The White Bikini
Michelle vacuumed the spare bedroom. It was Friday afternoon, her routine. It had been a miserable week at work and to celebrate her survival she was going extra compulsive. She even flipped off the vacuum to move the bookshelf. It hadn't been moved in the eight years she'd lived there. Awkward and heavy, the hard corners cut into the soft of her arms; it didn't hurt badly though, more like light pinching. She thought of junior high slow-dancing. Smiling, she closed her eyes and swayed with the uncertain weight until, two feet out, it nearly went over on her. The well-worn paperbacks tumbled off. Stepping back, she blinked and frowned at them. "Idiot," she said.
Leaning over, she grabbed the books one by one and replaced them. She felt the pull of her large breast and a twinge in her lower back. The effort quickened her breath and the autumn sun through the large southern window made her sweat lines down the backs of her knees. A frizzy strand of her hair came loose and tickled her nose. She blew at it, but it had draped under her glasses, so it didn't move. She made a noise in her throat and pinched the hair in her thumb and forefinger. Her elbow tightened and she clenched her teeth. Stupid hair, she thought, and wanted so bad to give it a jerk, but looked down and saw one last book; it had managed to bounce behind the shelf. "You," she growled, "where do you think you're going, mister?"
Michelle dropped a hand and then went down on her big knees. Inching forward, a sharp pain shot through her ribs. Dropping her forehead to the book cover, she closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. Dr. Windham said slowly. Suck the air, but not deeply--like a cocktail straw. Savor it. Positive thoughts. Dr. Windham said we make our reality. It's scientific. It's quantum physics. Michelle said she'd take his word for it and he said good.
Her old glasses squeezed the bridge of her nose. She flared her nostrils. Stale. The space behind the bookshelf smelled stale. Michelle wrinkled her face and her breath caught. She tried to only breathe through her mouth, but that only worsened the stabs in her side. Eyes still closed, she pictured her fallopian tubes wheezing dust, coughing like little eels with large, aquatic baby eyes. Suddenly she pictured herself slicing through the bulge of her tummy and pulling the little creatures out to hold under a cool, cool faucet as her stomach leaked the warmest, coziest blood, blood, blood--
Michelle's eyes popped open. She couldn't focus. Blue and red. She lifted her big head from the book and blinked at it. When did she buy a Harry Potter? She hated Harry Potter. It must have been a gift from her mother. I'm not twelve anymore, thank you. And the carpet ... it was so new-looking, so shiny beige, so spongy, so untouched by her habits. Pushing into a kneeling position, she caressed it like the fur of some delicate pet. This was me eight years ago. She kneaded her fingertips into the carpet, digging into the weave. Again, her side panged.
"Owee--" she squeaked, pulling her fingers to her waist. But a hangnail caught, and firmly. Dropping her head again, and biting her lip, she worked at her right hand with the nails of her left. "Give it back," she said. "Stupid new carpet."
The snag loosened as she wiggled her wrist. It wasn't the carpet she'd caught, but a strand of hair. Grasping it, she sat up straight. Bringing the hair close to her face for examination, the sun shone on it and it twinkled. She adjusted her glasses. The hair was flaxen, not blond or yellow, but nearly golden. "Boy," Michelle said, extended her arm above her head, pulling the hair; it didn't snap, but stretched with her. "Boy, you're like four feet long...."
With her free hand, she grabbed the windowsill and awkwardly hoisted herself up. She extended her full body, reaching for the ceiling, flexing her tippy-toes, and again the hair stretched with her. Wow, Michelle thought, did I buy this place from an Amish woman? She tried to remember what the sellers looked like but could only picture Dr. Windham rubbing his chin and saying, "I can tell you you're making progress till I'm blue in the face, but not until you tell you you're making progress...."
"I'm making progress," Michelle whispered, and gave two good tugs on the hair. She felt it give slightly, but it still didn't break. And it wasn't entwined in the carpet; in fact, with the sun now catching more of its length, she could see it trail off under the bookshelf and, beyond that, the futon.
A feeling like hunger settled in Michelle's stomach and before she could ask herself why, she was following the hair. Hand over hand, its path into the hallway, and under the back door.
Outside, in the full sun and crisp air, the hair twinkled like a golden harp cord. This can't be magical, she told herself. Magic is for kids, for people who still live with their mothers, who don't have jobs and don't own condos and don't have to take care of themselves all alone.
Toddling along, the hair gliding through her loose fist, Michelle left her back yard, wiggled through a space in the condo complex hedge, and hurried down the crooked sidewalk. She was breathing deep and hard now, but the pain in her ribs had vanished. And she could smell everything, impeding snowfall, drying leaves, wood burning stoves from drifting down from mountain cabins.
At the end of Whiterock Street, at the stop sign, the hair's course turned and tagged along the bike path. "Oh god! Oh god!" she heard herself moan, and she picked up her pace to where her feet sweetly ached. Yes, sweet ache. Her entire body feeling younger, liked she was eight again and had just finished swim practice. "Oh god! Oh god!"
"Stop it," she hissed and laughed at herself. But the hair was warming, a distinct heat against her palm. It's only friction. It doesn't mean I'm getting closer. It doesn't mean I'm near the end. And at the end? A pot of gold, a genie's lamp?
The hair veered into a thicket of willow, but Michelle didn't pause. She fought her way through the hard branches and ten million thorns. She was invincible. A machine. A grasshopper landed on her glasses. "Out of my way!" she cried, shaking her head until the thing flew off and the muscles of her throat pulsed like pistons. Crashing, stomping, sucking big, gluttonous breaths, raced the hair down into a gully, through a stagnant, brown stream. The water soaked through her slacks and she laughed at it, at the weak shivers it tried sending up her spine. Old milk jugs banging against her thighs. She emerged with a loud suck of water, plodding through the heavy clay of the far embankment. She could picture it now so clearly, a verdant meadow, the hair's end, a follicle of translucent pixie ooze bonding the golden cord to a polished wooden wand. It was summer there--no, spring, always spring. Blue birds the size of eagles, berries dangling from mammoth. And she sipped a mimosa while standing, legs spread confidently like Linda Carter, in the tiniest bikini. Tiniest white bikini, fresh snow against her cocoa skin because she waved the wand over her stomach. She waved the wand over her neck and thighs and the fat sizzled like fireworks, exploding in color, and leaving her slim and sleek.
And there's that stupid vacuum! Yes, take that! What I need is a man. Poof, a writer, Robert McCammon, maybe ... Wally Lamb! Oh Wally baby, I'm your dream, I'll show you comin' undone ... and, god! Oh, flutter it over those old paperbacks! They're hers now, all from her imagination, National Bestsellers, each and every one...
And it was all there, in the glint of this magic hair, and like this, nearly hypnotized, Michelle waddled into a strip mall parking lot. Her heavy hips displaced shopping carts, her elbows bouncing off parked cars, but she paid no mind. Fingers slick with sweat, she slid them greedily along the hair until a glass-shattering whine filled her ears with the songs of angels. Angels and bells ... and Celine Dion--Celine Dion? Was she supposed to share? With a Canadian? With that whiny--Michelle shook her head and blinked rapidly, looking up to find she'd pushed through the door of a salon. The bells fell silent as the door closed behind her. Hurrying forward, her heart pounding, a cry already pushing through her lips, she discovered, ten feet in, that the hair merely ended in a pile of clippings. Frantically, her knees buckling, she nudged the heap with her foot and tossed her head this way and that. "Whose ... whose hair is this?" she croaked.
The stylist was a nondescript man. He smiled kindly, leaning against the Formica counter. "Please take a sit down in my chair," he said, his voice thick with southern accent. "Come on, ma'am, let me make you the kind of woman I only dare dream about."
"A ... a barbershop?" Michelle choked. "You're just ... just a barber?"The man looked at his shoes and shook his head. "I can be anything you want me to be."
"No," Michelle replied, dropping the hair, "This ... this is complete bullshit!" She turned a jagged circle, feeling the rawness of her feet, feeling the soreness of her breasts, watching herself grab her side in the bright, bright mirrors. She couldn't breath. Where was Dr. Windham? Why had he done this to her? What if her mother saw her now? "Vacuuming." Michelle felt her thick, dry lips form the word. "Vacuuming ... I've got to go finish vacuuming...." And clutching her ribs, she stumbled out the door.
The barber sighed. He pushed himself away from the counter, stepping over to the clippings. Squatting, he fingered through the pile until he found the end of the long, golden hair. He held it up to his face, shrugged, and placed it on his tongue. Then he sucked and the entire thing, whistling like a dying bird, zipped into his mouth, curled in his chest, and his black eyes watered.
About the author:
Nate Liederbach teaches creative writing at Colorados Western State College. His publishing credits include: Mississippi Review, Tar Wolf Review, Ink Magazine, Carriage House Review, Talus Review,Blue Sap Review, The Coloradan, Pedestal Magazine, The Hornacle, and more. This March, his short story collection, Doing a Bit of Bleeding, is forthcoming with Ghost Road Press.