Isabelle Stillman

We Lean to Pick Up the Baby


And I think how different we are –

how you grew up in a house full of women; lambs’ wool and perfume; how they bullied you in school, calling you girl; Bruce – I’ll remember this boy’s name forever; how whenever he teased you, you thought of the mobile that hung by your crib, that hung by your bed; your mother made it from pink paper and hemp, and when he teased you, you conjured its image, and when you conjured its image you did not cry, and in that way, you learned that home is peace; how when I was born they called me Shine, Shiner, Shiny, as if I were a floor, as if I were a black eye, as if I could tell what they meant which was “you are perfect: our sun and our stars”; and when I was four I licked a playground, splintered my tongue, and was told I did wrong, and in that way, I learned that I was my own fault; how when I was eight, I stood up at dad’s birthday and blushed as he gave me a spelling bee; he cried when I got ‘paraphernalia’ correct, and I looked at my mother, feeble in the back, receding; how when I was eight my mother began to disappear; how when I was eight, you sat in a classroom some orbit away with analog clocks and eraser shavings; you brushed all the shavings into your palm and, cupping them calmly, brought them to the trash, put them in the trash like you’d put them to bed and this is how you have always been; gentle; dear; and me – me? – how I have always been? I have always been sharp; I have always been prized; I have always done right; I have made every bed and brushed every tooth; I have made my dad proud and my mother afraid, and in this way I learned there will only be room for one perfect woman, and that perfect woman is me; when I lean for the child, it is this narrowed woman who leans; when you lean for the child, all of you gushes out; you wore a bucket hat; you took the train; you had Penelope and loved her; you had three bosses whom I never met; you cooked without washing the pan; the pan a hand-me-down from your sister; I had three cabinets and each had a purpose; I had six nights that I did not sleep; I lived in one city; I knew my walk home; and then there was water, the coast of a lake, a blanket of sand, your hand cupping shells, you held them for me; there was anger; there was love; there was Penelope dissolved in Midwestern summer; there were shells assembled on my new windowsill; there was the dream of the flick of my mother’s housedress around the corner of a home that I never lived in; there was house and sidewalk and window and bed, night and dark, a market, a car, and in this way, we decided that we should marry; and in this way, who did we think that we were? and in this way, who the hell even are you? the child will learn that you sing in the morning; the child will learn that I drive five below; the child will have a mobile you make or me; the child will either sing or be slow or the child will be both or the child will be neither; and in this way, our arms reaching out are a life; and in this way it matters who will pick her up; if I am perfect, and you are peace; if I am housedress, and you are held shells, then give her to me, I want to hold it all –



Isabelle Stillman is a Los Angeles-based writer. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Capra Review and Narrative Magazine. She is the Prose Editor for december magazine.