The metal bars on the merry-go-round heat like curling irons. I sit criss-crossed at its center, the pupil of an eye. A boy I don’t know hops off a nearby bench, seizes a handle. Initially, I am grateful for his offer of propulsion.
His long, outsized feet lumber in the gravel. Clouds of dust spit out from his heels like exhaust. The peach knuckles of his fists go white. Trees and children and buildings blur in a singular landscape.
He squints, wrinkles his nose, shouts, “You look like your daddy shit on you,” over the grumble of the grinding wheel. “Why did he use you as toilet paper?”
My chest tightens. A burn crawls up my neck. The first time someone compared me to excrement, I searched my clothes and limbs for evidence. This time, I understand the meaning.
* * *
My daddy has a slanted smile. His bottom two front teeth peek out like glowing crescent moons. His five o’clock shadow sprouts in the middle of the afternoon. He is minty Colgate and Old Spice and Dove soap. When he reads an article in the dim light of our living room, his glasses hang low on his nose, his yellow highlighter squeaks left to right across the page.
Daddy once asked me to fix his coffee, two teaspoons of sugar, a pinch of milk. In the kitchen, I calibrated white crystals like a scientist, heaved a plastic carton on the counter. “How much milk?”
“Until the coffee is the same color as my skin,” he said.
I held my hand near the mouth of his favorite mug, poured a thin stream until it swirled and blended to a perfect match.
* * *
“I bet your daddy stinks just like you do,” the boy says, smirking.
* * *
When my eyes burn from diced onions, Daddy’s cheeks swell, expel hot breath like a dragon on a cotton handkerchief. The warmth permeates my lids when he presses it over my eyes. When my stomach aches, he kneads it in a rhythmic, clockwise motion. When kids say mean things, he tells me it’s because they’re jealous, though I don’t always believe it.
* * *
I swallow, find my voice. “Slow down. I want to get off.”
The boy cackles. “Just jump!”
He reads the fear in me, understands I’m trapped, that there’s no one I can call for help, no real consequences because he was just kidding and boys will be boys.
Besides, brown girl tears don’t count.
I scoot along the radius. My body leans in the rotations’ amplified force. At the lip, I manage to roll onto my Velcroed sneakers, squat, hang forward. Gravel obscures into a flattened sheet of gray, puddles encircle like a moat.
A series of images flood my mind: me, tumbling over the side, rolling underneath,
skull and spine snapping like crackling wood—
iron odor of blood—
the crescendo of a siren—
the boy’s testimony, I told her I’d slow down. She wouldn’t wait.
My eyes squeeze shut. I freeze the narrative; conjure, instead, the image of me on the sofa curled next to Daddy, our conjoined rise and fall with each breath, his soft whisper tickling my ear, Don’t be afraid.
I wake, release, launch. I am light, a balloon floating in the sky among puffs of clouds.
My hands plunge into a nest of sharp kernels, enclose in fists. I push off still, solid earth. Elbows, knees cut through wind, tear passed the monkey bars, over abandoned chalk boxes of hopscotch, under hoops with nets gnarled, knotted.
Run, until my skin is mine, and mine alone, again.