Everyone is frightened of loss. This is the lesson I learn from the teachers in my first year of school with their color codes and musical messages and locks on every visible door. Mrs. Walters kneels before me. I am three years old since yesterday, with long fingers already and one freckle on my right hand that helps me tell it apart from the other hand—the one that assists but doesn’t lead—the one that is bashful and not as bright.
“Which do you color with?” she wants to know, and I say “right” the way my mother says “you are right-handed,” and Mrs. Walters looks pleased to see how good I am at collecting the names for things. I hold them all, trembling, in a basket on a pulley system inside my brain, so when I am looking for a word, I tug the rope and draw the basket down; eagerly, I peer inside.
“We’re going to put the bracelet on your right hand to help you remember that it’s there.” I think of bracelet and then of jewels. Bracelets sleep in long boxes on beds made of cotton balls. I have seen them, asleep in my mother’s drawers. Now she clasps the cold metal around my wrist, so tight it makes a shape on my skin. “Never lose this,” Mrs. Walters commands. “If you’re ever lost, this bracelet will help you find your way home again.”
“Is it magic?” I ask.
“No, but it’s important.”
Once everyone has a bracelet, even the boys, Mrs. Walters gathers us in a circle for story time. But there is no book today, no drum-beat for accompaniment or tambourines for a rousing chorus. We sit cross-legged on our carpet squares and wait for the principal’s tall, shiny shoes to step to the front of the room.
“Good morning, everyone,” says Mrs. Ellis. She has red lips and black hair and wears a scarf at her neck that flops like a flower in wind. “Today we’re going to talk about strangers. Who here can tell me what a stranger is?”
No one offers a good enough definition because we are all playing with our bracelets or thinking about snack time or watching for the ducklings in the corner to poke their fuzzy yellow heads against the cage. “A stranger is someone you don’t know,” Mrs. Ellis explains. “We want to make sure all of you understand that it isn’t safe to talk to strangers, just like it isn’t safe to cross the street without holding someone’s hand.” So what do you do if there’s a street and a stranger and no other way to get across?
“Mrs. Walters has just given you each an ID bracelet. This is a way to help you remember who you are and where you live, in case you ever get separated from your family. It says your full name, your parents’ names, your street address, and your phone number. You can show it to a policeman or a crossing guard or a clerk at the store. Any of these people can help you if you are lost.” Mrs. Ellis smiles at us and laces her fingers together in front of her skirt. “Does anyone have any questions?”
I want to know if you have to know the policeman or the crossing guard or the clerk at the store. Aren’t they strangers, too, unless your mother has had them over to dinner? But when I pull down the basket to look inside, my words are jumbled like socks in the wash. I cannot find the ones that fit together.
“Mom?” I call from the back seat. “Who is a stranger?”
“Anyone you don’t know,” she replies, her voice clear and certain as a draw-string doll.
“But…isn’t everyone a stranger first?” There they are, at last, the words I have been searching for! I think of Jamie from class, her mother with the huge dark eyes—like the owl in my picture book. We didn’t know them at all until my mother struck up a conversation with Mrs. Karkonen in the hall. They traded numbers on scraps of paper, and now I was invited to Jamie’s house to play. Weren’t they strangers, too? Weren’t they?
At home, my mother piles warm laundry on the living room rug. “I have potatoes to peel,” she says, “so I need you to fold these for me.”
“Put like things together with other like things. All things of a kind: shirts, pants, underwear.” I watch her lift one towel and pair it with another. “See how they go together,” my mother says—“like they’re members of the same family.”
Now I sit on the floor and study my surroundings. I hold the new words like lemon drops behind my teeth, then turn them over slowly on my tongue: draperies, fireplace, mantle, settee. Words have flavors, I marvel, the way the candy I will not accept from strangers tastes sweet or tart or sometimes both at once. The clock chimes, but it is not a clock only—it’s a grandfather clock. I like the way words pile up on other words, the way they piggy-back. Not just a plant, but a jade plant. Not just a table, but a coffee table.
When my mother returns, she finds not much accomplished and me, reclining in the clothes, legs outstretched, inspecting the too-tight bracelet on my right-hand wrist.
“What are you doing?” she wants to know.
“This ID bracelet is pinching me.” I hold it out for her to loosen.
She kneels down in the clothes and carefully unclasps the bracelet. “Do you recognize your name?” she asks, pointing to the letters etched on the underside.
I nod. “And this is our address here. These numbers refer to this house.” Why are they numbers instead of words?Why don’t houses have names? “And this is your phone number, the one you memorized. Do you still know it by heart?”
I nod again. “What’s this word, at the bottom?”
“That says Lutheran,” she replies, clasping the bracelet again, this time so it dangles lightly with room to slip my thumb inside.
“It’s who we are,” my mother recites, her eyes unblinking like the draw-string doll who only says a few things but always like she means them. “It’s what we believe.”
“But how do you know I’m Lutheran?”
“Because we are,” she says, knees crackling as she stands. “And you are one of us.”
I fold the towels and stack them in a tall, terry-cloth column. I look for socks that seem to fit together and roll them up in balls. But the whole time my eyes are roving over that room—the landscape of spoons we never eat with, the cabinets we aren’t allowed to open. “Look, but don’t touch,” she tells me, or “That’s only for decoration,” or “Didn’t you hear what I said?” And I think about that stranger in the kitchen, the apron cinched at her waist, the certain way she moves. Who says I know her? Who says she knows me? I listen to my mother, humming show tunes as she strips the potatoes bald.
Julie Marie Wade is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010), Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), Postage Due: Poems and Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize, and When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014). She has received the Chicago Literary Award for Poetry, the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, the American Literary Review Nonfiction Prize, the Arts & Letters Nonfiction Prize, and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami and lives with her spouse, Angie Griffin, in Dania Beach.