Pull the PVC blinds shut over the sliding glass door and the casement window. Walk three steps, turn away from the vanity—that’s to your right—and fold the blanket back before stepping up onto the bed. Your mother accuses you of thinning her blanket when you sit on it. She doesn’t know you do this.
Watch the pastel yellow bed sheet crumple beneath your toes. Turn to the vanity, to the girl in the colorful sundress. You used to love wearing dresses and skirts because they swished at your ankles and made you feel like a princess. Smooth the thin fabric against your skin. It stops at mid-thigh. Remember waking up to the poster of Ariel across from your headboard when you shared a room with your brother. She was beautiful under the sea, but she was more beautiful with legs, wearing dresses. Your friends used to think she was beautiful, too. They make jokes now like, Why does Ariel wear seashells? Because she can’t fit in D shells.
Pull the hair tie from your ponytail. Spread your fingers apart so it slides down your hand and clasps your wrist. Run your fingers through your thick black hair and push it all over your bare left shoulder. Don’t smile. You look even tanner with only slivers of light slicing from between the blinds illuminating your reflection. Gather your hair and tie it back up. The mirror’s in the shape of a clam. An unexceptional clam, nothing like an oyster.
Yes, you’ll wear this tomorrow.
Your parents got married in July 1991. Their vanity is four months older than their marriage. It’s black, like the dirt beneath their fingernails and the gleam of the butcher knives in the restaurant when they’re hacking away at a certain angle. It’s the width of the queen-sized bed, and seats the defunct computer, an iPad the family got for your daddy last Father’s Day that he ran his fingers over a few times to show you he was using it, and a sculpture from China of a fishing village, handmade and intricate. To the vanity’s right is a TV someone had thrown out and your daddy salvaged, that your mother watches Asian dramas on. Keep going clockwise: There’s a bathroom, a closet, a bookshelf, a fold-out couch your dog perches on all night until your mother comes home, and two nightstands on either side of the bed that match the vanity. Pressed between the second nightstand and the wall of the sliding glass door is your parents’ wedding photo. You can see the golden frame and the edges of her veil, but neither face.
In the cardboard box sitting at the bottom of the bookshelf are dozens of photo albums. You looked through all of them with your brother shortly after the tenth anniversary of 9/11, for the photo that proved you were in the towers just three months before they fell. You found it, but couldn’t stop flipping pages. You found a photo of your daddy on the Staten Island Ferry on a beautiful autumn day. You took the ferry twice last summer, leaned over the railing the first time and watched foam gather and rush off the sides of the boat. You went inside, sat on a bench, and continued reading Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” I am with you, you men and women of a generation or ever so many generations hence; I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.
Our parents were hipsters, your brother said. He pointed to a picture of your mother in Central Park with branches that took the place of the sky, hanging above her. Look at what she’s wearing. She doesn’t even wear clothes now. Seriously. What the hell does she wear now? You took the album from him. Your mother was looking straight into the camera, her usual smirk setting off the swaying leaves, her soft wavy hair and pink blouse. She wears oil-stained T-shirts now. You wear what everyone else is wearing now. You both used to wear skirts—real, foot-grazing, skirts. Remember the days she stayed home and brushed your hair into a high ponytail in front of the mirror, her face a head above yours, focused on your hair while you stared at her face. Yours looks more like your daddy’s.
You’ve seen a lot of Central Park; rowed through its waters, led your team on runs around the reservoir, picnicked on its Great Lawn, wrestled with a boy there until your jeans were grass-stained and your cheeks were flushed, ran barefoot through its grass with your best friend who said that Ariel wore seashells because she couldn’t fit in D shells. You find three lovely photos of your mother in that album—two taken in Central Park, and one in Disneyland—and put them on the vanity for her at 1 am, when she would come home. She was, still is, so pretty—much prettier than you’ll ever be. Sometimes you can’t look at her when she’s ranting, blaming her lack of education, dead-end alleys she mistook for one-way guarantees, and her families. Often, you wish things were different for her. Sometimes you wonder if one day you’ll be full of excuses because you used to be full of potential.
Remember how your mother looked in the wedding photo when it was on your parents’ wall in the old house: much older than her twenty-three years. She wears a thin smile that warps into a smirk if you give it proper attention. You don’t know where such a signature expression could have come from; it’s the only non-self-righteous smirk you’ve ever seen.
Your mother bought the The Little Mermaid poster for you at K-Mart. Remember watching the Chinese translation of the movie when you were four. Now you have the songs memorized, in English. Look at this stuff. Isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete? Wouldn’t you think I’m the girl, the girl who has everything?
Your eyes scan the room: blinds, vanity, TV, bathroom, closet, bookshelf, couch, nightstand, bed, nightstand, wedding photo that’s trying to hide the past and almost succeeding. Sixteen-year-old girl in the mirror, stepping down.
Your friends say you look older than you are; it’s a good thing.
At 6:30 am, your dog stares with his vacant, brown-gone-blue eyes from his bed as you gently draw the wooden door shut behind you and lock the metal door from the outside.
You hear your daddy, unconscious, crying out from a floor above. He’s always calling for your grandmother or for you. He’s a terrible sleeper, either snoring or yelling once he enters deep sleep. Your mother often finds herself wandering to the guest bed or the couch on nights when he falls asleep too early. She suffers sleepless nights because it’s never quiet enough in their room. You see her exhausted body sprawled out under disorganized blankets in the mornings, and all the clocks that bothered her in the early hours dismounted from the walls, their batteries pulled out and sitting patiently next to their respective timekeepers.
When you still shared a room with your brother, up until you turned twelve, you saw the room spin around you before you fell asleep; you fell off your bed; you woke up screaming and crying. You fell asleep on your back and woke up in the middle of the night in the fetal position, deserted by all noise except for his steady breathing. When you were a child, you left your brother alone and trekked down the hall to your parents’ bedroom. When you got there, you could never remember what it was that made you leave your bed in the first place—but you were never asked for an explanation. All you had to do was stand over the queen-sized bed, and your mother—who slept on the side closer to the vanity, your daddy on the side of the wall—would open her eyes, and her arms, and there would be room for you to lay next to her there while everyone else slept on. Your eyes traced the dark contours of your body in the mirror until you couldn’t make out the difference between where your mother was and who you were.
Age 17, Grade 12
Stuyvesant High School