April 25, 2018KR OnlineFiction

Little Red Mouths

Is your dollhouse more satisfactory than the house you’re growing up in? Do you show your sister how to make the miniature family do their chores? How to arrange their cups and saucers and spoons for tea? Do they say proper things like “one lump or two”? Lift their napkins to dab their porcelain lips? Are there roses on the rugs and mirrors in every room? Are there peas in a pot, simmering on the stove? When they leave for their outing in the country, do they remember to turn off the burner? Does the eldest daughter doll worry the house has burned down? When she cries, does the mother doll get angry? Does the father doll threaten to leave her at the rest stop? Does the sister doll take her hand?

When you color the birds of spring, do you stay inside the lines? Of all the children, is yours the best? Does your teacher hold it up for everyone to see? Does this teacher, unlike your mother, know what a good girl you are? Does she place a strawberry candy on your desk? Do you say thank you and walk to the sink to wash your hands? Does she praise you as you lather and rinse and tell the class what happens to children who don’t wash their hands? How they get sick from germs? Do you return to your desk feeling virtuous and germ-free? Is the crinkling wrapper the only sound in the room? By the time you realize the other children hate you, is it dissolving in your mouth?

Does your sister suck her thumb even after you teach her about germs? Does she have trouble following the rules? When she cries and spills and snacks at the wrong times, is she scared of getting in trouble? Is it possible to be scared enough for both of you? When she makes her bed wrong, do you tighten the corners? Teach her to run the rinse water hot? Wipe the glasses so they don’t have any spots? When your parents fight, do you lead her outside? Show her where and what and how to play? Does she look like she’s having fun? And you, are you having fun?

In algebra, will you blurt something out? The worst possible thing? Like “ass curd”? Like, “chlamydia, chlamydia”? Like “monkey pussy”? Like telling the boy who sits next to you, the one with the kind brown eyes, that you have your period? Or is there something even worse? Taking off your pants, your shirt, your bra? Walking to the front of the room naked? Ruffling the teacher’s hair? Or is the very worst thing to hold still? How still? And for how long?

Driving west to college, do you obsess about everything you may have forgotten to pack? How terrible would it be to arrive without your sleep mask, electric toothbrush, needle and thread? What about the beaded earrings your sister made you as a going-away gift? How many times do you touch them to make sure they haven’t fallen out? How many miles do you drive before you realize it’s her you’re missing? Are the birds on the telephone wires watching you? Are there too many to count? Do you count the dotted yellow lines instead? Can you count them and hold the wheel straight at the same time? How easy would it be to jerk to the right, dashing over the bumpy earth and cleaving the fields until you’re slowed by the ocean of wheat? Or to the left, colliding with the oncoming semi?

In the feeble light of the dormitory bathroom, do your hands grow raw and blistered, gaping with little red mouths? Does the sting of soap calm you? Of the women who wash their hands at the sink beside you, how many make mistakes as they touch the dispenser, towels, taps? How many give you sidelong glances? Does your roommate ignore you when she comes in? Does the wispy girl down the hall smile like she always does? Doesn’t she know you’re weird? Why is it that every time someone wants to be your friend, you think you might shove your fingers up their nostrils?

When your coworker asks you to pick the restaurant, do you choose the cleanest place you know? Are any restaurants clean? Is the cap on the salt shaker loose? Does he stare at you when you tighten it? Is it truly tight? Is it OK to tighten it again? Or will he notice you’re not paying attention to what he’s saying? Why does he dislike the woman who sits in the cubicle beside you? Is it because she thinks too highly of herself? Is this why he asked you out? Because you don’t think highly of yourself? In the parking lot with his arms around you, do you admit you’re a virgin? Or at your age, is this better kept to yourself? Do you invite him back to your apartment because you want to or because this is what one does? What’s worse than pain? The grating sound of pubic hair? His sweat crawling over your skin? Is your body doing what it’s supposed to? Making the right noises? How would you know?

What are you doing while your sister gets ready for her wedding? Reapplying your lipstick? Staying inside the lines? What if your hand slips and you draw all over your cheeks, nose, forehead, eyes? As your sister comes closer in her blank white dress, do you tell her to stand back so you don’t do the worst possible thing? Have you ever seen a bride look so alarmed? When you check your makeup in the mirror, do you see red leaching into the crevices around your mouth, fine as centipedes’ legs? When did this happen? Aren’t you young for crevices? Do you wipe off your lipstick? Begin again? Does your sister have to pry you from your reflection? Is she helping you get ready to walk down the aisle?

Curled on the hospital cot, do you dream of the bathroom, where most of your time is spent now? Do you go there immediately upon waking? And stay, washing your hands instead of going on the therapeutic walk, as your psychiatrist suggested? Do you secretly love the bathroom? Is it more compelling than the breaking dawn, the waking birds, the rash of tulips in the courtyard below? Is your sister the only one who can coax you out? Does she comb your hair and make you eat your oatmeal, spoonful by spoonful? As she dabs your cracked lips with Vaseline, do you tell her she’ll be a wonderful mother?

What choice do you have but to move back in with your parents? When you can’t sleep, do you take an anxiety pill? Did you actually take one, or is it possible you only considered it? Was it half a pill or whole? Or was it two? How many times must you count your anxiety pills to know how many you’ve taken? When the anxiety pills don’t work, does your old dollhouse bring you comfort? Is it more satisfactory than where you live now?

When does the worst possible thought arise? At the baby shower, as small, soft things emerge from pastel boxes? When you find out it will be a girl? When your sister stands to stretch after dinner and life rises with her like a great balloon? When she whispers the name she chose to you and you alone? When she puts your hand on her belly? When you feel the tap of your niece’s foot? Do you wish this baby girl would stay inside, where you can’t hurt her? Do you snatch your hand away? Is this what you’ve been waiting for? The thing you’ll finally do?

The night your sister goes into labor, do you refuse to go to the hospital, even though you promised you’d be there? Do you think of her bearing the pain, slick with sweat, as you kneel before the dollhouse? Does the switch in the attic still fill the windows with light? Does it glow before you like a cathedral? Is it possible the roses on the rug haven’t faded after all this time? That the peas in the pot still simmer and haven’t overflowed? Wiping dust from the dolls with a tissue, do you envy their porcelain existence? The way they don’t sweat? Their hairless bodies? Waxless ears? The sexless arc between their legs? Their still hands and hollow heads, empty of rules and fears and sad, sick thoughts? Does the whole family fit in your hands? Do you cup them gently, like birds in a nest?

Do you dream of running your hand over your niece’s velvet head? On the phone, do you tell your sister about the worst possible thing? Do you tell her explicitly? Does it make her cry? How long is the pause before she asks you to come anyway? Does your belly quaver all the way to her house? Walking up to the front door, do you notice the apple trees exploding over your head? Do you feel joy because her birthday will always ride in on their perfume? Does your joy turn to dread as you walk down the hall to the nursery? When a hand shoots from the bundle like a new daisy, do you imagine plucking it and squeeze your eyes shut? Is there a part of you, as tiny as the nail on her pinky, that wants to get it over with? As your sister lifts her and places her in your arms, does your gaze swing to the window, open just wide enough? To calm yourself, do you count your niece’s fingers? Her toes? Her eyelashes? The creases in her chubby arms? Your own rasping breaths? Do you place your lips on the sweet dip of her fontanel? With a trembling finger, do you trace her eyebrows, chin, mouth? Outside, do the apple blossoms fall in time to the chirrup of birds? Are you any less afraid? Do you hold her anyway?

Molly Quinn
Molly Quinn’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Iowa Review, Post Road, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of short stories set in a psychiatric hospital, which draws on her experience as a registered nurse. She lives in Minneapolis. Her website is mollyquinnwriter.com.