Elephants

It's the middle of the night. Eleanor sits on the toilet yawning and gazing half-focused at the tiles on the bathroom wall. It is the bathroom of her childhood. There are stencils of elephants with balloons and seals with balls on the yellow and blue tiles. She knows from years of staring at them that in several places the paint has worn off, some seals are missing noses, or balls; a few elephants have lost their feet. She can't see the details now, the tiles are in shadow, but she knows they're there.

From the hallway Eleanor can hear the rasping sound of her father's slippers on the wooden floor. A light comes on. She looks at the strip of yellow under the door. Nothing particular is in her mind; she is still half-asleep.

The rasping sound comes closer, then stops outside the bathroom door. The trickle of her pee is suspended while she waits for her father to move away. After a moment he knocks. Her body goes cold; she stares, unspeaking, at the door.

"What are you doing?" he hisses.

A pain throbs in her lower stomach: fear and the rest of the pee, which has not been released. At his words, there is a kind of blankness throughout her mind, as though it has frozen. Finally she hears the shuffling of his slippers retreating, heading down the hall to his office. She remains on the toilet, not moving. Without flushing, she stands and quietly opens the door. Her father's study door is partially open. She can see a portion of his shabby red robe through the opening.

Eleanor slips around the bathroom door, leaving it half closed. She doesn't know why she does this, but it somehow seems safer. Once in her room she sits on the bed with her legs pulled up to her chest under the covers. She considers going to the bathroom downstairs, off the kitchen, but she'd have to pass her father's study on the way. She tightens her arms around her legs and eventually sleeps.

The next morning is bright and cold. Eleanor wakes with only enough time to dress and grab her textbooks before catching the bus to the university. Her closet is a large walk-in with racks of skirts and dresses. Sweaters are folded, in a variety of colors and styles, on an upper shelf. Eleanor no longer wears most of them, but she keeps the closet the same as it was during her high school years.

Once dressed, she races downstairs. As usual, her father has already made her breakfast. He makes it at the same time everyday—seven o'clock—though her first lecture isn't until nine. Then he sits down to read the paper. Two cold eggs congeal at her place at the table. Or what is her place in the mornings. She's never figured this out. It's the head of the table, where her father sits at dinner. But for breakfast he takes her mother's chair and leaves his place for Eleanor. She feels, inexplicably, that this is supposed to make her feel guilty. And it does.

To make the bus on time she needs to leave right then but at the sight of her father she sits in the chair and begins to eat. His head is hanging low against his chest. There's a scrambling feeling inside her when he looks that way, and she feels she would do anything if only he would lift his head.

He doesn't speak to her; this is the usual thing. Several times he grunts and turns the pages of the paper, shifting in his chair. She can feel his disapproval wafting toward her.

Both of her parents got scholarships all through college and graduate school. Her father is a mathematics professor, her mother a lawyer. Eleanor still lives at home; they are paying for her tuition and expenses; she doesn't work and still can't manage to maintain a C average.

Her inability to arrive for breakfast on time is only further proof of her unsatisfactory behavior. There is always a low-grade disapproval emanating from him. It's not really the breakfast, it‘s because she's nearly failing college and it's only second semester.

Her father grunts and settles back in his chair. He eyes the eggs quickly and Eleanor sees that his disapproval really is, also, the breakfast. He has decided what the appropriate time is for her to eat. People should be punctual.

Once, she told him he didn't have to do it, she could make her own breakfast when she got up. "Oh, I see, I see," he had said. "I thought you enjoyed it, but that's fine. I don't have to make it. You don't like the way I cook, that's fine with me, perfectly fine."

"No, no, I like it. Of course I like it. I just don't want it to be any trouble."

His head hung lower on his neck. "No trouble, no trouble at all."

Once on the sidewalk she is sure he is watching her. She looks up at her bedroom window, not sure why she feels he'll be there. The window is black. There is a silver oval sticker in the bottom of the pane, the silhouette of a fireman and a child. Her room is marked so that in case of an emergency they will save the child.

At the bus stop, she stands too close to the road and a car sprays her with slush. She springs back from the curb but wet snow drips down her legs into the tops of her boots. I hate school, she thinks in response.

College isn't what she'd expected. She isn't failing exactly, but she's been put on probation for so many Ds. To get her math and science requirements out of the way, she took them the first quarter; this is why she's nearly failing. When she thinks of math, an irritated itch begins along her scalp line that no amount of scratching gets rid of. Her mind feels dense and slow moving, as heavy and dirty as the snow at the side of the road. She feels that she is slugging through life and wonders if there's any place, anywhere that would feel clean.

Today is her Human Evolution lecture. Anthropology is her major, not because she has any particular interest in it, but because the information stays in her mind for some reason, and she's managing to get Bs. She comes in late and sits in an aisle seat. While the professor speaks she draws pictures in the margin of her notebook, of prehensile tails, bicuspid patterns, and occipital buns and wonders what she is possibly going to do with herself.

In high school she'd been popular. It was different then, it was important to be beautiful and have many admirers. A gray film has worked its way across her personality and features since. The very structure of her face seems to have changed. Even her vocal cords feel mired in it; her voice is flat, unattractive. She wonders if this is how old age happens, from one day to the next.

Somehow she attributes her change to the visit to the college dorm. The building had resembled a gymnasium; the walls were concrete, like those in a zoo, or the sound barriers along certain highways.

But it was really the dorm bathrooms that had decided everything. Plastic sheets on rings shielded some of the showers; others were bare. Several doors on the toilet stalls were missing—it was like a women's prison. She thought of a television program she'd seen as a child—Cell Block H, she thought it was. There was an episode where a kitten—the only thing one of the prisoners loved—was strangled to death at the end of the show. The last image showed its body lying in a shallow groove beside the prison wall.

Eleanor can't lose that image. All through summer vacation whenever she'd thought of college it was the soft striped belly of the kitten that she saw. So she'd decided to live at home instead. And it was after that that the change had taken place. The first thing to go was makeup. And without makeup her outfits were useless. She felt that she was going into hiding, shielding herself behind the bare bones of her face.

Strangely, she doesn't miss her past life, with the exception of her best friend Alicia, who went away to school. The admirers had only led to bedrooms and floors, lying very still beneath boys and watching them do things to her, as though she were floating above it all in a corner of the room. There were so many boys.

Now a shiver of disgust goes through her. The classroom is hot. Scattered around the upward sweeping lecture hall are boys like the ones she slept with. She wouldn't recognize most of the actual boys now, and they probably wouldn't her. This suddenly seems grotesque.

Her feet begin to sweat. It's the lecture room, which is too hot, and the fact that she hadn't taken a shower that morning. For the first time she thinks of the bathroom last night. What are you doing? She tries to fix her mind on it, to think it out—Why would he say that? What would she be doing in there that she shouldn't? And then he had shuffled away down the hall without getting an answer. If he was really worried he should have kept asking.

There's a tight feeling now in her stomach, and her toes stick together inside her socks, down in her boots. As if in response, her armpits begin to sweat. She leaves the lecture room and goes out into the hall. In the bathroom she peels the damp socks from her feet and props up first one ankle, then the other, on the side of a washbasin. She hasn't shaved her legs recently and the small hairs on her calves are wiry and black like insect legs.

In the mirror, the skin beneath her eyes is purplish and raised. She looks either very old, or very young—like a child who's been crying all night. She pumps soap into her hand and washes her feet meticulously, running four fingers between the four spaces between her toes, working up a lather. When she has finished she realizes there are still only the dirty socks to put on her clean feet. She takes several paper towels and wraps her feet, holding the towels in place while she pulls on her boots. This is useless, however, as she walks they slide around and in places her feet touch the matted fake fur of the lining.

On impulse she leaves the building and walks down through the cold to the area of student bars, coffee houses, and restaurants. In a corner store she buys a pair of socks and puts them on in the store doorway, leaning against the wall.

Each weekday night the family eats together. This has been a tradition all of Eleanor's life. While her parents share in both making the meal and washing the dishes afterward, Eleanor herself has no role. That night her mother makes a salad and her father cooks hamburgers in a pan on the stove. From upstairs in her room, Eleanor can smell the meat and wonders if she should pretend to be sick.

Her father's hamburgers are incomprehensible. In high school she tried to explain them to her friends, even inviting them over on hamburger night, which is Wednesdays, to see. Across the surface of the meat is a thin gray layer that looks like nasal mucous. There are gray balls like lint rolled up along the edges. Inside, the meat is nearly raw.

Her mother calls her name, and Eleanor reluctantly heads downstairs. Already today she has changed her socks three times. Although she took a shower when she got home, she can't seem to keep her feet clean. She slides along the hallway, holding onto the banister.

The table is set and her parents already seated when she arrives. They pass around the plate of hamburgers silently, and Eleanor takes the smallest one.

"There's enough for two apiece," her father says.

"I'm not really hungry."

Her father grunts and spears two of the pads of meat with his knife.

"How's school?" her mother says. She is still wearing a business suit and blouse. Her hair is cut short like a man's and though she wears makeup, there is something sexless about her.

"Fine." Eleanor has given up talking about her classes. Somehow her parents always know more than she does about any given subject.

"Midterms coming up?" her mother asks.

"Yes."

"How is old what's-her-name?" Her father asks. Forgetting Alicia's name, or pretending to, always puts him in a good mood. "Have you heard anything from her?"

"Not since yesterday."

"Amazing she got in that place. Where was it? The state university?"

"Yes," she says. He asks these questions nearly every night.

"I see, I see."

"It has a better program than the private schools."

"Sure it does, sure it does."

Eleanor shoves her hamburger angrily to the corner of the plate, and leans her elbow on the table. Suddenly her father bends down beside her, almost under the table, and grabs hold of the leg of her chair, trying to scoot it closer to the table. The chair rocks to the side without sliding forward. His hand brushes against her leg, and then he straightens. His thin hair is wispy from bending over.

"Sit up at the table," he says. "And hold your fork in the right hand."

Eleanor looks over at her mother for help, but she is methodically cutting pieces of her hamburger, and forking them into her mouth. Eleanor glares at her father, willing him to look up. But when he does, it's such a quick, flat glance, she thinks: he hates me, and drops her eyes.

"Where are the hamburgers?" her father asks.

"You had them last, you ate them," her mother says.

"I didn't eat them. You must have eaten them. You ate them, piggy, why are you such a pig?"

"Oh, I'm not the pig around here," her mother says and laughs. "You ate them."

Her father scans the table, smiling with his teeth clenched. Finally he spots the plate of burgers; they are on the floor where he'd set them when reaching for Eleanor's chair. He picks up the plate and shoves it toward his wife, his face triumphant. "Oh I'm the one who ate them, am I piggy-piggy? I'm the one?"

Eleanor stands, before she thinks what she's doing. Their interaction isn't unusual, but it's as though she's noticing it for the first time. She looks from one to the other of them in disbelief, but can think of nothing to say. They continue to eat, not even looking up as she leaves, dumping the hamburger into the garbage.

In her bedroom she lights a candle and switches off the lamps, sitting on the floor and staring at the flame. It is her room from childhood. The bed is new, but the nightstand and lamp are the same. There are bears dancing arm in arm in a row across the front of the nightstand. The small lamp matches the blue of their bowties. Suddenly she thinks: it is her parents who bought these things. Her mother or father thought of and stenciled the elephants and seals on the bathroom wall, they bought the matching bed and table with the dancing bears. She tries to imagine her mother kneeling in nylons and high heels on the floor. It's impossible.

But she can see her father, in his red robe, bent down in front of her, giving her a bath, the robe shifting around as he reached in to wash her. He would set wind-up miniature speedboats in the water, which would bump into her chest. "Ellie the Elephant," he called her, laughing and pointing at the tiles on the walls, reaching into the water and tickling her stomach. Thinking of it, she feels sick.

That night she wakes again. She slides out of bed and listens at her door for her father. The house is silent. She slips into the hall, then the bathroom, closing the door carefully behind her. The toilet seat is cold. Her body can't relax. She's afraid that the sound of her peeing will wake her father in the next room. She imagines the click of his door opening, the sound of his slippers down the hall, a strip of light appearing under the door.

It's impossible. She stands and opens the door, peering out into the dark hall. Her father's study door stands open, and moonlight shines through a window onto the floor. She creeps downstairs to the bathroom on the first floor and to her relief, is able to pee.

She has just finished when she hears footsteps coming down the stairs. Without flushing, she rushes to the kitchen and is filling a glass with water when her father shuffles into the room.

"Oh, oh," he says. "I thought I heard something."

"I was thirsty." Her heart races as she watches the water fill in the glass. He knows she's lying, she can feel it. She has the disturbing sensation that they're both lying, that he knows why she is down here, and she knows he knows it. There's something missing in this feeling, and it's what's missing that scares her.

She shuts off the tap and walks past him, almost feeling she must ask permission. He stays in the kitchen. She thinks maybe he's gone to the bathroom, to check if she's been there.

When she falls back asleep, she dreams of the bathroom. Her father is there, leaning over the sink, arms propped on the edge, staring at himself in the mirror. Eleanor stands behind him. She can see the stencils on the bathroom wall, bright and new-looking. Slowly, he shifts his eyes from his reflection to hers. When their eyes meet, the terror wakes her.

It is after lunch in the school's student union. She's in the bathroom on the toilet, waiting for her body to release its liquid. Then she hears the door opening, and footsteps. Someone enters the stall next to hers. The girl is loud and easy, she shuffles her things, sits down, and immediately there is a loud splashing, which sounds healthy, like a child's laughter in the wind. There is the sound of toilet paper being ripped off and a zipper pulled. The girl flushes, runs water in the sink, and leaves.

During all this time Eleanor sits frozen on the seat, cold except for the burning in her stomach. All her muscles are tight. She tries to relax, the girl is gone, but Eleanor is now too afraid of the door opening again. There are so many students in the lunchroom, so many girls. She tries to calculate the probability that one will come in, in the next minute, but she was never good at math. Defeated, she stands and pulls up her pants. She feels shaky, slightly nauseous. What will she do if she can no longer use any bathroom, any public space? A greater fear: if her body can forget how to do this basic function, what's to stop it from forgetting how to breathe? She imagines it for a moment, how she would open her mouth and try to suck in air without anything happening.

She walks out of the student union and into the cold street. Across the lawn is the building of her math lectures. There are fewer women in this building, and she walks through the quiet halls until she finds a door marked women.

There are only two stalls in the bathroom. She goes into the farthest one and sits down and stares at the door. Her body feels made of porcelain, still and cold—like the toilet. She holds her breath and pushes. A pain thaws in her abdomen, but the liquid won't come. She squeezes her eyes shut, stands and stomps in place in her winter boots. Again she sits down. Nothing. She kicks off the boots, out under the stall, but then hears footsteps echoing in the corridor. Quickly, she pulls up her pants, leaves the stall, and pulls her boots back on.

In the bathroom mirror her face is expressionless. She stretches her mouth into a smile—the cheeks look like clay. She jumps up and down, swinging her arms to the side. The door opens. An older woman looks at her in shock.

"Nothing," Eleanor says. "I'm not doing anything."

Down in the street, it has begun to snow, and there is a frozen pool in her lower stomach that she can feel when she breathes. She wonders how to get out of her body, if there is any way aside from death. Perhaps there is an operation that would silence the part of her brain that is doing this. She thinks of calling Alicia, so far away, but the pay phone next to her ear would be so cold.

Instead, she walks across the campus to McDonald's and orders a large coffee. Perhaps, with enough liquid, she will simply burst. She drinks the coffee quickly and the urgency comes. She looks around the restaurant in case there are women who might interrupt her, but aside from a homeless man in a booth down from hers, the place is empty. She tries to walk quickly enough that her mind won't catch up with what her body is about to do. If she could suspend thinking just long enough for her body to react naturally, she would be fine. But once on the toilet it is already too late. She squeezes her eyes shut and holds her breath to no avail. She knows what she's doing. The lower part of her is like glass that has been cracked through and is going to shatter.

To distract herself, she imagines getting a gun and coming back to hold up the McDonald's. Outside the door she would simply throw the money on the ground—or perhaps she would lay it out nicely, one bill next to the other. Then she'd climb down to the railroad tracks and squat on the ties, not even trying to hide. She laughs, and her bladder releases.

Although she returns home at the same time every evening she hasn't eaten dinner with her parents since the night with the hamburgers. Not breakfast either. She can hear the preparations from upstairs, yet neither parent calls for her, or has even mentioned her absence. When she passes them they greet her, smile. She feels something malevolent in their mild friendly faces, and would give anything, if only her mother would ask her why.

The main thing, now, besides the bathroom, is that she can no longer seem to get warm. When she gets home at night she wraps up in a blanket and sits on the ground next to the warm air vent in her room. Instead of going down to eat, she's begun taking baths, which she hasn't for years. Not since childhood, it seems to her, though that can't be right.

On Friday, she runs only the hot water, undresses beneath the blanket and holds it around her upper body, sitting on the edge of the tub until her feet adjust to the heat then working herself in slowly, only discarding the blanket when she's fully emerged in the water.

She holds her knees to her chest and looks at the elephants and seals on the wall. As a child, the elephants were her favorite. They are dark blue with balloons tied to the bottom of their trunks. She liked to think of the balloons lifting them up in the air, hundreds of tiny blue elephants floating away in the sky.

Afterward, when she opens the door, her father is standing in the hallway. Eleanor screams out, startled. She should have felt his presence outside the door; it scares her that she didn't. The blanket is pulled up around her head, but she is still shivering. He stares at her, angrily, it seems .

"I'm sick," she says. It doesn't feel like a lie. He reaches forward, to touch her forehead. She steps back from him quickly, but not before feeling the cool flat palm of his hand on her skin.

"You feel fine. No fever," he says.

"I can't get warm."

"Oh well, probably just bad circulation. You should get more exercise."

"I need a doctor."

"You're perfectly fine."

"Perfectly fine," Eleanor says.

"Yes."

"I'm perfectly fine."

Eleanor has stopped going to classes, but on the weekdays she catches the bus and goes to the campus anyway. It's comforting to be around so many bodies, clothed and moving. Outside the university, the roads are covered in snow, flat white expanses that go on for miles, and look too much, to her, like what is happening inside her.

On the weekends, however, Eleanor must find some other way to occupy herself outside of the house. She must be gone from one to five o'clock on both Saturday and Sunday—this has been her parents' rule since high school. The weekends are their "nap time." This explanation has always disturbed her. She knows what they must be doing in the house alone, but not why it has to take four hours, two times a week, two days in a row.

Mostly, she wanders around the city. On Sunday, she finds herself at the elementary school she went to as a child. A low chain-link fence surrounds the play area. The slide, jungle gym, and swing set are the same ones she remembers. A feeling of stillness comes over her as she stands staring at the school. Her body relaxes. She walks in the gate and shuts it carefully behind her. Runs her hand along a metal leg of the swing set and the bars of the jungle gym; climbs the stairs to the slide and goes down. Woodchips are spread in the play area instead of the sand she remembers. Looking at the chips she feels hollow. She wants it all to be the same.

She sits on a swing and pushes off with her legs. The metal links pinch her hands; she doesn't remember this from childhood. The swinging makes her dizzy; this is also new. Still, she pumps her legs harder and harder, she swings so high that the chains start to buckle, and wonders what will happen if she actually goes over the top.

She thinks of how her father used to appear at the low gate in the afternoons to take her home. Of how she would stop whatever she was doing and run to him. He would catch her and lift her in the air and then cradle her in his arms. The strangest part of the memory is how he looks her in the face. Now he never looks at her when he speaks, except in quick glances. Sometimes he faces her but his eyes are unfocused, fixed to her cheek or neck. Somehow, this makes her feel ashamed.

Then she remembers how later, when he came to get her after school, she would remain swinging, and pretend she didn't hear him calling her name. Instead, she would think of the elephants, that if she had a balloon it would lift her up in the air, floating her away in the sky if only she could trust herself to jump.

Now as she swings, it is as though something small and heavy is lying motionless inside her, a stone weight, or the strangled body of a kitten.

That night Eleanor wakes. The house is silent except for the shifting in bed of one of her parents across the hall. She opens her bedroom door and goes downstairs to the bathroom and sits on the cold toilet seat. Nothing happens. She pushes, urging the liquid to come before her father wakes. It doesn't, but there is a burning sensation, not just in her stomach, but also along the place where the pee comes down, which she imagines as a thin tight cord, white and inflamed. She wonders if she's doing damage to it—holding it so long, pushing when nothing happens.

Closing her eyes she imagines she's somewhere far away: in a gas station bathroom in the middle of a field with no one around. She imagines screaming at her father. A small trickle comes, burning. Her relief stops it. He could come down any minute. Or maybe he is there already, listening outside the door. She stands and flings the door open, but the kitchen is empty.

She goes back upstairs into her room and pushes the chair from her desk up under the doorknob. Her wastebasket is white plastic with fluted sides like an opening tulip. Furtively she takes it without letting herself think what she's about to do. She goes inside the closet, pulling the door closed behind her and crawls on the floor under the racks of clothes to the back.

There are clothes hanging in front of her, long dresses she hasn't worn for years, dresses from proms and homecomings. She remembers being drunk on champagne, the group she was with stopping at a gas station. She got out, wild, and jumped in the open back of a pickup truck. She did a little dance, laughing, they were all laughing. That was then.

Now, sitting on the wastebasket, she tries to push against the pain and wonders if something could rupture, or fall out, if she pushes too hard. She holds her knees to her chest, the edges of the basket dig into her bottom and the backs of her thighs. Please, please. She must be anywhere else. She imagines the elephants and seals on the bathroom walls, imagines them coming to life, bouncing the balls into the bathtub, into her. Imagines the drool from the elephant's mouth, between its teeth, a black tusk, embedded in rotting skin, the gums pink and speckled with black. The elephant's eyes are rheumy; the tip of its trunk is white as though with the ash from a fire. But the pee won't come.

She grabs one of the prom dresses, presses it against her mouth, and tries to scream. Only a huffing noise comes from her throat. A spasm clutches her stomach and she gets off the wastebasket and curls on the ground, hugging her legs to her chest. All she can think is that she must get to her mother. When the pain leaves she gets on her knees and crawls to her door, pushing the chair away, and continues the length of the hallway to her parents' bedroom. The silence in the house is like the hush in an operating room, like people holding their breath.

Their door is not quite closed and she pushes it open, still on her hands and knees, and freezes in the doorway. She can see her father's form in the darkness, on the side of the bed closest to her. He is lying on his side; his body blocks her mother's. Crawling slowly, she makes her way around to her mother's side, freezing when he shifts, and holding her breath.

Finally she is crouched at the edge of the bed. Her mother is turned toward her, sleeping, one hand hanging out of the covers. Eleanor reaches up and shakes the exposed wrist. Her mother startles awake, her eyes look at Eleanor, terrified, before recognition comes.

"It hurts," Eleanor whispers.

Her mother looks horrified, pulls her wrist out of Eleanor's grasp.

"Go back to bed."

"But it hurts."

"You're fine, Eleanor." Her mother turns on her side. The pressure in Eleanor's bladder is unbearable, she's never waited this long, it's as though a long thin blade were sliding up through where the pee comes out.

"Mommy," Eleanor says, and reaches up to the spot her mother has shifted from. It's still warm.

On the other side of the bed her father groans and moves. A portion of the blanket falls away from him; he's naked. And suddenly Eleanor can't believe how unsafe she has made herself, in this room, in the middle of the night. She crawls toward the door, timing herself so that she moves when her father inhales, freezes when he exhales.

But at the foot of the bed, she stops. She can no longer hear his breath. She peeks around the corner, he is still lying on his side, but his eyes are open. She scans the room quickly. There is a bottle of perfume on her mother's dresser—Eleanor tenses her calves, ready to spring for it. But her father only pushes himself to the edge of the bed and sits for a moment, head heavy on his chest; he hasn't seen her. He stands, shuffles into his slippers, and walks out of the room. She hears him go into the bathroom and shut the door.

She remains on her knees, frozen. One hand is clenched, as if holding the perfume bottle. And she realizes, that if he'd come for her, she would not have screamed. That her mother would not—has never—protected her.

Anger flushes through her, a sudden heat, and she stands quickly and goes into the hallway. From behind the bathroom door she can hear the loud splashing of her father's pee. Her bladder aches, splintered and sharp with pain. She puts her hands against the door, they are wet with sweat, she can smell them—moist, metallic.

She knocks on the door. The sound of his pee stops. She can hear the shuffling of his slippers on the floor but he doesn't speak, doesn't come to the door. And suddenly her bladder loosens and warms. A painless trickle of pee slides easily down the inside of her leg. It's all she can do to keep from releasing it, all of it, on the spot.

Relief goes through her, she leans in close to the door and, as loud as she can, she yells: "What are you doing?"