I’ve been told a million stories a million times, but only once the story of the day Adrianna sold her laughter so that I could be born. She and my father had tried for years to have a child, but the fact remained that at the age of thirty-six, she was barren. I don’t think she would have done it had she not loved my father so. When she looked at him she saw only the sweet, handsome man who to all others was obscured beneath the layers of age and fat, the presence of which clung to him like dried mud to boots. With every touch of his body to hers, with every momentary closeness, her heart threw itself wildly at the walls of her chest and sigh poured air down her ribcage and flooded her stomach with warmth. Oh, did she love him.
And, at first, he’d loved her too. They’d sat together, bathed in waves of firelight washing over them from the open hearth. They’d talked about their days over glasses of wine, and for hours at a time stared into each others eyes. He’d thought her strange, enchanting. She was a well without bottom, a light without source, and he worshipped her. But the longer he stared into her eyes, the more he understood that he was searching for something that wasn’t there. What he saw now was all there was, and the more he came to realize that, the more he resented her.
It only got worse as they aged. Time and resentment distorted his sight. When she watched him, she saw the wonderful young man she had known, but when he watched her he saw the petty hag he thought her to have become. He found himself not to be soaring through the skies as a glorious whole with his angel beside him, but lying shattered on the ground, his bones welded to the earth by the heat of her fall.
It was after one of those times when he’d mired himself so deeply in resentment of her, of life, when he once again decided to express himself though purple ovals upon her skin. This, though not his first act, was the most violent. As she’d looked into his dead eyes, set deep into his paunchy face, she had lost track entirely of the man she once known. She’d feared for her life, and so it was that as she found herself crouched upon the bathroom floor, crying into her towel and staining the yellow fabric red. She desperately clutched at the memory of last weeks glass of champagne and the smile she’d seen peeking out from behind his soft, crinkled eyes in the way that a child holds at its comfort blanket.
And that was when the idea struck her. A child for her laughter.
She rolled this idea through her head. It wasn’t as if she used her laugh much now, anyway. The more she thought about it, the more she knew that he loathed her so because at this age she would not conceive a child.
Adrianna was not in her right state of mind. Her thoughts were blind and crippled, she saw through fogged eyes. It was love, of course, which blinded her. With her bloody hands she latched on to the idea that, were she to bear a child, he would transform back into the man he once was.
Adrianna had the most beautiful laugh in the world. She wasn’t especially pretty, but when she laughed she was exquisite. Adrianna’s laughter could set boredom and afire with intrigue, turn a downpour into a symphony. All she had to do was tilt back her head, open her mouth, and let her laugh spill out, and the eyes of every man would lose focus on his wife or his mistress and fixate upon her. And she knew it, and she adored it.
As a girl, she would spin and spin and spin, giggling as the ground heaved and reached grassy hands up to trip her. She spun through life, as if each day was a new kind of wonderful. One afternoon in August the sky had called to the the earth in a million drops of rain. Adrianna had ran outside into the fields, and she had laughed in the face of thunder. She’d laughed and sang to a song both tuneless and beautiful and the dirt had reached up to cover her with muddy kisses. Henry had happened upon her lying in the dirt, laughing as lighting struck the trees around her, and had known he wanted to marry her.
Without the exchange, she and Henry would continue to grow apart, and he with good reason. After all, she thought, there’s was not an equal relationship. Henry had traded his physique for their dream house, while she traded nothing. She remembered that day so clearly; they’d just stepped off of the plane from France, back on American soil with nothing but themselves, two rings, and a pile of luggage. He’d clasped her small, cold hands tightly, holding them tenderly in his own big warm ones, and he’d kissed her. His lips were soft, gentle, not cracked and leathery. She’d looked up at him, and in his eyes had not been rage or fear or hopelessness. No, all she’d seen was his wonder, wonder at her. In that moment, she’d felt as if eachsecond that had ever passed had been nothing but pavement to this exact moment.She, and he, were the center of the universe, the single piece without which the puzzle would have no point nor meaning.
Adrianna remembered being curious as to what his sacrifice would be, what was of equal value to him as an entire house. And then Henry had spread his arms wide, open to the future and to her, inhaled deeply, and then exhaled. As he did, his outline wavered, spreading outwards as it mingled with the air. Even as she’d watched, he diminished, her tall, strong husband bleeding away even grass wove together and petrified into hardwood floors, the clouds crystallized into skylights, and stones erupted from pools of gravel to become a brick fireplace. She laughed as the boughs of trees shucked their bark, slipping in and out of focus as they swam across the sky. Blue and brown meshed together like stained glass, and then separated like oil and water. And then it was over, and she stood beside a smallish, pudgy man whose face was thick with indescribable loss.
As she’d watched Henry, she had been reminded of another such loss. Unconsciously, she’d toyed with her hair, unused to it being flaccid and white even after all these years. She missed her tangled curls the color of oil and the texture of satin. Most mornings she still expected to see them peeking out at her from behind her ears, over her brow. But then she would wake up.
She remembered clearly the day when it had bleached, in the heart of the coldest winter anyone could remember. It was her first exchange, the event she’d anticipated for years, just as every child fantasizes about their first time. On her sixth birthday, Adrianna had imagined that one day she would sell her pinky finger and transform her house into a castle, and herself into a princess. In her sixteenth year, she’d wished she could trade her perfect nose for a Porsche. Adrianna reflected now that it was a good thing children can’t exchange, that they lack the particular focus required to isolate a single aspect of themselves, perceive it in its entirety, and align it with something totally foreign in every aspect except for the fact of its equal worth. She would probably be no more than a torso by now if that weren’t the case. In the midst of that winter Adrianna had found herself imprisoned by strobe lights, alcohol, and the body of a stranger. His hands had run over her body, up her shirt, down her skirt, his breath had crawled into her mouth, his tongue get him off, she’d thought get him off. She’d cried for help and a dam had broken. Fear had frozen the blood in her veins, the thoughts in her head… and she had caught sight of a single strand of black hair out of the corner of her eye, and it was all she could see. And that strand was an island of sanity floating upon her terror, and she could think again. The world pulsed in time with the lights and the music her hair dissolved into a cloud of white. There was a single sound, a note both high and low, felt as much as heard which broke her world into three parts. She’d crawled away, careful not to cut herself on the fragments of color lying upon the ground. The note had faded and with it her world had, shamefaced, reassembled itself into some recognizable form. She was in the living room of her childhood apartment. That had given the new owners quite a shock.
And ten years later here she sat, upon porcelain tiles, the purple bands around her eyes swelling and cutting away inches of the walls from her line of sight, she did it again. She made an exchange. Adrainna sold her laughter. It leaked out of the corner of her mouth along with a stream of blood and bile, spattering her evening dress with large red splotches. Her laugh rang one more time in the confines of the bathroom before drifting away through the open window. Along with the staggering sense of loss that swept through her, doubling her over, came a sudden burst of intense pleasure, as if housed within her lower abdomen, a million candles suddenly ignited. Deep within her, energy hummed where before there had been none.
She was shocked and then pleased to find herself bleeding in a way she had not since the fever five years past. She spread her legs to find the floor stained red with, not pain, with fear, but with opportunity. Adrianna was menstruating.
Fertile, she thought Fertile. She opened her mouth to laugh for the magic of it, the relief. A child, a child to love and a child to make Henry love her.
No sound escaped her lips.
She felt the joy simmering inside her, blistering hot and bubbling over, and yet found she could not convey it. All at once she realized she could no longer spin her way through life. She would sit in prim silence, like her mother and grandmother before her, alluding to her humor only with secretive smiles quelled by drab facades of severity, like a poker player with her tell.
Her face fell as all that pent up happiness ate itself up inside her, leaving emptiness and a wisp of anticipation. Her white hair cascaded down her face in ringlets, pouring out of her head as once her laughter had poured forth from between her lips. And it was worth it, of course. For Henry’s love. And for the child. But for those nights of champagne and moonlight, of laughter and kissing and love, she would sell her soul.
So Adrianna smiled, clutching at the mottled skin of her stomach, which ached terribly, and focused on making herself believe that it hurt because of the possibility that went hand in hand with the blood slipping out from between her legs, and not because of the bruises and the regret.
Age 14, Grade 8