Egg Shells, White Daisies
Danielle M. Gorden
This is how I knew I’d turned eighteen: in the waiting room at the guidance
counselor’s office, the man with the baggy white tee and pouchy, threadbare eyes
lifts his head from the water fountain and lets his eyes catch on my neck. He looks
me up and down, but mostly down, taking in my blue-vein wrists, my simple crossed
legs, my slammed-into-size-six-wedges toes. I know his type. He’s the middle-aged
guy in the back of the class who doesn’t understand, and doesn’t want to, but they
say he should go to community college, so he does. His girlfriend, the cliché, the
one with the pockmarked, nicotine skin, pretends not to notice. I pretend to be
uninterested, vaguely shocked, somewhat disgusted by his open assessment, but
I am secretly intrigued because this means I am alive. In the parking lot, the man
in the convertible—candy apple red and wet with shine—revs his engine when I
walk past. ‘What’s the difference? A year? A day? Is it because I’m not flanked by
three brothers and my grizzly bear father? He leans his foot into the gas pedal. I’m
uninterested, I’m uninterested. I’m enthralled.
I know better, now. I know what it is. My mother never called me pretty, but I’m
innocent enough, and I’ve come to learn that when it comes to men, that’s all
that matters because it means they have something to smudge. One night I caught
my father cross-legged at the hutch in our dining room. I thought he was sneaking
alcohol, so I hid myself behind the kitchen door and peeked, but all he did was take
my mother’s wine glasses out, one by one, and leave a sweaty fingerprint on each
before setting them back into the case. His thin, sullen hands left prints like skulls
and I imagined they were my mother’s, as if the tips of his fingers were wet-water
stamps for her pretty, white bones. I wanted him to cry, miss her deeply, lie on
the floor and talk to her. I wanted him to drink, take the alcohol straight from the
bottles, leave them empty on the floor for me to clean up, me sober-faced and
serious. In the morning after he’d gone to work, I took the glasses all out, wiped the
skulls from their surfaces and put them back in their places.
This week, it’s John, who works at the carwash on Briggsmore and takes classes at
the college when he can. Yesterday he took me aside and said, “You know, people
are talking about you. You’re leaving a trail. What am I supposed to say?” He’s
figuring it out, putting the pieces together, realizing I’m just notching my belt,
playing a man’s game. I have debts to make even. I tell him I’ll call him.
At Sunday brunch, Nana taps her French-tipped acrylics onto the table. Her
hair, cream-puffed and shellacked once a week at the salon, still reminds me of
a giant Matzah ball. Her nails click as if they are playing a tiny, invisible piano,
independently of their Matzah-ball-wearing owner. She wants someone to spill the
syrup. She fixes her pinching eyes at the skin at the bottom of my low-lying V-neck.
“Audrey, Audrey, look at you. What would your mother say? You break hearts like
only really lonely people know how.” My brothers are silent, heaving internal sighs,
silently wiping their proverbial brows. They’re just glad I’m always around to play
scapegoat. Only little Eugene is looking at me like he might be concerned for my
welfare, as he’s eight and still crawls into my bed when he can’t sleep at night. My
father zigzags his fork across his plate. I don’t falter. I raise up my chin and roll up
my sleeves, baring the blue-thin skin of my wrists. I am pale white shell and blue-
patterned china. I am the Washington Monument. I am infallible, unbreakable.
Nana knows what I mean; she purses her lips and clicks her nails on the table.
Maybe she is playing Beethoven. Rachmaninoff. Anything.
On Tuesdays, I clean the kitchen and do the laundry. With four boys in the house,
most of it is not my own, but I do it anyway. My mother used to color-code the tags
on their clothes and pile them into separate colored baskets in the laundry room,
but I just can’t seem to get into it, so they sit on the shelf above the machines, quiet
and empty, collecting dust. This Tuesday Dad comes home, leaves his briefcase
on the kitchen table next to me and my piles of books and opens the door to the
fridge. Hello, briefcase. Hello, Dad.
‘Where are your brothers?
“Brad’s at practice, Marty’s at Rob’s, Eugene’s asleep on the couch. Don’t wake him. He’s not sleeping well.”
When he doesn’t respond, I close my book, sit up in my chair.
“l cleaned the kitchen.”
He looks around, gives our white-washed kitchen the once-over, turns the block of cheese over in his hand. His eyes find the floor beneath the cabinets. He points.
“She never would have missed that.”
I go back to my book, back to my head. I am egg shells and white daisies. I am the
Alamo. I am neither, I am both.
That night, Eugene makes his way to my room, crawls into my bed. He loops his
arms around my shoulders, burying his brown head into my neck. He looks up at me
with heavy, paperweight eyes, the kind of eyes you could sandbag the front stoop of
a house with. I want to dog-ear that look and tuck it into a pocket in my skin. In the
morning I carry him back to his room, fold him into his own green-gray sheets. My
father passes me in the hall, says nothing. He’s out the door and in the car before
I’m even back to my room.
I know what he wants from me. He wants me to sit on the curb and smoke Marlboro
Reds, tattoo my lower back with an elaborate monarch or, at the very least, a
dragonfly, he wants me to run off with the neighbor’s son for a month, for two, he
wants me to come home paunchy and expecting and heavy, he wants to slam the
door in my face. My mother’s wake has left him with two inconsolable hands and
four scattered children, whose slow-moving grief is orbiting them farther and farther
from home. Except, maybe, for Eugene. He is too young to know this; all he knows
is that he has lost a mother and that he is losing a father, too.
I go into the dining room and rifle through a drawer in the hutch. I pull out a red
paint marker, the kind you buy for twenty cents at Dollar Tree, the ones I hid in the
far left corner of the drawer last week. This is how I know I’ve forgotten how to feel:
I open up the cabinets, pull out each of the wine glasses. I surround myself with
them. I draw red skulls on their fat, sloping sides, then place them back into the
hutch. When I’m finished, I close the glass casing, find my way to Eugene’s room
and crawl into bed with him. Listening to his short breaths, I’m twelve, he’s two,
and we’re snuggled somewhere in the litter of bodies and balmy breath that is my
other two brothers, my mother, and my father, the six of us. I ‘m pink skin and full
breath; I’m real, I’m real.
Give me the Government