Circling the Drain

by Kristina Ryan Tate

After brushing the side walls, skimming the surface, and running the vacuum up and down the shallow end of the pool, Dana kicked off her Birkenstocks and plopped into the deep end. She had an hour before the other guards arrived, and this was her favorite part. The water was cool though outside temps were already sailing over 90, and she gasped as her blood acclimated. Securing her goggles, she grabbed the ten-foot brush she’d set out earlier, and beat her legs hard to tread water as she sunk it until she heard the solid clunk at the bottom. She took a deep breath and dove down with it. Underwater, there were no sounds, no traffic, no wind, even the heat dissipated; she heard only the gentle scrape of the metal brush, sloughing off dirt and mold so that it could be sucked up by either of the drains.

As kids, she and her brother were terrified of pool drains. They’d whispered stories about how they were so powerful, they could suck out your innards if you sat directly on one, trailing intestines into the bowels of the earth. So and so died by Sucker, a lifeguard once told them. So and so will never poop again. They used to dare each other: I’ll give you ten dollars if you sit on Sucker. Tossed back and forth, mere childish thoughts of danger, but one day she got sick of all the talk. I’ll do it, she told her brother and his friend. She clung to the side of the deep end of the pool, gathering courage, before she took a breath and dove under.

At the bottom, she folded her body into a seated position, and as best she could, sat against the metal slat. She counted twenty seconds before she shot up for air, elated and trembling.

The drains were just turned off! Her brother and his friend insisted, refusing to give her the ten dollars she was owed; but it wasn’t even the money she wanted—it was the acknowledgement that she could be just as bold as the boys.

The whole way home, the boys stuck to their story—there was never any real danger—and eventually, as the years passed, even she wondered if they were right. What was the danger if she couldn’t put her finger on it? Maybe drains really were only intermittently sucking, and so only intermittently dangerous, her own bravery a thing of her imagination.

When she grew up though, Dana would learn that a drain was always on, and not pool drains—life. Only it didn’t suck with a force they’d fabled as kids, fierce and sudden. It was more of a gentle tug, gradually pulling you down.

Dana had her stepmother to thank for a job in lifeguarding. The young woman who’d started dating her father when Dana was nine, was shocked to learn that neither of his two children knew how to swim properly, though they’d spent considerable time at the pool.

Just a few lessons, the woman said, when she signed them up for free lessons and then dumped them off at 7:00am before the pool was open.

At first, Dana hated it, how her pool time suddenly became so structured. Dana’s real mother had left years before. She married another man and moved three states away, leaving Dana and her brother with a father who had little interest in children. Before their stepmother, they were largely independent. Street kids, a kind of independence that was free, so long as they didn’t draw too much attention, like fail classes or get arrested. They didn’t like to talk about their mother, how her leaving without much of an explanation made them angry and raw, her betrayal a hole in each of them, black and rotting. How the feeling of being unwanted would steer the course of their lives, sharpening their world and the people they’d become, how each day they’d wake up, trying to figure out how to want themselves.

The pool was just down the street from where they lived, and every summer, they used spend hours lounging on the deck, before their stepmother came along. Languid and lazy, gobbling up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and then begging the lifeguards for loose change for the vending machines. They’d thrash across the pool to prove they were strong enough to leap off the ten-foot diving board. Then, after this woman’s interest, instead of swimming free, Dana was tethered to class, treated like a baby, told to hold onto the side, and had to learn things like rest stroke and how to tread water; but eventually, after toiling away an entire summer like that, even she could admit, her body got stronger. Her skill grew too.

Their dad’s girlfriend enrolled Dana in all the programs at the pool after that—level 1 through 8, and when there weren’t any lessons left to take, Cub Club, swim team, dive team, and eventually junior lifeguards. The guards all knew her by name and instead of thrashing from one end of the pool to the other, Dana dove like a seal, the cool water enveloping her body peacefully, with no resistance at all, like gliding along its slick surface was the only place she was ever supposed to be. Her skin went chalky and sweet, the smell of chlorine a perpetual part of her being; and all evening in the sweltering Arizona heat, she waited eagerly for morning, when she could swim again.

Several summers later, when she was fourteen and nearly old enough to work, that woman married her father—Dana had even begun to like her. She enrolled her in lifeguard training too, and then water safety training, which meant that she would be qualified to teach and coach. The city only offered classes during the winter at a heated pool across town, and it was expensive, so her stepmother borrowed the $600 from her parents and insisted that once Dana started working, she could pay them back, which she’d never asked her to do. Three times a week, they drove to the end of the 51 where Paradise Valley Pool sat alone on a stretch of ten acres of grass, a little foreign spot of green among the red rock desert. Dana always saw the slide first, a twenty-foot yellow plastic dragon stretching over the pool and far more elaborate than the features at her own neighborhood pool—this was where the other half lived—and then the diving boards, and then the little figures standing on the deck, growing bigger as they pulled into the parking lot. Her stepmother waited in the car while Dana studied CPR and spinal extraction, strapping another student onto the stiff backboard in the frigid, ice-cold wind, learning to save another life while becoming a person herself.

After she landed the job at fifteen, her stepmother took her to the mall where they got UV sunglasses, Birkenstock sandals, and bottles of sun screen—the expensive stuff—and she nearly exploded with excitement. I’m so proud of you, her stepmother said. She opened her arms and wrapped herself into her stepmother then, no longer afraid of this woman’s love, but instead wishing as their skin connected, that they would grow to be the mother and daughter she felt them to be—inseparable—but even then, there was a thing she couldn’t un-know, a feeling deep in the bottom of her that understood from the very beginning that to love something was to risk losing it and if her own mother could un-love her then it was only a matter of time before this mother did too.

She was seventeen now, and in addition to teaching and coaching, she was Madison Pool’s pool cleaner. The manager gave her the job after he’d come in at 7:00am one morning to find Dave, their old pool cleaner, sleeping in one of the inflatable rafts they used for lifeguard training. He was snoring into one of the creases, smearing spit bubbles across the side, and only then did they understand why the pool had been slowly turning a tinge of green. They didn’t fire him though, just moved him to evening staff so that he’d have mornings to sleep it off.

The 5:00am start took some getting used to. Getting up early and driving across town to roam the guardhouse alone. At 5:00am, there weren’t any other lifeguards to help Dana apply sunblock to her back, so after a few mornings of straining to reach, twisting around until her arms ached and still not getting it, she gave up. At first, she kept her shirt on while she skimmed the pool, gathering dead leaves and debris, but eventually, by the time she’d started to run the vacuum along the pool’s vast bottom, she always tore it off. By then, the desert sun was baking into her skin, beads of sweat rolling down her body, pooling beneath her breasts, and squelching into her Birkenstocks. Her shoulder blades blistered at first, but then after a few weeks of cleaning, they turned a dark chestnut. After a while the skin that filled the circle cut-out of her TYR bathing suit turned dark too, burning a perfect circle into her skin. She was young, she told herself, a senior in high school, and her skin was taught, smooth, and elastic. She had years to worry about things like wrinkles and getting old, skin cancer, death.

Dana came to appreciate early mornings alone. The skimming, vacuuming, and even the brushing a kind of meditation. Arizona’s morning heat was a different sort of beast, gentler and though strong, easier to endure. The quiet from the 5:00-7:00am hours before swim team arrived was nice too, the water a placid sheet of shiny blue. The 1:00pm release was especially nice. Just as staff were arriving, cramming into the bathhouse, bombarding the cubbies and taking over the staff refrigerator, she was packing up and heading out into the blistering heat, her job done, the pool splendidly clean, ready for them to wash it dirty again with dirt and sunscreen.

Lately, though, she also appreciated how being the pool cleaner allowed her to escape her family. Just a few months ago, her father and stepmother had had a baby. And now, they were in bed early every night, first putting the baby down and then falling into bed themselves, exhausted and overheated, without coming out to say goodnight to her and her brother who were both teenagers and so largely self-sufficient. Since she technically had to be up and out the door for her shift by 4:30am, nobody seemed to notice when she stopped coming home, her bed empty for days.

First it was just been a couple of nights, she’d passed out at Alexis’s or had accidentally fallen asleep at Daniel’s on her day off. Both times, she’d leapt out of bed at 6:00am petrified her father and stepmother would be furious only to discover that neither called. When she got home after work, her father just looked at her through bleary eyes over the top of a boiling baby’s bottle and said Hey, babe, how was your day?

It struck her then that being an adult was a lot like treading water, sometimes you felt strong and wanted to swim, dipping your head under and reveling in the strange atmosphere that water created, but other times, you were exhausted and wanted to stop all that swimming, to make your way to the side, only in life, sometimes there was no ledge to rest on. She went to her room and shut the door without giving an answer. His question was rhetorical anyway.

As she was leaving work, Daniel pulled into the parking lot, rap blasting from the speakers of his supped up teal Civic. Daniel was a senior lifeguard, two years older, and her lover that summer. He’d dropped out of college to work on cars, a fact her father had scoffed at, but she felt proud of Daniel’s skill. The Civic he was driving was one he’d refinished himself, sanding the flanks down until they were pale splintered fiberglass, then reshaping, and painting them, with the devotion Michelangelo might have given his sculptures, exact and loving.

Dana lingered half in, half out of her own car, a 1984 BMW. It was midday, the sun at its highest, cook an egg on the asphalt peak. As Daniel climbed from his car, she was, ostensibly, waiting for the seatbelt inside her own to cool off from the wet towel she’d thrown over it, but she thought it was obvious, she was waiting for him.

Her BMW was a midnight blue clunker that she’d named Misty—the one her father insisted she buy with the $1,500 dollars she’d saved lifeguarding without considering how there’d be repairs she couldn’t afford, or how the lack of air conditioning might be suffocating in Arizona. Once, back when she’d worked the midday shift, she was released at 6:00pm and got halfway home when Misty started sputtering on the highway. Billows of white smoke wafted out from beneath the hood so heavily that they blinded her view. She pulled over, and opened the sizzling hood, heat washing over her. Just wait a bit, her father had said, sounding distant, like he was on another planet and not just up the road. You need to give it time to cool off. She was so angry she banged her fists against the car until they were red and swollen. Why couldn’t he come get her? It was three hours before Misty eventually started up again, just before 10:00pm. Now, she carried water in the trunk. She carried towels too, to wipe away the sweat that pooled beneath her armpits and breasts, teetering on the edge of heat exhaustion, but proud of her own resourcefulness, and independence. Who needed a father’s help anyway?

See you tonight? She asked Daniel without bothering to say hi. Just that morning she’d crawled from his bed, plying her sweat-soaked back from his cheap imitation silk sheets.

Sure, he said, smiling in his way, flaunting nonchalance so that she was unsure. Was he looking forward to it or not? He had a black cloth tied around his head. It would be wet from water and sweat, she knew, itself a kind of air conditioner, and the knot dangled down his back, like the tail of a snake. At the last moment, he said, Mom’s making enchiladas. A real smile.

She flipped on Misty’s old radio—a bulky tape deck that went down into the floor rather than the dashboard, with spindly knobs that sometimes worked, occasionally didn’t—and she turned it to the Spanish station.

Misty wasn’t all bad. She had a sun roof, which she loved, and the old seats smelled like worn leather and coconut; she had a nice size trunk too. Last month, Dana had filled it with a closet full of clothes, enough to get her through the entire summer.

Gravel crunched beneath her tires as she pulled from the parking lot, Daniel’s white shirt disappearing into the bathhouse, and the diving boards a smaller and smaller dot in her rearview mirror.

On her days off, Dana did go home. The trick was to make an appearance. To pop in during dinnertime, or to sleep in so late that surely someone noticed, to watch television an entire afternoon. Long enough for her father to say hi before leaving for work, and long enough for her to see the baby as her stepmother came out of the room to make lunch. She made space for them to ask what she’d been up to, but they hardly ever did.

Their big weird house, the one her father had built with her mother before Dana was born, was even different now. It used to be a duplex, but when Dana was little, her father and mother had torn down the wall that separated the two homes, connecting them in a strange L-shape, without make any other changes. There were two kitchens, two living rooms, two master bedrooms, almost like it was two houses. And for most of her childhood the doorway that connected them had remained a cutout through brick, the jagged concrete edges exposed and dangerous. But before the baby was born, her father and stepmother finally finished the project. They smoothed over the jagged edges with new dry wall, sanding down the sharp rebar, covering the floor and frame so that the baby would be safe. Dana couldn’t help but feel it was kind of like what he’d done with his two families, the first a broken mess, the second, smoothed over and corrected. This time, he was doing it better.

That night, she crept into the main entrance of the house, sliding the glass door open slowly so as not to disturb her stepmother who she knew would be asleep on the other side of the house with her half-sister, just six months old.

Your closet is practically empty, her brother said. He watched her shuttle clothes from the washer into the dryer and then stuff them back into the duffle bag she’d carried them in with. Maybe he was hoping to avoid a confrontation. If he missed her, he’d never say so. Dana told him not to worry. Their father used to threaten Dana and her brother when they broke the rules. He used to say, It’s my house, my rules, you don’t like it, go live with your mother. But now, he never did.

The difference, Dana told her brother, is that baby.

Her stepmother and father had tried to get pregnant for three years. That’s when the miscarriages started. The first was so early that Dana may not have known had she not been so in tune with her stepmother’s moods. She noticed when after weeks of exuberance, one day instead of coming into Dana’s room to ask about her day like she usually did, her stepmother let herself into the side of the house and didn’t come out even for dinner. Let’s just let her rest, her father said. Back then, there hadn’t even been talk of the baby. It would have been so small—microscopic—and Dana had only realized that’s what must have happened when it happened again, this time farther along. Again, her stepmother came home frail, carrying her limbs like they were filled with lead, again in through the side of the house. They’d been excited, announcing it to both of their parents, to Dana and her brother. The baby would have been the size of a blueberry. But the third and final miscarriage—a year after the first—was the worst. The baby, the size of clementine, had had a face, once.

Her father and stepmother named the baby Hope and they had a small funeral for it, just the two of them. They left the house in all black, her stepmother carrying a small black sack. After that, her stepmother was sad for months. She didn’t say much about what had happened and Dana knew from her mood not to ask. For weeks, she walked with her head down, climbing the stairs into the house with a soft wave, Goodnight babe. Until one day, she picked Dana up in a brand-new two-seater truck. When Dana climbed in, her stepmother was gripping the wheel, beaming. Her soft red curls floated in the silhouette the bright sun made behind her. Do you like it? She said, I’ve always wanted a truck.

After a bit of driving, she said, I’m not going to need many seats. She went on, as though she were talking to herself. Maybe I’m not supposed to have babies. I’ve got my step babies and that’s enough.

Sometimes people thought it was her baby. Once on a blistering afternoon, Dana and her stepmother took the baby to the new Desert Ridge Shopping Center. It was just a few miles past Paradise Valley Pool where she’d taken her water safety training a few years back, and where the freeway used to end back then—developments were out of control these days. Her stepmother popped into the movie theatre to use the bathroom, leaving her and the baby splashing in the fancy new water fountain that doubled as a play land for children. Other families and their children raced from one end to the other, their pounding feet splashing water on the hot concrete, so that it perpetually smelled like Arizona rain.

She held her baby sister’s fingers in her palms and walked her past the sprays of water that splashed their faces, soaking through their clothes and into the diaper the baby was wearing. The baby laughed and a woman who’d been watching came over and cooed at her little teal bucket hat. She pinched her baby fat and clucked in her face for a solid three minutes before she finally looked up and said, Your baby is gorgeous.

Dana didn’t correct her. Thanks, she said, instead, staring at the baby’s reddish-brown hair. She’d always thought she and her stepmother looked alike, something that had pleased her to no end when she was a child, but now she felt slipping away. In addition to her reddish-brown hair, the baby had hazel eyes like her mother’s, rounded cheeks like hers, and the same pointed chin, while Dana’s own chin was a blunt shape, her eyes a plain brown. With each new feature she saw on her sister’s face, matched to her stepmother’s, she saw how her own features didn’t really resemble either of them at all.

Six watermelon icees and a chocolate shake. Dana leaned out her car window, trying not to touch her elbows to the strip of metal that lined Misty’s doorframe. There was a crackle and the sound of a man clearing his throat before the little machine told her that it was $28.50.

Typically, rookies were in charge of food runs, but sometimes she handled them. Sonic, Filiberto’s, sometimes even McDonald’s. The truth was, she kind of liked it, toting grease-stained paper bags through the heat like a stork, crossing sixteenth street and then seventeenth street, averting her eyes from her father’s street, the guards turning to her with grateful, hungry eyes. If she wasn’t too tired, she’d join them for lunch. This was, admittedly, the part she missed from working so early—company, the guards a kind of family.

She missed Gabriela and Vanessa, too. Two ten-year-olds she’d befriended while guarding. As the pool cleaner, she hardly saw them anymore. They’d taught her the lyrics to “Y Yo Sigo Aquí” by Paulina Rubio, reminding her of herself when she was their age, back when she and her brother used to harass the lifeguards who all knew them by name.

Gabriela was so particular, correcting her pronunciation—Dulce, miss. It’s dulc-ey, ey, like that—while Vanessa squealed in delight every time Dana got it wrong, which she did, a lot. She’d always been terrible at lyrics, even in English, the words mixed into new words in her head. She conflated songs, wrote new lyrics without realizing it, and she loved how messy this was, liberating in a carefree sort of way. Let yourself go, she told Gabriela, driving her crazy as she sung it all wrong: A que te gusta hacer. El mango mandonito. Mirame a mi! Tengo conocido. Y sigo equarte, esperándote. Vanessa laughed and laughed.

Miss are you pregnant? Gabriela had asked her once, pointing to the soft bump of her stomach.

Her face flushed, cheeks burning, and she froze. She was shocked at the sting. She wasn’t. She was, in fact, on her period, cramps twisting her insides into knots, burning down by her crotch—a fact she outlined for Gabriela—but she had noticed the bump. A bulge that had probably been growing for months, but appeared as if overnight, evidence of aging. That’s rude to ask a woman, she scolded Gabriela. And Gabriela’s face fell, she looked away, then splashed Vanessa and eventually swam off, embarrassed.

Gabriela should know better, Dana told herself when the guilt stung, but she understood the curiosity. What was this weird thing her body was doing? Growing and changing in ways she wasn’t prepared for. At Gabriela’s age, she used to lie awake at night with her hand resting on the enclave of her belly, thinking of how insane it was that it bent inward, her stomach a kind of negative space. But it had been a long time since that had been the case, and she was still getting used to the positive space it was taking up, trying to convince herself that it was in fact positive—growing up—and not as perilous as it felt.

One night, the party was at Daniel’s. They were drunk, dancing in his living room with some of the other guards. His mom was out of town and they’d all come here after a swim meet. They smoked weed in the backyard, kicked their feet at the dirt, and someone said I’m bored. Then Georgie called so and so from Encanto Pool, and someone else texted a guard over at Perry, and before they knew it, there was a slew of teenagers crammed into Daniel’s backyard. A group of guys were stacking cans on the kitchen table and people loitered out front, smoking cigarettes. It grew, until there were maybe fifty in the living room.

Dana danced and laughed—the beers a fuzzy dizziness in her head—and Daniel reached out to touch her. He gave her just the gentlest push, a joke, and she gasped. Then, in a split decision, to catch herself or not, she let herself fall. Except instead of it being the couch behind her like she’d expected, it was the glass coffee table. She smashed right through it, ass first, shattering the glass and wood splintering around her. Holy shit, Alexis screamed as she tried to help her up. The dress Dana was wearing flipped up and flashed her red thong at everyone around, so as she stood, still laughing and dizzy, shaking off glass, she tried to shake off her embarrassment too, but Daniel’s face went pale.

What? She said, spinning around to glimpse the blood trail. He took her to his room where he asked her to bend over and that was when she finally felt burning in her right ass cheek. Daniel said, There’s a huge chunk of glass.

Get it out, she said, trying not to panic. She turned to look for herself, but she couldn’t twist that way. There was a stab of pain at the flick of Daniel’s fingers. He brought the glass around to show her, a shard three inches long. Fuck, that’s huge. He ran to get butterfly Band-Aids to fuse her skin back together, while blood poured down her leg. And maybe superglue, he said just before he left the room.

Shit, he said when he got back, Band-Aids, alcohol, and glue in his hands, It’s bleeding a lot.

Her heart beat fast and heavy. There was no way she could go to the ER to get stitches. Her parents still hadn’t noticed she wasn’t coming home every night. A call from the ER, something they’d have to do because she was a minor, would bring unwanted attention, would cause needless worry. They were likely asleep because of the baby and they’d just told her—her stepmother was pregnant again. There was a pang in her chest, and a momentary longing: to curl up in her stepmother’s arms, to turn back the clock, to be that baby. But she swallowed it down.

She took a deep breath, picked up a half-drunk beer from the dresser she leaned on, and took two swigs while Daniel knelt behind her, saying, It might be a really big scar. She turned around and set her eyes on him, all the blood. Close me up, doc, she said.

The cut on her ass stained Daniel’s sheets for weeks before it finally scabbed over. Now, a rippled keloid scar was forming. It was shaped like an em dash, located just within her tan line. Some days, it looked like it was connecting her interior world to the exterior with a definitive statement: inside I am fragile and wounded—but I will heal. Only healing was too much to ask of Daniel, too much for him to carry. Himself a child and her a motherless daughter, her need too big.

Go home, he told her gently one evening, his eyes cast down. He wasn’t breaking up with her, he said, but they needed some space.

She was too afraid to tell him: it had been a long time since she felt like she had a home to go to.

She stopped at the stop sign the following week, her sweat-slicked palms clung to the leather steering wheel. She let several cars pass, braking and waving them on while the sun blasted through Misty’s sun roof, baking her thighs where she sat.

The pool was hosting a swim meet and it was all hands on deck. She’d volunteered to sit in the guard chair, and though Daniel was working too, she was looking forward to it. She loved the excitement of swim meets. The rainbow flags that hung over the swimming pool so that backstrokers knew when to turn over for their flip; the sharp sounds of whistling, time tallies, and race announcements; the parents, coaches, and friends on the sidelines in chairs holding posters and flags, screaming for their loved ones. It was easy work too. Not so much lifeguarding as watching for someone to get hurt, bashing a head on the side of the concrete wall or at the bottom of the pool, which was rare.

She looked both ways and saw that it was clear. As she inched Misty forward, the clunky old body creaking into delayed motion, she noticed a boy skateboarding along the sidewalk and she hit the brakes to let him pass. Thanks a lot, bitch, the boy yelled. He slammed a heavy fist on the top of her hood, which was partially in the crosswalk. What the fuck! she yelled back at him. Her chest burned. He came out of nowhere! When he was past, her heart beating fast, she hit the gas, and Misty lurched into the intersection. She collided with a gold station wagon, an old man driver whose wide-open mouth was the last thing Dana saw.

Call my stepmom, she tells the firefighter steadying the gurney. He’s laying her back, pressing her down, and securing a strap.

Miss, you hit your head pretty hard. The firefighter’s hands are gentle but firm. Sit still, they say. He’s already put her on a backboard, securing the straps around her chest and hips like she learned how to do during her water safety training, had practiced hundreds of times, when she starts resisting. I’m fine, she says, pushing his hands away. Please, call my stepmom, she’ll tell you I’m fine.

What’s your name? The firefighter says. What’s the date? What’s your address?

I’m fine, she says. Still, the firefighter won’t let her go. He tells her that because she is a minor—two weeks from her eighteenth birthday—they can’t release her without a parent’s consent. So call my parent, she screams. My stepmom is down the street.

Miss, we did call. There was no answer.

She’s just with the baby, Dana says, desperate, her voice shrill. Please, can you try her again? She tries to sit up, but straps hold her down. The firefighters, frustrated, plead with her to lay still. She pictures her stepmother at home, probably putting her daughter down, maybe changing her diaper, her cell phone on the counter. She could walk there in five minutes, reach her stepmother, get her attention, get her to tell them she is ok, if only the paramedics will let her.

It’s been twenty minutes, one says, We have to take you now.

I’m fine, she keeps saying. She is dizzy. A tender place on her temple has begun to throb. She is going to be late for work, late for lifeguarding, might miss the meet altogether, and the after party. Take me over there, she tries again, but it is no use. The firefighters are loading her into the ambulance, shutting the doors, flashing its lights, taking her to the hospital across town.

In the shadowed parlor it smelled of Vaseline and antiseptic. It was her eighteenth birthday. She came alone, sitting on the couches while the artist prepared the table. After flipping through the plastic covered binders, she pointed to a tiny spiral, crammed among random images, bats, hearts, and motorcycles, stars, skulls, and a strange clown. The spiral was as small as a nickel in the book, but Dana looked up at the artist as she said: I want it as big as a dinner plate.

He placed the stencil on the center of her back. Though she couldn’t see, she knew there was a dark circular tan on the middle of her back. It had grown darker since she became the pool cleaner, a perfect darkened circle.

You sure? the artist said. His head was shaved, and on one side of his skull was the word “Family” in giant graffiti letters. I’m positive, she said, as the gun vibrated to life. She’d refrained from asking if it would hurt. She knew that it would. Her stepmother had shown up at the hospital that day, one baby strapped to her chest and the other in her growing belly. She held Dana’s hand while she threw up off the side of the gurney. A possible concussion, the nurse said. Though the MRI looked clean, they kept her all night for observation. You’re going to be alright, her stepmother said over and over, and she knew that she was right. That these changes were inevitable. That another baby was coming. That there was only so much love to give. That she was fragile and wounded—but she had to take care of herself.

The needle sliced into her skin and she dug her fingernails into her palm. It burned along her bony spine, vibrating through her skeleton up and out the top of her skull, and she bit her lip, choking back tears. After a few minutes, though, when the artist had moved from her skeleton and onto the meatier parts of her back, and after her body had released enough endorphins, numbing up the area, she settled in with the rhythmic sensation, of drilling and vibration. At times, it was even calming; she nearly fell asleep.

Afterward, she stood, the artist expertly held her arm, repeating, Take it easy. She turned and looked over her shoulder in the floor length mirror. Beneath the fluorescent light, the new ink looked shiny, glistening with droplets of blood that the artist occasionally reached up to wipe away with his towel. That’s it, she thought, she was officially an adult, marked by this thing that was before off limits to her and now permanently a part of her like new possibility. It was a change that had been happening for years, pulling her closer with each passing day—growing up. A grown up. Several years later though, she’d notice that what had that day looked simply like a spiral, looked more like a whirlpool blown up, like water, swirling down a drain.

Kristina Ryan Tate’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree, Narratively, Guernica, Proximity, BOMB, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she is the standing Director of Communication, and a BA from Arizona State University. She is currently working on a novel in the wee hours of the morning.