She is sixteen and her mother puts her on a bus at the Trailways station in Fresno and sends her to Oklahoma to live with relatives for the summer and maybe forever because her mother’s new boyfriend keeps walking in on her in the bathroom when she’s taking a shower and he won’t fix the bathroom door lock no matter how her mother yells, and her mother needs the new boyfriend more than she needs her, so: what are you so miserable about? her mother says, straighten up that sour face, for god’s sake, it’ll be fun.
Yes, she thinks. Fun. She is sixteen, and it is 1972 and you can still smoke in the back of the bus. She slots her dwindling stash of quarters into the vending machines in the piss-smelling bus stations at Barstow and Flagstaff and Albuquerque, chink, chink, push the knob in, pull it out, down the chute into the metal tray plops a soft red pack of Winstons. She taps the pack on the heel of her hand like a grownup.
On the bus she sprawls across two seats beneath her spread-open jean jacket, lighting one cig off the smoldering butt of the other, so that by the time her aunt and uncle pick her up at the bus station in Tulsa, she is green with nausea and her aunt pulls away from her, good lord, child, you smell like an ashtray, what have you been doing? it’s an hour’s drive home, we’ll have to ride with the windows open.
Her aunt and uncle live in a housing addition on the outskirts of a middling sized town fifty miles north of nowhere. Her uncle is an accountant and her aunt is a housewife and her girl cousin, who is older, lifeguards at the public pool in town and stays gone all day, and her boy cousin, who is younger, has a paper route and mows lawns and snaps her bra strap through the back of her blouse when he passes her in the dim hallway. She is sixteen, and it is summertime, and there is not one fucking thing to do but the chores her aunt lays out for her: vacuuming, dusting, sorting the laundry, putting away the groceries, and she never can do it right. In the evenings she hears her aunt and uncle talking in the front room in low voices: what are we going to do with her, it’s two months till school starts, I can’t have her laying around the house all summer. Well, it’s your flaky sister won’t raise her own kid, you’re the one said she could come. Can’t you find her a job, Jim? A carhop or office girl or something?
They think she doesn’t hear, but she hears, and she thinks about running away, but where? and how? she doesn’t even know how to get to the highway.
Her uncle gets her a job taking inventory in a dark, oily smelling auto parts warehouse downtown. He drops her off on his way to work and picks her up on his way home, and for a week she edges through the dusty aisles with her clipboard, pulling out boxes of screws and metal clamps and hoses and counting and writing down numbers, until the afternoon the boss catches her making out with the stock boy in the back office and fires her or, as he says, with his mouth pursed and eyes tight, lets her go.
So now she goes absolutely fucking nowhere, except to the grocery store with her aunt, who has her pushing the cart through the aisles and gathering produce and toilet paper and cans of Chef Boyardee. At the house she puts the groceries away—wrong again: No, dear, the new milk goes behind the old milk, like this, see?
Okay, she says, and walks down the hall to her cousin’s girly room and lies on the rollaway cot and stares at the ceiling. She puts a hand on one breast. Then the other. Something is wrong. Something is really not right. She comes out of the room, finds her aunt in the kitchen and tells her she’s going for a walk and her aunt says, it’s a hundred degrees out there, dear, why don’t you go in the front room and watch TV?
Just around the block, the girl says, I won’t be gone a minute, and she lights a Winston as soon as she gets around the corner, but the cigarette makes her want to throw up. She smokes it down to the filter anyway and drops it in the gutter and walks back to her aunt’s house smelling like sweat and smoke and she goes to the hall bathroom and throws up in the toilet, running the faucet full throttle to cover the sound; then she takes a bath, washes her hair with White Rain, the smell makes her gag, that oversweet smell, so now she’s getting an idea about something, and she’s scared. She tries to think back to her last period, but she can’t remember. Before school was out, probably. For sure before the two-day bus ride. She’s always irregular, her cramps have always been hellacious, and her mom says her own periods were like that, too, till she…got pregnant.
The girl puts on her t-shirt and cutoffs and goes to her cousin’s room, sits at the vanity combing out her wet hair. Her aunt calls her to come set the table, but the girl sits staring at her own face. Nothing is changed. She looks just the same. Maybe it’s not even true. If she doesn’t smoke any more cigarettes, maybe she won’t get sick again. She reaches a hand under her shirt, touches her swollen, tender breasts. No, she thinks. It’s true.
She tells herself she knows who, and where, and when: the end-of-school kegger out by the river, the skinny blond kid always trying to fit in, and she was drunk, and he was drunk, and they were both there—she was there, when she was almost never anywhere. And she didn’t want to go home. Then everybody started pairing up, drifting away from the fire, everybody but her and the skinny blond kid and a couple of skeezy dudes even weirder than him. So, when he said, let’s go over there, she did. And when he said, you wanna lay down? she did, and when he crept his hand under her shorts, she did, and she did, and she did…
And now she’s sixteen and in trouble, and it is 1972, and she does not know what to do.
This is a thing making her body change without her will, like it changed when she was twelve and started growing breasts, like the pimples she gets when it’s time for her period, but she has no pimples now. Just these waves of nausea sometimes, spit filling her mouth, but she doesn’t throw up, not very often. She volunteers to Ajax the bathroom and runs the water hard and flushes the toilet, and her aunt says, when you’re finished in there, come on out to the dining room, I’ve got a little job for you, and the aunt sets her to polishing silverware or sorting tea towels, made-up jobs, the girl knows, but she does everything willingly, obediently, without her sour face, as if being good could eject the thing growing inside her, and the aunt tries to smile and calls her dear and shows her how to do these made-up jobs right, and she tries. The girl tries. But it’s hard to do stupid things right. When the aunt runs out of busy work, she tells her to go watch TV, and the girl sits in the front room watching The Young and the Restless, surreptitiously reaching up a hand to see if the tenderness in her swollen breasts has subsided. But, of course, it has not.
What the girl does not tell herself is that it could be her mother’s new boyfriend, what he does, has done, did do, almost since he first moved in, coming to her room at night, his flat hand on her mouth, you know it would kill your mom, he says, if you tell her, you’d better not tell her, you know I’m the one she’d believe. And she does know that, and she does not tell, and she pretends in the daylight that it does not happen in the night, and he wears a rubber, he’s very careful for that, taking time to tear open the wrapper with his teeth, and the first time it hurt like hell, and it still hurts, in her gut it hurts, and in her heart, so she clamps it down, pushes it away, tells herself it does not happen, did not happen, tells herself it’s the skinny blond kid from the kegger who got her like this. She tells herself she cannot tell her aunt because her aunt would send her back to Fresno and then her mother would know, and she cannot tell her girl cousin, because her cousin would tell the aunt, and the aunt would send her back to Fresno, and her mother would know.
So the girl starts walking every morning to the neighborhood grade school, closed now for summer, and she does jumping jacks in the heat next to the building so nobody from the street will see, and she swings on the kiddie swings, high and fast and hard, jumps out and lands with a great jarring thump, a shudder from her feet to her chest; then she turns and climbs back on the swing and does it again, again and again, but she can’t shake the thing loose. She’s heard that horseback riding can do it. But where can she go horseback riding? To even bring up the words to her aunt and uncle would be weird.
If she starves herself, would that help?
But no. Starving herself does not help.
Every day the sense of fullness and portent swells larger.
There’s one thing she’s heard of. A coat hanger. But how would a person even do that? She tries to think it through. She tries to imagine. On a Monday when her aunt gathers her pocketbook and grocery list and car keys, the girl begs off. She says she is sick. It is the only time she has refused any of the jobs her aunt makes for her, and the aunt comes to her, frowning, puts a hand to the girl’s forehead. You do feel warm. Go lie down, dear. You can help me put the groceries away when I get back.
And the aunt leaves, and the girl goes into the bathroom and locks the door. She scrubs the wire coat hanger with soap and water. She knows at least to do that. She takes off her clothes and sits in the tub. She untwists the wire hook, and untwists it, and untwists it, until the hook breaks off. She bends the hanger into a long, looped probe, the broken end with its jagged edge in her hand, the other end looped small. She lies down, puts the blunted, looped end inside her. It is cold, hard, foreign, and she pushes it deeper, tries to push it deeper, but goddamn, it hurts! She stops. Lies still, breathing shallow breaths. While she waits, she thinks about everything, her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, the kids at school, her girl cousin, her boy cousin, her aunt; she thinks about what will happen to her, about how much it hurts to have a baby, people talk about that all the time, how much it hurts, and she thinks, worse than this? Probably. Probably it does.
She tries again. Deeper, harder, her body resists the cold wire, her uterus cramps, a great pinching, rolling paroxysm, worse than any period cramp she’s ever had in her life, but the girl grits her teeth, pushes a little deeper; it feels like an iron bar probing her, a tire tool, an axe—ah fuck, she feels it now, the warm rush of blood, oh thank god, relief! like finally getting your period after days and days of bloated weight and waiting, but it cramps, and it cramps, and shit, it hurts!
The girl pulls out the hanger, blood covered; it makes a small ticking clatter when she drops it against the bottom of the tub, and the cramps clamp down worse, wave after wave, and the blood pours. The warm blood is flowing, gushing now, hard throbbing pulses, and she is afraid her aunt will come home before she’s finished, before she has time to clean up. She thinks about turning on the tub faucet to wash the blood away, but the cramps are too stabbing, too relentless, and she’s too tired right now. She cuts her eyes to the Ajax can perched on the closed toilet seat beside her. The soft blue sponge on top of it. The girl closes her eyes, lets herself drift. The pain is bad, and she’s so tired. In a minute, she tells herself, she’ll sit up and turn on the faucet. She’ll scrub out the bathtub, wrap the coat hanger in a piece of newspaper and take it outside to the trash. She’ll remember to put the Ajax can back under the counter. It’s a stupid job, but she wants to do it right.
About the Author:
Rilla Askew is the author of four novels, a book of stories, and a collection of creative nonfiction. Askew received a 2009 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her essays and short stories have appeared in AGNI, Tin House, World Literature Today, Nimrod, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and elsewhere. Her novel, Prize for the Fire, about the Early Modern English martyr Anne Askew, will be published in 2022.
Feature Image by 652234 / Pixabay