She sat on the empty merry-go-round, her skinny legs hanging off the edge with sneaker-clad feet trailing through the flattened path of wood chips below. Every now and then, she pushed the toe of her shoe more firmly against the ground and set herself slowly spinning again. Her fine hair, braided neatly that morning, had come loose in the summer breeze and fell in stray wisps across her delicate cheekbones. Her face was lifted toward the bright afternoon sun, with her eyes closed, oblivious to the squeaking swing chains, bouncing basketballs, and carefree childish laughter that filled the playground.
As Michelle watched her daughter, Joanna, on the merry-go-round, a deep sigh escaped, traveling from somewhere between her gut and heart. She glanced at the three other little girls sitting knee to knee in the grass nearby, chattering a mile a minute as they tied dandelions together into golden crowns, necklaces, and bracelets—Joanna’s “friends,” the ones she came to the park to play with.
The afternoon had started off so well. She and Joanna had arrived precisely at two, the time she’d set with the other mothers.
“Michelle!” Kathy, mother to nine-year-old Caitlin, had stepped forward to greet her. She smiled broadly, her whitened teeth bright against her dark red lipstick. Her blond hair was pulled back into a bouncy ponytail, not a hair out of place. Almost unconsciously, Michelle reached up to brush the wind-blown hair from her face.
“You look great!” Kathy exclaimed. “Did you get a new haircut?”
Michelle shook her head, smiled back. “Just a trim.”
“And Joanna! I love your braids. Did your mom do those for you?”
Joanna gripped Michelle’s hand tighter, pressing her face against her mother’s arm and nodding shyly.
Ally, one of the other little girls, a pink-cheeked little moppet with tousled blonde curls, smiled at Joanna. “Hi, Joanna. Want to come swing with us?”
Joanna looked up at Michelle, her grey eyes solemn and questioning. “Go on, honey,” Michelle whispered.
And so Joanna had gone. Not happily maybe, but not reluctantly. She’d swung for a while with the other girls, smiling at whatever they were talking about, even laughing sometimes. But then, somehow, she’d slid away. And before Michelle knew it, there she was, on the merry-go-round. Alone.
And here you are. Somehow, in the midst of watching Joanna and worrying, Michelle had drifted away from Kathy and the other mothers and now stood under the shade of an oak tree a few yards from the edge of the playground. Alone.
She looked toward the other mothers, wondering if it would be worth the effort to rejoin them. They were sweet, caring women, every one of them. And they tried to include her, they really did. But listening to them talk about their forays into organic food, their exercise regimens, their doctor’s appointments and involvement with various charities, not to mention their children’s long lists of activities—for Michelle to say it was exhausting would have been an understatement.
She opted to stay in the shade of the tree and watched as Joanna left the merry-go-round to meander back toward the swings. She sat down, clutched the metal chains in her hands, and for a moment, before she pushed herself into the air, she glanced toward Michelle. Though she couldn’t quite see the look in her eyes, Michelle could imagine it: a quiet request not so much for attention as for approval, a smile even, which Michelle gave her. She saw Joanna’s expression as surely as if only inches separated them rather than half a playground—not just because she’d seen it before on her, but because she’d seen it in the mirror in her own eyes, grey like Joanna’s.
Like Mother’s too, Michelle thought. And suddenly she was pulled back to a time long ago.
She is five years old, watching her mother stand before her bedroom mirror. Mother’s hands shake as she applies cover up to the blue-green shiner just below her eye. She tells Michelle to “be a good girl tonight” and to “stay quiet and do what you’re told,” so that her daddy will stay happy. Michelle nods. She wants to tell Mother that she was a good girl last night too, and Daddy still got angry, but she doesn’t say anything. Because good girls are quiet, and that’s what she wants to be—good.
She is eight years old, watching her daddy pack his things. She wants to ask him to stay, to say “please, don’t leave me,” but he looks at her and says “what’re you looking at?” and she loses her nerve. He grabs his bags, walks out the door, and slams it behind him, and she stays quiet, wondering why she wasn’t good enough for him.
She is eleven years old, watching Mother welcome her new boyfriend into their home for dinner. He smiles at Michelle, says “aren’t you a pretty young lady” and shakes her hand like she’s a grown up rather than an awkward tween with freckles and braces. She smiles back shyly and feels hope stirring in her stomach. Maybe for once, she is good enough.
She is fourteen years old, watching her mother slap the boyfriend, shove him toward the door, screaming that she’ll call the police “if you ever touch my baby girl again.” Then he’s gone, and she’s clutching Michelle to her chest, sobbing and saying “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.” Michelle stands, stiffly, arms to her sides, saying nothing, feeling nothing. She knows only that she is not good and may never be good again.
She is seventeen years old, watching the star point guard of the high school basketball team make the winning three-point shot. After, he comes over to her, exuberant, sweaty, and laughing, pulling her to his chest and twirling her around. He calls her “baby,” says she’s beautiful. And as he takes her hand and they walk out of the gymnasium, for the first time in a long time, she feels good.
She is eighteen years old, watching the baby girl sleeping peacefully against her chest. The baby turns her head slightly in her sleep, her lips pursing, puckering, and Michelle is stunned, awed. The point guard is long gone, and she is alone again, as she has always been, but now she has her. Joanna. She is good, and she is beautiful, and Michelle will tell her so every day for the rest of her life.
The sound of her name pulled Michelle from her memories. Kathy and the others waved and told her goodbye, as they gathered their daughters and loaded them into their minivans. The noise of their laughter and conversation faded as the car doors slammed shut and the vans drove away. The playground was quiet, serene even, with only Joanna and Michelle remaining.
Joanna had left the swings and moved to sit on a tree stump just beyond the wood chip borders of the playground. Her knees were pulled to her chest, and she gazed into the distance. What are you thinking about, little one? Are you content? Are you happy?
The afternoon had slipped away, and the sun had begun to lower in the sky. From somewhere behind Michelle, a car door slammed, but Michelle didn’t turn from watching Joanna.
Then she heard her name. “Hey, Michelle.”
The voice was familiar, and she smiled, glancing back to meet his wide grin. “Hi, Brett.”
Brett—her husband, her best friend, her rock—had walked into her life when Joanna was three, and unlike her father or Joanna’s, he had never walked out. He didn’t call her “pretty young lady,” or “baby,” or “beautiful,” or any other phony-sounding nickname she’d been called before. Just “Michelle.” Her name.
“Did you get off work early today?” she asked.
“Yep. Thought I’d come see my girls.” He gestured toward Joanna. “So, how was the play date?”
“Um . . . .” She looked toward Joanna too, not sure how to answer.
“Not so great, huh?”
For a moment, they were both silent, watching Joanna pluck a handful of dandelions from the ground beside her stump. Her fingers were long and delicate, twisting the stems together into a necklace with ease, just as her friends had done earlier. But unlike them, she seemed to be in a world of her own.
Just like I was at her age. Oh, please. Please, not again . . . .
“Hey,” Brett said suddenly, taking Michelle’s hand and turning her to face him. “Things will be different for her. You know that, right?”
Michelle avoided his gaze. “Yes.”
“They will,” he said with certainty.
Michelle looked up. His dark brown eyes were strong, confident. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because.” He tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “She has you.”
Michelle bit her lip, still uncertain, and turned back toward Joanna. As she watched, a black and orange speck fluttered from the sky to land on her shoulder. A monarch butterfly.
It rested there, lingering as Joanna turned her head slowly, cautiously, to peer at the insect. A shy, beautiful smile lit her face. The butterfly’s wings—fragile, dust-like, feathery, able to be destroyed at a single touch—flapped gently in the humid air. Spindly black legs, hardly able to support its thick body, braced themselves against Joanna’s thin pink T-shirt. Slender antennae waved back and forth, tasting the air, the life surrounding it.
A soft breeze flowed past Michelle, toward her daughter, lifting the butterfly from Joanna’s shoulder. And as its small body rose into the air, Michelle’s breath caught in her throat. Because suddenly, she saw.
She saw a tiny creature, too frail for this world. Too delicate for life. Yet, caught up and carried by the wind. A bright orange speck against the clear blue sky. Too fragile, yet . . .