BY SOFIA MONTRONE
Finalist for the 2021 Adroit Prize for Prose
Baby’s all grown up now. She’s seventeen and spits and smokes and sells pictures of her feet online.
She has small, slim-toed feet with high arches. Dancer’s arches. Every night before she goes to bed, she exfoliates the heels with walnut scrub and anoints the tops with lavender oil. She paints her toenails a different color each time – baby pink, egg yolk, silver glitter – and photographs her feet from different angles, flexing them this way and that.
As it so happens, men are willing to spend a lot of money on pictures of a teenage girl’s pedicured feet. Sometimes they request things, like her feet with a toe ring or her feet wet from the shower, and she charges extra for those. She is saving the money for college, but makes enough that she can also afford chunky, name-brand sneakers and lacy bras that guarantee to double her cup size, one for each day of the week.
In the mornings, she poses in front of the mirror on the back of her closet door and examines the bras’ magnifying potential. She lies splayed on her duvet and imagines men, and sometimes women, slipping the straps off her shoulders, one at a time, the way their fingers would feel on her skin. She runs her own fingers up and down her arms and over the pale expanse of her stomach.
On Sundays, Baby goes over to the park next to Sea Bass’s apartment and lets him feel her up behind the rock-climbing wall. He has hands like a woman, with slender fingers and seashell-pink nails, and he always pinches her nipples too hard. Baby can forgive him this. She likes the way his hair slouches over his eyes, the way it is already silver at the roots, like an old man’s.
Sea Bass is not popular at the high school, but he is well-known and that is almost the same thing. He wears boxy Dickie’s and two t-shirts layered on top of one another. Many of them say things like “Martha’s Crab Shack” or “I Met My Wife on Ancestry.com.” He is a year older than Baby, and is waiting to hear back from colleges all over the country. He has applied to schools in California, New York, Louisiana, and Arizona, but none in Florida. When Baby applies to schools next year, she will apply to the University of Florida, but only as a back-up. Baby is destined for other places – everyone says so. She has had a Brown University pennant on her wall since the eighth grade.
Baby asks Sea Bass if he wants to talk about college, but he only shakes his head and snakes his hand further up her skirt. Ah-ah, she tells him, and moves the hand to the back of her neck.
“Tell me something untrue.” Sea Bass says. “Make me believe it.”
Butterflies have a special dust on their wings that makes them fly, she tells him. They can also fall in love. So can lobsters, whales, angel fish, angler fish, and leopard sharks. The ocean is full of lovers. An octopus loves its unborn children so much that she dies waiting for them to hatch. She loves them so much that she becomes sick without them. Afraid of leaving the eggs alone, the octopus stops going out, stops eating, swimming, seeing. She will die before the eggs hatch. She will never meet the little loves that killed her and she will never see the blue of the water again, feel its muscle against her. A collection of octopus eggs is called a clutch.
“That last thing was true, it doesn’t count. I saw it on Planet Earth.”
A human being is like a chicken, it doesn’t need a head. You can’t see it but there’s a moment between beheading and death when the body doesn’t know it’s lost its signal, and can carry an action through. I saw a man carried out of a bus accident, once. The axel had sliced right through his neck so that it was attached to his body like a hangnail – one good fidget could take it clean off. His hands were still moving, trying to rev his bike, which was crushed under the bus’s wheel.
“Once a man paid me eighty-five dollars for a picture of my left pinky-toe. He wanted the image so close-up and clear that he could see the hairs there, the red line of the nailbed.”
“You don’t really have hairs on your toes, do you?”
“Of course not.”
Baby lives in a city named for a lighthouse that no longer exists. Despite its absence, the image of the lighthouse is stickered on storefronts and embossed onto business cards and motel coasters. It beams out from the city limits sign which announces that drivers are about to enter A Great Place to Sun and Shop.
Baby lives by the north canals, where the houses are all low, midcentury bungalows, and the only store is the Costco, where the private school kids go to smoke. They are like a congregation of alligators stalking the parking lot – their teeth fluorescent white, their postures recumbent against the hoods of their cars. After smoking up in the loading bay among the crates of oranges and jumbo packs of Zip-it! Bug Repellent, they daze through the store’s labyrinthine aisles, gorging on samples. On mini pizza bagels and chips already appointed with swirls of dip. Baby has seen them and thought, how sad. To be a girl with a gloss of butter-white hair, eating a pre-ketchupped hotdog out of a cup.
If Baby lived in a mansion with a checkered lawn and a white convertible parked out front, if she didn’t work at the Costco and could wander its aisles for hours on end, if she had a father in the yacht club and a mother in the PTA, then maybe these things would not matter to her. But they do. They do.
Sea Bass’s mother is in the PTA. Baby sees her at every bake sale and winter carnival. She has acrylic nails and gold, tinsel-y extensions in her hair. When Baby goes over to their house, Sea Bass’s mother plies her with mini cupcakes and homemade cheese bread. She insists that Baby and Sea Bass sit at the counter with their homework and their snacks, and watches them from the pleather ottoman in the next room. When she finds a particularly engaging story on Fox News and they are both sure that she will not turn around, Sea Bass leans into Baby and trills his hand along her bare thigh.
Baby closes her eyes. The woman on the TV is shouting about freeloading immigrants, and Sea Bass’s mom turns the volume down, but only slightly. Baby is sure that she has leaned around to look, but Sea Bass’s hand is still on her thigh. She feels the heat of his body moving into hers, the margin between them.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says and then asks for directions to the bathroom.
Their downstairs bathroom is being re-tiled so Sea Bass walks her to the one on the second floor. He lingers in the hall, shifting from side to side.
“This is my room,” he says and points to the door next to the bathroom. There is an Everglades National Park poster above the bed – one of those artsy, illustrated ones. He has a record-player and an entire shelf of vinyls. On his desk there are some Hot-Wheels cars in a straight line.
“I don’t play with those anymore,” he says, “obviously.”
Baby runs her thumb along the edge of the desk, then down the line of his cheek. He bows his head so that she can reach and when he does, she can see the corona of silver hairs at his scalp.
In the bathroom, Baby leaves the water running. She lifts the seat of the toilet to see if the underside is clean and sifts through the bottles in the medicine cabinet. There is a prescription for Ritalin with Sea Bass’s full name on the label. She turns it to see his middle name, then, embarrassed, jerks her hand back and closes the cabinet as quietly as she can. Through the door, she can hear Sea Bass’s mother calling for them.
When she leaves, Baby carries her white sneakers in her hand all the way to the end of the lawn, careful not to squish the grass.
At home, Baby’s father sits with his feet on the kitchen table. He keeps a pot of black coffee by his elbow and continues to pour from it, even though the coffee is cold. His glasses are low on his nose. The new progressives cost an arm and a leg, an heirloom watch, and a cancelled subscription to The New York Times. Baby’s father has resorted to reading the local paper instead, which he calls “The Boondocks Tribune.” He insists that there is no news worth reading that did not cross a desk in Manhattan first. When he moved to Florida to work as a boating insurance rep, they didn’t even print the Times outside of New York. Now, things are different. You can get any news anywhere and you can lose your job at the insurance agency if you need too many sick days. Baby’s father has taken to doing the crossword in People Magazine instead.
On TV, they are airing footage from the funeral of a former star athlete who drowned in his own infinity pool. For his funeral, they rent out a stadium in his hometown and raffle tickets to the fans that throng outside. Two famous pop singers are scheduled to perform. Baby’s mom is fixated on the spectacle, blowing her nose each time the network flashes an image of the grown men crying in the crowd, pictures of the athlete’s face ironed onto their shirts. Her own brother overdosed two years ago, and Baby remembers that she barely shed a tear.
For the memorial, they had chartered a sailboat to take his ashes out to sea. Baby had sat with her mom in the cockpit and the box of ashes. Her mom wore a puffy orange life-vest and clawed at the back of Baby’s hand until it was white. When the time came to dump the ashes into the ocean, her mom refused to leave the cockpit and watched at a distance as Baby tipped the box over the bow and into waves. Then, they turned the boat around, the water looking as pristinely blue as it had before.
Baby sits in her room and tries to finish reading A Farewell to Arms before her next shift at the Costco. She is already in her uniform polo and sweating through the thick cotton. Her door is swollen from the heat and won’t close all the way. The sounds of the televised funeral keep interrupting her focus. Her mother sobs and honks. When Baby turns the page, the nurse has died.
Before she leaves for work, Baby splashes cold water on her face and uses a square of toilet paper to dab her armpits. The light slants dreamily through the venetian blinds. Baby hoists her foot against the granite vanity and flexes her toes for a picture. The sun catches the glitter in her nail polish so that it looks like liquid gold.
She can hear her father making fun of the funeral in the next room and her mother’s retort: that the two of them would be lucky to get a plot at the Eternal Sunshine Cemetery down by the highway. It costs money to die in this country, she tells him.
On Thursdays, Baby works at the Costco until closing. Her boss tells her that she has a voice for radio and lets her make the wrap-up announcement over the intercom. She counts down from twenty minutes to ten, five, three, and final call. The first time, the echo of her voice shocked her. It was a thing apart – bigger, harsher than she imagined it could be. It crackled over the line.
“Please make your way to an open register,” she asks at twenty minutes to closing.
“Get in line,” she commands at final call, her voice trailing a second behind her.
After the store closes, the employees are allowed fifteen minutes to do their own shopping. Baby buys whatever her mom asks for – thirty-two-packs of toilet paper, dish soap, the energy bars she likes with the chocolate drizzle – and pays for them with her employee card. There is nothing small enough in the store for her to buy for herself. Still, she runs her fingers along the shelves, feeling the seams of cereal boxes and the give of the cellophane wrapped around the cartons of water bottles and peanut butter. After hours, the light is strange and empty. The shelves reach all the way to the ceiling, their bolts and metal beams exposed as if they are temporary, a space for things to pass through.
Baby puts in her headphones and wiggles down the aisles. She shuffles her feet and knows that her sneakers will squeak against the floor and that no one will hear them. She spins with her arms thrown wide. Although there are security cameras hidden among the shelves, she strums an air guitar as if no one is watching. Over the intercom, another voice announces the time.
Baby rides her bike home, even on Thursdays when night has truly fallen. She pedals up the canals and watches the houses diminish in size. When she rides through Sea Bass’s neighborhood, she wonders when she stopped being able to think of it as anything else.
Years ago, her father used to take her on rides along these same canals. She trailed behind him on her starter bike, which had been pink with streamers sewn into the handles. Every time they crossed a bridge she would ring the bike’s daisy-shaped bell. Her father would bring her to the water’s edge, directing her gaze to the preening egrets and the king birds that nested under the arch of the bridge. In the water floated soda cans and receipts, and beneath these skirmished fleets of narrow, silver-grey fish. Baby imagined that she could follow them, the slow current moving her through the canals and out to sea. If she lay still enough, with her face and chest to the sky, the water could carry her.
She stops on a bridge over one of the smaller canals, two blocks from Sea Bass’s house. Her body throbs, she is so tired. Below, the water is velvet-dark, reflecting nothing. Baby crouches and unknots the laces of sneakers. She tucks her socks under the tongue. She lowers herself the last couple inches until she is sitting on the edge of the bridge, and dangles her feet into the water, which is thrumming and algal. Something under the surface is moving, although she cannot tell if it is alive. Her eyes droop shut.
This time next year, she thinks, she will be on the verge on leaving. She will have already started sorting through her things; she will have marked her favorite books and begun planning outfits for the winters of Rhode Island, where the cold comes to stay. She will buy a parka and snow-boots on sale, heavily discounted by the spring. There are other things she will need – special-sized sheets for the dorm beds, an electric kettle, and a lamp so that she can read at night.
She will be able to buy these things herself, with the money she has saved from Costco and from her pictures. She has more requests than ever now, and repeat customers too. There is one man who returns every couple of days, begging for new photos, each at an unbelievable price. She sends them. She does whatever he asks, even though sometimes she can hardly believe herself. When – lying in bed with her feet flexed against the wall, the deep red of her nail polish visible through the sheer mesh of her stockings – she catches sight of her reflection in the closet mirror, she feels out of her mind. On the other side of the phone, a man keens for her. He knows every contour of her feet. He can’t get enough. All of this is deeply ridiculous.
When she rises, she shakes the gravel from her palms. Her feet are filmed in a layer of slime and she rides the rest of the way home in just her socks.
Spring arrives and it is like winter and like fall – warmly wet. Baby and Sea Bass have been meeting behind the rock-climbing wall for three months. They begin to meet other places – by the pier and the bird sanctuary, and once, at the Costco, where Sea Bass insists on sharing a pretzel the size of a baseball plate. Baby follows him through the store, unable to meet her coworkers’ eyes. The monstrous pretzel embarrasses her, but when a glob of mustard drops onto Sea Bass’s “Mr. Flav” shirt, she dabs it away with a damp napkin.
They lie about things big and small. She tells him that an octopus can solve a Rubik’s cube in under five minutes, and that on the ocean floor, there are living fish older than mountains. In Hawaii, there is a turtle so ancient that the sediment collected on its shell has calcified into a minor rock formation. Sea Bass tells her that he once performed a funeral mass for a hummingbird in his backyard. He describes the emerald sheen of the bird’s wings – the feathers thin as eyelashes – with so much tenderness that she nearly forgets it is a lie.
“I’m going to miss Florida,” Sea Bass says.
Bullshit, she replies.
Sea Bass gets his first acceptance letter on a Friday, and that night, he and Baby drive down to the marina and she lets him take her dress off in the back of his truck. She has shaved all the way up her leg and plucked the long, thin hairs from around her bellybutton. She is so smooth and sleek with sweat that the leather seats adhere to her every movement. She keeps her socks on.
It is like in the TV movies, with steam crowding against the windows and slow music on the radio. Baby used to close her eyes during these scenes, embarrassed by her body’s shivers of interest. She closes them again in the back of the truck, using her fingers to feel the shape of Sea Bass’s face. She can feel his expression open and collapse, and when it is over, she hooks her thumbs into the corners of his mouth and pulls.
“Got you,” she says.
“You got me,” he agrees.
Even though he says it with a twist in his voice, even though she can feel the trail of tear where her knuckle touches his cheek. Even though he lies down with his head on her padded bra and keeps it there. She does not believe him.
The Florida dark chirps and hums. As Sea Bass drives her back to the north canals, Baby rolls down the window to feel the night whip against her face. They pass over the Eternal Sunshine Cemetery and the adjoining mini golf course with its technicolor windmills. They drive through the south canals, where the mansions are as bright and square as paper lanterns, past the bridge where, two weeks ago, she sat with her feet in the water. She directs Sea Bass turn by turn and asks him to park at the end of her street.
Sea Bass has never seen where she lives or met her parents, and he cranes his neck now, attempting to guess which house is hers. His eyes pass right over it. Through the living room window, Baby can see the blue light from the television and knows that her mom must be there, just out of sight.
“Can I smoke in here?” She asks. She runs her fingers over the dashboard, the black glass waiting to be activated.
“Don’t want my parents to smell anything.” He says.
Baby nods. She thinks of his mother sitting in this car, smelling only cool leather and the musk of the AC, never imagining that Baby and her son have slid all over these seats. That Baby’s hair is perhaps still threaded into the floor mats, that her sweat has cooled against the armrest, that her palm has oiled the windows. As Sea Bass turns out his jacket in search of a lighter, Baby removes the little cross that dangles from her ear and tucks it into a seat-back pocket.
They lean against the back of the truck and Baby breathes the smoke from her cigarette into Sea Bass’s mouth. Sea Bass pulls a handful of her hair to his face and sniffs. He says that her hair smells like mangoes and baby powder, and she tells him that it’s passion fruit, actually.
Lizards skirt along the pavement and up the sides of trees. The porch lights are nimbate with moths. Pink, coiling tails wriggle from palm fronds and disappear into gutters. Baby knows not to look down, where she will by met with the animals’ wet black eyes. She keeps her chin up, looks straight into the night with its quivering stars.
She will always remember this night, she thinks. Years from now, when she is a different person, the law of firsts dictates that she will remember the car and the hot air and the way the boy wanted to be held afterward, like a small child. How she held him. How she kissed his head, as if she loved him.
“Will you visit me next year?” Sea Bass asks. Her hair is still threaded through his hand.
“Did you know that a single plot at the Eternal Sunshine Cemetery costs one thousand dollars?” Baby crushes her cigarette into the wet asphalt. “Oh another thing about the octopus: it has three hearts,” she tells him. “As it swims, one of the hearts ticks to a stop and its organs begin to starve. Swimming exhausts the octopus and too much exhaustion will kill it. For this reason, it prefers to crawl.” There is everywhere and nowhere to look. She can feel her blood beating, keeping time.
“I will tell you something true,” she says, “but only if you promise to forget.”