Fiction · 07/27/2016

Point of Transference

As the children of single mothers, neither Miri nor I usually had big plans on Christmas. As soon as we could drive and Miri got a car, we started a tradition of going to the movies and then for a night swim at her grandfather’s place, which she called a house but was really a mansion. It had been several years since we’d done this, and I hadn’t seen Miri in a while. She didn’t come to town much anymore, probably a couple times a year. Maybe it was more and she just no longer called to let me know she was here. I’d been thinking about her in the weeks leading up to Christmas, so I called her and asked if she’d be around. “Yes, actually,” she said. “Just for a couple days.”

It was nearly ten when she texted to say she was finished with her family obligations. She asked that I meet her at her grandfather’s house. When I arrived, she greeted me with a squeal. We gave each other a tight hug, rocking back and forth as we held onto one another to show how much we meant it. We said we’d missed the other. We asked when the last time we’d done this had been. We scolded ourselves for letting so much time pass. Filled with giddiness I grabbed her hands and squeezed them.

I followed her into the downstairs dressing room, which she called a bathroom. It included three sinks, two stalls, a shower, and a Jacuzzi tub. Two fainting couches mirrored each other on opposite sides of the room. This is where we’d go to change into our bathing suits. This was where we’d smoke our pre-swim joint when we could get our hands on one.

I pulled my suit out of my bag. It was the first bikini I’d purchased in a decade. I usually hid the burn scars on my stomach. But over the past summer I read the autobiography of Kate Piper, and it gave me the temporary courage to visit the mall and purchase the skimpy things I wanted to wear.
Miri got undressed quickly and without shame.

“What happened to your pubes?” I almost shouted it.

“It’s called a landing strip.”

Why?

“Don’t you think it looks good?” She looked down at her crotch. It used to be covered in hair, like mine. It had been familiar to me. I paused a moment, then decided not to tease her. I turned my back and pulled off my shirt, pretending I didn’t hear her question.

“Daniel likes it,” she said.

I turned back around as I fastened my top and watched Miri look over her reflection.

“So, I got us some of that wine we used to love.” Miri pulled up her bottoms.

“What’s it called, again?”

“White Zinfandel.”

“Oh, I thought you meant you got that pink wine.”

“It is pink. But it’s called White Zin.”

I did a cannonball from the deep end. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to get into the water. All at once. Miri walked in from the shallow end, holding her lungs full, like the warmth of her breath would protect her from the water’s chill.

I swam towards her. “Jesus, I didn’t think it was possible that your body could get any hotter after high school.”

Miri bent her knees to briefly dunk herself up to her shoulders. “Oh, thanks,” she said quietly. I had meant to revive our old banter, but it seemed like Miri was thinking of something else.

I dove down and swam in a circle. Though my eyes stung, I couldn’t stand to keep them closed. It was too quiet to be this dark. Under the water, my skin looked smoother. It was tinted a pale green. My hair floated in front of my face as I took a sharp turn. The strands became copper colored in this light. My legs drifted and kicked. They looked sleek, strong, useful. For a moment I felt beautiful.

My mind could not stay here. It was restless and quickly grew bored of contentment. When I came up for air, I flipped onto my back and looked at the ceiling as I did slow back strokes. I wasn’t ready to see Miri, to feel ugly by comparison. In my mind I tallied up all the men who had seen me naked. Only one had seen my bare body after the burns. It was the summer I was seventeen, when I was staying with my father. Dad threw a party for his friends from work. After the bonfire had died down and the others had gone home, or found a place to crash inside, Dennis and I were left sitting on the lawn chairs. He’d brought his camper so he could pass out drunk in the backyard. I was adamant about keeping my shirt on, the lights off. He became instantaneously sober long enough to turn on the light, to talk me out of my clothes. He ran his hands over my hips and I closed my eyes.

Across the pool, Miri was still standing in the shallow, the water-level just above her belly button. She swept her palms against the surface of the water. The lights from the bottom of the pool shone on her face, casting wiggling lines across her forehead. Even Miri’s posture seemed different. Her limbs moved more stiffly. I tried to remember the last time I’d seen her. It couldn’t have been more than eight months ago. Yet she had found a way to change everything about her. Could I change that quickly too, if a man asked it of me? All of our beliefs that we’d shared, the things I thought were inherent in ourselves and made us special, turned out to be so malleable.

I dove down again, pulled the water beside me until I reached the shallow edge. I did a careful flip beside her and pushed myself back towards the deep end. I quickly found the bottom and my stomach scraped lightly against the gritty concrete. On the thin tissue of my stomach, I could feel the tiny abrasions that were cut into my skin. I planted my hands on the bottom of the pool and shoved hard, anxious for breath. I treaded water there for a moment and looked up at the wall facing me. On it there was a window that looked out into a hallway. The only lights, besides those along the inside edges of the pool, came from that window. In the near-dark, the hall light was so bright that I hadn’t yet noticed the mural on the wall beside the window. It hadn’t been here before. It looked like a Picasso rip-off. Strange angular faces floated just above their bodies, which were depicted through blue and green boxes. Some of the figures had mouths with teeth jutting out in yellow triangles, pink squares. Others had no mouths. It started to scare me, so I turned around. Miri was out of the water, sitting on a vinyl-upholstered couch, one piece in the set of patio furniture that stood on the opposite end of the pool. I swam towards her, my head above water. She pulled the bottle of wine out of her handbag and set it on the couch between her legs. I got out of the pool and picked up a towel from the bin beside the furniture. The bin was always stocked, like a nice hotel. Whenever we’d come here to swim, as Miri and I used to do at least once a month for several years, I caught myself looking out the window any time I took a towel. I thought her grandfather might come rolling down the hallway and yell at me to drop it. He never did. In fact, I only ever saw him when we said hello to him upstairs as we first arrived. Unless it was night, like now. Then we would slip inside quietly. Once in the pool, our voices would grow louder. The eventual shouting amplified by the echoes of the tile-lined room and our increasing inebriation.

I wrapped the towel around my shoulders and dried myself off, moved down to my legs. Then I wrapped the towel around my head. I sat next to Miri. She was screwing a bottle opener into the cork. She pulled it open with a pop that rang out to the walls and reflected back into our ears, bouncing again and again. It was the first echo we’d heard tonight.

“I wonder if there are any cups around here,” Miri said. I knew there weren’t, so she should have known the same.

“Let’s just drink from the bottle,” I said. It had never been a problem before. I grabbed it from her hand and took a swig. The sweetness tasted fake. I looked at the label for ingredients and found only a description of the notes of strawberry and thyme, wafts of cinnamon. I tasted aspartame. My shoulder was touching hers. One of us must have been shivering because our goose bumps began to rub up against each other. I passed her the bottle. “That’s pretty sick, but I think it’s the kind of sick that gets better as you drink it.”

She snorted. I interpreted it as mild laughter. She sipped from the bottle, set it on her thigh, and then sipped again. I grabbed the wine key from her lap, and she flinched. It was red with white lettering.

“Aestetica,” I read aloud. “What’s that?”

“Daniel’s graphic design company.”

“He owns a graphic design company?”

“Well, he doesn’t own it. He became VP a couple years ago.”

“Wow,” I reached out for the bottle and she handed it to me. “So, like, how old is he?”

“Fifty-two.”

I had the urge to say, “Old enough to be your father.” I didn’t. I figured she had heard that before, or at least thought it, so I took another drink instead.

“He’s very youthful, though. You should meet him.” She took back the bottle and stood up.

“I’d like to,” I said. I followed her to the edge of the pool. Right then I wanted to push her in. I wanted her to scream and shriek. I wanted us to laugh together. But I had a feeling she would just be angry, or silent. So I put my arm around her waist. After a moment, she put her arm around my shoulder and patted it. She let her hand drop to her side, so I let mine drop down, too.

“Do you want to play a drinking game?” I asked and grabbed the bottle from her hand.

“Like what?”

“Like…” I looked around the room, which was occupied by only the pool, the patio furniture, and the hideous faces behind us. “How about we do a drinking relay race. You have to swim a lap, staying underwater as long as possible. For every breath you come up for, you have to take a swig. Then when you’re done, I go.”

“That sounds like a recipe for vomit.”

“Okay.” I sat down and put my feet into the water. I shivered. I took a sip. “This is still disgusting, Miri.”

I told her I was getting tired, and she didn’t plead for me to stay any longer. I dried my hair off with the towel. We changed back into our clothes. I put on my jacket and pulled the hood over my head.

“Are you staying here tonight?” I asked.

“Yeah. My mom’s out of town until Thursday anyway.”

“Oh. What are you doing for New Years?”

“Daniel’s coming here. He said he wanted to meet my grandpa. I think he’s going to ask for his permission.” Miri hadn’t yet put her pants back on. She was in her blouse and thong. She was rubbing lotion on her legs.

“Permission for what?”

“To propose to me!” She grinned. She looked beautiful, like herself. Behind her in the mirror, I could see my reflection. The scars on my face were hardly visible under the shadow of my hood. I tried to remember our conversations, years ago, about marriage. We must have talked about it. It seemed that all we ever used to do was discuss our opinions on social structures. I couldn’t remember a thing. Now that we were actually living it, I supposed it didn’t matter what we used to think about the expectations of adulthood.

I said congratulations. I went in for a hug. The air in my puffy jacket seeped out as I squeezed her, this girl that I loved so much and could no longer talk to.

On the drive home, I blasted the heat. It was after midnight, so most of the stoplights had turned to blinking yellows, blinking reds. Though there was hardly anyone else on the roads, I kept below the speed limit. Patches of black ice would have sprung up in the potholes. I had been drinking, and I thought that I probably shouldn’t be driving. But I wasn’t too far from my mom’s house. And I could drive this route in my sleep.

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Shannon McLeod teaches high school English in Southeast Michigan. Her writing has appeared in Hobart, The Billfold, Cheap Pop, and Word Riot, among other publications. Her essay chapbook Pathetic is forthcoming from Etchings Press. You can find Shannon on twitter @OcqueocSAM or on her website at www.shannon-mcleod.com.