~This essay was previously published in New Letters (2013).
~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, Assistant Editor.
I remember always seeing the underneath of things. I'm sitting on a bath rug, and black and white tiles spread away from me and foreshorten into corners. Summer sunlight illuminates the soap smears and family hairs around the claw feet of the tub. It's Norwegian sunlight and has no humidity to blur the edges. Each small hair throws a shadow. The tub is deep, which means high over my head. I don't remember how I get into the tub any more than anyone who hasn't left her braces and crutches in the bedroom and crawled to the bathroom remembers how she got in a tub. But perhaps I pull myself onto a close-by toilet and then swing over to the rounded edge. It's nineteen sixty-six, and at fourteen I'm strong and agile from a life of crutch walking.
I have probably balanced the beers on the back of toilet. Or maybe there's a table beside the tub. Yes, a table. It wavers into view—a marble square set on turned dowels of pale wood. Is this the same table that came to me when my mother died and now sits beside my bed supporting a water glass, body lotion, and always a stack of books? I do remember the black plug on a chain. And the swaths of precious summer light through the window—glinting on faucets, creamy over the porcelain, slicking the tiles. It must have been a Sunday afternoon. Afternoon because of the slant of light. Sunday because of how my mouth stank with thirst. On Saturday I would have passed for eighteen in my madras skirt from the Montgomery Ward Catalog and gone to bars. I don't remember that Saturday night, but mostly, on a Sunday morning, I never quite remembered the night before. Although I would have caught the last before-curfew bus out of the city and not missed my stop. Sometimes I remember a sloppy groping with a stranger in the back seat. Had I met him at the bar? On the bus? Perhaps on this Sunday my lips feel bruised.
I look up black-outs on the computer. Alcohol messes with the hippocampus. The hippocampus is central to the formation of new autobiographical memories. Still, I know this bath I'm remembering is in the summertime because in winter the light had a harder gleam as it passed through frozen glass and lasted only briefly. All of us American military families still tell tales of the black-out blinds we needed in summer to get to sleep. My mother had a story of how she sent my sister and me out the door and off to school in the winter dark and how it was dark again when we got home. So it must be summer, but family stories, even about astrological phenomena, can dissolve on inspection. The internet tells me the sunrise and sunset times in Oslo. Factually, it could have been summer. If so, then perhaps my mother is out on the porch when I lie to her.
Our house tucks into the side of a hill, and the porch hangs suspended in lilac bushes. Their tops form a perfumed privacy where my mother and the other military wives sit with their shirts off, gathering the sun over their bodies, their big white bras glowing as the women smoke. Short glasses of gin and tonic smell of lime. I watch for a while. Some of them wear shorts that fit tight over their hips and rise in a long curve high on their waist. Others have on pedal pushers that clasp around their calves. They lean back in their lawn chairs. Their legs are crossed and some of them point a foot and swing it in time to the single on the turntable, "Yellow Submarine." Earlier a Johnny Mercer album was playing. They tease and flirt with each other the way straight women will. My mother raises her hand and protests "no, no, no" when they talk of the pilot at the last party who was always noticing when her glass was empty. He's the husband of someone who isn't here on the porch that day. "Those pilots" she says, "they're just full of talk."
I must have wrapped my pinkie and ring fingers in a sideways grip around the neck of the beer bottle and used the rest of my hand to hold onto the crutch. "Mother," I say, "I'm going to use beer to rinse my hair. All the girls in my class do it." I picture her turning to her friends, rolling her eyes, and simultaneously bragging and giving permission by saying, "and she seems to have to use my best beer to do it." She is, of course, pleased that I'm doing something like all the other girls do. She can pretend I'm one of them. She doesn't know or pretends not to know about the rotating schedule of girls' sleep-overs that doesn't include me or the class-wide parties where I see everyone open their desk and find a colorful, handmade invitation. They wave them around. I open a book and read. Sometimes one of these women on our porch makes her daughter invite me. As an adult, I can imagine the conversation that leads to the resentful, scribbled invitation thrown on my desk at school. I am beyond pride and always go if I'm invited.
But no one else in my class tells her mother she's visiting her Norwegian girlfriends, which is sometimes true, and then sneaks downtown, sometimes with those friends, sometimes on her own, and pretends she's eighteen. The girls in my class would never know to save the last of a toothpaste tube, roll it up small, and carry it in their cleavage to use before coming in the front door at night. Sometimes my father opens my bedroom door to make sure I'm home. "Prepare for inspection" he calls out. "Yes, sir," I say. One night, I'm in my slip, the toothpaste still perched there, forgotten. He sees it and says nothing. The girls in my class probably have fathers who would have made a scene. Sometimes I pass for twenty-one and am let into the hard-liquor bars. A man will offer to buy me a drink. I ask for a gin and tonic.
The women on the porch laugh, and ice sounds against glass as they drink. I turn away and swing through my crutches carefully so as to not dislodge the two other beers fitted behind my underwear's waistband. My bedroom is just the other side of the living room at the foot of the stairway. I close the door and unwrap cramped fingers from around one beer's neck and fish the others out from under my dress. I drink one right away. My thirst settles back down inside me.
I do remember the stairs, but it is always the deep part of the night in my memory. I've made the mistake of having a glass of water too late or perhaps dinner was more salty than usual, but I can't wait until morning to pee. I crawl up the stairs backward, my elbows bent behind to lift my body. My nightgown stretches out beyond my feet until it's draped over the smoothed wood and chokes against my neck with each slide of my bottom over a step, each bump of my heels. Midway, on the landing, I pause in the darkness before starting the steep rise to the second floor. At the top I crawl past the snoring of my father and then the silence behind my sister's door. Sometimes she climbs down the fire ladder to roam at night.
So I don't remember crawling to the bathtub on this day. I don't remember how I brought the beers with me. I remember the hot water, the bubble bath, and my body swirled with steamy iridescence. Iconic memory, echoic memory, haptic memory—visual, aural, and touch—researchers have words for it all—the yeasty beer sweating in the steam, the glass cool against my palm. I tilt the bottle over my head until I feel beer against my scalp. I work it through my hair so the lie will pass inspection. Then I lean against the sloped back of the tub and finish the bottle.
Alongside the beer waiting on the table that may or may not be there and may or may not become my bedside table, is my mother's razor. She has forbidden me to use it. I'm too young, she says. My mother and her friends have legs that look like silk as they move easily among each other. I prop a heel against the edge of the tub. I lather the length of my leg and shave for the first time. A tendril of blood curves down from my knee, but a quick swish of the razor clears the evidence from the blade. I splash the blood and loose hairs off my leg and inspect it in the sunlight. The scars of old surgeries shine brighter next to the bared skin. The twist of a lower bone makes a different pattern of light and shadow than the legs that flowed up into shorts. I rub along the new smoothness of skin, and it is like silk. This is how it would feel to touch one of those women's legs. This is how it would feel to someone touching me. I open the waiting beer and let the now warm, copper-colored liquid slide inside me. A whisper from the future murmurs gentle, blurred words that I can't understand, but it comforts me that there is a future. I tilt the bottle and drain out the last of the beer. I put it back on the table that may or may not be there and soap my other leg down to where the water line circles my thigh.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
There are three reasons that much of this essay owes its existence to the memoirist and fiction writer Karen Salyer McElmurray. Many years ago at a conference, she told the audience to draw a map or write a description of our childhood neighborhoods. I couldn't do that. For one, I was a military brat and had never really had a neighborhood. For another, I had erratic and absent memories of my growing up years. Instead, I made a rough sketch (steep stairs, porch, lilacs, tiled bathroom) of the floor plan of one of the houses we had briefly lived in. But that's all I had and I wasn't sure it was accurate. But then the second thing happened. McElmurray talked of writing memoir about events she didn't remember. This made my brain bounce around in my head as if I were on a runaway horse. I hadn't known you were allowed. I thought I had to know everything for sure. You could write about not knowing? You could speculate? It seemed not remembering was its own, legitimate story. And the third reason this essay exists has to do with motivation. At the end of the conference, in her capacity as the editor of a journal, she asked me to send her a piece of my writing. I'd heard tell, second or third hand, like an urban myth, of being "solicited," but it had never happened to me. It felt good. And you know I went home and got busy.
ABOUT SANDRA GAIL LAMBERT
Sandra Gail Lambert writes fiction and memoir. Her work has been published in the North American Review, Water~Stone, Brevity, New Letters, The Weekly Rumpus, Hippocampus, the Alaska Quarterly Review, and Arts & Letters. Excerpts from her debut novel, The River's Memory (Twisted Road, 2014), have won prizes from Big Fiction Magazine and the 2013 Saints and Sinners Short Fiction Contest. www.sandragaillambert.com