(Originally posted: 8/25/17)
Blame it on the eclipse.
Maybe it’s that I held all my remaining dignity and self-restraint at the base of my body and since doing the Boscia Baby Soft Foot Peel I’ve been shedding layers of good judgment with a troubling rapidity.
Or perhaps Taylor Swift’s latest single proves we are all allowed to put a little cultural trash into the world if we do so confidently.
For whatever reason, there is a spooky crisp in the air and I have been emboldened. To do what, you ask? Well, to send out some fiction.
Lemme explain why this is so bold. For starters, I don’t write fiction. I’ve written one short story since high school and that is the one I am sending you today. Wild! Scary!
It was good to exercise this flabby muscle but it made me feel very vulnerable. Mostly because, for whatever reason, my literary fiction almost never turns out funny. Not “ha ha” funny, at least. And it’s totally fucking terrifying to strip yourself of your defense mechanism. Turns out the world is actually very cold and unsteady without the gravity blanket of my sparkling/disturbing (tomayto/tomahto) sense of humor.
Also, and totally contradictory to what I just said, writing fiction feels like hiding. Writing nonfiction, especially about your family, requires training yourself not to hide in your prose. You have to constantly expose yourself, lay yourself bare. You have to become an emotional streaker. There’s no such thing as bravery in memoir because raw, brutal, masochistic honesty is the bare minimum. You don’t have to flog yourself in every essay but in every essay you do have to dig out the spiders. In every essay you have to show your secret Monica closet.
So I was worried about undoing all that good work I’ve done to be comfortable with intense personal truths in my writing if I started hiding in half-reveals. But of course that’s totally the wrong way to look at what fiction actually is. Not that I’m an expert (I’ve written one story this decade), but it’s already feeling like a powerful tool to explore juicy topics like body image, love, and excess without the burden of facts.
Ok so here goes nothing babes. A teeny tiny bit of flash fiction to read this weekend in between barbecues and Bravo reruns.
Vera unlocked her hotel room and flipped the sign on her door to “Do Not Disturb” and began drawing herself a bath before she even set down her key. She turned on all the lights then dimmed them to a low stir and took off all her clothes and stared at herself in the long mirror next to the minibar while the water ran.
She walked back into the bathroom and poured some oil the hotel provided that turned the water into lavender cream and eased her body into it, more wiggle than glide. The bubbles were thick and the water was very hot and her skin reddened as she sunk her shins in and lifted them out, like she was dipping grapefruit slices in honey.
She felt small and girlish in the tub. It was deep and wide, wider than her. She shimmied her butt against the porcelain. She relaxed her neck, dunking the ends of her hair in the water. She made a swift movement with her arm through the spume, skimming the top of the cream with her fingers. She felt like a swan. She danced a little. She opened and shut her thighs to create a current. They were milky and slick, like the balls of fresh, hand-pulled mozzarella in oil that she’d eaten at dinner, along with envelopes of prosciutto and rigatoni in pink sauce. She had spooned them into her mouth whole, greasing her lips and the tip of her nose with fat.
She thought of a girl, Cass, she knew growing up. Their families vacationed together at a cattle ranch up in Solvang where generations of old WASP lines paid excessive sums to stay in the same un-air-conditioned rooms for the same weekends every summer. They played shuffleboard and volleyball, swam, rode horses. The moms played tennis. The dads golfed. Vera’s favorite horse was a chocolate brown one with a white coin on his forehead named Duke.
Cass had soft, thin strawberry blonde hair that she tucked into the collar of her denim jacket and Vera did the same. One summer, they must have been nine, they were eating dinner in the lodge with their parents. They both ordered hot chocolate for dessert. When the waiter asked if they wanted whipped cream, they said yes in unison. He smiled at the jump in their voices. But then Cass’s mother said Cass like Cass had forgotten something and Cass said Actually, no whipped cream for me, please and when their mugs came, Vera’s had a tilting crown of billowing cream and Cass’ mug had none and Vera ate hers carefully, letting each bite melt on her tongue, and felt guilty, lustful, and unsure—naïve to what this would be: the general palate of her life.
Vera remembered also that the next morning or maybe it was a few days later, they went with their families on a sunrise horseback ride through the mountains to a site where ranch employees had set up tables covered with red gingham cloth and big silver dishes with scrambled eggs, pancakes, and sausage links next to sticky pitchers of syrup. The ranch called it “cowboy breakfast,” and it was fun to imagine it hadn’t all been planned just so. Vera and Cass cleaned their plates and then a big grunting man in light denim helped them get back on their horses, lifting them up with one hand gripping their thighs and another cupping their ass.
“Somebody ate too many pancakes,” the man said to Vera, as he shoved her onto Duke. Then he slapped her thigh through her blue jeans and set her on her way.
Vera looked straight and prayed no one else had heard. She was learning that she could stomach shame if it was private. Men were always saying something profoundly upsetting to her then setting her on her way.
In the bath, Vera gripped her legs, fondling the little polyps of fat that had formed like pearls at the back of her knees, and thought of her husband. She hated how her body didn’t belong to her, like each quadrant had been staked and deserted by rushers with pans of fool’s gold. The searchers were gone but not their tools, dreams, and various other detritus, preserved by historical committees with unelected boards of rich, idle women.
She and Dover had been married in a small ceremony near Ojai with freshly picked oranges at every seat placement for the reception. She had starved herself for months with diet soda and hard candies, like the kind you find in a bowl at the car wash. By the time they sat down at the table she was so hungry she peeled the orange at her setting with the rounded tips of her ballet pink nails and ate the slices right then and there, swallowing seeds and pith like an animal. The whole night, her fingers smelled like dirt but sweet. He kissed them while they danced. It was one of the things he liked to talk about, his voice sticky with love, at each of their three anniversaries. To Vera, he seemed to be calling upon, without understanding, the peak of her desperation.
In their second year together, she began to notice that when he grabbed her ass while they fucked it wasn’t for pleasure or friction but information. She could feel his fingers scanning her dimples, as if he were reading a troubling text in Braille.
He had told her he was leaving while chopping vegetables for soup. He couldn’t be with someone who didn’t take care of herself, he said, as he burned the garlic. Over weed and Italian cheeses, her friends tried to tell her he was textbook this and textbook that but she knew all these supportive but totally uneducated diagnoses were just an attempt to turn something sour into something clinical. Like sucking Warheads to flood a heartburn.
On the bathroom counter was a glass of orange tea roses she had purchased at the corner bodega to try to make her hotel room feel more like a home, except she had never purchased herself orange flowers or tea roses before. She craned her neck to smell them but they had no smell. She slipped herself deeper into the tub until she was submerged up to her nose.
She hadn’t seen Cass in seventeen years. Not since Cass and Vera had started different junior highs and their parents had fallen out. Vera had heard through friends that Cass had developed an eating disorder and thin, muscly arms like cartoon caterpillars and one night in college tried coke for the first time and ate everything in the dorm pantry including half a small bag of flour. The part about the flour was unconfirmed.
She hadn't seen her until hours earlier, when they'd run into each other outside the restaurant where Vera had just eaten alone. Cass was entering to meet someone and Vera was leaving and they hugged and Vera could feel the bones in Cass’ back and Cass could feel the dumplings of fat under Vera’s bra and they made plans to make plans that each would forget because it was the polite thing to do.
Vera began the slow haul of pulling herself out of the bath and remembered how every Saturday at the ranch there was a big barbecue with an open bar where the girls ordered Shirley Temples with triple cherries and a band played covers of Van Morrison songs and everyone ate hamburgers and sang along between bites. The girls danced with their dads side-by-side to “Brown Eyed Girl” and Vera imagined that all women of a certain generation must have some memory of a time when they were little girls wearing denim jackets and their dads were kind to them and that this memory must stick to their tongues like pudding skin every time they heard “Brown Eyed Girl” playing or thought they did.