We are proud to share “Degenerate Matter” by Jennifer Galvão in New Voices. “Degenerate Matter” was chosen by our editorial team as the honorable mention in this 2021 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers competition. “Degenerate Matter” follows Daphne in her tumultuous time at Danver, an all girls’ school where she meets Mr. Littler, an English teacher who seems to take a special interest in her.
Girlhood was uncomfortable, flyaway. I couldn’t keep myself assembled. Always a drooping sock, a shirt coming untucked. I had bruises whose origins I couldn’t place. I felt called to maintain impartiality, to never admit to liking anything. I did everything in secret.
I think of my years at Danver as numb, but when I read back old journals—faithful records of nothing very interesting—they are full of small betrayals, hot humiliations.
Not much attention paid to my surroundings, no careful descriptions of the brick-and-ivy building, the warped wallpaper, the sloping green lawn. I was there at Danver School for Girls without aspirations of artistry, without a dorm room to call my own. I was only a townie who longed for snobbery with a mother who distrusted boys my age.
I had always lived there, in the town built in Danver’s shade. I learned to ride my two-wheeler on the Danver drive, attended summer daycamps in the Danver library. I spent mosquito-bitten nights on the front lawn watching stoned, unenthused Danver girls mumble their way through Shakespeare. I watched the shapes their girl bodies made, the angle of a knee bent, a foot lifting to scratch an opposing shin, girl lips touching chastely above a fringe of fake beard. This was Danver as I knew it then. I can’t imagine it’s changed; it’s the kind of place that doesn’t.
Danver was first the home of a Kodak executive and then it was a local historical museum, one of those ill-lit places to which every town feels entitled—chartership documents and gluey dioramas. Some of these items were still stored in the Danver attic, and if you were daring you could get in through a maintenance closet, walk in your socks through bird cages and minor taxidermies. Rodents and birds, mostly. A red fox, its face inexpertly reassembled around a gunshot wound. An Erie Canal constructed from dusty plastic tubes. It had a wooden crank you could turn to simulate a levy, its gate rising and falling like a torpid guillotine.
As long as I knew it, Danver was a girls’ school. Those words were lush, magic. Teenage girls were not the same creature as my rosacea-rashed mother, as my own body which I shielded from view even in the bathroom, slinging a towel over the mirror when I bathed.
On late spring evenings I would ride my bike along the bumpy cobblestone paths that circled Danver’s campus, bicycle seat jolting against me, and watch the Danver girls. Crossing the grass to the dining house. Ducking around low-hung trees and lichen-frosted statues to share a cigarette. Laying out on the lawn to catch the last hours of spring sun, faces buried in the grass, bikini strings untied to prevent tan lines.
I wanted to be a Danver girl. I imagined it would be as simple as enrolling there. That some change would come over me. In the weeks after I got my acceptance letter I lay awake, wracked with growing pains, ecstatic with transformation. Waiting to become this new animal.
* * *
My mother encouraged me to enroll at Danver, though she did not share my hot fascination with the place. She didn’t like other women and seemed to feel it was a shame I would become one. But the words all girls’ school held their own allure for her. She disliked women, but she was terrified of men. She had watched too many late-night documentaries on snatched girls and lecherous uncles, I think, until she was convinced I was destined for tragedy, ripe for picking.
She was slightly clubfooted, slow moving. As a child I played a game of losing her in the grocery store or amid a recessing church congregation. I would walk fast until I’d lost her and then stand still and wait to be found, tugging up my socks where they slipped.
I wasn’t afraid of being lost. I don’t remember feeling much at all in those moments, only a sort of background dread of my mother’s reaction. It was an experiment, like a child who burns ants or kills little animals out of scientific curiosity. A queer and isolated case of sociopathy, directed only at my mother.
She did all the things required of loving. She made casseroles from cans of creamed soup. She filled the entertainment center with chunky plastic VCRs. When I caught lice from summer camp, she sat on the toilet nightly and combed out the nits, spreading my hair to expose raw scalp.
She dressed me in cotton undershirts under my playclothes, no matter how hot the day, and panties under my terrycloth pajama shorts—sometimes several layers of panties, although I can’t say if this was her mandate or simply her influence. In second grade I had an accident on the ham-pink tiles of the girls’ bathroom, unable to rid myself of all my layers in time, and in the nurse’s office I peeled off four, five pairs of wet underpants which I carried home in a plastic grocery bag. This ended that practice.
I could start here, with this story. Allow my mother this small victory. I have no real instinct for narrative arc. The best I can do is look back, fine-comb through my childhood and consider its pink flesh, ask: did it begin here? Here, then? Here?
* * *
My parents divorced when I was four. There was a custody dispute and then a brief abduction. My father picked me up early from preschool one day, defying the custody agreement, and we drove downstate to his sister’s house near Albany.
I know this story mostly second-hand. My own memories of the kidnapping are limited, emotionless. People speak of childish wonder, but I experienced the whole event with flat acceptance. I watched cartoons on the television, blue anteaters pursuing scarlet ants, sitting so close to the screen that I could feel its static prick my face. I ate sugar-sweet tomato soup. My aunt had a boy, several years older, who made faces at me. I smelled like juice, he said, yuck.
We stayed for four days, and then my father repented of his crime and brought me home. He unhooked my booster seat from his car and left it on the curb. After that, I was wholly my mother’s. Once or twice in grade school I spent Thanksgiving with my father, but eventually I told my mother I didn’t want to go anymore, and this made her happy. My father didn’t protest; whatever ownership he’d felt over me had been exhausted. This could be a beginning, too.
* * *
The truth is that I can shape my life into many different lives. If you’ve ever lived as a teenage girl, you know how every event feels transformative and final. You could explain yourself away. We played games of it; we synopsized each other.
“Cassie’s mother,” a girl would say, voice pitched over the sound of retching, eyes insinuating at a closed bathroom stall, “has an addiction to exercising.” A retarded brother, maybe, or a pervy father or a twin sister who went to Exeter while poor Lila had been waitlisted.
I received these stories with great widening of eyes, much sympathetic nodding, and I envied these girls for how succinctly they explained themselves. I longed for that sort of closeness, for a friend who might take the other girls aside and explain, “Daphne has an unfortunate mother. Daphne’s father is a kidnapper and he forgets her birthday.”
If I could point to an origin, the other girls might nod and say that explains it and all my fumbling reserve could be understood, pardoned. I could begin in any one of these places and build a Daphne. The effort began anew every morning.
Another beginning: that November Mr. Littler started keeping me after class. He did it beautifully, looking up over his gold wire glasses as we filed out, as if the thought had only just struck him. He always had chalk dust in his hair. He let his Honors class call him Stephen.
“Oh, Daphne, another moment of your time?”
I gave it willingly. Moments between classes at first, eventually hours after school. I felt he could sense how I dreaded my walk home, how slowly my feet took me there. It was heaven to sit a little longer in his dusty classroom, in a chair jammed against the radiator in Stephen’s tiny upstairs office.
He gave me books to read. He wanted to hear my thoughts. He’d read aloud snatches of the book he was working on. His first novel, but he thought he really had something.
“How’s that?” he would ask. “Or does it sound better like-”
And I would stumble over myself, eager and over-honest, to say: “Yes, like that. Like that. Just like that.”
* * *
This was the year I turned sixteen, the year my mother was driving up to Rochester nearly every weekend. I understood that she was having a health scare, but she was scant in the details she gave, and I didn’t push for more. I had no curiosity about my mother. There was a mammogram first and some kind of scan, then another scan when the first results were inconclusive.
“Dense breast tissue,” she told me. “You’ll have it, too, probably. It’s hereditary.”
She brought home sheaves of waiting room pamphlets for me. Halfway through cooking dinner, she called me into the kitchen and performed a breast exam on a lemon. Light prods, she taught me, with the pads of the fingers. Searching for pain or for pressure, for swelling or abscess.
She made me try then, watching as I traveled the lemon’s circumference, as I rolled my thumb over where the fruit puckered as if to blossom.
“It’s good to get into the practice when you’re young,” she said. “So you’ll feel it when something is wrong. Should we eat at the table tonight? We can use the cloth napkins.”
But no, I wanted to eat by the TV.
I felt that I couldn’t bear to sit across the table and watch her deliver food to her mouth, watch the creases of her face lengthen and slacken as she chewed. I was troubled by the implication that I would grow to resemble her.
Over dinner at the television set, she showed me images from her mammogram, too clinical to feel intimate. On black ultrasound paper, my mother’s breast was cloudy with spots of white. It might have been a womb pregnant with snow, a half-erased chalkboard, a star cluster.
I thought of the white dwarfs we were studying in physical science class, dense hot objects formed from the gravity of a dying sun. Our whole house seemed caught in that swallowing force, condensing, solidifying.
I stayed away from home as much as I could. I manufactured questions to ask so I might linger after class, so that Stephen might say, “Let’s continue this in my office.” I read more carefully so I’d be ready if Stephen were to ask me, “What’d you think of it, by the way?” On the days I did not spend with Stephen, I lay out on the lawn and got sunburnt. I took babysitting jobs. Anything to avoid dinner with my mother, hours spent in the house among a hundred framed pictures of my younger self.
* * *
This was the first time somebody had taken interest in me, interest which felt specific and intentional. Nobody had ever asked me questions like Stephen did, like he really wanted to know the answers.
“The first book you loved enough to reread,” he would say. Or, “The kind of soap you like best. Your first memory.”
I would answer thoughtfully, sometimes whole minutes of silence between his question and my answer, never feeling rushed, only a bit surprised to find I had answers to these questions. All the while I was too humiliated to like things, my body had gone on liking them anyway—forming preferences as novel to me as to him.
I thought they were absent-minded questions, his attempts to keep me occupied while he wrote, but once when he stepped out of his office I crept around his desk, and all down the margins of his yellow legal pad were my answers, carefully penned: THE SECRET GARDEN. LAVENDER AND VANILLA. BALLOONS AND A BLUE RUG.
They read like notes on a character, on some other Daphne who Stephen might love. It was like I hadn’t known these things until he asked. Under his eye, I took form like a line-drawing.
* * *
For the first time, the synopsizing girls in the bathroom took notice.
“Daphne,” said one, Mona. “It’s Daphne, right? What do you do in there after school? When Mr. Littler keeps you after?”
“She’s blushing,” said another, Cassie. “You’re blushing, you know that?”
“It’s a sunburn,” I said. It was spring by then. After meetings with Stephen I would lay out on the Danver lawn for hours, anything to delay the walk home to my mother’s house. He gave me things to read, I told them. We barely spoke. He knew I liked his class.
“Liar,” Mona said—compliment and accusation. She’d been holding the flame of a plastic lighter to a safety pin, but she abandoned them. “You barely talk in class.”
I was hot, pleased and caught at once. Despite my preparation for our after-school discussions, I did not speak in Stephen’s class. My grades were average. I was devoted to Stephen, not to English literature. Only last week I’d been asked a question I couldn’t answer, had to admit that I wasn’t caught up on Jane Eyre. To realize I’d been observed was excruciating, dizzying.
“It’s cool, everybody already knows,” Cassie said. She caught me looking at Mona’s lighter. “She’s piercing my second holes. It’s super sanitary, swear to God. My mom will flip.”
Cassie hated her mom, Mona told me. I should have gloried in the confidential, chummy way she spoke to me, but I was stuck on Cassie’s first statement. I echoed:.
“Everybody already knows—”
“Knows you’re fucking,” Cassie smiled. “Are you in love with him?”
Much of this exchange is recreation. Mona and Cassie, too, are inexpert recreations of the girls I knew then. But I recall Cassie’s words exactly, and I still feel a distant affection for her: so brash in her pronunciation of fucking, so young in the way she aligned sex and love, as if one most certainly followed the other. In this way, teenage girls are still a little magic to me.
“He’s not forcing you, is he?” Mona took up her lighter again, held it to the safety pin until it glowed white. She was serious and eager, already half-believing her own supposition.
“He’s always been a little. You know,” Cassie said. “Do you have a ponytail? I’ll give it back.”
I rolled the elastic off my wrist and watched her knot up her hair. I remember watching her tease out a few fussy tendrils at the front to frame her face. Remember feeling that I loved her already and that these girls loved me back—quick to take my side, to cast me their loyalties.
He wasn’t forcing me. I said so.
Mona came at Cassie with the safety pin. Cassie screwed up her face in anticipation, cast out a hand for me to hold. I took it.
“It’s not like that. He’s nice to me.”
“But you are—hold fucking still, Cass, or they’ll be crooked.” Mona slid the needle through the soft fat of Cassie’s lobe. “Daphne, you’re having sex with him, right?”
Cassie’s hand gripped my own until I felt like my bones would give, shifting and yielding under her. I was so easily moved.
“Yes,” I said. “Yeah, we’re having sex.”
“Ow,” said Cassie. “Ow ow ow.”
* * *
At that time I thought about sex in an abstract, intellectual way. When other girls spoke of it—hushed and laughing, brazenly casual—I knew to laugh in the right spots. I stood before the mirror sometimes and made the appropriate faces, shook my mouth through a series of ecstatic Os, a muted opera singer.
Earlier that year a friend of a friend had asked me if I was a virgin. Over the hum of hand dryers, I told her yes. I wasn’t yet a liar.
“That’s okay, me too,” she’d said. Not Mona or Cassie, but of their type. I disliked and envied in turn the chummy, false way she performed intimacy. I could never reject it.
I was neither popular nor unpopular, a peripheral friend to all. I existed to the Danver girls for the length of a school day. When they looked away, I winked out of being. I had no share in cafeteria dinners or chummy dorm nights, carving a boy’s name into the crown molding, pretending to be drunk on stolen kitchen wine—more vinegar than alcohol. I received stories of these exploits admiringly; nobody thought to invite me. Still, I felt a terrible gratitude in those moments when someone turned their eyes on me. Affirmation, however brief, that I existed at all.
“I mean,” this friend of a friend clarified, “I’ve done some stuff. But not that.”
I smiled at her in the mirror and pretended to understand her intonations, the easy differentiations she made. It was a language I did not take to. I understood sex in the same way I could imagine my insides as I cut something open in physical science lab. I could number the instruments, the sensations. Still an untouchable part of my brain was certain of its impossibility.
And then Stephen. Then Mona and Cassie in the bathroom, telling me I’d look cute with my ears pierced. Handing me wads of toilet paper when I bled.
* * *
I will tell you about Stephen’s wife. I met her twice.
Once at a school concert—Christmas, I think, because I wore scratchy wool tights and spent the whole night trying to adjust them. This was before Cassie and Mona, back when I still believed I was unnoticed in my tragic little love. Stephen came to congratulate me, to tell me I sang well, and his wife stood beside him. His hand touched her elbow.
“Daphne,” he said. “Meet my wife.”
She didn’t shake my hand. Maybe she would have if I’d thought to stick it out, but I didn’t and I never thought she would. We were not rivals. I was miserable in my slipping tights, sweaty after forty minutes silently mouthing along to Mistletoe and Holly under the stage lights. She was tall and beautiful, bent sideways under the weight of a baby on her hip.
I stared, certainly. The baby was a faceless lump, but I was greedy for every detail of its mother. Her pale eyebrows and expensive smell and a little scar on her nose from an old piercing. I found that asterisk-shaped scar very sensual and affecting. Afterwards I played a wondering game—if she’d had her nose pierced when they met, if Stephen had laughed at it or found it artistic. If she put up her finger to touch the scar now, remembering the smell of the little stud when she removed it, metallic and musty and sour like a body.
She said something about how we sang nicely.
I thanked her. Then I think I asked Stephen some desperate question about homework in an effort to keep them standing there. I had no intention of impressing them, no misguided belief that I could hold my own in conversation. I only wanted to get their details right.
* * *
And twice. Summer now, maybe seven months later. My after-class sessions with Stephen paused for the summer. Danver’s grounds filled with local soccer leagues, dogwalkers, families who pulled off the highway for a picnic lunch on their way to Lake Ontario or the Falls.
Most afternoons Stephen went into his Danver office to write, and I would ride to his house on my bicycle and babysit his two boys.
It was an easy job. All I had to do was assemble the chunky plastic water table, fill it from the garden hose, and rub sunscreen over the boys’ round bellies, their soft cantaloupe heads. If the older boy complained of hunger, I rolled sweaty slices of baloney into tubes. Holding one to my eye like a telescope won me a laugh. If the baby got fussy, I fed him frozen juice pops which bled multicolored down his fat chin to stain the water table like an elementary science fair project. Then I would lay out and tan, close my eyes against the sun.
I was negligent; the boys could have drowned on a dozen occasions, but they didn’t and I never even considered that they might. I was sixteen and nothing terrible had ever happened to me. Eventually Stephen would come home and laugh at my sunburn and give me handfuls of cash, little poems written on scraps of paper which I shrined as proof that in the rare moments he was not writing, he was thinking of me.
The boys’ mother wasn’t there when I arrived and she wasn’t there when Stephen came home to relieve me. I don’t know where she went, if she worked. I thought of her constantly and yet when she left the house, she disappeared into nothing. The only evidence of her hung on the clothesline—blouses and nursing bras bobbing like good-natured spooks, a yellow bikini that I borrowed to swim.
I pretended to be her. I held her boys and put my nose to their skulls and smelled their dusty soap smell. I played games so they’d laugh and love me. I stepped out of my clothes and into her bikini, as ill-fitting as my mother’s clothes on Halloween, when I used to scrub my mouth with lipstick and dress up as a woman.
I swam laps of the pool. I would open my eyes to watch the sun cut through the water and think about my own body, its tired muscles and its frog-kicks and its pleas for air.
Only once did I surface to find that she was there, bending over to turn off the hose, kissing the boys on their sun-hot heads, walking through the grass in her bare feet to stand at the pool’s edge and look down at me. Water came out of my nose.
“Hi, there,” she said. “I’m afraid I don’t have cash to pay you.”
I was assuring her that it didn’t matter, scrubbing my hands on the grout as I hauled myself out of the pool. The yellow bikini gaped open, threatening to slip from my hips. I was skinnier than her, but that was because she’d given birth, carried Stephen’s children. She was a real person in places I was not.
I was humiliated to be caught—caught in what, I didn’t quite know. I only had a feeling that my work for Stephen was clandestine, that I had somehow exposed him. I was ashamed, but not for the right reasons: for wanting her to like me, for taking the time to retrieve my clothes and kiss the boys goodbye, for not simply fleeing.
“I’ll wash the bathing suit,” I began, and she said smilingly, “Keep it.”
I wore it home under my t-shirt, too hurried to stop and change. When I stepped out of the suit in my unbearably hot bedroom—still painted pink, decorated in the way I’d chosen as a girl—there was a small patch of brown blood against the lining, round as a penny. I didn’t wash the suit, only threw it in the bathtub to dry, and days later when I lifted it to my face with a shameful curiosity, it smelled like copper and chlorine.
* * *
This put an unspoken end to my summer babysitting job. Stephen did not call, and I like to think I would have refused if he had. I like to think I would have had shame enough to stay away. But I am very far from that girl now. I know I missed the money. I missed Stephen and his house, the time spent pretending it was my own.
My mother and I had avoided each other all summer like good roommates. I felt that I was growing unavoidably into someone she disliked; she seemed embarrassed by my moodiness, my crying jags, my long showers which left the whole bathroom over-hot and humid. Though she did my laundry, she did not fold my cheap nylon panties, but left them in a dryer-spun nest at the bottom of the basket. Now, knowing a little more about loving someone, I imagine it was easy to love me as a baby and far harder to love me as I was then, shrinking and resentful, stingy in my need for her. When she called for me, I found it strange. Strange to be sought out.
“Daphne?” she said. “Daphne? Can you help me with something?”
When I came out into the hallway she was holding a towel around her midriff like a woman in a movie. Beneath the towel she wore blue jeans. She kept starting sentences and dropping them.
She was concerned that. Unfortunately it looked like. Behind her, there were bloody towels on the bathroom floor. She was sorry to ask but. She’d told the nurse she wasn’t usually a bleeder.
In the bathroom, through a gap in the towel, she showed me the wound. It was a surprisingly tiny puncture in the side of her breast where they’d taken a tissue sample in search of pre-cancerous cells.
“I hardly bled at all in the clinic, and now.” She made a sorrowful gesture at her medically-issued sports bra, navy elastic soaked black. “I called the doctor. It’s not supposed to bleed like this.”
I held a washcloth to sop the blood while she tried to pull a clean bra on, but we didn’t have enough arms for the endeavor, and my mother refused to drop her modesty towel. Beneath the towel her body moved in nebulous folds. Soft, it gave under me. I was afraid to put pressure on the wound.
“Don’t look,” she said at last. “Close your eyes and keep them closed ‘til I say.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t care. It’s fine.”
“I don’t want you to see.”
She turned away from me before dropping the towel. Together we bound her up in stretchy ace bandage—me standing behind, passing the bandage up and around, pulling it tight until the flesh of her back collected in rolls above and below, until the breath came out of her in fast, doggish pants.
“What a mess,” she said. Something to that effect. Still turned away. She wouldn’t face me until I found her a new shirt, helped ease it over her half-raised arms. Then I drove her back to the clinic, my bare legs sweating against the seat. Her chest was lumpy and misshapen beneath her t-shirt. Every time the car jarred or jostled I apologized.
“It’s fine,” she kept repeating. “It’s fine, Daphne.”
I sat in the waiting room, paging through a magazine about breast reconstruction: Including 17 inspiring before and after photos!
I remember feeling that this could be a profound moment, a moment which explained everything about me. I felt I should be memorizing details, infusing them with meaning. The magazine displayed rows of naked midriffs, cut off above the collar bone. One of the headless women wore a little silver necklace, which made me sad. The breasts gazed like big, dumb eyes.
I wanted to call Stephen, but felt too freaked out. We never spoke on the phone, except when he called to ask me to babysit. I thought if I heard his voice I would cry, like the time I got my first period at school and had to call home, got no further than “Mom? It’s Daphne—”
I called Cassie instead from a phone in the nurses’ break room. The nurse who let me in patted me on the shoulder as she left. Cassie was the only friend I knew with a cell phone, uncommon at that time, and I kept the slip of notebook paper she’d given me her number on. I’d memorized it conscientiously, the loops of her twos and the slashed throat of her seven.
“Daphne, we were just gonna call you,” she said. I felt better at the elastic snap of gum against her teeth. “Mona’s in the car, too. Guess what we just did.”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m having a kinda weird—”
Cassie told me to hold on; she was being honked at.
“Daphne,” Mona’s voice said warmly, “you’re gonna die. We just saw Mr. Littler’s car pulling out of Danver, and Cassie’s a crazy bitch. She rolled down the windows and blew the horn and we both screamed pedo at him.”
“Only—” Cassie’s higher voice now. “Only it wasn’t him driving. It was a lady with a kid.”
The calendar on the wall of the break room was stuck on last month. I pulled out the pin and turned the page to August. Everything was oversized and heavy with meaning, even the watercooler and the TV set on mute.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” I said.
“It’s not like she knows who we are.”
“Well, no,” Mona said, “your car’s got that stupid Danver Honors Kid sticker on the bumper, Cass.”
August’s calendar picture was a big speckled stretch of the Milky Way. It considered me. I could hear cars rushing past on Cassie’s end of the phone, the sound like listening breath.
“You guys,” I said. This was the only reprimand I could muster.
“Are you mad?” Mona asked. Pitched quieter, then, to Cassie: “She’s mad.”
“I’m not mad,” I said. “But I don’t want to talk about Stephen anymore. You better stop telling people.”
“I mean,” Cassie said, “it’s not like people don’t know. Someone wrote on his chalkboard that time, remember? Mr. Diddler. It was funny.”
“Just. Don’t talk about me, okay? Don’t talk about me.”
“Okay,” Mona said. She made the word last a long time.
“I don’t get you, Daphne,” Cassie said. There was benign wonder in her voice. “You’re a really confusing person.”
This had the same effect as hearing my mother’s voice on the phone. I started to cry.
* * *
I should say now that I am sorry for how it happened, but where is the good in that. Stephen didn’t return to Danver in the fall, and the rumored reasons for his absence were varied and vague. A book advance, some said, and a relocation to Greece to live like an artist. A bitch wife who hated Western New York and threatened suicide if they didn’t move. And, of course, the story that he’d been caught fooling around with students.
This might be a symptom of rumor, of the distortion that occurs when a story passes through cupped hands, under bathroom stalls, but the story as I heard it was always students, plural. I wonder about that. I wonder if he had other girls visiting the house that summer, slipping into the yellow bikini on the clothesline to play wife for an afternoon.
Still, he never touched me. He took interest. He asked questions and recorded my answers. Maybe this is my mother’s influence—to take attention and turn it rotten. Even now, I don’t understand male kindness. Mostly I don’t think it exists.
Once that following fall I rode my bike along my summer route to stand at the top of the driveway, gulping breath. The pool was covered. Nobody seemed to be living there. I walked once around the house, pulling up tufty weeds, feeling proprietary and friendly. I opened the mailbox and closed it again, playing house like a very young girl. Had I been there with Cassie or Mona I might have been buoyed into trying the door, but our friendship had cooled with the season. I returned to loving things in secrecy. Alone, my love was a huge house where I lived.
My mother’s bleeding slowed, that day at the clinic. Sometimes, the nurse told us comfortingly, you just couldn’t predict how a body would react. The scan came back clean, stayed clean for years—long enough for me to move away and come back. Now I drive my mother to appointments. I make soup from cans.
I wonder about the four days when I was taken from her, the only time when she wasn’t my mother. I wonder how she filled those days. Even now, I am sorry to say, I have a hard time imagining it. I brush my mother’s hair until it comes out in the comb’s teeth. Her skull is a pink planet, dense and hard to know.
Jennifer Galvão is a writer from New York. She studies fiction at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program.