Hedy lives in the city now. I try not to think of her too much, tossing her long braids in class, or drinking at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen, a young, flabby Wall Street executive leaning in too close, Hedy swiping at her messy eyeliner. She calls me once a week, sounding out of breath, talking fast. Sounds windy over there, I’ll say. How’s your diet going? Hedy says she hasn’t eaten yet today, and I try to sound concerned, say, Honey, you have to eat. But Hedy could lose the weight. She was a huge infant, almost ten pounds, and everyone made jokes about it, said she nearly overpowered me, that Hedy came out the size of a full-grown man. Her dad had filmed the whole thing. Grainy, warped footage of me looking like I might pass out, holding Hedy, slippery and red, arms and legs flailing everywhere before a nurse came and scooped her away. Spider legs, you can hear her dad cooing on the tape, his hand reaching out in front of the camera, grasping onto one of her toes. Hedy’s body had always perturbed me. I took it personally that I had created a form like hers, a short, stocky middle section prone to bloating, with long skinny limbs that she would fold around her thick stomach. She had loved me viciously, demanding to sleep in our bed until she was twelve, wrapping herself around me in her sleep, her hot sweaty hands grabbing my face, my belly, my breasts. Daddy long legs is at it again, Hedy’s father would say, chasing her around the apartment, swinging her, shrieking, over his shoulder, her nightgown riding up around her head.
I take the bus to the Stop and Shop, flipping open my phone to check for messages from Hedy. Mommy, I’m so excited Call me, Got GOOD news. I’ll call her in a couple of days, I think. Give myself time to prepare for an unplanned pregnancy, a long-winded story about an art professor that let her go down on him. Once, last semester, I drove into the city to have dinner with Hedy. I’d been early, sitting alone at a table in a cramped Italian diner in Long Island City, drinking little glasses of merlot. Hedy brought her friend, a photographer who was also on scholarship at NYU, and they had glided in together, Hedy looking tousled and euphoric, her round face coated in powder that was too light, creasing in white lines at the edges of her mouth and eyes. Mommy, meet June. And June had leaned in close, kissing the air around me, his blue bobbed wig brushed against my cheeks. I love your suit, I said, touching the deep black silk at his wrist. Hedy had thrown out a hip, turned her lips down hard, said, and what about my outfit, Mommy? And we had laughed and ordered ricotta gnudi slathered in pomodoro sauce, ordered two more bottles of Chianti. Hedy is so talented, June said, long fingers tucking a piece of hair behind his ear. Everyone at NYU is buzzing about her new performance work. I laughed, felt the wine flush my cheeks, the skin on my chest was red and mottled. Her work, I said, rolling my eyes June. Mommy doesn’t like my aesthetic, Hedy said, snaking her arm through the crook of my elbow. Well Mommy, June grinned at me, you need to see this. He pulled out his phone, and I’d scrolled through images of Hedy, sitting naked on the steps of the NYU Art Department building, her face stiff, her soft white belly sagging against her thighs. Forty-eight hours, she sat right there, June said, and leaned toward me, his face hovered over the phone. I could smell his wig, a muted burnt nylon. I’d love to see your work, darling, I said, and gently pinched his cheek.
Mommy and I are very close, Hedy had said loudly, forcing my face to hers. She calls me her little daddy long-legs.
June had giggled, said that was so cute and true.
I never call you that, I’d said, closing my eyes as Hedy rubbed her nose against mine. I’d felt out of breath then, the empty bottles of Chianti piled up in my periphery, June’s blue wig too bright and glossy, the waiter’s shoes squeaking over the black and white checkered floors. Don’t ever have children, June, I’d said, pushing Hedy’s hands away.
I tuck my grocery bags under my seat on the bus ride home, pull out my phone again. Hi Hedy, I’ll call tomorrow. Just on my way back from the store. Have you read about Dr. Oz’s new diet? 800 calories a day for one month. I’m starting today, want me to send you the website? There’s a young woman with her child sitting across the bus from me, her long messy brown hair sits in greasy strands on her shoulders. I see this pair from time to time, and I smile, nod at her. Hi, she says. Her son’s head is on her lap, his sneakers untied and dangling from his feet. How are you, I say, leaning toward him. I realize he is holding his mother’s hand and is sucking on her fingers one at a time, long strands of spit streaming from her fingers to his mouth each time he moves to the next digit. The mother doesn’t react, just sits there, her pinky finger engulfed as he sucks. Her face is unmoving, like she can’t feel a thing. I think of Hedy, when she was five or six, sitting beside me on the subway. She’d been asking me something, over and over again, and I had ignored her, tried to focus on the book in my lap. She had stood up on her seat, sticky little hands grabbing around my neck, planting wet kisses all over my face, licking my ears, my chin. Mommy, Mommy, I love you Mommy. I’d wanted to throw her, grab her by her hair and throw her on the ground, make her stop touching me, stop consuming me. My phone buzzes, and I jump, feeling dizzy and nauseated. 800 calories a day? I could never. That’s why you’re so skinnyyy, Mommy! I LOVE U.
Hedy’s father and I had fought. We’d met at Vassar, two young, flushed professors, whose students secretly wanted to fuck us. We loved to argue, pouring a bottle of bourbon, rolling messy little joints, spitting over our words as we talked over each other about Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, and whether truth and beauty emerged from within a piece of art, or were placed upon it by the viewer. Those fights had ended with us in bed, with me panting to get my hose off, underwear already soaked through. But Hedy had changed me, had come in the form of disruption, emerging from my body to alter my existence entirely. There were days, her thick pink gums clenched on my nipple, when I would watch her throat swallowing down my milk, and I would think I hate you. But Hedy had ignored that. She had pursued me all through her childhood, a whining, clamoring thing, insisting that all of me was never enough.
Hedy calls me three times the next day. I wait until nine that night to call her back, hoping she’ll be out with friends, too busy to answer. Hi mommy, she says. She’s called to invite me to her senior show, which is next week, a solo performance piece at the Provincetown Playhouse. I’ve sat you right up front, she says. Wear something nice, okay?
I keep my tone even, light. I try not to think about the boy on the bus, sucking and sucking away at his mother. Yes, Hedy. I’ll come.
I take the train in from Poughkeepsie, almost hoping it will run late, that I’ll miss Hedy’s show. I could bring her a big bouquet of flowers, wait outside the theatre, say how wonderful it was. I dread the thought of seeing her naked, dread the idea of her performing sexual acts onstage, while everyone around me sits forward, straining in their seats to see more.
We’d been busy, Hedy’s father and me. I’d taught fulltime all the way through Hedy’s childhood, while her father had gone on lecture circuits, discussing his book on the aesthetics of pornography. Our kitchen was full of tacked copies of medieval sculptures, chubby terracotta bodies with penises the size of their torso, Babylonian paintings of couples twisted into various positions, clippings from Hustler, where women with bloated breasts spread their legs, their skin tanned and oily looking. We were still young. There were a lot of late nights, after one of his lectures, when I hadn’t had the time to schedule for a sitter, and had left Hedy in her crib, the bedroom door closed tight. I would tuck her in and place some sliced lunchmeat and cheese across the railing of the crib in case she woke up and was hungry. She was always crying when we got home, tipsy and exhausted, her face puffy and wet with tears. We have a picture of her like that, in her crib, her hands outstretched, the lunchmeat slumped over the railing.
The small theatre is packed, full of tall slinky students, wearing all black or all taupe and smelling hot and flowery. I look for June, search for a blue bobbed wig, but can’t find him in the crush. My name has been taped to a seat up front, MOMMY, in blocky black letters, and I feel a sudden stab of rage at Hedy. I stand there, staring at the seat, see myself walking out of the theatre, down the street, back to the subway. Oh, it’s Mommy! And June is grabbing at my hand, his hair in tight blond bowl cut, leading me up to my seat. I don’t let go of June’s hand when we sit down. Hedy’s big night, he whispers to me as the house lights dim, pumping our hands up and down together. The stage is empty, except for a large staircase at the far-right corner. Hedy emerges onto stage, her long braids tied to her ankles, which are suspended over her mid-section, her arms pulling her body forward on her stomach. She is pulling a large rock, which is attached to small ropes that are also tied to her ankles and braided into her hair. It is completely quiet, and all I can hear is Hedy’s harsh breathing as she labors to pull herself across the stage. The rock must weigh about 30 pounds, and I can see the hair near Hedy’s temples straining as she pulls, her face like a slab of clay, sheeny and grotesque. The nude bodysuit she is wearing is much too small, and her body looks misshapen, her small pointy breasts sitting unevenly under the tight fabric, the material digging deep into the pale, dimpled flab of her ass. I realize Hedy is pulling herself towards the staircase and I wish I hadn’t come. As she struggles at the first step, I see a dark spot wetting the fabric of her bodysuit, and realize she is urinating. Hedy begins to scream and groan, the rock pulling her head back at a cruel angle, her face red, the muscles in her neck straining. Her arms look long and freakish, scrabbling at the steps, urine dripping from her. She is gasping for breath and sobbing, one more step left.
I stand up, feeling like all the air is gone from my chest. I stumble down the aisle, Hedy at the corner of my vision, her body twisted and flailing like some large, tormented bug. The doors are closing behind me, and I can hear a surge of bodies standing to their feet, feel the thrum of their applause. Hedy has made it to the top of the stairs. The night air is cold and wet, and I don’t think I can face the long train ride home. I begin walking, looking for a taxi. I’ll call Hedy tomorrow, I tell myself. Or maybe the day after that.