Winner: Summer

by Margaret Redmond Whitehead

Margaret Redmond Whitehead‘s writing has appeared in publications including Reason Magazine, Good Housekeeping, and Narratively. She was a 2017 Literary Journalism Fellow at the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and a Lambda Literary Fellow in 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @margredwhite.

At first, the wood on the doorframe was cool against Jael’s ear. Her father’s voice resonated through the hall, filling the doorframe with vibrations that brushed like whiskers against her skin. She thought of the tiny, soft brown hairs on the side of her cheek and how they must be bristling with the reverberations, zinging miniscule pricks of electricity to the skin on her face. She placed the soft edge of her tongue against the inside of her cheek. To her delight the reverberations then shuddered inside her mouth, every time his voice came down the hall.

“Supervision here is admirably abysmal. Artists are all fucking bleeding hearts, it’s like fucking Montessori for co-eds.”

A pause as someone spoke on the other end of the line. Then her father interrupted the speaker. “Christ.” She missed a word. “Losing my goddamn mind already.”

Against Jael’s left cheek, the wood was beginning to warm. It became sticky, her perspiration mixing with the varnished surface. When she peeled her cheek off the doorframe, the skin came reluctantly, clinging onto the veneer, pulling open the corner of her mouth. With a sigh, she dropped her head back against the frame. It made a sound like a knock. Bone on Victorian oak.

At the end of the hall, her father’s head snapped up. His eyes fell on her, black and narrow. His skin looked waxy and pale in the windowless hall, and she could see bowls around his eye sockets and the hollows of his cheeks. She looked like him, except for that—the gauntness. That was what women usually said when they passed her, on their way to or from his bedroom.

“Jesus fucking Christ, she’s . . .” Her father stared at her down the hall. She saw millions of little dust motes suspended, revolving, sailing in slow motion in the long air between them. “Jael. Jael. Please do not do that outside of your room.”

Jael let out a noiseless sigh. The edges of her nostrils tingled with the release of air. She opened her fore- and middle-finger, unlocking them from the sticky latch they’d made around her prepuce, between those lazy hinged lips between her legs, and pulled her right hand out from the band of her tights. Free of her wrist, the elastic snapped against her navel. The woolen folds of her dress made an impotent effort to fall back to her knees, but a few pleats remained bunched at her right thigh. She rubbed the tip of her forefinger against her thumb. She felt the friction of the ridges on her fingertips.

Jael admired the sharp line of his chin; the incongruous arch of his Adam’s apple like a hard walnut trying to break out of his skin; his crooked nose like three broken stone steps.

Her father, tall and feminine, lithe as a ballet dancer, broke his eyes away from her and stared back at the phone body affixed to the wall. His knuckles were icy white, wrapped tightly around the black phone cord. Jael watched the loop of the cord, which almost touched the Persian hall carpet, swing back and forth from his fist.

“All right,” he said, his voice bending fast on a dark sarcastic curve. “Why not. If I don’t first impale myself on the fucking weather vane.”

He placed the phone back in its cradle and let go of the cord. Jael admired the sharp line of his chin; the incongruous arch of his Adam’s apple like a hard walnut trying to break out of his skin; his crooked nose like three broken stone steps. Her father watched her back. He said nothing, just stared at her down the hall, his face unfathomable, empty. She felt him looking into her eyes. She wondered, since they had the same eyes, if it was like staring into a looking-glass.

#

Jael was in her studio painting when the doorbell rang. It sounded through the house like a high church bell, echoing in the corridors and bouncing benevolently off the dark wood trim. She wasn’t finished painting but the sound pulled her in. It summoned her into the hall.

When she reached the stairs, she heard the groan of the front door, a heavy slab of wood that always felt cold, even in the summer. Voices filtered up through the dust to her ears.

First, her father’s. Slow and deliberate, like the long fall of a heavy rock. “Please . . . tell me I am imagining this.” Always those rich pauses in his syntax.

The other voice was so unlike his in every way that it sliced a shiver through Jael’s ribs. “Hey, Devon.” It was a woman.

“This must be a joke,” her father said.

“Mark called me,” said the woman. Her speech came fast and bright, speech like from the bustling world outside their house, sharp enough to cut through the doorway. It made Jael’s father’s voice sound like a swaying dirge.

The woman’s voice shudddered through Jael’s brain. She thought the name before her father said it: “Cassandra.”

#

“Tell me what’s going on,” Cassandra said. They were arranged in Jael’s father’s office, on a mix of plushy armchairs and a hard wooden chair of dark walnut. Jael found an indent in the seat of her chair and dug her finger inside of it. With her nail she could feel a gooey drop of resin.

Jael’s father was draped in a chair upholstered in velvety salmon that was worn down on the arms. Cassandra held out to him a stout round glass of scotch. Taking it, their fingers touched, and Jael’s father winced.

While her right forefinger pressed into the resin in the knot on the wood, Jael’s other hand pinched at the tights on her calves. She pulled them an inch off her skin then let go. When they snapped back onto her leg a little puff of dust and dead skin erupted through the nylon. It floated for a moment, a mushroom cloud over the crest of her calf, then dissipated amongst the rest of the dust in the air.

Her father watched this process. His eyes lingered on the little pouf of dust snapped up into the air and then his eyes slid back to Cassandra. He raised a hand in Jael’s direction then let it drop back onto the arm of the chair. “I am . . .” he began, and then took a tight pause in the middle of his sentence, “. . . at a loss.”

Cassandra crossed one of her legs over the other. They looked big, warm and soft as cylindrical pillows. The arms of the chair pressed into her hip, pushing some of her flesh out beneath the arm. Her voice cut through the slow meander of his. “Mark told me what’s going on with Jael. He said you’re worried, and you’re kinda losing your head.”

He sent her an armorless look, a look like she had everything, so convincing that Jael scanned Cassandra’s body for what she was hiding.

A shaft of sunlight, divvied into six squares by the windowpane, bent into the room and pooled on the bare, freckled nape of Cassandra’s neck. It laid across Jael’s father’s back. Jael raised a foot so that the toe of one of her Mary-Janes poked into the light.

“That would be . . . accurate,” said her father.

“So she’s promiscuous,” Cassandra said with a shrug.

“She’s not promiscuous,” her father sneered. “People are taking advantage of her. It’s abhorrent.”

“You’re promiscuous,” said Cassandra.

“A poor comparison,” he brooded.

“Um, because she’s a woman? It’s different for women?”

“You know well why it’s different.”

“You mean because she’s different.”

Jael’s father said nothing. She swung her foot in and out of the square of light on the rug in front of her. She nestled her other heel in between her legs.

Cassandra frowned, and scratched her arm. Jael remembered how she used to have dreadlocks like dark red ropes down to her hips, how the skin on her face used to be smooth above the scattered spots. “Devon,” Cassandra said, “Didn’t we go through this whole thing, like, five years ago? When she was, what, thirteen? Fourteen?”

Jael’s father scowled, but Cassandra went on. “There was that boy? I don’t remember his name. They were pretty, you know, active. I took her to the clinic and we got her on birth control. She still takes that, right? Jael, are you still taking birth control?”

Swinging a toe out and back, into the light and out of it, Jael found Cassandra’s eyes on her. “Yes.”

“Every day?” Cassandra asked.

“Yes,” said Jael.

“Okay, good. So there’s that.” Cassandra’s shoulders shifted back to face the other armchair. “What about protection. Have you explained how condoms work?”

“She understands how they function,” her father said. “However, I am not reassured that they’re always in play.”

“What about STDs. Have you helped her get tested since I took her?”

Jael’s father stared darkly back. “No.”

“So it’s been, what, five years or so since she last got tested.”

Jael’s father brought the glass to his lips and took a sip. It looked like watery honey. It sloshed back then forth in the glass, sliding up the sides then slapping down into the flat basin.

“His name was Rian,” her father said. Slow, his voice always slow, like a cello. “I resolved that.”

“You got him expelled,” Cassandra said.

“He was fifteen. She, underage. Then,” he said, a deep push of the rosined bow against a low string, the sweet scoop of a crescendo as Cassandra opened her mouth and he pressed on. “Then, her dorm manager increased supervision. Incidents were quelled. I moved her back to the States and enrolled her in a small all-girls school.”

“Uh, Devon,” Cassandra said.

“I am aware,” he said. “However it’s a slight peace of mind that there will be no pregnancy or disease, and, perhaps, less predatory peers.”

“Devon, that’s not true about disease. And, a huge generalization about the predatory thing.”

“I trust that you left your neo-feminist agenda at the door when you entered my house.”

“Sorry.” Her eyebrows drew together. They were thick and sandy orange. “I didn’t.”

Jael’s father swigged back more of his scotch. It swam around in the glass bauble again, rushing copper honey or liquid golden silk. Jael licked her lips. She sat forward, pressing into the short heel of her left foot.

“What do you need, Devon?” Cassandra asked.

He sent her an armorless look, a look like she had everything, so convincing that Jael scanned Cassandra’s body for what she was hiding. It was only her body, though; there was nothing else there.

“Stay.” His voice came out like a single cello note on the highest string. Jael had painted it before.

Cassandra let in and out a thick rush of air. “I’d like to. I really would. Devon, I’m serious. But I have a new job. I can’t drop everything right now to go back to being a live-in nanny.”

“You’re seeing someone.”

“No. I’m not.” She leaned forward. The side of her stomach morphed as she moved, shifted into a soft triangle between her breasts and her thighs. “Mark helped me with the ticket to come see you. I can give you some advice, or something. I can help you make a learning plan for her. I can help by phone after I leave—I’m happy to help; you guys are like family to me. But you can’t expect to control her.”

“I saw . . .” her father drank this time between his words. But always that pause. “. . . one of them on her.” His voice shook, a vibrato. The scotch glass trembled in his fingers.

“I’m sure that really sucked.” Cassandra’s brows were still drawn. Jael had the impulse to comb them. She stayed in her chair. Cassandra glanced in Jael’s direction. “Jael, do you remember that?”

“Yes.” Jael recalled this instance vividly. A man she knew was inside her, touching many of her edges, holding her waist as she pinched her own chest. Every moment of the step up was a fusillade of sounds and flickers of consciousness. It made her feel blind with sensory impact. Made her compulsive; if he touched her on one shoulder she had to feel it on the other; the same went for every stretch of her skin.

Jael and the man were in an empty classroom, intertwined on the floor in the corner. She was grabbing her nipples beneath her dress. Scratching her stomach. Chewing on the side of her tongue. Her eyes were closed. She felt every hair on her legs prickling against her tights. She was close. Then something pushed her. She rolled. Her bare buttocks hit the wall. The man was gone from her; every touch had evaporated from her skin, a cold reptilian empty air. When she opened her eyes he was on the ground and her father was there. She had the wherewithal to be surprised at the physical feat her father had managed, a waif-like man she’d seen struggle to open canning jars in the kitchen.

“Okay,” Cassandra said. “Was it consensual? Did you want that?”

“Yes,” Jael said. The man hadn’t been sure at first. He’d seemed nervous, perturbed. He’d kept looking back at the door. Then Jael had told him that they could smoke weed first. He’d agreed, after that.

“You didn’t force him, did you?” Cassandra asked.

“Absurd,” her father hissed.

“No,” Jael said.

“Devon, she says it was consensual. I believe her. You remember how she wanted to touch everything when she was little. She was obsessed with it. You did all that research on synthensesia and I tried to get you to let me get a cognitive assessment done on her.”

“And still won’t.”

“I’m just saying this isn’t surprising to me. She likes touch. I say take some practical steps first and foremost. A doctor’s visit. Then to make sure she stays safe, you can do it the same way I trained her to do everything else.”

Jael’s father stood in as single swoop, like the beat of a bird’s wing. He turned and emptied his glass, bearing away that golden liquid.

Jael saw a flash of Cassandra’s teeth as she grimaced. “Lemme make a phone call,” she said. “I can stay a few days.”

#

“Her paintings are really beautiful,” Cassandra said. She dried dishes while Jael’s father washed them. Jael wiped down the table, a slab of mahogany, with a mixture of vinegar, lemon and grapeseed oil. The rag in her hand was so saturated with liquid that, at the slightest squeeze of her fingers, moisture seeped out of the hatches between every thread.

Her father ran water over a china plate. He bobbed it in the empty air of the sink once, twice, before handing it to Cassandra. “The school offered me a position in hopes of enticing her here.”

“Professor Grace again. What are you teaching these days?”

“Logic. Sartre. Next semester, Jean Piaget, if the current instructor takes a sabbatical.”

“Ah.” The cloth in Cassandra’s hand moved up, then down, then up, then down, along the edge of the plate. Jael imitated the pattern on the table: Up then down, then up, then down, then up. “You know, older rags with some use in ‘em would dry these better.”

“You know,” Jael’s father said, a nasal sardonic edge to his voice as his lip curled slightly. “Newly-bought clothes that are properly tailored alert the wearer when she starts to expand.”

Cassandra stood back, plate in hand, and fixed a hand on her hip to stare at Jael’s father. “Are you kidding me?”

Jael’s father put down a dish in the sink and turned off the faucet, an abrupt cease of the rushing of water that had filled the kitchen and Jael’s ears. He turned to face the dish-dryer and folded a pair of bony arms across his chest like legs of a folding table. “Though . . . I imagine that now that you’ve shorn the mange off your scalp, you’ve somewhat balanced out the scale.”

Jael’s eyes traced Cassandra’s scalp, the chunks of orange on either side of her ears, the coat that covered her head. It was short, like a golden retriever, uneven and twisted at some ends. “Cassandra,” Jael said. Use someone’s name to alert them to the fact that you’re addressing them. “May I paint your hair?”

“Paint on my hair, or paint a picture of my hair?”

“May I make a painting of your hair?” Jael clarified. To ask permission, start with ‘may I.’ That was how she’d asked the man. May we?

“Yeah, of course, baby. Wait a minute, though, okay?” Cassandra’s head turned back to Jael’s father. “Excuse me?”

His lips, thin and pale pink, turned down. “I apologize.”

Cassandra scoffed, then turned back to her. “All right, Jael. Let’s go. I can’t wait.”

“Cassandra.” Jael’s father’s back curled over his folded arms. Dressed in all black, he looked like the end of a drooping brush dipped in paint.

Cassandra’s hand folded around Jael’s, still wet from wiping the table. Jael inhaled a last breath of the vinegar. It strung her nose, the back of her throat. She took a gulp of air, standing over the rag, before letting the nanny lead her away.

#

In a wicker basket, Jael gathered colors. Reds and burnished oranges, yellows for the flecks, yellows and whites for the light. She took a mossy green from her bookshelf and added it to the basket. It clacked against the other oil paints and then nestled down between two oranges. As she began to mix, Cassandra sat on a stool in the center of the studio.

The click of heels on the wooden floor came first into the room. First their sound, and then Jael’s father stood in her studio. His eyes scanned the walls, covered in her paintings, the floor protected by a sheet he’d discarded after a poor night’s sleep.

Jael thought that time must be slippery, because it felt the same now as years before.

After a pause, he moved to the far wall, where a wide, deep bookshelf held vinyl records. His thumbs moved over their sanded edges, long fingers darting between them as he flipped them aside one by one. Jael pushed a further glob of woody orange onto her palate and began to stir it in; the swirls twisted against the lighter shade. She gave a small moan of delight. Her father pulled a record out of its sleeve and lowered it by its edges onto the record player.

Jael caught a glimpse of the paper sleeve: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons. Her mouth moved to form the question; her windpipe pushed out the needed sound. “Which one will you play?”

Her father looked at Cassandra. His eyes grazed over her hair. He looked as though he might touch it. “Summer,” he said.

“Devon,” Cassandra said. “Careful.”

“There is hardly peril in music.” It began to play. Light, lilting violins swung gently and settled into the room.

The studio felt warm. It was like this, before, for almost a decade of Jael’s childhood. Cassandra holding her hand; her father working mostly from home, sipping wine through the afternoons. They three came together for supper. Jael sat in silence while Cassandra lobbied for activity fees and art supplies. Jael’s father muttered about adjusting Cassandra’s paycheck as he fished from his pocket the requested bills. Jael thought that time must be slippery, because it felt the same now as years before.

Jael matted the flat side of a brush in a glob of paint. Each time she lifted it off the palate it left dozens of little pocks on the slab.

“You’ve been thinking about what to do with Jael,” her father said. Jael heard memory words from his mouth. I’m at a loss—please . . . alarmed—It alarms me how much I. . . I’ve said nothing ‘til-

“Yeah. I’ve got some ideas.”

“By all means.” –I‘d be whomever you want. Anyone. Then, in the morning, nothing.

Cassandra straightened her back and inhaled. “Well first of all, I want to say that I understand why you’re worried. Even if she’s had consensual sex up ‘til now, that’s something that could definitely be an issue in the future.” Jael’s father’s lip curled. Cassandra went on. “And not just consensual sex, but I want to make sure she has protected sex. I don’t know that we’ve ever taught her how to insist on something. At least not something she doesn’t already want. And women often have to insist on protection.”

Jael’s father raised a long hand to his face and rubbed at his jaw. “I can’t . . . I cannot even begin to fathom how she might learn to . . .”

“Hey,” said Cassandra. She stood up from the stool, leaving Jael with a near-blank canvas. She moved over to Jael’s father and took his shoulders in her hands. “We’ll figure it out. It’s okay, even good, that she’s different than the last time I saw her. It’s healthy to evolve.”

Jael’s father’s eyes seemed attached to Cassandra. Jael imagined painting a string between both their eyes, a line of viscous dark green bridging the space between them. Her father spoke: “I am exactly as you left me.”

Cassandra withdrew her hands and sighed, then returned to the stool. Jael’s hand moved back to the brush. “I don’t want to be cold, but I’m not here to torture you. I’m happy to stay and help. Not if it’s bad for you.”

Jael’s father turned his back to them. Jael felt the brush as an attachment to her fingers, a separate piece of wood she could detach and refasten in this room. The violins burst into scattered seizures that swirled around in Jael’s esophagus and made her groin tremor. They slowed, dallied, drifted back and forth in little wisps, then again barraged her ears with fire-colored noise. Her father always knew which record to play. He was stingy with this talent; she’d asked him three months ago to choose a record to play while she might knead her fingertips deep between her legs and he’d refused, then consumed two bottles of wine and fell asleep on the kitchen table. She’d asked, too, for musical pairings to marijuana, to a similar result.

“I haven’t the slightest notion . . . how to help her,” Jael’s father said.

Cassandra’s eyes moved down to the floor.

Jael’s father spoke again. “If I left. . . would you stay?”

“I don’t have a problem with being around you, Devon.”

Jael glanced up at her father’s eyes. They flickered, twitching with the surging pulse of the violins. “Obviously,” he said. His voice clashed painfully in Jael’s ears. It was discordant against Vivaldi’s Summer.

#

Jael watched her father pack his things into a suitcase. She usually didn’t enter his bedroom but couldn’t resist the chance to sit in his closet. While he sorted through hangers, then packed button-downs and pressed slacks carefully in a tri-fold suitcase, Jael took down a basket of his ascots and sunk her hands into the silken depths. The fabric stuck and pulled against her skin. The sticky folds brushed her arm hairs the wrong way and sent chills through the pockets of her underarms.

Her father smoothed down his clothes and began gathering toiletries from his bathroom. Jael reached into her cardigan pocket and fingered a nub of weed the size of her thumbnail. It had survived her father’s latest raid on her room, cleverly tucked into her box of sanitary pads. She brought it quickly to her lips and licked its furry hide. It was back in her pocket before her father was out of the bathroom carrying a black leather toiletry case.

“Say hi for me to your sister, and her family.” Jael looked up. Cassandra was in the doorway, leaning against the entry to the bedroom. “Give them my best.”

Jael’s father did not look up as he completed his packing. “You’ll call me,” he said.

“You can call, too.”

The front door opened then banged shut. The vibration it sent through the house pumped in her chest. It sounded nothing like the wet gulping when Cassandra had left for good.

Jael swayed onto her feet. Her fingers were still glued to the nub inside her pocket. She shuffled out of her father’s closet, past where he stood with his suitcase near the bed, and squeezed past Cassandra in the doorway on her way out of the room.

“Hey,” Cassandra called. “Jael. Your dad’s heading off. Aren’t you going to say goodbye first?”

“Goodbye,” said Jael. She turned the nub between her fingers where it was hidden in her cardigan. She turned to leave again.

“Where are you going?” Cassandra asked.

“I’m going to my room,” she answered.

“Cassandra,” Jael’s father said. Jael heard him as she crept away, padding down the long hall and turning into her room at the end. She closed the door behind her and locked it. If you do that, you have to do it in your room with the door closed and locked. “It’s appreciated.”

She heard Cassandra’s voice from the end of the hall but not the words. Jael took the bud out of her pocket and packed it into a pipe, then smoked it as two sets of footsteps came back down the hall and turned, heading down the stairs. The front door opened then banged shut. The vibration it sent through the house pumped in her chest. It sounded nothing like the wet gulping when Cassandra had left for good.

Cassandra set up downstairs at the dining room table with a pen and a notebook. She twisted a stubby lock of hair in her fingers while she brainstormed. After several minutes passed, she realized that she’d never heard Devon’s taxi drive away. He must be waiting, she thought, debating in the car. Over what, she wondered, and mentally tested out the possibilities.

A sweet, pungent smell came from the upstairs, reminiscent of Cassandra’s teenage years and twenties. That was the thing—it was so normal for a kid. Her eyes resettled on the pad of paper. She twisted the pen in her hand. For a flashing instant she recalled the panic in Devon’s face, his eyes frozen, bewildered, when Jael tried to touch herself at the dinner table while eating a floret of broccoli. She blinked and saw his face again, the same expression, when she rang the bell and he opened the door. He had looked like he wanted to fly out of the house, fast enough to go straight through her, and dissolve into the flecked autumn wind.

Cassandra’s eyes re-focused on the page before her, but she wasn’t brainstorming. She was waiting, listening, to see if he would come back. Then it came, the crunch of the cab wheels against his driveway pavement. She listened to it fade off into silence.

Author photo credit to the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity.

 


Margaret Redmond Whitehead‘s writing has appeared in publications including Reason Magazine, Good Housekeeping, and Narratively. She was a 2017 Literary Journalism Fellow at the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity and a Lambda Literary Fellow in 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @margredwhite.

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