The Sinking Sensation
By Michelle Law
“Look. We don’t want you to feel embarrassed.”
Yes they did.
“Or even ashamed.”
I stared at the floor.
“It just isn’t right, you know? Young ladies like yourself shouldn’t do…that.”
Her fingernails drumming on the kitchen countertop. His arms crossed over his chest.
My shuffling feet, and the scuffmarks my shoes were leaving on the linoleum.
“Don’t set a bad example for your brother. Kids his age shouldn’t be exposed to these things so early.”
Was that all?
“Yeah, you can go now.”
A hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t forget our talk.”
The stars on my ceiling have almost stopped glowing. Some of them have even started to fall off. One lands next to my pillow and I turn to face it, running my fingers over the tiny plastic points. I don’t remember them being this small when I put them up, but that was about five years ago. There used to be a small puzzles and games store I’d visit every day after school. The owners didn’t like my being there, because I’d spend hours playing with the small toys, and rarely ever bought anything.
Kaleidoscopes urged my attention, their coloured reflections contorting my vision, and making me temporarily nauseous. I liked playing with the wind-up cars, but they usually lay broken on the counter, rousing an air of dejection at being all wound out. Then the stars. I hadn’t seen them there before. They were sitting at the opposite end of the bench, a window in the packaging revealing dozens of pale yellow-green shapes, entangled in one collective mass. They were beautiful and exactly what I needed.
The trip home was agonising. Each bump on the bus ride justified a panicked search of my rucksack; a frantic hand ensuring the stars were still safely positioned at the very bottom. They always were. When I got back, I immediately thrust the packet under the brightness of the desk lamp, anticipating what my room would look like after its transformation. At night I turned off all the lights. The stars burst into the darkness, leaving sparkling impressions in their wake. After my eyes adjusted, I tore open the packet and let the shapes spill onto my lap, warming my thighs with their soft heat.
That night my arms got sore from the repetition (1. apply adhesive, 2. reach up to ceiling, 3. ensure secure positioning), but it was worth every ache. Lying in bed I was in orbit, knowing how Gagarin felt as he floated through nothingness for the first time. There was something fantastic about the stars, the way the brightness would swallow you. But now the stars are dull, and the brightest light in my bedroom is the red bauble on the television.
I listen to the static fuzz as the set warms up. A foreign film is playing, but I don’t know what they’re saying because there aren’t any subtitles. It’s on during French hour and only French people are supposed to be watching. I listen to the liquid language; the only one that can make even nonsensical cussing sound like poetry. The couple fight, each of them spitting insults into the Parisian air. It feels like an entertaining paradox, like I’m imposing on something private and yet I’m not, because it’s impossible to gauge the argument or the situation. I also like it because there’s a lot of melodramatic slapping involved.
I think the couple have reconciled. There is a close-up of the leading man’s face as he whispers something into his partner’s ear. She’s wearing heavy, chandelier earrings that remind me of a story I’d heard about a girl’s ear lobes being torn off at a wedding. She is smiling suggestively, running a finger along his broad, stubbled chin. He looks a bit like Liam from my English class, who sits two rows ahead of me. I don’t think Liam shaves enough, so there is always a light shadow on his jaw line. Even from a distance, you can see how the silhouette shapes his perfect mouth.
Sometimes he reads with his forehead almost touching the table, and I wonder if he’s up to the same paragraph or sentence as I am. Sometimes he mouths the words to himself, and I wonder if he hears the charisma. Liam has a way of speaking that makes everything he says sound like there’s profound meaning behind it. When he recites poetry to the class, I am in love with him, and when he reads prose I want to eat his fucking face. Most people at school wouldn’t believe I’d be thinking this. Most of them have probably made up their minds about me. But just because you’re quiet, it doesn’t mean you’re not interested. And just because you don’t mention it, it doesn’t mean you wouldn’t want to try.
The day we studied The Crucible, Liam played Proctor to my Abigail. It wasn’t a very romantic scene, but I remember it being thrilling. A few of the girls in class objected when Proctor called Abigail a whore, and the rest of the class joined in on the discussion. Liam and I were both still standing, waiting to press on with the scene. I think he felt my gaze, because he turned around and smiled. My sweaty palms slid over the tattered pages as I traced my lines in anticipation. At last.
“I have known her, sir. I have known her.”
He had known me. We had known each other.
The French guy is kissing the woman on the neck. She places her hand somewhere the camera doesn’t see, and his eyelids flutter in-between beats. Then he’s gasping. Liam turns around and walks towards my seat. He pulls a chair up beside me and I lean in to kiss his neck. He smells like clean laundry. One of his hands drop below my scratched desk (the one with “IAN4EVA” carved into it with blunt scissors), and suddenly I’m gasping too.
Then there are hands flying everywhere before I can even register what’s happening. I grab Liam by the shoulder and draw him closer, pulling him loosely towards me before pinning him to the ground. He has snap buttons on his shirt, so I rip them open in one swift movement, laughing because it’s all so absurd. But I can’t let this ruin the moment. His shoulders are bare and I’m quickly running my hands across the blades, kissing my way closer to his groin. He’s telling me things as I go: “Your lips are the softest things I’ve ever worn.” As I wonder how I could come up with something so stupid, Liam’s hand fumbles with my zipper. The sinking sensation.
It’s never gone this far before, and I gasp again- this time from surprise. So I stop midway. And then momentum picks up. And I’ve stopped. Now I start again. Maybe this is what it feels like. This is nice, I’m sure, and I wonder why I’ve gone without it for so long. Soon I’m submerged in something so viscous I can barely see. Everything is warm and oozy, and so all-consuming that my senses are completely blocked. My muscles spasm but I don’t want to move, because what’s happening can’t be stopped. The stars beside my pelvis get lost underneath all the movement. My mind is overcome with desperation and a kind of thrilling terror. And all I can hear is the Thud. Thud. Thud. of my own heartbeat. Or maybe it’s the bed head against the wall. Oh he is beautiful, and exactly what I need.
Then- a soft knock on the door.
Me falling off the bed with my pants off.
Then- a tiny thread of light, and a stifled wheeze that isn’t mine.
Me pulling up my pants and scrambling back into bed. The door clicking shut, and then panicked murmurs down the hall. My little brother’s questions.
“Mum, I think she was dying!”
And my head buried under the covers.
During the last two hours, I’ve switched from one end of the bed (facing the door) to the other (facing the window), and then back again. It’s amazing how your perspective can shift with one small alteration. Things regain their freshness, and there’s this heightened anticipation that you can’t remember feeling since your first sleep over as a kid. You start to feel hopeful, maybe even expectant that whatever happens next will be different to what you already know. I switch ends again, hoping this movement will inspire a more convincing explanation than: “I was changing, and he should know to knock.” I come up with nothing. I switch ends again- not out of frustration, but for something to do. My leg rolls limply off the mattress, and my foot brushes against something jagged. There’s only one left up there, clinging by a few thin threads of adhesive. I gracelessly roll off the bed and straighten up. The carpet is streaked with fallen stars.
Everything is quiet as I step out into the hallway, eyes steaming. Light grazes the floor, and my shadow gets pulled back into the darkness of my bedroom, back into the safety. I can’t help but want to follow it. My brother is asleep on the couch, and there is a glistening glob of purple bubble-gum in his mouth. For a moment I wish it would slide down into the back of his throat, I imagine it would be easy. But he is never going to forget. Just like the time my mum leaned forward to turn off my night-light. The image of her hanging breasts, dark nipples faced downward inside her over-sized bed shirt, carved itself into my memory like an old etching. Kids his age never forget. I walk up and pluck the wet, masticated candy from between his teeth and fold it into a tissue. Soon I can smell the artificial grape taste that’s beginning to stain my palm.
My parents are waiting. Mum is sitting at the dining table with a newspaper; her head crooked, eyes unmoving. Dad is wiping down the stovetop, working aimlessly at an old food scrap that cemented itself there years ago. They don’t look up when I cross the threshold, and for a while I’m not sure they’ve even seen me. The gum is still warm in my hand. Dad’s standing with his back towards me, but I can see his face reflected in the sink. He looks tired, eyes slightly unfocused, before the metal fogs up with steam and suds. I maneuver my way around him as he scrubs, avoiding his elbow as it juts to and fro. We don’t own a bin with a foot pedal, so I lean down and lift the lid myself.
Scents roll into the air: citrus, coffee, and animal fat. The artificial grape smell joins the blend. Dad moves away, but I stay where I am, letting the water from the empty washing gloves trickle down onto my head. The drumming starts, and I know her fingernails will be stained with ink from the paper. And he will have a faint white stain across his chest from the powder on his hands. Then I’ll go upstairs and find the last star has finally fallen. All of this for a sensation.