My Lifetime of Empties
The girls and I are eating Chinese food on my back porch while heat waves rise over the baby blue shed and the mid-July breeze soothes leaves off tree branches. I am too afraid to mention that none of us are wearing sunscreen, and I should really head back into the house to find my SPF 40 because we’re all 22 and the collagen production in our faces is already in decline, and just because we’re Black doesn’t mean we’re immune to the sun. My mother always said that when I was younger. I never believed her. Now that she’s gone, I wonder if things would be different had I learned this lesson sooner.
While Lauren complains about the mess Dana made, I brush egg roll crumbs off my hands and into my mother’s garden. My lap is filled with droplets of Dana’s wonton soup and chicken fried rice from when she lunged out of her seat and into me, shrieking because she thought she saw a furry creature in the backyard leaping over the tree roots. There was a furry creature. The furry creature was a squirrel.
“We should really go to the yard sale.” Dana’s looking at the forest again, the same spot where the squirrel sat. “Can we please go?’
Lauren and I don’t say anything, so Dana sighs. “We’re actually helping the environment by buying the things people are throwing away.”
Lauren stops a forkful of rice from entering her mouth and looks at me from the corner of her eye. “I’m impressed.” She stabs the fork into her carton of rice. “You’re really putting that theatre degree to work, huh?”
“She’s a method actor,” I say.
“I learned the Stanislavski method,” Dana says. “Actually, you know Stella Adler…”
This is our first summer post-undergrad.
Dana studied musical theatre in Chicago. Lauren stayed in Maryland and studied biomedical engineering, while I was one of three international relations students at my tiny liberal arts college in Bennington, Vermont.
Despite the distance, we’ve all found ourselves back here.
I look through the back sliding doors of the house. A part of me expects my mother to push the door open, tell us to come to her old Volkswagen, and help her unload groceries like we did when we were all younger. But the house is empty, and for the first time in my life, I’m living alone. My mother is gone. Everything seems so permanent and increasing in severity. Everything is real now, and I don’t know what to do.
“Let’s just go. We might be able to find some gems.” Dana stands up, and the rest of her fried rice rains all over the table. She hops off the porch and into the bed of lilies beneath us. “Shit.”
“I’m never inviting you over again.” I brush the rice into the grass and stand up as well.
“Come on, let’s go before all the good things are gone.” Dana marches through the grass and around the house.
Lauren laughs. “Dana’s scared that the squirrel’s gonna get her.”
Dana shrieks again, and Lauren catches up, wrapping her arm around Dana’s shoulder, pulling them closer to one another. I walk behind them as we cross into the front yard. I spent the whole year wishing for summer, and now that it’s here, I don’t know what to do with myself.
In my neighbour’s yard, there are several fold-up tables displaying old silverware, colourful baby clothes, paperbacks, and picture frames. Dana skips to the books, brushing her fingers along the hardcover history textbooks while Lauren inspects a large painting of water lilies pressed up against an oak tree. I walk across the yard and wave at the Hollands, my favourite couple on the street. They are dressed in button-downs and matching baseball caps. I say hello to them. They wave in sync with one another before returning to their conversation.
I stop at a table filled with teacups and decorative bottles, picture frames and coverless books, notepads and inkless pens, handheld silver mirrors and unused dust-covered candles. I pick up a gold picture frame with a stock photograph of a white girl. Lauren appears behind me and looks at the frame as well. My mother always critiqued the white families in the picture frames, said it made her uncomfortable that they were real people, walking around the earth, shitting and eating terrible food like the rest of us.
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” I say.
Lauren looks at me, slowly takes the frame out of my hand, and places it back on the table. “Stop talking about her like she’s dead.”
“No, she’s not! Stop saying that, oh my god, Mel. You’re so dramatic.”
My mother is actually in Belize.
During finals week, she left me a voicemail saying she was flying to Central America by herself until she fostered a perfect renewal of her inner child. That was two months ago. I haven’t heard from her since. When I came back to Maryland, I called Lauren and Dana to tell them the news. They were distraught too. She’s not just my mother, she’s Lauren’s and Dana’s as well. When Lauren’s father passed away in high school, and Dana’s mother got sick during her fall semester of freshman year, my mother was there. She always has been, since we were little girls leaping and cartwheeling during gymnastics practice at the community centre when we were all in the third grade. Dana’s family couldn’t afford the lessons, and Lauren’s parents were enduring a divorce. My mother was always there for us. She lived for us all. Now, she is finally living her own life.
My mother missed my graduation. I came home to a note on the kitchen table:
Hi Mel, congrats on your graduation! xx so proud of you!
I am writing to you from Belize; it is just so stunning here, wow. Anyway, I don’t know when I’m coming back, so the house is yours now! Oh, and just so you know, I am throwing my phone into the ocean, but I love you so much, my dear. xx.
I kept the letter, though my tears smudged most of the ink. All her belongings were gone, so the house quickly overfilled with my clutter.
“She might as well be dead,” I say. “She acts like she’s grown.”
“She’s 50, so…she’s actually very grown,” Lauren says.
My eyes lock on a yellow teacup set sitting at the end of the table. I reach for it, cup the glasses in my hand. It’s two dollars for each cup, saucers included. I grab all four.
“You don’t need those.” Lauren takes the teacups out of my hands.
I pick them up again, along with a book about growing mushrooms, fungi, and sprouts. I give a couple of dollars to the Hollands. Lauren says I have a shopping addiction, always buying and keeping things I don’t need. But I’m just curating a perfect life.
The girls and I are walking back to my house. Dana has a new dress, I have a new book and tea set, and Lauren has a new person to complain about.
“That lady was unbearable,” she says. “Why do you need to stand two fucking millimeters away from me? There’s a whole fucking lawn!”
I step into the yard, and in the corner of my eye, I see it, that horrid creature I call Cat, taunting me from across the street. The cat sits on the sidewalk, its tail fluttering behind. I blink, and it sprints away. I hate that goddamn cat. Dana and Lauren never see it in time. So, I suffer alone.
I unlock the front door, and we shuffle into the living room. The wooden floors creak beneath us. In the 90s, this house was photographed for House & Garden Magazine, and it hasn’t changed much since its glory days. Sky blue curtains margin the bay windows. The dark green velvet loveseat is covered in quilted throw blankets. An area rug spreads across the floor, colouring the ground with pinks, blues, yellows, and greens. The bookshelves bracket a flat screen TV. Oil-paint-covered canvases line the walls. Picture frames with photos of my mother and I stand on the side tables. There are no photographs of my father, which does not bother me or my mother. We left him when I was barely a year old. I was never interested in creating hypotheticals when it came to him.
Dana throws her body on the loveseat, stretching out her limbs with a deep yawn while Lauren and I move through the living room and into the kitchen. I open the kitchen windows to drown the house in fresh Maryland air.
Lauren, with a mild look of disgust, pivots her gaze between me and the kitchen. “Do you even use this place?”
“Sometimes,” I say. Lie.
The kitchen hit its peak in 2008.
When I was a little girl, I thought this place was a labyrinth. Magical fairy dust spilled from every corner. Cabinets were passageways to another world. Checkerboard floors could become lava at any moment. Plants overgrowing on the windowsill were a jungle of vines and moss. Everything was malleable. Everything was powerful. The kitchen, a shapeshifter, changed into whatever I wanted. Now, the cabinets are brown and busted. The counter sunken. Diluted coffee drops stain the backwash. The hinges on the pantry are loose. The kitchen table is overfilled with unopened mail, and each seat holds a bunch of my sweaters and shoe boxes.
I put the tea set on the coffee maker next to yesterday’s dark roast. I toss the garden book in the dish drainer. Lauren sighs. I pick up the book again. Stare at the cover. Reread the title several times over.
“I think I have this book.” I look through the window and out into the backyard. “Shit!.”
Dana and Lauren perk up. “What?”
I stare at the baby blue shed in the backyard. Its exterior is bleached by the rain and snow of changing seasons. Wet leaves stick to its side, a corner is rusted from last year’s hurricane, and the silver lock doesn’t work anymore. It’s the gateway into my past and everything I want to hold on to. My copy of this book must be in there.
“I have to go out to the shed,” I say.
“I thought your mother’s stuff was in there.”
“It’s all with her in Belize.”
“She took everything with her?”
“Pretty much,” I say. “She got rid of the things she wasn’t using.”
Lauren and Dana follow me through the kitchen, out the back door, and to the shed. I twist the lock off and pry the doors open. A gush of stale air engulfs me. I cough. The girls and I enter the shed. Boxes and storage bins are stacked to the ceiling, bright print labels stickered to the sides. Boxes filled with middle school yearbooks. High school prom dresses. Undergraduate awards and certificates. Hatboxes with playing cards and glitter pens. Books from my trip to Thailand. A broken banjo my cousin gifted me for my 13th birthday. Glass jars of drinks I had when I studied abroad in Germany and France. Children’s books and dried flowers.
“You’re like an archivist!” Dana says.
“She’s not an archivist; she’s a hoarder.” Lauren runs her finger through a tulle skirt that hangs out of an open storage container. “Why do you keep all of this?”
“Where else would I put it?”
“In the trash.” Lauren flicks a glob of dust off her fingers.
“Maybe you can just take pictures of everything and put it on a hard drive. It’s like the same thing. You can minimise your carbon footprint that way,” says Dana. I pretend not to hear her.
As I walk through the maze of myself and away from Dana as she tries to convince Lauren of her hard drive idea, I find an old mirror. In the corner of the frame sits a photo of my younger self. My mother always said I looked just like she did when she was that age. She was a little girl once too, but I just can’t imagine it. I push my stomach out as far as I can and try to imagine myself pregnant. Terrifying. I flatten my sweater over my belly, reaching for another box filled with old vases and wine glasses etched with scratches and stains. I pick up a green glass and hold it up to the light. I open the bright pink hatbox between my legs and look inside. Movie sticker stubs. Diner receipts. Emptied perfume bottles. Love letters written on printer paper and takeout boxes. At the bottom of the box, there’s a handful of paperbacks.
Lauren lifts a flap of a cardboard box. “This might actually be a health hazard.”
“There might be asbestos in here,” Dana says. “I think it forms from dust.”
“You’ve got to get rid of some things.” Lauren is holding a clay mask I made in the second grade. It’s ornamented with feathers and macaroni noodles. I always wanted to eat the noodles. My art teacher, Miss Hayes, was a bit too enthusiastic about the potential of our little minds and would often cut the erasers off our pencils saying, “There’s no such thing as mistakes!”
I wish I had enough delusion to live my life believing that.
I open a cardboard box filled with coloured paper, pens, markers, glitter, and feathers. I pull out a halo headband and place it on my head. Lauren smiles between her sneezes. Loose feathers flutter in the air around us.
“Do you remember when we made these?” says Dana.
“Oh god, I forgot that happened,” Lauren laughs. “That damn talent show.”
“What was that guy singing before we went on?”
“That Otis Redding song,” I say. “He was wearing a fisherman’s uniform singing ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’.”
Lauren and Dana laugh. “How do you remember that?”
“I remember everything,” I say.
This is the one statement I can make over and over again, and it will always remain true. I’m obsessed with documenting everything. I don’t want to forget anything. So I’ve become a historian of my own life. This shed is my archive, and I don’t want to lose anything.
“Well, if you have the memories, then you don’t need the physical manifestation of it, do you?” Lauren reaches for the headband and slips it off my head. The band is broken, creased right at the centre. More feathers fill the air.
I rummage through the books. “I knew I had a copy of it!”
My fungi-garden-mushroom book. I hold it to the light. Water-damaged pages, a broken spine, a brown stain on the back cover. I don’t even want to guess where it’s from.
“Well, I’m glad I bought a new copy. This shit is useless.” I drop it back into the box.
Lauren, still sneezing, takes the book out of the box. “Just throw it away. You don’t need it.” She looks around the whole shed. “You don’t need a lot of this shit.”
“I’ll get rid of some things. But for now, no.” I blow Lauren a kiss and yank Dana away from the corner of the shed where all my Halloween costumes lay. The last thing I need is for Dana to start trying things on. She’s a theatre kid, so I must be particularly careful with her.
Lauren follows us outside.
“You can’t just be a hoarder and expect us to cosign it.”
“I’m not a hoarder!” I lock the shed back up. Dana is already on the back porch. “It’s so hot, I’m gonna pass out.”
“You’re in denial,” says Lauren.
“It’s one of the stages of grief.”
“Your mother is not dead! Stop saying that. Oh my god—”
“I’ll deal with it later.” I join Dana at the back door.
“The denial or the shed full of shit?” calls Lauren.
“Neither,” I say. But I am already in the kitchen, reaching for the book.
During the last week of July, the girls make me their employer against my will.
They are set on emptying the shed.
On Saturdays, Lauren spent her morning at a Pilates class in the city, while Dana was stationed at the community theatre, working on a production to make the summer go by a bit faster. I power walked around the neighbourhood with a skincare mask on. I thought the vitamin B serum would somehow cancel out the sweat build-up in my pours. I was wrong.
I don’t know where I’ll be by summer’s end, but I know where I’ll be at the end of the day: at home, barricading myself between couch cushions and cashmere blankets as the TV projects some guilty pleasure of mine. But today, that is not happening. Today is different. Today, Lauren, Dana, and I are walking back from the gas station with handfuls of freshly purchased trash bags. I slow my pace and fall behind them, taking deep breaths as I look around the street. I love this city. I love these houses. I love this neighbourhood. I love how I always return here.
The narrow one-way road splits the neighbourhood in half. Not a single home is replicated. A yellow-shuttered cottage at the end of the street. Houses with cobblestone exteriors and arched doorways. Two-story homes with white picket fences and magnolia trees. The Smiths live beside us and have a big family. Their front yard is often littered with toy trucks and bicycles. During school breaks, the kids would peek over my mother’s fence, which is now my fence, and give me handfuls of the grass they pulled straight from the ground. I rarely see them now.
There’s also Mr Wilson, the substitute teacher who has been in every middle and high school all over the county. This is an exaggeration, but when I was a little girl, I believed it. Mr Wilson is always whistling some unnamed song. He has only spoken to me once, three years ago at the end of January, when he told me that I reminded him of an illegitimate ladybug playing dress-up as another insect. I did not respond. He continued humming.
I walk a bit faster as we pass his home and catch up to Lauren and Dana. We make our way down the uneven sidewalk. Dandelions peek from the edges of the concrete. I step on every crack.
We reach my house, and that damn cat is sitting on the hood of my Volvo.
“Leave! Me! Alone!”
Lauren and Dana turn around. “Who are you yelling at?”
Dana, spotting the cat before Lauren does, carefully approaches my car, cooing and kissing and coaxing the cat to come near her. “Come here, come here.”
I leave the cat whisperer and walk to the side gate, pushing it open and entering the backyard. Lauren catches up to me. The grass is taller now because I told Ethan, the Smiths’ eldest son, that there was no need for him to cut the grass anymore. My mother was obsessed with clean-cut lines and even patterns needled into the grass. Last July, when Ethan was at summer camp and couldn’t cut the grass, my mother panicked. She bought a lawnmower and wrecked the yard. She cut the lilies right off their stems. Mowed janky patterns into the grass. Garden tools got caught in the blade. I watched from the kitchen window as she knocked the lawn mower on its side, kicking the engine over and over again. She stomped across the grass, up porch stairs, through the back door, the kitchen, the living room, and up to her room. She didn’t leave her bed for two days.
This time, I wasn’t going to try to cut the grass myself. Growing up, all I wanted was a garden overflowing with lush greenery. So I will have just that.
Dana eventually catches up to us and has an obnoxious pout on her face. “She left me.”
We reach the baby blue shed, I unlock the door, and the stale air consumes us once more. Stray squares of sunlight illuminate the interior. I sigh.
Lauren says we should start by pulling every bin and box out into the grass while Dana prepares the aperture on her digital camera, ready to photograph every object for her sustainability idea. I stand still in front of the open shed, a long exhale sharply passing my lips. Dana pats my shoulder. Lauren airs out a trash bag. I have no fight left in me anymore. I give in.
Past-Tense-Paralysis is what Dana calls this condition, and I just got diagnosed.
“It’s not you, it’s the PTP,” says Dana. “PTP is terminal. It’s worse than nostalgia.”
We are sitting on storage bins around the shed.
Our mugs are filled with wine – at least mine was. I drank half the bottle already. I open a box. Inside, there are more old costumes and accessories from our days of playing make-believe. There’s a stained wedding veil. Feathered angel wings. The halo headband. A baseball cap from the New York Yankees Negro League, a leftover momento from one of my mother’s old boyfriends. It’s next to a frayed baseball with Lauren’s fifth-grade signature. She never played baseball or any sports, really. We had so many different dreams over the years. Dana wanted to be a chef and then a basketball player before she found the theatre stage after an error in her eighth-grade class schedule. Lauren wanted to be a screenwriter until her mother told her there’s no money in that field, which led her to fashion design. But after a traumatic interaction between her hand and a sewing machine, she stopped wishing. Now she’s submerged in the STEM world and still has the scar on her left hand.
All I wanted was to travel. To have an assortment of gems and memories from cities and towns all over the world. I was close to fulfilling that dream. I even held it in my hand when I was in France and Germany and Thailand. But now, I’m back in Maryland, and I don’t know what I’m doing. The most explorative option I’ve considered is a position for an office assistant at the liberal arts university a few minutes away.
At the bottom of the cardboard box, there’s an old diary from my 10th year. I flip through the pages and trace my fingers on the arches of my old bubbly handwriting, recounting the old stories documented in pink glitter ink. I’ve lived a life up until now. I read the names of my childhood friends. The girls I loved and who loved me. They live in my head forever and have never grown up. But so many have moved away and moved on. Lauren and Dana are the only ones who stayed, but there were so many of us. Perhaps it’s just a leftover belief from girlhood, but I thought I would always have them and that we’d be friends forever. I close the diary, and my chest is burning. I stand up and leave the shed. Tears form in my eyes, and they waste no time falling. I remember when I learned about gravity. I remember when I first saw my hair defy it. Afro expanded by pick. The full round shape my mother styled it into. Standing beside me as I looked in the mirror. I cry harder.
Lauren and Dana eventually join me outside, and I can’t stop crying. They sit me down in the grass, we lay on our backs, and I’m crying. The blades tangle in my curls, the earth curves beneath us, and I’m crying. There is so much to be grateful for, and I’m still crying.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Why are you apologising?” says Lauren. “What’s going on?”
“I just don’t know what I’m doing anymore.”
“No one does,” says Dana. Her words scratch the air upon exit. She’s crying too.
“I just miss my mother,” I say. “I really miss her.”
“She’s alive, Mel. Remember that,” says Dana. “She’ll be okay.”
“I just worry about her.”
“We do too,” says Lauren.
A silence spreads around us, and I try to find supplements for the hurt. I try to amplify the presence of something in front of me so I don’t focus on what I am without it. I concentrate on the coolness of the dirt. The crickets tuning their wings for their evening songs. The clouds grazing the blue above us. Then, Dana breaks the silence. “Do you think the dead talk to each other about us?” she says. “Do you think my mother and your father are watching us?”
“I hope so,” says Lauren. “My mother always said he was so lonely down here. I wouldn’t want him to be lonely up there too.”
Dana and I are quiet, so Lauren continues. “I just wish I knew what he was looking for. What about our family wasn’t enough for him to stay?”
I feel myself slipping again, breaths tightening, eyes watering. I feel so silly. I sit up, then Lauren, then Dana, sniffling and wiping their tears as well. The grass is still flattened beneath us in the shape of our bodies. There are buttercups all over. An aeroplane passes in the sky, its engine reverberating in the air around us. There is rustling in the bushes by the fence. We all look over. The creature is back. Dana starts coaxing the cat to come near, but it ignores her.
“Aren’t you allergic to cats?” says Lauren.
“Yes, but she’s worth the stuffy nose and swollen eyes.”
“How do you know it’s a she?” Lauren tweezes blades of grass from the ground.
“She talked, and I listened,” Dana says.
I think of my mother. When I started high school and got my first job at the Italian ice place, I broke our Saturday morning bike ride routine. And once she realised I wouldn’t be spending that time with her, she got rid of her bike and started rollerblading at the roller rink with Mrs Smith. I would come home late Saturday afternoons, and she’d be gone. I would have to make dinner for us, following the handwritten cooking instructions she stickered to the counter.
I look up at the darkening sky. I used to love summer when I was a little girl. There’s no way this same sun illuminated me in childhood. The girls and I won’t go back to the baby blue shed today, I’m sure. But I know I’ll have to enter that maze of myself again.
During the last week of July, the garden becomes the playing field for our keep, toss, or sell olympics.
Lauren has developed a methodology, and Dana is way too excited to assort the items I’ll be selling at the next community yard sale in a few days. Everything is stressing me out. The wasteland I call a kitchen. The table filled with mail. The heat. The shed still not fully emptied of everything. The fact that it’s almost August, and summer is closing in on its last lap, and I still haven’t heard back from the office assistant job. Soon, Lauren will leave for Iowa to start graduate school. Dana is still awaiting responses to job applications on the west coast. But, I will still be here, alone, sleeping in my childhood bed, staining the living room loveseat with wonton soup and lo mein. Every. Single. Night.
Lauren picks up two baby dolls by their ankles as if they’re freshly killed carcasses. If I don’t make my decision in 10 seconds, whatever is in her hands will automatically be put in the sell-bin.
I keep looking at the baby dolls.
I consider the toss-bin. The dolls are raggedy, stained by unidentified liquids, and quite frankly, I forgot they existed until now. I don’t even like them, and I don’t even remember playing with them. So, toss. But what if I have a daughter? What if she’s like, “Mum, please show me the most unimportant toy you’ve ever received in all your years of living?” I would want to take one of these blonde-haired rag dolls out and show her, and we could laugh at how flimsy and stinky they are. It would be the perfect bonding moment. So, keep. But what if I sell it? And one of the Smiths’ children wants to use it for a science project on the X and Y chromosomes in their sixth-grade biology class that’s worth 30% of their overall grade? Who am I to deny a child of this?
I sigh. “Can I keep one? And sell the other?”
“Yes,” the girls say, but I’m not satisfied.
“Okay then, the one on the right.”
“To keep or to cut?” says Dana.”That is the question.”
I don’t say anything, and Lauren puts one doll in the sell-bin and the other in the keep-bin. I try not to cry.
It’s the community yard sale, and my front lawn is littered with fold-up tables and blankets to display all of my precious little things.
Lauren takes care of collecting the cash from our buyers while Dana sits on the front stoop, refreshing her email. My neighbours congregate in the yard, inspecting the condition of old textbooks and pictures encased in wooden frames. The Hollands visit. They pick up the old playing cards I got in the sixth grade. They buy the two green mugs I got several years ago from a thrift store. Mr Wilson visits as well. He buys a Miles Davis record and questions me about the kind of record player I have so he can predict the condition of the vinyl. I tell him it’s an old record player my grandfather gave me, but Mr Wilson isn’t satisfied. He starts whistling around the yard.
I’m standing next to Lauren as she continues to count the bills. I don’t even have enough to cover next month’s utilities.
Ethan, the Smiths’ eldest son and my ex-employee, is eyeing the print I have of the 1989 World Series. I don’t need the print, but I want it. I want to keep it, but I promised myself I’d let it go.
“Mel, how much for this one?” asks Ethan.
“It’s not for sale, buddy boy.”
Ethan chuckles, and Lauren nudges me. I clear my throat. “It’s yours.”
“Yeah, take it,” I say. “It’s all yours.”
Ethan’s face lights up. He is careful and precise as he lifts the print up from the ground. He holds it up in front of him, admiring the poster with such attention.
Lauren pulls me in for a hug. “I’m proud of you.”
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been held like this.
Once the yard sale ends, we don’t return to the shed. Instead, we open heavy-duty trash bags and stuff the leftovers inside. Ballerina tutus. Untouched composition notebooks. Colouring books and markers. Button-down dress shirts and matching hats. They will all be taken to the thrift store across town. I made a promise that I wouldn’t keep the things that didn’t sell. And I intend to keep it.
Dana is looking at her phone while Lauren and I place two bins filled with old clothes into the shed. Dana shrieks, and I look at the forest. Either the squirrel or cat is back.
“What’s going on?” says Lauren.
Dana has tears in her eyes. “That touring company? They liked my prescreen. They want me in LA next week.”
I freeze. Lauren leaps over to Dana, wrapping her arms around her and swaying side to side. “I’m so proud of you.”
Dana is still crying. “It’s happening. It’s really happening.”
I join them, wrap my arms around them, trying to keep their warmth from evaporating. I don’t want them to leave. Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave. Please.
It is the first day of August. Lauren and Dana are gone.
I am sitting on the loveseat, still dressed in my white button-down and black slacks from my job interview at the liberal arts college. My body is wrapped in cashmere blankets, the TV is on, and I eat my lo mein in plentiful amounts. I crack a fortune cookie between my fingers. I don’t read the fortune. My house is empty, and the kitchen is still a mess. But my shed isn’t. My shed is organised, thanks to Lauren. And I also have a series of photos of the girls and I wearing and holding the things I decided to give away, thanks to Dana.
I look out the bay windows. The evening is settling in, and the sky is painted pink and blue. I stand up, and the blankets fall to the ground. The wooden panels creak against my footsteps as I reach the front door and step outside. The air is clean, and the street is quiet.
I go to the mailbox, tap my nails against the metal before opening it. Inside, there’s a cluster of envelopes and letters. I flip through the bundle. There’s a postcard. A photo of a sunset over Belmopan, Belize. My mother’s handwriting:
Thinking of you. Love you lots, Mel! Love, Momma.
I close the mailbox. I want to cry. I want to laugh. I want to feel anything more than devastation. She’s cleaning the slate as she always does. I miss her so much. But I know she needs this. Even if she has always been a flight risk, despite the distance, it’s never a one-way ticket. She always found her way back home. And I’ll be here when she’s ready to return.
Across the street, the black cat is staring at me.
“You can come in if you want,” I say.
The cat blinks. I leave the door open. There’s room for her here.
I call my mother. It goes straight to voicemail. But at least I can hear her voice.
I call the girls and walk in circles around the house as they tell me about the first days of their new lives. Lauren has moved into her new apartment and loves her roommates. They’re throwing a housewarming party, inviting the other grad students in their programme for a night of karaoke and cocktails. Dana is in the ensemble of a new musical, learning the choreography until it’s permanent in her body and can be reached through song. She wishes her mother could see her, and I wish so too. The girls ask me how things are, but I don’t have any news. I want to tell them I feel lighter, but it doesn’t make sense. So, I just listen and say, hey, how are you? How was your day? How’s your tomorrow looking? I have so much time.
Kailah Figueroa is a rhetorical engineer, memory archivist, and part-time prose stylist. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Rutgers-Newark and writes The Saddest Girl in _______ a substack newsletter for commonplace meditations. Her poetry and fiction have been published in Homology Lit, Perhappened, Prose Online, Passengers, and others. In 2021 she was a recipient of the Fulbright Summer Institute at the University of Bristol for Arts, Activism, and Social Justice. You can find her at kailahfigueroa.com.