So, Mom and I were in the JCPenney at the Willowbrook Mall, not long after Desmond was born. I’m guessing he was maybe four or five months old at the time. Everybody knows that babies love to shop. We shouldn’t deny them, despite their limited understanding of currency, discounts and most other things.
Waiting my turn at the register, I held Desmond in one arm, two rompers and a package of bibs in the other. I bounced him gently and sang into his soft, smiling cheek. A customer standing directly in front of us turned when she heard me singing, “You are good. So, so good.” Who could possibly be that good to have a song written about them? I’d want to know, as well.
“Oh, he is beautiful,” she said.
“Is he your first?”
“Second,” I replied.
“Aren’t grandchildren special? I have five now.”
Other sounds kept leaving this woman’s mouth, but I couldn’t hear any of them. My brain had locked on the word “grandchildren” and froze there paralyzed, unable to perform its job of interpreting language and responding to basic verbal queues.
Grandchildren? Is she kidding? I thought to myself. I’m 39 years old. Do I really look that bad? I lurched away from the line, searching for my mother. I found her in the Intimate Apparel department, removing white brassieres from their boxes and testing the elastic. By the look on my face, she knew something was wrong.
“Honey, what’s the matter?” she asked. “You’re as pale as a ghost.”
“Someone over there”— I pointed in the direction of the customer service desk — “She thinks,” I paused. I still couldn’t believe it. “She thinks I’m an old lady, like her.”
“Who? Where is she?” Mom was furious that I was upset. She demanded more information. Together, we pushed the baby carriage to the Kids’ section so she could hate this person with her very own eyes.
“There she is,” I said. “Lavender sweater.”
My mother and I stood there while the offending party gathered up her purchases. We stared as she headed toward the escalator. Mom grabbed me by the elbow and loud whispered in my ear.
“There must be something wrong with her, Mary. Maybe she’s retarded.”
My mother loved me so much, she didn’t think twice about calling a perfectly sane woman a mental patient so I could feel better about myself. Would your mom do that?
We’re in the middle of a commercial break during The Big Bang Theory, which isn’t my favorite program, but these boys think Sheldon is hilarious. In my opinion, some of the material is a bit racy for nine and eleven year olds, but I can’t bring myself to sit through another episode of Kick Buttowski: Suburban Daredevil.
“It’s when you touch your body in a special way, and it feels really good.”
“Oh,” Rory scratches his head with the pointy end of his Spirograph pen. “I do that, you know.”
“Really.” I must admit, I am surprised. Not just with my youngest child’s behavior but his complete lack of self-consciousness with regard to sharing these details.
“Oh, yeah. All the time.”
“You do not. Desmond vehemently disputes his brother’s claims of self-love.
“Rory, you aren’t doing masturbation. I would know.”
“Sure, I am. Especially in the shower, when I wash and stuff. I do it like every night.”
“That’s disgusting, Bro.”
“No, it’s not. And besides, it’s private.”
“If it’s so private, then shut up already.” I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“That’s enough, fellas. Masturbation is a natural, beautiful thing,” I tell my sons. And even though I wish I felt more convinced of this statement, I want them to believe I am delivering the truth. “But it’s also a pretty sensitive subject, so you probably should keep the details to yourself.”
One thing I appreciate about my children is they do seem to be listening to what I have to say. They don’t always cooperate, but their ears, brains and hearts seem to be working together with basically good intentions. Parenting is a big responsibility. I try to give them as much information as I can. They’re gonna need practical resources in order to survive and hopefully thrive in this modern world.
“What does it mean to be a closeted homosexual?”
“Well, first of all, it’s not a polite thing to say.”
“Because it may or may not be true. To suggest someone is hiding in the closet means that person doesn’t feel safe enough to share whether he or she likes boys or girls.”
“Why does it matter?”
“Then how come people care so much?”
“Because they’re nosy. And afraid of stuff they don’t understand.”
“Why do closeted homosexuals have to hide?” Rory asks.
“Maybe they haven’t completely figured out their feelings yet. They could be nervous about what family and friends might say. And some folks can be very mean.”
“Oh, yeah? Well, I like boys and girls.”
Desmond sits on the rug beyond the edge of my bed. I don’t actually see him slap his hand across the side of his own face, but I can hear the sound it makes. “Oh, God,” he mutters under his breath.
I issue a mild warning. “Knock it off, you.”
Our older son has strong opinions. And although broad-minded in the fields of science and technology, he struggles with emotional issues. This subject matter clearly presents a challenge to his linear thinking.
“You can’t like boys and girls at the same time,” he tells his brother. “You have to pick one kind.”
“Is that true, Mom?”
“No, honey. You can like whoever you want.”
“So, that means I’m bi-sexual, right?”
I pause for a second and think that one over. “Sure.”
It makes perfect sense that, if given the choice, Rory prefers access to many options. More just seems like a better idea. He has a bold appetite for life.
“What about you, Des?” I ask. “Girls or guys?”
Desmond is thoughtful with his response. At almost twelve years of age, he stands cautiously at the gate of adolescence, looking through the fence. He’s not in a hurry to take on all that confusion. “I think I’m supposed to feel something, and I don’t feel anything yet. I’m not making a decision until that happens.” He rubs his eyes. It looks as though he might cry, but instead chooses to let this awkward moment pass.
“It’s okay if you’re gay, you know. I’m always gonna love you,” Rory says. “I’ll still be in your wedding.”
“And I promise to love you, even if you’re straight,” I tell him.
“I don’t think I’m gay.”
“Fine, whatever. I don’t care.” Rory holds up the piece of paper he is working on, so I can admire his drawing.
“Nicely done, Bro.”
“Mom, Rory probably likes girls more,” Desmond says. “He’s just too young to realize.”
“No. I’m definitely bi-sexual,” Rory insists. “I want it all.”
I check on my parents regularly. I may roll my eyes, but I do enjoy this arrangement. My husband has always been a custodial son with regard to his folks, and that behavior continues to provide a solid example as I recreate myself. I’m sober and healthy. I have a program of recovery. My hands are kept full with the kids, they’re busy little boys. I’ve also been given the opportunity to become a reliable daughter, and for that, I’m grateful.
Mom takes care of Dad, and I take care of her, as much as she lets me. She doesn’t need anybody’s help. That’s why she calls me several times a day for no reason. Because she’s so independent.
“Quick, Mary. Turn on Channel 7. Oprah’s got her fat feet up on a coffee table that’d look perfect in your living room.”
“I can’t now, Mom. Rory got sick in the night, and I’m trying to scrub throw-up from the carpet.”
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” she says. She means it. “Have you got any vinegar? It’ll get rid of that stench in no time.”
“I might,” I tell her. I don’t. “I’ll try it. Thanks.”
“Call me later, babe. Let me know how you make out.”
It’s clear Mom loves watching me in action. I’m raising my family in ways she couldn’t imagine possible for either of us, for any mother. I am gentle, yet firm with these children. There is some yelling, here and there, and the occasional smack. I’m not proud of it. But Desmond and Rory are generally happy and smart and safe. That’s all God, by the way. Well, the smacking is me, but the rest is Him.
“Kindness never worked with you, Mary.” My mother tends to reminisce down Negative Lane. “If I gave an inch, you took a yard. I had to beat the shit out of you constantly. That’s how thick you were.”
Mom doesn’t flinch or hesitate when she shares this memory. She’s simply stating the facts.
“But look at you now, right?”
“You’re a good mother, Mary.”
And there it is. The gift that makes every other stupid fucking thing coming out of that woman’s mouth bearable.
When I was a little girl, I played with my dolls for hours on end. I dressed them and changed their dishtowel diapers. I cooked their pretend meals and propped them up in front of the television so they wouldn’t get into trouble. I put them to bed early when my father came home drunk.
“Go to sleep,” I told them. “Everything will be okay.”
The storm wasn’t nearly as massive as our local weathermen had predicted. Two whopping inches fell overnight while we slept. I am relieved. Snow makes me feel claustrophobic. Even when it’s cold, I try to get out of the house before and after lunch with the guys. Having a place to go and stuff to do helps me feel productive. I like to stay busy.
My mother, on the other hand, looks for daily excuses to not change out of her pajama bottoms. She is reluctant to acknowledge reality, let alone accept it. Unless, of course, it arrives attached to a crisis. A good crisis will get Mom strapped back into her bra and eager to run the show in no time. Even if she’s already pulled it through the sleeve of her smock top and hung it from the doorknob for the night. Without question, drama is her drug.
I call my parents’ apartment and wait for one of them to answer. So often, I have to leave a message on their machine because the TV is up so loud, they can’t hear the phone. This time, however, my father picks up on the second ring.
“Hey, big fella. What’s going on?”
“Not much,” Dad says. “Just watching the snow come down on the news.”
“Why don’t you look out the window?”
“Forget it. Where’s Mom?”
“You mean my beautiful bride?” he asks.
“You know I’d never say that,” I tell him, and we both laugh.
Despite how nasty my mother can be, the Dad I have now is playful and good natured. Before he fell and hit his head, he willfully ignored her foul temper. But these days, it’s almost as if he doesn’t even notice how angry she gets, and that makes her even madder. I can hear her bellowing in the background. My guess is he might have left a butter knife on the counter. Maybe he didn’t flush the toilet properly. Or wipe his own ass properly. For all we know, he might be breathing too much. Anything can set her off and does. HIs joy is her pain.
“Can you go get her for me?”
“Sure,” he says. My father is a loyal dog,
I can almost feel my mother grab the receiver from his hand. “Give me that,” she says. “What is it, honey?” She’s in a hurry to get back to her rage.
“Just wanted you to know I’m heading down the A&P when the kids wake up. Can I get you anything?”
“Don’t go,” she says. “It’s brutal out there.” I glance out the kitchen window as she attempts to outline the remainder of my day for me. There’s snow in the grass, but the sidewalks are clear. The sun has returned, and birds are playing in my driveway. “Stay inside until tomorrow,” she tries to insist. “There’s no reason to drag those babies out in this shit.” My mother has decided she doesn’t need groceries, and neither should I.
I hear noises directly above where I’m standing at the kitchen counter, folding laundry. The sounds of an ill-defined argument between brothers, maybe even something physical.
“Goddamn it,” I say out loud.
“What’s the matter?”
“They’re supposed to be resting. Can you hold on a minute, Mom?” I walk over to the bannister and yell up toward the ceiling. “Gentlemen, what’s going on?” No answer. “Boys?”
“Nothing,” they reply at the same time. Their short, bulky shadows are visible against the wall at the top of the stairs.
“Don’t tell me ‘nothing.’ I’m not deaf. Come where Mommy can see you.”
The two of them shuffle toward the steps. “We’re fighting,” Rory says.
“It’s just that I want to play with Little People, and Desmond also wants Little People. But then, he took the Airport Guy, so I punched him.”
“It really hurt,” Desmond adds, rubbing his shoulder for emphasis.
“I’m coming up there in a minute,” I tell them. “I’m punching both of you.”
“No, don’t!” Brightly colored pieces of plastic litter the carpet as they bolt from the landing and tumble down the corridor.
“Don’t you dare lay a hand on them, Mary,” my mother warns when I return to our conversation.
“Sorry, Mom. I’ve gotta follow through this time.” I say it loud because I know they’re listening from one of their obvious hiding spots. “You hear that, fellas? You’ve got your grandmother on the other end of this phone, crying her eyes out. She’s begging me not to dole out the punches, but I told her I have to. Nothing else works.”
“Mom, no,” Desmond pleads. I picture him behind the towel rack in the bathroom. “We’re sorry. We love each other.”
“It’s too late for that, son,” I reply. “I have no choice.”
“You’re not really gonna hit them, are you?” my mother asks.
“I most definitely am, so you should probably hang up now. It’s about to get ugly here.”
“You know, kid, I regret belting you and your sister when you were their age.”
I pause for a moment. It almost sounds like an apology – until she keeps talking.
“But make no mistake, you deserved it. Especially you, Mary. My God, you were the boldest bitch.”
I fight the urge to disagree with her, to defend myself against her memories. There is love in my mother’s voice. I hear it, and I can certainly feel it. So I leave what she says alone.
“Promise me you won’t hurt my precious angels.”
“What’s that, Grandma? You’ve changed your mind? You want me to punch them extra for you? Well, I don’t know if I’ll have the strength, but I suppose I can try.”
“She’s coming,” Desmond whispers through the crack in the door.
“To punch us?” Rory asks.
“C’mon, we need better hiding.”
They dash through the hallway and pile into the closet, pulling the door closed behind them. There is giggling. The kind that reassures me my children know who I am. And everything is okay.
I like him so much, and I’m pretty sure he likes me. But how can he be 35 years old and not have a girlfriend, a wife, children? There’s gotta be something wrong with him. God, I hope not. Maybe he’s desperate like me, and I just can’t see it. He seems lonely, so that’s good.
Dave Killian has a lot going for him. A serious computer job, a nice place to live in Manhattan. He wears dress shirts and suits that he takes to the dry cleaner. He does the same with his laundry. They wash and fold his clothes there, which must cost a fortune. He owns a bicycle and furniture. He buys paper towels in bulk, an extra tube of toothpaste for when the first one runs out. He carries an umbrella on days it might rain. Who does that? He held it over our heads when we left the bar the other night.
Did I mention he likes to drink? Which is awesome. I like to drink. Shit, I love to drink, and I’m good at it, too.
Goodbye, nagging guilt about all the problems people say I’ve caused. So long, persistent fear of being alone for the rest of my life. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. I have a new boyfriend. I’m not a total reject, after all. This guy is proof that anything is possible.
It feels good having someone to confide in, not that I can tell him everything. I don’t want to scare him off. But he didn’t even flinch when I told him I had a kid. I make like I see him a whole lot more than I do. I gloss over the particulars of his care, so Dave doesn’t think I’m a shitty mother. But am I? I want to say ‘no.’ Instead, I change the subject in my head. I keep drinking and doing what I’m doing.
Over pints of cold draught beer in the pubs along Second Avenue, we take turns trading personal adventures. My stories are always better. I love being the winner. It doesn’t happen that often.
I think about Dave while I’m at work. Is he thinking of me? He is so handsome. And smart. And good. I want to be good. At least, I want him to think I’m good. I wish I could call and see if he can get together later, but I have no extra money for hanging out in the city. He is generous, but I can’t just assume he’s gonna pay my way.
I start making a mental list of who I can borrow from and how much I can get. I do this all the time. Thirty here, forty there. The people I work with are easy. They believe what I tell them. It’s really not that big a deal. I always pay it back. Basically, so I can ask again, but still. I leave a note on my boss’s desk explaining why I had to leave early. Kirin threw up in his classroom, and I’ve gotta go get him. I’ve never picked my son up from school a day in his life. I only wish these lies could be the truth. I gather my things, walk across town and look for the guys I usually buy dope from. After that, I stop into the bathroom at the Burger King, hold the door shut with my foot and do a little.
I find a pay phone right outside and call Dave. We make plans to meet.
“Where do you want to grab some food?” he asks. “We can go wherever you like.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” I say. “Let’s get fucked up.”
I don’t tell Dave about the drugs I do. We can drink. Drinking’s cool. All the other stuff is my business. I just get the feeling he won’t like me if he knows. And it’s not like I’m doing this shit every day, even though I kinda am. Maybe I just notice it more now that I’m not by myself as much. A new relationship definitely makes some things a little harder to get done, but falling in love is worth the extra effort.
Being with Dave is so much fun. His apartment is nothing fancy, but it’s more than what I’ve got. I’m still on a twin bed in my sister’s basement on Long Island. I fixed the space up real nice, though. Judy let me borrow some of their old wicker patio furniture. I wiped down two chairs and a little table, put my stereo in the middle. I have a bunch of books I wish I could read, and I draped some Christmas lights around. They make everything look prettier.
I drink the same way I did when I lived in Queens and get just as high, but I try to keep a low profile around my family. I don’t want my sister to worry or her husband to give me shit, so I pee in a paint can in my room once I get going. This way, I don’t have to make as many trips upstairs. I pour the contents out the little half window that faces the backyard.
I know I can’t stay here forever, and all of a sudden, I feel like I need to leave. I want to be with Dave.
He keeps his wallet on a nightstand near the bed. This morning, I waited until I heard the shower running before I took twenty three dollars. I left some cash, two tens and a five, so he doesn’t get suspicious. Let him think we spent it last night. We drank enough, that’s for sure. I also stole nearly all the quarters from a bowl filled with change on his bureau.
“I’m going in late,” I tell him. I’ve already started thinking of how I’m gonna spend my new money. He hands me his key so I can lock the door when I leave. We make arrangements to have lunch in the afternoon. Now I definitely need to show up at work, if only so we can meet.
On my way to the subway, there’s a definite spring in my step. I can’t believe my good fortune. Somebody wonderful likes me. I still worry about the questions that might come up, though, the more time Dave and I spend together. How can I explain not having a driver’s license? Or a bank account? Why my teeth keep falling out of my head? What’s really going on with my son? I care about these things, I do. I just can’t seem to figure out how to fix them.
My mood shifts from joy to panic. I transfer seven or eight little pills from my pants pocket to just inside my lips. I try to make some spit to help move them past my tongue.
As I pass the bodega on the corner, I pause to admire the fresh bouquets of cut flowers lining the front of the store. I do some quick math and make a decision to purchase a large bunch of tulips. I return to the apartment, filling two glasses with water and arranging them in a pair of Dave’s boots. I step back and admire my work.
I push my shopping wagon through the parking lot of the A&P. It’s early, maybe 8 o’clock, and already humid as a motherfucker. The kind of weather that makes you feel like you’ve never showered in your life, and breathing deeply may kill you.
I’ve been awake for awhile. I obsess about how long. I try to add up the time but more time keeps happening, and I have to start over with my counting. Then I can’t remember the amount I figured out, so I just keep doing new math. Small sums are much easier to keep track of.
I slept from 5:15 to 6:40 yesterday morning, which is only eighty five minutes. Eighty five minutes is not enough time for sleep. I try looking at the experience as if I’m part of a science project. It’s fascinating when you consider how much time has passed since I first woke up but that would involve bigger numbers, and I just can’t wrap my head around that kind of effort. All I know is a lot of hours have already occurred, and I’ve been conscious for every single one of them.
My reaction to people who look well-rested waffles between curiosity and resentment. More and more, I feel as though everyone is sleeping at night except me. I wish my husband would get off my back. I decide when it’s time to go to bed. I don’t get what his fucking problem is. Just because I don’t want to sleep when he says so. Really? If you’re tired, go lay the fuck down and leave me alone. It’s not like I’m hurting anybody.
Look around at all this shit I have to do. Half-painted, half assembled projects. Trays of beads and little trinkets. Tupperwares filled with plastic flowers, felt and ribbon. Styrofoam and canvases. I can’t seem to get ahead of any of these brilliant ideas. I’m finding it more and more difficult to finish anything I start. By the time I’m ready to sit down and get to work, I’m too high to sit down. I bang around the house, puttering and organizing. Thinking thoughts and making plans I can’t recall with any clarity the next day.
I break things I can’t fix. I come up with new ways to make simple tasks harder to accomplish. I rearrange all the furniture in the middle of the night, and in the morning, I move everything back to exactly where it was. I have nothing to show for my efforts.
My husband checks on me repeatedly. “I need you to come to bed,” he says.
“I’m almost done,” I tell him. “Ten more minutes.”
“You keep saying that.”
This friction between us continues and escalates every few hours. I try to lie down by the time his alarm clock goes off.
David is not a stupid man, but he doesn’t know the half of what I’m doing. I’m pretty good at hiding. I replace the wine and beer when the bottles and cans get low. I keep my pills and whatever I need on me at all times. I clean up after myself. He can’t ever find out what’s going on. He won’t understand.
“This has to stop,” he says, as he puts on his socks and shoes. Once again, he leaves for work looking sad, with giant bags under his eyes.
“It will, I promise. Please don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad, Mary. I’m exhausted. What you’re doing isn’t fair.”
I know he’s right. I should cut back on some of this shit, but I really don’t think I can, so I don’t even try. I can’t bring myself to make any changes in my behavior. My drinking and drug use has become so enormous, I can’t touch it except to feed and protect the compulsion.
I hate that Dave is pissed again. I bet he won’t call either, and if I call him, I’ll have to apologize. I almost wish he’d fight. That’d take the focus off whatever this is.
I’m only telling you now for the sake of this story. No one else knows how bad it is but me, and I’ll never admit to any of this out loud. I’ll take my last breath denying everything.
I wonder if I could sleep for a little bit when I get home. I’m almost out of pills. I’ve been crushing up what I have left and swallowing small portions wrapped in toilet paper, but it’s not working anymore. I’m in that awful place where there are no more boosts to get me up from where I’m at. My body is done in a way that’s hard to explain. You know the big, blue balloon man that blows around in front of the old Treasure Island on Route 23? Unplug that shit, and you have me.
I can’t buy wine until 9 o’clock. Maybe I could hold off until tomorrow.
I load up all the food and stuff into the back of my truck. I just bought several days’ worth of groceries that I’m in no condition to prepare or enjoy. But I get afraid when we have no food in the house. I’m afraid that David will leave me. I’m scared of most things, almost all the time.
I give the empty metal cart a weak shove. It rattles along and comes to a stop a few feet away. As I open the driver’s side door to get in, I hear a shrill voice and see an older woman heading toward my vehicle, pointing and gesturing wildly. I turn around to look for the person she’s upset with, but I’m the only one there.
“Hey, buddy. Buddy!” she says. “That’s right. I’m talking to you.”
I can’t imagine what I’ve done to make her so angry. I scramble into the Blazer, start the engine and jerk away from my parking space.
“You’d better stop,” she shouts at my window. “Buddy, that’s rude!” I keep going.
I watch her drag my abandoned wagon across the pavement and guide it into the cart corral with the others. Several customers watch her rail on. At the red light, I check my rearview mirror to see if she is chasing me. There is only one car behind mine, jam-packed with young boys. Their music is so loud, my steering wheel vibrates.
I pull into a spot in front of the shops on Wanaque Avenue. I call Dave to say “I’m sorry.” I describe the crazy lady at the A&P. How aggressive she was. How she thought I was a dude. He asks if I’m okay.
“Yeah. I’m just tired.”
“Where are you now?”
“Why don’t you see if you can get some rest?” In his voice, there is nothing but love and unhappiness.
“Okay,” I tell him, and we hang up.
I sit in the car for 35 minutes and wait for the man who owns the liquor store to unlock the door.
Her last boyfriend was her first boyfriend. This one is her second. She is sixteen years old.
She and Bachelor #1 dated for five and a half consecutive months, so you could say she’s had a little experience with how being in a relationship works.
She never saw the break-up coming, though. She thought they were doing just fine. Then at the end of the summer, he got his hair permed. It changed him. He started wearing pleated pants. Holding his cigarette like a lady. Asking her questions about boys she went to grammar school with. It was weird.
She still can’t put her finger on where things went wrong. What she did to make him so unhappy. How she ruined everything. But she’s determined to get it right this time.
Bachelor #2 is an altar boy at church, and the only interesting reason to pay attention on Sundays. Another server approaches her after mass and lays the ground work for their introduction.
“My friend wants to know if you’re going out with anybody.”
He disappears into the sacristy with the big crucifix on that long, gold stick. She waits for a few minutes to see if anyone is coming back out, but her dad says they have to leave. She describes the brief exchange to her best friend. They try to guess what’s going on. She’s excited that someone likes her.
Once they meet, she realizes he’s always been there. She just never noticed. Over the years, they’ve shared teachers and classmates, school field trips to boring places. This history makes getting to know one another less awkward. He’s easy to be around. Kind, playful and well-liked, which are nice things for a person to be.
Her mother is strict and won’t let them hang out during the week. They chat by phone most nights. She stretches the coil wire that’s attached to the receiver all the way across the kitchen and up the stairs for privacy. Her mom yanks on the cord to let her know when it’s time to hang up. She replays what he says over and over in her head, extracting all the hidden meaning from statements like “I have to go eat” and “I fell asleep.”
Walking home from the church youth group she joined to meet boys, they kiss for the first time. On the corner of Glebe and Zerega Avenues, they stand underneath a street lamp that flickers on and off. It makes a sound like someone is being electrocuted.
Within two weeks she decides she’s in love and tells him so. Not out loud, of course. In a note. She writes and rewrites each sentence carefully until the words are close to what she thinks she’s feeling and what she imagines he wants to hear.
She joins his family for dinner on Sunday afternoons. His mother makes spaghetti and meatballs. There is cake. They sit down together in the dining room, his father at the head of the table. They shout at one another in English and Italian combined. She only understands half of what’s being said, but there is warmth in their voices.
The little sister is twelve, surrounded by brothers and thrilled with the arrival of another girl on the scene. She follows her around with the boundless energy and devotion of a puppy selected from the window at the pet shop. She is old enough for nail polish, but not makeup. This rule makes her life nearly unbearable, but only for a minute. Every song on the radio is her favorite. She is an immediate one-member fan club.
Some days, he waits for her after school. She sees him from the window of her last class, but when she gets downstairs, she pretends she doesn’t and walks right past. He calls her name, and she acts surprised. He carries her book bag over his shoulder, and they hold hands.
When they get to the house, her mother is there. She looks angry at first, but adjusts herself when she sees he is with her. They shoot the breeze on the stoop for a few minutes. He lights her mom’s cigarette with his own, and they share a smoke. He can’t stay because he has a job and responsibilities.
“My daughter doesn’t deserve you,” she tells him.
He responds with a quick laugh. What else can he do?
When they say goodbye and go inside, her mother’s mood darkens. She corners her as the door closes.
“What’d I tell you about all the fucking greasepaint?”
“It’s just eyeshadow, Mom.”
“Go scrub that garbage off your face, unless you want me to do it for you. What are you, trying to look like an easy make?”
“No. You should see what the other girls wear. This is nothing.”
“I don’t give a good goddamn what the rest of your so-called friends look like. They’re somebody else’s problem.”
She stomps up the stairs so hard, her ankles hurt.
“He’s too good for you,” her mother yells from the bottom of the landing. “He’ll figure it out. He’s a smart boy.”
Thoughts of him crowd her adolescent mind. The remaining space is filled with wondering how people see her now. Do they notice the difference? She feels safer, more popular with a boyfriend. Girls who’ve never even looked her way before involve her in top secret conversations about important subjects like sex and other options. She is certain she will need this information and pretends she already has it.
They spend more time at his house than hers. She is always welcome there. More often than not, they end up in the basement. They listen to music and make out on the couch. They do other stuff, too. Go places, get ice cream at Carvel. He’s a wonderful boyfriend. But this is what she looks forward to the most. Being wanted.
The further they go with their mutual affection, the closer they get to having nothing left to experiment with. They discuss next steps and reasons why they should skip over most of them. They move toward intimacy in fits and starts, interrupted by meals and curfews, cautious parents.
“Keep the lights on down there,” his mother says, only half smiling. They are only half listening.
When it finally happens, she is relieved to be done with her virginity. It never felt like anything worth saving to begin with. She is only too eager to trade it in for the excitement of experiences that help her forget who she is.
On Friday nights, she tells her mother they’re going to the movies. Or bowling. Instead, they pool their money together and rent a room at a drab little motel overlooking the Hutchinson River Parkway. Four hours costs thirty-three dollars. Coming here is her idea.
All day long she obsesses about this arrangement. The bold moves she intends to make that will get him to love her even more. Her exposure to the complexities of sex is limited to two films, The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love. Reruns of James at 15, especially the episode where James falls for a Swedish exchange student named Christina and becomes a man.
After supper, she swipes two, maybe three cans of beer from the refrigerator, depending on how many are in there. She drinks them while she gets ready for their date. She samples the forgotten pill collection in her parents’ medicine chest. She likes the ones that say “Do not drive or operate heavy machinery” on the label. By the time he picks her up, she is feeling pretty loose around the edges and not as scared to try new things.
Once they’re alone, she takes her clothes off under the blanket and kicks them to the floor. She is embarrassed by the big, white bras her mother insists she wear, with their thick elastic straps and bulletproof cups, her plain cotton bloomers. She wishes she had some fancy underwear, but she’d have to hide it. Her mother looks through her closet and drawers. There’s no way she could ever find out. She’d go berserk and make her stop seeing him.
She wraps her retainer in a tissue and places it on the nightstand. Both lamps and the lightbulb in the bathroom need to be shut off before they get started. In the dark, she can take bigger risks and make believe she’s the kind of girl who knows what she is doing.
Only after they’re done and she’s certain he’s asleep does she leave the bed to pee and clean herself up. She would rather die than let him see her naked. She turns the TV on, creeping back into position next to him. She watches The Love Boat and the beginning of Fantasy Island. They have sex again, but it’s different this time. There is less urgency. She wonders if she should panic or not.
She leaves a big, purple hickey on his neck, hoping he’ll reciprocate. She aches for some kind of proof that their relationship is real. He is hesitant and tries to explain that he doesn’t want either of them to get into trouble. She sulks and promises to keep it covered, so he gives in.
Afterward, they get dressed. She waits outside the front office while he returns the room key. She does not make eye contact with any other patrons in the parking lot.
Walking home, they talk about unremarkable stuff. What just happened between them is over for now, stored away until next time. It’s too hard to concentrate, otherwise. She can’t wait to tell her girlfriends about their daring exploits.
Once she is home, she realizes she’s forgotten her retainer at the motel. He tells her he will find it. As tired as she is, she stands frozen at the front door, willing him to reappear, appliance in hand. Her mother wakes up and starts asking questions. She answers each one with a lie. She pleads with God to not get caught. These are the only prayers she ever prays.
When he finally arrives, he is smiling. She hugs him tightly. His shirt is soaked with sweat. She whispers “Thank you” in his ear. He leaves without saying much.
She goes upstairs to change into pajamas. In the bathroom mirror, she studies the gift he’s left on her throat. She pinches and squeezes at the modest bruise and tries to make it bigger.
I guessed most of the multiple choice section and left at least four fill-in sentences blank. I should have studied harder, read the chapter in the textbook. Memorized that sheet the teacher gave us on the comparison of physical and chemical changes in matter.
We had more than two weeks to prepare, but I kept putting it off. I waited until the last minute to look at the material. Plus, Battle of the Network Stars was on the same night I should have been studying. I wanted to see Lance Kerwin compete in the relay races. Kristy McNichol, too.
Can I tell you something? Even though I love The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, Dan Haggerty looked all weird and sweaty in that bright red tank top and workout shorts. It’s strange having a crush on a grown man. I’m not sure how I feel about him now.
Out of all my subjects, I hate Science the most, next to Math and History. It’s not like I’ll ever need this information. Nobody uses sugar cubes anymore. Why should I care if they’re melted or burned?
46% is really bad. It’s the kind of grade kids in gangs get. My mother’s gonna kill me.
At first, I hid the exam in the back of my looseleaf binder. As soon as I got home, I tucked it in between the mattress and boxspring of my bed. But I kept imagining someone would find it, so I folded the paper up small and stuffed it inside my knee sock where I know it’s safe. I reach down every few minutes to check that it’s still there.
I can’t stop thinking about what Miss Sweeney said this afternoon when she placed my answers on the desk, folded in half. “You’re better than this, Mary.” I want to believe her, but right now, I don’t.
I need to return the test tomorrow morning, signed by one of my parents. That’d be Mom. Dad’s never around for school stuff. Even though his signature is easier to copy than hers, the teacher won’t recognize it. She might get suspicious and start asking questions.
I can’t decide what’s worse, getting hit or yelled at.
That’s not true. Getting hit is way worse.
I’m gonna have to do this forgery. There’s no other choice.
It’s not easy finding a copy of my mother’s signature. For as strict as she ever is about school, she doesn’t do much writing. I’ve already rifled through her pocketbook for any scraps that might help. A letter maybe, an envelope. So far, there’s nothing.
My only hope is that heavy metal stapler in the kitchen drawer. The Swingline she brought home from her last office job a hundred years ago, before me and Judy were born. She taped a handmade label with her name in script to the bottom so none of the other girls would steal it. That’s my only resource.
I stash the stapler down the back of my pants while she chops tuna fish. A cigarette dangles from her lips, one eye sealed shut against the smoke. The Phil Donahue Show blares from the little black and white TV set perched on the edge of the counter. Lassie is the guest. I watch from the hallway until the commercial. Then I head back upstairs to practice my crime.
I study my mother’s handwriting carefully. Big, curvy letters with swirls on either end of each word. Her name looks so fancy all written out. Hers is the nicest penmanship I’ve ever seen. She learned how in school, at the hands of the meanest women I could imagine. The Sisters of Charity.
These nuns combed through students’ coat pockets, in search of smokes and lipstick. They scrubbed makeup from girls’ mouths and cheeks with Brillo pads. Mom’s hair was pulled and knuckles cracked with thin strips of wood. No warning or explanation necessary.
My mother shares these stories with great pride. She reminds us how good we’ve got it.
There is no door to my bedroom. I glance up every so often as I trace a few copies of the original signature onto a piece of notebook paper. They all look fake. I try not to let my fingers tremble when I finally do the deal. I wish I didn’t have to lie. I briefly consider telling my mother that I botched the test and wonder what that might look like. She always seems to get angrier as the day wears on. I don’t think the truth is a good idea.
I hear Mom on the stairs. She carries a beer and her ashtray into the bathroom. She pees with the door open so she can hear the phone, in case my father calls. I slide what I’m working on under the blankets. I sit at the top of the steps, waiting for her to finish. Wanting to be honest, wanting to feel better, wishing I wasn’t so stupid.
“Mom, why do you think teachers like Judy better than they like me?”
“Your sister tries harder,” she says.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Go downstairs and set the table for the two of you.”
“Will Daddy be home soon?”
“Don’t ask me. Your father comes and goes as he pleases, that’s for damn sure.”
“Can you eat with us?”
“I’m not hungry anymore.”
I carry my crumpled scribblings to the kitchen. I stuff them deep into the bottom of the garbage, so no one will ever find out what I’ve done. There are seven empty beer cans down there, underneath the rest of the trash. I know how many because I count them.
They have beach chairs on the patio at our neighbors’ up the street, and not just the ordinary kind where you’re sitting straight up. These are chaise lounges, for lounging. Which is a fancy word for laying down outside on the patio. Near the pool. In your backyard. We haven’t got any of these things at our house, and I am jealous.
My sister and I weren’t even supposed to be at this party. Mommy said no at first, even though Judy begged. She and Virginia are in the same class. But then, Nanny Ray died. And they didn’t want kids at the funeral. So, here we are.
I was fine with not going when we got the invitation in the mail. My name wasn’t even on the card.
Besides, I can’t swim, and my bathing suit doesn’t fit anymore. I tried it on, and it’s too small. I stare in the mirror at my legs that are bigger and fatter than everyone else’s my age. I pull all the extra skin to the back so they look normal, but when I let go, they’re ugly again.
Mrs. Gallo gave Mommy two bathing suits that belonged to her daughters. I liked them both, but they’re old-fashioned and a little baggy. I was afraid I’d get laughed at, so I’m wearing my regular clothes. And if anyone asks why I’m not going in the pool, I’ll just say, “I don’t feel like it.”
Mom made us bring towels from the bathroom, in case we get wet. All the other kids have the cool ones you see at the beach, with pictures of flowers and rainbows and spaceships. Mine is light blue and has a big rust stain on it.
There’s a long table that stretches across the back deck, covered in balloons and streamers, napkins that say Happy Birthday. Next to each plate is a little paper basket filled with m&ms. I linger near the action, swiping a few pieces of chocolate from each cup.
This toothpick of a girl comes up to me. I don’t know who she is. “Stop eating all the candy,” she says.
“Don’t lie. I saw you.”
“I’m not lying.”
I walk away in the middle of her scolding me. My cheeks are hot. I wish I was skinny.
I kill time circling the outside of the pool, while bodies leap and splash along the surface of the water. Somebody calls my name, and I ignore them because I know if I look up, they’ll dump a wave in my face. I’ve seen them do it to other people.
I stop over where the dad is busy cooking hotdogs on the barbecue. He smokes a cigar and talks to his wife through the kitchen window. He’s wearing a light green apron that’s really for ladies.
“Having fun?” he asks.
I don’t want to hurt his feelings, so I tell him ‘yes.’
He clears his throat, steps to one side and spits into the grass. “You and me both, kid,” he says. I wonder if he means it.
I wish I knew more things about this party, like when it ends. I wish I didn’t break the Cinderella watch I got for my Communion. Then I’d know what time it is and how much longer before we can go home. I loved that watch. Mommy told me to be careful and not wind it too tight, but I didn’t listen. Now, the slipper floats around inside the glass, and the clock part doesn’t work either. I should probably throw it away, but I can’t just yet.
The same thing happened to my cousin, Donald. Only with his watch, the big hand came lose from Flipper’s belly. The small hand just spins and spins.
Johnny is Virginia’s younger brother. I’m not sure what grade he’s in. He still holds his mother’s hand when they cross the street. So do I, but not because I want to. Mom makes me. Johnny pretends he’s asleep in the yellow chaise lounge I’ve decided is my favorite. I wait for him to get up.
“Can I try?” I ask, when I feel like I’ve waited long enough.
“I’m not done yet,” he says.
“I know. But when you are, I want a turn. Okay?”
“Can I be next?”
“I don’t care.”
Until today, I guess I thought Johnny was nice. But now, I think he’s a jerk. And all of a sudden, I feel like I might cry, except not here. I want to cry in my own house. But who knows when that’ll happen? It could be hours from now. I wish I could find my sister.
Finally, he leaves. I turn around and lower myself into the center of the chair. I lean my shoulders against the backrest and slide my legs across the bottom section. I’m almost completely laying down. I try to look up at the sky, but the sun is too bright. I cover my face with my hands. Tears escape out the corners of my eyes. They trickle into my ear and down my neck. This chair really isn’t as great as I thought it would be.
Daddy found six orange life jackets in somebody’s garbage and brought them home. I helped him unload the car and marched across the kitchen wearing one.
“Get that dirty shit off your back,” my mother said.
“They’re good for the beach. Do you want I should drown?”
“You can’t swim, numbnuts. Outside.”
“They’re brand new,” my father insisted.
“They’re soaked in piss, Gene.”
“Who cares once they’re wet?”
We’re going to the Boat House, just meand Dad. Our lunches are packed in two brown paper bags. Cold cuts and mustard on a roll for him. Cream cheese and jelly for me. Mom got the good bread, and I asked if she’d cut my sandwich into four sections so it lasts longer. Fig Newtons and frozen sodas wrapped in tin foil.
I wait in the car when we stop at the beer distributor to get supplies. Two cases of Schaefer Shorties and a bag of ice. I wonder if Uncle Mike will be there, and my cousins. I hope so. It’s more fun with the other kids around. Judy didn’t want to come this time, and Mommy didn’t make her. I don’t think she likes the Boat House so much anymore. She says it’s boring. I still love it.
It’s easy to forget we live this close to the water. There’s no water in my neighborhood. And I wouldn’t know how to get here unless somebody was driving us. We wouldn’t even be going this morning unless Daddy had a good reason. He doesn’t just take us places because it’s fun. He’s not like that.
Past that last busy intersection where all the stores are, and the long crash wall and those little houses where the sidewalk ends, look, it’s the ocean – or the river or whatever. All blue and sparkly, it just appears out of nowhere, and you can’t believe it’s not fake. Seagulls fill the sky. Even the air smells different, salty. Big and small sailboats, fishing boats, rows and rows of them, parked and strapped to the docks that fill the marina.
We go a little further and turn into the first driveway that leads to the boatyard. Slow, tires crunching rocks and shells, the dust makes it hard to see what’s coming. Canoes and dinghies, stored three and four deep, line either side of the road. Giant fan blades and motors, maybe. Who knows? Greasy piles of junk. Somebody left their dog tied to the fence. He stands up when the car gets closer.
Three young boys feed a trash can that’s already on fire. Daddy turns the radio down and pulls over to their collection of cardboard and wood, pieces of a broken bar stool.
“Why don’t you fellas take a walk?” he suggests through the open window.
They stop what they’re doing and look at each other.
“Fuck you,” one of them yells.
“Yeah, mind your own business.” It’s pretty clear they all feel the same way.
“You don’t want me getting out of this car,” my father says. When he reaches for the door handle, they take off running. He laughs, and I laugh, too. Except I don’t think it’s very funny.
Daddy knows a guy named Erik. He’s got a boat. It’s not a nice one, but when the men can get it going, he’ll take us for a ride. I sit in the way back. I grip the railing and pretend I’m not afraid. As soon as we leave the pier, I start counting how many times my father reaches into the cooler for another beer. He gulps them down faster than everyone else, like he’s in a contest. I get scared when he tries to help with the anchor. I imagine his feet getting tangled in the ropes. That he’ll hit his head, fall into the water and sink to the bottom. I don’t wanna think about it right now. Maybe today will be different.
The door’s already propped open as we pull up to the dirty blue shack. We stack the life vests Mommy wouldn’t let us keep along the front of the house and go inside.
The smell of this place takes some getting used to. Wet clothes and rags, fish, beer and blood. Glue traps hang from the ceiling and door frames of every room. Long, yellow adhesive strips covered in dead flies, bees and wasps. There is no more room to die, and the insects that remain seem bolder and more hysterical. They land on my face and neck, dive into my ears. Some of them bite.
“See if you can’t clean up a little in here.” Dad points to some of the empty sardine tins they use for bait, Chinese food containers and beer bottles that fill the sink and lay strewn about the kitchen counter. “Use this.” He kicks at a busted up plastic hamper that’s already got a bunch of ketchupy paper plates and Styrofoam cups in it. Other stuff like macaroni salad and half-eaten hotdog buns.
When I pull it away from the wall, something gray and fast skims across the floor and behind the cabinet. I dig my fingers into Daddy’s arm and make a sound that surprises us both.
“You see that squirrel?” he asks, grinning.
“Un-huh.” I know he’s lying. I let go of him and get back to work.
I can hear someone coughing in the other room. I turn off the water, dry my hands on my shirt and go see. Whoever she is is laying on the couch, naked from the waist down. When I turn around, my father’s gone. He’s already up the road, talking to one of the Mikes. There’s like six of them.
“Daddy, there’s a lady inside. She’s not wearing any pants.”
I follow the men back to the house and through the kitchen. “Stay here,” Dad says. He grabs a beach towel that’s tacked to the window and covers the woman’s legs. I watch from the doorway.
“Hey, Murph. We got company,” Mike says, nudging her with his knee. “Murphy, wake up.”
She groans and turns over, face into the sofa cushions. The towel twists around her waist, and I see her hiney again. Daddy picks her dungarees up off the floor and lays them on top of her. A box of cough drops fall out of the pocket.
He looks at me. “Go outside,” he says. I do what I’m told.
I sulk all the way over to the car and try to sit on the hood, except it’s really hot and burns the back of my thighs. I could walk down to the jetty, but it’s too far to go all by myself. So I sit on the steps of the trailer next door, watching people go past with their fishing poles and buckets. When that gets boring, I wander nearby into the tall grass.
There’s a cat between some tires and an old barbecue grill. I can tell right away that he’s dead. His eyes are open, and there’s a stick jammed in his mouth. That’s the worst part, the stick. Why would somebody do that? Flies try and land on his fur. I swat them away. I hate seeing him like this. I pull the stick out real fast and throw it as far as I can.
I find an empty grocery sack from the Grand Union. I tear it open and make a tent to cover his body. I use rocks to keep it from blowing away.
When I get back to the house, I smell coffee. Murphy’s sitting up, and now, she’s dressed. Her eyelids lift when I say “Hi,” but she doesn’t answer. She holds a hot cup to her lips, fingernails outlined in dirt. She looks terrible. I plop myself down close to those cough drops still on the rug.
“Everything alright with you two?” Dad asks, like she and I are sisters who need to get along. Neither of us say anything. “I’m going with my friend here to take care of something.” He points over his shoulder. “Couple minutes, that’s all.”
“Can I come with you?”
“It’s not necessary. Stick around here.”
Murphy falls asleep eating a donut. She snores, but not very loud. I eyeball those lozenges. Pine Brothers, my favorite. They’re the honey kind, though. Not cherry. But that’s okay, I like those, too. I decide I should just take one. She won’t notice. I reach over and sneak the box into my lap, hooking my finger into the crumpled wrapper. They’re all stuck together, but I jiggle two loose. I put both in my mouth and check to make sure she hasn’t seen me. I tuck the box back into the shoe she’s not wearing.
I wait a few minutes and reach for the box a second time. I take another cough drop and seal the package shut again. Back in the shoe. I repeat this procedure until there are none left. I don’t want her to know I stole them, so I stuff the empty box inside my underwear.
Three men come into the house to visit with Murph. I don’t recognize any of them. They look surprised to see me.
“Hello there, little girl. Where’s your father?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he coming back?”
“I guess.” I wish Daddy was here right now. I can tell they wish I wasn’t.
“Hey, Murph. Let’s us go for a ride.”
“C’mon, sweetheart. Get up.” One guy gives her shoulder a shake.
Why can’t they leave her alone? She never even opens her eyes. She must be so tired. Or sick. Or something.
I stand up and head into the bathroom, even though it smells worse in here than anywhere else on Earth. I close the toilet lid, so whatever’s in the water doesn’t get me. I lean against the door, thumbing through an old TV Guide from two months ago. I circle my favorite programs in my head.
Other people show up and leave. I hear them laughing. It sounds like they’re still bothering her. I wish they’d just go away. I want my mom.
Daddy doesn’t seem that bad off when he gets back. I don’t even care. I just wanna leave. But It takes a few more beers and another hour to get that happening.
They’re all drinking and smoking, telling dumb stories. They play music nobody cares about anymore. Murphy’s perked up quite a bit. She sits like a baby in some old man’s lap, giggling and stroking his greasy hair. He whispers into her ear, and she kisses him with her mouth open.
I beg my father, “Please, can’t we go?”
Finally, he reaches into his pocket for his keys and turns to Murphy. “Gather your shit,” he says. “We’ll take you home.”
“Relax, Gene. The lady wants to stay.” All of a sudden, she’s everyone’s favorite.
“Yeah, Gene. I wanna stay.”
Daddy takes one elbow and lifts her to her feet. She reaches for her duffel bag and almost falls over. We usher her into the car. She tries to talk to my father as we drive, but he’s not interested in anything she has to say. We drop her off in front of a bar on East Tremont Avenue and wait until she disappears inside.
“Who was that?” I ask as we head back to the house.
If I had wine glasses, maybe I wouldn’t drink as much. I used to have some, but when they broke, I just never got around to replacing them. I’ve got those plastic stackable cups. They’re nice and big, but wine glasses might help me measure better.
I read somewhere you’re only supposed to have two drinks a day. Any more than that, and you should be wondering whether or not you have a problem with alcohol. Which is fucking ridiculous because everybody knows two drinks doesn’t do shit. But whatever.
Wine glasses would be nice for when I come home after work and make myself dinner. I don’t do that. I think about preparing real food. Meat and vegetables, spaghetti. I envision playing music while I cook. I make a salad, pour a glass of red wine and sit at the table to eat, like they do in the movies.
I’d need lettuce. And a table.
At lunchtime, I go for a walk. I stop at Jack’s, where everything they sell is 99 cents.
I buy a package of baloney and four dark blue wine glasses. I think they’re elegant, and they look like they can hold a lot. The sign above the shelf screams “GOBLETS!!!” in giant lettering.
The girl at the register wads up two of the glasses in newspaper and crams all of them into a flimsy plastic bag that says “Have a Nice Day.”
“Excuse me. Can I get an extra bag?”
She doesn’t answer. She looks mean, and I don’t ask again.
When the bag slices open on the stairs of the subway later that evening, three of the glasses shatter. The one that remains intact, I carry home. I peel the sticker off the bottom and fill it with box wine, right up to the top. So full, I have to take a few big sips before I can pick it up.
I carry that and a flat, ceramic plate into the other room where I can sit on the floor and set up my coke.
It’s okay, living in the basement. I listen to the sounds of progress coming from other parts of the house. Footsteps on the stairs, telephones ringing, water rushing through the pipes whenever the toilets flush. I feel remotely connected to what going’s on beyond the monotony of how I spend my time.
Michael lived in the apartment on the first floor. He had this girl hanging around a lot when he first moved in. Sometimes, I’d hear them having sex. Or fighting. Then she just stopped being here. I liked that he was alone. I didn’t have anybody either.
I asked one of my other neighbors about Michael.
“Steer clear of that guy,” Eddie said. “He’s no good.”
But what the fuck does Eddie know? He has no friends.
Somebody told me Michael was a deejay. He had hundreds of records. I watched him load equipment into the car at night and carry everything back in the house the next morning. I couldn’t believe this was a real job. It seemed more like fun than work.
I met Michael for the first time in the hallway where we lived. Some of his mail was in my slot, so I rang the buzzer and waited for him to answer.
“Mary. From downstairs.”
“What do you want, Mary from downstairs?”
“I’ve got an envelope addressed to you. I think it has money in it. Lots of money.”
He was smiling when he opened the door, just wide enough so I could see how young he was. He looked like a little boy who shouldn’t be home by himself.
“Thanks,” he said, “but this is junk mail.”
“It’s not your fault.”
We stood there for a long minute, not saying anything.
“I have a bunny, you know.”
I didn’t know.
He pulled the door a bit wider, so I could see. A small beige rabbit, nibbling at a Styrofoam cup and some other garbage left there on the floor.
“Her name is Jewel.”
“That’s beautiful.” I crouched down and called to her as if she were a cat. When she ignored me, I felt stupid and stood up again.
“She used to be Luna for a while, when she belonged to someone else. But you can write whatever you want on their dish and change the name. That’s what I did. I used a magic marker.”
He gestured toward an empty fish tank that took up the entire coffee table. The plastic bowl inside read “Jewel.”
“I gotta go,” Michael said. “So you’re gonna have to leave.”
He pretty much shut the door in my face. I could smell his drugs all around him. I wondered if Michael was retarded or just high.
Michael’s alarm clock went off at 6:30 pm every evening. The floorboards creaked as he padded around right above me. Some nights, he left the house for a little while and came back. Left again. I knew what he was doing up there. Same thing as me.
I obsessed about Michael. I hurried home from work, hoping I’d see him smoking cigarettes on the front steps. He ignored the doorbell and my attempts to visit. I climbed the fire stairs that separated our apartments and sat on the landing in the dark. From my side of the door, I listened to the endless flick of the lighter, the gurgle and popping sound of his burner. His cough.
“Hey, Michael. Michael.”
“I can’t right now. Not a good time.”
“I have a present for Jewel.”
It wasn’t much of a gift. Two soggy paper plates, filled with chunks of fruit and stapled together. Leftovers from a staff meeting at my job. Nobody seems to mind that I bring the extra food home. I always ask first. They’re only gonna throw it away. Sometimes, they have pizza, bagels and spreads. I take that too, for myself and my son, when he comes over. But he doesn’t like cream cheese, just butter.
“It’s strawberries,” I said.
“I don’t need your help,” Michael whispered.
“I’m not here to help.”
He undid the deadbolt and slid his hand through the opening. “Give it.”
I did. Then he closed the door and locked it. I kept knocking until he let me in.
Within a week, we were smoking crack together whenever we could. I called out sick from work a lot.
“Kirin has chicken pox,” I told my boss. “In his throat and the crack of his ass.” That’s where I had them when I had them, eight years ago. And it sucked.
I left elaborate stories on her voicemail. “The doctor says Kirin has diabetes.” I’d leafed through the symptoms in a booklet at the checkout when I went to buy beer, Diseases of the Human Body. “The poor kid’s been so hungry, and he can’t hear what the teacher’s saying. I’m gonna have to take him to get glasses, too. But don’t worry, I can do that over the weekend.”
When Jason called, wondering where I was on the weekends I was supposed to pick up our son, I started hiding. I deleted his messages without listening to them. I unplugged the answering machine so he couldn’t scold me. The phone company disconnected my service when I threw away the bills.
“Why don’t you ever see your kid?” Michael asked.
“He lives really far.” It sure seemed that way.
“You must miss him.”
“I do.” I really did.
So many times, it felt like I was dropped into the middle of a discussion Michael was already having with himself.
“I went to rehab, you know.”
I didn’t know.
“It was my mom’s idea. She thought I had a problem.”
“I used to. Maybe. It’s all good now.”
Michael had trouble paying his rent and put the glove on me for a loan.
“Just two hundred dollars,” he said. “I’ll get it back to you in three days.”
“I ain’t got that kind of money.” It wasn’t a lie. Plus, I knew he’d never repay me. Every penny he made, he spent on drugs.
“So, you wanna fuck?”
I was relieved when he asked. Maybe that meant he wasn’t mad. I didn’t want him to be mad. I didn’t want him to make me leave.
I guess I said ‘yeah.’ I meant ‘yeah.’ But neither of us moved from our places on the couch.
I guess I thought Michael and I were a thing, a thing that if I just worked at a little harder, might not be so bad. But being together was never good. When I could be still, I let him climb on top of me, press into my willingness with what little focus he had. Sometimes, he cried. He rubbed at his eyes like a toddler, reluctant to nap.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered into my neck. “I can’t.”
“It’s okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.
Jewel’s cage was filthy and the smell so awful, we carried it onto the back porch and left it there. She roamed from room to room, as if she were searching for something she’d misplaced.
Whenever I sat on the toilet, I stared at little holes along the baseboard that kept getting bigger and bigger. Small drifts of powdery plaster collected in front of these breaks in the sheetrock.
“Should she be eating the wall?”
“Not really.” Michael said. “Maybe she’s hungry.”
“I think she is.”
But we ran out of food and didn’t buy more. We talked about it, though. All the time. Jewel ate candy wrappers and cigarette butts. She threw up everywhere.
Dead animals are scary. In lots of ways, they look like they’re still alive, but you know they’re not. And even if you are in a position to help them, you can’t, because they’re already gone. It’s too late. But I should have known something bad was gonna happen. I hate that I kinda did.
Jewel lay sprawled in the kitchen, a frayed extension cord still dangling from her tiny mouth. I nudged at her lifeless body with my shoe, but her face was stuck to the floor, dried blood caked into the fur beneath her chin.
“Michael, something’s the matter with Jewel.”
“She’s asleep,” he said. “Don’t touch her.”
A week later, Michael died in his car. He was going back to work, a sweet sixteen party in Flushing. But first, he went to score some straight coke. He was trying to put some distance between himself and the crack. His heart stopped, right there in the parking lot of the venue. My landlord told me.
Michael’s mother and another lady cleaned out the apartment. I could hear them crying as they crammed all his shit into garbage bags and piled them into a minivan. I hid in the closet when they came to my door.
“We know you’re in there. Please talk to us,” one of the women pleaded.
I was afraid. And way too high to have a conversation with them about their dead child.
The next morning, I saw Jewel’s empty fish tank on the curb by the driveway. When I got home later on, it was gone. Just like Michael.