untitled short story
A short story by Mila. I was taken aback as I read this again, noticing, especially, the part of the story where Hanna describes feeling so isolated and judged as she waits to pick up her daughter from school.
I remember telling Mila about how ostracized I used to feel when waiting to pick her up from kindergarten, before we started homeschooling her. I had my children quite young. We had spent most of our younger years living on military bases, all across Canada. By the time Mila ended up in kindergarten, my husband had started medical school and we found ourselves living in a rather affluent area while he attended university. The other moms didn’t quite know what to make of me. They all had big, beautiful old houses surrounding the university, all shared a common social circle dotted with professors and medical specialists and highly educated people. Most had followed the path of graduation, university, professional career, children. We rented a little house across from a Tim Horton’s, bought our clothes from thrift stores, and drove a beat up old Toyota.
She was always observing, always listening, always picking up the crumbs others never saw. Mila wrote this when she was 17.
Hanna tied her golden hair back into a low braid in the mirror. She took special care to cover her growing bald spot with extra strands so that it didn’t show too much, looping them around and tying them together so that it couldn’t be seen. Her hazel eyes were dull, the once shiny green and gold flecks now hardly visible at all. The dark circles underneath her eyes remained a now constant dark purple, making her skin seem pale and flat. She sighed, breath coming out raspy, fingers nimbly putting the hair tie in place. She heard tiny footsteps running to her, feet pounding on the wooden floor, thump thump thump. The air around Hanna was still laced with morning fatigue, the sun only on the horizon. Tiny rays of light fought their way into the tiny bathroom window, filling it with an auburn glow. Emilia burst into the room, arms flailing, holding her favourite stuffed rabbit, jumping up at Hanna.
“Mommy, mommy, I had a dream about Mister Rabbit again!” Emilia cried, holding up the tattered brown and white rabbit to Hanna’s face, tufts of its fur coming out, one beaded eye gone altogether.
“Aw Em, he just loves you so much! He doesn’t want to leave you even in your sleep.”
Hanna kneeled down, exhausted, looking at her daughter, a bit annoyed, and a bit guilty for feeling annoyed, at Emilia’s overly energetic abundance so early in the morning. Her friends back home would still be sleeping. She grabbed Emilia’s little squishy body and squeezed her tight. A wave of love rushed through her, as though nothing in the world could ever be bad again. She pulled away a little bit to look at Emilia’s face up close. Her fine, mousy hair stuck out at all angles, her eyes bright, her skin rosy and still warm from sleep. Her nose was dotted with freckles, the little specks reminding Hanna of summer when she was a child and had freckles after numerous days at the beach house. Her heart ached at the memory.
She imagined how Emilia must view her. As her mother, of course, but also with unrelenting love. She knew that Emilia didn’t care if her mother had money, or if she had a job, or if she got straight A’s in high school. All she cared about was that Hanna was there to love her, that she was there for her.
With a bitter sort of jealousy, Hanna wished that everyone could be this way: could see a person at face value and be happy with exactly that. She shook the thought away and kissed Emilia’s rosy cheek, before dressing her in a yellow dress that was far too large for her, and pink rain boots with the faces of cartoon puppies on the sides. While she walked her to preschool, Emilia regaled her with stories of Mister Rabbit and all of his adventures, the pitter patter of raindrops the background music to it all.
After getting back to her apartment on the outskirts of New York City’s bustling Chinatown, Hanna went to her bedroom where her camera sat waiting for her. A once expensive Nikon she had gotten for her sixteenth birthday, that now had sliding panels duct taped together and white coloured sharpie written on its black frame to replace words long ago worn off with its extended usage. She held it gently in her hands and went to the window.
Being on the second story, she could see people’s faces, could tell if they were having a good day, could tell if they were in a rush or killing time. She aimed the camera out of the window and focused on the produce market across the street, where Chinese signs sat on top of produce and people picked through mangoes and chose which squash looked the best. Many people passed through the frame of her camera, little snippets of their lives passing through the rectangular screen, all carrying umbrellas or walking hurriedly, but she waited.
It wasn’t until two young friends came, young girls wearing stylish denim skirts who seemed to have smiles glued to their face, that Hanna took the picture. Click. She felt a strange longing, watching them. One of them picked up an extra-large mango and held it up to her face, where it proved to be the same size. The other one laughed hysterically, holding her new shiny smartphone to snap a picture. Hanna stood entranced, looking at them, feeling stuck to the scene and trying to pry herself away as though she was gum on the underside of a student’s desk. She felt a strange wave of ashamed desire to be there with them, to be carefree and young and without a responsibility in the world. She finally broke herself away from her trance with a turn of her head and walked down into the living room.
She took a canvas out and put it on the easel, which was now old and falling apart due to its years of use. Squeezing tubes of colour onto her palette, Hanna began to dip her brush into the mauves and browns and yellows, spreading them along the canvas; a stroke of blue, dots of orange, blocks of cream. She loved the complete control of painting. She decided which stroke went where, she decided the expressions, she decided the life she was painting; and no one was there to judge her. She often painted herself into these pictures with young strangers. She imagined what it would be like to have their lives, carefree and young.
She painted Emilia regularly, too, but often alone, the spotlight on her and only her. She didn’t paint herself into the pictures of Emilia, and was subconsciously aware of this, but was too afraid and ashamed to ask herself ‘why’. She stood in the silent room bent over the painting meticulously, eyebrows furrowed and the brush dancing along the canvas, bringing forth a picture of three young girls all laughing around a mango stand. She painted herself into the picture, her hair long and wavy, laughing, wearing a denim skirt and holding mangoes in her hands with her two friends. She smiled at the scene before her, at the picture. Of the three of them all there, laughing at the mangoes, all young with no eye-bags or responsibility. She frowned at this thought: she didn’t like thinking this way. She took her drying painting and routinely, without thinking, slid it under her bed where stacks of others laid, dust collecting on their colourful edges.
Hanna stood in the rainy courtyard, gloomy clouds rumbling overhead in shades of dark purples and greys. She stood in the concrete plaza with all of the other moms, ones with faces more aged, with tiny smile wrinkles and the sprouts of grey hairs. Hanna was immensely aware of this; of the acute and singular fact that she alone was nineteen, mother to a three year old daughter. There were older sisters of the children there who shared her graduating year, and not necessarily the thought of her thinking this, but the thought of others thinking this about her, made her extremely uncomfortable and ashamed. They all stood talking to each other quietly, about their husband’s new jobs, their recent accolades, and how successful they were, as she stood alone, a little on the periphery of the group, seeming ambiguous in an odd and forgetful way. She didn’t want to be seen there, but she felt very ashamed for feeling that way, and so on went the endless cycle, an attack to her psyche from herself, leaving her in a brain entrapped in fear. She also preferred to remain not spoken to, as she didn’t want to be asked the dreadful question of “tell me about yourself”; a seeming favourite amongst middle-aged women who looked down on her and wanted to belittle her without seeming too obvious about it.
The loud and intoxicating noise of noisy, rambunctious toddlers came streaming through the doors as their teacher, Mrs. Goodfellow, opened it widely and they all came out screaming and laughing and talking excitedly. Hanna looked through all of the pigtails and hats and braids to find her own, and upon seeing Emilia running towards her, Hanna’s heart melted, her body melted, and she found complete grace and happiness and carefree worry in hugging her daughter. She smelled her apple-blossom shampoo, and felt the crinkly warmth of her jacketed body. Then she remembered the other mothers, and immediately regained herself. After a quick, cold wave to Mrs. Goodfellow, Hanna cast her head down and walked briskly away, hand in hand with Emilia, before the other mothers made too much of a fuss about it; before they saw her as the loser she thought she was.
She pulled on the back strands of her hair as she walked, Emilia recounting her day in meticulous detail. They skirted around puddles and people and benches, raindrops cascading down their shared umbrella, the faint breeze of sewer and spring wafting from all directions. Hanna kept her head down not making eye contact with anyone, save for the moments she smilingly chatted to Emilia. After they got back to their little one-bedroom apartment, Hanna made them both tomato soup and they sat eating it together on the floor, backs leaned against the couch.
Hanna told Emilia stories from the bible as they slurped up the red broth together, Emilia asking thoughtful questions all the while. After a rousing rendition of Noah’s Ark, framed by the gloomy clouds outside the window, paired with the deep rumbling of thunder and light drops of rain, Hanna tucked Emilia into their shared bed. The bed frame was a novelty item in their little apartment: only purchased after Hanna decided they could no longer sleep on the floor and so splurged on a frame from the local discount thrift store, which was chipped and needed the spindles to be hot glued back together on multiple occasions. Despite this, Emilia still viewed it as a wondrous and exciting item.
Hanna kissed her daughter goodnight. “Have a good sleep, Em. Mommy loves you,” she cooed, caressing Emilia’s face with her thin hand. “I love you too!” Emilia whispered excitedly, tired eyes looking upon her, eyelids slowly being drawn closed like shutters on a window.
Hanna went out into the lobby of her apartment and checked the mail, where a crisp white envelope laid waiting for her. There was no return address. She ripped the side open with her thumb and index finger, and unfolded the letter within. A picture fell out and drifted onto the floor. It was her brother, Jamie, holding a trophy, and their Mother and Father with wide smiles, all arm in arm.
Included is a picture of me getting top in the class in my Law program for the third year in the row. Dad got promoted to head Pastor at Trinity – everyone is very excited to see him start. I know you were planning on coming down for Easter but I don’t think that’s a good idea anymore, they still aren’t used to the idea. Give them time, we’ll meet her eventually.
Hanna felt sparks of tears welling in her vision, making the world blurry and wet. A tear rolled down her cheek and onto her chin. She crumpled the letter into her pocket and went back to her apartment.
Later, after painting a picture of her father preaching, wreaths of Easter flowers surrounding him, Jesus looking down on him from His place on the wall above, Hanna curled up beside Emilia and looked at her sleeping face. She felt so much love, so much serenity being with Emilia. She felt so much joy, looking at her perfect face, smooth and full of such wonder and awe. She closed her eyes, trying to erase Jamie’s words from her memory. She thought of nothing, just leaving her brain void of thoughts or feelings; a dark roomy cavern, and found it to be a nice change.