Third Place Creative Nonfiction: “Ma’s Daughter” by Ave Goorbarry

Ma’s Daughter

Ma doesn’t love me anymore. I can see it on her face when she looks at me. The way her

eyes droop tells me so. The whites of her eyes are milky, and bloodshot, and disappointed. She isn’t fair-skinned, she has an olive tone, but sometimes I swear she’s the color of a ghost. When she looks at me, she sees a daughter that’s no longer there. The short curls and thick eyebrows that adorn my face are cursed. I no longer have those long, cascading curls Ma would braid.

She wishes to see the version of me ten years ago. She has this photo of me in kindergarten. I had a right part, and my hair was thick and straight. I recall wearing a pink and white long sleeve. She clings to that photo and gazes at it when she wants to recall what I once was. As a child in New Jersey, she would dress me to the nines. In the winters, I was decked out: purple puffers, beanies, the accompanying boots. The Christmas photos were even better. I would wear a red and black dress as the Jcpenney photographer would coordinate me.

“Look right here!” the photographer would be snapping at me. As I, who was three at the time, would roll around on the winter-themed backdrop. There was a tiny sleigh too. I would roll in my puffy dress like a barrel. Hitting the sleigh, then the backdrop.

“Look at mommy and daddy!” Ma would call for me and whistle like I was a tiny uncoordinated puppy. My dad would stand and laugh at her efforts. Often urging her to quit her IVF job and work as a promising baby photographer. Her lips would gurgle, whistle, pop.

“Mommy, I wanna go on the sleigh!” I’d yell as I half-hazardly put one golden buckled boot into the toddler-sized carriage. By this time, the colorful headband I’d be wearing was gone. Thrown at one of the toy deer in the corner of the studio. Messy strands of hair fell into my face. Ma walked up to me, pushing back the sweat and hair, shushing me.

“Just take one photo for the nice lady and we can go get you a toy, ok?” her delicate fingers graced my head. The base of her palms would run over my eyebrows and red cheeks. She’d fix the headband then resume her position.

“Look right here ok?” Ma snapped her fingers again, that time with the photographer. Her grey snowflake sweatshirt was sparkling in the overhead lights. The lights resting on her face were angelic. I stayed in a criss-cross, in a trance.

“Ok, ready?”
“Mhm!” I nodded in approval. “1, 2, 3…”

***

Ma and I go to the store together often. She might not know, but I notice when her eyes

linger. They linger on daughters with their moms. We’ll be waiting to check out, then she sees them: mother and daughter hand-in-hand. We’re in a Target when a young girl is passing us. Ma and I both take notice. She can’t be older than five. She has pigtails, and the vibrant bow in her hair is sparkling. She is wearing a white shirt with a unicorn. She is clinging to her femininity in the ways that I’m not. Ma sees her and thinks she’s being the way little girls are supposed to be.

She is the girl I was supposed to be. Now, I’m reprimanded at for letting my leg hair and mustache grow. My chest is flat, my hair above my ears, and I don’t wear pink. The cream- colored pants I wear don’t conform to my legs when I walk. They’re straight legs, so I don’t look like I have hips. I wore makeup with my suit at an eighth-grade formal, to see her smile. And the year after, I wore too tight bodysuits so I could, “have a shape,” and not cover up so often. Ma said I worked out, “might as well show it off.” I wish every day I could’ve kept her happy, I still

debate the trade-off. Her happiness or my own, because I’d give her another day with that little girl if I could.

That girl Ma’s watching is glancing up and down. Forward to walk, then back up at her mom, back and forth. She’s clinging to a doll in one hand and has sparkling pink shadow dotted on her eyes. I bet she likes Claires, maybe Justice, and asks her mom to put on one too many Disney movies. That girl tries to figure out what Disney princess she is. When I was her age, I twisted the arms off my Jasmine doll and watched Thomas & Friends with my brother.

“Mommy! Can we please get this?” she’s ushering her mom over to the clothes. The clothes are fuchsia pink, magenta pink, bubblegum pink; she chooses a tutu. Her mom huffs then begrudgingly agrees to yet another pink staple in her daughter’s closet. Ma blinks quickly. Her eyes fall back to the line we’re standing in. When we’re called to check out Ma loses her fantasy.

I’m one of Ma’s girls. One of our families only girls. The only girl granddaughter, the only girl cousin, Ma’s only daughter. She had me than my brothers; I am her oldest. The first brother and I were close, till we weren’t. Ma was the only girl as well. Like me, she had two brothers and was the oldest. Having a girl in the family is futile.

In those days growing up, Ma was an astute academic. Keeping up her studies and staying out of trouble. She attended a private catholic institution in New Jersey and was keen on attending a rigorous nursing school. So, she kept her nose in books and her mind on hymns. This is shocking because as a teen she chased around boys on bikes. In between trips to the library, she rode to car washes to see crushes.

When I was born, she had a vision for me. I’d be a girl chasing after boys as she once did. The one she would buy outfits for. For that upcoming date I’d have with some fine genius. I would be that girl she was. The one that boys fought over in class because I was beautiful.

Gorgeous enough for them to bike to my house. Just to get a chance to ask, if we could go to a dance.

Except, I didn’t have the boys chasing after me. I had the girls. I was the one taking girls out on dates, making them smile because I was courteous enough to bring flowers. She didn’t know about my dates. I knew she wouldn’t approve.

Every time Ma asks me if I have my eye on anyone I want to tell her, “Ma, I can’t feel comfortable enough around you to answer. You don’t even know my first heartbreak. I cried in our bathroom. I’ve never been able to tell you her name.”

Most mothers have this idea mapped out; their daughters are their mini me’s. They have dreams of treating their daughters like princesses. Taking them to dance classes, getting their nails done, doing their hair: braids, buns, ponytails. They would be the hairstylist you never knew you needed. Ma thought of the most elaborate hairstyles, took me to get my nails done whenever I wanted, had me in dance classes. I danced for years; I stopped because I was no longer comfortable with the costumes. In my first year of girls hip hop, we had to wear silver sequin suits for the end-of-year performance. When we purchased it, I tried on the costume every night till the performance. I looked at myself in the mirror.

“I look so good!” I’d strike a Micheal Jackson pose from my Just Dance game. I wanted to be Micheal, a dancer people drooled over from the stands; more so, have women all over me. This is why brother and I would fight: over the high-score, and my nice suit. I loved the idea of being able to wear a suit, this was my opportunity. The costume was different from ballet. In ballet class, we had to wear: tights, unitards, ballet shoes. Each of these items I despised. But, in hip- hop, I could wear what I wanted.

When next year’s costume was more feminine I wanted to wear what the boys were wearing. Why couldn’t we purchase that outfit?

The day in the studio our class got the outfits, my stomach twisted. The outfit was yellow accompanied by fingerless fishnet gloves. When the teachers handed out the outfits, they would usually leave the dance studio for five minutes. By the time they came back, we’d all be changed. But that day the task of changing felt heavier.

As the plastic package sat in my hands, I spiraled into a panic. I separated the gloves and the spandex jumpsuit and I reached to start taking off my clothes. It felt like people were looking at me:

Looking at my chest, looking at my stomach, looking at what color underwear I had on. The black sequins on the upper area of the costume stuck to me. My sweat stained the costume, the girls were looking at me.

“They’re looking at me while I’m changing!” I had thought to myself, my foot got caught in the pants when I stuck my feet in too quickly and fumbled on the material.

“Teacher!” I tripped on myself reaching for the door. Our teacher Gary was there. He nodded towards the hall and let me go to the bathroom. That day I went home I told Ma I wanted to quit.

Ma was sad, and I still enjoyed dancing. I didn’t know how to explain why I couldn’t anymore: change in front of them as if I was one of them. While I was supposed to be “one of them” I

couldn’t shake the feeling I wasn’t. The day after I went into the kitchen to mom on her hands and knees.

“All that time and money we spent, it just feels like a waste” Ma was scrubbing the floors and talking to herself. She talks to herself to process things. If she’s scrubbing the floor with a mix of both wet and dry Swiffers it’s been a rough day.

***

I think it’s safe to say Ma’s changed. I don’t see the girl from the stories she tells me

about. Picture her pulling textbooks from a shelf, or caring about her passions for that matter. Raising three kids and losing interest in your work has to be a certain kind of pain. Most days she complains about her IVF job slouched over a bucket and mop. She scrubs at her floors for hours to find what she lost. The plopping of the sudsy water on the tile drowns out when and why. “I could’ve done something more with my life,” she instills my siblings and me with a need to seize our opportunities. She tells us she’s worried “our character” will prohibit our upward mobility. Meaning how we look must be to her standards. Later in life, the financial and lifelong success you achieve outweighs the character you compromise.

The mop I have in my hand is scrubbing the tile when she enters. Her clothes are dotted with water and smell like bleach.

“Hey look what I found!” Ma’s going through photos again, my shoulders tense. Whenever Ma takes out photos it’s to show me “her little girl.” We are two separate entities.

“What you find Ma?” I rest my mop on the wall and walk across our kitchen, the tile is still slick. As I stand next to her I tower over her and her cleaning clothes. Teal and black leggings with one of dad’s grey Hanes shirts. I look down at the small album in her hands.

“Where did that little girl go?” Her hands run over one of the photos from New York. Growing up between New Jersey and New York I loved the feeling of the city. You could see it clearly in the photograph. I’m clinging to a concrete ball by a sidewalk as my cheek is pressed

against it. The fat on my face is properly smushed, and the smile on my face is properly big. A little toothy smile on my face with my lips stretched across square teeth. I hardly notice the outfit, I marvel at my happiness.

“Look at your little clothes!” Ma points at my shoes. I’m wearing the twinkle toes I was adamant about her buying for me. She reminds me, that when I got them I wouldn’t take them off. I enjoyed how bright they’d light up at night. They would sparkle blue and I thought I was a badass. A badass—that loved wearing blue-purple ombre shoes.

“Would you look at that,” I said. Indulging Ma’s happiness.

“What happened to the good days?” Ma laid a hand on my cheek and squeezed. A small part of me broke. It felt like guilt, maybe disappointment. Either way, it felt like a cocktail producing a dull numbness.

“Am I not that person anymore?” I bit the inside of my cheeks. The tissue was a little raw and it ached. It was a usual response to my frustration or trying to bite my tongue. I walked back to the mop and began to scrub again. I focused on the darkened grout and moved the mop in swift strokes.

“No, I’m just saying… you don’t dress that way anymore. I miss the way I used to be able to dress you, and do your hair-”

“I’m not your doll,” I bit back harder than I would’ve liked.

“I know. But sometimes I miss seeing you in at least a dress, or skirt, anything remotely feminine… at least shave that damn mustache, or those damn legs,” she put the album on the counter and went to go grab disinfecting wipes. It felt like a shot to me. In this game, I was the target, and the shots taken were quick bullseyes.

“I get it, I’m sorry… hey, I’m going to finish cleaning my room. I should hit the floor with a mop.” I took the big red bucket and the mop and began to walk in the direction of my room. My brother didn’t check on me like when we were kids, I was alone.

In the background, I could hear Ma call me sensitive, she knows I hate that. She claims I’m sensitive when it takes only five minutes to wax my upper lip. At most thirty minutes for shaving my legs.

I want to say, “Ma, you ask me why I’m being so sensitive or dig into why I’m defending these choices. I can’t tell you now, but one day I will. Maybe that’s hurting me, but I’d rather bite my tongue and wait another day. Maybe you know it already. Under the surface, where it stays with you, but don’t dare to speak it into existence. I can’t blame you, I lay it hidden in the bed where I sleep. I’m sorry I can’t be her anymore.”

***

As a child, I wished on wishing wells that I could be like my brother. At the mall when

we’d approach a fountain, my dad would always give my brothers and me pennies to make a wish. When I received the tarnished green-copper coin I’d close my eyes.

“Please, please let my chest be flat, let me be a boy,” throwing the coin into the stone basin. Every time there was a fountain, there was the same wish. At that age I’d run around the house frantically without a shirt, chasing my brother till my lungs gave out. Ma would always urge us to stop when we started flexing our “muscles”

“You can’t beat these guns!” I flexed my bicep in the mirror of the bathroom and grunted.

“Yes I can! You’re just older, you’re cheating!” He tried to push me aside so he had the main position in the mirror. Our competitive spirit was only swayed when Ma told us to shower.

“Stop running around like banshees and take a shower!” her laugh was echoing.

It rings through my ears now because I know I’ll never have that again. I can’t run rampantly through the house with my shirt off. Swinging my sweaty elementary polo around till its red fabric finds the floor. I thought I was his brother until I realized I wasn’t.

Now, my soul feels trapped when I hug my body. I don’t run rampant and comfortable in my skin. Though that child-like sting for freedom still burns when I see a man take off his shirt. I try so hard to tell myself this pain is ok. Even if I disappoint my mother. Or instill a sense of self- worth in her opinion. I can’t talk to her, tell her how desperately I want to be loved. When I cut my hair short for the first time we argued for weeks. It took months for her to sit down with me one night and say:

“I love you ok? Nothing will change that,” I broke down crying as she held me, my tears stained her shoulders. She brushed back strands of hair that covered my forehead, hair that rested by my now shaved sideburns. Her cold palms soothed my red cheeks. I love you is something I’ve always wanted to hear. She looked like that angel I saw ten years ago. I’ve struggled to know if she loves me, I know she’s been trying to. I’m not her, little girl, anymore.

In that moment I wished I could make her wishes come true, despite knowing I couldn’t. As I laid in her arms, graced by her soothing hands I wanted to say:

“Ma, I want to be your daughter so bad, because I know I can’t be your son.”