My niece Clara bares her midriff at every opportunity. She’s 14 and watches too many rap videos. She has too many friends who are boys. My sister is oblivious. She has her own man troubles, and she makes comments about Clara’s budding body, in front of Clara. You sure didn’t get your ass from me. But I can tell you’ll never have these tits. As a single mom, she works a lot of hours as a secretary. Then she bartends three nights a week. Some weeks six, if the favorite bartender with the fake tits and pencilled eyebrows doesn’t feel like coming in. Most mornings and nights, my niece is left to raise herself. She makes her own breakfast, catches the bus, then makes dinner and does her homework when she returns home. But after 8:00 Tuesday through Thursday, when I’m off from my shift at the hospital, she has me. I sleep in her bed so she doesn’t invite boys over. I play with her silt-colored hair until her breathing is deep, quiet.
I’m the “cool” aunt because I let Clara drive my mustang and I take her for mani-pedis. And because I give a shit. She tells me things I don’t want to hear, but I listen anyway, always the dutiful aunt. She tells me how Brad, her newest boyfriend, fingered her in his Civic. And how she got into a bar with a fake ID, sang drunkenly onstage, and hung out with the band backstage. How the drummer’s powerful hands snaked around her throat after they did a line of coke off his hi-hat. How she laughed and laughed in his face until he stopped and sat back, perplexed. Then how she stumbled out and caught a cab. The city felt so alive, so...pulsing on coke, Aunt Jenny. I want to tell her that I know, but I don’t. And how she sneaks out at night and meets Brad under the overpass two miles away from her house when I’m working my shift. That’s when her mom isn’t bartending, but is asleep, passed out on wine and Ambien.
She tells me, Please don’t say anything to Mom.
I don’t tell my sister these things, but maybe I should. Maybe I’m a bad sister. I don’t tell her either when Clara, crying, says she needs me to take her to a clinic. A college boy with vodka breath forced her into a bedroom at a party and told her, Strip for me. She whispered no, she says, but he didn’t hear her. I’m sure he heard her. She tells me some of him oozed out of her later that night, that she had stuck toilet paper inside herself to soak it all, that she thought she couldn’t become pregnant if she got it all out.
Her period is two weeks late.
I hold her and stroke the straight, smooth bridge of her nose. She’s always liked that, since I rocked her as a baby when my sister, exhausted, would all but throw her at me. I wish I could do more.
I’ll tell my sister tomorrow.
We’re in the waiting room. There are many other women here. The younger ones bite their nails while trying to read magazines, talk quietly on their phones, or pretend they have something in their eyes. At least I think they’re pretending. It’s hard to tell what they’re thinking and feeling. What anyone is thinking and feeling. Clara grabs my hand. Hers is clammy. She’s trembling. I tell myself it’s just the office’s coldness, its sterility, and wrap my arm around her small, taut shoulders.
The older women seem calm. Maybe numb. I feel like some of them have been here before, that they know what’s at stake, what they have to gain and lose. That this is not just another doctor’s appointment. Maybe I just hope these things.
I feel like these women, here in the office with us, know what comes next: the cramps, red panties, and that feeling like after a carnival ride their friend talked them into. They didn’t want to ride, but they blurred the boundaries of what they’ll allow, what they won’t. After the wild-eyes carnies, the garish lights, the up-and-down and back-and-forth pitching, they feel the solid earth underneath. But their legs can’t stop shaking, and there’s a churning in the stomach, in the heart, that will never settle.
The desk nurse calls Clara’s name, and we walk through the double metal doors, alone, yet together.
published 17 July 2013