TQ2 Prose Open Winner
The water park was his idea and, if Lisa knew one thing about herself, it was when it came to saying no she was a complete shipwreck. Which was just fancy for disaster. Catastrophe. Calamity. Blight. She brushed her hair one thousand times Friday night and stared into the mirror above the sink in the bathroom until she no longer believed she was a sixteen-year-old late bloomer just beginning her bleed. She was a sixteen-year-old heartbreaker, a sixteen-year-old succubus, a sixteen-year-old bomb. Lethal. Ticking.
Clean up your hair, her mother would yell. When Lisa still had a bedroom, it had been disaster area. Her mother was expert at communicating through walls, closed doors, concrete slabs, wood floors. When launched far-range, her mother’s voice twanged. Lisa hated that. And then her mother expected a response—yes, mama—and Lisa hated to raise her voice. So prevention. Out comes the broom. A little dustpan for hair spools that mice bump into nests. Noses poking the womb.
Lisa and her mother lived in the basement apartment of her uncle’s house without much sunlight. Rolf and his girls. Both women had grown pale, but Lisa’s mother had grown paler because Lisa’s mother was expert at nothing if not complaining. She announced her victimhood with the refinement of an ancient martyr.
The apartment was very nice, if not superfluous. There wasn’t a kitchen, but a soda fountain that Lisa’s uncle’s wife (now deceased) had insisted on when the house was built, but they were only two women in the basement of a mansion: they kept seltzer and lemons and yogurt in the fridge, vodka in the freezer. From time to time, a bone teacup teeming with nuts, wriggling with seeds found its way to the coffee table. A putrid haze—the smell of rotted pumpkins—hung around the indoor pool, barely twelve meters long, and, according to Lisa’s mother, a complete disgrace for the serious lap swimmer. That had been Lisa’s mother once. Serious in the water.
Now they lived off the dregs of her uncle’s charity. Slept head to foot on the same deep couch, still as sloths. Lisa smelled the mold grow on her mother’s womanhood. Her mother refused to sleep alone; her mother refused to appease her uncle with sex or company. Lisa knew better: she hadn’t slept with Rolf, just drank with him upstairs. Which was worse?
Should there be a special tier of hell for red-bearded men? Grief had eroded his sense of generosity. The longer his wife lay interred in earth, glommed with maggots and turds, the stranger Rolf became. Miserly. Mean-hearted. Worse. He had never been warm, but had been given to showy displays of wealth.
Thus the closets stacked with shoe boxes. (When shoes were expensive, even the boxes felt good. Lisa liked heels stuck with pearls. A grosgrain bow adorning the toe.) Thus the garment bags of vacuum-packed furs. (In mink, you’re invisible with a blink.) Thus jewels. (Scarabs.) The wine cellar. (Chateau, chateau.) Lisa didn’t care for food, but she sipped now and then.
Only he knew how alcohol trounced her.
Only Lisa knew, at any given moment, which familial he she meant.
How had her uncle made his money? A group in an unassuming brownstone strategized his assets.
As with most men she’d encountered, he simply knew his wants.
Her mother, on the other hand, was the queen of indecision, waffle this and that, what should I be today? In Lisa’s fourteen cognizant years, her mother had been a painter, a teacher, an artist’s model, a maid; currently, she was a part-time children’s librarian. We live in a rapid-cycling moment, she said. I needn’t subscribe to a style. Her husband had allowed these dalliances of purpose, and her husband’s brother sheltered the two of them now.
If I brush my hair one thousand times, will my whole history fall out? Will I become a daughter again, a cousin, a niece? Will I have a role, a space, a stall to carve my name? If I make a wish on a weekend, will the following week fall the same? Does Friday night count?
The uncle had failed to produce a child with his wife: instead, they adopted a strapping son. A jaw that could slice an eyeball. Chiseled bone instead of chubby cheeks: on all fours, you could lap some potion from those hollows. The son was a Rex boy, which meant he arrived on weekends, his navy blazers acrid. Lisa had her driver’s license. Freedom required a motor. She’d pick him up at the train station, and stumble over her reflection in his aviators. The buzzing between her legs wouldn’t stop. There was nothing but hunger in her gut.
“Pretty girl,” Patrick called her.
When Patrick called her pretty girl, he fit the words into one another like the corner pieces of a puzzle—suddenly she had a shape, she felt herself fill in: a horse, a dolphin, a sunset, a coast.
“Hey pretty girl,” he said, Friday at 6:34 p.m., after he’d gnawed on her upper lip.
Thick black smoke hung around them, a stole around her throat, a scarab in her pocket. She nudged a wad of gum with the pretty toe of her dead aunt’s shoe. Men noticed nothing. His skin was sticky from the train.
“Swing by the Spaniards’?”
It was a two-part stop. Patrick dropped off three used blazers, three mussed shirts; picked up three cleaned blazers, three pressed shirts. Afterwards, they sat on overturned masa drums behind the cantina and shared a joint with a cook from whom Patrick occasionally bought coke and listened to the tamped down sounds of Mexican rap junking out from the kitchen.
He had none of his uncle’s red hair, and for this reason, rather than eat a free taco or lick salt off her wrist, Lisa could tame herself just by watching him smoke, the shriveled joint pinched between his two fingers, a genius with chalk, her mother and a lemon twist. Lisa and her other— hey, pretty girl—a girl she could pinch between two fingers. She tried not to tap her feet or nod her head to the music the way she noticed her mother do when liquor or loss laced her blood. Lisa held her head still and fed on Patrick. He was the prettiest boy she’d ever seen, and when he smoked his lips puckered and his cheeks ruddied and there he was, a man on fire. Her desire to cool him off always took the form of the pool, where the waters would be rid of her mother’s eczema petals, her mother’s strands of lackluster hair (she couldn’t afford to keep up dye jobs), her mother’s wedding ring at the bottom of the pool. In Lisa’s water, Patrick could barely kick, could barely scissor, didn’t tread. He sunk and she dove, and neither of them could really swim.
There’s no story without me, her mother told her, and so Lisa believed it to be true.
Her mother’s one story scared Lisa half to death. Zombie girl. Ether bones. Didn’t float. Her mother had been one of the three girls on the dark water ride. Ye Olde Mill. What were those words? Her mother and two girlfriends.
They’d been the three girls, three pairs of dilated pupils that caught the little boy drown. First he was standing, and then he went under.
The story went like this:
The lights went out when the music went up and we were rolling. I kept feeling for the tab under my tongue but it was gone before we even got in line, so golden. Lola, my sweet friend, started feeling secret first, someone tracing her neck, and all of us were looking into the splashing, water lapped at our rowboat, props—the old mill dumped buckets, a robo-Holstein wore a bell; there was June, who loved the water, she was all water, and Angel, an Aquarius, and of course, that was me, I wore my hair to look wet then, squished down with gel. I smelled like apples. The boy stood outside the ride, in the shallow water, dripping in his trunks. Six? Five? He was bitsy. Tiny brown nipples on his hollow chest. We were just girls. Water sloshed around our boat, stung our ankles. Stunk. The music cranked along and then the boy had an arrow on his chest, orange neon, arrow on his chest, asp on his cheek. And then Lola licked my knee, always she was, always putting her tongue in other people’s business, she was hot water, always hot, I closed my eyes, relaxed into the thrum until the lights went on and the music quit and the boy was down in the water, face planted in the dirty salty, scuzzy froth, crushed on the underwater track. The lights stayed on. A siren pealed. Two boats in front of us, a man held down a mother who’d started to wail.
After she swept up her hair, Lisa polished the mirror and scrubbed the tub and shined the shower rod. She’d become neat when they lost their house. When they lost their house, she lost her appetite. What would her father say, she wondered, but he had always been a silent man.
“A silent lover,” her mother complained, when they were still adjusting to the confines of the basement apartment, and Lisa’s mother was offering the dud seeds of her ended marriage in exchange for daughterly love. “Never stick with a silent lover.” Her mother’s latest lover was a lemon peel: chew, chew, chew, gross swallow. But a lemon didn’t listen. There was Lisa, always a good ear. A very demure young lady. Best behavior. Little angel. “A lover expresses himself, he gives you signs.”
At fifteen, she nodded along as her mother listed from one shock to the next. Her father had been “inexpert.” She, her mother, had been “exhausting” and “greedy” and flat-out “starved.” Lisa and her mother sat like chums on the spinny stools at the soda fountain bar. It was easy to see that her mother avoided her reflection in the mirror, but Lisa looked. In this mirror, she saw her mother plain as day. Then there was pretty girl. But where was Lisa?
The dead are transparent, Lisa knew, and so her father could do nothing except allow her mother to pour through him, jousting out his solemn affairs and exposing them to subterranean air.
“He was boring,” Lisa’s mother said.
In the mirror and in person, she was a sharp woman, angles and a receding hairline, eyes downward sunk: hours reading in the dark. At night, Lisa slid a finger down her nose, straight and unyielding—no ski slope up, no puppy dog cleft—and wondered how to skirt the fates.
Fifteen. An eternity ago. Everything was different menstruating. Everywhere below her neck ached. She’d been late to bleed. But now she could change.
It wasn’t fair to blame her mother. Her mother was haunted by grief and plagued by indecision and born into a time when fads flirted and fled, one minute, the next. It wasn’t fair to blame her mother. There was more than one way to be a woman.
The first time, she thought nothing of his knees. Eventually, she would hear them, the joints creaking and cracking as her uncle descended the stairs. She could see her uncle, even if she were belly-down, staring into the pool, through the hallway beyond the nautical toilet, two rooms away. He would run a hand over the gleaming bar, his reflection refracted by sundae cups andtraw carousels; he would check for dust. Dust meant her mother was around; Lisa kept things clean. Her mother complained about dirt, but didn’t devote herself to hygiene’s routine.
The first time, Lisa had been spread out on a towel in the pool room, staring into the water, hoping to calm herself down. In PE, they learned about relaxation after retro calisthenics. Burpees and jumping jacks in neat rows, and then they stretched and laid themselves out, flat as boards, on the grass behind the tennis courts, fifty girls in white and navy uniforms. Tense your toes, Miss Schneider announced from her golf cart. Fat dimpled her enormous thighs; she was too big to ambulate without a motor. Tense your calves, your quads, your hammies. Tense your glutes, no laughing. Your stomach, your abs, make a fist, come on now, ladies, make a fist, think of someone you’d really like to punch, good, squeeze your eyes, grit your teeth, tense your neck. And then—let it out. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Relax your eyes, let your mouth slacken, your arms are weightless, your fists unclench, feel each finger as empty as a straw, stop sucking in, relax those booties, those legs. Let your toes float off your feet.
The first time was an after-school, riled up time. She was one girl out of two hundred girls at St. Margaret’s, and she had always been fearful outside the family. Gossiping didn’t come easily. When she tried to adopt the same tone and skipping mannerisms, when she tried to put a perfect flip in her ponytail, not only did she fail, but guilt lashed her throat. Punishment. The air around her, all scooped up, vacuumed. Twice she’d passed out, and twice was enough. She kept quiet and ragged on the green slate of her conscience. After-school, she soothed herself with water.
The pool was a rectangle, bordered in white and green hexagonal tiles. Hairline cracks veined the bottom. The pool meant depth. It was Deep End. Gutters. The presence of moisture: things got wet, dried off, got wet again. The pool was still until she dipped in a hand. The water was grace. Ablution. She knew the sound of waves thrashing in the ocean or the roaring stream of the tap could bring great minds to focus, but for her, looking was enough. Her mind a stone sunk to the bottom of a glass.
There was her mother’s wedding band. She imagined that if she drew a map of the cracks and crevices at the pool’s bottom, she might understand something about her lifeline. She’d read that the blind develop heightened senses of smell and taste and sound and touch. She’d read that suppressing total perception was impossible. The body found a way to take in the world. The body compensated, would not be slighted. The body craved details, a breath on a neck, a thumb on her coccyx, the taste of aftershave coming off a stubbly chin, chemical, the sight, wispy red hair on her uncle’s big fat toe.
Sometimes when she lay on the deck by the pool, when she found herself inhaling the barefoot smell, tasting chlorine in the back of her throat, she tried to remember the first time. The ability to recall even the smallest abnormality might help us, the police officer had told her mother, after the three girls had admitted to seeing the little boy outside the rowboats. They were the only witnesses. What about his mother, they’d whispered later. Anything out of the ordinary. We need to know if you saw someone reach for him, if you noticed someone looking for him, if you heard him call for help.
But the words her uncle had used to pull her from the pool always escaped Lisa. Everything she imagined him saying sounded hokey, pedestrian, tame. I’d like for you to come upstairs with me, Lisa? Had he commanded? Lisa, upstairs. Now.
“Nincompoop, whatcha doing tomorrow?” Patrick said.
He cleared his throat, a rock tumbling back and forth inside his neck.
“Wanna get wet?”
She knew she was one of those girls boys said things to just to see them blush. (The absolutely unrelated story of who/what/when/why she’d left public school.) The longer she lived in the basement, the deeper she colored. Maroon: a man’s sobs. Black blood, nearly purple: the choked emptiness of a fist cracking a wall. Soap: her mother’s gaze, stone.
Over the mountains, ribbons of pink and orange streaked the sky. Grasshoppers in the hedges rubbed their legs together and spoke. They were surrounded by mountains, Patrick once told her, which he only realized when he left and came back.
“Do you wanna go to Fantasy Lagoon, nincompoop. Don’t be a pervert.” To that question, her answer was easy to remember. Of course she said yes.
Once in a world of easy summers, she’d been to the water park with her father.
It was before she was twelve, when it seemed she had no obligation to be anyone but her father’s companion. She wasn’t a daughter or a son, but the tadpole that followed after the bullfrog, learning to slurp up flies. That made her mother a warty toad.
She deserved that. Her father hadn’t told her mother where he was taking Lisa. This was so far from the end. When he bore the marks of employment (polished shoes, a regular haircut), and lavished his Little Sailboat.
Nine, she wasn’t too old to call him Papa Tugboat.
Nine, she didn’t know about her mother and the mill, the little boy, acid acid drugs.
When she was nine, no Saturday could be more perfect than a Saturday with her father, when they tore out of town in his red convertible and flew down county roads jammed with idiots driving their boring beige slow. Don’t tell your mother how fast we go, he’d say, whether they were going across town for an ice cream or across the state to a water park.
Things her mother didn’t need to know.
The memories deliquesced inside Lisa, a gray syrup that burned her throat when it came up. Nothing shimmered anymore. She couldn’t help thinking of the trip to the water park as some venial sin on her father’s part. He’d known what it meant to her mother. He’d have been better to take her to the top of the mountains, dangle her off a cliff. She could bring up only the rocking, writhing crash of bodies in the wave pool. Frantic yellow waterpark popcorn, blacktop heat searing her feet; how cold she was once she left the pool, how warm the stream of pee leaving her body in the damp of the girl’s locker room; the thin toilet paper, dissolving clumps; the water, less slimy than the pools’, from the faucet. Her father. She wasn’t disgusted by his feet, talon toenails, when they shared a tube on the lazy river.
Fear was a different feeling than sadness. She feared the puckered skin on raw chicken. Her mother’s crying jags. She feared flashbacks, visions, fantasies, terrors that might rain down on her for the rest of her life. What she saw might stay. So much hadn’t, some sights must be waiting to reveal their true force.
Her uncle had never outright told Lisa and her mother they weren’t welcome upstairs. He hadn’t banished them—in fact, he often joked that Lisa’s mother acted as though she were a damned woman, a scullery maid—she had Jack’s inheritance, she could eat at the big kids table in the dining room. Clean herself up.
Her mother’s pride was formidable. Charity, charity could only be accepted as a scourge. One’s shackling scars never faded. The basement apartment was enough, plenty. She had never gotten along well with Rolf, even when she and Jack were first married.
Upstairs reminded Lisa of Christmas, no matter the season. Garland, the banisters begged to be bound. The fireplace in the sitting room, lit for an evening of toddies. The tree, strung with glistering gold lights and pale pink mirrored balls, braided ivory cord. A wolf masquerading as a pet.
She followed her uncle.
“Do you want a drink, some wine?” he said as they passed through the kitchen. Something inside her knew where they were headed. Through the sliding glass doors, she could see in the backyard, the unfinished dome, a replica of a Grecian temple of love. Her mother and her uncle were a widow, a widower. It seemed more like inheritance than a curse.
“All right,” she said, and she let the strangeness of revealing herself to an adult stretch out inside her.
He handed her white wine in a tumbler. It wasn’t as sweet as she was used to.
She could keep a secret. She would meet her father in eternity and then tell him the news. Did anyone keep anything private forever? Lisa imagined diving into the pool, eyes open. Chemicals. Alcohol. Her bloodstream. She might be able to stopper herself.
Yes. Yes she wanted to go to Fantasy Lagoon. No. No she was not afraid of Fantasy Lagoon.
Yes. Yes her cousin was the sexiest boy she knew. No. No she didn’t care if it was perverted; he’d been an orphan once and, when she looked into his eyes, the flint told her that he was fatherless. Unmothered. Adrift. Yes she had longed for him. No she had not repented. Yes she had fasted and abstained from provocations of the flesh. No she had not dared to silence her mind. Yes she still slept head to foot with her mother. No her mother could not feel what flooded Lisa’s body, an awful gorgeous gushing. Yes she had sneaked into Patrick’s room when no one was home. No she had not slept in that bed. No she had not snatched those boxers. Yes they were technically boxer-briefs. No she had never seen a penis. No not even her father’s. Yes what she’d seen was probably worse. No her mother wouldn’t stop her. Yes her mother was a pill. No Lisa couldn’t breathe underwater. She was a girl. She was pretty girl. Yes she turned on his screen. Yes she saw the pictures. No they were not worse. Yes you could see everything.
No one else had seen the boy in the water, Lisa’s mother told her. Angel and Lana and June.
Three girls, three pretty witnesses. Had the mother pushed her own son over? This was a time before surveillance, and they were teenagers: they could do nothing but fidget. Snap, unsnap the neon bracelets around their wrists. Black tabs. Snap. Ow. How do you tell a cop you put a tab of LSD on your tongue?
They were sitting in the room, right now, this instant, the first time, her uncle’s drink on the nightstand and Lisa’s in her grip. The wine splashed in her stomach; she felt peaks and tumbles. She needed a drink to sink into this.
The first time, the last time, the middle time, the next. A routine is habit carved into flesh. A day is minute in your life. A body hanged drips its liquids.
Aunt Lydia had been a money-hound, a clothes horse, a romantic. Lisa’s mother had had choice words—ditz, flake, washed-up: supposedly, she’d modeled in her heyday. Apple cheeks. Shiny hair. Tennis calves.
But anyone could be wrecked. The bed simpered vanilla and rose, a mess of shams and pillows, everything organ bleached.
“I want you to see,” said her uncle.
He chased an ice cube in his drink with a finger.
Lisa closed her eyes and put herself back in the basement where she belonged. Pretty girl’s
perfect nose. Pretty girl, slipping in the pool, soaking herself pink.
As Lisa fell asleep, she imagined Patrick and her, thin as reeds, standing in line, pale against a sea of revolting flesh. She would tell her mother only that she was going out with Patrick. Her mother could fend for herself with Rolf. It would be Lisa and Patrick. The car, the wind, the road, the sun. Their bodies slick with tanning oil, redolent, coconut. They’d bake. Eat buckets of fried chicken, dripping sodas, icy pops. Climb towers of wooden stairs. She would wear her black bikini, and her perfect holy ribs. His square chest bare. She would wait for the right time to tell him: I want wine in your cheek. I want to lap it out of you like a dog. He would whisper to her—they were just two sixteen-year-olds at the end: I want to taste you bleed.
JoAnna Novak is the Pushcart Prize-nominated author of Something Real (dancing girl press). She lives in Massachusetts.