Bargains With God: A Bathroom Reader

The following is an excerpt from a book-length piece. If you’re an agent interested in representing Chapin or a publisher looking to solicit this manuscript, please contact them here

1.

This bathroom could not have been a real bathroom.

And considering Libby spent the last (and only) twenty five years of her life drowning in a sea of water and vomit on bathroom floors across the world, one would assume she’d be somewhat of an authority as to what a real bathroom was.

Every house on the market boasted two and a half bathrooms, or some number written along that template. Every one of the listings made sure you were aware that one of those bathrooms was only half a bathroom, not a completed and full one. When she and Ember first started looking at Real Adult Homes together, Libby spent seventeen minutes staring at Zillow’s webpage with her brow furrowed so tightly that she had to end that day with two Ibuprofen and a ridiculously persistent tension headache. After swallowing those Ibuprofen and flopping onto her bed with an utterly clichéd wet washcloth pressed over her mascara, she wondered why she hadn’t just Googled what a half bathroom was. She thought that she’d always be a foreigner whereas American colloquialisms were concerned, and maybe foreigners never got used to Googling. Reluctantly forced into world-wide nomadhood before she knew that the word “colloquial” even existed, Libby had no idea what “half a bathroom” meant. Did that mean the construction workers just kind of got tired with their jobs and their lives and meandered off into the wilderness of the city where they worked to chug from their tall AriZona lemonade cans and get some of the muck wiped off their dirt-streaked brows with their even dirtier bandanas after only putting a mirror, half a cabinet, and a sump pump into what was supposed to be a full bathroom? How did this phenomenon keep taking place, to the point where every house and apartment in Oahu had a glorious half bathroom in it? Wouldn’t their menacing construction company overlord notice that they kept hiring lazy fucks who couldn’t lug a toilet to the bathroom they were being paid to complete? Why did they only get tired once they hit the building stage of the final bathroom? Libby thought she’d prefer to have a half living room, or a half patio. At least you could complete your half living room yourself. No light fixture in your newly renovated half living room? No problem. Head over to your local WalMart and get a fucking lamp for yourself. All you’d have to do is plug it in. No construction company necessary. Having just a mirror, half a cabinet, and a sump pump would only render the entire room useless.

As an Assumed Authority on bathrooms, Libby preferred them to be useful.

After reading the fifty-second Zillow posting priding itself on its majestic lack of full bathrooms, she finally broke down and asked Google Assistant what, honestly, a half bathroom was. Google Assistant responded by telling Libby that a “half bath” was a bathroom in a private home which contained a toilet and sink, but no tub or shower. Libby then asked Google Assistant why on earth they called it a half bath when there was no way you could take an actual bath in such a joke of a room, to which Google Assistant responded, in her annoyingly chipper voice, “If you just said something, I didn’t hear what it was.”

At which point Libby gave up.

But this bathroom in a house tucked away behind all the mountains in Kailua doesn’t have a half bath the way Google Assistant thought half baths should be. This one had an actual bathtub in it. There was no toilet and there was no sink. The tub, slightly bigger than any of the tubs Libby had seen throughout her whole life, was tucked into a corner with floor-to-ceiling, adjacent windows, and as Libby stood in the bathroom, grumbling about the weirdness of half bathrooms to Ember while hoping the stout real estate agent (with a button on his pinstriped grey shirt threatening to pop in such a ferocious manner that Libby could almost see the button raising its fists and stomping—if buttons had fists, which she had to remind herself that they most certainly did not) behind them wouldn’t hear, she counted the tiles on the triangular counter/oversize windowsill filling the space between the straight walls and the oval tub. If she squeezed, layered, and measured well, she could probbbbaably fit all of their plants into the Half-Hearted Bathroom, just on that counter.

Ember tucked some hair behind his ear and motioned to Stout Real Estate Agent to come with him. Libby smiled as they leave together. The ritual of Ember leaving the bathroom with whichever  agent was showing them the current house when Libby started measuring spaces for plants was a belovedly warm phrase in a love language Libby barely felt lucky enough to speak. Because Libby, no matter her level of actual authority on bathrooms, knew one thing for absolute certain: spending twenty five years drowning on bathroom floors across the world made it utterly imperative that the bathrooms in any Real Adult Home where Libby was to park herself should be safe, safe as a teddy bear tucked under a blanket in a squashy armchair. Ember, who spent enough time with Libby talking about life and/or trauma while sitting under a shower stream in two of Libby’s bathrooms, knew this, knew Libby, and always left when she started looking to fit their plants into the bathroom.  

There were some things you just need to learn alone.

The door clicked shut and Libby calmed her fluttering heart to look about the place.

The tiles in the Half-Hearted Bathroom weren’t baby pink, which they unnervingly felt like they should/would have to be. They were a pale minty green, a clean shade which made Libby think of tulip leaves and, well, mint. Each tile was big enough for Libby to place her entire fist over its entirety and not cover any of the other tiles surrounding it. The Half-Hearted Bathroom didn’t have a toilet to check if there were any vomit splashes littering the underside of the seat. There were no purple, hair-encrusted razors littering the side of the tub. There were no leaking bottles of Nair in the room, leaning against the corner where the creamy white bathtub met the springly green floor. There were no signs of life other than Libby looking around a room which could have been anyone’s but which Libby wanted, slowly but definitively, to be hers.

Reluctantly, the way twilight falls on the edges of a summer day spent on a lake, Libby left the bathroom and walked down the hallway, listening to the way Ember’s and Stout Real Estate Agent’s voices floated up to meet her ears from between the slats of the white banister. Light from a broad panel of windows sparkled across the length of the landing, and their voices—mixed with gentle, post-rain sunshine—had Libby feeling a little dazed and a little light, high on atmosphere versus her usual buzz-inducing cocktail of sugar with some sugar. She pushed her hair and the sound of their conversation about how old the golden floor slats were to the side, and continued to tiptoe around the upstairs of the house. There were three bedrooms up there. Those were where their guests would stay, and where they’d snuggle together at the end of every day. They’d turn one of the rooms into a library, and that’s where they’d stand, arguing about the virtues of H.G. Wells and why, to Ember, C.S. Lewis would always be better. There was the hallway where they’d chase each other while shrieking and shooting Nerf guns to conquer the other’s hand into doing laundry. There was the stairwell where she’d dump her bag and he’d put it away, without fail, without even noticing, every time she came back into the house after work.

There was the yard where they’d snuggle in their hammock.

There was the kitchen they’d cook in, with Ember set hard into Focus Mode.

This was the house they would love in.

This was the house where they would do every joyous, lifelike thing they had always done.

She floated through the rest of the house like her own shadow, all while searching around the house for a forgotten pen to poke Ember with until he agreed that they should definitely use that pen to sign the lease. She paused when she passed outside the Half-Hearted Bathroom, looking at the door hard for a second.

She opened the door quickly, abruptly, and they were all there. Her stomach didn’t even clench, like it always had when she faced any of them before. Some of them looked as horrifying as you’d expect any terrible person would look, and Libby had always tried to write off her clenched stomach as a response to their dastardly faces. But that day, her stomach would not clench.

She blinked at all of them, slowly and dazedly, wondering why #1 looked so old, older than she thought he’d ever get. He was stuck in her brain as a nine year old, always always a nine year old, but here he was, probably about twenty seven but with eyes as old as a tortoise. #2 looked like she wanted to cry – none of that signature wide smile thing where you could see all her teeth, most of her gums, and no happiness whatsoever. #3 looked as sullen as ever, petulant about heels or bad hookah flavors or parking. And #4’s hair got all the more greasy. Like he dragged his hair in butter, and then went for a long run in the sun. But worse.

All worse.

After the sunlight-induced uncertainty passed, she walked toward them; still uncertain, but not in a dazed way. They stayed in the same place as she took one step forward, and that stillness gave her the courage to move forward. As still as they were, their bodies got smaller and more translucent the closer she got. She lifted a hand, tilting it from side to side slowly, and wondered why #3 cringed and backed away into #2 at the sight of her hand. #2 shrunk away from him, too, and as all of them pulled away from where she stood like an arbor of palm trees pulled by a forceful wind, Libby could see an unexpectedly giant chasm of empty space which four pathetic people, finally too scared to face her head on, had left in their wake as they backed away from her.

This chasm was a place deeper than her ever/over-loving heart, and peering precariously into the bottom of the chasm in the Half-Hearted Bathroom, Libby wondered what she’d find if she fell into the bottom of it.

Years of therapy taught her to check and assess, so instead of climbing over the edge and freefalling into the blackness that made up a chasm which she knew, deep down, was filled with twenty five years of rotting food, she backed up a bit until her butt smacked into the closed door of the Half-Hearted Bathroom. She shut her eyes and took a graceless, unsteady leap, her feet both pawing at the ground and pushing off it, like a colt who just learned it could leap but didn’t necessarily know if leaping was a good idea. She teetered over the empty space of the chasm for a second, and wondered, her stomach finally clawing its way into the dryness of her throat, if she spent over a decade and a lottery winning’s worth of money on therapy only to fall into a chasm of rotting food and die by suffocating on her own vomit.

But her feet found ground on the other side and she landed more steadily than she thought she could or thought she deserved to, and when she came to stand right in front of them, she looked down first at #3. When she knew him, he had spent so much time being angry that she liked wearing heels. He spent so much time just being angry that they were the same height even with no volume-adding shoes. But he never spent any of his time cowering in front of her, and that’s what he was doing in the Half-Hearted Bathroom. She looked at the plush top of his hair, hair she used to dream/scream about, but this time, all she saw was a snowball’s worth of dandruff.

Libby turned away from #3 and looked at the mirror, but all she could see, in a mirror that was placed in the upper middle part of the wall, was her torso. And while comparing their sizes to hers in the mirror, she realized that right now, they were not any shorter or weaker than they were before, than they were when their lives had connected with Libby’s.

She was just bigger than she used to be.

She looked away from the mirror and turned to face the tub again. She wondered if she could fit all her bedding, pillows, and assorted teddy bears into the Half-Hearted Bathroom’s tub, and stay there for a while. But she stopped herself from running to the car to grab a couple of them and bring them upstairs to check if they’d fit. She looked away from the bathtub, looked past the shorter, weaker people, and walks across the space where the chasm had once spread across the floor of the Half-Hearted Bathroom. She shut the door with a quiet click.

And she didn’t open it up again.

2.

Years before Libby even knew that Oahu was an island in Hawaii and that Hawaii was part of the United States and the United States was the country where she lived and countries where things that existed, she began to notice the scent of bathrooms. Some smelled like burning fish and tea kettles. Some smelled like broken glass, which was definitely a smell to the little version of Libby. Usually there was some evasive Febreze-like odor masking the inevitable bathroom smell. Sometimes the evasive Febreze-like odor was a little too evasive for Libby’s nose’s liking. That really only happened in public bathrooms, and she tended to avoid those.

They didn’t feel intimate to her.

Bathrooms, to most, are not supposed to be places of intimacy. They’re places to drop the kids off at the pool, or to get off in the shower, or to use the mirror to apply their makeup. To Libby, they were intimate.

She sometimes thought that this was because she was born in a bathtub. She usually doubted that this was the true cause of her love affair with the water closet; birth seemed violent and eruptive, the explosion of life before life ending in the abrupt slicing of the umbilical cord, and how would an act as treacherous as that lead Libby to the loves of her life? Libby decided, at some point, that her fragmented memories of that moment in her life had been fabricated using the cloth of her mother’s stories of Libby’s birth. Her mother described the newborn version of Libby (to any ear that turned her way, Libby felt sometimes) as a peach: pink and fuzzy, she rolled her way out of the birthing canal into a tub muddied by placenta, blinked at the nurse who had immediately begun to swaddle her, and drifted off to sleep.

“She didn’t even cry,” her mother insists, year after year, even as her audience’s listening ears grow tired of excessive details about baby peach fuzz. “My Libby never even cried.”

Every time her mother brought up her birth, Libby insistently swore two things to herself:

  1. She would never have kids. If the maternal instinct happens to strike her in the very far off future, she would adopt a twenty seven year old with his own apartment, and have him over sometimes for Sunday dinner. She would not push a baby out of her own vagina and end up stuck in that moment for years to come, as her mother seemed to be.
  2. Her birth was not the actual cause of her obsession with the loo.

Life didn’t seem to have started at that moment.

She didn’t want to think of her life as defined by the narrative most use: that life begins at birth.

If life began at birth, Libby spent the first seven years of her life not remembering any of it, and that seemed like a sadly pathetic way to live out seven years. Choosing the narrative (which she made up) that states that life actually begins the first time something truly terrible happens to you made her feel younger. More purposeful.

And how could she know if something truly terrible had happened if it all passed in a quiet blur?

Life actually began on that bathroom floor.

She is seven years old.

It is always cold in that bathroom. Always. Sometimes the window is open and sometimes it is not, but regardless of the window’s state of accessibility or the weather outside, that bathroom is cold. Libby thinks it’s because of the tiles. They are pink. Baby pink. As pink as her mother claims she was when she was born, but smooth. Libby was not smooth when she was born. She is not smooth now. Mommy reminds her of that frustrating, hairy fact often enough.

The tiles hold cold close to them the way brain cells shrink into your skull when you’ve taken too much of your Slurpee into your mouth on July 11th every year, because that is the only day Libby and her siblings are allowed to have Slurpees. 7/11. Free Slurpee Day. Libby wonders sometimes whether anyone actually pay for Slurpees. Mommy does not. Mommy doesn’t buy much.

The tiles in that bathroom make her toes curl up like the potato bugs that have died, their bodies snuggled close to themselves, on the carpet in the corner of her second grade classroom. She always wears socks when she has to stand in that bathroom to brush her hair, because if she doesn’t, her feet turn into pruny dead potato bugs.

The biggest issue with the baby pink tiles in that bathroom is that Libby spends a lot of time brushing her hair every night. Ma from the Little House books says that if you brush your hair one hundred strokes a day, it will grow long and shiny. Laura from Little House brushes her hair dutifully, and Libby wants to have long hair like Laura. She wants to be dutiful like Laura. She wants to be Laura.

So she brushes her hair.

#1 comes in when Libby is brushing her hair on an evening which might be colder than usual, but also might not be. It’s just some generic evening. Mommy is tutoring people at the school and Abba is learning, and #1 is old enough to babysit Libby and the rest of their siblings, even though he’s only a little bit older than Libby is. He stands and watches her brush her hair while she hops up and down, alternating feet, so they don’t get cold.

He doesn’t ever get cold.

#1 never says much. He is the silent, slightly pudgy, very cantankerous older brother who can get into trouble without saying a word, and Libby is the rambunctious child who cannot stop talking and gets into trouble for the amount of words which can pour from her mouth. And she is talking. Word are falling. And she doesn’t want to know what he won’t say back.

But as much as she doesn’t want to hear him say anything, #1 begins to talk over Libby. He tells her to shut up, even though Mommy doesn’t let them say that phrase – says it’s not gentle, but since when is Mommy ever gentle? #1 never listens. Libby doesn’t listen. He calls her a brat. He calls her a lot of things. His words are scary. They roar from his lips, his head only about two inches taller than hers, thud into her eardrums and bounce off the baby pink tiles and echo back into her eardrums and she cannot hear. She doesn’t want to hear. She drops the hairbrush on the 74th stroke and covers her ears, pressing her fingers into her earlobes, singing in her head, “Na na na na na I can’t heeeeear you.”

But she can still see him.

He moves up behind her.

He stands behind her.

He may only be two inches taller, but he is so much stronger, and he pushes her body until it is pressed against the hardness of the pink tile counter. She is not a seven-year-old child anymore, but a fish out of water that can’t even gasp for air because it is so far away from its life force that it knows it will never get back home.

He is not a nine year old anymore, he’s a dark and angry shadow that she can’t move away from, can’t walk into the light and watch him disappear. She can’t dive into an ocean and see him melt into the other shadows. He is just a shadow that will not let her go.

The fingernails which he can never get clean pull at her scales. They flake off and land on the pink tiles. And she has no air. She has no legs. She cannot stand. She does not stand.

#1 covers her gill.

Fish flop when they are out of water. But her fish body is so close to death, or something similar, that it doesn’t even squirm when he pulls her gill open. And when he shoves something inside of it, she cannot close her eyes. Fish do not have eyelids. Her eyes bulge further with every slamming motion inside the torn open gill. And when #1 is done with her, she doesn’t know if she is dead or alive or a fish or a child. All she knows is that she is lying flat on the tiles and the tiles are cold, but she is not cold.

She is nothing. She is quiet. She is numb. She is nothing.

He digs into the pocket of the pants he has discarded onto the pink tile and toss eight dollar bills onto Libby’s stomach. The dollar bills stick to her wet and creamy fish skin.

“Tell anyone, and I’ll take them away,” he says, gesturing to the dollar bills which seem to have replaced the torn off scales on her fishchild body.

She doesn’t blink.

“Get up.”

She doesn’t move.

“Clean up!”

She doesn’t stand.

#1 rolls his eyes, kicks her, and walks out of the room. Heads toward the kitchen.

She doesn’t breathe.

She can hear him moving heavily about the kitchen, slamming cabinets, filling the tea kettle with water, clattering it onto the stove. Eventually the kettle bleeds its screaming wail into the air which she still cannot take in, and she waits for the smell of the chamomile tea he drinks to pour into that bathroom. But it never comes.

He makes his way back into that bathroom and kicks her scales aside. They melt into a bloody, wet pile by the wall, and they’re useless. She wants to erase her own body back into them, hide behind the protection they’re supposed to offer her body, but he has already begun to pour the water from the kettle onto her gill, her torn open, gaping wound of a gill.

Her body is only a fish skeleton now. Anything else that was once a part of her body has melted itself free. She is a pile of bones strung together with deadened nerves that do not feel, and under the boiling water they mutely soften into each other till she has no shape or body or soul. There is no pain. There is no heat. She is a pile of fish viscera on that pink tiled bathroom floor.

And melted clumps of torn up viscera have no discernable openings or closings.

Therefore, you cannot stick anything into them.

3.

Life goes on. Even if you are a dead fish with bones fused into the pink tiles of that bathroom floor, life goes on. You pick yourself up. You mop up water and blood with the scales you tossed into the corner and you drop them, wet and leaking, into the rusted aluminum laundry chute. You move on.

But if you’re Libby, in this instance, you keep your underwear on, because if you’re Libby, you know that the laundry won’t be done for a good few days. And if you’re Libby, you can feel something moist dripping onto said underwear. And if you’re Libby, you’ll check to see what’s going on before going to bed. And if you’re Libby, you’ll stand in the one patch of light in your bedroom and you’ll see that it’s blood.

She thinks about blood for a long time after she’s climbed into bed. When she gets up for the fourth time that night to check on the blood flow, she realizes it’s kind of darker than ordinary blood. It has a blackish tinge to it, she notes, checking the rest of the faded, green fabric of her underwear. Libby does not know how or why blood could turn a different color than the rest of the blood flowing through her, if it all comes from the same source. She climbs back into the top bunk of the bed shoved haphazardly into a corner of her bedroom, and she thinks about more about blood.

Blood is a cycle, she realizes at about 4:30 AM. Blood flows in a continuous circle around her body, pushing smoothly through blood tunnels every time her heart beats. It passes all the way around her body and inundates her heart with its ever-present process. She pushes her blanket off her chest and taps her fingers over where she thinks her heart is.

Libby, a second grade student in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish private school, has not yet taken any science classes. Her body and the way it functions have never been explained to her. As she rubs her fingertips over her heart, stretching the skin above it and then pulling it taut, she wonders why her heart is placed on the left side.

This is all she really knows about the inside of her body: there is a heart somewhere in there. It lies on the left side of her chest, for whatever reason. At the beginning of every school day, she and her classmates stand facing the east wall of her classroom, and they pray. The third prayer out of the eighteen they recite involves a hand motion. “Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned.” (Make a fist with your right hand and bring it down, hard, under your collarbone on the left-hand side as you say the word “sinned.”) “Pardon us, our King, for we have transgressed.” (Lift your fist from where you left it, resting on your chest, and slam your knuckles back into your heart as you recite the word “transgressed.”) “Because you are the forgiver and pardoner. Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, who pardons abundantly.” (Take your fist from your chest and wipe the three tears you’ve managed to squeeze out in order to impress the other seven year olds at how holy and contrite you are, and turn the page so you can continue on to pray for crops in Israel.)

The year before, when Libby was in first grade and had read Shmoneh Esrei for the first time, she asked the teacher to try and explain the painful hand gesture. “It’s to pump blood from your heart so you can stay alive,” her teacher responded thoughtfully, sitting on the edge of her desk and crossing her ankles. “So when you bring your hand down on the left side of your chest, over where your heart is, you’re using your hand to push blood through your body. We do that during this specific prayer because we’re reminding ourselves that we only exist to repent for our sins. Repenting will keep your blood flowing. Repenting will keep us alive.”

As Libby tries to feel her heartbeat in the dark of her bedroom, she wonders what she needs to repent for.

She wonders how much of it is her fault.

She wonders why she is still alive.

She falls asleep with her fingers still searching on her skin for a heartbeat she cannot feel.

When Libby wakes up later that morning, there is nothing.

There is no fish, or pain, or memory.  

She tucks the two hours of sleep she got that night in her back pocket, feeling as if the two hours of sleep were really eight complete hours of beauty rest.

She doesn’t realize she only got two hours of sleep last night.

She doesn’t know why she is up so early.

She removes herself from the cocoon made from her blanket, a blanket which has sewn itself to her skin while she slept. The blanket is made entirely from synthetic materials, but Libby doesn’t know what synthetic materials are. She does know, however, that when she wakes up from two thoughtless hours of sleep, the blanket sticks to her. She is sweaty and her body is warm, and she has to peel her body away from the suffocating storm cloud which is her blanket.

When she finally manages to detach herself, she stumbles down the golden brown, wooden ladder from her bunk to the ground and groggily makes her way to that bathroom. She pulls the toilet seat down and sits on it, elbows resting on her knees and face deposited into her palms. She stays there, eyes glazing over at the mildewed plastic-y shower curtain, for a few minutes before lifting her head from her hands and glancing up and around that bathroom, slowly and dazedly, as if the lights (in the room or in her mind) had suddenly been turned on.

But the lights in that bathroom had been on the entire time she had been sitting there, yet Libby doesn’t recognize that bathroom. She doesn’t know where she is, even though that bathroom is adjacent to the bedroom she has slept in for the entirety of her life. She sniffs at the chilly air, wondering why it smells like towels which had been deposited into a dark corner while they were still wet. She scrunches up her nose and looks downward.

She furrows her brow as she realizes she has been sitting on a toilet. She slowly lifts her butt off the toilet and feels pressure settling in her abdomen. She sits back down, tries to pee, tries to figure out why she cannot remember walking into that bathroom, and as the pressure behind her bladder builds and presses against the front of her body, she notices a jarringly obvious splotch of blackish-red on the green cotton stretched between her legs.

She pulls the underwear off and looks at it, leaning forward slightly on the seat. The dark red spot is dry. It’s roughly the size of the biggest chocolate coin in the packages the other kids get on Chanukah. It’s red, but too dark to be blood. It is too dark.

She gets up off the toilet and flushes, not noticing that she still hasn’t peed. She pulls her pajama pants up over her legs, not realizing that the stiff, scratchy cotton is only abrasive against her body because she hasn’t put on her underwear. She leaves the bathroom and floats to the kitchen, feeling more like a ghost than any kind of child.

Mommy is standing by the sink in the kitchen, rubbing a soapy sponge over the tea kettle. Libby looks at the kettle for a long, blank moment, then lifts up the stained underwear and holds it out to Mommy.

Libby does not say a word.

Mommy turns around, eventually, and sees Libby’s underwear before she sees Libby. Her eyes widen when she processes the dark red splattered across the cloth.

She drops the tea kettle into the sink and squeals, a wordless squeal which makes Libby recoil a little bit, fingers tightening around the band of the underwear. But Mommy grabs the other end with soapy hands.

“Oh my goodness!” She squeaks, finally managing to remove the underwear from Libby’s hands. She looks closer at it and keeps making wordless sounds of exclamation. Libby tilts her head to the side and wonders why blood is cause for celebration.

Isn’t blood outside the body a bad thing?

Mommy wipes one hand on the stained blue apron she wears over her grey sweatshirt and pilled cotton skirt, and steers Libby into the bedroom, where Abba is still sleeping. He is a large lump under the blanket on one of the twin beds, snoring repetitively, and Mommy purses her lips tightly as she directs Libby past him and into the bathroom adjacent to their room. Mommy closes the door behind them and kneels down to rummage through the cabinet underneath the sink.

Libby shrinks against the door. She looks at the tiles and tries to heighten their blueness in her mind until they are starkly the opposite of any color with red tones to them.

Mommy stands up again pretty quickly and hands Libby a square package wrapped in a soft, orange plastic. Libby prods the top of the package. It feels like a wad of toilet paper folded into a wrapper softer, yet more abrasive than a sandwich bag. She flips it from side to side, wondering what it’s supposed to be.

“You put it on your underwear, see?” Mommy says, taking the package back from her and tearing it open. “You take off this wax paper over here and put the sticky part on your underwear, and it will catch all the blood.”

Is this supposed to happen?

Libby takes the toilet paper package and her underwear back from Mommy while Mommy watches proudly, and walks out of the bathroom, past the snoring lump which is Abba. She goes to her room, puts the toilet paper thing on her underwear, and slides them back up her legs. She feels like she is wearing a diaper inside her underwear.

Libby goes to school. She prays with the rest of the girls. She eats an apple during snack time, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich during lunch time, and another apple before recess in the afternoon. She does not go to the bathroom when her teacher takes the class there. She comes home on the school bus, and checks her underwear in her bedroom.

The toilet paper diaper is still white. Still dry.

She climbs up the ladder to take a nap, but when she tries to pull back the blanket, she notices a book lying heavily on top of the blanket. She sits down on the bed, legs hanging over the top rung of the ladder, and looks at the book’s spine. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. A giant red dictionary, the dust jacket removed, with all the words Libby could ever want to know. Libby opens the dictionary to find out what the first word in the dictionary would be, and notices something written on the inside cover in Mommy’s tall, thin, loopy handwriting.

“A college dictionary, because you’re a woman now!” it reads.

Libby finds the first word in the dictionary (which is the letter a; Merriam-Webster says there are eighteen different definitions to that letter, which is actually a word) and then closes the book. She decides to read one word per day, so that by the time she finishes reading the enormous book, she’ll be the smartest girl in the world. Not girl – woman. She is a woman now.  

As she tucks herself back under the hot blanket, she thinks about that word for a second. If she is a woman now, doesn’t that mean her life is basically halfway over?

How long do people stay women before they get really old and then die?

How is she a woman if she isn’t old enough to get her ears pierced yet?

How does having a stomach which has only just started screaming in pain make her into a woman?

© Chapin Langenheim, 2018

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