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Strange Bodies on a Stranger Shore

The day of the butterfly upset--was it really just two days ago?--Anna had come home after school and gone immediately to her room. Unusual. As a rule, she’d rummage for a snack, flick on the TV. Later, she sat quietly at the supper table, saying little until Jerry left for his basketball practice. Jim was still out, delayed with a client.

Suddenly, as Claire sat there nursing her coffee, Anna said, “I want to show you something.” The statement held no defensiveness, she didn’t seem nervous. She pulled at the loose neck of her T-shirt until it stretched toward her shoulder. The fragility of the pale, flesh-covered collarbone smote Claire’s heart as she watched her daughter and waited. What was coming?

There, nestled in the soft flesh beneath the bone, in exquisite colors of green, yellow, blue and purple, sat a small butterfly tattoo.

“Why?” was all the mother could think to ask.

“I just wanted to,” was all the daughter could think to say, stricken by the pain in her mother’s eye. It had been a lark. A thought-out lark. Six of them had made the appointment weeks ago, gone after school, made sure it was a clean establishment. They were savvy. They knew about unclean needles.

“Was it--was it very painful?” Claire tried to keep her voice calm.

“A little. Not bad.”

Anna released the neck of her shirt.

Then, Claire’s control broke down. She saw her daughter on the table, someone leaning over her with a needle. Anything could have happened.

“But--but why would you want to?”

She hadn’t intended to sound accusatory. She did.

“This is the way it always is!” Anna said, like a ten year old, wanting to stamp her foot but knowing better. “I just wanted to do it. That’s all. So I did.”

She’d looked her mother square in the eye, turned on her heel, left.

Claire found herself unable to separate her own feelings, the confusing rush of them, the sense of that flesh broken, the flesh that had once been part of her, yet she squelched that thought because she wasn’t sentimental, she did love her daughter, though there was a certain distance between them she couldn’t seem to penetrate. At times the air between them seemed to grow clotted with unexpressed emotion in a way it never did between Anna and her father. (Or maybe, thought Claire, I imagine this. How can I tell?) Other times, the same air stretched out thin and vaporous, acquired a strange emptying power, as if it could change the substance of whatever Claire wanted to say to her daughter into pointless drivel.

What she couldn’t confess to Anna, or at least wouldn’t, was that she’d read that letter. Had violated that trust. Now, such a confession seemed ruled out forever.

She was paying for it. The discomfort would fade. It always does. But for the moment she felt bad and unable to repair.

The lines she’d read in that letter haunted her: I don’t mind lying to my mother, wrote Anna, I’m just sorry I can’t share. She never tells me the stories like your mom. All my friends know stories about their mother’s growing up, about their sexual experiences . . . about, well anything.

She’d dropped the letter, forever sorry she’d weakened, sorry she’d snooped. Her face burned. She felt caught in a lump of sadness. Nothing could really help. Nothing at all. So her trespass became her burden and that was that. No way to exorcise it.

From Strange Bodies on a Stranger Shore. pp. 209-210