"I open my mouth to speak, and nothing but empty air falls out, no words. I know what I want to say. My lips form them but nothing hangs between us but silence and my cloudy breath in the air. I can't even make a sound."
Charlotte has selective mutism, only able to talk freely with her mother since her father's death on 9/11 when she was five. Now in college, she struggles to find her own independence, make friends, fall in love and find her own voice.


3. The Coffee Shop

I have a best friend. For the first time in oh, I don't know, maybe thirteen years? Maybe in all eighteen? 

His name is Ben. He has a smart girlfriend going to Columbia. He likes espresso and Chinese food and watching Adventure Time on Sundays. His favorite color is red.

I repeat these things in my mind, mouthing them with my lips, feeling the words sitting on my tongue. If I could say them out loud, in front of Ben, how would they taste? Sweet. I know they would taste sweet. Sweet like a flower peeking out of the snow after a cold, hard winter.

I have a best friend.

It's like a secret for myself.

I have a best friend.

I like that. I say it out loud,

"I have a best friend." The moment the words leave my mouth, I wish I could just grab them and shove them back in my mouth. My voice is so loud. Booming. It scares me, splitting the silence like a knife cutting viciously through half-melted chocolate.

"What's that?" calls Mom from the kitchen.

"N-nothing!" I yell back. I cough a little. My voice is permanently dry, like bread left out too long.

But things are starting to change for me now. I can feel it, under my skin. Something has been set in motion, something small, like a stone dropped into water. Little ripples are forming. Am I forming them? Or is something bigger, something larger, pushing me along?

This apartment, though large for New York is too small right now. The walls are pushing in on me. I need to leave. I've been here ever since dad died. Stuck in this room. There are scraps of drawings on the wall from when I was six and there are plastic glow-in-the-dark stars from when I was eight and proclaimed to be afraid of the dark again, when I really just wanted more attention. I wanted Mommy to stop crying and stop ignoring me and listen.

I trace the raised threads on a cross stitch sampler. I did that in my free time at age twelve. Mom taught me. She taught me everything. And nothing.

This thought strengthens my resolve. I'm doing it. I'm rebelling. A little. Mom doesn't need to know, imagine that! She doesn't need to know, what a foreign concept. I feel bad. I feel guilty already. If she knew what I'm about to do, why, it might break her poor heart in two. And possibly suspend all my future privileges, including going to class. But she doesn't need to find out, I keep telling myself. She won't know. I hope.

 I've spent my life governed by her. To not listen to her, now that's something new. That's something unknown. That's something scary and invigorating in a million different ways. My life is as dry as my throat. I want something more right now. More.

I leave for class early, tip-toeing past the kitchen where she's busy chopping vegetables for soup. Slam slam slam goes the knife, like she's angry at the world. For what they took, for what they did. Or maybe I'm just overthinking it, like everything.

 She asks where I'm going as I open the door, and I freeze. Busted.

"Um. I just have a morning lecture," I lie through my teeth shakily. I pause. Wait. Will she bite? She does.

"Have a good day," she calls from the kitchen. I wait until I shut the door before exhaling, and it's not until I'm a couple of steps down the pavement that I'm actually able to truly relax.

I'm going to use the subway. I'm going to go with friends to a coffee shop in Union Square, and for the first time in my life, I'm truly in uncharted territory.

And I'm completely terrified.

I stare at the subway map for a good fifteen minutes, solid like a pillar, unmoving as people rush all around me. They know where they're going. Even the tourists. But not me, and I've lived here my whole life. I want to cry. I feel like an idiot and this map looks like a mess of lines and alphabet letters and random numbers. Where is Union Square? Why was I never taught something practical, like reading a map? Like using the subway? Like actually understanding the area I live in, for Christ's sake? I calm down. I focus. I can do this. I skim over the map, checking each tiny lettered stop.

Union Square, Union Square, Union Square....

"Yo, Burdy!"

That voice. I'd know it anywhere.

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