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"Unfamiliar Gifts" by Lex Shramko

“I—am—so—sorry,” she says to me.

Each word is a pause, a breath, a gift. Gifts that I no longer expected, but still wanted. I want us to automatically sail from this breakthrough to an easy-going comradery but instead, I feel naked and vulnerable, as if my skin was breathing freely and suddenly in the fresh air that comes from removing sweaty shin guards, or losing a damaged fingernail. Tender newborn flesh seeks new armor, and in the absence of a way forward, I didn't know how to respond.

“I am so sorry,” she repeats, breathing the words out with each exhale. She looks stunned, and I want to soothe over her exposed parts. I also feel—I think—relief. As if a dam has been erected and there is a small platform where I can move safely, even if only a few feet in either direction, while I watch the torrent rush by. But these waters are slowing down, stilling into gentle pools of invitation, and I don't know if I want—or even how—to test their waters.

“It's okay . . . thank you,” I fumble. I smile limply. The air hangs empty between us and my cousin putters in the kitchen, tidying up and adding to the grocery list. Her everyday domestic busyness is a comfort, soothing with its mild distraction. It is a place to put my gaze.

“I am . . . so ashamed,” my mother says. I look at her, the startled expression on my face matching her own.

“Oh—I don't—”

My cousin interjects over my protests. She offers a way out.

“Let's not dwell on this. You apologized, and that's what matters. Let's move on.”

My mother recomposes her face into familiar lines of ease, and the moment takes the shape, once more, of an early summer evening at a lakeside cabin, with warm sunlight lighting the walls with its hues of golden amber.

“Yes, yes. You're absolutely right. I agree completely. Thank you—”

My cousin interrupted, murmuring not unkindly, “moving on, moving on,” and we switch the conversation to planning the trip into town for groceries.

In the remaining days, my mother apologizes again, here and there, in paused, alone moments at the top of the deck stairs, at the cash register in town, at my car as I finish loading it for the return drive to the city. It is just the two of us and while each apology makes me feel better, I don't know what to do with them. I fumble instead through my cousin's strategy of offering my thanks and repeating that we move on from here.

Leaving the summer cabin and its lake behind as I drive south down Route 11 through the Muskokas, I feel light and airy. The road is spacious with wide, easy lanes made from concrete and tall, breezy pines line the shoulder. There is never-ending glacial sand between my toes, and suddenly I am home again, riding in the car as my mother drove home from kindergarten, the car thunking rhythmically on the gaps in between sections of concrete. I am hot and dusty from playing soccer on the school’s dirt lot, and there is dirt in my sandals. The sunlight ripples through the trees’ canopy over the parkway, flickering in tune with the concrete bumps. My mother and I are quiet, each of us lulled by the rhythms.

On the Muskoka road, with sand between my toes and the sunlight shadowing on the windshield, I am home again, and I have this overwhelming sense of having missed myself, without even having known it. “Ah, so there it is,” I say aloud, to no one.

Lex Shramko is currently working on a World War II fairytale braided from memoir and biography, set in both the past and present, about her mother, a war orphan who discovers her existence as an 85 year-old-woman. When she is not writing, she teaches philosophy and feminism. Otherwise, she is always on an adventure of traveling, biking, or scuba diving, or checking out the latest coffee shop. Preferably one with a resident cat or dog. She has published academically in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Disability Studies Quarterly, and Subjectivity. As a newly emergent creative writer, she has published recently in Moonpark Review and Gargoyle.

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