GIRL IN THE ENCHANTED KINGDOM
by Sandra Florence
We are playing Concentration. First, she finds the Jacks and then the Queens. Her head was lopsided when she was born, and she stared up at me with rolling grey eyes. I unwrapped her and thought, this is the pure one. Lightens up my life. Released. Escaped from personal injury.
Potatoes. Ducks in a green sky. A turquoise moon. All these things in her. My daughter in red rubber boots crossing the street in rain.
She has not seen her father for some time now. They used to watch prize fights and play dominoes. “He’s going to love another kid,” she says. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Now the big mouth scream. The other kid wriggling in her crib. “It’s it,” she says. “The name I can’t remember.”
Diapers flap in winter air. He drives to the bank and opens the vault.
“My hands are so small with the nails painted cherry fudge and my teeth hurt,” she says. “Let’s send him the olive with my teeth prints. Then he’ll know we need the money.”
He takes the money and hands it to the other kid. What we deserve.
A studio garden apartment in the Sunset. The rooms are chopped up and boxy. Frosted glass obscures the garden view. We are so far away. The only night we stay there, we eat in front of the gas heater and then curl up in sleeping bags. She puts her head in my lap, and I stroke her hair and listen as her breathing becomes deeper. Her small body is warm and heavy against mine. I feel small. Swallowed by the night and the fog devouring streetcars. Is there someone in the garden? Moving?
Dream? Water near the pier laps against the dock.
“I dreamed my friend got hurt and the next day she came to school with a black eye.”
“That’s psychic,” I tell her.
“What’s that?” she asks.
She’s hysterical. I’m going to cry tonight. She has pink curlers in her hair. She moves the rubber animals around in the sand tray. Trees, plastic fence, bridge, boat. Mama cow and her baby off in the distance by themselves.
“We know what that means,” the therapist says. “It’s significant.”
“Today at school the boys were chasing us, trying to hit us. We hid in the bathroom. We decided not to run anymore. When they came after us, we hit back. I picked up one of them and threw him in the air.”
At East of the Sun, a long line of children stand by the tables running their fingers through the small toys. Metal leap frogs, water guns in the shape of fish, wooden horses dangling from strings, animals masks, magic rocks, and blue marbles. Every toy for a penny or nickel. My daughter has ten cents. She is rich.
We take Highway 5. I’m going to a wedding. She’ll stay with her father. I drive fast through Altamont Pass and down into the San Joaquin. Rows of business parks and warehouses give way to green fields and the flat farmland. It is hot. Scorching. Waves of heat blast through the floor of the car. At the wedding in the garden, some friends play guitars and a violin. A young woman sings. There is laughter and later tears over the phone when he calls to say he has to bring her back early.
“My wife doesn’t understand. I can’t see her anymore.” He sets her suitcase on the porch steps, climbs into his car, and drives away. Back to the new wife and baby.
Up on Mt. Tamalpais, the kids are piled into tents. Wind whooshes through the eucalyptus trees, and the jagged surf crashes on Stinson Beach. When the bus returns them, their faces are covered with dirt. And later there are photographs. My daughter sitting on a picnic table holding her white hands up to the sun. Her blonde hair is tangled and wild.
We ride the bus downtown to the babysitter’s. She lives in a railroad flat on an alley near the Civic Center. Later, she’ll take my daughter up the street to the childcare center, an old storefront on Hayes St., the only one I can afford. I call from work two or three times a day to check on her. Is she okay? Can I talk to her? Winos stagger past the windows yelling angry threats at the air. The kids play in the cold sun. She makes chalk marks on the dirty sidewalk.
“What’s that?” an old man asks, pointing to her drawing.
Tonight, I go into her room to check. Her small body is there under the covers. I bend low until I feel her breath on my cheek.
We sit in wet sand. July fog. I’ve brought sandwiches and apples for a picnic on the beach, but it’s too cold. The windmill flutters in the tulip garden in Golden Gate Park. She digs in the wet sand, picks up driftwood, seaweed, pieces of shell. I keep my eyes on the green waves crashing under white water and wish I wasn’t afraid to dive in. Surfers ride the waves dangerously close to the rocks. She shudders and says, “Can we go now?” We move into the shelter of the park, and she puts her hand in mine. Squeeze. Quiet.
We get off the trolley and walk up the street to the corner of Arguello and Fulton, and stop in front of the Jefferson Airplane house. It looms large and gloomy. “Are they in there?” she asks. Huge pillars glisten in moonlight as we stand on the sidewalk waiting for music. Nothing. We tiptoe up to the house. She goes all the way up to the windows and peeks in. Nothing.
A card comes in the mail. A picture of a little girl in a pink jumpsuit holding a teddy bear. “Happy Birthday To A Sweet Six-Year-Old.” There’s a check for fifteen dollars in it. She jumps up and down. “See,” she says, holding the card in front of me. “He did remember.” I take the check and think groceries, coffee, cheese, eggs. I do midnight shopping at Cala Foods with the after-hours crowd cruising for someone to take home, and the panhandlers. One old man stretches his hat out to me, and I drop in a dollar.
When I get home, she’s lying in a puddle of moonlight. The card pressed under her cheek.
I read her a story while she soaks in her bath. “Outside,” a story with a girl hero. “We should paint toenails on the tub,” I tell her.
“It’s got claw feet,” she says.
“I’ll give the tub a pedicure,” and I take out red paint and paint each claw. She goes under water giggling. While she soaks, I paint. Vines coming out of the closet. Green vines all the way down the hall. And later in the kitchen, a green zebra appears over the stove. For a whole month, I spend my afternoons painting. There’s a park emerging on one wall in the hallway. Bicycle riders sneak in and out of the trees. Each day when she comes home, I’ve added a new item to the park: a castle, a quarter moon, a ballerina, and a winged horse sailing over the tops of the trees.
“I’ll never be able to let the landlord in here,” I tell her.
“It doesn’t matter. It belongs to us now,” she says.
She looks like her father. Has his round eyes. His mouth and perfect nose. Even his facial expressions. His way of sagging in a chair. His devotion to television. The only thing she has like me is a gold-brown color. I say, “Let’s take a walk. It’s drenched and stormy outside.”
“What about my favorite program where the dad comes home after being gone for years?” she asks.
“He’s not coming,” I tell her and go out into the street. The light is dying and I forget time and the wind pushes me up the hill and I get lost. Dogs rush toward the fence as I pass. It’s dark when I find my way back. She is under a pile of blankets in front of the TV. The blonde ends of her hair poke out. My own daughter who looks nothing like me.
Thirty parents arrive at the school in icy rain to hear about “the rules” and “respecting each other’s space.” We do an exercise, stare into each other’s eyes without blinking. Later, in the science class, a woman stands holding a small boa constrictor. The woman tells me all the kids handle the snake. She offers it to me, but I shake my head and leave the meeting early, thinking this will be the next exercise. I take the long way home through the park. Enormous dahlias unfold in the Tea Garden. Cherry blossoms drop petals into water, and the museum glows in its chalky skin.
At home I find her curled up in my bed. Crayons and magic markers scattered over the floor. She’s been drawing pictures. A girl on horseback. Shooting stars. Rainbows. Flying Sufi hearts. The giant hearts hurl through dark blue skies. She tucks herself down into the pillows. I tell her not to fall asleep in my bed. “I’m not falling asleep,” she says. “I’m just resting my eyes.” Later, I climb into bed beside her. She’s too heavy for me to carry now.
Her grandmother calls to tell her about the new baby girl. “Did you know you have another sister now? Your dad was hoping for a boy, but things don’t always go like we plan.” She hangs up and says, “There are two of them now.”
She writes a story. “The Cool Girl.”
Once there was a girl and her name was Susan and she was 18. And she loved motorcycles. But her mother did not like them. But anyway Susan bought one. The next day Susan and her boyfriend wanted to ride the motorcycle to school. But her mother would not let them. So Susan got very mad. And she and her mother had a fight and her mother would not let her go to school. So Susan thought of a plan. She thought of running away from home. So she did. And when she was riding she got hungry so she stopped at a cafe for a bite of something. And after that she went to France and had a great time and so she lived there. The End.
There are pictures. In one, she’s a dark-haired girl diving off a board into a turquoise pool.
Ballet class in an old Victorian in the Mission. In the purple light of winter, cold wooden floors creak as we walk up three flights of stairs and into a room of mirrors. Legs, white tights. A boy strutting back and forth across the open floor. She whirls around in her black leotard. Catches a glimpse of herself. The teacher is Japanese. Lean muscles. Years of work.
“Hard work,” she says over the heads of the tiny dancers. “She has good feet,” she says, bending to grasp my daughter’s feet in her hands. “Strong feet.” And my daughter’s feet carry her through rain. Through afternoon wind, to the corner store for bread. To the Swedish Bakery for butter cookies. Down littered sidewalks to catch her bus. “Do you pick her up at the bus stop?” Mr. Fiji, her school teacher asks. “Your neighborhood is not safe.” Smiling, he tells me he will teach her to read and speak Japanese.
She speaks to me in Japanese. The words are red and black. Choppy and deep. She presses her hands together, bows her head and says, “Good morning, Mother.” She paints characters on rice paper. Translates for me, “Happiness.” I put the painting in a frame and hang it over our door.
In Japan Town, paper fish fly through the air on sticks, and yellow umbrellas twirl in wind. We buy a pencil box and incense. Drink tea in a shop with red booths. Tea, almond cookies, and spicy crackers. She picks up chopsticks and holds the bowl of rice to her mouth as she eats.
My fortune: “The more you know, the less you understand.”
Hers: “Whoever can see through all fear will always be safe.”
In our house on a street that opens to battered storefronts, bars, bookstores, The Purple Heart Thrift Shop, she waits by the phone for him to call. She chews on her thumb, picks up a hand mirror and brushes her hair till the long blonde strands fly up, fan out with electricity. She waits, gives up, puts on a record, and asks her friend who lives upstairs to come and dance with her. Her friend is small with long brown hair. Smaller than my daughter who looks like an awkward fawn as she bows and stretches and turns in the living room with a naïve grace. The two girls whirl and their dance becomes more frenetic, wilder as they fly and laugh and fall. Till the neighbors begin to pound on our floor.
Every day she rides the bus to Valencia and 16th and gets off. She walks home passing Aunt Lil’s Antiques and dodging drunks as she goes. When she comes in the door today, I can hear her hurrying up the stairs. She tells me in a rush, out of breath, “A man tried to get me to go with him. He said come here, angel, I’ve got a lotta money. I ran but he started to come after me, then these two guys chased him. He drove away real fast.”
I call the police, but when they arrive, she can’t tell them anything about the man—just the car—a black Seville. And the money—”hundreds of dollars lying on the front seat.”
She gets a letter from her grandmother. In it there’s a photo of the two girls—one of them about six and the other a toddler. They’re dressed in identical pink jumpsuits. Her grandmother writes a few lines. “Here’s your baby sisters. I thought it was time you got to see them. Aren’t they dolls? And I want you to know I haven’t forgotten you. Love, Gran.”
She studies the photo for a few minutes, holding it tightly in her fingers. Then she turns to me and says, “I don’t know what he sees in them.” She tosses the photo onto the table and begins examining a broken fingernail.
Low riders rumble through the damp air past Mission Dolores and the Integral Yoga Institute where Swami Sachatinanda’s beatific countenance smiles down on his devotees, and just next door old women in old lace cluster under their icons of joy. Church bells and shirtless men returning to their women. My daughter wants to dress in black. To wear the uniform of another culture. A blonde chola in her black derby, black pants, and Chinese slippers. She pulls her hair tightly to one side and pins it back. Takes a red rose and sticks it over her ear. She lines her eyes with black. She looks ten years older than she is. Her lips a deep red. Her friends tell her, “You’re a wannabe.”
“Nam picked a fight with me today,” she says, staring into the mirror rubbing a bruise on her cheek. “We used to be friends, but she belongs to the Wa Chings now. She started yelling at me, calling me honky, saying, come on show me how tough you are. So I did. I forgot all the karate I learned, but I went for her anyway. I was swinging my fists and punching her head. Her friends were yelling, okay girl, okay, okay, stop.”
A boy appears at the bottom of the stairs. He has walked blocks in the rain from the Mission Flatlands where dogs roam freely and women sell tortillas on street corners. Hot and fresh, La Taqueria. Watermelon juice, papaya, mango. He tells me he has come to see my daughter. A silver cross dangles from one ear, and he smiles at me with his eyes.
Boys appear at our door. Black, brown, their hair in cornrows, hairnets, and shower caps. Protecting their most valuable asset. They walk her home from school, come up the stairs quietly, and sit in her room drinking soda and listening to the soul station. Their names are T.J., Bugsy, and Helio. They wear leather pants and Members Only jackets. Their mothers work in factories. They live in Bay Area Hunter’s Point and the Outer Mission. They don’t have money, so they walk and run to get where they’re going, and sometimes they boost what they can’t buy. Helio is wearing his flannels today. A blue bandanna around his forehead. Their names appear all over the city—in the Fillmore and Western Addition. Upper Market and the Embarcadero. “Helio Was Here” and “T.J. the Cool One.” Mexican hieroglyphs bloom on walls covered with bougainvillea. Rise above the salty air.
At school, the girls threaten her. Sometimes on the bus they swear at her, “Girl, you gonna get your ass whipped.” And she tells her grandmother these things, proud of her ability to stir up trouble. The phone rings and her grandmother asks, “Is your boyfriend black? I’ll disown you.”
At the concert the black man at the piano. “I’ve gotta get closer,” she says. She is clapping her white hands. I want to help her find her way down the stairs, through the crowd below. Ushers move toward us. Threatening. Flashlights. I don’t understand. Strange. Alien. My own daughter. The man at the piano, fluid and female as he moves to his own music. His hair braided into a thousand silver beads. He is smiling upward at my daughter.
Sandra Florence taught writing for forty years in Tucson, Arizona, ran two NEH projects in Tucson, and currently writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction and blurs the boundaries between them. She has published creative and scholarly work and has just completed a short story collection entitled Everything is Folded.