by Susie Taylor
by Susie Taylor
Lindsey is home alone and thinks of masturbating. Lying back on the bed, under the sheets and too lazy to take off her clothes, she pulls her skirt up and lets her tights bunch around her ankles. She thinks about Madonna as she touches herself. It is her go-to fantasy and she gets off quickly. When she is done, she shoves the memory down. Lindsey only lets it rise to the surface when she is alone, it makes her stomach go a little funny, but it also brings her to climax, every time, in a fast and efficient manner.
Lindsey’s kitchen, recently refinished, is all stainless steel with a gleaming granite countertop. She makes herself a cleansing glass of lemon water. It is supposed to help suppress her appetite. Her hands smell of sex and lemons.
She drinks the water, then walks to the fridge and pulls it open. Standing in front of the fridge, she eats one of her daughter’s cheese strings. She pulls it apart, then stuffs the whole thing in her mouth, filling it up.
The summer Lindsey was seventeen, she and Madonna used to walk down to Antonio’s Pizza Place every day when they weren’t working. Madonna never hid her hunger. She would call Lindsey, and say, “I’m fucking ravenous, let’s go for lunch.”
Lindsey would walk down to Madonna’s house and together they would head to Tony’s.
It was called Antonio’s but owned by Cyril Butt. They never ate in. Instead they would take their pizza on its cardboard triangle to the little park down the street. When it was cold, as it often was even in July, they huddled inside winter jackets. Once it was raining and they tried sitting under an umbrella, but it blew inside out. Their pizza got soaked. When the sun shone, they sat on the edge of the fountain, folded their slices of pizza in half, and shoved them in their mouths. They always ate greedily. On the walk from Tony’s counter, the smell of cheese and tomato sauce would make their saliva run. Lindsey felt like her hunger was an angry beast that lived inside of her; it had tentacled arms that were suctioned to the inside of her stomach, and if she didn’t feed it, it would pull on her until she collapsed in on herself.
She always felt this way by the time they hit the park. The pizza tasted better outside, they both agreed. Seagulls would squawk at them, and Madonna would feed the gulls her crusts. Lindsey wiped her greasy fingers on the grass to clean them off, but a residue always remained.
Lindsey’s mom, Valerie, never ate pizza. She said it gave you zits. To her, zits were a sign of having a weak character. She lumped that all in with being overweight or depressed. She wasn’t a person who believed that acne just happened, she felt it represented something. Lindsey’s cousin Tina had gained weight during puberty. Valerie started raising her eyebrows and pushing her nose back like a pig’s every time Tina’s name came up in conversation. One time Tina called and Valerie answered the phone.
“Lindsey, it’s Tina!” Valerie yelled up the stairs.
“Who?” Lindsey shouted back.
“You know, oink, oink, Tina!” Valerie shouted back. Lindsey hoped she had covered the
mouthpiece of the phone with her hand. She was horrified by her mother’s behaviour.
Lindsey’s daughter, Rebecca, is not good at meals. She has always been a picky eater, disliking it when the different foods on her plate touch each other. She will take a few mouthfuls then push the remaining food around with her fork. The act of eating seems to repulse her.
Lindsey talked to her husband, Lloyd, about Rebecca’s eating habits, and he said, “She seems fine to me.” He took her for ice cream after dinner and Rebecca ate her custard cone. “Nothing’s wrong with her. She’s just naturally skinny, like you,” her husband proclaimed on his return.
When Lindsey turned twelve, Valerie began weighing out Lindsey’s portions of food, just like she did her own. Valerie did this without Lindsey’s dad knowing,
“The trick is to make it look easy, even if it isn’t. Appearances are everything. Do you think I would sell as many houses if I was a size fourteen and drove around in some beat up K-car? No. You have to project success, then it will come to you. A skinny agent is a successful agent and that’s true for most professions. Have you ever met a fat doctor? Fat people are lazy, Lindsey. I know no one is supposed to say it, but it’s the truth. And no one wants a fat wife, or a fat lawyer, or a fat real estate agent. We’re people who have to work at it, Lindsey—just as much as you practise dance and study at school, you have to work at being beautiful. I’m telling you this for your own good.”
Sometimes, as Lindsey’s dad got up to serve himself more, he would say, “Aren’t you hungry, Lindsey? You want seconds?”
“Oh no, I’m stuffed full,” Lindsey knew to say as she longed for another scoop of mashed potatoes.
Lindsey still counts up the calories of everything she eats. She can’t help it. She keeps a silent running tab in her head and could easily tell you the caloric count of almost any plate of food. Sometimes she can feel the shape of sixes and sevens in her mouth instead of salmon and steamed broccoli. For a long time, she kept a diary, putting down a number for every meal she ate and writing down a detailed description. It wasn’t until she got married and moved in with Lloyd that she stopped keeping a written record.
Rebecca likes foods in small manageable packages. Lindsey fills the house with cheese strings, little packages of real fruit gummies, tiny tubs of hummus and granola bars. When she can, she buys mini apples, bananas and clementines. Lindsey arranges these alluringly in a cut-glass fruit bowl. Rebecca will graze on these offerings and this helps put Lindsey’s mind at ease.
Valerie has always been on a diet, from grapefruit to raw food to Atkins. Valerie, now sixty-five, is currently on the 5:2 diet and Lindsey avoids talking to her on the days when her calories are restricted. Valerie is always telling Rebecca how great she looks. “You’ve got a lovely figure,” she says to Rebecca as Lindsey stares at her daughter, trying to decide how skinny is too skinny. She wears big hoodies and skinny jeans, and Lindsey finds it hard to see the actual shape of her daughter’s top half. Rebecca keeps her hood up most of the time, her earphones plugged in, wrapped up in a protective bubble of cloth and sound.
The year before she went to university, Lindsey and Madonna spent all their free time together. Lindsey felt like a different person with Madonna. They lay in the grass and sucked on Popsicles, they ate licorice, they made sandwiches with chips stuck inside to give them crunch. Lindsey didn’t write these foods down, somehow things she ate with Madonna didn’t seem to count. They lay on Madonna’s front yard and watched people walking by as they brushed away ants that crawled up their cut-off shorts.
The day it happened, the thing between them, Madonna’s mom Jackie was out to work and they had the house to themselves. The radio was playing loudly. The windows were open and the air coming in was all cut grass and just a hint of the sweet smell of crab from down at the dock. Madonna was giving Lindsey a lesson in hair removal, having recently switched from shaving to waxing. They melted the wax in the microwave and headed to the bathroom. Madonna was going to do her legs first to demonstrate the technique, then Lindsey was going to do hers. They had taken off their jean shorts and were wearing T-shirts and underwear. Madonna’s bikini-cut panties were zebra-printed and Lindsey’s hipsters had a yellow daisy on the front. Lindsey was sitting on the closed lid of the toilet marvelling at the stuff all over the bathroom counter, the spilt powder, the bottles and jars of cream, the lidless tube of toothpaste. Seeing this would give her mother a heart attack. She imagined brushing her teeth and leaving the lid off, smearing a gob of toothpaste in the sink. The sight of the paste, like a speck of minty ejaculate, would push Valerie over the edge.
“It hurts, but the wax does a way better job than a razor,” Madonna said. “I’m gonna do my bikini line too. My mom just lets her pubes go wild. She’s got a massive ’70s porno bush.”
“I have never seen Valerie’s pubes. They’re probably hair-sprayed into place.” Lindsey got off the toilet and looked in the mirror above the sink to give Madonna some privacy. Madonna was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, her legs splayed out into the bath, and Lindsey watched Madonna’s reflection, saw her head bent down to peer at the job she was doing.
“Pass me the garbage,” Madonna said.
Lindsey held out a pink plastic garbage bin with a grocery-store bag liner. Madonna dropped her waxing paper in and Lindsey noticed how fine the hairs attached to it were, light brown and soft-looking, not coarse and black like her own.
“Come on, your turn now.” Madonna beckoned Lindsey and she sat on the edge of the tub. Madonna sat beside her. Madonna demonstrated the first strip on Lindsey’s calf, she held Lindsey’s skin taught with one hand and wrenched off the paper with the other. It hurt, but it was satisfying seeing the paper covered in her stubble. Madonna ran her hand over Lindsey’s skin, “smooooooothhhh” she preened. Lindsey did the rest herself. Madonna stayed sitting beside her.
“It gets easier the more you do it. The first time hurt like hell, but then you get used to it. Just like sex. We gonna do your bikini line?”
“No, I’ll do it later.”
“Don’t be such a prude, Linds. Let me do it for you. Keep your underpants on and I’ll do it fast.”
That was how it started. Lindsey could still remember how it felt, Madonna crouching in front of her and pushing her legs apart.
The wax was hot and Lindsey could feel Madonna smoothing on the strip right next to the hinge of her thigh. No one had touched her there since she was old enough to wipe her own bum, and it made her cheeks red. She looked up at the ceiling at a mildew stain. She wondered if Madonna’s mom knew it was there. She flinched when Madonna stripped away the paper. When she was on the other side, Lindsey thought it might be an accident when she felt the edge of Madonna’s finger slip into her underwear. She could tell she was swelling up. She didn’t know what to do, if she told Madonna to stop before she was done it would seem suspicious, but she could feel her underwear getting wet. Madonna did the other side.
“Wait,” Madonna said quietly when Lindsey started to move. The atmosphere in the room shifted. The radio was playing in the bathroom, something Lindsey didn’t know, the song was soft and slow, and for once Madonna wasn’t talking. She took a washcloth and a bar of soap. She wet the cloth and washed down Lindsey’s legs with the wet cloth. When she started up close to Lindsey’s crotch, Lindsey had never been so wet, not even when she and Dan Pike made out in the back of his car. And Dan was twenty-two. No one had ever touched her so gently before. With the guys she fooled around with, they always just tried to rub the outside of her jeans really hard, and she always swatted their hands away. When Madonna was done washing off the excess wax, she grabbed a bottle of body lotion, raspberry scented, and started rubbing the cream onto her legs and then around the edges of Lindsey’s underwear. Lindsey felt the finger again, but this time it was deliberate. She looked down and Madonna was looking up at her. She snuck her finger in further and Lindsey gasped. Madonna smiled.
Madonna explored slowly just using the one hand, her pinky slipped just into the entrance. Then she moved on. She brushed Lindsey’s clit with her fingertip and Lindsey’s legs started to shake. Madonna touched her there again and Lindsey pushed herself towards that touch.
Madonna kissed Lindsey afterwards. It was soft. There was no scratching boy stubble or clunking teeth or thrusting tongues. Lindsey put her hand on Madonna’s thigh but Madonna put her own hand over it. “Mom’s going to be home real soon.”
They stopped kissing and put on their clothes. They were in the kitchen drinking chocolate milk when Madonna’s mom came in from work. That chocolate milk tasted so good. At her own house, Lindsey ran into the bathroom and wiped her mouth with a washcloth. She took off her underpants, brought them to her face and inhaled their smell, then she washed them in the sink using hand soap and hung them to dry at the back of her closed closet so Valerie wouldn’t ask questions.
Lindsey washes her hands. She puts the glass in the dishwasher and puts the plastic from the cheese string in the garbage. She buries it under some used paper towels and washes her hands again.
She goes upstairs and collects her daughter’s laundry. Her dirty clothes are in the basket on the floor. Lindsey stirs them with her foot. An uneaten apple sits on Rebecca’s bedside table and the sight of it makes Lindsey’s stomach clench.
Rebecca is distant with Lindsey these days. Lloyd says it’s just her age, but Lindsey isn’t sure. She doesn’t know who Rebecca’s friends are. Not really, names but not ones she can add faces too. Lindsey does not open Rebecca’s drawers; she thinks about it, but she doesn’t. She stands in the middle of her daughter’s room and closes her eyes and breathes in the air trying to catch Rebecca’s essence.
Valerie regularly walked into Lindsey’s room without asking. There was no question that Valerie went through her drawers, and Lindsey’s dad’s jacket pockets too. Lindsey was expected to make her bed every morning, and clothes left on the floor would get thrown out. This is how Lindsey lost her favourite blue sweater, it had slipped from the back of her desk chair, but Valerie said Lindsey should have put it in a drawer. She’d loved that sweater. Valerie vacuumed every three days. If Lindsey attempted to sleep past 8 AM on a weekend, Valerie would choose this moment to come in with the vacuum, she would run it back and forth, back and forth, as Lindsey pulled the covers over her head. A few weeks every year, when Lindsey’s mom flew to visit her sister, Lindsey and her dad let the place go. The day before Valerie returned, they rushed around cleaning and gathering dishes that they had purposely allowed to collect in their bedrooms and the living room. She remembered her dad taking an empty pizza box and hiding it in the trunk of his car, then realizing halfway to town he’d have to open the trunk to put in Valerie’s suitcase. They’d stopped at the side of the highway and he’d taken the box and flung it in the ditch at the side of the road, then pulled out fast and shamefaced.
Lindsey shakes her head, trying to shake out the past, feeling stuck between her teenage body and the one she has now. If Lloyd was home, she’d try and take him to bed. But she can’t remember the last time they had sex during daylight hours, and Lloyd has rules. He won’t fuck her before a day in court or a golf game. He says that it makes him too relaxed. That he needs the pent-up energy of mild sexual frustration to be at the top of his game. What would Lloyd do if she texted him right now, “I want you.” Or sent a picture of herself lying back on the bed, her finger pulling at the corner of her mouth? He’d probably think the text was some kind of autofill mistake. If she sent the picture, well, she couldn’t imagine his reaction. She carries her daughter’s dirty clothes down to the laundry room. She starts the machine and then walks into the kitchen, she opens the fridge and eyes its contents, she shuts the door. She takes out a step stool and looks in the back of one of her cupboards, she pulls out a bag of chips. Salt and vinegar, she rips them open and shoves a handful into her mouth. Lindsey heads back upstairs. She takes off her clothes and pulls on the robe Lloyd gave her a few years ago for Valentine’s Day. It is thin silk. She lies back on the bed and pulls out her phone. She finds the filter that smooths out the wrinkles in her neck and makes a pouty face at the camera.
First, she hears the door, then her mother’s voice.
“Lindsey, are you home? Where are you, Lindsey?” She closes her eyes for a moment, squeezes them shut. Wonders for the hundredth time why she has given her mother a key. She can hear Valerie coming in the door. She slides underneath the bed. She holds her breath, turns off the ringer on her phone. She hears Valerie mounting the stairs, “Lindsey? Lindsey?”
Susie Taylor’s stories have appeared in Geist, PRISM International, the Fiddlehead, Riddle Fence, Room Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the author of the novel Even Weirder Than Before. Her short story collection Vigil is forthcoming in 2024 from Breakwater Books. She lives in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland.