FICTION: What You Are Like by Maia Jenkins

The day Princess Diana died was the end for us, too. I was eleven when it happened and in many ways, she was the first young person in my life to die.
I’m 26 now, and work at the London Borough of Camden, scanning death certificates into a vast online database.
Yesterday, I spent thirty seconds typing my mother’s name into the system – Liz, Liz, Liz – before realizing my fingers were making the word Lice instead. I blame Princess Diana for that – not how she lived, exactly, but how she died, and when she did it.

***

A Saturday, it happened. I woke early and circled the estate on my bike. We were still on summer holidays. The skips by the green smelled like tangerines and although the sky was bolt grey but it was almost warm.
Back at the house, my parents were asleep. I didn’t have brothers or sisters. Still don’t. Bruno, our Alsatian, whined in his cage.
Taking a seat on the sofa, I turned on the television. Bruno rattled his cage, whined again. I didn’t understand the news at first – the Princess in a car crash in Paris, her boyfriend beside her, dead too.
I ran to the hall, looked up. The carpeted stairs looked liquid in the swirls where my mother had hoovered.
My parents were rolled in their sheets on opposite sides of the bed. I couldn’t tell them apart but when I jumped on the bed my father sprung up first.
“Princess Diana died.”
“What?”
Adjusting my shorts, I cleared my throat and tried again. “Princess Diana,” I said, “has died.”

***

I don’t remember what we did the rest of that day. In some versions, we go swimming. In some versions, my mother coached me through butterfly again, her body jerking through the pool as if electrocuted. In some versions, I held my head under the water until my throat filled with sour air and I tried to imagine what it must feel like to die.
“Use that wingspan,” my mother said, arms flapping. “You have an exceptionally large wingspan.”

***

Over the next few weeks, we watched the tributes get bigger outside Buckingham Palace, a slag heap of petals and teddies and cards.
“Will we go to London?” I asked. “Pay our respects?”
My mother laughed. When she saw I wasn’t joking, she stared over my head, nodded. “When London’s less busy.”
One day, though, the news showed the Palace clear. From then on, at night, I’d imagine great forklifts full of rotting flowers, rain-soaked toy bunnies coming apart at the seams, dribbling out of the dumper trucks and slopping into landfill some place far from London. The thought made me feel defeated.
Because it seemed like something girls my age should do, I started a diary. The dates were headed and, although weeks had passed since August 31st, I flipped back to that page and started to write:
Princess Diana died today. I wonder how she must have felt. This seemed like something a girl my age should write.

***

“It’s a swizz,” said my father. We were in Woolworths, the Singles section, standing in front of a navy square of smaller navy squares, each one printed with a white rose. Elton John. In loving memory of Diana, Princess of Wales. My mother picked up a CD.
My father put his hand on her shoulder. She stilled but didn’t turn around. “It’s for a good cause,” she said.
“It’s the same song he put out in the 70s,” my father said, “and it was maudlin rubbish then.”
My father referred to himself as “an instrumentalist,” and played his music on something called “the decks” which, as far as I could tell, were more like a computer game than an instrument, all buttons and screens and wires. The garage was his studio. Still the smell of plywood and dry wall transports me to those evenings: sitting on empty gas canisters, my father scratching at records, his mouth pushed out to the side as if puffing on a pipe.
I didn’t know if my father was good or bad. All I knew was watching him made me embarrassed. I suspected this wasn’t right. I never felt embarrassed when mum sang Blondie or Fleetwood Mac or Dusty Springfield and danced around the living room. I didn’t even feel embarrassed when she sang along to that Elton John song in the car as she drove us to swimming. Sad, maybe, and a little powerful, but never embarrassed. “Here she’s singing with her eyes closed,” she’d sometimes say. It was a game she liked to play. “Now she’s opened them again. You can always tell when a woman is singing with her eyes closed.”
My mother had a good voice. Whenever she was singing, she seemed to forget I was there.

***

I knew my mother had read my diary because she started asking me about death in the car.
“You know, you can talk to me anytime,” she said.
I said nothing.
She rolled down the volume on the radio. I wished I were a toddler again, confined to the back seat, watching the skin on the back of her neck redden as my father ridiculed her music choice.
“It’s normal to start thinking about death at your age,” she said. “If you have any questions, I’m always here.” There was desperation in her voice. Clearly, she was the one who had questions, not me.
From then on, I brought a book with me on car journeys, and if she ever tried to start a conversation I would flip to any page at random and pretend to be engrossed.

***

Three days after Diana died was my father’s birthday. My mother “forgot” to buy him a gift, and was defiant in her forgetting.
“Not even a card,” she said, eyes glittering.
My father nodded slowly and smiled back at her. “Not even a card.”
She started wearing enormous jeweled earrings, eating probiotic yogurts. Her friends came over more often. They brought me Milky Buttons and drinks with tops you had to twist off and I’d consume these offerings in front of the TV while they laughed in the kitchen.
After they’d gone, I’d watch my mother move about the house with the cordless phone, engaged in some complex debrief session. “Everybody makes mistakes,” I heard her whisper into the receiver one time. “It doesn’t make you a bad person.”
One morning, she threw a dog brush at my father’s head. As far as I could tell, it had been a normal day: my mother by the sink, pulling fur from the comb, my father behind his laptop, noodling with reverb levels, saying nothing. Then suddenly, the dog brush arched across the room and clipped dad’s shoulder.
“What was that for?” he asked. She said nothing, left the room.
“Cow,” he said.

***

I knew my mother could sing, but I didn’t know she could sing. The day of Diana’s funeral, my parents had a party (not in celebration; just a coincidence.) Starting with a barbecue, it went on long after the sun had set. I stayed upstairs, watching television and eating mini pretzels on my parents’ bed. There was Elton John on screen, doing his song again. Crumbs gathered on my chest. Diana’s brother made a speech, and I remember thinking how much it seemed like he loved his sister. Really loved her.
Outside, the party’s murmurs stilled. Pulling up the blinds, I looked down to see my mother, her hair shimmering like an oil spill in the low light. Her eyes were closed. She was singing. Circled, their friends gazed at her. My father had his back to me. My mother moved them through the song. It was that song: the Elton John one. It ended. There was silence for a moment – a silence full of tension, like a breath taken before a scream – before everyone started to cheer. Amongst the applause, my father stood and moved under the awning, out of sight.

***

After that, my mother stopped taking me to swimming practice, off-loading me instead to her friend Peg – a wiry Irishwoman with a ginger shag – who drove me and her three strange sons there and back in a purple minivan. I was no good without my mother there to train me.
I’d let myself in the house some evenings and find her making scrapbooks, lace and ribbon and round-cornered photographs from her adolescence spread out on the kitchen table.
“Will we get back to training soon, mum?” I’d ask. The under-12 local championships were soon, and I wanted to make the team.
She didn’t look up. “You’re a natural,” she said, picking a sequin off her thumb. “You’ll be fine. Remember that wingspan.”
One day I got home and found Bruno still in his cage, an unusual sight suggesting mum had been out all day. Against the bars his brushing tail sounded like rainfall. I let him out. He padded to the kitchen. I followed. On the table was a defrosted chicken, the limbs dimpled and glistening, a pool of pink water ringed around the body. Bruno leapt up, lapped at the stump where the head had been, dislodging a piece of paper folded under the dish.
Gone to stay with my mother for a while, read the note, be back soon.
What kind of person was she, I wondered, as I replaced the note under the dish. The truth was, I felt guilty for reading what I knew was intended for my father – the ambiguous ‘soon’, the stern ‘my mother’ was typical of their interactions – and I didn’t want to get caught snooping.
I let Bruno out into the back garden. He headed straight for the long grass at the back, where the field mice had their babies. On to the next thing. September eased off, set to depart and leave nothing but autumn behind. I couldn’t help but feel Princess Diana was to blame for all this.

***

That night, after swimming, my father and I went for a curry. My hair was damp against my collar and water dripped down my back. My father kept trying to talk. Appetite gone, I pushed the rice into rainbow-dotted mounds and stared out the window, wishing I’d brought along my book.
“Your training will have to go on hold for now,” he said. The try-outs were in a few days. My father had no interest in swimming. He was too busy with his music.
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Wasn’t she always saying you had big hands, or something?”
“Exceptionally large wingspan.”
“What?”
“Exceptionally large wingspan!” I yelled. At the next table, a woman turned to me, squeaked, snapped her poppadum in shock.
He was annoyed. I decided to keep my voice down.
“Is she coming back?” I asked.
“What?” he asked. “I can’t hear you.”
“Shall we go back?”
“Back?”
“Home, I mean.”
He frowned at me, called for the bill.

***

As the weeks went on and my mother didn’t return, I became convinced I needed to make the team for the championships. Even if we couldn’t contact her, I figured she would hear news of my victory and be drawn magnetically back into family life.
One day, instead of going straight home, I decided to go to the leisure centre alone. All the way there, a prickling pain coursed up my legs and across my stomach. It felt like I’d walked waist-deep into a patch of stinging nettles. Nerves.
The man behind the counter knew me, scanned me in, and I got changed into my suit as usual. A group of girls from school were getting changed there too. We’d been friends at one point, but since turning eleven they’d knotted closer, started wearing flared jeans, chewing gum and constructing nicknames for themselves with the lesser-used consonants – Bex, Lozza, Liv, Izzy. My name – Iris – couldn’t really be shortened, and this had been reason enough to exclude me from the group.
As I rounded the corner, the girls turned and started whispering. From where I stood, trying not to stare, they seemed to me a single entity, an amalgamation of limbs and eyes and mouths it would hurt to look at directly. I sloshed past them through the shallow water by the showers. It wasn’t until I got into the pool and started swimming that I saw the blood coming from between my legs. Panicked, I swam to the ladder and sat on the lowest rung. The girls emerged from the changing room, still staring.
If I kept still, I thought, the bleeding would stop, but it only got worse the stiller I stayed. At four, I knew, the pool would close for senior water aerobics and I would be forced out.
“Are you alright?” asked a voice from behind me. Lucy – a young lifeguard with forearms the color of caramel Angel Delight – was standing over me. “You’ve been sitting there for ages.”
“I’m fine,” I said, dashing my legs to disperse the blood.
“You’re usually flying up and down these lanes.”
“My mum is my trainer. She’s not here today.”
To my surprise, I started to cry, an unbidden cry so different to those of my childhood, when the sadness had been so specific, had stemmed from such certain sources – a scraped shin, homesickness, a lost party game. This new sadness found its level and spread everywhere, like water. Lucy crouched, touched my shoulder, spotted the red on the water’s surface.
“Hey,” she said. “Let’s get you a towel.”

***

You were the reason I started swimming. Because of you I never swam again.
One Christmas, we got a card from an address in Royal Leamington Spa. I remember there were robins on it, their bellies rough with red glitter. “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” read the message inside. Dad took it off me before I could see who it was from, which is why I suspect it came from you.
I didn’t tell you this – you probably don’t remember – but the day of Diana’s funeral you came to my room, right after you were finished singing. The princes emerged from the car. They were simply boys – side-partings, mouths straight and sober, moving about the crowds, shaking hands.
You brushed some crumbs from the top sheet. “Poor kids,” you said. That sounded like something a mother should say. Your eyes were wide open.
I’ll stop looking for you someday, I’m sure. Until then, you exist lightly, and I remember you most when I’m lying in bed with a cold feeling at the very centre of my chest, or anytime I hear a woman singing with her eyes closed. You can just tell, you said. And really, you can.
I pick up another certificate, ready it for scanning, folding away the corners. Edward Larson. Cause of death: Thrombosis of basilar artery. Eighty-nine years old.
Did you know, mum, the variety of ways people can die?
My boss arrives back from lunch and strides past my desk. “I need you to stay late tonight,” she says. “Tax season.”
“Sure,” I say. “No problem.”
Whenever I am kind to someone I despise, I think of you, and as my boss walks away I smile, touch my hands to my mouth, feeling my lips to check they are still there.

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Maia Jenkins

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Maia Jenkins is a writer living and working in Meridian, Mississippi. Her work has previously appeared in GQ, SmokeLong Quarterly, Grazia, Litro and The Upcoming. In 2013, she won the GQ Student Writing Prize and was named Fiction Fellow at the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony in Salt Lake City. She is also the winner of the 2014 Bailey’s First Chapter Prize.
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