Plain China

Monday, Between Four and Five PM

by Margaret Sweeney · Bennington College
Limbs, Kathleen Saunders · College of Charleston

We are through the door—the side door, the door to the mudroom where the family’s shoes rest in crowded rows—and Claudia doesn’t bother to greet us as we pass the kitchen table, where she sits in a sea of ungraded papers. She knows that by the time she lifts her head from her work we will already be at the bottom of the stairs, climbing the stairs to your room, our shoes and coats lying limp and dripping where we kicked them off on the linoleum floor. The door to the mudroom is still cracked open, swaying on its hinges and letting the cold in, so she will stand to close it, like a good mother. Doesn’t move our shoes to the mudroom or the rubber mat by the door like she wants to. Little crusts of ice float in a puddle on the floor now. She grips her pen in her fist and goes back to her papers. A good mother.

And we are climbing the stairs: the static suction of sock feet on carpet, ready to burst with the urge to touch each other for the first time today—it has been a whole day—and there is the hamper that overflows with dirty laundry, right where it was yesterday, and there a stamp of sunshine on the floor, and there Claudia’s knitting basket, and now I’ve knocked it over with my foot, sending balls of yarn bouncing, unraveling, to the four corners of the wide, bright room. I think: It was nice of her to knit me a pair of gloves for Christmas, a scarf for my birthday. And here we are again, at the end of another day.

Through the door to your room: every object saturated with light at this time of day, late afternoon, when we finally arrive home from school. The light bends to embrace the bed with its thin bands. And then the impact, so familiar it’s almost anticlimactic, and there is a belt buckle winking at us from the closet as our stomachs touch, and there is the half-filled glass of water that lives on the bedside table as our mouths touch. All the necessary elements of our union. We are all here. And your hand is warm on the inside of my leg as you reach to turn out the light.

Winding down, and now we are two separate bodies, you and I. This is when you decide to wrap yourself in your comforter, you, in just your socks and nothing else, and sneak to the bathroom to take a shower and I think what if your mom sees you there, what if Claudia sees you, and I wish you would just put a pair of pants on.

And then I think, what if we had been good, what if we had just dropped our shoes on the rubber mat inside the door, if you had kissed Claudia on the cheek and asked about her day and we had sat on the couches in the living room with two pillows and a silver bowl of popcorn and a cat between us. I sit very quietly and try to listen for signs that your mother’s downstairs life is still running perfectly and neatly parallel to ours. The downstairs bathroom door slams.

Maybe tomorrow, instead of sitting quietly on your bed while you shower, I might find myself retracing our steps back down the hall on my own, without really knowing why. I imagine that outside your room the hallway would be dark; I see myself taking one step toward the ring of light leaking through the crack under the bathroom door, and then one step backward, toward the stairs. Then I would be at the bottom of the stairs, faced with the light and heat of the kitchen, where Claudia sits grading papers. I would ask about the section on Jane Austen she is teaching, and she would ask about my AP English homework, my mother, and, quietly, how you and I are. I would say: fine. Claudia would get up to put water on for tea.

Maybe then you would find your way down the stairs, rubbing your eyes and blinking the water out of them, surprised to find me sitting there with your mother, looking at me like, “Why the fuck are you hanging out with my mom?” And maybe then you would grab a box of cereal and head for the living room, and something inside me would shift, something small and cold like a pebble at the bottom of a river. Only a little shift, not enough to stop wanting to touch you at the end of the day but enough for me to start to wonder what it was I used to do before I started spending every day between four and five with you. What anybody does.

We are climbing the stairs to your room almost immediately after we are through the mudroom door. It’s four-o’clock, and down the street the clock tower in the old elementary school strikes: four even tones. A boy in a red jacket and a fleece hat finds a quarter on the ground and puts it in his backpack. The mail truck starts its stunted, swaying journey up the street. A woman in the house across the street lifts her coffee cup from the table, is distracted by something, replaces it without bringing it to her lips. Your mother moves through the kitchen, the living room, the piano room. And the sun slides lower and lower outside the window, smudging the horizon pink, red, orange.

About the Author

Margaret Sweeney · Bennington College

Margaret Sweeney is a senior studying literature and Spanish with a focus on translation. Her fiction is obsessed with the significance contained in the tiniest of moments. She is co-editor-in-chief ofplain china 2013.

About the Artist

Kathleen Saunders · College of Charleston

Kathleen Saunders is a senior with dual majors in studio art and communications. She has been practicing photography for six years. Kathleen has been exhibited in Charleston venues and her work,Silkscapes, won Best in Photography at Young Contemporaries 2012. Currently, she works almost exclusively with film and medium-format cameras.