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It’s nearing 8am this morning, and everyone is safely out the door for the first day of school. As I do every year, as my mother did before me, I get up extra-early on this first day and head out to the yard, and sometimes the neighbor’s yard, to find flowers for the table. This morning I picked morning glories from my own backyard, and some weedy-looking plant that nevertheless has tropical leaves and lovely pale pink flowers. In the next door neighbor’s yard I broke off a few small low-lying branches from a flowering tree that drops its petals all over my car. I put them all loosely in a small tin bucket in the middle of the big round table, and then carefully set out the ruffle-edged plates, the matching saucers and delicate round cups of the First Day of School Dishes.
They have never been anything else to me. They have been on my breakfast table on the first day of school since I began kindergarten, and my daughters have eaten first-day-of-school breakfast on them since pre-school. The eldest moved away and on her own several years ago, now it is my 17 year-old, headed off into her last year of high school, and my 13 year-old, beginning her last year of middle-school. As the girls ate this morning – tomato and cheddar omelets and chilled mandarin oranges – our conversation about the dishes is the same one we’ve had since their respective first, first days of school. I begin by asking them if either of them can remember or guess how old the dishes are. This morning, the youngest one, H, offered, hopefully, “Fourteen?” whereupon the elder, S, told her that she was a) stupid and b) wrong, but refused to make her own guess. So I told them again about the dishes being a gift to my mother at her wedding, and that they were at that time extravagant, and are now at least 48 years old. And again, as they do every year, they pick up the little turquoise cups, and marvel at their thinness, their luminosity, their beaded handles. I tell them how my sister and I sat at breakfast tables and ate from these dishes, nervous just like they are (S interrupts to tell me she is not nervous at all, but I have H’s full attention) for the first day of school, feeling just like they do that this year, this year, will be the great one, the one where we are victorious, or popular, or simply the best at something. 

S finishes her tea (English breakfast with soy milk, this morning) and heads upstairs to finish getting ready, calling a “Thank you Mama” back to me as she goes. H looks at me with big eyes.
“You know exactly what it’s like,” she says. “I do want to be the best at something. And I think I am really going to be popular this year. Really.” I nodded, hoping to appear wise. “I think you can do it. I think this is your year,” I say. She thanks me for breakfast, too, and hugs me; she smells of Ivory soap. In a moment I hear her size 10 Vans half-stomp up the stairs after her sister.
I’m left sitting at the kitchen table alone with the First Day of School Dishes, remnants of omelet, discarded tea bags, toast crusts. And I want to tell my daughters so many more things. I want to tell S to suspend her cynicism if she can, try not to be in such a hurry to just-get-through this last year of school and take some time to feel the music that is inherent in every day, instead of rushing past it, pushing her way through to get to the other side. I want to tell H that I felt just like she does every school year of my life except the first, before I knew any better. And that it was never really my year, and it may never be hers, but that there are graces in every day and they can be enough.  But S wouldn’t be able to hear me through the rush and noise of seventeen-year-old blood rising and buzzing in her ears. It says, “Got to get out. Got to go do. Got to go be.” It’s louder than I can ever be. And the things I would tell H might make her more content to be who she is, if she could take them to heart, but it would cost her the dreams she carries with her, the hope in her heart, and even knowing it is likely that she will be continually hurt, that hope, as they say, is a thing with wings, and I don’t have the right to take that away.
I thought of telling all this to the First Day of School Dishes, so innocent in their strange, luminous, soft Paris-blue way. But they’ve been there for the long haul, and I suspect – no, I’m certain – that they already know. I washed them carefully, dried and put them back in their place where they will sit for another year, and wonder if they know, as I do, that it is likely only one set of them will see the kitchen table and the early morning sunlight come next fall, and several falls after, until my babies set the table with them for their babies, as my mother did for me.


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I lay in the damp dark, listening to him piss in the sink of the filthy bathroom. He didn’t run the water afterward, just pulled the chain on the single bulb and walked back to the bed where I lay, waiting.


It was raining and the window was open, second story, rotted windowsill, bed centered tight against it. He lay beside me, naked, his skin frosted by the light from the streetlamp. His skin was fine and soft, like his body, his face looking unfinished now and falsely kind in the half-dark. I moved to rise on one elbow and he pushed me back onto the rain-spotted mattress, hard, and mashed his mouth onto mine, one hand crushing my shoulder, working my mouth open, sucking my tongue hard, too hard, and throwing a thigh across mine. I did not resist, did not hesitate. I kissed back, if it was kissing, his mouth that tasted like cigarettes and like beer, but most of all, like mine.  I breathed his breath, locked my fingers in his thick hair, groaned deep in my throat as he scraped his teeth against my lips and sucked at my throat. And I waited to feel . . . something.


He had been my constant companion for nearly a year now, in spite of my husband, in spite of my children. He was funny and entertaining, but he was mainly bad, and everything my life was not. He was my dark side, and I was going to change him, or be owned by him, or something in between. He saw me where I had become invisible to my husband, my children, my other-life friends. I was going to have this life and my other, make a fool of the good man who loved me, all because I could not, would not walk away from him.


Pulling me now, onto my side against him, unhooking the bra over my full, soft breasts, tearing it away, and mouthing them roughly, squeezing them painfully in his hands, pulling at my nipples, biting them where they pressed between his fingers, nearly drawing blood. Now, I thought, surely now it will come – the grinding heat and throb I had labored over night after night, squeezing my thighs together as I stiffened and came, thinking of this man, this stained mattress, this soft brutality. Surely, now.


Unkempt nails scratched my skin where he dragged my panties down my hips, past my knees, and I moaned again, and writhed, as expected. He hooked his elbows beneath my knees and forced my thighs apart, spreading me. He must have expected me to be wet, but he said nothing, just began to lick me, long, slow strokes, his tongue flat and warm and slick, then worked his mouth faster against me. I lifted my hips toward him, made the sounds I should make, but there was nothing. Nothing! I wanted to push him away, grab my rain-damp, scattered clothes, fly down the worn, slanting stairs to the street and run until I couldn’t anymore.


But what I wanted more was to hit him in the face with my fists, not once or twice but until the skin on my knuckles split and his face ran red and unrecognizable with blood.


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