Hannah Markos Williams
This Story is About Water: Excerpt from a Novel
We were sitting on the roof, at dawn, while the sky was pinking up and getting hot. I was smoking a secret cigarette, sometimes glancing back to make sure my husband wasn’t about to stick his head out through the upstairs bathroom window to appreciate the glorious summer sunrise and notice me, smoking. But mostly I wasn’t looking over my shoulder. Mostly I was staring hard into a particular window of the neighbor’s house. I said to John, who sat beside me on the roof, “I think it’s because my mom was such a badass.”
“Your mom sucked,” John said. I drew at the end of the cigarette like a nursing cat, like thinking of motherhood as a concept forced an infantile animal reflex through me, like water from the lips of someone who had very nearly drowned, belly, palm, pressure, life-saving oxygen, can’t help but breathe. He said, “Badass moms don’t lose their kids.” But he didn’t ask what I was referring to.
“She didn’t lose me.” I tugged the cigarette through pink-skyed time and space in an arc back toward my body so that my elbow dug into my right boob while my right wrist leaned outward, fingers curved around the cigarette like they were the legs of a ballerina. I felt, messy-haired, like a filtered series of iphone photographs designed to show how cute and cool and casual I was. Not like a human being at all. I squinted harder at that window.
I only had one memory of my mom. Sometimes a memory is so brutal that it shatters everything that came before or after, and so I can’t remember her making pancakes or wiping my ass or tucking me in. I assume those things happened before I was removed from her care, I just can’t be sure. But I remember the day, after that, when she drove off the bridge.
I remember our car falling and the sensation of my stomach floating outside of my body, that sick roller-coaster feeling made physically real by the magic of near-death so that I could actually see my stomach somewhere above my head of baby-brown hair, my six-year-old eyes looking right through that disembodied organ at the roof of the car, at the gray soft stuff that lined it and the little squarish dome of the interior light. I was stupid dead weight, thinking in this moment of mortal peril about what that gray fluff that lined the car’s ceiling would taste like, would feel like in my throat. I didn’t try to get out. I just watched my stomach floating outside of me, expecting it to spew puke everywhere like air from a whoopie cushion and for the vomit to rise and fall and then float all around us, zero-gravity-like, sparkly space junk, glitter in a rocketship, TEN-NINE-EIGHT style, framing my mother’s hyper-white and suddenly old face as it appeared between the driver and front passenger seats, her eyes terrified and gleeful, remorse and guilt and excitement, her mouth in a wide O.
This part of the memory is vivid, the O of her lips, the crazy fear in her face breaking everything open, breaking open the idea of what a mom was—like, can she get me out of here alive? Does she want to? Do moms keep babies safe?—but also breaking her open, like too much feeling can, like she was not a person, or was too much of a person, or was a goddamned egg.
It would be years before I heard the phrase O-Face, the name of a band at a middle school dance I’d been dragged to by a public-school friend. I remember someone needed to explain it to me: the face you make when you have an orgasm, a face where your mouth circles up and your eyes are wide, the face you’re trying to achieve any time you put on make-up, the face my mom wore moments before her death. It’s unsettling. When I can’t sleep because of it—not because of the terrifying mental image, but because of the hard-to-shake association between her look of unadulterated panic and the face I make during an orgasm—I picture her in that moment paired with a voiceover of the Koolaid man saying “Ooooooh yeahhhh” and breaking through a brick wall. I laugh. I cry. It’s an evening on Broadway.
And did you know that when a baby is born, the mother becomes a chimera forever, part mother part baby, even if she gives the baby up? And the baby is already part mother by default? And so your face and her face and the Kool Aid man’s face are all the same face when you cum or die, and they all echo each other in a never ending telescopic frozen iphone photograph of panic-ecstacy-mother daughter-which-filter-when-I-post-this-shit-on-instagram?
I don’t know what my face looked like then, in the car. Obviously. But probably as panicked as hers looked. Probably like it was the Rapture, capital R, not to be confused with rapture, little r, as in pleasure, as in, ever since that moment when death and I touched our warm hands through the tight membrane that was my mother’s, um, badassery, I have not been able to be scared without some kind of womanly exhilaration, or to feel good absent the fucking constant carnal knowledge of the presence of death (!).
We were two animals in mortal peril. We were two deer with our ankles caught in the same bear trap. I didn’t even think of getting out. I didn’t think of dying or living. In a moment of fight or flight, maybe my first ever, I did neither. It’s a misnomer, fight or flight. They should call it fight, flight, or clench every sphincter and freeze. Not the same ring, I know.
My mother’s eyes and my eyes—the pain-flash of impact and the loudness and coldness of river water, the car nosing down and down with its headlights blinking off, angling its neck for the softness of the dark riverbottom like a pig nosing for its mother’s teat or for something that decays. I did nothing.
My mother had tools. I watched her slash my seatbelt with a boxcutter from the glove compartment. I watched her use a window-breaker, the same one she used to shatter the glass of cars with overheating dogs trapped inside in the summer (I have no memory of this but I’m told it happened). She yanked and tugged and shoved me, swatting at my ass through the water, her hand slow, urging me to the surface.
I loved her so much in that moment.
I gulped air as soon as my face could feel that it was available and the air was love for my mother.
I looked around for my mother’s head, but it did not surface.
I thought about Andre the seal, which was also a story about water, but it was the story of my brain cells starting to die.
On the roof, I held out my cigarette to John, who waved it off with a little disgusted frown like he didn’t tend to put the things I gave him into his mouth. I said, “My mom saved my life,” and John snorted.
The sun had made it a bit higher, some of the pink replaced with pale blues and white. Through the neighbor’s window I saw the baby waking up. Let me clarify: she was two, little, and the house was across one wide street and both of our front lawns, so I didn’t see the baby. I saw a light come on in the baby’s second-floor room, and I saw the baby’s mom move across the window like a flicker, like blackness in an ultrasound of a fetal heart. I saw some chaotic darkness in the far-back of the room where the baby’s bed was. I did nothing outward to acknowledge my observation of the baby. I reached out and touched John’s back, shirtless, sticky with sweat, curved forward like he was trying to protect his soft hairy belly from enemy arrows. My hand moved to his shoulder, to the deep trench between halves of his back. John wore purple boxers with paisleys on them and nothing else.
Sometimes in these moments he is wearing a dark blue necktie with white tear-drops down the front, and the tip of the tie tickles his furry belly button, and he looks like an idiot.
His toes had a very slight flatness to them, which I noticed as they pressed down against the shingles. So precisely real. I put a hand on his thigh, hairy and muscled, then rested it on his knee. He looked at me, a question in his eyes, and I returned the look. He and I were both trying to remember whether there was supposed to be a scar on his kneecap.
Here was the problem: in the shower that morning, I shaved my legs. I hadn’t shaved my legs in months, but it was high summer, and I knew I was going to have to wear a swimsuit at some point, I knew I was going to have to confront some body of water in some recreational way, and I had the energy and the time, so I figured I’d do it. I pressed my foot against the back wall of the tub surround, hot water hitting the back of my head, getting in my ears, and I dragged my husband’s razor from the front of my ankle to just below my knee, and when I did, I saw the scar on my right kneecap, the fine lines red from the heat against the rest of my dayglow leg. It was a scar from playing football on pavement, from scoring a touchdown by sliding under a mailbox. We were eleven when it happened. And when I saw it, I paused for just a moment, because in my memory, it had been John, not me, who scored that touchdown. But there was the scar.
On the roof, I leaned down and grabbed the hem of my yoga pant leg, slowly pulling it up. I pulled until it was over my knee, and John reached out and traced the lines of the scar with his scratchy thumb. I reached out and touched the scar that was on his kneecap but shouldn’t have been. I had misremembered. He and I looked at each other, and I felt a pang; it had been working so well, the imagining so convincing, but the illusion was broken, obliterated, by this little fuck up: the real John didn’t have that scar. As soon as I’d fully realized that fact, my imaginary John dissolved. I pawed at the space where he had been. I could pull back his toes, just his toes—my memory of his toes was flawless. But I couldn’t muster the rest of him. When someone dies, all the literature says, you forget their voice first. I hadn’t read anything, though, about when your childhood best friend suddenly, in adulthood, refuses to talk to you, out of nowhere, for no reason, during the hardest moment of your life, forcing you to reconstruct him in painstaking but fallible detail just to have someone to talk to, or how all that impacted the vividness of feet.
Defeated, I picked up my phone. I scrolled, for the millionth time, through fifteen months of my one-sided text conversation with John:
March 8: My husband and I are having some trouble.
March 8: This is a cliché, but I’ll say it: motherhood is really lonely. It’s been really lonely for a year. I could use a friend.
June 19: Thinking of giving the baby up. If I’m honest with myself, that’s what I’m thinking of.
June 19: I guess she’s not a baby anymore.
June 19: Also, congrats, you doctor of medicine, you son of a banker!
August 1: Honestly, the thoughts I’ve been having about her are kinda violent—did you do a psych rotation? Can you help me out?
October 7: She’s really gone, I guess.
December 30: Ugh, this fucking year, man.
January 5: Happy Birthday! A big one! What are you doing to celebrate?
February 14th: Remember that time you updated your AIM profile with the date you started taking your antidepressants like they were a girl you were with? Highschool, amirite?
March 19th: It’s almost spring! I’d love to get together sometime. It’s been a hard winter. Like, really hard.
April 15th: Tax day, msg me if you need help. Like in the old days with your Dunkin’ Donuts W-2s and your write-offs for all those iced lattes. Ha.
May 11: Well. I guess we’re both 30 now. Feels strange celebrating alone, without my BFF here to pretend he’s gonna give me a hug and then, surprise! kick me in the vagina.
June 1: I got a pub deal on a book about my mom. Gonna be a bestseller. Gonna expose all the incest that happens in evangelical households. Y’know what I’m talkin’ about. Doncha.
June 1: That was a lie, but c’mon, what do you want me to do if you won’t answer me?
June 1: Seriously. I am a pit of unmet need. I’m sorry if I alluded to something to which allusions shouldn’t be alluded. Lol.
June 2: Rats, yanno, keep pressing the lever, again and again, when they don’t know how often to expect food.
To this long string of unanswered messages, I added: I had a daydream about you today. Daydreams are for only one thing: the fulfillment of adolescent fantasy. Then I sent another, because I couldn’t not: but nothing from adolescence is ever actually fulfilled.
Hannah Markos Williams
Hannah Markos Williams is a writer and educator living in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts where she teaches high school and college. Her novels use dark humor to confront traumatic experiences and their implications for identity. This piece, an excerpt from a novel-in-progress tentatively titled This Story is About Water, is especially concerned with the profound power of early friendships and self-destructive ways of coping with their loss. Hannah holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and an M.Ed from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.