The Boiler

Tami Anderson

YOU WILL REMEMBER THIS

The first time you hear the word “tampon,” you will be just barely six years old. Your mother will hold up a thick white stick with cotton oozing out of the top, then swoop her hand down to disappear between her legs as she relaxes against the porcelain, like she is sitting at a table in a four star restaurant instead of on a toilet seat. Your mother does not believe in closed doors.

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Years later as you tear at the paper wrapping with Tampax stamped across it in a benign shade of blue, you will check the lock on the bathroom door no less than five times before you penetrate yourself with the cold plastic tip. For extra insurance you will bring in the chair from your new desk set, which was purchased to help improve your study habits, and jam it under the brass doorknob until a small dent is created in the chair’s upper slat. Later you will fill it in with the white-out you find in the junk drawer in the kitchen, under the appointment card confirming the visit your mother had scheduled with Dr. Walsh for the previous Thursday.

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When your mother tells you that she is sick it will be over hamburgers at the local Denny’s. In the same breath she will ask you to please make a better effort to get along with your stepfather. You will study the dab of ketchup at the corner of her mouth and wonder if she understands what getting along really means. After an uncomfortable silence, in which she increases the intensity of her gaze, until it feels like your eyes are inches instead of feet apart, you will look away first, dip your napkin into your water glass, reach across the table and assure her that you will try.

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The week your mother begins chemotherapy, well meaning friends and co-workers will fill your refrigerator and pantry with dozens of casseroles and home baked desserts that your mother will delicately pick at while they smile and nod vigorously. After they are gone you will follow your mother into the bathroom and hold her hair back until her retching yields nothing but a faint echo. When the neighbor with the kind eyes and grown children who never visit knocks on your door and suggests that you might want to exercise her quarter horse a couple of days a week, you will drop your chin to your chest and select one of the apple pies lined up neatly on the kitchen counter, holding it out toward her until she slides her palms under the warped tin and removes its weight from your hands.

Over dinner one night your stepfather will inform you that too much horseback riding can make a girl appear to have lost her virginity. Bits of casserole will leak out the sides of his mouth as he intones words like “hymen,” and “vagina” and “friction.” When he suggests you light the candles to make the table more festive, you will announce that you have an Algebra test in the morning and toss your napkin onto your untouched plate. Behind the closed door of your room you will promise yourself that his voice, his words, his wretched, filthy mouth, will not taint what you and the horse share. A month will pass before you appear back at your neighbor’s front door, self consciously scratching the toe of your riding boot against your calf. As you squeeze your thighs against the horse’s muscular flanks you will imagine the vitality buzzing beneath his coat is seeping directly into your skin.

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Your stepfather will disappear around the same time that your mother’s left breast does. On her nightstand she’ll find an envelope, which contains a slip of yellow paper with six sentences printed out in neat, block letters. In the note he will remind her that although he appreciates how awful this must be for her, he hopes she will consider what it has been like for him. His boss has commented negatively on his work performance more than once. The secretaries cannot look at him without sighing and biting their lips. If he had understood what “in sickness” really meant he would never have agreed to it, nor expected her to. In a way he is thankful. She has helped him to discover that he is not the marrying kind. Your mother will refuse to leave her room for three full days and cry until her eyes swell into tiny slits. You will walk from the shower to your bedroom with just a towel on and begin sleeping with the door open.

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The first time your mother says the word “euthanasia,” it will make you picture a new wave band with stiffly coifed hair, like the one you went to see with the quiet guy from your history class, his arms wrapped tightly around your waist, your head cradled against his shoulder, feeling warm, almost feverish, even though the air was cool that night and you’d forgotten to bring a sweater. While she explains what it means, your mind will fight to hold onto your definition as you stare at her cracked, unadorned lips and discreetly wipe off your frosty pink lipstick with the back of your hand.

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In college you will hear the word again, this time at a comedy club. The improv group performing that night will challenge the audience to give them a word, any word, and they’ll create an original song on the fly. A guy you recognize from your Abnormal Psych class will shout “euthanasia” all the way from the back of the room. His voice is of such a pitch and resonance that it will be heard above the shouts of “horse shit,” and “garden tools,” and “tits.” When the leader of the group actually chooses your classmate’s suggestion, you will yank your fingers from the grip of the boy sitting beside you and dig your nails into the bare skin beneath the hem of your skirt. The emcee’s snapping fingers will set the rhythm and the other cast members will join in as they trade riffs back and forth, pairing “get a free ride” with “assisted suicide,” and “don’t check out alone” with “you can do it in your home.” Your date will laugh so hard that orange liquid will start running out of his nose and you will push your own untouched Screwdriver as far away from you as the scratched round table will allow.

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When you break curfew for the first time your mother will surprise you with her equanimity. You’re sixteen, she’ll say, shrugging her shoulders, once broad and muscled from hours of swimming, now delicate as a ballerina’s. Later she will come into your bedroom and sit on your daisy print comforter, patting the space next to her until you get up from your desk and join her. She will sandwich one of your hands between her own and pull it to her lap. The silk of her robe will feel cool against your skin. We’re going to go somewhere next week, just you and me, she’ll tell you and her eyes will light up like your friend Kathy’s did when she showed you the new leather jacket her boyfriend had bought her. Your belly will relax against the waistband of your jeans as you envision a day in downtown L.A., visiting the art museum and having lunch in the room that spins slowly atop the Holiday Inn.

We’re going to see Dr. Stein, she’ll announce, and then go on to wax eloquent about the thrill of your first visit to the gynecologist, as if she is taking you to a matinee showing of a Broadway play instead of delivering you to a stark white room where you will slide your bare feet into cold metal stirrups, which are nothing like the one’s that hang against the glossy brown flanks of your horse, and a man with silver hair and a neatly trimmed mustache will place his face inches from an area of your body you have never even seen and poke at you with his stubby, gloved fingers as a nurse with a bored expression watches from the corner of the room.

The important thing is to relax, your mother will tell you, as the nurse reads your name from a clipboard and you put down last December’s issue of Seventeen Magazine. You will follow her down the brightly lit hall to the door at the very end and hope that you drank enough Dr. Pepper at lunch to fill the specimen cup she tosses at you over her left shoulder.

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When you try telling your mother to relax after she asks you to go to the pharmacy again for her, the third time in as many days, she’ll shout at you to shut up then throw a pillow that lands a few inches from your feet. You’ll know that if it had hit its mark the worst damage it would have done is messing up your bangs. Your eyes will well up anyway. She’ll remind you that no kid has the freedom, the trust that she’s given you at seventeen. You’ll cross the room and pluck the car keys from her open palm, avoiding making contact with her skin.

The next morning, freedom will feel like this: a pounding at the back of your head; a tender rawness where your thighs meet; a swelling at your nipples and lips. Your memory will be foggy but certain moments will begin to stand out: the second glass of vodka that made you feel warm and liquid, like you were kissing under water; a thicker, hoarse version of his voice suggesting that you undress; your foot knocking your mother’s prescription bottle under the front seat of the car. You’ll remember a “stop,” but you won’t be sure if it was just a thought or a request actually spoken aloud. Squinting at the rumpled piles of clothes and half-finished essays that litter your bedroom floor, it will seem a little late to ask.

Rolling from your bed, you will take the prescription bottle from your backpack, push a pair of sunglasses onto your nose, and cross the hall from your room to your mother’s. She will not ask you where you were the previous night and you will no longer expect her to. When you hand her the pills, she will suggest you go back to Dr. Stein so you can get fitted for protection. When it happens you won’t know, you’ll announce in a flat voice, watching her twist her grip back and forth on the bottle’s childproof cap. You’ll take off your sunglasses and stare at her boldly, daring her to smell him on you, to sense the new carnal knowledge that must be stamped into the tracks of mascara smeared under your eyes and across your cheeks. Oh I plan to be around long enough for that, she’ll respond dryly as you lift the bottle from her hands and release the lid with a pop.

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When your mother says I’m ready, you will ask her what she means, buying time by the seconds now. She will sigh and level her eyes at you until you approach the bed, fingers loosely intertwined in front of your crotch. She will have to pat the mattress several times before you finally sit down. The urge to run will pound through your legs so strongly you’ll fear any movement at all will trigger flight. Later in the kitchen, you’ll pretend that what you’re mixing into the glass of ice tea for your mother is only extra sugar. You’ll tap the spoon against one beveled side and watch as the tiny white flecks swirl around in the amber liquid. You’ll remember the Bambi snow globe you got at Disneyland when you were five and you’ll feel a sudden urge to pull it down from the shelf at the top of the hall closet and smash it against the black and white tile floor.

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As the priest extols your mother’s virtues to a packed chapel you will stare at the black crepe fabric beneath your pale hands and for a moment picture it as thick orange canvas, your bracelet and watch as handcuffs, shackles instead of leather hugging the backs of your heels. His gaze will come to rest on you and for a few frantic seconds you will not be able to discern if his expression is meant to convey compassion or condemnation. Your great aunt from Minneapolis, who you only met once when you were six months old, will turn her shining eyes toward you and place her withered hand on top of your head as if offering a blessing.

At the wake this touching will continue, relative strangers placing their hands on your hair, your cheeks, your back, squeezing your fingers between theirs, before adding some perishable item to the growing collection on your kitchen counters. When you are finally alone you will stare at the tin-foiled, saran wrapped, Pyrexed mound, then grab a stale package of Corn Flakes and fall asleep on the couch, clutching the box like a lover.

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When you are twenty-three you will find a good man entirely by accident and at twenty-eight he will marry you. His family will treat you as if you were their own daughter and for a while you will pretend that you are. You will go skiing in Aspen, learn to scuba dive in the Cayman Islands and fill photo albums with snapshots of you and your husband’s family: on sparkling beaches with tanned arms linked, in front of a grove of white dusted firs, arms and legs spread wide in an assembly line of snow angels. The only photos you will ever look at will be these: a teenage version of your mother on a sail boat, head thrown back in laughter, chestnut curls tossed by the wind; you and your mother sitting together on Santa’s lap the week after you turned four, the three of your bodies blending into a plush red and white ball, her arms wrapped round you tight.

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At thirty-four, when you have knee surgery you will ask your doctor on three separate occasions if they can just use a local anesthesia. You have a high tolerance for pain, you will tell him. He will smile at the irrelevancy of your statement then pat the back of your hand and direct you to get undressed. When the anesthesiologist looms over you, places the black mask over your nose and mouth and tells you to start counting backward, you will hear your mother’s voice whisper to you to relax and it will comfort and chill you at the same time. Although your knee will feel like the insides have been dug out with a rusty spoon you will refuse all post-operative drugs. The nurse will widen her eyes in a mix of admiration and pity and the doctor will call the next day, and the next, to ask if you are sure. You will tell him yes in a calm voice that has taken most of the day to perfect, then hang up and bite down hard on the corner of your pillow until you pass out from exhaustion.

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In the tenth year of your marriage, you will confound your husband with the increasing amount of time you need to spend alone, your brooding silences and tightly wrapped emotions. Don’t you ever cry? he’ll ask you after you’ve miscarried for the third time. You will ponder the randomness of motherhood, and it will make your own childhood seem even less probable and more unjust. Your husband will paint the yellow room white again, order custom bookcases and take you on expensive vacations. You will use the video camera he bought the first time you told him you were late to film him in front of the Eiffel Tower, rowing a gondola, and aiming his binoculars at a herd of elephants. Friends paying for piano lessons and saving for college funds will go on about how they envy you. You and your husband will smile brightly in response, always taking particular care that your eyes don’t meet.

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When you are forty-five you will resort to trying to ingest happiness, using varying combinations of psychotropic drugs that TV ads promise will make you enjoy dinner out again, smile at your husband and sleep peacefully for more than three hour stretches. Your doctor will note the deep creases under each of your eyes, tapping his pencil against his teeth, then drop brochures into your lap filled with pictures of women with brunette chignons and sharp cheekbones wrapped in the arms of men with salt and pepper hair, huddled under a blanket on the beach or twirling on a lacquered dance floor. As you wait for the nurse to bring you the prescription you will carefully blacken every other tooth of the perky blonde actress smiling up at you from the cover of the Ladies Home Journal.

The pharmacist will take his time going over the instructions in raspy, hushed tones as he cautions you to avoid alcohol, driving and operating heavy machinery. Your mouth will trace the words almost before he speaks them, both of your heads bowed over the counter as if in prayer. When he asks you to sign your name on the clipboard next to the sticker he has peeled from the vial, your eyes will meet for an instant and you will wait to hear him speak your name, a tremor of recognition bringing his voice to full volume. He’ll offer a pen instead, a blue Bic with teeth marks in the cap. When you don’t take it, he will place it right next to your fingers as if to help you understand the purpose. Scratching out your signature, you’ll exchange the pen for a small white bag, the pharmacist’s polite, good night m’am, ringing in your ears like a curse. The pills are longer than your thumbnail and half as wide, a cluster of bright neon pink. Later that night you will marvel at how easily they go down as you stare at the ceiling and wait for the dawn light to paint your bedroom walls the color of buttermilk.

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Menopause will find you cleaning out the cabinet under your bathroom sink, tossing out tampons and birth control pills and an old box of maxi pads your best friend bought for you after she saw a special about toxic shock syndrome on 20/20. You will slide your thumb over the word Tampax and suddenly you will want to see it in black and white, typed by your own hand.

When you press your finger down on the beige button and hear the soft whir of your computer coming to life, you will feel your heart race as each icon on the desktop is revealed. You will be a girl of six again and twelve and sixteen and eighteen. You will let each take her turn typing, telling her story in her own way, until your stomach growls and your wrists ache and your mouth is so dry you have to swallow rapidly every few moments to work up enough saliva to keep your tongue from closing off your throat. Words will gather on the screen and begin arranging themselves into fractured scenes: the hollow sound of your mother’s heels echoing sharply on the polished museum floor as you both took giant steps backward and watched Monet’s tiny dots of color transform into renderings of haystacks and sunsets and flower fields; twisted strands of her chestnut hair pasted to the sides of the sink, caught between the couch cushions, wrapped around your toes like Easter grass; the delicate rippling of her throat as she guzzled the glass of ice tea, like an over zealous fraternity pledge at initiation; the wind whistling in your ears, lifting your hair from your neck as the horse ran faster and faster, hooves pounding against packed dirt, feeling as if you were flying, like you were never coming back.

You will let yourself remember because you will finally realize that nothing can ever make you forget. When you fall into bed at 3:00 AM next to your husband, his rhythmic snores sounding in tandem with the slight rise and fall of his chest, your mother’s voice will whisper to you again. This time you will be too sound asleep to hear her.
 


Tami Anderson’s work has appeared in Other Voices, Passages North and Soundings East. Stories from her collection were selected for a stand-alone performance of The Los Angeles New Short Fiction Series and she is a past recipient of the Barbara Jackson Fellowship to the Tomales Bay Writing Workshops. Tami lives, works and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area.