Folded Sky

Near the end of the three-hour drive, the car packed to bursting with clothes and Ikea shelves and collapsible laundry hampers and extra towels and chargers and everything else a freshman in college could possibly need, we stop in Milford, Connecticut. We get sandwiches at a Subway. It’s just my mother and me.

The bridge is down the street, under the arching branches of two trees. It’s sandy light stone, a bit narrow for the truck that now barrels down the road toward it. We walk to it holding our sandwiches in brown paper bags. As the truck passes in a noisy haze, we stand on the side of the bridge and look down at the water. The sun is in our eyes.

Beneath the bridge, the water rolls towards the sea to the Milford harbor, where, three hundred and seventy-three years before, a ship brought my ancestors to the New World.

The thing is, I’m white. The paleness of my skin is the first thing you will notice about me, other than perhaps the fact that I am female. You may not notice it consciously; you may notice my water-blue eyes or my pale pink lips or my hair, which is just slightly too brown to be blonde and slightly too blonde to be brown. You may notice my generic suburban American accent, the way my lips curl comfortably around words like “bird-feeder” and “curtains.” You may notice the beauty mark on my right cheek. If, for some reason, you learn my full name, you may chuckle and nod that yes, this is the WASPiest combination of letters ever to grace a birth certificate.

Once we have talked, you may learn that I enjoy poetry; that I write in a journal every night; that I play no sports; that I sing soprano; that occasionally I smell old books in the library; that the most common allusions I make are to novels I read as a child. And, as you have just learned, I am descended from a line of Buckinghams that arrived in Connecticut in 1637. I am white white white. I possess, indubitably and regrettably, all privileges thereof.

How easy it is, to dress me in flowery skirts, and clip back my golden curls, and drape a light blue scarf around my neck. How easy to hear me play Chopin on the piano and quote Shakespeare to you. How easy to pretend that I am an exquisite product of the upper-middle-bourgeois, of children’s fiction and horseback-riding lessons and the daily routine of walking the family dog.

I think of her often, that other girl, the one who is all of these things. She would be so much easier to be. 

My piano lessons were in a small house at the end of a dusty lane, where cows walked across the road in front of our 4×4, where the sun baked down on the chickens in the yard, where a small snake sunned himself on the bricks. I read those books in the hot January sun to the quizzical hoo-HOO, hoo-HOO of the weaverbird outside my window, as he built the wicker nest that hung like a teardrop from a branch of a frangipani tree. I rode horses through a lion park. I did not walk my dog; I watched him run, his brown paws throwing up dust, his legs pounding furiously, around the square patch of struggling limp grass that was our yard in the dry season. His maddening circles curved just short of the white stucco wall that rose around the perimeter of the yard, with its calm, softly humming horizontal wires that traced the outline of my home against the water-blue of the African sky.

You did not notice this.

I am okay with that. I keep my sky folded up.

Why were you there? people ask, when they learn that I moved to Gaborone, Botswana, when I was ten.

My father is an HIV specialist, I say.

What was it like? people ask.

It was hot, I used to say, before I stopped telling people at all.

It’s not that I dreaded the Mean Girls references, ironic or not. (“If you’re from Africa, then why are you white?”) I didn’t want to be singled out. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to brag, if getting uprooted and planted in a desert is something to brag about.

What was it like? people ask.

Well. What I could say: There is no ketchup in Botswana; it is called tomato sauce and is much sweeter and tangier than ketchup. The word “potje” is pronounced “poy-kee” and refers to Afrikaner stew. Run barefoot because you’ll be faster, even if paper-thorns slide into the soles of your feet. The seventh Harry Potter book was stuck for 28 hours at the South African border. My dog was bred to kill lions. You don’t wear your swimsuit, you wear your swimming costume. The bubbles in soda are smaller. When your car’s fan belt breaks in the middle of Mozambique, you will be able to find a shop right down the road with an entire warehouse of different sizes of fan belts and a German-speaking proprietor. The images become blurrier and more fragmented as I try to tell you What It Was Like, try to unfold it for you: shouting “pula!” (rain!) and hearing the drum of the drops in the big plastic barrels as my brother and I collect the precious water for the plants. The horses at my riding stable who have no pasture, only open bush to graze, who kick up little puffs of dust with their hooves in the late afternoon sun, who always return to the stable at 3 p.m., no matter how far they have wandered. The white tiles of our house, cool under my feet. The blue uniform skirts; the silhouette of a giraffe; our dear housekeeper Janet picking up the phone and saying, in clipped English, “Hello, Fleming residence.”

The light beige blocks of the bridge are engraved with names. The founders of Milford, my mother reminds me as we walk up and down the bridge, glancing at the letters carved deep into the stone. The last time we were here was years ago, before we moved to Botswana; I would have been eight or nine. It was a period I remember more in smells than in events, when I was Lucy Hannah and inhaled the scent of Crayola markers and green carpets and crushed autumn leaves, when we were sorted into Puritans and Native Americans for the annual elementary school Thanksgiving celebration. I was assigned to be a Puritan. I wore my white construction-paper bonnet with pride.

We have almost reached the end of the bridge. Finally, we find it: a square stone, the same sandy color as the others, with thomas buckingham  cut into the face. Underneath, in smaller, rounder lettering, and Hannah, his wife. 

Her name is folded into mine: Lucy Hannah Buckingham Fleming. When I would ask who she was, my mother would tell me the story of her sailing across the Atlantic, all those hundreds of years ago. I would imagine her in her long skirts, perhaps with a shawl, looking over the railing. The salty surf in her face. Her bonnet. The sun in her water-blue eyes as she saw a new land, a new home, taking form on the horizon.

What did she bring with her?

I missed the smell of moist dirt; I missed the seasons. I missed my grandparents and my friends. I missed Halloween and Thanksgiving. I missed feet and inches and miles. I missed the public library. I don’t remember being singled out in elementary school, yet at my primary school in Botswana I was asked to skip a grade, then two. I was hailed as a prodigy. I was confused. I just wanted to read. It was hard.

But it was so much harder to come back.

Every year, we were allowed to come back to New Jersey for three weeks. It was always in April. I would pack weeks in advance. What would I bring with me? I filled my suitcase – a huge blue duffel bag with rolling wheels – with my most colorful clothes, my favorite books, my journal, and about twelve kinds of pens and pencils.

On the big day, I always wore the same Hanna Anderssen pink-and-orange striped outfit, even when I started to outgrow it. It kept up the thrill during the nineteen-hour plane ride, the hours waiting in airports, the strange netherworld of landing in Cape Verde for an hour as they doused the aisles of the plane with antibacterial spray. In my journal, leaning against the backseat tray of the airplane seat in front of me, I would carefully inscribe, “We are on the plane. THE plane.” I didn’t have to write more. It was THE plane.

The ritual concluded with take-off. Hands were placed carefully on the ends of the armrests. Legs must be uncrossed. As the plane accelerated, I would grip the armrests and stare straight ahead and smile and smiled and feel the symphony of vibration beneath me – until we were in the air, and nowhere, and everywhere, and, for nineteen hours, in two places at the same time.

When we arrived in America, I would breathe in the lush air and bask in my own culture and my grandmothers’ cooking and marvel at the green leaves everywhere. It was always in April. There were always tulips blooming in my grandmother’s yard. Every year, my friends from elementary school remembered me a little less, and for some reason malls nauseated me a little more. And after two and a half weeks, I would be ready to go back, to Fudge and my room and my sky.

I always enjoyed the hours in the airports the most. I thought it was because of all of the little stores, the order and organization of it all, the way everything in the airport had a certain place and everyone had somewhere to go – but really, it was because whichever direction we were flying, when we were in the airport we were always heading home.

My mother insists on taking a picture of me in front of the Hannah Buckingham stone, of course. Her little girl, heading off to college! She has me pose with it. A man in work clothes passes by and gives us a funny look; I shrink against the bridge in embarrassment. “Mo-om.” 

In the photo, my eyes are crinkled against the sun. I’m wearing my light grey Will Power Shakespeare t-shirt. Later today, someone will take a picture of me on Old Campus, and it will end up on the college website; my new friends will tease me about how I’m such a Shakespearean character, how I probably talk to myself in iambic pentameter. My hiking pre-orientation group, upon learning my four names, will address me as Lady Buckingham and assure me that I’m secretly an English princess. I will laugh, end up spraining my ankle, and play the part.

In the photo, one of my fingers is fiddling with the hem of my black athletic shorts. I remember when we bought them, at a little store in a strip mall in Gaborone, back when I ran track and came home with paper-thorns wedged delicately into my calloused feet. I was the fastest girl in Botswana in the under-12 age group. My nickname was Springbok, the little gazelle that runs and flicks its white-edged tail.

I look down at the rolling water below the bridge. The whole scene is ordinary enough – the green of the trees, the cars on the road. I look at our car, parked down the hill from the bridge, filled with my entire life.

We came back to America. For always, I liked to think. We packed everything up again, moved from the spacious tile-floored house at Plot 7062 Chalais Close back into our old, small house with the Japanese maple in front. I wouldn’t let my parents sell it, even though we lost money for each of the three years we rented it out. We couldn’t sell it. I wanted things to be just the same when we came back.

The enormous shipping crate arrived on a flatbed truck. Here was our couch, our rug, our piano. I designed an intricate plan for unpacking: we would put Post-Its all over the house, designating what objects were to go where. A great strategy! Everything would have a place. We would be fully settled in no time. It would be as if we had never left.

My family was not enthused. They did not use the Post-Its. There are boxes in the garage that we have never unpacked. Their labels have faded; we forget what is inside.

We brought Fudge, our dog; he now ran enthusiastic circles around the pachysandra and our old treehouse and sandbox. I learned that, indeed, few people from elementary school remembered Lucy Hannah. I learned that my mall-induced nausea had only worsened. I could not go into large department stores without getting a headache. I wondered if this was a real condition or just ex-expatriate pretention.

I learned to walk Fudge on a leash. Here he was, my African dog, trotting down the street where my grandparents lived, slobbering on green leaves.

One morning during my junior year of high school, while my mother walked him, Fudge lunged at a woman and bit her. He was bred to kill lions. The afternoon before he was put down, I lay on my carpet with my toes brushing his golden fur and read the Harry Potter book that had been stuck for 28 hours at the South African border. The next day he was gone. It was as if we had never left.

He was not made for North America. I worried that I wasn’t, either.

I thought about the other girl, the one who probably clipped her toenails like I never did, who had lived in Princeton her whole life and kept all her friends and wasn’t socially awkward. I decided to try her out. For all of high school I worked on her extraversion, smiled and laughed and was president and editor-in-chief and director and star and leader. Lucy Fleming, people nodded. Lucy Fleming, genius child, goddess, queen of the school. I looked at her and ogled.

How do you do it? freshmen asked me.

Well. I could say: By leaving something behind.

We trail our hands along the sandy stones of the bridge, my mother and I, and we get back into our car full of my life, and we drive through downtown Milford, past the house where Thomas and Hannah lived. It sits on a quiet green lawn, a red house with peeling paint and a crumbling brick retaining wall in front that struggles to hold up the curve of the hill. I wonder if it was red when Hannah lived there.

Did she think often of England, of going home? It was there that she had sewn her trousseau, all of the sheets and pillowcases with the tiny HB embroidered with careful stitches in the corners, perhaps in blue thread. It was there that she was born, where she played as a girl with dolls, where she met Thomas and married him. It was there that she packed all of those linens into the trunks or suitcases and brought them here across the ocean, where there was no house until Thomas built one.

But it was here, here, that she sat, on these wooden steps, making careful stitches on a baby’s blanket, the fabric nestled in the gentle swell of her belly. A gift from the New World. Did the baby have water-blue eyes?

We look at the red house for a few minutes, and then we drive away from Milford in our car full of objects, and we drive towards the college where I will spend the next moment of my life.

It’s the way I say “zebra” to rhyme with “Deborah.” It’s running barefoot across the tiles of the courtyard because my feet will carry me and I don’t care if you want me to wear shoes. It’s brushing back the blonde frizz and flyaways that frame my face when it is dry; gripping the armrests on the plane and taking a deep breath. It’s wearing my faded blue uniform skirt to lecture. It still fits! It’s feeling the tiny thrill that runs up my neck when you call me Lucy Hannah – and, for a long second, she is here, the little girl from elementary school with her braids and construction paper, and she is here, the woman I have never met, who stood alone on this bridge and looked at the water as it rolled towards the home she would never see again.  It’s crinkling my eyes when you tell me that they are the color of water, the water-blue that they have always been, no matter where I am. I have folded all of it up, warm and cool and blue as the African evening just as the sun sets, when the air hangs in time and the weaverbird is ready to sleep, and we sit out by the pool and watch the stars. This is my sky, the little corners that peek out.

Eventually, the car is empty and my room in college is full of boxes, and I hug my mother for a long time, and she drives away, and I open the boxes, and put every object in its new place.

It is here, among the objects, that I sit writing this now. My favorite books are lined on the armoire next to my bed; blue journals, books of poetry, a model of the Globe theater; piano music and scripts for plays and a blue hat with little tassels on the sides that becomes almost a part of my head during the winter. But it’s April now; it’s the month of warm air and airports.

Many postcards adorn the walls of my little room. Sprinkled through my journal entries: “We are on the plane.” The plane to London, to Argentina, to Nantucket, Barcelona, Paris, Oxford, Morocco, Sicily. Places where I’ve escaped the mall-induced nausea, perhaps. Sometimes, in my entries, I add in “THE plane.” But it is a joke. These planes are not THE plane. There is no THE plane anymore. Sometimes, as we accelerate, I cross my legs.

Under my bed is the blue duffel bag. If I fold them carefully enough, I can fit all of my clothes into it; I can tuck every postcard and photograph and journal inside. But for now the blue duffel bag waits with the dust bunnies under the bed, behind the shelves, where I cannot reach it and cannot be tempted. Because I do love packing; I love wrapping and stuffing and fitting everything in. I love knowing I will leave nothing behind. I love choosing what to bring, folding it all up, using all of the pockets and zippers and secret compartments, and zipping it closed.

What was it like?

What I long to say:

When you are sitting on the roof of a Jeep 4×4, cuddled up in sleeping bags because it is 5 a.m., you always wonder why you are there, because it is freezing and the bush all around you is perfectly still, and all you can hear is the thrum of the Jeep’s motor beneath you, and the push of its treaded tires against the sand on the narrow bush road, and the sky is dark still, the most shadowy blue, but with stars, thousands of them, silent. It is so cold, and so early.

Two pinpricks of light, stark – and then the rustle, and they are gone, leaving only faint impressions in the sand.

The chilly wind as the Jeep picks up speed, through the bush, away from camp, out to the pans.   They stretch out in every direction from here. Long flat beaches of white, with no waves. The tracks of impala that you can barely see in the slowly lightening day; the faintest touch of heat on the cold breeze, hearkening to the beating sun that will come; small tufts of grass that become less and less frequent. The Jeep becomes small against the pan. You are on the wind only, traveling in a great circle around the sand that lies untouched.

I have told this to only one person. And now, you.

Yesterday it rained, and my sky unfurled in a whoosh, as the word “pula” escaped my mouth before I thought rain, before I thought warm rain or even spring. “Pula,” I said to myself as I walked fast between two Gothic buildings, carrying my books, my blonde-brown hair hanging in loose curls down my back, hearing the plops of water droplets on my backpack and under my feet.  It’s a secret. I do not try to claim the pans or the kudu or even the empty cans of Iron Brew that skittle down the side of the road near Kgale Hill.

I was a visitor there. Now I am a visitor here. I am a quiet one.

I’m white. I do like wearing flowery skirts sometimes, but not always. I do like poetry; I like words; I like order. I like everything to have a place. You notice this; you notice my laughter, my singing perhaps; you notice my skin and my pen and my notebook, the way I know lines from Shakespeare and smell old books and love windows. But I love sand, too, and warthogs, and I have climbed a baobab tree, and I seldom clip my toenails because my feet can take care of themselves. And sometimes I think about the ship on which Hannah sailed, the home that she left and the home that she made, and it makes me sad, because a year after she arrived in America, she died in childbirth.

You don’t notice this.

I’m okay with that. I keep my sky folded up. I save it for rainy days.