The first lie they tell you about life. It goes on. Sometimes, with no warning, it disappears from time and space. Sometimes, things change, and life either takes a second to reevaluate, or it stops.
I stand in the full length mirror in my mother’s room, wearing the dress she wore on her sixteenth birthday, as her mother did before her, and so on. It’s beautiful, the nicest item of clothing I’ve ever known her to own. She sticks pins and needles into it, altering it to fit my height, and making everything smaller. Slighter. It is the night before my sixteenth birthday. The night before everything I’ve ever known will disappear. I think of the squat little house we live in, how I used to look down on it, boasting that when I grew up, I was going to get a big house on the countryside, with a view of the city. I know now that I want nothing of the sort. The idea of the city sends my hand shaking, so I continue to distract myself, trying to remember every moment of my little life. My family, I realize, is what I’m going to miss the most. I take a moment to regret anything bad I ever said to them, anything I did to disappoint. Tears burn my eyes, but I do not dare let them go. My father, his big, warm laugh filling the entire house with love and comfort. My little sister, and her determination to conquer everything she touches, but how she cares for each and every little thing in its own way. And my mother. I look at her now, the same determination in the set of her jaw, the innocence in the pout on her lips. The love in her eyes. But I know, of course, that she is not innocent, and that she was not always loving. She couldn’t possibly have been. She made it. To here, to now. She is still alive.
She looks up at me, as if she can hear my thoughts. I bite down on my lip, but she just flashes a rare smile at me. “It’s done. You look almost perfect.” I frown at her and she giggles, turning into the hallway, probably to retrieve something from the bathroom, where she spent the last three hours coaxing my hair into the intricate weave that weighs down the back of my head and using what little makeup she could afford to morph my face into someone I don’t recognize, someone beautiful. I’m lifted from my reverie when her quiet footsteps settle behind me. “Close your eyes.” I do, and the snap nip of cold metal rests on my collarbone. My eyes snap open and are rewarded to the sight of a delicate silver chain with one pearl on the end, enclosed in silver leaves and small, sparkling stones.
“Mom, it’s beautiful. Thank you.” I wrench my eyes away from the trinket to convey my thanks, and search for hers. I find them, with teardrops brimming to the top of her lids and dropping down to her cheeks.
“You’re welcome, honey. It’s the least I could do.” I turn to her and wrap my arms firmly around her neck and she sobs, falling against me, gathering me in her embrace and tucking her head in so she isn’t too tall.
“Mom, no. You have done everything for me.” A sob escapes her throat, and she clamps onto me tighter. Even though it hurts, I let her, because that is what you do when you will never see someone ever again. “Mommy, I’m so scared.” I whisper into her shoulder, my eyes burning with the fears of what tomorrow will bring. I can’t remember the last time I called her “mommy”, but I see no reason to feel embarrassment in using the word now. She takes me by the shoulders and looks me straight in the eyes.
“Look at me. I will always be proud of you, will always be proud to call you my daughter.” I mop the tears from my face, ashamed. She notices and adds “Strength,” she tells me “means nothing. Tomorrow, and for the initiation, you will find out who you truly are.” Then she leaves, and I am left to mend myself, only to get ripped apart again in whatever challenge lies before me. Making my way to the bathroom, I pull the clips holding my hair out, one by one, and set them on the sink. My hair falls in warm waves down my shoulders, tickling the backs of my arms and warming the back of my neck. I slide the thick fabric of the dress off of my shoulders, and let it slip along the contours of my fragile body. Picking it off the floor, I hang it on a hook on the door, then get into the shower, letting the water run cold on my body until it heats and brings red to my skin.
I massage the bar of soap into a lather into my hair and scrub the curls and knots from it, then I work at taking the makeup form my face, being careful not to get any in my eyes. After I’m good and clean, I just sit under the hot water, letting it wash in drones down my face, the only thing that can disguise my tears. I’m not sure how long I sit like that, letting the water scald my skin into numbness, but after a while it gets too tough to breathe, so I stand and make my way to the nightgown hanging next to the dress on the door to the hallway. I pass the mirror, but take a step back and stand in his reflection. Not for anything perverted, but just to remember how I look. How I really look. Because I don’t know whether or not it will be my last chance. Hair the color of autumn and eyes a deep green without the striking makeup, spill of freckles on my cheeks and lips pink as cotton candy, I smile my crooked smile at myself for the last time. No, I am not pretty. I’m not beautiful, or gorgeous, or elegant. But I am me. That’s something a lot of people take for granted.