You sweat. Slick coats of antiperspirant through the rice fields under your arms. Sweat.
Dad built Mom out of pipe cleaners when she died, sat her on the kitchen counter in fuzzy green dress and wire eyes. Took him days; barely three foot of her, starch-stiff ragdoll on the kitchen side but enough, big enough for you to press your head between her nylon bristle legs, small twin scars on your forehead where the wires catch.
You try an alum stone. Small, squat round of quartz on a twine string, stings where you’ve cut rice fields back to get skin. Nothing works. What must the garbage men think of the loot of antiperspirants in your trashcan? Discarded Old Spice, Mitchum, Dove. Just over a thousand dollars does both your fresh-shaved fields, honeycomb grid of bruises where the needle slipped in, slipped out, slipped in. Now you’ve had Botox, the sweat stops, that’s one problem solved – you can get back to building.
The Super for your complex comes round every October and it’s only June; you’ve got time, the palms outside just growing golden in the Californian heat, a far cry from the Nebraska you grew up in, paddling pool view out the window instead of the knife edge of Route 110, black bodies of Bentleys roiling in the heat, obvious who has air conditioning.
Your dad liked your place. Typical Los Angeles view five stories up and what they call a condo – the desk job you worked for four years sucking up to and sucking off the boss paid off, if paid off is a thousand square feet of white plaster and laminate floor. He left his wife after you moved companies, settled down with his redundancy and a tech executive named Kyle. Every time you undid his fly it sounded like the loaded round of wire sliding, pipe cleaners twining.
Your dad liked the open-air view outside your floor-to-ceiling windows, didn’t mind the interstate or the cicada bursts at four in the morning that continued long after the pest control had been. He liked the motion sensor lid on your toilet and the fifth ring in the middle of your gas stove, he liked your double-sided coat closet and art deco wall print and double height living space where now you lie curled in the foetal position on a red beanbag.
The beanbag is the latest addition, but it doesn’t feel right, filling too hard to be uterine tissue. Forty-five minutes with a stitch-picker and three four-dollar bags of hollow fibre filling and you’ve made something better; soft, less immobile, and the final test is to soak it through with lukewarm water and lie in its concave clasp, feel the heat seep in. Perfect.
Three and a half. No epidural.
The bin liners you’ve cut open on the floor catch the excess – Mr Hommeburg wouldn’t be happy if amniotic fluid leaked through his ceiling. Sorry, dad, gone is the double height living space, you had to pin the sheets up somewhere. Though he’d probably like the rose-glow of sunset they cast across the laminate. He liked red things. Your mom’s red hair, merlot lipstick she wore; he loved red so much it was the colour he painted the inside of his skull when the aneurysm finally burst.
What you’re building, though, is a different red. Not clotted blood red, not two-day-old-body-on-the-basement-couch red, not even mom-merlot red – no, this, is subcutaneous tissue red. Shaving-nick red all over the living room – you dye cushions with box kits, your bulk order of tissue paper whispers under the damp soles of your bare feet. You emptied out your savings account last week – fifteen and a half thousand dollars divided into sixteen apple red envelopes, spread out on kitchen counters to cover blue-tinged marble.
You stop ordering takeout. On infrequent trips to the grocery store you buy celery sticks, gallon tubs of full fat ice cream, boxes of twinkies, sirloin steaks, watermelon. On garbage day you pack things into the elevator – the foam massage roller and yoga mat and other non-slip yoga mat and dumbbell tree and kettle bell and dinky set of glass scales your aunt Wendy bought you as a housewarming gift. You leave them on the curb. It takes fifteen minutes for a van to pull up, a white van that’s probably got half of LA’s second-hand castoffs in back. Two surly Latina women take the roller, mats, weights, scales, and leave the garbage truck in their wake.
Over the next six weeks, it starts to happen. The celery and melon add water weight, your belly turns soft and crescent mooned, your insulin’s up and it makes quick work of your thinly muscled arms, semi-colon calves; already you’re building up a composite of amino acids, glucose, the dark parts of protein underneath your faintly tanned skin.
Wait. Tanned? Not right. The UV rays must be glass-resistant. You need more.
It’s easy enough to buy one hundred and seven fourteen-inch laptop UV screen protectors and a step ladder on Amazon. Too easy. Peel, stick, peel, stick and you can crawl on hands and knees without the sun spoiling you around the living room, or crouch miner-like on your now musty-smelling beanbag.
The four or so hours of the day you spend awake now you eat slow and methodical, eyes closed, lips aching with the cold of your dessert spoon, dry from your unseasoned steak. Mom used to feed you peeled grapes, cold eggs popped between your lips. You can still feel it.
Mould dapples the high corners of the living room since you turned off the air conditioning, shut the windows, wedged an old Pink Floyd t-shirt under the apartment door. Heat, that was the first thing you thought of. Heat, Maggie, that’s what I remember. When your dad talked about the summer hospital room you were born in, you thought of Nebraska heat, coiling and damp, back-of-the-neck sweat.
But that’s not LA. LA has the kind of heat you imagine heaven would have in that proximity to the sun – close, dry, a heat that moves and clings, makes your bones brittle, ache. It’s not ideal, but a half a dozen bowls of water dotted here and there do the trick… you can taste the water when you breathe in.
You set the lights on their automatic timer, strip off the thrift store nightdress you’ve been living in, heat the kettle on the stove, soak the beanbag. Lukewarm. Body temperature.
Mom died young; cancer made continents out of her lungs when she was forty-three and you didn’t cry. In the upturned umbrella of your skirt you carried sea aster from the backyard into the sitting-cum-bedroom. Water, floating flowers; on the dresser they drift in a glass bowl, under petals saturated – you fish out the oldest ones, dry them off on a paper towel, press them between the pages of A Child’s First Bible. You wait for her breathing to become a death rattle like dad warned but for months it is wind under a doorframe, whistling through the window vents, the sigh of the fan oven.
You bookend your Hail Mary and Our Father every night with a gentle wish for Mommy’s lungs to get better, even as her body rejects itself in the room downstairs and Dad stands with his forehead pressed against the cool wood of the bathroom door.
A week before the pre-death coma sets in, when she’s still able to siphon what’s left of the air in the sweltering June room, she whispers to you – she can only whisper, now – the story of your slick, warm birth. You are only eleven but you will never forget it; close your eyes, press your cheek to her barely-throbbing, freckle-mottled, flame-hot chest, she has the country lilt of a childhood in South Carolina, her wedding ring is the coldest part of her, pressed underneath the collar of your cotton summer dress.
‘Baby, you were beautiful’, she tells you, ‘covered in blood, pink like a pomegranate, your daddy kept the shirt he held you in. Your lil’ nailbeds were blue, we kissed ya’ and you tasted like milk, like new.’ You think of being that close to your mother, tumbling vole-like from between her alabaster coloured legs. Slip off the bed, tiptoe round the end as mom slips in and out of remembering. Lift up the bedsheet and stick your head in, smell the high musk of her soiled waterproof bedsheet.
You can still remember it. Curled up on your soaking wet beanbag, that pipe cleaner knockoff never came close – you’ve dragged the humidifier in – the room is wet, slick, red and pink and you are warm, naked, gooseflesh of anticipation on your curved belly despite the heat as you slip back into Nebraska, climbing up past mommy’s feet, pushing apart her thighs and feeling that preternatural body heat, lying there between her hairless chemo-ravaged legs thinking about what it was to be born.
A few hours later, dehydration sets in, five days rationing water and you can see in pinwheels, hot and uncovered, nails cut down to the quick, your hair growing dusty in the bathroom trashcan, your scalp clean; you can hear the traffic of the 110 muffled through the tissue of the walls, your heart is beating faster, smaller, your breath quickens, head spins, behind your eyelids you can see the caramel tinge of your veins and –
The light seeps in. One hundred and twenty bold watts scald you as you are born, gasping in the sudden cold of your pre-set lights and air conditioning – you crawl spider-like, ripping down tissue and sheet and stickers and more, the forceps-shape of the highway coming into view as you stand there heaving, new, chest wet, breasts full –
Mom? I’ve just been born… Where are you?
About The Author
Shannon Clinton-Copeland is an Irish-Jamaican writer, poet and student currently studying
English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She also works as
a Bookseller and a trainee at the UEA Publishing Project. Born in London, she was raised
in Ireland before returned to the UK aged 10. Her love of London informs much of her
writing. She is currently working on an experimental multi-voice novel called ‘Evelyn’, and a
poetry collection called ‘Honey: Poetic Half-truths’ about her late grandmother and the London of her childhood. She is based between Kent and Norwich.
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