RITUALS by Lynn Bey

1.

Our mother calls me to come and look at her. That is how we begin.

“Say something,” she says. She tries to sound petulant, but her image in the full-length mirror makes her smile.

“A sheath,” I offer, cross-legged on the floor. I hold a pillow on my lap despite the heat.

Our mother shifts her gaze in the mirror to me. She expects more.

“Turn around,” I say. “Slowly.”

She brings her heels together and pivots her feet in little jerks until she has come full circle.

“Now the other way.” When she stops I tell her to walk away from me, toward her dressing table. “Slower.”

The thin, yellow-lime silk flickers as if from light into shadow and into light again, and although it is our mother before me and also in the mirror, she is something else too, a coiled, unfurling tendril caught between holding fast and reaching beyond itself, a thing on the verge. When she moves she transforms herself entirely, elongates into a stretch of water down the crease of a dark-veined leaf.

“You’re beautiful,” I whisper. “The most beautiful thing.” She laughs into the mirror, her red mouth wide with at-loose delight. When she turns again and faces me, I see the flaw, nipples jutting at the silk like thorns.

“You could look like this too,” she says, her arms slightly raised from her sides as though readying a slow spin. “If you’d just let yourself be pretty.”

I smile up at her. Flecks of rusted yellow glow in her eyes and we stare at each other until she blinks. I am to listen to my sister, she says, arm-tucking her gold-beaded purse. There are folds of skin behind my neck.

Father waits for her at the bottom of the stairs. I close my eyes. He will run a forefinger down her bare arm, and his breath will shift the strands of hair that hover above her shoulders. They will walk across the hall toward the front door with the seeming ease of shifting sand. I hear the door close.

Between our mother and I are the drapes of silk against her beautiful pale back. I am expected to cross the gulf between us as though I have a map. What I have are freckles, also outbreaks of purpling red rashes that come out of nowhere.

“How’d she look?” asks my sister. I stand in the doorway to her bedroom as she slicks her nails with clear varnish.

“You know,” I say. “Beautiful.”

“Crap.” She does not look up. “It’s ridiculous, a celery stalk in heels. Why do you indulge her? Why can’t you resist her? Jesus!

My sister blows on her nails. Her hair is turbaned in a tight towel so that her eyes are cheerful almonds.

“The two of you, both so pathetic.” Her words are without sting; I enter her room and get on the bed. My legs are sticky with sweat but I press them hard against each other, left bunion against the right; right ankle against the left; left knee against the right. Bones as good as locks.

In her diary my sister has written that she loves Adam. She worries that he will forget her when he goes away to college and finds girls not like her. Some nights I hear her whispering to him on the telephone that he must not tempt her because of what will happen if she gives in. When she hangs up she hisses at me to piss off back to my room. Adam will wait, I want to tell her. But what if he does not? What if what I promise does not come true?

“Come here,” says my sister. “I’ll do your hair.” I push the blanket aside and go to sit on the floor at her feet before she can change her mind. She pulls the clips loose and uses her fingertips to furrow rough, jagged rows into my hair from forehead to nape.

On either side of my head, my sister splays my hair between her fingers. Quickly she drops the rearmost strands and starts to plait the two at my temples tight and close against my scalp. She moves along the sides of my head and hooks the next strand to wait its turn across her palm. Her fingers are sure as they stroke one strand from the left side into the plait, then the matching strand from the right, her weaving as smooth and practiced as any routine, in and out and over and under, in and out and over and under, until the pattern is lost in my mind and I drift toward sleep in the calm of her room.

She snaps a clasp across the end of my braid. Her hands pat the lattices that run along the top of my head and down past my neck to ensure their tautness. I do not stand up, content to lean against her legs until she jerks them away.

“Adam’s coming tonight,” she says.

“When?”

“Half an hour.”

“Can I stay up?”

“For a bit.” She wraps loose hairs behind my left ear. “We’ll watch TV,” she says. “You can choose.” She means I’m not allowed to say that he’s been here.

“He must like you. A lot.”

“Maybe.”

“No, really. It’s his second last Saturday, so how come he’s not with his friends? He could be at a party, or at clubs where you’re not allowed.”

“Should I buy something,” she asks, “to send later?” I sit up. This isn’t in her diary.

“What for?”

“Just ’cause.”

“He’s always talking about music, The Cars, Foreigner, The Wall-”

“That’s the album, dummy. You mean Pink Floyd.”

I don’t answer. Adam will be here soon, and my sister will want to listen to him. “You could get him a picture.”

“He’s got hundreds of posters. You know that.”

“No,” I say, “of you. Give him a picture of you.”

We both know she will agree.

“There could be one for his wallet. Or a big one, for his desk.”

Silence wraps around us. I stretch out my legs and lean over them as far as I can.

“God, Sands!” She pokes a finger into my back, three, four times. “Your ribs, they’re sticking out.”

I crawl away from her on all fours, then stand up and run to my room. This is a new dizziness, sharper, less of a swooping swirl than I’m used to. Sparks of white-fizzed light crash inside my eyes until it hurts.

2.

Dr. Knichel says that whatever I tell him is private, but I have seen the way he talks to our mother, one hand reassuring her forearm, his inclining head in sympathy with her woes. He is struck with how perfection reveals itself in her eyes and nose and mouth, how it has touched her pale gold hair and dancer’s neck, has traveled across her shoulders and all along her elegant, long arms to reach the ends of her fingers. When she tilts her head and laughs, or lightly closes her lips as she looks him straight-on, he cares only about one thing, that she is brought pleasure. Father cares this way still, the stiff cautiousness of an English boarding-school undone by his wife’s vibrancy. I have seen them when they return from a dinner in the city or a cocktail party at the Consulate, their voices rough from too much talk as they keep to a whisper, concerned that they will wake us if too much of the evening emerges from their throats. When he takes off her wrap, his eyes are soft and shiny-wet, as though they could spill.

Dr. Knichel says the hatred that is inside me will not win against him. There is no reason, he says, to push him to react the way that I want. I am sick because I have made myself sick; to be well the way our mother says I used to be is what she wants, him too. The way he says our mother’s name-Eva with the v like an f as if he has a lisp-makes his cheeks flush. He tries to say something beautiful but is thwarted by his ugly gash of a mouth, the leer of gray-yellow teeth behind a tumble of mustache.

Each week Dr. Knichel asks if I can admit that I am envious of my mother. “It is not so terrible to hate what we wish we could be. But it is unhealthy when you speak a lie about it.”

Fifty. Twenty-five. Sixty-five. I remind myself what waits for me at home: squats, lunges, chest-high kicks. Also: after-dinner sit-ups and runnings-in-place, thirty and nine hundred and ten.

Today Dr. Knichel explains how natural it is that I resent my sister, the idol substitute, for choosing Adam over me. “What is it you fear with that?”

This is a new question. He smoothes the top of the notepad that sits in his lap. A thin silver pen shines in his left hand. Whatever I say he will write down. If I say nothing he will note that too. Then, when he speaks to our mother afterwards, he will restate what he has written so she will think him useful and believe that I am progressing in the way that he foresaw.

“Girls your age are always afraid,” he continues. “That is what it means to be on the cusp. If you tell me your fear, we can together eliminate it. But to be afraid of me is to be mistaken.”

When I yawn, the tingling trickles down my right arm and into my palm. I think how well the garage becomes a sauna when you know how to use it.

“Look at me.” Dr. Knichel has put down his pad. He moves toward me until he is directly in front of me. The edge of his trouser cuffs is sharp as a jacket’s. Father’s trousers do not have cuffs.

“I said to look at me. Now.” He has filled his voice with gravel; I am supposed to think he is angry. I imagine him spitting each sharp-edged piece onto the carpet if I keep quiet and do not move.

Dr. Knichel cups a hand beneath my chin. His thumb pushes into my cheek, and the smell of cabbage pumps saliva into my throat. He tilts back my head until it is resting on the back of the chair. “Open your eyes. Open them.” His head has disappeared behind his nostrils. Pink-red bumps where he shaves beneath his chin are pinpricked with scabs.

“You will not get one over me,” he says. “Your mother does not deserve this. I said to look at me. Look!”

When I bite the curved stretch of skin between his thumb and forefinger, I am unsurprised by what I taste. He jerks back his hand and gasps with quick, sharp shock. I watch, my head still pressed against the back of the chair. Then, as he turns towards his desk, his hand cradled to his chest, I catch the glint of silver that is his dropped pen. Already I can feel its ridged thinness between my fingers.

“Do not for a minute suppose that we are finished here, you and I.” Again in his chair, Dr. Knichel is pressing a wad of tissue against his hand. “You do not control me. I am not your family.” When he tips sideways to throw the bloodied tissue into the trash, I reach for the pen and slide it up my sleeve. The ridges of cool metal along my forearm are exactly as I imagined.

3.

Our parents are planning a party. Father wants it to go especially well because it will mean something for his boss at the Consulate. Our mother is worried; the party is less than a week away and the dressmaker is suffering a crisis of inspiration. Together they have looked at every magazine in the shop, not to mention those in her cluttered, upstairs apartment. “I keep explaining to her that I need more than just a dress. It is more a performance, something akin to an experience. But all this might be beyond her.”

When she returns each afternoon from the dressmaker, our mother upsets the staff, and then telephones the caterer. No sooner has she given one instruction than she issues another. After school I run upstairs to my room, where I pretend to do homework.

My sister has invited Adam, though it is the last Saturday before he leaves. She will not admit that she wants to be taken to the dressmaker, and anyway, she doubts Adam will remember afterwards what she was wearing. Father gives her money for Lord Boughton’s, and she must help me choose something pretty.

Our mother’s dress is finished that morning. It is a gown of red-ripe velvet with a full, draping skirt and sleeves of darker gauze that close neatly on her wrists. It is different from anything she has worn before. Immediately I see that the red does not suit her pale hair and paler skin. Her yellow-flecked eyes seem too small for her face, and there is a shadow across her throat that is new.

As she makes her circles before the mirror, I tell her it is the best creation ever. I cannot stop myself and go too far, protesting that the bloom of skirt is regal, that guests ought to offer her some kind of gift. Neither of us believes what I say. I am told to go and get ready.

Soon our hall is filled with people. I have to push through them to reach my sister and Adam, who stand in the corner beside the sculpture of intertwining oval bands of polished metal, which we know is modern art. My sister holds a glass of wine while Adam spears a fork into the shrimp on his plate.

“Sands! In a dress!” Adam looks me up and down as though he were the dressmaker. I glance at my sister, who is rolling her eyes.

“You’ll be too old for pink soon. Any day now the guys will be crawling after you. They will, won’t they, Bel?”

“Not with all that boniness they won’t! Guess what she weighs, just-”

“I bet some are already looking at her,” says Adam. “Not that you’d notice.”

My mouth is dry. It is suddenly very hot. They are not supposed to argue, not so soon before he leaves. Adam keeps talking. He is looking at me but it is too hot to hear. My sister’s wine shines night-blue against her dress.

Smells. Dozens of them, hundreds, pushing against my chest, my thick-sleeved arms, my fat, fat legs. They are pushing my sister too, and Adam; even the bulges of linked chains are warping against the smells. I can feel the ceiling as it presses against the swell of rising, groping odors; soon the walls will give in against the weight. I imagine I am sinking into the sludge of perfume, am swirling within the ooze of liquid cheeses and sherried meats. Shining strips of bacon start to unravel toward me, eager to wrap me up with their cubes of soft prune. Slowly I am disappearing into the slick of butter on Adam’s plate.

“All I’m trying to say-” my sister says.

“Here,” Adam says, a devilled egg wobbling between his fingers. “If you eat it, they’ll shut up. Quickly, take it.”

I reach to take the egg from him, but it is the bathroom I need. I turn but see Dr. Knichel coming toward me, shoulders hunched in a jacket I don’t recognize. I am behind the sculpture; my vomit splatters the length of its plaster base. I retch twice more before my sister and Adam lead me away, my hands a barricade across my mouth, the egg a white-yellow mess beneath our hurrying feet. Adam hoists me in half at my waist as he carries me up the stairs, and then I am in my bedroom on the bed.

When our mother comes, she tells Adam to take my sister back to the party. “Everyone’s outside now, by the pool. It’s a perfect evening, thank goodness, or else who knows-now go on, enjoy yourselves.”

“Please, this is not your fault.” Dr. Knichel has come in. He is beside the bed, his eyes fixed on my mother, who is feeling my forehead and cheeks. She starts to take off my dress. I realize it is the doctor’s hands that are lifting my head off the pillow, then my shoulders, hips, and legs off the bed. The bedspread is cool beneath me, and I start to float as though in the pool.

“Young girls try in a multitude of ways to supplant their mothers,” he explains. “But you must not cry-this is not your doing. No family is absent its problem.”

I clench my stomach, thighs, and buttocks, hold for fifteen, then release for two. I recall last night’s count and add five. If either of them notices, they don’t ask what do I think I’m doing.

4.

My sister is making milkshakes. She raises the scoop high above the blender’s open mouth before turning it over, the frozen, unbalanced load shrugged loose by her impatient hand.

“Chips ahoy!” she sings out, jumping back to avoid the splash. With my forefinger, I shape a puddle of milk into southern Africa, its tip made flat by the edge of the sink.

“Get me the sponge.”

“Get it yourself,” I think as I reach for it. I slide it toward her, careful not to damage Namibia. She wipes around the blender, then snaps the lid to its brim. With her forefinger, she jabs at each of the buttons in turn, one after the other. Each time the red of my sister’s nail flashes like a darting insect, draws back, hovers, and then darts downward again. Colored polish is forbidden; our mother will have to think of a punishment for her.

The blender stops. My sister wrestles it off its base and pours half the mixture into a frosted parfait glass, one from the party. “That’s the caterer’s,” I say. “We shouldn’t still have it.”

“Drink,” she replies, nodding at the glass between us. “It’s strawberry, which you like. Adam had the right idea all along.”

The hump of rose-pink in the center of the glass slumps as though from its own weight. Tiny clear bubbles pop at the surface like kissing fish.

“I said drink.”

I wish Adam would take my sister with him. Waves of heat roll across my cheeks and down my neck.

“Do it, or I’ll phone that stupid doctor of yours and tell him you asked me to.”

I sip. The cold shocks my mouth, bites my teeth. I sip again, and by the sixth one I feel the throb that comes with too much food.

Again and again I drink. If I finish it, maybe they will go away. Maybe they will all forget I’m here.

5.

When they left to wave Adam goodbye at the airport, I watched from the bottom of the stairs. Father said didn’t they think I should be allowed to go, there had to be something else they could take away from me instead. Our mother turned on him, my sister too. They reminded him how I am desperate for control; Dr. Knichel has said so more than once. If they gave in to me it would be allowing me to plague the family with never-ending misery. The car keys were clinking already in father’s pocket.

I did not tell them I’d not lost an ounce since the party.

After they’d gone I tore nearly all the pages from my sister’s diary. They were the ones about Adam. With the doctor’s pen I wrote in fat print across two fresh pages: You shouldn’t have done that!!! Adam tried to say no, but you insisted. Tell on me and I will on you. I DARE YOU!!!!!

I used my mother’s flowered stationery to write a letter. Dear Adam, I said, I bet you thought this was from my sister, but it’s from me, her sister (ha ha!). I said I hoped he’ll like Jo’burg but not too much that he forgets to come home. I told him also that it was dumb, what he did with the egg. Didn’t he know it was much more complicated than that because of how I’ve tangled up jealousy with being afraid I’m not perfect like her? I wrote that everybody knows that Dr. K. can’t think of anyone except her. He stares at her when she brings me into his office and he always ends up looking at her boobs. He loves it when she crosses her legs because she never wears stockings to see him. And he likes putting his hand on her back, I said, just exactly like Father does. It’s a lie when he says our time is up because it’s so obvious he wants to talk to her. Then I ended off that I hoped he got a roommate who was fun. Love, Sands xox. For a P.S., I said he mustn’t forget my sister. She likes how you make her disappear when you hug her, though she pretends she doesn’t.

I folded the letter into an envelope and put it in Father’s briefcase. On the back I wrote: PLEASE MAIL TO ADAM-PRIVATE!!

After that I went for a swim. I did exactly 125 laps, my record so far. When I heard the car come back I hid behind the row of patio chairs, which is where I am now. At first the slate burned my legs but now it’s almost cold. I do buttock clenches, my favorites. Already I’m over 200. Eventually they’ll come outside to look for me, but I can be so quiet that they’ll give up and eat supper without me, thinking that’s the best way to make me go inside again to be with them.

About Lynn Bey:

“I currently live, work, and write in Portland, Oregon, where it does not rain enough. I’m working on my second novel despite the fate of my first, which was not pretty,” Bey says.