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little water

Kristen Arnett

            When we leave the house, we are flush with cash. Flush is the operative; you’re flush and then you’ve flushed it. Flushing reminds us of toilets, because liquefying your assets makes them permeable and turns them to waste water. Our mother told us not to think of the money as liquid, that if we thought of it as liquid, we’d let it slip through our fingers. It was money for our future selves, money that we wouldn’t ever see again.

            Don’t waste your retirement money, honey. If you water it, it’ll grow.

            We don’t want to say our mother was right, but after a few hours out with us, the money absolutely dries up. It drips through a hole in our purse, dispersing until evaporates. It isn’t all selfish. We make it rain on the bar tabs of every friend we make that night. We make a lot of friends.

            We don’t know the word for when we’ve drunk up all the money. What’s the word for when money turns liquid, something wet slid across a beer-drenched countertop? Wet like forgetting to pull down our underwear when we use the restroom at the grocery store on the way home from that bar, when we drunkenly soak through the panel at the center, urine blossoming yellow flowers across pale cotton? Enough wet on the tile floor the management asks us to leave in a tone that says we-are-gonna-call-the-cops-you-dumb-bitch?

            It was in our best interest to get out of the house, the house that’s not even ours. It’s a house we moved back into from our crummy apartment, a house we grew up in, a house where we still sleep in nubbly Rainbow Brite sheets and stare at glow-in-the-dark stars pressed to the popcorn ceiling, stars patterned like big-and-little-dippers. Our mother owns the house and the bedroom and the sheets and the popcorn ceiling. We’ve never owned a house. We’ll never own a house.

            Allowances for breaking open a 401k include what’s called an “extreme hardship.” An extreme hardship is defined through yes-or-no statements in an online form; someone reads our paperwork and decides via four sentences whether we qualify for money that was ours to begin with. They tax the retirement funds up to 40 percent of our take. That’s a glass-half-empty scenario because there’s very little joy in drinking away your future. Our mother owned a house by the time she was 30 years old. She opened a savings account and wrote the bank balances in her checkbook with a leaky blue pen. We wrote a check for groceries at a Target Superstore once and got the amount wrong, and that check bounced. We’ve had six jobs in the last seven years, and the money slipped into the 401k is an amalgamation of all of them.

            You just haven’t found your passion yet, says our mother, but what if passion is just a constant, forever draining of our finances and credibility? Credit where credit is due: we have overdrafted our lives planning for future successes.

            At the bar, we place the credit card facedown so we don’t have to look at it while it slides away. The magnetic stripe across its back is an oil-slicked stretch of road leading someplace gauzy. Card slides across, a drink slides back. When we don’t think about our bank account leeching away, it’s easier to drink whatever’s put in front of us. We’re not picky when we’re thirsty.

            When you’re young and dip your toe into car payments and cell phone bills and student loans, they don’t tell you how it feels to wade out into the deep end. How opening your 401k is like taking off water wings when you’ve never learned to swim. It’s freeing at first: limbs waving wildly, excess cash flow washing over us. We don’t realize how far we’ve drifted from shore until we try and touch land and see it’s slipped to the horizon. It takes years to build up enough for retirement, but once you’ve opened the floodgates, it’s sink or swim, an IRS dead weight gripping your ankle.

            401(k)s For Dummies tells us:

            Make taking money out of your 401(k) retirement account your last option.

Remember that a $10,000 withdrawal at age 35 will result in a loss of more than $210,000 by age 65, assuming a 9 percent investment return.

            Our 401k released like a burst dam. When we had jobs, handing over retirement percentages from our paycheck felt a little like drinking skim milk: there was just enough fat in the trade to make the situation palatable. Broken open, it’s a pitcher of spilled cream. The taxed amount the government kept of the 401k is more than we made in the last six months, but it probably won’t last six days.

            We’re always parched from stress, mouths sticky-gummed, tongues coated white. Gritty teeth full of sand. We might be dehydrated, but we would rather have another beer instead. Beer for water, a way to fuzzy up the choices we make at night, in the morning, in the mid-afternoon still in our pajamas purchasing stuff we don’t need off the internet. New shirt, new shoes. A sweater with a wave embroidered on the front. Something a woman will see that tells them we’re the right choice. I see you and I see what you’ve spent, say those clothes. Our mother sees the empty packing materials and breathes through her mouth with her eyes closed. We’ve got our hands clamped around our mother’s ankle, and the IRS is gripping ours, and we’re sinking together like drowning victims.

            Buy you a drink? asks a woman with the same haircut you sported last year, two years ago. Buy you a drink? asks your conjoined twin.

            Girls we meet in bars are the kind we avoid other places because they remind us of looking in funhouse mirrors. Same sallow skin, corkscrewed mouths ringed with peeling lipstick, fingers pruned from clutching countless bottles of Yuengling. Sunlit, we escape each other like cockroaches scurrying under a fridge, but in the yeasty-beer mist, we’re cloaked in a fog that clouds the room like a muggy shower. Everyone is damp and dewy eyed.

            After our drinks: up from the barstool, across the beer-slick floor, into the first bathroom stall available. We don’t throw up because we bought those beers and it’s wasteful. We can’t control our bladders, though; once the seal is broken, we release like a punctured water bed.

            Every part of us is numb, legs rubbery and disconnected from our torsos. When we wash our hands, a rusty mess runs from the tap like the pipe has been stabbed. Our gaze meets the mirror to find other moist eyes. Thirsty girls know where to congregate, loose-limbed, spitty wounded mouths ready to drink us up. Clammy hands trembling, we chart the waters. We slide inside easily, lubricated, slick enough to suck a fist whole. We need it wet enough it won’t hurt. Drenched, we can forget until next time.

            Out of the bathroom and back to the bar, but then out of the bar and into that same grocery store and into that bathroom and then back to our car. We take off our wet underwear and throw it in the backseat to leave a stain the shape of Florida. But somehow, we get home.

            We eat the leftovers from the fridge and don’t remember we left our credit card at the bar, stuffed under two copies of a damp receipt, unsigned. We fall asleep with one foot on the floor to stop the bed from washing away. When we surface in the morning, we’ll breathe as if through a damp wool sweater.

            Don’t look for our purse, sprawled half open on the floor, insides strewn out like vomit. Don’t look at the sun peeking through the window blinds, slicing open our pupils until we bury ourselves back under our Rainbow Brite bedsheets. Don’t listen for our mothers, tapping past our doorways, breath rank with stale coffee as they bend over to smooth our sweaty necks.

            Our bank accounts are plumbed dry and musty.

            But if we have to, we’ll pry off our mother’s well cap. Take the car, the checkbook, the house. We’re mildewed from the stinking remnants sitting gunked in our reservoirs. We take it into our lungs without a struggle. Does slipping beneath the current look like waving? We rinse and rinse. There’s not enough water in the world to flush it completely clean.

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Tin House, Kenyon Review, and Lambda Literary Foundation. She was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction, was runner-up for the 2016 Robert Watson Literary Prize at The Greensboro Review, and was a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Fiction Prize. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, OSU’s The Journal, Catapult, Bennington Review, Portland Review, Grist Journal, Tin House Flash Fridays, The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her debut story collection, Felt in the Jaw, will be published by Split Lip Press in 2017. You can find her on Twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett.