a new world
After her mother left, they moved to a cheaper apartment in the same building. It was a few floors below their former apartment and at night, Gwen would sometimes look up at her ceiling and imagine the new family living there, watching TV in the living room where she used to do her homework, the couch creaking under the weight of their new bodies. She imagined they played Monopoly and wore nice sweaters and went to sleep when the sun set. Then her father’s loud snoring in the other room would erupt into something like choking and she would worry she should wake him for work.
Besides for that, it seemed the only other sound in the apartment was the crinkle of the bright red Skittles bag as she snuck candy under tented sheets. Outside, a car tire screeched against the curb, and the sound, like metal poles scraping together, somehow captured her thoughts exactly. In a wooden green jewelry box by her bed there was a harmonica her father once gave her. “Don’t know how to play,” he said, “and not likely to learn.” She pressed it to her lips and the shrill loud caused her to drop it into her lap. She looked around guilty, then placed it back into the box, laid down and pretended to sleep.
She lived in this small town all her life. Their apartment, a brick building nestled between a secondhand shop with no name and a taxidermy shop called Puss and Boots, was nondescript, a well-kept secret. Most people walking past did not think that families lived there or cared if they did. The families in the building rarely interacted, there was something shameful about bumping into each other in the hallway on the way to the laundry room, something that made them avoid eye contact and whisper even during the day. Across the street there was bar and a church beside it. The church was the most majestic building in the town with a small turret and one oval stained-glass window depicting Jesus holding his arms out with whirling planets and stars behind him. The elementary school and middle school were in one building a few blocks down, surrounded by limp grass and a thin metal fence that swayed savagely when it was too windy. On the way to school, Gwen liked to trail her fingers against the fence in front of the church, and slap the sign that said “No trespassing” for good luck. The only thing Gwen liked about the church was the large iron bell that the priest rang at 3 p.m. every day.
After her mother left, everything seemed a little different. She couldn’t tell what it was. Something about the color of the air or the way the buildings seemed to shift like birds settling their feathers. Their apartment made her feel surreal. She would wake up disorientated, surprised to see her bedroom door in front of her rather than to the right, and feel like she was still in a dream. The only difference she enjoyed was the bathtub. For the first week, Gwen practically lived in this bathtub, planning her whole day around sinking into the warm sudsy water with the door firmly shut. Her father would knock on the door, offering her trips to stores and Wendy’s, walks and to help him arrange his coin collection but she would shout, “no, thank you,” in her most dignified voice. Later, she would consider this her first foray into the weariness of womanhood.
At school she was always in nurses’ office with a new symptom: aching joints, nausea, vertigo, sluggishness, migraines. One of the nurses, Val, would nod seriously like she was really listening, but then would talk about her daughter who she worried was doing drugs. Then she would flip out the lights and say, “you’ll be good after a nap,” and leave for an hour. Gwen would lie in the darkness, the only light from the crease of the door, and imagine shooting through the sky in a spaceship. In her science class, her teacher lectured about how humans weigh less in space, and this strangely comforted her, to not fight her natural desire to rise. She’d stretch her hands above her and see the outline of white in the creases of her fingers and thumbs and hum until she was just a vibration in a room.
She crouches by the side of the bath in her slippers, her fingertips tracing the petal shapes in the shower mat. Contemplating the temperature of the water is a delicate process. For a few weeks after her mother left, she preferred hot water that was beyond scalding; she would step out and her entire back would be a deep bruised red. At dinner her father would reach out and touch the redness creeping up her neck with the tip of his finger and frown. She would shrug him off and scoop up soggy rice with her fork. One morning, however, she took a shower and accidentally nudged the faucet with her arm, discovering a heat that was just a little cooler than blistering, but hotter than warm. Ever since, she’s had an obsession with adjusting the temperature incrementally in hopes of reaching this perfect hot, in hopes that the minute she does she can relive this feeling of rightness.
Tonight she does not get it right. Her father knocks one the door.
“Do you want take out? We could get some Chinese.”
“No,” she snaps. Doesn’t he understand? She is preoccupied.
“Her grades have dropped significantly,” Mr. Harter said at the meeting this morning. Mr. Harter was a man who could either be thirty or forty, no one knew. He had dark hair greying at the ends, was slightly overweight, and his eyes followed you at all times, with a hint of suspicion, as if he was a cop off duty.
After the meeting, her father let her run to the car while he stayed in the alcove entranceway to talk with a few of the mothers lingering, gossiping and laughing in that muted adult way.
She watched him from the passenger seat. The rain hit the window so she could only see a shadowy, watery version of him. It didn’t matter, she didn’t need to see him anyway to know what he doing, what he was saying. I’m doing the best I can, his sagging shoulders said. It’s been hard, the wry twist of lips told. His body relayed the rest of the story—the hollowness of his cheeks, the sad curve of his chin. All this spoke of burden and loss that excluded her, which seemed like an insult. Or a betrayal. But I’m here, something childish in her whimpered. This thought shamed her but it would not relent, and the more she tried to ignore it, the fiercer and noisier it became, until it was like another person shouting in her ear. He always looked surprised, disturbed and a little pleased when they said this, like a child caught putting back his toys of his own volition.
Gwen thinks about this moment now that she is in the bathtub. The water is already cooling. Outside her father puts on the radio and she knows he will leave it on all night, lowering it until it is just a whisper. Gwen thinks about how she is not thinking about the neighbors above them.
Gwen traces her fingers along the peeling beige wallpaper until they stop at the soap dish. She doesn’t want to get out yet and give up on the evening. Her eyes roam the bathroom. The toilet seat has a furry grey cover, the cabinet door under the sink is wobbly. The clear shower curtain leans heavily against the wall. Every apartment in this building was like this, down to the cracked ceilings and the tarnished gold doorknobs. As she scans, she catches a glimpse of green and sits up. It is a small ornament of a green Buddha in the far corner of the sink beneath the shadow of the cabinet. She can’t remember if she has ever noticed it before and imagines the cleaning crew must have missed it when they were getting ready for them to move in. She stands up suddenly, the bath forgotten, with the urgent desire to see what else might be new.
ABOUT kate Leffner
Kate Leffner is a writer in Boston pursuing a MFA degree in Fiction at Emerson College. She is passionate about children's books, Chekhov, and making genuine connections with others. In her free time, when she is not writing, she can be found in TJ Maxx debating over another globe or gold elephant knickknack she does not need. Currently, she is working on a collection of short stories about children taking on adult roles.