FISH SWIM IN CIRCLES

PAIGE THOMAS

 
 
My roommates and I left two weeks after it started. It was the holidays and everything else was forgotten. After all, before the turn of the new year, it only took five minutes—or ten—if it was being temperamental. Before break, it wasn’t really broken because it was still manageable. It was nothing new. After break, the previously life-giving Drano swirled in the bathroom sink’s basin, a minted tint of uncomfortable color. It seemed our alcoholic appliance had forgotten how to drink. We waited, my roommates and I, for the world to realign itself without our interference. We brushed our teeth over the kitchen sink, washed our hands with short bursts of water, removed our makeup with baby wipes; we did not dare touch the bathroom sink.
 
Five minutes became two hours became three days and our swamp of a sink shimmered in the flickering overhead light. Dry seasons were biweekly, if no one used it, and I scrubbed at sludge and ring marks with Clorox wipes. Already that semester we had smashed our microwave plate, broken a window hinge, experienced a heater malfunction, burned out the vanity mirror light, stained the white ceiling and the carpet with red wine, set fire to a bowl of Totino’s pizza rolls in the microwave, watched our new vanity light develop a strange click, and unhinged the shower handle. My roommates were responsible for most of the damage. They liked to drink too often and too much, but I was the one who shattered the microwave plate. I dropped it while trying to bleach out the scorch marks from the drunken pizza rolls incident. I scrubbed for hours over a pile of dirty dishes. The heady stench of chemicals swallowed my frustration until my nailbeds stung like hand sanitizer filled papercuts, but I cleaned it. I even called maintenance and lied about how it broke—one free replacement and a warning, but I could not fix the sink. A second battle of Drano changed nothing. So, our swamp was not a swamp, but a swamp with crocodiles because there was no money to pay for anything more than a warning and there was no more time; my roommates and I left for break.
 
Home was where the good water pressure was. Home was my mother’s house. Twenty-minute bone melting showers filled my winter break, and my little sister would wait outside the bathroom, feet pressed against the door, her back touching the opposite wall. I’d hear her swallowing her laughter when I turned the water off. She thought I wouldn’t know she was there. I opened the door, suddenly feet to feet as I pulled her from the floor and wrapped her in the dampened sleeves of my bathrobe. She’d follow me into my room and watch me rub lotion on my arms, down my back, to the tops of my feet. It was our ritual.
 
“Where are you going today?” she would ask, legs crisscross on my unmade bed, her brows furrowed together. My answers varied.
“Where are you going today?” I would ask as I dressed.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. Think a little bit.”
 
The skeletons of her usual day were: coloring, the park, Netflix, but her preferred answer was “I’m going with you” and sometimes she was. I would take her along to run errands or to a friend’s house or out on small shopping trips. We often went to Boise Fry Company where she would order curly russet fries with four sides of ketchup. On the days when our plans did not match up, she tried to change my mind and I would hug her to my stomach, her glasses pressing into my ribs, and promise a sister-date soon with the most hopeful intention of keeping it. It was nothing new.
 
I eased into my family. My mom, my older sister, my younger sister, and me. My first days back I couldn’t stop talking about the water and how easy it was to brush my teeth and wash my face, my hands. No green, not even a tint, just one properly draining bathroom sink. I savored the everyday task of cleaning my body until it once again felt mundane and I stopped paying attention. Instead, I listened to the phone calls my mom made at strange hours to her family in Australia. “Where are you going today?” she chatted into the receiver over the eighteen-hour time difference. She made the calls almost daily from late November to early January, our house temporarily filled by her laughter at a joke only she could hear. It was her ritual.
 
My mother was a devout Catholic, is a devout Catholic. Christmas, to her, has always been Jesus’ birthday, not the coming of Santa Claus, yet she still mixed oats with glitter to sprinkle outside for Santa’s reindeer and filled our stockings to the brim. Santa would leave my sisters and me notes, scrawled in the same handwriting that filled out our family’s grocery lists and paid the bills. My mom’s holiday spirit centered on secular with a touch of “think a little bit” to even out the season. It was a celebration. She baked and called her family and baked and called her family. It was a necessary pattern developed over twenty-five years of living in the states. A combatant to seasonal depression. Her homemade remedy to homesickness.
 
One week of my holiday was spent alone at a stranger’s house with seven schedule-abiding Polish chickens and an early Christmas morning spent driving back home through unplowed streets. Housesitting was not my forte, but the family was nice, a surgeon and her psychiatrist husband, and it paid. They lived in a restored farmhouse painted yellow with windows every two feet and a wraparound black granite counter in the kitchen. It reminded me of a castle. The stairway to the second story remained exposed, visible on its side from the ground floor. Eclectic chandeliers hung from every bedroom ceiling. They even had a built-in bookshelf that crawled up the tallest wall with a rolling ladder attached to the side, fit for a princess. Everything was meant to be looked at. The side of the house facing their unfenced backyard was entirely glass. By night, I was on display in their pristine fantasy and transformed into a fish. Passersby would not see me swim, but squirm under recess ceiling lights as they waited for a show from whomever lived in the fairytale house at the end of the street. I could not measure up. I pulled down thin blinds to contain the space I had to take care of. Solitude bubbled inside the bordered emptiness until I was sure it would crack the window glass and spill me out onto the yard, where I would gasp for oxygen and there wouldn’t be any more to breathe in the night outside either.
 
Polish chickens are the ones that look like the feathered bobble-head pens everyone bought at the elementary school Scholastic book fair: one long stick with an extra fluffy pompom on top. Their eyes invisible under a poof of silky feathers. There were seven in total and not one laid eggs. The night before Christmas eve I locked myself into the farmhouse’s guest bedroom and stripped. It was nothing new. My sweatshirt sleeves reeked of liquefied bird shit. The underside of my nails was filled with scum as if I had just finished washing dirty dishes, or scrubbing a microwave, a sink. In the dark and snow, I was unaccustomed to unlatching and refilling the chicken’s water container. The heated steel contraption required a precise twist and unlock movement whereas I was more acquainted with a pull and wiggle. It bathed me in a steamy wave of chicken backwash. I fumbled between curse words, refilling the steel bin as the chickens clucked from their roost. Water seeped through my boots into my socks. The birds continued to murmur their disapproval. The cold and frustration shook my bare hands. I almost stopped, but I finished, hearing the metal hinges click into place. I did not understand their purpose, but strict feeding was their ritual. I did not understand the text waiting on my phone. It was from my mom. It was something new.
 
 
Sat, Dec 23, 8:01pm
I’m upset
Your sister just smoked pot in this
house
Do you smoke pot ?
Or am I a stupid idiot for thinking my
daughters don’t do drugs

 
 
My older sister also lives at home. She graduates this fall, a semester past four years. She wants to join AmeriCorps after college but won’t start the application process. She’s dating a boy named Joey. He has cerebral palsy and was born premature. He’s nice, but I find his personality off-putting. Joey takes advantage of my sister’s kindness, her inability to hold a grudge, her relentless anxiety. I can’t help but imagine he tells her that they are both broken; they need each other to stay whole. Joey self-medicates with alcohol and marijuana. He is in constant pain from his condition that he tries to ignore. Some days he cannot get out of bed. Those same days he yells at my sister over the phone and she cries. It is their ritual. I know my sister and Joey smoke together. I know my sister cannot handle her substances. I know my mom does not know about any of this. I know my mom found my sister in the master bathroom because of the smell. I know that same night my mom yells at my sister in person and she cries, she sobs. I know my sister regrets not opening the window farther.
I respond. It was my ritual.
 
 

Sat, Dec 23, 8:10 pm

I’m so sorry Mom

I’m shocked

Sat, Dec 23, 8:16 pm
It’s punctured my Christmas

Sat, Dec 23, 8:23 pm

I’m really sorry Mom

 
 
I arrived home the next morning, bracing for a house bristling with hurt. No one was home, not even my little sister. I left the coffee I bought my mom on the kitchen counter and sent her a text.
 

Sun, Dec 24, 8:01 am

I brought you coffee but you’re not home!

 
I walked down the hallway to my older sister’s room. The door hung open, her bed unmade and surrounded by heaps of clothing on it, beside it, under it. Her neon blue walls were purposely paint-splattered and screaming at me. I stepped into her room anyways and checked her trash bin—empty. I rifled through her desk and vanity, her abandoned backpack. This time, I’d know everything in time to help, to fix, but I walked out of my sister’s room with nothing.
 
By the time my mom came home and finished the coffee I bought her, she had forgiven my older sister in the name of God and filled our stockings. The next morning, my little sister waited outside the bathroom door for me, feet pressed against its wood. I opened it and pulled her to her feet. “Merry Christmas,” we whispered in unison. She laughed. Our mother joined the embrace before letting go to wake up my older sister. It wasn’t Christmas with an extra “think a little bit” until after she was woken up.
 
Six days later and at the mark of the new year, I locked the front door behind me. I was sober and for the first time I believed in the reckless possibility of the new year. I could feel it buzzing in the marrow of my ribs, pulsing through my bloodstream. No one cried at the party I went to, no one got alcohol poisoning, no one got hurt. It was over an hour into the new year and I didn’t have to fix anything. I liked it; this kind of individualized freedom. I liked the humming in my bones.
 
“Paige,” my mom called from the open door at the end of the hall, her voice strained with sleep. I carried the new year into her room as I waved to the dark outline of my mother blanketed in shadows. She moved to reach for something on her nightstand.
 
“My phone isn’t working. Can you take a look?”
 
I didn’t respond.
 

I’m upset

 
I made my way towards her outstretched hand and grabbed the phone. I gave it a hard reset and pressed the slightly popped-out screen back into its case. It was plugged in, but the screen was empty and colorless, just a faint gray outline where the front screen ended, nothing more.
 

am I a stupid idiot

 
“I can’t help you.” The words prickled my tongue; the taste of something new.
 
I meant I won’t help you, but my mom was too tired to notice. The silence pushed me back into the hall. No more noise from my new year. I flipped on the light in the bathroom and turned the faucet on high. It took a few minutes for the water to steam and I threw my hands under, watching them turn red. I waited for the hot water to cause my blood to sing again, my ribs to purr like they were when I first got home. I wanted to be unassigned and uncrowned and unable to fix, but all the water did was burn until I shut it off.
 
“I can’t help you,” I repeated as my mom asked me to fix her phone the next morning. She puckered at my tone and told me to try again. I repeated my words a third time, farther from her desired target, sharper than before. The heat in my voice simmered behind each syllable ready to tumble out—unstoppable—an accusatory flash flood.
 

a stupid idiot

daughters

 
I wanted a moment of recognition, no help given or taken or expected. I wanted an easy forgiveness from her, a nonchalant acceptance. I wanted to not be expected to understand why I felt bad for not helping. Instead, I hid behind nasty, blameworthy words I flung at her face and waited for the impossible. Her request was so little, but so was mine. I reveled in my immaturity and the sticky lacerations guilt left in my throat. I forgot how it felt to feel irresponsible, to desire not being turned to, to be my age. She fumed, I went to work, we stopped talking. My ribs turned to paper.
 
Sat, Dec 23, 8:01pm
  upset                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               I’m
Your sister       smoked pot in this                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     just
house
Do you smoke pot ?
Or am I a stupid idiot for       my                                                                                                                                                                                                                                thinking
                do drugs                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         daughters don’t
 
January fourth was not Jesus’ birthday. It was not a celebration. I knew I did not smoke pot in my mother’s bathroom. I knew it would have been better if I did. I knew I would have opened the window far enough. I knew I would have found a solution before there was even a problem.
 
I knew that I hated what I knew.
 
We sat beside each other at the kitchen table, my mom and me. I set up her new phone without her asking. I compiled her contacts and downloaded important apps. She watched as I thumbed through my progress, nodding at each of my eventual explanations. My voice seemed to fall flat against her silence, like a call without a response. My little sister walked into the room and paused. She watched us sit rigid next to each other, frozen by something that shouldn’t matter. She must have felt the silence too. Perhaps, that’s why she started to cry.
 
We sat on the couch, January fifth, my mom and me. She told me she missed her family—the one across the ocean. She baked and called and baked and called, but holidays were hard. Her hands wrapped tight around her coffee mug. The living room was filled with bright sunshine. I placed my hand over one of hers and the steam rising from the frozen ground outside looked like vapor, like smoke. She managed a couple sentences about how her parents were old, older, dying now and the ocean between them and her was big, bigger, monstrous. The phone was her saving grace; its breaking unmanageable. She seemed to have forgotten I had her parents’ numbers saved in my contacts. It had been that way for years.
 

I’m really sorry Mom

but

I’m just thinking daughters don’t—

 
We called maintenance, my roommates and I. The plumber arrived while I was in class. Apparently, he snaked the drain and commented on the buildup: larger than usual. He poured in his own cleaning concoction, per his policy. It must have been building up for weeks, he mentioned while he worked. The holidays made it even harder to remove. I nodded when my roommates told me they feigned surprise and regret, and how—in minutes—it was gone. Now, the water runs hot and clear. It drains. Another warning, no charge.

 
 

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