Anyway, You’re Here
Already my mom is rustling through her vitamin cabinet. Mel and I call this the apothecary. I don’t want to make it sound like she’s some rare bird who raised me to be strange. She just doesn’t trust doctors, and if she could, she’d open me up herself to see everything that’s wrong. She has folders of blood tests from every year since I was thirteen, urgent pen circles around numbers she deems dire. When I call her crying on the phone, she asks me calmly to classify my last shit, and has Greek yogurt delivered to my dorm. When, as a child, after years of constipation and star-student behavior, I suddenly become a kindergarten terror, she blames it on the Miralax. All of my sadness, my rage, my dread, lives in my gut.
I sit at our kitchen table and she places a dish of supplements before me. This used to really bother me. I hated the taste, that they got stuck in my throat, that they made my pee that weird color. I detested any notion that this body might be just as much hers as it is mine. Mel and I were both c-sections, and our mom constantly laments all the good bacteria we could have absorbed from her vaginal wall, had she only known then what she knows now. Older, dutifully, I palm the pills and swallow.
My mom arranges another plastic bag of supplements—zinc, magnesium, K2 and D3, turmeric, something called “Joy Plus” which I think is just ashwagandha, fish oil, and a probiotic—and sets it aside.
“Who’s that for?” I ask.
“Oh, I’m babysitting Belly later.” My mom looks at the bag. “Skylar keeps getting these colds, you know, she’s so down all the time. So I’m gonna leave these for her to take when she gets back. If she gets back. You know how she goes out. God knows how long I’ll be over there.”
Skylar is the daughter of one of my mom’s old high school friends who died suddenly last winter. Skylar is a few years older than me. She used to live with her mom but lives alone, now, with Belly, her five-year-old daughter.
“She probably won’t even take them,” my mom says, and shrugs, and sighs. She leans against the counter and tilts her face toward the open window, where an old electric fan whirs on the sill. I think about how Mel and I used to press our mouths to the grates and speak into the blades. My mom looks through the window. “I can hear them over the fan.”
The cicadas are back. This morning, for the first time in seventeen years, they dug themselves out of the ground and took flight, shedding their skins so they might hover just above the holes from which they came—screaming, singing, until they lay their eggs and die. Outside, they swarm in dark clouds around the pear trees. When my mom picked me up from the airport this morning, she said, “It’s crazy at home. Everywhere is hot and full of bugs. Also, I love you.”
“You know,” she says now, pulling herself from the fan, “the last time this happened, we’d only been in the house one year. Here, look at what your dad found.” She pulls up a picture on her phone and passes it to me. “Do you remember?” In the photo, Mel and I stand by the garden on our front porch, lush with summer. The paint on the house is so new it looks like a different color. I’m 5, Mel, younger. We both hold a pile of cicada shells in our small open palms, and more shells stick to the plants behind us, litter the sidewalk. In my memory, they cover our roof like a blanket, which can’t be right. “I remember saying to your dad, the next time this happens, Clara will have just graduated college. And here we are.”
I zoom in on the photo. In it, I’m wearing a silver heart-shaped locket, a glint in the June sun. I used to wear that locket all the time. I would sleep in it, bathe in it. I had no great love and no lost grandparents, and anytime I thought of placing something inside—a photo of a best friend, or a pet—I became sick with the idea of its permanence, convinced I could never remove whatever inhabitant I chose. So I kept it empty. I thought that, eventually, I would know exactly what should go inside. One day, at a friend’s slumber party, we played costume. In the mess of tulle and jewelry, I lost it.
My mom watches me zoom in and out on the photo and says, “That would’ve been right before your burn.”
I look at my hand in the photo, so simple and unscathed and full of bugs. Now, scarred with the graft they took from my five-year-old thigh.
My mom’s phone rings: my grandma. I pass it to her.
“Oh, I picked up Clara this morning. Uh-huh. Clara, Mamaw says hi.”
I say hi.
“She says hi.”
My mom talks to her mom probably every day. They talk about everything and nothing.
I only call my mom when I’m depressed. Usually I’m walking somewhere or heading home, and I circle the block, or sit down in a park. I get quiet when I’m sad. She asks me what’s wrong and I just shut up. She asks why I called her if I have nothing to say. I wish it could be like when I was a baby—that I might scream, and she would know exactly what I want.
“What?” my mom asks into the phone. Then, to me: “Mamaw says at Food Truck Friday they’re serving cicada tacos. No, I’m explaining to Skylar. Sorry. Clara. Tonight? I’m watching Belly tonight. Skylar had me there until 3 am last time. Jesus. You and Dad should go though.”
“I can watch Belly,” I say. I don’t know where this comes from. Sometimes I feel like I’m playing good daughter when I offer to help my mom like this, like I’m playing grown-up.
“Really?” she asks. “No, sorry. I’m talking to Clara again.” She turns back to me. “Really?” I shrug. Nod. “Who’s gonna pick you up?”
“Mel can get me,” I say, which I know Mel will hate. My parents took me off the car insurance when I went to college in the city, and now when I’m home, my mom or Mel have to drive me everywhere.
“Well, Belly’s easy. She’s a really easy kid. All you’re gonna do is put her to bed.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” I say. “I want to.”
My mom eyes me. She returns to the phone. “Mom, I’m back. Clara’s gonna watch Belly, so I’ll see you. Ok. Ok. Love you. Bye.”
Mel picks me up at 8pm.
“It’s only the males who sing. It’s a mating call,” she says, driving.
“Mom is eating them in tacos tonight.”
“They come out of the ground every seventeen years to scream and fuck and die. It’s like, totally bacchanalian.”
I have no idea where Mel learned to say this. Once, she told me a boy she was seeing had a bipedal complex. I said, Do you mean Oedipal complex? She said he was in love with his mom. I said, What did you think bipedal meant? Another time, we went to a cafe and she ordered chameleon tea.
“Have you ever babysat Belly?” I ask. Mel just finished her sophomore year at the local college, where she has an apartment, but mostly lives at home.
“Not really,” she says. “I mean I’ve been home when Mom does. Or if Skylar sleeps over.” Sometimes, Skylar brings Belly over to our place to sleep. I think my mom likes it—especially when Mel’s not home. Skylar says her house has ghosts. She doesn’t like living alone. It’s hard for me to imagine what her nights are like. I think of her on the couch with Belly, sleeping, watching TV. I think of her bathing Belly, tucking her in. Sometimes it makes me sick to think of Skylar, who is basically me, but who is so much older, and also in a way younger, someone’s baby girl. I wish I had something so explicitly mine. “She’s fine,” Mel says. “Quiet. Kind of off or something. She’s an easy kid I think.”
“Mom said that.”
“Why are you watching her? Did she ask you?”
“I offered,” I say. Mel glances at me.
“You shouldn’t offer to do things you can’t drive yourself to.”
“Come on,” I say. “Don’t you think it’s fun? Driving around together? It feels sorta weird, right?”
“You need to start driving again.”
“If you’re staying here you do.”
I like the train. This morning, on my way to the airport, as the doors closed, a beautiful man had to run clumsily and throw an arm through the gap. For a moment, he was stuck, caught there in front of us all—somehow every age he’s ever been, a tiny animal and an awkward teen. The doors reopened and he spilled inside. He found the far wall, panting, embarrassed. He smiled to himself. I watched his grace seep back. With each stop, I realized new riders saw only this: a beautiful man at ease. Soon I was the only one in on the secret. I could imagine perfectly how he might cry or sleep or fuck.
“I’m not driving you around all summer,” Mel says.
“I literally just got home.”
“Still. God, we do everything for you. Anyway, you’re here.”
When I open the car door, the cicada sound comes screaming in.
Belly has already eaten dinner, taken a bath, put on her pajamas, and is playing silently.
We sit together in the living room. I’m on the couch, Belly on the rug, coloring. The house is in a small neighborhood where one of my childhood friends used to live, or maybe still lives, and all of the houses are shaped the same on the inside. I discover this because when I get up to use the bathroom, I know exactly where it is.
“Belly, can I see your drawing?” I ask. Sometimes I make an effort to talk to children like they are just people. And sometimes my sentences come out fully structured and slow, like I’m lying.
She works the crayon wordlessly. My mom said she’s like this when Skylar leaves—quiet. My mom also said to keep an eye on my stuff. Like a bad pet, when left alone, Belly hides things.
I scoot off the couch to sit on the ground with her. On the page, she has drawn several brown scribbles with eyes and pointy legs. When she feels me looking, she turns, digs in the pocket of her pajamas, and pulls out a cicada shell. She holds it, watching me, until I realize I’m supposed to take it. I place it on the ground between us. It looks strange against the patterned carpet, an odd resident in domestic space.
“The cicadas are pretty cool, right?” I ask. “Loud though.” Belly draws.
The cicadas got here when I did. I’m not sure what to expect when they go. I can’t think of what anything sounded like before.
“You have a birthday this summer, right?” I try again. Belly nods. “Me too. How old are you gonna be?”
She takes a moment. Without really looking at me, she holds up six fingers. She does it like three and three.
Belly’s whole page is brown now. Little black eyes anthropomorphize the blob, like cartoon creatures blinking in darkness.
“You and me,” I say, “we’re exactly seventeen years apart. I was your age when the cicadas came last time, all the moms of the ones here now. They dug their babies into little holes in the ground and all those babies waited until right now to come out. Next time, you’re gonna be just as old as me.”
Belly finishes coloring. She promptly stashes the crayon in the couch cushion, then takes the drawing into her bedroom. While she’s gone, I reach into the couch, struck by how familiar the crumby, warm underside of the cushion is, how many times I must have shoved my hands into its depths as a kid, how intuitively I avoid a coin and find the crayon. She comes back and stares at me, standing, so that we are basically the same height.
“Can we play house?” she asks, in her small odd voice.
Belly is the mom. I am the baby. She decides this. In the story, she is putting me to bed. I sit very still and she combs my hair with her fingers. She leaves and returns with her toothbrush and a cup. “Oh,” I say. “I think I already brushed my teeth.” But she insists. So I let her stick her used toothbrush in my mouth and maul my teeth. When it’s over, she holds the cup beneath my mouth. I spit. She examines my face carefully. She has this forever stare which seems to see for hundreds of years, forward and back. She touches my cheek with impossible lightness, and I think it’s weird that my hand could’ve ever been that small, and to Belly, she’s just the size she’s always been. She displays her finger beneath my nose: on it, an eyelash.
When I was younger, I used to pry out my eyelashes to make wishes. When my mom caught me doing this, rather than chastise me, she told me that the wishes would never come true if I forced the lashes off—they had to fall freely. This was worse than any punishment I could imagine. I lay sick in bed at night, stomach turning, desperate for all my lost wishes. When an eyelash finally appeared on my cheek, I held it on the tip of my finger, paralyzed, not knowing where to begin.
I steady Belly’s finger with my hand and blow. Belly takes my hand and carefully removes each of my rings, which she lines up next to the cicada shell. They are a fleet. When my hand is bare, she touches a curious finger to the scar.
“Shhhh. Don’t cry, baby,” she says, and stares at me. Then, more forcefully: “Don’t cry, baby.”
She wants me to cry.
“Wahh,” I say, and imagine being so small that all I can do is scream. “Wahhh. Wahhh.”
Belly pets my head. She strokes my shoulder. “Shhh. Go to sleep, baby. Mommy’s here.” She pulls a blanket from the couch: under it, she has stored the vitamins I brought for Skylar. She puts the blanket over me, just under my chin, and tucks my body into the space where I lean against the couch. She could do anything to me right now and I think I would let her. “Go to sleep, baby. Mommy’s here.” I slow my crying and close my eyes. I wonder if she plays this game with Skylar. If Skylar says this to her. What Belly cries about. I know what Skylar cries about, and I don’t. I wonder how much Belly knows there was a third person living with them, and then there wasn’t—if her life will be organized around this event, so random and so decided.
Eyes closed, cocooned in the space between the blanket and the couch, I think this is one of those things that is happening to me and I will maybe never tell anyone about. Not because I don’t want to: because I wouldn’t know how. I am exhausted by the idea that, for someone to know me, I might one day have to recount the history of my life. I want them to know all about me at once. I want to be taken like a B-12 vitamin: placed under the tongue, so that I might dissolve and enter their bloodstream, immediately.
Some silent moments pass. When I open my eyes, Belly’s gone.
I find her in her room, having tucked herself into bed. Her face peeks out from the swath of blankets and pillows. All of the lights are on.
“Do you want me to turn this off?” I say. She nods. I do. “Can I get you anything?”
In the kitchen, when I lift a mug from the cabinet, there is a cicada shell cached beneath it. I think I’ve won a game. Then I think there might be a cicada under every opaque cup.
I fill the mug with water and return to Belly. I place it at her bedside table. “Do you need anything else?” I ask.
“What happened to your hand?” she asks.
It is not hard for me to tell this story. But I don’t want to scare her.
“I burned it,” I say.
“How old were you?”
“I was your age. Almost exactly.”
“Why does it look like that?”
“They took the skin from my leg and put it on my hand.”
Her gaze is bottomless.
That summer, the summer I was 5, the summer after my Miralax year, my mom finally decided to let Mel and me dip-dye our hair with Kool Aid. She appreciated the impermanence—it was cheap, and it would wash out soon, and if by some error we ruined the last few inches of our hair, they could be easily severed.
It was late, well past our bedtimes. Like a witch she stirred the powder into a pot of boiling water. Mel went first, cherry red. She crawled up onto the counter—this, its own rare thrill—and my mom said be careful, be very careful, Clara stand back in case it splatters, and she had Mel lie back, so slowly, still as a board, as my mom eased the ends of her hair into the pot. My mom held her like this, head propped in her hands, hovering over the pot, as if exorcizing something. I was allowed to sit criss-cross applesauce on the other counter to watch. Mel complained about her neck, her back. Only when her 30 minutes were up did my mom think to sit me in a chair, upright, and hold the pot beneath me. Still I envied what Mel must have felt: lying prone on the counter, head inches above the simmering depths, Mom’s palms under her neck like an old, precious statue.
After we cleaned up, Mel and I fought for space in the bathroom mirror to admire our vibrance. Mine, a seething grape. I would come to know this feeling after any haircut, or piercing, or tattoo, but it was the first time that I had looked in the mirror appearing one way, and then some time later, changed.
Eventually, when I knew my mom was long in bed, I snuck downstairs and into the kitchen. The pot she used was still in the sink. I climbed onto the counter, leaned over and filled it with water. I turned on the stove. I wanted more.
I held my face over the pot as if at the edge of some strange pool. My cheeks became warm and red, and when I leaned back, I placed my palms against them, surprised at my own heat. The water bubbled. I tore the Kool Aid packet with my uncertain five-year-old fingers, and it fell in the pot. I plunged my hand in to retrieve it.
“Are you sleeping over?” Belly asks.
“No, your mom’s coming back later. I’ve gotta sleep in my own bed.” She nods. Now that she’s talking to me, I don’t want it to stop. “I woke up in New York this morning. Weird, right?”
“How’d you get there?”
“I didn’t,” I say. “I got here.”
“Okay. See you in seventeen years,” she says, and immediately falls asleep.
In the living room, I start to clean up Belly’s infinitesimal mess. I think about what Skylar is doing. I wonder if she’s dancing. It’s a warm night—if she’s sweating, drinking. If she knows the songs.
Folding the blanket, I remember the rings and cicada. I place the shell on the coffee table, unsure what good this relocation has done, but it feels productive. I slide the rings back onto each finger. One is missing. I search the floor, under the couch. There are toys and crayons, single socks and a small key, a watch and a thing of mascara and a paper fan, a miraculously ripe peach, but no rings. I dig in the cushion. My fingers, familiar, reach something cold and metal. I pull out a heart-shaped locket. It fits like a stone in my palm.
The living room’s sliding glass doors are dark, the glass having become a mirror in the night. Through my reflection I think I see a kind of movement: a hum, a buzz, a scream. But it could be anything.
I open the locket. It is empty. Outside is quiet and so, so loud.
Sophie Paquette is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Adroit Journal, Triquarterly, and others. You can find more work on her website: https://www.whereissophiepaquette.com/