Joyland

New York |

Slick Sided

by Melissa Swantkowski

edited by Emily Schultz

Morgan saw her mother in the bedroom. “I’m a beast,” her mother said. “How am I ever supposed to take my clothes off again? These things never happened to my body when I had you.” She held a narrow pair of jeans in front of her belly. “I keep these to remember. They’ll fit again. They will.”

The house was very quiet. Morgan’s siblings were napping, their hot little breaths softly clogging the rooms down the hall.

Morgan’s mother rolled the jeans into a tight packet, then shoved them into her bedside drawer, readjusting a People magazine and a tube of Rolaids on top. “Do you know the last time I wore these?” Morgan nodded, though she didn’t know, and moved closer to the bed. “The day, I found out I was pregnant with you.” Her mother leaned closer, pulled Morgan to sit down, and whispered, “I can’t even say aloud the places I have stretch marks.” She gestured toward a place Morgan’s body, then her own, a body part that Morgan was uncomfortable acknowledging existed on her mother, or really, anyone.

Morgan followed her mother’s gaze to the ceiling. A crack ran from the overhead light to the corner, widening just slightly before it disappeared behind the vanity mirror. “Don’t get me wrong,” she said, “I love you, babies. But I don’t love this anymore. Who could?” She rolled her neck until it released a pop. She looked down at herself. “They’re everywhere.”

Morgan had once known her mother as a different sort of presence: the scent of soap and sweat above her own smaller body tucked into bed, a reliably eager face in the minivan window as she exited the elementary school, a warm mound to nestle against on the weekends, while her father made pancakes and hummed and whistled. Back then she had wished for a little brother like she’d wished for braces, to know what it was like to wear a cast, to grow breasts. The wishing, she learned, could be slick-sided and unpredictable. The braces cut her lips. The cast, while available to be signed, generating sympathy, and blue, her favorite color, had followed a badly broken arm bone, and now her right elbow had an ugly scar and a metal pin inside. Her breasts came in early and fast, and she was given not just a little brother, but twins, and a sister, and soon another sibling would arrive. Her mother, now pregnant for the fourth time was stretched out, pulled thin, and pushed inside of a thick-strapped bra that held her breasts close to her body. When she released the clasp, they fell out like undercooked eggs.

On a night some months ago after putting the twins to sleep, her mother slipped into the room Morgan shared with her sister April. She knelt beside Morgan’s bed and closed her eyes. April was a small face, shiny with snot. “Don’t you dare,” her mother said. “Don’t you let me hear you’re behind the school with some boy. Look at where we are now. Behind the school is where we got you.” Then she put a cool hand on Morgan’s forehead. She opened her eyes, patted April’s back and said, “My babies.”

***

There was a boy Morgan liked. It was impractical and perfect in a number of ways, all of which Morgan listed in her spiral notebook (Alex: TOTAL H-O-TT-I-E, hottie…hair, shaggy, dark brown / taller than me by a lot - over 6 feet!? / in hs / maybe too old? / super nice voice / has girlfriend :( / freckles, just nose / no sick face pubes / sooo hottt). She began the list on the tenth page so that the first page, and therefore, the notebook as a whole, appeared empty.

Alex would graduate high school before Morgan entered in the fall, and since forever, he’d been dating The Babysitter. Alex worked at the Food Lion where Morgan was required to accompany her mother and the twins and April to do the weekly shopping. They shopped early on Saturdays, when the store was nearly empty. Her mother fended off tantrums and re-deposited candy in the produce aisle; she wearily removed items from the shelves while Morgan followed the caravan, pushing the cart. Morgan was often tasked with retrieving a forgotten can or box, giving her a fleeting wonderful moment of solitude and order. She used these moments to scan the aisles for Alex, and when she saw him, she was unable to help herself from sweating around her hairline and cracking her knuckles, starting from the pinkies and working in. She sometimes returned to her mother with an incorrect brand, and was sent back.

Morgan imagined Alex and The Babysitter together and spent whole afternoons considering it was possible that she, Morgan, could come up in their casual conversation. Once, she had seen Alex and The Babysitter, intimately, together in her own house. In her own living room where her family watched movies, on the very couch where her parents sat them down for family sit-downs, on the cushions that the twins tossed to the floor to play lava islands—she had seen them. Dropped off late one night after band practice, when her mother and father were uncharacteristically and unexpectedly out to dinner, perhaps celebrating or ending this last interim between pregnancies, she had seen them. The TV was up a bit too loud, and she made it to the stairs unnoticed. From the highest step, she paused. Below, The Babysitter tugged Alex’s hair and he lifted his face from hers. A giggle. The Babysitter freed a chunk of her black hair that had become tangled between them. Her tongue on his neck. His hand lifting her shirt. Morgan saw the pale, taut skin of The Babysitter’s torso. The Babysitter said, “Wait, the other one will be home any minute,” but let his hand keep moving over her. Alex said something she couldn’t quite make out and The Babysitter rushed her face back to his and they resumed and Morgan ran to her room and shut the door fast, but without slamming. Slipped to the floor thinking me, I am the other one, feeling both invisible and young and horribly elated that she had existed in that space between their mouths in that small moment when their lips had parted.

The Babysitter, applied mascara to her top and bottom lashes. She drove a white punchbuggy and drank mochas and wore blue velvet pants and tank tops, even in winter. Whenever possible, but only for the briefest moments, Morgan would slip her own arms inside the Babysitter’s winter coat to feel the cool turquoise silk of the lining against her skin.

At night Morgan wrote letters to Alex about love and signed them ILY. She wrote about the way she felt when she considered the possibility that he could be thinking about her at the same exact moment that she was thinking of him. Like, what if they both looked at the kitchen clock at exactly 12:34. Wish you were here! She’d memorized his all caps handwriting from his nametag at the Food Lion where he was always friendly, saying Hi Morgan, Hi Mrs. Clemmens, waving at the twins and April as he bagged their items. So when he wrote back, she did it in his own hand. He responded by repeating what she had said to him, but sometimes adding his own twist. ILY COS UR NICR 2 ME THN NE1. WYWH! Alex wrote how he was always excited to see her come through the sliding doors. He wrote how he waited to catch a glimpse of her in between the neat rows of cereal and jams, pretended she was alone in the aisles.

Hi Alex! She wrote again.

I love you because you’re nicer to me than anyone ever has been or ever will be. She wrote it out, abandoned the abbreviations, because in high school, in real letters, she thought, it would be expected that you said exactly what you meant.

Morgan imagined she was The Babysitter and wrote other letters. These letters were about bodies – Morgan’s but not Morgan’s; Morgan’s if she was The Babysitter. And Alex’s. She imagined his eyelashes impossibly close to her own. She wrote penis, then scratched that out and wrote dick, then scratched that out and wrote thing. Would The Babysitter say thing?

A -

I want to touch your penis dick thing when you come over to the Clemmens' on Friday

- M.

She imagined Alex lying very close to her and then maybe on top of her. They would be moving and she couldn’t see when or how but they would have taken off their clothes.

How? He would stand her up, pull her close, and lift her shirt over her head but his shirt would be off.

How: He would come to her house and climb through her window, throw a rock (small) first to alert her that he was outside. She would open the window. There would be a convenient ladder. Before she knew it, they would both be smiling and laughing together and moaning to each other while they were kissing, but she couldn’t write this to him. They might do more than just kissing. It embarrassed her to think this way, and if written as herself, she didn’t want to read it, or acknowledge the thoughts. Instead she wrote: HI CAMMIE I WANT TO PUT MY HAND UP YOUR SHIRT ON THE CLEMMENS' COUCH I WANT TO PUT MY MOUTH ON YOUR MOUTH I AM GOING TO TOUCH YOUR BREAST TIT BOOB I AM PUTTING MY HANDS IN YOUR PANTS I AM GOING TO PUT MY FINGERS...she folded the paper, covering her Alex words with a new white surface and slid it up, looking again and again.

Even if she mimicked Alex’s writing it was still her.

It was easier to write the letters about love.

***

Morgan retrieved her mother’s jeans from the bedside drawer. She took them to the bathroom and locked the door, then struggled to yank the stiff denim over her hips. It was as if they’d never been washed. There was a small hole above the knee. She stretched out on the cool tile floor and cinched the waistband together. Her legs looked lean and tight in the mirror, but above the waistband, her flesh puffed out. When she unfastened the jeans, the button popped off and rolled under the counter.

The problem was: she’d never gone behind the school with a boy, but would she ever? The boys had mostly left her alone once the other girls started getting boobs, but before that, when she was in the only one in 4th and 5th grades wearing a cup-sized bra, they’d stare and point at where they thought her nipples might be, making wide circles with their thumbs and pointer fingers and sometimes tried to snap her bra straps. “Is your bra too tight?” They’d giggle—letting out these awful high-pitched, girlish sounds.

Embarrassing then, but if it happened now, she suspected she’d feel differently. She was unsure of how to attract that attention today. After the beginning of 7th grade, when most girls had at least a bra to stuff, and some of the ones that weren’t stuffing would let certain boys stick their hands under their shirts and down their pants—under their bra but always always over their panties, they said, which was maybe or maybe not the truth, Morgan faded into the background. Certain boys like Edward Mashburn, who Morgan barely knew, but who fingers were rumored to have visited those places all the girls denied, were prone to showing off. During CPR class, Edward Mashburn had, more than once, mounted his dummy and humped it up and down, even though it was just a head and a torso. He still passed because when it became time to press the dummy’s chest and breathe into its wide-open plastic mouth, he demonstrated perfect technique.

The problem was: she’d inserted a finger inside herself and repulsed by the foreign texture of her own interior had removed it quickly, sniffed it, and decided not to think about it or try it again for a year. So far she’d gotten five days, tops.

The problem was: Alex would be gone from high school by the time Morgan got there and Morgan wasn’t dumb, she wasn’t mental—she knew (except in those tiny euphoric moments reading Alex’s love letters) that he wasn’t going to choose her, but thinking about him filled her with a hopeful warm ache that started in her belly and moved outwards. She closed her eyes. It was difficult to feel this way and stare at herself in the mirror. She stood on her tiptoes and pressed her hips against the hard Formica of the bathroom sink. She gritted her teeth, back and forth, clenched her jaw. Sucked her breath in hard. But the fluttering and the clenching and the gripping of the corners of the sink counter and the saying of his name in her head (Alex Alex Alex Alex) had a secondary effect. Afterwards, alone, in the locked bathroom, with Alex miles away, Morgan would grow guilty and nervous, her unwanted sweating patterns blossoming. She’d gone too far in her thoughts. And if he could hear her, oh God, what if he could hear her!

The problem was: this was almost the same thing her mother had warned her against.

The problem was: if her mother’s teenage jeans didn’t fit her, hadn’t she’d already missed out on something?

***

At school, Morgan watched couples. Some approached each other between classes shyly, as if they shared a secret that could escape at any moment. Most greeted each other in the hallway, casually hugging as if the space between their bodies wasn’t a great unknown. Morgan needed to know what those couples did to make a bridge between themselves and walk right over.

Morgan read the walls in the Girls’ room and wondered about the Boys’. In the Girls’ she saw

AMY MAKER STOLE MY BF ← fuck her

SARA AND TARA BFF

LISA wuz hereeee

i <3 Edward

At home Morgan watched herself and her mother noticed. “Stop checking yourself out in the mirror,” her mother said, in between scolding April for putting a crayon down her pants or admiring the twins’ drawings. “Yes, I meant you, Morgan.” Morgan and her mother locked eyes in the hallway mirror. Her mother’s hand was pressed against the curve of her back and her belly jutted out like the back of a spoon.

At school, girls were slim. Their mid-driffs showed when they lifted their arms to retrieve books from their lockers or raised an arm to answer in class. Their pants sat low-slung on their hips as if placed over a rigid surface. Morgan’s own flesh felt constricted. She was always aware of her waistband.

At the dinner table, her mother caught her pulling and adjusting. “You’re not fat,” she said. “Now eat. Finish up.” Her mother never served herself a plate unless Morgan’s father was home, but instead plucked single noodles from the twins’ plates and squirreled them into her mouth. She picked from the remnants of the children’s plates before emptying them into the garbage disposal. Morgan’s mother always drank a glass of milk for the baby, she said, “I’ll have to stop when he comes. I’ll have to get it together.”

And the baby was coming soon. At her last doctor’s appointment, Morgan’s mother had been told to rest. She relied on Morgan more, sighing after each request which Morgan could not seem to complete correctly. Morgan tried, but could not fold the laundry or do the dishes to her mother’s liking. Her mother followed her with a fresh, dry cloth as Morgan dusted the living room shelves. “If I have to do it over, I’ll just do it,” she said, taking the Windex from Morgan and hooking it onto the waist of her maternity leggings. She jammed the extra dust rag under her bra strap to free her hands, and lugged the vacuum from the hall closet. “Morgan, a little help here?” The twins circled at their mother’s ankles, wrecking toy cars into the heavy plastic bottom of the vacuum as it whirred to life.

Morgan had begun to welcome the baby’s arrival. In the first weeks of the April’s life, the house was a mess of visitors and casseroles and phone calls. The dust went unnoticed. Dishes unwashed or miraculously stacked on the counter to dry as soon as they’d been used.

At April’s birth, Morgan had been amazed by her sister’s fine slick hair that seemed as though it was painted onto her scalp. Her mother invited her to sit close in the bed with them and hummed softly and they all three fell asleep until the twins barged in with their father, ready to meet the baby and take them all home. The hospital had convex, triangular mirrors high in the corners of its hallways. Watching her reflection as she pushed the wheelchair containing her mother and April toward the elevator, Morgan had disappeared momentarily in the green and pastel blue of the maternity ward before emerging in front of the elevator and later the parking lot, the minivan, her house which now belonged to yet another person.

At school, Morgan was surrounded by a different kind of chaos, but there, she felt ready for action, and she took inventory of the boys in her own class.

If Edward Mashburn asked her out, would she say yes?

If Gerald Altman, who wore oversize shirts and white leather tennis sneakers even though he did not play tennis, was to ask her out, would she say yes?

If Jonathan Worthman, were to tap her arm and tug her behind the gym where kids made out, would she go?

If Richard...

After band practice Morgan snuck into the Boys’ room. She walked by the urinals and held her nose.

CLAIRE WASHINGTON EATS PUSS

AMY MAKER SUX balllllz

LISA GERALD will give YOU head

Morgan reached into her bag and found a suitable pen. She made an addition.

MORGAN CLEMMENS WILL GO WITH YOU

She paused, added,

BEHIND THE SCHOOL.

***

Morgan’s mother shifted the minivan into park. “Give the door another good slam,” she shouted as Morgan jumped out. Ordered to stay off her feet as much as possible, and with much sighing and instruction she’s give Morgan an exact number of crisp bills and a long grocery list.

Inside Morgan added cantaloupes to the cart, a ten pound sack of potatoes that weighed almost as much as April. She chose cereal in bags from the bottom shelf. She looked from the list to the shelves to the check-out lanes to t-shaped fluorescent aisles, opening to the refrigerated dairy section at the far end of the store; she was looking for Alex. Morgan maneuvered her cart across the sprawl of the store. She hummed along to the song coming through the speakers, then stopped herself. It wasn’t a popular song. She verified the dates on two gallons of milk—one whole, one skim—then chose two from the back, the newest coldest ones. Her mother had warned her that milk, so expensive anyway, was stocked from the back, and even in the store, spoiled quickly. She chose spreadable butter made with yogurt to lower cholesterol. Eggs—the job was to make sure they were not cracked, and then, there was a soft bump.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man said. He bumped her cart again deliberately, before Morgan had time to nod or say that’s okay, no problem. “Baby, I’m so sorry.” He ducked his head toward his shoulder and smiled.

Morgan said it anyway, “That’s okay. No problem.” The man had brown hair that flopped over one eye. The top, sun-kissed. Scruffy, longer than how the boys wore theirs at school. Once, Morgan had overheard her mother remark that men with long hair are all the worse because they have hair that any woman would envy. His face was clean shaven. His chin darkened in the middle by a dimple. Morgan pushed her cart, tweaking the wheels a bit to get past him.

“Wait.” He jogged to catch up. Morgan turned. “That’s a lot of groceries. Who’ya shopping for?”

“My m – my family.” Morgan reached for a bag of tortilla chips. Family sounded better than Mom, she decided.

“Here, let me.” Morgan thanked him for handing her the bag. Alex might notice her talking to this man. He was a man, too, not a boy. His face was smooth and unwrinkled but Morgan could tell he was much older than she. He looked like the kind of guy on the magazines in the checkout. Tan and casual. Straight white teeth. Like he was leaning against an invisible wall, his upper body slouched and his lower solid, erect. How was he doing that? Morgan started to crack her knuckles. Stopped. He had muscles that filled out the sleeves of his polo shirt. Made them tight even.

“What were you just thinking about?” he asked.

“Nothing. I just, what I need to get. That I need to get going. Grocery shopping, you know.” His shirt was unbuttoned to the third button. Where the fabric split, a nest of curly hair gathered at the hollow of his chest, and Morgan tried not to stare. He dipped his head again to catch her eye. She lowered hers. A mistake. His jeans were tight against the thighs, faded, worn at the knees with a hole just above the left. There was a bulge where Morgan tried not to rest her eyes, and one shoe was untied. The lace flopped, edged toward the other shoe.

“Your shoe is untied,” Morgan said. “You might trip.”

“I’ll take the risk.” He scuffed one shoe with the other. The hems of his jeans were frayed. “Want to know why I came to talk to you?”

“Okay.”

“I noticed you from over there.” He pointed. Morgan looked up, followed his finger toward the checkout lanes where she saw Alex tying on a red Food Lion apron. Alex nodded. At her? Her hand, almost beyond her control, flew up. Childishly, instinctually, gave a flat-fingered wrist-powered wave.

“I’m just digging the way your eyes match your shirt.” He reached for the sleeve of her t-shirt and pulled it just slightly away from her skin. She felt his fingers and the muscles in her belly tightened. The hopeful warmth, like tentacles, stretched from her belly button wide out in both directions. It spread toward her chest and lower, into her underpants.

“It’s like you were calling to me, Baby Blues. From way over there,” he said, his voice lower, almost a whisper. Morgan worried where else the man’s arm might go. That he might put it around her shoulders. She’d never done that before. Never hugged anyone except her father. “That’s what I’m gonna call you.” He kept speaking. Were his teeth not so white and straight, Morgan wondered? And his hair, where it split at the crown, not sun-kissed but thin, placed carefully and disguising a bald spot.

“It’s blue,” she said. “My shirt.” His fingers were still holding the hem of her sleeve.

“Do you remember my name?” The man asked.

“I don’t,...I don’t think you told me.”

“Of course I did.”

The frozen vegetables in Morgan’s cart were limp and wet. “I need those.” She pointed at a bag of chips.

“Sure, Sugar.” The man reached for them, leaned close and dropped them in her cart next to the identical bag she had already requested. “Do you like those?” Morgan nodded. “I think you’re a pretty little thing, do you like that?”

Morgan didn’t know if she liked it. “I don’t know," she said. She tried to look past him, to see what was happening beyond this moment, but there was nothing. Just his polo shirt. His biceps. The jeans and his chest. The man tugged on her sleeve. Morgan lost her balance, just a little, and fell half against her cart and half against the man. He put one arm around her body, breathing out heavily. It was not a sigh like her mother’s. Morgan felt his palm against her clothed breasts. The palm drew across her chest, pressing into her.

“There you go,” he said, righting himself and her. He exhaled again. His lower lip slightly looser than the top. “All better now. When I see you around I’m gonna call you Baby Blues.” Morgan didn’t move. “Your things are melting now, look.” He pointed at her cart as he walked backwards, waving and mouthing goodbye. “See you around,” he said, his mouth forming a kiss shape.

“Bye,” Morgan’s lips said, a nearly silent word like a tiny bubble, popped.

The Food Lion was brightly lit. The electric doors slid opened and closed. Customers circulated. An elderly woman squeezed a tomato, made a soft, disgruntled noise and replaced it on the display. A grape found its way into a child’s hand and soon, his mouth. Morgan’s mouth was metallic. She pushed her cart fast to the checkout lane, not caring that she’d missed several items on her list.

The minivan honked into the parking lot as Morgan exited the store. She threw the bags in the trunk and jumped into the front seat. In the back seat, the twins dug their fingernails into each other’s thighs, provoking shrill, identical squeals. The twins chanted ice cream ice cream ice cream close to April’s face until she joined them.

Morgan felt her body as heat and noise, a build-up, pressure behind her ears. At home, as her Mother shifted the minivan into park, Morgan lifted her head from between her knees and ran into the house. She could hear her mother even after she stopped calling her name. Her voice slipped through cracks in the walls. She offered April something to eat. She asked the twins to hold out their sticky hands to be wiped. Her mother laughed.

Behind the locked bathroom door, Morgan lifted up her shirt and pulled down the cup of her bra. This is how it feels to be wanted. The thought of the man’s hand pulling her shirt away from her skin. She put hand over her breast in the mirror. Tit, she thought. Don’t blush. That’s what it is. She touched the skin around her nipple and watched herself do it. Her hands looked different, removed from her body: spidery and grown up. She moved a hand inside her underwear. In her letters she hadn’t much imagined the specifics of Alex’s body, the flesh and its arrangement under his clothes, but instead the feeling he or she might have. A dick. She thought, cupping her fist in front. She moved one finger forward then another. Rearranged them. Made eye contact with her reflection.

Morgan removed her hand from her underwear. She stretched the skin of her belly button until it squinted back at her reflection. In the hallway, she heard the heavy steps of her mother approach and recede. Her mother, all those years back, unfastening stiff jeans behind the school. That was what it was to be wanted. Morgan stretched her skin further until it hurt, turned red. When she lifted her hand, angry fingerprints marked either side. Morgan pinched her flesh just below her bra strap. Again. She pinched her breasts, her cheeks, her nipples. Her hands became Alex’s hands. Her body was The Babysitter’s, was her mother’s, was her own, was a vessel wanting. Flesh was flesh. Warmth blooming. This is what it was to be wanted. Her flesh responded. That is what she knew now.