My mother says that she was young too, once upon a time. She says this in the cold dressing room of a department store the day before we leave for our last trip overseas. The people around us smell strong, like the babysitter she just fired who used so much perfume my nose hurt and kept frying bacon I wasn’t allowed to eat.
We change in a row of twenty women. Thin curtains attempt to hide one pair of us from the next but still, I can see. Women have pears for breasts, oranges and cantaloupes. My mother doesn’t have them anymore. “It’s not polite to look,” she says, blocking my body with her own, handing me skirts, shorts, bathing suits, all light as seashells, cool on my skin. She bends her face down, plumps her lips against my forehead. They are soft with cherry Chap Stick but I duck away.
My mother tells me stories about ancient history. She tells me how, a thousand years ago, one life was simply practice for the next. She tells me about Samson, how Delilah saved him, about Jonah, how he disappeared into the belly of the whale and came out singing “Oh What a Wonderful World This Will Be.” She tells me about the Romans, how they sacrificed the bravest women once a month, stuck knifes into hearts and in their next lives they were warriors. She tells me Noah’s Ark might have been all wrong, animals were chosen two by two, but no one really knew where they went. Maybe they sailed into the next world and the storm just kept the sinners here.
I try on denim shorts high above my knees. I try on sheer tank tops and I can see my stomach, pale, birthmarks scattered like empty kisses. My mother slides a bikini off a hanger, dangles it in front of me, shields me from the women who slink in front of one another, too-tight dresses clinging to their hips.
The store will be closing in five minutes. A voice from nowhere tells us this. It sounds like the Wizard of Oz, or maybe God. The fabric of the bikini, red as fingernails, itches. My mother kneels in front of me, takes my shoulders in her hands. She squeezes them, turns me towards a mirror that makes my face look grey. Her skin is brown from tanning beds that buzz and scare me, all that bright light, like a person is burning inside.
It occurs to me that maybe a person is burning inside.
Kneeling like this, my mother reaches my chin; her black hair was once wide and past her elbows, now curls cling to her head afraid to leave it. My mother’s lips are thick, and mine are thin. My hair hangs, blond and pale, barely past my shoulders. Sometimes I blink and see that my eyelashes are invisible. My mother and I are not the same at all.
Left Hand Canyon
After he heard shots fired the man realized survival meant abandoning everything. He realized that his age, forty five, was not a good one to die at, so he left it all - money, food, clothing, wife, two children, kitten, his dead mother’s oven mitts, her mother’s china gifted on their tenth anniversary, ceramic map of the world clumped together by David, Alice’s lopsided hand-stitched doll. He pedaled his bicycle, helmet-less, down the street he lived on, past the oaks and crocuses, out onto the highway where one stray truck chugged past, the advertised cookies and the word Pillsbury reminding the man of everything he wanted to forget.
The shots had been faint, like the crackling candy his son liked to eat, but they were unmistakably real – he could hear the blackness in them, hear the doom. “My husband has a vivid imagination,” his wife liked to say, slinking her arm around him at cocktail parties and the man would nod and smile, thinking of the menace he saw on a daily basis, the way David’s red-haired teacher laughed, a disastrous cackle. Her laugh broke windows in his dreams. “That’s relative,” he told his wife, playing along, but when they were back at home, after he had checked to make sure the children were there and breathing, he stayed in the bathroom till he was sure his wife was asleep, stared at his reflection, the streaks of grey in his hair, the pock marks on his face from childhood acne. Sometimes he put hair thickener into her skin cream, just to be cruel.
He had heard of Left Hand Canyon on the radio. It was night when he heard of it, the sound of crickets, the smell of sunflowers, black bodies of water from which you could see the world upside down. Left Hand Canyon was a well-kept secret, the announcer claimed, and you didn’t need a map to find it, all you needed was the knowledge in your heart that it was there. The man was left handed, but it was more than that. It was the promise of safety, and he pedaled for two straight days, turning from highway to highway, traveling from New Jersey to New Mexico.
He pedaled for weeks until the faces of his wife and children blurred. He remembered the yellow glint of his wife’s hair, the birth mark on his son’s right thigh, but that was it. On the 20th day he stopped, leaned his bike against a gas station pump, sat on the curb ignoring questions from the fat men who pumped gas for a living: Are you ok, sir? Are you sick? Is there someone we can call? There was no one they could call. There was the stink of gasoline; there were these men with their soft, big bodies; there was the hot black asphalt, speeding trucks, his useless bike. He closed his eyes. Left Hand Canyon disappeared. All he could hear was the sound of gunshots, again and again, so loud and vivid no one could convince him that they weren’t real.
About the Writer
Jenny Halper's fiction has appeared in Our Stories (winner of the 2011 Emerging Writer Award), PANK, Necessary Fiction, Construction, Smokelong Quarterly, and Wigleaf Top 50, among others, and been reprinted in Persea Books recent anthology Sudden Flash Youth. Her stories have been finalists for awards from American Short Fiction, Indiana Review, Glimmer Train, Sonora Review, and the L Magazine, and as a journalist she has written for places including the Boston Phoenix and Nylon Magazine. She is a development executive at Maven Pictures and lives in Brooklyn with a turtle, as well as lots of Jolly Time popcorn and a ten-year-old VCR.