After Lana comes home, she goes into the bathroom and shuts the door, leans her forehead against the cool wood, and notices how the shapes of the grain curve in and out of themselves— tiny lines that undulate in small tan and caramel waves. She pushes the small button in the middle of the knob and drapes towels over the mirrors. She doesn’t like to see her flesh, her tiny bones. She fears her body, dreads it. She does not want it to grow fat, she does not want her breasts to sag with weight, her arms and thighs become heavy with skin.
“Are you eating enough?” her father asks her.
She takes off the party dress—an old one her mother used to wear when she was younger—and it shimmers to the floor, a pile of silver lamé. Her stockings curl next to it, rejected roses. She gets in before the water is even half an inch deep. She can’t wait to be safe: the roar of the water will cover her sobs. They rise but don’t release, cause an ache at the back of her throat—something half-throttled.
When Johnny Mahoney asked her to dance at the reception, she wanted to, but was afraid—he was too handsome and she’d never danced with anyone before. The boys at her old school never asked her. She had always felt they could sense her mother’s body beyond her skin, waiting to come out, expanding like an animated sea witch.
She was sure Johnny was just asking to be nice. Their fathers were friends at work. So, Lana said no and looked down at her fingernails, glowing with the faintest hint of polish in the candlelight.
“Maybe some other time,” Johnny said and flashed a smile, raised his hand to wave, then moved back to his table across the room.
Lana’s mother grabbed her arm. It hurt, the way her mother’s heavy fingers dug into her flesh. She could feel the squeeze on her bones.
“I can’t believe you were so rude,” she hissed into her ear. A small spray of spit hit Lana’s cheek. “What were you thinking? I’m so embarrassed.”
“Leave her alone, Beatrice,” her father said. He pushed what was left of his cake around his plate with his fork.
“But she can’t just say no.”
“Why not?” Her father did not look at her mother, he kept scraping the plate. “She’s fifteen.”
Her mother ignored him and turned to her, “You can’t just say no.”
“I want to,” Lana said, thinking about dancing, being in Johnny’s arms. She switched her salad fork with her eating fork and then back again. The utensils left small oil stains on the table cloth embroidered with the names of the newlyweds, Julie and Evan.
“I just can’t believe you said no.” Her mother shook her head again.
Her father got up and left the table, leaving behind his glass. A small bit of alcohol shimmered at the base where the glass met the stem.
“I want to dance,” Lana said, “I just don’t know. . .”
Her mother wasn’t looking at her now. She was watching her father as he strode across the dance floor to talk to Aunt Julie. He glanced back at his wife and then accepted a drink from Evan.
“I’m simply falling out of this dress.” Her mother pulled at the top. Lana was surprised. Usually, her mother seemed proud of her low-cut blouses and tight clothes, her lipstick the color of flamingos.
“Here, use the jacket,” Lana said and took off the sequined blazer that her mother had made her wear. It would be better served covering up her mother. The sleeves had hung past Lana’s fingertips. Lana leaned over and reached for the remnants of martini left in her father’s glass.
“Don’t,” her mother said and smacked her hand. Lana steadied the glass to keep it from toppling over.
The band started playing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and Lana, catching the melody, wanted to scream or laugh or cry. She wanted to run to each table and tip it over and break all the champagne bottles on the floor. She sat there and pressed her knees tight together, concentrating on the knobbiness of her kneecaps. Red marks from her mother’s slap were still on her hand.
She wills herself not to think about the reception and her mother and the music. She will concentrate on the water, the feeling of weightlessness. But the bubble bath she uses is giving her a headache, the scent is too much like the clouds of expensive perfume at the wedding.
She takes a sponge and gently soaps her arms. She imagines Johnny Mahoney touching them, like he had when they were kissing, like he had been before they came out of the cloakroom and—but she isn’t going to remember that. She isn’t going to remember anything at all.
She had agreed to let him teach her to dance—but only behind a partition in a hallway, where no one could see. Johnny Mahoney was a senior, and tall. He had dark hair and slate blue eyes. He smelled of a woodsy cologne that reminded her of the cedar trees outside her old room in California. For a brief moment, she was homesick for her old friends, school, house. She hated Chicago and wished her father had never gotten the new job. Everything, especially between her parents, had been worse since then.
Johnny was smiling and she had to concentrate to not step on his feet. God, how she wanted him to like her.
“You’re very pretty,” Johnny told her. They had been going to school together for six months, and this evening was the first time he had ever spoken to her. Maybe it was the shine of the dress.
“I thought you were going to teach me how to dance,” Lana said, but she smiled.
Her toes are waterlogged. She pulls up her foot to look at the bottom. Tiny folds of skin are there when before there had been none. She imagines the feel of the blue shag carpet of her bedroom underneath them. She imagines sinking into it. She thinks sometimes she would like to disappear altogether. It would be nice to be reduced to a fine collection of bones. Yes, this is Lana’s femur and this is her clavicle. And this, this, is her skull. No flesh here, no flesh, no weight. “What beautiful bones,” her father would say when he looked at them. Her mother would grind them under her feet. What to do with this new sensation? This wanting to be touched? This need to be present.
She and Johnny were spinning, spin, spinning. They were on the dance floor now. Johnny’s face circled around her in a blur, but his eyes seemed to hold still and burrow through her and she wasn’t sure what it meant, but she wanted to kiss him and her hands were sweating. She felt free and he whispered he wanted to go into the cloakroom with her later, and would she, and she wanted to, even though she was afraid of what her parents might say. His eyes were glowing. She said yes.
On the way home, her mother leaned into the back seat. Lana could smell the heavy hair spray and when her mother leaned still further, she smelled the odor of sweaty clothes mixed with Chanel No. 5.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have spent so much time with Johnny Mahoney. I heard he doesn’t get very good grades, and he doesn’t play a sport.”
Her father said, “I thought you wanted her to spend time with him?”
“I did at first, but then I heard about him from Claris. He’s perfectly average. It’s really too bad he doesn’t play a sport.”
“There’s no pleasing you, is there?” her father said to her mother, and then there was silence in the car.
Lana looked out the window. A man in the Mercedes next to them untied his tie. He had a sharp nose and blond hair in the same style as Johnny’s. His fingers drummed on the steering wheel to the music that must have been playing inside. She could imagine sinking into the seat beside him, stroking the dashboard with her hand. She wanted to hum.
“Did you have a good time, Stephen?” Her mother broke the silence. Lana watched as she lurched sideways in her seat to yank the beaded jacket closer across her chest.
“Mmmmhmmm,” he mumbled, staring at the road. Her mother turned towards him, opened her mouth, but then snapped it shut.
Lana gazed at the lakeshore. It was all lit up and the lights of the city danced as the car moved swiftly along the outer drive. Lana looked out across the expanse of Lake Michigan, tried to see the rippling of the waves, but it was too dark.
She had asked Johnny, after she let him kiss her in the cloakroom, if he would talk to her the next Monday in the halls and he nodded. When he said “Hell, yes,” she hadn’t believed him even though she wanted to and even though he was probably telling her the truth. Maybe it was the way he looked at her, his head down, his eyes peering up, the same way her father looked at her mother when he wasn’t really listening.
When she and Johnny had been spinning on the dance floor, for a moment she saw her father dancing with a redhead. He was captured like a photograph, a silly grin on his face, for a moment in her view. His hand rested on the woman’s back, his palm outspread against her pale skin, his thumb about to stroke the plum velvet of her dress gently up and down, about to barely brush it, rhythmically. She was struck by how beautiful the girl was and how familiar: a younger, prettier, version of her mother. She was struck by how her father looked as if he were in a dream.
In the cloakroom, Johnny had pressed close, his hand tight around her wrist and she liked it and she wanted his soft bottom lip pressing against her—she didn’t care where—his breath on her skin made her forget, like water made her forget, that she hated her mother, that she didn’t know why they had moved, that her parents didn’t share the same bedroom together anymore. His cool, wet lips made her forget that she didn’t want to be alive.
“You’re so light,” he said. “I can move you like a feather.”
He lifted her and laid her down on some fallen coats. The low-cut v of the back of her dress meant her skin was against somebody’s wool blazer. It scratched her the way her mother used to when she was little, with the tips of her fingernails so gently that you hardly knew she was doing it. It was so peaceful.
There is a knock on the bathroom door.
“Lana, are you okay in there?”
“Fine, Dad. I’m fine.”
She tries not to picture his face, tries not to picture him with the red-headed girl. She looks up into the light, stares at it like a sun. If she wishes hard enough it might make her blind.
That afternoon, as they got ready, her mother had looked like a cartoon lobster: red hair, pink skin, stuffing herself into the ruby sequined dress that was too small, her large breasts pushing up too close to the edge of the neckline. Lana had seen the look of disgust flit across her father’s face, had seen how he looked down at his shoes and moved his left toe in, then out, in, then out, heard him say, “I think I’ll have a brandy before we go.” Suddenly, she wondered when her father had first pleaded with her mother, his voice low but insistent, to take care of herself, when he had first offered to send her to a spa or a clinic, when he had first tried to get her help. She wondered when her mother stopped caring, when she had stopped insisting that “nothing was wrong,” when she decided she would let herself fall into oblivion. Lana wondered exactly when her father had started having extra glasses of brandy, stopped coming home early, started sleeping in the guest room. She wondered when he started smiling at other women. She wondered exactly when it was that everything had started to fall apart, when this shipwreck happened.
“Are you going to stay in there all night?” Her mother calls from the other side of the door. Her voice is soft like it was when Lana was little. “You worry me.”
“No, no. I’m almost out.”
Lana flicks open the drain, the water swirls. She gets out of the tub, and wraps herself in a large white towel. The towel is still partially wet from an earlier shower. The dampness makes her skin feel clammy.
Coming out of the cloakroom, she had pulled her dress back into shape. She and Johnny had stopped in the doorway, giggling and kissing one more time. And then she turned and saw her father.
Across the hall, on the inside of the partition, he had his arm around the redhead. His hand smoothed her chin. Lana watched his fingers trail along the girl’s neck, the tip of one tracing the collarbone, just below the string of pearls almost as white as her skin.
He kissed the girl and Lana watched him press himself against her. It was like looking at a picture in a book. She was beautiful, this girl, and he wasn’t for a moment her father, but someone else. Someone handsome and dashing—his hair just lightly speckled with gray. Someone like in that book by Fitzgerald she read over the summer: Dick Somebody. His wedding ring glinted in the light. He was someone she didn’t know. He was someone she could hate.
She and Johnny had been spinning, dancing, and she had thought for a moment or two that he was something to believe in: the way his lips curved, the way his eyelashes framed his eyes, the smell of his cologne, woodsy and deep. The sleeve of his jacket kept brushing her wrist, back and forth and she liked the way it felt. He smiled at her and she realized he really did think she was pretty. He really did.
But that didn’t mean anything because once upon a time her father had loved her mother and now, when he looked at her, he didn’t.
But they kept spinning and she was glad she had been with Johnny in the cloakroom anyway, even if he might be a liar because, for at least a second, that feeling of—whatever it was—was there.
When he whispered in her ear as they moved down the hallway, “Just forget everything. Don’t think about it,” she nearly could.
In the bathroom, she tries to remember the way the candlelight lit up the champagne glasses, the way Johnny’s lips were soft in the dark of the cloakroom, the way the jackets piled on the floor felt, the way he might talk to her on Monday, his comforting voice.
But she keeps thinking that once during their last dance, over Johnny’s shoulder, she saw her father and mother sitting at their table silently watching the couples go by. Her mother’s face seemed frozen and when she watched Lana, her eyes looked blank.
Lana takes down the towels from the mirror and looks at her body. How thin it is. She has lovely breasts that tilt up. Her waist is slim. She has soft supple skin. She wishes someone would love her body. If Johnny were her steady boyfriend, she might let him, yes, she might let him. His lips were so soft.
There is a knock at the door one more time. “Lana, Daddy and I are going to bed,” her mother says and Lana rewraps the towel tight against her.
She hesitates, turns, and puts her hand on the door—palm outspread against the grain, her other hand on the door knob. She wants to open the door and rush into her mother’s arms and cry and tell her everything that’s wrong and ask her simple questions, “What happened to you and Daddy,” and more importantly, “Why don’t you care?”
But then, she thinks of the frown, the sweaty old smell. She turns back to the sink.
“Goodnight,” she says to the closed door. “Sleep well.”
“You too.” Her mother’s voice is quiet and she walks away.
Lana brushes her teeth. She scrubs her face clean. She waits a long while—until she is sure no one is there—then turns the knob. She opens the door and walks into her dark bedroom. She feels cold and the warm blankets do not help. She tells herself she will not think of anything but the darkness and coming sleep, but she thinks again how over Johnny’s shoulder, she could see her parents, their frozen tableaux.
In the dim light, she can see how far apart they are sitting from each other, how unapproachable her mother looks, how that old man slouched there is her father, how the light hits his lined and sallow face. Then, for a moment—a mere fraction of a second—for the first time in her life, she sees tears in her father’s eyes. He looks like he has lost something. And she follows his gaze and everything becomes perfectly clear. She knows what he is crying for. That beautiful red-headed girl, dancing in the plum velvet dress, dancing with the best man from the wedding, is dancing out of his reach forever.