Cold Water By Catherine Hires (An Excerpt) (2015)

Collins Literary Prize Winner, Prose (2015)

Nia was still sleeping when I woke up. She was snoring loudly as I crawled my way down the rickety ladder that supported my lofted bed. I walked past her bed, her open mouth smushed ungracefully against her pillow, and made my way into the kitchen. I turned on the sink, pulled the hair out of my face and stuck my mouth in the stream of cool water that poured out from it. Rubbing my eyes, I walked over to the wide double windows of the living room and opened them. It was sunny for late September, and the chill of the breeze made the hairs on my arms stand up as it wafted through the screens. I was still in my going-out clothes from the night before: a black tank top and a pair of short-but-not-like-slutty-short shorts. There was black soot on my knuckles where I had rubbed my eyes from the mascara I had forgotten to take off.

I ambled toward the bathroom. The muscles in my calves and thighs were sore and tense, like I had been driving all night. I plopped down on the toilet seat and focused on my toes for a few seconds before I noticed the blood in my underwear. Blood in underwear is not foreign territory for any woman; it’s usually more annoying than it is upsetting. You’ve either lost a pair of underwear or you have to spend a good seven minutes at the sink scrubbing them in cold water. The blood in my underwear was less alarming to me than the clumps of almost-black mulch that were also gathered there. I could smell them from where I stared down at them: the smell of grass and woods. The longer I stared, the more I smelled: cigarette smoke, muddy petrichor and wet pavement, twinged with subtle notes of iron and cheap beer. I staggered off the toilet seat and looked at myself in the mirror. The eye makeup I had smudged clouded around my eyes like black-brown bruises. I leaned into the sink and got close to the mirror, running my ring finger along my bottom eyelid to wipe away what little waterproof eyeliner I could.

I looked down my legs for bruises, but I wasn’t really searching for evidence. I was as pale as I was the day before, remarkably markless. My quietly aching legs remembered the previous night before my brain and hands did, even as I stood at the sink scrubbing my underwear with the useless coconut-lime hand soap we kept there. The water made my knuckles almost numb as the black stains on them washed away. I let myself believe that the cold was why my hands were shaking for a full minute before I gave up on the stain and turned the water on in the shower.

I got into the shower with the intention of cleaning myself, but I just sat in the bottom of the tub while I waited for the hot water to turn cold and then warm again. The water intensified the smells in my hair, which had been matted with dirt and cinnamon whiskey. I let the foulness float away with the steam as I tried to cobble together some image of the night before that didn’t frighten me. Moments drifted in and out of my mind and melted together like the water pelting and rolling off my body, which looked even paler against the navy shower curtain.

I could remember everything to a point, but I couldn’t locate that point. The images were crisp when I closed my eyes, but blurred when I tried to string them together. My whole head, heavy with the post-drunken stupor that I was pretty well used to, felt vaguely disconnected from my neck. I remembered taking jelloshots, but the plastic flavor in my mouth tasted alien to me. I could remember avoiding someone, I could remember Taylor backing her car into a dumpster on the way out, and I could remember that I had forgotten my mostly empty bottle of cinnamon whiskey in the back of her car. I could remember kissing in the cold darkness and saying no and a hand over my mouth and again across my left wrist and cackling hysterically as he tried to put my shorts back onto me while I lay in the dirt. Sitting there in the shower, I laughed a little when I remembered that he tried to put my pants back on, and how bad a job he did of it.

By the time I got out of the shower, I had given myself a thorough, meticulous, mostly frantic scrub. Toweling off under the fluorescent bathroom lights, I felt less clean than I felt raw and red, like all my skin had been under the sticky part of a Band-Aid I had just ripped off. The tremor had left my hands and some tears had unwillingly made their way down the shower drain. The ache in my legs had crept its way up into my brain and I imagined it lining my skull, thick and black like the sludge you see on pictures of smokers’ lungs. My fingertips felt unfamiliar as I walked them over my flesh, trying to remember where the pieces of myself fit.

***

I walked out of the bathroom wrapped in my big orange towel. Nia, who was now awake but still sprawled out in her bed, with her laptop on her belly, said, “Girl, you need to take shorter showers. How was that party last night?”

“The party was pretty shitty, actually,” I answered, getting dressed in the corner.

“You got back pretty late last night for a shitty party,” she replied, not looking up from her computer screen.

“Yeah, well, Taylor may or may not have backed her car into a dumpster on the way out.”

Nia snorted. “Are you serious?” she asked, looking up and patting the Bantu knots on her head in disbelief. “How many people were in the car?”
“Eight.”

“Damn,” she laughed. “Is her car alright?”

“Yeah, believe it or not it looks completely unscathed.”

“Lucky,” she said. “But where was this party again?”

“Willy Oaks Apartments.”

“And what was shitty about the party?”

“Um,” I started. “Well, I didn’t really know the guys who were throwing it, you know? Also this weird fat guy was following me around all night and it was creepy.”

“Oh-kay. Why was he following you around? No offense, but you were wearing that huge flannel when you went out.”

“Well, there was a Star Wars poster in the apartment and I made a joke about it, and it was like this guy had never spoken to a female who had seen a Star Wars movie before, and so he followed me around all night trying to get me wasted.”

“Ew. Sexually repressed, over-attachable dorks are the worst. And he was fat?”

“Yeah, pretty fat. Kinda like a shiny, sweaty fat dude.” Nia squinted and stuck her tongue out. It was astonishingly pink against the brown button of her face. I laughed a little. “I’m going to get breakfast with Haley and them. You wanna come?”

“Look at me,” Nia replied. She was covered in blankets and propped up by at least five pillows. “I am not moving. Go.”

“Ok,” I laughed quietly, walking away. It was strange, but I was surprised by how easily I was able to pretend that it was a completely normal Saturday morning. The nagging pains in my thighs were my walking reminder that it was not a normal Saturday morning. Still, it was easy to fool Nia, and, waiting outside my on-campus apartment building to join a gaggle of brunch-craving college girls, I hoped that eventually I would find it just as easy to fool myself.

***

I was watching Haley apply a mildly disturbing amount of cream cheese to her bagel while I listened to her and Britney argue about the events of the night.

“You did not make out with Brian and Claire at the same time, Britney. Nope. No.” Haley was saying, flatly, her voice low and
cloying and her eyebrow cocked defiantly.

“Actually, she kinda did,” Rachel interjected, taking a bite of sausage as she gesticulated. “I saw it. Still not convinced it was a good decision though.”

“It was a good decision!” Britney said, with a flourish of her small hands. “We have gotten over all of our past grievances.” She
ran her hand through her electric pink hair. “Besides, it’s whatever, so.”

“That’s a really strange way of solving problems with your ex and his girlfriend.” Haley laughed. “You’re a stone cold slut.”

“Baby, I know it!” Britney joked.

“I am getting more tea,” I said, getting up. I had been sitting there for fifteen minutes listening to them prattle about nothing. I had thought that listening to them talk about nothing would be comforting in its simple single-mindedness, but after a while, annoyance broke through my private catatonia. The low hum of the dining hall was mainly composed of people talking about nothing. I felt mildly guilty about judging them harshly, but at the same time I was looking for anything to be even remotely angry about. I wasn’t going to give myself the room to think about my situation, at least not outside the walls of my small bathroom.

“I need more OJ,” Haley said, rising. She walked in step with me. “So,” she asked.

“So?”

“So did you have sex with that guy?” Her eyebrows were raised to match her playful smirk.

“Kinda yeah,” I sighed. I was trying my best to look aloof and nonchalant as I refilled my mug with hot water.

“Dude, quit walking around like a zombie,” she said.

“Regretting sex is like one of the main parts of being…” she paused, looking up for the right word. “One of the main things about being a part of our generation.” She laughed. “Besides, if you don’t regret it, you probably aren’t doing it right.”

“That’s healthy,” I said dryly, following her to the juice counter.

“I went on a run this morning while you were sleeping. Don’t tell me what’s healthy,” she grinned at me.

“Fuck you.”

“Shut up, bitch,” she replied. I rested my forehead on her shoulder while she refilled her cup.

***

In bed that night, I spent the majority of my time attempting to sink into my mattress. I couldn’t sleep for Nia’s snoring, but my mind was buzzing like a fly around a piece of meat. I thought that if I could build a wall around myself, somehow white out the memories I didn’t want, I could keep from rotting. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to invite that insincere “talking is healing” attitude from anyone I knew. Lying there, face close to the ceiling, I thought about what it meant to be a victim. I couldn’t be a victim if I refused to allow that night to exist in my mind. It couldn’t have been a crime if I wanted it, so I convinced myself that I wanted it. It took almost no effort to drop into the lie, to deny myself the thoughts I didn’t want to be thinking. I decided my brain was a malleable thing, to be sculpted and molded into the shape that I found most comfortable. I decided that my memory was an uncertain mechanism, and that the truth was not important as long as I avoided it.

Haley had watched me be led away by the hand at that party. I let myself believe that if she ever learned what happened, she’d blame herself. I let myself believe that forgetting was a way of protecting her from guilt she shouldn’t have to bear. It was a convenience that, in protecting her, I was protecting myself. I dreamed a million reasons to keep everything inside, not a single one of them was the fear that was slithering into my heart – that I was weak, and that my body was not mine.

This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.

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