Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence
Something Will Grow

I have this little girl that I take care of now. Erika, and only today did she snag on me and make me think that my daughter would have been just her size by now. Big enough to fight and think an original thought. Six years old. I had Erika in the shower, she looked like she could use a wash, and while I'm soaping up her tight, flat belly she turns around and starts soaping mine and right there was the snag.

The plumbing was clogged with our hair so that soap bubbles caught in the drain. It looked like someone had poured caviar down it, little marbles with a mother-of-pearl gleam. That was how James Ho's sperm came into me, like streams of little bubbles, and my egg sucked them up until it burst out an embryo, a little girl. I don't like to think that it might have been a boy. A little replica of James Ho's body, that body he foisted on me like too many sweets. It was sweet, it was, and I wanted it. James's body was even sweeter than Erika's, which is still young enough for me to scrub, lather over like a seal baby, all brown and slim.

If it had been a boy James Ho's parents might have even been secretly pleased, and forgiven James for bringing home the girl who was not only white, but too young for them to know if he could beat her on the SAT's. "How old are you, Lanie?" I was young enough to scratch my little brothers with my nails and get punished for it. I was young enough for my mother to force me to drink a full glass of whole milk before bed. "Fourteen." I was hot under my arms. My heart tilting. I wanted them to like me.

"She's very mature for her age," James said to his parents, with scripted sarcasm. Then he took me upstairs and we had sex in his bedroom with the door locked. I screamed that day, with his parents downstairs, knowing I was mature for my age, wanting them to know. I understood pleasure. I attacked it at the throat and it fought back. I did know more than other girls.

I had to throw my stockings away because James had come all over them. "Just leave them in the garbage can,” he told me. "But won't your mother see them?" I asked, and he told me not to worry about it, and because he told me not to I didn't. I walked barelegged out the door past Mrs. Ho, who looked right down where my blue tights had been, and I said "It was nice meeting you," with my sweet-girl smile.

"Your mother hated me," I said when we were outside.

James sputtered. "Probably. What did you expect, Lanie?"

He did have a body, James Ho. All sinewy muscles that flexed far beyond my expectations. He jammed into me like we were made for each other, but what did I know? I was only fourteen.

It's not Erika's size that matters so much. Not the number of years she has left before she turns into what I was when I knew James Ho, not the number of years she has been real flesh. It's that I love her. Those rubbery limbs that wrap around me, the blank brown skin blushed at the cheeks. How little it takes to love. The way she says my name, Lanie. How she tries to twist away from me but laughs as I dry her off with an old, soft towel and she runs, she screams. The Big Sister program would take her away from me if they knew I did this, but I've never been able to follow other people's rules when they deprive me of joy.

As I'm holding Erika she brings her hand to her mouth. "Look, Lanie," she says, and wiggles a tooth. It's loose. ''Jiggle it," she says. I feel the heat of her breath as I wag the tooth to and fro, and suddenly it snaps off soundlessly, comes clean in my fingers. "Erika," I gasp, "you've lost another tooth!" It's her second one, tiny, ridged along the top. I ask her if she wants to take it home for the Tooth Fairy but Erika just looks at me, wrinkling her forehead like I've said something strange, and runs away again, squealing, wanting me to chase her. I'm left with the tooth in my hand and I think about Erika's family, immigrants from a culture where a tooth is just a tooth. I put it in my pocket. Erika is naked in the living room, the towel abandoned on the floor.

"Come get me Lanie," she taunts, wanting me to catch her, ready to run.

No one ever saw me naked like this, no one until James Ho. When I go to Erika's apartment to pick her up, her little brother is curled up on the couch in nothing but purple nylon underwear, always the same ones, and Erika in white cotton. Her mother makes her get dressed before she leaves with me, looking bashful, but not because her children are bare. Erika runs away from me as I chase her, and I pick the wet, limp towel off of the floor. I hold the towel up like a cape as I run after her, in case she wants to run into it and have me wrap her up.

I once let James Ho strip me down, get me naked in the park. He wanted to see what it would do to me, being that naked in a place where cops might go by, when groups of men might come along, if I would scream. That was the time we couldn't bother with condoms, and five weeks later, when all I wanted was the ability to do nothing, my little daughter wouldn't just go away. He took me, he was upstairs in the waiting room watching Crocodile Dundee while she got sucked out of me, and then he dropped me home. After that I never wanted to see him again, and he called and called, but by then all I wanted was for James Ho to die.

James Ho did die, actually. He killed himself in the middle of Harvard.

The news was delivered to me by phone, by an awed schoolmate whose motives for telling me were unclear, and I couldn't say I was surprised. James was never happy. That's why he would back me up against the wall at school and say all melancholy, "If only you had blue eyes, Lanie, you would be so beautiful. If only your thighs were thinner." If only. James wanted everything in the world to be perfect but he knew he didn't deserve it. It was the only way he could cope, settling for things and then trying to improve them.

The teachers were all tiptoes around me that day, the day everyone found out. They'd seen us kissing in the hallway, by the lockers, years before. Twice we'd been caught after school, in the health classroom with the lights off. They remembered. But they didn't know. They didn't know how James Ho's touch could nearly tip me off the edge of my red brain. That if it hadn't been him, it would've been someone else. I was glad he was dead, and they didn't know that either. When Mr. Schwartz, the math teacher, stopped me on my way out of the cafeteria to ask if I was okay, I said "Yes Mr. Schwartz, I am absolutely fine." I walked away and left him in the wake of my relief.

James Ho had swallowed a bottle of pills, died the cowardly way. He washed them down with a Diet Coke and slept my secrets away.

Erika looks nothing like my daughter would have looked. She's brown and her eyes are big spoonfuls of innocence, not the confused slant my daughter would have had. When I take her back home, she flings herself into her mother's big arms, and says "Mami, Mami." But this look of alarm takes over her face as I turn to walk out the door, and she runs back to me, jumps in my arms, says, "Lanie, don't go away." And for the first time in years, since James Ho died, I hate him not for what he gave me, but for what he took away. I carry Erika back to her mami and drop her gently in her lap. When they look up at me right before I leave, I see their faces turn identical the moment that they smile. James Ho's face was the only memory of my daughter, the only image.

I close myself into the long, dim hallway and walk towards the stairwell, slipping my hands into my pockets. My feet are heavy as my blood had stopped circulating and collected at my lowest points. But then I feel the tooth nestled in pocket lint, the sharp, hollow end pressing into my fingertip. I pinch it between my finger and thumb, this small, disposable child-bone. I rub the tooth like a charm; I can't help thinking that if I plant it somewhere, something will grow.