When she was five, Lydia buried a strawberry in the yard under the freshly laid mulch. Her puffy pink Easter dress and the patent white leather Mary Janes got dirty, but Lydia thought it was better than telling her grandmother that strawberries are too sour. Strawberries were the closest thing her grandmother had to a family crest. She had strawberry hand towels, strawberry soap, strawberry dessert plates for the strawberry shortcake, and Lydia’s mother had stressed the importance of saying yes to everything her grandmother offered her. That’s what kept everyone calm. Her mother hadn’t said she had to eat everything, though. So the ground swallowed what Lydia rejected. Mounds and mounds of strawberries she wasn’t allowed to say no to.
The strawberry patches encircled her grandmother’s backyard. She called it providence. Lydia called it fecal seed distribution. It was one of the main ways seeds were propagated. An animal ate something and shit it out where a plant eventually grew. Her mother glared at her. Lydia was always getting in trouble for telling the truth these days. It suited her conscience, but made her stomach ache. Some people you have to walk on eggshells around, and some people it’s broken pieces of pottery that slice your feet open with nicks and gashes until you’re so bloody that your feet don’t look like feet anymore. Just amorphous blobs of blood, bone and meat.
‘Are you sure you want that chocolate cake?’ her grandmother asked. ‘A moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips!’ She held up the big, juicy strawberry coated in sugar on her fork. ‘These strawberries are so fresh!’
What her grandmother meant: you’re fat, if you’re not careful you’ll get fatter and then no one will ever want you and what will you do?
Lydia yanked down her shirt, afraid some skin might be showing. She wore everything at least a size too big because she didn’t like the way people looked at her, always categorizing her as fuckable or competition or not worthy of basic respect. ‘I like this cake,’ she said and forced in a mouthful.
‘Chocolate is bad for your skin.’
‘Actually that’s a myth,’ Lydia said through a full mouth. ‘It’s sugar spikes that do it, and sugar can come from anything.’ She’d contradicted her grandmother with facts. A no-no since she learned to speak. The momentary pleasure gave way to dread.
Her grandmother set down her fork. Her eyes were stormy and her face had turned into a perfect mask of disgust the way Paul Ekman explained it. Nose lifted, raised cheeks and a lifted upper lip. Her grandmother couldn’t challenge her on the facts, so she went to her only two avenues of expertise: appearance and men. ‘Why are you so pale?’
Translation: fix your face, being tan is attractive, why are you so ugly?
‘I don’t know,’ Lydia said. ‘Maybe because I don’t work outside?’
Her grandmother pursed her lips. Their family’s American origins were in the dairy farm she’d grown up running. They survived the Great Depression in comparable luxury because they’d grown their own food.
Lydia shoved more cake into her mouth and grinned. She never won.
Her grandmother’s ninetieth birthday was attended by the whole family. Lydia even came down from Amherst at her mother’s request. Her mother had set up a long table, and her grandmother screeched out who should sit where. Lydia did as she was told and took her seat at the right hand of her grandmother, who tried to offer her wine. She read her grandmother’s intentions to get her drunk and declined.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ her grandmother asked like she always did. She had never asked what classes Lydia took or what the campus was like. Lydia was a nerd in a family of wannabe beauty queens because beauty was power. If she’d been a boy, she would’ve been hailed as the family scholar. As a girl she was a failed girlfriend/future wife. That suited her just fine.
‘No,’ Lydia said.
‘Do you have any male teachers?’
Lydia swallowed her desire to scream about abuse of power. How she would never compromise her education that way. Men come and go. Her education couldn’t be taken from her. And even though all of her teachers were male that semester, she said, ‘No.’
After dinner, the family set about the strawberry patches with wicker baskets to pick dessert. Lydia was in charge of picking for her grandmother and made sure she selected the ones with white peeking from beneath the green tops. She believed they were the sourest.
In the photo series from that day, Lydia can be seen standing next to her grandmother as pale as ever, having spent more time inside with books than with boys on the lawn. Her smile is forced, patient, waiting for the day it doesn’t have to pretend.
When Lydia’s grandmother died, her mother hired people to clean, toss and donate what was left of her life. The house was empty when Lydia arrived. She retrieved the brand-new shovel from her trunk. She stomped the blade into the earth until her feet blistered and her hands stung. It took an hour, but she dug up every single root that could’ve given life to a strawberry. Her stomach aches were gone. Joy sprouted from her body like a second skin. She bagged the plants to take to the dump and left the holes in the ground. Some things weren’t meant to be filled.
CHELSEA STICKLE writes flash fiction that appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Five on the Fifth, Crack the Spine, formercactus, Hypnopomp and Occulum. She’s a reader for Cease, Cows and lives in Annapolis, MD. Find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle