BY ERIN SHERRY
In the beginning there are two of us, mother and father, and a hot ball of gas. This is what I tell you when you come asking. You’re reading that book about stars, how they’re made and how they grow and even how they die. The illustrations are really something, all these glittery beginnings and explosive endings, and you’re trying to find yourself somewhere in the cycle. I stutter around until I land here: he and I in his apartment. Evening, late spring. The windows open.
Below us: a bottle breaking. A siren screaming down a darkening street. An Italian couple on a fire escape arguing about sauce stains in the laundry. He’s making me dinner and I smell garlic burning. Oil hissing. Cream curdling as it comes to a simmer too soon.
In the living room he asks to shrink me down, so I step into a big plastic bag and he zips it shut. I sit down on the floor and fold my arms tight around my knees to give myself a head start. He feeds the hose of his vacuum into the hole puckered open at the back of the bag, flips a switch, and the sucking starts. The vacuum is loud and for a while it’s all I can hear.
Future models will be quieter, he assures me over the roar. He’s working on this specifically, he says. The noise. The air is crushed out of me, and I can’t help but think it’s kind of cute: the way he assumes it must be this I’m worried about.
The space around me gets smaller and smaller, the plastic tighter. I’m folded in half, then in quarters. I’d always wanted to shrink a little. Who hasn’t? This isn’t really the kind of shrinking I’d had in mind, and I’m not actually sure if I’m really the kind of girl he thinks I am, the kind who is up for anything. It all might just be something I say.
When I’m sucked down to the size of a coiled garden hose, I stop being able to see, my eyes pressed into my lap. I’m a Frisbee, then, flattened into a disk of denimed skin and hair and I think I might stop breathing. Then I’m acorn-small, what’s left of my breath fogging up the whole bag, and I start squirming.
He switches the vacuum off, flips the cap of the hole back open. Air returns in a rush, my body inflating back up into the shape of itself. I gasp on the floor like a beached fish as he unzips me. He kneels next to his vacuum and starts talking about everything included in the patent: the extra durable plastic. The super strong suction cups. The tiny zippers. I try to catch my breath. Finally, he says, we’ll be able to fit our whole closets into a carry-on! Whole houses into suitcases.
I reach under my shirt and feel my heart beating faster than it ever has under my hand, blood racing back to the valves. He tells me space-saving technology used to be all about the paychecks for him, but now it’s become something like a passion. Or the closest thing to one he’s found.
When dinner’s ready, I tell him I’m sorry but I’m not sure I can make it to the table. I’m still catching my breath, regaining circulation in my reddened wrists and ankles. Your star book imagines the galaxies as sweet little streets, celestial bodies as tidy rows of houses, all the dust and gas between them as summer sky hanging over squares of garden until it all comes together in a medium sort of space between realness and not realness. There, fluffy clouds begin to form in the big dark sky, all by themselves and very, very cold. Picture me there now.
No worries, he says, and brings the plates to me. We eat on the floor. The pasta is heavy and rich and I swallow as much as I can stomach but I’m still a little shaky. The rug is expensive and I’m very careful not to spill my wine or splatter the sauce somewhere it doesn’t belong.
Soon, we’re sitting so close our knees are touching. The dishes are licked clean, our glasses near empty. We push the plates aside and I’m feeling like my puffy old self again, almost, and then we’re fooling around on the floor. Here, the cloud drawings frown and shiver until they huddle into themselves for warmth. Everything inside them is pressed smaller and smaller until their insides get hot, hot, hot. The clouds wear bikinis then, aviator sunglasses. They get so dense they are no longer clouds at all, more like angry tornadoes wrapping all the extra matter around them like capes until, in a big blast, they explode into blazing balls of fire and light up the whole street.
Picture us, then, as two empty black bowls as big as night, hungry for tiny, invisible things. Picture something hot in our bellies, pulling us towards each other, some kind of energy. Some force. We squash it between us until something comes of it: a little beginning, blinking like a lightbulb, bright in the dark.
We fight about it all the time though, he and I, whether or not this is really the beginning. Sometimes, instead, I decide it’s here: you’re three. The sky-stuff isn’t inside us at all. It’s in the air, it’s what keeps us apart, and he’s trying, now, to wade through it. Also, he’s pissed at me. Or he’s so sad. I’ve been keeping you from him on purpose, he claims, and he’s not all the way wrong. But whatever way we spin it, you’ve always just felt like mine.
In this version, it’s all his fault: everything that happens next.
You’re wearing a puffy red coat that prevents you from laying your arms down flat and your boots are untied. You don’t want to hold my hand today, woke up impossible and stubborn, and I’m worried you’ll trip over the laces and scrape off the soft skin on the tiny tip of your nose. There’s gray snow everywhere, an overcast sky, and you’re the only colorful thing for miles. We’re meeting him in a park. It’s January. White light in our eyes.
He’s beat us there and he’s killing time on the swing set, kicking muddy snow around. The closer we get to each other, the harder I find it to walk. Like the air is heavier. Like we’re swimming. He stands and waves and picks up a box from the ground, wrapped in shiny pink paper glimmering with silver stars.
It’s your dad, I tell you. I nudge you towards him. Say hello.
Just like that? He says. He looks at me, finally, and seems to hate what he sees.
She’s little, I tell him. She’ll forget.
He kneels down to your level in the snow. You hide behind my legs. You haven’t seen him since before you could walk and talk.
I brought this for you, he says, and holds out the starry pink box the way mortals extend offerings to bloodhungry gods. You hurry out from your hiding place, tear the paper open with your tiny teeth. I tell you to use your hands, but it’s cold and your mittens are bulky.
When the box is open, you sit down in the snow, your face lit up by whatever’s inside. You unearth a jar from a bed of scorched tissue paper, a thin ribbon of smoke curling up into the cold. It’s just light, it looks like. A steaming jar of light.
Hot! You say, and drop it into the snow.
What is it? I ask him. Will it hurt her?
I kick it away from you with my boot and you squeal and try to lunge for it, staring straight at me with a hate that feels older and bigger than you are, somehow real and scorching and adult. He bends beside you.
It’s a star, he says. Your star. Just for you.
Star, you say.
Star, he repeats. Star, yeah. Star.
It’s the first full word he’s ever heard you say. He repeats it to himself, moving it around in his mouth until I think it must be losing all meaning, going bland under his tongue: star star star star star. He sands the syllable clean.
It’s real? I ask him. You got her a real star? What’s she supposed to do with a star?
What would you have preferred I bring her? He stands to face me, smacking snow from his jeans. A stupid toy? A savings bond?
I don’t know, I say. I don’t know.
She can have this forever. It’ll grow with her. A real star. A baby star. It’s brand new.
Star, you say.
Star, he says. All yours.
He takes off his gloves and slides them on over your mittens, shows you how to roll the jar back and forth in the snow without letting your hands linger on the glass for long enough to burn you. Glimmery dust gathers and falls like the goo inside a lava lamp. It swirls and buds and separates and almost blooms. Under the tissue paper, too, is the book. He brings it out and flips through the pages, shows you the way the star, right now, is just a hot red baby in a crib, reaching its fiery fingers towards a mobile of the milky way.
Star, you say together. Star. Star. Star.
Will it be like a goldfish? I ask. Will it outgrow this jar and need a bigger one and outgrow that one, too?
You roll the jar to him. You’re laughing.
Will I have to feed it? I say.
He looks at me like I’ve missed some sort of point. His hands are red. He bends and unbends them. There’s a silver band around his finger. Crouched in the snow, a bleeding blossom in all the murky white, you’re lit up.
Star star star star star.
He breathes warm air into his palms and I watch his ring fog up. He shows you the book again, and we lose you to the colors for a while: pastel heavens painted to look like nurseries, cradling young balls of light as they sleep. Ends of things as streaks of red glitter smoldering out against black paper.
Before we drive away from each other, I ask him how work is going, the vacuum bags. The patent.
Better than ever, he says. He lights up, too. Think: skyscrapers in your pocket. Cities in your backpack. Worlds strapped into seatbelts in the back of your car.
When we met, he and I, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t know what that question meant when I was asked it, really: what do you want? I was overactive in my wanting, never learned how to land anywhere long enough to make it mean something: landscape painter, large animal surgeon, pastry chef in a lakefront hotel. Good person, terrible evil person. Someone who gives, someone who takes, a traffic cop. A lounge singer. I took an art class at the community center and the teacher, floating between our easels in a long skirt like waves, made us sit in front of sheets of circles and transform as many as we could into all the round things we could imagine: Basketball, birthday cake, belly-button. I was the best in the class. I couldn’t stop. Perky breast. Tire swing. Planet. I filled in my whole sheet and asked for a second. Door knob. Lollipop. Dinner plate.
I went to a temp agency because I thought it’d be like the circles: secretary, dental assistant, bricklayer. Kiwi cut clean down the middle. Ball of yarn. Bartender. I hoped I’d finally find something that’d stick.
At the space saving company, he worked in an office overlooking the factory floor, all the men and machines, from a glass mezzanine high above them. He hunched over waxy drawing paper or clicked away at a big computer. I was there for three weeks and I liked it enough. I made their copies and answered their calls, the people in the see-through offices. I booked their calendars and brought them coffee: round lids, donuts. Cardboard cup holders and gentle knocks on glass doors to announce my coming and going even though everybody could already see me. The sounds I made in the strange panopticon seemed round, too, like sonar waves in a deep sea.
I liked him the best of all the space savers but I couldn’t tell you why. He asked me how I was doing. He said thank you, and that’s funny, and weather’s nice. His orders were uncomplicated: no cream, no sugar. Tomato soup, turkey sandwich. He was easy to share an elevator with. When we were alone in a room together, I didn’t feel like overthinking certain silences. He learned my name before the others did, but he didn’t say it too often that I got tired of hearing it. I liked his hands, strong and pencil stained, tapping against his drawing table, pausing too long on my arm. We kept seeing each other for a few months after the temp agency moved me to an accounting firm in the suburbs, to an assembly line where I capped tubes of Neosporin until the soles of my feet went numb, to an elementary school where I made copies of multiplication tables, maps of the solar system, vocabulary lists pulled from books about wars.
I did this all the time, then: want people only until I had them. Just want them to look at me, hold me still in their hands. But then when I let them, like that night in his living room while the sauce thickened and the stars came out, I’d feel myself go cold and prickly in their palms and I wouldn’t want them anymore.
I wish I could tell you why. There’s no good reason, really. I just moved on, right there on the carpet. Just wanted something else all of a sudden. Scoop of ice cream. Stop light. The shape of a mouth saying no.
When we get home with the star, we warm ourselves up in the bath. You like lots of bubbles, and we paint ourselves new faces in the foam. Mustaches and clown smiles, sudsy white beards. I open a package of bath toys I’ve been saving for some special night, twelve plastic pills in the palm of my hand. In the water, they shed their casings and expand, slowly, into foam objects. The capsules could become anything. We wait for them to form, become fish, dinosaurs. Sherbet green palm trees. You clap your soapy hands as they get bigger and bigger, taking shape in the water like magic. One is a planet, another a star, and you love it for a while until you remember the real star still burning in the kitchen.
My star, you say. My star, my star, my star.
I hold up the foam star, five-pointed and purple, try to teach you to hold it open in the water until it’s fat and heavy before ringing it out over our heads like a raincloud. You try it once and drop it back under the suds.
My star, you say, staring right at me.
There’s something about this phase you’re in, these stares like you’re searing holes right through me, that hollow me out. I’m a cherry scooped clean to the skin. I wrap myself in a towel and tell you to stay where you are.
I swaddle the star’s jar in an oven mitt and kneel beside the tub, let my towel drop. I want to believe he wouldn’t really have gotten you anything too dangerous to touch, so for a minute, I let myself marvel with you at the magic of it: the brightness unlike anything else, the warmth. Somehow, though the glass is warm, it doesn’t bend or shatter or melt. It’s like the sides of a pot still hot from the stove, lump of coal in a gloved palm, a spoon lifted from a steaming cup just hot enough to scald. It must be one of his space savers, I realize, some new material designed to compress and make carriable what had before been too much, too hot.
I turn off all the lights in the house, but the star is enough. We live a few good years in this new light, me and you.
We breathe easy. We dance around the apartment like dust, buoyant and unsinkable, two featherlight clouds. We discover that the light seeps through the sofa, the walls, the refrigerator, but it never burns, just makes visible things that used to be hidden. We find the missing TV remote, so many coins, socks long separated. We learn that the weird smell in the kitchen is a forgotten tomato pushed to the back of the shelf, that long ago a mouse must have lived behind the bathroom baseboards and hoarded shiny pennies and paper clips, that it takes just under an hour for Cheerios to lose their shapes in our stomachs.
We like the way the star shines through paper, sends big shadows everywhere. I buy a set of watercolors and we spend whole weekends spread out on our hands and knees, smearing paint all over old newspapers and holding them up to the jar to see what new colors will steep in the star’s strange light. There are weeks when you want everything yellow, an afternoon when you love nothing like you love purple. We hang our paintings in every room, poke holes in them with our fingernails so the starlight slashes through them like little wounds cut out of the night. We feel like we’re swimming through space together, but we aren’t afraid. It feels like home.
Sometimes the starlight sears straight through us. Sometimes it catches you from behind and I can see your little organs, skinny skeleton, milky and solid, standing right in front of me. When this happens, I count your ribs, your baby teeth, take note of the color your eyes become when they’re all lit up like this. I hunt for clues, before you move away from me and become opaque again, about the kind of girl you’ll become. Where you’ll go.
At night, we put the jar back in the starry pink box, the only thing we’ve found that can stifle the glow, sometimes blinding in its brightness. When the sun goes down, we bring it back out and set it in the middle of the dinner table. We think we might never change a lightbulb again.
For a while, then: I might love him. I might wish I could call him up and thank him for the gift, apologize for all my selfishness, slide the round silver ring off his finger and ask him to stay with us. We could be a family, I could say. A real one. In the star’s light, I like myself a little better. I like everything better.
Then, one night, the light goes out. You’re almost six. I don’t know where, exactly, this part belongs in the cycle. Sometimes, it feels like both a beginning and an ending.
Out the windows: a summer sun, leaving. Traffic stopping, rain pausing. Everything going quiet. I feel something tighten up, constrict, the invisible stuff that suspends our world inside it like Jell-O harden inside me. I nearly choke.
I reach for the light switch we haven’t needed in so long and under the bulb’s weak buzz you’re sitting on the kitchen table, little legs swinging over the sides. You’re touching your tummy, bloated in a blue t-shirt you’ve outgrown but love too much to give up. You look so sorry.
What did you do? I say. I shake your shoulders.
You look like you might cry. The jar is empty beside you, still warm but going cold fast. So is the apartment, suddenly, all the surfaces. My hands. But you’re feverish, forehead hot under my fingers, cheeks pink.
I pick you up off the table and stoop to your height.
My star, you mumble. You look right at me again, in that blistering new way of yours. My star. My star.
I carry you to the bathroom and bend you over the toilet. I tell you to puke and your tears start coming. I don’t want to be doing this either, I tell you. I don’t.
You’re shaking your head and hanging on to me, afraid of what you’ve done and so, so hot. You’re burning up. Don’t want to, you say. Don’t want to, don’t want to, don’t want to. My star.
You have to, I say. I show you what I want you to do: open my mouth wide, pretend to heave up everything inside me into the water. You have to. Come on.
I run to find my phone but when it’s in my hand I realize I don’t know who to call: poison control, an ambulance? I hear his voice before I realize I’ve clicked his name.
What’s up? He says, and it sounds so wrong. It sounds like a no worries, so long ago. It sounds like we’re working on the noise.
She swallowed it, I tell him. The star. Your stupid star.
I hear him drop something heavy he’s holding. I hear things catch in his throat and go cold, the air sucked out of him.
Just tell me what to do, I say. It must have come with some kind of instruction manual, right?
He starts to stammer something about a support forum, a hotline, but I can hear in his voice that he has no idea what he’s done. Something too big for him has happened, something beyond any sort of scope he can see.
I hang up the phone. I don’t know what I wanted from him.
In the bathroom, I press my palms to your forehead. You’re hot to the touch, but you tell me you don’t feel too warm. You say you feel okay. You say it so many times. I’m okay, over and over again, because you’re smart enough now to know I don’t believe you. I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.
I wish I could see inside you now, watch the way the star must sit in your stomach. I picture your insides melting to mush, your tiny organs toasted like marshmallows, but when I lift up your shirt your belly is no hotter than the rest of you. You let out a smoky little burp and when I look into your mouth there’s starry soot on your tongue, glittering like you’ve eaten night itself. At the bottom of your throat, a light, blinking like a torch in the dark depths of a cave. I hold your jaw open and wait for it to go out. I make you drink cold water, glass after glass. But still it blazes.
I put you to bed beside me. I know I won’t sleep. I’ll watch you all night, sliding the thermometer under your tongue every hour, feeling for your pulse, wondering while you dream if there was some way I could have stopped this. But there are so many ways, too many to count. The circles in my head fill up with them.
At some point in the night, there’s a knock on the door. He’s pink and panting.
I came as fast as I could, he says.
I choose to be the type of person who is generous tonight, forgiving as foam, crushed down half its size in an angry fist. I let him in. We wait for something to happen. Some big change, something terrible and telling. We wait a very long time.
You were a pin prick, olive, peach pit inside me and you weren’t easy to hold. You kicked and punched and wanted things neither of us had words for. The first time I felt you, I sat on the bathroom floor with my phone in my hand, thumb hovering over his name. But by the time I finally let it ring and heard his voice, it was late and I pretended to be calling about a jacket I’d left at his place before we stopped seeing each other. Every few months, as you got bigger and bigger, I’d invent some other lost thing to send him hunting for while I listened on the other end of the line. Finally, he stopped picking up.
I was working, then, as a crossing guard at a new four-way roundabout where drivers often got confused and free-for-alled right through the center. I stood in the concrete heart where all the routes merged and waved moving vehicles towards me with my arms all day like I was conducting an orchestra that could flatten me the instant I suggested the wrong tempo. I memorized all the right movements, fell into pattern with the clock of it.
One night when you were still too small for anyone to see beneath my clothes, I was working late. All around me: thick sky, pregnant storm clouds. Somebody wailing far away. Wind like a hungry tunnel. I leaned on my sign, stopped caring which direction the arrow pointed. I closed my eyes.
Suddenly, headlights. Cold, sharp rain. A man poking his head out his window and honking his horn. I pointed him on with my arrow but it was late and he stalled in the lane, still looking at me.
Brutal to make you stand out here in the storm, he said. Need a ride?
I decided to be the type of girl I liked to say I was, the kind who was unafraid. I wrung the rain out of my hair, dropped my arrow, and slid into the man’s passenger seat. It was warm inside, smelled like smoke and heavy, chemical fruits. He was spitting sunflower seeds into a soda bottle.
Where to? He asked. He looked maybe ten years older than I was. He hit the pedals too hard. He needed a haircut. He was always half-smirking. I told myself I wasn’t afraid, somehow, and I didn’t want to go home. I was sick of the room I was renting, the darkness in every corner, the clogged drains and stale beer in the fridge. My head. I don’t know. I liked being out of the rain.
I gave him all the wrong directions. I pointed left too many times. We went nowhere. He caught on, after a while, but kept it going, grinning over at me every time I flicked my wrist back towards the way we’d come. Finally, he said: My place, then? And we were headed down some road I didn’t choose.
I don’t remember what I said or what I wanted. But then we were in a little house with lumps of cat litter pilled into the carpet fibers and he was unbuckling my reflective vest and reaching up under my shirt. My jeans came off and he laid his hand flat against my stomach, holding you there. He must have noticed you. You went still.
Husband know where you are? He said in his smirking way.
I shook my head. No husband.
He loved that: My kind of girl, he said.
I looked down at the man’s fingers crawling over the small planet in my stomach. Blue veins like rivers, skin beginning to stretch and fork over me in fresh pathways, belly button punched outwards like an upturned crater. I wondered about the weather in this new world I was building inside me, if there would be storms there, or heat waves, moonlight or mornings or invaders. I pictured you as gaseous, the kind of planet an astronaut falls straight through. I pictured you wrapped with rings. I saw flags studded along your surface, unwaving and frozen, other planets claiming you for their own. He held me down hard. He reached up towards you.
He fell asleep soon after it was over. I listened to him snore and went looking around his house, poking into the closets and cupboards, unsure what I was looking for. Then, in a bathroom drawer, the source of the cat litter I smelled everywhere, the dander in my eyes. Dozens of them, frozen still and shrunk toy-sized in tiny space savers like condom wrappers. A miniature vacuum, the kind I knew, beneath a bag of cotton swabs. Tiny paws pressed up against plastic. Little whiskers like insect legs.
I never saw him again.
Your father is new to all this, remember, but in those first few days he kneels over the toilet after every time you’ve gone and prods your shit with a pair of takeout chopsticks. He’s searching for evidence that you’ll pass the star the same way you’d pass anything else. Then, he thinks, all the worry will end.
But what do you think you’ll find? I ask him from the doorway. What’ll it look like?
He swaddles the chopsticks in toilet paper and washes his hands in the sink.
And if you find something, how will you know?
Do you have any better ideas? He says.
We take you to so many doctors, strap you to more X-Ray machines than we can count. The hospital bills rack up, but he pays them without saying a word. Every time, I almost thank him before remembering that it’s all his fault. In each of the pictures: a splotch of white like a golf ball, a little moon in the middle of you. You wrap your arms around yourself on every examination table and shake your head. You throw tantrums like we’ve never seen before. You kick and scream.
My star, you say, and it burns this time. My star. My star. Mine.
The man who operates the customer service hotline for the star collecting company sounds a lot like your father, until I hear the chomp of his gum slow and slide all the way down his throat when he realizes that even though he knows how to bottle space he doesn’t know how to help us, and he begins to sound much younger. Like a boy. Like he’s in over his head. He says he can’t find another case exactly like yours, but that there was a Doberman in Missouri earlier this year who swallowed a speck of sun locked away in a vial no bigger than a tube of chap stick. By the time the dog passed the vial it had already uncorked in its belly, hydrogen and helium already permeating its bloodstream.
One doctor recommends immediate surgery, a cut no different, really, than the one that sliced you out of me when your feet got stuck. His colleague argues, though, that they can’t guarantee a safe removal. Even if the star held its shape long enough, she says, scalpels and surgical thread aren’t as fireproof as the space savers. They could melt to goo and ash before you’re even sewn back up.
Just keep an eye on it, she says. I tell her I’m already keeping an eye on it, I never look away, I’m getting so tired of never looking away. She nearly laughs.
Welcome to the club, she winks. First time mom?
You turn six, seven, eight. I watch you so closely, trying to notice small changes that might point towards impending disaster. You claim you hate Cheerios one morning, you only want Apple Jacks, and I’m sure it means you’ll burst into flames on the school bus or fall asleep at the lunch table and never wake up. I keep you home from school, let you stay in your pajamas and watch all your favorite cartoons, studying you forever from across the room. I realize it all feels much safer this way: I don’t have to spend the whole day picturing, away from you, all the ways you might combust. I enroll you in a cyber school, tell him when he worries that you’ll make friends in the park, at the library, in soccer practice or dance class. There will be so many ways: we’ll have playdates in the apartment, we’ll join clubs. But I can’t leave you apart from me for so long, in the pitch black nowhere where you are lost to me. Where anything could happen.
You become a very fast runner, zipping past me in the park, and when I lose you in the trees and have to call out your name, sometimes I feel all the breath inside me catch fire and I wonder if this is how you must feel, too. But then you come back, and I touch your forehead, and you’re no warmer than you were before. You outgrow all your clothes before I’ve washed them twice.
When you’re in middle school, you take up hobbies that seem too old for you, too lonely. You knit long scarves with the ends sewn together into big loops. You roll tiny beads out of clay and bake them in the oven, string together so many necklaces, hanging from a heavy hook in your closet. I sign us up for a pottery class together at the community center and you go silent behind the wheel, your eyes serious, forming bowl after bowl between your fingers. Sometimes, I swear, you glow a little. In the dark, I can almost still see you, lighting up your room even from under the covers.
He is around a lot, in this part of the cycle. I hate it at first, being apart from you, but he takes you to movies, lunch, Build-A-Bear, bowling. The two of you develop little jokes I don’t understand and am not a part of, but one day he drops you off with a bandage wrapped around his hand, skin scorched purple where you’d tried to hold it. He wears gloves when he’s with you, then, but when you see the marks you’ve made you never try to touch him again.
You meet his wife, a beautiful bank teller who stops having to work altogether when the patent money hits their joint account. She makes him happy, he says. She’s all smiles, small and spritely and sweet. And you like her, too. She’s so easy. She sings in the shower, she makes pancakes, she chooses paint colors and throw pillows to match and then she sticks to them for the rest of her life. You tell me, once, that he kisses her at stop lights. They hold hands while they drive.
One night, he drops you off and waits too long in the doorway.
It’s nice, he says. All of this. I like it.
She could be engulfed in an instant, I say. She could burn herself alive from the inside out.
He touches his temples. Why do you do that? He says. Imagine the worst?
I want to tell him that I wish my imagination worked more like his, that I could be sated by squeezing down everything I’m scared of until it shrinks small enough to swallow. But I’m seeing a drawer full of half-dead cats, their purrs paused. A hollowed out sky like a ravaged buffet table, all the planets parsed apart and preserved in pickle jars. I see every ending. I run out of circles.
I close the door.
You start your period, and with it each month come fevers that won’t break. You sweat all over, so hot to the touch that I have to yank my hand away before I burn, too. You hold your stomach and roar. I wear oven mitts to stroke your hair, press frozen bags of peas to your scalp that roast against you in minutes, the plastic melting into sticky white putty. With your head scorching my lap like an overtired computer, you look up at me and ask if I feel the same pain. I can’t tell you I know what this is like. I can’t tell you it will go away soon. I don’t know anything.
You start taking long, cold showers, but steam still wafts out from under the door and fogs up all the windows. Even in the winter, we keep the heat off. I wrap the pipes in your old scarves to keep them from freezing and you walk around in your underwear all day, warming up every room you enter like a space heater.
One day, in pottery class, you start and restart the same saucer over and over again. The clay dries too fast under your touch, fired in the kiln of your fingers before you’ve had the chance to smooth it into the shape you want. I try to calm you down, throw cool slip onto your wheel, but you slap my hands away. A blister bubbles up on my palm. You crash your clay to the ground and it bursts into smoldering red dust.
There’s a boy in the pottery class, about your age, who always tells you he likes your projects the best. In the stunned silence left behind after your explosion, he stands up from his wheel and applauds. I watch a small smile eclipse your face. You ask if he can come over for dinner, and I watch you grin at him from behind your water glass, draw circles around his foot with yours under the table. When your father calls, I think, I’ll tell him I was right along: he had nothing to worry about, keeping you home from school all these years. You’re turning out just fine. Better than fine. You’re beautiful, even. So confident, somehow. Appearing so comfortable in your own skin, even when I can see the steam rising off of you and I know you’re burning up.
I want to be one of those mothers who gives you space of your own, as long as it’s the kind of space I know I’ll be able to cross as soon as disaster strikes. One night after dinner, you’re showing the boy your room, all your knitting projects, your jars full of hand-rolled beads, the plastic glow-in-the-dark stars on your ceiling. I let you shut the door. I hover in the hallway and can still see your shadows beneath it, hear your muffled voices, your laugh. You both go quiet for a minute and I imagine the worst.
I hear him jump away from you then, cursing and clamoring against your furniture, and you’re saying you’re sorry, you’re sorry, you’re so sorry. When I come crashing into the room, the boy is holding his face in his hands and howling. You’re backed into a corner, frozen perfectly still. I watch you watch him, your hair soaked to your forehead, folding and unfolding your hands. You mutter it again and again: how sorry you are. Your voice goes so quiet the words lose their shape. The room is so hot.
I pry his hands away from his face and his mouth is swollen, bubbling into pink blisters, the bow of his lips already cracked and charred. I lay him out on the sofa and press cold washcloths to his mouth, smear cool white lotion onto the burns until the swelling goes down. You linger in the corner of the room and keep saying you’re sorry. I snap at you to stop it. I don’t think I can hear it anymore.
He calms down, eventually, and apologizes, too. But the next time he calls, you don’t answer. You don’t let him come back.
I stop being able to touch you, then, too. You never cool back down. Your cold showers get longer and longer. You get quieter. One night, after you’ve locked yourself in your room all day, I lay down in front of your door and feel your heat float out to me.
Come on, I say. Come talk to me.
I hear you pacing back and forth, feel the hot air churn around.
Finally, so quietly I can hardly you: Will I always be this way?
I could blame him again, then. His star, all his fault. But I’m not sure that’s really what you mean, the source you’re pointing towards.
When I finally told him about you, alone in the back of a cab to the hospital, my socks and the seat wet, I told him I’d understand if he never wanted to speak to me again, or to you. That I had no explanation, something just stopped me, I don’t know. I listened to him look around for his keys, start his car, and ask me over and over again what it was he ever did that could have made me hate him this much.
I said I didn’t think my problem was hate, this time. Or even indifference. It was just that I wanted to hold you so close to me that the blank map of possibilities I couldn’t stop seeing in my head could wash away but for one: a little round island only big enough for the two of us. I said there just wasn’t room for him there, in this new world I imagined. When he didn’t understand, I tried it this way: I said maybe I finally just loved something so much I saw myself sucking it dry of its gravity and squashing the shape right out of it. I said isn’t that what he likes to do, too? I said all my life I’d had trouble knowing what I loved enough to choose it for real, to lock it in my hands. But that this time I’d chosen like he would.
What I’m saying is: some of it’s my fault, too.
I hear you climb into bed and turn your lamp off. I wait for your breathing go steady with sleep, curl up into the heat seeping out from under your door. I stay there all night.
You burn right through your clothes before the last stitch pops. I wrap you in bedsheets. Then your legs and arms are too long for your bed, too, draped over the sides while you sleep. You’re so hungry all the time, everything you swallow turning to ember inside you, chimney smoke billowing up out of your ears. Soon, your head hits the ceiling, leaving a rust red burn on the plaster. I open all the windows, feed your hot limbs out over the sides of the building. And you’re glowing, now, almost as bright as the star was, years ago, before you stamped it out in your stomach. You open your mouth and all the old colors come flooding back, the starlight we loved. I feel something like a strange relief, compressed into the crannies of all the fear.
I move the couch cushions out onto the fire escape, the wrought iron blue-hot and already bending. You rest your shining head against them. Your father comes and we stand over your slow burning body, take turns extinguishing you with pots of water, comforters soaked cold in the tub and draped over your skin, box fans held over you in our arms. You rumble and shake and hiss, spit sparks up into the sky, send volcanic shivers through the floors when you move. The neighbors come to complain but when they see us stepping over your legs like flaming tree trunks to come to the door they become sorry, instead. They don’t know what to do, either. They empty out their freezers, bring ice trays and frozen hamburger blocks, leave casseroles that you swallow in single bites.
I read to you. I comb your hair out like I used to under my oven mitts. I check your temperature because I don’t know what else to do, the thermometer a smoking matchstick in your mouth. You nearly blind us. You poise yourself for some kind of eruption.
We can’t do this forever, he says one night. He’s been fanning you with your old headboard, detached when you outgrew your room. He’s panting over your blaze. We have to try something else, he says.
He tears through the apartment, ripping down our old watercolors, opening up the cupboards as if some answer might be hidden behind the olive oil, the coffee cups. When he can’t find whatever it is he’s looking for, he looks at me. I’m knelt beside your torso. There are snow globes of sweat on your skin, tiny transparent planets. The air in the apartment becomes so thick it’s hard to cross. We can see it: the hottest gas, going dense. All our dust. Our charred furniture, this space I’ve created for you. I don’t know what to do, either.
He leaves, then, without saying anything. You’re the hottest you’ve ever been, and still growing. Your feet break through to the hallway. Your neck expands, hair licking like climbing ivy down the side of the building. I pick up the headboard he’d been using to fan you, but it’s too heavy, and I’m so tired. Nothing’s working. You’re this burning thing too big for me now. I lose sight of where the beginning is. Or the end.
He comes back sometime in the night with his vacuum and a crate full of folded plastic. He opens one of them like a picnic blanket, throws air into it as if he’s replacing a trash bag.
Come on, he says. Help me with her feet.
He starts fitting the bag around you and you’re thrashing. You know what’s coming. We pull the plastic up to your hips, dodging your kicks, everything swinging. I don’t want to be doing this either. But I don’t know what else to do for you, how to make it better or make it stop, what sort of exit there is to point you towards. I don’t know.
Hold still, he says. Please, honey, hold still.
He sounds like he might cry.
When we’ve got the bags up to your neck, he starts the vacuum. It’s so quiet, now, nearly soundless. He’s been working hard. I close my eyes around your arms going flat against your sides, your legs shriveling up like fingers in bathwater. We try to bring you back down to our size.
It’s almost working. Inches disappear, sucked away to somewhere else. I can’t watch. I hear you kicking, still, crying out, your body flailing against the floor.
I turn off the vacuum.
What are you doing? He says, but you’re already returning to your size. You’re growing and growing and you hardly look like yourself anymore, or the self we know. You look like a star.
All around us: black smoke, fire alarms beginning to blare all through the building, a wide blue bowl of night spilling open above us. You’re on fire and you’re beginning to levitate. He backs into the kitchen, asking over and over again what I’m doing until he begins to understand. The sprinklers kick on.
I grab onto your feet and push. The fire escape gives way, your shoulders torch the walls down. I hear him leave again, close the door behind him. I don’t think he’ll be back.
You hover in front of the building before you go. I count each spark, stare right through your center. You’re white light in my eyes.
Later, I will watch you up there, a shining thing so far above me now, burning through time. But on the night the clouds part to make room for you, I hear things. A dog walker in the street below, jangling a heavy keyring. Tires spinning through city blocks and somebody singing, far away, to somebody they love: the oh so big and warm I crawl, on my hands and knees, straight into the sound. It holds me there.