Erin hasn’t been with a woman, or a man for that matter, in years. Not since long before her daughter stopped needing a babysitter. She’s grown used to the empty pleasure she gets from taking advantage of her showerhead’s multiple speeds. Coaxing out her own orgasm in a controlled and methodical way. She plays NPR through her cell phone on blast to drown out the sound of terrible metal music from Margaret’s bedroom. This is her one time of day to feel relaxed and independent, so she takes advantage of it.
Erin steps out of the shower, stands on the almost moldy bath mat, and stares into her own bloodshot eyes in the mirror. She notices the distinctly human musk in the bathroom that lingers when she relieves herself before taking a shower. There’s something so gratifying about her own odor, mixed in with the stark humidity emanating from the stall, that she likes to live within it for a moment longer.
Margaret, her once beautiful daughter, round without being fat and constantly cloaked in a summer dress, has turned into a monster. She’s rail thin and barely leaves her cave of a bedroom, which smells almost as thick as this bathroom does right now. Averse to taking showers and her own classmates, the 15-year-old prefers online role-playing games and most likely has a boyfriend twice her age halfway around the world. “Dating," of course, in the loosest sense of the term.
She wonders where she went wrong while popping a zit just beneath her collarbone, above her drooping right breast. She’d enrolled the girl in a modicum of the best after-school activities the city had to offer. Ballet and mad-science classes became computer programming and video game design. She’s always made sure the girl is not only provided for, but also busy. And yet now, after all these years, Margaret is carrying on a correspondence with her birth mother, lusting after a life she never had. The ungrateful little bitch.
There has always been transparency with Margaret about her being adopted. From a young age she taught her daughter that there is more than one way to start a family, and that none of these ways is the wrong one. Erin’s mother says that five years old was too young for Margaret to know this, but what else was she supposed to do? The “if you’re my mommy, who’s my daddy?” questions had already started and she wasn’t keen on selling the stork story or immaculate conception. She didn’t believe in lying to her daughter, or setting false expectations.
Erin uses a string of mint-flavored floss and puts her face as close to the fogged mirror as possible. She continues to breathe in the hot air and rhythmically carries out her task while wondering for the hundredth time this week what brought about this curiosity in Margaret. She’d of course been supportive of the idea, providing all the documents and contacts she had, but she couldn’t help but feel hurt. Maybe Erin wasn’t her sister, Diane — she’d never shared her feelings with her daughter or been able to give her more than the most cursory of physical affection — but she likes to think she did right by her. Better than her real parents ever could have.
With her finger she writes the word “bullshit” on the fogged mirror and sighs. It wasn’t like she didn’t want to share things with her daughter. Her therapist for years tried goading her to do it, promising that it’d help form the bond she’d been paranoid they’d never developed. But now it was too late, and as much as she hated to admit it, the idea of Margaret sharing with her biological mother instead of Erin drove her insane. The details of Margaret’s first boyfriend, the people she hated most in school, the hopes and dreams she had — anything more than the “fines” and “nothings” Erin got from her daughter every day of her life.
Erin shoves a Q-tip in her ear and marvels at the wad of wax she’s able to extrude. She looks again at herself, not old but certainly older, in the mirror as the fog begins to clear. Her hair, slicked back and exposing her forehead, sends water droplets down her sore back. She sighs, wrapping a towel around her head while still sizing up her naked body. She wonders if she’ll have to wait for Margaret to go away to college before she can go on dates again, or if it’d be OK for her to start doing it now. Diane had tried setting up a Match.com account for her ages ago, but she never checked the messages. Created a filter in her Gmail account just so they wouldn’t come into her inbox. Maybe it was time to open one or two, if only to pass the time.
The doorknob starts to jiggle and Margaret knocks loudly, shouting, “How much longer are you gonna take?”
The soft but worn robe Erin puts on fits like a glove, “Just a minute, honey.” She makes sure the “bullshit” is gone from the mirror before unlocking the door, which hasn’t stopped shaking from her daughter’s pounding. She takes one last deep breath of her musk and opens it, stepping aside for her daughter.
The two look each other in the eye and Margaret covers her nose, shrieking, “Jesus, Ma, what did you eat? It smells like a bomb went off in here.”
The door slams before Erin can respond but she still whispers, “Same thing as you, my dear, same thing as you.” She smiles, listening to Margaret cough louder than the fan and emit other, more human sounds. She remembers again the gorillas at the zoo: how they’d pound their chests and snarl in defiance one minute before picking flies off each other’s backs in the next, complacent and nurturing.