“Look, look, look.” The boyfriend turned to show me a strip of masking tape attached to his dick.
“Don’t get primer on that,” I replied. I think I have painted more than a hundred rooms in my life. I attack the task as I do all tasks, like line drives. Painting in the nude was the best way to avoid washing acrylic off another T-shirt, even if I have dozens. If you travel to Amsterdam and you can not afford the Renoir or the Natchez triple dresser, a T-shirt emblazoned with green people boffing doggy style can substitute as a souvenir. Plus, I run in a lot of 10Ks. This activity nets you shin splints, free orange juice and free T-shirts. Allison and I run them once a month. We go to class together, bar hop together and run together. Last week we entered the Santa Anita Run. Someone miscalculated the length, the race was .75 miles longer than it should have been. When you strategise for 6.2, 6.95 takes a toll. You’ve spent all you had before the last mile and so you dodder along in the end, like a rented pony. They still owe you the T-shirt however, no matter how late you cross the finish line.
The boyfriend isn’t a precise painter. He gets easily frustrated and slashes the white trim and cabinet corners with orange streaks by mistake. This frustrates me but watching him try to keep from dangling into the quart of Sunny Melon Misty makes up for the stress. There is only one paint can and we keep it near him. He can not dip his brush and carry it across the room without leaving a trail and I can. Every time he bends down he risks immersion. I paint in clean lines and I cover all cracks and crevices with a thick coat of paint because I don’t like to be reminded of the past. Chinks of old paint remind me of jobs not well done and I never let those go. I am still in recovery over a marriage that crashed two years ago because it seems that unless you die I can’t let you go, even then, come to think of it. My grandfather died when I was seven and I cried for about a year. Decades later I still believe that my life would have turned out better had he lived although I have no experiential proof of this. Better than what I can not say. Better than what is. The boyfriend doesn’t like my ex-husband, who lives a block away and shares custody of the dogs with me, but then none of my friends ever did.
I come to a wall plate that the boyfriend neglected to remove when we were prepping. Shit. Then I pull open three drawers stuffed to the gills with unrelated objects until I locate a screwdriver. It is too large to fit the screw heads so I press hard and make the tip do the work of a smaller driver. Then I toss it back into any drawer and it lands on a faded picture of three kids in shower caps sharing a bath. I was the oldest and Molly the youngest and in that space we found fewer reasons to compete than did Andrea and Molly who shared a room and fought over everything, and me and Andrea who likened one another to vipers, and kept our distance. Following a wicked impulse I crumple the picture and try to toss it into the trash. It bounds off the rim and falls into the bucket by the boyfriend’s naked ass.
“Why throw it away?” The boyfriend recovers it.
“Old picture,” I said. “It can’t be repaired.”
He wants to ask who the subjects are but he knows better. Instead he stuffs it in another drawer for the day I want to frame it.
I have no pictures of my sisters on my walls. Last year I took all my family pictures and threw them away. This is an engrained habit. As a child I used to scour the family albums and remove pictures of me from the pages. I can’t tell you now if I was wiping me or them from a combined existence. The pictures didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know who the skinny girl with the long braids was and the pictures pretended intent were there was none. We didn’t love each other though we wished we did. The girl that was me was always smiling. There’s a picture I have kept. It was taken on Circus Day at the beach club when Grandfather had hoisted me onto his shoulders. I had gotten my face painted like a clown. I hadn’t read Stephen King yet; clowns were still fun. I looked like a little girl and I have always wondered who that girl was. I always suffer vertigo when I see the old pictures and so from time to time I remove all traces of the pretense from the family albums. No one looked at them until we had all grown so no one noticed the lack until years later and by then no one wanted the albums. My family was like a kelp bed in which things get trapped but never grow. There’s a holdfast but it keeps no one to center, provides no comfort from the salted tides that keep us drifting.
The picture I tried to toss shows Molly, Andrea and me, Cammy, sitting in the tub on a Saturday night. Andrea drifted out of my life like a brown blade separated from the kelp bed and sent to sea. Molly drowned thirty-five years ago. A stone sinking to the base of the shallow end of the pool and I remember that I never said a word although I watched her go because I did not believe in dying when I was eight although I had already been to one funeral by the time Molly sank. She didn’t struggle, that was the other thing. I saw her drift. Then I saw bubbles and then I looked towards my parents and their friends who were camped out by the pool in bright suits and sunning slickly underneath a boiling sun. Someone with thick gold rings wrapped her hand around a tall glass with a pink drink in it, someone else searched for her sunglasses. A man I disliked because he called me “Punkin” and hugged me whenever he visited was telling a story and no one made a fuss when the baby first dropped off the steps.
I took my cues from the adults; when they were afraid I was afraid. When my teacher showed our class pictures of lung cancer and told us about dying I went home and filled a trashcan with my father’s cigarettes and matchbooks then ran a hose into the result so that nothing could be saved. My mother said that I was overreacting. The first time I saw my dad beat Mom they told me not to make a fuss so I pulled out a coloring book and tried very hard to stay within the lines until they stopped fighting. When my Grandmother staggered to the living room window and stared in at us looking like a Grimm’s ghoul, Mother told us to keep eating while she went outside, pried the shrieking meemy from the window and called the caretaker who had abandoned his post for Happy Hour down the street. When Dad pulled the clerk over the counter at 32 Flavors because there were no bananas, we were told to “get a grip.” Afterwards we all piled into the back of the station wagon in silence and waited while Daddy decided whether he wanted to put Paint Your Wagon or Johnny Mathis into the 8-track and I don’t think anyone mentioned the incident to my mother.
When I was eight Andrea set the garage on fire. She had been dropping matches into the high wild grass that grew in the back and stomping out the flames until the flames overcame the power of the stomp. I wasn’t worried until the maid began to scream; neither was Andrea come to think of it. We were watching Hogan’s Heroes on a Saturday afternoon and if my mother had known she would have taken the television set away again. Andrea stopped to get caught up on the storyline before she went into the kitchen to get a drink and pretend to notice the flames. My parents went crazy, but no one was hurt so why were they crying? When I was nine I set my bedroom on fire; I put it out and didn’t get upset until my mother discovered the damage, a big black hole in the carpet and three singed stuffed dogs, and yelled at me. By the time I saw Dad kick a beggar sitting outside a football stadium I knew to keep moving through the line until it was time for the ticket taker to turn my ticket into a stub. No need for a scene unless someone said so. Given all these confusing cues how was I to know, when I was ten, that Molly sinking to the bottom was cause for concern unless an adult said so? I figured she’d hold her breath until she could breathe again. I knew people died but the dead seemed retrievable to me. Grandfather had died, so they said, but I’d had no proof except for his absence. People vanished when they died; that didn’t mean they couldn’t recover.
“Susan,” the woman with the rings said. The rest of the men were soaking in the jacuzzi at the other end of the pool and did not hear. Without a word, my mother launched into the water and pulled the baby onto the deck. Molly didn’t look dead, just still, like a stuffed animal. She drooled when they turned her over. Someone ran to the house to phone a doctor. The others pressed her chest and called her name. The adults waved me away while they tried to make her breathe and then forgot about me altogether once the ambulance arrived. My mother climbed into the ambulance, my father and the other four drove the station wagon after it and they left me by the pool with water lapping up the steps, sounds drifting in from the next door neighbors and our German Shepherd, Edel, who knocked the imported cheese tray to the ground so that he could polish off the pepperoni and jarlsburg slices. He was in a hurry and made the table with the drinks jiggle and I noticed sweating glasses and ice still floating in a pitcher of a concoction I was told never to touch because it was bad for me.
So they took my sister away and like the other times when people had died we kids were set aside, sent to our rooms to play, until the grieving was done. We were judged too young to attend services and then too much trouble to tend while my mother recovered and so we were sent to a friend’s for two weeks after which we returned to find all traces of the third girl removed from the premises. All her things gone, all her colors revised. I suspect that my parents’ purposes were two-fold. They wanted to protect us from the loss and wanted to avoid being required to share their loss with us. But the effect was stunning. Andrea and I obeyed the unspoken edict and we never talked about Molly but there were spaces in the house that missed her. Molly’s bed was gone but not the space in which it stood. There were two instead of three toothbrush holders by the sink, two places at the table, and the child seat was gone from the back of the car but that didn’t mean the room we had made for those things went with Molly. Still if our parents meant us to forget we could pretend. Andrea and I became concerned at how easily one could be excised from life. I took to hiding objects all over the house so that if I died my parents would never be able to find everything and throw it away. Andrea began scoring the walls and the furniture with fork marks. Branding the house with her presence, she picked both obvious and obscure places to damage so that they could never erase her entirely even if they wanted, even if they spent days scouring the rooms with caulk and sandpaper. Hiding things was fun and I started everybody else’s belongings as well. I presumed I could make a family stay if they could never find all their things. We would never move, and no one could leave because no one could ever completely pack.
“This is just making things harder,” my mother said to me. It was Friday night. She and my father were going to a party. He was dressed and angry and she had spent the past hour searching for her shoes, black leather pumps that matched her dress. She’d put on her phony braid tonight, the one that draped down her back. When she pulled the last shoe from the living room cupboard she noticed three scratches in the wood. She rubbed them with her fingers as if to erase them and then shut the door.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. The cupboard held my collection of Crypt Keeper comic books so I made a big deal of reopening it and shifting through the pile. My mother pulled me away and slammed the door shut. I opened it again.
Then she closed it and held it tight while I waited for her to give up. “You have to stop,” she said.
“You have to grow up.”
“This is your fault.” She brandished the shoe at me. “That,” she pointed at the pool, “is not.”
My mother stopped taking us to the barber after Molly died so Andrea and I grew our hair long. Molly never got to that stage. I never saw her in anything but a pageboy. They made clay heads of us all when we were little, the same three girls with page boys, elaborate bows in the back and eyes scored to make pupils. They were aligned in the living room on three bronze pedestals and reminded me of goddesses and witches and the fates depending on which book I was reading at the time.
The busts were staged on the piano, an instrument that I doggedly played badly for years. I was talented, to a point, but I never like to practice. It wasn’t that I lacked discipline but that I was afraid to be heard failing to play the pieces perfectly. I would wait until the house was empty and then try. But the house was rarely empty. The maid lived in and my parents liked to socialize. I allowed Molly to sit nearby and listen to me play unless I was in a bad mood, then I called her names and made her leave. She was afraid to be alone and so sometimes I even had to hit her until she hid from me. Neither of us liked to be alone come to think of it. I had been known to crawl into the closet with the dog and sleep when all the adults were out because I was frightened of burglars, although I had never seen one and knew no one who had ever been robbed. After Molly died when I played the piano because I wanted her near if only to explain the change and I realized in retrospect that her presence had been comforting.
Because I was the oldest, I was taught to change Molly’s diapers and was supposed to help out when she was toilet training. It was fun for a while, until it was not. I never lost my taste for baby food so I didn’t mind feeding her until she refused assistance, by launching handfuls of muck into the air. She slept with me when Dad got loud and never got over her fear of either of her grandparents. Grandfather was too big and Grandmother smelled like gin and Virginia Slims which Molly claimed reminded her of poop. Poop was the coverall word for anything icky. Icky was bad smells, bad tastes, scrapes, bad table manners and people she didn’t like. She was still small enough to be carried and guests liked to try their hand at it, whether she consented or not. She learned, like me, to hold her tongue and endure. Eventually we escaped and hid under tables and in the big fireplace behind the iron mesh until the adults got soused enough to forget we existed. Andrea liked the attention. When she wanted to be ignored she turned mean. She didn’t need to hide ever.
We wrestled with one another at the drop of a hat. For us the world was all about defending territories. To cut down on fights my Mom color-coded our possessions. Rooms, bed sheets, furniture, even tennis shoes. Each child was issued a bottle of nail polish so that they could tag their belongings. I was orange, Andrea was purple and Molly was pink. I wanted purple but didn’t have my sister’s aggressive edge and she reached for the bottle first. Orange was my second choice. My boyfriend and I were in fact painting my kitchen orange although the label insisted it was a fancier shade.
“Goddammit.” The boyfriend was being conquered by the octagonal configuration of the bay windows. He used a soft rising pitch when he was annoyed, a tone I have had to learn because in my family when we are pissed, we bellow. I suspect the boyfriend is the kind who could never draw within the lines when he was little and I am annoyed at his incompetence but I cut him slack because I feel badly. I left the Gynol on the counter last night and in the dark he mistook it for toothpaste. He had come home late and had left the lights out as a thoughtful gesture and I had told him to feel around for the Crest, a brand name I always use because my mother bought it for us when we were little.
I set the brush down and fish the picture of me and my sisters out of the drawer. It’s turning blue and curling with age. It reminds me of the camera shop two blocks from our house where my grandparents had all their film developed and then it reminds me of Saturday nights at my grandparents’. My parents let us stay over on Saturdays so that Grandmother could take us to 7 a.m. mass. My parents were atheists but had no argument with their children being informed. I went to mass, learned the prayers and all the proper responses to liturgy and enjoyed Sunday school but never took to the notion of life after death. Again, no one could ever prove it to me. For a while after Molly died I had a nightmare that she had been buried alive. I was worried she would suffocate and I knew damn well that she was scared of being alone and of being alone in the dark. “It doesn’t work that way,” my mother tried to explain. “Dead people don’t need to breathe.” Ah, only living people need air, like little babies sitting in water I thought but did not say. Anyway the bible stories were entertaining and I was proud of my ability to remember and recite scripture but as for faith, I required proof. When it was explained to me that faith existed without it, I lost interest. You can’t fill holes with faith, you need dirt and someone to swing the shovel. Grandfather never went to church. When I asked him why he said that he was a Methodist and that they never attended services, instead they read the papers on Sundays and made pancakes afterwards. There’s another picture of us somewhere with all of us in bathing suits perched on the back of the couch reading the comics with Grandfather. We look happy. I hide some things even from myself and I bet if I looked around my house I might find that one still exists.
Andrea and I had less in common after Molly died. I can’t say I know why. We passed in the hallways but never crossed paths. We didn’t share clothing, didn’t share friends, didn’t share secrets except for the ones about our parents and those we knew well enough never to repeat. If we talked at all, the conversations always turned into arguments but since we never knew each other well I still can’t imagine what we had to fight about except that for whatever reason anger was our chosen dialect.
Molly died a sudden cardiac death. She was dead possibly before she dropped off the step. They make bad hearts in my family. Everyone is afraid of dying. My grandfather died on the golf course and my father died during dinner while waiting for someone to bring him a spoon so he could serve the mashed potatoes. When I got older I asked my mother where she was buried and it was then I was told that they had scattered her ashes overboard and that there was no where to visit, except the ocean and that did not satisfy. Molly dying sudden made every day seem suspicious. No one had told us she was sick maybe we were sick and now that I say this I know why Andrea and I stopped talking. Who wanted to see another sister go. Best to leave while they were breathing. And it was not my fault but even as the years go by and I know I did not kill my sister with disregard I know I felt nothing when I saw her sink. It frightens me no end to believe that I did not care and being raised in a place where the plot was hard to follow did not explain what I did that day nor does it excuse my failure to speak.
“Shit.” The boyfriend says again. I have to look up. He has trailed a vein of paint across the microwave.
“Stop,” I say, hoping to forestall the mess he will make if he tries to clean up. The house was painted pink when I bought it. Little by little I have been recovering the walls from that tainted tone.
“Save the picture at least,” he says and I see that he had pulled it out again and it has a drip on it.
“I am a graduate student matriculating at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I have been published in the The Portland Review, Danse Macabre, and will be included in Jarrett Keene’s upcoming anthology out of Stephen’s Press. My work has also been selected by our department for submission to the Kulka Best American Voices anthology.” E-mail: writtenword6[at]gmail.com