"Don't you worry," she says.
On my walks I collect a dandelion, at first, and I hold it near my heart, in case the seeds were to fly away, so they would be caught in the bricks and breaths of my lungs. I find a penny with the tails up but I pick it up anyway, studying the oil patterns on its back, making rainbows on its copper-color surface. I find a rubber band and when I fit it around my wrist, it snaps, breaking the circle, links falling off the chain and landing on top of my feet. I carry them home in a curled palm, sweaty with the presses of my fingers, patterns wrapped around it. My own, my individuality, proven in a system of lines and math, fine print and a treasury of stardust.
"Don't you worry," she says, "we'll have you loving yourself before the year is over."
I wonder if she knows about the bathrooms, about the area of trees behind the house down the street, about lunchtime. I wonder if she knows about my teeth and I wonder if she knows about all the rubber and fingernails I have wasted this year. I wonder if she knows about the blood.
I remember the first boy I loved, but mostly, I remember the first boy I was told I loved.
"Charlie," she says, her voice obscured by phone lines. "You remember Charlie, yeah?"
"No," I say. "No, I don't."
"It was only a few years ago! You don't remember?"
"Yeah. Remember? He kissed me. Behind the bushes?"
It comes: her palm, curled in mine, he kissed me right here; his Asian features and his dusty black hair and his wince-worth eyes and the way we cooed over him, like we knew something the world kept from his face.
"Charlie," I say, slowly. "I remember Charlie."
"Do you still like him?"
I hesitate. I don't want to tell her that I didn't, that I never did, that I wanted her cheek and her kiss but not his lips and his pale, faded fingers held warily at my chin.
She jumps in before I can say anything. "I think I still might," she confesses. "Maybe just a little."
"Do you? Seriously?"
"I wish I was like you," she says, and I can hear her hesitating over the phone, a wistful intake of breath. On my eyelids I can see her pausing, closing her eyes, twirling her chopped copper-chocolate hair around her free hand, strands splayed and toyed around skinny, predicted hands.
"I wish that I had to bereminded of him," she says, her words careful and descending. In my stomach I know that I felt no pang for him: for Charlie and the hands he smashed in his car door that one time, for Charlie and his surfaced eyes and his deep-sea smile, for Charlie and the way we swooned and the way she would take me outside on the playground and when we played Princess in the Castle she would whisper his name to me, willingly, you be the princess and I'll beI'll be the prince, and she would pucker her lips and expel it: Charlie, call me Charlie. For Charlie and for her, mostly, who told me that she liked him, and who showed me that I liked him, too; who told me what it was to be liked back, and who showed me what it was to not be.
"I thought you liked him," I say, afraid of the way my words come out, like they might betray me. I arch my back and my eyes shut themselves, automatic, nerved.
"It's hard to forget," she mutters, quiet in the receiver, edging on a whisper, her voice too deep and dark for a fourth grader.
"Oh yeah," she says, framing his unaware face between two of her fingers, smiling somewhere inside her plummeted cheeks. "Can you imagine waking up to that every morning?"
The girl next to her explodes into laughter, a sound that falls around my ears in leaves and rain, tickling my earlobes but never really reaching inside. Something rings unsure in her voice when she says, "I certainly can't," and her face scrunches up in painful humor.
I bite my lip and let out a strained, stifled giggle. I don't tell them that I can.
Freud says the first person you love is your mother. Before all the penis envy kicks in and before your sexuality is decided for the rest of your life, before she came along and before he stole your pencil on the way out, before your heart taught itself to slam and before your lungs learned how to constrict, before you grabbed your old blue-and-white dictionary and looked up the word and it tried to tell you that love is anything more than an attachment and a curse and a feeling and a blow and a persuasion; before you learned that you entered the world from a big majestic mosaic of blood and tissues and spattered syllables that would worm their way into your mouth and strike sticks against your teeth and massage your tongue with gummy hands
and maybe it's only natural, maybe you couldn't help it; maybe you opened your big (washed/monosyllabic/dried/tired) eyes and found a woman with (tangled/streamed/screaming/straight/solid/graying) hair and she took up your (balled/nervous/renewed) fists inside of her hands and said she loved you, she loved you she loved you, that she was a painter to have made your nose and that she was a murderer to have created that heart; and a necklace dangled down near your forehead and you skirted your eyes by two thick lashed moons dabbed with darkness, and you decided
I could name fruits after you: lemons, oranges, limes, apples, passion fruits, citrus dreams, strawberry stars, and pear nights; I could take the very fabric God has draped over the sky for this night and I could wrap you inside it, and I could hold you there, my hands around your thickened middle, pressing your overeager collarbones back inside, jumping outside of your skin to make love with the very air; I could take the lids of your cheeks and I could take the stomach of your forehead and I could press them together, and I could collect your eyes like grapes and steal your grasping nose and I could let your body fall over sideways in sleep, and I could keep you, hold you, have you, altogether, cupped in my hands and running away like water stolen from a stream; I could make you, all your skin let loose in my hands and flying away like seven million bees off a dead flower, I could build you up; I could break you, I could leave your innards on the ground and I could let my feet soak in them, I could tear you down; I could keep you, you collected in my hands like you could possibly be an object, I could have you whole; but what I couldn't do, what I could never do
which makes for awkward dinner conversation, if you think about it; it makes for confusing car rides with all of the windows down and the car roof up and the music on loud and all of our hearts, quiet with nerves and feeling; it makes for ditched board games, when we promised each other Fridays and we abandoned the very material they were made out of, printed on and stapled to; it makes for lost childhoods, because I could've had that backyard puppy and my constructed playground and maybe then I could've kept Ashley and I could've kept Kara and I could've kept rainbows reflected on sad streets and dew miserable on unwilling flowers; it makes for silent fights, with his big fists on weaker tables and her cut-off yelling and me, with my face in my hands, and all the tears collected up on my generous lashes, and the way I would look up and her voice would be a whisper and his would be a screech; it makes for painful secrets, when we decided her room was prettier and when she said he had an analytical mind and when she said we were good, so good, such a family she'd never seen, and then her eyes fell on me like a tree no one bothered to shout timber! for and she said, "I'm going to look forward to working with you, LeeAnn"; and
but that was all before, like Freud said, as though you could be predictable on a sketchpad made of cleared soil and a with pencil made of decisive graphite, as though you could be plotted; before, when you loved your mother first.