Fiction Fiction 2008

Nine

If Tess takes ballet lessons, Meredith will give Tess tights and toe shoes, and marry Tess’s father. She will stay forever.
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At night, Tess’s bedroom fills with shadows, and the trees tap secret messages on her window. Her dolls think only of themselves—their yarn hair and dead eyes. On her dresser the little ballerina holds perfectly still, her toes pointed, her arms lifted, reaching up toward her glass sky. No one sees Tess cry. And so it doesn’t count.

Tess begins crying for a number of reasons. Tonight, she thinks about Mrs. Stuart’s dog, the one that was struck by lightning. Tess did not know the dog; she has only heard stories about him. He was Mrs. Stuart’s dog when she was a little girl, and before he was struck by lightning, he slept in Mrs. Stuart’s bed, with her. Mrs. Stuart has told Tess that the dog smelled like wet grass and made low, doggy snores in his sleep. Tess cries for the dog who died, and for Mrs. Stuart who missed him, and for herself, a girl who has never had a dog.

Much later, Tess hears noises in the hallway—her father and Meredith, their voices low and thick with laughter. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” her father’s voice says through the wall.

Love. It is a word that means nothing and everything at the same time. When Tess was little, her mother used to cry in the bathtub. All the time. Tess would creep into the bathroom and kneel beside the tub, while her mother held the black egg of soap in her hands and wept into her knees. “I love you,” Tess would tell her. “I love you, I love you.” And her mother would cry and stroke Tess’s hair into cords of gray lather.

“I’m so sorry,” her mother would say, hiccuping. “I start crying, and I just can’t stop.”

Hemophilia is when something gets started and then can’t stop. Tess learned all about this from One Life to Live. It exists in families, mothers passing the sickness down to their babies so that wounds, once open, can never be closed. People die from it.

“I love you, I love you,” her father’s voice says on the other side of the wall, and Tess wants to rush to him and cover his lips with her hand. She wants to save him from all the things he hopes it means, from all the promises it cannot keep.

Instead, she presses her face into her pillow and thinks about having something all her own to love—something small and furry that she could kiss and name and touch with her hands. In Tess’s classroom, they have hamsters: a girl hamster named Marigold, and a boy hamster named Bon Jovi. Once, they had baby hamsters, pink and hairless like a pile of squirming thumbs. Miss Morris said that when the hamsters got bigger, she would give them to the students who knew their state capitals best, that those students would each be able to take a baby hamster home to keep. Every day after school, Tess sat at her little table and wrote the capitals over and over again, until the words became part of herself, as real and familiar as her own name. She would have gotten a perfect score except that she mixed up the Virginias. But in the end, Bon Jovi ate all the baby hamsters, and nobody got to have one.

In the next four days, Meredith spends the night twice. The first time, she is gone when Tess wakes up. The second time, Tess goes to brush her teeth in the morning and finds her in the bathroom. Meredith is standing at the sink in her tank top and underpants, holding her hair off her pink-speckled shoulders and making kissy faces at herself in the mirror. When she sees Tess in the doorway, she jumps.

“Morning,” she says, as Tess reaches across her for the toothbrush. “Want me to leave?”

Tess stares at Meredith in the mirror, her long corded neck and smeared eye makeup. Yes, she wants Meredith to leave. She wants her to take her cigarettes and her perfect posture and never come back. But this is not what Meredith means.

Tess squeezes a glob of toothpaste onto her brush and scrubs until her gums burn and the foam inside her mouth turns pink with blood. Meredith shifts her weight from one foot to the other, staring at her own reflection instead of at Tess. “I could fix your hair for you if you want,” she says after Tess rinses and spits into the sink.

“My mom used to do that,” Tess says. “Before she died.”

Meredith meets Tess’s eye in the mirror. “Your mom isn’t dead.”

“How do you know?” Tess asks.

“Your dad told me.”

The bathroom is not cold, but Tess’s teeth begin to chatter. Her ankles wobble. She holds her head with both hands and crumples onto the floor.

Meredith jumps sideways. “Jesus,” she says. “Are you all right?”

“It’s my blood,” Tess says. “My sugar is low.”

“Should I get your dad?” Meredith asks.

Tess waves at her face with one open hand and peers up at Meredith through the slits of her eyelids. “Food,” she whispers, and Meredith runs into the hall. When she comes back, she has a glass of juice and a slice of plain wheat bread. Meredith has not poured the juice into a juice glass, but into a regular glass. Tess begins to point this out, then decides that a person in her weakened condition should not be bothered with such details.

Meredith sits on the floor while Tess sips her juice and takes little nibbles of bread. “Feeling better?” she asks, and Tess nods.

Meredith pulls her knees to her chest, circling them with her spindly arms as she watches Tess eat.

“My mom might be dead,” Tess says.

Meredith tilts her head. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“She was sick,” Tess says.

“I’m sorry,” Meredith says. “Your dad didn’t tell me that.”

Tess does not have to look at the bathtub to know that the sliver of black soap is still curled in the corner of the soap dish. Two years have passed, and no one has thrown it away. “Maybe he didn’t know.”

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