By Rebecca Hannigan
We have water, but not much. My daughter takes it straight from the toilet. My husband can’t stay away from the storm drain. It’s dry. It’s getting drier every day. So dry that dinners are different, denatured. Like last night.
Last night I made noodles. And by “made,” I mean broke into pieces and scattered onto our plates like pick-up sticks.
It was a culinary excursion. An expedition. An expiation, for all the water crimes we and, more seminally, our parents, have committed.
“Well,” my husband said and stuck noodles in his mouth. “It’s, umm,” his eyes narrowed to slits, like little accusations. “It could use some salt,” he said, but I could hardly hear him over the sound of my own crunching, my own chewing through cheeks full of uncooked fettuccine.
“It’s an excursion,” I explained. He didn’t understand. My daughter gave no comment, just kept her face close to the plate.
After dinner, I stepped outside for some fresh air. My neighbor was standing on his porch. I waved at him. He waved back. I could see a scaly ring around his mouth and heavy circles depressing his eyes. I called him “Jupiter.” He didn’t laugh.
I watched him walk inside, and a few moments later, I saw bright TV colors glow through the window.
I wondered what he was watching. I wondered if I could join him, if I could maybe curl up with him on the couch, drape a blanket over us both, and wrap my arms around his shoulders or his waist and tell him I’m sorry, for the hurt he’s hurting and the want he’s wanting. Maybe he wants dinner—I could offer—and maybe he would say yes and eat appreciatively, even if the noodles were kind of crunchy and needed “some salt.”
I watched and wondered, but instead of doing anything, I turned back inside to get my daughter ready for bed.
It doesn’t smell so bad, not showering. If you don’t inhale.
We buy all of the deodorant, cologne, body spray, breath mints. There’s no shampoo. I say to my daughter, “My hair is greasy, but my skin is dry. How does that make sense?”
She shrugs. “How does anything make sense?”
I consider shaving my head. I ask what my husband thinks. He is too busy with his face stuck in his cereal, lapping up the last of the milk molecules stuck to the sides of the bowl.
“Yeah, uh-huh,” he says, finally lifting his face and jingling his keys, ready to leave for work. “You have a great day too,” he says, as if to suggest he stopped listening long ago.
I go to the store with my daughter to buy a buzzer. She glares and says I’m old-fashioned when I smile at people. When I shop, stand in line, swipe the card. She reminds me that common courtesy has gone out of style. I tell her, “I know. I know that there’s no need to be polite, but a habit is hard to kick.”
What is not hard to kick: the empty water gallon, sitting on our kitchen floor, so full of its own emptiness—and our cat, who steals more sips out of the sink than any of us.
The sink is now full of hair, russet clumps from my scalp. The buzzer quivered, quick. I’m surprised. My head is bald. My daughter looks horrified, but I smile. I’ve wanted a reason to do this for a long time. Not much else in this new world feels right, but this. This feels right.
I’m smiling when the neighbor calls, asking to borrow a few ounces of water for coffee. It’s Friday, and he’s already used up his ration for the week. He’s desperate.
“Sure,” I tell him. “Come on over.”
He sits down on the couch while I carefully administer the right ratio of ground coffee to hot water.
“I like your hair. Or lack thereof,” he says and smiles. He looks at me shyly at first, then curiously, letting his eyes move all over my face and neck and chest and shoulders.
“Thank you,” I say, and smile back. He keeps looking, and smiling, warmly. I shudder, feeling the heat radiate from his lips, his teeth. I move to sit next to him, and he looks away to add the smallest amount of milk to his coffee. Milk is limited, what with cows drying up and dying, along with the rivers.
“You’ve lived next door since my daughter was born,” I say, because I just realized.
I scoot closer. “You’ve stuck around, even when the other neighbors have left.”
“My husband’s job keeps us here,” I say, watching him watch his coffee. “But we’re pretty thirsty. At least, he’s pretty thirsty, and angry. He wants to go to the coast soon. See how the desalination science is going.” I close my eyes and lean back. “Isn’t it crazy, what they say? That those of us whose bodies are able to handle more salt have a better chance of surviving? And those who can’t…”
He nods and finally looks at me again, with eyes larger than the cup in his hands. Large like the lake beds, the rivers and reservoirs, all dried up.
“Do you get lonely over there, all by yourself?” I ask, thinking about the TV lights last night. He doesn’t say anything, but I feel his body shift next to mine. His leg is only inches from my leg, and I can almost feel its pressure.
“Why are you so polite?” he asks. “Nobody’s generous anymore.”You could’ve kept this to yourself.” The inches are no longer inches, and I actually feel his leg against mine. “What do you want in return?” he asks.
We look at each other with such intensity, that it almost hurts to look, or to look away, and I have no idea how to say what I want, and we keep looking, and it feels longer than I’ve actually looked at anyone, really, or really been looked at, and soon it’s not just looking but touching, his hand on my hand and up to my arm and elbow and shoulder, approaching my neckline, and I think this is maybe what I’ve been wanting, and I start to move my face closer to his face when I hear a small but sharp sigh coming from a few feet away, coming from my daughter, who has just walked into the room.
“Mom,” she says. She lets her tongue fall out of her mouth. “I feel like a piece of dried fruit.”
My neighbor leaves out the back door as my husband comes in through the front. My head, my heart, suddenly feel cold.
“Where is your hair?” my husband asks.
“I . . . I shaved it.”
“Well I can see that,” he says, with his face twisting like a rag. “But why?”
“To save water—” I say, but he isn’t listening. He’s pacing the kitchen, and my daughter stands in the doorway, her body stuck between two rooms.
“I know there’s nothing to drink, but is there anything to eat around here?” he asks angrily, opening and closing cupboards.
“I asked you,” I start to say.
“What?” he spits. “You asked what?”
“Before you left, I tried to ask you what it would look like if I . . . if I shaved my head,” I say and then realize that I’m crying, and I’m amazed at the thick, wet tears that cannot stop coming from someplace I forgot about, some sort of reserve I must have been keeping, despite the fact that I’ve felt so dry this whole time. I’m crying, and I can’t stop, and I don’t understand how my body can hold on to so much water when nothing else in the world seems to be able to. “I’m going to get the last bottle from the garage,” I finally say.
“Why are you getting it? That’s for next week!” he yells.
“Why are you yelling?” I yell back. “I just want, I just need a little—” I start to say but I realize I am telling the wrong person, so I don’t finish and then I’m in the backyard with my shirt sleeves mopping up the spill under my eyes.
I don’t notice my neighbor, not until I have the water bottle in my hands and am almost out the back door to the alley.
“Hey,” he says.
He looks at me, takes a step forward. “You never answered me,” he says. “I want to know how I can pay you back.”
I breathe slowly, out, then in. I feel the weight of the water bottle shift in my palms. “Well,” I look at the water, then up at him. “You could make me a cup of coffee.”
I look back at my house. My husband, my daughter, and then me, without water. I follow my neighbor to his place, wondering if I’ll still feel dry when I get inside.