I’ve been talking to myself since I can remember. The words come out like a sneeze, and the relief I feel, like the aftermath of a sneeze. If I don’t say these things to myself, I might say them to other people. One place that’s good for getting it out is in the hall closet. I whisper into my father’s garment bags. Pocket square. Nonsense that’s always bubbling on the surface, needing a voice. A flurry of blinks or throat clearings can place that impulse up on a shelf next to my mother’s hat box, but I’ll have to take it down again before long. The closet fills with forestalled words, and eventually I open the door and everything comes tumbling down, down.
I can whisper sometimes. In my doctor’s waiting room last Wednesday, I hugged my knees to my chest and whispered into the gap between them, and when I looked up, my neighbor, an older boy who’s a bagger at Schnuck’s, was staring at me. Cotton swabs. He was looking at me in three different ways: like I’m weird, like I’m a girl, and like he’s surprised that there can be a convergence of those two identities.
I’ve been getting attention from boys and men lately because my body looks like something that should be touched. I like that legs connect to protect what’s private, how skirts are lampshades that dim but can’t cover.
My mother says that the kids at school aren’t nice, so she keeps me home. I tell her they are the same ones that go to church, but she says people behave differently in different places. Just like I do.
My father left us when I was a kid. I remember that he wore suits, but maybe that’s only because I can see them through the cellophane in the hall closet. He left his aftershave and my mother keeps it on her vanity next to perfume bottles and wrinkle lotions. Sometimes I spray it to pretend to be close enough to smell him: clean, threatening.
Yesterday, I was at Schnuck’s picking out mushrooms so my mother could make cream of mushroom soup from a recipe in The Art of French Cooking. I dropped the carton, and it bounced away. The bagger-neighbor bent down to pick it up, handed it to me and asked if I was okay. I smiled without blinking and said yes. I took the carton from his hands. That was nice.
My mom wandered over, shopping basket hooked under her arm, and said that we already had the mushrooms, we just needed the cream. I blinked several times and hissed attaché case. He said I don’t think we have those.
Tonight, a light shines into my window. I blink and blink and whisper quarter-round into my pillow and feel the warm pocket my breath has created against my cheek. I allow myself reckless hope: that those lights are from my father’s car. I used to think that was how he would come back, as headlights sweeping past and into our driveway one night.
But these lights are stationary, coming from our neighbor’s driveway. I hide in the bushes in our side yard to investigate. The bagger’s father is sitting in the middle of his driveway in a folding lawn chair. A projector propped on a TV dinner table shines onto the garage door.
He wears headphones. It reminds me of seeing Casper at the drive-in, how my mom had to tune to a certain radio station to receive the sound. It made it seem like the movie existed only in our car.
Through the leaves, I see what he’s projecting. A woman sits on a couch with her legs splayed. A man watches her through her front window. She doesn’t see him, but seems to know that she has an audience. She’s using her fingers to spread herself. She’s smiling like she’s found something.
I stay in the bushes a little longer, feeling like both the woman being watched and the man at the window. Finally, I creep back to my bedroom. I blink over and over—the still-glowing light like a warmth on my skin—succumb and mouth shoe horn.
Tomorrow night I will sit on the front porch steps while my mother flutes the mushroom caps in the kitchen until they look like the onion domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. The bagger will walk past my stoop, his work apron draped over his shoulder. He’ll look up and I’ll motion for him to come over. I’ll move my legs apart to draw the curtain of my skirt and slide down my underwear. We’ll pause there, neither of us knowing what’s next, until he remembers to avert his eyes and walk into his house. If there are other outcomes, I cannot fathom them. I’ll wait serenely until I’m called in for dinnertime.