. He’s not even looking past you. You don’t know what he sees and you’re not sure you ever want to know, but if you don’t understand then how will you know what to do, what to say? How do you fix moments like these?

The taste of blood fills your mouth. Deep breath. Two. Three. One more. You let your hand slide off his shoulder. You pick up the crayons. Your carefully fold over the tabs and close the box, because he’s always been picky about things like these. You take one more deep breath. Then you take his hand. Come on, you say. Come on. Let’s go home.

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Long Plaid Coat – Part 1

Imagine you’re five years old. You live in Gladwyne Pennsylvania. You go to Gladwyne Montessori School for kindergarten where you’re in Mrs. Golden’s class with five other kindergarteners and a crowd of preschool kids. At home you munch on pretzels and play doctor and your mom puts your hair in pigtails.

You have an older brother in third grade. He goes to Gladwyne Montessori, too, but his school isn’t the same one as yours because it’s across the road on the other side of the playground. You still walk to school together, though. You chase your brother while your dad chases you and you run behind someone’s house through the wood to get there faster. Once you get to school you hop up the steps of the big brick building and wave them goodbye. Then you grip the straps of you butterfly backpack and go inside. Your cubby is the second one on the right. It has your name and a picture of you on halloween last year when you dressed up as Mulan with a pink and purple helmet and scowled at the camera. At your cubby you shrug off your jacket and backpack all at once and stuff them in. Off goes the jacket. Into the cubby. Out comes the folder. And inside that folder are important papers that your mommy signed.

Your best friend Zach is one of the five. When you go into the classroom he’s already there sitting at the round table next to the sink. Today your teacher is out sick so the assistant teacher is in charge. You don’t remember her name. But that’s okay. The whole school day you sit across from Zach drawing on printer paper with precise squiggly black borders. You draw lines and fighters so that it looks like the video game your brother likes to play and narrate as you go. Your voices are high pitched and loud, but to your five year old self it’s like they’re weaving epics and shakespearian soliloquies. Zach draws a fire mage who helps the little swordsman with a flat head. You draw Midna with long black hair, so long it goes off the page. When the assistant teacher comes around with her white binder and asks what you’re doing today Zach looks up innocently and replies, “We’re drawing. Obviously.” And inside you laugh and outside you smile. End everything is good.

And if you have a crush on Zach, well that nobody else’s business.

After you go home your babysitter stuffs you with snacks and teaches you how to mold clay. She creates fairy worlds and you make a blobby red being and when they come out of the oven hard you decide to keep them forever. When your parent get home the lights come on and your brother appears for dinner. You pray for tater tots. If you’re lucky she’ll make you cookies. And then, since it’s a Friday, you get to watch a movie.

When you’re five years old you watch movies, see characters, and decide to be just them. First Nausicaa, then Mulan, then Maria from The Sound of Music. Late you’ll move on to Kim Possible and Amy Pond and River Song. You’ll even spend a time with Kenma, Akame, and Sherlock Holmes. But that’s later. At five you’re young and can be anything you want and right now you want Mulan and Nausicaa and Maria. The characters you choose teach you to be kind and confident and free. They teach you to care for the ones you love and protect them as well and that selflessness is always best. But it goes farther than that, because they didn’t teach you that instead of being bad you should be good. At five bad isn’t even something you know. You’ve seen your share of villains. Sitting in the dark it’s impossible to forget the dark cars and raging fires, but somehow for you “bad” doesn’t even exist. So really, you’re not being kind. You’re being natural, normal, real.

You also watch your share of Disney movies. You read more than your share of books. Sitting on the floor with your paper and crayons you draw your brother’s video games and fire mages and Midna. Then, on another paper you draw a boy and girl in love. These Disney movies and children’s books that you’ve read never made you feel the need to be beautiful. They never made you feel the need to be delicate or feminine. They only made you want to love. So you hum to yourself and draw. You draw the allure and fantasy of the freedom fighters your brother likes to control. You draw scenes with long arcs of grass and wide expanses of white sky and yellow corner suns. You draw two tall figures with skin colored octopus arms to fall in love.

After your mom waves you off to bed you call to be tucked in. Your hair is wet and just goes past your shoulders. Your pajamas are hot pink; the pants have stripes. Leaning over you, your daddy tells you stories about a milk princess who, armed with her bottle of milk because milk was her favorite, went out into the world to learn. Then, after ten minutes of story, he pulls you blanket up to your chin, says goodnight, and turns off the lights.

At five years old, these are the stories you grow up with.

Snow

You have short black hair, a little messy some days, but you always carry a comb. You like touches and hugs. You give ramen to strangers. You’re always honest about your ignorance and despite being a lil’ awkward and talking strange you are beautiful.

These are the things the girl with long black hair knows about you. She introduced herself at Catherine, but call me Cat, with a mouthful of pumpkin cheesecake. She was bundled up in a navy blue coat with big gold buttons and stood with her shoulders hunched guiltily over her pile of cheesecake bars. You had waved and said you were Chris. Sophomore. Then you stuck your hands into the pockets of your black wool coat and she didn’t speak to you again. You wondered why.

Now when she runs up and hugs you from behind you’re something like friends. Whether in the clamor of dhall or the quiet of the library you always awkwardly grip her arms and rock from side to side. Then you twist around and ask what are you supposed to do? And she always laughs. And she never stops hugging you.

She also likes touching and hugging. She watches anime until 3am and reads too much. She wants to make movies and dye her hair and used to play piano like you do now. She’s quiet. Likes watching chess. And likes to lean into your side and play with your fingers, even if you’re sick.

These are the things you know about Cat. And afterwards, she got sick too.

In the winter you get a girlfriend. You’ve liked her for a while now, finally asked her out a week before Lunar New Year. Her name is Amy and Cat never told you but she could always see you making heart eyes at her. While you’re dating she starts a club and you help her hang up posters. They says ‘Psychology Club’ in big gray letters on a white background with little black text underneath. In the Student Center you run into Cat. She’s sitting at one of the chess tables with her math homework spread wildly. As you pass she lazily reaches out and arm and whispers a tiny Chriiiis. You swerve to the side and take her hands and ask her what’s up. Somehow you’re ended up moving your hands in tiny circles. She mumbles something. You pull your hands away and ask, “What?” She shakes her head never mind and goes back to math. So you jog over to where Amy has gone to hang up poster in PO and hug her from behind.

Turns out she said happy birthday. But you never found that out.

Later in the season you start to walk Amy back to her dorm at night. You stand just to the left of the door talking in hushed voices. You play with her fingers and you smile. You gently place her lanyard around her neck. It’s a bit of a joke. Only freshmen wear their student IDs around their neck. Then you kiss. Just a peck.

When you finally let her go she’s shyly smiling and it looks like the sun. Cat sees her on the way up the stairs and thinks this must be what love is really like. In fact, she saw it when the two of you were outside and she passed quietly by. She just chose to look away. If she had told you that you probably would have blushed and freaked out.

The thing is, though, that relationships born at boarding school fall apart over the summer and by the time the first class starts the next year you’ve broken up. She met you in the library to tell you and you walk out and into dhall together in silence. On the way out you see Cat curled up on a bench with a book in her hands. After dropping Amy off with some friends you go back out and stop in front of her. She makes a little peace sign and quietly says hey. She has a flat little smile with her top lip sticking out that makes it look like something funny has just happened, but also someone has just died. And when you sit down next to her and ask her what she’s reading you can see the worry making her eyes take on the qualities of water. She asks you what’s wrong and you promise to tell her later. Then the two of you get up and just walk. It’s sunny. The air has yet to turn crisp and it’s completely silent. Her hair is still black. And it’s nice like that.

As the year goes on you start to see her less and less. Sometimes you see each other across dhall and wave. She always makes a peace sign. Other times you’ll pass each other on the path. If she has the time she’ll spin around and you’ll walk side by side and talk until you reach your destination. Most of the time, though, you’ll be sitting eating dinner and feel someone staring inquisitively at the back of you head and you know it’s her. It’s always her.

Black Earbuds, Nose in a Book

You’ve always wanted to try robbing a bank. Or a museum. This is when you know you read too many heist books and watched too many heist movies. Head leaning on Alex’s shoulder on the floor of Taylor’s dorm room you ramble about this. “It’s not like I’m actually gonna do it because there’s, like, negative consequences,” you drawl, eyelids drooping. You’ve got flecks of dirt stuck to the bottom of your feet and the sides of your legs and possibly your shorts from the floor. Alex’s long hair tickles your eye, so you shift so your face is burrowed in their shoulder. Taylor is just a huge blond blur in the corner of your eye. You wait. No one says anything.

You’ve always wanted to try assassinating someone. Just to see. This is when you know you’ve watched too much anime, read too much manga. Pencil in hand and homework on lap on the floor of Alex’s dorm room you talk about this. The room smells like gingerbread. Alex just gives you a joking what. You lean back on your hands. The gray fuzz from the carpet has somehow made its way into your hair. “I mean, I wouldn’t,” you say quickly. “That would involve killing. Negative consequences.” You lift your books and papers off your lap and place them on the floor. Then you roll over and continue to work. Alex hums in response. Five minutes later the conversation is forgotten.

You’ve always wanted to know what it feels like to drown. This desire predates all your other strange wants in life. You’re not sure exactly where it came from, but once upon a time you heard drowning was peaceful. You know there’s no way that’s true. You also want to know what dying feels like. Everyone want to know what comes after death, but for you its the actual act that’s interesting. Curled into Alex’s side with your arm draped over their stomach, head on their chest, you tell them this. Alex gives your arm a squeeze. “Don’t do that,” they whispers. You shift closer. Just ten minutes earlier you were lightheartedly shrieking that that blanket has definitely not always been there. You’re just curious. That’s all. You say this. Negative consequences and all.

Gray Hair, Young Smile, Bag on Back of Chair

Imagine. You’re 23, your birthday is in two weeks, and you’ve decided that finally you’re going to ask about your mother. When your dad greets you at the platform he gives you a gentle hug and a tired smile. He drives you home and you sit in the back seat, fingering the strap of your bag. The car smells like old candy and wood stain. When your father doesn’t try to talk you know he’s been working late.

You watch as the vast landscape of skyscrapers and cherry trees turns into tidy gray buildings with tall concrete walls surrounding them. With a sharp intake of breath you realize that the cats you painted on the side of the elementary school are still there. Mr. Kibe still lives down the street. His wife still collects bottle caps. Keith still lives with his mother two houses down from his boyfriend and shouts, ‘I love you’ every morning when he fetches the paper. It’s still cold and humid in July and the stray cats have yet to disappear. Nothing changes in Miyagi.

Even your room is exactly how you left it when you left for university. The bed is still neatly made with a sentimental bear keeping watch in the corner. The walls are still glaringly blank and the pile of clothes still sits by the cluttered bookshelf, the same way it had for the bast six years. You drop you bag at the base of you bed and promise yourself to unpack later; you’re going to be here all week. It never happens.

Later you help you dad make dinner. You have to send him away the moment you step in the kitchen because he still has wood stain on his hands. When he finally returns it’s as if the entire refrigerator has been unpacked and the room smells of onions. Soon the smell becomes sweeter, then turns to that of meat, then baking fruit. You can’t remember the last time you had time to cook. Your dad chuckles as you whirl around the place mumbling about lost forks and why the fuck is there no cheese in this house. Eventually he lowers himself into a chair and start to talk. He asks you about classes and your eating habits and your suspiciously good looking roommate. And he talks about his work. And you remember how you used to sit on the stairs watching him paint in silence for weeks after your mother left.

Eating is quiet. It’s a warm, pleasant quiet that you’ve always associated with home. The large table is still here, though, still too large for just two. You’re fingers still tingle from when the love of your life handed you your bag on the train platform before shyly waving you goodbye. The feeling gives you strength, so much strength, but not enough. Because avoiding the topic of your mother has become something like a bad habit and the bad ones are always the hardest to break.

A few days later you trip over a cat. It’s fat and orange with streaks of brown. You kneel down to rub its head. Somehow you end up sitting in the street while the cat circles around you, rubbing against you leg like it’s a tree. You quietly ramble about how happy the two of you must be, but how manny issues the two of you must have. Eventually that nagging voice telling you you have places to be drag you up. The cat immediately scampers away. You brush the fur off your pants and swear under you breath. You’re starting to break out in hives.

When the time comes for you to leave you’re father drives you back to the train station. Unlike when you arrived it’s almost empty. He gives you a gentle hug and tells you to come back and visit soon. He says that someday you should actually come on your birthday. You laugh and agree, then head off to your train. After a few steps you start fingering the strap of your bag. And you call back that you promise to visit soon. And you promise to yourself that then, finally, you’ll ask about your mom.

Imagine.