by Ana Gonzalez Paneque
Every day I wake up and I count the birds.
The birds are my friends so it’s the least I could do.
If you squint through the bars you can see their shadowy figures perched on the powerlines next to my room. Their angular faces peering in through my windows, they watch me sleep sometimes. But it doesn’t bother me anymore.
There were 49 today which is 16 less than yesterday. I’m not sure where they go, or what they do, what sort of infantile secrets they hold. But I do know where 3 of them are.
You see, today is Thursday, which means that 3 of them are cold on the concrete beneath us.
Their sharp cries, the frantic fluttering of feathers- their bodies hit the ground with heavy thuds.
Like hail, like heartbeats, like knuckles on the door.
I try not to watch, I let their secrets die with them.
She scares me the most out of all of them, up at the crack of dawn every morning, a rock in her wiry hand, an impeccable aim.
The eyes of a marksman, the eyes of a madman, she follows them with those eyes. All the way down. She savors it.
The air is thick with antiseptic and the faint scent of urine. Madge wet the bed again, I heard them go into her room last night, with their heavy boots, with their heavy hands. Change the sheets, just another chore, just another paycheck. She talks to me sometimes, taps a fragile finger against the wall. It’s morse code I think, but I don’t reply most of the time. It’s important not to get attached here, especially for me. I’m leaving soon. I’m not supposed to be here, it’s just a mistake, just a misunderstanding. I need to get back to Alice, she’s waiting for me- I know she is. She’s so little she doesn’t understand what’s happening, she must think I just left her. I never meant for it to escalate like it did, but you would have done it too, if you had been me.
We had a white picket fence once, and when the baby was born we painted her room with a shade called Bicycle Yellow. I wanted Seashell Pink and he wanted Fern Green, so we compromised. Dipped our hands in the paint and pressed them against the wall, promised that when Alice was old enough her little handprint would be up there too. Time passed, cutting off sandwich crusts and buying new sneakers. Make sure they light up, those are her favorite. He was… well is, an astronomy major- he would take her to the planetarium. He showed her how stars age just like we do, and when they die they combust. She never understood that, but it was probably for the best. He was good like that, he still is. But me, I taught her how to swim. We skipped the pool and went straight for the ocean, I remember that day like I’m still in it. It was blisteringly hot, sweltering – the cracked shells were gritty under our feet. I didn’t want to go, said I had a feeling about it. He laid a hand on mine, like he always did. Told me it was nothing, nothing, nothing.
He had gone to buy lemonade from a stand on the bay and she was on my shoulders so she wouldn’t get caught in the riptides. The salt burned my eyes, burned right through my skin. My cheeks puckering, an uneven terrain of flesh. I don’t remember how it happened or when, but I got knocked off balance- the waves were monstrous, sinister really. I forgot which way was up, my feet desperately kicking for a place to plant themselves.
Nothing but water. We must have been under for minutes, the waves seeping into my lungs, heart lodged in my throat. Her legs tangled into my arms, a heap of body. Limbs intertwined.
You asked me how it feels like here?
It feels like the riptide.
It feels like waking up everyday and counting the birds.
Every day I wake up and I count the drips from the faucet.
We always meant to fix that, but we both knew we never would. I give Alice a ride to school these days, but I go around the block a few extra times just to sit and talk. I didn’t always, but things change. I told her Mom was sick, she asked if it was the flu and I said yes.
I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t know the words to use, that was always her department. I leave work to go eat lunch with her sometimes, sit my with my legs bent at all the wrong angles in the tiny elementary school chairs. I didn’t always, but things change. She fusses about the crusts on her sandwiches, and I distract her as best as I know how.
“We are made of star-stuff kid. We are the universe knowing itself.”
“What does that mean?” She takes a swig of milk.
“ I don’t know” I say, I’ve been saying that a lot lately. They won’t let me see her at the home. It’s not a home, it’s an institution, a nuthouse. They say she’s not ready, and no- they don’t know when she will be. I drop off letters from Alice, written in Sky Blue crayon because that’s her new favorite color, but I don’t know if she even gets them. I write to her too, or at least I try. But the words are never right, the words are never enough. The pen digs holes into the page. I blare the TV all of the time- because the silence is deafening. She always had such a loud way of walking and moving and being. Like it wasn’t just enough to exist, she needed to make herself known. I water her plants for her, she would never forgive me if they died, she named every one of them after constellations because she thought I would like it.
There was this day, on the beach- it was the hottest day recorded in the entire summer. The frames of my glasses melted on my face, and I went to buy the girls a drink while they waded on the shore. And I looked away, I was looking at the sky I guess- and when I turned back they were gone. I didn’t get it at first, it didn’t click for a few seconds. And then I saw a hand, her hand gasping frantically.
Everything went quiet, there was a pang in my chest, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get air into my lungs. It took almost too long to get to them, the waves shoving me back, the salt burning holes through my throat. An arm stretching out- just out of reach. Always just out of reach.
You asked me how it feels here?
It feels like the riptide.
It feels like waking up everyday and counting the drips from the faucet.