Bergita Bugarija

Gills

Raven slogs down the steps from the apartment above her family’s commercial linen press. She’s worked there since graduating high school last year because she couldn’t come up with a better idea. Midway down the staircase, she rests at the window. The beach, seagulls and ocean, subdued by the early morning light, look gray-blue. A calming palette Raven prefers to fiery daytime hues. Half a set of stairs left to descend. Her thighs rub and sweat stings where incessant friction has worn out the skin. She opens the laundry’s metal door, a flimsy work-life partition. The ironer grumbles. Chlorine bites her eyes and nostrils, glides down her throat and drives breakfast back up to her mouth. Raven doesn’t mind. She likes tasting its new state: the soggy poppy seeds and garlic of the everything bagel, the marsh of gummy bear-sprinkled cream cheese—the bears’ limbs now a decadent gooey plasma—and Gatorade, a belched echo of Yellow 5.

She swallows and walks through the whine of the presses and rollers, their screech rippling over her face and gut. The swelter of the unventilated facility settles in her hair, the strands stick whichever way like thin copper wires from her ragged phone charger cord. Dewdrops stud her boob crease, merge into rivulets, settle in her belly folds. She turns her back to a massive washer and presses her wrists and the back of her knees against its cool aluminum.

“Hey, Puffer.” Cousin Ricky’s cratered face peeks across the room behind a rainbow of drapes hanging over densely spaced crossbars. He points to his watch. She nods. Ricky gave her this job, but other than that, Raven doesn’t care for him, nor for the names he calls her. Although, Puffer is better than Hog, a moniker she mercifully parted with after school, and more apt than Raven, her absurd real name. Puffer is at least in the animal category she can relate to, though she’d prefer something a tad more majestic, like Orca. Bearing a bird name makes her feel like an impostor. She can’t fly. Instead of luxuriant plumage she has cubic footage, too abundant to spite the laws of aerodynamics. Most tellingly, she can’t sing; she doesn’t even speak.

She pushes herself off the washer, drags through the reef of driers, turns on a tablecloth press.

A fish makes sense. Aimless, speechless, untroubled. Like Mother. Sitting on the trashed kitchen floor, gaze vacant, mute. Whenever little Raven tried to cut into her stare, giggle, twirl in a tulle dress, Mother wouldn’t blink. She looked through her as though there was nothing there.

Ricky unloads a laundered column of tablecloths onto her forearms, the top of the pile leans on her nose and mouth. She turns to the side, props the pile with her cheek, gulps for air. Lately, Raven has been feeling like she can’t breathe. She wheezes, struggling to supply the vastness of her body with air.

At home she’d submerge under bath water. The peaceful crackle of soap bubbles calms her, triggering some central current like a spine, a fish bone she’d wave head to fin, if not for the tub corral.

The other day, while flipping through People magazine, she came across a shot of Katy Perry in which her hair fell in waves over her breasts, exposing only her belly button and a fin in lieu of feet. Raven curved the scissors around the Katy Perry mermaid and stuck it in the crack behind the medicine cabinet. Every day during her morning bathroom routine, she pulls out the magnificent creature by the fin, sticks it in the cabinet frame and looks at it, the mirror of her choosing.

“Hit the press, Puffer. Stick your face inside, warm it up,” Ricky says.

“Shut your garbage disposal, Dicky. Grind that grime and swallow.” Aunt Ida knows how to shush Ricky. She walks over from behind the washer, her hair frizzy, copper cuffs cutting off circulation and oxidizing her forearms like smudged tattoos. She runs the back of her hands across Raven’s hair. “Your beautiful feathers, baby bird.” She cups Raven’s tennis ball cheeks. “God couldn’t get enough of you; he stretched you far and wide. Your wings always spread, Raven.”

The washer hisses. Raven smiles. Without Ida, her days would be a ceaseless interplay of angst and dejection. Both reached a new peak last week when she stepped on the scale, a miserable weekly ritual, and nearly fell off it trying to crane her neck to see the number over the boulder of h