The wet paper wadded, thick and gummy, around the base of the toilet. The girl shuddered as she sat. Her lips a greyblue. She rocked her body to force the urine outfaster—she wanted to get back in the sun. Her balled-up hands pressed into her stomach above her pelvic bone. The harder she pressed the quicker it came. The cinderblock bathroom had crackly pores that breathed a dirty steam, like a hospital of sick children. At the top of each wall, a cinderblock had been removed every few feet for ventilation, though it was still damp and hard to see. In sepia, the girl would look like a prisoner—naked with her one-piecesuit around her ankles. Her ribs and shoulder blades poked through her thin skin. Her body was eight years old, the suit a present from the girl across the street who was also small.
She wiped, but the pool water made it hard to tell if she was completely dry. Stretching the suit upward, she could not force it over her thighs—the spandex rolled and bunched. It hurt the bony wing between her leg and pelvis when the suit refused to stretch. The fabric pressed into her flesh as she yanked it over the plane where her breasts would one day grow. She tightened her shoulders and dipped them closer to her hips, closer to the straps she needed to stuff them through. The suit strap made a sound like teeth grinding as it expanded. She straightened. The strap stopped stubbornly in the crook of her elbow. To make it fit she sat half- naked on the seat, untwisting.
She stared through the thin gap between the plastic curtain and the metal siding of the stall. If someone saw how her body did not fit the suit, she would feel embarrassed. One time she peeked through from the other side when Ashley was in there. Ashley woretwo-pieces and could slip her suit on without fussing with the top. The girl’s feet ground into the soft layers of peeling paint on the cement floor. Water pooled in the dips which deepened in the back end of the bathroom. Still adjusting underneath the tightness of the suit, the girl walked like an insect with spindly legs. She jabbed her hand under the spigot, only moistening her fingertips. The water smelled like copper pennies, and the soap dispenser dripped a pink fluid that had hardened in drops around the opening.
To the right of the door, a cinderblock half-wall housed a row of showers. Billows of steam hovered over the top and smelled like wood that never dried and baby shampoo. The steam warmed the girl’s cheeks, but as she passed she looked at the floor. From the stalls came animal noises. Women breathing in. Women talking in deep voices. Women in red-skin pain as they released themselves from swim caps and goggles. Though she had itchy chlorine skin and dirty feet from the mud outside, the girl chose to only shower at home. When she showered at home, she locked the bathroom door behind her, even though her mother preferred that she didn’t, and passed through the upstairs hallway quickly, clutching the top and bottom of the towel. Scuttling past the shower stalls, she ignored a small clump of wet toilet paper on her big toe.
Outside the bathroom, she flung herself into the light. Greenness stretched in front of her with families huddled in the lush spots. A haze of french fry vinegar and sun screen shot from aerosol cans hovered above it all. The girl had tiny pieces of toilet paper stuck in the crotch of her suit, almost inside of her. The water on her body turned cold when it mixed with the outside air. She moved across the grass and single-mindedly dodged warm mud spots. She jumped in the pool. Tiny ripples went through the water, sending away parts of herself. The fake blue absorbed her. She tugged on the piece of suit between her legs and released the paper bits into the water. They whirled around, caught in the dance of her limbs. Underwater she opened her eyes, which didn’t burn her like it did the other children. She felt protected, and the infinity above her—hues of sky, tree, and sun—finally made sense as if floated, distorted and silent. She looked upward, through the water, and saw the blurred, tanned body of the man in the red shorts. Whether she actually heard it or just thought it, a whistle made her come to the top. It was adult swim, and she had intruded. She spent the next twenty minutes shivering in the grass, picking up her towel every time it drooped below her shoulder.
Mid-summer, the girl’s parents left on a trip to France, and she was not permitted to go. Her mother would be working, and she was told that Paris was not a fun city for children. Aunt Bea would stay home with her. Aunt Bea was her mother’s sister. She sold homemade soap at the farmer’s market that the girl’s mother bought but never used because she said the scents— tomato and basil, lavender pachouli, and honey and cream—were too “intrusive.” The girl wasn’t sure what intrusive meant, but she often smelled the bars while she sat on the toilet and feared she would drain them of their scent if she sniffed too hard.
Aunt Bea’s body was large in a powerful way that made the girl think of a boat on the water. Though she was younger than the girl’s mom, she was not as pretty. Her hair was short like a dad’s, and she hit her feet hard on the ground when she walked. The girl had sporadic memories of the farmer’s market, of seeing her aunt in the little wooden cube which was draped in purple Christmas lights. But she had never spent time with her aunt alone.
On Aunt Bea’s right shoulder blade, above the spot that pudged over her bathing suit strap, there was a tattoo of a bouquet of yellow flowers, tied together at the base with a red bow. Aunt Bea didn’t wear a cover-up at the pool like the other ladies, so the girl could look at the tattoo as much as she wanted. The word “Believe” was written under the stems in a light-green. Aunt Bea told the girl stories about the family’s lake house—the girl’s mother had taught Aunt Bea how to swim there, but Aunt Bea hadn’t been back in many years. The girl wanted to ask Aunt Bea what she believed in.
Aunt Bea appreciated loud music and snacks—something the girl’s mother did not—and let the girl go to the snack bar to buy mozzarella sticks and frozen chocolate bars. She allowed feet on the dashboard because she wasn’t afraid that an accident would send the girl’s legs into her eye sockets. She was unconcerned with wet spots on the car seat. She allowed silence and told the girl stories about different places she had hiked. The other moms invited Aunt Bea to sit with them, but she swam laps instead, and the girl watched from underneath her towel as the white swim cap popped out of the water every four or five strokes. The cap cupped Aunt Bea’s head and changed the shape of her eyes. When she came up for air, the breaths were watery and vicious.
Every Sunday, the girl attended mass with her parents and her father’s side of the family. This week, Aunt Bea would drop the girl off at mass, as her mother had requested. It had only been three days since her parents left, but already the girl would prefer to be at mass with Aunt Bea than with her father’s family. In the car, there was silence, and—after long minutes of second-guessing—the girl asked Aunt Bea to come with her.
Aunt Bea didn’t change the tone of her voice to answer questions, like the girl’s teacher sometimes did. She kept her eyes on the road and said, “You’ve made your first reconciliation?”
The girl had completed the pre-sacrament last year in which Sister Georgiana marched her to the front of the church in a yellow crate paper smock.
“Then they must have told you that whatever you tell the priest when you confess, he can’t tell anyone.”
The girl remembered how Jared—the kid in the wheelchair who couldn’t control his legs or his hand raising—had asked the teacher about a murderer. Surely the priest could tell the police if someone went to confession and admitted to murder. No, the teacher had replied. When you go to confession, you put your life and your sins in God’s hands.
Aunt Bea tapped the sides of her thumbs on the steering wheel. “When I was a girl, I told the priest something about myself, and he told my parents.” Aunt Bea’s voice quieted, her words poking in an out of the flute and drum chant of her CD. “I think that was unfair. Don’t you?”
At mass, Aunt Celeste usually asked the girl to sit between cousin Ginny and cousin Jim so they wouldn’t fight. But this week Ginny was at sleep-away camp, so the girl sat at the end of the pew. She hung her arm over the armrest until it wedged into her armpit, and the moisture on her skin made her stick to the varnish. When she stood up for communion, she saw that her deodorant—which she had just started towear—left a white powder clump on the wood. She kept her arms pressed to her sides so no one would notice.
In line for communion, she looked down at her hands and tried to distinguish the left from the right by sticking out her thumb and pointer finger, creating an “L.” The left hand belonged on top. With her hands cupped, she tried to focus on her offering. In Sunday School, Mrs. Penkins had told the class to fill the cup made by your hands with your troubles and to exchange your troubles for the Body in front of the altar. With her hands cupped, small wrinkles formed in her palms. The girl thought of the troubles she would offer to the Lord—her failed science test and her jealously towards Ginny. Fingers stroked at her backside. The person behind her probably had walked too fast, a mistake. But she felt it again. Damp fingers on her butt. The warmth reached through the light cotton of her summer dress and underwear. His whole body was close to her now as they were shuffled toward the altar in forced unison. The hands, already in position, brushed her again. On the final sway, right before she took the host, he pinched her slightly.
She heard him clear his throat and then bring his hands to his mouth as she reached hers up to receive the eucharist. When the priest lowered the host into her left palm, she changed her offering. Now she gave the Lord her dress and the way she walked. Next time, she would find a way to make the man not want to pinch her. At home, she would shed the underwear first thing and wear sweatpants for the rest of the day with gym shorts underneath. She hoped the people in the first two pews couldn’t see her face. She tried to keep her mouth closed, but the tears she wouldn’t allow pushed it open from the inside until she joined the mumble of the communion hymn. With the host in her mouth, she crossed her arms over her chest and reached her fingers into her armpits, rolling them over the white clumps.
After mass, Aunt Celeste made the girl go with her family to the basement for orange drink and doughnuts. She wanted to wait upstairs in the sanctuary—she liked to put her knees on the velvet kneeler and press her nose into the resin on the pew. Kneeling, she could make herself feel small and look up at the altar. What if they put a woman up there on the cross? Would they give her another rag for her top? The girl would prefer church if she could be alone. When she prayed after communion, all the bodies moved around her, but she felt singular, connected to the room by her kneecaps and nothing else. Likewise, she would prefer confession if it would be just her in the room, if her small sins could bounce off the wall and back into her own body instead of the priest’s. To the girl, church was like a sinking boat, strangers bobbing up and down while their Amens and Also With Yous garbled into a watery prayer.
Downstairs the girl waited in the doughnut line and considered her options before choosing the one glazed in sugar because the pieces would flake off and could be rubbed on her lips to look like gloss. Her mother only allowed doughnuts at sleepovers or on Sundays when it was not Lent. Aunt Celeste and Uncle Greg were on the other side of the cafeteria, sipping coffee with the DiSantos. The woman who always wore crucifixes and dark green turtlenecks handed the girl a cup of orange drink, which the girl didn’t like but drank anyway because the sugar flakes scratched the roof of her mouth. Clutching her doughnut and juice, she walked to an open table. The man who pinched her was in line. She knew it was him because every minute or so he would raise his fist to his mouth and clear his throat. A man stood in front of him in the line. There was at least a foot of space between them.
The girl walked past him, and the orange drink in her cup shook. She sped to an empty table. She had wasted her offering on her dress and her walk. When she put the cup on the table, she used her free hand to forcefully slide the chair and slam it into the man’s shin. She did not turn but heard his howl. Seated now, the girl ripped long pieces of doughnut flesh with her teeth, swallowing in unblinking meditation and sending a shower of sugar crumbs to her lap. Two weeks from now, the girl’s mother would scuttle her into the room next to the storage closet, covered in floor-to-ceiling wood paneling and dusty drapes, to confess her sins, as she did every other month. The girl would tell the priest about the man and how she wanted to hurt him because he touched her. The priest would teach her the word “revenge” and tell her that it is a sin. By choosing to hurt someone, she would take the power away from God. Later, during penance in the third pew from the front, the girl would decide that bruised shins weren’t enough. She wanted the priest to tell someone her secret.
On the last day of the visit, Aunt Bea instructed the girl to bring a hairbrush, fresh underwear, and her orange sundress to the pool—they would go straight to a Japanese restaurant to welcome back her parents, who would want to see her clean after a week of being away. Yesterday, the girl and Aunt Bea had eaten pizza on the couch, and the girl’s wet braid had dripped a circle onto her chest.
The girl was careful to not swim deeper than her neck and avoid the diving area. She spent most of the afternoon on her towel with a deck of cards that she threw down two at a time —a game of war with herself. Her queen beat her two. Her king beat her queen. After the final adult swim, she told Aunt Bea that she was clean and did not need a shower, she had hardly swam that day.
“Swum,” said Aunt Bea. She pulled herself out of the water. She was the only adult that didn’t use the stairs—her thick legs smacked the cement and new bruises blended with other marks and dimples. “Your mother will want to see you clean. And I brought you kaffir lime and plum soap.”
The girl followed Aunt Bea across the lawn that led to the bathrooms. She hoped that there would be no one else in the showers. Within the damp of the cinderblock building, the heavy steam filled the girl’s lungs, and she heard squeaking faucets. Behind the half-wall, shower doors of heavy plastic distorted the bodies. Every so often there was the gold flicker of a necklace or a dark patch of hair. The woman on the end had red hair. The woman in the middle used a large brush to scrub her body. The showering women stayed contained in their blurred spaces, each cleaning the body they had dirtied. The girl imagined herself inside of a teapot. There was only one stall left. Aunt Bea checked her watch and asked the girl if they could shower together. In the shower, the girl left her bathing suit on, but Aunt Bea removed hers and tossed it onto the wooden bench on the other side of the door. It looked large and heavy, the tan netting from the underside spilling out as if Aunt Bea had taken off her skin, too. Aunt Bea squirted shampoo onto her head and then the girl’s head. She did the same with the bar of soap, moving from the girl’s shoulder blade, stomach, and thighs to her own. Lime and plum mixed with the bathroom smell. Aunt Bea’s skin was thick, and she slapped at the middle of her back and thighs where she couldn’t reach. Her belly touched her legs when she bent over. The girl pictured Aunt Bea as a child, swimming with her mother in the lake, not knowing that in the future their bodies would not match. After attending to the girl, Aunt Bea rubbed conditioner over her stubbly hair with one movement. The girl moved her hands under her straps and quickly lifted the piece of suit between her legs to splash in water. There were no bits of paper today.
Aunt Bea stepped naked out of the stall and handed the girl a towel. Through a crack in the door, she passed the girl her underwear and dress. Another woman—the one with the brush—left her shower stall, wrapped in a robe with sandals that squashed as she approached Aunt Bea. Velcro straps flopped carelessly around her ankles; they weren’t meant for water. She stopped in front of Aunt Bea, and the girl, now naked, was afraid she would come to the shower door. Aunt Bea had her pants on, and she was drying her breasts and underarms with the towel.
The shower lady said: I see your tattoo, and I just want to tell you, I read something the other week, about yellow tattoo ink.
Aunt Bea told the shower lady: Oh.
The shower lady said: Yellow tattoo ink is toxic. It injects carcinogens into the skin. This isn’t all the colors, just yellow. I hope you don’t smoke, too. That would be double trouble.
Aunt Bea told the shower lady: I see.
The shower lady said: Very well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out, dear.
Then she lingered and picked at the handle of a wooden basket while Aunt Bea resumed her drying, looking back as if it were Aunt Bea’s turn to speak.
Aunt Bea waited even after she was dry before she put her shirt on. She helped the girl brush through the knots in the mirror next to the trash cans. Afterwards, they went one more time behind the shower wall to get their bags, and the girl pointed to the other end of the wooden bench. The lady had left her brush. Aunt Bea approached the brush, lifted it to her shoulder, and rubbed it on her tattoo. She pushed the dry brush hard into her skin, and when she lifted it off, the tattoo was surrounded by a reddish haze that made the yellow of the flowers look sanctioned, holy. Aunt Bea put the brush back on the bench where she’d found it. When they left the bathroom, the girl saw the woman’s basket sitting beside the door to the pool office where people went to complain about the lifeguards and the price of membership. The girl ran back to the bathroom. The brush felt heavy in her hands—she searched the layers for flecks of yellow. She carried the brush outside, dangling it by the cotton cord tied through a hole in the handle. The girl plopped the brush into the woman’s basket, before rejoining with Aunt Bea, who had watched her return it. Aunt Bea didn’t need to put herself into God’s hands, and the girl would never tell a priest or her mother or the lady. Maybe the girl was intrusive, too.
Three days later, on Sunday, the girl’s parents and Ginny returned to the family’s pew. The girl sat between her cousins and wore the same summer dress from the week before. As the priest delivered the homily, Ginny whispered that she had gone skinny dipping with the other girls in her cabin. Ginny was sad today, burdened with recent memories.
“I think I’ll just die without them until next summer,” she said.
During the communion hymn, the lady in the choir loft sang with a weak voice that warbled as she sucked air in and out. In line, the girl inched closer to the priest, waiting to lift her hands to the chalice. Portraits of saints lined the walls and touched the ceiling, their giant heads stuck out of oval gold leafing and crown molding. One saint held a knife, and the girl couldn’t understand how he fit in among the rest who were adorned with burning hearts and falling flowers. In line there were only five people in front of the girl now. Creating an “L” with her thumb and pointer finger, the girl prepared her hands to cradle the Body before putting it in her mouth. It would sit in her palm for a slight moment, and the girl imaged that a red circular haze would form in its place. Today she would offer Aunt Bea and did not know what to expect in return.
She passed the empty pews where the adults in white robes sat when they were not giving communion. Others had chosen not to join the procession and sat, scattered and alone, in the pews. Aunt Bea could maybe come to church and sit with them. The deacon released a swell of incense. The girl filled herself with ash and spices and lifted her hands, offering and receiving. Pushing herself away. In Sunday school she had heard a story about communion wafers dripping blood onto the floor. The smoke behind the priest’s head looked like shower steam, and the eucharist hit her hand slowly, not blood this time but water. Taking herself in.