Clara sat on the edge of the tub, smoothing the hem of her dress compulsively. Forever was an awfully long time, she thought. Forever was endless, sprawling, impossible. It was unnatural and unlikely.
But maybe. Perhaps. Forever could be parties and dinners and clinking wine glasses. It could be laughter and snuggles and warm touches in the dark.
For a moment the murmur of voices outside the bathroom door didn’t sound quite so ominous.
But a memory came to her, as sudden and sharp as a slap in the face: her mother and father shouting at each other, a spray of blood on the linoleum floor, the underside of the kitchen table as she shrank into herself to try to disappear.
No. She knew what forever really was. It was bonnets, bassinets, bibs. It was secrets festering in the empty spaces. It was the best years of her life wrapped up in glittering white fabric for other people to write on, twisting and distorting her scenes into acts of look-how-happy-we-are, a parade of we and us and ours.
“Clara?” her grandmother called. “Clara, sweetheart, is everything all right? The ceremony’s about to begin.”
She suddenly couldn’t remember the name of the man perched alongside her on the tiered cake. She remembered his smile, a tender hand running through her hair. But then her father’s face swam before her, his lips drawn back in a snarl. You think he’ll still want you when he finds out what you really are?
Her breath came in short, quick bursts; her hands shook. Her dress was stifling. With a sharp tug she undid the satin ties going down her back, slipped out of her sparkling straitjacket, and crawled into the empty tub.
Her heels clanked against the porcelain. The tub was icy on her back, a sharp reminder that this was not a nightmare she could wake up from. She hugged her knees to her chest and admired her perfectly manicured toes in their strappy white prisons.
“Clara.” This time it was her father, his voice tight and menacing. “Clara, if you’re not out here in five minutes, so help me, I’ll drag you out myself.” He didn’t need to say and make you regret it.
The only response that came from her mouth was a kind of wail, a sound at once foreign and honest. A tear slid down her face, dragging a clump of mascara with it.
The voices outside seemed to be getting louder, a cacophony of hellos and how-do-you-dos and long-time-no-sees.
You’ll screw this up, just like you screw up everything else.
She tried to force herself to get dressed and go back out there to play her part. Her makeup was already on, her costume was waiting for her on the floor, the audience outside was clamoring for the show to start. She mustn’t let them down. So what if some vacuous great aunt had congratulated her on finding “a man just like your father”?
She licked her lips. The tang of salt on her tongue was comforting, its bitterness a truth to hold onto.
Nobody wants damaged goods.
She watched the shadows moving under the door and felt like she might burst with her hatred, her anger at their inconstancy, the way the light played with the dark as if they were lovers, brazen and unafraid. She leaned her head back against the tile wall, and a ripple of cold raced down her neck and her shoulders until it reached her fingertips.
“Clara.” Her father again. Shadows filled the line under the door, driving away the light, and she could almost feel her father’s hot breath on her face, his hands moving between her legs. “Are you coming?”
The roar in her ears was deafening.
She plugged the drain, turned the faucet on, and watched the tub fill with hot water around her. Forever didn’t have to be frightening. She closed her eyes. Forever could be the warmth that suffused her limbs as the water rose, the sudden hush as she slid down to plunge her head under the surface. Forever could be quiet and peaceful. Safe.
Forever could be her escape.