Photo: Naomi Margolick
By Leah Silverman
Brenda’s glad it’s only Friday night, that she’ll have more than a full day alone before her father comes over. She’s near the end of her pregnancy, at the point where even thinking about seeing him makes her nauseous, but he found her the apartment and pays the rent so she lets him stop by on Sunday evenings after his literary club. Her mother stays home doing crossword puzzles and knitting, dusting doilies, vacuuming up fuzz from the cat. “She doesn’t want to come,” her father says. “She says forget all this free love business. It’s too painful to see you pregnant without a husband.” Brenda shrugs.
Her father pays her living expenses, too. He gives her spending money that she uses for nail polish or a baby toy, or for the tuna sandwich and chocolate malt she buys when she wants to talk to Connie, the counter girl at the Sanders down the street. Sometimes he brings Brenda magazines, and bagels and lox. Or stretch sleepers with A-B-C blocks on them, tiny white undershirts, rattles, chubby books with slick cardboard pages. Guilt gifts, Brenda tells Connie. For keeping her trapped in such a small place.
“So what,” Connie says. “At least the baby will have nice things. If Kurt had stuck around, you’d have been lucky to get a diaper pail and pins.”
The name Kurt had popped into Brenda’s head when Connie asked about the baby’s father. Brenda had invented a long-term relationship with him, too, and told Connie that when he found out she was pregnant, he couldn’t deal with it and went back to the tramp from Windsor Downs he’d dated before he met her. Connie had wrinkled her nose. “Slime Ball,” she had said.
The real father had been a customer at The Balboa, where Brenda danced topless. She convinced herself that what drove him to grab her around her waist as she left after a rainy night’s performance, what compelled him to push her into his van, lock the door, yank off her jeans and fuck her, had something to do with the way her hips moved under her gold-sequined G-string as she sauntered down the runway to the applause and screams for more. He may not have loved her, but he certainly had loved her body. All of them had.
“You’re lucky your father cares about his own flesh and blood,” Connie said when Brenda stopped by for a malt one day during her second trimester. “Which is more than I can say for Mister Slime Ball. Think how much better off the baby will be with your dad, a real live grandpa who even pays the bills.”
Brenda, who was nineteen, had never thought of her father as a grandfather. He was young — not quite fifty — and with the wavy black hair that skimmed his shoulders could pass for one of his literature students at the community college. Only a few crow’s feet etched their way into the temples near his icy blue eyes, and if he had the same lines around his mouth that made Brenda’s mother look like a ventriloquist’s dummy, his thick mustache and goatee disguised them. “You’re probably right, Connie.” Brenda had shifted on the stool, re-positioned her newly expanded belly. “I guess I should be grateful that I don’t have to live with the schmuck. And anyway, my father is going to buy me a house.”
A stooped woman wearing a grey babushka had hobbled to the counter then and pressed her lumpy cardigan-clad torso against the chrome-stripped edging. “Coca-Cola. One.” Her voice was thick, with a dense Polish accent.
“Hi, Mrs. Anielewicz. You’re early today. Foot doctor?” Connie smiled, wiped a smear of chocolate from the Formica and then turned back to Brenda. “Really?”
The old woman nodded and held up her index finger. “One.”
Brenda looked at her. To Connie she said, “My father says blood is thicker than water and all that, and it’s the right thing to do. Plus, he’s got the money. We’re pretty close. He gives me whatever I want.”
“Lucky girl,” Connie said. She filled a glass with Coke as Brenda pushed her stool into a spin.
The old woman scowled, rapidly shaking her head. “Sick your baby will be from the turning,” she said, and then shuffled with her drink to a table in the corner.
Brenda wonders if Connie’s working tonight, thinks about calling Sanders but decides she’s exhausted, she wants a bath instead of a chat. She leans forward, unhooks her maternity bra. Her breasts collide with the top of her belly. She pinches a nipple, pulls it, lets go. A drop of what she’s sure is milk glistens at its tip; she wipes it with her finger, which she licks. With one hand on the bed for balance, she steps out of her maternity jeans and lifts a leg onto the mattress, then traces the veins knot-to-knot, rubbing out the pain. After a few minutes, she yanks the fraying elastic band on her underpants from what used to be her waist and rolls it and the torn lace maternity panel over her stomach. She steps out of her panties and kicks them across the room, wraps the oversized terrycloth robe her father gave her around her bulging belly.
The phone rings twice, then stops. Her father, probably, or her twin brother Barry, calling from his dorm room in Ypsilanti to check up on her, ease his conscience because he made it to college and she didn’t. “You need a real job,” Barry had said. “Be a cashier somewhere, or a secretary. You don’t need a high school diploma for those. Or at least be a waitress in a place where dancing half-naked on table tops isn’t part of the deal.” She wonders if he knows that their father got her the job at The Balboa in the first place, and what he’ll say when she goes back to dancing there after the baby is born.
Barry liked to dance, too, when they were kids. Clapping and shaking their butts to the Hokey Pokey, reaching for the sky or touching their toes. Holding each other’s hands, spinning, the grass and the trees or the window-walled breezeway melding into streaks of light and color that bled into brightness before the dizziness sent them whirling to the ground. Or when their mother played “The Running Song” on the piano and all four of the kids — the twins and Jack and Francie, who were older — ran circles through the living room to the dining room and into the kitchen, then into the living room again, past the piano, through the dining room. Faster and faster, with giggles and shouts, reminding Brenda of Little Black Sambo and the tiger, whirring everything into melting butter.
“Again!” Brenda would say, and her mother played “The Hopping Song” or “The Skipping Song” or invited them to sit on the piano bench with her, squeeze in tight and cozy, watch her fingers leap and skip across the keys like butterflies bouncing over flowers in a field. Then they’d start to sing. Silly songs like “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.” Or ones like “Cockles and Mussels” where, when sweet Molly Malone dies, Brenda’s mother stuck out her lower lip, sniffed, and made the music sad, too.
Brenda was four, maybe five, when their father made the first dancing movie. Just Barry and her, he explained. Twins are special. “I’ve got a surprise for you. Come on.” He grabbed their hands, led them upstairs.
Brenda started to cry.
“Hey, big girl. I’m your father. I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“No showers!” Barry said, and kicked their father’s shin.
In the bathroom, their father locked the door “so Francie and Jack don’t get jealous,” he said. He put his hands on his hips, stomped on the green-tiled floor, glared at Brenda and Barry. “Showers?” He gasped, then shook his head. “You’re too clean already!”
Brenda and Barry looked at each other and giggled.
Their father shrugged, clicked the light strip into the Bell & Howell, and told them to act like dancing monkeys. While the camera whirred, they scratched under their arms, bent their knees and jumped around the room hooting. “Oh, no,” their father said and snapped off the lights. He knocked his palm against his forehead. “Monkeys don’t wear clothes!” Brenda and Barry laughed, kicked off their shorts and threw them at the ceiling, slipped out of their shirts and flung them toward the vanity, stepped out of their underpants and tossed them at their father, who burrowed his nose into both pairs. “I smell monkey,” he said, and light flooded the room. “Short monkeys, tall monkeys. Fat and skinny monkeys.” He looked at Brenda. “And a monkey only a father could love.”
Sometimes he put the camera down before saying anything about the clothes and joined in, picking imaginary bananas from the showerhead or the floor-to-ceiling towel pole between the toilet and the sink, peeling and sharing his invisible harvest with the twins. Or he would clench his fists, pound his chest like Tarzan, and scoop a child under each arm, pretend to dunk his wiggling prey in the toilet. Occasionally he’d spread a towel on the floor and sit, book in hand, while Brenda and Barry surrendered their squirms to the lull of his voice, succumbed to Caps for Sale and its mischievous monkeys in the tree, or stories about Curious George and the man in the yellow hat who always rescued him. Barry read sometimes, when he learned how. But not Brenda. No matter how hard she tried or how many reading hints her father gave her, when he pointed to a word, the letters in it flipped like pancakes on a griddle.
Usually though, the twins danced naked from the start. “Smile,” their father said. Brenda bared her teeth; Barry stuck out his tongue. The camera whirred. “Pinch your cheeks and jump up and down.” They jumped and grunted, made thin-lipped grins at the wall-sized mirror while their father stood behind them holding the strip of glaring lights above his head as he filmed, nodded. “Let’s see your other cheeks,” he said, and the twins moved toward him.
Brenda makes a peanut butter sandwich and pours herself a glass of milk. She drinks nearly a quart of it a day, hopes the calcium helps the baby more than the nicotine from her cigarettes harms it. After she finishes her snack, she goes to the apartment’s cramped bedroom. From the box of tiny clothes in the hamper squeezed underneath the bassinet she takes two sleepers. She places the one made of blue flannel over her stomach and strokes it, says, “What do you think, baby? You want to come home in this one?” — then the yellow sleeper — “Or this?” She spreads the soft garments on the bed, carefully refolds them. She winds the new music box that sits in the center of her dresser, watches the organ grinder’s monkey dance to a tinkling version of “Sidewalks of New York.” She got the velvet-lined box from the gift store next to Hudson’s after she decided to keep the baby. A present to herself, she had told Connie. She didn’t tell Connie how, after fiddling with the twirling ballerina box and the spinning merry-go-round, she had slipped the organ grinder into her shopping bag and walked out.
After the music stops, Brenda props herself on the bed and thumbs through the Family Circle women’s magazine her father brought her. She flips the pages quickly past the section on Thanksgiving family menus, pauses at a story about President Carter’s mother, Miss Lillian. She looks at the big teeth, the bigger mouth, wonders why the woman never shuts up.
She wishes her father would shut up, too. About how he’s helping her for her own good, not to mention the baby’s, about how lucky she is to have someone who looks out for her best interests. “Your mother loves you too, of course,” he says. “But she has a much harder time showing it. She’s not as open as I am, honey, or as affectionate — even to me. Don’t take it personally. Your mother’s quiet, that’s all, and reserved. Private. And privacy’s important, you know that. Don’t I always knock before I come into the bathroom?”
As if it made a difference, Brenda thinks.
She shuts her eyes, wonders why she asked him for help this time, too. The first time she got pregnant, it made sense. She was thirteen; the baby was his. In fact, when she missed her period, she didn’t even think twice about it. She’d had only three periods before and wasn’t quite sure when the next one was supposed to come. Besides, he’d told her that a father couldn’t make his daughter pregnant. “That’s one of the facts of life, sweetheart. Ask your mother.” He’d sent her to New York then, where his friend lived and where abortions were legal, and the nurse at the clinic there gave her a prescription for the Pill. Brenda took it for a few months but then stopped. Her breasts always hurt and she was gaining weight.
A few weeks after the abortion, Brenda’s father sat her down to talk about what he called womanhood. The kinds of things her mother was uncomfortable discussing, he said. “So what kinds of questions do you have?” When Brenda shrugged, he said, “Maybe we should go to the mikvah, purify you and cleanse you of all your sins. What do you think?” She had blushed and looked down. Only Orthodox Jews went to the ritual bath for purification after their periods. Besides, she didn’t know the prayers. She couldn’t even make enough sense of Hebrew to have a bat mitzvah.
This time, Brenda decided to use one of those new home pregnancy tests before she said anything to her father. She went to K-Mart to buy it. “Fucking standing up is the easiest way to get pregnant,” the girl on line in front of her had said, waving a tabloid in Brenda’s face as the cashier scanned socks, Metamucil, and plant fertilizer for the man ahead of them both. “That’s what happened to Farrah.” Brenda thought about what the baby’s father and her own father had in common — their preference for doggie-style — and almost laughed in the girl’s face.
Brenda puts the magazine down, stretches, goes to run her bath. It will calm her, it always does, and keep her mind off her father. Off the showers, too. He’d started them as her special “big girl” birthday present when she turned three — to scrub the ugly out of her and Barry, he said. Every Sunday until she was almost thirteen he’d buy her mother a new book of crossword puzzles and a carton of Chesterfields and say, “Relax, you’ve had a hard week, I’ll bathe the twins.”
“Your father’s such a gentleman,” her mother would say as she scurried toward the basement knitting room he’d built, then mutter, “Let me know if you need me” before she shut the door.
Barry went first — boys were harder to tame their father had said — while their sister Francie and brother Jack sprawled on the floor in front of the console in the rec room to watch “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” Brenda waited, curled in the corner of the couch, mouth plugged with the dirty pink baby blanket she always carried. By the time her father came down to get her, Barry was tucked into bed, whimpering, and the corner of Brenda’s blanket was soaked with saliva. “You’re next, Goldilocks,” her father said, and crept his fingers through Brenda’s curls. He let her take the blanket upstairs but dropped it on her bed on the way to her shower and locked the bathroom door so she wouldn’t run out to get it. “Let’s keep your blankie nice and dry for when we’re finished.” Brenda chewed on her thumb.
As her father climbed into the tub, Brenda stared at the border of flamingos above the green-tiled enclosure. Sometimes, if she concentrated hard enough, focused only on the curious pink birds with the spindly legs, she was sure they blinked, nodded at her, whispered something only she could hear. “Too hot,” her father said, and she heard a bird squeak. “Too cold.” He shivered, stepped backwards; a bird tilted its neck. Then, “Just right, Goldilocks. Come.” And Brenda would wonder where the flamingos put their legs when they flew.
Then water covered the tub’s slick surface in a thin, empty sheet as it tucked itself under her father’s feet, swirled as it slid down the drain, made the soft sucking sound that, even now, reminds her of the chocolate malts — her special “good girl” treats — that they shared at the Sanders at Northland all through elementary school. Her father would plant two straws in the cold brown sludge and they’d slurp together, pulling the thick sweetness into their mouths, coating their stomachs, her stomach, which churned the moment he nodded from inside the downpour, arm extended, penis stiffening and rising like a marionette’s limb.
Brenda hasn’t seen her father since last Sunday, when she’d listened for his knock on the door, his key in the lock, and then watched him walk through the doorway past what she’s sure is the only mezuzah on a doorjamb in Hamtramck. She got it from Schacter’s Judaica the week before she moved in. She had stopped with her father to buy a bar mitzvah present for her cousin Steve and, just for the hell of it, had slipped the filigreed tube into her pocket. Brenda didn’t need the accompanying prayer scroll. Ten years before, Barry had given her his from the clay mezuzah he was making at Hebrew school that had exploded in the kiln. On her first night in the apartment, Brenda found herself curled into the old sofa from her family’s rec room, running her thumb over the lacy bronze, wondering if the marks on the parchment peeking through really were Hebrew or just a gimmick to make people think God could protect them. It was pretty, though, so she put it up.
“Let me look at you,” her father had said as he walked in, and Brenda, with one hand behind her head and the other on her hip, paraded across the living room like a model on a catwalk. Her father stroked his goatee, nodded. Brenda turned. “Luscious,” he said. “Glad to see my baby’s healthy and doing well. Now come give Daddy a kiss.” She had approached him, watched his eyes sweep over and bore into her body until she felt like she was standing there without any skin. She shivered.
Before her father started dinner, he spread the real estate section of The Detroit Free Press on the kitchen table and the two of them leaned over the listings, circled the few that sounded like what they were looking for, a house where she’d be comfortable living with the baby. “Large master bedroom in this one.” He pointed to a blurred boxed ad, winked. “And what do you know? This place has a nursery and a playroom. I bet one of them would be perfect for a guest room.” He promised to call the owners during the week to see if the houses were still available. Brenda knew they wouldn’t be. For the three months they’d been looking, the ones he could afford were already sold, or needed a new roof, or had a foundation that was cracking, or were too close to a major intersection.
After the two of them browsed the ads, her father went to the kitchen alcove and heated a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle, threw handfuls of Kraft elbows into roiling water. As he shredded Velveeta to top the macaroni, Brenda sat at the table smoking a Salem. “That poison’s going to stunt your growth, baby,” her father said, “not to mention the kid’s.” She wishes she’d known that seven years ago when, at age twelve, she was the class giant, the target of taunts about her huge hips, wide shoulders and breasts that erupted one night like puffballs on a lawn after rain. At least the baby wouldn’t have to go through that. Kurt, or whoever he was, had been short and slight.
“How about a shower?” her father said. “For old time’s sake.” He stroked the side of her neck.
Brenda jerked away, gripped the chrome edge of the kitchen table. “No.”
“Hey, come on, Goldilocks.” He reached for the ponytail band at her nape and slipped it off her hair.
“I said no.” She had eased herself back into her chair, put her head down on the table, willed the room to stop spinning. She breathed deeply, lifted her head. Her hair, still blonde and soft, brushed her shoulders, and her father combed through it with his fingers, smoothed it behind her ear.
“A shower will relax you, sweetie. Make you feel warm and cozy, refreshed, clean.”
She pushed his hand away.
“You’re not going to let me down, are you? I would hate to have to tell Roger you won’t be coming back to The Balboa. Jobs like that are hard to come by. And nice little houses in the suburbs, too — especially when you’ve got a baby to feed and clothe. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you couldn’t find anything that would keep the kid in diapers, let alone the two of you fed and sheltered.”
Brenda had spit at him, watched the saliva slide down his neck and over the wiry black curls peeking out from his collar.
“You’ll feel better afterwards, you’ll see.” He reached for her elbow, pulled her from the chair, and then abruptly let go. He grabbed his side and after taking a few deep breaths, grasped Brenda’s arm again and pulled her from her chair through the kitchen to the bathroom.
“Mommy,” Brenda whispered as her father closed the door, twisted the lock. As if her mother were still huddled in the basement clicking needles into knots of yarn, into drawers and closets and houses full of sweaters and afghans and shawls. She glanced at the soap dish, surprised Barry’s rubber froggie wasn’t there, at the walls — white, not green — topped with peeling paint instead of flamingos with beady eyes. Her father reached into the tub and turned on the water. Brenda blinked, scanned the room until again she saw the tiles — green this time — and yes, the awkward birds stood there, she saw them, riveted, their cricked necks and knotted legs still, their empty honks silent as her father took off his jeans and lifted her “Baby on Board” tee shirt over her head, as his mouth sucked and licked her swollen flesh. The water chugged and rushed as he pressed himself against her full belly, mined her mouth with his tongue, sent unwanted shivers through her gut to her thighs to the thick wetness that she pretended wasn’t there. He grabbed her shoulder — to steady himself, he said — and stepped into the bathtub. Brenda tossed her head back and saw the contorted birds’s eyes dart to the mirror, to the hair on her father’s legs, the shadowed triangle at the top of her own. They watched her father’s hand, too, as he extended it and she grasped it and climbed carefully in and then crouched ass up, the tub’s no-slip snowflakes, grey and curling, pressing into her belly so he could plunge into her from behind as she throbbed, squeezed her eyes tighter, pushed her forehead to the porcelain while the baby stretched an arm or a foot, butted against her heart. A flamingo squeaked, Brenda heard it, so she opened her eyes and turned her head slightly, looked up.
She saw the peeling paint.
Brenda bit her lip, tasted blood. “It’s okay, baby,” she whispered. “Shh.” She had wanted to wrap her arms around its little pink body, stroke its head, its sticky blonde curls, tell it everything would be fine. But all she could do was wait for her father to finish.
After he left, she slammed the bathroom door. The mirror attached to it shattered. Later, when she went in to clean up, a shard of glass sliced a small crescent into the ball of her foot. She had sat on the toilet then and watched as blood dripped cleanly from her sole.
Brenda closes the bathroom door, drops her robe on the floor and looks at her hideous self in the cracked mirror. Her distended belly assaults her and so she turns, runs her hand over the tattoo on her ass. She’s glad it isn’t stretched out, relieved the red S-H-I-T is still clear, the garland of black nettles around it still sharp.
She’d had it done for her sixteenth birthday, as a gift from her father. “You think it will give you some class?” he had said when she asked him to sign the release. She had glared at him, decided she would drop out of school after all. “Tell you what. If you let me go with you, I’ll sign it.”
Brenda had walked into the small, windowless room in back of a resale shop, stepped out of her jeans and climbed onto a table covered in peeling vinyl. Her father sat on a corkscrew stool at her head, clasping her hand in his own. She felt the needle first, puncturing her skin like a spear, and then the heat from the goose-neck lamp, and imagined Ray, the artist, leaning over her, guiding the blood-colored ink into her wounded bottom. Her father sat, still and silent. In a short while, he started to breathe quickly. “You okay, mister?” Ray said.
“Oh, yeah, fine.” Her father had leaned over, kissed her forehead, then stood up and pressed his pelvis against the table. Brenda had shut her eyes.
As she reaches for the chrome handle on the tub wall, the phone starts to ring, then stops. She twists the handle sharply. A pipe groans, spits tears through the faucet and into the tub. Water rushes and puddles over the rusted drain and the chipped porcelain that surrounds it. She returns to the mirror, where she examines the navel protruding from her belly. Maybe the baby’s father will come back to The Balboa, look for her, ask for her. He’ll be happy when she tells him, convinces him that her father’s supporting it because it’s his first grandchild, he’s a widower, he’s buying the house because family is important and he loves her, of course he loves her, nobody loves her like her father does.
She drags her Star of David pendant across its chain. Her father had given it to her in a small box covered in shiny blue paper with silver stars, trussed with pale twisted streamers that spiraled and bounced like shimmering springs. “Open it, birthday girl,” he’d said. She slipped a finger under a white ribbon, sliced her flesh, streaked a silver star red. Her father had smiled, hooked the chain around her neck and then leaned into her, kissed the spot where the star dropped above her shivering breasts as her thumb and forefinger slid and skated over the tiny gold links and the Shema, the affirmation of one God, escaped through her lips. Shema yisrael adonai eloheinu, adonai echad. The words floating, appearing, disappearing like clouds of breath in winter. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One!” It was the only prayer she knew.
Mrs. Anielewicz, the old babushka woman, had touched the pendant that afternoon at Sanders. She’d shuffled up next to Brenda, ordered a Coke, and then turned to watch Connie fill a glass. Brenda had watched too, elbow on the counter, chin in her palm, the star dangling over the v-neck of her sweater. Suddenly the woman had reached toward Brenda, brushed the necklace with her fingertip, which she then kissed. “All of us, we know the star and the marks,” she had said, her thick accent sinking the words. “And the monsters, if they come back, we keep away, together.”
Brenda stared at the woman and, as Connie approached, started to spin on the stool. But the counter had caught her belly and she jerked forward, her head aching even before it hit the grey-swirled Formica. She opened her eyes to a puddle of Coke glistening on the Formica. “Shema yisrael,” Brenda had said as she sat up.
“You okay, honey? Brenda?” Connie peeled the wet cardigan from Mrs. Anielewicz’s arm. “Let me get a damp towel,” she said, and ducked back behind the counter.
“He moves strong, the baby. A boy he is. He fights, this is good.” The old woman had smiled. As she tucked a few loose curls under her babushka, Brenda had stared at the papery white skin of her forearm, the inky blue numbers tattooed across it.
Brenda sighs, absently runs her hand over her ass and around to her stomach, which she rubs. It’s like a planet, she thinks as she clasps her arms under her belly, lifts the mound slightly. “Are you a Martian, baby?” She leans against the white tile wall, presses her bottom into the coolness, drags it from side to side.
She glances at the steam rising from the tub, twists the tap closed. She grasps the edge of the film-covered shower door and eases herself into the water, props her head against the wall opposite the faucet, watches the ripples quiet, disappear. She glides a bar of soap over her belly and feels a kick press against her bladder, wills herself not to pee. “Are you swimming, baby?” she asks. Another kick, then Brenda stands and gets out, drips onto the toilet seat and urinates. She climbs back in and settles into the warmth. She strokes her throat, rubs the bony notch at its base. The baby shifts again, its foot, she is sure, now under her breast. “Shhh,” she says. “You’re okay.”
They were her father’s words, too. She had tried to scream once, twice, but her voice, a knotted pulse at the top of her throat, throbbed, ached, dared her to breathe. “Don’t slip, sweetie. Don’t fall. Shower time. Here, let me help my special girl.” The warm wet hand then, and the spray that splashed away her resistance, the fingers that pulled her over the edge and into the hug that ended with bullets of water piercing her backside. Mouth clamped shut and cheek pressing the damp dark curls against his chest, his palm slid from her nape, down her spine, into her crack, back and forth and back and forth. “Down, careful, don’t slip,” the words said. “Here, baby. Come.” One of her feet on the porcelain, the other, then his hands on her shoulders pulling her head into the nest in his crotch, against his penis, moving and growing, purple, wet. Water on her back warm, smooth. Her hair, dripping, the curls doused and brown. Her arms around his legs, her head burrowed further into the place beneath the hardness.
Brenda gasps, whips her head forward sharply. Water sloshes over the edge of the tub and she clutches the chrome shower-track, breathes deeply, then again. After a moment she immerses herself, sits up, and rests her fingertips on her belly.
As the tub cools, Brenda opens the drain and hears it gurgle, watches the water level slip down the porcelain sides. When it’s half gone, she snaps the lever shut and refills the bathtub with more hot. She sinks, submerging her shoulders, legs and arms, sees her stomach perched peacefully above the water line and below the breasts streaked with lines like blue smoke. She traces circles around the flat brown aureoles, glad she won’t have to deal with her father for another two nights. Maybe he found a house this week and told her mother he’s making her daughter the kind of home she should have had when she was growing up. She twists her nipples gently, strokes her belly. The baby shifts and Brenda repositions her body, closes her eyes, lets her hand find the place below the mound of stomach and between her legs, the swollen knob she kneads and rubs until the pressure in her knees surges upwards to where her thighs meet and, like her father’s thick fingers, invades her, pries her open for the bar of soap wrapped in slick bubbles that he eases, that she eases, into the slit between her folds. Burning. Searing. Throbbing. Pulsing. Contractions that catch the soap, her hand, his.
“Shhh, baby. It’s okay,” her father says in her mind. “Daddy will kiss it, make it better.”
Make it better for whom, Brenda thinks. She squeezes her eyes closed and sees the two of them standing naked in a tub, water spurting from the chrome fixture above her father’s head, warming him, chilling her.
She takes a deep breath, splashes water on her face, submerges herself, then sits up. She hears the apartment door slam.
“Are you okay, baby?” her father says loudly. “I tried to call. Brenda?”
She covers her ears with her hands, shuts her eyes and like a torpedo suddenly grounded, sinks. She emerges, hears three sharp knocks on the bathroom door. “It’s Friday,” Brenda says. “Get out.”
“C’mon honey, let me in. I just want to talk to you.” He raps again, harder. The mirror vibrates.
“I mean it,” she says. “Get out of here. Just go away.”
“But I found a house. A nice one. New kitchen, rec room. Big yard. A bathroom between the master and the nursery. Maybe we could see it tomorrow.”
She steps out of the tub, pads to the door and locks it.
The baby shifts. Brenda’s sure it’s a tiny hand that pushes a stretch of belly out, that reaches under the tight flesh and presses it, rocks it toward her navel to where her breasts hang, waiting. “Shh.” She begins to massage the smooth, pale skin. “You’re okay, baby. Mommy’s here.”