Fiction by Brian McVety
The can of tile refinisher smells like the shame of gasoline.
Zoë was nine when her father let her pump gas for the first time. He remained in their rusted station wagon to argue with the radio. The powerful gush forced the nozzle from her hands and drenched her denim cutoffs. When she refused to take them off in order to be allowed back on his vinyl seats, she had to huddle in the way back next to the grass clippings and half-filled can of gasoline.
Zoë closes the lid and shakes away the memory, comforted by the slosh of toxicity.
The project was hers. To make something old, new. Despite staying up late watching tutorials on how to strip and sand the tiles, she isn’t sure if she’s done it all correctly, but she won’t make that phone call. It’s her bathroom, now.
Tatie appears from the basement wearing an old tulle scarf as a cape, a bedazzled purple crown woven into her amber hair. She won’t meet Zoë’s eyes and keeps her legs together as she walks. Zoë wonders when it will stop, when it will all stop; she was never like this before they moved.
Zoë fights down the swear rising from within and remembers that the doctor said negative reinforcement is the opposite of what Tatie needs. A little is better than nothing. Zoë tells her to find her father to help change her. Tatie doesn’t acknowledge the request but tiptoes away, clutching her pants over a bulbous stomach as she goes. Despite knowing better, Zoë yells it better not happen again. Tatie stares back through the slats in the railing as she crawls up the stairs. Ignoring the screams of protest from above, Zoë reopens the can, puts on a mask and gets to work.
No matter how many windows she opens, the stench lingers for days. Jim tells her that the bathroom looks just like new. Zoë points out the spots where she has messed up: the bubbled paint, the tile she missed, the cracks in the grout. She aches to tear it all down and buy new tiles to do it properly this time. Her husband pats her on the head instead of telling her how ridiculous she sounds. Zoë wrestles the toilet back into place, hangs a picture of a cat flushing a goldfish—one of Tatie’s favorites—thinks it might help, might make the foreign seem familiar.
Later that afternoon as she goes to sort through bills, Zoë finds Tatie huddled in the corner of the office, her cerulean eyes wincing in pain. She tries to take her to the bathroom, but Tatie flails her legs and shrieks in a way she has never heard before. When Zoë puts her down, Tatie bolts to Naomi, who is coloring at the kitchen table. They never had to think about this with the first one.
Zoë tries to remember when Tatie last had gone, convinces herself it couldn’t been over a week. The doctor told them not to let it go on for much longer than that. If it did, they should act. She wants to confirm all this with Jim but hears the violence of his video games from the other room. She glances to Tatie, who grips the edge of the table in pain.
Like so much of her life that is hidden away—why the oven won’t roast above 375, why her father never wrote back after he left, why she’s back here—she isn’t sure where she put them. Zoë searches the cabinet past stacks of toilet paper and the spare tools she has forgotten to put away. She finds them on a shelf that the kids can’t quite reach. She pulls one out, reads the directions, thinks there should be more to it, and puts it in her back pocket as if it were a gun.
Zoë marches into the kitchen and grabs Tatie from behind. Thrashing and kicking, Tatie begs her to stop as Zoë yanks down her pants. She screams no again and again, promises she will go, like she has promised so many times before. Zoë pulls the suppository from her back pocket and tries to pin down Tatie’s arms. She feels her pounding heart as she bends Tatie over the toilet, their faces almost against the tiles. Zoë’s finger hovers over the applicator, when suddenly she sees some other boy, some other man, pinning down Tatie’s grown body, yanking her underwear to her knees, ignoring her pleas.
Zoë stops herself. She can’t meet Tatie’s eyes. With shaking hands, she lets go.
Tatie squirms away and wipes her cheeks with the back of her hands. She pulls up her pants and scampers to rejoin her sister. Crossing her legs again, she stands by Naomi’s side.
Zoë sits and leans back against the sticky white tiles. She sees another spot she has missed. She wonders how to get it right, how anyone gets it right, when the phone rings.
Jim yells saying it’s her mother, that she wants to come and see the girls, will show her a few tricks about the house that she may have forgotten, wants to make sure she has it all under control. She breathes in deeply and wants to say no, when she feels it escape her lips, a little saint of a word.