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What really happens in the kitchen sink?

“I’m going to start washing your hair for you. Every Sunday,” my step-mother said.

She hated my hair. For a while she’d insist I pin my bangs back with combs. Because I would shake the combs out of my hair when I got to school (“I didn’t touch them! They fell out!”), she resorted to Dippity-Do. I was the only girl in school with her fine, blonde hair slicked back.

the kitchen sink

the kitchen sink

But before the Dippity-Do era, she claimed neither my step-sister nor I could wash our own hair adequately. I never asked N. what the weekly hair-washing experience was like for her, and she never asked me.

My step-mother believed in hot water.

“It’s too hot,” I said.

“That means it cleaning,” she said. My friends later joked that if she really wanted something clean, she’d set it on fire.

My step-mother folded a towel over the edge of the counter, bent me over, and put my head under the faucet. I was in the 5th grade.

She’d lather up the shampoo and scrub my scalp. Steam filled the sink and water ran into my nose, but I wasn’t allowed to lift my head. Do not panic, I thought. I can’t drown in the kitchen sink. I tried not to but kicked a leg anyway.

“Stop your fussing,” she shouted. She was hard to hear because of the water rushing over my ears. She yanked out one of those sink hoses she’d asked my dad to install and she started to rinse my hair. One hand held the hose, the other gripped my shoulder. “Quit squirming.”

I swallowed water. I kicked again. My dad won’t let her drown me. I jerked my head and hit it on the faucet, but she didn’t let go. I gagged.

And she was done. She pulled my head up and handed me a towel. “Don’t drip all over the floor,” she said. “Now, that’s how you get clean.”

I looked over at N. who was sitting at the table with a towel around her head. She yawned.

Later I told dad, “She washes my hair too hard.”

He made a face. “She’s doing the best she can to make things nice for us,” he said. “You’re a good girl. Be more cooperative.” He always said this.

Maybe she thought she was being nice. It’s not like I told her how I felt.

At 10, I couldn’t decide if she meant me harm, or if–like so many adults told me–I was just jealous of her relationship with my father. I was imagining things.

In fiction (mine anyway), characters are often not sure if they are imagining things. Is this feeling real? Does this other character mean this or that? It keeps the story going when they aren’t sure or they guess wrong. This seems dangerous but surely I am imagining things. The reader may know they aren’t imagining things. The reader might shout at the page–don’t do that!–but the characters uncertainty must be believable.

Some characters are more credulous than others. Or rather, their doubts are in different things. This character may believe what any man tells her. Another character might call a man out before he could finish his line–but her parents she’ll believe in an instant.

I can’t get that perspective in my own life, but I love finding it in fiction.

9 thoughts on “What really happens in the kitchen sink?

  1. You steadfastly observe an important convention of fiction: Don’t do the reader’s work for him. You allow each of us who read you to be credulous or cynical according to our wont. This is one reason why we come back.

  2. [First, from now on you can just assume that ditto marks appear in any comment of mine which follows a comment of Shelly’s.]

    From my journalism student-then-teacher days, I remember a phrase which is one of the key tests for libel: malicious disregard for the truth. (That is, the writer of the allegedly libelous work didn’t care whether it was true or not.)

    “Malicious disregard” is a phrase which pops into my head in all kinds of circumstances which have nothing to do with libel. Because I’m by nature an optimist, my gut instinct is not to attribute the step-mother’s behavior in this tale to sadism — intending to harm you — but to malicious disregard for any harm. (Also not particularly empathetic of her, obviously assuming her own threshold for pain and panic to be the threshold for young girls as well. Perhaps along the lines of, y’know, Come on, it’s not that bad, my own mother used to wash my hair this way and I turned out just fine, didn’t I?)

    (Which opens the door to even more backstory. Told you, it’s compulsive!)

  3. I wonder if Plutonian Press would be interested in it. Nicole’s book is supposed to come out finally this fall, and Dale’s is still being rewritten. I don’t know if they are doing a contest this year, but – especially if they don’t – there would probably be room in Bruce’s schedule. We could at least talk with him about it. Unless you’d rather approach a more established publisher/editor/agent with it. You really ought to take this further!

  4. Shelly, I suppose as long as they come back it’s fine if they’re cynical or credulous.

    Oh, JES, you had to go mention libel. I’ve no idea if I’m breaking any rules here–except that I’m telling the truth as best I remember. No lawyers please.

    As for the step-mother–I don’t think she was trying to harm me. I do think our relationship was such that I couldn’t be sure she wasn’t. And she wouldn’t care what I thought.

    lazym, going back to JES comment about libel–how could I put these incidents and pictures in a book? I think I said this somewhere else–I’m not entirely confident that I can write about these people.

  5. Sheesh. If I thought I’d go down in history as the person whose 30-year memory of the tests for libel prevented you from publishing any of this, in any form, I think I’d run away to live in a cave right now.

    But fwiw, I think there were three… yeah. Three. Here’s a pretty good summary:

    “There are three tests which the defamatory statement must meet in order for a plaintiff to prevail in a suit against you and your publisher:

    “1. Untrue. In order to be defamatory, the statement must be untrue. If the statement is true or substantially true, then it is not defamatory, and the case is over.

    “2. Damaging. In order for the plaintiff to prevail, the statement must have caused real and substantial harm to the person or business. The plaintiff must present evidence of the substantial harm done.

    “3. Knowingly false. The plaintiff must also show that the defendant knew the statement was untrue, but published or broadcast the statement despite that knowledge.”

    (From this page. Note that its author isn’t an attorney, but an experienced editor, so take it, as I said, for what it’s worth.)

    There are extra rules which apply if you’re writing about public figures, but you’re not. Unless you are secretly Paris Hilton. (In which case, Paris, I take back everything I ever said about you.)

    Oh, btw, that page reminded me that the phrase isn’t “malicious disregard” — it’s RECKLESS disregard. (Part of the public-figure discussion.)

  6. JES, Thanks for the info. and the link. Of course, it says–keep notes and records. I admit to having no notes from my childhood. I might have a tedious journal entry about ex-boyfriends, but I’m not sure that counts.

    Also, you don’t need to take back anything you said. I am not secretly Paris Hilton. For one thing, I’d never own a dog I could fit in my purse.

  7. I think there’s another type of character that I see in books– the one who is so certain that what they know to be the truth really is THE TRUTH and the ONLY TRUTH. If the character is just an egomaniac who is delusional, I’m okay with it. If it’s the author who thinks in black and white and good and evil I get so gosh darn frustrated.

    I agree your stories would make a good book, but maybe you are not ready to write it yet. Maybe you need to work through the stories first to understand what they all mean. I tried to write my memoirs when I was 19. Yikes. It was impossible. I actually had some stuff to write about, but I was so close to the matter I was unable to see clearly enough to write it. Now I have the distance, but I no longer fixate on those years and don’t have the motivation. That’s okay too. All that stuff goes into the soup of creativity and I’m sure it will pop up in my fiction somewhere.

  8. This story reminded me of the first scene in the movie, “The Aviator”, with Leonardo Dicaprio. Howard Hughes’ mother is scouring him in an old-fashioned tub in the center of a room. The water steams and the boy yelps because his mother is scrubbing off his outermost epidermal layer. She tells him that this must be done in this manner in order to remove the bacteria that swarms all over him. The nonverbals are intense because the boy is so young and the mother so rough and obsessive, yet she cares for him in her obsessive manner. But movies have the ability to convey nonverbals. In fiction, it is the unspoken verbals that drive a character. In this piece your concerns of drowning and being uncertain as to your step-mother’s true intentions towards you are believable and worrisome for the reader.

    I do think that if I ever had the misfortune to meet your step-mother, I would have to fight a strong urge to smack her silly. Ruthlessness towards a child is unforgivable.

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