Funny How Tender Can Mean Two Things

by anna lea jancewicz

Lydia hadn’t realized Paul’s superiority to Kurt all at once.  It hadn’t been swift like food poisoning. It had crept up on her, a slow chronic cough. By the time she was aware of the idea’s germination, she had already started wearing no underwear every time Paul came to dinner.

Lydia fantasized that Paul might bend her over the kitchen sink and rip open her blouse, scattering little pearl buttons across the linoleum. He would splash dishwater on her breasts with one hand as he hitched up her skirt with the other. Or maybe they would both be in the laundry room. Paul would lift her off her feet and seat her on the clothes dryer. It would be in the middle of a permanent press cycle, and the lid would would be hot against her bare ass. She’d grip the handle to the lint trap tightly, fighting the urge to bite Paul’s neck. Lydia once imagined a scenario involving a big mixing bowl full of raw meatloaf mixture, but she didn’t want to think about that again.

 *

It was right after sunrise and Lydia stood at the kitchen sink in her pajamas, eating cold sesame beef out of a Chinese take-out container. She was looking out the window, watching her twin sister Penny emerge from her own house next door in her own pajamas. Penny circled the uprooted oak that lay toppled across the property line. She carried a big black open umbrella although the night’s storm had wasted to a drizzle. She was wearing polka-dotted rain boots. It was high tide and half of their front lawns were ankle deep in water. That’s what riverfront living got you these days. That and a fallen oak.

Sometimes, watching Penny from afar was like finding an old photograph of herself that Lydia had never seen before. Lydia’s mind would glitch for a moment, trying to remember what it had felt like to be right there, right then, in the moment she was watching unfold. She didn’t know if Penny ever felt like that. Lydia had never asked her.

Lydia and Penny had had a fairy tale double wedding, with two plastic blonde brides perched opposite two plastic blonde grooms atop a gigantic tiered cake. They’d married another pair of twins, Kurt and Paul, whom they’d met on a cruise for dental professionals. Lydia and Penny were both former dental hygienists, and it had seemed that they were destined for the Doctors Bishop, DDS. Everybody thought it was the most adorable thing. Their Instagram photos got hundreds of likes. Colleagues had fallen all over themselves making sure they were introduced on that cruise, encouraging them to eat their meals together. It was just luck that Penny sat down across from Paul at that first lunch, and Lydia faced Kurt.

They’d started planning the wedding right away. After the newly recoupled couples came back from their double honeymoon in Mexico, they moved into near-identical houses next door to one another. It had been prime real estate then, before the flooding got so bad. Lydia and Penny each planted a rose garden. Lydia and Penny each made casseroles, and ironed shirts. Lydia and Penny each got pregnant.

But Penny had a little girl, now almost 18 months old, with fat cheeks and curls, and Lydia did not. Lydia’s blue baby never breathed. Lydia might have been able to forgive her sister for that, but she couldn’t forgive Penny for being loved by Paul. Lydia was in love with her sister’s husband.

The week after the stillbirth, while Lydia was writhing in bed with plugged ducts, Penny had brought her the gift of a canary in a cage. To cheer her. Lydia said thank you then hung the cage in the laundry room. She placed a blanket over the bird and went back to bed with her hot washcloths and sage tea. She was pumping just enough to relieve some pain, pouring out the milk into the bathroom sink.

Lydia did not feed that bird once. Each day, she measured out a scoop of seed into the downstairs toilet and flushed. Sometimes, it took two or three flushes to clear the bowl. By the end of the week, her engorgement had subsided and she took the cage down from its hook and deposited it into the outside trash can, blanket and all. Lydia felt no need to see the unpleasantness underneath.

 

There was a bit of sesame beef lodged between Lydia’s first and second maxillary bicuspids. The beef gave her a dull, pleasurable ache. Lydia was in no hurry to floss. It was the same small delight she felt after a good rigorous dental cleaning, the same tenderness. Funny how tender can mean two things.

Kurt’s alarm began to whine and Lydia left the Chinese on the kitchen counter, her fork poked inside the box. No doubt Penny would be over soon, wanting to discuss the fallen tree. Lydia had best attend to her morning ritual. She took the steps two at a time and slid into bed with Kurt before he’d had a chance to kick off the covers. She nuzzled her head into his warm armpit and slipped her hand into his pajama bottoms.

Wake up, little bird Lydia said, grasping Kurt’s penis.

She wasn’t sure if her ritual was religious in nature, or if it was practical magic. Every morning, she had an orgasm, and when she did she thought Paul’s name. Maybe it was a prayer, or maybe she was casting a spell. She hadn’t yet figured it out exactly, but it kept her sane. If she or Kurt overslept, or anything else interrupted routine, Lydia masturbated as soon as Kurt left for work.

Sometimes, she liked doing it alone so she could say Paul’s name aloud at the moment of climax, whispering it to the bathroom tiles or into her sweaty pillowcase. It seemed to be more powerful that way, the prayer-spell. Like invisible threads left her mouth and burrowed through the walls of her house, traveled through the dirt under the sod and invaded his house, wriggling up through the floorboards and sneaking into his body through the pores of his skin. But, of course, it was also very easy to pretend that Kurt was Paul, as they were identical. So having Kurt do the work had its own attraction.

That morning, as Lydia arched her back against the mattress and bit her lip, silently screaming Paul, she was thinking of the uprooted tree. Last night, during the worst of the storm, Lydia had wished with great strain that the oak would fall and crush her sister dead.

 

Lydia was washing up Kurt’s breakfast dishes when Penny came through the back door into the kitchen, the baby dangling from a carrier strapped to her chest. Her hair was still damp from her morning shower, and although she was still wearing her rain boots, she’d changed from her pajamas into a sweater set and corduroy pants.

So, wow Penny said. I’m sure you saw the tree.

Lydia dropped her sponge into the soapy water and wiped her hands on a dish towel, pressing her hipbone hard against the edge of the kitchen counter. It would leave a bruise. She was like fruit.

Yep. I’m going to call this morning to get some quotes on removal.

Penny sighed and hung her arms loosely. Her mouth was an arch, a colorless rainbow.

That tree always had rings of mushrooms around it, and when Clara was older I was going to tell her that it was a faerie tree. Penny nudged Lydia’s shoulder. You remember our faerie tree?

Of course Lydia answered. But we never saw any faeries.

So what? The arch of Penny’s mouth flipped. It was the fun of it, you know.

The baby started struggling to get free, so Penny busied herself unbuckling. As soon as her little socked feet touched down on the linoleum, Clara wobbled right over to the cabinet where she knew her Auntie kept the Tupperware and wooden spoons for her. Penny poured herself a cup of coffee and sat in the breakfast nook, scrolling through her emails.

Oh my God she said. You’ll never guess who’s pregnant.

I got the announcement too.

Lydia turned back to the sink and began drying plates with the dish towel.

Knowing her Penny said she’ll probably name it something like “Sundance” or “Remedy.”

Lydia often wondered, if she were to take Penny’s place, would she be able to fool the baby? They were supposed to be able to smell their own mothers. Lydia had seen a video on YouTube of blind-folded babies correctly choosing.

Will you watch Clara while I run some errands this morning? After the tide goes out? Penny asked. Her eyes were still on her phone. She swiped with her thumb as she brought the coffee mug to her lips with her other hand.

No problem Lydia said. I’d love to.

She thought about how piping hot that coffee was.

Penny winced and blurted Shit, I burned my tongue.

                                                           

It was hard to say exactly what made Kurt and Paul so different. Paul was in fact two minutes older and half an inch taller.

Lydia imagined that fucking Paul would be exhausting. That she’d be satisfied in the way that she’d been after digging out the withered rose bush. Or like she’d been when she finally got the dead baby out of her. It would be thorough. She would feel bereft in every cell of her body.

 

The tide went out and Penny left in her SUV. She’d be gone for hours. She always was when she had errands. Lydia suspected that Penny did that out of pity, to give her time with the baby. Or maybe it was spite. She was never confident in her ability to read Penny. Like with that canary. Penny was kind and happy, and something about that always made Lydia suspicious. People called Penny genuinely nice, and how could that not be some kind of scam? Lydia and Penny had never had one of those secret twin languages.

Clara sat on the living room floor and chewed on a board book version of Where the Wild Things Are.

Lydia stood watching the sunlight through the blinds catch in her golden curls.

I’ll eat you up, I love you so she said out loud.                                    

 

The guy came about the tree. He was young and bearded and wore a large belt buckle shaped like California. Lydia got on her rain boots and sloshed behind him across the spongy front lawn, holding Clara in her arms. The guy had his tape measure in hand, hooking its tang on various edges and muttering numbers to himself as he stretched out each yellow length and then let it snap back loudly into its coil. Clara was raising one hand to the sky, pointing a pudgy finger at the lingering storm clouds and babbling emphatically. Lydia was trying to listen to them both, trying to make sense of either. She felt a vertiginous spin and sudden beads of sweat on her upper lip. It happened so fast. Lydia’s shin hit a protruding root. She tripped and fell, Clara tumbling from her grip as she tried to catch herself.

There was so much blood, and Lydia couldn’t hear. There was a ringing in her ears. The ragged edge of Clara’s mouth was flapping open. Surely she was screaming for her mother, howling in pain. The baby’s right eye was obscured by blood that Lydia was scared to wipe away. She knelt on the swampy lawn, clutching Clara as her tiny body thrashed against her own in the strange vibrating quiet. Little hands scratched and pummeled. Lydia was moving so slowly as she tore open her blouse with one hand and brought Clara to her breast. Lydia rocked the child as she calmed, sucking on instinct at her dry nipple. Ambulance lights flashed but Lydia couldn’t hear the sirens. When the EMTs tried to pry Clara from her arms, she snapped her teeth and tried to bite their hands. A needle plunged into her thigh through her wet jeans.

Lydia woke restrained. Her head was very heavy, and felt very round. She was afraid that her neck might be too brittle to support its weight. She decided to stay very still and think about Paul. He had a freckle on his neck that Kurt did not have. It was an island. It was a tiny speck of dry land.

 

Penny said You can’t blame yourself. It was an accident.

She squeezed Lydia tightly, and then put her hands on Lydia’s shoulders and peered into her face. Penny’s eyes were swollen. Lydia saw them as a snapshot. That picture of herself had been taken after the stillbirth.

She’s going to be okay Penny said. She had fourteen stitches and—

She gagged on the words, covered her mouth with both hands.

And she lost her eye.

Penny screwed up her face hard, made fists at both temples. She doubled over, crying so forcefully that Lydia knew she would have constellations of burst blood vessels around her eyes. Lydia knew. She would see that picture of herself too.

She reached out her arm and touched the back of Penny’s head.

It was an accident Lydia said.

She took a cab home from the hospital. It was high tide again and the car had to stop on the street a block further from the river. Lydia stood on her front lawn in her rain boots and looked at the tree. She looked at the two houses side by side, all windows dark. There were very small fish circling her ankles.

Lydia knew about the sleeping pills. Penny had been taking them since she’d weaned Clara. Paul was the one to get up every night to give her a bottle of formula, usually right around two. He turned on the light in the kitchen while he warmed the milk, and Lydia stood in her kitchen in the dark, watching. He was often shirtless. Sometimes he drank a glass of tap water. Sometimes he read something out of sight on the countertop. Sometimes Lydia put her hand under her pajamas and pinched a nipple.

Of course Lydia had a key to their house. She went straight up to the master bedroom and opened the medicine cabinet in Penny and Paul’s bathroom. She swallowed patiently until all the pills were gone. She got out one of Penny’s pink lipsticks and she wrote on the mirror I love you Paul. Then Lydia got into bed and laid her head on Paul’s pillow with the empty bottle against her cheek.

*

Penny realized that her sister wasn’t sleeping.

Oh my God she said.

Clara had fallen asleep in the car, and she was stirring in Penny’s arms. Penny eased her onto her back on the bed next to Lydia. She turned the bandaged half of Clara’s face toward the mattress, so that for a moment, she appeared unscathed. Like brand new.

When Clara was born, everybody else had been so happy. For those first few instants after the baby had been placed in her arms, Penny had felt happy too. But then she began to slide.

Oh my God she repeated. Oh my God, this is it.

Paul would be home soon. He’d said he’d be stopping off on the way home from the hospital to pick up Chinese take-out for dinner. So she wouldn’t have to cook. Penny undressed her sister, and she undressed herself. She pulled on Lydia’s leggings and cable knit sweater. She leaned over and kissed Clara good-bye. The kiss was tender.

As she hurried down the stairs to the first floor, Penny could hear the baby waking and beginning to cry. She locked the front door behind her and crossed the lawns in Lydia’s rain boots. Of course Penny had a key to Kurt and Lydia’s house. She went straight up to their bedroom. She got into bed.

Penny hadn’t felt sleepy on her own in months. Exhausted, yes. But she never felt that sweet pressure of sleep pinning her to the mattress unless she took the pills. Without them, her body thrummed beneath the covers and her mind raced with doubts and dark things.

Now, Penny was so sleepy.

No.

Correction.

Now, Lydia was so sleepy.

 

 

 

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Anna Lea Jancewicz homeschools her children and haunts the public library. She is an editor for Cease, Cows and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming at the Barrelhouse blog, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, Sundog Lit, Wigleaf, and many other venues. Her flash fiction “Marriage” was chosen for The Best Small Fictions 2015. Say it: Yahnt-SEV-ich. More at annajancewicz.com

Art: “Traingram” by Michelle Johnsen

Michelle Johnsen (art editor) is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.