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Alyss

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Unfamiliar Skin

I am sixteen, and often have nightmares about being at school with no makeup on, or crawling into bed with a boy only to discover in horror that my legs aren’t shaved. In one of the dreams, I sneak away to the bathroom to shave my legs in the sink before he notices, but I keep cutting myself accidentally, covering the cuts with tape so that he doesn’t see the blood. After some time of this I no longer have skin left. I am raw everywhere.

I walk back into the room, and he sees me, and says,

“You’ve never been so beautiful.”

***

I’m joking, I’m only joking, but he says, “Really? Okay.”

And I don’t know how to say no, I never have. So I pull over on the side of the road, which doesn’t matter because it’s so dark and this road leads to nowhere. While he takes my clothes off, kisses my stomach, bangs my head against the car door, I’m thinking of the coke stains on the carpet. I’m thinking of how monsters could be anywhere, hiding in the grass.

It’s over and I let him drive home, because he asks. I give him money for cigarettes, because he asks. He should have known that I was only joking. I should have never let him drive my car.

I only wanted a friend and now I’m left with an empty tank of gas in place of something I don’t even think should count.

***

This is a story I never tell: after the divorce, my mom dated a man who lived down the street from our house. It was a new house, and the deed was in my mother’s name. She was proud of that. She worked hard to keep our tiny world afloat, and she was beautiful, really beautiful. She said she felt like she was in high school all over again, and she was head cheerleader.

Mike was visiting five houses over. He stuck around for a week or two, enough for us to notice that he was sleeping over. My mom loaned him two hundred dollars, no one can remember what for, and he ghosted out of town soon after.

On Mother’s Day almost six months later, he called to let her know he was coming back to town and wanted to see her. She was in her bathrobe, frantically applying mascara and brushing her hair when she sliced her retina on one of the bristles of the round brush. A neighbor drove her to the hospital and took us to the mall to buy her a Mother’s Day gift while we were waiting. The money never showed up, and neither did Mike.

This is a story I always tell: On New Year’s Eve, my sister and I were at my dad’s house. We had spent most of the winter break with him, and he had spent most of it complaining about a woman he had just broken up with. He said she was crazy, irrational, obsessed with him. On New Year’s Eve she showed up at his house unexpected, uninvited. After the ball dropped, I went into my room to call my mom, and when I came out, they were kissing sloppily on the couch. Six months later they were married, and two months after that she killed him with a bullet to the back of the head.

***

I am walking up the stairs to my apartment, when I hear a voice coming from just outside the next apartment over: “Hey, baby. What you doin’?” I look over, and there are a group of guys drinking and sitting outside my neighbor’s front door. I don’t say anything, just look down and fumble with my keys. The voice starts in again: “I said hi to you, are you going to be rude?” I still don’t look up. Another guy says, “Dude, cut it out. Don’t be a dick.” The first guy shouts out in my direction: “What are you, a dyke?” and that’s when I finally unlock the door and slip inside quickly. I put my groceries down on the counter, and I feel strange, changed and unsafe.

Once I have time to think about it, I’m angry at myself for not saying anything back. I am shocked that word, “dyke,” hurts as much as it does. I know that there is nothing bad about being gay. Still, the single syllable crosses my embarrassed face like a slap mark.

I sit on the kitchen floor the rest of the night, imagining that if I had met him in a dark alley, I would have stabbed him in the eye with my car keys.

***

At the end of that summer, I met my parents at their house. The sun filtered through the white kitchen. There were two brown glass bottles on the table, and my stepdad held my mom’s hand. She was wearing her navy blue work shirt and khaki’s, her hair pinned back in the same gold clip she had always worn.

She pulled out a manila envelope full of x-rays. “I have breast cancer.” she said. It was her 46th birthday.

***

He offers me his bed, as if I don’t know what comes next, then like an afterthought, rolls over and presses his lips against mine. I just want something interesting to happen and I don’t care what. Soon I don’t know whose clothes are whose, or whose hands are whose, whose worried fingers are sifting through layers of unfamiliar skin. He rams his body into mine and I kiss that crook where his neck meets his shoulder so many times it must be raw. I fake an orgasm, because that is the currency I carry, the price I pay for intimacy. He doesn’t notice, or if he does, he doesn’t say anything.

In the morning, everyone wakes up with dust in the corners of their eyes and goes outside on the balcony to bathe in the golden sky. I eat breakfast in silence. Someone breaks a glass and spills red wine on the carpet, and somebody else laughs about it.

Finally, he comes back but he wants to be alone. So I leave him alone. I should have known that I’m not safe inside my head, that this is what I do.

I swallow a bottle of rum and fall asleep in a stranger’s bed and the next day, without saying goodbye, I drive the long stretch home with my insides burning.

***

She texts me to say that she is waiting for me on a bench downtown. I text her to say that I am on my way there, which is a lie. I’m still standing in my closet, wondering what to wear for the first date I have ever been on with a girl. I have dated boys, and known what to do, so I feel like this should be easier, come naturally, but it doesn’t. Instead it feels like waking up underwater and being expected to know how to breathe.

I decide on a dress, a blue one, which compliments the yellow shirt she is wearing when I get there. We begin to talk, about school, about the way the park downtown is lit up at night during the winter months, and how the lights remind us both of snowflakes. We decide to go back to her house. I go in her car with her, and she drives. I am doing things that must mean I trust her very much for someone I barely know. I am aware that it is probably because she is a woman, and that because she is a woman I am not afraid of her. I am allowing myself to be a passenger in her car, to let her take me somewhere I have never been before.

Her house is small and comfortable, and she pours sparkling water into a glass and hands it to me, while I sit in a wooden chair in the center of her kitchen petting her elderly Australian Shepherd. We laugh and talk all night, and when she drops me back off at my car, she hugs me gently and lets her body linger. It is on the way home when I realize that this is the best date I have ever been on.

I never call her again.

***

My youngest sister is eight now, and when she puts on my mom’s bra and walks around the house, laughing and pretending she has “big boobies,” my stepdad gets angry. He doesn’t approve of her fascination with when or how or why she will grow breasts.

My youngest sister has learned a lot about breasts in the past year, after watching my mom lose hers to cancer. Through some unwritten, unspoken congress my family has decided that of two undesirable conversations, it is more appropriate to talk about breasts than about death. I listen silently as my mother explains the tubes that drain fluid from her sides, and how the doctor will cut off a section of her earlobe to form a new nipple during reconstruction. These are the things she talks about, because these are the questions that we ask. She says the reconstruction is the most painful part, and we don’t ask why she chose to do it at all, when she is in her late forties and has a husband and can no longer have children.

A few days after the diagnosis, I drove her to work.

She said, “You know what’s weird? When I found out, the first thing I thought of was how much I hate all that pink ribbon stuff. I think it’s stupid.”

“You don’t have to start liking it just because you have breast cancer now. You’re allowed to hate it, if you want to. I mean, you’re still the same person.” I said.

She sighed, “Yeah, I know.”

A few months later, our house is covered in pink ribbons and things that say “Breast Cancer Survivor” on them. My mom drinks tap water from a pink mug while she is on bed rest, recovering from her surgery. My mother is alive, and she is alive because she gave up a part of her body. But looking at those pink ribbons, it is I who suddenly feel a profound sense of loss.

On the last night of my seaside sabbatical I woke at dawn and saw her get out of my bed and take a blanket to the couch. The window was open, and the ocean’s sigh filled the blue room. I drifted back to sleep with the phrase my Pisces lover rattling my head. We had waffles for breakfast, I took her home, and left town for good.

I spent the twelve hour drive trying to purge the stone she planted in my stomach, chopping at the rung she climbed inside of me. I prayed desperately to rid myself of something I didn’t really understand.

Months later, landlocked and less guilty, I thought of her. She would be spending summer in the Bay, and I wanted badly to talk to her, but couldn’t bring myself to call. That’s when I realized what the guilt was for, what I had actually ruined: it was the miso soup she made from scratch for me when I was drunk and singing in her kitchen. It was pizza on the beach, and how she waited for me while I took my time, standing knee-deep in the waves, in the middle of January. She stood by the shore and watched, never, ever questioning why.

 

Erin Slaughter

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