“I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” - Joan Didion
You sit in church with your mother, examining her hands. The preacher talks about Christ nailed to the cross, and you run your fingers over the lines in your mother’s palms, wondering which one is the lifeline. You hope it stretches forever. Eternal life. You take the rings off her fingers, try them all on. This is how you’ll look when you’re married. This is how you’ll look when a man buys you jewelry. When you’re old enough to be trusted not to lose it, your grandmother buys you your own gold ring with your birthstone clenched in microscopic prongs. During the sermon, you push your ring down over your mother’s pinky finger, where it jams against the first knuckle. You lace your fingers in hers. She never tells you to let go. She never tells you to be careful with her jewelry. She never says, “Give me my hand back” so she can turn the pages of the hymnal, thin and translucent as insect wings. Your mother is both outside your body and still part of it. You own this hand as much as you once owned her milk, as much as you once owned the blood that pulsed through the rope connecting her body to the floating, vulnerable mass that would become yours.
II. Second Hand
Your neighbors come over with two black trash bags of old clothes. They’ve been shopping in Atlanta and have all new things for school this year. Your little sisters attack the bags like wolves to wounded prey. It’s a name-brand explosion. Overalls from GAP Kids. Leggings from Limited Too. Ribbed turtlenecks from Lands’ End. At four-foot-something and well over a hundred pounds, none of it fits you. You’re at the beginning of what will be two decades spent bulging. Your sisters spin into the living room, twirling ruffle-trimmed denim jumpers and cheerleader skirts from the private school spirit shop. You sit on the couch with your mother, who squeals over her own good fortune at money saved. You tell yourself you’re too good for second hand. That this is the perk of being the oldest. You keep telling yourself that.
Your mother takes up cross-stitching. She makes a beautiful sampler for each of her children—your long, full names, your dates of birth, the cities in which you first appeared. She frames another: Home is Where the Heart Is. Charmed by jewel-toned embroidery floss, you beg for your own kit. You mangle your first project and resort to using the thread to make friendship bracelets. Your mother makes a new sampler and hangs it in the den: Insanity is Hereditary. You Get it From Your Children.
IV. Let’s give a big hand for…
Self-esteem culture! You are the proud new owner of a marble pedestal topped with a gold, plastic softball girl! You have participated, if not achieved! Appreciate yourself and move on.
He is the boy in your class who brings squid for lunch. His father collects Porsches and his mother was a state beauty queen, but he’s considered that-weird-boy by all of your socially-adjusted classmates. For show and tell, he brings his pet tarantula. You’re a little freaked out, but totally intrigued. You say nothing, harboring your secret crush. A few years later, you hope he will ask you to prom. You end up going with girlfriends. Then, finally, he transfers to your college. You’ve spent the last year abroad, and it’s left you thin and cultured. He’s spent the last year lifting weights. He’s given up spiders in favor of snakes, and this time, you reach into the aquarium unafraid and let the boa constrictor wind itself around your wrists. You carry it, the live version of an expensive handbag, as you follow him out a window onto the roof, where you talk and smoke. He’s tall. He’s still weird, but the socially-adjusted girls from school are living out their drug habits and tech-school dreams elsewhere, and you two are here, in this moment, just as you’ve always been, yet transformed. You wait for him to kiss you. He never does.
VI. Hand Job
You know you were thinking it, perv.
VII. Handle Your Shit
Improve your time management. Set alarms. Wake up when alarms go off. Make plans and think backwards from the time you’re set to arrive to the time you should leave. Pay your bills. Keep your cellphone connected. Keep your lights on. Don’t let your landlord stack your belongings in a gutter. Don’t engage with harmful people. This includes relatives who stress you out, the boyfriend who cheats on you with that sorority girl in your poetry class, and the friend who eggs you into making bad hair dye and alcohol decisions. Speaking of substances: clean out your body. If you’ve got a habit, make sure it’s not noticeable.
On your first day of work, your boss takes you around to everyone’s cubes. On the walls, you pass photos of these strangers’ children, motivational quotes, lists of deadlines. You remember that in prison, an inmate will refer to his cell as “my house.” Your boss introduces you, and you shake hands, repeating name after name that you won’t remember. When you meet Rebecca (or was it Sharon?), she tells you your hands are ice cold. You apologize. “Whatever,” she says. “I have hot flashes, so it’s fine.”
IX. A Warm Handoff
Translation: passing the buck.
You’ve learned to appreciate the hustle. Especially the panhandlers with hungry dogs. A man with a shepherd mutt holds the door to McDonald’s open for you, then says, “If you get any change, I could sure use it.” You buy him an Egg McMuffin, then spend the rest of the day oscillating between questioning your resolve and questioning your motives. You use everything you’ve learned from the internet and lean into the discomfort: you are privileged, you are basic, you are too old for Forever 21, but not old enough to be taken seriously. You decide there is nothing self-righteous about making a commitment to feed homeless people, even the sly ones. Near work, you pass a man rattling a cup of coins, and you go into 7-Eleven to buy him a slice of pizza. You splurge: pepperoni. When you offer it to him, he grimaces. “No thanks.” You sit on a park bench and eat the greasy, cheesy bites, blowing your daily calorie target. You wipe the film from your fingertips onto your silk blouse. Hands down, this is what you deserve.