Can I talk to you for a minute? Yes, you there. The girl holding the white coffee mug. I’ve been watching you walk along this sidewalk for the last two hours. You’re picking the red berries from the bushes that line the road and dropping them into that white china cup. When the cup gets full, you dump them out and start over.
I want to say there are better things you could be doing with this afternoon.
Happy birthday, by the way. I know you turned ten two days ago, and I know your presents are unopened. The cake you’ll never taste is drying out on the kitchen counter. But you’re not thinking about that. You’re thinking about how striking the berries’ redness looks against the white.
I understand that the sidewalk’s a more comfortable place than the house right now. The tension and grief make it hard for you to breathe, and the more time you spend in there the farther away you go. The family is ironing out its new set of rules, especially the ones about never mentioning your brother again and the ones about not being allowed to do anything to upset your mother. But you’re not thinking about that. Though it’s June, you’re thinking about how pretty the red berries would look in the snow.
I want to tell you to disobey those rules. I want to tell you to go into that house and let them know you exist. Numbness seems like your best bet right now, but damn it, kid, it’s not going to lead you to a good place. Feel something! Wake up! Drop that stupid cup and express yourself some other way!
I’m not trying to be mean, I swear. But you have no idea how this talent for dissociation you’re honing can get out of control. You’ve been working on it for years, but this is going to tip you over the edge. You’re already forgetting how to even feel more than vague distress, let alone express it, and it will take you decades to touch it again. You’re becoming invisible. In three years berries and books won’t be enough, and you’ll add binge eating to the mix. Your life will be defined by that for decades, until it’s no longer enough and you add drugs.
That’s why I want to knock that cup out of your hand.
Repeat after me. By some miracle, hear my voice and repeat after me: He is dead. He was only two years old and he’s dead. He was the person who made me smile and he’s dead. He died in a stupid, unnecessary car accident on my birthday and he’s never coming back. He made our family less unhappy for a little while and now it is disintegrating. I’m allowed to feel something about this.
Let that be your mantra. Keep repeating it. Keep repeating it through the upcoming divorce, the attempted reconciliations, the multiple moves and the homelessness. Through your sisters’ acting out, the fights, the departures, and the lonely days and nights when it’s just you and your mother left.
Everything could be different if you don’t stay invisible! The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so squeak. Shriek. Demand some help. Demand to be heard. Get mad, get sad; sulk like a normal goddamn teenager instead of spending the next eight years trying to be good. Don’t become someone who will smile, be silent, work or fuck for the privilege of avoiding intense feelings or confrontation.
When I look at your blank eyes, I feel all the rage that you can’t. Because I know that in a few years the blankness won’t be obvious any more, but it’ll still be there within. The default response to any stressor: switch off by any means necessary. And now I’m trying to unlearn it. So help me out here, and get some practice at a different path now. Please.
You can’t hear me. The sunset is approaching, and soon you will have to go into the house. You’ll slip quietly into the room you share with your sisters and hope they won’t come in until later. But you’re not thinking about that now. You’re thinking about which birds eat the red berries, and whether they will flock to the piles of discards you leave by the sidewalk.