By the time fourth grade started by lips were perpetually red, swollen, and cracked. I remember the feel of my own skin between my teeth as I ripped off the dangling bits and swallowed them. I remember the sensation of them inching down my throat. I spent hours in the bathroom. I was pretty constipated. Probably because I hated doing stuff like “moving” or “eating things that weren’t candy.”
I think these constipation spells made me an introspective adult. I am only, like, 75% kidding. I have vivid memories of what that toilet seat felt like, of the shape of the antiqued flusher. I remember all the time I spent there, sitting on the toilet, taking a prolonged dump as I strained and poured over every book I could get my hands on. You were as likely to find me paging through "Tropic of Cancer" as you were to find me reading "Flowers In The Attic."
Please don’t confuse this as me coyly implying I was a child genius. Far from it. I did as little work as possible in school, and I maybe only fully understand a quarter of the stories I inhaled. Ask me about how I just re-read Kafka, shaking my head the whole while over the fact that I thought I knew what was going on there when I was nine. If I wasn’t sitting on the toilet, I was making faces in the bathroom mirror, or taking long baths that I made as hot as I could stand, hot enough to make me feel drowsy and sick.
The door had a lock, and I utilized it. It’s crazy to think that I wasn’t masturbating. For a kid with three siblings, I spent a lot of time by myself. I wasn’t lonely -- I sought this time out desperately. I needed it, I guess.
The bathroom was on the third floor of the rectory where we lived. I only had to share it with my sister. She was pretty active, always outside or at ballet class. So the bathroom was my own domain, for the most part. She’d scream and rail when she found out I’d been using her special Panda Bear hand wash, but I couldn’t even muster up an iota of guilt: It was in my kingdom. I ruled over all I saw, from the old white, claw-foot tub to the black and blue fighting fish I’d named Salamanca who sat between the double sinks.
In fourth grade I was in love with a kid named Jeb. He was blonde haired and blue eyed. Jeb marked the first in a series of guys who were painfully, traditionally good-looking and absolutely not interested in me at all. I carved his name and mine on the swing-set in our side yard. I confessed my feelings to anyone who would listen, my mom, my classmates, my sister. There’s no way Jeb didn’t know.
During gym class, playing dodgeball, he’d aim for my face or my butt or my stomach -- I was a pretty easy target. I would have stood still if he’d asked me to. I don’t remember my gym’s teacher name but I thank god he was not enough of a sadist to have elementary school age kids pick their own teams. I don’t think my heart could have stood for it.
I don’t remember ever speaking to Jeb. I remember once we were all playing floor hockey, a game at which I was surprisingly okay, and whipping the puck into the goal with a satisfying slap. I remember Jeb -- on my team -- bellowing, “Nice one, Stokes!” I remember how those words made me tingle all over. Later on in the same game, I would accidentally kneecap him, so eager was I to prove that I would do anything to win his heart. Even sports.
At home, I swung on my belly from the swing-set and stared at our names, near and then far, near and then far. I pretended I was flying which worked until my knees got long enough to brush the ground.
My dreams were vivid when I was kid. I remember them much more clearly than what I dreamed last night. The person I was in my dreams, she looked so different than I did, than I ever have. I dreamed one night that Jeb came over to my house for a party and I couldn’t find him.
I climbed up the backstairs to the third floor where my room was, and Jeb wasn’t in my room. I knew he wasn’t. I knew where he was. He was in the bathroom. I went inside and found him holding the Salamanca’s bowl. Except, it was empty. “Where’s the fish?” He asked, and I was inexplicably mortified.
I told my sister about that dream as we chatted in the bathroom and I went to feed Salamanca the compressed brown squares of dried up worms that constituted her breakfast. My hand froze above the bowl. The fish was nowhere in sight. From the doorway of the bathroom my sister screamed and pointed down. The fish was between my feet, fried up and dead. I started screaming, we both ran out of the bathroom.
I didn’t cry. I don’t think I was the one who cleaned it up. I went back into the bathroom afterwards to try to figure out what happened. The bowl was far too full, water up to the top of its lip. “Your brain must have been trying to tell you that you put too much water in the bowl,” said my mom when I went and told her, saucer-eyed, about what I was so sure was a psychic vision.
She hugged me, my sister was back outside, and I wondered what else my brain knew that I didn’t.