There’s water stuck in my right ear and it hurts. I tilt my head to the right hoping gravity will drain me. Frustrated, I cup my two hands over my ears and create a suction trying to shake it loose. I open my mouth wide like a yawn.
People talk to me, but I can’t hear them. I just see them staring at me and moving their lips. When you can’t hear what’s going on in the world, you don’t know what to say.
I say nothing. It’s a foreign language. It hurts. My dad comes up behind me in the kitchen and startles me. He grabs my shoulders and whispers into my left ear.
“I have an idea. Come into the living room,” he says. His breath rattles the chlorine-bleached hair that hangs over my good ear.
I don’t trust my dad. He’s comes and goes from my life depending on how he and Mom are getting along. He’s loud: round and obnoxious. He hits Mom and she fights back. He slapped me a few times at Christmas, too,
but today he seems extra sensitive to me and my swimmer’s ear. I’m uneasy. He sits down in his oversized easy chair and spreads his legs a bit.
“Kneel down in front to me,” he says.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Little Miss. Kneel down and put your head in my lap. I’m going to work on that ear for you.”
I do as he says, slowly lowering myself and presenting my right ear to my dad. I face away and try to distract myself with the images on the TV.
It’s a cowboy show. He loves his cowboy shows.
My good ear is on my dad’s left thigh. Now it’s really hard to hear. I’m alone in my head; helpless: no sound.
Dad gently strokes my hair away from my bad ear and I see he as a black bobby pin in his hand. He places one hand on my forehead and slowly penetrates my ear canal with the bobby pin.
This is dangerous. You’re not supposed to stick anything in your ear, but I let him.
Dad begins to swirl the pin around inside my head and I feel myself leave my body. The smell of his horrible after shave becomes strong and sweeter. His lap gets warmer. My flesh and blood takes me to heaven, yet I don’t want in.
It feels good. The pin scrapes inside my ear and my entire body stretches for miles like a cat. The sensation rattles me to my core and I moan with relief.
“How does that feel?” dad asks.
“Good,” I answered. “—but my ear hasn’t unplugged yet.”
“Do you want me to keep going?”
“Yes. I do.”
My dad and I have never been this close. I feel warm jets of electricity all over my body as he continues to twirl the bobby pin in my ear. It’s strangely comforting. Yet, I’m damaged by the situation. It’s wrong. I’m waiting for something bad to happen to me. Dad could go too deep and ruin me for life.
My head’s lumbering on dad’s lap like a clumsy log ride. In a dull climax, I feel a pop. A trail of liquid travels down my throat and I swallow over and over and over. The blockage in my ear has broken free. I can hear again. I hear a gun fight on the television.
I roll off of my dad’s lap on to the floor at his feet.
“Works every time,” Dad says. “A pin is better than one of those swabs. Don’t tell your mother I stuck a pin in your ear. She’ll have my hide.”
“I won’t,” I say.
My ear might be unplugged, but I coated in confusion. I yearn for more from my dad. It’s not just about my ear. When he hit me at Christmas, I knew I was alive. I was asking for it, but it hurt.
This whole summer has been different. My body’s changed since last year. Everyone looks at me and remarks on how much better my swimsuit fits and how good I look with a tan. Even the lifeguards stop and look me up and down. I’ve grown taller, but I feel small and empty.
Dad looks at me the wrong way every day. I love him and I hate him at the same time. Since the swimmer’s ear, he tries to touch me —but I won’t let him. Mom and I don’t want a cowboy around the house. I need a strong man to love me. We’re not even friendly most of the time. He and I don’t talk.
I stopped swimming this summer and Dad went away. Mom said it’s for good this time. And it’s okay.
Art by Ryan Florez