The bath had been warm but was now making the hairs on the ends of her arm edge and prickle with cold. Goose flesh. Sliding her head under to drop into a world where noise was disconnected. Where the drip of water from the end of the faucet between her feet was a million pounds heavy. Heavy looking up through cold bathwater trying to imagine perfume and candlesticks and cocktail dresses. Unsuccessful masturbation. The spaces where her imagination used to be were water-soaked and pale. Nothing thrilled her. The knock on the bathroom door shoved her from the water like something on the end of a string. Water sprung over the edges of the white plaster tub and ran through the cracks between tiles.
“I’m home. Did you pick up the phone this afternoon when Ted called? We’re supposed to be playing squash on Thursday.”
“No. I must have been out,” she lied. Nina had heard the ring reverberate through the entire house. Had felt pleasure in hearing the answering machine take the call. Had felt justice in letting it go. Perverse pleasure of knowing they were waiting for someone to pick up and that no one would.
It was her cue to leave. She stood up dripping and wrapped her body in unwashed towels. Pulled the plug of the bath and it gurgled — gutter in the rain.
Nina was tired of the way things were. The kids had left the house. It seemed like ages ago now to think of them roaming the hallways in the dark, coming home late from house parties, reeking of booze. To think of them running through the sprinkler on the front lawn, son still scared of water, and daughters who only needed to wear swimsuit bottoms in the age of undeveloped breasts. Empty-nest syndrome. Empty. Funny word. Something close to the way she felt inside of her fitted sheets. Crawling out of bed at 2 a.m. to check the bathroom cupboards. Shuffling on bare and frozen feet to the window, she would long to feel the warm breeze of a summer wind play across the tips of her ears. But it was cold in the room, and the window was tightly closed. Keeping out the rest of the world. Airlocked. Padlocked. Frozen solid in an air-conditioned room where a thin-lipped husband always slept with his back to her hopeful breasts. The whirring of the ceiling fan would suck the breath from her lungs. Needing air, water, something other than what was, she would sweep silently through the sleeping house — past the foreign fridge, the unfriendly coffee pot, the stiff couch, the empty and unforgiving wastebasket.
Shuffling on bare and frozen feet to the window, she would long to feel the warm breeze of a summer wind play across the tips of her ears.
It was this way until it wasn’t. Or at least until Diane Walker strode into her life. A young, gangly 17-year-old with sandal tans and a pout that came from unapologetic self-entitlement. She moved in next door with her mother Linda — Ted’s newest wife. Nina began to treasure the once-dreaded Friday night dinners with Bachelor Ted once Diane began to hold a phantom place in the conversation. At the dinners, during which Diane was a frequent absentee, Nina would casually ask questions circling toward the table’s missing face. She savored the taste of information and complaints from the disheartened Ted and Linda, who were disappointed in their daughter’s tomfoolery and naivete.
It was something that began slowly and then became habit. As most things do. A rolling train. A game of noticing. Noticing when Diane would take her two chipped fingernails to stretch her gum away from her mouth and back. Snap. Noticing that Diane held her fork the same way that her son held pencils, clutching it with boyish impulsiveness. Noticing that she would always roll her eyes at mentions of Crosby, Stills & Nash; this was Ted’s favorite band and conversational fetish.
During the day, Nina took her lunch break early so that she could drive to the high school parking lot to watch Diane smoke next to her car with friends. She liked to roll down the passenger-seat window ever so slightly to try and catch a sniff of the acrid air. The 30-minute drive to and from the local high school was filled with gut anxiety one way and muscle relief the other. At night, especially on the weekends, Nina would stay awake in bed until she heard Diane’s car returning home, pulling softly into the driveway. She would rush to the second-floor bathroom and stand on the edge of the bathtub in the dark to peer through the cobwebbed window that stood across from Diane’s room.
Sometimes, Diane would be alone. She would peel off her outer layer and then undergarments in the reflection of the mirror, turning from side to side, angling her body every which way to feel dissatisfied in the way that teens do. Nina knew that discomfort. The tender insecurity of one not yet filled into her skin. Not confident enough in the knees. Sometimes, Diane wasn’t alone. She would come home with a boyfriend who had dark hair and sagging eyes. She would watch them together. Carnal. Out of respect, she would turn her eyes away at their points of pure pleasure. Respect, anger, shame — she was never quite sure what forced the revolving of her neck. Nina understood what her habits made her out to be. She knew that her oval face glowing pale moonlight in the frame of the upstairs bathroom window would stir alarm, fear, discomfort. A phone call to the police station. But Nina never watched in a way that was sexual. That’s what she wanted them to understand. That wasn’t the urgency. Her urgency.
Before drifting off to sleep, Nina would think of Diane’s dark eyes, sarcastic left-sided smile. Would imagine them to be her own. In dreams, she couldn’t be certain where Diane’s body ended and her own began. When she woke up in the mornings, it was with absolute despair. At work, she stopped responding to the name Nina, and so, stopped doing any work, and so, was fired. She came home with a box of things and lined them up in a circle around the living room rug. She took her daughter’s softball bat from the garage and smashed everything. Picture frames, stapler, Advil bottle, clock. A circle of broken things. She didn’t answer her husband’s questions when he came home, or any of his other questions for the next two months. And so, he left. Friday night dinners ended because Ted and her husband were friends, not Nina and Ted, nor Nina and Linda.
In dreams, she couldn’t be certain where Diane’s body ended and her own began.
She became more desperate. More of her day became dark. Nina started shaving her legs to impress the boy with the dark hair and lidded eyes. When she climaxed with him all alone in her bed, she reached down to touch her legs and imagined them to be Diane’s. Nina who was Diane who was also Nina. Moments when she wasn’t fully there: somewhere else in someone else’s body.
On Oct. 13, she followed Diane for 4 miles to a Walmart parking lot, where she saw her kiss a man who wasn’t her boyfriend with the dark hair and lidded eyes. His lips touched Nina who was Diane who was also Nina, and his violent kisses tasted of blood oranges. She didn’t like them and wanted to pull away. He would hurt the both of them, she knew. Scared that Diane didn’t know this, she went back the next day with a steak knife and left knowing Diane would be safe from men in blue Walmart vests who pushed carts around in Walmart parking lots.
On Oct. 14, she took a bath and successfully masturbated.
On Oct. 15, she was arrested.
In prison, Nina who was Diane who was also Nina wrote letters to herself every week. Telling her about her economics class and invisible hand excuses, about quitting track to spend more time learning to sew, about dumping the boy with dark hair and lidded eyes for her best friend Gina. About tattoos, dumpster diving and skateboarding without helmets. About beaches and bonfires. About youth and fervor and heady brilliance. The transformation was complete. Dependency and possession: Mind and Soul. At nights and in the mornings and in the afternoons and back again — Diane was hers. Nina was also hers.
They were one and the same, NinawhowasDianewhowasalsoNina.
The letters never left the prison walls. But she collected them by date and filed them away. Every day she got a new letter. Ripped it open with two chipped fingernails and ate the words feverishly, carnivorously.
Sometimes, she forgot how to sign her name.
Contact Aliya Haas Blinman at [email protected]