Manhandle by Michelle Ross


I’m taking a bath with my kid, and he points and says, “What’s that?”

“My vagina,” I say, thinking he’s forgotten the word again for the female counterpart to the penis. I can’t tell you how many times he’s referred to my penis and I’ve had to correct him.

“No, that hair,” he says.

“It’s hair,” I say.

“I mean why do you have hair there?” he says, making a face.

“I don’t know, but it’s normal,” I say.

“Why don’t you shave it off? It’s gross,” he says.

“That’s mean,” I say. I see why pubic hair seems strange to him, though, out of place. Like finding an ear behind your knee, I suppose. Mine is probably the only body he’s seen naked besides his own. My husband/his father, Nash, has never ever taken a bath with our son.

“Your dad has hair there too. You haven’t seen it?” I say.

“No,” he says.

“Well, he does. He has hair all over his chest and arms and legs as well. And you will too someday.”

My son has selective hearing. Doesn’t respond to my forecast, just as he won’t respond to my telling him over and over again to put on his pajamas, but mention hot chocolate with whipped cream, and he comes running. He says now, “You shave your legs. Why not shave this hair too? It’s so ugly I can’t look at it.” But he doesn’t cover his eyes.

Sometimes, though not today, he asks if he can have a drink from my “milk bags,” even though I stopped nursing him when he was two. Every time, I tell him there is no more milk, that he drank it all. Every time I correct him: breasts, not bags.

What Nash says when I tell him about this conversation: “When are you going to stop taking baths with him? When he’s fifteen?”

“Six is still plenty young,” I say. “Besides, why shouldn’t he know about adult bodies? Maybe this is a good opportunity to teach him to be respectful?” I say this, even though lately I’ve also been thinking it may be time to stop taking baths with our son. Because I’m getting sick of the assessments, sick of the disregard for the names for things.

I’m sick too sometimes of how my son grabs at my body as though it belongs to him. When I’m cooking dinner, he tries to climb me like I’m a ladder. When I’m trying to read, he throws himself on top of me. Puts his hands over my eyes. “Stop manhandling me,” I say, and Nash, if he’s around to hear, says, “You and your words. He’s a child.” Then I say, “Manhandle: to handle roughly.”

Nash doesn’t like the word menstruation, either. Doesn’t like how openly I talk to our son about it. He used to respond to menstruation talk with the same angry shushing he gives me every time I let slip a shit or a motherfucker. I gave him hell about that, though. “Why shouldn’t he know about menstruation? Why shouldn’t he grow up to be informed and sensitive to the women in his life?” Nash didn’t say a word about it again, though sometimes he groans a little under his breath when I say I can’t take our son to that birthday party or this baseball practice because it’s my heaviest day and I’m losing so much blood it’s a wonder I’m not dead.

I say to Nash, “If he saw you naked once in a while, he wouldn’t think pubic hair was just some monstrosity of his mother’s body.”

Nash says, “What do you want me to do? Say, ‘Son, I’m going to take my clothes off now so you can look at my naked body?’”

“Well, you don’t have to be so creepy about it,” I say.

“I don’t know how not to be creepy about it. That’s the thing. There’s no natural time for him to see me naked.”

It’s not just that I sometimes take baths with our son. He’s constantly wandering into the bathroom when I’m showering or using the toilet or getting dressed. How Nash has managed to be naked in our house for some brief period of time every day of our son’s life without being seen by our son, I can’t understand. It’s a mystery on par with the construction of the Egyptian pyramids or with how some people talk aloud in movie theaters, not even trying to keep their voices low. Just yesterday, I was at the movie theater, having left work early after a terrible meeting during which a male co-worker cut me off mid-sentence no fewer than three times, and this guy two seats away kept asking the woman next to him questions about what was happening in the movie. Why is she doing that? What do you think that’s supposed to mean? Then when the credits began, he pronounced the movie the dumbest movie he’d ever seen in his life. He said those words with such disdain and righteousness I wanted to slap him. I wanted to say, Where’s your movie, asshole? What have you ever done? What have you ever made?




Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly ReviewColorado Review, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Pidgeonholes, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other venues. She’s fiction editor of Atticus


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