Beyond the dividing wall, the mother with the arched eyebrows and frayed nerves herds her kids to bed. At the same time my mother lays a towel over the claw foot bathtub to wash my long, tangled hair. I hear the kids next door fighting over the Viewmaster, the one they can never really use, because they stick their thick fingers through the fragile film of the wheel. My mother digs her fingers into my scalp and I cry, silently, repression a skill. I pretend I am a house with twinkling lights strung across my rafters, party favors in pastel iridescents on tables with bows where my imaginary friends will join me. The Prell slides into my eyes and I can’t tell if I am crying or just stung. It is not the washing as much as it is the rinsing, the deficits and subtractions of everything. The Italian Presbyterian minister who soaked in this same tub a generation before my parents claimed it, may have been plotting how to lure his people from their papal tendencies. Coal was an option. Give with one hand, take away with another. Allow gratitude to be the dominant emotion. My mother’s fingers catch in the snarled strands of my hair, though my scalp throbs with cleanliness. I hear the kids crying through the wall, an extension of my family by sheer virtue of proximity. I can’t let them go. I could poke a hold through the thin wall and meet them eye-to-eye, but it would take them years to understand my needs; how there would always be critical corners I would find it forever impossible to navigate.
Michelle Reale is the author of Season of Subtraction (Bordighera Press,, 2019) and In the Blink of a Mottled Eye (Kelsay Books, 2020) among others. She is the Founding and Managing Editor of OVUNQUE SIAMO: New Italian-American Writing. She has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.