Bleach and Alcohol

By Lara Connolly

When I saw you again, I wanted it to be like we were never apart. I wanted you to look exactly how you did when you left. For some reason, I expected you to be wearing the exact same outfit. I thought you might still have that piece of gauze taped to your neck. That was silly, wasn’t it? Hair grows and wounds heal and we get new clothes when the old ones get faded and worn.

I wore the same outfit for a week without washing it. That was after you left. I got in the shower and ran hot water over myself, but I didn’t use soap or shampoo. I stopped putting detergent in the machine when I did laundry. I didn’t use toothpaste when I brushed my teeth. Mom would look at the clothes that came out of the dryer and sniff them and frown and transfer them back to the washing machine for a second attempt. I’m still not sure if she knew exactly what I was doing.

I let my fingernails grow long and jagged and dirt collected underneath them. I started dating Pete who had dreadlocks and a beard. Do you remember him, Tabitha? I think you knew him. We fooled around in his car, and he smoked and I told him to roll up the windows so I would smell like cigarette smoke.

“You want the windows up?” he said.

I nodded.

“Do you want to just, like, smoke one?” he asked.

I shook my head.

I went home smelling like sweat and cigarettes with greasy hair and rumpled clothes. I didn’t even check a mirror before I went inside. I knew Mom was there, waiting for me.

Remember when I was in third grade and I brought home that notice from the class? You must have been nine or ten. It said that head lice were going around the school. Mom kept asking me if my head itched. I told her it didn’t, but she kept asking, again and again, as if she couldn’t hear me. I began to wonder if it actually did. That was when you reached up and rubbed the top of your own head, remember? Mom’s face changed into the familiar wide-eyed expression, as if she were watching something catastrophic occur in the distance.

Do you remember that face? How could you forget. She grabbed your arm and dragged you into the bathroom.

You told her she was hurting you, but she ignored you. She told you to sit down on the lid of the toilet seat.

She rifled through the drawer under the sink and produced a pair of scissors. I remember how you squeezed your eyelids together as Mom picked up strand after strand of long brown hair and snipped. She cut it close to the surface of your head, and when the floor around the toilet was covered with pieces of hair, she told me to get a disposable razor out of the medicine cabinet. I swallowed and looked at you, Tabitha. I wanted you to tell me what to do. You didn’t really look like yourself anymore. Your hair had reached the middle of your back for as long as I could remember. Now it stood up in jagged pieces.

You nodded to me, and I opened the medicine cabinet and peeled open the Ziploc bag where Mom kept her collection of new plastic razors. Remember how she only used disposable razors, because she thought they were more sanitary? She ran the razor under the faucet for a moment and then started sliding it across your head in short strokes.

Your scalp was bright white against the freckled skin of your face, and every few strokes, Mom would nick the skin and little drops of blood would rise to the surface of your scalp. I stared at the spotless tiles beneath my socked feet. Remember how we weren’t allowed to wear shoes in the house, but Mom couldn’t stand the sight of bare feet? We always walked around the house in bleached white socks.

She told me to get the isopropyl alcohol from under the sink and the little gauze squares, individually wrapped so they’d be sterile. She rubbed each nick hard with an alcohol drenched gauze strip and then continued to shave. You would inhale sharply when the alcohol touched your skin, but you never moved. You kept your eyes squeezed together.

After Mom went to bed that night, I went into your room and got into your bed. I rubbed the soft scabby skin on top of your head and I called you baldy.

You smiled and rubbed my bald head back. You said it was soft as a baby’s butt.

I read that smiling is the best remedy against an imminent burst into tears. It has to do with increased endorphins in the brain. Did you know that, Tabitha? You were always good at smiling no matter what. I might have been more convinced by your smile then if you hadn’t always had beautiful hair. It was long and straight and you could wear it in braids or curls or just let it hang down your back. Mine was unmanageable, and it hurt when Mom jerked a brush through it. I wasn’t always good at smiling like you were. Sometimes, I cried.

I knew people at school were going to ask questions, but other girls had to get short “Lice Control” haircuts. You said this wasn’t that different. None one would have to know that Mom hadn’t found any lice on either of our heads.

I remember thinking it was my fault for showing Mom the flyer, but you said it was your fault. You touched the side of your neck, stained with reddish purple blotches, the spot Mom never stopped scrubbing. The doctor told us he could remove it with lasers when you were a little older, remember? But Mom seemed to think that if she only rubbed it a little harder, she could erase it.

Mom never liked Patches because of the hair, remember? There was too much vacuuming and lint-rolling to be done, and she was constantly sweeping up the grains of litter around his box.

Patches never liked Mom much either, remember? He didn’t like the way she walked around the house, loudly and quickly, or the rumbling of the vacuum, or the swift movements of her broom. He avoided her by keeping to my room. He was always on or under my bed. When Mom poured bleach and brandished steel wool, all three of us would crawl under the bed together. Remember that?

It was the little black spots that I found under Patches’s chin that created the final confrontation between Mom and Patches. I should have shown them to you first. You probably would have known that it was just feline acne. They were hard and crusty against my fingers when I reached under his chin to scratch his favorite spot. I scooped him into my arms and carried him to Mom where she was disinfecting the grout in the bathroom.

“Give him to me,” she said. I hesitated. Usually Mom didn’t touch Patches. She didn’t like him to shed on her. “I said give him to me.”

She was still wearing yellow rubber gloves when she plucked Patches from me, his claws clambering to grip onto my skin. Mom poured some alcohol from the jug under the sink onto the abrasive side of the sponge. Patches struggled and mewed as she began to scrub under his chin. She pinned him beneath her arm, and he ripped at her arms with all four claws.

“That’s it,” she said and lifted him by the stomach out in front of her, all four of his legs scrambling to get a grip on something. “Open that door. Now.”

I unlocked the front door of the house and Mom dropped him onto the porch. He ran across the street. We never saw him again after that. I don’t know why I didn’t talk to you first.

You heard me crying in my bedroom that night, remember?

I told you I was trying to be quiet. “It’s just weird not having him here,” I said. You got under the covers with me. I didn’t tell you that you didn’t match up to Patches’s warm, soft body wriggled up as close as possible to my side. You weren’t as furry. Cats have higher body temperatures than us, you know.

You told me he’d find another little girl in a house that smelled like casserole. You said normal moms made casserole for dinner.

For a long time, I thought I was doing the right thing when I pointed out things that were dirty. All Mom ever wanted was to clean, and I wanted to help her. There were a lot of things that you understood before I did, but I never realized that. I think that’s why I tried to convince you to stay when you said we had to leave.

I didn’t know what she would do without two daughters to wash. You shook your head. You pressed a piece of gauze against your neck where Mom had rubbed your birthmark raw.

Your voice sounded hard, Tabitha. You sounded a little like Mom for a moment. You threw clothes into a big suitcase. You told me that Dad was coming to pick you up tomorrow.

I didn’t know how to explain to you why I had to stay. You were the one that was good at saying and doing. All I ever did was watch.

Mom didn’t find out until the next day when you came downstairs rolling your suitcase. Dad had called to say he was outside.

You still had a piece of gauze taped to the side of your neck. You walked straight out the door. Mom parted the curtains and watched you drive away. I waited for Mom to scream, but she just crumpled to the floor and hugged her knees to her chest and cried. I had never seen her cry before, at least not without yelling too. There was something unfamiliar about the whole scene without you there.

It’s like when they replace an actor on a TV show without explaining anything. Suddenly, your favorite character looks completely different and the producers don’t think you’ll notice. Not only did the producers change Mom into a different woman, they dropped your storyline altogether. I went upstairs to your room. The closet wasn’t as full as it had been, but nothing else was out of place. I peeled back the bleached white comforter of your bed and climbed in.

It still smelled like you, but I knew it would soon fade, the same way the fragranced cat litter smell went away with Patches. They dropped his storyline too, Tabitha.

When I woke up a few hours later, I was hungry. The house smelled like bleach. Mom was in the kitchen rubbing furiously at the floor with steel wool. This new actress they replaced her with was small. Her eyes were wide and panicked. She looked a little like Patches had when she’d had him pinned down.

The floor was creaking beneath her bleeding hands. I carefully stepped around her to the refrigerator. The new actress that played Mom didn’t speak.

I had seen Mom on her hands and knees many times before, but she’d never looked small.

Mom switched the vacuum off when I came in the front door. “You need to wash your hair,” she said.

I shrugged and turned toward the stairs. Mom grabbed my forearm and squeezed hard. I think she wanted it to hurt, but her short, square fingernails couldn’t inflict the same kind of damage that mine could. I dug my overgrown nails into the soft white arm that squeezed mine and Mom dropped it immediately.

“What if I don’t?” I said. “What will you do? Scrub me until I bleed?” I knew that was going to make Mom cry, Tabitha. I think that’s what I wanted. Before you left, it would have made me feel guilty. I would have wanted to help her clean something, but now I only felt relieved, victorious even. I wonder what you would have thought of me then.

I think Mom just wanted to be clean, Tabitha. When I saw you the other day, I wondered if you thought it was my fault. You wanted to know if it hurt when she drank the bleach and it corroded her digestive tract and made the acid leak into her body.

I wanted to know if hurt when the doctor took a laser to the side of your neck. It was like the make up artist couldn’t find the right color to paint on your birthmark. It was still there, if you were looking for it, but it was too faint.

I think the producers replaced you too and expected me not to notice.

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