Selection from “Women Float”
My old house is tucked near the freeway in what’s now the part of Serena where the houses have big enough backyards for little girls to have pony pens. There it is, now painted a civilized off-white with green trim. I park the car and consider the possibility of going inside. Probably another wholesome family with kids having perfect childhoods. When I was little, the roads here were all gravel and we had these amazing battles with lemons and little rocks.
After a few minutes I realize I probably look suspicious sitting in my car so I walk up the front path and knock on the door. A young woman answers. She doesn’t look like a mother and she smiles without knowing who I am. She wears a short skirt, showing sunny, strong legs, and her hair’s pulled into a ponytail. A pair of glasses sits on the top of her head and the smell of bleach slips past me. The woman crosses her arms, still smiling, and I see her fingernails, each painted a different color. Blues, reds, yellow, orange. I realize I’m staring.
“Hello,” I say with a start. “I, uh…I used to live here. As a little girl.”
The woman holds herself precisely balanced, like a valuable object. I feel like I know her, but can’t think of how. She wears a thin tank top, one strap falling off her shoulder, bridging where her skin pulls tightly over her collarbone, the shoulder angular and square. Her shirt falls slack across her breasts which hang loosely under the tank top. There is no bra crushing her chest, and the openness of her body invites me to imagine touching those shoulders, to see if they’re velvet.
“Come in,” she says with a smile. “Sorry about the bleach. My girlfriend wanted a dramatic change.” Girlfriend or girlfriend?
I follow her to the kitchen, where a woman sits on a bar stool reading a magazine, a towel draped across her shoulders. Her wet hair is yellowish brown and stringy, falling almost to her waist. “Hi,” she says, the word slipping quietly from her lips. She swivels away from her magazine to face me, her legs scissoring out from, and parting her green, flannel bathrobe. Her face threatens to eat me alive, and her eyes stare wide flicker bright like a neon sign reading, “We’re Open Come In.” “Hi,” I respond. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to intrude here. I should probably go. I just…” What? Why did I come? I don’t think these women would understand if I said I feel like I’m a fire, and that I’ll find water here. They won’t get it, or any sort of obscure dowsing references. As I think, I hear myself say, “I used to live here with my mom, and her house just burnt down today, and I guess…I just wanted to see our old house.”
Immediately the two women open their eyes a little more. “I’m sorry. Wow,” the one in the chair says.
And I believe myself suddenly as I spill out the lie, just like slipping on a pair of roller skates and seeing where gravity takes you. “Yeah. You know that fire up on the hills? Well, my mom lives in the Painted Cave area, and, her house, it’s pretty bad. Gone.” I can’t make tears, not on the spot, so I just make my face look dull. “I guess I just didn’t know where to go. So I came here, to our old house. It…She…My mom started the fire. That huge fire back there. My mom, Janie, came home and found out that her second husband, Stan…” I watch the women. The girlfriend stares over my head out the window, while the woman who opened the door for me props her arm against her friend’s hip.
Too late—I can’t stop now, even if I wanted to. “Stan had been sleeping around and so they had this huge blowout, this major argument, and my mom found some gasoline in the garage and decided to torch his suits because that’s where he met this woman. Buying suits. And then the fire got out of hand, that Santa Ana breeze and everything. I guess the conditions were perfect for it and fire just spreads. My mom’s in the hospital, now, with second-degree burns, smoke inhalation, no house, and no husband. Stan took their car, just hit the road. He left before it got out of hand, just left my mom stranded. What a bastard. Everything’s a total mess, now. So, I’m pretty shaken up. Pretty upset. But it’s not the first time Stan’s started a fire…”
That last sentence finally takes it too far. The tank top woman stares at me then shifts her look to her girlfriend. They fall into each other’s stare, ignoring me completely. I hear, almost feel, my lie flop around the dead air without landing. The bath- robed woman pats, and then rubs, the other woman’s shoulders.
Not only do they know I’m lying, but they don’t care, have hardly even heard me. I stepped in on two lives, where I didn’t belong, and now it’s awkward. For the first time I can remember my lie fails completely, crashes, and burns. It’s time for me to walk away from the crime scene before they look at me wrong, and I give myself up.
As I stand in my old kitchen I think about switching places with one of these women. Their intimacy brightens my old house, like the walls are covered in tin foil because they’ve built a world here. No, not a world, a shrine, to worship each other in, and the house is no longer mine. What I knew here is buried beneath linoleum and naked bodies.
Maureen Foley is a writer and artist who lives on an avocado ranch by the sea in Southern California with her daughter, stepson and husband, writer James Claffey. She is the author of a chapbook of poems, Epileptic. Her writing has appeared in Wired, Caesura, The New York Times, Santa Barbara Magazine, Skanky Possum and elsewhere. She received a Master of Fine Arts in Prose from Naropa University and now teaches creativity, English, writing and more in Santa Barbara County. She is currently working on a new novel and developing a series of illustrations and text for a children’s book.
Beth Couture is an assistant editor with Sundress Publication and the secretary of the board of directors of SAFTA. She is also the fiction editor of Sundress’ newest imprint, Doubleback Books. Her own work can be found in Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, Yalobusha Review, the Thirty Under Thirtyanthology from Starcherone Books, Dirty, Dirty from Jaded Ibis Press, and other publications. Her first book, a novella titled Women Born with Fur, is due out in the fall from Jaded Ibis Press. She teaches at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.