Dripping, Eric Fram
I used to cry over pizza because it smelled too strong. The air would rise from the plate until it pressed against my face like a wet towel. The smells of tomato and oregano would merge, blending into a hot cloud that hovered around my head and seeped into my mouth and nose like steam.
“What’s wrong?” My mother would ask, glancing down at the reeking triangle of melted cheese and orange grease. This is a question she asked often and I never knew where to begin. So much was wrong, so much that I could not separate the individual pieces, could not break the sensory mess into something coherent. So I just cried. And this happened often. If the kitchen fan was too loud, if the lights were too bright, if someone sneezed and it took me off guard, I cried. I screamed. My mother would watch with big, blue eyes and try to comfort me, but she would never turn down the fan or dim the lights. I never asked her to.
She did, however, stop ordering pizza. On some level, I might have been vaguely aware that she resented this fact, this lacking of pizza, though I didn’t know that it was because pizza is served at birthday parties and swim meets and Friday night movie nights; things I was not a part of. It never occurred to me that my lack of friends might be somehow related my problem with pizza or my difficulty with words. I thought it stemmed from my hair.
I kept my hair short and I “looked like a boy,” another kid told me once at school. This bothered me, of course, but I could not grow out my hair because I didn’t like it when it touched my ears.
This first started to be a problem when I was eight. It was the day before the first day of school and I was nervous. I started thinking about my hair then, for no reason in particular, and I realized that it was touching my ears. All the time. Once I started thinking about it, I could think of nothing else. It was constant. Not a moment went by that I wasn’t conscious of that clinging friction on the tops of my ears. It distracted me immensely and with the pressure of pending school, I couldn’t take it, so I cut it with a kitchen scissors.
When my mother saw what I had done, she sank to her knees and grabbed at the discarded strands, rubbing them between her fingers. “What did you do?”
“I got it off.”
“It was touching my ears.”
“I hate that.”
She grabbed me then by the upper arm and pulled me into the bathroom. “Look,” she said, “look at yourself. And you have school tomorrow. Just wait until your father sees.” At the mention of school, my heart began to pound again. The back and front of my hair still hung a few inches off my head, but around my ears I had pressed the scissors to my scalp. I could see the white skin underneath, like a bird’s skin with the feathers plucked.
“I don’t like it when it touches my ears.”
“You’re going to have to learn to ignore it. You have beautiful hair,” she sighed, “or you had beautiful hair.”
I tried to let it grow again but when it reached my ears, the feeling returned, so I cut it again. I cut as little as possible, just around my ears, and hoped my mother would not notice.
“Amy!” She exclaimed when I emerged in the kitchen the next morning. She reached for my head but I ducked from her grasp. I did not like to be touched.
After she picked me up from school that same afternoon, she took me to a hairdresser. “It’s called a pixie cut,” the lady told me as she snipped at what was left of the damp strands. She had long, fake nails and I could feel them scraping against my scalp. I did not speak. She mistook my taciturn for dissatisfaction. “You’ll look adorable. It’s very in.”
Later, when we were leaving, she asked my mother if I was alright. My mother swiped her credit card and signed the receipt. “Yes, she’s just quiet.” She pulled a hand mirror out of her purse and handed it back to me once we were in the car. “What do you think?” She asked.
“I love it,” I said, but when we got out of the car I saw our neighbors, Mrs. Anderson and her daughter, Lacey, in the front yard. Mrs. Anderson was pushing Lacey on the swing that hung from the big oak tree in their front yard and Lacey’s hair flowed behind her in a long stream of russet curls. I covered my ears as she leaned back and shrieked. Mrs. Anderson raised a hand and my mother waved back. I saw her watching Lacey with an odd little frown on her face as we walked towards the house. My hands still covered my ears.
We went to the hair dresser once a month, as soon as my hair grew close to my ears, before I could cut it myself. I did not like the water dripping on my neck, the individual strands pulling at my scalp or the roar of blowdryers in the background, but I got used to the hairdresser’s nails. They did not bother me so much after a while.
Despite my hair, I had one friend at school and we spoke one time. Her name was Charlotte. She wore pink lip gloss and a pony tale and chewed gum constantly. I didn’t like the gum chewing, but she was nice enough that I made an effort not to feel disgusted.
One day, at recess, I was crouched on the ground using a stick to trace shapes in the wood chips when she approached.
“Do you draw?” she asked, placing her hands on her hips. I could see cherry lip gloss smeared at the corner of her mouth.
She furrowed her brow, “Paint?”
“Do you paint?”
I dropped the stick. “No.”
“Sculpt? Sketch? Anything?”
“No?” She pulled the lip gloss out of her pocket and spread it blindly over her lips. I could see a glob forming. “Well, you better start.”
“The teachers say you’re artistic.”
“Yeah,” she rubbed her lips together. “Severely artistic.”
I looked down at the swirls I had been drawing in the dirt. “I didn’t know that.”
“Well, they talk about it enough.” I didn’t respond and finally she gave me a little wave, “I’m going to go swing,” before skipping off to join another group.
I replayed Charlotte’s words in my head and the more I considered them, the more sense they made. This was why Mrs. Jacobson was always so frustrated with me. She was waiting for me to do something, to realize my potential. I wished she had told me earlier.
That day, when I got home from school, I asked my mother if she thought I would be an artist.
“Do you want to be an artist?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. With the sudden inclination to find out, I retreated to my room with a stack of printer paper and a mechanical pencil. I set to work and quickly found comfort in the monochrome lines that moved from its point. There was something about the preciseness of its single tip, the specificity of each movement that calmed me. I drew with the knowledge that I was good. I didn’t have to prove anything. Suddenly all of the attention that had once been focused on so many external things was directed to the single point of the pencil. Everything else faded away.
“What are you doing?” My mother’s voice followed a light knock one day after school. “You’ve been in there for ages. Don’t you want to go outside?”
I wasn’t sure why but, as the door swung open, I shoved the accumulating stack of papers under my bed. She opened the door to find me sitting in the center of my room on the carpet, empty handed. I blinked up at her.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” I must have looked at the bed because her gaze followed mine and suddenly she was on her knees pulling my drawings into the open. I tried to stop her at first, silently pushing at them with my hands, unable to find the words that would tell her to stop.
“Is this what you have been working on?” She laid the stack on her knees. I nodded solemnly and she began flipping through, surveying each sketch for a moment before moving on to the next. Towards the bottom, there were five consecutive sketches of the same bird, each one clearer than the last. She looked at me and her eyes shone. “Amy, these are beautiful.” My chest swelled. She was so pretty, her white skin and yellow hair soft against the blue of her eyes. I loved the feel of her gaze, even if I could rarely meet it. “Why didn’t you tell me you’ve been drawing?”
I shrugged, but the next day when I returned home from school, I found a set of charcoal pencils and a sketchbook waiting on my bed.
Things changed after that. My teacher let me draw in class and my mother stopped questioning the hours I spent alone. I felt that Charlotte had told me the secret of my existence. Suddenly I had the key and I knew which way to turn it. I was meeting and exceeding expectations that had previously seemed impossible. My mother would often come up to see what I was working on and she would wear that true smile that made my heart flutter.
“I can’t wait for you to show your father,” she told me. My father was not often home and was rarely involved in what I did. He worked hard, my mother told me often. His job was very important and very demanding. “Don’t bother your father,” she would say, “He doesn’t need the added stress. He has enough to think about.” My drawings seemed to be the exception. She would place one in my hands and shoo me into their room when he got home from work. She would tell me to leave one by the coffee maker before I went to sleep, draw one for his office, for his birthday. “Scott, did you see what she was working on today?” I heard her ask one night in the hall outside my bedroom.
“The deer? Yes, that’s a nice one.”
“But did you see how hard she was working? Scott, she’s so much better now. She’s so much happier. I feel…I feel like a normal family.”
I think he kissed her then because she got really quiet for a moment then I heard her giggle. My mother had a giggle like a child. It was pretty the way she was pretty. Sweet and soft and girlish.
My mother stopped being so careful after that. She sang loudly in the hallway outside of my room and she cooked new foods. “Maybe you could grow out your hair now, Amy. What do you think?” She asked one day.
I shook my head. “I like it this way.”
“Well, okay. But one day you might want to try it long again,” she said. “Haven’t you seen Lacey Anderson’s hair? All the way down to her waist.”
“I’ve seen it.”
Maybe in an effort to change my mind, maybe because she was feeling hopeful, my mother decided to invite Mrs. Anderson and Lacey for lunch one Saturday afternoon. Before they arrived, my mother called me into the upstairs bathroom to clean up. She positioned me in front of the mirror and began to brush my hair and I realized that it was getting close to my ears. For a moment, I looked between my beautiful mother and myself and I wondered if maybe I could stand it. I reached both hands up, curling my fingers around my ears, and imagined tucking my hair behind them like my mother. My breath quickened as I conjured the feeling, the friction, the movement with every turn of my head. I didn’t like it, so I leaned over the sketchbook in my lap, rubbing the tip of my pencil into the corner of the page until slowly my breath returned to normal. When I felt calm again, I began to flip through the pages, surveying my old sketches.
“Amy, what’s that?” She paused for a moment.
“No, the one before. You were flipping so fast…that one.”
“Oh.” I held it up to the mirror so, standing behind me, she could see. “That’s you.” She looked at it for a moment before pressing both hands to her cheeks. Her eyes welled. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” she whispered, pulling a tissue from the box behind the toilet and carefully dabbing at the corners of her eyes and looking up at the ceiling. “That’s beautiful, Amy. I’m so proud of you.” I scrunched up my face as she placed a kiss on my cheek. “I know you and Lacey will be wonderful friends.”
Lacey had just started first grade and her hair was just as my mother had described, long and beautiful, russet at the roots and light as tree bark at the tips. “My mother says I should be very nice to you,” she said when we sat alone on the carpet of my bedroom. She paused, as if waiting for me to tell her that it was true. “She says I shouldn’t rough house.”
“I don’t like to rough house.”
I narrowed my eyes at her for a moment, feeling older and smarter. “Because I don’t.”
“Why is your hair so short?”
“I like it that way.”
“Oh,” she flipped her hair over her shoulder and ran her fingers through it, “I like long hair.” She turned away from me then, grabbing a doll off of my shelf without asking and started to play. I watched her hands move over my things, her voice high and squeaky as she mimed situations that would never have occurred to me. Every time she looked up, I averted my eyes so she wouldn’t know I was watching. The longer I sat, the more uncomfortable I felt, the more the carpet scratched at my legs, the more the sound of her voice pushed against my eardrums. I held my sketchbook in my lap, squeezing it tighter with every passing moment and running my index finger along the edge of the pages. I was relieved when my mother’s voice beckoned us from downstairs, putting a stop to Lacey’s game. “Time for lunch!” She and Mrs Anderson were already sitting at the table when we emerged. There were four plates at four spots.
Lacey scurried across the room, letting out a delighted squeal, and climbed clumsily onto my seat. I stumbled after her, flinching conspicuously, and my mother’s eyes widened as she looked to see how I would respond.
I hurried over to the table, holding my sketchbook under one arm and extending the other, pointing at the chair, “That…that…that’s….” Lacey saw my outstretched hand and confusedly clambered off with her mother’s help.
I signed, sat down, and said “my chair.” The sketchbook rested on my knees.
Lacey put her hands on her hips as confusion was replaced with irritation. She looked as if she was preparing to argue until her mother gestured for her to climb onto her lap. She did so, with a huff, and wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck.
“Alright, let’s eat.” My mother prompted. She tried to catch my eye, but I was annoyed so I did not look at her. The sandwich in front of me was plain butter and white bread. I knew it was mine because everyone else ate turkey and cheddar cheese. The fan seemed to catch the smell of the cheese and push it around the room in bursts. I made no move towards my plate.
“Amy, aren’t you hungry?” Mrs. Anderson asked. I could see in my periphery that Lacey was practically standing on her lap, cheeks filled with food, wobbling and waving her sandwich for balance. I said nothing.
“Amy?” My mother leaned over the table, still I did not move. “Don’t you want to eat? It’s how you like it.”
Nothing. Mrs. Anderson looked to my mother for an answer but she shook her head lightly and turned to her own lunch. “Lacey, tell us about school.” They moved on, began a conversation I was not a part of.
“I can read,” Lacey said a few minutes later.
“Is that so?” I could read too so I didn’t understand why my mother sounded so overjoyed at the news, but she was smiling and nodding and her pretty eyes were sparkling. I forced my gaze back to my plate.
“Yes. I can read lots and lots of things. We read all the time when I’m at school and Mrs. Morris says I’m very good.”
“Woww,” I looked up again when my mother giggled. I couldn’t help it. It was that giggle that I loved, that soft, delicate, giggle that never hurt my ears. “That is wonderful, Lacey. I’m so glad that you love school so much.” She reached out her hand but when Lacey did not meet it with her own, she dropped it back to the table.
“School is fun. Recess is my favorite.”
“What do you do at recess?”
“I play tag with my friends and one time my mommy drove by the playground when I was playing and she went hoooonnnnnkkkkkk!” Lacey stood up again, balancing her tiny feet on her mother’s knees. She turned to face her mother. I was watching now in utter bewilderment, not bothering to hide it. She put one hand on her mother’s shoulder and pushed her other palm flat into her mother’s nose.
“Hooonnnnkkkkk!” Her mother made the noise this time and Lacey exploded into a fit of giggles. “Hoonnnnkkkk!” It was louder now, too loud, and suddenly it mingled with the sound of the fan, the blowing of the air, the smell of the cheese, the bread growing stale on the plate before me, and I couldn’t take it. I clapped my hands against my ears and let out a moan. “Oh,” Mrs. Anderson seemed to register the pain on my face. She blocked her daughter’s palm as it approached her face again, but this only made it worse. Lacey let out a shriek of delight, fighting against her mother and exploding with screams and laughs. As the sound grew, my lungs seemed to shrink. My breath came fast and shallow. My heart pounded. I pressed my ears harder and moaned again. My mother saw that I was nearing the edge, the maximum I could take in any one moment, so she stood quickly as if to rescue me but her chair raked against the tile floor. At that, I let out a long, extended scream and when I ran out of air, I did it again. Long. Piercing. When I stopped, everyone was watching me, but the room was silent.
“I am so sorry,” Mrs. Anderson said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. We should go.” I lowered my hands from my ears.
“No, no, no!” As Mrs. Anderson stood to leave, my mother held out her hands, gesturing for her to stop. “No! It’s really fine! It happens sometimes. But Amy, Amy is just…you know…”
“Yes, dear,” Mrs. Anderson put a hand on my mother’s shoulder and tried to stand again, “It’s truly alright. I am so sorry we upset her. I admire you so much. You do such a good job and…”
“No!” Now my mother’s voice was protesting, almost indignant. “It’s not that bad. Amy just…Amy is…”
Mrs. Anderson shook her head.
“She draws!” My mother yelled then. There was a pause. Mrs. Anderson opened her mouth to speak but did not seem to know what to say. I looked down at the sketchbook in my lap. “Yes, Amy draws!” My mother let out a long breath. “Let me show you. Amy?” she turned to me. “Do you have your sketchbook?”
I extended it to her reluctantly, feeling stripped as she snatched it from my grasp. She moved behind Mrs. Anderson, holding the book over her shoulder and flipping through the pages with shaking hands. “See? Do you see what she can do? She came home from school one day and said, ‘I’m going to be an artist’ and has been making these ever since. Can you believe it? ”
“Wow,” Mrs. Anderson nodded, rubbing her hand up and down Lacey’s back as my mother displayed one picture after another.
Finally my mother reached the last drawing and let out a nervous laugh. “See? She’s….see?”
“They are beautiful,” Mrs Anderson said quietly, almost sadly, “but we really must be going.” She lifted a hand and closed the book. My mother looked at the shut cover for a moment then pulled it into her chest as Mrs. Anderson gave us each one more smile. “Amy,” she said, “you are so very talented.”
My mother led the Anderson’s to the door and when she came back, she looked exhausted.
That night, I laid in bed and drew until my mother came in to say goodnight. We had not spoken much since the Anderson’s left and I was feeling uneasy. She came in later than usual.
“Hey, honey,” she said, lowering herself onto the edge of my bed. She brushed my cheek with the back of her hand and I allowed it because her eyes were shiny and sad.
“What’s the matter, mom?”
“Nothing is the matter, Amy.”
“Did lunch go okay?”
“Yes, yes it did.”
“Good.” I began to draw again. My mother leaned over to catch my eye but my focus was on the paper. “Amy…?” Like so many times throughout my childhood, I allowed her to sigh, stand up, and take a step away from me. I clutched the pencil tighter, forming a house and a yard, a swing hanging from a tree, a car in the driveway and a little family holding hands. A mom, a dad, and a little girl. “Who is that?” My mother asked, stepping closer again as I began to shape their faces, their expressions. “Is that…?” Her voice lifted, sounded hopeful as I formed a smile on the little girl. She pressed a hand to her chest.
I drew the hair next, long and flowing, and pointed with my other hand. “Lacey,” I said.
“Oh,” there was such a long stretch of silence after that that I stopped and looked up to see what was wrong. My mother’s hand was still pressed against her chest, lips together, hair tucked behind her ears. Her eyes, resting on me, had grown pink around the blue. After a long moment, she shook her head and turned to the window so I could no longer see her face.
“Did they like my drawings?” I asked.
“Yes. You showed them my drawings. Did they like them?”
She leaned her forehead against the glass pane. “I shouldn’t have done that, Amy. I’m sorry.”
“Yes, they did, honey. But it doesn’t matter either way. I’ll love you no matter what.” She took the sketchbook from me and slid it underneath my bed before turning out the light.
She left then but I remember thinking before falling asleep that it did matter. It mattered because it determined who I was and what I thought myself capable of. I pictured Charlotte standing with her hands on her hips, mouth firm, eyes hard. Her tone said that it wasn’t up for debate. I was artistic, whether I liked it or not. That knowledge wasn’t oppressive. It was freeing, and it changed everything. I might not have known it at the time, but it wasn’t the art itself that brought this change, that opened doors, that taught me how to function, it was the definitiveness of the charge. It was the way she told me instead of asking. It was the way I knew instead of hoped or thought.
I reached down and pulled the sketchbook out from underneath my bed. I ran my finger over the cover then down the spine and in that moment I decided to believe Charlotte. To believe myself. I slept with the book held against my chest.
About the Artist
Eric Fram · University of California
Eric Fram is a third year English major at UCLA with a concentration in Creative Writing, Poetry. He is the Arts Editor and a Poetry Editing Staff member of Westwind, UCLA’s Journal of the Arts. He has been published by Westwind and Plum Tree Tavern, and “Geodess” first appeared in Westwind. Follow him on Twitter @ericsfram.