What you remember about Kim is her habit of chugging mouthwash. The way you and her little sister Mandy vomited together in the bathtub after she’d offered you too many swigs. You remember Kim’s hair, dyed purple among that family of redheads. All of the siblings hopelessly freckled. Permanent lepers.
You remember the sleepovers at their house. Mandy’s little brother inflating his parents’ condoms like party balloons and launching them into the ceiling fan. Watching Kim eat ice from the tray while she cradled a handful of cubes to her nipple. She pierced the numb bit through and followed the needle with a thin metal dumbbell taken from her old tongue piercing. You thought of your own nipple still flat against your chest and more than Kim’s physicality, you envied her callousness. Her incessant pursuit of pain.
That summer, she was sent to survival camp somewhere in the Arizona desert. A place meant to put distance between daughters and their dealers. To teach them how to stitch leather. To build fires with flint and learn songs about tree spirits and friendship. She played these songs on her guitar when she returned, her face sunned but somehow softer. The freckles beginning to blend. But the next year, Kim ran away again. Nearly overdosed. After a week in the hospital, she stayed in socks and pajamas at home. Helped her mother sort through the mess in the basement storage room. Studied for her GRE. Spent time in chat rooms, making new friends. One of these, an older man from England, flew overseas to meet her. Took Kim and her parents to dinner at the Red Lobster and told them about Manchester, where he owned a screen-printing shop. He presented Kim with a ring just before dessert. A booger diamond, your mother called it. The smallest she’d seen.
Kim’s uncle, living abroad in Belgium, traveled to England for the wedding. Kim’s parents had asked him to attend; they couldn’t afford the flight. Mandy showed you emailed photos. Kim wore pink, a color that had never suited her. Her husband had a mustache and a slight paunch and you wondered for a moment, looking at the group photo, which was the groom and which the uncle. Still, you begrudged her because Europe was always your dream.
And then, all these years later, you see her at the Wal-Mart. Your first venture out since the baby and here you are: unkempt, wearing sweatpants despite the heat. She is smaller than you remember, less red. Barely blushing in the face. You admire each other’s children: her twins wrestle half naked in the cart. She’s got two others, she tells you. Older ones. A boy and a girl. Practically teenagers if you can believe it! Your own child sleeps, mouth slack, pressed to your chest by a carrier wrap. Remember those movies you and Mandy used to film at our house? Kim asks. And you do remember. Because their brother shredded the gowns you used for costumes with his pocketknife when you left them behind one day. Your mother’s precious prom dresses.
Kim has stacked the top of her cart—the basket where children usually perch—with cases of cola and peanut butter. There’s absolutely no peanut butter in England, she tells you, and you ask how she likes living there; you still have never been to Europe. You ask about Mandy, too, because your friendship faded years ago, and all you hear now are rumors from your mother that she’s sleeping with the sort of men who hang naked silhouettes of women from their rearview mirrors.
Kim has brought these youngest children, slapping each other’s bare thighs in the cart, home to meet her brother, the one who ruined the dresses, the one who used to snap your bra straps. A Fulbright Scholar now. Going off to New Zealand to document the diminishing Kauri Tree forests.
Parting ways, your baby wakes, screaming. You abandon all you have gathered in your cart and sit hunched in the passenger side of your car, air blasting but still hot beneath a blanket, nursing. You wonder about Kim’s nipple—whether the hole ever entirely healed. Does she link the pain (really, you must see someone about the pain) of breastfeeding to the old wound? Or think of this crippling tenderness as just another necessity of survival?