I’m writing a story a week for 52 weeks on the Bitter Blog. This is story #13.
Eliza was a starer. She scrutinized the world from under a home-hewn haircut, spending minutes at a time taking in a feature on someone’s face or looking at a crushed insect on the sidewalk or examining the mud-splattered shell of an empty cigarette pack.
“Stop staring,” her mother would scold. “It isn’t polite.”
Eliza sometimes nodded, sometimes said, “yes mother,” and let her eyes rove somewhere else. More often than not, however, Eliza’s mother startled her so much that she jumped, yelped, jolted from her trance. It was never pleasant breaking eye contact. It felt like the plucking of several strands of hair that ran between Eliza and the thing she was watching. Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop, the roots.
Eliza’s eye contact became stealthier. She took to wearing sunglasses, even in church. Her mother would cuff her on the back of the head. “Take those ridiculous things off.”
She always obeyed her mother, but not without silently questioning the obedience. One day, Eliza would say to herself,I’ll be a grownup and I can look at whatever I want to look at. No more screams or slaps. One day…
Today’s object of study was a dead toad. It lay party shriveled on the sidewalk, legs stuck out at odd angles, tongue lolling out of its mouth. A few black flies bobbed up and down around its body. Eliza dropped to the ground, got so close her eyelashes nearly touched the jutting leg. She looked at the texture of the dried skin, noticed the glassiness of the toad’s eye. She mentally measured the length of the little corpse from jaw to tailbone and from outstretched limb to outstretched limb. The black flies dove and soared, landed and took off again and Eliza watched for patterns in their flight.
For nearly half an hour, little Eliza squatted on the sidewalk. She wanted to know everything about this dead toad. She wanted to understand what it would have been like to live inside its animate body. To hop, to crouch in the grass, to fling out the now-hanging tongue and snap up a fly. When Eliza’s mother finally discovered her, Eliza was kneeling over the toad, her straight, dark hair touching the sidewalk on either side of it like curtains.
“Eliza!” her mother screeched. “Get up off the sidewalk this minute, young lady. Do you hear me? Back away from that ghastly toad!”
“He’s not ghastly,” Eliza protested, leaping to her feet. She faced her mother. “He’s beautiful.”
“He isn’t. And we’re starting therapy for you tomorrow, young lady. There’s something wrong with you, you know that? Something off. I knew it ever since you were a little girl…”
The therapy started the next day, as promised. It kicked off a decade of treatment in which Eliza bounced from therapist to therapist, talking little, staring much. Her unblinking eyes unnerved the therapists. They all conceded eventually, dismissed Eliza after a matter of months with a “So sorry, Ms. Thompson. There’s nothing I can do for your daughter. She’s just…how she is. Try Dr. Breunheimer. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. Yes, he should be able to deal with her…abnormalities.”
Eliza’s mother always stormed around the house for days after another therapist threw in the towel. She wrung her hands and paced, muttering about no good quack doctors, can’t even deal with a simple little girl, where did they get their degrees anyway?
Sometimes, Eliza’s mother steered clear of therapists for a month or two, but she always went back. The eyes—those x-ray vision, saucer-large, ocean blues—would always get her in the end. Those eyes could start a bonfire, she thought. Or read her thoughts.
The years, the decade passed. In the early years, Eliza got very good at concealing her inquisitiveness. She’d glance at a room and pretend there was nothing to see within it. No cracks along the base of the window, no cobwebs in the left hand corner, no roughly textured chair with streak marks under its wheels. She’d do her best to ignore the details of a place—all the interesting bits.
Eventually, it became second-nature to take in her world with only the briefest of glances. She could do it without thinking much about it.
And then. Then, she didn’t think about it at all. A room was just a room. A piece of rotting fruit was not an object to examine and turn over in her hand; it was fodder for the trash bin. A dead animal on the sidewalk was just a dead animal.
The last therapist was scarcely needed. She talked at Eliza and sometimes Eliza talked back. The therapist wore her hair in a tight bun with a few gray wisps poking out from behind her ears; she wore turtlenecks with pendant necklaces; she often donned the same pair of gray, slip-on loafers. Eliza didn’t notice any of these things. Curiosity had been drubbed out of her.
On a September day of her senior year in high school, Eliza’s mother fell to the kitchen floor. The brain aneurism killed her instantly; a crooked scowl hung on her face. Eliza ran from the next room when she heard the clatter of a broken dish, the thud of a body. She saw her lifeless mother and froze.
Her eyes could go nowhere but down—down to the rigid form with its glazed, bulging eyes and lopsided mouth. Eliza bent her knees and lowered herself to the floor. With every inch she descended, years of training shed away. The forest fell away and she began to count the trees, then the branches. She began to see rough patterns in the bark.
Eliza knelt over her mother’s frozen eyes and saw the dead sidewalk toad from her youth. Her brain did a snap-twist. She looked around. The room’s colors swirled in front of her eyes. The shapes, the textures. Had that bowl always been yellow? She stood and backed away.
She grabbed a stool from the kitchen counter and perched upon it. The lifeless form sprawled in front of her and Eliza looked at it unabashedly. No one told her to look away; no one struck her cheek.
She would call, eventually. Of course she would. An ambulance would screech into the driveway and paramedics would haul the body away on a stretcher, pretending there was something they could do to save her. But for now, Eliza wanted to look. To notice. She had years of seeing to catch up on.