The Ambition of Oysters

here's the thing.
here's the thing i always want to say.

there are times in your life when everything comes unhinged like the glue in your mother's dollhouse, the living room falling apart at the walls. coming home for christmas the flight attendant said "welcome to columbia. if this is your home, welcome home." and i wanted to cry the way it emptied me. what is left? nothing i know. wendy selling art in atlanta. or rather working the cashwrap at the museum downtown. martha, third in our class, drinking her coffee by a copier somewhere in dc. doing what she loves, she thinks, like me, succeeding. i remember how one day after school in her car she came apart. told me how in ninth grade her boyfriend got her pregnant. fourteen and the drugs they knock you out with make you truthful she says. her mother holding her hand and she can't stop herself from talking. from telling her everything. and now she reads magazines about pills that could have done it quicker. cleaner. but the horror stories. women bleeding the baby in the shower. the clumps. the hair. and i don't know what to say. i think about telling her how my stepfather used to hit me. the way a belt can tattoo the skin. or the morning it snowed, and it never snows here, and i was making angels at my friend's house down the street. and when he found me he took me by my arm that same way my mother broke it when i was two and drug me back to the house where he hit me till i cried. and it took awhile. i was six but i did nothing wrong and i'm sure of it. yet i don't tell her this. i'm afraid to make it about me. but i don't know what to say. i'm fifteen and i've never slept with a man though i will soon and i will cry then, i will go to school the next day and think i'm a different person it's in that moment when i realize i don't know how to take care of her and i want to. i want to suck the wound of its poison. want to mend the break. in that moment i would take it from her, if i could, the pain. i would make the choice have the child or carry it forever.

and when alex tells me about his girlfriend, how they were pregnant their junior year. stupid, lazy, he says, i touch his hand and think i could be that girl, could make it better like a stitch like a salve. i have been writing him love letters for a year yet he doesn't take the hand that touches his. he's that kind of boy. but three months later after my boyfriend tells me how he slept with his daughter and i'm left alone in his house while he picks up his son from soccer, i write alex and he's there a week later and i am blowing him in the backseat of my car. walking that day i put my hand in his pocket and he's carrying a condom and i laugh and i don't take it personally. we haven't kissed, his girlfriend is in texas and she probably calls him that night and he laughs. he says he can't be quite sure. i'm seventeen and i've only slept with one man ever and he's carrying a condom and i feel obliged to use it. on the flight here i don't think about him but feel like i should. six and a half years together after that day and i wonder if he has ever taken care of himself. if tonight the first night i'm gone he'll make his own dinner, what it will be. how many times he will call. and i don't know why i did it. i tell myself it's for him. wendy has me convinced and i'm not sure she's wrong because i haven't really loved him the way i feel people are supposed to love people in a long time and i don't remember the last time he carried condoms in his pocket let alone kissed me with his hands in my hair. and i don't want to call him but he wants me to, to know i'm here safe. so i leave a message at home where i know he's not. i leave a message saying "hi. i'm here. i'm safe," and it's not cathartic in the way it should be, being curt, being free. it's like cleaning forks with a washcloth. it's like shining brass.

and the airport back home is the same, though they've replaced the rocking chairs with couches and the restaurant has changed names. my grandma is there in her leather jacket, looking smaller somehow, looking kind of old and i feel embarrassed walking toward her, being watched as i am as i get closer. she is smiling yet i can't look at her because it's awkward from this distance, not being able to touch her or talk and i think about what i'm going to say. something about the beekeeper i met on the flight. how he told me after a year you don't need the gloves or hood. it could be a segway, yes, into something else, something more important like my sister who's disappeared and disappointed everyone by leaving her husband and her daughter. but she's only eighteen. what do people expect? and i'll listen and i'll listen and i'll bathe that night because airplanes make me sticky and i'll write a letter to someone i just met and try to be clever. i'll write something that sounds profound like how oysters have no ambition just hunger. how i wonder if that is enough, if that's the thing that separates us from them. and that night i'll sleep in the spare room, my mother's old room, and my grandmother will ask twice if i'm warm enough. and then i'll lay in the dark the snow on the ceiling circling. and i won't cry.

i won't cry.
i won't cry.

  -Erin Elizabeth Smith