"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


Family Ties

Family Ties

Carla had pieces of the armchair stuck beneath her fingernails. She collected the tufts of white cotton in her thumb and tried to stuff them back into the seam she had picked apart. It reminded her of the time she accidentally knocked over her mother’s pill bottle and had to swallow a few because the tiny blue discs didn’t fit in the way they had before. Her legs were sore from so many hours spent folded into the chair, but she couldn’t leave now. Every time Carla heard a sound echo through the drafty house she perked up and craned her neck to look towards the front door. But there was nothing outside.

“Would you quit fidgeting like that? God you’re so jittery it’s like you were born with coffee in your veins.” Carla’s mother was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and flicking through the real estate section of the Sunday Times. “What are you even waiting for?”

“Nothing,” Carla lied. 

“Well as long as you’re waiting for nothing, do your chores. The dining room carpet needs vacuuming and the trash wasn’t taken out last night. Also your room is a swamp.”

Carla thought that a bit harsh. She had been to a swamp once, last year on a school field trip, and it looked nothing like her room. The swamp was much bigger, filled with sloping trees and moss-covered rocks and green striped frogs that Billy Gardner kept trying to stomp on. The swamp also had natural lighting, whereas her room was a refurbished closet with no windows and a few glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars that kept falling down. 

Begrudgingly, Carla abandoned her chair and trudged down the hall to her bedroom. She pushed open the door to find her older sister Kayla sitting cross-legged on the bottom bunk, painting her nails red. Kayla’s eyes narrowed when she saw who was standing in the frame. 

“You better not bump into anything and mess up my nails,” she warned.

Carla nodded silently and proceeded to gingerly tidy up the room, which was covered in discarded clothes and empty make-up remover bottles and a bloody tampon that had fallen out of the trash can. She bent over to pick up a crumpled blue t-shirt and also the participation trophy that she had received during a round robin softball tournament in the 4th grade. It was the first and only award she had ever won. She thought she should have placed higher since her mother was sleeping with the coach at the time. But Carla hadn’t scored any runs and had accidentally chucked a bat at someone’s face, so participation was pretty good, considering. 

Carla lifted a pair of pink underwear off the floor with pinched fingers and waved it in her sister’s face.

“What is this?” she asked.

“What do you mean, it’s underwear dumbass.”

“Yeah but it looks so weird. Where’s the back half?” Carla scanned the area around her, as if she had forgotten to pick up the rest of the fabric. 

“It’s called a thong. It’s supposed to have a string in the back.”

“Doesn’t look to comfy. Why do you wear it?”

“Because.” Kayla began painting her right pinky. 

“Because isn’t an answer!”

“Because I’m older, that’s why. Now leave me alone.”

Carla threw the remaining clothes in the hamper and scurried back towards the front door of the house. She poked her fingers through the mail slot and pushed apart the metal hinges to peer outside. Still nothing. 

“Did you clean your room?” Carla jumped up at the sound of her mother’s voice.

“Yes,” she called back.

“And the carpet?”

“Not yet,” Carla replied. She walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table.

Her mother sighed and took deep drag from a cigarette. Carla plugged her nose and clamped down her lips because she knew it was rude to cough while others were smoking.

She had tried a cigarette once behind the gymnasium with some older boys from the high school. It burned her lungs and her throat and her eyes and all she wanted to do was throw it on the ground and crush it with her heel but that would be lame, so she smiled and passed it on to the next person. 

Her mother rubbed her temples with palms of her hands, keeping the cigarette balanced perfectly between her long acrylic nails.

“We’re moving again.”

“What?!” Carla cried. It hadn’t even been six months.

“Yeah I don’t like it either but we don’t have a choice. No child support, no rent.”

“But I like school. Please Mom, it’s not fair!”

“Life isn’t fair. Quit whining like a baby, you’re not a baby. It’s time you grew up and realized that the real world is full of crappy people doing crappy things for crappy reasons, and you just have to put up with it until you die. Or win the lottery. Whichever comes first.”

Carla began to protest, thinking about the boxes she would have to pack and excuses she would have to make and fresh friendships she would have to end. But suddenly she heard the mail slot creak open and any words of objection died on her lips. 

“I’ll get it!” Carla scrambled out of her chair and barreled down the front hall, stopping at the door and eagerly rifling through the newly delivered letters. There it was. A thin white envelope with her name on it and no return address. 

Only seven weeks ago she had purchased a DNA kit using all the money she had saved from babysitting her teacher’s pet hamster, Hamlet. The furry pest bit her twice and the house smelled like moldy cheese, but in the end she earned a crisp fifty-dollar-bill which was enough to send away for a home lab. She felt silly swishing around and spitting saliva into a cup, but that was the price to pay for knowledge.

Maybe I’m part Norwegian! I’ve always wanted to go to Norway, she thought. Or Canada. Or anywhere that isn’t the state of Georgia. Perhaps she would discover some long-lost relatives living in a mid-century mansion up in Newport. She could spend her summers vacationing by the beach and eating petit fours served on silver platters. Or maybe she had been switched at birth and was secretly the daughter of a benevolent oil magnate. Better than her real father, who was last seen five years ago passed out at a child’s birthday party, this shiny new father would scoop her up in his sturdy arms and take her to a home with hot water and windows in every room. “It was all a test,” he’d say while stroking her hair, “to make sure you were pure and good. And now that you’ve proven yourself, I’ll take you far far away.”

Carla squeezed her eyes shut and prayed to all the gods she could think of, including the Greek ones for good measure. In one motion she ripped open the envelope and unwrapped the letter.

98% Italian, 2% Unidentified.

She stared down at the stark black letters on the page, willing them to change. 

Her worst suspicions were confirmed. She was Italian, just like every other member of her family since the dawn of time. There was no hospital mix up, no exciting family secret to be drudged up from the past. She was who she was, and who she was wasn’t who she wanted to be. The unknown 2% held promise, but not much. Carla bit her lip so hard it bled. Tears streamed down her face and she let them. She felt in that moment the overwhelming sensation of defeat.

“Carla, is that the mail?” Her mother called out. “Bring it in. Oh, and don’t forget to vacuum. You know how angry I get when I have to repeat myself. Do it now, or you don’t get dinner.”

“Yes, mom,” Carla whispered. Dropping the letter into the trash can by the door, she walked back to the kitchen and began to clean. 


Lily Dolin is a Massachusetts native and recent graduate from New York University. Her work has been published in Spires Intercollegiate Literary Magazine, and Brio Literary Journal. She is currently working on her first novel. Instagram: @ldolin97

Cover photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

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