national anthology of the best
undergraduate writing 2010

Convalescence


The Bathtub, Xiaotong Duan

1. Things I Don’t Know

The spring I graduated from high school: “I was bulimic while I was pregnant with your sister,” my mom says. She’s driving. I’m in the passenger seat, my weight falling asleep underneath the weight of my body. “I was barely eating, but I threw it all up anyway. I used to throw up my coffee and eggs in the morning.” Something pulls at the corners of my memory. An image of my mother bent over the toilet, a towel wrapped around her hair. Do I really remember this? Or is it just easy to picture? “I thought you knew,” she says, turning to look at me. I don’t look back. “I could’ve sworn you did. You used to tell me I smelled like throw-up.” And then I remember for real: my mom and I, lying on a comforter on my bedroom floor, her hands running through my hair. Giving her a kiss and smelling cherry lotion first, her skin second, and something else third. Something sour, something off.

On my sixteenth birthday, walking through my yard: “I heard what you did,” my aunt says. “I heard you got real drunk at your friend’s house and puked all over your daddy’s car.” I choke out a laugh, remembering that night, but only in pieces. Side of the road, vomit smeared across my chin, the look on my mom’s face when I stumbled through the door. “You’ve smoked before, right?” Clearly my aunt isn’t talking about cigarettes. When I tell her no, she laughs. “You’re lying. Your parents do it all the time!” And then her face goes slack. She didn’t mean to let that slip. I expect her to cover her tracks, to deny her admission, but all of a sudden, she’s grinning. “You know, your mom smoked weed while she was pregnant with Michael,” she confides. She’s nodding, waiting for my reaction. I’m so embarrassed that I don’t even write about it in my diary later.

And the summer after my first year of college: I’m waiting for my mom to come out of the dollar store. Her phone is sitting in the cup holder. Without pausing to think, I snatch it and flip it open. I read her sent messages, scrolling down to the one sent longest ago. The first few are about “JB.” Johnny Blaze, that’s my mom’s nickname for marijuana. “I need some JB to take the edge off,” she had written in one of the messages. And the next one—an afterthought—reads, “Ur dick in my mouth would take the edge off.” Months later, I watch her look at lacy underwear in a department store. She’s holding different pairs up to her body, picturing herself wearing them. Wondering if he’d like them. And I think, if I hadn’t known already, maybe I would now.


2. Things I Didn’t Know

At the playground by my house the summer after tenth grade: “I’m sorry,” my friend Ben is saying. “We wanted to tell you, but we didn’t think you could handle it.” I’m pulling leaves apart, trying to splinter them evenly along their spines, but they keep breaking. “Please say something,” he pleads, moving closer to me. We’re sitting cross-legged beneath a maple tree. There used to be a picnic table here. I’m mad at whoever moved it. Ben and I sat at that picnic table once, our arms touching, playing a word game that involved naming words that began with the letter “r” and ended with the suffix “-tion.” Relaxation, rumination, remediation. “Do you want me to break up with her?” he asks. I think of all the things that make sense now that I know Ben has been dating my best friend for three months. The two of them embracing outside the gymnasium, for example. The time he invited her to see a movie with his whole family. I don’t know how to define what I’m feeling. I don’t realize, in this moment, that it is shame.

Walking through campus my freshman year of college: I’m looking at the grass, and it’s littered with those puffy white weeds that little kids call “wishies.” I remember blowing on them in my old neighborhood, giggling, wishing for a new baby doll. They have the same stems dandelions have: green and brown, thick like a straw. And now I’m thinking back to a few weeks ago, when this path was lined with dandelions, not wish-flowers. And then I realize that dandelions and wish-flowers are the same. They start out as dandelions, don’t they, and then, as they mature, they turn white and fluffy, and when people step on them, the seeds spread. And I remember my parents scolding me when they caught me blowing on wish-flowers—“Those are weeds, we’ll have them everywhere!”—and I feel cheated, somehow. Like the world lost a flower.

And in my ex-boyfriend’s car: We pass an advertisement for a convalescent home. “What does that mean?” Brendan asks me. I stare at the sign for several seconds, searching my head, running through root words, trying to think of synonyms. I want so badly to know the answer, but it’s nowhere. “I don’t know,” I tell him. “What kind of writing major are you,” he asks, “if you don’t even know what ‘convalescent’ means?”


3. Things I Wish I Knew

In the common room with someone I dated during my first year of college: “It’s just a kiss,” Zach tells me. My spine is arched, my neck exposed, and I want more. “Just a kiss,” he repeats. I move away from him, but I’m clenching my hands into fists, digging my fingernails into my palms. “I know,” I breathe. But it must be obvious from the way my feet are tapping, my kneecaps locked and pressed together, that I don’t know how to just kiss Zach. Once I start, I can’t stop.

Sitting on a curb outside Best Buy: “I need a cigarette,” Brendan says. “Do you want one?” I take the cigarette and spend twenty seconds trying to light it, rubbing my thumb against the little metal wheel, hoping he isn’t watching me. When I smoke alone, it doesn’t matter that I don’t know how to work a lighter or that I never learned how to ash properly. Now I’m aware of everything. He’s making conversation, talking about the movie we’re about to see, but I’m thinking only of the cigarette in my hand. I hope he thinks I’m sitting down because my legs are tired. I hope he doesn’t realize that I’m so unaccustomed to nicotine that I can’t stand and smoke at the same time. There’s ash all over my black pants, and I’m not sure where to put the butt when I’m done. Am I supposed to just leave it on the ground? “You ready to go inside?” he asks. Do I look like I’m ready to go inside? “Sure,” I tell him. When I stand up, I’m so dizzy I almost fall over.

And at the dinner table with my grandparents: “Don’t you want to learn how to drive?” my grandma asks, reaching for a slice of bread. She pointedly does not use butter. “I want to,” I say. “It’s just that my parents won’t teach me.” My grandpa is giving me a look that lasts as long as it takes him to finish chewing his roast beef. “You have to be aggressive,” he says, pointing a finger at me. “It seems to me like you don’t even want to learn. Twenty years old and no driver’s license? Sheesh.” He shakes his head at his plate while my grandma clucks her tongue at me. I take a forty-five second drink of water, refusing to make eye contact. My sister always tells this story about the time our stepdad quizzed me about what the uppercase letters on the gearshift stood for. “He asked her what the N meant and she knew it was neutral,” she’ll begin. “And then he asked her what the D stood for, and she was like, ‘Um, I don’t know,’ so I go, ‘Uh, drive.’” Then everyone laughs. My sister is twelve.


4. Things I Shouldn’t Have Said

In a rented beach house with my uncle and grandparents the summer after my first year of college: “So, does Jules have a boyfriend?” my uncle asks. I’m sure he expects me to say no, since Jules is only eleven, but I can’t say no, because she has. “They made out at the mall,” I tell him, not pausing to consider whether or not he needs this information. “And then in the back of her friend’s mom’s car on the way home. Minivan, actually.” My uncle bursts out laughing. This is right up his alley—since before I can remember, he’s loved humiliating others, particularly his family members. According to my mom, he stopped maturing at the age of fifteen. “Don’t say anything to her, though,” I add in a rush. “Seriously, don’t. She’s embarrassed enough already.” He doesn’t answer; he’s still laughing. “Made out at the mall,” he says, shaking his head. “That’s fuckin’ fantastic.” Later, my grandparents take my uncle, Jules and me out to eat. Jules sits in between my uncle and my grandma, a hair clip secured messily at her temple, revealing her shiny, acne-ridden forehead. Sometimes she’s so awkward I want to punch her. “Hey Jules,” my uncle says, “you done any making out at the mall lately?” My sister’s eyes fill with tears. “I hate you, Lauren,” she says. My grandma tries to put an arm around her, but she shrugs it off.

And walking through campus the winter of my third year of college: I’m walking to class with my friend Berkeley, my arms wrapped around myself for extra warmth. We’re having a conversation about something I won’t remember later, something unimportant, when I see my ex-boyfriend walking in our direction. I freeze. He’s going to see me, walk past me, say hi and then keep on walking. I can see it happening before it happens, how casual it’ll be, how anyone who witnesses it will think we’re just acquaintances, that we’re two people who barely know each other. That if we never accidentally crossed paths, we’d never talk at all. I want to turn around, but now he sees me. He smiles at me, at Berkeley. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m already ready for this semester to be over,” he says, throwing his arms up in the air. I know what I’m expected to say. Me too, classes suck, ha-ha, so funny, see you around! Instead, I narrow my eyes at him. “Why are you wearing that vest?” I ask. Berkeley and I laugh, and we sound mean—I sound mean. We walk away, snickering. A few hours later, he’ll ask why I couldn’t just have been civil. Is it so hard? he’ll say, and then, Have some respect for yourself, Lauren. For months, it doesn’t make sense. He was just being an ass, I tell myself. He was having a bad day. But then, a semester later, I’m sitting cross-legged on my floor, paging through my old journal, when I realize why he was so angry. When I realize I was asking one question—why did he take that so personally?—when I should have been asking another—why didn’t I just say hi?


5. Things I Can’t Say

Sitting in my living room the summer after my second year of college: “I hate that bitch,” my mom says, sipping her cherry vodka and Mountain Dew Code Red mixture through a straw. “If she expects me to wipe her ass when she’s old and sick, she can just forget it.” My mom hasn’t spoken to her mother since my high school graduation two years ago, when she decided that my grandma’s parenting mistakes, coupled with her harsh judgments of my mom’s lifestyle, were the last straw. She never wanted to see her again, she claimed. “I can’t tell her anything,” my mom continues. “She’s so fucking pretentious—it’s like I can’t do anything, you know? I can’t say anything to her. She doesn’t even try to understand.” Now I’m thinking back to last summer, when I couldn’t sleep without taking the anxiety medication I stole from my stepdad’s top dresser drawer. I wanted to say something to my mom—to talk to her about getting help, or at least medication of my own—but I was afraid she’d think I was being dramatic, that if I wanted more sleep I should just go to sleep, that I just wanted prescription drugs so I could be high all the time instead of sitting around thinking about how boring my life was. “And when I was little, I broke my arm after school, and I just sat there with a fucking broken arm. For hours. I didn’t want to bother her at work. Isn’t that fucked up? That’s fucked up.” I nod. “Yeah, that’s pretty fucked up,” I tell her.

Visiting my biological father in Minnesota the summer after I graduated from high school: It’s my half-brother Drew’s seventh birthday. His friends from school are here, and I’m committing their names to memory: Mackenzie, Nate, Christian, Sam. My stepmom has organized a scavenger hunt, and the kids are running in and out of the house looking for clues – a blue plastic Easter egg, a Yu-Gi-Oh! card, a Luke Skywalker action figure. Drew steps on my foot as he runs past, and I reach out to ruffle his hair, only managing to graze his spiky blonde bristles with my fingertips. Later, while we’re eating cake, one of Drew’s friends points to me. “Who’s that?” he asks. “Is that your sister?” I smile at them, and Drew turns back to his friend. “No, she’s only half of my sister,” he says, shoving a piece of cake into his mouth with his fingers. My father is still cutting the cake and putting it onto plates for the kids. I try to catch his eye, but he won’t look at me. I bring my cake into the living room, where portraits of his three children—Noah, Drew, and Olivia—hang in a row on the wall. The pictures of me are always separate, scattered throughout the house like an afterthought, like punctuation. I think of the inquisitive looks I get when my father introduces me to his friends as “my daughter, Lauren.” I think of asking him what kind of seven-year-old needs a phrase like “half sister” in his head. But the next time we’re alone together, the only thing I can think to say is that dinner was delicious, thank you, and no I would not like a second helping of ice cream.

And driving to my aunt’s house on Christmas Eve: I made the lasagnas. My mom spent the past month talking about how she was going to make dinner for my aunt’s annual Christmas Eve party. But I made them, and I covered them with aluminum foil, and now I’m holding one in my lap. It’s burning my thighs, but I don’t want to look at my stepdad. I’ve convinced myself that if I stay still, he’ll forget I’m here. My thighs are so hot they feel itchy. I press my forehead against the window, looking at the Christmas displays. Some people really go all out. One house has a Santa complete with a sleigh and all nine reindeer. I’m squirming in my seat, thinking of how, while I was assembling a tray of cookies for the party, my stepdad called my mom a cunt in front of my twelve-year-old sister. “Why don’t you tell them what you’ve been doing for the past year and a half?” he hollered, red in the face. “Why don’t you tell them?” My mom’s a cunt, I’m thinking, and all I can see are wire Christmas trees hung with lights, lit-up rooftops, inflatable snowmen, and it’s such a waste of electricity, and I know I’ll have to sit in my aunt’s kitchen with my grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles—and I’ll have to talk about Christmas—my breaths become shallower, strained, and the hot aluminum against my jeans is almost unbearable—and my mom’s a cunt—and I’ll have to carry the presents inside—and my mom’s a cunt—my stepdad parks, and everything goes very still. “You know what’s going on, right?” he says to me, as I hand the lasagna to my sister. I’m sick of looking at it. “No I do not,” I say, and I walk into my aunt’s house.


6. Lines I Shouldn’t Have Crossed

In my best friend’s boyfriend’s car, the winter of my senior year of high school: My tank top is pulled down to my waist, exposing my breasts. My pants are tugged to mid-thigh. Ken flicks on the overhead light and turns to stare at me. “My turn,” he says, and yanks down his sweatpants. He isn’t wearing any underwear, and I am all of a sudden staring at my best friend’s boyfriend’s penis. It’s bigger than my boyfriend’s penis I note, and then I look away, staring into my bare lap. We were playing Strip Padiddle, and we never touched, but I find, afterward, that I have no desire—or intent—to tell either my boyfriend or my best friend. When Ken tells them, I say I didn’t see Ken’s naked body, that he didn’t see mine. I say I don’t know what made me do it, but I do. I did it because I could.

And in my grandparents’ friends’ basement the summer I turned seventeen: “If you beat me at pool,” I tell Caleb, “you’re the winner.” I pick up a pool cue and aim it at the table as if I know what I’m doing. I don’t. I’ve never played pool before. “The winner of what?” he asks. “Of whatever you want,” I say, purposely not watching his reaction. Very quickly, it becomes obvious that I am not a good pool player. Caleb wins in less than five minutes. “So I’m the winner,” he says. “And you’re the loser.” I lean into his arm. We kiss for seven whole seconds before I inform him that I already have a boyfriend. I look at myself in the mirror later, trying to feel guilty. Trying to be the I’m-so-sorry-please-take-me-back girl. But I’m not sorry. I’m looking at my game of pool as a logical sequence of events, a game of connect-the-dots. First I met Caleb. Then I made him want me. Then I let him kiss me. What’s so wrong with that? Everything that was supposed to happen happened.


7. Lines I Should Have Crossed

On a sidewalk in my neighborhood in the rain: I’m flip-flopping down my street, my sweatpants soaked at the bottom. I take off my shoes and run as quickly as I can, feeling silly, thinking that nothing ever goes quite the way you want it to, especially when you’re trying to create a movie-perfect kiss in the rain. I catch up to Ben just as I’m beginning to think I won’t be able to. He grabs my hand. Everything smells like coconut—yellow coconut lotion that comes in a little plastic bottle, sample size, and it’s running down in my arms in streaks from the rain—and then he wraps his arms around me. And I’m thinking, kiss me. I’m thinking, I’ll never be able to write about this. I’m thinking, he’s dating my best friend. I’m thinking, please don’t kiss me. I slide out from between his arms. “I can’t,” I say, and I begin to run down the sidewalk toward my house. He follows—gives me a second chance—but I keep running. I tell myself I didn’t let him kiss me because it was the right thing to do, but really I’m running because I was afraid I’d be bad at it.

In a tiny room in a tiny church in Philadelphia: I’m sitting next to Brendan, overheated and picking at my fingernails. Everyone here is so edgy, so alternative. They’ve all heard of the bands that are playing tonight. They didn’t think to find it odd that this show is taking place in a church, the way I did. I look at purple flip-flops, hating them, hating everything I’m wearing, feeling like it all makes me look like some stuck-up girl from the suburbs who has never had a problem, someone with pink toenails, certainly not someone good enough for the beautiful, music-conscious boy beside her. I’m afraid to scratch my nose or brush my hair out of my eyes. I don’t want to look disinterested. How disrespectful, I imagine them thinking. What a dumb young girl. I look at Brendan. He’s staring at the artist, barely blinking, inches and inches away from me. It’s not so much that he isn’t paying attention to me. It’s more that he’s somewhere else, somewhere better. I’m not in that place, but he doesn’t know it. He’s with the music. You’ll never love me, I think. I try to reason with God. I’m in a church, after all. If he tries to hold my hand, I decide, it’ll all be okay. He never tries to hold my hand. But I never reach for his, either.

And at my oldest friend’s mother’s funeral, the winter of my senior year of high school: I can’t find Jenny. Her family is sitting in the front. There’s her dad, his head just as bald and his ears just as protruding as I remember them in middle school; and her brother, with his spiky blonde hair and his pretty brunette fiancée; and her grandma, who already looked about a hundred and fifty years old when I met her six years ago. But I don’t see Jenny. She isn’t with them. I haven’t seen her in months—she’s been in rehab since October. I remember running into her in the fall, the way she took fifteen seconds longer than normal to answer my questions, how glossed-over and big her pupils were. I remember how her sentences seemed strung together by nothing, an invisible ellipsis hanging between each of her words. And I remember the day our French teacher, who Jenny and I were close with, pulled me aside to tell me Jenny’s mom was in hospice care. I had to ask my mom what that meant, and she told me: end of the line. I wanted to ask Jenny what the fuck she was doing, why she was spending the end of her mom’s life popping Klonopin and smoking weed before school. But I said nothing, and a few weeks later, Jenny’s dad put her into a rehab program. And now her mom is dead. My mom, who’s standing next to me, taps me on the shoulder. “There’s Jenny,” she whispers, pointing toward the last row of pews. I can’t see her face. She’s draped across our French teacher, who is trying to prop her upright, but Jenny’s limbs dangle like a cloth doll’s, limp and pathetic. I was afraid she’d be motionless, that she’d still be that glassy-eyed girl I saw in the fall. I was afraid she’d fucked up her chemistry so bad she wouldn’t even understand. But she understands, like I understood in September, that she messed up. And now neither of us can grow back.


8. Things I Know

My sister was born six weeks premature. She weighed four pounds and two ounces.

I never learned how to drive. The longer I wait, the more impossible it seems.

“Convalescent” means “recovering from illness.” A convalescent is a person who has recently been sick or operated upon, but is not yet well; convalescence is the period of time when someone is not sick anymore, but isn’t quite better yet, either. A convalescent home, then, is a place that offers shelter to those who aren’t sick enough to warrant being in a hospital, but aren’t yet comfortable living in the everyday world.