I turn the hot water up a little till it's just right, that one sweet spot that burns your face but not enough to hate. My hair is bunched up on top of my head thanks to the conditioner, the artificial lavender scent filling the bathroom. The loofah is foaming now, another variation on that same lavender. I cover my shoulders, armpits, elbows, wrists, breasts, stomach, legs with that popping froth, making sure to get the cracks and crevices just right. I've had this loofah for at least a year now and it's beginning to scratch, leaving red splotches at strategic points on my body; I bet I look like a fingerpainting.
My basement suite has a window in the shower, a small, rectangular intrusion. It's fogged up, as usual, making it hard for me to do my daily weather check before leaving the tub. As I swipe away a fair patch of moisture, a shadow appears just beyond my hand and I can make out the semblance of two miniature legs, too small for a regular human, just the right size for the inquisitive youngster. They disappear at the sight of my dripping hand pressed against the glass. Making a mental note to find out who this kid is and why he keeps trying to peer into my showers, I twist off the water and step out of the tub.
I dry myself off facing the wall and wrap the towel around my torso. The fabric feels cold against my skin but it passes, the fog in the air serving to keep me warm. Quickly tossing my hair into another towel, I turn to face the mirror. It's time for teeth brushing, time for ear cleaning, time for contacts. I've gotten so accurate with this last procedure that I no longer have to clear out a small window in my mirror to get it done.
Changing in my room, I select a pink bra, not too bright but enough that you know it's there. Underwear is irrelevant, as are the jeans. The top is a little trickier, but eventually I settle on a sweet little number, a sweater I had picked up eons ago that fit me just right: tight enough to pop out the boobs, loose enough to hide the beginnings of a gut. When it's all combined into a new skin du jour, I look in my full-length mirror and absent-mindedly pick away a few stray fluffs. My legs are getting bigger, pushing out against my jeans, demanding a space of their own, creating abnormal bumps in the material.
I drop my coat off in the lounge and make my way to the lobby, parents milling around the hallways smiling at me non-confrontationally. Dil's mother stops me with a wave as she attempts to wrestle his three year old feet out of a pair of particularly difficult shoes.
"Morning!" She's slim, even in her loose-fitting trenchcoat.
"Having some trouble there?"
"He's just refusing to cooperate today."
"Dil? How about you help me set up the activities today?" The boy nods shyly, probably sensing the strange power dynamic between mother and…what am I? Babysitter, I suppose.
He slips out of his shoes and runs towards the playroom; I can hear him struggling with the indoor counterparts.
"What's up?" I ask as the mother fidgets with her hair.
"I just wanted you to know that I've had a serious talk with my son and it won't happen again."
"You remember what we were talking about last week?"
I glance down; her breasts seem to have retreated into her chest. I can't say that I blame them.
"Yes, of course."
"Well, I just wanted you to know that I've dealt with it and nothing like that will ever happen between Dil and I again. I do, however, ask that you report to me if anything like that should happen between you and him in the future."
They all tend to be pretty articulate.
I spin around at the sound, so aware of my status as "Miss." The cry came from a sobbing four-year old, her dainty little shoes slapping the ground as she runs towards me.
"He—he—he opened the—the door!" She was pointing to a flushed little boy in the corner of the room, trying to make a stack out of four wooden blocks. Clearly distracted, they fall over once, then again as he makes a distinct effort to stop himself from looking over at us.
"Let's go talk to him, okay?" She nods, her chin sinking into her chest, whimpers still somehow escaping her throat.
"Did you open the door when Daiyu was in the bathroom?"
"She told me you did." I can feel my face getting red, a rare flash of anger.
"You know you're not supposed to do that."
He eventually concedes to a timeout, although he refuses to admit why he did it in the first place. I wonder if he even knows.
Do I know? What could he have seen, walking into our tiny bathroom? Her bare legs dangling from the toilet seat, the strangeness of another body, the obscure understanding that we are not the only bones wrapped in skin that live here. Of course, it would have only taken a second for him to focus in on that one detail that would set them apart: that knobbly knee, or that strange scar. I can see the look of disgust on his face at this realization. I have to separate myself from James for the rest of the day to avoid snapping at him.
My butt is getting sore, sitting on these tiny chairs.
By the time I get home it's already past seven. Instinctively, I kick off my boots, shed my coat and head to the bathroom. I turn on the tap jutting out from the tub, not expecting any immediate effect. After a few seconds the water comes rushing out; it'll be cold for at least a minute.
First my socks come off, the most unassuming, then the jeans. Next comes the elastic in my hair, then the jewellery. Finally, I peel my sweater off, then the bra. In the end, even the underwear has to come off, a defeated heap on the ground, once formative, now deformed.
The moment comes and I look in the mirror. The appendix scar pops out today, followed by the quarter-sized birthmark just below my ribcage. The small stretch mark that appeared so callously a year ago has grown to trace my flesh just above the left hip: my skin is splitting open, trying to let something edge itself out, to take me over. I push the edges of the rip together and watch how unnatural it looks, as if the crack had always been there. My breasts are beginning to droop a little as well, pushed off to the side instead of sitting comfortably on my chest. Trying to remember what they used to look like is beginning to be a strain.
The water refuses to heat up completely, hovering on the edge of lukewarm. I take an extra ten minutes so that there will be enough fog.
After dinner, I settle into the couch to absorb my daily quotient of late night talk show. Three minutes in and I realize it's a rerun from about a week ago. This means I need to pick something else to watch, always an arduous process. Flipping through the channels yields nothing. After about five minutes, I turn it off. On nights like this, there's only one option: VCR reincarnation.
Rummaging through my big cardboard box of dusty tapes, I pull out a few choice pieces of film. Lining them up against the couch, however, only makes me realize that I've seen each one of these about seven times in the last year.
I decide to tape-surf, as I've come to call it. There are a number of unlabelled movies in my box and once in a while I like to putter through them, hoping for some epiphany. Most of them are old home movies or shows I had recorded off of cable in the past, but once in a while there's a gem worth watching all the way through.
Tonight, I dig really deep and find and intriguing-looking chunk of plastic. It has no label, other than the word "Ara" scrawled on a tattered piece of masking tape. He must have left it here and forgotten to take it back with the rest of his stuff when we broke up.
The tape starts out with commercials, must be some show he had recorded. Partly curious but mostly bored, I fast-forward to the opening credits. The title doesn't register so I keep watching. An actress, platinum blonde, enormous lips, incredibly tan, is talking to a bartender in what appears to be a two-wall set of a nightclub. She asks him for a drink, the line coming out hackney and over-acted, a comedy maybe? The camera closes in on the bartender's eyes as he stares at the woman's breasts; this is immediately followed by a close-up of said breasts. There's a word on the tip of my tongue but I can't quite form it into noise. She invites him up to her room after his shift (apparently the nightclub in underneath a hotel) and he agrees, the same suggestive tone. There is a five-minute scene of women dancing with each other, the lights flashing over each part of their body as the director singles out breasts and legs, breasts and legs, a face, breasts and legs.
Porn. The word sounds so effusive, like someone spitting in your face. I hit stop and go to bed, forcing myself to sleep.
The voyeur at my bathroom window shows up haphazardly throughout the week, the shadowy legs scurrying away just as I start to get a grip on who it might be. I've narrowed it down to the neighbour's boy or maybe the boy who delivers the paper in the morning. Every time I catch him I try to make out his face but all I've managed to decipher is that he wears a red ballcap and that his shoes are worn-out white sneakers.
What bothers me the most is the fact that I have no idea what he could be staring at. The window is completely fogged over for crying out loud, and on top of that, what's to see? A middle-aged woman trying to fend off the dirt that accumulates on her body every day? Imagine his disappointment were he ever to get a clear look at me instead of a vapour outline.
Dil's mother calls me away from the playroom when she drops off her son.
"Miss?" Even the parents have adopted this name. "How are you?"
"Fine, thanks, you?"
"I'm good, thank you."
"Can I help you with something?" Her eyes are darting from my face to Dil's squatting form, struggling to undo his shoelaces.
"Yes, actually I was wondering if you could help me with that problem we were talking about, seeing as how you deal with children all the time."
"Sure." There's a helpless urgency in her voice.
"Well, Dil did it again. His aunt."
"Did what exactly?"
"You know, what I was telling you about earlier this week."
"Oh," is all I can muster.
"What should I do?"
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Well, should I send him to a therapist, do you think? Should I punish him? I've just got no one else to ask, I'm sorry."
"Oh, don't worry about it."
There's a pause as Dil finally tugs off his last shoe and tears into the playroom.
"Have you ever seen anything like this before?"
"No, I can't say that I have."
"It just feels so…it's deranged. No, that's not the right word. I just feel that it's just too early for him to be thinking like that."
"It's possible he might not have been completely weaned yet?" I suggest, trying to introduce some logic so she won't notice that I've begun to sweat slightly and that my heartbeat is jumping erratically.
"No, no I would never do that to him."
"I didn't—" She pauses and stares past me. "He didn't breast-feed."
"You didn't breast-feed him?"
"No. I mean, I did feed him breast milk, but I used one of those pumps. I just couldn't do that to him, it wouldn't be right."
I tell her I need to be getting to work. She nods but remains in the doorway for a few minutes before leaving, her eyes trained the entire time on Dil and, if I were to guess, his hands. As the day goes by, I can't help but do the same. What do those hands feel like? The thought of them against my body makes me shiver.
When it's time for lunch, I find that I can't eat.
Naptime is at one o'clock every day; everyone tends to need it at that point, myself included. Obviously I can't sleep, but the temptation is pretty strong, especially watching all their swaddled bodies twitching every so often. They each have their own blanket—brought from home, of course—but, predictably, they end up somehow encroaching on each other at one point or another.
Two of the boys, a three and four-year-old, are cuddled up against each other, the older boy's arm laying over the other's chest. Their selves don't seem to match up; they're too angular with their jutting elbows and boney knees, baby-fat all but disappeared. I pull them apart gently and neither wakes up.
Today it's pimples, taunting me. The mirror has to amplify red; it's the only way pimples make sense. One day they're skin, the next day they're these vexed, rebellious mounds, like mosquito bites with a vengeance. Everywhere they show up, my face, my triceps, my stomach, even my legs get pimples at times. They have species too: there are the little anarchistic ones spreading everywhere in a ridiculous pattern; the fascist ones, huge and alien with an icecap hiding god knows what kind of bodily fluid; even the somewhat-peaceful democratic ones, distributed evenly, no particular leader but still potent as a force. I've popped more pimples than I care to have counted, and still they refuse to give up.I take a shower, distracted, and change into my nightgown.
There is a woman on my talk show, a supermodel of some kind. Her skin is separate from what she's saying. Flat, that's the word. One colour, one level, one or two curves at the most, one even event manifested, stretched perfectly over muscles and bones. I try to focus on what exactly is beneath the skin, what can be realized, but the show ends and all I can get a grip on is her polished self.
In bed, my eyes are forced shut. I can't sleep. I blame it on the cat outside, the sound of the furnace burning, the rushing of water from some upstairs toilet flush.
I rub my arm, up and down, until it starts to burn from the friction. The heat builds up and soon becomes near-unbearable, sinking past my skin and into my blood. The movement of my hand pushes aside my flesh as it moves, making room, digging.
I give up and take a shower, leaning against the tiles on the wall, trying to cool my arm down. I wash my hair slowly, each clump moving in and out of my fingers, tangled then untangled.
There are no more talk shows on, that's how late it is. Early, I suppose is a better word. There's a documentary on the evolution of plastic. Pass. Infomercial for a fantastic new drug that'll double the width of your penis in two weeks. Double , flip, flip, scan, flip. What? Flip back. Teenage Spring Break, some kind of fetish with eighteen-year old boob being flashed every few seconds. Only a commercial though; nebulous blue circles cover the nipples and even some of the faces. As the commercial goes on, advertising various parts of the country, I can't help but think there's something lacking, as if the nipples themselves were the whole point. Mentally, I swipe the blue aside and try to imagine the surfaces underneath. Brown, maybe pink, a bump in a quarter-sized sea.
The commercial ends but the image sticks in my mind; I know I need to see more but the prospect of looking down my shirt makes my stomach turn. This can't be right, you can't be curious about this. Just saying the word is indecent, much less indulging in it. The woman's hair, now so obviously dyed blonde, swishes at me from the VCR, asking me innocently why not come and pay a visit.
I hit play and wait a few seconds before sighing and switching the tv over to video. The woman is still in the club, sipping seductively on a cocktail. A man approaches her and asks her if she wants to dance. She accepts. They dance. For a long time. He fondles her butt, her chest as they dance. She asks him to join her upstairs. Cut to the bedroom. They start making out. She is moaning. Finally, he starts to undress her. Her shirt disappears as her shoulders appear: tan, rounded. Her bra disappears as her breasts appear: nipples are exactly as imagined, perfectly round, sitting neatly on her chest. Her underwear disappears: something is underneath but the word is too distant. Stop.
Once my head hits the pillow, I'm fast asleep.
It's morning and I'm showering. The water jerks from warm to hot and my body jerks accordingly. I reach up and swipe at the window.
He waves at me. I see his tiny hand moving back and forth. I can't believe the gall of this kid. He's lying on his back in the backyard, casually tossing a ball in the air and catching it in his hat. His eyes flick towards the window every few seconds. I watch him through the dewy glass pane for a full minute, my left arm covering my chest, or at least my nipples, despite the fact that there's no way he could see anything from that distance.
I make a split-second decision and jump out of the tub, leaving the water running. Quickly scrubbing myself off, I throw on my billowy nightgown and run out to the stairs that lead to the back exit.
"What exactly do you think you're doing?" My voice is trembling, so unlike how I had played it out in my head.
He looks over at me and grins, the red cap now shoved snugly onto his head. He can't be more than five years old. Where are his parents?
"You're pretty," he says, shrugging calmly.
My mouth flaps open and shut, but nothing comes out. Pretty. The word feels distorted in my mouth, as if it were pushing at the sides of my cheeks, cutting me.
"Where are your parents?"
"You'd better stop staring in my window, or I'll tell your parents what you've been up to."
"Okay." So simple. He gets up and strolls towards the fence that leads to the front yard. As he pulls the latch up, I think to ask him his name.
He was a girl this whole time. A smile courses through me.
The end of the day and Dil's mother is here to pick him up, on time as usual.
He's refusing to leave the last activity of the day, fingerpainting, his favourite one. When I see his mother waiting at the door, I ask him to pack up and he shakes his head: no. I start packing up for him, getting him to help me. When it comes time to actually leave though, something takes hold of him and he secures a firm grip on the table and starts to cry.
I pick him up—in as friendly a way as is possible—and carry him towards the awaiting mother, his legs straddling my torso, face peering over my shoulder. We chit chat and discuss Dil's performance for the day, as per usual. About a minute in, she looks down at his hands; her eyes go wide. I glance down and see the outline of my right breast cupped gently in his hands. He's no longer crying. Only at that point can I identify the mellow pressure of his tiny fingers against my chest. I smile and put him down. The woman leads her son out of the building without looking back.
The rest of the day is spent in a stupor. Some hazy euphoria has settled on my body and nothing seems to register. The disgust I had felt at hearing about Dil's previous exploits is gone, replaced by a sense of floating back and forth, like a feather playing in a gentle breeze.
I smile at every parent and child that passes through the daycare.
When I get home, I head straight to the bathroom, as usual.
As I undress, I watch myself in the mirror. When my bra falls to the floor, I feel the imprint of Dil's hand lingering on my breast; I can almost see his individual fingers. I place my hand over his and try to imagine what must have been going through his head. What could a three year old possibly be thinking? I push my fingers into my skin, one by one, as if I were drumming out a beat.
My pants drop to the floor and I watch as my underwear follows. Hair, and the outline of something underneath. My fingers move themselves across my body and between my legs. They stay there, motionless, absorbing. Eventually, they move over my thighs and behind my knees and around my ankles. I stand up and watch myself and myself intertwined.
I skip the shower and head to the couch. Without thinking, I hit play on the VCR and let the remote fall to the floor. Determined.
It doesn't take long for them to get into it. The amount of time spent sucking on each other seems tragically short to me, but I trek forward diligently.
Everything is dry; the liquid that so normally accompanies bodies is suspiciously absent. I watch carefully, trying to see if it might just be the lighting, but no; they're really just rubbing crotches, skin drying skin. The curtain of hair that normally protects pelvises is stripped, too.
When he comes, his penis looks rubbed red and purple, veins pulsing ferociously under the skin. I imagine the whole thing must have been quite painful.
I take the tape out and pull part of the film out from it's casing. It comes out so easily; there's barely any resistance as I pull foot after foot of the stuff out. When I turn the light off to go to bed, there's a pile of plastic porn lying on the floor in a heap. I make a mental note throw it out in the morning.