2011 Shortlist: The Bath by Lillian Fishman
This is a shortlisted story for the 2011 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers.
Mia’s arms are long and white, and her nails are trimmed short and round at the tips of her fingers. Elodie knows this because of the picture of her on the second shelf of the blue desk. She also knows that Mia has eyes that melt when people look at her to keep them from becoming windows.
Elodie learns this when she finds the first note. It is folded eight times, smudged with green crayon, a little torn, rolled carefully into the crevice where the knob of Mia’s reading lamp forms a tight niche with the frame. The paper is unbelievably thin when she pulls it out, almost transparent, and a tidy, perfected script meanders across it in what is, at close inspection, a ballpoint pen’s neat line. The words curl against her teeth as if they want to emerge in a murmur, sure but unassuming. I have eyes that melt when people look at me to keep them from becoming windows.
Elodie, because she is paid to do so, because the girl Mia is granted the unremarkable luxury of returning home to a pristine room, spreads a new set of sheets on Mia’s bed. The waves of the fabric are even as it settles onto the mattress. Elodie is used to the seething pattern and the strangeness of the sheets while she arranges them. She smoothes the elastic edges, tucks in the corners, straightens the hem, lets the stray cotton filaments drift up and settle on her clothes. She finishes dusting the lamp and curls the transparent paper back inside the niche.
Mia’s room is not unusual. It is wide, painted yellow with pale blue trim, and the closet doors open and close with a satisfying snap. She has two sets of drawers, a blue desk with photographs and postcards, tchotchkes made out of soda cans and pressed flowers, old homework assignments, magazine cutouts. When she burns candles there is a lingering trace of patchouli where the smoke clings to the blue baseboards. Elodie remembers this precise shade of blue when she sweeps along the thresholds: cornflower blue. She remembers the label and the tight happiness of new paint on her walls. She can see the shadow of a pink tree flowering on the patio, the white molding in the hallways like the frosting on a cake. She can still feel Mia’s beautiful reality under her fingers as she folds the quilts; she remembers the smell of vanilla soap, the silver gossiping of rings as her mother stirred a spoon, the thoughtless ease of running with linen skirts sighing around her ankles—the thoughtless ease of existence.
Elodie does not know this, but Mia’s favorite room in the house is the bathroom. She doesn’t spend very much time in it, but perhaps that is part of why she prefers it. There is something undeniably majestic about the bath: those strange, twisted feet. The curve of the basin. The faucets, exactly spaced and polished. Maybe it seems enduring to her, that hard, white body, the defiant sweep.
Between the parallel slots of an air-conditioning vent, the borders hooked so that it is wedded to the apertures: Elodie finds a flimsy square of Polaroid film, a little blurred, the colors glossy. She thumbs the corner and looks at it. In the picture, an orange skin lies curled on a wooden cutting board, two tapered rounds of peel blooming at the ends of a single winding strip. Elodie considers slipping the Polaroid into her pocket, but the borders are still creased to embrace the parallel slots of the vent, and she leaves it to wait between the apertures. She thinks about Mia while she drains the bath with blue soap, rinses the walls, listens to the gurgle of the drain. The pads of her fingers are wrinkled and pale with the wet. There is something august in the bath’s imperious claws, Elodie observes. She admires the plump walls and the bath’s white hips.
Cleaning Mia’s room feels like all of the times Elodie has fallen in love with someone she can’t have. The feeling of floating, the inevitability of her own familiar life is the same. Mia’s life, one that Elodie knew as a child, one that she can still recall perfectly when she steps into soft shoes—it is lost to her. Now there is only the great bath, Mia’s bath, like one Elodie remembers, and the sharp tongues of the blue soap.
In the afternoons, Elodie walks out to her car. The dogwood is beginning to bloom pink, and the rain sweeps a lacy afghan of petals across the car windows. The flowers are sticky, freckled orange, and they wrinkle against the glass. When Elodie turns on the windshield wipers the rain and the petals are swept to the fringes like a tide, and they glitter, gossamer, translucent in the corners of her eyes.
While she drives she thinks of the creamy yellow of Mia’s walls. She remembers the smooth skin of her own palms, the way gloves used to slip over them like water. She remembers lying in the grass on the patio, and how wide the sky looked from the ground.
Mia leaves a quote inside her pillowcase. Elodie reads it and thinks of the March damp in the soil, and the impossibility of everything beyond the edges of her tight world.
I would not think to touch the sky with two arms. Sappho
Elodie has never met Mia, but she finds her notes and photographs—the things she leaves behind, to mark this house, to mark something—and her mind is filled with Mia’s secrets tucked inside the everyday sundries of cleaning. She knows that Mia likes spicy food and that when she rolls something hot inside her tongue she doesn’t blush from the heat but from the weight of people’s eyes. She knows that carbonation makes Mia think of birds taking flight inside her cheeks and that she only drinks soda because everyone else does. She knows that Mia does not really like music, that her hair falls out sometimes and that it scares her, that raked leaves in elegant heaps on people’s lawns remind her of cemeteries. She knows that sometimes Mia sits in the bath while it drains and waits as the water leaves her skin cold so that she can feel the weight of gravity and the fast, warm throb of her own blood.
Spreading the sheets is a precise routine, exact, calculated, smooth. Elodie is tired of evening the bed with her palms and lining up the seams, of the strain and the meticulousness. Sometimes she does it with her eyes closed: she feels the pull and the weight of the cotton, the shape of the bed, and she finds the wrinkles with the pads of her fingers. When she makes Mia’s bed she sees the nebulous darkness behind her closed lids and she wonders if Mia has ever wished she could penetrate that dusk. She imagines entering into the halls of her eyelids, and the echo of her footsteps, and the flickering gate of her eyelashes at the edge.
We jump and we hope that the air catches us and that we will fly, frozen. But I relish the fall. It reminds me that I am mortal, and that I have survived this long.
Elodie finds these purple words and thinks of Mia’s white arms, and the lines around her own eyes. She thinks of how long she has survived. She does not feel mortal; she feels as though her years are limitless, enduring, as though she will bloom pink like the dogwood on the patio less vibrantly each year, as though she will always be alive to watch the world fade.
More often Elodie remembers being Mia’s age, a child in sprawling house, with yellow walls and pale blue trim. There was the patio and the vanilla soap; there were the magazine cutouts and the occasional candles, maybe. There were no notes or Polaroids hidden underneath the bath or inside the hot shells of desklights; there were secrets, but they were not hers, and she was the keeper of nothing that was hers—her life was deftly controlled, smooth, quiet, lace and linen. Elodie was not like Mia. But she wonders if she and Mia are more alike than she knows. Inside her skull, palpably, there are long winding thoughts and impatient ideas knocking against the noodle-labyrinth and the bones, and they build up behind her eyes (which unfortunately do not melt when people look at her) one by one because she never breathes them out, not even through her fingertips. One day, when she is sweeping Mia’s room, Elodie takes a scrap from the blue desk and carefully pens a message. I was never a keeper of secrets. I left no mark on my house, and I have left no mark on the world.
Elodie is dusting underneath the bath while the water runs, whistling. There is a wide window that opens above it, glittering a little, and it is newly spring. A lush quiet.
Between the curved claws of the bath’s feet is a twisted slip of paper, elegantly hidden, that reveals itself to Elodie’s sponge. Slowly she unfurls it, lets the momentum of the first letters roll out the corners.
Someone will remember us, I say, even in another time.
Elodie puts away the blue soap and the sponges and leaves the hot water running. She steps inside the bath, feels the burst of the jets at her ankles. It is oddly quiet. She steadies herself on the white hips of the bath, sinks into it, lets the eddies swirl and stroke the wasp-edge of her waist. She turns the tap off and listens to the drain swallow the water in long, greedy gulps. She is left thin, wet and cool, and she can feel her own weight in the great bath, and she can feel her own blood beating in her throat.
Lillian Fishman is a 17-year-old writer from America who wanders around Boston and enjoys the brick-and-blue beauty of the city, especially in October. She loves dumplings, the smell of books, ancient mythology, Thanksgiving, doorknobs, Florence and the Machine, tea with milk, and the view of trees from second-story windows. She particularly loathes all mint-flavored things, including toothpaste. Her favorite authors include Virginia Woolf and Colum McCann. She’s been writing ever since she could read and it’s all she ever plans on doing, aside from eating, which she pursues with just as much fervor.