A Collection of Cells

Melissa Bowers

 

1994

Grandpa’s knees are stabby, and he doesn’t pull us onto them the way he did when Shayan and I were first born, when we were baby-babies, one twin straddling each leg like those guys who race horses, whatever they’re called. Jockeys, maybe. Identical jockeys. Even back then, Grandpa would tell us, Your similarities do not extend to your souls. In pictures—those super old ones that automatically popped out of the camera with a crackly white edge—Shayan is the laughing infant and I’m the one who looks concerned. Before either of us ever learned to speak, she would toddle away when Grandpa started in on one of his stories, but I would stay to listen to his voice. It sounded broken in spots, watery, shivering with every fifth word like he was trying not to cry.

Shayan is no more patient with him now that she is nine years old. Four minutes younger than you, plus a lifetime, Grandpa whispered to me once. One loose tooth and a loose cannon.

“We know this story, Grandpa,” she says, and when she rolls her eyes, I am embarrassed—for her, for him, for the history she always thinks is so pointless. “Come on. Your mother’s handmade moccasins, blah blah blah, how she spilled the tiny beads all over her packed-dirt floor and had to scrape each one up with her nails, oh and by the way, girls, you’re one-eighth Sioux.”

“I just thought we should talk about it again since you’re studying fractions,” he tries. “Aren’t you studying fractions?”

Shayan tosses me a look over her shoulder as she leaves the room. “Dakota wants to hear it,” she says, and as usual, she is right.

***

1998

“Now, my spine I hurt in the war,” Grandpa tells us over dinner. “Leapt from a moving tank just before they blew it up, and boy did I ever land wrong.”

Shayan mouths all the words along with him. I kick her under the table.

“They wouldn’t draft American Indians in the first World War. But if I’d been fighting age back then I would’ve enlisted anyway, you know I would. Thank God they included us in the second one.”

“You can’t call them that anymore, Grandpa,” Shayan says.

Grandpa takes a sharp breath. “What do you mean, ‘them’?”

Automatically, he reaches out to touch the terracotta platter: the one his mother made with her own hands, painted in strokes of chalk white and greasy yellow and light blue, with these beautiful, unidentifiable creatures scratched into the sides. It’s the centerpiece at every meal—every single meal, fancy or casual or holidays or Tuesdays—though I can’t remember a time we’ve been allowed to put actual food on it.

American Indians. You can’t say that. You’re supposed to say Native Americans now. Right, Dakota?”

“It’s us,” he says. “Not them.”

Shayan shrugs and stretches for the corn. “Whatever.”

“Dad. Your heart.” Mom leans across the table to pat his hand, already leathery and spotted with sun, the kind of skin you can stretch and pull and pinch and it will stay exactly how you mold it.

***

1999

Everyone starts to divide during freshman year. The jocks: wiry boys with preppy hair and letterman jackets who shove each other fondly in the hallway. The goths: misfits in spikes and chains and black winged eyeliner, wide-legged pants that could swallow you whole. The nerds: only some in glasses, none with actual pocket protectors, all of them smarter than you. The stoners, the band geeks, the theater kids, spiraling off into groups and pairs like cells splitting. Mitosis. Or is it meiosis? I should pay more attention in science, but I am too consumed by history. Ours. The world’s.

I have stage fright, so drama is out of the question. I don’t play an instrument. I’m not particularly coordinated. But I am searching for my identity just like everyone else, so I do the only thing that feels right: I buy faux suede moccasins at Mervyn’s and hang mini dream catchers from the zippers of my backpack. Occasionally, I gather my curls into a braid and tie strips of leather around the tail, exactly the way Great Grandma always did in portraits.

When a group of students starts a campaign to change our high school mascot, I make sure to attend the meetings. I protest at football games, paint signs that say REDSKIN IS A SLUR and NEW NAME NOW. Purpose swells in me at last like a rising tide, like the stories Grandpa says his mother used to tell him about the moon, even when a girl pours Gatorade in my hair and screams, “There’s a pro NFL team with the same mascot, dumbass! Ever heard of Washington?”

“Well, then, they should change it, too.” I wipe my forehead, dripping now, and sticky, with the back of one trembling hand.

Shayan comes up beside me. At first I think it’s so she can tell the other girl to go to hell. Instead, she leans in close to my ear and hisses, “You are embarrassing me.”

Before freshman year is over, we are the Livingston Lions.

***

2002

My sister hunches over her college applications, ballpoint pen clicking in, clicking out, clicking in. Click-click. Click-click. Papers spread everywhere.

I’ve already been accepted to Brown, early decision. It’s killing my parents—and Grandpa—that I have the audacity to move so far away. I’m a Midwestern girl, after all, Wisconsin born and bred, and I’ve got no business heading east, they say. Thankfully, at least one of us will have to stick around. It’s looking like community college for Shayan—or, if she’s lucky, maybe state university.

“Are we enrolled in a tribe?” she asks. Click-click. Click-click.

“Great Grandma was one hundred percent S—”

“But are we enrolled?” Her words are staccato and stabby as Grandpa’s knees. He will need a walker soon, or a cane, though he’s fighting it. “There’s, like, a scholarship for this kind of thing. How much do you need to be?”

“I don’t know. But it’s probably more than one-eighth.”

“Shit.”

I study her. “So now you’re interested in claiming our heritage?”

“Just because I don’t wear your…what do you call it?”

“Regalia.”

“—the regalia, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested.”

“It just seems kind of convenient, that’s all.”

She pushes her pen into my hand. “Your handwriting is so much nicer than mine. Pretty please, will you fill out this one little section for me?”

S-H-A-Y-A-N, I print as neatly as possible, and I resent that she gets to be the one whose name begins with S like Sioux.

***

2008

“When I die, I’d like you to have my mother’s platter.”

It is the most confident Grandpa’s sounded in a long time. He lost his license last month—not officially, just sneakily, when Mom slipped it out of his wallet and claimed it went missing—but he could tell his driving days were over. I suspect he understands, even though he still pretends to search for it every now and then.

He won’t find the license. I already did, deep in my parents’ closet beside a pair of shoes I wanted to borrow. She hadn’t hidden it very well. There it was, the last token of Grandpa’s freedom, face-up on a shelf: the strong set of his jaw, the defiant tilt of his chin, the dark eyes watery and warm. I’d tucked it into a pocket of my jeans. My mother never noticed it was gone.

Since I have already selected my keepsake in secret, when he offers me the platter, I blink with guilty confusion. “Me? What about Mom? Wouldn’t she be next in line?”

“It’s not a throne.” He shrugs. “It’s my platter, and I get to skip a generation if I want to.”

“Can we not talk about you dying?”

Grandpa gazes into a distant, invisible corner of the world, nods at something that doesn’t exist. Something. Someone. “She would be proud of you,” he says.

***

2009

At the funeral, the first thing I notice has nothing to do with the makeup caked along his jaw or the impossible stillness of his hands. I’m drawn to the black-and-white portrait on an easel beside his casket: Great Grandma with bare feet, surrounded by her children, all seven of the ones who lived. Now that I’m a little older, I can tell how much I resemble her—just me, not Shayan, who has dyed her hair blonde and chopped it into a confrontational, half-shaved pixie, and who’s become willowy and weak. I touch the portrait and then my thighs—sturdy, solid—and feel like I belong.

When I finally kneel over Grandpa’s body and pretend to pray, what I am actually doing is watching his chest, waiting for it to rise, trying not to blink. What if I miss it? What if he breathes and this is all a mistake and no one else notices? Somebody needs to pay attention. I will be the one.

The longer I stare, the more I’m sure there’s movement under his suit jacket. A suit jacket. Mom said no to the vest he requested, but yes to a drum at the cemetery; we leave the funeral home and drive to the burial site, all of us together, Shayan and me in the back seat as though we are children again, my parents in front and murmuring softly.

“When I go, just cremate me.” My mother’s voice. “Say a quick prayer and then scatter me wherever you want, okay? This whole process is torture.”

“Grandpa would hate to hear you say that,” I tell her.

“Well, I’m sorry. It is.”

“Not the torture part. The cremating part.”

In the long pause that follows, she doesn’t turn to face me. “I don’t know if I believe the way most Native Americans do,” she says at last. “About the body needing to break down and return to our Mother Earth. I think once your soul is gone, the body is just a shell.”

“You can’t call them Native Americans anymore,” Shayan says. “It’s Indigenous people now.”

Us, not them. And you’re wrong, Mom. The body is sacred.”

I speak for my grandfather because he can’t anymore.

The cemetery is awash with sun. Everything is cloudless. In this tragic time, there should be umbrellas and lightning and rain; instead, I peel off my sweat-soaked cardigan and Shayan fans the back of her neck with one hand. Grandpa’s plot is dry, but elsewhere sprinklers arc over the grass, spray the tombstones until they darken with wet, as if there is something to keep alive underneath.

***

2019

Shayan thinks saliva is disgusting. Even just the word saliva, the word alone, makes her hunch her shoulders and gag. And she’d wanted to be a pediatrician once—a pediatrician!—until Mom guided her gently toward the arts. Graphic design, which hardly ever involves bodily fluids. Mothers know their daughters.

My sister would never have done this: the spitting, the swabbing, the collecting. She doesn’t trust it, first of all. She says things like What are they really doing with that information? and Such a clever, clever ploy, Dakota, the way they’ve tricked you into giving them your DNA. I didn’t show her the tube before I sent it, filled with bubbles and cells and all the pieces of who I am. She would have puked right in my kitchen.

My hand shakes when I access my account—something I did not expect. Excitement, I tell myself. I am so much more than one-eighth. I know it. I have always known it. It is in my marrow. I might print the report and have it framed, and when I look at it, I will remember my grandfather, his mother, all the beautiful things that have shaped me into this person, this body, this self.

French & German.

British & Irish.

Iberian.

I scroll. Down and up and down again until the numbers blur. Log out. Log back in. Refresh. Refresh.

“What does it say?” Shayan asks in my ear, for what might be the second or fifth or nineteenth time. I don’t realize how tightly I’ve had the phone pressed against my cartilage until it triggers a headache. “Dakota?”

“It’s exactly what you’d expect,” I tell her, and my voice doesn’t sound like mine anymore.

“Read it.”

“I did.”

She sighs, and the shake in it reminds me of Grandpa’s voice. “I took one of those tests a little while ago. I started to tell you a million different times, but I knew what it would do to you—it was upsetting even for me.”

I hang up without speaking. Close my laptop. Stand motionless in my bare feet. After a moment, I go to the cabinet and retrieve Great Grandma’s platter, rub my fingertip over the edge, wait for the glaze to flake off beneath my skin. I turn on the faucet. The water runs and runs and runs into an empty sink while I weigh the clay in my hands, unable to decide if it should shatter or be scrubbed clean.

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Melissa Bowers is a former high school teacher who currently writes from California, though she will always be a Midwesterner at heart. She is the first-prize winner of The Writer magazine’s personal essay contest, and her work has appeared in Writer’s Digest, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, and others. Find her on Twitter @MelissaBowers_, or read more at http://www.melissabowers.com.