We used to be creatures that lived in the threshold of our becoming, my friends and I, neither here nor there, drifting in our fatherless universe. We ran wild at night, a fierce army of twelve-year old girls racing toward the precipice of womanhood. Our lives were mythic, our every move, dangerous. Just before sunrise, we’d crawl back in through our bedroom windows, and tuck into cold scratchy sheets. I’d stare out at the white sky over the sea of single parent apartments that resembled army barracks. I’d imagine a great willow on whose ballerina branches hung satin ribbons. This would be the Tree of Lost Virginities.
The men in our lives did not exist, only legends of them did. We possessed a tribal desire to capture love, the sort of hubris that made us believe we could make good on our futures, and our mothers’ suffering.
My favorite stories spoke of faith on the heels of struggles—were they ours?—of girls bound to, and running from mothers, of trees that pushed up through concrete, and of mothers who loved their children with inconsistent attention, alternating between windstorms of overprotection and utter neglect as they raised daughters alone—those difficult distant creatures, one of which I was becoming.
Tied to the tree’s branches was blue satin, which we’d wound. In my story, each time a girl lost her virginity, her ribbon would magically untie on its own, releasing into the sky as it fluttered among the other things that would never return—the spirits of grandmothers, the gritty dust of meteoric mistakes made by lovers, the old promises of missing fathers, and the let-go balloons of children, whose unflinching need to test gravity was always followed by furious cries.
Our mothers were our children. Our adventures filled our motherless, fatherless hours, and yet we did not know we were lost. We reveled in a latch-key independence, in our power as little mystics to carry both the past and future in our hands. We were emboldened, both as warriors and enforcers of love, as redeemers, insisting on rightness, as if we were certain it existed, as if we knew of its place in the universe. We monitored our mothers—whether they were eating and sleeping. We assumedromantic love was the great equalizer, a thing that could offer us more than God, and we became explorers navigating vast seas of decision, conquering torrential swells of love, which we believed our mothers hadn’t conquered, or had turned back from.
Virginity would be our rite of passage, and womanhood our destination, a place for the faithless. There would be miles to cross with grocery store roses wrapped in cellophane, which we’d unscroll and dry between the pages of books. We imagined wet kisses, rough from the new beards of young boys on beach blankets. We dreamt of nights by the fire where promises of forever’s were whispered, and would never be broken. In time, we spoke of gentle breezes left on lips in the place of promises. There would be tears of joy. There would be little blood. There would be no pain.
But of course, there would be love. The forever sort, a shade of light blue.
“Tell me about him, the man of my dreams,” one of us would say, our shoulders pressed together, our voices warm, cheeks flushed with drunken adolescent fantasy as we lay in the grass, staring up at the sky.
“Tell me about his eyes, the way he looks at me, the way his hands are, and how his body looks.” But of course, what we wanted to know most: Would there be love? We told each other, yes, that he would love us, that our future would hold us with safety. That our ascension into womanhood would be celebratory, effortless, though everything we saw proved the contrary. We’d debated whether it would be good, though we didn’t know what good meant. There was no second chance for virginity. It was a grave temporary thing. Irrevocable. Unwieldy in the hands of young girls bent on war.
And so it went. Time passed, and with it we drifted further and further away, holding on to each other and pushing against the sea of mothers, trying to shrug the weight of them, to free ourselves of the rope of our love for them, and their desire for men whose shadowy absences were the most perceptible thing about them.
We knew there were other ribbons on that virginity tree, and they didn’t work the same way as the blue ones, or so we imagined. These were ribbons that would never untie, but would turn red in the dusk, those of the girls whose virginity had been stolen through rape or coercion, where love hadn’t been involved at all, where a rite of passage had been a miscalculation, perhaps had occurred with violence, falling from myth like a meteor to become a cold broken thing, just a reported incident pieced of hard facts, a thing now was left to exist out there, couched in nothing. More visible from a distance, these red ribbons on that tree would appear strangled, aching to be set free. You could see them writhe into the air like tongues or like flames.
We were warned of this, knew of their pallor, heard our mothers speak “what a shame” in hushed voices on the phone late at night. It wouldn’t be us who would be stopped in our moment of becoming. The idea of this moment—I remember it was as fleeting as dusk—had begun to feel like a threat, would render us breathless—because somewhere already inside of us, we realized that even this safe threshold was a temporary thing. And that we were not godly, or even God-like in our ability to right the universe. That no matter what we did to hurry things up or to stop ourselves from going too far, we couldn’t save our mothers. You could race through the night, and suddenly want to fade into day. You couldn’t stop the body from taking the mind with it. Because you had started to just be, and to give yourself away, a little bit to the world.
You had begun to realize the sky was a thing that belonged to other things, no longer only your universe. You had begun to feel a world that still careened on with force, no matter how bad or wild you were, or how hard you tried to hold on. You had lived enough days to notice that regardless of love, a new day would be thrust upon you. Though you fought it, the very fact of its newness brought relief.
We’d marry the men to whom we’d given something away.
Years passed. One by one, the blue ribbons left the branches of the tree, and the red ones, though fewer, remained caught. This wouldn’t be us, we swore with less conviction. And yet. Our stories would be found, some which would flutter with red expectation, and some that would rise in a ribbon of light blue. Finally, your reckoning would come. Regardless, one day you would make peace with it.
That tree wound with ribbons is still there, mythic in my memory though I never told anyone. Now, as a mother, what I see: the luminous glare of my daughter’s universe, the distant tone of her voice as she closes her bedroom door after school, the speed at which she has been thrust into the land of the in-betweeners, that space where a girl becomes a woman so fast and so slowly that it’s at once exhilarating and painful to watch.
She is on the precipice of twelve, four days to go.
My daughter hesitates as she stands a few feet away, evaluating me, as if deciding whether I, myself, have conquered love, and then she stares at me with such a wild plea in her eyes that it apprehends me, and though she doesn’t say it, I can see what she is thinking—which we were all thinking back then.
Not, Will he love me? But, Will she still?
When I open my arms, my daughter crawls into my lap if no one is around. Mostly, in that space between day and night when my younger two kids have gone to sleep, couched in a sort of dusky post-homework amnesia. She will nestle her face in the crook of my arm, and tell me she has no stories though her arms and fingers are newly covered with bracelets and rings, tribal gear. What comforts me is the weight of her, all 100 pounds of her, and the sight of her long elegant young hand in mine, with its blue nail polish, and it soft chalky calloused palm. Then I am aware of the smell of her hair conditioner, Moroccan oil. If I could unfold my own universe to try and recover her, I would. Suddenly, I see the error in my thinking all those years ago. A daughter, like a mother, is a changing thing, a creature different tomorrow than she was today. This is fact, known but invisible.
My daughter reaches up to braid my hair and then gives up. I love it when her eyes begin to close, and I notice she has not let go of my hand. She has painted white stars on her blue nails, and I wonder about her universe. She will be lucky, I tell myself, but I don’t know that. I wonder if her story and her war can ever be only hers, not mine. Either way, I will keep her beside me just as long as she will allow, and let go with as much white knuckled acceptance as I can possibly stand. Although she says she will love me forever, I know she will transcend me—all my mistakes, and that she should. I hope she will smile, remembering how she was twelve once, and her mom used to hold her like a baby, and that this will make her believe in true love.
Ilie Ruby's new novel, The Salt God's Daughter, will be released on August 21, 2012 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press. The Language of Trees, her first book, debuted in 2010. Ruby's essays have appeared in the New York Times Motherlode, CNN, and ParentDish. She is the former fiction editor of The Southern California Anthology, and the recipient of the Edwin L. Moses Award, chosen by TC Boyle. She lives in Boston with her husband and three children and is currently at work on a new novel. You can visit her websitewww.ilieruby.com or visit her on Facebook.
Causes Ilie Ruby Supports
Kamashi Children's Orphanage in Kamashi, Ethiopia