• Maroon

    Sonia Feigelson

    Winter 2024

    My father wants to buy me a bikini. “It’s not an option,” he says, “to wear some ratty old thing to the infinity pool.”

    I prefer to be ratty, which is our central problem. My father is devoted to proving that he knows the truth about me. To him, the world is not a matter of needing but of acquiring.

    Just kidding. Being ratty is not our central problem. It is a problem, but it is probably located slightly to the left.

    I lay my phone on the side of the bed where Kyle used to sleep, set it on SPEAKER, turn my face to the wall, and close my eyes. “I have a bathing suit,” I say.

    His voice crackles like an elementary school principal over an intercom. Authority, intimacy. Some days I wish there were a way to email God directly: “There is no need to be so literal. We are on the same page.”

    My father David and I are going tropical. “Aquamarine dream.” That was the promise made by the homepage banner on the swimwear website he sent me last night.

    “You mean,” I say, “is the suit suitable?”

    On the line, the sound of his scratchy breathing. I don’t know if I can blame my father for not thinking I’m funny, but I’d like to.

    “How do you know what’s appropriate?” I ask.

    He says he can guess. He says he knows me. “I’m your father,” my father tells me.

    That my father knows me, is a contested view.

    He doesn’t know I’ve never gone tropical. I’ve been to Florida, but Florida doesn’t count. “For anything, in any comparison,” I might once have joked to Kyle, and she would have said, “You’re exasperating,” and she would have been right.

    Among the many issues I don’t push is this issue—the not knowing—an issue which, if I pushed, is why David would say that we’ve got to go on vacation together. So he can hear about me, not here.

    I am not like God, a good storyteller. If I were, I would’ve said that this is a story about going somewhere and coming back changed. It is like Star Wars.

    In honor of thirty years alive, I am going in the water with my father. He wants to buy what I’ll wear to the water, in the water, soaked by water, evaporating up. He wants to take me to the same beach he wanted to take me when I was not thirty and we were not talking. My father and I are greeting the sun, say swimwear websites, we are breezebound. According to our therapist, Carolyn, we are letting the light turn us over a new leaf, though we are each, in our own way, mid-wither.

    My father, at sixty, is divorcing for the third time. I am not.

    He wants me to be less rude to him. I want him to stop doing things that make me want to be rude to him.

    What was wrong with the years before I turned thirty? How unsuitable the school holidays smattered across a childhood in which my mother boiled chicken franks in the same room where she slept, and I sat on the stained carpet of our studio apartment, watching a television show about a wealthy man making over the life of a woman he loved. I don’t remember any vacation offers then.

    Without my father, I have survived a long time. With him, only briefly.

    I was lying earlier. I am divorcing for the first time.

    Now, in the light of a dressing room—thighs dimpled, belly bloated, skin blotted by new age spots I have never noticed before and will likely spend the rest of my life noticing—my father sticks his hand over the door and declares: “I’m not looking, I’m not looking!”

    Into the dressing room are lowered a handful of sturdy plastic hangers and snagged bikini parts.

    Carolyn, with whom we’ve worked for the past six months, doesn’t know my father has taken me shopping for a new bathing suit. If she did, I imagine she wouldn’t be so happy with either him for insisting or me for permitting. Carolyn is in support of boundaries. She knows the number of years I spent letting myself believe that I liked explaining jokes and making love to men.

    Down the hall, a woman yells at my father to get out, don’t you know this is the women’s dressing room, but when I peek through the crack between the swinging door and its frame, he has disappeared. I press my face against the wood; it presses a line into my forehead. I imagine my father, back on the main floor, pawing through racks of tankinis and bandeaus.

    In the mirror, I don’t belong to me. I wait for a long time before trying on anything. I touch the body in the mirror like it isn’t my own.

    Who loved this body first? Before the woman who left me, there were the boys I left. Before them, when my mother and father loved this body, I did not have the capacity to love. How, then, can I confirm that this body belongs to me? I didn’t make it, and I didn’t pay for it. At least, not in that way.

    The bikinis aren’t flattering. They push and sag me out of my natural shape and into their own. In a one-piece, the fabric’s compression always feels like someone is hugging you.

    I want to tell him nothing fits. Actually, I want to tell him that nothing is fitting.

    Scratch what I said before. This is a story about how I have a sense of humor and my father does not.

    Nearly thirty, I am graduated from many things. I have certificates from elementary school junior council and concert choir. I have high school, college, and master’s diplomas. I have a certification from a mindfulness course on which my name is misspelled.

    I let David buy me his favorite suit. I let him tell me, “You’re going to love this!” and I almost believe what he says.

    My father is an exceedingly charming man. In college, when I had bangs and a personality, I used to tell people he was “like if an eighteen-year-old band guy got older, but didn’t grow up.” Men liked that. They were eighteen years old and in a band. The band was called something like SEARS or The Brooklyn Music Scene. The men got drunk, got high, got mustaches, got rid of the mustaches, got stick n’ pokes on the soft pulp pudging over their kneecaps. The tattoos read lost boy or jazz. I did them. I was, at one point, known for my capacity to tattoo using nothing but a needle and a bottle of ink.

    The bathing suit David buys is what I’m planning on calling lightly floral. It is $129.99. When I tell this story as a party anecdote, I will mention how my father flirts with the young female cashier. Does she have a choice in accepting his attentions? He has all the heaviest credit cards.

    The following evening, my father and I board a small jet to the resort he has picked out. Upon our arrival, we forge ahead to our separate rooms, on the same hall of a hotel to which I will never return. I do not complain. I do not have money yet.

    Like so many hotel rooms, mine has been designed by someone who fooled a multinational travel corporation into believing that mirrors are wall art. Do I look tired or old? I squeeze every blackhead I can find on the only face I am allowed to mutilate, unearthing little pots of soil to see what roots inside.

    My face is pocked red when I stuff socked feet into the only pair of sweatpants I’ve brought. The sweatpants were a gift from my mother. They are from one of those cheap chain stores that sell brightly colored bodycon dresses and plush onesies whose hoods are the heads of animals that don’t exist. Unicorns, dinosaurs. The pants hang so low I can trace the sleek jut of a single hip bone. On the butt, parallel arcs of white text read: i’m not bossy, i’m the boss.

    My mother is trying to encourage a particular kind of attitude in me. She was against this reconciliation from the start.

    On television is a PBS program about the teeming wildlife hidden in our cities. I watch in bed, under the comforter. The home from which I’ve departed is decrepit and breeding. Rats abound in underground networks. Falcons soar in silence overhead.

    The night Kyle left our apartment for the final time, she said: “95 percent of the time when I’ve kissed you these past ten months, I’ve felt deep affection and appreciation but nothing sexual.” Her crew cut was growing out, like that of a mom at a yard sale. “I love you like family,” she said, “And no one can say I didn’t try to turn that into desire.”

    I wonder if, before I was a person with a memory, before my mother and I lived in the studio apartment, I ever heard David say something that honest. Something I told Carolyn during our one-on-one session before the joint treatment started: I am almost positive that at some point during his sixty years on the planet, my father’s coercive idea of romance felt, to at least one of the women with whom he spent a celebratory evening, like rape.

    David knocks on my door early the next morning. Through the heavy metal barrier, he calls: “Time to break the fast.”

    I meet him in the buffet line, where he is chatting up a young woman and her daughter. The daughter is three, tops. She is trying and failing to swallow a whole hard-boiled egg.

    “So independent at this age!” he remarks. He gives my cargo shorts the once-over. “And here’s my baby, all grown up!”

    The toddler stares at me, neutrally sucking salt off her egg.

    David waggles his brow. “Looks like someone’s got an admirer.”

    The girl’s mother smiles. It occurs to me that perhaps she is not pretending to be charmed by this aging man.

    “She loves older women,” Toddler Mom explains.

    David bends to look the girl in the eyes. He’s so close to her ruddy, rosacea-patched cheeks. I, too, have always been good with language and bad with personal space.

    He points at her floral-wear and smiles: “I like your dress.”

    The girl looks back at him, over at me, and shifts her attention back to the egg.

    “What did I tell you?” Toddler Mom shrugs, already moving off toward the “four star certified” make-your-own waffle station. “Loves women. Loves them.”

    Who certifies waffle irons?

    My father tries to squeeze my hand.

    There is not a lot to say during breakfast, and David says most of it. He wants me to join his surfing lesson. “No go?” He nudges my shoulder. “You don’t want to catch a wave?”

    Later, seeing me lounge shoreside with the memoir published by my art nemesis’ art nemesis, he is confused by the maroon bathing suit I’m wearing. He drags me by the hand to the hotel gift shop, where he rips a bikini emblazoned with large birds of paradise off a hanger and purchases it.

    “You’re gonna be nice,” he says, referring to my mood and my body in the same breath, as everyone is always doing whether or not they realize it.

    I change into the suit in the lobby bathroom. I do not tell him about the other one he bought, tied and gagged under socks upstairs.

    Off we go, back to the beach. I push my toenails under the sand, wondering: When was it I went back to being thirteen?

    By thirteen, Mom and I had moved out of the studio and into a small condo in a complex next to the freeway. I got my own bedroom; she still didn’t have money.

    She held my head against her mushy chest when I cried because a boy had written in an anonymous online forum that he didn’t want to fuck me. Actually, he said no one wanted to fuck me.

    “Ignore him,” she said, “it’s silly.” But she didn’t tell me he was wrong.

    She said: “Well, what does he look like?”

    By then, my father was on his second wife.

    These days, David’s job is one that rewards him in travel points at fancy hotels and vacation days. The bonus of free time. A wasted life, gifted back.

    When we return to the beach, two pale men lie belly down on our chaises. Two little girls run around the men in circles, chanting.

    One: “Uncle Bobby peed in him champagne and then he drinked it! He did, I saw him!”

    She swings her plastic shovel in the air, flinging a spray of mica and sand into my eyes.

    “He eat him throw up and then him throw up again!”

    The girls are topless. My father takes a long breath.

    “You are bad!” the older girl screams. Neither adult moves. “I’m gonna hit Daddy!” she warns.

    For a moment, in the warmth of the sun’s bath, nothing happens. Then the little girl hits her father.

    “Daddy’s napping,” Daddy says, his mouth muffled against a towel. “Hit Pa.”

    David leaves. I do not know where he is going. I never know where he is going.

    I stand with the little girls and their big fathers, stopping nothing, staring out at the horizon, where there is no difference between water and sky.

    My mother used to pack me smoked turkey and mustard sandwiches on whole wheat. Precise corners creased into the wax wrapper, her thumbnail violent against the folds. This was in elementary school. I ate one half and threw the other out.

    There was yogurt, too, in my lunchbox. I didn’t like yogurt, but I was old enough to know that you didn’t hit and you didn’t say no. The yogurt stayed. Sometimes for three, four days at a time. My mother is a stubborn woman. If I wasn’t going to eat it, fine, but it wasn’t her job to throw away my trash.

    Once, I ripped the foil lid off the small tub and stood over the cafeteria garbage, considering. I thought, in that moment, that I might eat the yogurt to show her something. I smelled the smear on the cap. Putrid, like my body when I wouldn’t shower for a week.

    This was shortly after my father left our family. There was no fight over custody. I was wanted, I wasn’t wanted.

    When Kyle left me, I threw a glass across the room. It was the first time I had ever done something like that. I said: “You walk out that door and ten minutes later, you’re gonna call me sobbing. And then, when I don’t pick up? Look at me. When I don’t pick up, who’s gonna hold you? Yourself?”

    That’s a lie.

    It was Kyle who said that, and it was not the night she left. It was two months earlier, and it was not the first time.

    Our hotel is booked for five days. My father is giving me the space to forgive him. Space is a function of time. On vacation, days span whole lives. What Carolyn talked about before we came here: that I exercise caution, not impulsivity. Any time, any place, someone wants to walk away, you have to let them go.

    To David, a birthday dinner means extravagance. I feel sorry for him. I wonder which times of day he is most susceptible to the wondering illness. For me, it’s evening. It’s when I try to call Kyle, and she doesn’t call me back.

    We go to the resort restaurant, where you can buy local specialties prepared by foreign chefs. David stares at my body with the knowledge that he made it and, in some small way, this means it belongs to him.

    Nothing of my father is mine. But one day, I will inherit him. He likes to bring up what I’ll inherit in conversation: the money, the property, the desperation. I don’t know if it’s meant as a reassurance or a threat. I prefer not to think of the cost that accepting help brings a person, all the many ways we choose to prostitute ourselves.

    Our reservation is located on the expensive side of the restaurant, where the sun sets double in the water, and honeymooning couples play pleased and embarrassed on their cameras. David offers to take every single picture, exuberantly. When the couples smile at me, I make sure to smile back.

    I wonder how many of them think we are dating. That I am his sugar baby. But then, I am his sugar baby.

    He points out the slipped strap on a young woman’s camisole, and I remember something. Another trip, another year, when it was still the three of us—my mother, my father, and me. I am maybe seven years old. I have a disposable camera David gave me as a going-on-vacation present. My mother wears the kind of gauzy scarf that is useful for nothing. I use my disposable to take photos of David taking photos of other families. I think I am exceptionally funny. My mother thinks I am exceptionally funny. While his back is turned, she urges me to get closer, make sure the flash is on. No one asks what David thinks.

    After my parents have gone to bed, I use the disposable camera for something worse. Alone in the darkened bathroom, I switch on the flash like my mother taught me and line up a shot of my bare ass mooning the camera. My floral underwear is twisted about my knees. I am overjoyed by the silliness of having holes, of having fingers. It doesn’t occur to me, yet, that anyone will ever see this picture. That there will be a clerk, somewhere, developing the film.

    I believe, then, that having a body is the most hilarious thing that can possibly happen to a person. I understand desire as it exists between men and women, camisole straps and busy hands. What I suspect might be different about myself is dangerous. My father’s eagerness to be of service in documenting the happiness of young straight couples is not dangerous. Desire exists only as an exposure. The camera, and whose hands it is in.

    Sonia Feigelson is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, No Tokens, and Passages North, among others. She is a Senior Editor at Joyland and teaches at Gotham Writers.

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