Joyland

New York |

Skin

by Rowan Beaird

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu


Before the dogs, she had loved dressing. Beginning at age ten she insisted on hanging every item of clothing in her closet, feeling that drawers were for children. She clipped her underwear and socks, hung her thin cotton bras and pajamas, savoring the clean metallic screech of the hangers as she searched for a sweater or a skirt, plucking each item like a piece of fruit. Now, to cover the bite marks, she wears the same three, long sleeved shirts, light as tissue for the late-summer heat.

The bites are overlapping circles on her upper left arm, the perfect imprint of the dog’s splayed open mouth. The skin is beginning to stiffen, hardening to the color of a pale peach. She prefers this to the deep red lines that had roped around her arm, a yellowing pucker around the edges as if she were poisoned. She thinks of them as scars even though the stitches were removed just three weeks before. She does her best not to touch them — stopping at her elbow in the shower, crossing her arms by holding onto her shoulders. She knows they are permanent, and even though her mother sometimes calls them a cut or a scrape, she does not want to pretend otherwise.

Downstairs, there are several balloons looped around the back of one of the kitchen chairs. One was tied too loosely and has ascended higher than the others, kissing the ceiling. Her mother turns to the sound of her feet. She gestures towards the balloons, a hard smile on her face.

“It’s Anna, the birthday girl! Well, you don’t look a day over twelve,” her mother says.

“That’s because I’m not a day over twelve,” she says, gifting her with the same response she has said since she was seven.

Her mother serves slices of supermarket coffee cake, heavy and yeasted with bright pools of jelly. She lists what needs to be done for the party: cleaning the house, buying frozen pizzas and ice cream, renting a video. Her mother examines her fingernails as she speaks, gently chipping off her red polish. Anna finishes her coffee cake, having spooned the jelly onto her plate. She drinks from her glass of orange juice, a line dribbling down her chin.

They do not mention him, and have not since she returned from the island. After the dog and the day in the hospital he flew home with her, but her mother wouldn’t let him in the house. He said he would be staying south, in Sarasota, and left a phone number. She heard them talking on the front steps through her bedroom window, though the only word she could make out was mistake, said so frequently it began to separate into barks. It reminded her of when they lived together in the house in Marietta, their voices carrying through the airless, humid rooms, the backyard thick with mosquitos.

“You’re going to be seeing a lot of the girls for the first time this summer, are you sure you don’t want to wear anything else? That jean dress?” her mother asks, turning to Anna as she brushes the table clean of red shards.

“It doesn’t have sleeves,” Anna says.

Her mother apologizes too quickly, barely letting Anna finish her sentence, and begins to clear the dishes. Later, the girls will play a game with the sinking balloons, popping them upwards with their fingertips. Anna will think of her mother then, unable to let anything sink to the floor.

***

When Anna cleans, she is overwhelmed by the amount of hair that has fallen from her head. She finds long, ash-blond strands in nests behind doors, strewn across couch cushions, stuck to the side of the toilet bowl. When she finishes she often opens the garbage can to stare at the accumulation of it, unable to fathom that her body could grow and regrow in such abundance.

She is vacuuming the carpet in the living room, her mother having gone out on errands. She occasionally shuts off the vacuum, certain that she hears the phone ringing. He always calls on her birthday, and she has decided she will pick up, tell him he should leave both of them alone, and then pull the phone jack from the wall.

When her father first told her he was going to live in Thailand, she had not even conceived of the country. It was odd in its unknowability, how distant it felt from Douglasville. When he finally convinced Anna’s mother to let her visit, half a year after he moved, she told everyone at school she was going to California. What everyone wants to do, what everyone dreams of doing when they’re seventy, I’m doing now, he said to her on their first day on the island, sitting at a hotel restaurant open to the air and the mosquitoes. He had a new tattoo of a whale skeleton on his forearm.

They spent their days at the beach, moving their towels in concert with the sun. He was living in a small, one-room cabana, and she slept on a cot by the door. Their neighbors were young, careless Australians and freckled Europeans who drank lager on their small wooden porch. She felt as if no one in the entire country smiled at her except for the occasional Thai woman. They would sit with one another around plastic restaurant tables, laughing and drinking milky tea. All of the other tourists were sullen and distracted in the heat, busy with their children or spouses. Her mother, resistant to the trip, made Anna phone every day, even though the calls would sometimes wake her in the middle of the night.

Some days he would disappear for hours to meet with other ex-pats, leaving her a handful of pastel-colored bills. He said he was going to open an Italian restaurant, that tourists would flock to it, desperate for a reprieve from curry and papaya salad. In her time alone she would walk down the town’s single road, sometimes stopping in the pharmacy to buy odd flavors of potato chips. A teenage boy worked there who spoke perfect English. He would ask Anna how her day was, though she was too embarrassed to say anything, only smiling and nodding. She would eat the chips on her father's bed, liking their sweet tang, smearing the pages of her books with their bright red coating. She never dared to venture into the nearby jungle, and after having been asked where her parents were by a large German woman, avoided the beach when alone.

She and her father did not talk much — he did not know what to ask her beyond a brief quiz about school and her mother, and she was not used to making conversation with a forty-year-old man. At night they would watch the English language channel on his box of a television, a documentary on the River Kwai, or a mother caring for her son with Down syndrome. He would fall asleep instantly, and she would lie awake, her body convinced it was morning.

The one thing they did talk about was the dogs. The animals would lie on the road side, their bellies shuddering, and whinny outside the island’s restaurants. One day some of them ran into the surf, rolling on the beach afterwards, their fur thick with sand. He laughed at them, giving them pet names: Rolf, Queeto, Jumps. She threw bits of egg to them, tossed them sticks that they would chew like bones. You’re making friends here , he said one day on the beach, when one of them laid a tangle of kelp at her feet.

She tucks the vacuum back into the hall closet, bunching her hair in a fist to prove that there is enough of it, that it is still thick as wheat. The refrigerator hums its one low note, but the house is otherwise silent.

***

Anna sits drawing eyeballs in the kitchen, filling the empty pages of an old school notebook. The house is clean and paper plates and cups are stacked neatly on the countertop. Her mother is in a towel, pulling bedsheets from the dryer. She is incapable of performing a single act, her chores, her meals, her showers, always overlapping.

“Sometimes when you’re doing laundry it’s hard not to think about the fact that you’ll have to wash everything again in two weeks, and again and again and again,” her mother says, slamming the dryer shut. “How are you doing?” she asks Anna, lifting empty ice trays from the freezer and turning on the faucet. Anna can see a flush of freckles across her upper back. Her skin is always redder after a shower, the water set to nearly boiling.

“Fine,” Anna says. The eye she is drawing has no lids and no eyelashes. They’ve all fallen out.

Her mother looks at Anna as she turns off the water, staring at Anna’s long sleeves. The night Anna came home she woke to her mother lying next to her, touching the wounds with her fingertips. Now, Anna only lets her see the stitches at doctor visits, and has made her swear she’ll tell no one about them outside of Anna’s uncle in North Carolina. She does not want to be a spectacle, fearing conversations in school hallways and bathrooms. Last spring, there was a looping news story in which a three-year-old boy had been bitten on the cheek and chin by a German Shepherd. His bottom lip was split in two, like the top of a heart.

“Did anyone call while I was out?”

“No. Nope. No one.”

Her mother looks at the clock, picking at her bottom lip. Anna knows she is thinking about him, just as she does when they pass the farm over by the school, or eat at a restaurant serving fried catfish, or hear a Lyle Lovett song on the radio. She will look off to the side, pressing her mouth to her shoulder, or she will run her pointer finger along her eyebrow. If it’s particularly painful, she will turn to the ceiling.

“You know, we have one last check-up tomorrow to see how you’re healing, then no more doctor visits for months.”

Anna nods, running her pen along the spine of her notebook.

“I’m going to go put on some clothes — the girls will be here in about an hour?” her mother says, her voice tilting upwards at the end, though it is not a question.

“I’ll be ready.”

At the end of her first week in Thailand, several days before Anna would be flown home, a woman had joined them at dinner. Her father told Anna they were old friends, though he hadn’t lived in Thailand for more than five months. The woman’s tank top was low enough that Anna could see where her breasts dipped and turned from one another. She sucked on ice cubes and told Anna she did not have to use chopsticks, that those were only left out for tourists. Her people were not from Thailand, but from the water — gypsies, her father said, the woman brushing him away like a gnat. The woman told Anna that amongst her people, to marry a man must build a boat, every part with his own hands. He must walk into the forest without his brothers, and not fear ghosts or animals. He must present his bride with silver bracelets and great stretches of fabric as wide as a sail. Only then can they sleep together, on the boat he has built, tethered loosely to the shore.

It’s not that complicated in America , her father said, winking at the woman. Anna excused herself and sat by the fish pond, picking leaves off a fern, knowing she could tell her mother none of this.

***

Before the dogs, Anna always felt the house was best when filled with others. Each room is bare — the living room has one couch and one side table, a stand for the TV, a solitary lamp bowing against an empty wall. The kitchen is just a table and chairs, a clipped bag of flour on the counter, her mother’s room a collection of laundry baskets and a boxspring. But with the girls its emptiness feels purposeful, vast carpets for them to cartwheel on, to splay across like starfish.

One by one, each girl is dropped off by fathers idling in the street, by mothers kissing the sides of their heads. They pile their backpacks and pillows in the corner, a heap of pilling cotton and pastel vinyl. They talk over one another. They argue. They try to make the others laugh while eating pizza, pushing out their top lips to make the crust rest under their nose like a mustache. Anna does her best to act as one of them, but feels pinpricks of uneasiness, pulling her shirtsleeves down over her fingers.

“How are you wearing long sleeves?” one of the girls, Simone, asks Anna, rolling her t-shirt up over her belly, sticky with sweat.

“I’m not hot,” Anna says, though sweat stains are budding beneath her armpits. An unusual moment of silence follows, the girls picking at crumbs or refolding their legs. Her mother comes in from the porch, asking them all to stack their plates, and they are back in motion, taking bets on which boys will have grown taller by September. The phone rings, but it is Thalia’s mother, saying she can’t come because of a nosebleed.

Anna has not been with them all together since her return, ignoring invitations to swimming pools and any house with a dog. She had gone to the movies with Sara, watched television at Kate’s, but did not tell either what happened. They asked about California and she talked about pale beaches, watching television in a hotel room, eating ice cream that tasted just so slightly different, as if it was made with thinner milk or thicker sugar. They asked about her father and she talked about how he was going to open a restaurant, that she had toured kitchens with rows of gleaming stoves.

At a young age, after he had left, she learned how rarely people noticed when you withheld. You say enough, make a joke, ask a question. Dogs are just like people, he said one day, slowly peeling an orange with his thumb. The dogs had found a colony of weaver ants and were moving in all directions, lapping up sand with their tongues.

***

Anna unrolls stretches of toilet paper, piling it on the water-stained lip of the sink. She lifts up her shirt and wipes down her stomach and lower back, her armpits. The cotton is damp and mealy, but she knows changing would just invite more questions. She turns on the faucet and tilts her head into the sink’s basin, gulping the lukewarm water.

There is a knock at the door, rattling the cheap frame. Anna turns off the sink, wiping her lips with the back of her hand.

“I’ve been listening and I know you’re not peeing or anything. What are you doing?” the voice asks. It is Sara, Sara who had been her closest friend in fourth grade, who always wanted to speak on the phone even though she had nothing in particular to say, carrying the phone from the bedroom to the kitchen to the worn stretch of carpet in front of her family’s television set.

“Nothing. I’ll be out in a second, okay?”

“Okay,” Sara says, but she does not move. Anna hears her feet shifting on the wooden floor.

“Just come in,” Anna says, opening the door to the hallway, where Sara stands like a bored soldier. Sara sits on the toilet, her long legs folded beneath her. Anna digs beneath the sink for deodorant, finding nothing but half melted candles and packs of dry sponges.

“I know why you’re hiding in here and why you won’t wear tank tops,” Sara whispers, leaning close. “And I don’t understand why you won’t just talk about it.”

“You know?” Anna asks, pulling her head from the darkness of the cabinet. She feels her heartbeat directly beneath her arm’s puffed, scarred skin.

“My mother told me before you came over — she said it happened near some beach, and that you were found by these Germans? I kept waiting for you to say something, and then I felt like I wasn’t supposed to ask.”

“Have you told anyone?”

“No, I promised I wouldn’t,” Sara says, pulling at the roll of toilet paper. Anna sits on the floor, feeling the cold tile with her hands.

“I don’t want anyone to know, because it’s nothing, and if I talked about it that would make it seem like something.”

“If it’s nothing I don’t know why you wouldn’t just tell me,” Sara says, rolling the toilet paper into her lap, folding it back and forth like muslin. Anna is quiet, and it is difficult to tell if Sara will say anything more — this was true when they spoke on the phone, long conversations she would drift away from like a boat, only to insist they keep talking when Anna tried to hang up. Beneath her fingers, Anna feels skeins of hair, several threads dry against the floor. She looks across the bathroom, the light catching more strands by the door hinges and the waste basket. She brings her hands to the nape of her neck, slowly burying them into the hair at the base of her skull, feeling for bare patches of skin.

“Let’s just go back in, I think your mom’s getting the cake ready,” Sara says, throwing the toilet paper in the trash. Anna nods, and rises.

When she returns to the living room the lights are shut off. Her mother emerges from the kitchen, her face softened by the glow of candles. There is a half-moon of sweat from her hairline to her ear. She looks older than him, somehow, though her face is clean and unlined.

“Haaa —” she begins, and the girls follow, circling Anna in a tight arc, some earnestly trying to sing, others hitting notes higher than the ceiling. Her mother takes measured steps towards her, not looking up from the plate. All of them are smiling hungrily at the cake, and she can’t help but notice their small, wet teeth.

***

The plates have been licked clean and the presents opened, an impersonal collection of hair clips and nail-polish. Her mother had collected the wrapping paper in a bright jumble, pushing it into the bin so fiercely that Anna thought the kitchen tile would sink. Afterwards, she told them she was going to her bedroom, and to knock if they needed anything. Anna knows she will fall asleep with a book on her chest, waking in the morning to find sunlight diffusing the glow of her bedside lamp.

Sara has disappeared into the others, even though Anna occasionally searches her out, trying to tell whether she still has questions, whether she will tell. It is dark, nearing eleven, and they have turned to games. Some want to play truth or dare, others want to pull out the board games stacked under the kitchen sink. One suggests light-as-a-feather, stiff-as-a-board, and everything else is forgotten.

Kate gets chosen first, and they all gather around. Anna sits by her feet, noticing a pale bubbled blister on her toe. Other girls sit by Anna’s side, bare shoulders up against her cotton night shirt. Kate folds her arms into her chest, and they all reach one hand into the middle, palms overlapping palms, loosely pressing them together before they begin. Anna loops two fingers beneath Kate’s calf, feeling muscle beneath a soft layer of skin. The chant begins, and they slowly raise Kate an inch above the ground before they all burst, laughing as she’s dropped back onto the carpet.

They cycle through the other girls, turning like a pack towards the next one, until finally Anna realizes no one is looking at her. No one meets her eyes, instead resting their chins on each other’s shoulders, jokingly shoving one another away, looping another girls’ hair through their small, delicate fingers. But she remains apart, untouched.

“Just me left?” she says, though she immediately wishes she hadn’t.

“Do you want to pick where everyone is going to sleep?” one says, and the rest rise, scattering towards their duffles.

She realizes that of course, they all know. Sara had discovered it, and then it spread like a small flame through dry grass. They don’t want to touch her, not wanting to feel the hard, raised stitches beneath their fingers, fearing she will split open. For a moment she thinks she may cry, but soon realizes all she feels is a numb acceptance. It was foolish to expect anything else — to expect girls not to talk to girls, mothers not to call mothers. It was foolish to imagine her father would call, or that a stray dog wouldn’t bite.

They unroll their sleeping bags in uneven, overlapping angles. They pore over year books, taking pens to certain girls’ teeth and eyebrows. Soon they put on a movie, several drifting off, bathed in the cool blue light of the television. Eventually the room settles into darkness, two or three of them laughing and telling each other to whisper in turn. Anna pretends to be asleep.

The night before it happened, she and her father had gone to the south side of the island to eat at a restaurant he proclaimed the best in Thailand. Unlike other places they had gone, the restaurant was populated by mostly Thai people, young men and women drinking beer in tall glasses, their faces lit by the white light of their phones. The food was too spicy for Anna to swallow, leaving her tongue hot and tingling. She was only able to stomach the ice cream they served from a gallon tub. When they left the sky was a deep ink, and she realized they would have to ride his motorbike around the roping, unlit roads in the dark. She didn’t want to voice her fear, so simply pressed the side of her face to his back, locking her hands around his belly. The motorbike sputtered and wrenched forward, the front light unsteady, flickering like a firefly in the dark.

At night the island was all dense, shadowy jungle, existing only in outline, as if from a story book. She could not see what was ahead or what was behind, and at first imagined panthers leaping from the ferns, men eight feet tall stalking out from the trees, arms as thin as vines. But as they continued she began to find the darkness soothing, the hum of the motorbike reminding her of the car he owned when she was a small child. When they drove home at night she used to lie in the backseat, eyes turned to the sky, trying to guess how close they were to home by the number of turns they took, the shape of the trees. When they got home, he would pick her up as if she had fallen asleep. Here, she thought, it is the same sky, her same father. And then the fear lifted like a ghost.

***

Anna walks over and between them, some of the girls curled into one another, others with their arms stretched along the carpet, as if reaching for something. In the kitchen, she lifts the telephone off the countertop, unspooling the jack. She opens the screen door and closes it behind her, sitting against the house’s warm brick, the base of the telephone between her legs. She won’t wait for him to call any longer. She wants to tell him that he cannot hurt her anymore, that the scars are healing and hardening.

The neighbors’ lights are on, illuminating the silhouette of the thorn tree in Anna’s backyard, a tree her mother said Anna was old enough for them to keep. If you were younger, I’d be worried you’d crash into its branches, she said. Last summer, Anna decided she would pop each thorn off from the bark, but found that they did not come off so easily, her thumb soon furred with splinters.

She turns and looks back to the kitchen, the living room. The girls appear to her as if on another plane, their sleeping forms as uniform and distant as a mountain range.

As she picks up the phone, she finds he is already on the other end of the line, as if conjured. Her mother’s voice answers his, and she holds her breath, covering the bottom of the receiver with her hand. “I’m staying with Jim’s uncle. He smokes all the time, and everything smells like smoke. The couch I sleep on smells like smoke, and has parakeet droppings all over it. But it’s a place to stay, not costing me much,” he says, and pauses.

She thinks for a moment that he can hear her, and perhaps he can, but they continue speaking. She can tell he is outside, cars passing by him in clipped roars. She imagines him standing in front of a small house, a thick bristled palm tree by its door. They talk about Sarasota, about both being unable to sleep. Her mother says she has been staying in bed until midnight, and then walks through the house, circling each room, eventually lying on the carpet next to Anna’s bed. She tells him when she rises she often expects to find him sitting at the kitchen table, or wiping the mirror clean in the bathroom. Not him, exactly, but a version of him, displaced in time. Older, perhaps, with a shimmer of silver in his hair.

Though she has not told her mother, Anna has been dreaming of the dogs. Certain nights, they are padding down the narrow, dimly lit streets of her neighborhood. She can see them from a great height, and knows they are coming for her, that they will jump through her window, pull the covers back from her bed. She wakes up when they are in the garden, the dirt soft beneath their feet, and finds loose strands of hair on her pillow, more and more falling from her head. Other nights, they are all lying together in a pile on the beach, tired but happy, their warm fur bristling against her belly and back.

Her mother is crying. Not great sobs, but speaking in the measured way she does when her lips are wet. Anna can picture her in her bedroom, sitting on the edge of her mattress, the same position Anna found her in when he left for the first time, six years ago. He is saying it was his fault, that he is entirely to blame.

The morning it happened, Anna left just like others before it, choosing a dress she was nearly too tall for, slipping on her sandals, now well-grooved with her heels and toes. She ate a melon bread from the convenience store, wrapped in plastic and light as cotton, and decided to go into the jungle. She did not know what it meant to go down that road, the one with the fern as large as a calf, its leaves brushed with fuchsia. She did not understand what it meant to no longer fear the unmarked green of the island, to not fear the dog that followed. She doesn’t know what it means to no longer fear what he will not give her, to not fear the girls asleep on the carpet, their breathing deep and heavy as ocean water.

“It was both of our faults,” her mother is saying, again and again.

Though they continue to speak, Anna decides not to listen. She gently puts the phone back on the receiver and takes off her shirt, her polyester training bra almost silver in the moonlight. In the dark she cannot truly see the scars, their shape laced with shadow, and so she runs her fingers past her armpit, feeling a part of her arm she has not touched since she was in another country, following the arc of where the dog bit her, no longer finding blood or teeth or bone, only skin.