“Is it done yet?” My child has joined me in the kitchen and she is hopping, as always. The cabinets and I shudder. “The macaroni? No. I’ve only just started the boil.” I lean my lower back against the counter to steady my standing, as if my child’s movement could create a whirlpool that would suck me under. “Quit hopping near the stove!” Viv makes her legs quit and straightens her arms at her side, performing stopping, but I can tell that the particles inside her skin are still jumping, even though they’re bound up by the limits of her flesh. I am forever stymying her, asking her to go against her body’s impulses. She’s a hopper, she’s a frog and I’m a flat, glassy pond surface. She loves the kerplunk she makes in me, it brings her instant joy—the sound and the sensation both—while her wild joining makes me feel splashed, fussy and interrupted. All from the same kerplunk. Neither one of us is wrong but one of us is full-grown and one of us is temporarily in charge of the other’s dear little spirit. Both of us are always sorry. To express this particular sorry I say, “Can you hop in circles around the dining room table instead?” She tilts her head sideways which must relieve some amount of pent-up pressure. “But will you watch me do it?” I sigh, ripple-ripple. “Off and on, yes.” I watch as Viv swells back into her normal state of always-going. First her knees bend—the restrained body had been heavy on them, the stopping weighed extra. Her head falls forward toward her chest. It's like she has to let the stillness seep out before she can command any wiggling. Then she straightens one leg out into a pointy toe and raises her arms high as if to praise this very moment of her existence before she leaps and stomps toward the table in the next room. This arrangement—half my attention—is good enough for her. I’m sorry. I’ll embroider the words into her baby book and her pillowcase and her college application letter. I peek under the pan’s lid and see steam but no boil. A bit of the steam escapes before I return the lid and I use my hand to waft it toward my pimpled chin. Chemical reaction (water plus heat) meet chemical reaction (hormones plus calendar). I don’t notice the bonking until it stops. The floor is too quiet. “Mama, you’re not watching!” Viv has her hands on her hips and she’s right about me. I step closer to her, to distance myself from my not-watching. “I was about to! Go ahead, I’ll watch now. I’ll watch extra.” She chugs around the table with her arms pumping but every so often, at indecipherable intervals, her body leaves the floor and then plonks down with a force that makes me feel concerned for my home’s underlying structure. I picture the unseen support beams in a state of shaky disturbance, as if they were made of string cheese. The cooking timer beeps. I say, “What a show, Viv” and go to the stove to make the beeping stop. I turn off the heat but the boil keeps going because there’s no switch for the water, only for the warmth. I put a colander in the sink and grasp the pan’s handle, ready to pour and drain. As I’m holding the pan and moving from the stove to the sink, two easy steps, Viv yells, “Mom, watch me raccoon!” and I am admittedly curious about what that looks like. As I turn my body toward her I try to simultaneously set the saucepan back down on the stove, one quick trick. But there’s a level of incoordination I didn’t take into account, there’s some bodily confusion between hesitancy and hastiness, there’s a slip that comes along with the turn and I don’t have time to react or understand before I am screaming from a place inside me that I haven’t accessed since I was giving birth to Viv, since my body forced us apart. This screaming place is my gatekeeper alarm, my who-goes-there, my we’ve-been-hit. My legs have taken most of the spill. They feel melted and warped, more ruined than hurt. I am screaming and I have an awareness that the sounds I am making will frighten my child but I can’t stop them coming. They are honest sounds. I am sitting on the floor, part of the spill. I know I need to move, take action, undo. I should take off my tights but I am scared to see what’s been done to me. I soon quiet down but instinctively start rocking my upper body back and forth, a physical-shock dance routine. I manage to say to Viv, “Mommy will be okay. But I need your help. Get me my phone.” She looks at the macaroni noodles on the floor and then at her recently-howling mother. She’s lost her lunch and her audience thanks to one weak wrist. I say, “Go. It’s on the coffee table. Hurry, honey.” She trots off and I reach under my dress to take down the waist of my tights. I don’t want to look but I wonder if the wet tights are making my burn worse, if the fabric is fusing to my skin. At that damage-acknowledging thought the pain reaches me. It had been more of a suggestion of pain, too fresh to know me, but now the wounds sing. I start making the low moans that helped me navigate contractions. I rock and moan as I pull my tights down over my thighs. Viv is standing at the kitchen doorway. I hadn’t heard her approach because I had been moaning and because she had calmed her body to the point of quietness, like I’d always wanted her to do. She’s scared, of course. She’s holding my phone to her chest like it’s a teddy bear. Her one upright parent is inside that rectangle. “Thank you, baby. Can you hand it to me?” She nods but doesn’t come closer. “Are you going to die?” “No, I’m not going to die.” She hands me my phone then returns to her spot in the doorway. “Then can you make me a peanut butter and jelly since my other lunch fell down?” The pain is getting worse. It’s a spicy pain and I vocalize and rock and I shake my head “no” to answer Viv. I wonder if I can walk. I remember once burning my finger on a barbecue grill and running cold water over the red to ease the pain. I need to get myself under some water. I would dive toward any relief. I call my husband and as it rings I finish taking off my tights. One of my knees and both of my shins are ugly with injury. The injury is clearly a splash which is horrifying—the falling water had no limits. It could have missed me completely. It could have splashed my face, easy. Now I know which sections of flesh are sending the worst pain, I can see the spots where the skin hangs. My husband answers, “Hey.” I wish I were the person he assumes he’s speaking to, some fine, intact person who didn’t bring this on herself. “I need you to come home. I’ve hurt myself. I think it’s pretty bad.” The phone is shaking near my head because my hand is trembling. “What? What happened? Do you need to call an ambulance?” “I don’t know. I’ve burned myself. I spilled boiling water.” Viv starts crying. Hearing a narrative of what she already knows to be true proves too much. Now it’s a story that can be told and she doesn’t like the ending. I say into the phone, “I’ve got to go. Viv is upset. I think I’ll be okay. But come.” “I’m coming. I’m coming right now.” “Wait, Vince?” “Yeah?” “It’s a spicy pain.” For some reason I need him to know where the pain falls on a salsa-hotness scale before he comes any closer to me.
Viv cheerleads me toward the bathroom. “You can do it, mama!” She’s been comforted by the fact that her daddy is coming and that I’ve stopped screaming and found my low tones. But she’s comforted most of all by the box of cheesy rockets I grabbed down for her once I was upright. I find that standing doesn’t necessarily hurt any more than sitting, the pain is just at a slant. Once I am up I run toward the idea that this pain could be lessened. In the bathroom I sit on the tub’s edge and turn on the cold water. The forceful sound the water makes causes my burn to hurt more. It’s that sensitive. I don’t know if I can handle the sensation of having my legs under that stream. I feel like my skin might come right off—clog the drain, reveal my muscle. As a tolerance test I put my hand under the faucet and splash water on my knee. Yes, that makes it scream less, but the relief only lasts that wet second before the water runs down my leg. I start dumping handfuls on myself as quickly as I can so that the pain never has a chance to ramp back up. I’ve got both hands going like a greedy windmill. Viv is sitting on the floor behind me, eating her snack out of the box. My whole body is shivering now, come alive at the hint of death. I am still moaning in cow tones to cope with the pain. I focus, too, on the sound Viv’s hand makes when it fishes down into the box for more bites, the rattle of needs being met. I want more water on my legs but I am still reluctant to put them directly under. Viv’s plastic tugboat is sitting in the far corner of the tub. “Can I use your boat?” She answers, “You can borrow it… but it’s still mine.” I fill and pour boatloads as I become mesmerized by the burns on my legs, how familiar the damaged skin looks. All earthly shapes and textures have a precedent. My wounds look like a stepped-on sandcastle, like crumbly cheese, like anthills and storm clouds and tree bark and ill-fitting shrink wrap. I have no sense of time or of parenting, I simply refill and pour without stopping. I think about how water is both the hero and the villain, it’s only a matter of degrees. I understand that my husband is home only because Viv says, “Daddy!” and then “I’m letting Mommy borrow my boat. Isn’t that nice of me?” I hadn’t heard him come into the house. My whole life has become so small: fill the water, release the water, fill, release. There’s no room in my new small life for this husband and his exclamations like, “Oh my god, that looks horrible.” When I finally look up at him, when I see him seeing me, I start to cry. I cry because it hurts and because it happened and because now I feel closer to the possibility of other bad things happening, like this burn is a door to the room of bodily harm. He takes over the water therapy—does all the pouring for me without asking me to tell the story of how this happened. My butt hurts from sitting on the edge of the tub so long. Through my tears and my sore butt I say, “I’ve always been vain about my legs and now they are ruined and it’s probably a punishment for my vanity.” Vince grabs Viv’s hand and says, “We’re going to get a couple pitchers. That way you won’t have to wait for a refill.” I readjust my body between pours because my ass is going numb. In my legs’ new configuration I see a circle of completely normal skin on the inside of my knee. I must have instinctively squeezed my legs together as I screamed, a terror clench. I wonder if a weed, when pulled from the earth, tenses up and holds itself together—if the leaves redouble their connection to the stem. Vince returns with two full pitchers. What a party. He resumes pouring and tells me he set Viv up with a TV show. “It’s an emergency so we don’t even have to feel guilty about it.” “Yeah, I should scorch myself more often so we can really ramp up the screen time around here.” As long as the pain is constantly being appeased by the cool water I can function normally, which is to say I can make unpopular jokes. Vince asks what we should do, if we need to get help. I tell him that I can’t possibly leave the water, even to go to the hospital. The thought of a dry car ride with my open skin exposed to all the crumbs and vented air our Honda has to offer… is excruciating. He says, “I’m going to call your mom” which I would typically regard as a cruel threat but my mom is a retired nurse so I nod in agreement instead of saying “How could you?” He kisses my hair, hands me a pitcher and leaves to go involve my mother. He comes back almost immediately and says, “She wants to talk to you.” I shake my head no. “I have to keep the water going.” “She’s insisting. I’ll put it on speaker.” He sets the phone near the sink and leaves to sit with Viv. My mom says, “Is anyone there? Am I listening to Niagara Falls?” “I’m here, mom. I have to keep putting cool water on my burns or I can’t cope.” “Oh, you poor thing. How did this happen?” “I was cooking. I don’t want to talk about it right now. Just tell me: Is it going to scar?” “I don’t know. It depends on if they are second or third degree burns.” “I look like pizza topping, whatever degree that is. Do I need to go to the hospital?” “Not immediately. Staying under the water is your best bet. Why don’t you fill the tub and sit in it?” “I don’t know. I just can’t. I’m so cold. My whole body is wobbling.” “You’re in shock. You should have someone bandage it up and apply silvadene. And you’ll need a tetanus shot. But I think you can do all that tomorrow.” “Will it hurt less tomorrow? I can keep going if I know I won’t always have to.” “I hope so. I mean, probably.” I say nothing. My feet are quite blue. I’ll never stand. My blood will never properly circulate. It won’t hurt less tomorrow. I’ll never leave this bathroom again. Mom says, “You know, this same thing happened to your Great-Grandma Dolores. She had a cooking accident with boiling water. But it landed on her daughter, on my mom.” “Oh, right,” I say, picturing the scar on my grandma’s chest. She always kept it covered but I thought it was attractive, like lacy skin. A neck doily. “She was only three or four when it happened.” “Like Viv.” I say this very slowly. I don’t even like the suggestion of a splash coming anywhere close to Viv. “You’re lucky it didn’t get her.” I nod, alone, for myself. The thought of the burn I’m staring into being transferred onto Viv’s perfect, precious skin makes me shake in a new way, more fitful and more afraid. Her body couldn’t take on such pain—it’s meant to be growing and going forward, not reeling and shrinking back. The sounds she’d make, my inability to make it better or to make the offending liquid not have come from my hands. I’d heard Grandma recount the incident in a detached way while touching the spot that inspired the story: My mother spilled her cooking water on me. I cried and screamed until they gave me whiskey to make me sleep. All my life Mom got teary and apologized every time I came out of my room wearing a crew neck on a hot summer day. Even though she carried the scar, her mother had to carry the memory, the screaming, the guilt, the splash of the spill. I tell my mom, “I kicked Viv out of the kitchen because she was bothering me. She was only being herself but I wanted her to do it elsewhere. I bet Grandma Dolores was kinder and more patient. I bet she liked having her daughter so close.” “Maybe. Maybe there’s no safe distance for mothers and daughters.” I laugh because it’s so sad and true and say, “That’s why I keep you on speaker phone, Mom.” “Do you want me to come over and pour water on you?” She’s joking but I say, “I don’t know. Yes?” “Yes?” “Yes, please.” “Really? Do you really want me to?” In her voice I can hear that she doesn’t want to come—two “reallys” for her burned baby. I try to remember what she did with me while she cooked. Did she banish me or keep me in her apron? I can’t recall. We ate a lot of frozen pizza. I dump another round of the cold water that I can’t stop and can’t stand and say “I don’t know, Mom” while I think Yes, of course I really do. But mostly I think about how I don’t want to have to tell anyone what I need them to do for me. It feels too close.
Janelle Bassett's writing appears in The Offing, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Southern Humanities Review, Porter House Review, Slice Magazine, River Styx, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Her story collection, “Thanks for This Riot” was short-listed for the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Award, judged by Carmen Maria Machado. She reads fiction for Split Lip Magazine and is online at janellebassett.com. Twitter: @hazmatcat; Instagram: @jbknows.