My mom used to pinch me so hard that her fingers would snap.
Pinch. Like twigs cracking under feet.
Pinch. Fireflies of pain.
I sat next to her at the salon, her hair all wrapped up in tinfoil as she smoked. I’m getting old, she said, her glare on her reflection in the mirror.
I better stop looking, she said. When she closed her eyes, everything was okay, but then she opened them and remembered I was there.
I touched the iron. Pinch.
I smelled the bowl of hair-dye. Pinch.
I accepted caramel candy from the hairdresser. Pinch.
My dad left for a girl who worked at the only bar in town. As he packed, she was sitting in the passenger seat of his car, waiting. She was blonde like my mom, but different—I couldn’t tell how.
My mom was standing in the doorway, smoking. I stood next to her solemnly.
Does she dye her hair like you? I asked.
When I was twenty, my mom died right after she pinched me. Brain aneurysm.
I didn’t do the dishes like I promised: Pinch.
My skin stretched, her fingers like a whip.
She took three steps, and she was dead.
To people in town, and to the pastor, I said she collapsed out of nowhere, which wasn’t a lie.
At times I thought that God wanted to punish her. Her brain snapped, liker her fingers.
But most of the time, I thought that if I had done the dishes, she wouldn’t have died.
Sometimes—and I couldn’t say this to the pastor—I was happy I didn’t do what I had promised.
I started pinching myself. Gently, in the soft part of my arms, close to my armpit. I didn’t pinch as hard as my mom did. My fingers didn’t snap. I tucked my hand in when no one could see.
I thought back of her, pinch.
I thought of the pastor’s lips and legs and arms, pinch.
I thought of going to see my dad, pinch.
I took a job as a bartender in the only bar in town so that I could live at my mother’s place by myself. Kids came around the house sometimes, I didn’t know why. They remained outside, even when I invited them in.
I threw caramel candy at them, assuming it was what they wanted, but the next day I ended up picking it up from the grass, all melted and crawling with bugs.
At the only bar in town, I met Hunter. I always poured his bourbon before he sat on the stool. He had inherited his father’s gas station at twenty and had a young blonde fiancée. He drank and said he felt too young for all that. I listened and poured bourbon.
He asked me why I wasn’t married at twenty-four. I said I didn’t know.
He waited till my shift was over. He offered me a cigarette, and I accepted it.
When he lowered his eyes to light his own cigarette, I tucked my hand in my coat and pinched.
We went home. What’s up with the candy, he asked, stumbling in my front yard. All the caramel was squished on the grass.
I didn’t know how to reply, so he kissed me.
I fought the urge to pinch.
Afterwards, he fell asleep in my parents’ bed, next to me, naked, like I had imagined the pastor. Only, better.
It was the first time I slept in that bed.
No one should know about this, Hunter said the next morning. It’s a secret.
Next Sunday, at the end of mass, the pastor asked me if there was anything I wanted to talk about.
I saw Hunter’s young, blonde fiancée leaving the church.
I told the pastor no, then I stopped going to mass.
Hunter pinched me while I was doing the dishes. He was playing around, joking, making fun of me, saying something I should have laughed at. It was funny.
And it was a soft pinch, behind my arm, where my skin was doughy, and I wished it wasn’t. He laughed, throwing his head back, his blond hair and thick drawl filling the room with charm.
It was just a soft pinch.
I threw a dish at his face.
I tried to say sorry, but he just left.
A few days later, I saw Hunter in the candy aisle at the grocery store. An old lady from church was buying Milky Ways next to him.
When he saw me, I saw the bruise on his face where the dish had hit him.
I wanted to kiss it away, but I wouldn’t know how to say that, or how to do that.
I wanted to pinch.
I walked towards him, pushing my cart, whispering, hi. I waved at him, instead of pinching.
He walked past me.
Hunter was gone. The old lady looked at me.
My waving hand was still up in the air. I said, I thought he was someone else. I mixed him up with another person.
My fingers itched for pinching. I wanted to slide my hands under my coat and pinch, pinch, pinch.
I held my grip around the cart handle, my eyes glued to the candy until the old lady was gone too.
When I finally looked up, I saw my mom in the middle of the aisle, tinfoil in her hair, a cigarette in her hand. She stood in front of me, her gaze in my gaze.
Pinch, she said, and she smiled.