Abby Feden is a fiction writer living in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She is the winner of The 2020 SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction. Her work appears or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, X-R-A-Y, Third Coast, JMWW, Best Small Fictions 2021, and elsewhere. Feden received her MFA from Western Washington University and is in her third year of Oklahoma State University's PhD in Creative Writing.
Her Body's Doing
My double comes to me at the county fair.
I first see myself from across the greenway. I watch myself duck between candy-colored tents and disappear behind walls laden with misshapen plush toys, with bags of upturned goldfish. Visiting home does strange things to my mind. My mother buys us beers from the Boy Scout booth. She drunkenly drops too much cash at vendor games and gets angry at me for not stopping her. My father carries my sister’s son from ride to ride and jokingly tells me to fuck off! when I question the soundness of structures that expand and collapse in the course of a week.
I recognize someone I used to sleep with. He’s grown up nicely, a perversion of every cinematic “girl returns home to find past sexual partners ugly, stagnant.” He tells me it’s good to see me. I tell him about Amelia.
I am not myself in this place.
But Amelia needed distance. What she had actually said was I don’t want you near me right now, but I have softened the sentiment in my head.
I lie to myself and to Amelia. I say it was my sister who asked me back. Amelia accepts this because we both believe my sister to be lonely. My sister has never spoken this to me but her only company—a son she had too young and our parents—says it for her.
If I knew myself more, I could admit that I was always going to end up back home. Amelia wanted me away but meant a hotel, maybe a friend’s couch. A limited distance. I will never tell her that before I even called my sister, I had flight details cooling in the printing tray.
The fairway sprawls before me as chaotic recollection. At some point in my life, everything and everyone here has meant something to me. If I threw up every memory from my childhood, I would expel these people, the tilt-a-whirl, the fireworks combusting too low for comfort, the sound of cicada, the smell of skin in August, and eventually a full duplication of the grounds would come to be.
My sister appears beside me with a fresh beer. She frowns at my empty hands. “I just handed it to you, did you drink it already?” My mother overhears and says something under her breath about moderation before spilling her drink down herself.
“What do you mean?” As I ask, my answer sidles out of the door of the funhouse. The exit is a clown’s gaping mouth; to leave one must crawl over rough-cut wooden tongue and teeth. I watch the woman step gingerly through a gap in the clown’s smile, watch her offer a hand to the family leaving behind her, helping them over the lips and back out into the night. A glowing red nose illuminating the funhouse exit casts my features pink and cruel. Or perhaps,this is how I always look. Perhaps I do not want to recognize myself here. My features, stolen from me. Body too, my other moving with the same uncomfortable awareness of being gawky, of lacking a softer, desirable form. Even the white t-shirt and jeans are the same.
The sudden need for rationalization causes me to raise my right hand, a childish move to test if the replication is simply an uncanny refraction caused by carnival light and alcohol. My duplicate doesn’t move. I am caught in the spell of watching myself watch myself, until a swell of bodies dismounting the Wave Swinger swallow her into the crowd.
The fight that sent me home was a known one. Amelia brought it up, as she always does. She is convinced I’m not willing to do the things that need to be done to love her fully.
Amelia wants to marry me. I think I want to marry Amelia more than she wants to marry me. The thing is, I know I love her more than she loves me. I am confident in this. I think perhaps she knows I love her more and this is why she puts so much effort into manifesting her admiration into concrete things like gifts, into physical thoughtfulnesses.
I’ve often thought it might be bad, how I catalog the ways in which we love each other and what it means. But it doesn’t bother me, to know what I know. It never used to be an issue until marriage.
“Your family.” This is Amelia’s response to most everything nowadays—why won’t you propose and why can’t we buy a house together and why can’t we talk about future things? Our friends tell us we’re lucky—Amelia’s family is small and scattered and love us kindly when we see them. My family is large and central. My parents were taught that family is everything and they expect this from me too—to grow up with them, to grow old near them, and to give myself to them the way they gave to me. Amelia says we love in transactions.
They aren’t unkind to Amelia, but they are unsettled by our togetherness and this is evident. When we speak on the phone, my mother will ask if other noises on the end of my line are Amelia. When I answer, yes, her voice becomes stiff and she finds ways to work an end to the conversation. My parents send mail to our apartment—Christmas cards and invitations and such—addressed and signed with love to only me. I do not get a plus one at family weddings. Outside of my parents, my sister, no one in my family knows Amelia exists.
“They won’t be better,” says Amelia. “They don’t want to be.”
I know what she wants from me. When she dropped me off at the airport, she kept me tight to her and I thought maybe, maybe she had forgiven me. Maybe I had more time.
“Come back for good,” Amelia said. She let me go and drove off. She did not look back.
When I tell my sister I have seen myself walking about the fairgrounds, she puts down her funnel cake, lifts her son into her arms, and leads me out into the crowd. We move from ride to ride without success. Afternoon has given in, and it is now firmly nighttime. The sticky chaos of the fair in daylight is made sultry in the dark; the exhale of hydraulic lifts, the looping echoes of exhilarated screams. I am surprised to discover I am inexplicably aroused. I miss Amelia.
My sister is focused enough for the both of us. She makes her way through lines filled with drunk, defensive farm-folk easily. To ticket-takers and game monitors, she shows them my face and asks have you seen someone who looks like her? At one point, she asks me to hold her son so she can battle to the front of a particularly raucous line. He is immediately heavy in my arms. I am shocked by the weight she has lugged about all evening without complaint. My sister has never wanted to be a burden, to a fault. She will do anything to end other’s discomfort. She won’t admit it, but I know I am to blame for her compulsion to resolve.
She keeps to the edge of my memories. She has always been good. My teenage years were angry. I recognize my actions then as remedies for self-loathing; responses to guilt over disliking the feel of my high school boyfriend’s body on mine, to an inexorable discomfort with my family. But I kept everything quiet and behaved well for my parents. I never fought back. In the evenings, in my home, in bed with Amelia, I whisper memories to her of times when I wished I had resisted my mother, my father. Things they said, things they wanted for me, things they wanted me to believe. I should have fought. I should have shown my sister how to fight.
I believe all younger siblings resent the first-born. I believe this resentment is righteous. The relationship parents nurse with their first-born always affects their relationship with any following children. Amelia has a younger brother who is slightly worse than her in every way. If he had been born first, a different example would’ve been set. He could’ve lived life above expectations.
I left home slowly. I came back less and less. I forgot birthdays with a purpose but always caved and sent gifts. I declined phone calls with my parents and fought for hours the sick of guilt within me, before eventually calling them back. I am always snipping home from myself. It feels bloody. I get sad and stitch myself back in.
My sister has been caught in the excess. As I hold her son, waiting for her to worm back through the line for the teacups, I try not to think about how I could’ve kept him from becoming. But because he is here, I often wonder if she wonders about what life would be like to leave him. I wonder if she is still so stuck to my parents that she doesn’t even know of this option. When I can’t stomach the thought of her here, spending her last teen years raising him in the basement of our childhood home, I imagine that she hates me and feel better.
“He says you got off the ride last round.” My sister is back; she takes her son upon her shoulder and continues towards the Helter Skelter tower beyond us.
“That’s impossible.” Before entering the fairgrounds I had promised myself, no matter how much I drank, I would not set foot on any ride. I hadn’t broken yet.
My sister bobs her son up and down as he starts to fuss. “Not unless there are two of
As we continue down the fairway, she shuffles the weight of us upon her hips. I can see from the strain on her face that she does not handle it well.
My sister’s son whines for food at a decibel I cannot tolerate.
I leave them and continue past the rides into rows of vendors selling trinkets that have worth only beneath the glitter of carnival dust. I have lost the trail of myself and settle at an empty picnic table within the center of the tents.
Amelia once told me about a book where a man devolves into two selves. It symbolizes a conflict of desire in the man. The man eventually kills himself. At the tent in front of me, a woman with long, blue hair is selling wide brimmed hats. I buy one and pull it over my head, suddenly certain that if I were to come face to face with myself, I would forget which one I was. For now, the hat marks me. I worry that whatever magic has summoned my other self permits a perfect mirroring.
My phone is on the picnic table before I realize I have taken it from my pocket. I can’t remember who I want to call. Perhaps my parents. I haven’t seen them for hours and being home has made me aware of how it feels to be without them for too long. Perhaps my sister. I can’t call Amelia. I can’t tell her what she wants to hear. She wants to hear of my parent’s faults and my sister’s grief and how I need distance from it. I’m embarrassed to admit to her the ways in which I still love them. I am embarrassed to admit this to myself.
I imagine her advice for my current situation. When she told me that the man who sees his face on another man kills himself, I was surprised. She found the book and pulled me to her and showed me that it was true.
“It’s death to any man who sees himself.”
I type the first few digits of Amelia’s number and rehearse what I will say. I have seen myself is too confusing of a conversation starter. I shall die soon is too dramatic.
In the end, I dial my mother and ask her to find me. My hat is very itchy, but I don’t dare take it off. I feel suddenly exhausted. I feel suddenly that I am very lost.
My mother and I have a complicated relationship. I wonder if I will ever be able to easily know someone.
She appears to me through the sag of the tent flap and stumbles over to where I am sitting. She has been drinking steadily since I landed, since I saw her. When I asked about it, my sister was reluctant to tell me—she only seems to drink like this when you’re in town.
“I thought you left.” She tries to take the hat from my head. I lean back in resistance. She laughs at this, and then goes quiet. And together, we sit quietly in the dark.
At some point, she places her hand on the picnic table near mine—our pinkies brush against one another when we shift in our seats. She has done this, unconsciously, for the entirety of my life. Whenever we are walking, she places her fingertips on my shoulder, my back. Never the full hand, but enough pressure to be present. She will catch the end of my jacket sleeves or my purse in public. When we sit near one another, some part of her is always barely there against a part of me, as if to reassure her of how little space there is between us. When she does this, I am careful to never pull away.
I mention this when Amelia and I fight about my mother. Amelia will use everything my mother has done against me. Everything I have ever told Amelia about her comes up—the cruelty behind some of the ways in which she has loved me, the way she used to hit the back of my head or the base of my neck when I had done something wrong. She brings up the things my mother said when I first told her of Amelia, which I cannot bear hearing again and again and block out.
“It’s manipulation!” Amelia tells me. I think she might be right, but I am afraid of being wrong. I am afraid of what it means for my mother to lose the feel of me. I am afraid of what it means for myself.
I move my hand over my mother’s and my mother shivers.
“Amelia and I are thinking of getting married.”
The tent swallows us in the silence that follows.
My mother withdraws from me and opens the purse on the bench beside her. She begins to shuffle through whatever is in there.
“I can’t find my car keys,” she says quietly. “I gave them to someone.”
I repeat myself, insist on it, and my mother looks at me. She isn’t crying, but she seems close.
“I love you,” she says quietly. Her mouth contorts and closes, as if her body is holding back some speech still within her. I can already hear Amelia, whispering something about wishful thinking, but I know what I am seeing. I am seeing my mother want to be better than herself.
She breaks what is between us and returns to her purse.
“I gave you the keys.”
I need her hands on my shoulders. I answer her.
“No, you didn’t.”
“I just did. By the entrance, you took them and walked out. If you’ve lost them…”
I leave the picnic table and head for the perimeter of the tent. My mother follows. She trails behind me, an angry shadow, and when I push aside the tent flap the boundary of dark farmland rises in response. Beyond the gate, beyond a lot of neatly parked cars, I watch my hat weave a slow path to the dense braiding of cornstalk.
My mother’s threats go soft with distance. I leave everything behind me. My form waves me out beyond the gate.
After, I meet resistance from the teenage boys checking wristbands for readmittance.
“You can’t keep coming and going.” The kid has corndog breading gummed into his retainer. A paper name tag with staff written in careful, childish handwriting hangs loosely from his t-shirt. He stands determinedly, trying to replicate the easy authority of the older boys beside him. I understand him. I acknowledge his rules with a serious nod and apologize.
“We just saw you come back in. How did you leave again so fast?”
“Did you really?” I crane my neck to see inside the fairground. I wonder if she’s watching me, or if she’s enjoying herself, enjoying her walk through the hum of machinery and people and the slow decline of the summer.
I’m holding up the line. The boy is insistent.
“Seriously, this is the last time. In or out.”
I imagine my family with her. Beyond them, I imagine her and Amelia. I imagine her and me, a sudden, slippery thought. A warm thought. I think of taking the time to get to know myself easily.
In the field, we barely spoke.
I couldn’t fully see her. The stalks stretched beyond our heads. I caught glimpses, my nose, my fingers pushing past tassel and silk. The aroma of burnt sugar hung between us.
“Are you eating a funnel cake?” I asked her. The outline of her head tilted in response.
“I don’t like funnel cake.”
“That’s fine.” She shifted back. I realized I was leaning towards her, unconsciously reaching for her form. I felt embarrassed. I felt a little rejected. I changed the subject.
“Is everything about me doubled? Do you have a bank account?” While waiting for my mother in the circle of tents, I had come up with a list of questions to ask if she had turned out real, if I wasn’t losing my mind. The bank account question came first, it was followed by can you predict the future and do you want to fuck? In the moment, these questions had felt important.
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
We were quiet for a little while. It was nice to sit with someone whose silence didn’t make me sick. I shuffled my feet and stepped on something hard. The car keys were partially buried in the earth.
“What now?” It was late. I felt the pull of the fairground, the need of my family from behind us, and beyond them, Amelia, my home. My double was quiet.
“Where are you going to go?” I moved towards her and again, as if we were cut from the same magnetic force, she backed further into the field.
She was disappeared almost entirely.
“Up to you,” she said.