Ayla acts mean because her mom’s too pretty to be a mom. You wonder if Ayla’s mom is trying to interfere with her daughter’s sexual capital and conclude that she must be, otherwise she wouldn’t have rechristened herself Crystal and left Ayla as Ayla.
Your mom is a cleaning lady but always let you run around smelling very un-fresh because she wouldn’t buy you deodorant.
“Causes cancer,” she says.
She’s probably not wrong but you sweat too much. Once she gave you reading materials to pass along to Crystal on the aluminum content of antiperspirant so she could better keep her daughter out of harm’s way. You asked your mom why she’s so hellbent on protecting Ayla and she said it’s because she can tell Crystal’s too pretty to be a mom. You understand now that motherhood makes you hate yourself. You understand now self-hatred is contagious.
Your mom is a cleaning lady and says your dad is Mr. Clean. Somehow you still pay out-of-pocket for a liberal arts school.
You sit in Hewitt, the only dining hall the all-girls’ institution offers on campus. In front of you is a comically large ceramic plate with a single cherry tomato placed at the center. The bathroom is several long corridors from the cafeteria’s entrance. This is not a design flaw, purging isn’t lady-like. But you don’t like tomatoes.
A voice over the loudspeaker addresses the room: “The tomato is not perfectly rounded, is it? It has an organic bulkiness.”
The few in attendance too earnestly listen. You, too, too earnestly listen, and to spite yourself for having signed up for these mindful eating seminars, you forgo chewing altogether and swallow it whole. The tomato goes down the wrong pipe and is refused passage. It’s forced into your chest to settle hard like the malignant cyst your mom threatens could develop in your armpit tissue. At least now you can leave.
You haven’t talked much to Ayla since the start of the semester but today she reaches out.
“Are you familiar with the rule of three? In comedy.”
“No, I’m not,” you respond.
“A joke is repeated three times, each iteration more absurd than the last, and the third is the real kicker,” she informs.
“Then explain why I fucking lose it every time my French professor says dix-neuf.”
Ayla says you’re funny, really funny. You know that means you’re ugly and that’s why you’re at an all-girls’ school. You know you should ask how she likes Delaware. You don’t, but she tells you it’s super and that she’s already lost all kinds of virginity. You don’t think that’s how it works but you’re not supposed to think about those kinds of things. She asks if you’re planning to go home this week and you think of Crystal, who’s too pretty to be a mom. You decide that you will just to check in on her. Later, you decide that may be uncalled for. Even later, you decide you’ll phone ahead. Can’t be uncalled for if you call ahead.
Crystal tells you Ayla isn’t coming for Thanksgiving so she’d love to have you over if you’re available. Your mom doesn’t believe in government holidays, so you accept the invite without hesitation, ask if there’s anything you should bring.
Crystal laughs in French. “No, you’re enough.”
Thanksgiving is a sexy holiday. The cult of domesticity–see, you go to a sister school!–is rife with sex appeal. Thanksgiving is balmy, with the oven turned all the way up for so many hours on end…You read a lot into everything because you’re not supposed to think about these things.
Crystal smells like coffee and incense and looks very beautiful without glasses. No one would mistake you for her daughter.
The apartment’s open floorplan is threatening in its minimalism. Minimalism is expensive and not what you’re used to, and surrounded by the five lighting fixtures lightly toasting the dining area in their tungsten breath, you’re already sweating. Crystal engages with you from the kitchen.
You’re looking “real dyke-y today,” she teases.
“We can make jokes like that,” she coos, like a pigeon.
A pigeon is technically a dove. You’re satisfied with the connection. You sit on your hands and answer her questions correctly. She wishes Ayla was more like you in that regard.
“I’m not your daughter.” You draw the boundary for both your sake.
You eat in silence for the duration of the meal, both picking at your food delicately. You want to be described as delicate. The all-girls’ school is teaching you well, but without the overhead speaker to nudge you along, you’re left to your own devices. Now, the turkey’s overcooked, easy enough to ignore. But the pomegranate molasses requires attention, the cherry tomatoes of the entrée like marbles in its resin. You opt to tackle the biggest one. It’s not perfectly rounded but seems to slide gently down your throat.
You excuse yourself to the bathroom after shoving a forkful of turkey in your left check. You stare at yourself in the mirror but take too long and are forced to swallow. You wash out your mouth in the tap. You stare some more, then you think you hear crying.
“It’s the kitchen sink,” Crystal says, “and it’s been leaking for months.” She agrees it sounds like crying.
You’re no plumber but you take a look, roll up the sleeve on your non-dominant arm to flash an intricate floral tattoo. It’s the prettiest thing about you. You jiggle the drain stopper as Crystal watches, stick two fingers underneath the rubber perimeter, then tighten the faucet and the dripping stops.
“You must be stronger than me,” Crystal rationalizes. It’s only because she’s malnourished but you know better than to say that.
When you sit back down, you pull the seat closer and lean on your elbows so the prettiest part of you is on full display.
“It looks like a coloring book,” Crystal says, but she’s “never been able to color in the lines.”
She goes to serve you another plate but she loses her footing and the plate shatters evenly two.
“Good ceramic wouldn’t do that,” you say, “Good ceramic shatters irreparably.”
Crystal smiles and asks if you want a glass of anything. You follow her into the kitchen to assess your options. You don’t pick up the broken plate, the room could use more clutter.
Crystal has three unopened bottles of wine. You ask which has the highest percentage.
“This one’s Canadian,” she says, “16%.”
“What’s the other 84?”
Crystal says you’re funny, really funny. There’s no cork so you open it easily. She feigns delight.
The maple leaf on the bottle is misleading. The wine tastes like the ocean. It tastes like shit. Once you ate a sea urchin raw and its innards produced a juice just as salty.
Crystal tells you she’s prepared a Polish blood soup because you’re an adventurous eater. Suddenly you feel yourself expanding, hunched over just slightly, boorish in a too-tight sweater, like the room’s so empty to accommodate your size. No one would mistake you for her daughter.
Polish means duck blood, means Crystal’s rechristened you the bastardly Slav she left behind when Ayla was born. She insists you remain seated and comes over with two palm-sized cups of lukewarm black soup.
You notice her hands are well-manicured, dainty. You notice your own are rugged and a maybe-wart is developing on your right middle finger, but you offer both regardless so she can place a cup in them. It smells like honey and vinegar and not at all like blood. This, too, tastes like shit. You down it fast so you almost choke, triggering the gag reflex you couldn’t conjure in the bathroom earlier. Crystal reaches over to wipe your mouth with her manicured hand. It lingers too long and you remember you haven’t really eaten yet. You think you taste the blood now and start to choke for real. A single cherry tomato propels out through your oral cavity.
Rachel Stempel is a queer poet and MFA candidate at Adelphi University where she also teaches. A staff reviewer at Up the Staircase Quarterly, her work can also be found in The Nasiona, Kissing Dynamite, Unlost Journal, and forthcoming in SPORAZINE and elsewhere. Originally from the Bronx, she now larps as a Long Island townie.