By: Audrey moyce

The moment Rachel woke up she knew she was going to masturbate. She felt the familiar ache in her groin, and the sweat around her neck held the whiff of preemptive shame. The Backstreet Boys in the posters above her bed looked down at her.

She must not. Must not. God was watching, and God-knows-who-else was, too. And every time you touch yourself, it lays another brick on the staircase to hell. She had to stop this before it began.

“Where are you going?” Rachel barked as she entered the kitchen. Sun glinted through the big windows.

“Well good morning to you, too!” her mom shot back with a smile. Phyllis rearranged her neon visor, tugged at the spiral elastic running around the back. “I told you, I’m going swimming, then Bob and I are going to Sacramento. Is that okay with you?” she asked, with playful sarcasm.

Home alone? God damn it, she thought, then added a quick Sorry, God. “Yeah, I just forgot,” Rachel said, turning away to make a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Her mom was saying something about painting the house.

“I told you about that, right?”

“What?”

“Rach, you don’t listen to me!”

“Yes, I do. It’s not my fault you talk a lot.”

“That wasn’t very nice, honey.”

“Whatever.”

Phyllis clearly wanted to respond, but she held back. “Anyway, just close the drapes if you’re going to be in the family room all day, I don’t want some strange man peeping in at you.”

“Fine.”

“Anything I can getcha while I’m up?”

“No. Bye.”

“Okay. Love you, see ya!”

“Love you,” Rachel returned eventually. She heard the bang of the front door closing, the twist of the key turning in its lock.

 

Occasionally, Rachel did have the thought that masturbating might be something God could overlook. She knew she was hurting the body God had given her, but at least it wasn’t hurting anyone else. More to the point, if it truly was a hard-and-fast rule, she couldn’t think of a single boy in the sixth grade who would make it to heaven.

But she rarely let herself think this. Besides, the thing she hated most about her “little problem” was that every day, she made the conscious decision not to do it, and nearly every day, her body found itself in opportune circumstances. Did she, or did she not, have free will? She prayed nightly to resist the temptation, to little avail.

This was why Saturdays alone were to be avoided at all costs. But softball season had ended, and soccer season hadn’t started. What else was she supposed to do?

 

Rachel felt like she blinked and several hours had passed. In fact, they had included second and third bowls of cereal, heaping portions that made any position but lying on her back like a snow angel on the floor in front of the TV supremely uncomfortable. She had all but finished the milk, leaving the tiniest bit in the bottom of the half gallon so Mom couldn’t get mad.

The hours had also included several hours of Disney Channel programming, and just a half hour of forbidden MTV before she felt guilty and switched back. It was a Spring Break rerun, and the men and women—impossibly mature, she thought—pranced down a catwalk in self-designed bikinis made of only shaving cream. She imagined their naked bodies beneath the very slippery cream and felt the dangerous ache again.

She suddenly felt anxious to shower, get clean. If she was clean, then maybe, just maybe she could last the day. Her pajamas were off by the time she got to the top of the stairs. She went to her mom’s bathroom, where there was a full-length mirror.

She examined her breasts first, checking for signs of budding. No budding underneath the nipple when she faced front, but from the side they seemed to poke out a little more than they did the last time she checked.

Next Rachel stretched side to side, touched her toes, all the while looking in the mirror to see how her fat folded. Stomach still had too much on it, and when she let her breath out, she thought she looked pregnant. Why couldn’t that fat go up to her boobs? Her calves and forearms were slim, though, and that was what showed most in her Catholic school uniform.

Rachel ran the water, first too cold and then too hot. She yearned to lie on her back in the tub and let the water work its magic, but she resisted.

After washing herself, the can of her mom’s shave gel caught her eye. She squirted out a palmful, cradling the pretty pink glob before rubbing it on her stomach, turning the clear gel into white cream. She figured this was technically not a sin. It was more like dress-up. She shaped the cream on her body so that it covered her nipples and the triangle where her legs met. She recalled the large-breasted women in their “bikinis” strutting, and she felt the ache in her groin again, harder than before.

Rinse yourself, she commanded. Turn off the water. Grab the towel. Dry off. Be rough. Wrap your body so it’s covered. Tight. You will not do it. You will. not. do it.

But before she reached her bed, she knew of course she would. She arranged the sheets in a lump, lying down on her stomach. Her elbows propped her up as though she might read, but instead she started thrusting, gently, back and forth, back and forth.

Slowly, the ache felt less like an ache and more like a pleasurable itch. More and more. A little faster. Her hair got in her eyes, so she jerked her head to flick it away. When she did so, she saw her lower half ripple and heave in the mirror on the closet door, which she had stupidly forgotten to close. Rachel felt a disgust so thorough she almost stopped. Almost.

She also couldn’t help noticing the faint tan line on her butt. She instantly thought of a photo she had found last year, hidden in her mom’s bathroom. She was snooping in some boxes tucked under the sink, wooden and covered in magazine cutouts and Mod Podge, hippy flowers and girls with long straight hair parted in the middle. Inside the box had been a photo of a woman lying on her side. Rachel pulled the photo out, realizing three things at once:

One, the light peach bikini with a furry patch was, in fact, sharp tan lines on a very tanned, very naked body.

Two, the woman’s middle finger pointed at her temple, like a gun. Like, “Kill me,” or maybe, “Fuck me.”

And three, the stunning woman lounging in the photo was a much younger version of her mother.

As Rachel lay on her bed, grinding against her sheets, she couldn’t stop imagining the photo, shame burning at her forehead. She also couldn’t stop pushing her body toward the conclusion it needed. It just felt so good. She thought about the Madeleine L’Engle novel she read once, about a scientist who could use lasers to stimulate the pleasure center, as easy as pressing a button. It made people crazy, willing to do anything for the feeling.

She prayed for forgiveness a few seconds before she felt the sweaty rush of intense pleasure, the spasm of finishing, and the ensuing rush of shame. It came in waves, each sign of her action—flushed chest, tangled hair, sore inner thighs—a fresh reminder of her enormous failure. Quickly she wrapped herself in the towel again. Her whole body felt sticky, like her whole body had secreted the moistness that now oozed from between her legs.

Rachel thought she’d walk downstairs to cool off. Not sure why, she stopped by the bathroom first and found the box with the photo. As she pulled it out, she couldn’t stop her eyes from homing in on her mom’s bushy triangle in the photo, and she felt a swift yank in her own still tender groin. Pervert. She took the photo with her downstairs.

The sun hung lower now, but it shone just as harshly. Like it was rubbing its cheerfulness in her face. Back in the kitchen, she considered eating again. She touched her stomach and sides, pulling on her skin. No, she didn’t deserve food. In the family room, she turned on the TV. She turned it off. Didn’t deserve that, either. She had to do something. She needed to be rid of this feeling.

 

Eureka!

She found the drawer in the kitchen where her mom kept candles and cloth napkins. She took out the lighter with the long nose and child-safety mechanism and tested to make sure it still had fluid.

Carefully, ceremoniously, Rachel placed the photo in the fireplace, atop a large candle holder inside it. They’d never built a fire here—it never got that cold, plus there was some sort of crack somewhere in the flue or chimney. Her mom claimed this made it unsafe to use.

Rachel clicked the lighter and set the photo aflame. She knelt in front of the fireplace, entranced by the small fire. This was it. This was what was needed.

***

The house painters had a miscommunication with their client Phyllis earlier that week. Phyllis said she wanted taupe, which they thought meant light brown, but which she took to mean soft yellow, or maybe even eggshell. The painters had to buy all new materials—they had bought the water-based paint that was preferred these days, but painting a nearly white shade over the existing blue required the thickness of an oil base. The contractor said he’d buy everything that weekend and drop it off for the guys to start first thing Monday.

After a series of other chores that Saturday—Orchard Supply for a gardening hoe for his wife, Walgreens for their son’s prescriptions—he made it to Home Depot and finally found a couple of shades he thought would be much closer to what this client had in mind. She was a single mom who seemed capable of paying the mortgage on a pretty sizable house, but she didn’t seem to have a job or any discernible source of income. Alimony, maybe.

Using the gate key Phyllis had given him, he let himself into the backyard. Just drop the stuff off, make sure it won’t get rained on, get to the next task on the list.

The contractor lined everything up against the house, underneath its slim overhang. His eyes drifted to the sliding glass door, through which he saw an ordinary-looking den. He also saw the swiftly receding backside of a preteen girl in a towel, racing out of sight.

***

Damn. Shit. Damn! Rachel panicked as she ran, suddenly recalling what her mom had been blabbering on about that morning. Oh my God oh my God (I’m sorry God!). Had the man seen her? How much had he seen? Why did he have to pick that moment to come over? What, he didn’t have anything better to do on a Saturday?

This had to be punishment for the unspeakable things she had done that day. She swore on her life and her mom’s life and her dad’s life (wherever he was) that she would truly never touch herself again. She got all the way back upstairs before she remembered the photo, still smoldering. Never leave the room with a fire burning, her mom’s rebuke echoed in her head. Probably fine, she thought. Anyway, she couldn’t bear to return to the site of her humiliation.

But she also couldn’t stand to stay in her room—this was where she had committed the filthy act she swore never again to do. Donning shorts and a T-shirt, she wriggled into a sports bra, too. Not that she needed one, but it felt good to have the extra layer covering her up. Rachel walked the long way around to the backyard, so she wouldn’t have to see the remnants of the photo. She looked furtively for the man. Gone.

On the grassy part of the backyard, she started to jog. She accelerated to a run, then a sprint. Her face grew flushed and her extremities cold. She became winded. All of this distracted her from the awful wetness in her underwear, and for the first time all day she felt happy. Maybe exercise was all she needed to stop! She simply needed to make up for the lack of sports in the off-season.

Rachel got a stitch in her side, then in the arch of her right foot. Good. The pain was good. Her mind raced with other ways to hurt—cutting, making herself throw up, picking her cuticles until they bled, tweezing her eyebrows full off—but she knew she was too chicken. She could betray herself further, get drunk on the Chardonnay in the fridge. No, she thought firmly. I will not stoop so low.

She thought about the time she orgasmed by rubbing herself on an old baby blanket. She had dragged herself across the fabric with such abandon she started to chafe. She feared the sting would be permanent, that she’d ruined herself forever. Fresh shame washed over her now at the memory. She needed more than running around the yard. She couldn’t even feel the cramps anymore.

Maybe if she ran farther, so far she’d have no energy to come back. She’d have to crawl back, her body an aching puddle, unable to do anything to itself. She unlatched the side gate and sprinted down the driveway.

But once outside her backyard, she felt scared. Maybe just doing laps around the cul-de-sac would do it. She abandoned the smooth sidewalk for the street’s asphalt, relishing its coarseness under her bare feet. She counted each of its fourteen houses as she ran, keeping her eyes on their lawns to avoid possible eye contact.

Rachel finally looked up when the smell hit her nostrils. It was like when she burned a Styrofoam cup of ramen in the microwave by accident, plus the scent of campfire. She knew where it came from before she saw smoke pluming from the back of her house in enormous billows.

By the time she got to the backyard, most of the family room was already gone. As the fire licked around the glass door and found the cans of paint, they exploded, causing the entire left side of the back of the house to dance with flame. She took some steps back and fell to sitting on the grass. She found she could do nothing except stare, agog. She knew she had to act, had to get the phone from inside before it burned up, but what if that was too late and she died from breathing smoke? She could ask the neighbors, but the whole thing was so embarrassing she thought she was going to die.

So she watched. It didn’t seem real anyhow. She remembered all the sitcoms she’d seen where things catch fire and then everything is fine a minute later. Phoebe’s doll house on Friends. That episode of Frasier with Niles and the scissors. The Valentine’s Day burning ritual, also on Friends. Someone losing their eyebrows on some other show, she couldn’t remember which.

Rachel’s head was trapped in a spiral, like when she raised her hand in class and then in the excitement of getting called on forgot entirely what she was going to say. Everyone looking at her, face growing red, the seconds passing, her panic growing and freezing her more and more—I can’t believe this is actually happening this is actually happening I can’t believe it—until the teacher scoffs and calls on someone else. Only with this there was no one else to call on. Just her, screwing up, alone.

Fine, she thought. Then let it burn.

Rachel heard the back gate unlatch and her mom screaming her name. She should call back, she thought, so her mom would know she was alive.

She should shout back.

She didn’t shout back.

She sat on the grass.

She wished she still had the photo.

 

Audrey Moyce is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Stanford University. Her theater criticism has appeared on Broadway World and Culturebot, and she has an essay on Game of Thrones in an anthology, Vying for the Iron Throne (McFarland Books). She is currently working on a memoir.