By Michelle Nedboy.
I knew about bees and what they did. They stung. I knew I’d get one maybe on my right knuckle or on my thigh or in the soapy hinge of my elbow, like I saw all the other kids get. I didn’t think I’d get one in my ear – the wasp’s crooked striped body with its machine gun wings beating at the fresh folds of cartilage. I learned about periods in the fourth grade, at the end of the school year when all I had to think about was how the months changed slowly yet predictably into May and finally into June, and how the sun felt against my face and how the spring grass smelled like candy and dirt. Now I had to think about this. About something that could come tomorrow or next week—my friends and I thinking we already had it. We felt smarter, older, sadder with this new knowledge, while the fifth-grade boys stuffed balls underneath their shirts to look pregnant or like they had grown boobs, and they’d run into each other with their new bellies, killing their nonexistent babies. This was the first time I learned about allergies. These twin girls were always being picked on at school and one day a kid chased them with peanuts. They screamed and ran for their life.
I must’ve realized one day what a graduation was and what it meant for me, that I’d be leaving something for something else, something that could never live up to the first. Yet it always did and the same sick cycle of attachment continued. There was a time I learned that things could and would happen to me whether I liked it or not.
One day I learned about death, family deaths and how it could happen to me. It seemed impossible, but then I started noticing my uncles and their hair; how it changed each Christmas and how they began to look older and balder. Hearing that they were fifty in some casual conversation and not the unknown made-up number I had made for them for years. Seeing my grandparents’ coily waxy hands, pink and pearly like the bulge of a salmon—then seeing the same thing happening to my parents.
I thought of drowning; how it must feel, how hot and sharp the water would be as it forcibly fills up your throat and lungs and stomach. I learned how to fear for my own death, even in something so simple as swimming to the bottom of a pool. I feel my ears pop under the pressure and my chest and stomach try to float up and into my legs. I touch the bottom of the pool, feel the dead black leaves that have fallen in and have bunched themselves up. I feel the pool’s scratchy mint-floor. I can let myself turn around now. I count each second faster in my head as my awkward mortal body takes its time to flip itself over, my feet touching the floor and the leaves hugging my heels. The floor peels the skin off my toes as I push down against it and fly back up. I have saved myself. I did that.
I learned about natural disasters, learned that they were common and that I was likely to have one—that a lot of people were likely to have one. When it happened, I was scared, but I wasn’t surprised. It was something to expect.
There’s the first time seeing your parents cry and get sick— something you thought only kids did. You’ll never get used to that. There’s the first time living through a major historic event, where one day you’ll be the one to think back on all the mistakes, like you’ve seen so many of your relatives do before, their old heavy heads shaking sadly towards their chests.
Now you’ll be the one to recall it every Thanksgiving.