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I have lived in the shadow of faces that bear the marks of their daily bread. I have sworn that, while my hands may be immersed in anguish and blood, I will not let my guard waver.
I have seen the hands of the diesel mechanic, his fingernails made into oily and black ribbons. I watched him sit at the supper table and pass the plate with those hands. I heard him ask me if I had done my schoolwork, picked up my toys, said my prayers. I watched him surrender to the grime and grit of his own life while he hoped for the perseverance of mine.
I stood beside the laundress who, despite her hours spent in the company of detergents and bleach, could not remove the sweat from her own brow nor the perspiration stain from her own collar. I dried the dishes that she handed me from the drainer and stacked them in neat piles before hoisting them into the cupboard.
I helped when the baby needed changing. I ran to the corner gas station for cigarettes. I hated the smell of both tasks, but I did them without complaining because I was a "good girl" and that was what was expected. It was expected that I would find a vocation beyond the diesel and the dirt because I was smart, not because I was pretty.
Pretty girls marry their way out of poverty. Smart girls have to develop more elaborate problem-solving skills. It's a necessity and failure is not an option. Smart girls can settle for second best if they have the right pedigree. Smart girls who don't cannot afford such a luxury.
So, if you grow up with steam and diesel and tobacco in your veins, can you ever leave them behind? Can you ever wake up in the morning and not smell the spent cigarette butts and the beer bottles and the half-empty rusting aerosol cans of heavy starch?
I suppose not. Even when you get the college scholarship that you paid for with long nights of study and devotion to your grades, you find that you're still praying at the altar of humility. Your college roommate senses it when she sees the single, red plastic Samsonite suitcase as you stand in the doorway. It's the model with the universal key that makes you feel as if there was some security there, but in reality, your privacy is a fantasy.
You've got no stereo, no television, no car, and no mini-fridge; just the ridiculous notion that all you need is that suitcase and a set of sharpened pencils to survive the university. You're wrong. You make the dean's list. You make the grades, and you even get a position as an undergraduate assistant because you are that good. But all that the girls in the dorm know about you is that you never miss a class and you don't know the story lines on the soap operas because you've learned to be private and aloof.
So, you pull from your past experience and during your sophomore year you find yourself throwing back a few beers and even smoking a few menthol cigarettes on the weekends. You start to like the townie clubs more than you like the smell of formaldehyde and ethyl alcohol, and suddenly, genetic traits in fruit flies don't interest you anymore. Poker tables and dart boards are the playground of the boys' club, but you find that your wicked, sharp mind serves you well there.
Your grades slip. You start to worry that you may be taking in laundry to pay your tuition when the dean threatens to take away your scholarship. Then it hits you. You'll never be clean.
You'll never scrub away the stench of sweat and beer and diesel fuel. When you go home in the summer, you're not changing you brother's diaper anymore. You're helping him find an alibi to tell mom and dad why he didn't go to work at the burger hut that reeks of rotted potatoes and burnt grease. You realize that, if things don't change this semester, you'll be selling fish and chips and deep-fried pickles from a cart.
You know you'll never be clean, but you know how to be good. Hell, you know how to be great. That's what you decide to be from that day forward: the greatest, most dedicated, most private, loneliest woman on earth.
You take out your sharp little pencils and cross every "t" and color in only correct answers on the scan-tron sheets. You don't settle. You don't surrender. You graduate just below the ones who didn't falter in that sophomore year, and you promise it will never happen in med school. And it doesn't.
That's why I need you, Callie. I don't need you to make me clean, because God knows, the thoughts I have about you are passionate and pornographic. I need you to cut through this hermetically sealed life I've made for myself and melt me with that brilliant smile of yours and those soft, sensual eyes. Is there a universal key that unlocks my desire? Help me find it.
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