When we first came to it, the house was bright. Chrome bars and handles winked under the bathroom lights, and the gray travertine floors were marbled and pitted with luminescent white. I did my best to understand it. I trailed my hands over the drywall, feeling for seams; I traced my fingernail around the painted box of a light switch, and tested the narrow ridge around the power outlet. I tapped the windows with my hollow knuckles, and felt the glass ripple through my bone. Air rushed through me, a girl still skinny in spite of everything my mother fed me these days.
My mother stood beside me as I knelt on the dark wood floor of her bedroom to test the joints between the boards. Valentina, she said. Are you checking for flaws?
She knew what I was doing, of course. It was a new fiction of hers, imagining me as someone who demanded from the world rather than thieving from it. That was why she laughed when she caught me dipping a finger into the cut-glass tumbler that held my stepfather’s whiskey. You’re just like every other teenager after all, she had said. But I only drank it because it reminded me of the store-brand cola the construction workers drank. The whiskey conjured their kindness, and how they warned me not to touch the pink insulation threaded with glass. They offered me leftover moon pies and filled my palms with cheese puffs. A kid like you shouldn’t be so thin. They left behind their liters of soda for me, and I guzzled them, drinking that tinny sweetness as a hummingbird would.
Don’t you like the house?
I didn’t trust my stepfather’s house. It never gave up a crack that I could slip a dollar bill inside, never revealed a wedge in which I could press my body. I found no trapdoors, nothing to hide me or my mother from red-knuckled fists or the drowning lights of police cars outside.
There’s no need for that now, my mother would say if she knew what I thought, but she did not know, and only kissed my hair.
Did you lose something? The housekeeper, Amalia, found me curled in my closet and inspecting the corners with a flashlight. Amalia had to wash my thousand-thread-count sheets weekly, and return them with sprigs of lavender tucked between their ironed folds. No matter that I didn’t use them.
A house this new is full of bad luck, I could tell her. Or that my mother is not my mother any longer; my mother was a canny woman full of glitter dust and thin scars from where she striped her own flesh with razors. Now my mother, freshly emerged from her bath, lingered naked in her room, rubbing creams and serums on her limbs. These days she always smelled faintly of the sea. Her skin was fresh from seaweed wraps, and her hair carefully coiffed with ocean salt spray. Even her mouth was redolent of caviar placed on wafers thin enough for communion.
You are a sad girl, I think. A pobrecita.
I took Amalia’s hands when she offered them, and she helped lift me out of the closet. She touched her middle finger to my cheek. She believed that we should only touch faces with our middle fingers, since they were the weakest and least likely to wound. I liked the sweetness and futility of that adage.
What is it? I asked.
Your mother wants me to cut off the tags of your new clothes so you will wear them.
I don’t want to wear them, I said. Take whatever you want for your daughter.
Amalia knew my secrets. She sometimes stepped over me in the mornings, since I slept on the floor and not my bed. I rolled my body in the quilted silver coverlet, imagining myself a naked rocket swaddled in a parachute. Amalia told no one about where I slept, nor my strange caches, and in return I left her gifts. At first she returned them to my tabletop, but I persisted. A gold bracelet dotted with garnets. An engraved silver pen. A watch with a mesh cuff that fastened too loosely on my wrist. I think she sold them or gave them to her daughter, just a few years younger than me. The books—Little Women, Sense and Sensibility, Sonnets from the Portuguese—I gave to her without even cracking their spines.
My mother had brought me books before. She bought the library’s remaindered copies, five for a quarter, practically a gift. Those days were good ones, when my mother was endlessly inventive. She stretched shower curtains over the glass of a cracked window, and baked sweaters to fumigate them. Men’s white athletic socks she bleached until they became thin and cashmere-smooth beneath her fingers. She scrubbed used underwear in the sink and bleached out the bloodstains on the crotch.
It was only on bad weeks, ends of the month, that she boosted me into apartment dumpsters so I could search for newly expired cans and sweaters with a single hole. I learned to pick my way around the tack of dried egg yolk to find unfinished jars of peanut butter, a calculator, a box of cold medicine. Once I uncovered pristine peppermint ice cream, semi-frozen and sealed with a plastic ribbon.
In between our scavenging, we ate government blocks of cheese, bags of beans, puffed rice, and whole milk. She stuffed me full on days before the blood test, when I had to hold my finger over the spindle and wait for the prick.The social workers took one look at her and me, my skin the color of a young doe, and hers splotched and freckled, and sneered.
I did not understand it as charity, but exchange. Blood for food. After all, we donated the white-gold rush of our plasma until the insides of her elbows scarred, and the nurses began to turn her away. I would have gone alone, but she had met my stepfather by then.
Cinderella’s prince was widow’s-peaked, his glasses rimmed with silver. He had paid court with flowers that had seemed to burst against our walls, plum-dark calla lilies and gunshot peonies, white with broken stripes of red. I had never trusted him, although the sex I overheard between him and my mother sounded only of breath and the sounds of flesh grazing flesh, not the wails and slaps and strangled noises I heard when she had been with other men. He meant for me to trust him. He took me with them on dates, and ordered for me tiny-legged quail, golden melon wrapped in pink salted ham, soft-boiled eggs and pea shoots, and a veal steak so tender that I felt like a wildcat, my incisors sliced so cleanly through the meat.
I thought perhaps he wanted me and not my mother. To guard myself, I layered two or three sweatshirts that swaddled my body down to my knees. But even after they married, he only blinked at me with blue eyes before returning to the electric glow of his laptop. Almost a year had passed, and he never extended a hand or offered me a drink.
We should be happy after all we’ve been through, my mother whispered to me at night. Happy because of our silver appliances, the small soaps, the refrigerator polished by another woman’s hands. As if she had forgotten all the ways that suffering can begin. Babies roll over and smother in their sleep. I once had a classmate whose tumor, like a bright spot of jelly, nestled in his brain. We knew a woman who lost two fingertips to a whirring disposal blade. No sorrow greater or lesser than another. One of my remaindered books told a tale in which one woman lost her eyes to birds, and another chipped off fragments of her toe.
My mother, flush and preening, had forgotten this. When she invited other women over for afternoon cocktails, she took up the past and told it again and again until I could no longer recognize it. My long-gone father became a good man, a Marine who looked a little like Desi Arnaz around the eyes. Dead now, of course.
I cleaned houses like this one, my mother would say. My employers weren’t like I am now, of course—my fingers bled from the bleach. She leaned in, palm flattened against her chest, performing a woman about to cry. I had a cough that never was treated. But I would do it again, anything to keep my girl safe. She’s so talented, you know—imagine if I could have given her French lessons, or tennis. She has so far to catch up.
Her suffering then was rewarded now in sympathetic murmurs and promises to speak to the director about enrolling me in summer camp. Everyone indulged her. Maids carried in extra stacks of towels when we traveled, salespeople poured second glasses of champagne. My stepfather carried box upon box to her, offerings of silver boxes, blue boxes, boxes wrapped in marbled paper and tied with gold ribbons. Sometimes he called me over to witness a gift.
What do you think? he would ask, displaying something—a wristwatch or a pair of leather gloves the color of pigeon’s blood. A glass bottle of perfume, deceptively simple in the way that I was beginning to learn meant that it had cost far more than I’d expect.
Fine, I would say. Or: Yes, I’m sure she’ll like that.
And you? What do you like?
I stared over his head at his man’s business things, the black leather briefcase that contained a shimmering aluminum laptop. The shine of his shoe polish, the badger hair of his shaving brush, the way he folded a clip around the cash he carried.
That’s a shame, he said lightly. I like to give.
My stepfather gave enough that my mother’s belly filled—somewhat miraculously, at her age—full of his son. After the birth, he bought her an almond-shaped emerald for her pinky finger.
I prayed the baby would be like me, and not pale and useless, as his father seemed to me. Although he was a boy, with his delicate boy’s anatomy, he did not resemble my stepfather. He was my mother’s son. He grabbed at whatever came near him: hair, earrings, fingers. He sucked my mother dry. Amalia unpacked packets of other women’s milk from the delivery box, patiently thawing them and readying them into bottles. My mother insisted that Amalia carry the bottles into his nursery on a small white plate, no matter how much I rolled my eyes at her.
They kept my brother’s room cool and dark, hushed so he could sleep. The tin stars of his mobile bathed in the electric blue of his monitor.
The flickering red eye of the camera appeared when I came to visit him. Sometimes I waved to my mother on the other end; other times I smiled, drawing my lips up to expose my new teeth, scrubbed and filled and glazed with fluoride.
Sometimes the monitor would crackle and my mother’s voice would sound as if distorted by water: Come eat something, Valentina. She wanted me to spend my afternoons shopping with her. She wanted candles poured into crackled china canisters, napkins embroidered with lines of real gold.
Valentina, let the baby sleep.
I searched the drawers of baby clothing, running my hands over the grinning blue monkey, the yellow appliquéd lion, and the tiny felted palm trees. I knelt and touched my nose to the unused diapers, breathing in their soft static smell. Finally I chose a tube of rash cream, one of several in his drawer, and slipped it into my pocket.
Ba, my brother, the baby, said benevolently. Ba.
I also took my stepfather’s striped wool socks from the Goodwill box, and stitched the holes closed with a ladder stitch, strong and unbeautiful. In the dumpster outside the local mall, I unearthed a mirror that cracked my face in half, a terry towel, and a pair of mismatched slippers (one lined with fur, the other fleece). I took a screwdriver from the garage—all my stepfather’s tools were pristine, there for show alone. From his car I stole emergency flares, and from the kitchen, a can opener. I took what experience told me would be helpful, what I would need most to survive. And I continued to search for a place where I could hide these things, and, if necessary, myself. But the house refused to admit me.
I began to draw the floor plan in my math notebook. At first the proportions were skewed, the bathroom squashed and the garage enormous. I showed them to the only boy at school who would speak to me without smiling as the other boys did, as if they knew something about me I did not. My friend rubbed his knuckle under his chin when he talked, worrying the bone. He analyzed the shape of the rooms I drew before giving me assignments to measure the precise widths and heights of things.
No secret can hide from the limits of space, he liked to say. He was my partner in science class, where we studied the formation of stars. He told me to think of stars as objects, as marbles and scarves, as luminescent plastic rings. His fingers shrank distances from light years to centimeters.
See, he would say, there’s no room for a hiding place here. No secret passages. He studied the map, and finally drew thumb and forefinger together to point out a six-foot space missing between a hall and a room in the basement. There, he said. That’s what you’ve been searching for.
When I investigated, I found a wall of heavy gray file cabinets. At first they seemed anchored to the ground, but then I threw my skinny girl shoulder against it, pushing until my legs trembled and grew damp. There was a door there, a miniature one, hardly big enough to admit a child. I could stoop and slip inside.
I waited until I was certain that my mother and brother were sleeping, and I heard the soft rush of my stepfather’s car leave the garage.
What did I find? Imagine the worst, for now.
I crept to my brother’s room in the middle of the night and turned off the baby monitor to lean over his crib and whisper in his ear what I had found, and how I had done so. He exhaled a wet and tired noise.
The next day at breakfast I tried to match my stepfather’s gaze, but he only clucked his tongue.
She needs some new clothes, he said to my mother. They grow so quickly.
She won’t let me buy her anything. She’s impossible.
My stepfather turned to me and spoke. Mildly, beseechingly.
Under his words I heard: Let us be reasonable with one another. I don’t intend to harm you. What you found in the basement is no sign of anything but kindness.
I shook my head.
Valentina, said my mother.
No, said my stepfather. It’s all right. But, he said to me, let her buy you a few things? Nothing extravagant.
I put the bacon in my mouth and chewed, the grease slicking my teeth. I let the pieces settle squirrel-like in the hollow of my cheeks, but I swallowed before my mother looked my way.
I took another strip of bacon into my mouth and bit down so that it shattered on my tongue.
So? my friend at school asked me. We sat together, our backs to the cafeteria windows, ignoring the tangle behind us.
I shook my head. I was hungry, suddenly, and I reached for his packet of cookies. The necklace that I had begun to wear slipped out from under my shirt and hung, glinting silver in the sunlight. I pushed it back against the bare skin of my chest.
Is that new? he asked me.
I shrugged. Sort of.
Information travels as fast as light, he said without explaining, but let me finish his cookies.
Later that day, when my mother’s white car arrived to pick me up, I slid in and ran my palm over the leather seats, feeling the warmth from the animal-that-was. The body inverted, eviscerated and scraped clean. My mother smelled of a new perfume: violet and spice. She brushed kisses on my cheeks.
I bought you new clothes, she said.
I looked out the window to see my friend ducking his head, fingers ready to touch his chin.
Okay, I said.
I carried the bags and boxes inside for her. The clothes were small bodies nestled inside each container, folded inside tissue paper. She handed me a pair of manicure scissors to cut the tags with. They were sharper than I expected, easy as a stroke of the guillotine.
It was not like when she had found clothes for me before. We didn’t sniff the armpits or run our fingers underneath worn spots. Now my hands learned the difference between silk, cashmere, and cotton.
Jewel tones are your colors, my girl, she said. Teal and green and purple.
She zipped and buttoned and arranged my collars. I pulled tights over my legs without thinking, unafraid that the fabric would run. I posed like a trained bear, let her see me in my underwear and my lace-edged bra, but I covered the necklace with my palm.
Toward the end, like a shy magician, she produced a silver box. The sequined dress inside glittered in bright blues and greens.
For the holiday party, she said, and held it to my throat. Remember how you used to love mermaids?
What she meant was: You were a child once. Please remember that, just for a moment, as you become a woman.
Last week, I would have told her that this was wrong. These were not my clothes; these sorts of things belonged to a girl I never had been nor would be.
Yes, I said instead. It’s perfect.
I knew I was not myself. My face in the mirror revealed my new teeth, my cheeks filled with fat, my hair smooth with expensive shampoo. My chest ached as my breasts began to grow in earnest. I surrendered to gym class giggles and began to glide a razor down the lines of my calf and shin.
I recognized myself only in the dark, when I could feel the narrow scar that crossed my knee. Years ago, I had fallen out of a dumpster and onto broken glass. I could feel the bump where the skin had broken and mended itself clean.
I pulled at my fingernails. New hormones swirled, wild and unforgiving, in my blood. The cells in my spinal cord multiplied ceaselessly to replace the dying ones.
I don’t feel like myself, I told my friend at school.
He rubbed his chin.
You know, he said, when stars transform, it takes centuries for their light to reach us. Observers never detect change until long after. When a nova occurs, and two stars flare into light, we mistake that for the birth of a new star.
So I’m a supernova? I asked, wondering if it was some kind of pickup line.
He laughed and rubbed his chin again, a flush starting from the nape of his neck. Maybe. I don’t know.
It must hurt the stars, when the pulse of light swells from red giant to the brilliant mist of a supernova, in the moment before the collapse of everything. When the universe turns inside out on itself, like my mother’s hands sliding inside shoes to check for—to examine—something. I had forgotten what.
I told Amalia that she could take all of the junk I had collected.
But your treasures, she said.
They are not precious, I wanted to tell her. They were things I would not look at if I passed them in the street. The green boxes of dumpsters had stopped looking like gifts. The day before, I had purchased the most expensive lunch at school without thinking. When I was full, I let the teriyaki in its sweet sauce slide from my hands into the trash, and walked away.
I don’t need them any more. It bothered me that I couldn’t remember why I had needed them at all. I could remember slipping the screwdriver under my waistband, but not why I had wanted it.
Amalia shrugged and gathered the box into her arm, as she might hold a child. No pobrecita anymore. Just another rich girl. Too bad for her daughter.
I woke on Saturday morning and pulled at the necklace I had been wearing, the chain so taut against my throat it seemed like it would snap and slice my carotid artery open. Finally I fumbled the clasp open and dropped it into the pocket of my pajamas.
I had dreamed of a car, and rain made of so many of these silver chains. I had spun like a seashell, coiling and coiling until I smashed the concrete wall and my body broke through glass, splintering me into a shower of white nerves, a tendril of muscle, a fragment of skull. A blue moon shone overhead until my father came and covered it with his palm.
My father. I called my stepfather this in the dream. There was a warning there, if only I could be quick enough. I could remember myself in this halfway moment, although it made my stomach roil. I tasted vomit deep in my mouth.
I didn’t find a body in the hidden room. No intact coffins, no bricks of heroin, no divorce records or latex suits. Just cardboard boxes, the kind used for Christmas ornaments. They held another girl’s life inside them: duvet covers and sheets, clothes and makeup, stuffed animals and dance trophies, photographs and Post-it Notes reminding me to Smile! Every day is a new day!
I searched through these boxes one by one, uncovering one new piece of her after another. She was not someone who would have been my friend, but there was something sweet about handling her life like this, more tender than the hours I spent delving with slippery fingers through the garbage. These things were preserved. A blue elephant so soft I rubbed my cheek against it. A pink sweater, knit into intricate cables. A little red-headed doll wearing an embroidered skirt.
I opened this girl’s jewelry box last. One by one I picked through her narrow bangles, charms in the shape of a silver key and a golden heart, and a crucifix with a diamond fixed in the center. They were heavier than I expected, real gold and silver, and I reasoned the gems must be real, too. I put them away quickly: even then, I think, touching them felt like rifling through her packed coffin.
I took only the things I thought would be helpful. Rain galoshes, navy blue outside and lined with wool. I took the makeup. I hated it, but my mother’s lipstick and blush made me appear older and more trustworthy. And I took a quilted black coat that whispered money as I pulled it on to test the fit. When I put my hand in the pocket, I found a necklace there. It was a heavy silver bar, an emerald dot fixed at the bottom. In looping, delicate script, it read Anna.
Before I closed the door behind me, I slid the necklace under my shirt. I have worn it so much now that the outline of it sometimes seems embossed onto my chest, but then it was light and cool, a talisman to keep me safe.
Now I ran to the room, to return all that I had stolen: the coat, the boots, the makeup, and the necklace. I pulled the file cabinets aside, but the door was gone, and the plaster sealed. I knelt and touched it, tapping and prying at the molding, but nothing revealed itself. I tried other walls, searched for other doors, but nothing. Perhaps my brother would know something in his infant wisdom.
He was sleeping, the blanket that covered him stitched with delicate stars. I wet my lips, opened my mouth to speak. I wanted to say: The universe is full of heaps of space junk, tin-foil satellites that creep from one point to the next, and meteorites that hurtle between red dwarfs and black holes. The gray light of a star fizzles every second, or else explodes into light that would blind us to see. We won’t know until they are already gone, because we see them centuries after, when the void has already swallowed what was left.
Sweetheart? my mother asked through the baby monitor. How had she known to find me here? Is the baby all right?
I stared at my brother. My brother. Mine. What did that mean, to own a being by right of blood? I scavenged, and things became mine. My mother labored, and brought him into the world. But he lived in my stepfather’s house, drank the milk of other women, and would grow cared for by unrelated hands. Whose son would he be?
I thought I heard him crying, I said.
Oh, babies cry. Don’t worry about it, my mother said, her voice different than I remembered it being, raspier and warmer both. Here, I’m awake, too. Let’s make some hot cocoa and you can show me how to take pictures on your phone.
I had not touched the phone she had bought for me, had not yet peeled back the shimmering cellophane protectant. And yet the phone was in my pocket by the necklace, and my fingers thumbed a combination to unlock it. I had taken pictures of myself in the mirror, my eyelids glowing with indigo and gold. I had posed in my new clothes like a girl in a catalog, laughing and ready to take in whatever they gave her next.
I went to her, and held the phone out to her in my open palm. I wanted her to see, to understand what my tongue refused to speak. But she only smiled and kissed my forehead, and held me in her lap as she had done once, so many years ago. I curled my fingers around the necklace, the bar warm against my palm.
What’s this? she asked, untangling my fist. I gave it up slowly, but I surrendered it at last. We looked at it, and for a moment I was sure she would ask: Where did you get this? Who does this belong to? What is happening in my house?
But she only smiled and combed her fingers through my hair, tugging through the knotted snarl at my neck. Do you want me to put this back on?
I could say nothing, but stood still as she fastened the clasp at my nape.
The next day before school, it rained. I dressed myself in gray tights, a camel skirt, and a navy sweater. The curler slid through my hair with practiced movements. I coated my lips in slippery pink gloss, wielded black polish on my eyelashes, and before leaving my bedroom I slid on my favorite rain boots. You do seem different now, my friend would say, but I would reassure him that it was a simple, spontaneous transformation. He might smile at that, and want to kiss me. The idea might have bothered me before (why?) but today I found I liked it.
At breakfast I accepted pancakes from my mother and sipped at the coffee, sweet and pale with milk. When I stood, my mother stopped to look at my feet, safely secure in the boots.
Oh, I forgot I bought those for you. They’re perfect with that navy raincoat.
I spun for her approval. She did not like my eyeshadow, but I had chosen only the duller colors, like straw in the rain before sunlight. She touched my cheek with the back of her hand.
It’s good, isn’t it? my mother said, and turned to my father.
He folded down his newspaper so that the words shrank to lines like the chain of a necklace, and smiled. He looked younger, now, and happier than he had in years. I stared, and tried to remember something. Once he had been solemn and old, and I had been a stranger in his house—but then he drew out his leather billfold and passed me a twenty.
Just a little something, he said. I know how you girls are.
We laughed, my mother and I, and my brother stirred and laughed too. My father finished folding the paper and drank his coffee, and then moved to kiss us all goodbye.
Be good for your mother, Anna, he said.
My mother turned to look at him, surprised. Anna had not always been my name, and this was the first time that she had heard it spoken. But then she shrugged and smiled, and squeezed my fingers between her own. Her rings bit into my palms: wedding band, engagement diamond, and the emerald nut that glittered an angry green, payment for some invisible service rendered.
Come on, darling, she said, and smiled when I, without thinking, picked up my dish in my hands. We’ll leave that for Amalia.