While your daughter’s in the bathroom, I wipe your counters clean. To keep from looking at you, I wipe the butcher’s block, the stovetop, the rusted metal around the faucet. In your kitchen, this is what you say to me: “What a fine young woman you’re becoming.”
I cannot turn around. I say “Thank you,” to the dirty water in the sink, to the bits of grease and bone between my fingers and say “Thank you.” In my head, what you have just said to me beats like a pulse, “What a fine woman you’re becoming.” Fine woman. That’s me?
Your daughter, ever since I can remember, I followed her into everything — soccer, swimming, gymnastics, Brownies. I signed myself over for her. Because I wanted to be near her. Because I wanted to turn into someone like her. In our Brownie A-line jumpers and brown acorn caps, you said, “Turn around. Spin for me. God, Heartbreakers, you.”
The Hippocratic oath, I’m thinking, even with all this grease and bone between my fingers. Your face behind the blue paper mask, your almond eyes worried. “If anything hurts,” you said, “just say so. Speak up. Scream even.” You were afraid to touch me.
You lifted the black rubber mask from my mouth and I said, “I feel fantastic.” I kept my eyes open the whole time, I watched you work. Powdered gloves covered your hands, but I could still feel your touch. I watched you take the forceps and put them in my mouth. I called you Doctor ever since I could talk, but I didn’t know you worked like that, inside the skin.
When you released the impacted tooth from my swollen red gums, you lifted the tooth up in front of my eyes and said, “Got it. Now you’ll feel better.” My molar was bigger than I thought it would be, the roots dangling white. It made my knees weak.
It is silly. It is stupid. To put that memory together with this one: Your tongue tasted like powder. Cigarettes, Jim Beam. “My vices, my twin sisters,” you said.
I wanted your daughter to be my sister. I told you this. I stole from her, I never told you this. I took things– a silk scarf, a silver pin, a pair of pink, pointed, dancing shoes you brought back from Korea.
This is not the worst thing to happen to a girl, I know. In our world, yours and mine, there are worse things — war, famine, hate, crime, disease. For what it was between us, it could have been so much worse. It could have been ugly and awful in a thousand, million different ways instead of the way it was with you:
Your fingers on my face, first. Your touch soft, scared. Your breath in the car, smoke there between us from our breathing, our mouths open. Your fingers on my lips, next, my tongue, next. I think of this all the time. Your tongue, tasting of the powder from your doctor’s gloves… your tongue, I had no idea.
“Yes, Madison is cool. Sure, I like my classes, the profs are great.” What can I tell you of this life? How can I tell you that I’m bored, I’m lonely?
I wash the bits of grease and bone out of the rag while you keep asking questions. “Yes, the lake is beautiful. Lots of boats,” I tell you.
The drive to Madison is short, an hour and a half from here. There are motels all around the capital. The streets there run on a diagonal. It is pretty. We could rent a room for the afternoon, your daughter would never know.
If I could change it, that night in your car would be different. I wouldn’t have listened when you said, “Stop. We can control this. Stop.”
I would have zipped the gold teeth of your zipper down. I would have fished my hand around in the darkness. I would have put my mouth to it. I would have hiked my skirt. I would have sat in your lap.
You said, “Get out now. Please.” I didn’t know what to say. I got out and stood in my driveway while you reversed, pulled out into the dark street and drove home to your daughter, my best friend. I will never give back those perfect, pointed, pink shoes.
“What a fine woman you’re becoming,” I will give these words to your daughter, later. Later when you have climbed the stairs for sleep, when your daughter and I lie on our backs on your living room floor.
I will touch the bones of your daughter’s throat, I will touch the greased wax she puts in her hair for shine. I will whisper into the black mask of her mouth, “What a fine young woman you are.” I know her tongue will taste like candy.
“Heartbreaker,” she calls me, did you know this? “Heartbreaker, you.”
A short short originally published in Meridian: The Semi-Annual from the University of Virginia.