Fiction is a label I use to disguise my own lived experiences. My characters embody different aspects of how I taste, what I see, and the things I feel. I don’t think I’m alone in the opinion that fiction writers are narcissistic. It is difficult for me to use different names or “fictionalize” different locations, because the intimate details of those sources shape and distort my attachment to their memories. So, Sister Jane – I am sorry I use your name. San Diego – I am sorry I use your cherry trees. But I’m writing fiction, so I can say that I’m not talking about you and that you’re only my inspiration. But I am. And the memories, not the inspiration, deserve recognition. The social context in which I form my lived-ness is also a source of my writing. California captures my sun-filled childhood memories, Texas holds my heart, Illinois reluctantly clutches my frustration and anticipation and anxiety as a graduate student, and Morocco will shatter my world. My writing changes with each transition, and is a direct likeness of the interpretations of the people I am surrounded by. I have not yet figured out how to sort between transitions and interpretations, and my writing is a reflection of this. At times, it is messy and ambiguous as I try to capture my different construal of experiences. It will get better though, hopefully.
You’re sitting in Sunday school and you’re supposed to draw your sin on a rock. At least, you think that’s what the assignment is. Sister Jane stood in the center of the room holding out a weathered beach bucket filled with, what you think, are rocks. So you walked up to the plastic neon bucket in the middle of the room and looked down. There were different sizes and colors and you couldn’t figure out which sin best represented you. Some rocks looked like the ones that lived under the swings in the park you used to play in. When it rained, they turned a nauseating shade of green, sliming your shoes across their smoothed surfaces. Now, you watched the rocks at a distance, removed from the fun, but standing apart from the parents by the benches. They know you’re there, and they know you couldn’t possibly have a child at such a young age, but they don’t feel threatened as you watch their toddlers wistfully, almost leeringly, as they scream wildly from the plastic double swirled slides to the four foot monkey bars. Others in the bin were bumpy uneven white ones that sparkled when you moved closer to the bucket. They were the kind you still used to write on the sidewalk with. Their chalky white self reluctant to smear across your driveway, so you dug them into the cement, finding pleasure when they are reduced to white powder as you overlap senselessly scribbles onto each other. You felt sorry for them, but that didn’t stop you. Mostly, though, the rocks hustled in the bucket were dull and lifeless. Gray, dark gray, dirty gray. You could see one or two colored gems muddled in the mix, but somehow it didn’t seem right for you to specifically go after them. You thought it should be a lucky coincidence, like when you find an old book with its pages torn out and you get to think about all that’s written on the missing pages. You feel happy, you feel God’s eyes smiling on you or something, and you think, this will be my day. But it’s not like you’d ever intentionally rip pages out of your own collection. So, you close your eyes and stabbed your hand into the mess, hoping for a colored gem to write your sin on. You’ve picked a small light gray one with a rough edge and a smooth side. It seems symbolic. You liked it.
You don’t fully understand the assignment, because while Sister Jane was explaining it to the class you were thinking about what it would be like to have blond hair again. Blond blond hair – like that girl Cindy from Homeroom, or Ashley from Social Studies. You know your life would have been completely different, because, their lives were completely different. You wouldn’t just be beautiful. Your skin would have been creamy pale with a hint of a pinkish tint instead of a yellowish brown. You would have had blue eyes that sparkled when you were excited, like in all the fairy tales you’ve read and the movies you’ve seen. But not in a trite boring way, not in a cheerleading-popular-smile way, but a different majestic never-before-seen way. Your mom would have a snack ready for you when you came home from school because your dad was successful and important. He married your mom because of her looks, and she never had to work. And they hoped for the same life for you; you were their only and super number one princess. If you got in trouble, there would be consultants and doctors and all sorts of people to help you. But all those people wouldn’t matter, because you would never get into any trouble. You were too beautiful.
You wouldn’t have had to wait for your mom to come home from her second job. You wouldn’t have remembered the way she smelled like oil and meat, or that people made fun of her accent or asked if she was from Persian or spoke Palestine. You wouldn’t have to worry about money, or how other people looked at you, judged you, made you feel shameful, hurt you. The shame, that was the worst part. If you were blond, somehow, it would be different. It would be normal, and that would be magical. But you’re not, and you’re reminded every day that you’re not. You start to notice the other kids around you had listened to Sister Jane and were busily drawing on their own rocks. You saw some with the words, “LIES”, “STEAL”, and “JEALOUS” while others just had stick people hitting other stick people. You couldn’t think of any sin that would fit on your small rock so you just drew the picture you’ve started drawing for the last week. Two weeks ago it was a penguin on an iceberg, diving alone into the icy waters of the South Pole. Now, it’s a butterfly hovering over two flowers. You drew a blue line to signify the sky. You still think this is your best drawing of it yet.
You’re three years older than anyone else in the Sunday class. Some of the kids around you still have cooties and training bras. You feel comfortable and different and you like it. The ones without older brothers or sisters look up to you, and you feel almost morbid in your power over them. They think you know everything. And you kind of do. At least, you know more than you should. You know that, as an eighth grader, you aren’t supposed to have such big boobs. You know that as a non-blond, it’s even more strange. You know that some Mom’s think wearing tampons aren’t lady-like, and you know that sometimes science teachers buy them for you in secret. You know what it’s like to kiss a boy and feel scared and safe and lost and pain. You think you know what it’s like to be in love. You definitely know that you’re not going to have sex with Steve again for a very very long time. The doctor said not to. You know that you need a parent to come with you to get hormone shots, and that your mom will start to notice your hair’s falling out. You know that after your treatment, you’ll never have kids, and you know it’s not fair you have to be worrying about having kids – you are a kid – and that this is all your because you had sex. You know all this because the doctor told you all this. He told you a lot of other stuff too, and you know you should tell Steve, but right now, you are in Sunday school. And the only thing you remember you know is that you’re the only one that feels nostalgic surrounded by hanging pictures of scrawled suns wearing sunglasses in front of lined grass and boxed homes.
Your favorite drawing was the rabbit family. There were five of them and they each only had one eye. It was the only picture on the wall that didn’t have a gold star. You thought, tiered clouded sky. Check. Chimney smoking house. Check. V-shaped birds. Check check. But it must have been gold stickered overlooked because of the animals, everyone else had drawn sickly stick figures with glowing hazel and baby blue eyes. This one, though, had a Papa Rabbit, a Mama, two Daughter Ones, and a teeny Baby. Their faces were swollen so only one eye could fit on the furry distorted circles. You liked it because they were all looking in one direction. They felt determined; they knew where they were going. They lived in a purple house with only one window. You knew it was too high and the rabbits couldn’t open the shutters to see the sky. That’s why they were standing together outside. They weren’t posing in front of their houses like in the other drawings, they just needed to breathe. Inside was too small, and when they sniffed their whiskered noses, they smelt the fish oil from Mama Rabbit burning on the stove, soaking deep into their furs to make living in their bodies unbearable.
You saw Papa Rabbit sneaking off the page, tired of his foreign boxed house with its shuttered window and suffocating space. You saw him sprinting back to meadows and tree holes, and no one could see him because they only had one eye. He seemed desperate and scattered, and you wished you were him. Not the desperate part, you already had that, check check check check, but the meadow part. You wished you had a field to run to, a rabbit hole just small enough for you to fit through. You would wiggle your fish oiled body into the dark deep and snuggle into the dirt. You saw Mama Rabbit collapsing on the front lawn in a deep sleep. Her legs cringled underneath her frail body, the one that Baby Rabbit was strapped to. She was so small and she didn’t make a sound. She was always tired and you wished she would take a shower first so she wouldn’t stink up the jagged pieces of purple grass. Baby Rabbit didn’t have an eye yet, and really, it was just a speck of brown mess with a comment bubble, wahhh, poop, poop. You could see Daughter Rabbit walking away and no one noticed because their eyes were busy. Her eye seemed shut, as if she was squinting into the sunlight underneath her eyelids. She randomly spun in circles until she fell off the page. You didn’t care about Other Rabbit, so it just stood there, dumbly watching as Rabbit Family crumbled. You thought the drawing deserved four gold stars.
You’ve always liked little kids. You understood this drawing perfectly. You believed they were intelligent and undemanding. You didn’t feel uneasy around them, pressured because you should be brilliant, oozing with cultural uniqueness for algebra and science and quiet obedience. Or the same, soaking with normalcy and thumping your chest at the freedom your family didn’t earn. These kids didn’t notice you’re in a woman’s body. They didn’t understand that, for a small dark-skinned girl like you, it’s weird. Your accent was normal amongst the lisps and limited vocabulary. You thought, as you think all the time, you can have kids. Actually, you want kids. They could be your friends, and because you would technically be their mother, they would always have to listen to you. So that, when they got old enough to know, to really understand, that you maybe don’t know everything, or that you’re not really cool, they have to still love you. Because you would be their mother. They wouldn’t have a choice.
But this is a big decision, wanting to have kids. One that you have to make with your mom and dad and sister and the doctor and the doctor’s counselor, and if your mom let you, your science teacher, because she knows you more than any of them. Not with Steve though, the doctor and doctor counselor thinks you should not talk to Steve anymore. Right now, Steve is a criminal, and just because you look like a woman, you are not. You are no woman. So you should not talk to Steve. And seriously, it’s not like you’re going to be having all the kids at one time, because, you’re only fourteen and a half, and you’re not supposed to be having sex again right now anyways. You hope your mom will understand that, and you hope she lets you take the medicine for it. Because even though the babies aren’t coming out too soon, you maybe want them to in the future, and the doctor said you have to decide in the next week, or else your body will decide for you and it will say, sorry, nope, you’re never going to have friends.
You’re not sure exactly what it is. It’s not cancer. So, thankfully, you don’t have to understand the real difference between “benign” and “malignant”. You don’t have to have surgery. And, right now, you’re not pregnant. You know you had stomach cramps. You know it started hurting to have sex again. Steve said, because he has experience, you should not be this difficult, and it should not feel like your body is going to break in half. You know you can’t sleep at night, and although this isn’t new for you, it has become more frequent. As in, every night. You have not slept for more than four hours at a time. Your face gets hot a lot, and it’s just your face. You can be in a cold room with a fan right in front of you, and still, your face will go wild. It will feel like you’re slowing turning an oven dial on just your face; you can actually feel it going from 200 degrees, to 250, to 300. Slowly, slowly, the heat will come from somewhere within, filling up the sides of your cheek, squeezing across your forehead, in your nose. Slowly, your body will go stiff, trying to hold your face together, as it expands with blazing fieriness, until, finally, too soon, hurry up, the oven explodes and you’re wet all over and your heart’s beating and you need to sit down because you realized you weren’t breathing. The doctor said this was normal. Not for you, but for women in general, for someone who would be older than your mom. And he said that if you wanted kids, you need medicine now.
It’s not fair. But you’re going to be a good mother. A nurturing one, a good smelling one. You were going to be a good mother. Because you’re starting now. If you take the medicine, if you wanted to, it will be your first move as a mommy-to-be. And you’re going to be a good mother because you want to be a good mother. Because you’re going to talk to them, you’re going to be their friend. And they’re going to be half-American white because Steve was American white. Because they were going to have a better life than yours. Because they’re going to have a better mother, a real mother.
You like that kids lived for simple pleasures like Ring Pops and noses that squirted milk. They described God as “love” or “truth”, and that was enough for them. Sister Jane knew this and let you pause in further Jesus study to float in her group. “Float” was her word, not yours. You were too old to sit in even the older Sunday age group. And if Sister Jane didn’t mind, you were safe, once a week for a half an hour.
The group is supposed to be for kids aged 8-11, and your mom doesn’t even look at you when you get up to join the troupe of kids at the front of the church because she’s just trying to keep awake. Your dad was already snoring. You once asked them, why do you go to church if you’re so tired? And they started with, “When we were escaping the war” and ended with “because the Johnsons do it” and “because He deserves it”. You never found out what was in between.
Anyways, you had nowhere else to go. The Johnsons were no longer your sponsor family, and had stopped going to your church. You didn’t belong with the parents outside, or the kids in the daycare. You’re parents didn’t notice either way. You weren’t cool enough to be an altar servicer or sing in the choir. You weren’t dressed in your Sunday best to pass the money baskets through the pews or walk Jesus’s body and blood to the priest. You had no meadow to go back to and your eyes were too young to sleep in the pews. For now, this felt okay. You picked up a crayon and drew a blue line on your rock to represent the sky.
Your mom birthed your older sister when she turned seventeen. Your dad was twenty-five years old and they didn’t meet each other until they were both standing in front of the pandit at the temple’s altar. It was a different time in a different place and your parents weren’t the type of parents to do that to you. At least, your dad wasn’t. You never knew what your mom was thinking. But still, they believed that you were a girl, and you had to follow girl rules. That meant shutting everything, your mouth, your legs, your skin, your ears, your legs your legs your legs. If you were a boy, your dad would frown with his mouth and clap you on the back. He would be confused with himself and his eyes would glaze over. Your mother would frown with her whole body, sagging her shoulders and bowing her head in a stern grimace, and it was a clear message for you. But your baby sister would just go, wahhh, poop, poop, and your mom’s mind would fly towards the bedroom, then the kitchen, then the clock to pick up the laundry, until finally, it glazed over. Your parents were the same, no matter what they said.
At the end of class you’re supposed to file up to the altar and give your sin to God. The older group, ages 12-14, was ahead of you and had already begun scattering their rocks across the front tiled steps. They made a clinking sound as they’re dropped before the large crucifix that hung in the middle of the room. Some kids kicked sins out of their way to lay their rocks on the highest step, nearest the priest. As if they were going to be forgiven first because they were getting the most holy from the priest’s outstretched hands. The kicks interchangeably made a scraping and clinking noise against the marble white steps. Like the sound of the swings at the park, or the feel of foreign teeth sucking your own. You hoped God would be happy with the music they were making. The large cross suspended from the ceiling had painted drops of blood dripping from Jesus’s body. His hair was tousled in a just-got-out-of-bed look, and he would have looked attractive if his head wasn’t hanging off his neck. You thought Jesus would have been popular at your school. He was lean and toned, with an inviting air of confidence about him. He had a six-pack and rugby legs. He was handsome. He wouldn’t have hung out with you.
When it was your turn at the altar you looked at your sin. You felt the softness of it, silky as your fingers brushed its surface. Even the jagged side felt smooth. Its stained dirt couldn’t cover its white velvet color. You petted your drawing, barely touching its colors. You looked at the picture; simply, it held a red and purple flower. Indistinguishable as roses, but they were. They lay underneath soft grass, the kind that didn’t leave bumps on your skin if you rolled down a hill full of it. The kind that collected dew frosted tips when you ran out to breathe and watch the sunrise. The sky was blue. The butterfly was black, solid black. The proportion of the antennas on the butterfly was perfect. You’ve never made prettier, stronger wings. It was lovely and you couldn’t let it go.
You went up to the altar, and no one was watching you. You picked up a rock already strewn on the floor. Dirty gray with the same scribbled word written along its sides, stumbling over itself so you could hardly make it out. “JEALOUS”, it slopped. It was large, so you had to hold it with your whole fist. You walked to a new place a couple of feet away and laid it down. Your substitute sin. No one saw you. No one cared. You kept your beautiful rock in your hand, fingers securely hiding it, because you felt you deserved it.