Perfect. By A.M. Nussbaum
Zero. She comes into the world fast. Too fast, faster than her mother or father could have expected. She comes spilling out into this world with tiny eyes and ears and toes, and everything about her is just so small. And when she looks up at them, at her parents and the world, she makes them all feel so insignificant with her smallness. And she's so connected and beautiful and just right. Her mother, wheeled away to see the doctors who will poke and prod her previously swollen belly and say that they think she'll be alright, but you know how it goes sometimes; her mother barely gets to sneak a peak at her. At this person, this thing, this little creature, that she made and can't even hold. She can only cast a glance at the pinkish lump of flesh with limbs protruding from it, blood and amniotic fluid dripping from it as it's wrapped in a pink blanket and dabbed at by too many people. The now-mother doesn't even have the time or strength to ask if it's a girl or boy, but she figures the pink blanket must mean it's a girl—pink means that, doesn't it? With the drugs still swirling in her body and the less-than-normal happy things floating in her head, everything hazy, and the pain—oh, god, the pain (shouldn't it have stopped by now?)—she can't quite remember. She thinks of Friends and Look Who's Talking and tries to remember the scenes where babies were being born. As they wheel her away, she laughs. How can she be thinking of nineties shows when she doesn't even know whether she has a son or a daughter?
So the now-father is handed the baby, as if he knows what to do with it. And he just holds her—yes, it's a her—and stares at her and thinks, how can something be so small? She's not what he thought she'd be, but, he thinks, I guess I hadn't really thought about it. Not that he hadn't been looking forward to this day and hoping that everything would be alright. He just hadn't looked into the mirror and thought father. He knew he was going to have a child, a little ball of life and brightness that he'd take care of and raise, but he had never really thought I'm going to be a father. And now he realizes it as he's staring down at her, at his baby, his child, his girl, and he knows it's too late to go back. Not that he'd want to. Because as he stares down at her, he knows. Despite the fear rushing through him and the things floating about in his head. He wonders if his wife will be alright and if she's not, what the hell will he do? And he's trying to think of names, even though they had already picked out names that seemed so perfect but for some reason he can't seem to remember any of them. He's wondering if she's supposed to be so small and pink and wet. While all this dances around inside of him, he knows. He knows that she is perfect.
One. So they named her Dokonalý, Czech for perfect. Her grandmother had come from Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution and the split of the country. She'd died before Dokonalý had been born and before her own child had a chance to really know her. Though they didn't know the culture, and her mother had never taken her to the Czech Republic or Slovakia, the new mother and father knew the name was right. It was her name.
They loved her. The mother and father loved her more than they imagined anyone could love anything. They loved her more than they loved each other and more than they loved their own parents or sisters or brothers. The mother decided it was simply because she had made her. Dokonalý had been pushed from her, built from her parts and her fluid and her food—she had made her. Dokonalý was like a piece broken off from her body, made into something new, like a drop of milk being wound in a bag and cultured until it was yogurt. She was an extension of her flesh and her being and she was so perfect. The mother sometimes stared at her and couldn't believe that something so perfect had come from her own body. How could it have? How could it have come from this body—now stretched and marked, paled from being inside. Lumps of fat over muscles that were once tight, skin thin and seemingly translucent, no longer taught and golden-colored. Sometimes she reached down and pressed her hands against her abdomen, spreading her fingers and fumbling with her little pouch of flesh. She half-missed the moving lump, half-missed having Dokonalý inside her. She missed feeling the full, satisfying, yet terrifying feeling of knowing that something so perfect was dwelling within her.
But watching Dokonalý rolling around the floor, bouncing on her lap, giggling, and smiling, and grabbing at her was just as good. Smiling so big and so small at the same time. Plump fingers like tiny sausages wrapping around the mother's pinky finger. Striped onesie and the hat with a giraffe on it, eyes so big and not quite a definite color. Under the giraffe hat, little tufts of red hair had begun to sprout. It was so soft and thick and beautiful. Everything about her was beautiful.
Seven. The father insisted that she go to public school when second grade came about. Enough homeschooling, he had said. It was time for her to shoot out into the world again, this time amazing others, not just mother and father and doctor and nurse.
The kids couldn't say her name, and she couldn't quite understand why. It was so simple, she thought. They suggested nicknames, most of them stupid and too catchy and just wrong. Doko. Kona. Dodo. Koko. Nalý.
Then one day at recess, as she sat in the corner and read, because she loved to read, a girl crouched down beside her. The girl didn't say anything, she simply crouched there, arms draped across her knees, chin resting on her forearm, and watched her read. Dokonalý didn't know the girl's name and she didn't know what grade she was in. But every day at recess, the girl with a dirt-smudged face came and crouched and watched her. She studied her turn each page, and followed her eyes as they shot across each page. Sometimes the girl read over her shoulder and sometimes she'd reach across Dokonalý to turn the page backwards, just to read it again. The girl never spoke to Dokonalý. She crouched there patiently and just watched her read until the recess bell rang. Then it'd sound—like an alarm clock waking you from a perfect dream. Because reading was a dream to Dokonalý, it was laughs and cries and flying and dancing in a field of a kind of flower that she was sure didn't exist in real life. Reading felt like happy things and it felt like what living should feel like. When the bell rang, the crouched girl would straighten up and run off, not saying a word to Dokonalý. And Dokonalý would watch her run away, thin legs, scabbed and Band-Aid-covered. Her brown hair, messy and greasy, flapping behind her.
On the last day of second grade, the girl with the dirt-smudged face came and crouched beside her again, as she had for many recesses. Dokonalý stared into her book, burning the words into her eyes. She wasn't really reading, but she didn't want the girl to know that. Dokonalý tried to be still, tiny beads of sweat forming on her tiny upper-lip. Quivering, she considered asking the girl her name and offering her own in return.
What is your name? the girl with the dirt-smudged face asks her first. Still crouched beside her, staring at the words on the page.
Dokonalý, she answers, without lifting her eyes from the page. They don't look at each other.
Can I call you Lya? the girl says.
The bell rings and the dirt-smudged girl runs away before Dokonalý can ask her for her name.
Nine. Two years go by and Lya still hasn't seen her. The girl with the dirt-smudged face. Lya had half-expected her to show up on her first day of third grade, crouching beside to read over her shoulder again. The girl hadn't come but Lya had read anyway.
Fourth grade comes and that's fine, it's easy for Lya. She sits and reads the books she's read a hundred times before; no friends, but you're better off, her mother says. Friends aren't that important, right?
They think I'm weird.
Why do you think that, sweetie?
They think I'm weird because I like to read instead of playing. And because my name is funny and I'm not normal.
You're right, sweetie, you're not normal; You're perfect.
One day, Lya thinks that maybe she caught a glimpse of her, the dirt-smudged girl, running in a crowd of people. Her face is still dirt-smudged, but now in different patterns, and her brown hair still hangs around her, swirling in the wind. She sees the flash of neon-colored Band-Aids and she wants to run after the girl and say hello, but she's gone.
Fourteen. Ninth grade hits and surprise: hips and breasts, curves where straight lines used to slope down and end in nothingness. Arched brows and eyes that have finally decided on a green-gray color, copper hair pulled back into a pony-tail as an after-thought. Skin pale and freckled across the shoulders, braces freshly off—she's still learning how to smile. Lya wonders, is this what it looks like to be a woman?
Lya has friends now—a wonder, isn't it? They dance around her and beg her to put down her book and dance with them. She doesn't. She smiles and laughs and says, no thanks, maybe later. But she won't later, she won't ever. All Lya wants to do is read, she wants to run her eyes and her fingers across page after page and let the words consume her. She wants to read them until they feel real and she can pretend they are. Lya is never satisfied; always reading more. Sometimes she wonders why she can't stop reading, and she thinks maybe it's because she can't find a book that's perfect. Some came close: words that felt nice against her lips, tales that told of wondrous things like love and adventure. But none of them felt right. So she'd keep reading, she decided, until she found the perfect book.
One night her friends make her come with them to a bonfire on a beach. It's dark and cold and everyone is running and talking and laughing and someone is playing music. Lya sits before the fire, sitting on a piece of driftwood that has been dragged to the fire (likely by a macho football-player, Lya thinks). She sits on it and reads. She reads fearlessly and ferociously as everyone dances about the beach. Lya wonders what they're doing, but she doesn't turn around to look. Do you think that they are taking their clothes off and drinking like in a movie? Lya decides she doesn't really care because all that matters is reading and finding that perfect book.
As she's returning her eyes to the page in front of her, she happens to glace at the monstrous fire in front of her. And across the fire, she sees a girl. The flames dance in front of the girl's face, casting shadows and causing her to look disfiguringly dark. The girl stares across at Lya, and Lya tries to stare back at her, through the slashes of red and orange and purple flickering. She can't quite see her features, but she sees what might be dirt smudges. The girl stands up and walks around the fire. Lya looks back down at the page.
Hi. Lya looks down at her feet as the girl sits beside her. The girl is wearing old and worn flip-flops, each toe painted a different color. Wrapped around her left ankle are several friendship bracelets, frayed string in colors that used to be bright, stretched as far as they can go, ready to rip against her flesh. On her shins and ankles are patchworks of neon Band-Aids.
Do you still read during recess?
And Lya laughs and closes the book. Yes.
How did you recognize me?
Your hair and the book, of course.
You still wear neon Band-Aids. And you have dirt on your face.
The dirt-smudged girl uses her sleeve to wipe her cheek. Lya laughs again, and stretches her oversized shirt to fit over her knees.
I changed schools. That's why we didn't see each other again.
Oh, Lya says, simply and casually, as if she hadn't thought of it. As if she hadn't really cared that she had never crouched beside her and read over her shoulder again. That was a lie, of course. She thought about her all the time. She wondered who she was, and whenever she saw the flash of a neon Band-Aid on someone, she stared intently.
The girl jerked her head towards the people singing and laughing and being silly. Are they your friends? She asked.
Yes, Lya said, and then, as a truthful after-thought, no, not really. Are they yours?
Some of them, I think.
And neither of them say anything more, so Lya turns her eyes back to the book. She begins to read, and the girl watches over her shoulder. Lya feels as if she is back in second grade again. So she reads and reads and says nothing. She reads for what seems like hours until her eyes burn and she thinks she can't look at words ever again. Lya reaches the final page in the book and closes it.
Was it a good book? the dirt-smudged girl asks her.
Yes. It was good, I suppose.
You suppose? she says, and Lya silently curses herself for speaking like such an old woman. Now she thinks you're weird, too, she says to herself. But the girl says What do you mean?
Lya places the book on the other side of her on the log. It was nice, I mean. The words were right and they felt soft and petally when I recited them in my head, smooth but texturized as I ran my hands along the pages. It was beautiful and lovely, and about things that are supposed to take your breath away—
It was lovely, Lya says again, but it wasn't perfect.
What was it about?
Chance encounters, Lya whispers.
Come with me, the girl whispers back. She extends her hand as she stands. Lya takes her hand, and though she's held the hands of others before, this time is different. Their fingers intertwine as if they belong exactly there—no fumbling, just fitting. They both have short, chipped nails and fingers thin and long. The girl squeezes Lya's hand, holding it fiercely. Lya stands and the girl leads her away.
They walk down the beach together, away from their maybe-friends and the rest of everything. The light from the fire behind them continues to cast shadows and warmth on their backs until they're so far away they can't hear the music and see the people dancing. They walk and they whisper to each other as if they have known each other forever. And they hold hands, never letting go. Lya imagines the world disintegrating around them, the sand falling grain by grain away, the ocean evaporating around them. She imagines herself and the dirt-smudged girl left alone, suspended in the moment, alone, silent, perfect almost.
And they still hold hands as they walk under the pier, ice cold water washing over their feet. Soggy flip-flops and neon Band-Aids soaked through, but that's alright because everything is alright now, isn't it? Everything feels right, Lya thinks. She leans against one of the posts holding the pier above their heads and the dirt-smudged girl stands in front of her, their hands still clasped.
Close your eyes, the dirt-smudged girl says.
So Lya closes them. She can feel the girl's breath close to her, air fluttering against her lips. It feels sweet and spicy and peppery and wonderful, Lya decides.
And then someone across the beach shouts out Lya's name. Her eyes shoot open and the dirt-smudged girl is close, closer to her than anyone has ever been. They're mere inches apart, yet somehow they feel even closer. She feels the girl's eyes melting into hers, their skin fusing, forming into one solid mass of woman and wonder. This is the closest two humans can possibly be, Lya thinks. She thinks that this must have been what it felt like for her mother when she carried her for nine months: connected to another being, a part of them, living only to make sure they live, being one and two at the same time. Lya thinks that if this girl, this girl with the dirt-smudged face and the neon colored Band-Aids were to let go of her, even for a fraction of a second, the world would come back, each grain of it, and the perfection would be gone.
The person, the kind-of-but-not-really friend, shouts Lya's name again.
The girl with the dirt-smudged face takes a step back, she stares at Lya before turning and disappearing into the dark, where Lya thinks the world used to be.
Seventeen. Senior year will be starting soon. The summer's almost over and everyone is excited for prom and homecoming and getting ready for college, but Lya hasn't really thought much about anything. She has a boyfriend now, does that make mother and father happy? Her hair is long and she wears it down because he likes it that way. Freckles have spread across the bridge of her nose, like a map of stars and constellations. Her nail polish is still chipped and she still doesn't care.
Lya still reads, but not during recess or lunch anymore. She reads in her room, alone, where no one else will see her. Sometimes she hides in the stacks of public libraries, reading the classics and the not-so-classics, because why not? she thinks. Can't the new books be as lovely as the old ones? Lya reads them all, she reads until the librarians tell her it's time to go home, sweetie, because she's still looking for it. The perfect book.
It's not the only thing she's been looking for.
This boy, her boyfriend, he's nice, at least she thinks so. He's tall and big and the things that teenage girls are supposed to like, but she can't help but look for her and think about her. That girl with the dirt-smudged face and the neon Band-Aids and the too-tight friendship bracelets and the chipped polish and old flip-flops. That girl that crouched beside Lya and watched her read, silently, every day during recess. Lya thinks about her all the time, her and the beach and the fire and the almost-kiss.
At least with books, I know where to start looking, Lya thinks, and so, she sits in the stacks every day, turning page after page.
Nineteen. Graduation, check. She's walked the line across the stage, pomp and circumstance, got the slip of paper, now what? The paper's hanging on her parents' wall, mounted in a Wal-Mart clearance frame. Sometimes Lya goes home and stares at it because she's not quite sure what it means. It says Dokonalý, who is that? She can't quite remember the last time someone actually called her that.
So, now it's college, that's what's supposed to come next, at least she's told. Lya goes to the university because it's close enough that the mother and father can come see her but far enough that she doesn't have to go back every weekend and see the not-so-friends and the used-to-be high school boyfriend, dropped away like the sand and the world.
She decides she'll major in English, because maybe, just in case she never finds that perfect book, she can write it herself and make sure it really is perfect. In her classes she writes stories and essays and sometimes poems. They rhyme in her head but not in paper; the words seem to make sense and sound right but the professors and the other students sometimes don't think so. But's that's alright, because Lya knows that they're right, they're lovely, they're wonderful—but they're not quite perfect. She writes about her family and her life and her name and about Czechoslovakia and revolutions. She writes about writing and about reading. Sometimes she writes about her.
Lya takes a job at the tiny drug store because she needs the money, why else does anyone work? She's a cashier. She stands their and says Hello, did you find everything okay? Lya runs the items, the boxes and bottles and jars, over the price scan, adds it up. Here is your total, thank you, have a nice day. She learns to say these things without thinking, no prompt needed, they just come out. Normal, everyday. Scan. Beep. Price check on cashier five. Thank you. Have a great day. Cash back? Credit or debit? It becomes monotonous, second-nature. Lya learns to live it, it becomes just like reading or even breathing. She learns to stare straight down, sometimes doesn't even bother to look the customer in the eye.
One day she watches a hand with slender, long fingers and chipped rainbow nail polish drop a box of neon colored Band-Aids onto the conveyer strip. She looks up and what do you know, it's her, the girl with the dirt-smudged face. She's older now, of course—it's been five years, hasn't it?—but Lya knows it's her. Her face is cleaned up, no more dirt. Her brown hair has grown long, piled in the back of her head messily but perfectly. She's wearing shorts that used to be pants, cut crookedly and now frayed. A neon pink Band-Aid on her left knee, green on her right thigh. Dirty, used-looking moccasins where flip-flops used to be, friendship bracelets gone from her ankles, finally stretched till they tore, Lya thinks.
Hello. What are you doing here?
She shrugs. Getting Band-Aids? she says with a laugh.
No, I mean, do you live nearby?
Yes. No. Well, kind of. The Band-Aids, she reminds Lya.
Lya looks down, and oh, yeah, she's working. She rings the Band-Aids up and shows the dirt-smudged girl her total. As the girl scans her credit card and picks up the magnetic pen to sign the greasy finger-print-covered screen, she says Do you remember that book?
What book? Lya asks, because there have been so many.
The one about chance encounters, the girl says as she places the pen back in its holder.
I read it, she says. I remembered the name and I saw it in a bookstore. So I bought it and I read it.
Did you like it?
Yes. I did.
There is a second one. Have you read it? Lya asks.
No, I haven't.
I have it. Would you like to read it?
I would, the girl says, I'd like to, very much. And they smile at each other, because, they both think, maybe this will be the last chance encounter, maybe this will be when these moments end and the time stays away. Maybe now they will simply be, instead of just hello, goodbye, see you in five years.
Can I ask you something? Lya says.
What's your name?
The dirt-smudged girl grins. Erin, she says. My name is Erin.
Lya had never thought about the name Erin, never really given it much consideration, had never liked or disliked it. But now, hearing it, learning her name, the name of the girl with the dirt-smudged face and the neon Band-Aids, she decides that it's just about perfect, or at least close enough. And she decides that maybe that book, the one from the beach, about chance encounters, is the perfect book after all.
Twenty-one. They lay there, Lya and Erin, on the dewy grass. It's wet and soft, but that's alright, isn't it? It's dark and Lya can't quite see Erin, which, she guesses, means that Erin can't quite see her either. It's fair, then, but still, Lya hates not being able to see her. So much time spent not seeing her, wondering about her, wishing for her, she hates when she can't see her now.
Their heads are leaned against each other, looking up at the night sky. So dark and bright at the same time. Their hands are clasped, firmly, desperately wanting to be closer, just as they had been on the beach when Lya was fourteen. Everything feels right and the world has crumbled around them again, no more mother or father or maybe-friends or high school boyfriends, no professors or classmates, no bosses or customers. Just them.
Erin turns her head to Lya's. Lya closes her eyes and feels her breath against her lips, that same sweet, spicy, peppery, soft breath. She feels it flutter rapidly against her, then slowly, then not at all. She feels Erin's hand on her shoulder. And then it's Erin's lips on hers, and hers on Erin's. And then their mouths are moving as one. It's amazing, it's like everything Lya's ever felt, and everything she hasn't. We're the only ones here, Lya thinks to herself. It's true, they're the only ones there, and they'll always be there.
As they pull apart, eyes still closed, breath still heavy, Erin whispers into her mouth, I love you. I love you. Dokonalý.
And it's the first time she's heard her name in who knows how long, and she remembers what it means.