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  • A Thousand Ships
  • Becky Mandelbaum (bio)

We are on our way to get pedicures when it happens. I'm not a pedicure kind of girl—even getting my teeth cleaned feels like undue pampering—but in gym class, Courtney P. announced to the whole locker room that my toes resemble American actor and director Steve Buscemi, and so here we are, my sister Elle and me, on our way to a salon called Best Foot Forward. We are walking quickly and Elle is going on and on about her boyfriend Julian—how his tongue is so long it can reach into his nostrils, how he prefers foreign movies with subtitles—when suddenly it is upon us, coating our skin, our mouths, our hair. It tastes like an orange after brushing your teeth. It is gaseous and glittery and as much as it burns, it tickles. Elle and I find ourselves giggling—a nervous, panicked giggling—thinking perhaps we are victims of some kind of gag. Perhaps a handsome television show host will pop out from behind the salon and shout: "You're on America's newest show—Gag Time!" or whatever it might be. Gag Time is just the first thing I thought of. Like Elle says, I'm the least creative of our family—a terrific insult since ours is the type of family who rolls their eyes at Netflix and swoons when they hear Beethoven in the background of a Barnes & Noble. Mom is an award-winning environmental architect, Dad teaches contemporary American poetry at Wichita State, and Elle plays just about every instrument there is. She is also a dancer—mostly ballet but also contemporary and hip-hop. I have always enjoyed sports, which my family finds equal parts adorable and confusing, like when an animal wears shoes. I do not like their music, their books, their clothing. I want to wear Gap sweaters and read Harry Potter and kick a soccer ball around a field of dead grass. Because I cannot be extraordinary, I want only to dissolve into the background, to go unnoticed, and in every setting but home this is what I do. At home, they stare at me like I'm a diseased raccoon who's put on a wig and showed up to dinner. What's she doing here? they want to know. How'd she learn to use a fork? [End Page 28]

About the gas, or whatever it is. For a moment it sits on our tongues and our tongues itch like crazy. The undersides of our fingernails burn and then ache and then feel sort of cold. A vertiginous sensation causes us to put our hands on our knees and look up at one another, confused. To my dismay, a handsome television man does not pop out. Instead, the fog dissipates with a hissing sound and leaves our eyes red and watery and our skin tingling as if we've just run through a hallway of nettles. When we look around, there is nobody. Nothing to blame. Just the lonely strip mall and a plastic Wal-Mart bag blowing across the parking lot like a fart incarnate.

"What the eff was that?" Elle says, pressing one of her long fingers to her cheek. She is eighteen years old, three years older than me, and has beautiful piano-playing hands that move like water. For her age, she is the second-best piano player in all of Kansas; as the story goes, she could play Chopin before she could wipe her own behind. Her boyfriend, Julian, is twenty-three, German, and on a scholarship to study philosophy at Wichita State. He has golden, shoulder-length hair that he tucks gently behind his ears and accuses everyone of being a capitalist. When they are together, he stares hungrily at Elle, his face practically on fire. Nearly my whole heart loves and admires Elle, but the part that doesn't wants to destroy her. I've never had talent or anything resembling a boyfriend—my forehead is large and my voice has a grating, metallic quality, like the sound made by a rusted pair of scissors. Or so I've been told...


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pp. 28-42
Launched on MUSE
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