River

I read my uncle’s stories.

Not Uncle Jonah, Uncle Joseph. It gets confusing sometimes to separate them in my head; all the twins I know look and think alike, even though mother says Jonah and Joseph were as different as night and day. Mother has a folder of his stories and drawings, most of them from his twenties, his ‘golden’ age. All his teenage fiction is lost now, maybe they were stolen, maybe he destroyed them; no one knows for sure. There’s also his diary from 2001, the one which mother took in 2002 and kept. I think I’ve read that from cover to cover many times. Then he didn’t use so many big words and he was happier, mischievous even. In one of the pages he actually called mom and grandma hags. Mother doesn’t talk about my Uncles Jo anymore. She doesn’t talk much, about anything. I’ve seen videos of her from younger when she wore really short shorts and rode horses on the beach and seemed to constantly laugh at every little thing. She isn’t that person anymore. She misses them though, in her own way. The family portrait from when they were younger doesn’t have any dust on it, unlike most things in this house.

I was tiny the last time I saw Uncle Jo, a baby really so I don’t really remember much about him. But I know him. I know he used to hate people shortening his name. There’s a day here, March 14, when he got really angry because he introduced himself to a girl and she asked if she could call him Jo. He was angry about it, his name was just two syllables, two phonetic sounds and she wanted to shorten it to one. People shortened his name a lot Joey, Joe, Jo, Jay; some even shortened his surname. He felt shortening a name was robbing it of its power. Joseph meant beloved, everything else meant nothing. He wrote that he felt guilty after, she really didn’t mean anything by that. And he’d taken out his frustrations on her. Uncle Jo used to do that a lot, feel guilty because he stood up for himself. I think he was a coward or too sensitive, most times a mixture of both.

I know uncle Jo felt under pressure, much like I feel. It’s a different kind of pressure from the one I feel but at least the effect is the same. Pressure not to disappoint. Constant anxiety, it’s like this physical thing, your heart in your mouth, sweaty armpits and hours trying not to rationalize the things you’ve done, looking for mistakes in them. Mine comes from being the only child mother has. Her greatest legacy. Mother is a very hands-on person in her life. And she believes in results, that the work should be done in secret and the results presented like a magician’s show, so it appears effortless, apparently plucked out of thin air. She is that way with her work. And she is that way with me. At home I can be petulant and sad and needy and whiny, at home I’m allowed to have emotions. But outside, in the company of strangers I’m only allowed one; serenity. Smile to older strangers, walk slowly at the buffet table, even though I can see people taking second and third helpings, eating my plate covered with small clumps of remnant food scraped from the edges of the serving trolleys with a demure happy smile. The happy child. Uncle Joe was the good middle child. Every other role was taken, stuck-up first born, sadist spoilt last born. Mom and his brother fought constantly for grandma’s attention and in all the noise, his own rebellions seemed small, a welcome relief. So he stopped trying and started writing and drawing, eventually he had to choose. He chose drawing and dropped the diaries. The pressure is pretty bad on most days but I think I have it better than he did. I’m not being ignored by mother, at least not as badly as he was.

I wish I could write like he did. But I’m already in my teens and the gift hasn’t been passed down. Maybe his was a disease that snuck into his body undetected because of all the activity that puberty brought on, and when everything settled, his immune system worked through and found it and neutralized it. Or maybe he gave up one medium of expression for another. His pictures are beautiful. They are of dark things, but beautiful none the less. There’s this particular one, inspired by this song he loves. It’s a girl on a bridge, leaning forward and looking over, at a much smaller reflection of herself, rippling in the dark still river. The girl in the water is not looking back at her, instead she is looking at her hands, which are cupped together holding a dandelion. She is smiling, happy and oblivious to the black murky water that surrounds her. The girl on the bridge is leaning so far out that its certain she’ll fall. The girl in the water looked like mom and the girl on the bridge had uncle Jo’s hair. When mother first saw it, she stood there, in the gallery full of white walls and stared at it as her tears fell. I cried too. I don’t know why. Maybe because the girl in the water was already so happy she didn’t care about the girl on the bridge. Perhaps it was because I knew only a truly sad person could create something like that. Something so ominous an yet so simple. Or maybe I just felt jealous and somewhat protective of the girl in the water; she was happy, but her happiness was dependent on the girl on the bridge, if the girl on the bridge walked away, she would just cease to exist.

You are the girl on the bridge, leaning out too far, hoping to catch a glimpse of a part of you that is truly happy and oblivious to everything around her. Drifting away slowly, cradling what remains of your innocence in her palms.

You will fall.

Because

That’s the only way you become the girl in the water.

Uncle Jo fell.

And his paintings and stories took on a life of their own.

I’ve been leaning over, reluctantly, looking for her.

But so far, all I have seen is myself.

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