Tenderlion-Jessica Noyes McEntee

Jesus has given Mrs. O’Connor in Apartment 5C a fifth daughter, although he hasn’t yet given Mr. O’Connor the wherewithal to return home regularly, despite my feverish prayers. Mother sends me to knock on their door before I walk to Gristede’s for groceries. “Can I go on my roller skates?” I ask. Naturally, I’m rebuffed.
             Mrs. O’Connor answers with her red hair clamped into pink foam curlers that look like politer mouse traps; that’s femininity for you. She wears a silken robe with wet spots drawing targets over her nipples. Her habit of breastfeeding in public scandalizes the neighborhood, making my mother and her cohorts titter during their weekly bridge game. It’s all I can do to stop myself from yelling, “Why d’you have me still knock on her door every week, if you suspect she’s secretly a hippie, or a witch?”
             Mrs. O’Connor is twenty-nine, my mother informed me last month. “Made particular choices while she was a girl, and look where that’s led her. Cemented, when she could’ve chosen another way.” Although faithful, my mother questions my decision to pursue my calling, in three years’ time. I’ll be eighteen and hence beyond her parental grip.
             “Just tell me why?” my mother keeps asking, but then she flinches.
              “Can I get you some diapers, Mrs.O’Connor? Or, maybe…” My mind stalls. “Tenderloin?” This sounds sophisticated enough, but she smiles before saying no. The past few months, I’d scoot by whenever Mrs. O’Connor and I interacted, showing her my back as a wordless goodbye. However, it’s mid-spring, a heady day, and a Bee Gees song comes from a record player far within her home. The notes pulse and throb like fireflies.
             “Anything else I can do, to be of service?” I ask, setting my mouth into a gift bow of a smile. The sight and aroma of Mrs. O’Connor makes something inside of my stomach bubble. Once, last July, we hid on her fire escape and drank iced lime concoctions, and she called me “bunny” until my cheeks burst into a sunset. The drinks were spiked, I realized when I couldn’t detect my hands–they’d evanesced, I swear–but I granted her forgiveness before she even had to ask. Mrs. O’Connor has a faultless air.
             “No, pet. Really. Doing aces here,” Mrs. O’Connor says after watching me for a moment too long, ignoring the squeal of a kettle. She tipples her fingers across her lips.
            “On second thought….” She parts the door. “Could use some extra hands in the kitchen, if you’d lend yours.” A child streaks in, bracing herself on Mrs. O’Connor’s bare leg before another tackles her away.
            The apartment’s a hodgepodge of splendor and ruin. We pass a peacock blue velvet settee that keeps court in the living room. From a distance, it appears lush, but up close the curving hips of its upper ridge have gone threadbare, denuded. The O’Connors once had means, and what appeared to be a future, too.
             As she guides me to the kitchen, Mrs. O’Connor unpins her hair and squeezes the rollers into her fists, pressing the lot of them against the mustard-yellow formica counter. “Be a love and close the door,” she says.
             I join her at her extra-wide sink. We soon move in a gentle rhythm, the skin on our hands growing sleek with Palmolive. A radio plays; in a household such as this, different rooms feature different soundtracks at any given time, the same way my apartment has a cold room and a warm one, side by side—so who’s the say what the temperature is, overall?
Once, I kissed a boy.
             The music changes to “Let’s Get in On,” and Mrs. O’Connor flicks her hand against the dial to switch the station, deferring to my morals. We spoke at length on that summer night, and I recited my twenty-six reasons for joining the convent. “By my fourth year, I’ll be allowed to come home for one weekend, annually,” I bragged. “To see family… and others.”
           “That so?” she said, cupping her lips around a Lucky Strike and tickling it with a flame.
             Mrs. O’Connor passes me a jadeite bowl. She rolls her wrists in the bubbles, frothing them into a thousand white, unblinking eyes, and she murmurs, “Good of you to come see me, Joanie.” A moment passes before she asks, “Didn’t you ever want to give yourself to someone, for keeps? Make your elbow into a cup, say? Your body into a tea bag?” She hiccups, releasing a waft that smells of Crème de Menthe.
            I lean into the balls of my feet, allowing our lips to reacquaint themselves. I intend only to deliver a small, closed-mouth greeting, but Mrs. O’Connor’s teeth click against mine, defining hard against soft. With my tongue as a blind explorer, I rediscover the bed of warmed moss that’s tucked inside of her mouth. Mrs. O’Connor moans, her hands faltering for my breasts, which have thickened in the months that she was pregnant and recovering, when I habitually skirted away from her.
           We kiss for two more songs, sopping each other up. My mouth becomes a portal, and my whole body passes through it. Little voices squall in the rooms beyond where we stand, but Mrs. O’Connor continues, at last running her hands against the pockets encasing my thighs.
            “Still leaving me someday, little one?” she whispers.
              With force, I retract myself, wiping the nectar of Mrs. O’Connor’s saliva from my lips and recalling how satisfied she appeared last July, after she granted me my first and final earthly orgasm. The headboard rattled so, I feared I was shaking every sideboard and lamp in 222 Myrtle Avenue.
I sputter like a too-cold engine before I hear myself wail, “Yes, ma’am. If God can’t let me live the way I want to– openly, with someone like you–I just won’t live at all!”
THE END
JESSICA NOYES MCENTEE

 

Jessica Noyes McEntee is a fiction instructor at Westport Writers’ Workshop in Connecticut. AS magna cum laude graduate of Amherst College, she did editorial work at Wiley. Her pieces have appeared in Ragazine and on thewritelaunch.com, and she’s seeking representation for a novel based on Ivanka Trump’s childhood.
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