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The Eternal Youth of Everyone Else by Adrienne Celt

 

Adrienne Celt earned her MFA in fiction from Arizona State University, where she served as the International Prose Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Esquire.com and The Southeast Review, and her comic art can be found at loveamongthelampreys.com and in the summer 2012 issue of Gigantic Sequins. She is at work on a novel.

3rd place - 2013 Million Writers Award
Pushcart prize nominee

 

We have a secret in our family, and Bendida is it. She has been nine in body and spirit for as long as I can remember, though my memory’s not good enough to do her justice. Sometimes we’ll sit quietly in a room together, reading, and she’ll startle at a face in her picture book, looking for all the world as if she’s seen a ghost. When I ask her what’s wrong, she brushes me off.

“What’s the matter, Benny?”

“Nothing.”

“Come on,” I’ll coax. “Tell me what happened.” She’ll eye me then, as if to let me know that I can’t understand the enormity of what I’m asking.

“I was just remembering something, is all.”

.  .  .

Modern science, with its affinity for EKGs and endless bloodwork, has never been given a chance to explain her to us—if nothing else, we can protect her from an eternity of testing. Still, we integrate its language into our lifestyle, wielding misdirection like matadors. People are uncomfortable with the idea of a healthy little girl being tucked away from the world at large; they imagine dark eyes peeping over windowsills, ears trained fearfully for the falling of footsteps. But most inconvenient questions can be parried away with the words “congenital disease” and a plea for privacy. Everyone is susceptible to the sympathy of a sick child.

A recessive gene, we say, kicking the dirt with the tips of our toes, concentrating hard on furrowing our brows. If present in both X chromosomes, it heightens the susceptibility to disease in the young women of our family. People bow their heads when they hear this, as if we’re talking about the recently dead, and not the potentially infirm. It makes them fragile, we say, and our interlocutors puff out their cheeks, aware that their mere inquiry is shaving minutes off of our time with her. Such hard luck, they reply, to see so many lovely girls pass away before their time.

In fact, Bendida’s never died, and as far as anyone can tell, she never will. I sit in her room playing card games—gin rummy, crazy eights—and watch her skin pulse with activity, gaze at the tangled mess of her dark and unbrushed hair. It’s hard not to look for a weakness, to try and catch time standing still for the glory of seeing it pick up again. But Bendida just sighs when she’s bored and rolls onto her back, announcing that she’s ready for bed.

.  .  .

Benny has lived with my branch of the family for almost my entire life, so in a sense we grew up together. For a long time she stayed with my Uncle Len and Aunt Maureen, about two hours south of our house in Eugene, Oregon. They treated her with open arms, like the honest daughter of a simple man and wife. I can barely remember our earliest interactions; it wasn’t until my tenth birthday that I ever stopped to wonder about the skinny girl I called my cousin.

We were driving south for a belated birthday party, in my honor. As the landscape shifts from townships to farmland, the speed limit on I-5 lifts from 60 to 70 and we were barreling steadily down the road when I became bored with the view out my window. Up until that point, the spectacle of flooded grazing pastures held my attention, a haunting vista of great gray lakes run through with the boney limbs of trees submerged. But we’d reached higher ground, and here the cows had found a dry patch for their lazy browsing. Lacking in potentially competitive siblings, it wasn’t any fun to count them, and I turned inward, struck by a thought.

“When’s Benny’s birthday?” I asked.

In the seats ahead of me, my mother frowned and my father stayed silent, his eyes trained on the road as if we were driving through heavy rain. It’s not that Bendida doesn’t have a birthday, she must have, sometime, or so we assume. But she long ago stopped being interested by it, since it doesn’t foretell change or measure distance like it should.

It was one of those rare moments when the silence in a space really does seem palpable, a thing that can be brushed aside. My mother tried a simple false start first.

“Well,” she said. “Maybe there’s something you should know about your cousin.”

I sat expectantly, waiting for her to go on. I wasn’t yet at an age where statements of that kind seem weighted with foreboding, and though a chill would surely go down my spine if I were to live through those few seconds again, I remember being thoroughly nonplussed, watching a speckled cow approach and disappear. I almost forgot what we were talking about before my mother took a deep breath and tried again.

“It’s hard to explain,” she said, slower than she usually spoke to me. I didn’t like being talked down to by adults and leaned forward to pluck irritatingly at her sleeve.

“I’m smart,” I sniffed. “It can’t be that hard.”

From the driver’s seat, my father laughed, the same wry snort he always made when I used my Serious Adult voice. My mother shot him a look, then returned her eyes to the rearview mirror, where my own reflected back at her.

When we arrived, Bendida ran out to greet me with a bouquet of Mylar balloons wrapped around her left wrist. She pulled me into the house and showed off the decorations, streamers and banners splashing color across beige walls and windows. I hung back, trying not to be rude. But I was a child and I couldn’t help staring, trying to burrow into the mystery that had, until recently, just been Benny. She continued to bounce around the room like a regular nine-year-old, an unstable atom, until suddenly she noticed what I was doing, and being a child herself, stared back. We both stood there for minutes, boring into one another, trying to figure out just what was going on.

My mother walked into the room, laden with brightly wrapped gifts and a casserole tray of half-frozen lasagna, and I happened to catch the look on her face the moment that her gaze crossed Bendida’s. It was something I’d never thought to look for before—but what did she think? I wondered. What could she possibly? In the car, we’d stuck to the basic facts, perhaps in an attempt not to upset me. But I was adrift in an open sea, and I wanted to know where everyone else was.

My mother’s eyes were bright, a young girl’s eyes, full of fierce love and something that looked to me like pity, as they bounced between Bendida and myself. They weren’t the eyes I was used to, the ones that looked on as she applied band-aids and watched me play in the park. The eyes that always knew just what to do.

“Hi Benny!” she said, setting down her packages and scooping the younger girl’s spindly limbs right off the ground. Benny flashed a last look at me before returning her smile—not a warning, or even a question. She looked a little sad and shaken. 

“So,” my mother continued. “Jessie was asking about your birthday.”

Bendida’s eyes grew wide, then wild, passing between us in slight desperation.

“OH,” she said. “Oh. I get it.”

My mother continued nuzzling into her hair as if this was a normal day, an ordinary visit. She’d always adored Benny, as long as I’d been alive, and suddenly I wondered if she hadn’t perhaps adored her much longer than that. I tapped my patent leather birthday shoes on the ground, feeling my white tights itch around my knees and ankles.

“Jessie, it’s your birthday,” said Benny carefully, her head dangling down to roughly the level of my face as she lay supine in my mother’s arms. “Who cares about my birthday?”

She jumped to the ground and threw her arms around me, tugging me along to dirty our clothes in the backyard mud. I followed, little knowing what else to do, and looked one last time at my mother, who had begun organizing the birthday packages into a pile. She saw me looking, but didn’t take the bait of my confusion or my growing frown. Instead, she continued what she was doing, and in one small gesture of acknowledgement, she shrugged.

.  .  .

It was some years later, with me already fourteen or so, when the family got together and decided that Benny had been with Uncle Len and Aunt Maureen for long enough to arouse suspicion. There was no tense vote, no hushed voices or secret ballot: everyone just agreed over a civil cup of coffee that soon her presence, her consistency, her perpetual baby fat, would likely begin to draw the neighbors’ notice. With tears of real grief, her ostensible parents draped the house again in decoration, this time a wash of black. I remember crinkling the dark crepe tablecloth between my fingers, feeling how tangibly a house can be filled by absence.

Bendida stayed in her room for the duration of the wake with the door locked, packing the remainder of her things. She thought it was silly, not to mention a waste, fitting out a tiny coffin and paying the cost of burial space. But Len and Maureen wouldn’t hear her protests and lovingly chose a shady cemetery plot within walking distance of their home. In the weeks preceding the move, they coaxed Bendida into amusing herself by filling the small box up with stones, to give the pallbearers something to struggle with. Len said that the volcanic pieces were perfect for Benny, because they were hollow like the bones of a bird.

After the funeral, Lenny and Maureen waited until nightfall and then drove Bendida to my parents’ house, where we had painted the spare bedroom light yellow and purchased a new bedspread covered in flowers. The small details of the room shone out at us as Benny surveyed them, having been the subject of much quibbling and indecision. My tastes tended towards distressed oak, soft pastels, and patchwork quilts—things I remembered from years of playing Candy Land and building imaginary fortresses in Benny’s room at Len and Maureen’s. I knew exactly how everything should be and was proud to be able to provide for her, in that way, what she needed. Some pale portion of continuity. My mother, however, walked firmly up to unfamiliar styles, plain flannel sheets and pajamas laced with rocket ship platoons. In the end she won out, the purveyor of credit cards and ample station wagon storage space, but I assured her it was a hollow victory, overwhelmed by how wrong she was.

“It’s not as though her room has always looked that way,” she said to me as I whined and wended my way to the car. “Why do you think that Uncle Lenny and Aunt Maureen went to all the trouble of holding a full-scale funeral? With a priest? Lenny, the atheist?”

I rolled my eyes and strapped myself in, hoisting my feet up onto the grimy dashboard. “Probably some ass-backward attempt to keep a piece of her in their lives. A headstone and an epitaph.”

My mother smiled and shook her head, not looking at me. “To let her know that it was over. To give her a chance to start again.”

.  .  .

Time, for Bendida, is an ordinary object, worn smooth by being worried over, and finally set aside. She reacts differently than other nine year olds—to disappointment, for example, or discontent. I’ve seen her start to crumble after getting too few hours of sleep and then being denied some much-wanted comfort, like buttered pecan ice cream or a play-date with her best friend of the hour. But as her rosebud bottom lip begins its gentle quaking, she pauses and seems to calculate the days since she last got her way and hears the insignificant drop in the bucket of time that even the most wrenching wait will cost her.

She sheds hours like water droplets. The days roll off her back unnoticed as we cling to the earth to hear its heartbeat. 

.  .  .

I never got roped into ballet or painting or poetry, or any of the other fair vices that suckered my friends with beauty and left them dissatisfied with nine-to-fives and Volkswagens. Having Bendida in our house throughout my teenage years was enough of a snake eating its own tail for me, and I learned early that if you love something bigger than you, stranger, stronger, then the mundane tasks of earning money and keeping house come to seem like viable satisfactions so long as they help you in your greater aims. Without any calling to the fine arts, Benny was the fairy tale that I was raised on.

My irritation with her presence in my early teenage years—having to keep my friends out of the house, lying to boyfriends, sharing my space—quickly became eclipsed by the fervor of Bendida’s belief in love and the strange ways she’d learned to understand it. I could always go out and make mistakes, kiss a boy at a party, touch his hand illicitly in the hallway at school, but my excitement was never greater than when I came home to tell Benny about it all.

Her thrill was tangible when I snuck up behind her and whispered in her ear, “I’m in love, Benny.” Though her body remained still I could sense the hairs rising on the back of her neck, as if genetic muscle memory were struggling to stir.

Perhaps I was too open with her, too loose with my thoughts and vocabulary, but I was certain she’d learn on her own anything that I didn’t tell her. Often, in fact, I was convinced that she’d heard it all before.

“Where did you learn that word, Benny?” I asked her once, having dropped a tomato-stained spatula in alarm at her vocabulary as we cooked dinner together.

She grinned at me wickedly, proud of making me blush. “I have time to read a lot of books, you know.”

In her mouth, words like “kiss” and “caress” were darkly conspiratorial. She knew what they referred to, but being unable to desire them herself, she was left to covet the cravings of others. As we stirred spaghetti sauce in the stove-hot kitchen, she drew hearts with arrows through them in the fogged up windowpane.

“Do you know what I hate?” she asked me, erasing her work with the outside of her wrist.

“Hate’s a pretty strong word, kid,” I cautioned. As I grew older, I’d fallen into mothering patterns with Bendida, almost forgetting the days when she and I had measured our heights back to back. Stacked against my new thoughts, my words, my breasts, my hips, she looked much more like a baby.

“Yeah, but you don’t understand.” Her head was tilted slightly and her eyes had darkened, testing me. “It’s important.”

“Okay, well then tell me. What is it that you hate?”

“I hate people who stop loving each other.”

I raised an eyebrow at her vehemence. Bendida was not a child of divorce; she traversed families like a beggar going door to door, but always one who is welcomed inside. She has a grasp, however patched together, of the complicated framework of adult emotions that hovered just slightly outside of her reach. She has never expressed love or hatred lightly: it is her least childlike of qualities.

“It’s so…rare.” She struggled for her words. “People should want each other. They’re supposed to want each other. I can’t want anything, and then people just throw it away. They want each other more than they’ve ever wanted anything, and then they just stop, like they die.”

She used her forearm, tucked discreetly in a red wool sweater, to erase her drawings from the window. It was a move she’d learned from me, I thought. Or possibly I had learned it from her. When I was younger, our mannerisms were often confused in that way—no one was ever quite sure if it was Benny or I who came up first with a shimmying dance or flounce of discontent. But I always felt as if I must be the copy-cat, accidentally stealing something precious.

I mulled over Benny’s words for the rest of the night, not quite sure what to make of them. It hadn’t occurred to me before that my childish declarations of love would turn into ashes in Bendida’s mouth when I inevitably betrayed them; that with no experience of romantic love or loss, the two concepts seemed much more disparate to Benny than they did to me.

Falling asleep that night I was overwhelmed with dreams of losing Bendida: of her going so far away that I might never be able to reach her, and of me, with my jokes, my boyfriends, my changeability, pushing her there as fast as she could go. I imagined her tiring of us extravagantly, walking away into the waves to become Triton’s daughter instead of a wilting flower. The tide water in my mind began to choke and boil, tossing me around until I woke with a start and found Bendida’s hair wrapped around my neck, stuck over my face with the condensation of her sleeping breath. My stirring woke her and she smiled up at me through a veil of sleep.

“Hi Jessie. I was,” she yawned, “having a bad dream. Do you mind if I stay with you tonight?”

I swept her hair off of her face and my own, tucking it into an unsecured chignon at the base of her neck. Her knees were tucked up inside her nightgown, and curling around the small package of her body, I pressed my face against her shoulder.

“Of course, I don’t mind. You can stay with me forever.”

.  .  .

The day came when my parents began to think about retirement, and my mother brought up, over a cup of coffee, that they had been talking about moving Bendida. She had been in their house at least as long as she had stayed with Len and Maureen, and babysitters were becoming few and far between. My mother no longer even knew where to look for them, now that her ties to the high school were broken by the years intervening since my graduation.

“Where would she go?” I asked, startled at my mother’s plain-spokenness. She had come to visit me in Olympia, where I was finishing up my M.Ed at Evergreen State College, and we were in a dirty café with posters lining the walls.

Stirring her coffee with a pliable spoon, she shrugged as if she didn’t know, but gave me several concrete examples. “Possibly the East Coast. You have a great aunt in Brooklyn who has the space and the inclination, but that could really only be temporary. Bendida’s too young to stay anywhere where she’d essentially be the one taking care of someone.”

She paused and surveyed the posters, florescent photocopies, advertising illustrious musical outfits like Six Day Itch and Lust Puppy.  “And then there’s always scattered people in Arizona, but I think several of them live in trailer parks and I don’t know, not to sound uptight, but that might be too small. So, we’re really thinking of my second cousin Andrew in Australia. He lives in Perth, and he’s got the space, so that’s one thing, but mostly I think she needs to get out of here. She’s been in the area for too long, and she’s gotten too comfortable seeing the same people all the time.”

“Why is that a bad thing?”

There was another beat in the conversation, and this time I was old enough to sense the foreboding in it. My mother looked me straight in the eye and gave an honest answer to an honest question.

“Because we’re going to die, Jessie. At some point we’re all going to die, and then what would she do?”

.  .  .

A few uneventful weeks went by after my mother left, weeks filled with my preparations to graduate and move into a small house of my own in Seattle. Bendida was still safe in Eugene; I knew my parents were in no hurry to send her, of all places, to Perth, but I still felt a tugging at my skin, a slow creeping of ice in the badlands of my mind as I drew the inevitable conclusions: she could be kept, or she could be lost.

I pictured Lenny rubbing small stones together in his hand, grinding the ossified pieces of lava into a fine layer of dust that settled over the sateen of Benny’s coffin. There are certain things that, once done, cannot be undone. I know that. My parents had made their choice, and so had Lenny and Maureen, and countless other generations before them. To my family, Bendida’s quality of eternity made her expendable, whereas to me, it made her inevitable. 

I stood up in my apartment and rubbed some heat into my cold hands. It was eleven PM, and without thinking I picked up my car keys and drove the three hours south to Eugene. It was a pleasant drive, with the usual I-5 traffic on hiatus until the sunrise. When I snuck into Bendida’s room in the black of the night, she did not seem surprised to see me.

.  .  .

We didn’t plot out a destination: we just went as far and fast as we could to escape the silent songs of reminiscence and regret. They were unidentifiable, strangers, but they crept onto our shoulders just the same. They whispered to us, you will know me.

I drove into the morning gloaming with Bendida glancing up on occasion through sleep, a slight tension playing around her features. After a few hours of silence and road rhythm, I jumped at the sound of Benny’s voice, jerking the wheel unintentionally to the left.

“Jesus, Benny, what?”

She shrank back into her seat and I cursed to myself, placing an arm around her shoulders.

“Sorry, sorry,” I said in a hush. “I was just a little startled. What’s up, kiddo?”

“Well,” said Benny, “I think we’re almost there.”

We both knew the place when we saw it, with its forlorn “For Rent” sign swinging out front, glinting in new light. Since it was only seven in the morning we decided to get breakfast before calling the landlord, bursting into anxious giggles throughout our two courses of coffee, for me, and pancakes, for both. Our food was served on plastic plates, a circumstance just unusual enough to seem exotic.

“Do you think someone else will get it first?” Benny asked, tugging at my sleeve. Her legs swung anxiously under the table, as if she’d been the one to down two mugs too many of black diner sludge.

“Nope,” I said, nudging her back, between two ticklish ribs. “You’re my good luck charm, see?”

The landlord dubbed the place cozy, though a more accurate description would be almost insufficiently small, not to mention poorly insulated. All the same, it felt like home, a place where we could eat cereal in the mornings, with a yard Benny could roam through to rescue birds wounded by the neighborhood cats. She didn’t know that the bacteria on feline teeth infected the birds irrevocably, and that even if we drove them to the animal shelter to recuperate, they weren’t likely to fly away again. For my part, I didn’t know to calculate heating costs into the rent, so we huddled for warmth beneath our jackets that first night when we didn’t have beds.

The early weeks of our new existence were giddy and nervous, as we filled the cramped rooms with thrift store furniture and antique trinkets of dubious heritage. Benny made up a story for each item, detailing where each had come from, who had used it, how well it had been loved. Once able, we lived in a tender sort of house arrest, restricted by habit to our own creaking floors and unkempt garden grass. Only I’d escape sometimes, driving a well-worn road between our home and the local elementary school to substitute teach and be, in turn, granted that mean compensation which kept us in our toast and tea.

I hated to leave Benny alone. It was probably not a charming paranoia, but occasionally I thought I heard my mother’s car outside, the distinctive putt-putt of an old Volvo motor coming to foil my plans, save me from myself. Benny, always more sanguine than me about our fate, went to elaborate lengths to comfort me, playing unannounced rounds of hide-and-seek to show me how much she knew that I’d never know.

“Benny?” I’d ask. And then I’d cry out, “Benny! Where are you?” Even though I knew the game, I never lasted longer than ten minutes before bursting into brazen tears. When she finally crept out of her hiding place, Bendida’s eyes were on me like magnets. Never shameful, only questing.

.  .  .

I can tell she’s looking inside me for the child I was, trying to strip away the twenty odd years I now have on her. And I wonder not for the first time how many iterations she’s seen of this evolution, whether she wishes her own skin could grow sunspots, her face begin to wrinkle about the eyes. We are, I have determined, forever linked by a belief that’s been burned into both of our brains: that love should last forever, and that it almost never does. Of course, her knowledge is earned, while mine, like so many of my most important insights, is borrowed. I wonder if Bendida would think, like I do, that the small punctured birds she tries to rescue are lucky, their last experience of life being one of overwhelming pity and affection.

“Jessie,” she asks often, plaintive, soft, “do you love me?”

Her eyes go glassine, as if preparing nervous tears, though of course, I’ve never said no.

“Of course, I love you,” I tell her, running my rough thumb over the plum of her cheek.

I suppose, though, she has had cause to wonder.

.  .  .

The room was dark when I walked in with a pillow in hand, smoothing the fringe out into a colorful mohawk. Outside was a faint dusting of first snow; the Washington weather patterns are different here than I remember them being closer to the coast, in thrall to a different side of the mountains, and no one in town seemed surprised by the early frost.

Bendida was hunkered over in her bedclothes; it’s amazing to me how much a child needs rest. Sleep weighs down on her like a layer, like it’s something new to be aware of, and I enjoy watching her well-ensconced in it—her heart beats hard, like a hummingbird’s. I can see the veins in her neck throb in time with it, a gentle rhythm beneath her iridescent skin. She looks perfect: dark hair, round cheeks, eyelashes like velvet Elvis. That night I wanted, more than ever, to find the tools to protect her. From everything.

But in her warm quilt, knitted in the last dance of Maureen’s arthritic hands, she was already sufficiently cocooned. Her hair was down to the center of her back, the length it grows to every winter, though we chop it off to her shoulders every spring. She heals, and instead of bearing scars she gains back every inch of her softness.

I crawled into her bed as I had done so many times before and wrapped myself around her body, put myself as close as I could get. Here, I thought, she’s right here. But where would she be in the morning? In a month? When a stranger in our too-small town caught too many glimpses of her and called a foul? When I fell down the stairs, when I went crazy, when I died?

My breath pulled in, seeming to implode, not fill, my lungs. The air shoved soft tissue into the back of my ribs and I kept inhaling, kept inhaling, inhaling and pulling Bendida closer, with the pillow pulled across her face. Doesn’t she deserve a permanent solution? I thought. To die in the pitch and roll of the night, embraced by love? To become more than a secret sorrow? It was so romantic a notion; she would like that. Finally, a love story with no love lost.

A sob escaped me as she kicked out her legs, her tiny body beginning to quake and undulate. First, with the muffled energy of a dozing child, then with surprising force and deadly accuracy. Through the pillow I could hear a scream, the muted ribbon of terror that I knew would come and would have to wear as a badge from now on. A cry emanated, vibrated, echoed and skittered across the moony snowfield outside, and suddenly I couldn’t judge its source—her throat, or mine? Was my mouth full of fury, or empty, dry as dust? I didn’t know, and in a panic I pulled back and leaned against the wall as Bendida sat up, panting, in the bed.

“Jessie,” she said, and in that moment the tune of sorrow that had once already crept upon me wrapped itself around my neck like it belonged there. You will know me.

“Benny, no, I wasn’t, I wouldn’t, I…” My words tumbled from my mouth like stones and piled, pebbles, at my feet. Bendida clutched the pillow I’d brought in to her chest like a talisman.

“You can’t,” she said.

“I know.”

“No, you don’t.” She sighed, with years and years in her breath, leaking out of her mouth, spilling out into the room, and as I watched her rocking in the bed, arms and pillow around her night-gowned knees, the blood flowed swiftly out of my face until we were both very pale there, silent in the moonlight.

“You think so, I know, but it can’t happen.” Her small face twisted, with—effort? Annoyance? Maybe sorrow, but I’m not sure. What I know is that, sitting quietly in her pajamas, Bendida let me know in her roundabout, storied fashion, that every so often people had tried to help her die.

“People always think I don’t know what I’m talking about when I tell them not to, but I do.” She thought for a moment. “Every time, it’s a completely different person, but they always think they know best, they always think they know the exact right thing.”

There are days when she’ll bombard me with questions: How do bees know how to get back to their nests? Why can bears sleep through winter without eating when all of us get hungry after a couple of hours? How do you make plastic? She must have asked these questions a thousand times to a thousand different sets of ears, but I guess she’s never received a satisfactory answer.

So I’m willing to take her word for it when she tells me that my idea, my sudden grain of terrible insight, is nothing new, has all happened before. She smiles when she sees how original and unforgivable I think I am.