by Sarah Walker
It is the first time I have been home in seven years. I watch the windows, fixed on the blobs of light inside. I wait for the house to turn completely dark and when it does, I climb the stone wall to the roof that leads to my brother’s bedroom window.
My palms against the screen, I peer through and see Derrick’s bed, his big blond head on top of a bright pillow. I tap the top of the window with my knuckles until he’s up, walking over and looking at me like he’s staring at a ghost. One that might drag him into his own frightening in betweenness.
His lips move. “Holly?”
“Open up,” I say, and he does.
A few weeks ago, I lost my job. The toll booths in Boston no longer need humans sitting in that box all day taking money from the hundreds of people who are too lazy to get an E-ZPass. We’re being replaced by cameras. I think about lying to Derrick. I could tell him I’ve joined the Army. Soon, I’ll be shipped off to boot camp. But I tell him the truth. Only what’s important.
“I need to stay here for a bit. I lost my job, and I’m trying to figure out what to do next.”
He rubs his eyes and sits on his bed. “I’m guessing they don’t know you’re home?”
“Don’t tell them,” I say. “I can’t deal with that right now.”
“You have to tell them,” he says. “Eventually.”
I sit beside him and look around the room. Everything’s exactly the same. The walls are dark blue and bare, but I’m not sure what should be hung there or taking up space in the empty corners of his room to make his life seem fuller. I turn my head and look at the side of his face. His dizzy eyes stare at nothing. He’s a year younger than me. Twenty-four. He’s thinner than I remember him being in high school, and there are tiny acne scars on his cheeks.
For a moment, I have the urge to put my head on his shoulder and pretend to be the kind of siblings we never were. But there are separate orbs around us, and I’m scared to break through either one.
A few days after I graduated from high school my mom found out that I’d slept with our principal’s husband and my ex-boyfriend’s stepfather. There must have been something in the air that made my accusers crawl out from their hiding places and tell her the things I didn’t even try to hide.
I had come home from the mall early. I was supposed to be applying for jobs, but I bought a new belly-button ring, sat in the back parking lot, and watched for people who looked like they had nothing to look forward to. When I came home, my mom was in the kitchen, sitting at the table and staring out the window. Her face was white, her focus unmoving, but she looked to be in deep thought. Summer and hot in our house, she wore a thin shirt with thin straps. I touched her bare shoulder, and her skin felt wet.
She used words I had never imagined her using. Daggers that pierced my young skin and made me throw sharper ones back.
“You should have left long ago,” I told her. “Then you wouldn’t think about your sad life, your mistakes. Mine must be a nice distraction.”
She grabbed the back of my neck. Her fingers pinched my thin skin. I remember how quickly the color in her face changed. I remember the kitchen lights glowing above our heads. Circles that were so bright I thought they might burst into flames. As much as I wanted her long fingers to fall away, I wanted to hear what else she had to say. Was there any blame she was willing to take? She released me. She rested her hands on her knees as if a race had been run and she had come in dead last.
My mom never told me to leave. I did it all on my own. If we were on speaking terms now, I’d tell her I don’t take back what I said, what I accused her of and claimed to know. I don’t wish that I hadn’t destroyed those marriages or families and embarrassed mine so badly that no one spoke about it or spoke to me. I’m not sure if I’m addicted to their hands, feet, the body parts that are most private. All I know is my skin, warm, salty, while it rubs against theirs, is devoured, is precious. What I want is a chance to tell her that I see how fast time moves. How one moment you’re here, doing what you ought to, thinking of the things you want to do, the next you’re somewhere else. You start to ask yourself if anyone really sees you.
In the morning, I forget where I am until Derrick hangs his head off the bed so his face is in front of mine.
He blinks. “What are you gonna do today?”
I roll the other way, too surprised by his anxious green eyes. “Tommy and Jake still live around here?” I ask.
“Tommy lives in those shitty apartments across from Adam’s.”
“You still work there?”
“Yeah,” Derrick says.
“Give me a ride?”
It is silent, and I wonder if he thinks the same thing I do: I’ll always be someone who needs no one but destroys everyone. He continues to say nothing, to ask nothing, even while we wait to leave the house after our parents and Derrick drops me off at Tommy’s before heading across the street to Adam’s Mini Mart.
The apartment building is three stories, the levels held up by three brick columns. There’s a faded gray mist on the white panels above the door as if someone planned to spray paint the front and ran out of paint or just became bored. When no one answers the door, I sit on the front steps and wait. I watch people come and go from the mini mart and wonder when was the last time they paved their parking lot. The pavement is so worn down, it looks like sand from where I sit. I count the cars that bottom out on the pothole by the exit. A few hours later, I walk across the street, examine how deep the pothole is, then go into Adam’s.
By the bathroom, Derrick stocks a shelf with cereal. I almost enter the bathroom without him seeing, but at the last second, he turns his head. He holds a box of Fruit Loops. He whispers, even though no one is around, “What are you doing in here?” I point to the bathroom door, and he nods, mumbles something. When I’m out of the bathroom, I walk to the front of the store and buy a magazine with a celebrity in a purple Calvin Klein sports bra on the cover. Someone shouts for Derrick to bring in the carts from outside. He shuffles past me with his head down.
I take my seat on the front steps of the apartment again. A few more hours pass, and just as I’d imagined it, Jake pulls into the driveway with Tommy in the passenger seat. He and Jake practically fall out of the seats. They walk slow, after a day of what I assume was hard work. They wear light jeans and cut off t-shirts with sawdust all over their clothes. Jake carries a toolbox, Tommy a big blue cooler. Jake sees me first. He lifts his head and doesn’t move.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” he finally says, setting his toolbox at his feet and wiping the pale specks of dust off his shirt.
Tommy stops too and shakes his head. “Never thought I’d see you back here.”
I step closer. “Neither did I.”
They open their arms, embracing me separately for seconds that feel too long and too good. I can’t remember the last time someone held me like that without wanting something else, and I’m surprised at how my hands hold the back of their shirts when they finally let go.
We sit inside Tommy’s apartment, and Jake takes a case of Bud Light from the refrigerator. He hands me a beer, and I hand it back.
“I still don’t drink,” I say.
They look at me like I’m crazy, but their confused faces relax. They remember. In high school, at parties with Jake and Tommy, I liked to watch. Undeveloped and insecure, everyone drank until they couldn’t speak or see or sometimes even breathe. It’s the same now. The boys drink as if I’m going to take their alcohol away, and in that instant, I don’t feel as bad about my life. There’s a moldy basement smell in Tommy’s apartment that could be fixed if he opened the windows. The refrigerator is missing a leg and sits lopsided in the corner. An acoustic guitar leans against the refrigerator, and I wonder if Tommy still plays. A checkered couch with red and blue striped throw pillows sits across from the kitchen table, but I can’t tell where one room ends and the other begins.
Jake wears a gold wedding band; Tommy doesn’t. It tells me so much, but not enough.
“Jake,” I say, “you’re married?”
He looks at his hand like he’s forgotten the ring. He nods, tips the beer to his lips, drinks the rest, and crushes the can.
“You remember Cindy? Bill Riender’s little sister?” Tommy spins his cold can between his palms on the table.
Looking at Jake, I say, “I don’t remember her,” even though I do.
My mom has been several different women, and I have every one memorized.
For a few years, she was so quiet it physically hurt. When we got off the school bus, she’d be at home, in the kitchen, preparing these elaborate dinners. She’d smile at us from the stove. She never asked how school was or who our friends were that week. We went to our bedrooms until she called us down for dinner. Derrick played Nintendo. I knew because I heard the beeps and groans through the wall between our rooms. I sat in my room sketching gray, wispy images. My hands ached, but I was convinced it wasn’t from holding the pencil as tightly as I did. It was a combination of her behavior and the energy of my curiosity.
The next stage had her wanting to know everything. She ripped off our backpacks, searching for worksheets and textbooks, and made sure we did our homework on time and correctly. That was the year we joined the Catholic Church and didn’t miss a mass. But the next year, that was over, and she was the happiest I had ever seen her. Our dad’s quarry business went under that year. She had to get a full-time job at a floral shop a few towns over while he pretended to look for another. When she came home, after dinner, after everyone had fended for themselves, she’d glide through the house cleaning up after us. Sometimes she’d hum or sing songs I didn’t recognize. Everyone in the house ignored the singing except for me. I wanted to know why. I wanted to know if this was what happened when you became an adult. You couldn’t decide who to be, so you became different versions of a person, depending on the day, the week, the season, or year.
My senior year of high school, she was like that first woman I had known. Quiet and reserved. She had a different job, part-time, and didn’t come home singing. When she walked through the door, the skin around her eyes was as pink as raw meat. I don’t think she thought we noticed her.
Jake was the only person I talked to about my fascination with her. When Tommy was in the hospital after breaking his back, I went to Jake’s almost every day after school. “Maybe she’s bipolar,” I told him one day while we sat on his bed and he smoked a joint. “Schizophrenic. Dying, maybe, of a weird disease. The first woman to have it,” I said. I told him about the worry line that ran between her eyebrows and stopped at the bridge of her nose. In the summer, sweat ran down the deep line, and it glowed. I wanted to know all about the worries stuck in there.
“Some things aren’t meant to be revealed,” Jake said, as if he had that answer all along. He ashed the joint on a plate on his nightstand and took me into his chest. I could hear his heart tick, feel his chest move slow and easy. His comfort was quiet; it made me think that I’d turn out to be a normal woman who didn’t feel the need to give what I gave or do what I did. He knew about all the men but never mentioned them. But when his fingers spidered up my spine, I figured he wanted to be with me in the ways the others had. Except he never tried anything, and I was thankful because I didn’t have any other friends, only lovers.
There’s a knock at the apartment door. The boys are already drunk, so I get up and open it. Cindy’s there. She’s wearing a white button-up, small circles of sweat visible under the armpits. Her mascara is a bit smeared, and she’s in the middle of taking a breath. She freezes, holds that pocket of air when she sees me standing in front of her.
“Oh, hi Holly.”
She moves past me. Her long hair falls in front of her face. She stands in front of Jake, and he sits and stares up at her, grinning. She tells him they were supposed to be at her grandmother’s for the party an hour ago. “Don’t you remember? I reminded you. I reminded you so many times.”
Tommy raises his eyebrows at me. Jake pulls Cindy into his lap, puts his face in her neck, and she laughs with her head tipped back. She shouts for him to stop and that he needs to shave when he gets home.
“You didn’t want to go to that party anyways,” Jake tells her.
Cindy rolls her eyes. “Someone get me a beer.”
I go to the refrigerator and hand her one, not because I want to wait on her, but because I want to be included in what this is.
Cindy cracks open her beer and asks how long I’m back in Forest City.
“Not long,” I say, still standing over her.
The muscles in her face tighten. “Damn.” She brushes the back of her hand against my thigh, and I don’t mean to, but I flinch. “I thought there’d be another girl to hang around here with,” she says, her voice soft.
Our differences make me squirm, and for the first time in my life, I drink more than I should. It doesn’t take long for my eyes to feel coated with Novocain. My mind begins to work faster than my feet and the things I say out loud. The boys don’t seem to notice that I’m drinking their beer.
We go outside, and Tommy and Jake are loud, making little sense with their jokes and movements. Jake hula hoops with the plastic toy that’s in the back of the apartment. Tommy swings a wooden baseball bat at fireflies. Cindy laughs at mostly everything and keeps her eyes on her husband. When she speaks, no one acknowledges her. She picks up the bat, swings, and it falls from her hands. We don’t care enough to tell her she needs to hold the bat higher and tighter.
She traps a firefly in her hands, shows Jake. He claps her hands together. She stares at the bright green smear for a few seconds, then runs it down Jake’s bicep, calling him a dick.
The three of us, standing in a half circle, watch Cindy move up the apartment stairs. Her foot catches on a step. It sends her body down, but her palms hit the step first. She lets out a little cry. I notice that we’re wearing the same gold strapped sandals. The right strap of her shoe has come unbuckled, and as she rises and runs up the rest of the steps, it flaps against her ankle. Jake and Tommy turn away. I wait a few minutes before I follow her.
I find her in the bathroom. She leans over the toilet, throwing up. Her blond hair hangs in the water, and I feel dizzy standing there watching her gag. She turns her head, and we lock eyes. A black tear runs down her left cheek. She twirls her hand in the air, motioning to her long hair, and I make it just in time to pull and hold it behind her neck. She burps, her head shrinking into the toilet bowl again.
It lasts a while, and besides my mom I’ve never pitied a woman so much in my life. I think nothing will be left of Cindy because she continues to empty herself, and it feels at one point, while my left hand holds her thin hair and the other rubs her back in small circles, that her ribs will crack, her bones will break and pile right at my feet.
When she’s done, she falls back. She wipes her mouth and forehead and unbuttons her white blouse. She rushes to take it off, coughing and waving her hand in front of her face. Her breasts sit heavy in a white bra that looks too small, and her stomach hangs just slightly over her tight jean shorts. Sitting there, looking at her body, smelling her hot breath, I know she’s had happier moments than me, has taken more risks. I can tell from the extra layer of skin that I don’t have. I can tell by the way she’s unashamed sitting in front of me with her legs crossed, half naked, smelling of vomit and body odor.
Cindy closes her eyes and hangs her head back. “I drink a lot when I’m with them,” she says. “But I don’t get sick like this, ever. Must’ve been something I ate.”
I shrug. “It’s fine.”
“Jake didn’t wanna come up here?” She laughs but stops suddenly and looks down at the tile floor, starts picking at lint that’s stuck in a crack.
I help her up and put her on Tommy’s couch. I squeeze a pillow under her head, and she mumbles something. I ask her what she said. She looks over my shoulder. “No matter how much you love someone,” she tells me, then closes her eyes and doesn’t say another word even when I nudge her, pinch the skin on her arm and ask her what she means.
I saw a 60 Minutes episode once featuring the most depressing jobs, and mine was one of them. There was some crazy statistic about the number of Americans who worked in tollbooths and committed suicide. Too much time to sit and think. I wasn’t depressed with that job, though. I liked remembering certain faces, thinking of them whenever I wanted. A woman with painted black lines on her eyelids. The painted lines slightly turned up at the ends. All day I wondered who she’d created those cat eyes for. A young boy who didn’t look old enough to drive. His shirt off, his face stiff and dry, I figured he was running from something. In the booth, I sketched the faces I remembered most. And I wondered what I looked like to those same people when I collected their change.
During the late-night shift, right before I got laid off, I read a book on pregnancy. Not a what to expect when you’re expecting book, but what happens to a fetus inside the womb. A mother’s stress and sadness and other emotional situations affect the baby, ultimately affecting who it becomes: its personality, weird little habits. That was the moment I realized where the statistics about suicide from the 60 Minutes episode came from. I wondered what went on with my mom when she was pregnant with me—what version of herself she was then—and I began to think about death more than anyone should. I imagined calling her before I swallowed a bottle of pills or jumped from my apartment balcony and asking her why she couldn’t have been in one of her normal states when she was pregnant with me.
The day I lost my job, I walked into the apartment on Beacon Hill that I shared with a married man. He lived there part-time, paying the rent even when he was in Philadelphia with his family from Fridays to Tuesdays. He found the pregnancy book that day and asked me before I could tell him about my job, “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” He stared at my stomach. It felt like my insides were eating each other. His irises shook. I felt powerful not saying anything, making him ill from not knowing. When I walked into the bedroom, he shouted my name. I face-planted into a pillow and felt him standing over me. Even when I told him I wasn’t, he wanted me to get up, show him my birth-control packet.
I knew it was over despite what he’d told me earlier that year: he’d leave his wife, a manic depressive who used their kids as a shield. She spoke to him through them. I thought his plan was brave. He’d leave because he was unhappy, and the task seemed simple, but I knew it wasn’t. He opened the bedroom windows that night, and the wet spring air hovered above my body.
“The kids are coming to see Boston when school’s out, and I can’t have them or Rachel suspecting anything,” he said, crawling into bed beside me. I rolled over, away from him, and said nothing.
I wanted to tell him, “I can’t leave. I can’t go back home to them. This is one of the only things that’s lasted.” But I felt him, hard, press against me, the only way he knew how to say sorry. I didn’t want to give in, but it was the only way I knew how to feel better.
I’m back outside, and the boys look like they’re sleeping in the crooked camping chairs that face a fire pit without a fire.
“Cindy?” Jake asks with one eye open.
“I put her to bed. She’s too drunk.”
We’re older now, but our conversations are more vague than when we were in high school. We wobble around what we want to ask, what we want to say.
Tommy points his chin at Jake. “Did you really forget about her party?”
Jake shrugs. “I wanted to forget. That’s different.”
The boys laugh loud, and I think of Cindy, her head resting on one of the stained pillows in Tommy’s apartment. I wonder if she’ll wake up with a clear head, the new day exciting. I wonder how she doesn’t worry that Jake’s drunk and seeing an almost-lover for the first time in seven years. And Cindy’s worry must stay dormant, never waking her when Tommy goes inside, puts himself to bed, and leaves Jake alone with me.
It doesn’t take long for Jake, and it comes with a certain boldness he never had before. I’m sitting beside him, thinking about the two houses on either side of his apartment, if I know anyone who lives in them. He takes my face in his hands. “I can’t believe you’re back,” he says and kisses me. His lips are smooth and smaller than mine, and his hands creep gently around my body. He tastes like the sour beer I’ve been drinking.
We lie in the grass, kissing and touching, until I think of Cindy and our matching sandals. Somehow it seems to matter, under her husband, my shirt lifted above my stomach and his hands gliding over the skin he never got to touch years ago.
I push Jake off and sit up. It’s dark, but across the small yard I spot dead patches of grass on the other side.
“What’s Cindy like?”
Jake fumbles with his zipper, his head down. “Is this some kind of trick?”
I reach for my sandals, buckle them around my ankles. “It’s not a trick,” I say. “I want to know about the woman you married.”
He groans and sits silently for a moment. The light fixture above the backdoor flickers, and we both watch it.
“First girl I didn’t have to try so hard with,” he eventually says. “It was always easy. It was easy when we were first married too, but it’s not like that anymore.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I still love her. If that’s what you’re getting at.”
He puts his head between his knees, and I think he’s crying because his back muscles tighten under his shirt. His ribs tremble just a little. But when he lifts his head, his face is dry and so are his brown eyes that are harder to see in the dark.
“You know when you have ideas?” he asks. “Like if you could get to this one thing, everything would work out and you’d be happy?”
In my mind, I see all the men I have been with lined up like soldiers. They look alike, and they have said the same things, and I had believed in them like they must have believed in me. With them, I wanted to exist in a way I never had at home. I craved being needed, and it didn’t matter in what way. I don’t think they think of me now, and I could let it hollow me, but I decide not to let it.
“Well, that’s what it was like when we got married.” He shakes his head. “But that’s how things are with me. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied for more than a few weeks.”
Earlier, Cindy’s hair felt like hay in my palm. I could have tightened my grip, pulled her head back, asked her whatever I wanted.
“What about her?” I ask him. “You think she’s happy?”
“I don’t think about it. See, that’s how much of an asshole I am.”
We glance at each other. I try to measure if it’s all right to laugh. He does first.
“Shit, I really am an asshole,” he says.
I put my hand on top of his. “You’re not the only one.”
He moves his hand away. “Yeah, you’ve done some assholey things, too.” He pauses. “Sorry,” he says. “And sorry I haven’t asked why you’re really back.”
“I’m back because I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“That’s what I mean,” he says. “The part you didn’t say. Maybe you wanted to come back. Maybe starting over means starting from here.” He lies back down on the grass. “I don’t know what the hell I’m saying,” he says.
I drop beside him, and my fingers brush his. He doesn’t move his hand away this time.
He looks straight up at the black sky. His voice is quiet like Cindy’s was when I put her on the couch. “I’m gonna really try. Starting tomorrow. I’m gonna try to be a better person.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Me too.”
He turns his head to me. “How you gonna do that?”
“I’ll tell my mom I’m home. Maybe I’ll apologize.”
He moves his head so he’s staring at the sky again.
I think of the only women I’ve cared about, and my sternum aches. My blood feels hot, rushing from my toes to my chest.
I picture Cindy and me embracing, her thanking me for what I haven’t done with Jake. In this fake scenario, her hair partly falls on my arms. It tickles and makes me want to sink my nails into my skin, scratch myself until I bleed. But strangely, I want us to stay like this. I want to feel her feelings, to keep being reminded that I have done something good.
Sarah Walker is a writer from Northeastern Pennsylvania. She was the 2017 Dennis Lehane Fiction Fellow at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College. Her work has appeared in American University: Folio, Burrow Press Review, BULL, Cleaver, Colorado Review, New Limestone Review, Longform Pick of the Week, among others. She is a flash fiction editor for Lily Poetry Review and now splits her time between the Endless Mountain Region and Greater Boston.