The water is chinking above me like it might be glass, the thick kind like in factories or prisons. I let my arms float out in front of my nose, and even though I get to see these parts of my body everyday, my mouth makes an oh! at how long they are. A Green Bean! Mom calls me. Baby Breadsticks! I always wanted to call you Baby Dumpling, but after you came out, everyone who looked at you said, ‘What a noodle!’
I am underwater where the bubbles I snort are shooter marbles, and I have learned to swim faster than any fish in the tank at Dr. Tangay’s office. I am also a fish, but shhh quiet so I won’t be put into that tank where the fancy goldfish bob like bloodless lemons. I make my cheeks as big as I can and when I feel them stretch to bursting with my air inside, little pores open along the veins of my neck, which is also a long green bean, and these are my gills. Nobody knows about them and they can’t be seen, but I feel them pop pop along the length of me, letting my lungs rise and fall, so I know for certain that they are there.
I am staying under the water for now, because up above there is a man whose name I forget but it rhymes with candy. He explained this rhyme to me as he gave me a peppermint twist, but when he turned away I spat the mint into my hand and clutched it sticky against my palm until I could chuck it somewhere he wouldn’t see. The man is an old friend of Mom’s – they go way back. Earlier, she laughed with him about high school while holding me against her front and running her painted nails through my hair. She lets me paint mine too; I have chosen white. Hers are long and pointed, lady nails. When I look down at my hands I see spider fingers with bitty squares at the tip, the exact size and color of my teeth. I hum rat-a-ta-ta and think I am the one with the real claws.
Candy is cherry red with hair that’s sour smoke against my nose when he hugs me. I am confused with Mom, because earlier she told me things about Candy that make me want to bring by claws against the hard egg of his stomach until he runs away into the brine of Dr. Tangay’s tank to live as a spiny eel. Mom and I are visiting her home where her mamma lives, and this is a stop along the way, she says. Mom is definitely a yee-haw kind of girl, the kind you would call gregarious. She is a talker who can prattle singsong with any soul, rag tag and bobtail. Mom is good at friends and her circle is wide – not many sink away once they are in. Sometimes she gets to glowing when there are many people and she is the truest limelight. Candy calls her a dish and I guess this means beautiful even though it’s something you eat from. Men at work started a Karen Scott fan club in her honor. I feel salty thinking about it – who are they to be her fans – but when she told me this lying on the couch in jean shorts, she was giggling and I understood because she was more beautiful than the prettiest picture I’ve ever seen, which is a photo of James Marsters leaning back on a chopper. Mom’s yee-haw can be nice. She lets me fly on the rope swing at the creek, even if the water is mostly mud, and is fine with me clopping around the house in plastic go-gos, even though I know the noise is a drag. But I am a soft and slow talker – why are you so serious? is what she asks me.
My gills are powerful and I do not need to come up for air. I see mom standing next to Candy and she’s motioning like come on. She is wearing a one-piece suit with bright sunflowers splotched over the whole of it. From under the water they look runny, like eggs half cooked. It is nicer to look at her, and I pretend Candy isn’t there. I come up because mom doesn’t know about my secret breath. I don’t want to scare her.
We’re going back to the hotel room to make margaritas. Grab your towel, baby. We’ll go swimming again later. We are staying at a hotel in the town where Candy lives. I know he was trying to get us to stay with him, and I am proud of Mom for sticking to her guns. That is a saying people around here use, and I know there are many guns in Texas, but my mom doesn’t have any, and in fact, she hates them. When I step out of the pool, Candy tries to drape a towel over my shoulders, but I shove him off and run to a sunny patch, sprawl against the concrete in a power-star of arms and legs stretched big against the burning ground.
I’ll sun-dry! Mom shrugs, and after she and Candy are gone, I flop onto my stomach so I can watch ants turning in circles around a pistachio shell. I decide Mom is the shell, and men are the ants. I am the sun, quiet and gone sometimes, but if the ants step directly into my beam, I will smoke them. I was confused, but now I am angry with Mom for being a sweet thing with Candy after telling me her stories. I don’t look directly at him, because I don’t want him to see what I know; he is a crummy, bloated eel who deserves the tank.
A long shadow falls across the ants with their shell, and they scurry away. Hey, your mom is worried about you. She doesn’t want you jumping into the pool on your own. Why don’t you come on in? We’ve got some chips and guac. I’ll make you a margarita without the booze, ha. Candy smiles down at me. His teeth are crooked yellow fence posts, too long for his gums. I think of my teeth on my fingertips and in my mouth. I lick my new front ones, happy that they are now so big and strong.
I’ve had sips of her margaritas before. I know that’s just green sour-sweet. That’s disgusting. I stand up even though he’s a slimeball because I don’t want Mom to worry. I feel my noodle arms crossing around my stomach, and I am glad they run so long. Candy laughs.
That’s sweet and sour you’re talking about. Hey, you’re pretty tall for your age. How old are you? Nine? You’re a beanpole. Bet you want to be a model when you grow up, huh? You could be, look at your momma. He ruffles my hair. I feel my gills along my spine opening to try and get more air in. I don’t tell him my age, eight. I whisper, don’t.
I’m not Mom’s only baby. I am now, and I’ll never know the other one, but Mom had a little girl way back when she was young. She talks to me about it sometimes because she says she has nothing to hide, and wants me to know I have a half-sister floating around somewhere who maybe one day I could meet. This doesn’t seem real to me, and for some reason I get scared whenever Mom brings it up, like maybe I’ll disappear too. She told me that’s the way it was done back then if a girl got pregnant and she was too young, or the dad wasn’t around. Both things were true for Mom, so after her senior prom where she was made queen, she got put into a secret home with a bunch of other girls who were also pregnant and not supposed to be seen. This is one of Mom’s stories that makes me the most sad. She has shown me the prom photo though, and actually, that, not James Marsters, is the most beautiful picture I have seen. Mom wears a dress that she tells me her own mother made, it’s long and looks heavy, zebra stripped. The picture is black and white, and Mom’s hair is a shiny round tower on top of her head. Whenever she shows it to me, she rolls her eyes and says, I slept with 5 beer cans in my hair to get it to stand that tall. She is young. In the photo, she is standing arm and arm with Candy, who also looks much younger.
Mom has rented us a hotel room with cable and a mini fridge that she keeps snapping at me not to take anything out of, even though Ocean Spray cranberry juice is my favorite. She and Candy are sitting on the pullout futon where I’ll sleep tonight, and Candy pats the cushion next to him for me to sit. I look at the two of them, laughing, Mom in her swimsuit already a crisp bronze from two days of Texas sunshine, and Candy a red flop. The room smells like cigarette smoke. Mom doesn’t like cigs, so I know it must’ve been Candy. They are talking about high school again, with highlighter yellow margaritas in their hands. I think, sometimes my pee is that color after I take a vitamin, and I wonder if theirs will be too.
We are on a road trip. Our home is 532 miles away in Colorado, Mom tells me to calculate it everyday on the map to practice my math. It’s the first long one we’ve done, and on the way we’re visiting many of what mom calls her old haunts. We’ve been getting lost a lot, and every time we do Mom pulls over and says, Shit! But these are my old stompin’ grounds!
Yesterday we got so turned around, Mom decided we should take an overnight detour in Lockhart and just leave good enough alone for the day. We stopped at a Kroger’s for some food, and later at the motel we watched Camelot, which was playing on the TV and made Mom teary eyed. Well, I have read about King Arthur in school, and I knew what was going to happen. If you pause the movie, and zoom in on each of the three, their faces are twisted up gloom. Lusty eyes, dusty skin, sweaty teeth. The movie is long, and I start to fall asleep towards the end, but Mom is holding another glass of chillable red and begins telling me that she saw Camelot when it first came out with her momma and younger sister, Susan. She tells me it’s a tough thing to watch, because Susan was over the moon about it, and insisted on purchasing the VHS to watch over and over. She tells me that she’s never had a friendship more fierce with both love and hurt than she did with Susan, that they fought like banshees in their teens but required one another. She was the salt to my earth and for all the shit your grandfather pulled on us, we somehow made it out ok because of the sisters we were. I know that Susan died young, twenty something and just blooming beautiful, at the wheel of a car.
I wanted to hold Mom’s hand, but something about her felt far away, like if I touched her I might go to that place too.
We’re going to visit someone tomorrow who hurt Susan, but I didn’t know, she didn’t tell me until years later when it was too late, she was already living wild. He came in through her window, I wasn’t home. I couldn’t have known. It’s possible she imagined it. I didn’t know, Katie, I wish she’d felt like she could tell me. Those were the days when we were fighting. She could’ve made it up to hurt me, make me feel bad. Susan wouldn’t do that. I would have helped her, though, of course I would have believed her, he did those things. His sister, Carrie. It was so hard back then, nobody believed you. I couldn’t have known, she was so much younger.
Her eyes were watering, two silver fish slipping side to side in her head. Long eyes, same as mine.
Katie. Mom took a breath like gasping, and I realized she must have gills too, she was holding her air that whole time.
Candy gets up from the couch and walks towards me. Unlike Mom, he looks nothing like his old self in the prom photo from way back when. You know your momma and I used to date, don’t you? She was really something, Ms. Prom Queen. He smiles and winks at me. Mom says, Was? makes one laugh sound, HA, then falls quiet. Candy looks at her, Shucks, but that was a long time ago. It’s all pretty different now, ain’t it. I look at Mom to try and speak to her with my eyes, ask her what she is doing and when can we leave. Ask, are you ok? She’s looking off to the side and fidgeting with the strap on her suit. When she speaks again, she’s still looking out at something true and real, but that I cannot see.
Yeah, it was you and me. You had that terrible side part, I’m glad to see you don’t have enough hair to wear it that way anymore. When’d I see you last? ‘89? God, I thought we’d marry. Can you believe that? My parents loved you. Well, till they didn’t. She smiles to herself. I ever tell you about the time my dad said he was going to show up at your house with a shotgun, tie you down, and shoot your balls off, one at a time?
I feel red heat rise along my neck, gills open.
Karen, come on now.
It’s true, he wanted to send you to rot. But of course, they sent me instead. She smiles again and turns away from whatever she was looking off at strangely, glances up at Candy. You ever ask me about that time? No? No you didn’t. You ever wonder?
Of course, Karen, I wondered every day how you were doing. Shit, I would’ve shown up and tore down the door to get at you if your parents had told me where in the hell that place was. There is red rising along his neck as well, and he drags his hand over his mouth, looks at me like I’m a fly that shouldn’t be there. And I shouldn’t. As much as I want to close my eyes and feel the curtains of a different, built-in-my-mind place close around me, I force them open because I remember something Mom said once about knowing the truth of one’s blood, and here it was, pulsing in front of me, and I know that this story will become in some way or another mine as well.
Mom looks at Candy, and it is the first time I look at her and think, You do not look lovely like you usually do. Her face seems hard and sore, a chunk of curdled stone. But I see her and feel a swell of love because she is breathing hard, steady, the way I think a wildcat might, and she has the stare to match.
She says, Yeah, well, nothing ended up like we thought it would.
I never told you how sorry I was about Susan.
This is where I close my eyes and will another place to close around me. But it isn’t working, and as much as I want to not be in the room or know this much, I can’t close it off. I try and open my gills wider, but they are already breathing as deep as they can. Mom won’t tell me to go, and I can’t let myself until she does. I want to be the hot burning girl star against sun-soaked concrete, men are the ants and I will never be the shell.
Which part, exactly, are you sorry about?
There is a still feeling, and Candy turns from red to purple blue. He is angry, he is lost in what he won’t say, he feels me looking at him and he knows that I know. He knows that we both know. I don’t know what he did, but I know it is enough for me to hate him. He is a crummy, bloated eel who deserves the tank. I can smell it on him. I can see it dripping from all his soft ends, it’s caught between his yellow fence post teeth, lodged in his gums, the thing he did. Things. He has hurt this blood of mine. Juice of my juice, the muscle that made me. I am young, but when he is near, I can feel the things he did pulsing through my core, all the tiny cells inside my body seizing strangely. You could be a model, just look at your momma. Just look at my momma. Just look at my wildcat, whisker-whispering momma.
Karen, please. I loved you girls. Growing up you were like my family. Susan’s passing, it ruined me.
Mom stands up. Tall in electric air, she is the sun.
Don’t you ever say her name.
Thing is, I wish this is what Mom had said. I wish this were what had happened in that sticky, smoked out room. I wish Candy would melt into a long shape, slither on his belly into dust. See you later, see you never. But really they sipped yellow drinks, turned them to yellow pee. I watched and ate a chip and a guac. Mom laughed in the way she had when talking about the Karen Scott fan club, and again I thought that she was probably more beautiful than James Marsters. I do not think I want to be beautiful.
I am underwater again. My gills are strong, and I will only come up when I am safe. I put my arms out and imagine Susan next to me. My arms are dangly noodles, but they are mighty, and when I pull her close, nobody will be able to climb in through any window.