Brittany—I think that’s her name, anyway—rubs my shoulder to wake me up. She’s sitting on the edge of my bed, naked, smiling at me in a way that lets me know that whatever we got up to last night went well. She confirms my hypothesis, purring, “You’re great at sex.”
I smile. She goes on a bit, being more specific about my sexual prowess. My heart sinks. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. It’s just another morning, she’s just another blonde woman whose name might be Brittany. My mind wanders to an article I’m planning about how the Disney film Zootopia is an Uncle Tom, she picks up the puppets on my nightstand and uses them to try to reenact some of the apparent feats we got up to overnight.
“Be careful with those,” I say. “They were a gift.”
She puts the puppets down. She frowns, fishes, “From your girlfriend?”
The puppets were given to me by Prince Harry, a token of appreciation for opening his eyes to the fact that Jughead is actually a more compelling character than Archie. I don’t write for money or respect, I write because I want to connect with people. Sometimes, when you’re dealing with royalty, that connection comes in the form of gifts.
“From a friend,” I say. Maybe one day, maybe years from now, she’ll notice an article in People magazine about how a set of wooden puppets is the highest honor the British Royal family can offer someone born outside the UK. Maybe she’ll think of me, and wonder.
What new Brittany will I have standing beside me, then? She’ll have perfect breasts and look better without makeup, just like the rest. She’ll compliment my tattoos, like they all do. I’ll take her to bed. She’ll wake me up and thank me for it.
But she won’t see me.
She’ll see what she wants to see. She’ll see the guy who wrote an essay about how the Power Rangers are a metaphor for code switching that received over nine thousand retweets, she’ll see the guy who wrote a quiz on A Series of Unfortunate Events so difficult that even Daniel Handler only scored a C-plus.
But she won’t see me.
Brittany says she’s thirsty. She wants a glass of water. Suddenly I’m a kid again, running through my backyard beside Micah Goddard, the coolest kid in fourth grade. He’s telling me he’s thirsty, too. Of course he is. We’ve been playing in the yard, it’s the middle of June– I should have provided him with something to drink already. How thoughtless of me. Now he’ll never come over again. Now he’ll tell everyone not to hang out with me, not unless you like being dehydrated. But no, I can fix this. I run into the house, grab a glass and fill it with water, bring it back out to him. He thanks me, takes a sip. Raises the glass to eye level, peers through it at the water inside.
“What is this?” Micah asks.
Shit—maybe he wanted soda. We have some Sprite in the fridge, too. What an idiot I am, giving out water when Sprite is on hand…
“It’s water,” I say. I reach for the glass. “I can get you—”
“Water?” Micah says. He sniffs the rim of the glass. “Fucking shit,” he says. We’re in fourth grade and Micah curses like a total pro. “Is this tap water?”
I don’t totally understand the question. I mean, I know what tap water is, the water in the cup came from the tap, the faucet…but where else would it have come from? A puddle? Did he think we had an old barrel for collecting rain water, that I’d served him a scoop of that?
I tell him yes, it’s tap water, and he blanches. Starts spitting, throws the cup across the yard.
“That’s fucking disgusting,” Micah says. He looks like he might vomit. “You weird freak. Do you know how many… tap water has copper and mercury in it, idiot. Are you trying to kill me?
No, I want to say. I want to say, No.
I want to say, I am not trying to kill you, but you, right now, what you’re saying
Of course, I didn’t die that afternoon. No… instead I was reborn. I was infused with new knowledge, new understanding, new insight into myself, my family, my world.
That was the day I learned that there’s a difference between being ashamed of something you did and feeling shame for who you are.
That was the day I discovered that my family drank straight, unadulterated tap water. That was the day I discovered my family didn’t use a Brita filter.
That night I asked my mother why we didn’t filter our water. We were in the kitchen, she was going through the TV Guide with a highlighter. She looked up at me and said Brita filters were too expensive.
Too expensive? Brita filters are too expensive? They filter out copper and mercury, you have money for TV Guide and highlighter pens but not for a device that will save us from being poisoned?
“All they do is make the water taste a little better,” my mother said.
“Don’t you think I deserve better tasting water?” I asked.
I learned to take milk or soda with my meals. I learned not to invite friends over in the summer months, when they were more likely to get parched. My birthday falls in July. Instead of having everyone over for a sleepover like the other kids did on their birthday I had no choice but to invite everyone out for bowling.
I wasn’t very good at bowling. I blamed it on the copper, mercury, chlorine… whatever poisons I was getting regular doses of due to my parent’s refusal to do the right thing. To save myself the shame of trying to bowl well and coming up short I’d act up, treat the whole thing like a joke. Pretend my fingers were stuck in the ball and throw myself halfway down the lane or else toss whip the ball with wild abandon, so hard it’d bounce into the gutter and out again.
I developed a reputation for being reckless. I’d do that thing where you rub a pencil eraser real hard and fast against your desk and then sniff it to get dizzy all the time. I figured with all the poisons I was already taking in, what could a few more hurt? I moved on to clove cigarettes. One night, sitting on a bench outside the mall, a woman asked if she could bum one and we struck up a conversation. Her name was Heather, she worked at the candle store. She was twenty-two, I was sixteen. She took my virginity; I gave her a son I refused to acknowledge.
I thought he’d be better off without me. What did I have to offer him?
Little flecks of minerals.
She named him Isaac.
Isaac, if you’re reading this I want you to know that Brittany uses her thumb to wipe away a tear I didn’t realize I was shedding. “Don’t cry,” she says. “Between all the incredible, sweaty sex we had last night and the amazing amount of ejaculate you’re capable of producing—which is a sure sign of your incredible masculinity—you’ll end up dehydrated. The human body is 60% water, but you? Today? You must be down to 25% at most.”
The human body is mostly water, Isaac. The water we take in replenishes our cells, whatever is in that water is who we are in the most literal sense. All that copper and mercury, that chlorine, those little flecks of minerals, that’s everything I am, everything I’ve done, everything I’ll ever do. Brittany says she’s going to the kitchen, she’ll get some water for us both. She wants to have sex again.
I say, “Okay.”
And for the first time since fourth grade, when I say “Okay,” I feel like I actually am.