I did not want to shower with my sister Lori anymore. I was in sixth grade and she was in fourth grade when I realized this was embarrassing. By this age, there had been sleepovers at other girls’ homes, and I had begun to notice that they’d been taught things I had not been taught. They were required to brush their teeth before bed, for example. Hands were meant to be washed after using the toilet. Hair was combed and nails were trimmed, and some of them were even shaving their legs.
There was no instruction for any of these things at my house on Oxbow Drive where four girls were essentially left to raise themselves and rely on the eldest for almost everything.
I was the eldest.
While it appeared to me that others just knew to wash their hands, I had to learn by watching and listening. Around my friends and classmates, I pretended things were that way in my family too, that my mother was always hounding me to floss. I had begun to sense that no one else in my class or among my small circle of friends showered with their siblings.
When I worked up the courage to request privacy on shower nights, my mother was smoking at the kitchen table. I stood in the doorway with my hands folded in front of me, and I timidly explained that I felt too old to be in the shower with my sister.
Her left eye squinted as she smoked, and my confidence began to falter before I had even finished my carefully prepared monologue. She asked if I was going to pay the water bill.
“We’re not made of money,” she said, and that was the end of the conversation.
Behind the mildew-coated shower curtain, Lori and I circled each other, our positions dependent on who needed the strongest stream of water. The bathroom door was ajar. It always was in our house because someone else might need to use the toilet, even while a shower was going on. Sable, the cat with prickly skin and oozing eyes, might need to get to his litter box, which was tucked beneath the sink.
My sister Marci pooped in the litter box once. It’s a legendary story all of us laugh about now. She was around six or seven years old, and Jami, who was two years older, wouldn’t get off the toilet because she wanted to see Marci have an accident in her pants. Instead, our youngest sister squatted like a cat.
Marci did not get in trouble for this, nor did Jami. I got in trouble. I was the one in charge, while my parents were at work. I was the one expected to prevent such a thing from happening. There was no real punishment given—what could they take away when we had nothing? I stood in the kitchen and listened to my mother berate my lack of attention and my inability to resolve this type of dispute between The Girls.
I was always separate from The Girls. I was the caregiver and the stand-in parent. I was not one of them.
This might have been prevented if Marci had gone downstairs to use the half bathroom beside the laundry room. There was a perfectly good toilet there—in fact, if anyone in the house would have been willing to use that toilet, there would have been fewer interruptions in the upstairs bathroom when people were trying to take showers. But no one used the half bathroom downstairs, in the scary hallway leading to my bedroom and the garage. The risk was unnamed, but we all avoided it. There were spiders. It smelled. We might have to talk to our father, who spent most of his time in the adjoining family room on his recliner, filling the space with cigar smoke.
On shower nights, my sister and I worked quickly. Neither of us were interested in prolonging the shared humiliation. I remember trying not to touch the mold in the corners of the tub. We’d lather soap from a slim bar between our hands because there was no loofah. No sponge. Not even a washcloth.
The towels waiting for us on the sink were small and thin, many of them torn and stained with my mother’s hair dye. They felt and smelled like the dust that settled onto everything in the house. They were stiff from drying on the clothesline outside, and, despite all the exposure to fresh air, carried a slight scent of urine.
While drying off, it was difficult not to notice the linoleum pulling up next to the tub. Every now and then, thick black carpenter ants would surface, wandering the bathroom floor in confusion. They were large enough that I could easily count their legs and their three body segments.
These were always around. We saw them in the kitchen too, waltzing across the counter between piles of mail and stained coffee cups. They showed up on bedroom dressers and struggling through the fibers of a carpet. They were the worst in the bathroom, though. Grossed out, my sisters and I stepped on them as they emerged, chasing them down and squashing them. You could hear them pop to death under a sneaker or a sandal.
The deterioration of the bathroom and the family home was our fault, we were constantly told. We were too big. Too rough. Too hard on things.
“It’s why I don’t bother cleaning,” my mother said.
I told Lori that I had tried to plead my case for solitary showers but that our mother wasn’t having it. My sister reminded me that we were at least lucky to have graduated to showers from baths. Baths were worse and far more demeaning. Only a year earlier, it had been Lori and me in the bathtub first, our mother washing our hair with the green plastic pitcher that was also used to mix sugary lemonade and off-brand Kool-Aid. Jami and Marci would go next, washed in our bathwater, complaining it was cold and screeching at the sight of the green pitcher and its cascading rush of used water.
In Mrs. Mosher’s classroom, I was admiring my poem she had posted on the wall. We had been instructed to write a poem about an emotion, and I chose favoritism. Mrs. Mosher said she was impressed with the maturity in my poem, and she hung my handwritten words against smooth tan construction paper. Lost in the lonely joy I felt looking at this accomplishment, I barely heard Joanne Lopardo ask me how often I washed my hair.
“Every other day,” I lied. We showered weekly. But earlier, I had heard the other girls discussing their shampoo schedules. I had watched Jonathan Libby be ridiculed and harassed for his once-a-week answer to the same question.
“Me too,” Joanne said with an approving nod. “Do you know Jonathan only washes his hair once a week?”
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
“I know. I’ve also seen him pick his nose and eat it.”
“Sick!” I cried, trying to keep the conversation going with this popular girl who may not have noticed my poem but did have things to say to me about another, weaker student. I was willing to listen.
By the end of the day, Jonathan’s head would be covered in spitballs. From a few seats behind him, I watched as he gently pulled them from his hair all afternoon. He couldn’t keep up, and many of them were still there as we headed towards our bus at dismissal.
Joanne and I never became friends. She was popular and she died after a bad asthma attack when we were freshmen in high school. Our guidance counselor stood in front of our homeroom, asking if anyone cared to share how they were feeling. She nodded at me encouragingly, probably because I was crying. But I didn’t say anything. I was thinking about that sixth-grade classroom and wondering if Jonathan Libby was just a little bit relieved she was dead.
“She was probably on drugs,” my mother said that night. “Healthy teenagers do not die from asthma.”
It was a shower night and we had boldly begun closing the door. I asked Lori if she thought that was true, that Joanne had died from drugs. They played softball together and my sister probably knew her better than me. Lori shrugged. As soon as she turned twelve, my sister began wearing her bathing suit in the shower. She mumbled something about mom being a nurse and would probably know.
“She thinks everyone is doing something bad,” I said, scrubbing the shampoo into my head. I never had the chance to know or like Joanne Lopardo. But I didn’t think she was on drugs.
Lori refused to criticize my mother, even as we stood in a rotting bathtub.
About a year later, both of us now in high school, Lori and I worked out a system where we would go into the bathroom together like we were supposed to, but shower one at a time while the other waited outside the curtain, watching the door for any threats. We knew we were getting away with something, but we did not dare to acknowledge it.