The bad egg smell of it always brought a lot back. Lindsey was young when she started using Clarins self-tanning products, she couldn’t remember how young—her parents were still married; it was the summer of the boat.
The boat in question was a 34-foot 1975 Clarion Launch; as a copywriter, she remembered these kinds of details. Her parents had gone in on it with another couple, and henceforth, referred to it as “the share.” For a reason she still contemplated, they named it Mr. Mistoffelees. They changed the name to Decked Out when they put it up for sale.
The idea of using a self-tanning product hadn’t come to Lindsey by herself. There was a woman on the boat with them that summer who wore large hats and white jeans and used Clarins exclusively. Lindsey couldn’t remember the woman’s name or her connection to the family, but she’d had an otherworldly air about her, as if she were extremely wealthy, European, or both.
Experience led Lindsey to imagine that the woman had been sleeping with her father, but her instincts contradicted this. It was the summer of his Western period. He favored belt buckles adorned with turquoise bears and spearheads, suede fringe, wool camp blankets; the woman’s jaunty nautical attire wouldn’t have appealed to him then.
For years, he bought Lindsey extravagant ponchos that she never wore, and eventually lost track of. Lindsey was old enough to wear them now, and it got cold at night in the country. If she had been the kind of person to look far ahead, to plan, she might have kept those ponchos. She might have allowed for the possibility of change in her life, and recognized what she considered as an inappropriate gift for what it actually had been—a sort of weather forecast.
The woman in the white jeans made a strong impression on her. There was something clean and confident about the way they looked on her body. The woman had an angular and boyish build; nothing like Lindsey’s, whose body was cumbersome and prone to surprises. Her chest, her hips, the girth of her belly; everything seemed to change from one moment to the next. Lindsey envied the type of woman who woke up every morning straight and flat and strong, able and willing to get on with it already. These types had a uniform, they knew what worked and ran with it, but Lindsey maintained an off-and-on again relationship with everything she wore. The overlapping wedges of skin above her armpit, or the plump mound of flesh provoked outward by her bra straps, every day there was something rising and falling and she felt defeated and helpless by the onslaught of change.
Lindsey leaned against the sink and opened the bottle of self-tanner. She’d always loved the ritual of the cream’s application. The insistent fragrance, the lardy texture on her skin, the fifteen minutes she had to stand naked in the bathroom, waiting for the cream to absorb so it wouldn’t stain her clothing. The smell was one of terra cotta baked by the sun, new leather, and aristocratic sweat. It was an unmistakable odor, and for some people, unpleasant, but Lindsey had been immediately captivated by it. When she mustered up the courage to ask the woman on the boat if she could try some of her cream, the woman remained silent for a moment, as if deciding whether or not to share that part of herself. Finally, she enclosed her fingers around Lindsey’s cupped palms and motioned towards the water lapping against the side of the boat. “Don’t forget to dip your hands in, after,” she said. “You don’t want to stain.”
After her parents’ divorce, Lindsey’s father dropped out of the boat share, followed several months later by the other couple. Owning a boat required a level of vigilance and planning that was only worth it if a pleasant outing was guaranteed. A forgotten pack of paper napkins, an unpredicted wind, seats to uncover, seats to re-cover, each with a myriad of snap buttons that pinched fingers and broke nails. There was a lot to take care of, but once they broke free from the wake-restrictions and the obligatory hand-waves to the other boats in the harbor, they were liberated from the muck of their bad habits. Lindsey’s father would put on a baseball cap and kiss her mother on the cheek, while the others ate potato chips and talked about the sea.
Lindsey pulled aside the curtain and looked through the bathroom window at the garden. Maybe this would be the year that things would grow. Her husband had gone deep this time; turning the soil over and over and discarding the rocks and the crushed bits of plaster and roofing-tile that the former owner had buried. She would go outside to join him, and they would try again.
Lindsey squeezed a dollop of self-tanner into the palm of her hand. A yellowish liquid oozed out before the paste; less watery than it was sick-looking. The color of the tinted cream was the exact same color as the band around her husband’s straw hat and she knew better than to put such things on her face. Lindsey wrote beauty copy for a living. Nearly everything she owned now was organic and tri-whatever-free: free of artificial fragrances, free of parabens, free of petrochemicals.
But today she had reached for the bottle of Clarins. She would always use it, she would always use this brand. It made her feel well-to-do to be so faithful to a product. She pictured herself purchasing a new bottle the next time she went into town. Perhaps they would be out of it, it was that time of year. A vendor would suggest something similar, offer her a sample. I only use Clarins, Lindsey was sure to respond.
Lindsey was embarrassed the first time she purchased Clarins. She’d felt too young to own such an expensive skin-care product, and then there was nature of the product itself. At fourteen, she imagined most girls relied on the sun for their tanned color. How had she gotten to the department store in order to buy it? She didn’t have her license yet, but she remembered, quite specifically, being alone when she asked the woman behind the counter for a tube of Clarins. She blushed when the woman didn’t ask her anything other than, “Cash, or credit?” She’d expected a lecture. Or at the very least, a wink.
In her haste to try it out when she got home, Lindsey forgot to wash her hands. Within minutes, her fingernails turned a muted, dirty color. Another broken rule: she’d concentrated on her face and neglected her neck, and the next day she had to come up with a story for her schoolmates. “I went for a bike ride with a turtleneck on,” she said. This excuse was rendered implausible by the fact that Lindsey never wore turtlenecks. They made her cheeks look fat. And who exercised in a turtleneck?
That was the same summer that Lindsey started shaving her leg hair. One Saturday morning, her best friend Mari stole a pack of pink razors from a basket underneath her sister’s sink. “You want to?” she asked, and Lindsey got a sick feeling in her stomach. Mari didn’t have any hair on her legs and she didn’t have breasts yet, but Lindsey had both. She recognized the decision as a jumping-off point towards something bigger, but had been too frightened to say no.
Her mother found out about it after a lacrosse game. Lindsey’s team had won and she’d even scored three goals. She remembered that specifically because it never happened again.
Something got in to her that day up on the hill. They’d played at a boarding school high up in the mountains. It was beautiful and cool, and she had things to look forward to. When the ball landed in the worn leather of her lacrosse net, she just started to run. Everything moved together in one solid yes—not how she usually felt, so heavy and uneven. She ran across the field directly to the cage. Goal! Once more across the clean expanse of grass, each blade with its learned posture. Goal! The other team didn’t know what had hit them, and, afterwards, her teammates looked at Lindsey strangely. Where in the world had that come from?
Her mother took her out for a celebratory breakfast at their favorite diner. She’d asked Lindsey if she wanted to take someone along, but most of the team was going to the deli for take-out bacon-and-egg sandwiches, and Lindsey was in one of her phases. At the time, she avoided anything that left a warm feeling in her mouth. She gravitated towards food that tasted dry and tinny; cold cereal, tuna salad, fat-free cream cheese.
Lindsey kept her sports kilt on during breakfast. While her mother ordered for both of them, Lindsey brought her left ankle up onto her right knee and flicked at the constellations of dried mud on her calf. All of a sudden, her mother lurched forward and grasped her by the ankle. “When did you start shaving?”
It was a loaded question, filled with the sorts of innuendos her parents had packed into his-and-her boxes with monogrammed frames and damp paperbacks. Her mother’s question ruined the rest of Lindsey’s afternoon. There had been a party planned that evening that she had been looking forward to, especially after her unexpected athletic performance that morning. She had a boyfriend at the time who knew stuff about cars. He had a wine-colored Mustang, and smoked Camel cigarettes. Lindsey was on him to quit, though she didn’t really want him to. One night, driving somewhere, he opened a new pack. “You wouldn’t smoke, if you loved me.” He rolled down the window: threw out the whole pack. Lindsey now stared through the window at her husband in the garden. This impressed her, still.
Lindsey’s mother didn’t let her off easy for the shaving. She insisted on knowing who showed her “how to do that” and that she could have hurt herself and so forth. Lindsey hadn’t nicked herself, and she resented her mother for imagining that she might have. She’d gone carefully and slowly as she did with all things, maintaining the blade at the same angle the whole time. Mari, on the other hand, had cut herself right above the ankle, and it surprised them both how quickly the blood came. They’d been sitting on the edge of the bathtub when it happened. Mari reached for a white towel to clean up.
Lindsey replied that she’d done it on her own, because her mother was the kind of person who would call Mari’s mother to complain if she knew the truth. Lindsey couldn’t stand the thought of the two women discussing the incident on the phone. Her mother was worse than talkative—she was orally unorganized. She volunteered too much information to strangers but withheld things from her family. She’d engaged the waitress in their conversation that day in the diner when she’d discovered Lindsey’s legs. A run-of-the-mill synopsis of the situation that resulted in a run-of-the-mill reproach by the waitress. “That’s the kind of experience a girl should share with her mom.”
Her mother had been right, of course. Once you started, you started for life. So many years of dark hairs down the drain. Lindsey could have waited several years longer to start shaving, but the popular girls would have made fun of her. She remembered the tiny boats of stubble inching toward the bath drain—Mari’s blood like a melted cherry popsicle—and Lindsey wished that she had waited, that she had waited on everything. She wished she’d waited to grow into the sophisticated clothing that her father had offered her and she wished she had listened to the knot in her stomach that heralded every stupid decision she’d ever made. Three days after she shaved her legs in Mari’s bathtub, the hair started growing back in: hard, determined, changed. Her mother had been right, but it had been too late to listen. It had also been too late for her mother to ask.
Lindsey closed her eyes and visualized her to-do list—today was a good day. She had only two things to accomplish. Prepare the soil beds and write copy for Nair. They were launching a “green” version of their ubiquitous hair removal product, and Lindsey was in charge of the text that would appear on the packaging. She didn’t understand how an eco-friendly product could “safely” encourage all the hair on your legs to drop off, but the PR department had sent her three different bottles to try, so in addition to gardening and copywriting, she would need to sit naked from the waist down for five to seven minutes at some point in the day, waiting for the “naturally smoothed” legs that the product promised. This too, would be accomplished on the edge of the bathtub. Lindsey thought about hard surfaces and powder-blue veins and she stared out at the garden where her husband was halfway through something she’d promised to do herself.
Lindsey slipped a band around her head and pulled it up to her hairline. Wash your nails, wash your palms, watch out for the earlobes and the skin on your neck. She would test the product later; right now, the important thing was “tanning” her face.
Lindsey rubbed the thick Clarins cream into skin that would soon reveal a season’s worth of freckles; a dermatological condition courtesy of her father. When Lindsey was younger, she looked exactly like Punky Brewster. But all the years of birth control had thinned out her hair.
Outside, her husband took his T-shirt off and threw it onto a stump. Lindsey immediately thought of sap ruining the fabric, and then promised herself that she wouldn’t say anything to him because he was in such a fine mood that morning. The garden had been her idea, but she had underestimated the amount of time that it would take. The earth was needy, it thrilled or disappointed seemingly at whim, and she didn’t have the temperament to put up with its changes. For one thing, you had to pay attention to the weather forecast each week, and Lindsey preferred to be surprised by the elements. Even for their wedding day, she’d refused to rent a tent. She couldn’t shake the image of how sorry it would look if the weather turned out to be perfect; how shameful and unnecessary, like an untouched dish at a potluck.
The weather had turned out to be perfect for their wedding. The weather was perfect today as well, just like Martin said it would be yesterday at breakfast. It was funny how easily he was made happy. Sometimes, it was easy for Lindsey as well—a perfect red apple, a toy made out of wood—but mostly, it was difficult and it took her a long time.
The night before last, her husband had gone down on her. He announced his intentions beforehand, and asked her if he could. Not out of prudence, he had wanted to sound sexy. She said something equally disappointing (Yes please, if she correctly recalled) and down he’d gone while she lay estranged from the bottom half of her body and mildly disgusted by the sight of his head.
Lindsey blamed her gynecologist. The reoccurring stirrups. The industrial tools that reproduced warped images of objects in the room. Her body was a fishbowl, and she was the fish.
Lindsey wanted to be involved with her husband again, to writhe and grip and move, she wanted to feel the uncontrollable crest of excitement that overtook her, years ago; but the older she got, the less she understood her body. Thirty-four years old, and still she was surprised by its rampant disobedience. Lazy or active, it didn’t matter. There were always parts of her that tagged a bit behind. That didn’t feel like coming along.
Each night, before she went to sleep, Lindsey promised herself that she would work harder to be physically engaged. Be light. Be kind. She visualized the words in her head, like chanting a mantra, and made promises that felt achievable at that hour when her mistakes were far behind her. But somehow, the heaviness came to meet her every morning. The indifference to everything but certain sights that had always moved her: a dog carrying a stick; tourists asking a stranger to photograph them in the sun.
Recently, Lindsey had been waking up in the middle of the night in a whirlpool of confusion. She had dreams that she was sleeping next to someone other than her husband. The dreams weren’t sexual, they involved a shared bed. In these dreams, she slept beside her mother, old girlfriends, boyfriends from her past. But still, she awoke with the tightened chest of someone exiting a nightmare and it would take her half a minute to recognize where she was. And even when she did, she would think,why? It was terrifying. And it kept happening. Night after night.
In addition to the dreams, or, rather, the waking up from them, she was having a hard time talking out loud. Lindsey imagined herself consulting with a doctor, sitting on an examination table with a note scrawled on a napkin.I’ve become disgusted with the sound of my own voice.
Lindsey already knew her diagnosis: she had become—maybe not like her mother was, but still—vocally careless. She literally cared less. The communication of banal, oft-occurring things like the status of the milk in the refrigerator or the synopsis of an article in the newspaper demanded such immense, emotional energy, that, most of the time, she didn’t feel competent within anything but silence.
The morning before, for example, their cat Carley brought a snake into the house. He dragged it through the window and into the bathroom, which she could tell from following the splotches of blood. The real struggle took place in the bathtub. There’d been blood everywhere, bright red against the baby blue tiles that Martin had put in by hand. One by one by one.
Lindsey pulled the shower curtain closed and didn’t tell her husband, even though he was home. It was a strange thing to do, because she wasn’t certain that the snake was dead, yet it felt very important that she keep the information to herself.
She’d gone into the kitchen. Sliced bread. Made toast. She’d been staring at the tea stains in the mug she used each morning when Martin came in with a slight tint in his cheeks.
“You’re not going to believe what Carley caught!” He was fond of exclamation points, even in speech. He turned his toes slightly inward when he said this. He pointed down the hall.
Lindsey had smiled, despite the feeling in her stomach. You should never know everything about someone else, especially when you have easy access to their bodies. Sometimes Lindsey thought about getting a tattoo on the inside of her ring-finger just to see how long she could keep it from him. It’s a pretty private place, the inside of a ring-finger. Surely she could go for weeks—longer—without his noticing. Covered up with a ring, she could probably hide it from him for her entire life.
Courtney Maum is the author of the novel, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You, out now from Touchstone Books. The humor columnist behind the “Celebrity Book Review” on Electric Literature and an advice columnist for Tin House, she splits her time between the Massachusetts Berkshires and New York City where she works as a brand strategist and a corporate namer.