The first time it happens you’ll be six. There’ll be a swingset in your backyard, because nice houses in nice neighborhoods have swingsets; don’t ask me why, that’s just how it works. Your swingset will be older, though, because it will have been there when you and your parents moved in with your boxes and your floral patterned sofa and your china cabinet and your big TV that gets sixty-five channels. And your mother won’t want you to play on the swingset because it’s old and rusty, but you’ll do it anyway. On a Tuesday in July you’ll be swinging, and when you reach the highest point of your arc, you’ll hear a snap. The swing will drop out from beneath you, like the time you were going up the stairs and you thought there was one more step than there was. You’ll have a moment of being airborne—and all your guts will move into your throat—but then you’ll be on the ground and your arm will be broken in three places. You’ll learn not to say, “No, it was fun,” when people ask, “Baby, weren’t you scared?” because you can tell they think that’s weird.
The second time it happens you’ll be eleven. Your best friend will dare you to ride your bike down the big hill as fast as you can, even though your older brother told you that a kid died doing that one time. It’ll be October. It’ll be windy. You’ll click your helmet’s strap under your chin. Your best friend will say, “Please don’t die.” She’ll also say, “If you do die, can I have your purple sweater?” You’ll straddle the seat of your bike, plant your feet on the asphalt, and give yourself a push. You’ll think of a spelling word: m-o-m-e-n-t-u-m. Momentum. You’ll think of cartoon characters, running so fast their legs blur. Your nose will run, your eyes will burn, tears will stream down your face. You’ll laugh, and you’ll forget about the cars parked at the bottom. You’ll brake late, too hard, and it’ll send you over your handlebars, face first into gravel. Your friend will race down after you, and scream when she sees your bloody smile. “It’s all my fault,” she’ll say. “I’m sorry.” You’ll try to answer her, but opening your mouth will hurt so bad you’ll almost faint. You’ll still think, I’m not.
The third time it happens I don’t know how old you’ll be. Fifteen, maybe. Or seventeen, or twenty-two, or twenty-five. This time, there will not be a backyard or a bike or a swing. There will be red hair, freckles, a small nose. There will be a smile, a mouth filled with teeth that needed braces but never got them. A clavicle that juts out slightly after a childhood break. The two of you will lie side by side in a narrow twin bed and you’ll run your fingers over and over the bone’s valleys and ridges. You’ll think of fault lines, of earthquakes. You will take her hand and grace it over the arm that you once broke. I liked it kind of, when it happened. Me too. There will be scars that you compare in a litany, in a song: lip, elbow, wrist, knee, and all the ones we cannot see. There will be books and songs and poetry written on scraps of paper and toothbrushes and t-shirts and underwear, all shared, until you forget where one of you begins and the other ends. The mouth, its crooked teeth, leaving its pressed flower kisses on your hips. The hands, their bitten nails, their searching and finding and opening and wider and wider and wider until. Untiluntiluntil there will be this: the sensation of sinking into a warm bath until you are the warm bath, until you are melting, until you are melted into her, until there floats between you a soap bubble conviction that here it is--an accidental home. Your old broken arm will throb, the way it does before thunderstorms. You’ll recall physics class, Newton’s Law: what comes up must come down. You’ll think of all the times you’ve known I’m going to be hurt, and badly. Cause and effect; order and sequence. It’s always been so easy to see the endings, the bread crumbs you’ll follow, the witch singing her song, dancing ahead of you, crooking her finger: come along, little girl. In fairy tales, the little girl never knows that she’s wrong until she is. You know, though. You’ve always known. And yet. And yet. Because even when there is fracturing there is still a before and, oh: the before.