sweater

She’s a beautiful girl. Red sweater, white shoes, cherub cheeks. Unsmiling eyes. The first time I saw her, I wondered if what George and Nina had said about her was true. That she’d been found on a nameless sidewalk in a blind city, swaddled in red and scraping her tender hands on the rough fibers of the basket she’d been placed in. Her name had been written on a small tag attached to a button on her sweater. A name, not a price. I find all of it easy to believe except the part about the tag — not in the sense that I think her adoptive parents were mistaken, but rather, that it’s hard to accept. People don’t abandon things with price tags on them, but names are apparently expendable.

Red is an auspicious color, and she wears it better than all the children I’ve seen in my years of working at this agency. Red, the color of blessing, the color of blood. The color of festivity, the color of rage. The tint of her unsmiling eyes in photos taken with cheap cameras by her orphanage.

She sits still on the other side of the room, content with her toys. I’m holding a book, but my eyes aren’t in the text; they’re over the edge of the cover, watching her. She fidgets, puzzled by the keyboard that’s just about run out of battery. The notes that come out are stale under her fingers and even at her young age she knows there’s something wrong with that melody. One, she’s realized that pressing one key shouldn’t lead to a whole five seconds of song. Two, it’s a song she likes but not at the moment, because it’s out of tune.

She’s very much loved, as is expected for someone who wears red so well. I’ve always told George and Nina that children don’t need pity-tainted love; they need unconditional love (doesn’t everyone?). But it’s hard for them, just as it’s hard for me, watching her from this side of the room, knowing she prefers to be alone. Nina’s heart hurts much more mine, because she has to watch this every day. Her lovely daughter, her gift ten months and ten thousand dollars and ten thousand miles in the waiting, doesn’t smile and doesn’t like to be held. Knowing this is a fairly common condition is one thing; dealing with it like it’s a commonly accepted fact is another. Love is difficult. It’s not like her red sweater.

Somehow it makes her all the more beautiful. I hope it’s not the pity reflex speaking; pity shouldn’t shape beauty any more than it should shape love. I imagine her little hands on a real keyboard, one note per tone, infinite songs laid out before her, not the stagnant five-second melodies predestined for children. She clings to the toy, frowning now, her eyes still the same, picking at the black keys, perhaps thinking there is a secret to uncover that will unlock what she wants to hear. I think of how Nina picks at the corners of her notes whenever we speak, perhaps trying to uncover the secret passage to her daughter’s heart.

I set down my obsolete book as she finally moves on from the toy that should not exist. She looks around, knowing to avoid my gaze, but before she can cry I start to hum. My voice isn’t what it used to be, and it must sound too low to her at least with this melody. But it’s the closest thing to what she wants to hear, and my heart trembles when she closes her eyes, leaning her head against the side of the couch. Her unsmiling gaze disappears. I know her well enough to see that the red in her sweater is blessing and happiness. There’s a smile hidden in her hands, and I promise silently that I will teach her how to paint it across a spectrum of keys.
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Ann Chou ‘09, a Social Studies and East Asian Studies graduate from Currier House, is the former Books and Arts editor of The Ichthus.

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