Sorry no pictures this time. But I still made this for art school.

I Don’t Remember My Fifth Birthday But I Bet I Cried

In the taquería with Scout last year she challenged my recitation. "You're unsettling," she told me, "don't talk about horrible experiences like they don't affect you."

My grandmother Vance died when I was eleven years old, two days before my little sister’s fifth birthday. I was sitting in the green chair, near the segmented front door, when Pete, my father’s friend, walked down the hill, up the front path and the ramp leading to our porch, opened the door and delivered the news. I remember crying for exactly five minutes. I’m not sure, now, if it was actually five minutes or if that time period had more to do with my sister’s age than my grief. Memories, Vance held, began at the age of five.

When I was five, Vance could still see, probably didn’t know she had cancer, and was mobile enough to make it down the hill for our pets’ funerals. She read Winnie the Pooh to me, and showed me her old Girl Scout badges. I’m not sure, now, if she actually showed me those badges, or if Bill, my grandfather, reached up to the shelf they lay on and brought them down for me to see, years later.

I know I discovered her scrapbook and watercolors on my own, quietly, when no one was around to interrupt their reverie. My ears perk like a deer or a small rodent if I hear vibrations of footsteps in adjacent rooms: I freeze; I prepare to shove things out of sight. This is the state of mind in which I gather secrets. If my imagination is loud enough to drown out everything around me, it must be loud enough to overhear; therefore, it is safest to collect delicate information only when no one else is present.

But the memories Scout spoke of are not eggshell, taupe or cracked rose in hue. They are more dull forest green or of a particular muddied navy. In the taquería last year I had been talking about my cousin Alex, who moved in with my family three years before my grandmother died, when I was eight.

Alex had an abusive stepfather. I remember a visit to my grandparents, the other ones, and when we left Alex came home with us in our car. For good. I don’t think my parents really kidnapped him, but my memory lays out the crime in detail. After that dinner party, our house, and what went on in it, picked up in ferocity. Alex stabbed his wall all night, every night. Alex punched through the computer screen. Alex tried to beat up my mom. My brother refused to share his room, and lived on the couch for a week. My sister, young and stubborn, cried; infuriated, Alex met her sobs with tirades, she bawled louder; it went on like this.

There was so much screaming I hid my vocal chords from the others, fearing one might rip mine out to enhance their own. Still I stayed in the rooms (the five rooms) and listened. Trees over blackberry bushes only speak what I don't understand. I tried to have a conversation with the aphids, once. They rocked their grass stalks in front of me, laughing. The spit bugs stuck my fingers together. Inside, the skylight above the green chair, when it was next to the fireplace, let sun through the spiderwebs. I am sure I sat there when my father faced off with my cousin, challenging his denial about the peanut butter cups. This is the state of silence in which I steal secrets. To catch the whispers between the shouts, it is essential to lower your own volume. A magician’s fingers will hush in his sleeve as his teeth bellow distractions. Pay close attention.

The food in the taquería is usually orange. The walls are yellow and textured, like tiny pustules on an improbably planar jowl. As you approach the bathroom the booths shrink and jostle each other and the men who sit there. The tallest woman behind the insulation-grey linoleum counter has hair that swings in a ponytail. She won’t look at you when you order – her eyes are busy.

Our food is delicious and Scout sits across from me, one hand feeding, one hand resting. She is frowning, or maybe I only remember her angry to suit the dialog that follows. She tells me I need to quit bullshitting myself and wake up to the fact that I didn’t have a great childhood, the events I just described probably did scar me, and I need to shut the fuck up if I’m gonna keep talking in that goddamn voice like none of it matters. I shut up.

These are not the secrets. I do not hide my secrets in tears, or in the blood that could leak from my knuckles if I punched the wall. The secrets are behind my eyelids and nestled by my eardrums. Anyone can be angry, and cry. Do I ever have the time?

I cried last September, when Scout and I had to separate. We both did. A lot. And I cried in front of Mandy when I heard about my father’s new, secret fiancé, and when I hadn’t slept for a week, and again, slightly, when she found out about the secrets. I told her there were two. I gave her one.

I never gave Scout any secrets, although we share many and I stole quite a few. I’m not sure, now, whether the ache with which I remember her is strong enough. I know we cried longer than nine minutes, though nine was the number of months we were together. I wonder how many minutes I will remember crying over Mandy.

I asked Mandy yesterday if she thought I was unsettling. She didn’t. I store this one between my collarbones.


  1. Anne Hill12:00

    Lovely writing, my dear. It brings up a lot of memories for me, which maybe I will share with you some day. To me, your secrets sound like moments of private awareness, when we know we have experienced something central to our psyche's development but haven't figured out how to express it yet. Watch out, performance art!


  2. Anonymous13:30

    Hey Lyra.

    I've never had a chance to tell you this, but you write beautifully - just like your mom, except different.

    And I want to tell you how proud I am of you, for getting to where you are now, and for turning out to be such an amazing woman, just like your mom, except different.

    And I'll buy one of those t-shirts from you, in Elena's size. She already idolizes you.


  3. Beautiful, Lyra, just beautiful. I remember your eyes at that age. Big and yes, full of secrets. A watcher and listener. Crying is good. It loosens things up. But then, a box of kleenex is the tool of my trade. I love you!

  4. Lovely, Lyra. It's so interesting for me, who knows you only as your mother's daughter and not so much as yourself, to see your perspective on family matters I only know from the outside. I remember when Alex moved in. I remember when your grandmother died. Now, sadly, I know of the changes and fragmentation of your childhood family.

    All of life, childhood and beyond, is filled with sorrow and joy. Like the rains and winds on rock, they shape our souls. When we need to express the thoughts and feelings these joys and sorrows generate, we have our arts. Yours is wonderful!


  5. You write very well.


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