Joseph JP Johnson
She’s my little girl and maybe I’m being selfish, but I don’t want her to go. There’s just no way to stop her or time or the changes that happen after this. In an hour, she’ll have a new woman in her life telling her how to act and talk and where to sit. I know it’s not the same thing—that a teacher isn’t a mother—but Libby’s the kind of girl who worships easily. She draws pictures of her Sunday school teacher and calls her “the most beautiful woman in the world.” She asks if she can live with the pastor’s wife, and—I know this is wrong—it always hurts. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was testing weapons for her teen years, practicing that well-placed blow. It comes honestly and it’s not that I wouldn’t deserve it. By the time I was twelve, I could drop my Mom with a slow exhale.
It’s not rational and I know it. Todd tells me not to get upset and that Libby doesn’t mean anything by it. He reminds me how Libby said I could be a queen, how she curled up with me on the couch to watch TV, how she stroked my head and said, “Mommy, I want hair like yours.” And it all helps, but it doesn’t fix it. Until now, I’ve been her life, and that sounds terrible, I know—but I was her world, her only full picture of womanhood, the only one she could love and look to. In an hour, she’ll start comparing me—whether she means to or not—to another woman. I know how it sounds, like I’m insecure and terrible, like I’m accusing my five year-old of adultery.
Libby woke like it was Christmas morning, early and eager. She bounced into the bedroom and hovered over us. She whispered, “is it time?” until one of us answered. Todd helped her with cereal while I cleaned up in the bathroom. I could hear them talking in the kitchen and how Libby asked if she was pretty enough. She asked if she could pick out her own clothes and Todd told her, “You and mommy already decided what to wear last night. That dress is for church.” Libby talked about how she wanted to be beautiful for her new teacher and how the other girls would wear dresses. She said something about jeans being for boys and that she didn’t want to dress like a boy or no one would talk to her, and all I could think was how does she know this stuff? Where did those ideas come from? Maybe it’s genetic. God help her.
Todd came in to say he was leaving for work and that Libby had a bowl of cereal and half an apple. She was on the couch watching TV and sorting through her backpack. She was wearing the green taffeta dress we bought her for Easter.
“It’s too short now,” I said.
“It’s not that short, and she has her pink tights on underneath. It’s not like she’s a Bratz doll,” said Todd.
I’m a horrible person, I know. And there’s no reason to cry because my little girl wants to wear a dress. In four years, she’ll refuse to wear one, like I did. It will fulfill Mom’s prophecy: “One day you’ll have your own daughter. One day you’ll understand.”
But we had decided the night before—together, mother and daughter—that she would wear the new jeans from ShopKo and the yellow T-shirt from Mom, the one with the pink flower. She would wear her pink sneakers and the matching pink cardigan. It’s September, and it’s cool in the mornings, but by 3:00 it will be 90 degrees and she’ll need something lighter, something she can play in.
Todd held my shoulder and told me that it’s nothing. Then he kissed Libby and left us two girls in the house.
I pulled on some jeans, a bra, a black T-shirt, and an old college sweatshirt. Libby was on the floor in her dress, sitting cross-legged and talking to her school supplies. She was that little cartoon bilingual girl on the television and she named each of her new tools in two languages. We had spent the night before reviewing the supply list, hoping everything was right. The school sent us a list in Spanish, but most of the things were easy to figure out: “crayones” and “Kleenex.” I remembered, from high school, that “lápices” were pencils. I searched online for “mochila,” “tijeras,” and “pegamento.”
Libby looked up at me. I saw shame, how I hadn’t even bothered to dress for her first day, how I didn’t understand that I needed a gown, that kindergarten was the princess ball. She asked when we would leave. She asked me to say her teacher’s name again and asked—again—if she would know anyone at school from church.
“Libby,” I said, “you’re so beautiful.” She smiled at me, like she needed me to say that, and I couldn’t stop thinking how terrible I was. “We’re leaving in twenty minutes. Your teacher is Mrs. Thompson. I don’t think anyone from church will be there, but you’ll make new friends right away. Now put everything back into your backpack, so we’re ready.” I asked if she wouldn’t be more comfortable in the outfit we had picked out.
“It’s not pretty enough,” she said.
I made her lunch: a peanut butter sandwich, half a red delicious apple, fish crackers, and a baggie full of M&Ms. I put a juice pouch inside with a napkin, and then closed the plastic lunch box. I had done this for Todd when we first married.
Libby entered the kitchen, stared up at me in those perfect oak-colored eyes, and said, “I’m ready Mom.”
At least one of us is.
Todd and Libby had planned the path to school, walking along the broken sidewalk, shuffling around glass shards, litter, and goatheads—those terrible little weeds that poke through Libby’s bike tires. “Are you sure you don’t want to take the car?” I asked.
“Mom,” she said. “We timed it. Daddy said it is shorter to walk.”
The sun was bold, but it hadn’t burned the cool away yet. Dew still rested on the tufts of grass. We made our way to the sidewalk as I held Libby’s lunch box in my left hand and her hand in my right, guarding her from the stream of cars flying down Nob Hill. It was so dangerous: leaving our house and traveling through town at just the time everyone else did.
Libby rehearsed her alphabet. She counted to 112 before I asked her about what she wanted to do for dinner that night: “It’s your first day,” I said. “We’ll have to celebrate.” She would say McDonald’s.
Libby’s black dress shoes were getting dirty. When she walked through the grass, they become damp, and then the sidewalk dirt clung to them. My mother would have never been this forgiving. She would have made me stop and clean them.
The weeds grew between the sidewalk and the fence. They crept through every crack in pavement, forcing cracks where the pavement didn’t want to yield. That’s Yakima. It’s the pavement and the weeds, fighting each other. And now I was offering Libby to that city, to be part of that system, and, oh God, what does that say about me? Maybe we should have taken her to the Christian school with her friends. We could have found the extra money; there were scholarships available.
We walked past the monstrous dental clinic, the one made to look like an amusement park. Libby always asked to play there, but not today. It used to be a drive-in movie theater, and when I went to community college, me and my friends would pile into a car, turn the radio on, and watch movies outside at night. Libby would probably never see a drive-in.
It took us twelve minutes to reach Whitney Elementary, two minutes longer than Libby and Todd had timed it. Libby let go of my hand to run across the grass and to her classroom. I called her back and grasped tighter. Libby pleaded to show me around. She offered me the tour she and Todd received for orientation. She described the bulletin board outside her classroom, the pink butcher paper with construction-paper apples labeled with each student’s name. Hers had a little green worm, she said, “with a smiley face.” She faced me, walking backwards, chattering about field trips and recess and math.
The building behind her was a vast single-level school assembled, like Legos, in tight-fitted, light-colored brick. There were countless windows bordered by white frames and shutters, all designed to make a government building look like a comforting rambler. It was topped by a gable roof, painted a fashionable and friendly teal and covered with composite shingles. To the unsuspecting, it may have looked like a home.
Large open fields and five-foot chain link fences surrounded the main building. On our side there was a smaller section, a private playground to protect the kindergartners from the older children. There was a slide, a little play dome, and a basket for balls. The grass was freshly mowed, kept in perfect order like a park or a cemetery.
Three blond girls raced around a dwarf Alder tree and, for a moment, I understood why Libby wanted to be here, to have her own place and her own world. She needed to be among other four-footers, with girls that wanted to dress up and boys that needed a place to stick their tongues out. Libby needed a field—her own fenced plot of land—to run in and play tag with people that weren’t her mother.
The part of me that is a good mother released her hand and followed her. I let her lead and show me the apple board and her classroom. I let her tell me how she would run through the field. She promised not to get her dress dirty. We walked between the white halls, surrounded by dozens of little boys with messy hair and runny noses and little girls who tricked their fathers into letting them wear dresses. They had formed a colony here and they welcomed one another as if they had a deeper blood connection than Libby and I did. These were her people now.
Mrs. Thompson wore a yellow long-sleeve turtleneck covered by a denim overall dress. She was an older woman, probably in her late forties, and she smiled to the children and told them to find their seats and to show their parents around the room. She shook my hand and said how happy she was to have Libby. She crouched down to her knees and faced my little girl, eye-to-eye, and shook her hand. She told her to find her desk and “show your Mom where you’ll be sitting.”
“We’re so happy that you’re sharing Libby with us,” she said.
I didn’t hate her.
Libby was right about walking. I wasn’t ready to drive or to take a left turn into traffic. Libby looked so happy at her chair, so free, as if I had been her captor all these years. I wondered if she would think of me during the day or feel a tinge of guilt or beg Mrs. Thompson to call me and say she missed me. I reached into my jeans, and retrieved the cell phone, just to be sure it was on. The school had my number. Libby could call at any time.
I opened the phone to make sure it was working and thought of calling Todd to check the line. Just in case. But Todd would think I was crazy. He would ask what was going on and how the send-off went. He wouldn’t know what to do when I cried, the second time before 9:00 a.m.
I scanned through the directory, and found the only number that could comfort, or, at least, could understand. I pressed the green send button and held the phone to my ear, listening to the pulsing rings while walking around a crushed paper bag, half-praying that Mom wouldn’t answer.