Growing up, Eliza learns never to choose sides. It isn’t intentional, but with enough practice she masters the art of neutrality. She discovers the right times to nod, perfects an expression with just the right blend of ambiguity and understanding.
Her mother laments that America is falling apart. Her father scoffs that it was never as great as she wanted to believe it was. Eliza never could understand why a wide-eyed dreamer married a realist. But still, she plays devil’s advocate for both and absorbs their righteous indignation so it won’t ricochet off the walls.
Her mother claims that the movie is ethereal, gorgeous. Her father remarks that it’s predictable, unrealistic. Eliza never could understand how a hopeless romantic loved a self-satisfied pragmatist. But when he gives her mother a box of chocolates for the fifth Valentine’s Day in a row (never noticing that the treats got passed along), she nods that yes, Dad should make a greater effort, consoles that yes, Mom shouldn’t let her emotions get all riled up over meaningless occasions.
She’s not sure who she blames.
Inevitably, the language of her family twists so desperately that it sprains, limping, carrying only half its emotional burden. Statements crumple at the slightest provocation-and so they all learn not to provoke. Agree not to sink teeth into the gaping holes in arguments and to look the other way at broken claims. It’s ugly, after all, to kick a crippled thing.
Their words become flimsy, like tissue paper. Stuffed into a gift bag to hide its emptiness, rifled through to find substance. It gets old, and so the words became sparse and utilitarian. Pick me up at 7. Buy eggs. Come. Fine.
And in the instances when there are tears involved, when voices are raised and past mistakes are resurrected, she hides. They are at least considerate enough not to search for her, and so enough bridges are allowed intact to keep the ecosystem up and running. (Sure, there are some nights when she wants to let them burn. But then, she’s adapted to this environment. She can survive here.)
It’s only until years after she leaves home that Eliza realizes she never learned how to make choices. Perhaps she was foolish for ever thinking that she could turn her “ability” on and off after it became instinct. Funny how she learned to stay in the middle, but never to find balance. She speaks in hypotheticals, an “on the other hand” always waiting in the wings as she reads the room and envies the conviction with which her friends embrace their bandwagons and blanket statements almost as much as she fears it.
Eliza’s date swirls his wine glass absentmindedly, staring at her like he’s trying to find something. Whatever it is he’s after, he won’t find it, but she resents him for searching anyway.
“Tell me about a cause you’re passionate about,” he says, as if it’s simple, obvious, and her mouth opens and closes as she searches first for something safe and then for something real. Slammed doors and shattered plates warned her away from passion, but too often she hears people speak of it with revelry.
“I guess there’s not much,” she chuckles. She almost wants him to realize that it’s contrived. Her date responds in kind.
“Well without a cause, what do you fight for?” he asks, keeping his tone light to belie a challenge. She recognizes the tactic. A glimpse of irritation brushes across her chest, wisps of smoke already abandoning a spark. She finds that people like the idea of fighting; it’s romantic, they say. She looks into his eyes and she can tell that he thinks of warfare as martyrdom and freedom, but Eliza has heard too many low blows, too often marveled at the ability of shots to penetrate closed doors.
“Pacifism, I suppose.”
That’s the most useful skill she decides, that she learned from her family: the ability to make flimsy words seem powerful, for no side but her own.
Jenna Bao is currently bustling through high school in Cincinnati, OH. She is far too passionate about far too many things but manages to find time to create short stories by cutting out bodily maintenance. Her journalistic writing can be found at shsleaf.org, and her fiction has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and published in Flash Frontier.