rachel ann brickner
Effigy of a Princess
Two days before my brother’s wedding, I slather my body with self tanner, barely catch my flight to the Midwest (I can’t tell you where for the sake of anonymity, obviously), throw up on the plane in the puke bag (the trip coincided badly with me having a hangover), and see them staring at me as I wait for my connecting flight in Denver. My arms, legs, and feet have turned into a mosaic of orange and white splotches, the self-tanner leaving me half-tabby, half-human. Go ahead and look, I think. Let me make your fucking day.
To be honest, I’m not surprised by my last minute stupidity. Long ago I had learned the perils of bottled tanner on my almost translucent skin (it was always as if I covered myself in lube and rolled in curry powder until I was bored), but for some reason or another, I can’t seem to shake habits like these. I am always hoping for things to end differently, but they always end up exactly how I thought they
/ / / /
Once at Graham’s house, I ask if he has any baking soda and kindly explain I must excuse myself to bathe before I let him lay me out. To be truthful, he often disgusts me (he is overweight and seems fatter each time I see him), but he is always kind and a much better alternative than staying with either of my parents. He’s also agreed to be my date.
In the bath I watch the water turn a milky orange and I think about my mother. The last time I saw her I called her a selfish bitch after she accused me of stealing a twenty from her purse. She slapped me. I slapped her. We haven’t talked since. That was more than six months ago.
I have no reason to be dishonest with you, so I’m going to tell you the truth—I did not steal the money. In the past I had a little theft situation, but I never stole from family, only strangers and large, brightly lit chain stores. A bottle of nail polish or two here, a bra snuck out under my top, a fancy fountain
pen, a CD in someone’s room. I never really wanted these things, but still I found myself grabbing. When I finally got caught at seventeen, the officer asked me why I did it. He was handsome and kind so I told him my parents were getting divorced and I was upset. I lied. They weren’t yet divorced but
would be the following year. I’d like to think that makes me sort of omniscient or whatever. Either way, the charges were dropped.
Ever since the little incident with the authorities, Mom started hiding her purse and accused me any time something went missing. What Mom never could admit is that her little booze situation often left her forgetful. “Your mother is doing her best, but I can’t give anymore.” That’s what Dad said when
I knew he was leaving her, and instantly I knew how much nastier she’d become once he left. Even still, I didn’t have the guts to beg him to take me, and I knew he’d never offer. I’d like to think I’m a forgiving kind of person, but since we’re being honest, I’ll tell you that’s one thing I’ll never forgive him for.
/ / / /
In bed, I tell Graham I can’t sleep with him. I feel like a reptile is eating my insides. He props the side of his fat face up with his hand and asks me which kind. I tell him I don’t know then say some kind of lizard. Something with a long tongue. He asks if I’ve been having anxiety attacks again and I
say yes then cross my arm over my face. This has always calmed me. He tells me it’s going to be okay.
“I saw your mom only a month ago. She looked good. I think she’s doing better.” He pets my head and I feel warm. “Have you talked to her?”
“Maybe this event will bring closure to a very traumatic period in your life.”
“Or maybe I will finally have the guts to check myself into a mental institution for good.”
“Not funny,” he says.
“Kind of is,” I say.
/ / / /
In the morning, my brother calls to ask if I got into town safely. He also asks where I’m staying. When I say, “Graham’s,” he says, “Good man,” and I say, “I am lucky.” Everyone loves Graham, which has made it almost impossible for me to end things completely, even now that I’m living so far away.
I ask my brother how he is and he begins to tell me his wedding day is on an eclipse, a supermoon, the first in thousands of years. It’s supposed to symbolize the union of Christ and Buddha energies, and for the individuals, be a period of time when we face our pasts intensely. I take a deep breath.
He tells me to keep that in mind if and when I’m feeling overwhelmed. “Everyone will be,” he says. It’s only with my brother that I indulge myself.
When we hang up, I look at my legs. The self tanner still hasn’t faded, but I do my best to fill in the spots with concealer.
“It looks natural. It does,” Graham says.
“You know my mom’s going to say something.”
“You should at least give her a chance to be good.”
“How many chances can you give someone who never says sorry?”
Graham hesitates, then asks, “What if I did for her?”
I look at him, unsatisfied, until he gets on his knees beside the bed and says, “Sorry, sorry, sorry. I am so sorry,” until I can’t take the pudgy sight of him any longer, and I laugh. “Just imagine that when you see her,” he says.
I want you to understand, it’s not that I hate my mother. I’ve just come to believe she’s a terrible person. Not to everyone. Just those she loves, which, I must say, is a mindfuck, like really makes you question reality and suddenly want to study metaphysics kind of mindfuck.
When I was seven, during one of her hysterical periods, she pulled me by the hair, lit the ends on fire with her lighter, and upon my screams, quickly secured a towel to rescue me. “See what I’d do for you?” she said.
The next morning she braided my hair, the ends uneven, the burnt smell lingering, and neither of us said a word. I thought if I was silent, if I pretended not to remember, it might mean it never happened. That’s the kind of person my mother is. She loves you into silence.
/ / / /
At the rehearsal dinner, my brother tells me how beautiful I look then leans in close to tell me Mom’s here and a little drunk. I notice he’s wearing a white suit and light blue tie and I wonder if he’s come from heaven until I realize I’m nauseous.
“It’s not on you to save her, Nat. I hope you know,” he says. “Let’s just see how tonight plays out and hope for the best.” He winks at me as he walks away, rubbing a hand over his blond beard. His zen approach often buoys me, but this time it pisses me off. I feel angry he’s not angry and I’m not sure why.
Mom and I successfully avoid each other at our candle-laden tables on opposite sides of the room, but by the end of dinner we’re forced to acknowledge one another. She isn’t shitty quite yet, but I know her hazy eyes and that means she’s about three-fourths on her way to being licked. I feel grateful she’s at least tried to behave herself, similar to how one appreciates a dog who shits solids on the carpet, rather than diarrhea.
She approaches me with a warm smile. She almost looks pretty. “Honey, what the hell happened to you? You look terrible.”
“Hi, Mom,” I say. I excuse myself, but not before I kiss her on the cheek to satisfy the spectators.
In the bathroom, I make myself throw up twice before I feel empty. I hear the door open and I know it’s Graham. “When I’m right, I’m right,” I say before flushing.
“Well, shit,” he says.
/ / / /
A little before midnight my brother calls to ask if I’m okay. I’m lying naked on the hotel bed, staring at my legs. The hotel was Graham’s idea, to make my trip feel a little more romantic, I’d guess. The concealer has begun to rub off on the bright white sheets and I rub it in, hoping it will eventually
go white. Graham is in the bathroom and I’ve concluded he’s taking a Titantic-sized shit because he’s been in there so long I’m starting to wonder if he’s okay.
“She seemed to at least behave herself,” I tell my brother.
“I’m grateful for that, but I’m worried about you,” he says.
He says nothing, takes a breath, then says, “You hold everything in and I don’t know how you get it out, Nat.”
I listen closely to him breathe. “Is Mindy still upset with me?”
“No, she understands.”
“I wish I could, but I can’t.”
“Not everyone wants to be a bridesmaid. It’s fine. I’m just glad you’re here. I’ve missed you.”
“Are you nervous?”
“No. Actually, I’m excited.”
I feel sad and I’m not sure what to say. Eventually, I ask him, “How’d you learn?”
“To what?” he says.
“Have all of this.”
He laughs a little then clears his throat. “This is going to sound terrible, but sometimes I think of what Mom or Dad would do or say and I just try to do the opposite of that.” He pauses. “Marijuana helps.”
I laugh hard then am alarmed because it feels foreign and unexpected, as if I have never laughed before this. “I am impressed by your rationale in the face of adversity,” I say.
“You know Graham really loves you.”
I lean forward and look at the bathroom door. “I know,” I say. “It’s a shame.”
/ / / /
Do you ever find yourself telling a lie and it feels so good to tell it that you keep repeating it until you’re fucked? It began after the wedding ceremony. I was so moved by my brother’s vows of hope and faithfulness that when an aunt asked me how I was, I couldn’t help but tell her, “I’m pregnant!” and
then, “But don’t tell anyone.”
By the time my brother and Mindy joined the party for dinner, I had told at least ten people to whom I am loosely related and I felt high from the lie. I could be a woman who’s pregnant! The mysterious man who inseminated me, well, he couldn’t make it due to a family emergency (his mother’s not
well), but he’s so excited for the little one’s arrival. Good thing I have my gay friend, Graham! They all smiled and giggled softly, happy and feeling special to be in on the secret.
/ / / /
After dinner Dad asks me to dance and holds me close as “My Girl” plays, and I feel myself getting a little weepy for all the times we haven’t shared. I haven’t seen him in the almost two years since I moved across the country and all I can think of is how Thomas J. dies in the movie and it makes my
knees weak with grief.
“You’ve been through a hell of a lot, kid.” Dad sways me back and forth. My head rests on his shoulder and I pretend he’s the kind of father I’ve always wanted.
“I feel so old sometimes, so close to death,” I say quietly.
He says nothing. His face is stern and stays that way. He’s always been good at playing it straight, I think. Eventually, he says, “What?” flatly as if I had him on mute and only had to press the button again to hear him.
“I still want all the same things,” I say. I push my face into his chest and leave it that way until the song ends and it’s time to walk away.
/ / / /
Awhile later, after “The Electric Slide”, Mom interrupts the DJ and says she has an announcement. She asks the room to hush with both her hands wrapped around the mic like a child. She is slurring. “I would have never thought it, but my little girl, Natalie, is pregnant! I’m going to be a grandma!”
The room erupts into applause, and I sit with my mouth full of cake. Graham laughs until he chokes then straightens up. “Seriously?”
I swallow, cough a little, and whisper, “No,” as I wave at all the happy relatives like Diana, Princess of Fucking Wales, God rest her soul. “I think I’ve made a mistake,” I say.
“Tell me you at least used a rubber with the imaginary father.”
We watch as Mom stumbles off the stage, shouting something I can’t hear. She is bloated and red and I am sad for her. I watch Dad get up from his chair after I refuse. A crowd begins to huddle around me, asking me when I’m due, wanting to know all the gruesome details about the state of my uterus.
“Oh, mid-November,” I say. Play it cool. Play it cool, I think.
Graham whispers, “What the fuck?” in my ear and when I finally look for and find my brother, his arms are lank by his side as he watches Dad pull Mom across the stage and out of the room. I stare at him from afar without him noticing and watch his head drop like the governor of a failing state. I tell
Graham we have to go and we do.
/ / / /
In the morning, I have a text from my brother: Call me when you get up. When he answers, he tells me to meet him in thirty minutes at a coffee shop about halfway between us. I thought he’d have something better to do, but he tells me he’s not leaving for their honeymoon until tomorrow. When I
enter the cafe, it’s almost empty except for the barista and an elderly man wearing a page boy hat, reading a folded newspaper.
My brother sits in the corner table furthest from the counter. He already has a cup of coffee waiting for me. “Do you still take it black?”
I nod without looking at him for too long. Suddenly I feel like a kid again and my face is hot with embarrassment and stupidity.
He looks sad. The serenity of early the previous day is erased from his face, and I hate to see him this way, but then again, I’m not sure if that’s really true.
“Why did you do it?” he asks.
“Do what?” I say.
“You know what I’m talking about, Natalie.”
“I don’t know what happened.”
“You provoke her.” He looks at me harshly, then softens before finding his resolve again.
“It wasn’t conscious.”
“That’s the problem.”
I want to cry and then I begin to but barely. I take a sip of my coffee and wipe my face.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I lie.
“Did you stop taking your medication?” he says. “It’s that what’s going on?”
“Are you sure?” I can’t look at him because I know how he’s looking at me and I hate him for it.
“Yes. God.” I don’t want to lie. I really don’t, but I can’t help myself.
“I have to ask because no one else will.” He stares at me and I stare back. “Promise me you’ll keep taking it,” he says. And I promise because I’m good at that.
“I don’t like you living so far away.”
“I could say the same thing,” I say coolly.
He scratches his beard and sits back. “Don’t be cute.”
“California’s where I have a job!”
“You could teach here.”
“I don’t think I could.” He looks unconvinced.
“The weather is better for me,” I say.
“I just want you to be okay.”
I pick at my split ends and stare at the barista. He would be more attractive if he was taller, I think. I feel—annoyed.
“Are you seeing anyone?” he says.
“No. I mean only Graham, but that doesn’t really count since we see each other like twice a year now.” I reflect on this. “We do video chat pretty regularly though.”
He looks at me blankly. “No, I mean like a therapist.”-
He shakes his head and laughs because, here I am, being difficult again. “Natalie, I’m fucking serious.”
“So am I. I don’t think you’ve fully dealt with your issues with Mom.”
“This is bullshit.” He taps his empty paper cup up and down on the table before crushing it. I gulp the rest of my coffee until my insides feel like they’re melting.
“Listen. You’re right. You’re an adult. You can take care of yourself.”
I know it’s only a half-truth, but still, I say, “Thank you.”
I watch him look out the window next to us as if he sees someone he recognizes. He looks back at me and waits until the silence hurts. “I hate how you hide so much,” he says. He says this as if pleading for something I’ve never been able to give him. He is almost crying, but I know he’ll stop before he
does just like when we were kids.
I rub my finger over the lid of my coffee cup. The barista is leaning against the counter, staring at his phone. He smiles while, I assume, he is texting someone and I feel so angry I have the urge to yell at him to stop. My brother reaches for me, but I have already moved my hands from the table to under
my legs where they will stay warm.
/ / / /
That night I give myself to Graham for a long time. He is gentle and I am quiet, the way it always is, and I hold onto the comfort I get from that until morning. When he says goodbye at the airport, he tells me he loves me and I say, “Me too,” even though I know he means it in a different way. He watches me get in line to check my bags, and when he leaves, I finally feel unburdened.
The morning I left California, I saw a woman cross the street wearing a tan cotton dress almost the color of her skin, giving the impression from far off that she was strangely, smoothly naked. She had a long, braided yellow string wrapped around her neck and looked as if she were recently kidnapped,
taken to the desert, beaten, then dropped off in the middle of the city. She tumbled forward repeatedly, crying nervously, asking herself, “How? How?” over and over while wringing her hands, a dirty napkin between them. For a moment, I wondered if I should stop and ask if she needed help, but then I didn’t because before I could act I had already begun ignoring her, and I was afraid of what she might do next.
I wonder about this woman. I wonder where she is as I make my way through security and walk throughout the airport. I wonder about her as I walk in circles and stare at everyone and nowhere do I see a woman like her. I sit and have a coffee. I hear my name called through a speaker. I go to every
terminal until I am sure I have missed my flight.
Outside, it’s humid and my chest feels heavy from the heat. The sun is about to set and the cicadas will soon finish their afternoon song. I stand there and listen. I will make a call, but not yet.