Letters to Jennifer
This memory is trapped in my mind like a butterfly in a glass jar. It constantly beats its wings against my brain. If I don’t write it on paper, it will die there, suffocated and without light.
I am seven and the sand is cold under my feet. The sun is an auburn ball reflected in the water. The gray of night creeps into the bay like a disease.
I don’t ask why we drove all the way from Arkansas to Gulf Shores when it’s winter, and cold, and so empty here. Things like cold and darkness seemed to matter less back then, I guess.
Instead, I pretend to trip and fall into the tide that skims our ice-cube toes.
You won’t let me swim in the cold water, but I figure if my dress is already wet, what will it matter?
And so I trip again and again, rolling into the waves and slinging my knotted curls to and fro. I don’t think you noticed my plan; I was a discreet child.
“Ew! Watch out for that dog shit!” you yell. You sound so sophisticated with your words like shit and dammit that I’m not allowed to say.
I circle the offending bits in the sand. I try to spell “dog shit”—my valiant attempt to shield other unsuspecting victims from the vile mound of poo—but I’m only seven and can’t say shit, let alone spell it.
“Dog sheet” is the best I can do.
The lopsided grin I’ve always loved lights up your face. Golden notes of laughter tumble from behind your perfect white teeth.
It seems stupid but that is the best memory I have of you.
~ ~ ~
Four years after the beach trip you show up unannounced at our house.
I am playing outside, swinging on the street pole in the corner of our muddy, grassless yard—practicing my future profession, Dad says. Mom hits him for that comment, but I don’t get it.
You leave through the garage door and Mom trails behind you. I come to say goodbye.
You have three of my rings and a book of mine in your hands; it’s Hannibal. I remember seeing Hannibal Lecter’s eyes peering at me from above your forearm. I never really planned on reading it anyway.
“Gemma said I could have these rings—right, Gemma?” You look to me for confirmation.
I try to think back on all the conversations we had that day. Did I say that or didn’t I? I can’t remember telling you to take the rings; they’re my favorite ones, bulky and gaudy and hinting at the older sophistication I crave.
Mom looks at me long and hard, her brow slightly creased.
Your eyes look different—demanding and mean. They command me: say yes, say yes or else.
So I say yes.
You walk away, get in your car and leave. My rings are already on your fingers and the book is thrown into the passenger seat of your car.
Every day that week I try to remember when I said you could take my rings.
~ ~ ~
It’s my twelfth birthday but Nana isn’t happy. She’s crying.
“Jennifer was pulled over. They found a syringe in her car,” she says in a high-pitched, wheedling voice. It scratches my eardrum like a bug jammed in my ear canal.
Mom pats Nana’s sun-spotted, hunched back and listens to her cry.
I don’t know what a syringe is. For some reason I imagine it as some kind of fancy bracelet.
I ask Mom if a syringe is like a bracelet and she says yes.
I don’t understand why everyone is fussing and crying over a bracelet.
~ ~ ~
A year later I find out what a syringe is.
You lost your job as a nurse and have been kicked out of your apartment, and we’ve been left behind to go through your crap.
“Oh, my God. Kids, get back,” your sister says.
My cousins and I lean in closer.
She uses her boot to kick the syringe away from the closet door. It was buried beneath your cigarette-burned clothes and fast food trash.
The syringe isn’t what I imagined—a glass tube with a needle, like the ones doctors use to give shots.
You must be sick. I wonder where you are and if someone is helping you.
~ ~ ~
I hate the tone Mom takes when she’s feeling gossipy.
“Did you hear Jennifer has hepatitis?” she says into the phone. Her tone screams I know something you don’t. “She has to use a special kind of conditioner because the medicine she takes makes her scalp peel off.”
“I know, right?” she says. Her thin lips curl in revulsion. There is a fever blister in the right corner of her mouth, shiny with Carmex.
I leave the room; I can’t stand her voice anymore.
I can’t stop thinking about those three stupid rings. They were made of thin, cheap metal that bent easily. The diamond inside was plastic. I never said you could have them; that’s not something I would just forget. I should have just said no that day.
I don’t know why they asked me to write these stupid letters. It doesn’t do any good to live in the past. I’m going to be late for work.
~ ~ ~
I am sixteen and you are pregnant. We don’t know who the dad is.
I shake my head when I hear the news. You’re out on the streets; you’re one of those women who sleeps with any man that comes along if it means food in your belly, a roof over your head, and heroin in your veins.
I don’t have enough strength to care about you anymore, not when I’m just waiting for you to disappear again.
~ ~ ~
I am twenty-one. Mom called. She says you have cancer. Distantly I wonder who you pissed off in a past life to have such a shitty life now. But I don’t really believe in karma. I believe your misfortune is your own fault.
I am too busy picking out party dresses to visit you at the hospital.
~ ~ ~
I’ve just learned you have six months to live. They’ve stopped chemo. All I can think about is whether or not I’ll have to go to the funeral. Maybe I can fake a mandatory work function.
I guess I have to see you and the rest of the family now. I can’t get out of it; there is no excuse I can make that will suffice. But, oh, how I long to let you die and fade away so I’ll never have to think of you again.
I’m nervous, though I don’t let it show. I bury myself in my grown-up job, filing papers, calling courts, corresponding with clients. I am good at this; this impersonal business veneer I can put between myself and everyone else.
When I see you for the first time in years, your cheeks are swollen. Your scalp is smooth and hairless. I can tell the dusky blond wig is fake. Mermaid green eye shadow cakes your eyelids. You try to hide the cancer but you can’t.
There is shame in your brown eyes when you look at me, and hope.
I want to tell you that if you had made better decisions maybe you could have lived past forty. You could see your daughter live to be a teenager—her first love, first prom, first job.
Instead, I say, “I missed you.”
~ ~ ~
I am laying these letters in your casket today. I started writing them a few days ago, because even though I hate your story, it’s one I couldn’t bear not to tell.
Your passing was expected. You slipped away like the string of a balloon from a child’s hand, floating up and up and up.
Olivia is eight and you’ve left her behind, though not alone. She has your happy brown eyes and too-wide smile, and somehow my brother’s wild red curls.
I am taking her to the beach this summer, and I’m teaching her to spell dog shit. I don’t care how you feel about that.
I wanted to tell you that I forgive you.
The jar is open; the butterfly released.