Plain China

The Bath

by Michelle Doughty · Rice University
Leah, Eddie Sitt · Bennington College

The master bathroom is an over-focused picture of mirrors, marble, and silver. I am naked under its harsh lights.

My arms and legs are coarse and tan against the soft white of my belly and groin. My blonde hair is as pale as my skin, my teeth as white as the corners of my eyes. I am seven years old.

My mother steps out of her blue lace thong, so that she too is naked. Her body is disconcertingly real, with rippling thighs and swinging breasts. Makeup still covers her face, sketching out shadowed eyes and ghastly bubblegum lips. Beneath her powdered chin, her sagging neck is speckled with age spots. Her hair is dark and brittle like separated chocolate.

The water rises around her when she sinks into the bath. She calls me over, and obediently I slide into the tub by her right side. My mother is one of those mythological giants whose body becomes part of the landscape, with caves in her nostrils and valleys between her toes. She holds me tucked against her abdomen so that I am submerged in the warm bath. The temperature is comfortable, but I want the water to boil. I want to walk away not just clean but sterile.

As my mother bathes us, the water grows opaque with soap residue and grit from her bleeding makeup. I lose sight of my mother’s hands on my skin, but I cannot forget their presence. She holds me close to her abdomen. Though my mother’s body is soft with fat and cushioned by water, her nails are filed sharp enough to scrape.

The heat has leaked from the water and the cold has spread a rash of goose bumps across my skin by the time I am free to leave the bath. I wrap a towel snugly around me and stare down at my hands, where the wrinkles on my fingers form a second layer of fingerprints. I am doubly identifiable now, and I know that I will be caught and punished for whatever it is that I have done.

 

The day we visit Schlitterbahn Waterpark, my mother captures my sister and me and drags us to her bathroom for a thorough sunscreening. We are too excited to be contained; we slip and slide out of her hands the way I used to climb out of my high chair. Our restlessness is dangerous in this bathroom made entirely of sharp corners.

My mother spreads sunscreen on me with her own hands. She makes me stand with one leg up on the bath, like I’m about to go a-conquering, while her hands roam my body. I blush, a full body blush, veins burning where she touches me. As her fingers probe deeper, down my chest and up my legs, she reminds me that my swimsuit can shift with my movement. It is important to apply sunscreen even here, she says. The suit feels tight enough to me, and her hands grip me even tighter.

My older sister Katy is still in the room, and she won’t meet my eyes. I don’t know why this is something that happens to me and never to her.

My mother rubs her palms in slow circles across my chest, dipping her fingers below the line of my swimsuit. She tells me that I have beautiful skin, expensive skin, and I imagine that my flesh can be sold per pound, like ivory. For comparison, my mother points to the skin of her chest, from her collarbone down to a deep V between her breasts. The skin there has rusted over into an uneven dark orange, rough as an all-consuming callous.

“If you’re not careful,” she tells me, voice pitched so that only I can hear, “this could be you one day.”

Already I look so much like my mother. I have her pear figure, the soft slope of her nose, the width of her shoulders, the curl of her hair, the open pores of her skin. Sometimes when I catch glimpses of myself in the mirror I don’t recognize myself. I only see her.

 

My mother lies in her bed, covered in layers of rich, gem-like green and purple. The colors look even darker in the limpid yellow light that slips in through the window shades. I don’t know if it’s the lighting or her fever, but her skin looks dead. Dad is either at work or drunk, so caring for my mother has become my responsibility. There’s not much to do but take aspirin and drink water, but Mom wants it to be a big deal, so a big deal it must be. Stop the presses; we have a cold.

Per her request, every half-hour I slip through the swinging doors to her bedroom. I creep on the balls of my feet through the stifling air to check on her. Most of the day she sleeps. I look at her reclining body, a heavy lump of biological processes, and I am struck by two conflicting impulses. I want to burrow close to her, and I want to run. I want her to reach for me at the same time that I fear that her flesh will engulf me. I would become part of the purple, warm, respiring mass in front of me, and I would never be able to leave.

After dinner, my mother emerges from her bedroom. She is wearing a nightgown in the shade of perfect blue that little children color the sky. The fabric is tied together at her neck but flows freely across the rest of her body. The fabric is thin, and she is not wearing a bra. The light shines behind her, showing the silhouette of her pendulous breasts and bulging stomach as she shuffles towards me.

The air seethes around her as she approaches and pulls me into an enveloping hug. I can feel every curve of her body, especially her chest, in which she buries my head. The air is cloyingly sweet, and the taste glues my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Mother thanks me for taking care of her.

 

When my mother kisses me, she traps my face beneath her hands so that I can’t squirm away. I scrunch my eyes up tight, but the sensation of her lips on mine stays. I am not a baby anymore; I know that the world doesn’t disappear just because I close my eyes. I never see it, but sometimes I think I feel her tongue in my mouth.

 

Iam in seventh-grade biology class when I feel a release of pressure just below my stomach. I hate my period immediately. Not just the inconvenience or even the brutal pain—I hate the entire concept that I am a woman now and a part of me is ready to have a child.

I am a cross-country runner; I already exercise too much, and with just a hint of dieting I become amenorrheic. The less I eat, the less I bleed, and I love it. I refuse to be the latest in a long line of Russian dolls, another child inside a child inside a child. Each mother creates a daughter, and each daughter fits perfectly inside the mother to whom she belongs.

For months in middle school, I still cramp once a month, but the sensation blends into hunger pains. Again and again I dream of sticky red blood pooling over my hips, so thick it sinks me into the mattress and glues me to the bed. I wake up hungry, but that doesn’t mean that I have to eat.
I am anorexic for many years.

 

One day in my junior year of high school I walk into my room and my mother is already there. The doors are wide open, so that I can still hear the downstairs TV and smell roasting chicken and beer. My mother’s glasses are on the bedside table, and she is lying on my bed. She is under the covers, and her skin is touching my sheets—my sheets, which touch my skin. Her greasy hair fans out over my pillow.

“Mom?”

“Sorry, honey,” my mother’s voice is sleep-blurred and heavy. “It’s so comfy.”

“Mm-hmm,” I say. I feel like the mother in this situation, tight-lipped and disapproving.

“C’mon, sweetie,” she says. “Join me.”

“Mom,” I say, as quietly as I can manage. “I have studying to do.”

In the future I will wonder if I only succeeded in school because my mother would actually accept homework as an excuse for my being alone. For the time being, she gestures at my desk as if to tell me to get on with it already.

“But Mom…that’s my bed.”

“In a minute,” she slurs. “Besides, who paid for the bed? It’s not really yours, is it?”

I stand beside the bed and stare as my mother falls back into a deep, restful sleep. I wait fifteen minutes before she rolls off the bed, towards me, and lurches into a hug. She squeezes me so tight that I am forced to relinquish the breath I have been holding. My mother’s body is soft and yielding, and I sink into it.

Finally she leaves, and I close and lock the doors, seal my curtains, and turn off the lights. I lie back on my empty bed, hands folded behind my head so that I can see my own jutting hips and the way my stomach collapses in on itself. My skin is pale as heavy cream against the sheets; it’s been years since I wore a swimsuit. I watch my ribs move while I breathe, shallow and careful to avoid the lingering smell of my mother’s Midnight Pomegranate lotion.

My room locks, but the lock is childproof. It’ll click right open if you stick a wooden skewer in the small hole above the doorknob.

 

We fight over my clothes, like most mothers with most daughters. I wear something too low-cut, she protests, I protest her protestation—what I’m pretty sure is normal mother-daughter stuff.

I warn her once, “I’m going off to college in a few years, and then I’ll wear whatever I want. And you know the harder you push now, the more ridiculous things I’ll wear then.”

“Oh, that won’t bother me,” she says.

“Really?”

“Well, yes,” she says, as though this ought to be obvious. “Because you’ll be far away by then, and no one will see me or know that I’m your mother. No one will associate the two of us.”

I pause a second before asking, “Does that mean that you’re…ashamed to be seen with me?”

“When you dress like that,” my mother gestures at my lime-green tank top. “No mother wants to be seen with a daughter like that. I mean, look! You’re straining over the top of that!”

I do not agree, but I comply. It is not worth fighting someone who has all the money, the legal power, the physical strength, the approval of her peers, and my unconditional love. Besides, my mother says I still owe her for carrying me for nine months and giving up her job to raise my sister and me.

When I return in a t-shirt, my mother immediately tucks me under her arm.

“Look at you—so beautiful,” she says, nuzzling against me. “My baby girl.”

I let my mother win all our arguments, because I love her, because I fear her, and most of all because I cannot tell the difference between those two.

I remember my mother put me on emotional probation when she was angry. She wouldn’t hug me, wouldn’t talk to or look at me. She would deliberately give extra attention to Katy in front of me—which is not to say that my mother and Katy were ever as close as my mother and I were. Katy remembers nothing improper.

I remember feeling jealous but relieved when my mother ignored me for Katy, and now I am relieved but jealous that Katy has led what looks to me like an easier life.

I am the only child who was chosen for this, so it feels obvious that I am somehow complicit. I must have done something wrong that Katy never did. I should have spoken up. I should have insisted on showering by myself upstairs. I should have turned my head away so that my mother’s wet lips landed on my cheek. People tell me that I’m innocent and shouldn’t feel guilty, but I don’t know how to stop.

 

Iam nineteen, huddled with a cute bisexual girl on the window seat on the third floor of my college. Her hand is on my leg, and I want to skim my fingers across her skin in one long line starting at the bridge of her nose. Instead I slip a lock of her hair behind her ear. She smiles and leans forward, so that we are forehead-to-forehead sharing secrets.

She grabs my hand and leads me to her room. I can’t stop giggling.

Soon we’re making out on her bed. We’re pressed together, tilted at an awkward forty-five degree angle from the bed. I want to lie down and tug her on top of me, but at the same time I want to sit up straight and mold my body against hers. Our balance is precarious, but I don’t mind. Her hands are in my hair, and her eyes are closed. We are sharing a fast heartbeat, and my hands are so excited they don’t know where to rest.

Then something falls loose in my memory, and everything is wrong. It feels foul to be swapping spit with someone and sucking on her tongue. I lose focus on the girl, and I don’t remember why I’m even here, in someone else’s room. The wave of fear and guilt is so overpowering that I start to doubt if I was ever enjoying this at all.

Offering flimsy excuses, I scramble out from under the girl. I tuck her hair behind her ear again, and tell her that she is beautiful. My heart is racing and it’s not in the good way anymore.

“Don’t panic,” she says. She knows me.

“I might panic,” I say. She hugs me close and sends me two doors down the hall to my own bed, where I cannot sleep for wondering what the hell just happened. Even though a part of me knows exactly what has gone wrong, even an inkling of the truth is enough to send my skittish mind shying away from the search.

 

Icould not control my memory forever, just as I could not control my body. Apparently, all those times I told myself, this isn’t happening because this can’t be happening, I wasn’t listening. It happened, and I have only just begun to remember.

I found my memories perfectly preserved. The years had no effect on what I’d repressed; I didn’t let my wandering mind leave a single footprint upon them. Now that I’ve dug up my memories, I can’t look at them in the past tense. I lose the perspective of a survivor and even of an adult. When I remember, I am that girl again, naked and all of seven years old and covered in SPF 60. I am small and vulnerable and my father doesn’t care for me and my mother’s love crushes me, bends me out of shape and ruins me. I feel the emptiness like a hunger for the girl I ought to be, in my left breast like a sore muscle and in my right calf like shivering and in my throat like being choked. I should be used to the sensation by now, but I’m not.

 

My mother is driving me under the Mo-Pac overpass when she asks the question. It is my senior year of high school, and razor blade cuts are scabbing over on my upper right thigh. My doctor noticed the cuts during a check-up over the summer and handed my mother a list of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers to contact on my behalf. My mother only knows about the self-harm; she has not noticed the weight loss. She considers me to be a troubled teen, one of those disappointments she’s read about in parenting books. Maybe she’s right. Either way I am going to group therapy every Thursday evening.

She does not take her eyes off the road when she asks, “Have you been thinking of suicide?”

When I was younger my mother told me, explicitly and repeatedly, that she didn’t want to deal with my sadness and I should pretend to be happy. Lying to her comes easily now.

Now she asks, “Have you been thinking of suicide?” and I can’t lie. The idea seems disrespectful to my own death, and yet I know I can’t tell her the truth. She’d put me under house arrest.

“Have you been thinking of suicide?”

After every meal I skip, I think, surely this will kill me soon. I know that the starvation won’t kill me directly, but I can feel my heart slowing. I can feel the sluggishness of my blood while it lurches around my body, and I wait for bradycardia to stop my heart. I’m not just thinking about suicide. I’m in the midst of attempting it.

“Have you been thinking of suicide?”

“Yes.”

My mother begins to cry. She demands to know, am I really going to do it? Do I know how terrible that is? Do I want to be a statistic? Don’t I know that I have so much to live for? And most importantly, how can I do this to her?

Her questions dissolve into sobs, and I have to comfort her, because she is coping with the reality that she could lose a part of herself. When her tears spill over I grab the wheel and steer us towards downtown, careening through the shrinking lanes. The wheel of the top-heavy minivan feels tiny in my hands. One little twist and the whole metal beast can veer off course, and it’s only an inch on each side from the white dashed lines.

My mother wipes her tears and interrupts her sobs to speak with sudden clarity. She says, “If you commit suicide, I’ll probably kill myself.”

 

In the years since I left my family’s house, our dog has developed an anxiety disorder. Stella, our dachshund, shakes herself into a panic whenever my mother leaves her for even a few minutes. She lost weight, not that she had much of it to begin with. And she’s going bald.

Katy attributes Stella’s nerves to abandonment—first Katy left for RISD, then me for Rice, then Dad for an apartment because Mom kicked him out of the house.

“Or,” I say, “Or…it’s a sign that Mom should never be allowed to take care of anything.”

Mom was the last one in our family to go to therapy. For years she insisted that she was the sane one among all of us—that Katy just happened to develop trichotillomania back in elementary school, while Dad happened to develop alcoholism, while I happened to develop anorexia and a tendency to self-harm.

My mother is humbler now. When I visited one summer she apologized for being overbearing, then she came over to crush me to her, sob into my hair, and ask if I would ever forgive her.

I don’t know that I will. Whatever combination of self-protection, exhaustion, and spite motivates me, I am the bad guy now. My mom sits in the huge empty house with only our balding dog for company, and I won’t even return her calls.

My mother tells me that I was born blue and silent, with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around my neck. I wonder what it felt like, to be pushed out and choked and chopped free. I wonder about the sensation of pain before my nervous system was developed.

Soon enough, I must have started to breathe. Only then would the doctors clean me and weigh me and wrap me up, all before handing me back. I imagine those first few breaths I took, surrounded by doctors and nurses and blocked from my mother’s view. Someday, maybe even soon, the air will taste that clear again.

About the Author

Michelle Doughty · Rice University

Michelle Doughty is a senior studying chemistry, with a specialization in convincing people that she really is a chemistry major, despite all that writing. As a layout editor of R2: The Rice Review, a barefoot runner, and an amateur pastry chef, she attempts to collect enough virtues to balance out her vices. “The Bath” first appeared in R2: The Rice Review.

About the Artist

Eddie Sitt · Bennington College

Eddie Sitt graduated in 2013 having studied various visual arts as well as some science, literature, and philosophy. He is from New York City where he is currently continuing his studies to become a nurse.Leah first appeared in Bennington’s journal, Silo.