Posted on: February 3, 2015
On Sunday she goes to Aunt Ida’s house, a sagging, brick-crumbling relic in a neighborhood once forgotten. Brighter lights and clean, modern lines encroach, gentrification threatening in the guise of “off the beaten path” Segway tours, microbreweries, and hot yoga studios where everyone pronounces bikram differently.
Winnie vomits in the bathroom of an artisan bakery that charges too much for soft, pillowy croissants and crumbling scones with dried fruit (even though they’re delicious). That’ll show ‘em, she thinks as she uses the back of her hand to wipe her mouth. A smear of dark berry lipstick leaves a stain she manages to scrub off, with a layer or two of skin. When the counter hipster asks if she wants anything, she gives a terse smile and politely declines as she stumbles out into the cold gray morning.
Its light is unforgiving, and the truths illuminated are harsh. Winnie barely made it; had she been a block closer to Aunt Ida’s she would have been puking in someone’s meager square of yard. Dewy grass mocks her, the frosted sheen perfect and undisturbed. There’s no place to hide.
Winnie cuts through the alley and climbs the narrow staircase to the back door. She wiggles the knob and presses her hip, a careful combination of moves that she’s mastered over years of refusing to come in through the front door like she’s company. Aunt Ida’s warm smile greets Winnie and she throws her black peacoat over a chair.
The soft orange light of the kitchen feels welcoming. Winnie lets her shoulders droop a little, feels the tension of warring self-doubt and self-pity roll off her in waves. This is home, and she doesn’t have to hide.
“Bacon or sausage, Winnie?” Aunt Ida asks. Pork fat sizzles and pops on the stove. Winnie smells hot buttered toast and strong, black coffee. Sticky syrup droplets trail from the kitchen into the dining room, and a cacophony of voices alert her to the fact that she is the last one to arrive. Aunt Ida does her domestic dance from stove to oven to toaster, the stained apron swirling around her like a redneck ballgown. Kiss my grits.
“Bacon, please,” Winnie says, “I’m craving bacon this morning. Can I take anything?”
Aunt Ida glances over Winnie, her eyes sizing up the burgundy skinny jeans and beige sweater. She grimaces at the exposed bra strap and nods to a plate of pancakes. Winnie avoids the syrup spills as she takes the plate into the dining room, her cousins cheerful and already busy eating.
Winnie still looks peaked, but she blames it on residual food poisoning and declares she needs a good home-cooked meal. Never mind that when she actually had food poisoning, she couldn’t look at anything other than a box of saltines without throwing up a little in her mouth. This morning she eats two short stacks of pancakes and half a dozen slices of bacon, the grease collecting in nooks like warm tidal pools. Fat and satiated, she sips her lukewarm, bitter coffee. Conversation flows around her.
Ida corners her when she slips upstairs to use her bathroom. She swings the door open, her niece yelping in surprise.
“Are you pregnant?”
Winnie stares at her.
“Your mother got the same cravings when she was pregnant,” Ida sighs. “Bacon so oily it’d slip through your fingers.”
“I’m not pregnant,” Winnie says.
“You sure, honey?” Ida says. “You can tell me. Everything’ll be fine, Win.”
“Yes, Aunt Ida.”
“I’m not pregnant. I wasn’t pregnant when you came in here, I haven’t gotten pregnant in the last thirty seconds, and you’re really freaking me out right now. Can I please pee?”
Ida stares at Winnie’s plump figure. The waistband of her niece’s skinny jeans have stretched out, and her calves look deflated. Ida nods and pulls the door closed so Winnie can finish up in peace. Ida sits on her bed. With John in it, it felt too small. Without him, it feels too big.
Winnie emerges and Ida opens her mouth to ask more questions.
“I’m hungover, okay? Jesus.” Winnie snaps before Ida can speak.
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.” Ida shakes her head and pinches the girl’s waist. Her fingers are farther apart than they used to be, when she would do this as a joke and not as a test. She looks at the woman in front of her: smudged lipstick and concealer caked into wrinkles, dark circles peeking out from underneath. Her round, full cheeks are peppered with tiny freckles and fine flakes of dried mascara, detritus from a Saturday night out on the town.
Winnie will not look at her, so Ida inhales. She’s prepared to give advice when she smells the excess. Winnie’s perfume is strong, floral and fruity. It’s the too much of it that gives Winnie away; she wears more than she needs to and somehow it still isn’t enough, because Ida recognizes the smell her once-favorite niece is trying to cover.
This moment is so familiar. Ida lived it dozens of times, when her John would drag himself out of bed stinking of booze, his eyes bloodshot and his skin tinged gray. He’d spray his cologne before church but Ida could tell. The excess, the too much, would give him away.
It always does.
They say nothing to each other. Winnie cries, and Ida holds her in her arms. Ida tells the girl to take a nap, tucks her into bed, and makes her way back downstairs. Ida notices small drips of syrup, raised dots against the hardwood floors like Braille. She walks into the kitchen where towers of dishes have formed a metropolis on her counter. A tilted plate with a half-eaten stack of soggy pancakes threatens a slow, viscous slide.
Ida sighs and grabs a sponge.
Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Jaemin Riley
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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