My daughter is eleven when she gets her first crush. Whenever she says his name, Cassidy shimmies her shoulders. That’s how I know. Mothers like me, we once had cherry red sandals too, patent belts cinched with bow-shaped buckles. We whispered a boy’s name, or a girl’s, until its honeyed sweetness coated our mouths.
We’re at the grocery store when Cassidy drags me over to the nail polish display. The rack whines as she spins it.
“Can we do pedicures?” She blinks in that exaggerated way of hers, like a baby bird, a nestling, wanting to be fed.
“You may pick one.” I mean nail polish, but I could mean boys too. Mate for life like swans. Not now though. Not for years upon years.
“The sparkliest,” Cassidy says. “Always.” She grabs the bottle and twirls around once, twice, before placing it in the cart.
I was fourteen when a boy first flicked his tongue against mine. Two days later, he picked Angela Tournay to be his girlfriend. She was the sparkliest, a coral flamingo.
At supper, Cassidy sets the nail polish beside her plate. When I say we need to eat first, she doesn’t argue, just shovels in bites of spaghetti. She owns her hunger and believes herself worthy of being full. By sixteen, I’d decided to whittle myself down. Slender as a stalk, slim as a string bean.
Soon as we’re done, Cassidy flings off her sandals and sticks out her feet, so pale I can map out her veins.
I was seventeen when I first slept with a boy. Nineteen before I discovered what all the fuss was about. There was no stopping me then. Craving attention, I gave myself the sharp talons of an eagle, the black-rimmed eyes of a Carolina chickadee.
I cradle my daughter’s toes in my palm. The polish goes on thick with globs of glitter. Plenty of room for error.
I met Cassidy’s dad at twenty-one. A rooster who thought he had a lot to crow about.
When I’m finished, Cassidy wiggles her toes, her bubblegum pink mouth stretched in a grin. “Do you think Xavier will like it?”
“What matters is whether you like it,” I say, sharp as a warning cry.
“I do, I do,” she says, but she’s shimmying those shoulders again.
Soon as Cassidy’s dad heard I was pregnant, he fled. Left not just me, but the whole town. Left me with nothing but a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt I slept in until it fell apart.
Too impatient for the polish to dry, Cassidy points her toes like a dancer, raises her arms and spins across the den for some invisible audience. With each turn she glances down to make sure the polish winks back.
The day Cassidy was born, I begged my mother to wait with me at the hospital. She was the only family I had and I wanted her to hold my wrist between her thumb and forefinger, the way she’d done when I was little. Instead, she went out to the parking lot to smoke. I watched her through the window and imagined her muttering about mistakes repeating themselves. Even there—the flashing signs for emergency, the industrial-sized dumpsters—my mother strutted and pranced like an ostrich. Legs thin as sticks, fluttering her fringed eyelashes at any man who passed.
“You know the saddest birds?” I ask now, my spinning, whirling daughter barely listening. “The ones that can’t fly.”
Still holding the bottle of polish, I tell Cassidy to please be still for a minute.
“What now?” she asks. The same question I ask all day long—at home, at the two jobs I work.
When I touch Cassidy’s shoulder, she pauses. Energy thrums across her back. Her hair is in a high ponytail, leaving me plenty of room. I steady the brush and dab it against Cassidy’s t-shirt, her favorite. She’ll be mad if I ruin it, if these wings I’m giving her, the ones it’s too late to give myself, are too lopsided to take her where she wants to go. Someday my daughter, her own plumage far from fading, will pity me for the versions of myself that are disappearing or already gone. For now I swoop and swirl, as reckless as I am protective, spilling all this shine.
Heather Bell Adams is the author of the novels Maranatha Road and The Good Luck Stone. Her work appears in Still: The Journal, The Thomas Wolfe Review, Atticus Review, Broad River Review, and elsewhere. Winner of the 2021 Doris Betts Fiction Prize, she is North Carolina’s 2022 Piedmont Laureate.