Plain China

Mimosa Pudica

by Michaela Cowgill · American University
In Orbit, Marilyn Smith · Boston College

I.

            This is the good part of the story. Every July we drove to the shore in our creaky white minivan to visit my great Uncle Lee. If there were a sharp turn, the whole van would feel like it was about to tip over like a red flyer wagon. The seats were blue and uncomfortable. Dad promised me an ice cream for every yellow car we passed. I kept track in my notebook. That was my entry for that day. I wrote July 2, 1999 carefully in the top corner of the page and then right underneath it I wrote the total count, “seven mint chocolate chip ice creams.” I fell asleep and when I woke the ocean was there. It was rushing to the sand, then pulling back and then rushing again to the shore like a giant blue yo-yo.

            This is the only time that I can remember sleeping in the same room as my parents. The small, sagging house didn’t have air conditioning so we slept with the window propped open. Uncle Lee knew which sheets were mine and always had them waiting for me. They were folded up on the cot next to the guest bed, and I wondered if he kept them there all year while I was in school. They had small pink flowers all over and were scratchy on my bare legs. There was the sound of the ocean and then my parents’ breath. I tried to stay awake for as long as I could, listening to the sound of them breathing. I tried to breathe with them so that we were inhaling the same salty air at the same time. This went on for what seemed like a long time. Them sleeping and breathing and me listening and breathing. The room was so hot. The curtain fluttering up from our breathing or maybe the wind. I don’t remember falling asleep and I don’t remember if I dreamed or not.

 

II.

“Catherine. It’s your mother. Call me back.”

            I was grocery shopping and forgot my phone in my dorm room. Now it was buzzing in the folds of my comforter, collecting frantic voicemails from my mother. I was picking up peaches and pressing my thumbs into them. I was deciding if I should get 2% or skim even though I didn’t really care either way. I was trying to remember what my mom usually got. I was worrying about a paper I had to write. I was stopping to look at the flowers even though I couldn’t afford flowers, and had no where to put them even if I could. I was crossing things off a list. I was unbraiding my hair and then braiding it again. On the shuttle back to campus I sat next to a classmate.

“Have you started your paper?” he asked.

“Nope. Have you?”

“Not really. I think I know what I want to write about though.”

“Yeah me too, probably the poem about the lady drowning.”

“Which one?”

“It’s called Not Waving but Drowning.”

“I thought a dude drowned.”

“No it was a girl, I think.”

            I’m not sure who put away my groceries or what happened to them while I went home for the funeral. When I got back they were gone though. Maybe my roommate asked our RA in a hushed voice what to do with the 2% milk since my dad died and all and she agreed that yes, she should throw it out before I got back.

III.

            My dad had a habit of touching his tie as if it might blow away in the wind. As if he was always at risk of becoming undone. The world was something that could take his tie right off his neck if he let it. So he touched his tie with his fingers. He would say something out loud and then touch his tie at the very center of his chest. To a stranger it might have seemed sweet that this man was touching his heart, gesturing to something pulsing and feeling underneath his ironed, buttoned up shirt. I knew that he just wanted everything to be in its right place.

            I inherited my mother’s habit of apologizing and her green eyes. Someone could probably steal my bicycle, a 1980s cruiser that I bought at a garage sale and my friend proudly named Loser Cruiser, and I would say sorry to them for the squeaky brakes that I never got around to sorting out. I remember listening through the walls to my parents fighting. There was a sudden shuffling and a thud, a chair clattering over. Then nothing but thick silence.

“I’m sorry John,” she said.

            But this is not the story I meant to tell. I meant to write about Claire and the dog. I got to her apartment 20 minutes late and knocked. Claire was my roommate’s aunt and she was paying me to watch her dog for the weekend. The door opened and I realized suddenly that there were people who got rained on, and people who didn’t. Claire did not get rained on. And so I apologized while she introduced herself because I was dripping rainwater all over her wood floors.

“I’m Claire.”

“I’m sorry.” I shook my head, flinging rain into the air. “And I’m Catherine. It’s nice to meet you.”

            She motioned me inside with slender, clean hands. I apologized again.

IV.

            Here is a list I made in order to help me identify the perfect seashell. It was very important that I find it and give it to my mom. I knew she made a list when she bought food so I wrote a list to bring to the beach.

  1. Must be the color of the moon
  2. The size of my ear
  3. Heavy but not so heavy that mom can’t bring it home
  4. Soft like cat ears
  5. Sounds like ocean

            I wanted to give her a telephone to the ocean. You see that’s why it had to be the size of an ear. That way, she could listen to the ocean even when we got home and it got cold. Even on Christmas Eve, if she really wanted, she could go back to the shore. When I gave it to my mother she took off her sunglasses to inspect it, squinting in the sunlight. Turning it over in her hand like she was trying to remember it.

“Oh baby this is great.”

“You have to put it to your ear.”

“Like this?”

“Uh huh.”

When we left to get lunch she forgot it in the sand along with her warm, half empty sprite can. 

V.

            Claire’s hands reminded me of seashells. They were not for lifting or gripping. I tried to picture them changing a diaper or cutting potatoes into thick slices for dinner. They looked too soft to do anything. My hands felt weary now as I patted her small, fluffy dog awkwardly on its head. Claire breezed around the apartment and told me everything I needed to know for the weekend in short exhales.

“My number in case you need anything.”

“Here’s the oven.”

“The juicer.”

“Click this to turn on the fireplace.”

“Here’s the spare room.”

“Clean towels.”

            She lingered on the word “towels.” I touched my hair. Then she was clicking towards the door with her suitcase. For the first time since I’d been there, she picked up her dog, Rosie, and pressed her face into her fur. I looked away, embarrassed for some reason. Claire didn’t have any photographs on the walls. She had these great big paintings though. I looked at one while she hugged her dog, and tried to understand why the black paint swooped across the white canvas. I couldn’t think about it. I wondered if she had any wine, and if she would be the type to notice if a bottle was missing. And then she left me to her apartment and her Rosie and for a moment neither of us moved in the hallway. The rain kept up against the big windows.

            I was staying in the guest room but I went straight to her room and let myself in. Rosie seemed indifferent and padded into the living room to her plush doggy bed. Beside her room was a bathroom with one of those claw-foot bathtubs that I’d seen in movies. I turned on the water and trailed my fingers until it was hot enough and then got in. Every few minutes or so I’d slip down the sides of the tub so that I was underwater. My cheeks puffed up like a blowfish and I’d count to see how long I could hold my breath.

            A black silk robe embroidered with Claire’s initials hung on a hook of the bathroom door. I slipped into it like it was mine and lied down in her bed for a long time. When I woke up my hair was still wet and it was dark outside. I turned on the TV and then turned it off. I wondered what it would feel like to be Claire. To walk Rosie everyday and look at my big paintings and understand what the black paint was doing. I took out my heavy textbook for my Sustainable Earth class, found a highlighter in Claire’s office, and began to read.

            I underlined the entire description of a plant in Chapter 3. It’s called a “Mimosa Pudica,” or the “touch-me-not” plant. Sensitive plant. It’s a slender looking thing that folds inwards in the darkness and opens up again in the light. I read that part twice. Touching, blowing, or shaking causes the foliage to fold into itself for protection. Rosie was asleep next to me now, and the apartment felt empty with its high ceilings and cleared tables. I called Jack, told him my parents were out of town and that he should come over if he wanted to. We’d only slept with each other last week and in the morning, before I tiptoed out, I saw his wool sweater draped over his chair. I touched it and wanted it suddenly. He probably loved it. The sleeves were stretched out and the elbows were worn. He didn’t wake up so I left with it bundled over my dress, pausing at the door. He sighed in his sleep and turned over before I could decide what I thought of his face. I wondered what I looked like asleep and then closed the door quietly. My roommate thought it was sweet that he gave it to me for the walk home, and I agreed with her. I gave him the address, double-checking the paper in my jeans to make sure I got the street name right. I closed my book and waited.

            Jack came to the apartment and was impressed with all the paintings and the china. I explained that my dad was always spending the weekend in Paris for business and my mom missed him and couldn’t stand to stay in the apartment alone. I explained that my great Uncle Lee lived on the shore and she went there to visit when Dad was away. She liked the sound of the ocean. Then we were kissing and undressing in a stranger’s bed and it was still raining and my dad was not in Paris. When we were done, I lifted myself off the bed and walked to the kitchen to get water.

            This part is hazy. We don’t know how the door was left open. We think that Jack must not have closed the door all the way. Rosie was gone. The door was open and she walked right through it. We asked the doorman but he hadn’t seen a dog. He laughed and then looked concerned, asked us if we lived here. We circled the block in the rain for an hour, pausing at the mouth of alleyways and calling out to Rosie. I stopped at every fucking doorway, at every pool of light in the endless rainstorm. The gray city now seemed to stretch out forever and Rosie was nowhere.

“I’m sure your mom will understand.”

            I nodded and wanted to cry. We were back inside the apartment, my hands awkwardly on my lap as Jack rubbed my back. His hand moved in wide circles on my back and he kept smiling at me the way a parent might if their child just fell off her bicycle. As if I just had to stand back up, stick a Band-Aid over my bleeding knees and try again. After a while he left because so and so was having a party for someone’s birthday. He looked sorry to leave me alone and I tried to act very sorry too that he had to go. I turned off all the lights one by one in the apartment and got into Claire’s bed, pulling the comforter up to my chin. The rain had let up now and I tried to fall asleep to the sound of my own breathing, it quivering like a fern at night. 

About the Author

Michaela Cowgill · American University

Michaela Cowgill graduated from American University in 2015 with a Literature and Creative Writing degree. She wrote a collection of poems about her mother for her senior thesis. She now lives in Paris and still writes poems about her mother. "Mimosa Pudica" first appeared in AmLit

About the Artist

Marilyn Smith · Boston College

Marilyn Smith is a sophomore studying Marketing, Spanish, and Film at Boston College. She has a strong love of travel and a passion for capturing and sharing the way she sees the world through her lens. "In Orbit" first appeared in Stylus