I know how to become small.
It was a surprisingly easy skill to learn.
It never mattered what I’d done wrong. One time I accidentally hung up on two people, my friend and his friend, while on the phone and using call waiting for the first time.
Another time I walked home from school, just as I did every day. Not knowing that he’d left work early to pick me up.
The first pang of dread is my cue. Thorny vines of panic that snake their way up from my gut because I made a mistake.
Because I didn’t know what to expect or how bad it would be.
Because I knew if it got bad, my mother would intervene.
I remained rooted in place while she tried to redirect him. To earn the brunt of his anger for me. For her kids.
While I became small.
I feel my face slacken. Wiped of any expression. I feel myself retreat behind my eyes. The eyes show everything. I know because he’d scream at me of what he saw there sometimes. Emotions I couldn’t label. Plots I never thought to devise. But he swore he saw them.
In my mind, I back away slowly. Whatever there is of me inside my body – my personality, my soul – slinks into a corner. Soundlessly. As if even that he’ll hear.
On almost every block, in every city, is that house. The one that hasn’t yet fallen into total disrepair, but is rumored to be abandoned. You walk by and see a faint flutter of curtains. The echo of someone who had been standing there, watching the world go by, and retreated into the darkness, startled.
I’m the echo behind my own eyes.
Once my face and eyes are deadened, I find a spot on which to focus. It’s always down. I don’t turn my head down, because any movement draws attention. Just my eyes cast downward.
In the throes of childbirth, they advise women to find a spot on which to focus. I found it impossible. Hurricane-force emotions blow through you. Pain and elation and the noise and the encouragement. All the worry. I could never keep my eyes on just one spot in the midst of all that.
But when I’m becoming small, I can stare for hours. An earthquake couldn’t pull my eyes away. I can be grabbed and shaken, pushed or pulled, slapped and berated. My eyes won’t move.
I’ve tested that assertion.
Downcast and focused. To keep it from getting worse.
Rivers of tears can pool in my lower eye lids without breaching the banks. I watch from where I’ve retreated inside myself. They shimmer, as if silver fish flash beneath the surface of the water on a sunny day. Despite the darkness from which I watch. It’s beautiful and distracting, sucking up all my nervous energy and soothing it with the gentle rhythm of its ebb and flow.
I focus on the way the tears make the world around me waver. They become a shield and every nerve, every cell in my body, becomes tense with the force it takes to control them.
It’s a magic act. You still see me, but I promise you . . . I’m not there.
I became small.
The fear I face now is that I’ll disappear.