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“I don’t know how to get older,” Sylvia said. “I’ve never done it before.” She linked her fingers crookedly in her lap.

“Oh, you’ll manage,” the doctor said in a hearty voice, “we all do, don’t we?”

Not really, Sylvia thought, but she smiled. Best to keep on good terms with the doctor.

“I’m an old crock,” said Sylvia.

“No, no,” the woman soothed. “You’re a lovely antique. A little fragile, but very beautiful. With proper care, you can be good for years.”

Sylvia nodded. She didn’t feel like debating. One hand fluttered to her throat, resting against the folds of worn, velvety skin pooled at its base.

The years were jumbled untidily in her head, a tangle of movement and colour, like a circus. Something was hidden there. It peeked from behind the lumbering animals, the clownish makeup smelling of grease and sweat, the flimsy spangled costumes of the dancers.

Sylvia squeezed her eyes shut. A circus. No, that was the wrong image. Too whimsical. So much of life didn’t belong in a circus. She’d heard on the radio just the other day that men had used a small dog as a football. They’d simply kicked it and kicked it until it died. That reminded her of what a friend had told her: in the camps during the war, guards had done the same with Jewish babies.

“Would you like jello for dessert?” the woman said.

“Please,” said Sylvia.

The woman brought jello in a small glass bowl. Sylvia scooped up a shiny cube. She’d always liked jello more than puddings. Puddings were dull, opaque. Jello glistened like sapphires, emeralds, rubies. As a child, she’d eaten her jello in a special way, holding a chunk inside her mouth until it melted, pulling out the spoon to observe her work, then drinking the bright liquid down like soup. Her mother would wrinkle her nose. “Don’t do that, dear,” she’d say. “It’s disgusting.” Now, seeing it afresh, Sylvia agreed. It was disgusting. She wondered why small Sylvia had enjoyed it. She struggled to remember, then relented. I don’t understand my life, Sylvia thought. Bernie was staring at her, cupping his ear as if she’d murmured something. She must have spoken aloud. Sylvia patted his hand and shook her head.

Maybe Joel would visit, her only child. The bright spurt of her gladness quickly faded. She wasn’t certain she’d been right to have a child. Even now, her wondering came between them, something she’d never say, couldn’t confess. No matter how tight she pressed Joel to her chest, there was always that doubt, a narrow, unbridgeable moat. A sadness.

Sylvia’s parents had been sad. That was the family secret. Not alcohol or abuse. Just sadness. But sadness was bad enough. Even after she’d left home, sadness clung. Sylvia had covered it with all the camouflage that life provided. But now, here it was, naked and exposed, just when she felt least equipped to fight it.

“I’ve failed,” she said to the woman, “I’ve tried but I’ve failed. I can’t think of a single thing I’ve done, a single thing of my own.”

The woman never understood when she talked like that.

“Don’t be silly,” the woman said, “you have your son.”

Sylvia smiled, as if that answer reassured her.

“They’re showing films tonight,” the woman said.

Sylvia dozed. The circus was in town. She was wearing her favourite dress, pale blue cotton with pink and yellow smocking on the bodice. Too small, her mother said, but Sylvia couldn’t bear to give it away. She was running, breathless, whirling round the ring. Her patent leather shoes kicked up sawdust that glittered like tiny sequins in the light. Look at that odd child, people were saying. I was odd, Sylvia thought. She remembered that she hadn’t liked being held. She’d fled her parents’ arms as if they were blistering hot, as if she was afraid of their emotion.

Now the ringmaster was letting her pet the lions. As she stroked their heavy pelts, they melted into a golden lake of jello.

“An Unsolved Life” was published in Emrys Journal.


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