a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
[Content warning: alcohol use]
For around five minutes every day in Summer, a narrow shaft of light filters through the window and reflects off of the heart you made me in middle school. Usually around four-thirty. It’s made of clay, but when it shines it looks like it would crack like glass. As I watch it glow, my phone vibrates in my pocket.
Unknown caller. Arizona.
The Grand Canyon is just about the only thing I know about Arizona. It’s probably a telemarketer. I almost let it ring out, until James calls out to me from the kitchen to clean up the dishes. Then I pick up.
“Um, this is she, how did you—”
“No way.” She sounds just like you, voice a bit more guttural. “I’ve been trying to reach you for like, months. Mom acts so weird whenever I try to bring you up.”
I swallow, gazing at the heart. Mom. The word makes my chest hollow. You have a kid. From what it sounds like, a girl, like you always wanted.
“I, um… I don’t know what to say.” You made her, this child on the phone. My niece. Does she look like you? Does she have your auburn hair and your single dimple? Who did you make her with? Does he have tattoos like you always said your type was, which I swore would change.
“I do. I have so many questions. I can’t believe this is happening.” The way her voice inflects is just like yours. “I went through the depths of Tartarus to find you. You have no idea. Nothing pops up for you on the internet. And do you know how difficult it is to find someone who has no social media?”
“No.” James saunters forth, furrowing his brows. The sun makes the top of his brunette hair appear blond. I shoo him away and mouth I’ll explain later. “I, uh, do have social media accounts by the way. My handle isn’t my name though. They’re all @scarlettsmombakes0517.”
“May seventeenth. Mom’s birthday. Why did you use my mom’s birthday?”
“It’s, uh, mine too. We’re twins.”
“Oh, right, I knew that. Wait, so you have a kid?”
I shake my head, even though she can’t see. “Scarlett’s my dog. Black lab.”
“Why don’t you follow Mom on socials?”
You learned how to ride a bike at seven, but used training wheels until you were ten. You were like that with everything you did. If you wanted, you could, yet you never wanted to. You never believed.
When Dad removed the training wheels and threw them in the garbage that day in Spring, you were faced with two options: ride without the wheels, or stay home alone. I’ll always believe that watching Home Alone as a family the night before the bike ride was part of Dad’s evil/encouraging plan.
Dad rode in front, then Mom, then me, then you. You insisted on the rear spot. I’d warn you about each little bump or pothole with a code word. Lilypad. At around the half-a-mile mark in the trail was a stark change in surroundings: the yellow, barren grass turned to trees. I think you were at that divide when I rescued you.
At first, I didn’t notice. I was playing music in my headphones and calling the occasional “lilypad.” I decided to remove the headphones and instead listen to birds chirping and wheels spinning. But I didn’t hear your wheels. I whipped my head around and you weren’t behind me.
I left my bike leaning on a bramble and ran backwards. For a minute, I worried I’d never find you.
You were slumped on the trunk of a tree, elbows and knees bloodied, helmet in your lap. “Lydia,” you whispered with a half-smile.
“My goodness. How long have you been here?”
“Eleven years,” you said, sure of yourself.
I snickered and sat beside you. Your bottom lip was stained with oozing red. “Mom and Dad will be here in a second.”
“No, it’s okay. I’m fine.” You weren’t. “I’m glad Dad threw out the training wheels.”
“I asked, uh, why you don’t follow my mom on social media.”
“If only I could answer that.” I shake my head. “I’ve looked for her. I think your mother blocked me, sweetie.”
“Why would she do that?”
I exhale. “What’s she up to these days?” The question isn’t purely to change the subject. I’m curious to see what you’ve made of yourself.
“Accounting. And she volunteers at our local library a lot. On the PTA, too.”
You always wanted to be an accountant, as much as I argued that it was the most boring job someone could ever possibly have. I’m glad you’ve made that dream a reality.
“What about you, Aunt Lydia?”
Aunt Lydia. “I own a bakery and, um, do a lot of community theatre.”
She hesitates. “Did you bake a lot as a kid? With Mom?”
Jenny Alves’s sweet sixteen was a house party. Her parents were away, and every kid in the grade was there. She had a huge cement basement and hung silver streamers on the walls.
You and I were in different crowds. I hung around Jazelle and Marina and Courtney. We went out to bars with fake IDs while you and Cynthia and LJ and Peter—your boyfriend—painted in a tree-house. Tonight, though, we were all together on the dance floor, which was really an aluminum square cut-out, taped to the ground.
I wore a black dress and you wore a floral one. A woman came to do makeup for both of us—Mom said it was okay for this special occasion—and we looked so similar that I stared at you and thought it was a mirror.
After entering Jenny’s basement, we split up and made for our separate friend groups—mine clad in black, yours wearing florals. We sipped liquor standing in circles. Played drinking games with numbers. I needed to pee so badly that I slipped outside to go behind a tree. At some point, Peter’s face came into view, blurry before me.
“I like your dress. It’s very… different from what you usually wear.”
“I’m not…” My senses were all obscured and my words slurred.
Peter kissed me and I threw up everywhere. Then you came outside and found me, slumped against a tree. It was your turn to be the savior. When things came together for Peter, he started crying and I think he was drunk too.
You pulled me up and took me home. We lived a mile away. That walk comes back to me a lot: the starlit sky, the orange stains on my black dress, your hand enclosing mine—you didn’t care that mine was covered in dirt and liquor and vomit.
When we got home, we baked a cake out of one cup “never drink again,” three tablespoons “don’t kiss my boyfriend,” and a pinch of salt. It was fluffy and tasted nice, but I could only have a few bites before getting full.
I started a baking blog the next morning, because why not?
“She actually got me interested in the baking field.”
Your daughter spurts a concise, humorless laugh. “So what happened between you guys? Mom will never tell me.”
“Oh, if she never tells you, I don’t know if it’s the best idea for me to—”
“Please, Aunt Lydia?”
“To be honest, I don’t really know.” It’s not a complete lie.
I don’t know why you blamed me for wanting a better life. I got the deal to go on a reality baking show that had the potential to launch my career. It was the last month of college. I wasn’t sure whether to take it or not. As kids, we always watched those shows with a critical eye; it was all so staged. You hated reality TV, and so I claimed to.
You and I planned to share an apartment in New York fresh out of school. You would look for a job and I’d open a bakery. After college, my blog was racking up hundreds of thousands of annual viewers. I actually had a chance at making my love my profession.
We bought the apartment and designed it with neutral tones—it was the only decoration we could agree on. We discussed the opportunity and I pretended to be leaning towards declining. We came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t go on the show.
The day we were supposed to officially move in was the day I accepted the offer. You would’ve understood if I’d told you. Everything could’ve been fine. But I was stupid and scared and left without letting you know.
Every day, I pictured you: alone in the apartment, blinking at my empty bed. I left you a long voicemail explaining everything and never got one back.
In the show, I was the first to go home, if only I had one.
But eventually, you forgave me. It was a stupid fight. I moved back into our apartment and slept beneath my untouched comforter. You were out for long periods of time and the stories never added up.
Then Mom was hospitalized and I found out I wasn’t the only dirty liar.
You’d known of her sickness for five months, didn’t tell me because “my career was taking off” and you didn’t want to “burden me.” A bullshit reason.
Each day, when you’d taken two hours to buy groceries, I assumed there was a long line. You’d been visiting her.
I had two days to say goodbye.
If I knew, I could’ve helped. Could’ve taken advantage of the time we had.
I don’t know why you didn’t tell me.
“We were best friends. I—I miss her a lot.”
There’s a sound in the background on your daughter’s end, and I think it’s you. Calling. Muffled. “I got to go, Aunt Lydia. Bye.”
I say all I can—“Goodbye”—but she’s already hung up.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.