2013 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest Runner-up
His studio was always littered with the clay torsos of girls like us, ones with shallow navels and rib cages faintly visible underneath mottled skin. Louisa’s father was a sculptor. He was a hunched and moody man, a widower with little authority who could never remember the names of his daughter’s friends.
“Hi, Jenny,” he would say, nodding in our direction, whenever he encountered us. At any given moment there was probably at least one Jenny among us, usually more.
We didn’t consider him real enough of an entity to warrant a response. He existed out of the realm of manners, of mothers and teachers who prompted politeness. We had long suspected that a single father was a weak thing, unhinged and not to be spoken to like an adult. In our refusal to treat him with authority, we convinced him of his own weakness. As time passed, he grew deferential to Lou and by extension to us all.
“What should I get at the grocery store?” he would plead to her, if she deigned to pay attention to him. It was all new to him, the grocery shopping and chores. Once merely to antagonize him, Lou asked casually if he could pick up a box of tampons for her at the store. He complied, tactful as a butler, leaving the box outside her bedroom door. After he retreated, we sat in a circle to ritually mutilate the tampons one by one, laughing at his gullibility. It would still be a year before any of us had legitimate need of them. His ignorance of our bodies was damning: it proved to us that we had always been right to torment him.
The studio was like a graveyard. The unfinished formations of his sculptures, the silver gravity of his tools, and the room’s earthy, intimate smell, all contributed to our fascination with the place. A decade’s worth of creations lined the edges of the room, and all of them were versions of Lou at different stages of her life. When she was a baby, he sculpted bulbous, plump-limbed creatures in squatting shapes. When she learned to walk, the sculptures grew muscular, childish legs. The chronology of her life was evident in the gradual transformation of the pieces that like her, first sat, then crouched, then stood. Now that she was eleven, the sculptures had budding breasts and impatient expressions; they had the abrupt torsos and gangly legs that we recognized, self-consciously, as ours.
I remember one piece in particular, a kneeling girl whose aspect and presence was uncannily realistic, except that instead of a mouth she had merely a smudge, an indentation in the clay that Lou’s father intended to shape into lips but at present was a thoughtless dip in the smoothness. She struck me as the most precise version of a girl like us. The stance was confident, but upon closer inspection you saw that it was bravado, that she was still unformed, soft.
We always turned off the lights when we left his studio. We did it because, when walking away, it was frightening to turn back to the lit room, to see the sculptures posed in gregarious formations, to see the iterations of Lou among each other, inspecting each other’s likenesses, competing for who would next benefit from the hand of their creator, to see whose hair he would smooth first, upon whom he would bestow knees and earlobes and fingernails. It made us long for someone to pay attention to our own details, so we turned our backs to it, to forget the sensation of feeling envious of lifeless things.
It was a decade before I smelled the clay again. Maybe it was not even the smell, but the presence of those girls, that ignited in me that wanting again, the desire of something unknown that would add urgency and purpose to life. We had begged for it in our dreams: for love, or something else as massive.
We went to cheer up Lou, who had done the unthinkable in the years since we’d lost touch. She had turned fragile. It was a weekend in July, with big, noisy dinners, innumerable bottles of wine. Aloft with giddiness, one evening all of us walked down to the bay. We left the men behind, our boyfriends and fiancés, the ones whom we had allowed with varying degrees of reluctance to catch us. It would remain to be seen for a long time how wisely we had chosen, but tonight it didn’t matter. It was just the girls, drunk and merry. Our voices rang down the dark street, warning of our presence to anyone that might drive past. We had forgotten flashlights. It was the middle of summer, among the longest days of the year, and we felt we had hours to waste.
In the darkness, the bay seemed to stretch eternally since we could not see the horizon. “It’s warm,” we sang to each other reassuringly as we tested the water. We waded to our ankles and then to our knees in that sun-warmed, brackish bay. We went deeper, not flinching when the hemlines of our skirts got soaked. When it came up to our stomachs, we shivered but did not stop. For the first time we noticed lightning-colored algae sparking under the water. This miracle beckoned us out farther.
Anything might have been happening on land, in the backyard of the rented house with the congregation of lawn chairs, the stray dog that emerged once in a while, the boyfriends, who in cavalier displays of masculinity claimed not to mind the mosquitoes. They smoked and drank, bantering in meandering loops, unaware of our pull outward. This collective prompting to wander away, into the place where our blouses would first billow then cling to us as we went under. To drench and submerge ourselves, to feel the seaweed limply on our knees and ankles, to smell the stale water and taste it in our mouths when finally we darted our faces under.
Later it would occur to them to look for us. They would wonder where we had gone, might walk to the front yard and holler our names into the darkness. Eventually they would come to stand on the edge of the bay, incredulous, not thinking it possible that we had gone in until they saw the telltale evidence of our sandals at the shore. Then, staring out, wondering what the draw was to this modest, clear-water place, why any of us would have gone to the trouble of getting dressed so prettily only to ruin it here.
Jenny, they take turns calling. They’re amused, not understanding that this was a necessary journey. We’ve been transported, or maybe just restored. Swimming weightlessly, deprived of our real densities: all of us may as well be scrawny twelve-year-olds. There’s something about the murky bay smell, that toe-puckering mud reminiscent of clay. Once, like it, we longed to be caressed into comely shapes by an unknown force. But now that prospect holds no appeal. Under the water we slid the rings up and down our fourth fingers restlessly, turning away from the shouting voices at the shore.