My father’s women come in the mail every month, in a plain, rectangular white envelope scarcely wide enough to hold one videotape cushioned in bubble-wrap and a thin folded selection catalog, the word CONFIDENTIAL written on the top left corner in fat uppercase characters so obscenely red it can only attract everyone’s attention. Everyone’s but my mother’s, she doesn’t look so she doesn’t have to see. She still buys me dresses two sizes too small and when people ask my age, she has to think for a second. Eleven? Twelve? When they say I’m my father’s spitting image, she responds with her eyes closed, “No. Not really.”
Friday afternoon on my way home from school, I open the front yard mailbox. There’s a new one. I dash inside the empty house, dismissing the twins who were accompanying me home. We can always kiss some other time. I place the pile of mail in the middle of the kitchen table, the bulky white envelope balancing awkwardly on top, a centerpiece. I sit down, perfect little girl, and wait for my parents to come home, scratching between my thighs in anticipation. It has to be the sequel to Lust in Medieval Times. They say your first movie holds a special place in your heart. The lady of the house wears tight under-bust corsets and her plump breasts tend to pop out of her white-lace shirt without warning, especially when she’s giving servants orders in the back of the barn. I have adopted the habit of rounding off my Saturday afternoon private screenings with a scene or two from Lust. Afterwards I lay the tape back on top of the others, right beneath the selection catalog; my father cannot possibly ignore my silent request any longer. Yet, he never says anything, he never does anything. A slap or a kiss, I’d take anything.
Does his body awaken the same way mine does when his eyes set upon a new white envelope on the tablemat? Every month, it seems crucial to catch my father’s expression; surely even a lumberjack is allowed emotions. Come dinnertime, I’m still lingering around the kitchen, setting the table attentively, realigning a fork, filling our three glasses with tap water, folding red and green checked napkins into shapes—a bunny, a big fat cock, or a swan. I am standing there, both hands on the back of his chair, getting my approving accomplice smile ready to acknowledge our intimacy the moment my father enters the kitchen.
I hear him, slamming the front door closed behind him, dropping his caulked logging boots on the floor. He approaches the kitchen, his footsteps on the tiles muffled by thick socks. He snatches the whole pile of mail from the table and walks away. Every month, he misses the point.
“Soup’s on!” my mother calls.
Over dinner she talks so she doesn’t have to listen to silence. Staring blankly at the night through the open bay window behind me, she talks about the twins’ parents, our neighbors, wondering if they will bring moldy bread or rotten apples to the town party on Sunday. Moldy bread, she bets. I observe my father, beside me on the square table, noisily gulping down his scalding potato leek soup, head an inch from the bowl, horny hands resembling wooden paws, thick nails permanently blackened, crevassed fingers deeply encrusted with earth, sawdust flakes on his shoulders. He smells like resin. He doesn’t look up, not once.
At dusk, being a family of routine, we retreat one after the other into our respective bedrooms like hotel guests fearing interaction. My mother’s living quarters are on the first floor, a small mezzanine above the living room, tucked under the eaves, converted into her bedroom—a guest room if anyone asks. She spends her evenings in bed, dozing off while watching television. My father’s bedroom is next to mine at the far end of the hallway. He reads his pulp fiction thriller in bed while I stand guard in the dark corridor, leaning against the wall in front of his door, doing nothing really, barely listening to the sound of pages turning, until his light goes off at nine. When he begins to snore, I hide away in my room and climb into bed. I close my eyes, allowing images of our ladies to fill up my mind.
Tonight there’s no snoring though; he’s waiting. I’m waiting. It’s Friday, and Friday gets a routine of its own. At ten o’clock, my father heads for the living room in the dark, avoiding the one creaking plank in front of the bathroom halfway through the hallway. I grant him a five minute head start before following his steps, coming to a standstill upon reaching the living room door he leaves slightly ajar for a clandestine escape. Peering through the gap, I discern the television set, its right side, and the outline of my father on the couch, illuminated by the light of the screen, his face impassive. The sound stays mute; apart from my heart pulsing with longing, the house remains silent. I gaze at him watching our women, patient. My turn will come.
We hear it at the same time, the creaking of the bed frame, a second later the click of the doorknob and the perverse squeal of the bedroom door upstairs. My father grabs the remote control on the armrest; darkness surrounds him. We keep still. Neglecting to turn on the lights, as if unaware of the obscurity, she—this once wife, this womb that held my life, this intruding housemate—walks down the stairs and past the sofa on her way to the kitchen. We listen as tap water splashes aggressively into the empty stainless steel sink. I can almost hear her swallow. Her feet in worn-out slippers sleepily drag against the kitchen tiles and the living room’s wooden floor. I can only imagine the fake silk of her ghastly flared lavender-blue nightgown almost brushing my father’s arm as she walks past him, a living statue on the sofa. She doesn’t look so she doesn’t have to see. She disappears up the stairs, inside her bedroom. I breathe. My father switches the television back on. Our apologies for this interruption.
As my father watches the movie, I rest my head on the wall, my legs numb from standing there motionless, and while I struggle not to let my eyelids close, I fantasize about the day he will feel my presence through the crack of the door. He will motion for me to join him on the sofa, he will hold me in his heavy arms as large as my thighs, he will kiss my forehead, stroke my hair, slowly. He will smile. I fantasize about this day, the day I will hold a special place in his heart, just like our women.
It’s Saturday afternoon, he’s at work, deforesting the neighboring woods, threatening humanity, while my mother escapes to civilization, spending the day in malls with more people inside than our hometown. She keeps herself busy with haircut appointments so she doesn’t have to think. I’m home alone with my father’s friends—our friends, our ladies—awaiting me in his bedroom inside the locked bedside table. The hideout location is so obvious it can only mean my father is trying to make my life easier. Inside the backyard shed, he keeps the key on top of the closet where he stores his outdoor clothes, not that he owns any indoor ones. I used to have to climb on top of a chainsaw to reach the key. But everything is different now; the first period, the growth spurt, the tiny breast buds sticking out of my shirt, indecisive and shy. I asked my mother for a bra and she brought me back a white sleeveless undershirt with a bizarre pattern, a black baby chicken with a cracked eggshell for a hat, as if this, and a National Geographic Kids subscription renewal—“So you can figure out life”—will suffice to keep my transition to adulthood under control. When she urgently switches television channels anticipating nudity in a movie scene, I glance at my father, my life-professor by proxy, and salute the irony of life.
Today I do not invite the twins and favor a solitary viewing. They add their own subtitles as my women speak and let out loud squeals in a poor attempt to mask their uneasiness; they are childish like that, those two.
My father’s taste has evolved over the years. I watch this woman, her dark hair so long it almost reaches her leather thigh boots, by herself on a sofa, staring at me defiantly with her left fist inside her. She takes a bottle of champagne from the side table, uncorks it and shoves it in her vagina. The camera closes up as trickles of champagne erupt from her body and stream down her thighs, instantly absorbed by her somber pubic hair and the velvety fabric of the sofa. Once the bottle is empty, she slides it out, then immediately inserts it back, bottom first this time, pushing it in and out. In and out. I can’t tell if she’s screaming in pain or pleasure. Alligator clip thingies are attached to her nipples and chained to a collar around her neck. I press the rewind button on the remote control; pause on a close-up of her breasts and step closer to the screen. Tiny screws are in the middle of the clamps. No wonder she’s bleeding. As she crouches on all fours, two naked men wearing leather hoods approach and tie yet another chain around her neck. They pull on this leash while taking turns fucking her from behind. Her pale skin is sprinkled with beads of blood, saliva and sperm, they spit and ejaculate where they’ve just whipped. It reminds me of the damp smell of the twins on my face after we’ve kissed. I keep my eyes on the screen until everything else blurs around me, until it becomes my only reality. Later I head for the bakery on the square to get a bag of licorice. It gets easier the second time I watch the movie. Afterwards I put the tape back inside the bedside table and place Lust in Medieval Times on top.
That night over dinner my mother talks. Crumbling up bread distractedly, she talks about the twins’ parents, wondering how much they paid for their new barbecue grill. Too much, she bets. I observe my father, beside me on the square table, chewing pork ribs with his mouth open, head an inch from the plate, horny hands resembling wooden paws, thick nails permanently blackened, crevassed fingers deeply encrusted with earth, shiny little shards of metal on his shoulders. He smells like engine oil. He doesn’t look up, not once.
On Sunday we join the rest of the town for our annual spring party. My mother makes us all carry a dish so that people mistake us for one of those families on television. As we approach the park, she reaches out to take hold of my elbow. I elude in extremis. She advises me with a smile to hold the fruit salad bowl straight and congratulates herself for staying away from bananas this year; they turn gloomily dark after half an hour. “Don’t you think so?” she asks us. We dispose of our platters on the buffet tables and disperse.
My mother joins the twins’ parents already seated at a table laid out right in the middle of the tent, her beige knee-length skirt so stiff from starch it looks like it’s made out of cardboard. Her lipstick-caked lips spread to speak, and the neighbors’ heads begin to nod. Everyone’s smiling. Let the party start.
My father ignores the empty seat next to my mother the same way I ignore the one in between the twins at the children’s table; instead I sit facing them. They ask me if I’m going to the ball this evening, I give them the finger and stick my tasteless gum underneath the table, shifting my chair slightly to the right to get a better view of my father a few tables across, shaking hands and clinking glasses with three men around him. The younger one, the farm boy, beams intensely at my father, whom he’s been begging for years to become his mentor, claiming he would rather spend his days cutting trees than feeding pigs. My mother maintains he’s too simple-minded to be trusted with a chainsaw; he already lost a finger chopping firewood last fall. He spends so much time at our house that the twins are convinced he has a crush on me, though I’d say it’s my father he fancies. People tease that they look like brothers. I always sit on his lap and brush the stump of his finger. “Uncle,” I whisper in his ear, until my father tells me to get the fuck outta here. Now likely assuming he’s the one I’m staring at, Farm Boy glances in my direction often.
My mother doesn’t interrupt her monologue when the twins’ mom gets up, sacrificing her husband to boredom. She walks up to my father’s table and sits to his left, sideways, so close that her knees are meant to brush his thigh. Outside the house he’s a man wearing a mask of softness. He blushes when men compliment his dedication to his work and women tell him he resembles Clint Eastwood. Men, women, even dogs invariably congregate around him; he’s a magnet, the kind of guy only my mother can find a plausible reason to dislike. The twins’ mom obstructs my view. Her curved back trembles with laughter and her ass too wide for the chair wiggles incessantly. By the time I inform the twins, “Your mother wants to fuck my father,” she has already run her pudgy fingers through her greasy hair twice.
“How can you tell?” they ask, already sulking, looking over their shoulders to steal a glance at the duo. They don’t know anything, these two.
Twenty minutes later, while I’m turning a piece of cheesecake into cottage cheese with my fork, the woman stands but lingers, making conversation with Farm Boy, casually settling her elbows on my father’s shoulders as if neighborly hugging him from behind. From where I sit, the back of his head is resting on her tits. She whispers something in his ear before walking away. My mother sees it too, something like an expression of sadness passes across her eyes. A second later it’s gone.
Back home, he is watching Formula One on television and bingeing on my mother’s homemade apricot sorbet. Ayrton Senna is on pole position. I’m going through a L.L. Bean catalog, seated right next to him on the couch, turned sideways toward him, knees to my chest so that when I wriggle my toes, I can almost feel the rough fabric of his pants. His eyes are riveted on the screen. He leans forward to place the empty ice cream bowl on the coffee table. The moment he sinks back into his seat, I jump on his lap knees first, like a puppy on its master, wrap my arms around his neck and kiss him on the mouth. He pushes me away. I lose my balance and fall from the sofa to the floor, bumping my head against the solid wood coffee table. The fake silver spoon trembles inside the empty bowl, a lingering echo mocking my collapse.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” my father roars while I get back on my feet and run away towards the hallway, my comfort zone. I peer out the crack in the door; he doesn’t glimpse in my direction. He doesn’t move. He doesn’t feel. He’s waved me away like one of these flying ants that thicken the air minutes before a summer thunderstorm. I might still not be woman enough.
An hour later, he heads out into the front yard, and soon the lawn mower’s raspy sputter howls. My mother rummages through the house until she lays hands on her tanning goggles, and drags a deck chair from the shed to the backyard where no one can see her. Through the open French door I spy on her as she applies Monoï oil to her body, brushing off microscopic flying insects attracted to her sticky skin. She enjoys tanning so much that it might be premeditated suicide. Once she’s asleep, I make my approach in silence, my eyes on her crooked cesarean scar right above her flowery bikini bottom. Her thighs are spread wide to let sunbeams reach the inside of her legs for an even tan. Squatting down on my heels I scrutinize her crotch. From under the Lycra material of her bathing suit, a tampon string is hanging out slightly, obscenely white in contrast with her pubic hair too dark, too long, too dry and dusty. Her life is a constant combat against dryness, forcing her to tyrannically juggle between nourishing surgras shower gels, moisturizing body lotions, rejuvenating remedies, cracked heel creams and intensive rehydrating cares, but there’s only so much you can do when aridity comes from within. The calluses on my father’s hands have infected her heart.
When she jumps in her sleep, I retreat and take refuge in the living room, leaving the door open to keep an eye on her. I lay down flat on the couch, searching for signs of my father’s presence, running my hand, my tongue over the cold leather surface. Jerky scenarios galloping through my mind come troubling my body, the twins’ mother exerting herself on top of my father, her enormous tits slapping his rugged unshaven face, Farm Boy watching them as my medieval slut and the champagne fetishist take turns blowing him—it’s an evil fuck fest, it’s a blur, it’s all a blur. I slide my fingers inside my cotton panties and move my hips a little, taking my time, once in a while craning my neck to make sure my mother is still committing silent suicide on the terrace. When the rattling noise of the lawnmower dies down outside, I accelerate the movement.
That night, over dinner, my mother talks. Scratching a mosquito bite on her right arm, she talks about the twins’ parents, wondering how many bottles of beer it takes for them to get drunk. Never enough, she bets. I observe my father, beside me on the square table, noisily gulping down his creamy butternut squash soup, head an inch from the bowl, horny hands resembling wooden paws, thick nails permanently blackened, crevassed fingers deeply encrusted with earth, stalks of grass in his hair. He smells like freshly cut grass. He doesn’t look up, not once.
After dinner, I head to the park, where the tent has been converted into a dance floor and the kegs we kept stored inside our shed for weeks have been brought over. I join up with the twins and a few other guys from school; we represent the new generation, the keepers of tradition. People rely on us. All evening I light up my next cigarette from the butt of the previous one and hold the same empty beer can so that people will mistake me for someone else’s daughter, one that they don’t feel obliged to respect. Farm Boy is there, facing me from the other side of the homemade taproom, a few planks put together to form a distorted horseshoe-shaped bar. I fix my gaze on him. When he glances furtively in my direction, I don’t look away, I don’t smile either. After a while, he comes over to my side and asks me where my father is, leaning close to my ear to make himself heard above the music and the squeals of the overly-excited twins.
“It’s just me tonight.” I stop myself from reaching for his missing finger. I stroke his arm instead, like I’ve seen the twins’ mother do with my father. “He said you should take care of me.”
He orders two beers that we drink in silence, elbows resting on the humid and earthy-smelling wooden bar, distracted by the spectacle of old drunks my grandfather’s age humoring the plump volunteer waitresses. After a while, I hold my drink up high and nod—a thank-you gesture or an invitation—before walking away into the darkness of the field behind the tent. I remove my shoes and walk barefoot, the feel of cool grass tickling my soles hinting at simpler times. I lay out on the lawn, waiting. Not long. Farm Boy lies down on his back next to me, hands behind his head. While he’s saying how there aren’t any stars tonight, I haul myself down until my head is level with his crotch, tuck my lanky hair behind my ears, unzip his pants and slip a hand inside his underpants. His penis smells like piss. I hardly manage to turn a gag reflex into a moan of contentment as my tongue licks it clean. Like our women, I do not have to think about how I feel. Because I can only go so far with my mouth, I stroke the base of his fat penis and rub his saggy balls like I’m kneading Play-Doh. First time or not, I know exactly what to do. He’s the one not getting it right; he comes into my mouth. He’s supposed to ejaculate on my face and then smear his sperm using the head of his cock. That’s the way it goes, that’s the way I need it to be. He notices his mistake right away and tells me he’s sorry while zipping up his pants. I swallow. Lying back down on the grass, I wiggle out of my shorts and panties. I spread my legs. He apologizes again and takes a step backwards. “All right, let’s do it from behind then,” I say, already turning around and crouching on all fours. “Just remember to slap my ass a few times.” Even as I hear him walk away I remain still, patiently waiting for him to change his mind. When I return to the tent, he’s nowhere to be seen. There’s a splash of dried semen in the corner of my lips.
The next day, over breakfast, my mother talks. Pulling on her eyelashes to remove tiny chunks of makeup, she talks about the twins’ mother, wondering how many pounds the woman has put on over the past few months. Twenty, she bets. I observe my father, beside me on the square table, a drop of milk running down his chin, head an inch from the bowl, horny hands resembling wooden paws, thick nails permanently blackened, crevassed fingers deeply encrusted with earth, dandruff flakes on his shoulders. I smell my fingers, my hands. I cup a hand in front of my mouth and smell my breath. I rub my mouth and smell my fingers. I scratch my face with my fingernails. I want to bleed. I want to cry. I want to smear my blood and my tears on his face. Look up.
Sophie Monatte has lived and written in France, New York and Hong Kong. She is currently earning a MFA in Fiction at City University of Hong Kong and writing her first short-story collection in English.