Water We Made Ourselves

By Sara McKinnon

Art from Creative Commons

My mother said to do it standing up. To make it damp. To push it up and down. To press it back and forth. To keep moving. To start on the inside. To turn it over. To keep moving. I saw my mother do it on the kitchen table. She wasn’t standing up. She didn’t make it wet. My father had to be at work by seven thirty.

I never listen to my mother. And when my boyfriend’s father dies, I pay another woman to do it for me. I drive across town in dark glasses. I walk up the steps to his front door. His shirt, under plastic, in my arms. I help him to pull it out. I watch as he puts it on. I stand in the hallway with my hands on his shoulders. I turn down the collar myself.

His father was a man who liked hard edges. The sharp corners of a metal bookcase. The slick sheen of cement floors. He liked to put his drink on the table. I liked to watch him pour. From that bottle he kept in the freezer. That never turned into ice. Standing in the kitchen on the telephone, he looked like the men in my mother’s magazines. The women he called were blonde. One wore jeans and a green sweater. When she walked inside, I saw her put her mouth on his neck.

It wasn’t always like this. His mother would hold his father’s hand at the supermarket. She didn’t use a purse. She kept a pack of gum in her front pocket. In the photograph on his dresser, she wears a blue bathing suit. Her hair is thick and dark. Her lips look pale and wet. She’s standing on the beach behind their house. It’s the summer a truck doesn’t stop when it should, and she dies in the front of her husband’s car. I can’t tell, by looking, if she smelled like lemons. I only know that her perfume does. It sits on the counter by the bathroom sink. Tall and yellow, with a rounded lid.

My mother wore blush the color of grapefruits. The pink you eat with a sharp spoon. The summer I turned thirteen, she gave me mascara and a tube of peach lip- stick. I would sit on the porch in my bathing suit reading magazines. I wore plastic bracelets from the drugstore. I had a bottle of lotion that smelled like flowers. The color of my skin was all sun.

I was wearing my white bikini, when he stopped on the sidewalk by my house.

I was sitting on the front steps. My thighs, on the concrete, were warm.

I have needs, he said.

He was wearing a black wetsuit. I put my hands on the step behind me and looked up at him.

Do you want a soda? I said.

We watched a car drive by with open windows. The music they played was loud.

Sure, he said.

I went to the kitchen for a can of Coke. When I came outside, he was already gone. I held the can to my chest and didn’t stop running until I caught up. We walked side by side down his basement steps. We watched a tennis match with no sound. We played Chinese Checkers until I cut my hand on the metal board. After hours of not speaking, it scared both of us when I screamed.

You have to look at the tiki mask, he said.

It was hanging on the bathroom wall. He made me stand with my back to the sink and stare at its green eyes. This, his mother had said, was good luck. It made rinsing your cut in cold water and letting the alcohol hit your skin hurt less than it could have otherwise. When I felt his lips through the band aid, I didn’t turn around. I kept watching that mask, and put my good hand on the counter behind me.

The shop where we bought rock candy had gold walls. They were covered in mir- rors with a plastic star in each corner. There were white flowers on the glass display case. The air was cold and smelled like a pack of sugar. We got more candy than we could hold in our mouths. The woman behind the counter put the rest in a paper bag. Walking home through an alley, we ran our hands across the side of a building that touched two streets. We stopped to see the girl who had a cat with three legs, and ran toward the beach behind his house.

Did you see them? he said.

It was my job to look, because he didn’t want the woman at the candy shop to think he was staring at her breasts. I couldn’t stop looking. When she leaned for- ward, I saw four scars. They were thick and white, and one stretched down into the cup of her bra. I read in the newspaper that the man who stabbed her took less than

twenty dollars from the register. He would have killed her if she hadn’t, even as he kicked her, pretended to be dead.

I saw them, I said.

We sat with our feet in the lake and looked forward.

Lie down, he said.

I let him push me back, and he told me to close my eyes. It made him mad when I wasn’t good at holding my breath.

Stop moving, he said.

I turned my head to see where he was looking. His father was lying on the deck with the woman who smelled like coconuts and cigarette smoke. She was kneeling above him with a knee on either side of his chest. I couldn’t tell, from there, why they were laughing. They laughed a lot. I lay back on the beach and closed my eyes. I tried pretending one more time.

A man in your mouth in the shower can feel like a dirty thing. Like you said some- thing bad, and the bar of soap is still on your tongue. This is not a soap I know. It’s green and white and sits on the ledge by a bottle of oil that smells like almonds. In this house, his mother still hasn’t gone to the dentist. An appointment card is stuck in the edge of her bedroom mirror. Above a dresser covered in bracelets and bottles of hardened nail polish. The jar on her nightstand has a metal lid. When you take it off, the lotion inside is like plastic. Before she died, she painted fish on the bathtub walls. One is purple with silver scales. One has fins that are starting to chip. I was thinking about those fish, when he put his hands on the tile behind me and spoke the name of God.

To sleep in my bed is to fall into something sweet. The blanket above you as thick and white as frosting. But last night, we knew it was over. In the living room, where I tried to say things I couldn’t say. In the kitchen, when he put his hand on my chest.

You never let me in here, he said, before taking his hand away. For a second, the refrigerator was louder than both of us.

I pushed past him, with a warm pounding in my face. I pulled on my winter boots and slammed the front door behind me. Standing in the snow, I waited for him to come get me. But he never did. By the time all the rooms in my apartment were dark, I couldn’t feel my face. The slip I had on was thin as paper, and I ran inside with my hands on my shoulders. In the morning, he pushed that slip up the sides of my thighs.

You’re a peppermint stick, he said, pulling on the striped silk.

Stop it, I said.                                                                                                                          

We lay on our backs and looked at the ceiling.

Let’s go somewhere warm, he said.

I didn’t say no. I let him put my hand in his.

That week, we left his car in a frozen parking lot. We boarded a plane to a city with palm trees by the streets. It was like coming in from the cold, and all of Tampa was my mother’s kitchen. The beach beside our hotel was hot and bright. We stood next to each other in the water. We fell asleep with the sun above us like a lamp. It wasn’t until we were back in my living room, and I still couldn’t say what he wanted me to say, that we knew it was over, again.

My mother used to do it on her hands and knees. In gloves the color of limes, I wash his dead father’s kitchen floor. Wanting to make it shine. Stopping when it does to pull off my gloves and look up at him. He’s standing in the doorway in his father’s suit. The one I took from a closet yesterday. In the room where his father fell asleep with a headache and never woke up. The funeral was over hours ago, but I’m still wearing my black dress. The fabric under both my knees is wet.

He turns around and walks to the bedroom. I stand up and lean on the edge  of the sink. I look through the window at the dark beach. In the car on the way to the cemetery, we didn’t speak. We walked through the grass in black jackets. In our matching, faded suntans, we looked like we were still paired. Because of this, and the fact that he never stopped holding my hand.

I take a bottle from the shelf above me and set it on the counter. I pour Scotch into a rounded glass. I set the glass, on its side, on the top of a mug of hot water. I know how he likes it. When I lie on the bed beside him, I put the warm glass in his hand. He sits up to drink it, and we both look at the wall in front of us. I fall asleep with my mother’s necklace caught in my hair.

The sun in Tampa knew how to go down. On the ocean outside our hotel. And that room we fell into every night. We brought the beach with us on our feet. In our hair. We left it in the sheets. Sand got stuck on plastic cups. Sticky with champagne we kept cold in the sink. In a room with pink walls and a dresser that might remember the feel of me. Running my hands across the top. Pushing my bathing suit down my thighs. We knew how to get it wet. We knew how to make it melt. To let a sink full of ice sleep in. To look down in the morning at the water we made ourselves.


Sara McKinnon‘s work has appeared in AGNI, Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at Michigan State University.

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