We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
When Lyla was ten, she had 32 teeth. She washed her hair with a special coconut oil and slept in a closet. Each night, waiting for sleep, she touched one wall with the crown of her head and the opposite wall with the flats of her heels and pretended she was holding the two walls apart. Her sisters giggled in their room. They dangled pants and panties from their windows, hooting in high wheezy voices when boys stopped on the street below. Lyla’s mother ran outside, shooing callers off with hairbrushes, plungers, bread knives. Her sisters dropped their panties onto the tops of trees. Girl fights followed; her mother, shrieking; her sisters, violent with their fists. In her closet, Lyla pressed her fingertips against her eyelids until she saw blue, then tapped every tooth with the tip of her tongue.
Before he went to work each night, her father knelt by her door and pressed play on a tape he’d made of his laughter. He laughed at a joke she’d told him about convertibles, and then at another she’d told him about fruit. If she could be any fruit, she’d be a lychee because she was so sweet, and if she could be a car, she’d be a bright red convertible because this was the kind that everybody wanted. Her father laughed like a man you could trust with your life. His breath grabbed in his throat and hissed, but when air found his lungs, low rolling hollers bellowed out of his mouth and out of the tape deck’s circular speakers.
When the tape was over, Lyla opened the closet door and pressed rewind. If she could go back to any age, she would go back to being ten.
• • •
Lyla grew three inches. Everything changed. She moved out of the closet, into the hall. Her sisters tripped over her legs when they stumbled out of the bathroom. When Lyla sucked on the corner of her pillow, she prayed no one would see her and scold her for gross habits she should have outgrown. Her tape deck was stolen. Her father sleepwalked into walls. Lyla danced on air and, in the morning, found herself on the kitchen floor or coiled into a pretzel in her mother’s garden. Some mornings, she woke up with a prize in her hand. A sweaty piece of candy. Or a seed, which she recognized from home-school as the kind that grew guava plants with sun and soil and water. One morning she woke up on Coconut Coast, without knowing how she’d gotten to the other side of Kauai.
• • •
On her eleventh birthday, her father bought her a convertible. The car had platinum rims and silver spokes. Red-colored paint appeared to melt off its fenders. Diamonds studded the black leather steering wheel, catching the glimmer of the sun’s rays on the clear blue ocean. Some days, though, Lyla refused to touch them, wore white gloves, took long naps, walked to Fat Man’s Cave and hid in the damp cool craters instead of climbing the hill to the marijuana fields, where her father parked the car beneath a tree split in thirds by lightning. Most days, Lyla pretended she didn’t hear her father calling, and he sent a driver to pick her up. The driver, Kirby, was as skinny and shy as she was. “Yes, Ma’am,” and “Certainly, Miss,” he said, blowing smoke out of the corners of his mouth. His smoke caught in the wind, and Lyla snapped a neck muscle turning her head to watch it disappear. Kirby let her play her music on his tape deck, Prince’s Purple Rain, and he drove by volcanoes without joking about fire or asphyxiation or burns. He didn’t look up her skirt when the wind pinned its hem against her chest. Maybe he only loved boys, or no one at all. She fell asleep in the warm back seat.
• • •
In Kauai if you were pretty and special and tall enough to reach the gas and brake, you could get your license early if your father bought you a car. You could drive only dirt roads, and only at night, and you couldn’t tell your sisters who, according to law, had to wait until fifteen for a license, fourteen for a practice permit. Off roads and in fields, she’d mastered swerving, speeding, maneuvering in reverse. On the day her father told her she got her license, she touched her nose to the salt-stained passenger door and licked the aluminum handle to forget the sickening taste of red. Red of a fist clutching the shift, the red flush of his cheeks. Red had a hot taste that hurt. It made bile rise in the back of her throat, and she squeezed her eyelids shut and then opened them so she could stare into her father’s pores. Why her?
She chewed marijuana leaves as she waited for him to come back from where he stood spitting over the edge of the cliffs, watching his saliva vanish into the surf. When he returned, Lyla spat leaves into the grass, and the sun bled into the sky, purple-orange-pink, and they lay on the hood, again. The car had subwoofers and bass that thudded right through the core of you, swallowing all sounds.
• • •
When she was twelve, her father took her to Honolulu on the car ferry. They stayed in a hotel made of crystal chandeliers. Everything was breakable with a big enough stone: walls, mirrors, glass elevator. Lyla won a dancing crown making ribbons come to life like snakes. She kept hula hoops in motion. She threw balls in the air and caught them in the arches of her feet, above the swell of her belly, between her chin and chest. She ate healthy food and drank lots of bottled water. She did not smoke pot or PCP. She pinched her nose when her father lowered the convertible roof and, with closed eyes, called out movie star names, Malana, Sophia, Ivy.
“Break a leg,” he whispered backstage, sweet charcoal breath in her ear before she danced and disappeared behind the rising smoke and music.
She danced to save swimmers from sharks. She leapt into the air to be discovered and saved. She didn’t think about her mothers or sisters and imagined everything that ever mattered depended on the perfect execution of a single split or pivot. One night, she pounded her bare feet into the sand until parts of her she didn’t know could sweat were leaking small waterfalls from her body.
“Slow down,” her father said. “Everything comes early to you. What do you have left to wait for and accomplish?”
Except that month, her period was late. She missed it ferociously, even though it was such a pain and mess. She missed the way it had protected her for seven days and nights. It had come early, when she was ten, and her sisters had braided her hair in cornrows, and her mother had given her napkins to pack in the dirt when she was done.
• • •
Lyla floated above her life where no one could touch her. She became the ozone, which was thin, invisible, and full of holes too. She watched herself grow bigger. She threw-up. Her father snuck out for bread and nuts and never came back, and she spent her first night alone, then a second. A man, starved like a skeleton, tried to steal her purse and keys. She pulled out a knife; her strength and hunger, electrifying. After chasing him, she was ravenous and stole coconuts from trees. She cracked them open. She drank their milk. One day, she crawled to a wind farm and pushed out a baby, as still and blue and breath-stealing as anything she’d ever seen.
• • •
Now, she tells strangers stories, babbling like an infant who has just discovered speech.
She had seventeen children and two of them died.
Or she didn’t bother with babies because the man who loved her couldn’t share her.
Once, she tells a surfer, she won a hula title in Honolulu. Another time, she tells a sunbather, she drove a convertible to the edge of a cliff. Because is a lie really a lie if itought to have been true?
One day her father broke laws and speed limits to race her to the hospital and save her baby and get her help. But he never abandoned her beneath the great white turbines, where the wind was ground to pieces, where birds fell from the sky.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
As Roe is struck down by the Supreme Court, we bring together recent and archival essays to assess what is at stake—and how we might move from reproductive rights to reproductive justice.
Theorist Hil Malatino offers a compelling account of the persistent bad feelings with which trans people often struggle—but it comes with fashionable academic hang-ups that need to be reconsidered.
The systems that harm animals go hand in hand with systems that harm humans. Combating them requires inter-species solidarity.