the writing disorder


New Fiction


by Katja Zurcher

      It was raining slightly. Not enough to notice as we walked to the truck, but it misted the windshield and created a film as the wipers flicked across. I still remember how I clutched both sides of the seat. The leather was dingy and cracked, crumbs ground into the creases. My stomach hurt for some reason. It twisted deep inside me like those giant pretzels they sell at the mall.
      “Hey,” Adam said. I leaned the side of my head against the window, the motor vibrating my teeth. I could feel him staring.
      “Hey,” I replied, not looking at him.
      “You want to go get some ice cream or something?”
      “Are you sure? Or we could do coffee or whatever.” I glanced over at him and shook my head. He cleared his throat. “Are you ok?” he asked.
      He was silent for a moment, then, “You’re not upset or anything?”
      “I’m fine. Seriously.” I turned to smile at him. My skin was still cool from the window. “Promise.”
      “Because if you’re upset I want us to talk about it. You didn’t have to do anything you didn’t want to. You knew that, right?” He was staring hard at me now, not watching the road. The air freshener hanging from the mirror swayed violently as the truck swerved.
      “Yeah, I said I was fine.” I could hear my voice shake a bit at the end, and I pretended to cough.
      It was dark when he pulled into my driveway, and the headlights scattered the shadows. When I opened the car door he leaned over to kiss me and missed. His lips brushed the side of my mouth. Waving awkwardly, I closed the door and took the front steps two at a time. I could hear Mom humming tunelessly in the kitchen.
      “Madeline, is that you?” she called. Her shadow loomed around the corner like a witch from a fairy tale, and I ran the rest of the way up the stairs. “Madeline?” she called again. I ripped at my clothes and turned on the shower, slipping behind the curtain as she walked into my room.
       “I’m taking a shower,” I said over the gush of water. She didn’t say anything for a moment, but I could see her silhouette in the doorway, tinged pink by the frosted shower curtain.
      “Are you okay?” she asked. I clutched my arms close to my body even though I knew she couldn’t see me.
      “Yeah. How come?” I had never been a good liar, but I hoped that the pounding of the shower muffled my voice so she couldn’t tell. I was surprised she could hear me at all.
      “Are you sure?” Her silhouette moved a little closer.
      “Mom! I’m in the shower,” I yelled.
      “Ok, ok,” she said. “How does pizza sound for dinner?”
      “Great. Now can you just go?” As I watched her outline move away, I saw that I was trembling.
      My hair was plastered to the side of my face the way seaweed attaches to your legs in the ocean, and my skin was already too red from the heat. I squeezed shampoo in my hand and started working it through my hair. It didn’t need to be washed. It used to be long and heavy, weighed down by thick curls. But I decided that the curls made me look too young, and I had my hair cut short. My neck felt strange, exposed and thin beneath my hands. Mom told me that I looked like a red headed Aubrey Hepburn. My cousin Beth and I tried to dye it black, and she convinced me that it looked good until Mom pointed out, horrified, that my eyebrows were still very red. My hands followed the suds as they slipped down my body. I kept waiting, but I didn’t feel any different at all.
      That night I lay on my bed, staring up at the ceiling. Mom had offered to help me redo my room a few weeks earlier, and I told her I would think about it. Her new “calming color” was cobalt, and she was covering the house with it. My room was filled with old basketball trophies and posters on the walls. I played when I was younger, and Dad drove me to every practice. We rolled down the windows and sang Beatles songs at the top of our lungs, even when it was freezing outside. During sophomore year, I realized boys would pay more attention to me if I wore a cheerleading skirt instead. Dad didn’t say much when I quit, but he never came to the games anymore. I wasn’t sure what to do with the trophies. They had been there for so long the room would look empty without them, not like mine. Adam had never been in it.
      I buried my face in the down of the duvet cover and breathed in. Adam’s comforter had been rough against my bare skin. After I got out of the shower I noticed that it had left a place on my shoulder, slightly red like a rug burn. His room always smelled a little sour, but that afternoon his mom had been baking something downstairs for the Junior League, and, sweet and rich, its aroma rolled in from under the closed door. There was nothing on his dresser except for a bowl of cereal and picture of him with his arm around a girl I didn’t know. I still hadn’t asked who she was. The floor was covered with dirty clothes, and when he left to go to the bathroom I kicked them into one of the corners. After he came back, his hands smelled of Dove soap, and when he touched my face the smell reminded me of Mom.
      Mom was on the phone in the living room, and her voice carried up the stairs, soft and wordless. Concentrating, holding my breath, I tried to listen, and through the hum of her voice I thought I heard my name. The wooden boards under the carpet groaned as I crossed the room to pick up my upstairs extension. She was talking to her mother, Nana. I walked back with the phone, pausing at each step to disguise my footsteps. With a final leap I crumpled onto my bed with the phone pressed to my cheek.
      Inhaling shallowly through my mouth, I listened as they talked about my little brother. Nana was telling Mom that the theater thing was just a phase he would grow out of. She punctuated each sentence with a high sniffled laugh. Suddenly she stopped.
      “So how is the boyfriend?” I felt a tingle spread from my chest to my shoulders and down my arms.
      “Adam. Of course. I can never remember his name.”
      “He’s fine. She was out with him tonight.”
      “They aren’t getting too serious, are they?”
      “Mother.” Mom’s voice was sharp, and Nana didn’t reply. In the silence I realized that I had breathed in a tiny gasp. “Hold on for a second,” Mom said, and there was a slight thud as she set the phone down on the coffee table. Her footsteps echoed as she walked down the hall and stopped at the foot of the stairs. Pressing End with sweaty hands, I rolled over and dropped the phone down the side of the bed where it got caught between the mattress and the wall.
      Adam had called a little earlier, and we’d talked like nothing had happened. I don’t know what I was expecting. Some part of me thought he wouldn’t call at all. Before he hung up I asked him in a small voice not to tell anyone. He seemed confused at first, maybe even hurt.
      “Why not?” he asked. “Are you embarrassed or something?”
      “No!” I said, even though it was a lie. “It’s just, you know. My school and everything. If people found out it would be a big deal.” He let out a strange, quiet laugh that I had never heard before, but he said ok.
      Adam knew all about Harvest Hills Baptist. We do it by the Book! One time in 9th grade health class they split up the boys and girls. The school nurse came in to talk to us about our purity. She held up a decorative bird cage filled with plastic flowers and greenery. Wire filled tendrils curled around the bars of the cage and crushed up against the top.
      “You are a beautiful garden,” she said, setting the bird cage down with a flourish. We all stared blankly back at her. I leaned over to scratch at a bug bite through my knee socks, and Beth poked me hard in the ribs. Heads turned in my direction as I swallowed my squeal. Keeping my eyes on the nurse, I pinched the flabby part of Beth’s arm.
      “You must learn how to tend your garden, keep it pure. Because the world wants to destroy your garden.” She yanked at one of the flower petals, twisting at the plastic until it snapped.
      “Do you prune your garden?” Beth whispered to me. A few of the girls around us giggled.
      The nurse glared at us. “It is up to you to always be on guard.”
      We heard later they had talked to the boys about the dangers of masturbation.

      I sat next to Beth the next morning at church. I could feel the spot from Adam’s comforter against my blouse. I found myself reaching up to touch it when no one was watching. It seemed warm through the fabric.
      My dad’s family was big, and we always sat in the first two rows. The rows were nothing more than folding chairs lined together in a giant auditorium. The cushions were red, smelled like someone’s attic, and when Beth and I were little we picked the pills off the cloth and collected them in our pockets. Two large screens flanked the wooden cross that hung above the podium. Once, a couple from out of town sat in one of our rows. My grandfather shuffled over to them, his Sunday jacket stretching tightly across his back as he moved. Smiling, he welcomed them to our church, and then asked them to move. My grandmother shook her head. Bless their hearts, they didn’t know.
      We bowed our heads to pray, and Beth kicked at my leg, the tip of her heel pressing into my calf. As I kicked her back I noticed Mom glance down at me from under her eye lashes, and her lips pursed together. She shifted her weight so her leg was also touching mine. Beth tried to stifle a giggle, but it came out in little choking puffs. As the overhead lights dimmed, the stage lights flashed yellow and blue, and the large screens powered on like two waking eyes. We stood to sing, and Beth smirked at me through her dramatic lip sync.
      When people stood up to greet each other I grabbed Beth by the wrist. “I have something to tell you,” I whispered. We stayed seated, and, grinning, she leaned closer. We sat angled in, knee to knee with foreheads touching. I tore off a page in my devotional notebook. I did it with Adam, I wrote and passed it to her. Beth’s eyes grew big as she read the note. She looked up at me, and I could feel my face getting warm. Everyone began to take their seats as she yanked the pen out of my hand. What?! How was it? she scribbled sideways across the paper. I tilted my head to read it and then shrugged. Suddenly, she crumpled the paper into a ball and slipped it under my fingers. I heard Mom clear her throat, her eyes on my face, as I stood up and made my way down the row, bumping knees and stepping on purses. The wad of paper was still clutched in my hand.
      The door of the auditorium shut behind me, stifling the preacher’s voice with a heavy snap. There weren’t any windows, and the artificial light created strange muted shadows. I walked carefully as if I were trying not to wake someone, and I listened for my mother’s steps behind me. My blouse felt strangely stifling, light hands pressing at my neck. I unbuttoned it and breathed deeply.
      The woman’s restroom smelled like powdered roses. The scent was thick and got caught in the back of my throat. I went into the first stall, the toilet water still blue from the cleanser put in that morning, and tore the note into tiny pieces until it wouldn’t tear anymore. All of the pieces twirled down into the bowl except for a few that still stuck to my palms. I brushed my hands together, and they fell too. Steadying myself with the walls of the stall, I lifted my foot and pushed down on the toilet handle.
      Beth found me after church and grabbed me by the crook of my arm. With a quick glance at our parents who were still mingling in the lobby, she pulled me past the exiting congregation.
       “Why didn’t you call me last night?” she asked.
      I laughed and shrugged. “I just wanted to go to bed.” She stared at me, waiting for me to say more. “There isn’t really anything to tell.” I hesitated and remembered squeezing my eyes shut. I didn’t want to look at him and in my head: I’m sorry I’m sorry until the words didn’t mean anything anymore. And he kept his socks on. “It was kind of weird.”
      “Everyone thinks that at first.”
      “How would you know?”
      “Does this mean you guys are in love now?” she asked.
      She saw my face. “It doesn’t matter.” She touched my shoulder so lightly that I could hardly feel her hand through my blouse. We both looked at the ground, and I didn’t know what to say to her. She scratched at the back of her head and swayed a little to the side like she was about to leave.
      “You know they make such a big deal about it, but—” I squeezed Beth’s hand to shut her up.
      In line with family tradition, we went to The Guenther House for Sunday brunch. Dad dropped us off at the front door, so we could get a table while he and my brother parked the minivan. Mom and I stood shoulder to shoulder in the crowd of fellow church-goers, and standing next to her I felt awkward and clunky. I was painfully aware that my feet were much too big and that my hair was still that awful shade of black. Mom was tall and elegant, and people complimented her red hair like they never had done mine. Today, she wore a wrist full of thin silver bangles that tinkled when she moved. She told me that I looked exactly like she did in high school, but I had seen pictures; I knew she was lying.
      “I’ve been thinking, how would you like a shopping date after school tomorrow?” she asked, leaning her head towards me to be heard in the crowd. “We can get dinner and make an evening of it.”
      I looked up, surprised. “I have a lot of homework on Mondays.”
      “We could get coffee? Have some girl time.”
      Dad suddenly appeared behind her. “What are you two scheming about?” he asked, kissing her lightly on the cheek.
      She laughed, and the bangles on her arm chimed softly. “Nothing at all.”

      Adam said that he wanted to come over and talk that night, so I sat on the front steps to wait for him. A few worms lay shriveled on the cement and I scraped at them with a stick. They peeled up like scabs, leaving discolored marks. Even though it was only six o’clock when Adam pulled into the driveway, the sky was almost completely dark and shadows leaned away from the street lights. I didn’t stand up to meet him as he walked up the front walk. His hands were shoved deep into the pockets of his jacket, and he walked with a slight sway.
      “It’s kind of cold out here,” he said, sitting down next to me.
      “Feels ok to me.”
      He drummed his fingers on his knees and looked at me. “Do anything cool today?”
      “Not really. Just church.”
      “Cool.” He scratched at his nose while I looked up at him expectantly. Instead of meeting my eyes, he picked up a leaf and started tearing it apart in little pieces.
      “Are you sure you’re ok?” he asked.
      “Yeah.” I nudged his arm with my elbow. “I already told you.”
      “I know,” he said. “You just seem mad at me or something.”
      “Adam, I told—”
      “I really care about you a lot,” he said. I don’t think he even realized that he was interrupting me. He was still staring at his leaf.
      “I care about you too.”
      “No, like,” he hesitated. “I just feel like I really hurt you or something. I know how uptight you get with that kind of stuff.”
      “What, do you think I’m a prude or something?” I demanded. I could hear my voice, high and childlike, but I couldn’t help it. He didn’t answer me. He didn’t even look at me. He just kept looking down at the leaf, twirling it in his fingers. Its stalk and veins hung limp where he had torn off the papery flesh.
      “No,” he finally said.
      We sat a while staring into the street. Slumping over, I rested my chin in my hands. The street was quiet, and I felt quiet and empty. Adam slipped his hand around my waist and tugged me closer. I gave way like a rag doll and let him hold me. He always smelled piney, probably his cologne, and a little like pencil shavings. I’d told this to Beth. She laughed and told me it was weird. But I liked it. He lifted my face and started to kiss me, timidly for a moment but then harder, gripping my leg with his hands. And I could feel where he was probably going to leave a bruise. Something warm started somewhere deep in my chest and spread to the rest of my body. He pressed himself harder against me, and I let him. He kissed my neck, whispering something in my ear. Suddenly I stopped and pulled away. He grabbed at me, and I pulled away again. He looked like I had slapped him. Before he could say anything, I walked up the front steps and went inside.
      Keeping my head down, I hurried through the kitchen and out the back door. I could hear Mom calling after me, but I didn’t stop. As soon as the door closed behind me I broke into a run, stumbling a little on the last step of the deck. I didn’t slow down until I made it to the woods at the end of the property. Collapsing on the grass, my breathing sounded loud and harsh in the silence. The sky looked strange, almost grey, and there were barely any stars. I stared up at it until my vision grew hot and blurry, and I had to wipe my eyes. There was a grumble from the front of the house as Adam started up his truck, and I imagined him peeling out of the driveway.
      Mom called my name from the deck, but I pretended I didn’t hear her. Maybe if I kept still enough she wouldn’t see me. I heard her clomp down the steps in her ugly garden shoes. We had made fun of them for years, but she still wore them.
      Lowering herself down slowly, as if her knees hurt, she sat down next to me in the grass. Without speaking, we both stared into the woods. They stretched out open before us, darker and wilder than they ever seemed during the day. The black trees grabbed at the sky. Mom sighed and squeezed my shoulder.
      “How have you been?” she asked. She didn’t look at me, only gazed out at the trees. I thought about it and slapped a mosquito.
      “I don’t know,” I finally answered.
      “Do we need to put you on the pill?” she asked. Casually, matter-of-factly. It stunned me.
      “Mama!” I squealed, covering my face. “I don’t do that stuff. I’m not like that.”
      “Like what?”
      I didn’t answer but was thankful for the dark, so she couldn’t see my face. Taking me by the shoulders, she folded me into her like she used to do when I was little. I lay my head on her chest and felt her heart right beneath my cheek. It seemed so close to the skin, as if it could bounce out if it beat any harder.
      The shadows teased my eyes, extending and pulling at the shapes in the woods, until I could actually see them moving. They changed, violent and foreign, before I could distinguish one shape from another, and the wind rattled though the branches. Mom tucked back my hair, and her fingertips brushed my ear. Her skin was surprisingly coarse. When she stood up to leave I wanted to tell her to stay, but I didn’t.
      “Mom?” The light from the house shone behind her, and she was beautiful. “I’m sorry,” I said, swallowing back something.
      She frowned and pursed her lips. “Don’t apologize,” she said. Her voice sounded dry, like a little bit of sadness was trailing it.
      I watched her go and then turned back to the woods. I could hear the crickets now, and around the flicker of stars the darkness was alive and throbbing.

Katja Zurcher is a graduate of Rhodes College. She is the recipient of the Allen Tate Creative Writing Award in fiction and a finalist for the 2011 Salem College International Literary Awards. Her work has been published in the Rhodes College literary journal, The Southwestern Review.

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