~This story previously appeared in Pleiades (Spring 2002).
Do you remember the sixth grade, Margaret? Blood and Foreign Language beginning the same year. There was that line between all the girls then. An extra bone, a horizontal spine—. A keloid inch scripted onto my chest, a fossil, an unreadable note, the first of all the unanswerable signs.
We counted. We all counted. You know what I mean. Even if we didn't talk about it all the time, you remember. Even if we never talked about it, you know what I mean.
Maybe you should have kept it, our book. I still have it. You would have tossed it—maybe by the seventh grade. I still have it, our book. What do you remember? Remember, remember. As if I could hold us at twelve.
Miss Merrill had all of us, every science class in the sixth grade. Remember that day when all the boys had to leave the room? (No one could hold us at twelve.) I don't think they ever told us where they went. Miss Merrill had the bluest eyes. Did you ever wonder if they were real? It was a long time ago. Did Nick ever tell you I saw him with no underwear? We were out back by the creek.
I still have the book. I know Nick probably threw his out. Maybe your mom made him. You don't take stuff like that to California. Toothed monocot. Do you know that the weeping willow is a toothed monocot? We knew this once. We had a page for the silver plants. We snuck into the Jones' backyard, but I was afraid of Daisy.
Dusty Miller: Lobed dicot. Lamb's Ear: smooth. We didn't know then: the silver rubs off—. The conifers are the next page. Pitch smeared under the plastic covering. We draw pictures of the leaves next to the leaves themselves. You will not remember this. We are only eleven. No one counted at eleven. Did I ever tell you about your brother? It was a long time ago.
You moved to California, Margaret (how could you?). You didn't even take our book. I still have the gingko we found at the end of my street (Monocot lobed). A Japanese tree splitting itself into two—mitosis, mitosis—leaves like fans; pleated. We thought they were special, but there were whole trees of them. The tulip tree was one street over (Dicot lobed toothed). By the end of November, we could have found our way there by counting rows of bark, the first language beneath our hands.
Do you remember the most special one? The one we went into Elm Lane for? We weren't allowed, and we went anyway. (No one could hold us at twelve—.) We found a tree that had leaves like stars. Sweet gum; we looked it up in the book (there must have been a book). (Dicot lobed toothed).
I didn't put anything special on to save them. We were only ten or eleven. What did we know about fixatives? I think we glued them to the paper. I think it was probably Elmer’s. I think we had to use my mother's sewing needles to open the bottle, you know how it always stops up.
It had been so long when we stopped hearing from you. We never found out who spray-painted “Ozzy Lives” near the creek. You were going to be a ballerina. Crimean Linden, Verbanica Magnolia, White Oak, Pussy Willow. What did you become when you grew up? Saucer Magnolia. Star Magnolia. No one could hold us at twelve.
Did Nick ever tell you he saw me without underwear that one time? We had a page for the silver plants. It was out back by the creek. And did you become a dancer? A weeping willow is a toothed monocot. Or did your bones get bigger? It’s OK if your bones got bigger. You know you can't help it, your bones.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I have always been drawn to a second person voice directed to a singular audience. “Margaret” is an amalgamation of friends who left, moved, or moved on, and those once-essential friendships, which faded. I see this story as an elegy of sorts for the intense friendships of middle school girls. “Dicot” invokes the anxieties of impending adolescence, sexuality—and the loss of childhood those years bring with them: a warning, an entreaty, a circling. There is no turning back. No one could hold us at twelve. Repetition becomes an incantation, wish—almost prayer.
I trace my interest in voice and repetition to prayer and chanting—to the year my grandfather (Dada) taught us three chapters of The Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. I was seven, my cousin a year older. Each chapter is composed of many Sanskrit verses, and my cousin and I were tasked with memorizing one verse a day. We learned to chant these verses in a particular cadence. Though I have not done this now in years, the cadence of those verses lives on in my bones and ears, leaving a resonance, an attention to sound.
“Dicot” also serves as an early example of my use of what I’ve come to see as archival material from my life. My sixth grade class really was assigned this leaf project and I have it stored in my parents’ basement (still!). I’ve continued this archeology and collage in more recent writing for the Kenyon Review Blog—drawing from the language of my first grade play script and the words and picture from a postcard I’ve kept since middle school. Some of us are keepers. Stories are what I make out of what I keep.
ABOUT SEJAL SHAH
Sejal Shah is an essayist, fiction writer, and teacher of writing. Her essays and stories have appeared in journals including The Asian American Literary Review, Brevity, Conjunctions, the Kenyon Review, and The Literary Review. In 2016, her book manuscript was named a finalist for the The Journal / The Ohio State University Press Non/Fiction Collection Prize, the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Essay Collection Competition, and the Kore Press Memoir-in-Essays Award. She teaches creative writing at the University of Rochester and in community-based workshops at Writers & Books, a literary nonprofit in Rochester, New York. www.sejal-shah.com.