Once upon a time, there was a Mom. The Mom saw beauty in the tiny moments of life. Little glimmers of hope, of humanity. She called these moments twinkles. She said they were like tiny Christmas lights, each one beautiful on its own, but dazzling when on a string. She said they covered the evergreen of life with sensational, stunning sparkles. There was also a Dad. He called these same moments everyday miracles, or the small things of beauty. But he didn’t really care for the twinkles, and only followed them because of his adoration for the Mom. The Mom would point out every twinkle she saw to the little Girl, and they would light up haer chubby toddler face with joy. When the older gentleman on the subway helped a complete stranger, a teen, struggling with his tie, that would be a twinkle. When the local coffee shop gave all their leftover pastries to the homeless, that was a twinkle. The Mom said that when the little Girl saw a twinkle, her scattering of freckles would light up, like the Christmas lights, but tiny and random.
When the little Girl turned six, she decided that she wanted to create her own twinkles. She remembered how proud the Mom looked when the little Girl boldly walked up to her, Mr. Snuffles in hand and a glittery tutu around her waist, and stated her decision. The family made their first twinkle the next day. After buying practically every lemon in the supermarket and making a fool of themselves as they talked in high, foofy voices, they made lemonade. The little Girl was truly happy, smearing sugar and lemon zest on their faces and drinking half of what they made. Then the Dad came out and set up the old table from their closet while the little Girl made a sign: Lemonade! One cup for only a smile. The sight of people on their way to work using the smile that the little Girl could tell they rarely used was priceless.
I pulled the hood of my navy parka over my thick brown hair, shivering from the early March chill. Staring at my feet, I tried to shut out the dirty New York City streets around me as I made my way home from school. It was one of those days that could be called drab, dreary, dull or another derogatory adjective starting in a “d.” The winter lingered like a wet blanket, getting pulled away and then flung back on your head with sudden icy rain. School was okay, I guess. I used to like challenging myself, being an overachiever. Now it was just a boring routine that, no matter how many times I whined about, wouldn’t go away.
I tried to shut out the mundane world. I stared at my shoes. Black Vans with a white stripe. Used-to-be-white shoelaces, now grayed and fraying. A worn patch on the right side of the left foot, where a toe ring I used to wear rubbed it thin. I stepped hard into the sidewalk. Each footstep thumped. Just then, I heard my phone buzz. I pulled it out, rubbing the marble-patterned plastic case out of habit. It was my dad. His awkward, trying-too-hard-to-look-cool, selfie flashed on my screen. I picked up.
“Why can’t you text like any other person in the 21st century?”
“Hello there to you too, honey,” he responded, a hint of laughter in his voice.
“What is it,” I replied, not willing to submit to his perpetual cheeriness.
“Well, honey, I’ll have to work late again tonight. I took on another client,” he said slowly, articulating each word like he always does.
“Did you have to take on this person when you already work seven days a week?”
“I’m sorry, Ayah. I’m doing my best.” He says that a lot. I’m doing my best. “You are going to have to make your own dinner again. I’m sorry, honey. Ayah, please forgive me.”
“Fine. Fine. Fine. It’s not like I made my own dinner every day this week. But of course I’ll do it.”
“I knew you would understand,” he responded, completely missing the sarcasm. I hung up.
Once upon a time, three years ago to be exact, the Mom died. The Girl was ten years old. The Dad didn’t fall into a state of insanity, like in movies. He didn’t wear a bathrobe or bunny slippers, and he didn’t go through five boxes of tissues a day. In fact, once upon a time, the Dad didn’t fall into grief at all. He fell into work. Every day, he would be in the office until even after the janitor had left. He would work extra shifts, and every second of his time at home was spent doing paperwork. Once upon a time, one might have thought that the family was short on money. But although the Mom liked living a simple life, the family was always very comfortable.
I kept walking, wanting to get home and away from this cold Monday, yet dreading the pile of homework our teachers had dumped on us. “Happy is the heart that still feels pain. Darkness drains and light will come again. Swing open up your chest and let it in, just let the love love love begin.” I sang silently, playing the Ingrid Michaelson song “Everybody” that was stuck in my head.
Once upon a time, when the Mom died, the Dad turned to work. The Girl, not so little anymore, turned to music. Once upon a time the Girl used to sing for the Mom. She let her voice carry, and then made it soft and delicate. The Mom would listen, swaying subtly. To her own beat, not the rhythm of the music. She would wait a few seconds after the Girl had finished her song to open her eyes. But when she did, they would glisten with tears, bringing out the crystalline blue color everyone envied.
Once upon a time, the Girl, not so little, couldn’t find her voice. She did, however, find the clarinet. The Girl loved everything she could do with it, from soft jazzy tunes to quick, dancing melodies, like pixies in a field of flowers.
As I continued my walk home, I passed Sparrow Cafe. It was a beautiful, small business that was cherished by everyone in our neighborhood. The owners, a pair of seventy-year-old identical twins named Mary and Darla Sparrow, knew me well. Suddenly, I felt someone brush against my shoulder, forcefully. It was Lily.
“Hi, Ayah,” she said, her voice dripping with fake friendliness.
“Hi, Lily,” I replied, staring at her shoes. Pristine gold and white Adidas, the laces tied in a tight bow.
“Uh, did you, like, forget? It’s Lilyah,” she responded, a condescending smile stretching from ear to ear. Oh, that’s right. I almost forgot the stuck up girl named Lily forced everyone to call her ‘Lilyah.’ She said the name had more class, just like her. “Well, I guess I’ll, like, see you around,” she said. No way.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Lily. Lily was best-friends-till-death-we-shall-never-part with the little Girl. They spent every waking hour together. The year the Mom died, a few more girls joined ‘the group.’ But Lily and the Girl still remained best friends, although they began to broaden their horizons to other people. Or so the Girl thought. Once upon a time, the Girl had to call Lily. That night, that fatal night. The Girl could barely get a word out, barely explain that she had lost her soulmate. She could barely explain how much love and help she needed, now that her mother was gone. But instead of finishing the Girl’s sentences, rushing over to her house, Lily was polite and formal: “I’m sorry for your loss. It’s such a shame,” she said. All of a sudden, Lily had transformed into a stranger. The Girl would never know exactly what had happened. Maybe Lily felt uncomfortable with someone who lost their parent? Maybe Lily couldn’t handle dealing with someone who was going through such intense grief? Although the Girl could never truly know, she did know one thing for sure: once upon a time, Lily was no longer a best friend. Lily was now a jerk.
I stood outside the Sparrow Cafe for a moment, staring at the shoes of the people who passed. My phone buzzed again. I lifted the screen to see another call from Dad. I picked up.
“What is it this time?”
“Sweetie, I would really appreciate if you could be more kind when answering — ” I cut him off.
“Come on, Dad. Seriously?”
“Where is my blue-eyed princess, the one who would find the everyday miracles? Where did she go?”
“There are no more miracles,” I said, not even trying to deny that the glitter in my blue eyes disappeared.
“Yes there are.” Hearing the silence, he continued. “Well anyways, the reason why I called you is because of your grandma.”
“My grandma?” I was genuinely confused. Dad’s mom died before I was born, and Mom’s mom… she didn’t have the best relationship with our family. Mom had some huge fight with her, something Mom said she would tell me when I was older. I never met my grandma, except for a brief sighting of a woman in black at Mom’s funeral. Dad always said it was for the best. So what now?
“Well,” Dad paused and cleared his throat. I could almost see his Adam’s apple bobbing, “I thought it’s time for you to get to know your grandma. So I got in touch with her — ”
“You spoke to her? How? What?” He ignored me.
“She said she would like to meet. I was thinking we could go to a nice dinner sometime next week, and meet her there.”
“I can’t do that. No way. I’m sorry, but no.”
“I don’t understand? Don’t you want to know your grandma?”
“It’s betraying Mom. And it’s terrible. It seems like this grandma lady is suddenly swooping in. Maybe she’s glad that Mom is dead.”
“Come on, Miracle.” He had crossed a line. Only Mom was allowed to call me that. Only Mom. I hung up, angrily pressing the screen, missing the red button the first few times, as I wiped away a tear.
Once upon a time, there was a man and a woman who were deeply in love. They desperately wanted a baby, especially a baby girl. But everytime they tried, it didn’t work. The doctors brought them the terrible news that they could never have a baby. Then, one day, the woman got pregnant. The doctors said it was a miracle the baby was in the Mom’s stomach, and an even bigger miracle it survived. So naturally, the Mom and the Dad named the baby Miracle in Arabic. To the Mom and Dad’s delight, they got pregnant again. Then something went wrong. The little Girl never knew what happened. They said she was too young, too fragile, too sad. All she remembers were the sirens, then flashing lights, red like the blood on the cold bathroom floor. All she remembers were the deep wrinkles in the doctor’s face, almost as deep as the pools of sadness that sank her. The little Girl was no longer so little.
I decided to enter into the Sparrow Cafe. I sometimes treated myself to their rich hot chocolate and light buttery chocolate croissant. Mom would say that the Sparrow Cafe’s hot chocolate was angel’s nectar. She always took me there when I had had a bad day at school, or was just feeling lousy. I added the croissant to the tradition after she died. The day of her death, I was sitting in the Sparrow Cafe. When I left, Darla handed me a croissant. “Give it to your Mom for me. From Mary and Darla.” Of course, Mom never got it.
As I opened the door, the warm air invited me inside. My ears were filled with the gentle hum of people conversing. I breathed in deeply, inhaling the delicate smells wafting from the kitchen. I could almost taste the flakes of sweet pastry, melting on my tongue.
“Hi, Mary,” I said, walking up to the counter.
“The usual, dear?” she responded, already getting out the little brown bag with which to package the croissant and setting it on the counter.
“Yes, please,” I responded
“Anything else, dear?”
“That will be all. Besides the hot chocolate, of course.” She started to prepare the hot chocolate, pouring the rich liquid in a paper cup decorated with drawings of sparrows. “Darla will ring you up, dearie.” I stepped down the counter to the vintage, blue cash register.
“Well, hello there, Ayah! Are you feeling alright today?” Darla said, peering at the wet streak on my cheek through her round, gold spectacles.
“Yeah. Thanks for asking.” I stared at the feet of the next person in line. A young woman, wearing slightly worn but still clean running shoes. Pink and blue Skechers with black laces. I took out my wallet to pay. Just as I handed her the bills, I noticed a tattered pink Post-it fall to the ground. Stooping down to pick it up, I could already tell it was Mom’s handwriting. Probably something stupid, like a shopping list. I stuffed it in my pocket as I went to a nearby table to wait for my order. I started thinking. How could Dad just betray Mom like that? Why are there no more miracles? Why are there no more twinkles? It’s not fair. I can’t do it anymore. No NO NO! By now, I was screaming in my head, clenching my fists with anger. I could see the bubblegum-sneakers lady looking at me. I’m done. I don’t care anymore. The twinkle lights went out. The tree is black.
My thoughts were interrupted by a tap on my shoulder.
“Oh, hi. Ms. Woodworth.” I stared at her shoes. Olive-green-gray heels, but not too high. Her foot, encased in tan pantyhose, was held down with an olive green strap and a gold buckle.
“Ayah! Fancy seeing you here!” Her gray ringlets shook as she patted my shoulder, and her soft pink sweater rubbed against my arm.
“Yeah, sure,” I groaned.
“What was that, Ayah?” She took a sip of the cup in her hand, wrapping the string of the chamomile tea bag around her finger.
“Uhh, I said ‘great coincidence!’” It was so easy for me to lie now. Mom used to say I was the most honest person she knew, but now, lying was part of my everyday life. Anyway, I didn’t care if she actually heard what Dad would call ‘my snarky remark.’
Once upon a time, the Girl’s Mom died. The school knew it would be hard on the Girl. They had their guidance counselor, Ms. Woodworth, help the Girl. She said, “You can talk to me whenever you need to. I’m always here.” She meant her office, a cozy nook in the otherwise chaotic public school building, filled with her snowglobe collection and a pot of tea always on the tiny stove. So the Girl went to her every day. But they never talked about that night with the sirens, or the hollow hole in the Girl’s heart. They just talked about everyday life. Like new shoes, or books. The Girl used to talk about this with the Mom. But now she wasn’t there. So Ms. Woodworth was the replacement. Once upon a time, the Girl went to Ms.Woodworth. It was a normal visit. The Girl wanted to talk about Lily, why she was being a jerk. But Ms. Woodworth didn’t let her stay. “Come back when you have a real issue. When you are actually dealing with the grief,” she said. “Other kids have more important things, rather than chit chatting about daily life.”
Thankfully, Ms. Woodworth now walked away, chuckling to herself as she went. I craned my neck to look at the counter. Where was my order? How hard is it to warm a croissant? Well, I might as well read the Post-it while I’m waiting. I pulled the now even more crumpled paper out of my pocket and carefully laid it on the blue mosaic table. I smoothed it out, running my thin fingers on the creases. It was a hastily scribbled haiku, definitely written by Mom.
Don’t drag yourself down,
With self-pity and anger
Darla called my name. “Ayah, your order is ready! Have a nice day, dear!” Rushing outside, I stuffed the Post-it in my pocket and grabbed the delicate paper bag and hot chocolate cup. I ran out of the cafe, shutting the door as I went with a slam that surprised even me, and was met by the rush of cold air. I started walking fast. Faster. Now I was almost running. Tears welled up in my eyes, but didn’t run down my face because of how fast I was going. I stared at the floor, shoes blurring past me. Teal Converse, white laces. Black loafers with a tangled thread. Gray sneakers with a lime green sole. Black high heels with arctic blue soles. Candy-apple-red wedges with a gold button. Ripped, unrecognizable shoes, one with only a sole. Panting, I stopped. I looked at the person in those shoes.
He was sitting on a greasy, old pizza carton, a threadbare, gray blanket on his lap. Why doesn’t he use the blanket? It’s freezing outside, I thought. Then, I saw it move. The homeless man carefully lifted the blanket to comfort a wailing baby, her small, red face streaked with soot. He held her up to his chest and gently patted the scrap of grimey bubblegum-pink swaddle that was wrapped around her, almost as if he were afraid to touch her, for she might break. “It’s alright. It’s alright.” He comforted her softly. His scratchy, hoarse voice barely made a sound. The baby’s wails only intensified. The homeless man looked up at me, making eye contact. His glassy green eyes were helpless, filling with tears that spilled over, dripping down his face. They drew a line of clean, exposing his weathered skin, washing away a stripe of dirt. Instead of looking away, like my parents always told me to, I stared straight at him. Suddenly, I knew why that haiku was in my pocket. It was fate. It was time, finally time, for me to create my own twinkle. I bent down, and carefully placed the steaming cup of hot chocolate on the ground in front of him. I held out the butter-stained brown bag with the croissant. He shook his head.
“Take it. Please,” I said, staring clearly, steadily at him, looking into his glassy eyes. He slowly reached up his hand, a filthy, torn glove almost falling off, and I closed the distance. Once the bag was in his hands, I started to run away, only stopping for a moment at the streetlight. I turned my head back and looked at him. His eyes were filled with a gratitude I had never seen before. He ripped a small piece of the still-warm croissant from the bag. A string of melted chocolate dripped from the pastry. He handed it to his baby. The cries dwindled. I called to him.