She wasn’t very good at roller-skating, but it didn’t matter. It was so hot outside you had only a few early-morning minutes to check on the garden’s thirsty carrots before running back in to the air conditioning.
Her aunt claimed to feel earthquakes, several times a day even, but she herself never felt them. Whenever she thought to check, she found the ground steady.
Entering the dim cold of the rink was like putting a jar over a candle flame until it ran out of breath and snuffed itself out. Every day without fail, the loudspeaker announced, “Grab your sweetheart, it’s time for our couples’ skate!” and she’d make her way off the floor to sit at a sticky booth until her exile was over.
There was routine to the variation. Girls-only skate, boys-only skate, couples skate, backward skate, free skate. When the whole loop had run its course, she would unlace and head outside, the heat a wall and the light a knife-blade as soon as she opened the door.
Soon, it was the Fourth of July and they sat on a blanket with another family from church, eating ice cream and watching the dog shake every time a firework worked fire. Jonathan was two years older and Janice three years younger than her, just too young to be friends with. But it was fun to smile back at Jonathan’s smiles and even laugh at some of his jokes.
When the ice-filled soda found its way through her, she headed to the bathroom on her own, feeling grown-up. She was wiping her just-washed hands on the side of her dress when she heard a soft bleat from behind her: “Can you help me?” She looked around to see a shocking mountain range of pale flesh, trembling hands attached to it somewhere, clutching an outstretched assembly of garments. “Please help me,” it said.
She saw the mess then, soaking through the fabric gathered in the mostly-naked woman’s hands. It was smooth and liquid and a light, even brown. She’d never seen anything like it in her own toilet, and there didn’t seem to be an odor, but still, no doubt what it was.
“I just lose control,” said the woman. “It’s from my medication.” A looming shadow; someone else entered the bathroom. An adult was there—did it mean she could go?
She edged out of the bathroom’s doorless doorway, just a hole filled with empty night air, but still somehow a boundary.
The air was big above her but the ground was close, and when she tried to find the way back, she couldn’t distinguish one family from the next, each on a dusty plaid blanket, identical unreadable faces turned toward the sky.
At church, she was never invited to take Communion. A small part of her wanted to, had always wanted to. Back home, she’d gone with Grandma to the Catholic church but stopped just shy of the age of First Communion. She’d always envied the pew parade. But there was a price behind those wafers. She felt it lurking.
This church wasn’t Catholic. It didn’t seem to be distinctly anything else, though it was definitely rigidly something.
“But how do you know God is real?” she’d asked her aunt from the kitchen table as her aunt cooked dinner.
“I can hear Him. You just have to believe and then you’ll feel Him in your heart. Ask Him, just ask Him to talk to you.”
Obviously, she’d tried that. She’d lie in the bedroom alternately trying to feel earthquakes or to hear God, but either way met a wall of stillness. Was there really nothing? Or was she just ill-equipped to detect it?
Jonathan wrote her a letter about how beautiful she looked in her blue dress, and how much he wanted to kiss her. She’d always wanted a boy to want to kiss her, but now that one actually did, she felt only mild nausea, like she’d managed to make a big mistake somewhere without noticing what it was.
She couldn’t look at Jonathan at church the next week, and from then on, the boys stood in clumps and whispered whenever she entered a room. At the skating rink, they began to cut in front of her, block her way, point and snicker from across the shiny wood circle.
“Jonathan says you want to do things with him,” said his sister Janice, dipping brittle chips into neon cheese, as they waited out a boys-skate. “But he doesn’t want to because you’re dirty.” It wasn’t clear whose side Janice was on.
One day, her aunt drove the minivan not to the skating rink but to the house of some neighbors with a pool, where she could swim with a group of neighborhood/church girls. It was unclear where the boundaries lay between “neighborhood people” and “church people”; everyone in one group seemed to be in the other too.
The older brother in the family has cancer and this is why his head is hairless, an adult at church had informed her, though she hadn’t asked.
Since she’d come to the desert, greater and greater streams of hair had begun to wind themselves around her fingers every time she shampooed. Maybe I have cancer too, she thought. She passed the bald brother on her way to the pool. He didn’t seem sad, the way she imagined a cancer-haver would.
Would you even be able to notice an earthquake in here? she wondered, staring at her distorted limbs through the pale water. When the spider floated belly-up next to her elbow, body big as an apple, she cried out, “Oh my God!” She remembered what her aunt had said about black widows, how they spun uneven, ugly webs, how only the females were venomous.
The bald brother’s younger sister, who was older, still, than her, whipped wet hair around and fixed her with a sour look. “Don’t say the Lord’s name in vain.”
All the girls’ eyes were on her suddenly, as many eyes as the dead spider had, and with that same stony glare. She looked away, back at the bloated body, wished to be as buoyed and indifferent as it was. One of its eight hairy legs reached out, sent a ripple toward her.
An earthquake? No. The world was still, still.
The other girls had already moved on. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. She noticed how often they said it to each other, laughing and splashing as they swam in wide arcs around her, heading to the other side.
Sarah Van Bonn is a British-American writer currently based in Berlin. Her work can be found in/on The Southampton Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, WNPR, The Rumpus, LUMINA, South Asia Journal, Prism International, and elsewhere. Read more at sarahvanbonn.com.