art by Agnes Cecile
Allow me to tell you a riddle;
Blue comes home from school this afternoon and she’s bouncing, energy crashing off wallpaper and knickknack shelves. “Today,” she announces, plaits smacksmacksmacking against her rucksack, “my teacher taught us philosophy!”
Blue is my little sister. She is seven and clever and utterly enthusiastic, and it’s because of her that I am sure I am adopted. Clancy, too, but he at least can still perform the movements of subdued should the occasion call for it. I am not enthusiastic. I am perpetually apathetic, marginally clever, and cannot remember the wanton happiness that accompanied being seven. This is only one of the ways I do not resemble my siblings.
I can hear Blue pacing now, a mess of vitality seeking an outlet, waiting for someone to take the bait and ask, “what did you learn about philosophy, dear daughter?”
Her target is a tangible bundle of energy herself, the nervous kind that stems from malnutrition, alcoholism, and the insanity that comes with obsessive counting of the caloric variety. Clancy’s fingers play passive-aggressive taps on the marble island, and Veronica, our mother, finally sets down her wineglass for long enough to acknowledge Blue with a vague, “of course, darling.”
Apparently this is sufficient.
“If a tree falls in a forest,” Blue says, voice raised, arms whipping audible vibrations, still skipping about, “and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?”
If a tree falls in a forest;
Amsterdam Avenue. It’s always Amsterdam Avenue. Our father’s driver, Andre, takes us to our various private schools this morning but he’s busy in the afternoons. I usually beg Clancy to pick me up and walk me from Broadway to Central Park West because even though he is largely made of limbs loosely looped together with rubber bands, he is male, and that alone is enough. But today I am officially a senior and far too proud to ask.
Here’s why I hate Amsterdam Avenue: it’s home to too many bars and pubs. It’s fine at seven in the morning, when the city hasn’t had much chance to do anything but open its eyes and reach for a coffee, but getting off school at three means I pass Amsterdam at prime day-drinking hours.
I never, never take Blue, because for her I pretend to be whole. I like to entertain the thought that Mummy would curl her frail arm around my shoulders and usher me to safety, locking me in my bedroom until the world turns kind and soft, but reality would probably present me with something closer to indifference, and I am too afraid to find out I am right. If I’m walking with Consuelo we’ll make a game out of it; I’ll shout back at the men who think they can lay claim to my figure, my curls, sometimes even my sunglasses, my only voluntary concession to fashion because Consuelo bought them for my 16th birthday. Daddy whistled when I removed them from their case, and even Mummy commented on their loveliness. I am still trying to pay Lo back for this luxury she can hardly afford, when all her spare change goes to her starving family in Chile. It’s in money, mostly, extra dollar bills I have Blue slip into her wallet when she isn’t looking, but when I’m caught and she’s feeling proud it’s usually in hollering good insults, like the Spanish kind she effortlessly spits from her otherwise gentle mouth.
So today they call out offers, compliments that scratch at my skin, and all the while I shuffle/shuffle/rap my way to Columbus, methodical. Silent and alone.
“Stop yelling at her, you creeps.”
A new voice, familiar but without substance. On an anonymous street, I have no way to identify the timbre, the vitriol that bites at the consonants. Quieter now: “I’m right next to you. Can I walk you home? I recognized you from history.”
I don’t have any friends. This is a fact and not a cry for help. I do have paid acquaintances, and it is in this respect exclusively that I faintly resemble my peers. The closest person in my life to a friend is Consuelo, only because I’m fairly certain that if my father stopped paying her to be my nanny, she would still manage to stick around. So this girl and I do the small talk thing other girls are so fond of. She tells me her name is Morgan, she has two cats, is on her way to the library, and I tell her about my sophomore brother and baby sister, my home on 91st and Central Park West, the thrill of the bugles exploding into “Taps”, the interlude to Landlocked Blues, my favorite song.
It’s nice, and that’s what surprises me. Because all my life I have never seen kindness, an outstretched hand or a well-placed smile, and there is something genuine and light radiating from Morgan like sunshine, only vaguely tinted with the awkwardness I am resigned to. She smells more like Lo than like Mummy; less expensive perfume and French embroidery floss, more fruity shampoo and the stubborn stink that always faintly clings to thrift store flannel, and that’s when I know, without even knowing her face, that she isn’t beautiful on the outside, not like Mummy or the girls who used to trip me in the hallways of elementary school. She is beautiful on the inside, though, which I think I prefer.
She stopped to talk to me. Maybe we can be friends.
“You are quite pretty,” Morgan concedes as we near my apartment. A thank you is rapidly working its way up my throat, because even though these ears can hear mysteries and sunsets and jealousy, too, I can ignore that for now, when something vaguely resembling happiness is bubbling through my veins. Morgan speaks again though, too soon, from somewhere far away, and the words flap like bats through my skull: such a pity. That thank you is dying deep in my stomach.
And I continue to crawl along, but inside my head I am running.
…and no one is around to hear it;
I have never seen my own reflection. No soulful gazing into mirrors, surreptitious glances into the backs of spoons. I haven’t so much as taken a selfie, and even though our parlor walls reek of professional family photographs, their tiny mouths do not smile in my direction as I enter or skulk past.
It feels like my whole life I have been told I am gorgeous, the spitting image of my model-like mother. I can’t properly remember a time before. It is the easiest thing that I have to offer; apparently, I am. Blue reminds me on average once a week, and young children in playgrounds often come over, hands sticky and smelling of ice cream and innocence, to touch my wrists and tell me I look like a princess. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that little kids and smashed adults always speak the truth.
So for all these years I am nothing more than a thesaurus entry for beautiful. Because I am fire, and arguments, and the Ramones, they give me the only thing I cannot ably refute.
You are brilliant/ I made 70s on all my exams.
You are musical/ my voice is the edges of broken glass.
You are attractive and fashionable and chic/ all of my words have dried up.
And every time it feels like losing.
…does it still make a sound?
Blue likes to do this thing where she sits cross-legged on my lap and traces the planes of my face. She picked it up from me when she was a baby, watched me with pure eyes as I cautiously met new people and discovered their features in the only way I knew how. When Blue does it to me it’s creepy and a little weird but it’s the only action that can calm her down when our mother is passed out via Ambien, the sole moments she has access to her dreams, and our father has disappeared into his paperwork, his floor plans and permits. To black and white worlds with no room for mistakes, where the problems have far easier solutions. So Blue clambers onto my bed today, tugs off my headphones mid-song. I can feel her eyes on mine.
My name is Luna and if your name is your essence you can see mine in these clouded white eyes. There is a part of me that is always hidden away, even when I otherwise appear whole. I hide from my classmates, from my family. Though sometimes I wish otherwise, I don’t completely know myself. The way my eyes crinkle when Blue makes me laugh, the curve of my lips as I pronounce my favorite words, the precise auburn of my hair.
Clancy though. Clancy is easy to know. He is that sharp, 16-year-old boy spice of Axe and wool blazers, callused hands and feet, such rough hair you can feel the untidiness of it beneath your fingertips. The thud of a hand hitting a basketball and the whispers of the soft baby brother beneath wishing you a good night. Brief but tight hugs, and security. Home.
So I ask her: lovey, tell me about blue.
Because I know Blue, plastic bangles clattering against each other and sometimes only dully hitting skin, scented markers bleeding fragrant along her hands, the feel of her smile against my cheek, but I don’t know blue, the origins of this sprite breathing steadily into my collarbones, fingers splayed out on my stiff school blouse, right along my ribs.
“Blue,” she says, the word slowly stretching between us, and I can hardly breathe. “Blue is raindrops. Not thunderstorms, but the normal rain that comes like tears. Blue is oceans, the deep smell of salt and fish and magic. And blue is winter, I suppose, cold, when you can’t feel your toes because the snow has gone into your wellies. That’s why blue feels sad.”
She stops, and I feel rain on my skin, smell snow and taste oceans. “So you aren’t blue, then,” I say, voice catching on splinters somewhere inside my throat.
“No, because that’s just what people think of when they think of blue. Mummy’s that sort of blue, because veronica is a flower and it’s pretty, but it’s small and fragile and pale. It could fall apart any minute, and only leave behind a thin, ugly stem. But I’m blue, too, because blue is denim, permanence and comfort, and blue is the sky at every hour. Changing, maybe, but always, always there. It’s peppermints, little baby boys, your favorite song.” She hums a few bars of Landlocked Blues, and she’s right. “Blue is everywhere, and it’s alive.”
She fiddles with my hair, braids and unbraids the strands until I nod.
“Can you see it now?” she asks me in a tiny voice.
“No,” I say after some time, because I cannot lie to her, because she is still seven and she still only knows the truth and it’s still one of the things I love about her. “I can’t. But it’s okay, because I’ll always have you to remind me.”
She floats her fingers along my eyebrows, wondering, and I wait. “I think philosophy is stupid,” she finally admits. “Because sometimes the questions don’t need answers. They only need to be asked, not talked about so much. And the philosophers don’t get it, keep shouting away when the only answer is that there is none.” Pause. “I’m not sure why it’s so hard.”
Blue goes silent, and I gather the courage to say, almost to myself: if a girl is told she is shattering-looking but cannot see her own face, is she still considered beautiful?
Blue continues to gently trail her fingers along my skin, quiet and true as a ghost, and I think and think and think and still cannot find a way out.
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