Issue #17 |

In The Tank

I called Sissy after work about my living room. The interior wall had developed a soft spot near the ceiling, a sort of brownish smudge like a bruise on a peach. My aunt was good with structural matters, and I was hoping she’d have some insight. Instead, she had news of her own.

“Your mother isn’t speaking to me,” she said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“She’s having an affair with her neighbor and she doesn’t care for my opinion.”

My mother had been single for years, having left my gambling father shortly after I was born. Of course, I knew she dated—strange, impulsive men who were always buying her cross-country skis and electric juicers, or showing up, inappropriately, at family gatherings—but I no longer cared to hear about it. I asked no follow-up questions.

Sissy didn’t need them. “He’s a married man. It’s disgusting and embarrassing and she ought to be ashamed of herself.”

I told Sissy I wanted her help with my living room. And then I told her I’d had a hell of a day at work dealing with not one suicidal patient but two, both of whom usually operated in the safe middle of the risk pile, and I was thinking about going to yoga on my way home, to work out the tension in my back. I was hoping she’d get the message.

“Which class?” she asked. “The one downtown?”

Most days, I like doing yoga with my aunt. I enjoy seeing us side by side in the mirror—my catcher quads, her dancer calves—two variations on the family model. She’s fit for a woman of sixty (for a woman of any age, really) and for all her mania, she’s actually capable of settling into her seat and breathing into the moment. We can be quiet and active there together, and we’re usually much more generous when we’re done. I get my best advice from Sissy after yoga.

She showed up in her usual leggings and knotted top but she just couldn’t let it go about my mom. The teacher was giving the opening lesson about heat, and Sissy was still sitting there on her block, whispering urgently about my mother’s shameful behavior. I sat on my own block feeling my hips fail to open. Later, sinking into reverse warrior, I tweaked my lower back.

“This man isn’t even attractive,” Sissy told me on the train back to my apartment. “No definition to his limbs, not even when he was younger. A stud I could understand—remember Curtis?—but Bob is utterly average, and what’s worse, he thinks he’s extraordinary.”

“He must,” I said, despite myself, “if he thinks he’s worthy of Mom.”

“She’s going to have to move. But she can’t move! It’s a rent-controlled apartment. It’s just the stupidest thing she could’ve done.”

I didn’t want to know any more about my mother and Bob, not who pursued whom, not whether or not his wife knew, though I remembered Bob and Linda from childhood, and I had to assume that Linda, the proud athletic type, would not allow herself to know. What I wanted to know was what Sissy thought of the spot on my wall.

I fixed her a plate of cheese and olives as she flitted around the apartment looking at mail and bookshelves. “You got a new coat,” she said, pointing to the orange wool sleeves hanging from a hook by the door. “I’m surprised you’d go for such a bold color.”

“A friend gave it to me,” I said. “It didn’t work for her and it probably won’t work for me.”

“It works for a construction site. Now about that spot.” She sidled up to the corner of the living room that had been haunting me for days. The smudge was larger now, leafing out and turning green. It filled the fold where the ceiling joined the wall. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” she said. “These are normal growths in old buildings. You could open up the wall to extract it, but that’s a hell of a lot of work to do for something that’s essentially cosmetic.”

“I thought you’d know how to fix it,” I told her, disappointed.

“Oh, I do,” she said. “But it’s not what I’d call a real problem.”


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Katherine Hill is the author of two novels, The Violet Hour (Scribner 2013) and A Short Move, (Ig Publishing 2020), which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. With Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, and Juno Jill Richards, she is also co-author of The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism (Columbia University Press 2020), which …

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