Photo Credit: nikki
Magalie was coming for me. I stood behind the hedge that circled our house and watched each car pass. I didn’t know what kind of car Magalie drove, but I would know her in an instant. I understood her black hair and black eyes and cheekbones jutted out like cliffs against the ocean. I had never seen her, but I understood.
I stayed close to the iron gate, which I unlatched so that when she drove up I could fly from that place.
When I got tired of standing I walked around the inside of the hedge and then I ran and then I stopped, crouched, listened for the next car and when I heard it I sprang up. Then I was still again.
Mrs. White came to the back porch, which she called a lanai when her friends visited. She sipped on a glass of white wine, which meant that it was fall. Mr. and Mrs. White were very specific about their drinks. No calendar could mark a season like Mrs. White switching from fall white to winter red. I knew the seasons by the content of a glass.
Mrs. White asked me what I was doing standing by the hedge all day, and why in heaven’s good name did I have my suitcase with me.
“I’m playing airport, Mom,” I said. I used the voice that sounded like I would never abandon Mrs. White.
“Well, dinner’s ready.”
“Just a minute.”
“No, now, Margaret. Your father has been promoted and we’re having a feast tonight.”
Over dinner, Mr. White told us about his promotion at his computer job. He was helping develop the Internet, which would connect us all. Mr. White talked slow and deliberate and did not jumble his words with excitement and he did not let more than a few moments of silence slip by him. He was ever diligent that way. I had long suspected that he planned the dinner conversation during his drive home from work. Mrs. White nodded her head and said “interesting” when she heard the Internet story. Then she threw back the white wine and felt around the edges of the glass with her tongue.
So everything was back to normal. They had recovered from the big talk. I knew something was up the night of the big talk because Mrs. White got to watching the clock. Every couple of weeks she worked herself up and came into the kitchen where I sat doing homework and looked at the clock and looked at her wristwatch. After that, she went back to the living room or the basement to her paintings, or wherever Mrs. White goes. When she’d waited maybe three or four minutes she came back to the kitchen and asked how the homework was coming but all the time looking at that clock. I wished she kept a clock in every room and not just the kitchen because her nerves got to me. When five o’clock came she poured herself a glass. Five o’clock is the hour when the God of the Episcopalians turns a blind eye to hard drink.
I really knew something was up when she ordered pizza and soda and let me eat in the living room without utensils. This was our heathen feast, she said. She and Mr. White watched me chew my food, which made me chew slow and deliberate, which is hard to do with pizza in your mouth.
Mr. White cleared his throat. I expected a lesson about whatever subject he dreamed up while sitting in traffic, but instead he said he had something important to tell me, but Mrs. White took over. In those days I understood that she held the secrets of the world and fed us the proportions as she saw fit.
“You’re adopted, Margaret.” she said. “We really should have told you sooner but we never found the right time.”
Mr. White squinted at the floor. “You’re our daughter,” he said. “There’s no difference. We’ve had you your entire ten years of life.” Then, as he was prone to do, he got too specific: “Well, we’ve had you since you were three days old.”
“Who had me before that?” I asked.
Mrs. White uncorked herself as she told me the whole story of my coming. I could hardly keep up. She said she could not have children of her own, that her whom was barren as the dust. She said a man who used syringes to get a feeling as delicious as candy had loved a woman and they had four children together and gave them all up for adoption.
“I don’t know, but we’re grateful for you,” she said. Her eyes glassed over, but I recognized this look, this filling up with too much of the hours, this watery substance of clear nothing. She blinked.
The Whites had picked me up at the hospital and my birth mother was very beautiful and she did not cry. Mrs. White went into some detail about my birth mother, describing her long dark hair and lovely features. I could tell that Mrs. White admired her.
“You see, she’s made a couple of unexpected visits to the home of one of the children she’d given away. And she’s been asking the agency about all her children. I mean her biological children. You are our child, Margaret.”
“Is she coming here?” I asked.
“Heavens no,” Mrs. White said. “I mean, I don’t expect that. It’s been more than ten years now. She has no legal claim…”
“What is her name?” It was a good question. But Mrs. White should never have answered.
That night the Whites settled on the couch to watch Miami Vice. They sat closer than usual, practically touching. Mr. White teased her. “You think that Sonny Crockett is handsome?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes. “That’s why he’s on TV, I guess.”
“You’re prettier than those women on TV.” He put his hand on her lap, but she shifted with his touch, like there was a sugar ant crawling on her thigh. She rolled her eyes again, looked at her watch and looked back to the TV.
They caught me watching and sent me to my room.
In the days that followed they watched me closely. Mrs. White righted herself about the Magalie situation, saying that it was highly unlikely that anyone would come looking for me. With her before-five-o’clock voice she begged me not to worry. I wasn’t worried, though. It was something else. I had something to look for in the world.
So I watched for her. Wherever I went, I turned my head like I was following a tennis match. I liked to guess about what life would be like with Magalie. There would be no school, of course. I wouldn’t need to wear shoes, either. My brothers and sisters would be there—the other children who Magalie had given away. I guessed there were two other boys and one girl. I was happy with the thought of a younger sister who would love me as soon as she saw me.
Waiting for Magalie was exhausting business. Every day I hauled my suitcase to the edge of the yard and walked, crouched, hopped and then stood still as a statue. When our neighbor Mr. Whitaker came by to ask what game I was playing or tell me how fast I was growing up or explain how he got his limp in the war, I told him I was playing a game where I had to pretend to be as still as a statue and, sorry, I couldn’t talk to anyone. He learned to pass without saying a word.
I could think of Magalie and nothing else. I stopped spending the night with friends. When Luella from church asked me to sleep over I told her I had better things to do. She said I was a boring friend. I told her she smelled like a half-ton of rotten cheese. She cried right there in the vestibule.
The days blurred together. The fall turned cold and I bundled myself to wait. My nose practically froze off and I wore a long red scarf wrapped around my head and face, with just my eyes peeking out. My eyes were dry all the time because I tried to see how long I could go without blinking. You never know what happens when you blink. I was getting tough because I stood in the cold for a long time, letting ice stick to my nostrils and lips and eyelashes without complaining.
Around this time Mrs. White noticed something about me that I hadn’t noticed, probably because I had better things to do. She called me inside. I was terrified that Magalie would come while I was with Mrs. White. I rocked back and forth and told her I had to go. She moved the red scarf from my head and stroked my face like I had a fever.
“I noticed that you’re getting breasts, Margaret.”
“What?” I folded my arms over my chest. I was very close to Mrs. White. I frowned at her pale eyebrows and pale, thin hair and her after-five-o’clock breath like overripe fruit.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, honey. You’re growing up fast. I think we need to take you to get your first bra.”
“Okay,” I said because I would say anything to get away from her. But she wouldn’t let me go. She told me that soon, maybe one or two years, I would get the monthly blood. I told her if she didn’t stop talking about blood that would vomit blood guts all over the place. So she let me back outside. I ran quick to wait for Magalie.
That Saturday afternoon I went with Mrs. White to pick out the bra. She took her time talking with the department store clerk about the breast situation. “They’re as big as kumquats,” she said and she held out her thumb and index fingers against her chest to show the size. Sometimes Mrs. White talked differently to women behind counters than she did to her own friends from the Episcopalian women’s group. She sounded more like herself with strangers.
The woman behind the counter smiled at me as Mrs. White talked. The two of them walked the aisles of the store picking out ice cream colors—strawberry and pistachio and chocolate and vanilla and lemon. I’d walked these aisles many times, with no feeling for myself. This day was no different. I nodded my head each time they showed me a color. I needed to get the whole thing over with quick.
Mrs. White waited outside the fitting room as I tried on each bra. I might have tried on one hundred training bras, though no one would say what I was training for. Each time she saw me in a bra, she clapped her hands like I’d just scored a soccer goal.
When I shut the fitting room door it swung back open and I saw a terrible thing. I saw myself beside Mrs. White, our hair the same cut and our skin as white as eggshells from the winter and my shape taking her shape and me exposed with a lemon bra and her with that sugar ant crawling on her thighs, bothering her all day and night.
This must be what I was training for.
I wanted to leave so badly that I put on my clothes over the lemon-colored bra and rushed out. Mrs. White pulled me back and led me to the checkout counter, where the department store clerk reached into my shirt to read the price tag.
Afterwards, Mrs. White took me for ice cream, which only reminded me of the bras and the fitting room. It was hard to escape her after that day. She was always finding a way to connect our interests. She tried to bring me to her office in the basement where she kept her paintings, each one half-finished. I hated that place because it was damp and dark and chilly as a cave. Mrs. White’s paintings made the basement worse: green hills and half a river, a pink lotus flower with six petals and no stem, a forest with two trees and the sunset sky painted like a claw. I liked only one painting—a green hummingbird poised over nothing, drinking from the white canvas—but even it could not keep me in that basement.
“Maybe you’d like to pose for one of my paintings, honey,” she said.
“Don’t you know you’ll never finish a painting?” I said. I went back outside to wait for Magalie.
At night I dreamed I was on a speedboat with Crockett and Tubbs. We sped through the daytime, past the palm trees and blue water and those women in bikinis with the plump, tan rear ends. We sped straight into night. Crockett and Tubbs never spoke, and I was afraid they would laugh at me, since I only wore short-shorts and that lemon-colored bra. With each bounce of the boat my breasts grew. They were so enormous that as the boat sped I had to hold my arms crossed over my chest to keep those suckers from flapping in the breeze. We sped straight along the coast until bright red cliffs cropped up and I knew we were in a different place. I thought they were taking me to her but the night was dark so I strained my eyes to watch for her black hair against the red mountains. I looked down and my breasts had become dough and then Crockett, Tubbs and I broke bread at a picnic feast, where a green hummingbird hovered by my ear, and then I woke.
Mr. and Mrs. White were drinking red wine now, so I could not ignore that a whole season had passed without Magalie. But I still waited.
One night before Christmas, Mrs. White spilled her red wine on the floor and said “damn it” and then asked me when I was going to stop playing that ridiculous airport game in the freezing cold. I couldn’t see how that question related to the wine and the cursing but it was one of her clock watching days so I expected some mischief.
“What is the airport game?” Mr. White asked.
I had to make up a story while Mrs. White got on her hands and knees to clean the carpet. She laid down a towel and dabbed it with both hands, softly, like she kept a pet underneath. She sprayed stain remover on the carpet and dabbed the stain again with the towel. The whole time she worked she missed a small stain to her left. As I explained airport to Mr. White, Mrs. White sat up and arched her back. When she saw the missed stain she touched her finger to it and rubbed, brought her finger to her mouth as a tiny trail of red wine ran down. She licked her finger, and sucked.
And then I saw Magalie.
There was a space as empty as canvas between the day when Mrs. White sucked her finger and the day I saw Magalie. I remember cold biting me. I remember thawing my feet by the fire, feeling like a hundred thousand needles pricked my toes. I remember the hot coming on me too, and Mrs. White putting my head in her lap to stroke away the pain. I was not allowed to play the airport game. I was not allowed outside at all. I slept but no rest would come because I could not rest for want of watching. My bed was in a damp basement with stone walls. For one hundred years I heard the drip, drip of a leaky faucet that fed the slow stream of blood that pooled on the floor and rose until it floated my bed. Sonny and Crockett rode their speedboat through the ocean of blood and sometimes they stayed silent beside me and sometimes they sped on. I could not keep from closing my eyes and so I pulled out my eyeballs and hung them on a coat hanger, which I kept on a hook by the door that led in and out of that ever-darkening room. At night my eyes slipped from the hanger and wandered the house and went outside, searching. In the morning my eyes were dry and sore and I used a syringe to refresh them, to give them a feeling as delicious as candy.
When I woke with my eyes returned to me it was champagne spritzer season. Mrs. White called me to the basement to show off her painting of a beautiful ballerina with no legs. I didn’t want to see a ballerina with no legs, or even a hummingbird with no place to feed. I was still dragging a feeling as heavy as sleep. I was quiet. She told me she wanted me to come to the grocery store with her.
“No thanks, I said. “I’m going outside again.”
“I’m not asking you, Margaret. I’m telling you. It’s high time you learned how to plan meals and shop accordingly.” She was using the voice from the Episcopalian women’s group.
So Mrs. White and I went to the store. That’s where I saw Magalie.
Mrs. White pushed the cart along the frozen food section while I kept my hand on the cart to be a part of it all. We were in search of some kind of greenery, so I took a bag of peas from the freezer and held onto it.
I kept my eyes to the ground until I saw bare feet. The feet were small, no bigger than mine, and they attached to two skinny brown legs and cut-off jean shorts. I thought I was looking at a boy until I saw the rounded hips and plump rear end and the black hair, free flowing and tangled. We passed the tiny woman slowly. She stood with the freezer door open, and all the cold from the frozen foods spilled on the floor and around, like a Halloween witch in dry ice. When we were passed I turned my head and then I saw her. Magalie.
The vapor hung around her head so she looked like a bride exposed. I saw my own face, but sweetly. She smiled at me and that’s when I screamed her name. I started to run to her. She held a frozen entrée in her hands and cocked her head to the side. I felt her knowing me. I felt her pulling me. But I was glued down and struggled against something. I was screaming. I had only said it in whispers and now I could not stop screaming her name. Magalie. Magalie. Magalie.
Mrs. White held me tight. She shook me hard, then harder. She was telling me to stop, stop right now. Other faces appeared in the frozen food section—these were only floating heads and I did not care. Magalie. Magalie.
The vapor cleared and her bridal veil disappeared. I saw her full on, with the dirt on her knees, face unpainted, just come down from that place where she lived, where I’d been dreaming. I screamed. Magalie.
Mrs. White tried to hold me but I swung around and kicked her in the stomach, where it counts. That’s when Mrs. White smacked me in the face. I saw it coming slow—her arm flung back as far as it would go, and coming down on me. My face stung hot. She turned me around, grabbed me by the back of the neck and led me out of the store without paying for our items. I still held the frozen peas and I buried my face in them to stop the sting of Mrs. White’s slap.
She cried so hard on the way home I could not bring myself to ask her the question. In all the time I spent calling her name I hadn’t looked to Mrs. White to see if she remembered the dark-haired woman. Among us only she would know.
When we got home our faces were runny with snot and tears and red streaks. Mr. White walked towards us but he stopped when he got a good look at our faces. He inspected us from a distance. He looked afraid to get too close. Mrs. White lifted her face to the sky and put her hand on her stomach where I’d kicked her. I felt low and tired and sore all over. I went to her, and placed the frozen peas on her belly, like a thousand frozen hummingbird eggs unthawing between us. She smiled at no one in particular.
And so we walked together into the house, to feast.
Maria Steele has published short fiction in Troubadour, The Blackwater Review, and Among These Hills. Also, she has thrice been awarded the Laurie O’Brien Creative Writing Scholarship offered by the University of West Florida, where she is a graduate student. Email: mgeneve.steele[at]gmail.com