By B. Domino
Featured art: Untitled Collage by Kennedy Cardenas
You’re thirteen when she comes to save you. Your father pulls you outside and says he’s got to talk to you about your mother. What he means is he’s got to talk to you about you because of your mother.
“You got to stay somewhere else for a while.” He’s got that crease between his eyes because he doesn’t want to say that he can’t take care of you—saying it makes it true. You could make this hurt. You could pick at the wound. Instead, you ask where you’re going to go, and he says her name.
“You remember your aunt, don’t you?”
Yeah, you got a memory of her. Your father walked the rows of his garden before everything changed while you both followed him, sprout by sprout like ducklings. After a while, he picked from the onions and handed her two. She peeled them both and handed one to you. Now you imagine her as a woman who looks like your mother but younger, so you’re surprised when she shows up like she does.
When your mother doesn’t come out to say hello to her sister or goodbye to her child, you just pick up your bag and watch your father grab for the door. Your aunt looks like you, or really, you look like her. You got that dark hair from your father’s side while she got that go-fuck-yourself purple from a box. That color snags you on memories of hearing your parents say she lives wrong.
“And that’s why we don’t see her no more.”
Now, all of a sudden, she’s family again. Or maybe, she’s not. But that means, neither are you. She stands, buttoned up and stiff when she shakes your father’s hand and looking at her is like looking at your future.
“Hey there, kiddo,” she says.
When you get in the car, she removes that stiffness and speaks in a voice that sounds like your mother’s—she got that round-lipped sound that sits low on the notes when it comes out. It’s the sound that smells like the rain in the desert that kicks up the dust.
“Let’s get out of here.”
When your aunt doesn’t live in an apartment, you’re surprised. She doesn’t live on the edge of the city and she doesn’t have roommates. She doesn’t have a man and she tells you she doesn’t need one. What she’s got is a lot. A leather couch. A big-screen TV. Pictures on the walls and a sliding glass door that leads to a private porch. She shows you behind a door that’s got a bed and tells you that it’s yours. The sheets are fresh and everything’s cleared out, she says. She’s talking a lot like you when you don’t know what else to do, but you’ve stop listening because you’re caught on a backpack she’s laid out on the bed. She’s enrolled you in your new school already, she says. She was ready for you.
Yeah, you could nurse some shock, but you shove that down deep, so you don’t look weak. Weakness lets the power shift, and that’s something you can never be come back from. You’ve let go of enough already and if you lose more, you’ll have nothing left. So, you stay stone-faced. You keep it in. If you’ve learned nothing, it’s that you can’t let the world tell you who gets to win. But your aunt grins big at you. She’s got no problem showing you a face full of teeth.
“I hope you like it here.”
That first night, you eat pizza out of the box and get to know each other. She talks to you like you’re an adult and tells about her life.
“Today’s the first day I been back there,” she says. When she left your home, she left. And she only went back for you. She tells you she dropped out of high school. She took job after job, and she lights up a little when she says she did all of it on her own. You know it’s true because of the story your mother and father spun for you. But this is her side. And though she raises the volume, you rise alongside, word for word. She built herself; she earned the pitch of her voice, and for the second time in one night, you chill and figure out how nice it is to be surprised. Your mother and father can be wrong. And every so often, knowing they’re wrong feels fine.
When the sun goes down, you step out onto the back porch and sit on lawn chairs together like friends. She drinks cheap beer and chain smokes, and her life tastes like traffic and sweat and city. It’s ripe. But it’s alive. You tell jokes and she got laugh lines, practiced in joy. They’re just details, nothing and small, like you, but like her too. Bigger things could never be as delicate as a detail. The conversation fades as she drinks—her cheeks rosing, blood filling in the grey.
“They love you. That’s why you’re here with me. Because they love you.”
When you were small, you followed your father through the gardens every weekend. One morning, he held two pairs of gloves and handed one to you.
“When you pull the weeds, you have to dig for the root.”
But weeds looked just like flowers that jumped out of their rows to you.
He moved on down the line, manicuring and plucking while you kneeled to the ground. You reached, hands wrapped in crusted gloves and made to pull the weeds. But you stopped. A wave caught you, green and fresh. The weed teemed with life almost like a spice, sprouting up in the untended dust. It wasn’t pretty or pleasant; it was full. And you got curious. You took a glove off, and you looked with your hands.
The velvet petals slipped through your fingers, telling you that you shouldn’t grab hard. Strong as the stem may have been, the paper of its leaves was delicate. In a sea of flowers that get love and care, the weeds made themselves, beautiful in their way, reaching for the sun.
“Waiting for something?” Your father asked. You said no, but when you reached for the root, you stopped trying to make it to die. You dug because he was watching you, but instead of digging down, you reach in and pulled out the earth, roots attached in the cup of your fist, and ran it to the corner of the garden.
“Where you going, kiddo?”
“I’m pulling the weeds.”
You did this over and over again. By the end of the afternoon, you had a stack waiting for you, unrooted and ready.
That night, you planted them into holes that no one would find, and watched over them just like you’d seen. You gave them morning sun and shade in the afternoon and watered the rows, but one day you came home from school and found them wilting. You trimmed the withering leaves and used the soil your father saved for the roses when they were sensitive. You held the delicate pieces in the palm of your hand and you talked to them. But the next day, they laid on the ground. They’d shriveled and they’d died.
A week goes by before your aunt teaches you to drive. You’re way too young to learn but the machine filters power into your hands through the steering wheel and for the first time you know what control feels like. Two beers shimmy in the cup holders in the middle of the night. The cherry of her smoke glows.
She pulls another cigarette and side-eyes you.
“You ever had one of these?”
You say no. She lights one and hands it to you. The clock on the dash reads three in the morning and turns everything in the car a pale blue. When you pinch the cigarette between your lips and pull harder than you should, you choke. She laughs, but not at you.
“You do that shit only with me. Got it?”
This is your aunt’s way of raising you and you know this is what your parents meant when they said she lives wrong. Maybe sometimes they can be right. But they’re the ones who gave you up and she’s the one who took you. Blood fills the grey of your face and you soak in the fresh, kind feeling of being drunk. You belong here inside this moment in the middle of the night. People on the outside looking in would take you away and treat you like a child, unrooted—not alive.
She walks you through the steps in the empty parking lot. Your got sloppy feet, trying to balance the pedals, and the humid air makes you sweat. When you punch it too hard, the car lurches forward and dies. Part of you expects her to yell—to get in your face. But she doesn’t. She lights another cigarette.
“Waiting for something?”
Your throat screams by the time the sun comes up, but this is the kind of love that lives in your blood. The glass smacks too hard when you cheers, and the sound digs new holes for you and plants some history.
You call your father sometimes, but the conversation always dies. He doesn’t know how to talk to you anymore. When he mentions your mother, he says she can’t come to the phone because she’s sleeping. She might be, but his voice tilts. Sometimes love sounds like a lie. You let it slide.
He tells you that he misses you. “Your mother misses you too.”
All your life, you felt full when your mother spoke. She spun back and forth between her words with your head swimming in the ocean of sounds that put you to sleep as a kid. She’d glide through talk, nimble, devastating, sweet, somehow more than just twenty-six letters building her thoughts. Her tongue twisted up the sides of stories, painting pictures like you’d only seen in your dreams. You got so many memories of her, but you remember when she changed.
Your mother attended the meetings at your school for the PTA. She’d come perfumed and done with a stiffness to her like she’d been holding on to her words all day long. When the women around her spoke, they said things like, “Some of our children prefer nutritious food.” You always wanted to giggle but you didn’t.
One day, they started talking about the school uniform. You wore button-downs and pleated slacks and the models always looked like little adults in the pictures, but when you put them on, the collars itched and the pants didn’t fit. Someone brought up something called a monogram.
“It’s only ten bucks a shirt. Total bargain.”
Your mother choked, but she still and spoke up. “Can we stitch it on ourselves?”
The woman looked at her. “Why?”
“To save money.”
“It’s ten dollars.”
“Per shirt. That’s a lot for some people.”
“I’m sure some people can prioritize their child’s education.” These women put slants in their words. They meant to cut your mother down, so she wouldn’t talk. And little by little, she stopped.
One day, you and your mother walked outside at the end of the meeting. Her button-down dress floated around her ankles in the breeze. She stood with her hands clasped at her middle. No one said goodbye—the line cast to save her from her thoughts. When they were gone, she turned to you, and you said nothing too. That room full of women sniffed out something weak to sink their teeth into, and you learned early that people feel safe when they’re allowed to be cruel. You know these women didn’t mean to kill the weed; they just wanted to snap the stem and watch it suffer.
Your mother changed at home. She curled, growing in on herself. The only time she talked, she talked about money and took job after job. She began to push you, first with grades, then with friends. She said you had to be better and you started to wonder who she was talking to.
When you grew up a little, you realized that this probably wasn’t the beginning; strength won’t fold that fast. But you know you were there for the end because the end was fresh—cold knuckles licking a trail of fire across your cheek. You’d got bad grades at school and had to bring your report card home. When you showed your mother, she stiffened more than spoke, just like she’d done before.
“What’s wrong with you.” Before you could say the words she taught you, she wrapped her hand into a fist. And she swung.
Your mother disappeared into her room after that night. You didn’t know this yet, but shame is genetic while regret’s something you learn. A week later, your aunt came to save you.
You go to a new school in the middle of the city when your aunt teaches you what beauty looks like. You both got eyes and teeth too big for your faces, and when the kids still call you names, you don’t tell your aunt because you think it will hurt her like it hurts you.
You’re in the hall when it happens. Two classmates stand at their lockers down the way, the girl, leaning back, the boy leaning over. He brushes a finger through her hair. She smiles. They giggle at nothing because no one said a word, and you giggle too. Or you want to. You want that smile to be yours.
You stare. You don’t even realize you do it, but someone’s caught you, and now it’s too late to take it back. You try to dip into the traffic of students, head down, but you’re ugly and it makes you easier to see. Someone grabs a fist full of the back of your shirt and pulls you into them. Hot breath and a hard body closes the space between them and you and it’s as close as you have ever been to hands brushing gently through hair. To smiles from someone leaning in. Kids around you start spitting shit. Blood rushes to your face and now you’re not just ugly—you’re seen and ugly. You can’t let them see see, so you turn around, and you swing. When you miss, everyone circles up. You close your eyes. Shame is genetic. Regret is learned. If only you didn’t stare.
A fist connects with your nose. In the movies, they say you hear a pop when your bones break, but you don’t. You hear them crumple like paper and the sound grows and rings out the back of your skull. Your eyes water. Everyone around you shouts, but you only hear one word. Cry. Because they want you down; they want you weak. So you shut off your brain and you keep swinging. When it’s over, you sit in the office and bleed.
“We don’t fight here.” The principal speaks slow and with a voice that’s meant to burn. She’s got that measure sewn through her words that signals you’re not worth the grace of conversation. She’s pressed by your existence today.
When your aunt comes for you, she looks like she did the day she came to save you—buttoned up and ready.
The principal tells her that you don’t do homework. You don’t talk to the other kids and you don’t speak up in class. When she says that you don’t really know how to read, you have to look away. But when the principal stops to breathe, your aunt speaks.
“Why does she have a busted nose?”
“She had a scuffle with some other students.”
She turns to you, so you tell her what the other kids say. Your aunt’s got this way about her when she’s got rage; it’s like she can stand over a man without ever moving at all.
“And where are these other students?”
The principal chitters. “We are dealing with this one student at a time.”
“I’ll let you get to that, then,” she says. “Let’s get out of here.”
She waits until you get in the car before she speaks to you.
“Baby, we’re not beautiful. But we don’t have to be. Be proud of that.”
The car rumbles beneath you making the loose bones in your nose shake and burn. Your aunt stares through nothing and drives while her rage percolates. She got a deep hook in her nose you never really saw before—permanent fight lines in her eyes and sun-tired skin. But she got the hands that took you to give you love while your mother healed. Your mother got the same hook, the same skin. The other kids may get water and soil, but you got the bones of stems with a head of agitation erupting into color. You got the face of your mothers. When you get home, you point it to the sun and grow.
You can read. Well enough. Maybe you got a little behind and never caught up, but no one really said anything before. Now, your aunt takes you to the library and you both stand still at the door because you don’t know where to start. For once, she got nothing to say.
She dips into the nearest aisle. It’s quiet and smells like an old carpet that doesn’t quite vacuum right, but your aunt starts picking through the covers, so you do the same. She goes for the scrawled writing—cursive and faded like a computer wrote the title by hand. You go for the covers of pictures without people. A tree on a road. Birds on a wire. The moon. You giggle at the covers that look too serious but when you crack them open, all the words look the same.
“Let’s go look on a different shelf,” she says. She’s got the grace to act like she doesn’t see you panic. All in all, you don’t take too long, but it’s also forever and by the time you leave, you got a book in your arms—one that you won’t like but you heard about it at school, so you mark it as some barrier you need to meet. And that’s the first one you take home.
“Page one,” Your aunt says as she pulls a pizza out of the freezer.
This is how it goes. For weeks, you shudder and recover in rhythmic fashion like you’re learning how to speak. As you sound out the sounds one by one, you work so hard that you don’t put the words together into thoughts, or understand what you read. Your aunt doesn’t know this, so she pushes you on. You get about halfway through the book. The pages flip slow under your thumbs and one night, you trip on another sentence, and when you don’t expect it, your aunt snorts. And she sniggers.
You got to be hearing things. You got to be wrong. She’s the one who put the book in your hand and she does it because she’s the one who cares. You look up. She bites her tongue. She breaks. And she laughs. The stem of you snaps in the palm of her hand. Your nose stings down to the back of your throat. You throw the book across the kitchen and stand.
“It’s not funny.” You beg yourself not to cry. You’ve let the power shift in the room and now you get to watch someone get drunk on it.
“What? It’s funny as hell.” The smile slips off her lips. “You don’t think so?”
Everything in you is so ready to burn, so set to believe that she’s making fun, but she doesn’t have the cruelty in her face—that hunger. She looks like she did the day she showed your room to you, and that’s when you see. She’s laughing, but she’s not laughing at you. She’s listening.
You cross the room and pick up the book. Shame replaces the hate. It creeps into you through the pages in your hands. She holds you until you calm down and tells you not to apologize. As she cuts the pizza and tells you about the story you’ve been trying to read.
After three months, you finish the book. Your aunt lets you sit with a comic for a week before you have to pick up something new. For months she makes you read to her every single night. By the fourth book, it becomes a journey instead of a chore. Words turn into stories and more and more go by. It’s like you can taste the moment the words turned into thoughts on the paper, and someone’s telling you something you needed to hear. It’s a trip to anywhere in the world, and it’s an adventure just for you and her. On the nights she dozes off to the sound of your voice, you bookmark your place even though you want to keep going. You do it because it’s not the same without her. Because taking her with you is the only way you know you can say thank you, the way you need to say.
You shop the library shelves together for hours, adding to the stacks, roots digging deeper into the earth to places you’ve never been. It makes you love her more. And it makes you love you.
One night, your aunt pops the tops off two beers and hands one to you, but as you flip to your page and get ready, her phone rings. She says she’ll be just a moment. You peek through the book and try to stop yourself from reading ahead but you get impatient. When your aunt’s been gone a minute, you notice what’s up. She stands in the kitchen, talking fast and quiet, free arm crossed over her chest. She got that hunch she gets when she talks to your father. After a while, she walks over and she hands the phone to you.
“It’s me, kiddo.” That round-lipped sound slips out of history and sits low on the notes. It’s a clear sound. It doesn’t drown when it comes out.
“Hi,” is all you manage to say; you wait for her to speak. She asks about your life and you answer. When she asks about school, she interrupts herself because no matter how much time stretches between you and home, a fist is always green. You tell yourself to stay hard while she spins back and forth, her words twisting you up into your memories.
“I’m better now,” she says, finally. “You could come home. If you want.”
You are home. But you don’t say that. She tells you to think about it—no rush, but when you hang up, your aunt watches you from the kitchen.
“How’d that go?”
You aren’t quite sure. She pulls dinner out of the oven. You sip beer and thumb over the last chapter of your book feeling the pages slip under your grip, one after the other. She sets down slices of pizza and slides behind you on the couch, wrapping around you, her cheek pillowed against the back of your head. She’s thrown her arms around you like she knows. She’s the mirror of you, older by a little, and still raising you the way you need to be raised.
“They’re not like us,” she tells you. “And that’s why I stay.”
It’s the first time someone has wanted you instead of having to keep you. You always wanted your mother to want you, and now you finally have solid love from someone else and you don’t want to leave. But you can’t say that. Saying it out loud just makes it true and you haven’t figured out how to stop feeling guilty for other people feeling human. You will never learn that. But this is the moment you learn that silence doesn’t fill voids for you. It widens them.
Your aunt shudders and retracts. She straightens up behind you when you realize you haven’t said a word.
You start to explain. You trip over your words like you’re reading for the first time and the thoughts don’t come together into sentences. She waves you off. That smile isn’t nervous, it doesn’t wait for you to love. It’s unrooted. This is how you kill the weeds.
You let yourself cry while your aunt drives. She holds your hand. You squeeze hard, but when you get to your parents’ house, she lets go first.
She shakes her head when you ask her to come inside. You try to think how much you love her, so loud that you write it into your history straight over that silence you made. When you hold each other for the last time, her purple hair whips around your face in the wind, and the smell of cigarette stain fills you. The car idles and your bags sit in the dirt.
“You made the right choice,” she says. You nod. Sometimes love sounds like a lie. You both let it slide. And then there’s nothing left to say, so, you pick up your bags and you go.
You could have stayed, but that would have killed your mother. You picture them both, the hooks in their nose, skin dry from the sun. When you stop in front of your mother’s door, your hands shake—these hands that drove and smoked cigarettes, that hit people, that flipped through book pages as you read. If you could, you would use these hands to cup the blooms and keep them safe, but that’s not how weeds are made. Instead, you close your eyes. You hold your mothers at the root, the spindles of their stems digging into your fingers—your hand pressed against the earth. You wrap that hand into a fist, and you pull.
B. Domino graduated with an MFA from the University of New Orleans and now lives in the desert, painting, writing, reading books with family. She was a finalist for the 2019 Iowa Review Awards with publication in the Spring 2020 issue. Additional works may be found in The Account Literary Magazine, Flumes 5.1, and The Finger Literary Review.