Leah Browning

Her name was Rose Elizabeth, named for Rose Kennedy, a fellow Irish Catholic and the emblem, for her own mother, of what she should be: a hard worker, a humble person, and a dedicated mother with a happy, sprawling, close-knit family. It was the end of January, 1961. The previous weekend, Robert Frost had recited a poem at the inauguration, and the president and his brother Teddy had attended mass at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.

There wasn’t a time she could remember being called Rosie, the name on the back of her baby pictures. It had always been Rusty, or Russ. This was between the assassinations of Jack and Bobby, and before Chappaquiddick, when the air of tragedy turned darker, more sinister. Her mother—often drunk, then—couldn’t manage the change to Elizabeth and instead called her Eelie, a word that sounded cold and slippery in her mouth.

There hadn’t been any other children, and her mother had begun to feel that their family was cursed. She had tried to align herself with power and success and triumph, but it had all gone wrong for the Kennedys somehow, and that bad luck had been contagious. She turned on them, and also on Eelie and her father.

Eelie. Her mother said this less and less frequently. Then there was a blank space, and she became nothing.

When she was fifteen, she reinvented herself. She used her babysitting money to buy a two-piece and began to shave her legs, she got a friend to put lemon juice in her hair and let one of the Cartwright boys slip his hand into the waistband of her jeans, and she could feel herself sinking, and maybe her mother was right and she did have a bad gene.

It was a hot summer. Often, she snuck out of the house after her mother passed out in an old flowered armchair in front of the TV. One night, on her way back inside, she saw that her father was sitting in the dark waiting for her. He went to bed early because he woke early for work, but he must have gotten up for a drink of water or an antacid tablet and found her missing. It had only been a matter of time.

It was two o’clock in the morning, and here she was, stumbling in, ashamed—her lipstick smeared, the taste of Boone’s Farm apple wine still in her mouth—and she didn’t know if he could see what was happening to her, and what she would become. There was so much more that they didn’t even know then. Through the gloom, she could see her mother, still slumped over in the flowered chair.

Later in her life, she could see that she was both the mother and the daughter in this story, as her mother had been. But when her father rose from the couch in his bathrobe and slippers, she wasn’t thinking about that. The shifting light from the television illuminated his face and she could see him for what he was in that moment: a lighthouse on a distant shore, guiding her back.

Earlier that night, though, she had leaned back against a splintered wooden railing with a mouth against her neck and a hand inside her bra, her face burning with embarrassment and desire, and she had had the same feeling then that she had now. Let the railing break, let me fall back and be swallowed by the water, let me go under—and she had to close her eyes again because in all her life, it seemed, she could never decide whether what she wanted was to sink or to rise.

Leah Browning is the author of Orchard City, a fiction chapbook published by Hyacinth Girl Press. Her stories have appeared in Nothing to Declare: A Guide to the Flash Sequence, an anthology from White Pine Press, and literary journals including Four Way Review, The Threepenny Review, and Valparaiso Fiction Review.