Mentor High School
Instructor: Kathleen Valentic
The air was cool against my skin. It smelled of grass and leaves; a freshness that was hard to come by - for me, at least.
I always sat in the old white chair laid out on my front patio. The sun felt good after months of cold and frost. It reminds me of how everything was before, a million years ago, when it was only just a year ago in reality.
The wind chimes jingled like glass bottle rattling in crates; a sweet sound, like the syrup of cola. I wait here every day for the mailman to come. It's like he recognizes me now, as the old woman on the patio, who smiles and waves at him as he leaves. The old woman who moseys to the mailbox right after she hears the motor of the mail truck, as fast as her feet can take her, to feel the cold letters in between her fingers before they've even warmed in the tin box. Before they made themselves comfortable in the darkness and the dust, lonely and quiet.
I don't mind. The mailman smiles when I do, tips down his hat, and goes about his rounds, thinking of the old lady sifting through envelopes.
When he comes by today - and when I hear the sound of the tires across the street, and the squeaking of the old rusty mail truck - I walk right up, not waiting until stops, with my touch just touching the edges of the dark asphalt.
He tips down his hat and smiles with his lips touching his cheeks, a greeting rolling off his lips. I say something back, without fully taking in his words, as he directly hands me a pile of multicolored, cold mail.
"There you go," he says, and then I give him my thanks, and he goes on his way. The mail truck chugs down the street like a train on a track.
I don't wait to get under the comfort of the shade or my chair. I just file through the colorful, bent papers in my hands. Some are glossy and thin - flyers and advertisements that mean no value to me. But others are thick and heavy, filled with printed conversations and twirly letters.
My eyes are accustomed to flipping through advertisements and bills. Before I know it, I was holding an envelope tinged slightly yellow, with a rougher texture than the others.
As rare as these come, the sight of those defined, handwritten letters on the back, addressed in my name, makes my heart throb in memory, and my throat beats with my heart. Everything else falls from my fingers. My eyes start to sting from joy as I rip it open, tugging out the piece of paper from inside.
My son always struggled with closing envelopes. And here he is, writing letters and tucking them into these envelope pockets as frequently as he could. Hiding his words and feelings between paper, and inking them into existence.
My hungry eyes devour each and every letter, syllable and sentence; lingering on each period and comma. He tells me where he is right now - so many miles away from me… thousands, even. I know there are few things he can tell me, but he says what he can, leaving the rest for me to hear. Across the world.
"I'll ask for leave when I can," he says in his rounded letters and pronounced lines. "I know it might not be soon, but I miss you, mom."
"I like it here. Everything here's going great, and I'm proud to say that I serve my country. But sometimes I just really get homesick."
My lips tug. I fold the letter in my hands, walking inside to put it in the small box of its numerous siblings that he's sent in the past. It's random, really, for when he'll be able to write back again. But when he does, I save them. I treasure them, like a piece of my heart.
They're dangerous roads, out there, wherever he is. Over the yonder, fighting. Battling. Sometimes, I don't even know why I let him go in the first place. Maybe it was that fierce determination set in his eyes, or the dreams I could see etched onto his face.
I don't know when I'll hear the news that is too heavy for me to bear the wait. It's a twist of fear and happiness, like bittersweet chocolate between my teeth.
For months, I wait in that old, weathered white chair in the front of the patio, waiting for the mailman to stop by.
He would tip down his hat, smile his sad smile, and say, "Nothing today. Sorry, ma'am."
And I would smile back, say that it was okay, and rest back in that chair.
It was a day of peak summer when I was still inside, staring at horror as the mailman came. His head stuck out of his square window, turning and looking in the direction of the empty white chair, looking for the old woman who was waiting for her mail. I stood there, paralyzed, staring at the floor. My face was hot with sweat, and I let the water I was pouring rest on the counter. I rubbed at my skin with a towel, hobbling toward the door, grabbing at the handle.
I was met by a bell.
It wasn't a sweet sound, like the windchimes on the patio, or the glass bottles of cola bumping into another. It was a low squawk of a buzz, and here I was, facing the door, noticing a car stationed just outside the driveway that hadn't been there a minute ago. I squinted through the peephole to see a young man standing in uniform.
I open the door, with joy, crying out and ready for an embrace.
But the features of recognition on my face melted away, and I realized that his nose was too hooked, and his traits too prominent. His expression is grim. He tells me to sit down.
There is no reason to sit down, I tell him, why are you here?
He insists, making sure I'm settled in my white patio chair before holding my hand tight. He hands me an envelope tinged in yellow, written over in blue ink, in handwriting that I recognize.
My heart throbs and my throat hurts. My limbs are no longer functional.
My son's letter is underneath my fingers. But my son is not.
The young man comforts me, but his string of words is just a noose that wraps around my neck, choking me. Taking away my breaths. It consoles me as a snake does with its prey, succumbing me to my death, suffocating me in a smothering lie of relief before pulling the final squeeze.
"No," I say.
"No, no, no, no, no, no."
It's wrong. It's all wrong. He has to realize this.
But what does he know? He's just a mailman, who has me a letter.
His last letter.
"I'm so, so sorry," he whispers.
"You're mistaken," I tell him, but it's barely audible. I open the letter.
In my child's perfect, round script, words that are left unfulfilled and unsaid; chokes that are stuck in my throat because it was all within reach, but now it was in ruin:
"I'm coming soon, mom."
I'm under attack.
The barriers of my mind are down, letting anything in them. The words, like swords, stab around them, weakening my base and making it more susceptible to outsiders. I can't let anything else in, I thought. I can't let anything else attack me like this.
As this carried on, my defenses kept on lowering. There's no way I can make them stronger now; it's too late. That's something I should've done a long time ago. I close my eyes and try to shut everything out. If my defenses aren't working, then at least my barriers, my walls, should. But still, the towers come crumbling down from major outside blows, making it easier and easier to get in.
As the days progressed, it only gets worse. Slipping in and out of my defenses, my fort, was easier for them. It kept coming, hitting, pushing, shoving, pulling, stabbing, until my walls were so worn and old that they could crumble. I was cracking. I was breaking.
I stared at the white carnation in my hand, twirling it between my fingers. The flowers were already soft and crumbly, browning just at the edges. I lay on the bed of my dorm, and my roommate still hasn't returned from today's festivities. The maroon pennant hanging from the wall featured the flower in my hand; a symbol. Something to be proud of. But the flower in my hand was frail - the stem was already broken. Snapped in half, lying limply in defeat. Another twirl, and a soft, milky petal falls into my lap.
It had a fragile beauty, but it radiated power. I have no idea how many carnations I've been handed in my life - at inductions and school award ceremonies. Carnations that are pinned to lapels and handed to students in suits and high heels as they're gifted ribbons, certificates, and plaques. They had a certain level of prestige to them. A prestige that gave me the feeling of fresh, polished black walnut wood, rimmed with gold. But this carnation that was given to me only a couple of hours ago was just passed out free as a memento of campus festivities. It was expected that everyone here already upheld the standard of the symbol, and for that reminder, the carnation was a congratulation.
I was not a carnation.
Everyone was still there. At the event. I couldn't bear the weight of their eyes anymore, and nor take the allegations running in their minds. The questions that they had that I couldn't answer. The unsaid words that I could hear passing between their lips, whispering in my ear. When I walk through the halls, I'm a tall red Rose among a bunch of white carnations. I'm one streak of fire swimming in milky moonlight.
I tell myself; I am an equal person.
But that small voice in my head says Lie.
The walls of my side of the dorm are mostly bare, but I think of those in my bedroom back home. It was a snug room; with my bed taking up most of the space. My achievements are lined up on those walls. There are pictures of me as a kid separating them, with my chubby cheeks to the family portraits. There was one newer addition to them - a framed certificate of scholarship. A full ride to Rosenhal University.
Maybe I am a carnation. Snapped with the weight of defeat; petals curled and compacted, and defenses crumbled.
I have no idea how hard I worked for that scholarship. Just for the admission, to fulfill my dreams, because I wouldn't be here without it. There would be no way to afford the tuition, the travel, and room and board. With almost all of this covered, I could take a breath of relief. Everything that I'd been working towards in my life led to this, and now it was complete, and I was content.
I wasn't only content. I was downright ecstatic; excited.
The rigor, the campus, the aura - everything here was like it was built for me. I could meet people that met my intellectual enthusiasm, and people that thought like me.
And then I fell.
Of everything I did in my life, it didn't prepare me for this. The one strength I had started to fail me. I had survived on my brain. But now my brain was being put to the test, and it was a test that in my mind I was failing. I had never in my life felt so small. Everything around me was so big - everyone around me was so big. People who came from extensive backgrounds and even larger money. They'd done so many great things in their pasts when they were so young, and in comparison I had nothing. I was the girl with the scholarship. But I was also the girl who wanted to disappear.
It hurts so bad.
It punctures, it blows, it punches. Crumbling down goes my walls and my strength; my confidence and my belief.
The carnation in my fingers doesn't do anything to succumb to it. My bricks of defense had fallen like its petals, and it wasn't doing anything to rebuild it. I heard the whispers that weren't there.
My hand-me-downs are so different from what everyone else has. They've got unique styles, and I've got whatever I've got. I don't have those fancy clothes or those new shoes. I feel like a sock puppet amidst pristine stuffed animals.
I squeeze the carnation's stem. It breaks like my mind's walls, oozing wet between my fingers.
Just as a shaky breath escapes my mouth, my phone buzzes on the nightstand beside my bed. It's a solemn sound, slightly. I stretch out my fingers, dropping the carnation next to my lamp, swiping on the blue-crowned screen.
"Hello? Rose?" asks a slightly muted voice.
I swallow my desolation. "Hi, Mom."
"Thought you might be out and about around campus right now."
The lie in my throat is sickly sweet. "I left something in my dorm. I was just about to go back."
Her sigh is audible, while slightly crackly. She asks about my roommate, Delilah - my one friend, who would be wondering how long it took to go back and grab a snack from our dorm. "She's fine," I say, "she's still there with everyone else."
"How's school?" Bad.
"School's good." It's really not.
"What's wrong, Rose?" Everything.
"Nothing. It's just… there's a lot of schoolwork…"
There's a pause.
"Do you remember our reason for naming you?" I've heard it a million times before. But my lips are sealed shut.
Right now, I didn't need to be told that I was perfect just the way I was. I didn't need anyone to tell me that I was smart or capable. That was just something that I'd been told for my entire life, and it was those words and those phrases that I hated the most. I don't need some random classmate or school counselor to tell me that.
But this is my mother.
She waits until I respond. A hoarse, "Yeah."
"Roses are gorgeous plants, Rose. One of my favorites. But they're also strong. They can live through all of it - the rain, the wind, and the snow. They have the strength within themselves. You're not going to let something break you. You're a rose, Rose, but what makes you strong is that you survive and thrive in an environment that isn't your own."
I can practically hear her smile when she says, "Don't forget to use your thorns, too. You don't need to be of the same nature to fit in. You decide when you blossom." She pauses. "Not them."
I smile, too.
When we bid farewell, I imagine bricks and mortar laid out before me, waiting for my first move. Materials for me to start and build. A trowel that wants me to pick it up. "Go out there," she says to me, and it's a tempting offer.
I look away from the phone, the shadows of a grin lingering on my face, as I look back at the carnation strewn across the tableside. I practically glow.
A chime from my phone makes me glance back at its screen. It's a text from Delilah.
Where are you?
As I shrug a coat over my shoulders - another hand-me-down from home - I look back at the carnation and its moonlit complexion. My eyes linger at its fallen petals and crushed stem, and I think, I'll never be the carnation that they wish that I was.
But I do know that I'll be the flushed red Rose, with the bright new barriers and defenses. While new and susceptible, thin and weak, I have the potential for growth, and to build further upon myself and my towers. I pick up the trowel and I put down the first brick. I vow to build.
And I hold my phone in my hands, close the door behind me, and type back to Delilah and to the rest of the world -