Even your body belongs to them.
Your mother tugs down your shirt, pulls up your socks. She pushes the hair away from your face.
Your Great Aunt beckons. A warning glance from your mother propels you across the room.
Your Great Aunt holds your cheek between two bony fingers. “She’s gorgeous, Eve.” Your mother smiles and does not rescue you. Your Aunt pats the sofa beside her, and you sit. She pulls your skirt over your knees, and licks a smudge off your black patent leather shoes.
You belong to them.
“I only wish I could be so young and carefree,” your father says when he comes home from work. He doesn’t remember what it’s like. The pressure, the decisions.
“Bring in the newspaper,” he calls, safe in his chair and television. You are never off-duty. They can call on you anytime.
“Go outside and play,” your mother says, when you drag home from school. You want to stay in your room, read and draw. But your mother knows you couldn’t possibly be tired. She hands you an apple and sends you out.
You sit in front of Susan’s house and wait for her. Together, you will go someplace and draw. You will work on stories of princesses and princes, stories of things far removed from arithmetic, handwriting, and recess.
Today, at recess, you had to turn cartwheels. Emily Angels turned twelve in a row, all perfect. You turned one, and your knee scraped the pavement.
You could have won the jump rope championship, though, if your underwear had not been falling down. You could have jumped forever without stopping. You have asked your mother to buy underwear with better elastic, but she does not listen.
“Those are from Sears,” she says. “They’ve got to be good.”
The socks are from Sears, too. They last forever. You explain to your mother that no one else wears socks like yours.
“You’re lucky to have socks,” she says.
You don’t agree. You’d rather be like the poor girls and have bare legs in the springtime.
Your teacher loves you because you know the answer to everything. But you raise your hand only part of the time. Otherwise, the kids will make fun of you. They’ll chant, “Teacher’s pet,” on the playground, and whisper it at lunch. This happened to Doris King, and you don’t want it to happen to you.
“Cooties!” you shriek with the other girls when a boy comes near, but secretly you like Mark. Boys have a stability, a calm, that girls lack.
Mark walks you home from school. He picks flowers for you.
“Isn’t that cute?” your mother says.
What your mother does during the day is a mystery. She cleans the house, but she still hands you a vacuum cleaner once a week. She cooks a nutritious dinner. When you get home from school, your neighbor Evelyn sits at the kitchen table, her baby crawling around on the floor. You hear your mother say to Evelyn, “She would stay in her room all the time if I let her. I’ve got to push her out of the house.”
You are shocked. You wonder what else she’s revealed about you. You rush to your room, and hide the princess book you are writing under two layers of underwear. You run to Susan’s to tell her they are listening at all times. They own you. They’ll never let go.
They want you to do everything they never did. This means you go to Sunday School, take art lessons, take swimming lessons, and spend time with relatives. You study hard and make good grades. They measure everything you do. They are forming you into a complete person.
You love to draw but don’t want to take art lessons. It doesn’t matter. Miriam Shendle is taking lessons, so you’ll have someone to go with. You don’t like Miriam. It doesn’t matter. “If you like to draw, you’ll love art lessons.”
At the lessons, you sit at strict desks and draw horses with blue chalk. Then you draw houses.
“Use perspective,” the teacher urges. You use perspective to draw a long road out of there. Miriam looks only at her own paper. She is serious about lessons.
Miriam is also in your Sunday School class. So is Sylvia Weidman. Sylvia lives with her grandparents. Her parents are dead. You wonder about this. You have a grandmother, far away. What would it be like if she bought you socks? You wonder if Sylvia is as sad as she looks.
At Sunday School, you know the answers to all the questions. The teacher praises you, but no one seems to mind. They’re all waiting for juice and cookies, for the clock to say 11:45. They’re like you, waiting to escape.
For Sunday lunch, you split a chocolate shake with your father. You love the way it slides down your throat. Little lumps of ice cream tickle your mouth. It is almost worth sitting through Sunday School.
What are you going to be when you grow up? they ask you.
A teacher, you answer, a nurse. They like that. Your mother is a nurse.
Really, you are going to be a writer, but that is something they won’t understand. That is something even you don’t understand.
Every summer you take swimming lessons at a different pool. You can barely catch your breath as your mother leaves you, alone, with all those strange kids. You look for a girl, not too ugly and not too cute, to be friends with. You don’t want her to be a much better swimmer than you are. You shiver with the early morning cold. The instructor never touches the water, just stands on the side with whistle, sweatshirt, and sunglasses, calling out orders.
“Show me what you can do!” he shouts.
You’re not used to deep water. If you start to drown, will he jump in to save you?
Afternoons, you can do whatever you want as long as it’s outside and in the neighborhood. You play with Susan. Susan’s yard has a playhouse, a mimosa tree, and a fence. You pretend you are settlers and make stews of berries and leaves. You wear your mother’s skirts and run across the yard with Indians in hot pursuit. When things settle down, you teach school in a one-room shack.
“They’re so imaginative,” you hear your mother saying to someone. You imagine a stevedore sweeping her into terrified silence.
She hands you a rag and a can of wax. It doesn’t matter that you have a headache. It doesn’t matter that you have an important game planned for this afternoon. The den floor has to be waxed, and that’s that.
Your father practices the violin in the next room. Why isn’t he helping? His sister is coming to visit, and he wants to play duets. You wipe glumps of wax into the wood, circling, like your mother showed you. Your father circles through the music, and your mother beats cake batter. The shouts of kids outside taunt you.
You are theirs and they let you know it every day.
“They grow up so fast,” your father’s sister marvels when she arrives.
At least you can be grateful for that.