I’m Mo, the girl who for the brief time, when I still tried to feel like a girl, never felt like I fit that description, never felt like a boy either, felt like something else. How was I supposed to get my head around that?
The answer is: I didn’t.
Instead, I whacked a field hockey ball, or a softball, or a volleyball, any damned ball I could find to whack. I let my sisters curl my hair and smear makeup on my face and paint my nails. Now my hair is cut short. I wear shorts and t‑shirts when I run, khakis and oxford cloth button-downs the rest of the time.
I listen to our mother say, “You could be such a pretty girl, Maura.”
I wince at that name.
My older brother is the only one who got me early on. He called me sweet potato. Once, when were both little, I let him butcher my bangs. Our father was still around then.
“You’re an attractive little dyke,” my brother said one day, long after our father was gone. I was fourteen and he’d just started hearing Jesus talk to him through TV commercials although nobody knew it yet.
I’d never heard the word used that way before. So I looked it up in the dictionary. I tried “dike” before “dyke.” The definition of the “y” version used the words lesbian and women who love women and derogatory. I knew what derogatory meant. I hoped he wasn’t making a pass at me. I remembered the fairy tale about the boy in Holland who stuck his finger in a dike to prevent the city from flooding. My brother was the last person I’d ever let stick a finger in me.
I run to get away from myself.
When I talked to our mother this morning she said, “Maura. I hope you’re hydrating properly in this heat.” Right now I wish I’d taken her advice and brought a bigger bottle of water with me to pour over my head because August in Philadelphia is ending with humidity that feels like it’s a hundred and ten percent. Beads of sweat spray off the foreheads of other runners as I pass them. The river is still, except for the overlapping wakes of the shells on the Schuylkill, six quads, the coxswains yelling, “pull, pull, pull,” as cars hurtle along the East River Drive.
I follow my usual route, the Penn boathouse to the art museum. I’ll jog up the steps, circle the fountain in the center of the plaza, and run back again. I wipe my hair out of my face. I’m the one with the hair that won’t do anything and skin that’s blotchy. High color our mother calls it. Cheeks the hue of raw hamburger when I’m hot, a nose as red as Santa Claus when I’m cold. Kind of blotchy all over when I’m in between. Right now my cheeks and legs are burning.
I run a lot these muggy days.
I just started business school at Penn. Intramural sports don’t start until later in the fall. My new roommate is a jock. She’s at the law school. She’s got a girlfriend, so unlike the last one, she understands me.
I’ve always been a good student, double major, Magna Cum Laude, that sort of thing. I intended to go to the business school at Berkeley, to get off the priggish east coast. Then there was the fire and I didn’t feel right leaving my mother and sisters to cope alone. Anyone can guess how that turned out? Mom eloped and moved in with Hal. Mimi dumped Jeremy. Mish has started dating a statistician. Martine is back in her own apartment and has a job to go to. I’m the one left in limbo. Talk about getting screwed out of my own well-made plans. The last couple of months have been a muddle.
I run to clear my head.
“You’re the one who’s always been good with numbers,” my sisters said, as they threw stacks of file folders at me. “Here; you take care of making the insurance claim. And these papers need to be filled out before the commitment hearing. Make sure mom signs all these releases. They need Mick’s medical records. They need them now. Right now.”
It took some fancy footwork to convince the insurance adjuster that the fire was accidental. Martine swears it was. Mick may have been fascinated by the candle flame but never intended to set the fire. I think he was so entranced by the illustration of the Virgin on the glass that he wasn’t paying attention when he lit it. What almost queered it was the police report.
A resident of the home, Michael Maloney, was found sitting on the lawn singing. When he was questioned he stated that he had invited the devil in to eat the house. Other members of the family confirmed that he has been a long-term victim of mental illness.
I don’t think Mick would like to hear himself referred to as a victim. Fortunately the fire department sent out one their inspectors, a skinny little guy with a clipboard and an attitude. He confirmed exactly what Martine said; the fire started at a single flash point: consistent with the touching of a flame accidentally to a highly flammable object. None of us will be stringing crêpe paper up again anytime soon.
I run to escape the phone.
When I’m outdoors and alone, I don’t have to answer questions; I only have to answer to myself. Martine says she tried. She says she called Dad.
I told her, “You never said anything to me.”
“What was there to say?” she said. “All you had to do was look at him.”
Look at him I did, every day, my only brother. And still, I just wanted him to go back into his room to talk to God or Christ or the Virgin Mary or whatever game show host he was fixated on at the time and stay there.
I run along the river.
It flows past the statue of John Kelly, the Irish bricklayer’s son, who got rich and had movie star beautiful daughters. In bronze, he’s a young man, larger than he ever was in real life, rowing a shell. Grace married the prince of Monaco, a guy with a square head, bushy black eyebrows and a mustache that turns up at the ends. I don’t see the attraction. Stonewalls and patios line the riverbank dotted with sculptures, sixteen of them. I know because I count them when I run. I’ve run this route so many times I’ve memorized the artist’s names. Only one of them, Sardeau, is a woman.
I pass the The Ploughman, The Miner, The Slave, and The Spirit of Enterprise. What an odd inconsiderate juxtaposition that is, The Slave with The Spirit of Enterprise. Eighty percent of this city is black and poor.
I run. And I run. And I run.
And I wonder what those dark skinned lovers, and families, and old people, looking for a shady place to make-out, or play, or sit, and wait for a breeze to give them some relief from this heat, think of that. And I wonder; what is it like to sit in the shade of a work of art commemorating the human initiative that resulted in the slave trade, directly across from a monumental statue of a slave: kind of like living in a house where someone is slipping away, someone who is your brother. I walked past him, and around him, every day, and pretended not to notice that across the hall, he was covering the walls of his room with handwritten gibberish addressed to the Avenging Angel of Christ.
Joan Wilking’s short fiction has been published extensively in print, and online. She was a finalist for the 2010 Nelson Algren Prize. Her short story, “Clutter,” received special mention in the 2016 Pushcart Anthology. Her novella, Mycology, won the Wild Onion Novella Prize. It was published in 2017.