“I know it’s cold in here, Libby, but don’t you think what you’re wearing is a little much?”
She would say that. My mother. I scanned her pristinely white sneakers and the store-bought worn jeans she was wearing before I shrugged.
“Can we just get this over with?” My winter coat tightened over my shoulders.
“We should take a before-and-after shot. Wouldn’t that be fun? Let me get my phone.”
Bright yellow and orange flowers grinned at me from all four walls of the dinky bathroom. I could not imagine entering this room of forced happiness every morning to get ready for school. Thank God we were here to make this place more livable.
An avocado-colored bathtub squatted in the corner. I opened the cupboard under the sink and found a mostly-empty canister of Comet. There were two old shelves stacked on top of the toilet, one painted yellow, the other just plain wood. They were both broken. Another shelf, white, hung above the sink right where a mirror should be. What kind of people lived here before who didn’t need to check that they didn’t have any food in their teeth or snot hanging in their nose?
“Ready?” Mom held her phone up.
I shrugged again.
“Your hat matches the wallpaper. Did you plan that?” She winked one of those Mom winks at me.
“Are you going to take the picture or not?”
She faked a pout and then raised her rhinestone-covered phone to eye-level. “Aren’t you going to smile? This is a big day. The Winton girls out on their own for the first time. Let’s show ‘em no fear, huh?”
The left side of my mouth raised slightly before the click.
“Okay, you get anything that isn’t nailed down out of here and I’ll go get the stuff from the car. Be right back.” And she was gone.
I grabbed the shelf off the wall, walked the five steps into the kitchen, and slammed it as hard as I can into a large metal garbage can. Something inside me loosened when I heard the hollow sound it made. I did the same with the other two shelves, and then I yanked the pale orange shower curtain down from its hangers. The pops of the plastic reminded me of cracking knuckles, of squeezing bubble wrap.
Mom walked in with a small steamer, drop cloths, and a putty knife. She placed them on the floor and left me a third time. I heard water filling something and then she returned carrying a heavy bucket.
“Open it for me, will you?” She kicked the steamer with her foot.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to dunk the canister into it?”
“Oh. I guess you’re right.” She placed the bucket on the floor and opened the top of the machine. “Look at you being all handy. Have you done this before?”
“Why are we doing this again?”
“Because this bathroom is ‘70s fugly.”
“No. Why are we moving here?”
“It’s the cheapest I could find.”
“It sucks. It’s mildewy and grandma-ish and jenky. Why aren’t we staying home? It’s not fair. Randy’s the one that fucked up. He should be the one to move.”
She stared at me for a moment. With a sigh, she handed me the canister. “Fill this. You’re going to be the steam queen and I’m going to work behind you peeling off the wallpaper. Okay?”
I don’t know why I didn’t take the canister from her. “Why are you letting him win, Mom? Why aren’t you fighting back?”
She grabbed my shoulders and jerked me toward the empty bathtub. “See that? Hideous as it is it doesn’t know a thing about us. And here, this toilet? This toilet won’t whisper behind our backs when we leave the room. The sink, the walls, the towel rack, the countertop, we can do whatever we want to them. We could rip them out; we could sand them down; we could paint them fucking purple.” She takes a breath, looks up at the ceiling, smiles. “We could hang them up there and no one will know. Do you understand?”
She was so exasperated I didn’t want to make it worse by saying something wrong so I just shook my head.
“Great. Then let’s start with the walls. Take that coat off, you’re going to get hot fast working the steamer.”
We spent a few minutes figuring out how to work the thing, and then we fell into a silence. With every scrap of paper falling onto the tiled floor, the room opened up. About 2 hours in, my mom started humming. About 2 hours and five minutes in, I started humming with her.
An early draft; constructive criticism welcome. To read more fiction and poetry, click the badge above.