This Is a Story About Washing Your Hands

You haven’t left the kitchen in weeks, it seems. Every time I creep downstairs I see you sitting either cradled within the straight back and sturdy arms of the oak kitchen chair or I see you sprawled out on the floor, shrieking in a language we both knew once but I have long forgotten. Today you are on the floor again, choking out sounds, mashed peas on the floor around where you are curled up. You cry out as I approach you, louder then as I lower myself to meet you there. I understand your fear; but I will not hit you today. That is a mistake I only had to make once. I am trying not to be spiteful as I brush the peas out of your hair. The green spheres are caught in your coils like balls of tapioca caught in a straw.

I am not a warden. I let you go outside. I took you to get ice cream. Do you remember? I know you probably don’t, but I do and even though we did not have a good time I remember feeling proud enough to tell your father, who jokes that I’m holding you hostage. She likes to be at home, I reply defensively. I do not know what you like but I would if you could only talk to me. After we got our cones we walked down to the park, me dragging you along. Your plodding footsteps and mouth breathing are my companion more than you are. You bit me on the arm as I wrestled you onto the park bench, only wanting to feel like a normal family for once. I give up when my ears can no longer handle your cries. The white people in the park stare and say nothing as the blood drips down my hand. They shuffle away, eyes averted.

I want to tell you about how I got suspended from school for missing too many days, and how the principal threatened to call Child Protective Services but you and I both know the threat is empty and you don’t listen to me anyway. That day I missed the bus again and when I finally got to class it was already third period and Nasira, who had her baby at fifteen, smiled at me like she knows something and I want to hate her because she thinks we share more than we do. I envy the choice she got to make; the fat cheeked choice strapped to her chest. The choice she bounces around during passing periods. Some of us weren’t so lucky.

There are days when I still call my father as if he’s going to pick up the phone. I want to know why he left me here, why he chose now. I think often about his return, his undeadening. He would descend from the heavens like an alien making its first landing on earth, the silver whirring mothership cracking itself open and letting him out. He would spill like a runny yolk, soaking the world he was so desperate to leave.

I leave weepy voicemails on his cell phone that no one will hear but the walls of the pantry where I keep myself safe because it is the only door in the house that you do not know how to open.

I try not to cry so often. I do get angry because when everyone else is out freezing their butts on icy metal bleachers at the football game, I am here scrubbing your blue wax mess off the wall. I am washing food out of your hair while my peers go to parties. I imagine their sleek, pressed ponytails and laid edges and I cannot remember the last time I did my hair instead of yours. I have more gray hairs than I have friends. I cook dinner that you will not eat because I forgot you don’t eat anything red and I clean the messes you will surely make again. I want to pretend that I am only upset because you knocked over the glass of juice and then stepped in the shards and that this is only a story about washing your hands after you played in the flowerpot but that wouldn’t be fair to me. I look into your eyes. They are mine but older. I sit next to you on the floor as you rock yourself for comfort and I ask, “Who birthed who?”


Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Lauren Simone Holley is an emerging writer and undergraduate student studying English with a creative writing concentration at Howard University in Washington, DC. At Howard, she serves as the editor of the university’s literary magazine Sterling Notes. Her work centers the fear, ostracism, and inner worlds of women and marginalized people. Her work has appeared in Emerge Literary Journal and elsewhere.