I. My shoes.
I didn’t realize how far my Mary Janes had taken me until they started to split at their soles. The once glossy-black toe box turned lusterless, the buckle bent upwards, and my frilly white socks that withstood multiple cycles in the washing machine still spotted with mud. The first time I wore them was in second grade while I sauntered down West Street with a crooked pinwheel clutched in my right hand. Mama would curse when I recounted how I had managed to successfully wander between a conglomeration of rundown condos and unkempt apartment buildings.
“Don’t go walkin’ down West Street for any longer than you need to get home.”
It didn’t take long to indulge myself in the terrain beyond my neighborhood. My knees would peel while I bent down to pick at the wildflowers that sprouted between the asphalt. There were no men outside the corner store to tell me that Shirley Temple had nothin’ on me and my Mary Janes or whistles that would fade into a cacophony of roaring engines. The decrepit apartment buildings were replaced by bungalows that didn’t have patches of lichen or mold creeping up their sides. The further I walked from West Street, the closer I was to the sprawl of suburbia where middle-aged men who wore aviator-style Ray-Bans and tan khaki pants paid my neighbors to mow their yards.
My Mary Janes taught me the banal beauty of our apartment building because even if my ebony was stained with dirt, we did our own yard work.
II. My clothes.
Papa would chastise me if he knew I left my nylon windbreaker wedged between the backseat seat of our Honda Accord. My brother and I weren’t the only ones whose parents made sure their necks and hands were swathed in scarves and gloves that rendered our hands immobile. To Mama, it didn’t matter if our corduroy pants that we had outgrown two years before left our bare ankles exposed, as long as our extremities were covered. And it seemed my neighbors felt similarly about their unhemmed baby-blue sweaters from elementary school. Girls who wore expensive, black puffer jackets would jeer at us for our high-waters and stretched seams that didn’t quite reach the end of our shoulders. Their gold-plated rings, white tennis shoes, and black Mercedes-Benz cars ensured that everyone knew they lived on the wayside of town.
I knew it was time to scour through Goodwill bins for a winter jacket when the car window turned opaque with frost and my lips started to bleed when I went outside. I couldn’t help noticing how those same girls who wore tawny bracelets stood next to Mama with her callused toes poking through the tips of her secondhand tan flats.
III. My favorite color.
My family knew we weren’t as opulent as burnt burgundy or bronze, but we were too bright for royal blues and purples. Mama said I was an orange girl when she noticed the mandarin peels stuck between my teeth. I told her it reminded me of the marigolds bordering our shanty that kept cabbage worms from crawling up the plywood. I even painted my bedroom apricot, a decision that any interior designer would detest. Orange was whimsical the same way my mother was when she danced to songs that played from jukeboxes in restaurants we couldn’t really afford. It was the inside of a ripe mango and my favorite citruses that we couldn’t find at our closest Walmart. Mama said it was the marmalade stains on my threadbare white T-shirt and pillows.
I realized I was orange because I could watch the sun’s burning majesty for free.
IV. My favorite time of day.
Mama told me to wring out our frayed washcloth and dry the dishes for supper. I watched as Papa hovered over the grill and waved the fumes into a billow of smoke that hung over his head. My siblings threw a bright-red kickball against our shanty, and a large bevy of mosquitos swarmed around Mama while she carried a pack of stale hamburger buns into the backyard. As the sun started to set, the silhouettes of the colonial-style homes just up the hill stretched out across the grass. We crowded around the communal picnic table that we shared with our neighbors. I rationed our food so no one would tell me their bellies were growling and Mama wouldn’t have to pretend she wasn’t hungry. We finished eating when it was too dark to see anyone chewing from across the table, and the suburbs were no longer visible on the horizon.
“Mama?” I asked.
“Yes, dear?” She continued to bustle around the table, picking up leftover trash my siblings had left behind.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” I looked up at the hill.
“Does what bother me?”
I motioned towards the house-shaped shadows that towered over our apartment building.
“They block the sun.”
Mama chuckled. “Not really. They might block the sunset, but that means we get a better view of the sunrise in the morning.”
I decided to wake up early and watch the sunrise with Mama. I told her that the skies looked like they dripped with golden honey—and anyway, I was a morning person.
Kaylin Maher is a junior at Rockville High School. She is a third-year member of the creative writing program and the co-editor of the Vernon Literary Arts Magazine. She has received multiple national and state recognitions for her poetry, fiction, and personal essays.