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Words by Carling Berkhout
Anita Edington saw the naked body of a man when she was twelve. His shadow squirmed in front of the rose-petaled wallpaper of her parents’ bedroom. Beige nicotine stains discolored the joint where the wall meets the ceiling. Anita watched the man’s silhouetted body twist like a corkscrew with a woman, their moans dancing in the air. It was her brother’s naked body fucking Meredith Hooley while their parents were three streets down at a Christmas Eve party.
Anita’s brother’s name was Harold. Everyone called him Ronnie and sometimes they called him scum, but he wasn’t really. He was raised an atheist, yet he repeated the "Our Father" prayer under his breath with harsh S’s until it felt like he did it well enough. Their parents thought it was nothing to worry about, though he had dreams of Amon’s serpent tail wrapping around the protrusion of his Adam’s apple while the head of the wolf howls at a burgundy moon.
He was seventeen and Meredith Hooley was fifteen when Anita saw their embrace in the rose-petaled bedroom. “She has a nice rack,” Ronnie said once with a half-swallowed bite of sandwich in his mouth. They went to prom together in high school and Meredith wore a white dress that Anita thought looked a lot like her mother’s wedding dress. Anita told Meredith she was beautiful and her dress reminded her of white lilies, and that she really thought white lilies were the most elegant of flowers. Anita never saw her again. She heard she had a boy one year out of high school (a drunken accident with a man who already had three drunken accidents). Anita wondered if Meredith ever loved the man and if she ever really could love the boy that lived inside her. She heard she was doing all right, just busy. Everyone was always busy and never quite all right.
Ronnie became a toll collector who owned a two-car-garage-home in suburban New York. It was one of those planned communities that Anita always saw as building on land that was not yours. Everyone was always occupying space they did not own.
Anita saw a dead body when she was thirteen on a humid July afternoon at Swallow Lake. Clusters of black flies warned of a storm coming in from the north. The fingers were bent, skin pale, a bump on the forehead, body twisted. It was her sister.
Whitney Lee Edington was sixteen when she drowned after a dive into shallow water, hitting a rock barely under the surface. She didn’t look anything like the rest of her family—her hair was auburn and her skin was pale. She read ghost stories as a child and drank chamomile tea to protect herself from hexes and she boiled daffodils in the same pot their mother used to cook spaghetti. In high school, she gave blowjobs behind the storage building at Deer River High. Word travels fast in small towns, so Anita and Ronnie both heard, but the difference was Anita still could look her in the eye at the dinner table.
Their mother pulled Whitney out of school in late April following a “circumstance that cannot be talked about.” The music teacher, Mrs. Rees, found her fucking brass-band-Tom in one of the practice rooms. Mrs. Rees was a fragile woman who sometimes sounded like her words got sucked back down into her throat. She found Whitney and Tom—pants around the ankles and Tom’s trombone resting in the corner against the electric keyboard.
A week following the funeral, Anita rummaged through Whitney’s room. She wasn’t hunting for accolade or conclusion. In a cardboard box beneath Whitney’s bed were wilted orchids tied with corn silk colored yarn. The vein-like threads of the dead roots still crawled out from the flower stems. What remained were muddy, dehydrated organs. In the bottom of the box were photographs held together with a lobster rubber band that revealed Whitney’s naked body –– ones of her laughing in a dark chestnut sweater as she dangled upside down from her bed, ones of her full body reflection in a mirror, and a couple of a boy with a jawline like her father’s, a boy whom Anita did not recognize.
A red, pocket-sized dictionary with a creased cover sat beside the flowers in the box. The pages were annotated with notes scribbled in a slanted font up and down the margins. Anita turned to the back, the paper gently flipping under the callus of her thumb. She stopped at the word voyeurism, which was highlighted with an asterisk beside the ‘m.’
Anita sat with her legs crossed on Whitney’s oatmeal carpet, the fabric of her floral hand-me-down dress pulled tightly at the knees. The dictionary rested on her thigh as she thought about the curve of Whitney’s spine when the body was pulled from Swallow Lake. A man in a white t-shirt had held Whitney as though it was a misfortune he understood. Her cheek pressed against his chest without solicitude. Her mother stood alone, a silk summer shawl draped over her shoulder. Anita examined the way Whitney’s body laid limp in the arms of a stranger and she wondered what she had looked like tangled with brass-band-Tom. She stopped herself, embarrassed.
Anita was sixteen when a boy’s naked body was against hers. His name was Luis Marnon, the oldest of a wealthy family of four. They were childhood friends, but not the kind who talked about getting married when they grew up. Luis came to play with Anita’s toys by himself and as they got older, he would peek at Whitney through the cracked door of her bedroom.
Anita’s father, a biohazard remediation contractor (or a crime scene carpet cleaner) worked with Luis’s mother, a forensic scientist, so Anita and Luis remained casual acquaintances through conversations of grisly homicides that defiled the fabric on floors. Because of the frequency of blood-related remarks in inappropriate situations, Luis raved about American Psycho. Anita liked that Luis laughed at things that made people uncomfortable and Luis liked the attention, so he invited her over on a Wednesday. He told her his parents were gone for the night, but he had to stay in with his three younger sisters. They sat in the basement on a moldy couch splotched with a color combination of asparagus green and Prussian blue. Shrieks of ill-mannered girls echoed throughout the house above.
Luis placed his hand on the inside of her thigh. It felt warm through her denim jeans and she thought he smelled like microwave pizza. He said if the movie was too scary for her, they didn’t have to watch it. She said she was fine. He said if she starts to get tired, she could just go home whenever. She said she was fine. He didn’t even wait twenty minutes before he put his tongue that tasted of pepperoni into her mouth and his clammy hands all over her body. He took off her jeans hastily, leaving the right pant leg still wrapped around her ankle. He didn’t ask if she was fine.
He whispered in her ear, “my sisters are upstairs, don’t let them hear” then covered her mouth with the palm of his hand. He tasted like salt. She stared at the cracks in the ceiling that spider webbed like a bonsai tree as her body slowly sunk into the space between the cushions with each thrust of his hips.
Anita saw her mother cry when she was twenty. They were in a bathroom with wallpaper decorated with swans in an arm of a prairie.
Her mother had raven black hair like Anita’s grandmother, a domestic woman who was never home, and cornflower blue eyes like her grandfather, a man preoccupied with the dead. She was raised in a farmhouse in Carbury, North Dakota, which became a ghost town before they were gone. They stopped maintaining the roads and the potholes became inescapable. So they moved to Colma, California, whose motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma” because the dead outnumber the living by one thousand to one.
Anita sat on the black and white tiled bathroom floor with her mother in the tub beside her. The skin between her mother’s eyebrows, above the arch of her nose, wrinkled as she cried.
“You have an idea of the future… this abstraction,” her mother began, pulling at the loose threads of her hair, “that I do not have. Time isn’t on my side.”
Her body slid toward the water, the skin on her back skidding against the acrylic surface of the tub. “I wish that your father and I did things differently.”
“I’m sorry,” Anita muttered.
They married in March a couple of months before Ronnie was born. The wedding photographs show a pregnant woman in a simple white dress. Her arms hung straight with the heel of Anita’s father’s hand against his wife’s shoulder blade. He was unemployed but never around; a man who always talked about going fishing but never did.
“I don’t know if we did everything right.” She smiled, but her chin quivered.
Her mother was a small breasted, narrow-hipped woman who exhibited a slenderness that never looked quite right on her body.
“I’d like to think I did everything okay.” She held herself tightly, trying to take up less space. Half of the tub was empty. “And I’m happy, but not all the time.”
“Stretch your legs out, Mom,” Anita said.
“Oh, I’m fine.” Her prominent spine pressed against the bathtub.
“There’s much more room,” Anita glanced at the rest of the water. “Come on now, put your legs out.”
“I told you I’m fine.”
The water skimmed the edge of her mother’s cleft chin.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mom,” Anita said with a harsh whisper. “If you let go of your legs you’ll have a much better bath.”
“Don’t be crazy. The bath is just fine.” Her mother smiled again, the tears in her eyes continued to fall. “I’m talking too much.”
Her mother reached for a tube of cream. She put a small drop onto her fingertip and massaged it deeply into the wrinkles on her forehead.
Anita held the body of her own child when she was twenty-seven. Apricot sunlight formed angelic shadows across the bathroom tile; it was a golden August evening of jade and bronze.
Anita’s daughter was born with Whitney’s auburn hair but it darkened over time to the shade of Anita’s mother’s. She was named Audre.
Anita lowered her daughter into a porcelain basin, half-filled with tepid water.
“Only for a moment,” Anita whispered as Audre’s face crinkled with the touch of the bath water.
Anita caressed Audre’s thighs with a damp cotton washcloth, humming a song her mother used when singing her to sleep.
The shadows that spread along the tile disappeared as the sun set. Anita let the water from her palm fall through the cracks between her fingers. It trickled atop Audre’s head, small droplets running down her cheeks. Anita rested three fingers to the back of Audre’s neck and lifted her from the basin.
Anita held her daughter’s body like it was her mother’s body and like it was Whitney’s body. Anita held her daughter’s body like it was her body.