Fiction: What You Learn in Fifth Grade Science Class
By Eva Gonzalez
This morning Maura is late to science class. She walks in with a doctor’s note while Mrs. Jones flashes a photo on the white board of a double helix. The letters get jumbled on Maura’s tongue as she repeats the words back to Mrs. Jones.
She takes her seat in the back left corner of the classroom, pressing her spine against the cool metal chair as she learns how things are passed down from mothers and fathers to daughters and sons: through DNA.
Today Maura’s hair is in a loose bun at the nape of her neck, instead of the two thin braids that normally swing slightly in the breeze caused by the window propped open behind her. The window is old and an encyclopedia is holding it up because they don’t have an air conditioner.
In the late September Georgia air, any bit of air will do.
Every morning it was the three of them: Maura and the people who made her. They sat around a circular table in the corner of the kitchen, a plastic chair for each.
At one point there was a fourth, but slowly guests stopped coming around and they preferred the extra space. More elbow room for shoveling spaghetti.
Most mornings only two chairs would be filled, Maura sitting instead at her mother’s slippered feet, the cool linoleum tile kissing the bottoms of her thighs from beneath the plaid skirt of her Catholic schoolgirl uniform.
At the breakfast table Maura’s mother did not eat, her soft body crumpled into the chair opposite her father, crumbs falling from his lips and filling the space between them. The space where love should be.
While Maura’s father’s hands held pieces of toast – three – her mother instead took sections – three – of Maura’s hair between her fingers and crossed them back and forth to form a braid down her back, something reminiscent of the photographs of DNA that Mrs. Jones flashes on the projector today.
Soft, blonde ringlets catching on her callused knuckles and tying knots around the soft flesh of her pinkies as if they might anchor her down to earth.
Each time words spill out of Maura’s father’s mouth, pelting her mother’s skin like the snap of a hairband against her wrist, she pulls the hair on Maura’s head tighter, tighter, tighter, tighter.
There were complaints about last night's dinner. You put [too much] [not enough] salt in the pasta. Complaints about last night’s sex. You didn’t fuck me [hard] [soft] enough. Complaints about our extended family, how our free time was spent, how Maura was an only child. How everything had been left unfulfilled, a disappointment. You [should] [could] [would] have [been] [done] [said] anything else.
Complaints that hung over their heads like gnats circling a lamp, unaddressed.
By the time the braids are done, strands of Maura’s hair have accumulated around her, soldiers that sacrificed themselves in the battle for Maura’s mother to feel better. They trace the outline of where Maura’s butt had been, as if she’d made a snow angel.
Maura’s mother finishes each braid with a bow to make herself believe that she is making something beautiful.
Normally the braids do not come undone until the evening, but today is different.
Today, foreign fingers comb through Maura’s hair as the words “traction alopecia” come out of the mouth they’re attached to. Another phrase that gets caught on Maura’s tongue as she tries to repeat it.
Maura tilts her head to get a better look at her mother, her body again crumpled in the chair. Only this time her father is nowhere to be found.
So when Maura is in class and learns that things are passed down through DNA, she thinks of her mother and her receding hairline and how science must be wrong.
Eva Gonzalez is a writer in Los Angeles.