“What are you drawing?”
She holds up a picture of a woman, one half of her torso shrunken. On the ground, there is a small pile of curved bones. Julia tells me that these are the woman’s ribs. They are perfectly white, as if birds had picked them clean. The woman is normal except for the deflated half of her body. She hides her face; one hand is raised toward the sky.
“Who is she?”
“Her name is Beth.”
Later, I will ask Peter if there is anyone Julia knows whose name is Beth; there isn’t. Then I will explain to him how his daughter makes pictures the way I imagine professional artists do: the lines confident, the likeness exact, layers of light and shadow building into backdrop and form. There are other pictures, too. One of a bird, smooth and black and eating its own wing. And one of a girl sitting cross-legged hunched over one naked foot with seven toes; she looks up startled, like she’s been interrupted. In another sketch, a woman slices open a grapefruit with a butcher knife.
“My teacher says I should make something prettier.” There’s an edge to her voice. She is nearly thirteen: an almost-teenager, a heart-breaker; “What do you think?”
I consider the drawings: the physiology is perfect, if strange. “They’re beautiful,” I tell her. “And frightening. I like them.”
We have met before, of course. During the nearly six months I’ve been dating Peter, we have been out, the three of us, a handful of times—to movies, shopping malls, or tennis courts. But I have never been with her like this before: Peter rushed off to a sudden meeting, and Julia and I alone together in her room. The walls here are almost bare, except for a few prints of Frieda Kahlo: her huge mono-brow hunkering across her face like a bridge. Peter’s ex-wife Michelle is half-Mexican, and Julia’s golden skin and dark hair have given the kids at school one more way to mark her as different. “How did you learn to do this?” I ask.
Julia shrugs—a quick, breezy adolescent gesture. Her whole body lifting itself gently up and back down, “My mother was an artist, too.”
I nod. Michelle the dancer—beautiful and risqué, “Do you miss her?”
Julia shrugs again, despondent and beautiful. A little genius. She moves delicately over her pictures, choosing one to work over: all of nature’s small atrocities; nothing huge and devastating, but a hundred tiny crimes with no one to blame. She needs a woman in her life; this is not a request that Peter has made explicitly, but the urgency is clear, “Are you angry?”
She looks up, surprised, “About what?”
“Because she left.”
Julia waits a moment, then pulls one of her drawings carefully from the pile, “That was a long time ago.”
“But it would be okay,” I tell her; “If you were. It’s not normal, what happened to you.”
Not normal at all, I think, a woman who doesn’t want her own child. And yet it happens. Even to me. Finding myself pregnant, two years into my first marriage, I was terrified. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I didn’t want to have children. But the pregnancy didn’t take. Six weeks in, I was visited by a rush of blood and fatigue, and it was over. The experience left me shaken. I became angry with my husband, repelled by whatever set of circumstances had led up to this: that fear of motherhood, and that clear testimony that I wasn’t up to the task.
Julia takes the tip of her pencil and adds a quick texture to the grapefruit. She is magical in her likeness: suddenly, the fruit becomes bulbous and round. I watch her for a moment longer: smooth-toned skin and sharp, dark features; graceful and effortless in everything she does. She has the kind of body that I have spent my whole life envying: that long-limbed thinness that women pine for. But now those limbs are starting to wedge slightly at the hip and thigh. She hunches over her drawings in a baggy sweat suit, hiding what she can, “Look, Julia,” I say finally. “I know it’s hard having a mother who doesn’t act like she’s supposed to.”
Her body flexes lightly, “Did your mom do something wrong?”
Burnt soufflés and absent evenings and forgotten birthdays, “No, nothing terrible,” I admit; “She just couldn’t stop thinking about herself.”
“That’s what happens to drug addicts.” Julia talks plain, with the sense of someone who has already been hurt a lot by life. Peter is right: she is the kind of girl who could break your heart. Beautiful and damaged. She looks like she could shatter at any moment. A china vase, a ream of silk. Something precious that you would be sorry to lose.
“Julia,” I ask carefully, “Why aren’t you in school?”
“I got sick;” her voice is sharp, warning me not to go any further.
“But that was three weeks ago,” I insist; “You’re fine now.”
She ignores me, hunching forward instead, baggy sweatshirt thick over her tiny breasts, and doesn’t say anything else. It’s a posture that I know reasonably well. There wasn’t much said when my own body started changing. Almost without a word, pink-lined packages of sanitary napkins appeared in the upstairs bathroom, while other things were removed: my brothers’ rusted razors and deodorant sticks and sharp-smelling bottles of aftershave. Mom set herself resolutely to the task. She cleaned out drawers, fixed cabinet handles, and kept me supplied: aspirin and tampons and clinking canisters of hairspray. Some days, she came home with filigreed boxes of cosmetics and perfumes: lovely and feminine and without instructions. Womanhood, it seemed, was something that should come to one instinctively.
With my father, things had been even more disappointing. For years, he had invited me into his study, where we would sit quietly, reading newspapers and comic books and staring up at the wide collection of natural science and military history collections that he bought mail order in discounted, multi-volume sets. They were leather-bound and handsome and almost entirely untouched. Arranged perfectly along the shelves. A person could learn a lot from those books, my father said. We stared up at them, imagining all those other circumstances that weren’t ours.
“What do you want from life, Theresa?”
But I had never thought about things in those terms before.
“You should know,” he said. “It’s important. Women usually don’t.”
“Mom knows what she wants.” My mother: ex-circus acrobat and small-time theater star. Long before I was born, she had stopped pretending that she could be a good housewife. Organizing kitchen shelves; grilling steaks with a certain finesse; ironing sharp folds into my father’s shirts: these simply were not her specialties. She had other powers instead: worldly, pragmatic powers. Sometimes, she’d disappear for days on end—accompanied only by her kid brother, who was tall and handsome but had the mental capacity of a child—returning home with trapeze bars and sequined leotards and nostalgic visions of life on the road.
My father shook his head, “She’s looking for something. It’s not the same thing.”
And I’d nodded, because I understood that it was true: all those years that my mother had come and gone out of our lives, settling in at home only once her brother—who had grown up with her in their own dissolute and transient childhood—had grown too feeble-minded to travel.
“It’s better,” my father rested his great big head in his hands, “To know yourself first. Things go more smoothly after that.”
I liked my father’s wisdoms. His lessons were always stern but encouraging; it felt like a privilege, hearing them: like he understood certain things about the world—things that not everyone was able to see with such shocking accuracy—and my access to him gave me an advantage over other people.
But even my father had his limits. Once I got my period, we didn’t go together into his study anymore. “You’re going to be a woman,” he said, looming large in the doorway. He put a hand loosely at the back of my shoulders and we moved into the living room, where it was more public. Nothing more was said, but I knew that something significant had changed: it was an end to intimacy. Womanhood made my father nervous in some loose, inexplicable way that I didn’t understand.
“Men aren’t comfortable with women.” Julia looks surprised when I say that, “Your dad cares about you, but he doesn’t know what to do.”
She wears an expression like she’s holding a crushed apricot in her mouth. Shocked and wordless, as though I’ve guessed something.
“It’s not his fault,” I assure her. After nearly half a year, I have come to know Peter as a gentle but somewhat inconsistent man: confident and purposeful in the world; and, at home, still terrified of being a father. All those years shooting up with Michelle have left him shaken. When she became pregnant, three whole months passed before they realized what was going on; but somehow, miraculously, Julia was fine. Still, Peter bears the sadness of a man who once got more than he deserved, and who can’t quite believe that his luck won’t run out.
“He must like you a lot,” she says finally.
“He never let anyone talk to me like this before.”
“Does it bother you?”
She holds the thought for a moment and shakes her head, bending back over the drawing to add more color to the woman’s cheek. A little shadow under the eye and lips, so the expression sharpens: determined, but sad.
“He worries too much,” she says, setting the pencil down with delicate intention. She crosses her arms over her chest, her expression hard and daring. I nod; “But you love him,” she presses.
“People love imperfect people all the time,” I answer, knowing how true it is: my father sitting quietly in his study; my mother, fabulous and selfish and not quite part of this world. The first night that Peter and I had made love, he had touched the space below my belly and asked: “Why not?” I had shaken my head; it was still so difficult to say. Because the truth is, it hadn’t been the physical details of pregnancy that had bothered me, but rather the slow realization that a person would emerge out of it all: a living cluster of biology that I would be responsible for. That I would somehow have to transform into personhood. And I’d had no idea how you would do something like that.
“Why are you here?” Julia picks up a pencil and jostles it lightly along the bridge of her thumb.
I push back in my seat, “I suppose your dad thinks I can do something for you.”
Her eyes narrow: “Can you?” she watches me carefully to see what I will do. Just a little bit daring—just a little bit mean. Those eyes, that stare. I know that sharp, scared fierceness; I know exactly how it feels.
“I don’t know, Julia,” I tell her, honestly, “I was always so terrified of having children.”
Her gaze shifts; she is surprised, but doesn’t want to reveal too much, “Why?” she asks coolly.
“Because it’s scary,” I answer; “God Julia, I can’t think of anything else that changes your life more.”
She watches me wide-eyed; the pencil has stopped moving. A dozen years ago, Michelle’s pregnancy had cost her the job at the nightclub. She came home depressed, and never quite recovered. Peter had done what he could. He cleaned up, got a better job, made a life for himself. He couldn’t believe, he has told me, that his young wife wouldn’t follow suit.
“I’m sure it was scary for your mom, too,” I suggest.
But Julia’s understanding of things is hardened from years of neglect, “She was selfish,” she answers fiercely.
“Well,” I sigh, “People are. Everybody’s got a weak point.”
“Yeah?” she answers, defiant, “What’s yours?”
I watch her carefully for a few moments. “I got mean,” I tell her finally, “When there was nothing else left to do.”
When we’re small and uncertain of things, we find strength wherever we can. And when I was Julia’s age, the most likely place was my mother’s younger brother, who had been living with us for months since his mental break down. Nobody knew how long he would stay with us, or what he would do after that; but I didn’t figure it mattered too much. He was weak—he was already a little bit crazy anyway. “I’m becoming a woman,” I said one day bluntly, like a dare.
My uncle had nodded loosely: “What will you do?”
I’d stared back; there was nothing to do, “I bet you’re jealous,” I snapped after a moment. It was inappropriate, but I didn’t care; it felt good, somehow, to be just a little bit cruel, “I bet you don’t know anything about women.”
He didn’t say anything, but his eyes kept on me: round, and a little bit frightened, “Do you? Do you know anything?”
Slowly, he shook his head.
“Well, you should, don’t you think? Maybe you should get married or something, since you can’t travel anymore.”
Afterwards, the mean things I said always hurt; I wasn’t sure why I’d said them. But in the moment, the silence around me was winding to a pitch. It made me shout: “But nobody’s going to marry you! Because you can’t even say anything! You can’t say one little thing about women or men or anything important!” Then I left him, crying, and ran back up to my room. As I bounded the stairs, I felt the meat of my buttocks jangling with each step. My body was crowding around me, building and building without permission or plans: some kind of crazy architecture that no one had warned me about.
“What did he do?” Julia’s eyes are round with dread.
“Nothing. He didn’t say anything else. He just watched me. He was always watching.”
She stares at me, half-horrified: “People are terrible.”
“No,” I tell her; “They’re just not perfect, either.”
But she shakes her head fiercely, “Yes they are. They’re terrible.” She looks sick. Tears snap into her eyes and she sucks in a breath, jerking her body back away from the desk. I gaze across the table, spilled over with her drawings. The picture of the bird eating its wing startles me again, it’s one eye bright and blank and focused on nothing.
“What is it, Julia?” Her eyes twirl upward before she snaps them shut, “What happened?”
Tears press out from the corners of her eyes, “A boy kissed me,” she says abruptly; “They made him do it.”
“Jimmy Fallon. In geometry class. When the teacher wasn’t there, the other boys held me down. They made him do it.”
She turns toward me, terrified. And this isn’t anything that I’ve prepared for, but there’s no time to consider it now. Julia has thrown herself into my lap, heaving and crying, clawing at me mildly for reassurance. Her arms come desperate around my neck, pushing into the square, solid, womanliness of me. There is nothing in her that doubts my ability to handle this. And so I do.
“Did they hurt you, Julia? Did they do anything else?”
“No.” Her head shakes against me. No-no.
“Are you sure, Julia? That’s all?”
She nods against me.
“Okay, Julia,” I breathe, pulling her to me; “You’re ok. It’s okay.” I have never held a child like this before. Mothering had always seemed evasive; I was sure there was some trick to it. But now there is this girl, Julia, here in my lap: tiny and frightened and twelve years old. A scent comes off the top of her head, warm and intimate. It blooms into the air, like a code between us. And I know that the body is full of betrayals: the way it shifts and rearranges things. Even happiness opens up a space in us for sadness to hold onto.
She loosens herself and stares up at me, tear-streaked and shame-faced, “I liked it.” She is trembling, “I liked it!” she sobs, throwing herself back onto me.
“Oh Julia.” She is so small in my arms; I fold myself over her, and it feels like I could take all that guilt and confusion and just swallow them down for her, “Of course you did, Julia. It’s a kiss. It’s okay. It won’t always be like that.” I can feel her handprints like wetted paws against my arms. The smell coming off of her is getting stronger: pungent, hormonal. Her body collapses into mine, and I can feel her still heaving along the edges of her shame: all the things that have been done to her. She’s a girl who has needed so much. And it can be terrifying, she knows, what we’ll let ourselves succumb to—what we’ll allow other people to do to us.
The shocked woman slicing the grapefruit stares up at me—grateful and mocking. The other girl can’t stop counting her toes. I squeeze Julia and close my eyes, keeping just that one image there in my mind: me and Julia, holding onto each other. Because we’re both women, each one of us imperfect, and unsure of how to do it.