By TIA JENSEN
NONFICTION HONORABLE MENTION
Do not impose.” I learned early I wasn’t worth anything. To be seen, not heard, I was never to intrude, nor have my needs voiced. “Keep everything to yourself.” Be polite, be helpful and always underwhelm. One of my teachers would call roll every day and never see me. My voice was too soft. Myself forgettable. Someone pointed out her error. She finally saw me. “Oh there you are—always the wallflower.” I didn’t answer. I looked at the cinderblock wall beside me and wondered how flowers could root in painted cracks under artificial light. “I don’t want people in our business,” Momma said. “No one sticking their noses where they don’t belong, I better never hear people talking about you. Clean up, hush up and just sit there.” Just disappear.
Every morning I’d sneak into her room. I’d try to pry open her lids and get that pale watery blue eye to look at me. I thought I might one day catch a glance. We weren’t huggers, nor touchers. Touching was never welcome. I thought her so different looking, sleeping, so unlike the Momma that scared me. I pushed the sleeping eye with my finger, a stolen touch. She always shook me off, but then got up, and went to the stove to make breakfast. After, she would return to bed, roll over. From then on, I mostly saw the back of her head.
Not allowed to have friends over, I had never heard of play dates. Momma made sure she worked the afternoon shift that started the moment we got home from school. It was best that way. Living feral inside the house, most afternoons we snacked on sticks of butter. Waiting for life to one day happen, boredom was always the biggest danger, got us into the most trouble. I read every book in the house, many times over. My homework was always too easy. With nothing left to do. I took to walking inside.
Not allowed outside where others might see us. The heavy drapes drawn, the sheers hidden in their folds, we moved in grey rooms. My sisters, both younger, played games and staged violent battles. I was the watcher, until I grew tired of seeing. Two years older, I was their only mother. My older siblings were dead, having abandoned their games early. Their coffin photos were tucked in a cedar chest; blue-faced babies on faded Polaroid squares. One dressed in blue, one in pink. I was the first one to live, but was never good enough to replace them. I felt her disappointment in me. Unlike her perfect porcelain dolls, I had been red and demanding. Needed feeding. Needed caring. Never sweet and quiet in eternal slumber. By insisting on living, I had imposed.
Daddy put me in charge of lunch tickets for my sisters. Three girls. Three meals on orange worried paper in pocket cardboard, “Do not lose.” Trust. I’d carefully tear the small strips and pinch them hidden in my fingers.
-Check them, still there?
-Hold them, still there?
-Hide them, still there?
-Keep them, demand my sibling’s allegiance.
-Barter, bribe, borrow.
Handed out by me, instead of teachers, to withhold shame from the reduced fee lunch colors, I’d walk to their elementary classroom and place the moist papers directly in their hot little hands. Just before lunch. Down that long steep central stair. Each sister on a floor lower, each grade farther down. Once completed I’d climb back to the top floor, higher, farther, more distant—more alone. Until I found a way to leave.
I would go to her room and approach the large dark dresser littered with bobby pins. Wigs would be drying on lampshades; guarding the corners, releasing the smell of cigarette smoke, her Aquanet and White Shoulder’s perfume. This smoky, fruity, sharp smell came to mean mother to me. I’d lift the glass bottles that only contained air, from her mirrored vanity. Their shapes, held in squares of dust, noted my transgression and demanded a return to the exact location. So in order to avoid detection, I would take the mirrored tray to the bathroom for cleaning. After all, I doubted she’d notice the newly acquired shine. I always put everything back exactly how I found it. I kept my actions unseen.
I’d hold this large mirror at chin level, with my eyes directed toward its surface. Instead of floor, looking down, I would see the popcorn ceiling. Softening my gaze, the stucco bumps of the ceiling became mountains. I could walk forward and pretend I was soaring over high hills, heading somewhere distant. The white gypsum textures became the clouds in the sky.
The process was quite tricky. I had to learn to keep one part of my mind present, in order to navigate the house. I didn’t want to crash into walls, fall down the stairs or tumble over furniture. So I allowed this knowledge of my surroundings, but refused it my attention, so that I was able to keep my eyes somewhere else and practice walking in a different space, a different world. In this way I learned to fly. I found my way outside.
I would go for long mirrorwalks. Always struggling at open doorways, I’d take extra time. The jamb would descend from the ceiling and announce itself in my path. I knew it wasn’t really blocking. But my mind would have difficulty not stepping over it as I entered the opening into another room. I’d argue with myself, not to lift my foot, but to walk through the wall I saw. Nevertheless, I always fought the leg that refused and stepped over air. Some of the patterns became highways in the ceiling. I grew to know them well. I learned where white stipples were elongated and became tall spires. I avoided pointy spires that threatened balloons. I knew where dead insects like Saharan elephants hid in shadowy valleys. I knew the pattern of the hand that built the gypsum world. A human, invisible, like me.… What was he thinking, feeling when he created my ceiling, my sky? My private world.
My daddy nicknamed me Alien. He never understood why I wanted to leave. I never belonged to the space I was in. He knew it, but then he left me. Like all the others who might have cared, he died. He left me there and all these years later, I find I am still trying to escape this world. I fit in nowhere, yet must show up, must participate, watch and be counted. Be seen. Be heard. Yet, I don’t know how.
An aunt taught me to crochet once when I was little. Chains of yarn that rolled back on themselves and took bites in each link. “Go down a row, extras together for a corner, turn your needle, make a square.” She advised me to repeat four or five rows, then cut the yarn and make another square. Sew the bits together and they become a granny square quilt. But once started, I hated stopping. Each bite, each link became an obsession. It gave me purpose; row after row, I kept going. No cutting. I carried my large yarn creation with me, took it to school. Crocheting a square that turned into a blanket. A blanket that wrapped the edges of my school desk, buried me in folds overlapping, spilling over into puddles on the floor. As I spun this brown, warm cocoon, no one saw, no one remarked, no one noticed.
Today my daughter plays soccer. She tries hard but is painfully slow. Always ready to go. Every Saturday she beats me outside and waits by the car. She has a collection of colorful socks. Her teammates are always guessing what she’ll wear. Her favorite number is 18. She runs in mud, undeterred, laughing. Soccer was a game I never played, never saw. A team, a concept so foreign to me, I still have not learned the rules. I go to all her games. I watch. I am learning. We have three coaches for a small band of middle school aged girls. More coaches than I feel are necessary. But what do I know? The coaches trip over each other and the parents on the sidelines.
And the parents … always so many parents, clumping together violently yelling, voicing orders, opposite what the coaches are barking. The girls struggle to comply. In the confusion they listen only to the loudest voice. No one is happy; the advice peppering from the sideline is relentless. I tend to stay outside the voices firing, avoiding the other parents. I bring my folding camp chair and set up near the edge of the mob.
Last weekend, a parent announced loudly, “Only lazy parents sit in chairs. Come on, get up.”
I ignored her.
She yelled at her daughter, jumped up and down, then started yelling at number 18. “Move, help her. What is wrong with you?”
From my seat, I listened to her bullying.
“What’s your name, 18? Who is that? Move it!”
I stood, walked over to her and said, “18 has a name. Her name is Reilly.” With icy blue eyes I faced her. I saw her. She saw me. She quieted down.
Once I found myself standing, I took the opportunity to move away. I walked through the throngs of parents, walls of judgment, advice and criticism. Large white billowy clouds floated overhead; I knew the way by heart. My mirrorwalk training, ingrained by years of practice, required no coaching, no team. I passed through parents, overly invested, pushing. I didn’t feel them as I walked through the clouds of the hostile familiar. I floated unaware, disregarded, and invisible. Whose team was I on? Why did it matter? My silence isolated and walled around me as I picked up the pace. I looked up and felt the distance. I knew which world I belonged in. Avoiding the stipple textured popcorn, the points that threaten to pop all balloons, I heard whistles, I heard everything. I heard nothing. I heard a multitude of voices. I kept walking—it all became sky.
*A name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.
Tia Jensen grew up in Florence, Kentucky, and now writes from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. She attended Kentucky State University where she was introduced to creative writing and has participated in the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky, the last two years. She returns many summers to Kentucky’s beautiful Lake Cumberland for Outdoor Woman Camp. Currently, she is working on a memoir about midlife, finding her way, and summers spent camping in a Volkswagen hippie van. She travels with her husband, two of their three children, and two 150-pound dogs.