Morning broke in a hateful hiss. Grey light slithered through gaps in the blinds, snaking over Theda’s sweat-dampened skin. She focused her blurry eyes on Luke, still sleeping soundly, resting his head in the crook of her elbow, reducing the blood flow to her fingertips. She thought about gnawing off her arm to give her bedmate the slip. After mulling it over, Theda figured the crunching noise of teeth on bone would wake him. Instead, she wiggled, pulled, squirmed, tugged and wrested free her right arm. That pins-and-needles sensation ran from her shoulder down through her nail beds.
With yellow-tape caution, Theda folded the sheet back and placed the soft soles of her feet on the cool hardwood floor. She held her breath as Luke stirred, readjusted his pillow and rolled over. She tiptoed down the hall, naked in the early gloom.
The pipes knocked and squealed when she rotated the shower knob, purging the rust-orange water. This ancient plumbing took a while to heat up. Theda observed herself, framed by Luke’s wide bathroom mirror. Her cropped hair reached skyward, as if being robbed at gunpoint. Her makeup was smeared, and her brown eyes held a crestfallen hollowness. She leaned closer to the mirror, lifting the skin around her eyes where crow’s feet threatened emergence.
Her pubic hair curled into a neat brunette triangle, a boho cloak for no ordinary vagina. She parted the moist tangle to pinch her labia between her middle and index fingers. Theda loathed the hateful thing. She watched herself until the steam overtook her reflection, unfurling, uncurling, licking damp the corners of the room. She felt round and heavy with sorrow.
Her mother had prophesied this sadness years ago, when Theda was a kid. “It only gets worse for us,” she had said, her swollen abdomen sloshing with fluid her liver could not handle, waiting for the doctor to drain it. She had looked at Theda through yellow eyes, rimmed by yellow skin. Jaundice, the doctor said, was a common symptom. Theda didn’t know then what her mother was talking about; her mother had been so confused lately. Theda’s mother flatlined that night. Gramma Ruby said that was the best way to go, in one’s sleep. That’s all anyone can hope for.
Gramma Ruby, in her sequined bolero, dangling a black cigarette holder between her red chipped fingernails, swooped Theda out of the urine-and-whiskey-soaked apartment she had shared with her mother in Atlanta. She brought her granddaughter, with only a box of Moon Pies and a dog-eared volume of poetry, to live in her bungalow just south of Tampa. They cruised in an ‘82 Olds 98 that Gramma Ruby had borrowed off her boyfriend Otis; Ruby swore out loud at the pedal extenders she’d forgotten to remove. They passed billboards painted with mermaids and advertising glass-bottom boat tours. Theda placed a Moon Pie on the dashboard, soft-baking it gooey in the summer heat, and ate it while the chocolate was warm and marshmallow runny.
Gramma Ruby was young, as far as grandmothers go, only 50 when she took custody of Theda. She had spent her early life as an American nomad, traveling with El Carnaval Infernal up and down both coasts, across farmland, desert and forest. She had peddled her act for years, until the sideshows fell out of favor with their plebeian patrons. She wore blue eyeliner, winged at the corners, and she smelled like Nag Champa and spent firecrackers.
In Gramma Ruby’s home, beaded curtains shimmered and peacock feathers erupted from vases. Waxy lava flowed over the edges of many-hued candles. Circus posters featuring a much younger Ruby, winking underneath a gaudy turban, splashed her glitzy history over the walls: “The Amazing Ruby! Seer of Souls!” and “Psychic Readings, Your Fate Revealed!”
Theda’s room faced west, and the walls lit up in fiery shades of saffron and tiger lily when the sun sank, sprawling out, splaying fingers that dampened into indigo and ink. The floorboards rumbled during thunderstorms, micro-vibrations fondling the wheels of her roll-away bed. They lulled her into a drowsiness that her conscience would not allow to fruit.
She bobbed on turbulent waves of guilty relief. She should have felt sadness at her mother’s passing; any good daughter would. Instead, Theda felt a welcome stillness. Her mother had been a hand-grenade lobbed without aim, detonating on anyone within range. She had stolen from family and had hobnobbed with creeps. Her breath had stunk, and in her last days, she had coughed blood. Theda tried to miss her, but could not, and this failure gnawed her preteen gut.
While Theda battled insomnia, Otis spent his nights here snoring with his mouth open. He and Theda’s grandmother had been dating off and on for decades. He had been billed as Goliath the Dwarf Strong-Man in the same circus for which the Amazing Ruby had divined. Despite his short stature, no one but Ruby ever gave him any lip. He had stormy eyes that flickered, brooding; that’s why Gramma Ruby fell for him. Theda liked him, too.
Otis showed Theda how to catch fireflies, an insect strange to her (only roaches and spiders had lived in her apartment). He poked holes in a pickle jar lid and hammered the points flat from the inside. Otis dampened a paper towel and placed it in the bottom of the jar, then filled it half way with grass and sticks. Fleeting phosphorescence lit up the dusk, dancing through weeds and unkempt grass. They plucked the insects from the sky and ground, filling the container. Theda put her bug jar in her bedroom as a nightlight.
Even when Otis wasn’t around, the home was rarely empty. Shady men awaited readings in the foyer daily. Theda wasn’t allowed to call Ruby “gramma” when the men were around. They sat with slumped shoulders, chewing their cuticles. They seemed always surprised to see Theda.
“What’s a girl your age doing in this dump?” one of them asked. He leaned in, leering, “You got the gift, too?”
“No,” she had answered. At the time, she had no idea.
Theda had been twelve years old when she moved in with Gramma Ruby. She was now thirty-one as she tested the water temperature with her hand and stepped over the fiberglass lip into the shower. She pulled the plastic curtain closed. Luke was out of shampoo, so Theda washed her hair with bar soap, then her face. She rolled the soap in a washcloth, building a frothy lather, which she applied to the oracle between her legs. Her face knotted with the choked-back urge to cry. No amount of scrubbing could alter this truth: her vagina was psychic.
She had discovered her flaw on a monsoon night when she was sixteen. Summer rain had pummeled the exterior of her boyfriend’s Ford sedan. Fat drops had splashed over the windshield, so sloppy that Carlo couldn’t see to drive. They pulled over in an empty church lot near Gibsonton to wait out the storm. Lightning slashed like a psycho knife jab across the wet sky. Theda wrapped her skinny arms around Carlo, synchronizing heartbeats in the way only teenage lovers can. The wild whipping night compelled her curious hands to explore his brown skin. They were soon in the back seat, Theda’s panties around her ankles, giddy virgins teaching each other. She expected pain, maybe blood, but not what happened next.
As soon as her hymen busted, Theda’s surroundings vanished. She found herself in Carlo’s house, peering through his eyes. His father shouted, veins raised like worms under his skin. Carlo’s mother cowered, pulling her own hair. His father doubled up his belt and popped the leather over Carlo’s face and arms. Theda felt the burn on his skin. Carlo retreated until he was cornered. Out of fear, he hit back. He snatched the belt from his father’s hand, then wrapped the belt around the old man’s neck, squeezing until his father passed out. Theda felt the panic in the pounding of Carlo’s heart (her heart) as he bolted through the door.
“Stop! Stop!” she screamed, pushing Carlo off of her in the backseat; scooching back and drawing her knees up. The shadowy outlines of raindrops skidded over heating elements embedded in the slanted back window.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” Sweat glistened on Carlo’s brow and he covered his erection with his hand. Theda fumbled in the half-dark for the latch; she opened the door into the violent rain and ran. “I’m sorry, Theda! Come back!”
Puddles splattered against her mosquito-bitten legs, and Theda’s waterlogged shoes beat against the blacktop until they fell off. She closed the last mile barefoot, wet hair groping her face. She raced until she reached her home, radiating orange warmth, defying the homicidal weather. She banged through the screened-in porch and into the house, gulping the familiar sandalwood air. Her lungs ached from over-oxygenation.
Gramma Ruby lounged on the couch, running her fingers through Otis’ hair as he snoozed through a rerun of “Kolchak.”
When she caught sight of her granddaughter, she shook Otis awake. “Girl talk,” she said, shooing him from the room.
She bundled Theda warm and dry and poured two glasses too full of red wine. She shoved one over to the girl, jostling the gleaming garnet over the rim. “So…you’ve found out the family secret, yes?”
Theda’s face flushed incarnadine. She buried her lips in the wine, scrunching her face at her first gulp of alcohol.
“I don’t know,” Theda said.
“Oh, Hell, ain’t gotta be psychic to know you got your cherry popped. Just look at you,” Gramma Ruby straightened herself up in her claw-foot chair and loaded a Chesterfield into her quellazaire. “I also know you saw something. And you will again, every time.”
“How do you know?” Theda asked, looking away.
“Your mother couldn’t handle it. Poor, stupid thing.”
“So, what’d I see?”
“It’s what crowns him; that’s usually what you’ll see the first time you’re with a man, what shapes who he is or will become.” Gramma Ruby took Theda’s hands and squeezed.
“And then what?” Theda arched an eyebrow.
“And then it gets complicated. What you see the next time doesn’t come in any kind of order. It takes practice to learn to sort things out.”
“So, if we have the same…then all of those men who visit you..?” Theda felt her face grow hot as she assembled her knowledge.
“Put a roof over our heads and fatten your college fund.” Gramma Ruby said in an even tone, though Theda thought she looked rattled. Gramma Ruby drained the last of the liquid from her glass. Deep plum stains gathered in the puckers of her lips.
Theda began to feel sick. She yanked her hands away unable to look at her grandmother. She stomped down the hallway to her room, the wine dulling the jagged edges of her tumult. She climbed to bed, with zinfandel carpeting her tongue. She dreamed that night of being gummed to death by a pink and toothless monster.
The next morning rolled open, as peach and slick as a seashell’s interior, with a heavy saline scent on the air. Blue crabs scuttled through tidal waters. Gulls squawked outdoors, while inside the house filled with hush. Theda languished in bed, until the smell of bacon and coffee pulled her up by her growling belly. She padded to the kitchen on moccasined feet. Otis stood on the step stool, cracking eggs into a skillet on the hot stove eye.
“Fried or scrambled?” he asked.
“Scrambled’s fine. Why’s it so quiet?”
“She split to St. Augustine for the weekend. Back on Sunday,” he answered, raking his spatula over the skillet, cutting the yolks into the whites. “Don’t stay mad at her.”
“How can you let her do…what she does?”
“Ain’t up to me. She does what she thinks is best with her gift.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
“It used to. I was proud. And stubborn, too. But it’s love. And we don’t keep secrets. That’s important” He laughed. “Hell, I can’t keep ‘em from her, and she promises not to keep ‘em from me. Here.” He passed her a plate of eggs, bacon and toast, “Jelly’s in the fridge. Got berry or grape.”
Theda had spent most of that day holed up in her room. That evening Otis had brought her a jar full of fireflies. She had watched them twinkle on her nightstand, like dizzy shooting stars, until she fell asleep.
Now Theda stood a long time under the shower head, scalding water turning her red as a Cajun shrimp. Her fingers crinkled pruny. She rinsed Luke’s razor under the water, running her thumb down in the direction of the blades, removing the thick beard hairs wedged between the slats. She covered her legs in sea-foam suds and began to shave from ankle to knee. Theda had stopped shaving her pubic hair years ago, but she smirked, remembering the first time she had removed the hair.
It had been about six months after her revelation. She had taken her pink disposable razor over her damp skin, using some Barbasol she’d found in Otis’ designated bathroom cabinet. She had dragged the razor, careful not to nick. She rinsed in hot water then used a hand mirror, scrutinizing her genitalia against an anatomy book she’d lifted from the Riverview Library. She pushed the skin around, searching without luck for any identifiable anomaly, something a doctor could remove, some cancerous mole. As the hair grew back it itched.
Her isolation, once a nagging inconvenience, grew snakelike, constricting until she couldn’t feel her blood flow anymore. Numb. She experimented in the beginning, but the novelty of sex was forced out by knowledge she never asked
for: she found out that Corey would, after twenty miserable years of matrimony, leave his wife for a man. She learned that Joseph would battle depression before electing to end his own suffering by gunshot.
Maybe it would be different with a girl, Theda thought, but it was the same (only softer). She found that Estela would do hard time in Perryville, way out west in Arizona, for drug trafficking.
Theda tried to warn them all. She held them all, folded close in her arms; they were as crushable as papier mâché. She fixed their hard eyes to her brown eyes and explained, rationally, calmly, that she had seen their futures painted behind her closed lids during their fornication, and that if only they would heed her warning, certain crises could be averted. Naturally, each young lover pushed Theda away; they flicked her off their fingertips like a crusty booger.
Theda learned to harden her heart, focusing her will on thickening the sarcomeres of her atria and ventricles. She built a fortress from her body, with her tongue as sentry, defending herself with a sarcasm artillery. She nailed planks over every doorway where love threatened to spill.
She lived for years, comfortably jagged, until Luke came into her life. He was a Friday regular at Waxworks, Theda’s record store in Tampa, a redhead burnt freckly by the Florida sun. She felt drawn to his imperfections, his crooked teeth and spotted skin. He got nervous and forgot the punch lines to his jokes, but he stammered excuses to keep her in conversation. He brought her tributes: Cuban coffees and rare 45s. She tried to push him away, but Luke was persistent in disarming her. One night, when he brought her two LPs, Tom Waits and Richard Hell, her knees knocked. They talked Bukowski, and her sentries dove from their turrets. And when he smiled, he ripped those rusty nails clean out of their planks. He had lost the lower half of his left front tooth in a teenage bike wreck, but his smile was so easy, she thought he must glaze his teeth with Vaseline.
After so many years alone, new companionship seemed terrifying. Theda wanted to take it slow and Luke said fine. They caught some bad bands at local dives, while Theda kept Luke at arm’s length. They were six weeks in before her resistance broke, and she allowed their first kiss, on his darkened front stoop amid the crooning of crickets and the swirl of Spanish moss. Another couple of months passed before she accepted an invitation into his apartment.
The ceiling of his ground-floor one-bedroom sagged low. Inverted books spread open on their bellies holding their pages. He had a drawer full of fortune-cookie fortunes. They shed their clothing like a bread-crumb trail leading to Luke’s bed.
A breath. A kiss. A touch. And she was there, thrown from the warm bed into a cold room. A hospital room, Theda realized, looking through Luke’s eyes. The air smelled thick with antiseptic and gore. A nurse, ensanguined with fluids, handed him (her) the baby, a girl coated in white vernix and flexing her lungs.
Elation welled, pure and radiant; Theda felt Luke’s joy like a drug causing her to body cells to tingle. The baby’s fuzzy hair in red curls; her toothless mouth open; her tiny, perfect fingernails. And the mother propped herself up on her elbows, smiling. And that mother was not Theda.
She emerged from her vision, eyes moist in the dark so Luke couldn’t see. He pulled her body close to him, damp skin warm with pheromones. He couldn’t know. He floated into some dream, while Theda lay awake, crushed like a dry peanut shell. Hollow. She traced him with her fingertips, memorizing his shape, as the night drained its violet, surrendering to the sunless grey morning.
Now Theda dries off and dresses in the same clothes she wore last night. She snags a threadbare Hank III tee from Luke’s closet and leaves without saying good-bye, lonesome with the a.m. dew riding piggyback on her ankles.