Standing in the middle of her drop cloth-covered living room floor, Shondra whispered “I am bathing in the blood of my enemies!” She painted her body deep red with deliberate movements. Savoring the cool, slightly sticky feeling, each stroke became an incident from her past. Here were the children in grade school leaving her at the table all by herself. There was a boyfriend in college who ghosted her. This stroke was a professor who held up her work as a bad example to the class. And so, so many memories of disappointing her mother. Dry and crackling in places, thick and dripping in others, the ruby liquid became a patchwork of history on her skin.
She felt the emotion of never being enough settling on her limbs. The fear that she would never do well enough, the fear that she would always be rejected was cloying and heavy on her body.
She was finished at last. Dried flakes of tempera paint fell to the floor as she stood from the crouched position of painting her feet. Her arms and belly itched. Some of her brown hair was loose from her bun and tickling her neck. She stretched, rising on her toes, feeling the still-wet paint between them.
Careful not to bump anything on her way into the bathroom, she slipped into her little shower stall to begin the cleansing portion of the ritual. Standing under the partially clogged showerhead, she washed off with rose-scented soap that she purchased especially for the occasion. She tried to keep her mind clear. The goal was to rid herself of all those little negative thoughts that pinged into her consciousness uninvited. You’re not good enough. You’ve never been good enough.
“I am free of others’ expectations, and I am allowed to be myself! No more will they control me!” Her fears could just leave her the hell alone and wash right down the drain with the swirling red and pink suds. Enough! The steam in the shower soothed her and she closed her eyes, leaning her head against the tiled wall. She felt lighter already. Cleaner.
After the shower, she dressed in denim shorts for the late spring weather. She picked a new bold red t-shirt to go with her new bold self and put her still-wet hair in a quick braid. She got to work rinsing out the brush and bowl. Cleaning up the drop cloths wasn’t as hard as she expected. She just rolled them up, dried paint and all. She went downstairs to shake the paint flakes off outside.
As she was going back into the building, the bulky bundle of drop cloths awkwardly tucked under one arm, someone else came out. Shondra automatically dropped her eyes to avoid the stranger’s gaze and hunched her shoulders to make herself smaller, preparing to sneak through the door unnoticed. If they don’t see you, they can’t hurt you.
The person stopped, blocking the doorway. Shondra glanced up, surprised and wary. She realized she was behaving just like she would have yesterday, as timid as a country mouse. Today she had bathed in the blood of her enemies, today she would be brave! She straightened her spine and met the tall young man’s inquisitive blue-eyed gaze despite her racing pulse. He looked to be about her age.
“You doing some painting? My name’s Geoff.” Geoff-in-the-doorway thrust out a broad, tan hand and she took it lightly. Casual touch was strange to her after the isolation of Covid-19. She even missed her mask sometimes. “You’ve got paint in your fingernails, you know,” he added “and um, maybe your eyebrows, too.” He peered at her and asked “Are you… pink?”
Mortified, Shondra looked at her arm and saw that Geoff was right, there was a distinctly deep pink tinge to her skin. She drew her hand back from his and held the bundle of drop cloths in front of herself protectively. She felt herself hunching again. Hiding from the embarrassment. Heat rose through her body, no doubt making her even redder. She should never have come outside. How had she not noticed looking like Pepto Bismol when she was getting dressed?
“I’m sorry, I am so rude!” Geoff lightly smacked himself on the forehead, “It’s cool. My younger sister paints on herself all the time; she draws designs on her shoes, does all kinds of cool art stuff. I’m sure she’s going to be an artist when she gets older.” His rush of words broke off suddenly and he tucked his hands in his dark jeans’ pockets, looking at the ground. A blush crept up from the collar of his blue polo shirt to disappear under his messy blondish hair. Shondra realized he was embarrassed about blathering on. Brave, she reminded herself. I am bold and brave. Not afraid and ... 50 shades of pink. Oh, God. Why did she even get up this morning?
“It’s OK. Yes, I was painting myself. It’s part of a … project I am doing,” she choked out. She wasn’t ready to share bathing in the blood of her enemies with someone she didn’t know. Or mention therapy. He’d run in the opposite direction as fast as he could if she did that. She relaxed slightly at the mental image of her new acquaintance running down the narrow apartment hallway as if he were running from a bear, bouncing off the walls. That’s how she felt when meeting new people, so it was freeing to envision someone else experiencing it.
“Cool, cool. Maybe you’ll tell me about your project when you’re finished? Just come on by 107 or leave a note on the door.” Geoff’s expression was relieved and sincere, not leering, or predatory like she might expect. Her stomach flipped. She nodded mutely and shrank back slightly to put more space between them. He bounced on his toes nervously. He gave her a shy smile and left, saying he didn’t want to be late for work.
Nice, friendly, and has a job, she thought to herself, and she had to meet him looking like a pink Easter Peep. She darted into the building and rushed upstairs, taking the steps two at a time in her hurry to get safely into the haven of her little apartment. Time for another shower or three. Hopefully, her friend Google had a good way to remove tempera stains from her skin.
The next day, she sleep-stumbled into her little kitchenette and set up her French press coffee maker. Her mother had given it to her last Christmas, abhorring Shondra’s plain drip coffeemaker. Groggy, she slowly pushed the plunger down, taking in the glorious scent of freshly brewed coffee. She was looking forward to putting real cream in her coffee this morning, too. The splurge was worth it when the smooth, creamy goodness rolled over her tongue. Perfect start for a new day for her new self. She held her arms out in front of her, satisfied that last night’s marathon of washing with dish soap alternating with white vinegar had removed all the red from her skin.
The Imperial March from Star Wars ringtone started up. Her mother was no doubt calling to remind her not to be late for their weekly Sunday breakfast.
“Hello, Mom. What’s up? We still going to Le Café this morning?”
“Shondra, do not answer the phone saying: ‘what’s up?’ It makes you sound like a teenager. You look so young you’ll never be taken seriously unless you speak maturely. And your father, unfortunately, wants to go to Java Heaven for those bagels he gets.” Her mother, Helen, had a clear, crisp alto voice that should have been pleasant but was too often sharp.
“OK, see you there at 10.” Shondra moved to hang up the phone, but her mother’s voice beat her, reminding her not to be late. She sighed and went to get dressed for breakfast. She chose her outfit carefully, not wanting to appear “pale or washed out,” her mother’s favorite critique.
The fifteen-minute drive to the little coffee shop with a legendary bagel selection was easy; traffic was light. She hummed as she drove, mentally preparing herself for breakfast with her parents. Her mother found her choice of career perplexing, and always asked her if she’d met any nice eligible men at work. Helen expected her to move to a more “suitable” apartment and not “that student ghetto you’re living in.” Her dependable Camry practically gave her mother the hives just looking at it. The new, brave Shondra made sure she parked right next to her parent’s new SUV when she got to the restaurant. On her mother’s side.
The cacophony of utensils and conversation washed over her when she walked into the cafe. The place was near to full capacity and the noise level was an uncomfortable roaring in her ears. Disconcerted, she looked for her parents. They had not managed to get their normal spot by the front-facing window but were tucked away in the far corner. Her father waved at her. She made her way past crowded tables, missing the social distancing of early post-Covid-19. It had certainly kept things quieter and easier to avoid being jostled. She tucked her elbows into her waist and sidestepped the busy servers.
“Hey kiddo, you made it!” Dad greeted her heartily, rising to give her a peck on the cheek. Her mother looked at her watch and raised an eyebrow as if surprised that she had arrived with time to spare. Shondra leaned down to give her mother an awkward hug, the scent of Dior enveloping her as she did.
Conversation wound around current news, happenings at the school where her dad was the principal, and the goings-on of the neighbor’s dogs that managed to get out every weekend and terrorize everyone’s trash cans.
“So, what’s new in your life, sweetie?” her dad leaned towards her to better hear her in the noisy restaurant. Just as she was about to answer, her mother spoke up.
“Probably work and more work, as usual. I’m glad you like your job, Shondra, but when are you going to meet a young man?” Helen said the word job as if it were an infectious disease. Her mother just could not understand that Shondra was perfectly happy with things the way they were and didn’t want any beaux.
“Now, Helen,” Shondra’s dad began, placing a placating hand on his wife’s forearm.
“Don’t ‘now, Helen’ me, William, the girl needs to get out more, get a social life, quit hiding away in that apartment of hers. I’d like grandchildren someday before I am too old to appreciate them!” Shondra’s father pursed his lips and looked up at the ceiling as if for patience. They were only in their fifties, there was no rush for grandchildren. But his wife’s opinion on their daughter’s life was a well-worn groove, there was no point arguing with her. Helen, visibly annoyed, rearranged her silverware and centered her plate precisely.
Shondra felt her jaw clenching in her usual response to her mother’s outburst. Her eyes dropped to the cheerful red checked tablecloth. The girl who had emerged from the blood of her enemies should say something, anything. Be brave. Be bold. Seize the day, not your tongue.
“Mother, I’m perfectly happy with how my life is going. I wish you would stop criticizing me every time we talk, it’s really hurtful. And I’m not getting married and giving you grandkids anytime soon, please quit nagging about it.” Her voice was calm, as neutral as she could make it. Inside she was jelly, just waiting for her mother’s scathing reply.
“Criticizing you? I just want what’s best for you, I am not criticizing you. Good grief, you’re so sensitive. For Pete’s sake. Where is that waitress?” Helen’s face was flushed with irritation and embarrassment at being contradicted in public.
“No, I mean it, mom. I dread these breakfasts because you never have anything supportive to say to me. I don’t need that.” I need you to love me. Shondra felt hot tears at the corners of her eyes. She shredded her napkin under the table where no one would see it.
The harried waitress finally arrived, filling up their water glasses. They placed their orders, Shondra’s mom unusually quiet.
“Helen, what’ll you have? The usual? A London Fog and a croissant?” Dad handed the menus to the waitress.
“I don’t know, William.” Shondra’s mom reached for her water glass with her left hand and missed grasping it, nearly knocking the glass over. She raised her hand to her head as if in pain and looked at her husband, confused. Shondra could see her left eyelid drooping slightly.
“Honey, are you all right?” Shondra’s dad started as Helen started to lean towards him in her chair.
“Dad, I think she might be having a stroke, we need to call an ambulance!” Shondra picked her cell up off the table and dialed 911.
“Oh, I can drive more quickly, I am sure.” William supported his wife in her chair, looking into her face for further signs of a stroke. Helen’s left shoulder dropped. She looked frightened. They were all frightened.
“She’ll actually do better if she’s picked up in the ambulance, and she won’t have to wait to be triaged at the hospital, Dad.” Shondra’s hours spent bingeing medical procedurals on Netflix Saturday nights were not wasted after all. She quickly gave the emergency operator the details and they waited for the ambulance to arrive.
At the hospital, Shondra’s mother dozed in the chilly ER exam room, hooked up to monitors for her cardiac rhythm, heart rate, and oxygen levels. She had recovered from her symptoms within a couple of hours. The stress letdown, combined with two heated cotton blankets from the nurse, made her drowsy. Dad and Shondra spoke quietly at her bedside, waiting for the results of the MRI the doctor had ordered. Dr. Patel seemed to feel that her mother had what was called a mini-stroke and would be fine to go home pending some test results and preventative medication. He appeared to be around Shondra’s age and Dad wiggled his bushy eyebrows at her when the doctor left the room.
“Daaad. Geez.” Shondra felt like she was fourteen. Good to see her dad wasn’t so worried that he couldn’t tease her. She started to tell her dad about meeting Geoff. Sharing the story was something the newly discovered Shondra would do so she did. Dad chuckled, finding the situation as funny as she thought he would. She blushed all over again remembering the embarrassment.
“I thought I smelled Easter eggs when you sat down,” her dad teased. “Glad the vinegar worked. Do you think the ritual whatever helped?” William thought painting yourself was a strange thing to do, but if it helped his daughter then he was all for it. She had always been extremely sensitive to what others thought about her and was easily hurt. It made life more painful for her than if she had thicker skin. William grimaced as he thought of how her mother’s insensitivity affected the whole family. Perhaps being sensitive was just fine.
“Well, it was better than writing a note about how people had hurt me and burying it with a hatchet in some farmer’s field as the therapist suggested.” Shondra laughed softly. “The temptation to bury a hatchet in someone’s forehead and bury them in the field would have been too much to resist.” Shondra shrugged. “I’m doing OK. Every step forward is progress.”
“Something seemed to give you some guts to stand up to your mother today. You know she loves you, honey. She just doesn’t show it well.” Her dad held her hand in his loosely, apparently finding the tops of his loafers immensely interesting.
“No Dad, I don’t know that.” Shondra didn’t know what else to say. All her tiny failures as a child rose up in her heart and made her chest tight. She wanted to apologize for being a difficult child when she knew she wasn’t, but her newfound self was silent. She had washed all that down the drain already.