Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Pepilla the Gypsy and Her Daughter, (1910), detail. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Small children, small problems, my mother likes to tell me. Now I also understand: small children, small lies. My 6-year-old lies about the bathroom, whether or not she has to go. I don’t, she’ll promise, dancing back and forth and grabbing at the back of her dress. Or: I tried. She’s young, so I still know herI know she hasn’t, and I know she does. And here we are, two soft bodies made of matching cells, touching skin, as our minds become repelling magnetsthe more I push, the further she goes. I know you are lying, I tell her, but I’m grasping at what isn’t mine, and she keeps falling backwards into herself, to that place where I can barely see her at all.

*

“Darren is mad sexy,” Diandra tells me, all 16 years of her leaned up against the window of my English classroom after school, thumb swiping along the screen of her phone.

“I’ve been seeing him wait for you outside of class,” I reply, folding my laptop and putting it in my bag. “What’s up with you two?”

“Miss. Honestly, I don’t even know,” she says, running a pink comb through the part of her bobbed hair. “But it’s about to be something.”

I like him for you,” I tell her, thinking of the way his eyes watch for her, his mouth always curved into a sweet smile.

“I like him for me too,” she says, then licks her lips and looks to the side.

“Stop that now!” I say. We both laugh.

“Okay, okay.” She takes a piece of my gum, unwraps the white paper. “Let me stop.” I sling my bag around my shoulder, brush the desk with my palm. On its surface, my daughter stares from a first-day-of-school photo, laminated and taped. “She’s so beautiful,” Diandra says, tapping her tiny face with a long pink nail. “You gonna be in trouble someday.”

*

Even now on Tuesdays, I text my husband: hide the Klonopin. Put it in the back of the shelf. I’m 36; I’ve a retirement fund and two children of my own, a living will. Yet my mother’s socked footsteps at the threshold of my home still make me take inventory: what I need to tighten, what’s left exposed. The bottle of Klonopin stands, criminal, with its label glaring, black typeface on white, turned outwards in the cabinet beside probiotics and Pez containers. Even though I only take a half a pill when I can’t sleep, on those nights when the clock ticks forward and my heart beats through my throat. And that last sentence—is that another way of turning the bottle around to hide its label, in case she reads this? In case, in case?

*

At night, in the depths of our grey sectional, she rolls her body in close, would rather talk than sleep. I take advantage. 

“Who did you play with at recess today?” I ask, skipping over the question my mother always asked me: What did you learn?

“I just walked around,” she says. 

“With who?” I ask. 

“Myself,” she tells me. My mind fills with the cackles and cries of children against a blacktop, cruel.

“Did you ask Lucy to play with you?”

She bounces and bends, all elbows and distraction. The conversationa trap she wants no part of. Me reaching, her falling away.

“You know I don’t have to tell you everything in my life,” she says, “just because it happens.”

“That’s true,” I tell her. “You’re right.”

She sits up, separates. “I can have things that are for me just to know.”

There she is, six years old, in a nightgown, curls spiraling toward the ground, drawing lines in the sand. Keep out, she warns me, and I take heed. Knowing I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to find a side entrance, or stopping myself from finding another way in.

*

My mother sits in the hospital chair with its cushion-less arms, looking down through her reading glasses at a New York magazine. A cold blue light shadows the room where I lie, all papery and bruised and buried in wires. My daughter of one day bites at my breast, the three of us silent among beeps and blinks. I need them both, right here, right now. The scene without either would have me destroyed.

A social worker enters, someone else in the revolving door, just to ask a few questions—and me, cracked wide open, a small part of her daily routine. Name, birthplace, marital status. “I understand this is your third pregnancy,” she continues, checking off a box. I look at my mother, her gaze towards the wall.

“Why don’t I wait outside?” my mother says.

“I’m sorry,” the social worker tells me after she leaves.

When my mother returns, the room feels slightly darker, bleeding secrets now blocking the light. We sit in this newly shared space, together, silent, unsure who hates being here more. The air is thick and heavy with all the things we can’t say—why didn’t you tell me and why couldn’t I tell you and how couldn’t we see. I bring my nose in to breathe the new tiny face in my arms and she re-opens her magazine, licks a finger, turns the page.

*

“Miss, let me put you on,” Diandra tells me, pulling her jeans up and her crop top down on her way to my desk after the bell. She drags a chair close. “Ok, so you ready for this?”

And she tells me everything: how it only hurt a little, how even though her mother was at work she kept thinking she heard her come home. “And those condoms, they stink!” she says. Her earrings dangle freely over coconut-scented body mist on her skin. I picture her mother locked away in the humdrum of her own world, filing invoices or online shopping or combing her hair, not knowing about this new life her baby girl is living. Then, my own daughter’s face flashes—her brown beauty mark and dark almond eyes. And I try to steady myself as I listen, in this space where I’m not sure to whom I belong.

“Wait,” I say. “Do you think my daughter will tell me about this stuff when she’s older?” I ask. She cocks her head, thinks.

“I mean, miss, you mad cool,” she says, and seems to consider. “But no, miss. No, I don’t.”

*
 

My daughter was five days old when I realized the love I had for her would fall short. That as she screamed, my arms around her tensing baby body seemed to make no difference at all.

On the bed, in a chair, walking squares along the wood-paneled floors of my mother’s guest room, as small bits of milk pooled in my daughter’s cheeks, ran down her chin. Her tiny lips parted and wailed. I need something else, they said. You are not enough.

And it started then: the desire to know everything. The what, the why, the who. That shameful urge would follow me for yearsan urge beyond keeping her fed and safe and guided and happy and free. I wanted to scoop the truth out from inside her and spread it clearly, so I could see everything. Even the parts that weren’t mine.

*

On a kindergarten afternoon many years ago, I took my shoes off by the welcome mat and walked directly up the carpeted stairs. The sun was still high above the mountaintops. This view, here, my mom would often say, cranking my bedroom window knobs open to get some air. This view sold me this house.

When I climbed straight past the daylight into bed, she came in and sat by the pillow next to my small body. She stroked my back, softly and slowly.

“Please, Emmy,” she begged. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

It was Cory Weiss, whom I loved because of how his tongue poked through the space in his teeth during ’S’ sounds, and for the mud on his sweatpant knees as he ran around the kickball court. He’d spent recess with Katie, who wore her hair in braids to sleep and unraveled it in gorgeous golden kinks each morning. They had perched at the top of the twisty slide for the whole 20 minutes, talking, laughing, holding the secret of a two-way conversation, while I sat on a patch of grass below.

My mother asked, and asked, and askedI didn’t answer. This heartbreak seemed to live only in my life, and not in the one she’d imagined for me. We became separate, every secret stinging like a burn.  

Years later, with eyeliner and a C-cup bra, we sat on a bed on the opposite side of the same room, white clouds still painted on blue ceiling. 

“You need to wait until you’re married,” she told me. “That’s what I did.”

So I vowed to wait. Not to sleep with him, but to tell her.

*

We sit on the nurse’s office bench, backs against its old wood, gum stuck between its bars. I put my arm around Diandra’s jean jacket, which hangs loosely even though it must be an extra-small. Her hair falls in wisps, so perfectly, along her face. Everything in place: laces, lashes, gloss on lips.

The tears come sideways, then curl and drip off her chin. 

“What’s hurting you more?” I ask. “That this happened? Or that your mom doesn’t know?” 

She pauses, looks away from the test wrapped in a brown paper towel on top of the trash. “Both.”  She shakes her head. “I can’t tell her,” she says. “I just can’t.”

I understand; this is an old story. As a mother, I know she must. As a daughter, I know she won’t. 

*

What if, and I’m just saying, what if, I mean probably not, but maybe, I’m just proposing a theory,  and I’m not saying this is the case, but possibly it could be, even though of course I can’t be sure, but what if it’s only in this hidden space, when our mothers’ backs are turned or our doors are locked, when our cars have left their driveways and ground their gears into the wet roads ahead, 85 in a 55 zone, that it’s only within these gapsbetween our bodies, inside of the worlds we choose to hidethat we’re finally able to become the phenomenally flawed and  wondrous women we were born to be?

*

Sometimes, when I watch my little girl stare up from a stool into the bathroom mirror, adjusting her big flower headband and pursing her lips, I take her tiny frame and turn it forward, imagining her as something longer and leaner and farther away. There she is, standing next to a flat iron, hair parted into sections, straightening each small stack of strands. Or lying in a boyfriend’s lap at a house party, cigarette ashes burned into the carpet, waiting for an empty room. Drunk, squinty-eyed and swirling on the autumn roads, on her dangerous way back home. Heaps of teenage clothes along her carpet, walls painted a chosen shade of blue, scavenger hunts through my medicine cabinet, makeshift bongs. But when I come into focus, I find I’m staring at the veil of mirrored glass. It’s me I’m watching, everything I’ve hidden in this lifetime from the woman I grew taller than but whom I loved the most.

The space between the silhouettes we dream for our children and the bodies they build for themselves: As a mother, I’ll never stop trying to enter, sometimes tapping, sometimes banging, sometimes clawing until my fingers tear. As a daughter, I’m curled up and hiding, warm inside its walls.

And this little girl on her tiptoes? Her future is stashed somewhere beyond my imagination’s endbecause I gave her skin and bones and the divine right to walk away. 

*

My mother’s skin has begun to sag. Her eyes are still a piercing green; her face holds beauty that should have left years ago. Sometimes I stare at her picture on my shelf—the young woman in a white blazer on the grass of her college lawn—and I see another her, before she was mother, before she was me. But age makes its way into all of our interactions now: the loops in her shoulders, the turquoise jewelry hanging beaded from the loose lobes of her ears. I wish I could pull her image up like a decal—careful not to let the plastic stick and wrinkle—and press it to the paint of my apartment walls. To keep her in the halls of my life forever, as I now see her growing towards the ground. The thought of her leaving kills me, makes my stomach wince and swirl, but all the things I can write and say and do when she is gone—all those things I’ve had to hide in any walls we’ve shared—I think of that sometimes too, and the thought feels sharp. It stabs my palm and makes it bleed. To wish her here so I can have her, but dream her gone so I can live.

*
 

She scoots ahead. I let the distance grow, knowing she’ll stop before the sidewalk ends. She turns and waits, helmet strap loose beneath her chin, as the fall breeze swirls leaves around the city street signs. Strangers turn their heads left and right to make sure she isn’t alone. 

She’s not. 

When I catch up, her little hand reaches out to mine, and we lock grip. With the backdrop of a white “GO” signal switching midway to blinking red, we walk together, blocking out all of the secrets that will unravel beside us as life carries on. Mother. Daughter. Separated by generations, side-by-side against the busy world. Hoping that, as long as our hands can reach and grab and hold, we will exist exactly as we are in that moment when we crossten fingers tangled, acting as one.

Emily James

Emily James is a teacher and writer in NYC. Her recent work can be found in River Teeth, Atticus Review, The Rumpus, JMWW Journal, CHEAP POP, Pidgeonholes, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2019 Bechtel Prize from Teachers and Writers Magazine.

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