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Medicine Cabinet Confessional



Honorable Mention for the 2012 Adroit Prize for Prose

You can tell a lot about somebody by what’s in their medicine cabinet.

There’s the kind that has shelves laden with translucent orange pill bottles, Xanax and Topamax and Cordarone.  The kind with sleek makeup compacts with names like “Guerlain” and “Dior” embossed on their golden covers.  The kind with buttons and coins from other countries and forgotten Polaroids.   Then there’s the empty kind.  That’s the best, because it means that their owners carry their hearts within their own chests rather than leaving them in the dark behind the mirror: the left ventricle slanted against the Benedryl, the right atrium leaving damp stains on the deodorant.  The more clutter a person has stashed away, the more problems he has.

My tía Juanita told me once that a donde el corazon se inclina, el pie camina.  Where the heart goes, the feet will go.  The Americans say it, home is where the heart is.  Everyone says shit like that, I know, and they don’t ever stop to think about what it means.  But my brother Manuel and I, we believed it.  We believed it when we were born in a three-room house in Oaxaca, on a day when the sun set fire to the grasses of the plains.  We believed it when we crossed the border into los Estados Unidos and rented a studio apartment in San Antonio, where the chipped paint and cockroaches belonged to us – for the month, at least.  And we believed it when we started our own home improvement business so we could send a few dollars back every week to nuestro hogar, our home.  We bricked rays of sunlight into foundations and caulked patience in the seams between wall and kitchen sink.

The McClaines, our 136th clients, lived at 1835 Riverbend Court, in a cul-de-sac lined with hydrangeas.  Liam was a red-faced WASP with a straight Republican voting record.  His mouselike wife Julia drove a polite cream minivan.  Their two daughters, Claire and Caroline, took for granted private school educations that were worth $40,000 a year.  The problem, Mr. McClaine said over the phone, was his daughters’ fixation with bathing.  They took baths when they woke up, and another one when they came home from school, and one before they went to bed.  They took baths when they had watched a sad movie and when it rained and when the wind blew too hard.  The corners of the bathtub dripped with mildew.

As soon as we got to their house, Mr. McClaine took a step back at our cacao skin and Manuel’s broken English.  No matter that I hardly had an accent and spoke whatever language you could find in the city gutters.  But we shrugged to each other and said no nos importa and got to work.

It wasn’t easy.  The McClaine girls hardly ever left their bathroom.  On that first day of painting and recaulking, I walked in on seventeen-year-old Caroline floating in the tub like a drowned girl, hair fanned like something out of a Lorca poem.  I muttered curses in Spanish and backed out the door, apologizing.  But she didn’t even open her eyes.

The job took longer than usual, and not just because we had to keep Caroline and Claire away long enough to drag up our equipment.  The shower I had finished re-tiling one day was half-tiled the next.  Manuel, my gemela, my twin, started getting so distracted that he nearly drilled through the tub’s foundation.  He stopped answering his cell phone.  I should’ve known something was wrong the moment I looked in their medicine cabinet that first day.  Lip gloss and razor blades tumbled off every shelf.  Sometimes I caught Manuel holding tubes of lipstick up to the light as if looking at his reflection in the pearly cap.

On the seventh day of our contract, my Manuelito made love to Caroline McClaine in the claw-footed tub, its sides still streaked with mold.  Twelve-year-old Claire, listening from the next room over, called her papá at work.  She held up the phone to the wall, letting Mr. McClaine hear the thumps and sighs coming from the bathroom, then hung up the phone.  He couldn’t tell the two of us apart, so he reported us both to the police.  They showed up at the door of our apartment the next day.

The police put him away for having sex with a minor, where he shared a cell with two other stubble-cheeked mejicanos.  He never sent me a letter – not one that I ever got, anyway.  The guards confiscated all his Spanish notes, and the only words he knew in English were please, hello, and I’ll have the fried chicken.

I never took his stuff out of the medicine cabinet in the apartment we shared.  Maybe his razor and toothbrush are still sitting there in San Antonio, breathing in the quiet of a dead room.  Sometimes I wonder if the memory of Manuel moves through the rooms silent as a ghost, writing with his finger on the bathroom mirror.

Hello, the words say.

Hello hello hello.

Please hello.


Elizabeth Ballou recently graduated from Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School, and will pursue undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia next year. She has won many creative writing prizes, including the New York Life Award and a Silver Portfolio with Distinction from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and her work has been published in TeenInk, Polyphony H.S., The Claremont Review, and Crashtest. When not writing, she enjoys acting and making delicious strawberry cheesecakes.