SHORT STORIES

Twist And Shout

Version 2

Adam and Eve grabbing for fig leaves in the garden, faces burning, having just realized they both were naked, was just like Wes and me realizing that neither of us could dance.

-1 Hour Ago-

“No, this is great, I’m excited to meet your friends,” Wes had said as we took the elevator down from the sixth floor to the basement, not making eye contact with me but rather looking down at my right sneaker, under which I’d just crushed a cockroach that had been scuttling across cheap vinyl floor. I neglected to point out that Steph and I had just moved here a week ago and had literally zero friends in the building, that the objective of this event was to make said friends in case one of us was at work and the other needed help because she was home alone and choking on a bit of Eggo waffle and needed a Heimlich or something.

He usually wanted to hold my hand when I wasn’t even thinking about holding his, or vice versa. As the lit display above the elevator door lit up with a “2,” I laced the fingers of my right hand between those of his left and went in for the squeeze, but I quickly dropped my hand back to my side, sliding out of his fingers, as soon as the doors slid open on level “B.”

We paced down the hall until we reached the door labeled by a sheet of paper reading “Neighborhood Night Out,” the (apparently) national holiday this evening was meant to celebrate—our neighborhood, as young urban semi-professionals, was decidedly vertical, indoors, and rent-controlled. Muffled Sugar Ray was audible through the front door, and, as we waited for the response to our knock, Wes hummed along, short dark hair bobbing slightly with his amicable foot-taps. I flashed back to being fifteen, braces hurting my mouth a bit, and backing the family Corolla directly into the neighbor’s garage door, leaving a deep and humiliating dent. Contrary to the advice of my dad in the passenger’s seat, I’d left the radio on while backing out, and while turning up the volume on “Fly,” I’d stopped looking backwards and smashed right into their garage door. A mediocre song and a beyond-embarrassing experience.

“You’re having a flashback again, aren’t you,” said Wes, banging harder on the front door. “Earth to Whit.” He grinned.

“Huh?” I said.

“You’re doing the”—he squinted and gazed off into the distance, before turning back to me and cracking a warm smile—“Flashback face. This is a thing you do. Steph and I talked about it once while you were in the bathroom.”

“Wow, cool, this makes me uncomfortable on a couple different lev—“ I was cut off by the door being drawn open.

“Come on in, thanks for showing up! So great of you both to come!” The bounce in the step of the girl who opened the door matched the bounce of her halo of black curls. “I’m Mariah, come on in!”

She placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. “You must be… I know this… you’re… Steph?”

“Super close!” I said, her social comfort fostering my own. “I’m Whitney, Steph’s roommate.”

“Whitney. Okay. Great to meet you, Whitney. And who’s your friend?”

“This is Wes,” I said, watching Wes reach out a hand for a kind, hearty shake. I never knew whether or not to correct people who refer to Wes as my “friend”—yes, friendship is there, but is the correct word for us “dating”? “Boyfriend,” even?

Mariah escorted us to the drinks before having to let more guests in—I helped myself to a hard cider, Wes poured some scotch.

 

And then it happened. We were looking out over the clusters of people in the dimly lit apartment, our curiosity more like we were watching a Discovery Channel special on meerkat behavior than the curiosity of those seeking to socially interact. An old Talking Heads song came on. There was a fair bit of space around us, Wes’s toe-tapping and my gentle head-bounce and knee-bend were intensifying, and then we looked at one another and stiffened up awkwardly, ceasing to move.

“So, um, do you want to, meet other… people?” I asked, finger-combing my ponytail awkwardly and looking down. “Like, together?”

“Sure, whatever you want to do,” replied Wes in a warm, thin voice. “It’s your building.”

Standing close together but not touching, we met several Sarahs and Johns, a blonde Britney living up to her name, a Mohammed, and two Tims, who, comically, were roommates. We repeatedly explained that I’m Whitney and he’s Wes, we’re dating, I’m the one who actually lives here, we met at rec rugby league, and my actual roommate, Mel, is on her way right now from a nursing shift at the retirement home.

“Let’s dance!” Said one of the Sarahs (or was she a Lisa? I was starting to feel all warm and tingly inside as I finished a solo cup of cheap champagne). Our circle of slumped talkers then became a circle of bobbing, tapping half-dancers, alternately glancing around and staring down at their own feet, occasionally venturing to stare longingly outside our circle and out the window, one of those ground-floor windows where you look out and alarmingly find the grassy ground at what is currently your shoulder height.

Fairly comfortable in my bobbing rhythm with some gentle hip shakes, I ventured a glance away from my fellow ladies and over towards Wes. He was smiling a cute warm smile, playfully moving his hips, and—doing that awkward thing so many guys I’ve met do where they point both index fingers up towards the ceiling as they do a mini-shimmy as if it adds any creativity or zest to their dance moves.

Two songs later, Steph rolled in, still in her scrubs, and I caught her at the drink table, ducking away as Wes got caught up in a conversation about Green Bay’s upcoming playoffs game.

“How’s it going?” Asked Steph, sleepy, pouring herself a plastic cup of red wine. “My feet are killi—“

HE DOES THE THING!” I hissed, unable to contain myself.

“Huh?” Said Steph, taking a huge swig of wine.

Wes! The dance thing! The pointy-fingered awkward guy dance thing!”

“Is this… a thing we’ve talked about before?” Steph asked a bit groggily, pulling her nametag off her Tweety Bird scrub shirt and tucking it into her purse. I wondered why she hadn’t gone home to change, though I realized my Centennial Hall 2008: ‘08 Is Great! T-shirt and running shorts was not exactly a fashion statement either.

“I think we’ve talked about it? Or maybe I was thinking about it while having dinner next to you on the couch?” I faltered. I always did this: assume the knowledge and kindness of those who knew me best extended with no bounds, leaving me sheepish and ashamed when my own irrationality leaves me asking for extra from others rather than helping fill in the gaps of what they may need.

Steph was already sloppily topping off her wine, mixing white into her red. “So, his dance moves, huh? How were your dance moves?”

“Pretty shitty,” I confessed, “but, like, the fingers are a next level, I guess?”

Steph swilled her wine a little. “And what else did you guys do today?”

“Well, it took me forever to get ahold of him today, and eventually when he texted back I felt like he wasn’t really listening to me and—“

“AHA,” Said Steph, pointing a cheese puff at me like an accusatory finger and sipping her wine with her other hand. “This isn’t REALLY about hand-dancing at all!”

Crunching down the cheese puff in a single bite, Steph pointed across the room at the mirroring snack-and-drink table, where Wes was trying to scoop guac onto the same chip he had already scooped salsa onto, only to watch the salsa slide off into the guac bowl. Twitching and glancing side to side, he clearly panicked for a moment before scooping the unholy mixture out by using two new chips as tongs, quickly folding the chips into his mouth and scuttling away as if he’d just set off the alarm in a fine art museum.

“Look at that,” said Steph, in an understanding tone, almost didactic. “The guy’s doing his best. He’s gonna be off some days, just like we are. But whenever he’s over at our place, he’s super kind to you, and I can hear you guys laughing together all the way from the kitchen,” she paused, “though it’s not really even that far.”

I put my hands on my hips triumphantly. “Stephie, you’re so right. I should go dance with him.”

“Correct answer,” Steph concluded, again topping off her wine. “If you hold his hands, he won’t even do the finger-pointy thing.” My heart fluttered a little in spite of myself.

I paused before venturing forth. “Hey, dude, I know we don’t have to drive anywhere, but how many wines has that been for you?” I asked.

Steph looked down into the cup and shrugged. “Dunno. Scope out any cute girls who are into climbing for me?”

I cracked a wry smile. “Working on it. No luck yet.”

 

As if the stars were aligning just for me, some warm, doofy Frank Sinatra cover came on as I made my way over to Wes. I tapped him on the shoulder, and as he spun around, (fortunately with both hands free), I slipped both my own hands into his and started swaying us side-to-side with the brassy beat of the song. His hands were warm and comfortable as we swayed for a few more songs, stood together in the elevator up, and as they squeezed my smaller, paler hands goodnight.

WEB Advertising and Media

orb-spider-web

Over the phone, I could hear long, spindly legs tapping a hardwood table, like fingers drumming.

“WEB Advertising and Media, this is Char speaking,” came the voice on the other end.

“Hello, hi, um, I’m calling to ask for a quote,” I began, my voice thin, embarrassed by the cause of my phone anxiety. I had dialed the right number; I just knew I was talking to a spider.

Char’s voice remained smooth and assured. “Alright, yes, and what is your intended project?”

“Well, I work at a marble countertop company, and I was wondering if you had any openings left at the County Fair for ads like you did awhile back? Like ‘SOME PIG’ and such? We were thinking, like, a huge web that twinkles in the sunshine that says ‘SOME COUNTERTOPS’ with our phone number underneath, on a main walking path within the fair? And maybe a nearby web that says ‘HUMBLE’?”

I hear a pause on the other end, and a shuffling of papers punctuated by several more leg clicks. “Ah, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but we don’t do PR via literal web anymore, aha,” she laughed uncomfortably. “If you’d like, we have a lot of trained media spiders who would be able to help you set up a website or some billboards along the interstate, or we can connect you to some sparrows to help your brand come up with some clever tweets,” she offered.

“Um, can I call you back?” I asked, regretting calling in the first place.

“Absolutely,” Char replied, “We’re open ‘til five.”

I set the huge plastic office phone down, untangling its spiral cord, and made a break for the water cooler. As the blue plastic jug let out a moan of air bubbles, I tapped my toes uncomfortably. I was new to the company, the young publicist fresh out of college, and despite the supposed “social media savvy” that came with my status as the token millennial in the office, I had no idea how to market our tiny local brand’s handcrafted marble countertops effectively. No one in their right mind would click “like” on our business’s Facebook page, and what would a flock of adorable hired birds even tweet about? Sure, I’d submitted an ad to the dying local newspaper, but I wished local businesses could still make it on good old word of mouth—doing your best without needing to flaunt it. HUMBLE.

Crushing the cup in my hand, I returned to my desk, sat down, and dialed up the county fair, booking a booth in the vendor area, not asking for my boss’s approval for use of the company card or the fact that I’d be borrowing a countertop for the weekend. “Good thing you’re calling now,” said the farmer’s-drawl voice on the other end, “We’re almost all booked up.”

x

On the morning of the first day of the fair, I woke up before the crack of dawn, drove to the countertop store, unlocking it with my personal key, and set several boxes of our brochures and business cards on the passenger seat of my car. Then, I picked up our smallest marble counter, one that looked like moonstone tinged with streaks of clay-red, lugging it out to my trunk. I had to stop and take several breaks on the pitifully short walk out of the building, resting the countertop’s corner carefully on the toe of my sneaker so as not to chip or wear at the marble.

Once at the fair, I discovered my booth was between the one at which the local clinic was giving out free sunblock and lip balm and the one where the local pop radio station was giving out free bumper stickers. I placed my countertop carefully on the surface of the provided folding-leg table, and laid out our company brochures and business cards on top. As the fair opened and I unwrapped the first of two PB&Js swathed in napkins that I’d wedged into my handbag, my breakfast PB&J, I was excited to see a steady flow of people approaching down the vendors’ lane. To my dismay, though, it seemed most people were making a circuit directly from the free lip balm to the free bumper sticker, avoiding eye contact as they passed me by as if this granted them absolution for not stopping. A tiny blonde girl walked up to my countertop, stood on her toes and craned her neck, and said, “Is anything free here?” and fortunately was ushered away by her mother before I had time to answer.

In the heat of the day, almost noon, an elderly man in a trucker cap approached my table. I’d rolled up the sleeves of my blouse and was fanning myself with an unfolded brochure, perspiration sticking to my neck like condensed water droplets on the outside of a drinking glass.

“Hello, miss,” he said, voice hoarse, “you’re here with the countertop store on West 33rd?”

“Why yes, I am,” I said, more flattered than I would have been if he’d told me I was the long-lost princess of Wales.

“My wife and I were thinking of re-doing our countertops, and giving you guys a call. You aren’t, by any chance, giving out a discount coupon today, are you?”

I plummeted from heat exhaustion into internal anguish. Trying to maintain a level calm, I chuckled and said, “Aha, nope, just here spreading the good word. Would you like my card?” The man took the slip from my hand politely and walked away.

A discount! How could I not have thought of that? I stomped a foot beneath the table. This was the age of immediacy! The age of the Internet! People wanted something now, something to indicate that they were special! I thought about printing out coupons to distribute on Sunday, the second day of the fair, but it was Saturday afternoon, my boss was at his cabin, and I didn’t want to make any financial moves without his approval. After an afternoon of letting a few people touch my countertop and make “ooh”—types of comments before politely declining my cards and fliers, I packed up and went home for the night, flicking a few bugs off the spotless marble before leaving.

x

The next morning, I made no effort to make it to the fair early. I rolled out of bed without an alarm, whipped up coffee and waffles, and headed to the fairgrounds at midmorning in my old cross-country shorts. As I approached the vendor aisle, I saw flocks of people approaching, tufts of cotton candy and free keychains falling everywhere. Droves were crowding around, I craned my neck. . . My booth!

I hurried over to see that, hanging across the front of the tent, over the countertop like a banner, was the word CRAFTSMANSHIP in shining white spiderweb thread, still glistening with dew, with the web surrounding the empty letters woven at eccentric angles that looked like marble. Fairgoers were whipping out their cell phones to snap pictures, directing their kids in front of the table for a photo-op, turning around backwards for a quick selfie. I tried to keep my smile in-check and make the whole setup look planned as I took my place behind the counter. “Good morning, everyone,” I said, voice almost booming, “is anyone interested in a quality-crafted countertop?”

That night, I made my first post on the company Facebook page, uploading a photo of the fair booth, complete with countertop and web-banner, dew twinkling in the sunshine. On Monday at work, I asked my boss, and he said that we could definitely offer a ten-percent discount to customers who brought in their own photos with the web, or had posted them to their social media outlet of choice.

I didn’t know if it was Char who had made the banner. That night, I got home from work and dumped the sandwich crumbs from the bottom of my handbag underneath the spiderweb in my garage. Maybe spiders like sandwiches, I thought. I really didn’t know.

XOXO by Cherub

Samsung

He sat her down and said he wanted to do this in, [sic], the “least asshole way possible.” She sat at attention, stopped fidgeting with her “K” necklace, and didn’t say anything. He spoke and her stomach didn’t drop very much. She hugged him on the way out and she could feel an odd sort of fear, manifested in stiffness, in his hug.

-x-

“Aw, Kendra, I’m really sorry,” her roommate’s muffled voice came through the wall.

“Eh, it’s fine. Thanks, Mel,” she yelled back, pulling her running clothes out of the bottom drawer. “I just don’t know why they always feel the need to do that.”

“What, break it off with you when they’re not that interested in you?”

“Break it off like they’re breaking up with you. Like, this dude who always talks about himself and never texts me back assumes he means so much to me. I’m trying to remember a time when he even complimented me. Come on. It pisses me off most that he thinks that I didn’t get it that he didn’t quite care, and that I thought that any time I was doing something nice for him it was because I thought I was building something for the long-term or—“ Her shirt got stuck as she tried to pull it on over her head.

“Why didn’t you say something when he sort of broke up with you?” Mel came through the door into Kendra’s room, sitting down on the edge of her bed.

“I didn’t want to seem like I’m arguing to defend my right to be with him, or make it look like I’m clingy and care a lot or anything,” Kendra sighed, wiggling her way into her running tights.

Mel watched Kendra’s stubborn struggle with her tights and knew it was best to let the conversation go. “So, what are you thinking for the run, like an hour and a half?” Mel asked, looking down at her plastic watch.

“Yeah, sounds great,” said Kendra. “I just need to move.”

It was winter, and the frozen roads felt harder and denser than they did in the summer, even in parts where they weren’t glazed in ice. The two girls ran together so often that they rarely bumped into each other on corners, assuming that the other wanted to cross a street a different way and take a different route. Mel always jogged in place at stoplights, and Kendra just stood there with a mildly aggressive mid-workout frown.

“So, I was thinking we should make something special for dinner,” said Mel, the cat litter between the ice and her shoe treads making a satisfying, gravelly crunch.

“NACHOOOS,” sang Kendra.

“NO. You are not allowed to get fat because of a breakup.”

“Dude, it was not a breakup! Don’t call it a breakup!”

“Fine, whatever, you’re not allowed to get fat because you’re a fierce Amazon woman who doesn’t need a man.”

“I’ve never met an Amazon, but I’m sure somebody out there would find that racist. Just saying.”

Fuck. Kendra. Please be more of a pain.” Mel groaned, and paused. “Also, I think we should have have stir-fry.”

“Alright, I can do that. Want me to pick up some veggies?” Kendra asked.

“Sounds great,” Mel said as they rounded the next corner.

-x-

Kendra thought about him while she showered and while she toweled off and while she put on a big warm sweater and pants and shoes. She thought about him while she took the stairwell to the parking garage, and she thought of him three of the five times she tried to start the crusty old Civic she shared with Mel. None of the songs on the radio as she drove to the supermarket made her think of him. When she realized this, she was proud of herself, but realized that this counted as thinking of him and virtually kicked herself in the face.

With the fingers of her right hand wrapped around the germ minefield of the cart handle and her left hand raising up a bell pepper for inspection, she saw him out of the corner of her eye. “The hell,” she breathed softly. He was getting a bag of apples. She put the pepper in a plastic bag and sealed it with a snug knot. With the stiffest straight posture and nose up, she moved on to select an onion.

Thinking ahead to the week’s grocery needs, Kendra ducked into the aisles for another tub of oats and some dish soap. As she selected generic oats and brand-name soap, hesitating in the aisle with the coffee and wondering if she needed a new bag of grounds, she wondered if it would be more nonchalant to stop and talk to him (“Hi, I am entirely unaffected by the whims of your feelings and can talk to you in the supermarket like a coworker”) or if she left him alone (“Hi, I feel no need to pay any attention to you at all”).

Her question went null when she moved towards the checkout lanes to discover each one overflowing, except the Express lane, where he stood in the back. She meandered awkwardly into line, pausing to examine to the tower of discounted flavored water at the end of the nearest aisle.

He was facing away from Kendra, looking at the packs of gum. Toes tapping in her shoes, she wondered if it would be better or worse to pretend that she couldn’t recognize him by the back of his head.

He saw her and spoke first. “Oh, hey Kendra, what’s up.”

“Not much, gonna cook with Mel later,” she replied, always unclear about whether to give a real answer to ‘what’s up’ or not. “You?”

“Getting ready for a wild night,” he said, revealing a basket with a frozen pizza and donut flavored ice cream. Donut, yuck, Kendra thought, giving a polite laugh.

“Do you want to go ahead of me?” he asked.

“Ah, I shouldn’t, I’m an extreme coupon-er,” she said, mouth dry and regretting her feeble joke. “Just kidding.”

Both parties shifted their weight uncomfortably. Kendra cursed the fact that the express lane was not fast enough to alleviate awkward conversations.

“Okay, well, see you later,” he said. Kendra replied bye, wondering when she would see him later. She still collected her groceries in her backpack like she did before she co-owned a car. The steering wheel and seatbelt buckle were cold and hard.

-x-

“So he was just right there? At the grocery store? The universe hates you, Kennie,” Mel commiserated while slicing peppers.

“Ah, yeah, I mean, it could have been a lot worse, it’s just whenever we see each other in public or anything it’s gonna be awkward for awhile, I think,” Kendra mused, spraying the frying pan with nonstick while holding it over the sink.

“Hey, my office is having a party this weekend, wanna be my plus one?” Mel asked.

“Yeah, can I wear my Tigger costume?” Kendra asked, not looking up.

No orange fleece bags,” Mel whacked the onion in half with a large knife. “It’s not a costume party. I’m gonna make you wear something nice that covers up your bad attitude.”

-x-

From Mel’s perspective, and with Kendra’s best-friend acquiescence, it took only a sleeveless black dress to cover a bad attitude. “You look great,” Mel said warmly, standing in front of the mirror as Kendra sat on her bed. “Wait, why are you putting on socks?”

“I’m gonna wear comfortable shoes.”

“No, no, no, you’re on such a good roll,” groaned Mel.

“Nope. Dude. It is my human right to have comfortable feet while standing and walking,” Kendra said. Her socks were covered in pictures of small goldfish.

Mel faced her with a hand on her hip and scowled. “You’re gonna wear those gross, nasty slip-ons that you always wear. The ones that let everyone see that you’re an emo twelve-year-old.”

“Ahem,” Kendra corrected, “those are the shoes of legends. Do I have to remind you of the concerts I’ve been to in those shoes? The number of buses and planes I’ve caught just in time because I was wearing those shoes instead of bad flats? Excuse me, ma’am, do you have a moment to talk about arch support? Also, I’m not the one who keeps buying Motion City albums even now that they’ve peaked, emo babe.”

Twenty minutes later, the pointed toe of Mel’s heel was pressing the gas pedal of the Civic while the rubber of Kendra’s slip-on was tapping along to the radio in the passenger seat. Mel had grown up in the city, but Kendra’s parents had been middle-school teachers in a mining town up North, and Kendra still got awestruck when she stared up at the tall buildings at night. To Kendra, the reverb of the yellowing streetlights off the glass-plated sides of the buildings looked like a weird, smudged version of the stars that she could almost touch.

They parked in an industrial-looking cul-de-sac instead of in a metered spot and walked two blocks to get to the office party.

Taking the elevator to accommodate for Mel’s heels, the two girls checked their phones. Both needed to be sure they had enough battery life to contact the other and get rescued in the event of an awkward, overly long conversation or an unwanted, (uhh), admirer.

“You can’t hear the music yet. This is a bad sign,” Kendra said as the elevator door opened and the pair stepped out.

“Kendra, seriously, we’re adults now. Please don’t hold the stem of your wineglass in your fist or anything,” Mel sighed.

When they arrived in the coworker’s apartment, Kendra gave a subtle point to the pile of red plastic cups on the coffee table as she took off her jacket, raising her eyebrows and grinning. Mel scowled.

Kendra wandered towards the kitchen, letting Mel immediately drift into a laughing group of her coworkers. In the social world, Kendra was a kitchen-talker, though people often stereotyped her otherwise. She liked sitting on a counter with her cup in both hands, listening to irreverent jokes and avoiding the whispers skirting the main floor.

I’m bound to know a few people besides Mel, she thought, entering the kitchen. Unfortunately, at the time being, it held only two couples. One kissing. Adults these days, she thought, taking a cup from the counter and filling it at the sink.

“Hey, nice shoes,” she heard from over her shoulder. It was his voice.

Startled, she set down the cup, turning around with a hand resting on the counter. “Thanks. How’s it going?” She looked at him. Not cute not cute not cute 

“It’s good,” he said, a hand in his pocket and the other wrapped around a beer. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and texted BATHROOM to Mel.

“Hey, um, Mel just texted me, but I’ll catch you later?” She said, trying to act especially uninterested in his reply as she bustled out.

Mel was already waiting in the apartment bathroom. “Hey, thanks, I really hate doing this to you, your friends looked fun,” said Kendra.

“Eh, it’s fine,” Mel said, sipping from her cup. “Are you alright?”

Kendra shed her sense of decorum like whipping off a bathrobe. “HE’S HERE,” she said, grabbing Mel by the shoulders. She let go with one arm, swiped Mel’s drink, and took a chug.

“Okay, whoa, whoa, whoa, first of all, you’re unzipping,” Mel said, backing Kendra away and tugging up the zipper on the front of her dress. “Secondly, you’re DDing. But, for real, you said you don’t care, so prove it. Talk to him, don’t talk to him, but show him you’re not gonna cling. Show you that you’re not gonna cling.”

“Wow, harsh,” said Kendra, believing Mel to be completely correct and not harsh at all. After a pause, she conceded and added, “Sounds good.”

“Alright, so, planning to leave at one, but let me know if things go down in flames?” asked Mel.

“Sounds perfect,” said Kendra, wrapping her roommate in a hug. “I’m gonna squish you. Sober squish alert, it’s ya numba one DD.”

“Ugh, Kennie, get off,” Mel said, “I gotta go be a popular kid.” She gently separated herself from Kendra and left with a last warm smile.

Kendra fidgeted with some of the wisps of hair that curled around her ears before leaving the bathroom. She returned to the kitchen and decided not to pick up her old cup. Helping herself to a new one, she filled it, and made her way to the edge of the living room.

“Nice shoes,” she heard from behind again, but this time the voice was deeper. She turned around to find the voice’s owner to be squat and fair-haired. “What’s your name?” the voice’s owner asked.

“I’m Kendra,” said Kendra, mashing her toe into carpet nervously. She looked out to the rest of the living room. She saw him. He was slipping his hand around the waist of a girl with thick, black hair and leading her towards the window.

“So, do you work for Geotag?” the squat man asked.

“No, um, I’m Melanie’s roommate.”

“Are you, uh,” the man began uncomfortably.

“We’re friends, and kind of cheap, saving on rent,” Kendra said, laughing awkwardly, and wondering why she was clarifying her sexuality to this stranger. She felt rude for not having asked the man’s name. “Uh, what’s your name?”

The man’s name led into an avalanche of talking, one that Kendra could easily pretend to be engaged in without actually having to listen. Kendra looked back out over the room. He was still with the black-haired girl. The girl was laughing. He pulled the girl back into the room, and they started to sway in circles to the droopy background music that few other people were dancing to.

“Hey, listen, I gotta go, but it was nice to meet you,” said Kendra. Aiming for the bathroom, she found herself instead grabbing her jacket, ducking out of the apartment, and careening down the stairwell. Once she reached the sidewalk, she wandered slowly, staring at the coils of her breath and trying to feel somehow artistic or heroic or a solitary kind of romantic, out in the night alone, until she stumbled upon a commercial coffee shop. Inside, she ordered a hot chocolate, running her fingers over the plasticky, overly-finished fake wood of the counter.

She sat down at the counter facing the street with her drink, pulled a pen from her jacket pocket, and started doodling tiny circles and triangles on a brown napkin that was partially stuck to the counter. When she looked up, she saw him and the black-haired girl walking towards the car parked in front of the coffee shop. It was his car. I didn’t even think, she thought, as if she should have known to be on constant lookout for new blue Corollas. To her horror, he looked up at the shop window as he fished for his keys in his pocket, looked down at the key, and looked back up, at her. He then faced the girl, obviously saying something to her, and then paced to the coffee shop door and opened it briskly, ringing the bell.

“Kendra, you alright?” He said loudly as he made his way over, taking the seat next to her.

“Yeah,” she said. Pausing, she figured she should probably have a rationale for having left. “As much as I love DDing, and having random weird guys make a move, I needed a break.” This wasn’t entirely true. He had made a pre-move move. Not desired, but still not a negative affront.

“Whoa, do I need to go back up there and talk to someone?” he said.

Kendra was surprised by his reaction, and tried to cover it up. “No, it’s fine, I had it under control, I just needed some air.” He nodded, still not quite seeming to agree.

“Do you need a ride home?” he asked.

“Can’t, I’m driving Mel,” she answered, picturing few things she had less desire to do than be driven home, sitting in the backseat, with him and the black-haired girl.

“Okay,” he said, standing up and leaving without another word. She couldn’t muster a feeble goodbye, and didn’t know if she should. Instead, she picked apart the napkin at the tender seams created by her pen lines. Once she’d swept the bits into a neat pile, she stared moodily out the window. Snow sparkled on the sidewalk under the streetlights. She wanted to run.

Kendra swept the napkin bits into her cup and disposed of both as she exited. She wiggled her feet in her slip-ons and checked her watch. 12:15. I can run it off for a couple blocks. She spaced out her feet in a mock track start and took off. Her dress fluttered as she ran, and her hair blew over her face and stuck to her lip balm. She could feel sweat start to bud in her armpits beneath her down coat. Her throat felt tight and itchy from the cold air, and she loved it. She had run out of the kitschy new apartment area and into the kind of neighborhood with old, big houses with iron fences. The hard sidewalk was starting to hurt her feet, and she loved that too.

12:50. Text from Mel. Where are you?

 

I’m on the corner of 15th and 1st. I’m coming back. And I’m free

Backwards Forwards

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Times I have gone running this week: Six.

Six times that the cleanest, coldest air has swished through my brain like nature’s mouthwash, picking up my excess thoughts and carrying them away. I run through the city college, the one I pictured myself going to when I was a little kid. The technicality that differentiates running from walking, the split seconds in which both my feet are off the ground and I am momentarily flying, tell me that I am resilient and can make myself weightless. Only sort of true. But I am in constant motion. Actually, now I am stopped at a stoplight, watching my breath spiral into vapor.

Times I have called my dad this week: Five.

I am staying with my mom until I find a job but I am also calling my dad. We are closer because of cell phones, if only because his calls are no longer charged as long-distance. Over the phone, every pause he takes is both staccato and extended, made poignant by the way I have to fill the space myself—imagining him furrowing his brow in thought rather than seeing it right in front of me.

Times I have bought something online this week: Four.

A book, thick socks, an Mp3 album, and a necklace. Though I didn’t really ‘need’ the necklace or my own copy of the book, I think it’s a good thing I bought them because I want to be able to treat money like what it is (a bunch of germ-covered slips of paper filled with thread that I can trade for things) instead of hoarding it in fear that something horrid will happen to me and I won’t have enough. I became unemployed and my mom caught me gracefully, like a silky trampoline, and is currently trying to help me bounce back up. I still download hard copies of music because I want to know that, even without the Internet or 3G, it will be there if I need to listen to it. I feel like this may be gentle hoarding. I have all my Aretha Franklin albums as physical discs. Sometimes I even travel with them. Also, there is no greater physical comfort than thick socks.

Times I have eaten a wild rice burger this week: Three.

Buying a veggie burger anywhere in the United States except the North is always a bad idea. Please quote me on that.

Times I have driven to the beach alone to look at the ice: Two.

There are two ways to look at nature, sort of. You either look at it and think about what it is, or you think about yourself. Sometimes I look out at the vast expanse of the lake, unable to see land on the other side, and think back on things I’ve done. I don’t wish I’d changed my job performance or my classes. Tiny things, conversations I had as an undergrad, various people I’d spent time with, circle around the drain at the base of my mind but are never quite able to fall through the holes and be gone. There are places I could have had more energy, been more positive or outgoing. Places I could have spoke out, but mostly places I should have stepped back. Other times, though, I look out at the lake and see it for itself. Smooth as sky-colored glass, or gray and choppy with inhuman rage. Goes farther than I could ever see at once and deeper than I could ever dive or touch. If I’m really lucky, I’ll come down to the water and find the lake and the sky existing seamless, as if someone folded the most light and creamy of blues in half, not quite creasing, which makes it possible to float in the lower layer while looking up and letting my eyes get lost in the top. I like that best, savor it, store the feeling in my mind for when I need it.

Times I have asked for help: One.

And one is good. One is a good start.

Estate

cacti
It was impossible for me to get comfortable in Tucson. My mouth had become a dry, hollow pocket since I’d left the airport and the buckle of the seatbelt had seared my fingers when I’d picked it up. I could feel the sweat evaporating off my skin and being swallowed up by the thirsty, dry air that streamed through the window in a cruel imitation of a cool breeze. The strip-lawns out the window in front of rows of low-rise buildings were tan, with dry dirt and rock lawns rather than grass, and staccato intervals of short, bushy plants. Interspersed were ample cacti, which I remembered from my visits as a child. Though I felt kind of kitschy as I stared at their scrubby little figures, the wide-eyed awe I’d felt while gazing at them as a child, wondering if I dared to touch one, was still there. Their shapes were a stark contrast to the pine trees with ample thick boughs and crooked silhouettes that I saw every day in my Minnesota home.

I looked over at my dad in the driver’s seat. At first I thought he was frowning, but I realized he just looked tired. His skin had wrinkled out a little since last Christmas and his hair was steadily graying itself towards white, but he still had the lanky, boyish figure and slouch that had been immortalized in my baby pictures, glossy and fading images of him tenderly cradling me.
He must have noticed me looking at him. He adjusted his head and tapped a finger on the steering wheel absently. Unable to think of a conversation to start, he said, “You can turn on the music to whatever you want.”

I didn’t remember any Tucson stations, and, frankly, my early-onset heat exhaustion was far more crushing than any sort of boredom. I popped the button to turn the radio on and began clicking the scanner, hanging in the limbo between scratch-fuzz feedback and unintelligibly nimble Spanish talk radio. I left the radio on an Oldies station that was playing Beat It by Michael Jackson.

To be honest, I had no idea if my dad liked Michael Jackson. When he visited for my twelfth birthday, a 75-degree Minnesotan midsummer day, he presented me with an iPod pre-loaded with every Bob Dylan album ever made. I fought to mask my deep internal disappointment until he proceeded to show me how to load my own music on using my mom’s computer. It took me until I was about sixteen to actually click on Bobby D, to make his songs worth their space. Bob had played in the background of my childhood as my parents picked me up and spun me in circles in the living room, chased me around the hardwood floors in wool socks, sliding, and made me pancakes shaped like stars and mouse ears. It took years of spacing and aging, though, for me to parse out and appreciate Dylan’s virtuosic shaping of words, starting with the lingering embrace laced with sorrow of Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and the vitriolic assertion of Positively Fourth Street. Intrigued, I moved on to deeper cuts, and freshman fall, I enrolled in the Bob Dylan course at the University of Minnesota. The CD in my dad’s center console today was by some folk-looking group I’d never heard of.

“I was thinking we could just stay at Grandma’s old place instead of mine, is that alright?” he asked. I said yes; I didn’t have any attachment to the physical space of my dad’s. My visits to Arizona had dwindled over the years from about four visits a year; Christmases, Easters, and weeks in the summer; to a single annual trip as I got older. I honestly didn’t recall the last time I’d set foot in his house. Middle school? He’d started coming up to visit me in Minnesota more often, staying in the dumpy Super 8 Motel in the shipping district to spare us all the discomfort of his post-divorce interactions with my mom: sometimes just stagnant and uncomfortable, sometimes more caustic. He’d flown up to help me move into my dorm at the University of Minnesota two falls ago. I felt like I was re-entering his corner of the States too late, the way I let many of his letters and emails sit unopened as I turned on Netflix or cooked scrambled eggs after a morning run with my mom.

As my dad had separated from me, he had only grown closer to my grandma. The two lived very near to one another, and I pieced it together that my dad had started visiting her on a daily basis long before she needed his aid to take baths or prepare meals. As we pulled into her driveway, I looked up at her house. The stumpy single-story home had those red, curved shingles that Northerners like myself tie by stereotype to Southwest culture, the kind that we see pictured on tortilla packages. The building itself, though, was brick, creating a funny clash of reds and off-reds verging from gray-tinged to pink. A lone cactus stood sentinel in the front lawn, and some brushes and trees were tucked off to each of the house’s sides.

“Can I help you carry your bags?” My dad asked me, looking back as he opened his door.

“No thanks, I’ve got it,” I said, pulling my duffel up from the backseat by its strap.

He led me to the door at a trudging pace, unlocked and opened it, and ushered me in. Eight or ten sets of themed salt-and-pepper shakers sat on the first counter, windmills intermingling with frogs and snowmen and ears of corn. Their gaudy colors taunted me. This was exactly what I’d been afraid of. Ceramic children in overalls with maudlin big blue eyes and eerie pudgy bodies played baseball and did schoolwork on cheap china plates in display cases on the walls. Stacks of themed napkins covered the kitchen table, and boxes heaping with Matchbox cars and Lincoln Logs filled the room’s corner. I felt myself wince when I saw an exercise bike obstructing the entrance to the living room, flanked by filing boxes overflowing with stacks of papers.

My horror must have been evident to my dad; he looked embarrassed as he kicked his shoes off. He checked his phone.

Finally, he sighed, gathering the courage to say, “Shall we just walk around for a look-see first?”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding too quickly and letting him lead.

The house was a scene out of a cable show about hoarding. My grandmother had filled a room entirely with toys she must have assumed would gain value as they became rare, from stuffed animals to action figures, all still in their packages, collecting dust. Board games never opened and stuffed bears never hugged. Each of the two tiny bedrooms was cluttered with shirts hung from makeshift clotheslines, stacks of filing boxes, small tables, and, in one, an ironing board kept unfolded in the room’s exact center, topped with an iron standing up as if waiting at the ready for its next shirt. Kitschy artifacts were a recurring theme through each room—paintings of horses and crosses and rocks, hearts and stars made of horseshoes, Día de los Muertos shot glasses filled with browning toothpicks, ceramic bowls in pseudo-Navajo patterns, gathering dust over the Wint-O-Green lifesavers they still held.

The smell of decomposing cardboard in the living room was downright pungent. There was no floor. Stacks of boxes, empty cans and bottles, mugs and tools still in their packaging, board game boxes, an unplugged refrigerator, and piles of Arizona Daily Stars and Minnesota Star Tribunes with newsprint fading surrounded my feet as I took a desperate peek out a window to see light. “Oh, Dad,” I whispered aloud.

I had made the journey Southwest on a mission to clean. My grandma had passed away last summer, and my dad wanted me to help pick up her house and organize the estate sale. He hadn’t told me about her passing right away because I’d been on a canoe trip with my friends on the day itself, and he’d waited awhile to Skype me and tell me when I returned. Even on my grainy laptop screen, I could see the shock and pity on his face when I’d erupted into tears upon hearing the news. “How could you not tell me?” I remembered croaking through tear-choked breaths. He stared back, surprised and helpless.

My grandma was likely the main reason my dad returned to Arizona after calling it splits with my mom. For this reason, though, I used to see her only a few times a year, and at the time of her passing, had been in far less contact with her than the occasional calls I gave to my dad. She sent me well-meaning teddybear cards with enclosed five-dollar bills for my birthdays and holidays, and when I’d visited her as a child, she’d brushed my hair in long, smooth strokes. She’d always wanted a daughter, my dad had told me. He was her only son. Looking back, I see that perhaps I felt excluded. Betrayed when he left my side almost instantly upon splitting with my mom, ignored because it didn’t seem important to inform me of her death nearer to its time of occurrence. And now, I realized, I’d been excluded from eight years of telling him to get the junk off the living room floor, from helping him cure his middle-aged solitude and help his mother maintain composure in her old age.

I looked into one of the boxes on the utterly unsittable couch. It was full of purple envelopes, each with my name written in my own childish scrawl in the return address corner. The recipient’s name was simply Dad.

“Leah, you should put your stuff in the room so we can get started on some cleaning,” my dad said, swooping to hand me a glass of water. Was my presence next to the stuff making him uncomfortable? I paced down the home’s lone small, carpeted corridor and into the back bedroom. The bed was clear, but every other flat surface, from the dresser and bedside table to the edges of the floor, was lined in the most gauche assortment of figurines imaginable. I set down my bags next to the bed and made eye contact with a porcelain-skinned Virgin Mary, draped in blue cloth and cradling her sleeping blonde boy. Next to Our Lady stood a Joe Mauer bobblehead, proudly bearing one of the premier logos of athletic mediocrity, the Minnesota Twins, across his jerseyed chest. To Mauer’s left stood a figurine of Ringo from the Beatles. I could feel tiny bits of dust in my nostrils every time I breathed. I kept suppressing the urge to gag.

As I paced back down the hallway, I was confronted with the simultaneous need to say something and the overwhelming truth that, in all of human vocabulary, there was no good way to say it. My dad hung onto things. In kitchen, I saw the paper hand-turkey I had made in second or third grade with a picture of my dad, Grandma, and myself taped in the middle, still hanging from the fridge, faded and wilted. Tiny Me had smiled up at Grandma every time she came to get milk or jam or fruit for over a decade.

We didn’t open the small hatch to the crawl-in attic to end our tour. Rather, we each sunk into a La-Z-Boy draped with too many blankets in the living room and stared blankly at the dark television surrounded by caramel-corn cans and soda crates.
I glanced in my dad’s direction, nonchalantly raising a corncob pipe from the floor to my dry, heat-cracked lips. “So, are we gonna… start in the living room?”

“Is the living room that bad?” He asked. He looked genuinely curious. “No smoking in the house,” he added. I bit the edge of my lip and stared at the giant popcorn tin supporting a phone and an ashtray of toothpicks nestled beside my chair. Clydesdale horses paraded through snow around the tin’s exterior under a dark, starry painted sky.

Fortunately, my dad spoke up again. “So, I was thinking that since you’re only here for the three-day weekend, we could get started in the basement tonight, and work our way up in the morning. You’re still an early riser, right?”

I nodded, my mouth cottony from the heat. “Has the water gotten shut off here yet?”

“Oh, shoot, yeah,” he replied. “I’ll grab you a cup from the kitchen.” Moments later, there was an Arizona Wildcats commemorative plastic cup proudly emblazoned with the year “1987” in my hands. I downed it quickly, terrified by this new dimension of belongings I had just unlocked: I’d forgotten that every cabinet and chest was full of stuff, too.

“Let’s go down to the basement,” I said, plunking my cup on the Clydesdale popcorn tin and standing with manufactured gusto. To my great relief, my dad followed without question when I bounced towards the stairs.

Standing at the mouth of the basement on the bottom step was like staring out into a choppy sea of wood and plastic. We stood side-by-side, our shadows stretching forwards in the light that poured down from upstairs, both of us unsure of what move it would be possible to make without drowning in junk.

My dad took the initiative, pulling the string on the ceiling to turn on the light and descending the bottom step. “How about we put stuff we’re getting rid of by the base of the stairs, and leave everything else where it is, to get arranged later?”

“Sounds great,” I said, optimistic. “Should we start on the same pile, or different ones?”

“Different. It’ll save time. We can work our way out from the center here.” My dad knelt down by a box of faded children’s books that sat at his feet. The box nearest to me held several maroon-and-black plastic photo albums. I opened the top one to see a sepia print of tiny blonde boy in a plaid cowboy shirt on a wooden tricycle, erupting in peals of childish laughter. Missing a tooth.

“Dad, you were so cute! Look at this picture,” I said, looking up towards the book boxes I’d seen him beside earlier. He was no longer there; he’d already progressed about five boxes back.

“What do you mean, was cute?” he asked. “Never mind. I’d prefer to think of myself as a buff sort of dad-handsome.”

I wasn’t going to humor him with an answer. “Whoa there, we’re keeping all that stuff?”

“What stuff?” he asked, face blank like a small child found with forbidden chocolate smeared on his cheeks.

“You’ve gone through a lot of boxes pretty fast,” I said, standing up to survey. “Like, what’s with those Coke cans?” I pointed to the second box back.

“Limited edition, Christmas 1999,” he said, as if it was an obvious oversight on my part.

“And why… did you guys… keep them?”

“They’re nice, and what if they’re worth something someday?”

“Dad, they’re Coke cans. Used. Who’s going to want to buy Grandma’s used Coke cans? Because they’re from 1999? Do you want to buy my used nail clippers? I think they’re worth a lot, you know, they’re pretty old—“

“Excuse me, young lady, but you need to watch it. This is NOT your house. You’re going through boxes of someone else’s experiences. This is your family’s life you’re sorting through. This is all your mom, thinking that just because her parents had nice office jobs and everything she wanted came to her so easy, that you can just throw it all out and buy new stuff if you need it, it’s just stuff… Like it’s all disposable, everything’s disposable nowadays.”

He saw me looking at the light at the top of the stairs. “Hold up, do you think you’re gonna get out of cleaning this stuff? Okay. New approach. We’ll go through the same box at the same time.” He looked down at the Coke cans. “Maybe those don’t have to stay.” Eager for something to fidget with, I leapt over the photo-album boxes and retrieved the cans, placing them at the foot of the stairs. He pursed his lips and looked at the box, as if he itched to hold it in his own hands.

“Alright, next box,” I said. “I think we should keep the photo albums, because they’re cute, and they actually have to do with our family’s life. Moving along?”

“Alright, now you’re just being patronizing,” he said, irritably. “Come over here.” The next few boxes all appeared to pertain to Bob Dylan. The first was a milk crate holding an assortment of records. Its neighbor was draped with a T-shirt of the Highway 61 Revisited album cover.

“Hey, can I keep this?” I lifted the shirt and checked the tag. “Men’s small. This would definitely fit me.”

“Alright, so you can keep things.”

I felt my cheeks turn hot, but wasn’t sure if it was obvious in the dim, yellow light. When my hair was greying like my dad’s, would I too be in a basement of dusty crates, snarling about a set of Coke cans?

I shifted my weight. “I’m actually going to use this, though. I’m gonna wear this.” I was justifying the repossession to myself just as I was to him. Would I wear it to class? Out? How many shirts does somebody need? My dad reached out a hand for the shirt, and I gave it over. “It is pretty cool,” he said. “Yeah, you should keep it.” He handed it back, and I threw it to the base of the stairs.

Emboldened, I asked, “Do you have a record player for all those records? If so, you could bring them to your house, and if not, we should sell them. Is there a used place downtown?”

“Yeah, I have a record player,” my dad replied. He lifted the crate and hurried to the base of the stairs. “Let’s make the pile on the left be for stuff we’re keeping, and the pile on the right be for stuff we’re getting rid of.”

“Sounds good,” I said warily. He had left a lot of Dylan albums with my mom and me, but something told me he’d listened to some serious Bob in the last fifteen years, and the dust atop these records was as thick as a flannel bedsheet.

“Look at these GI Joes! I played with these all the time as a kid!” With each hand, he lifted a camo-clad, stiff little man brandishing a weapon from a nearby box.

“Yuck, NRA Barbies,” I mumbled.

“Well, then, I do recall buying you quite a few Miss America GI Joes. Look at how great these are,” he said. The nostalgic wonder flooding his face was obvious even in the dim light of the basement. “Look, this one even has soft hair! Feel!”

I reached out a hesitant lone finger to touch the doll’s head. “Lil felt cap.” My frown unravelled into a lopsided smile. “Wow, it’s just like real hair.” I snorted a laugh.

“Hey, this stuff is cool,” he said, chuckling along. “Wait ‘til you see my Cowboy and Indian stuff.”

“Good heavens don’t say that in public,” I said, but barely hesitated before asking, “Where is it? I want to see.”

My dad stood up and surveyed the cluttered landscape. “Back here.” He pointed to a stick pony. He had to lift his knees like he was wading through a swamp to make it through the boxes and reach his trusty steed of old. Watching him move, I was awash with how much work we had left to do.

I let out a massive snort, though, when he tried to squeeze into a tiny, fringed vest from the top of a nearby box, and placed a stiff brown hat barely the size of his face atop his head.

“Okay, but what about these boxes, though,” I said, realizing I had sat down.

My dad threw down the vest and made his way back over. “Actually, I’m pretty hungry.” He looked down at his watch. “Six-thirty already. Wanna re-focus after some tuna melts, and then hunker down for the evening?”

Though my stomach, raised in staunch Central Time, still thought it was 4:30, I agreed and followed him upstairs.

“So, you’re still liking school this year? Classes going well?” He asked, flipping the sandwiches on the pan with a spatula. The buttered bread sizzled merrily and I could see some tuna and cheese drip out the side of the front-burner sandwich. The counter by the stovetop was populated by a mob of stacked vegetable and tuna cans, plus a blue-and-white china cat that stood sentinel next to my dad’s right elbow.

“I love it so much,” I gushed, going on to tell him about the spring internship I’d landed in the school’s art museum. We’d occasionally Skype or talk on the phone during the school year, but for the most part, it was my mom who heard my tiny success stories, my weekend outings with friends, and my sleep-deprived croaks as I struggled through papers. My dad had fielded one stress-call to me, at four in the morning during freshman year. I knew his time zone lent to him being up long before myself, and, with a tear-streaked face, I’d called him at (my) four AM, six hours before my first calculus exam. He’d seemed surprised, stuttering his first responses to my phone-muffled sniffles, but talked me calmly through a snack and a study strategy before hanging up. He texted me a half-hour later to see if I was alright, and to remind me to get some sleep. I don’t think I replied. Fortunately, this was not his full image of me in college. He and my mom had both been initially wary when I’d decided to change my major from biology to studio art, but my dad had warmed up to the news pretty well. He’d asked me for prints of some of my drawings to hang in his home.

When he brought our plates over to the table, I had to move several stacks of seasonal napkins to the floor to accommodate for the simple fact of our meal. “Can I just throw these out?” I asked, placing turkey-and-fall-leaf napkins on top of ones punched in the shape of Valentine’s Day candy hearts.

“No, we can save them for their holidays, and then we won’t have to buy new ones,” he replied simply.

“No one lives in this house anymore. It goes on the market soon. That’s why we’re cleaning it. No one is going to use the napkins, unless you want them to be the bonus prize for buying the house or something, like it’s a cereal box.”

My dad dropped his sandwich. “That is enough attitude from you, Leah Rose. I see you two times a year, maybe, and this is how you behave, when you’re practically an adult? Walking into this house like you know what’s best for it, like you know better than me, when you haven’t been here for years?”

I shrank in my seat, unable to lift my sandwich or even look up, rose to my feet, and left. My hands shook by sides as I walked to my bed, and I had to grip hard to pick up the book I’d brought to read. Unable to focus, I fell asleep with my headphones over my ears, gentle chords unable to settle my uneasy stomach.

I awoke hours before my dad the next morning, bedsheets tossed onto the floor by my overheated, sleeping subconscious. Padding to the kitchen with feet sticking to the hot floor, I listened for my dad. Still asleep. I poured myself a glass of water and retreated to my bed, pulling my laptop and a notepad in beside me. Plastic Yoda and Jar-Jar Binks watched over my shoulders from atop the headboard.

The wailing harmonica and raspy voice of Bob Dylan drowned out the creaking of the door, so I was surprised to look up see my dad standing by my side. A glance at my laptop clock told me it was 10:30 already. Instinctively, I slammed the laptop lid shut and set it down on top of the notepad. I slid my legs out from under my sheets, sat up, and turned to say something, but my dad beat me to it. “Open that back up. I love this song.” He paused. “Hey, I’m sorry about last night. This old house just has a lot of memories for me, and I have some adjusting to do.”

I nodded and opened my laptop back up. I was listening to my musical security blanket, my musical hug, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. No matter how old I got, every softly ringing pluck of a string or jangling chord, every wavering vocal note, reminded me of being picked up and spun in the air by my dad, of flopping across the backseat on the way home from the lake with him driving me steadily home. I let the contents of the notepad and my Google Chrome become visible. I was looking at Estate Sale professionals in the Tucson area.

“Whatcha got there?” My dad said patiently, as if I was drawing something in crayon at the kitchen table. I watched him stiffen up and bristle as he saw the notepad’s heading, and the growing list of phone numbers below.

I looked up at him, being sure to make eye contact. “I don’t think we can do this alone. The house thing. Not even in more than three days.” He averted his eyes, staring instead at the Mickey and Minnie Mouse figurines at the foot of the bed. “I know everything there means something to you, and I don’t really know what, but I think you should go through, take the things that mean the most to you, like, a few things, and we hire someone to sell off the rest.” I stared down so I didn’t have to see him leave the room, but I heard the stomp in his steps.

I laid back and let Bob sing to me. For the first time since my preteen Top 40 rebellion, the music seemed grating, with searing harmonica slides and crunchy vocals. I shut my laptop with my foot, drank the last sip of water from my cup, and hurried to the kitchen to find my dad hunched over the stove, flipping pancakes, a plate of burnt-black ones on the counter at his elbow. When he heard my footsteps, he turned around, his face red. I couldn’t tell if he’d been fuming with anger or crying. There was a plastic shopping bag on the counter. He’d bought something. I silently prayed that it was just food.

Wordlessly, he flipped two browned cakes onto a clean plate and held it out to me. There were already two forks on the table, a bottle of that sugary plastic fake maple syrup, and a jar of peanut butter. He’d remembered that I like to eat pancakes like peanut butter toast. I hung my head as I accepted the plate and dragged my feet across the hardwood floor to the table. A minute or so later, he sat down across from me at the table. “Do you remember me singing Corinna to you as a baby?” he asked, not looking up as he speared a cake with his knife and began to slice.

“I think of you every time I hear it,” I replied.

Ignition

My aunt doesn’t dye her hair—she lets it gleam silver like a minnow in a thick, shimmering braid down her back. I never think about this unless she’s in a crowd of Other Moms at a parents meeting. Other Moms who bleach their hair blonde or stain it dark black so it ‘looks normal,’ a funny contrast up-close to the crow’s feet gently appearing at the corners of their eyes. My aunt is not afraid to be old. Her skin smells old and her silver hair matches her wrinkles and crow’s feet and she wears sweaters that look like the Ojibwe blankets on our couch and walls. It’s perfect. A tiny, silent part of me sometimes wishes I wasn’t too big to sit in her lap, that I wasn’t growing into new and confusing curvier hips.

My aunt was standing out on the dock, looking out at the bay. I could just barely see her over the sand-grass that’s right out the kitchen window. I was sitting at the counter, browsing aimlessly on the computer. I reached across to my aunt’s vacant seat to take her coffee mug, stealing a sip of what I forget always ends up being cold and bitter. I was warm in my plaid flannel pajama shorts, but outside, the water was angry. Black, churning waves, with whitecaps rather than twinkling tips. Aggravated by a wind we can’t see. Those who don’t live by a large body of water forget that it has a life of its own, and a human—no, beyond human—range of moods. My aunt just stood and surveyed.

I looked back at the screen for awhile, and when I glanced up next, my aunt is looking out at the water still but waving an arm towards our dock in a broad, sweeping gesture. I squinted to see that what I thought was a large whitecap was actually a tiny, white rowing shell, hull swaying and oars flailing. Though I couldn’t hear, I knew my aunt was yelling, “Come in! Use our dock!” We’d caught wayside rowers and kayaks before, innocents who found themselves in surprise storms. Our own plastic kayaks sat onshore by the dock.

The rower had drifted past the window’s view, out of my line of sight, but I saw my aunt rip off her sweater and kick off her shoes. She sat down on the dock and slid into the water. The rower must have gone down. I stood up and shut the lid of the laptop, and ran barefoot out of the house onto the lawn.

My body shuddered to acknowledge the cold wind and slanted rain. I stopped in the middle of the yard and looked out. My aunt was wading out into the water, but appeared to be almost to the end of the shallow sand and near where the sand-shelf drops off below the water’s surface, leaving bathers with no choice but to swim. The rower’s shell had flipped, and he treaded water near the hull, which was being tossed with each dark wave. I saw an oar getting carried away in a current. My aunt was pulling in a steady breaststroke, but every couple of strokes, a wave washed over the top of her head.

I was paralyzed with no idea what to do. If I took a kayak, I’d get tossed over as well. If I swam and got tired, my aunt would have to drag me back and do more work. I could tell she was slowing down on the way to the man. I ran out to the end of the dock. It sounded like my aunt was trying to yell something as she swam. I couldn’t quite make out her words, but when I looked back out at the man it occurred to me. “Grab the shell!” I yelled to the man. He turned in my direction, but must not have been able to hear. “Grab the shell!” I held my arms forward in two limp rainbows, like they were draped over the capsized boat. If you ever flip in a boat, grab the boat first, my aunt had told me. The boat will keep you afloat, and if you hold onto it you won’t lose it.

I watched the man struggling to kick towards the shell as it kept floating further away. Finally, I saw him grab the gunnel and drape his long, dark arms over the boat’s hull. He had drifted very far out, though, and my aunt didn’t appear to be making much progress. The motorboat was thumping hard on our dock, making it lurch under my feet with each wave.

The motorboat. I bolted inside to the counter, grabbing the red bungee lanyard marked ‘Yamaha.’ Grabbing the gas can from the back porch but not bothering with a life jacket, I sprinted to the boat, hurled the can into the backseat, and plugged it into the motor just like I’d watched my aunt do. Good so far. I untied the boat from the dock and pushed it away instead of backing it out like a car, like my aunt always did. This was an emergency. Whipping around into the cracked driver’s seat with its yellow foam exposed, I sat down in front of the steering wheel. I plugged the key into the ignition and turned it. The boat whinnied, then wheezed, but didn’t turn to a steady hum like when my aunt drove. I tried again, with the same result. Growling with frustration, I tried a third time. I roared with anger, but it was a pathetic roar with a squeaky voice crack in the middle. A pitiful squeak from a thirteen-year-old voice whose owner didn’t know how to start a car.

I ripped the keys out of the ignition and threw them down into the small pool of rainwater accumulating in the bottom of the boat, swimming with bits of dead leaves and sand. Not looking behind me to check my aunt’s progress, I jumped right out of the drifting boat and into the water, which, surprisingly, was very warm. A wave caught my face and I gagged on a mouthful of silt—the swells had tossed up sand and clay from the bay floor. I gagged, and pulled forwards. I’d forgotten how hard it was to swim in clothing—my T-shirt billowed out around me below the surface, catching water and thrashing me back and forth with each wave. My flannel shorts were getting dragged down by the water—I could feel the waistband sliding down my underwear. With all the might in my wiry arms, I took a pull and reached my face for the surface, craning my neck, and gasped. I got half a breath of air before a wave hit my face and sent me plunging under.

Anyone who has ever thought drowning would be a peaceful way to die is horribly wrong. I tried conserving my air by letting it slowly out my nose, a couple bubbles at a time, as I struggled to get out of my ballooning medium T-shirt. First, individual pockets of my brain started screaming out, “Air! Air,” before being joined in chorus by my arms, thighs, and, rippingly, wrenchingly, my chest cavity. I needed to give up on my shirt and get to the surface. It was still mostly on, but half was bunched around my left arm, restricting the arm’s motion. Counterproductive. With my right, I reached upward, found air, and, whip kicking my screaming legs, got to the surface and got half a gasp in before the next wave hit the back of my head and washed over.

It felt like my shirt was wrapping tighter around my waist, but I realized it was an arm. My face was brought above water and I felt myself being pulled to the right.

Grab the boat,” it was my aunt’s voice. I opened half a water-stung eye and felt in front of me. It was the rowing shell. I dragged an arm over its surface. I thought the shell had started moving of its own accord, but realized that my aunt and the man were kicking. When we’d brought the boat up to wading-deep water, I tried to stand but my legs were wobbly. Stabilizing myself on the boat with my arm, I got myself semi-standing. I coughed and gasped. We walked the boat right up to shore instead of using the dock.

The man, who was pulling in front of me, turned around and said, “Thanks for helping, missy.” I sheepishly looked away, knowing full well that I’d created more work for him, not the other way around. I looked behind me, expecting my aunt’s familiar tan wrinkles. Instead, I saw her tiny figure back out in the waves. The motorboat. She had to get the motorboat and drive it back.

“Do you think you could help me lift my boat?” the man asked. I must have given him a doubtful stare, because he added, “Don’t be fooled, it’s actually really light.”

He directed me almost to the end of the hull, past the seat but before the boat’s tip, and asked me to lift as hard as I could “in three.” We were parallel to shore, and just a few steps would bring it up. “One, two, THREE.” The man had been right—the boat was much lighter than my red plastic kayak. We set it upside-down on shore, and I strained my neck to look out for my aunt. She had climbed into the boat and appeared to be starting the engine. Though I wanted to be sure she made it in, the tiny screams in my head that had been calling for air before told me to leave. Saying nothing to the man, I ran across the yard, and, not wiping my feet stuck with sand and grass cuttings, sprinted to the bathroom, slammed the door, and hopped into the bathtub, turning the shower on.

I sat on the tub floor under the pellet-shape, unnatural rain, fully clothed, not caring that the water was just starting to get warm. You fucked that one up, kid, I thought, pulling out a sharp word my aunt saved for rare frustrations. I laid down on the tub floor and let the water wash over my face, alone and humiliated.

Then, I heard her voice above me. “Want to see how to start the boat?” Tears hotter than the shower water started trickling out of my eyes. This was my punishment. Not looking at my aunt, I sat up, and, grabbing the tub’s edge, brought myself to my feet.

I kept several paces ahead of her the whole way to the dock so I didn’t have to meet her eyes. “You take the seat,” she said. I sat down. She pressed the key into my hand with her own, its loose, wrinkled skin soggy and cold.

“Key in the ignition, and turn,” she said. I turned the key, heard the motor whinny behind me, and turned it right off. I looked up at my aunt. She was shivering and her braid was dripping, but she watched me patiently. “Try again, but this time, be patient. Keep the key turned at the top for a minute.” I did. The engine started. I realized I had no idea how to drive it.

This time I looked up at her fully, expectantly. “I don’t know how to drive it.”

“You don’t have to. And you shouldn’t, not yet,” she replied.

Rage churned my stomach. “But how am I supposed to help you,” I sputtered angrily. “There’s no reason you even have me! I’m not your kid! All I do is take from you and I can never give you anything, you won’t even teach me how!”

I was shaking with rage, and her hand on my shoulder calmed me in spite of my words. She didn’t say anything, which I preferred. She leaned into me, and her warmth radiated through her soggy clothes. She loved me but I didn’t know why.

With a hand still on my shoulder, she reached over, took the key from the ignition, and went inside. I sat for a minute, letting the rain pelt my left cheek, and then came in through the back door. I heard the shower running, and turned into the kitchenette. Two steaming mugs of tea sat on the counter, clay-red and blue. I picked up the red one and let the heat seep into my fingers, let the steam rise up and warm my nose. The shower turned off, and my aunt left the bathroom in the fleece pants she saved for winter and a fresh sweater. She lifted her mug from the counter, leaned across from me on the refrigerator, took a sip, and said, “You’re going to spend every day of your life interacting with things you don’t understand, so get used to it. And I will never need a reason to love you. Go shower while the pipes are still hot.” And I did. The pellets of water were soothing this time.

The Cats Have to Eat

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The heels of her plastic flip-flops dragged on the ground as she crossed the cement bridge, pausing for a second to look out at the river below. It’s root-beer-colored, she thought. The brown water offset the lush green clovers and weeds that grew in tufts around it. On TV or in a YA novel, she’d be flanked by other girls or some boy would be trying to pull her back or she’d be about to wreak havoc by trying to jump off the bridge after trying alcohol for the first time or something. Standing alone and trying to fit her hands in her tiny shorts pockets, she mulled through each of these scenarios while edging pebbles off the bridge’s edge with her toes and watching them fall. Ridiculous.

 

The bridge was called “Memorial Bridge,” but she had no idea what it was a memorial for. She thought of how many times she’d driven past one “Memorial School” or other, especially in small towns. The subject of the ‘memorial’ was easier to track if the landmark was named for the individual, like “Smith High School” or something, but the name still loses its meaning to most. Kids in the area would eventually shudder at the name of “Smith,” associating it with their middle-school years rather than the dedicated school board member or poet or whoever lived the life deemed worthy of an etching in the city’s brick.

 

On the other side of the bridge, she looked up at the sun to try to estimate the time. It was almost near the top of the sky. She’d already had lunch, and there was a long time until dinner. She figured she’d go to the lake for awhile. Maybe run into a friend. Hopefully not run into anyone from school.

 

The city had just installed a tunnel under the highway to the bridge. She took the service road town from the bridge to the tunnel, and rubbed her arms a bit, as for some reason tunnels remain distinctly colder than even the shade-patches outside. Also, the ground in tunnels stays wetter. Tiny droplets of water flew up from her flip-flops as she walked and stuck to her calves. Her nose wrinkled with mild disgust as it landed.

 

It was warmer out the tunnel’s other side, and the lake twinkled and lapped to greet her. She shoved her hands in her pockets again and made sure her quarters were still there. She watched a Porsche roll by, like a double rainbow around here, and wished she was a few years older and had her license.

 

As usual, clusters of young families dappled the beach in a sort of pastel cowspot pattern, with towels and t-shirts and floppy hats and coolers and inevitably some mom or older sibling yelling for the diaper-clad toddler trying to make a break for the water on his or her own. Nobody looked familiar.

 

She didn’t have her swimsuit or anything but didn’t really feel like swimming, anyway, she’d dipped her toes in the water and it was probably way too cold, so she decided to go sit out on a rock. Maybe get some sun on her legs. Relax, y’know, she said, suggesting the idea to herself as if talking to a friend. Yeah, sounds good.

 

She lasted all of eight minutes on the rock before deciding to hit the gas station. The walk was uphill, and she felt herself perspiring a little extra. Her forehead, neck, and underarms were already filmy from the heat. On the sidewalk next to the station, a small girl stood hunched over, staring at something on the ground. As she walked at as far a radius as possible from the girl, she craned to see what the girl was looking at. Some kind of crumpled-up bird, she observed, quickly looking away.

 

The bells that rang on most convenience-store doors made her feel alternately welcomed, distrusted, and livestock-like. The air-conditioning gave her an instant, involuntary shiver, like it had grabbed her and made her shudder. She wove her way around a man in the aisle with Pop-Tarts to make a beeline for the fridges, picked a cream soda from the back of the shelf, and proceeded to the checkout.

 

The door rang (clanged) again. “Daddy!” came a small voice. The small girl from outside ran to the man in the aisle.

 

“Yeah?” He replied.

 

“Daddy, come outside!” The girl was probably tugging at his clothes and stuff, too, she thought at the checkout while digging the coins out of her pocket. She watched the girl and her dad leave, opened the top of her bottle, and stepped out of the cool air, not letting the door finish jangling goodbye.

 

“Dad, we have to save it! Dad, you’re not doing anything, what are we going to do?” The girl sounded panicked.

 

She rounded the corner to head home, but paused a few steps behind the girl and her dad. Though he wasn’t talking, he was bent over as well.

 

“Daddy, it’s gonna die,” she whimpered.

 

He knelt on the ground. For the first time, she looked at the bird and focused. She hadn’t really looked at a bird for more than a passing second in awhile. From her vantage point, the bird looked pretty far gone. “Sarah, the bird lived its life. But now, the cats have to eat too. Think of all the cats who live around here and don’t have a home, or anyone to feed them.”

 

She watched the girl stand up and sniffle. Pulling her free hand out of her pocket, she thought of her own cat at home, and the turkey slices that had been in her sandwich at lunch. Letting the cold bottle hang at her side between two fingers, bumping her leg as she walked, she walked home, choosing to pass through the gas pumps and round the block on the other side rather than directly pass bird, girl, and father.

 

She trained her eyes to the cement sidewalk right before her feet the whole way home. It had never been alive. She wondered if it was necessary. She wondered if it was tiny rocks, or some kind of paste solidified, or something else entirely. She let herself into the house with the key under the garden rock to the left of the porch. Neither of her parents had drawn the curtains in the living room before going to work. The cat was basking in the single strip of light across the floor, orange fur glowing. She picked him up and flopped back onto the couch, letting her bottle fall to the floor as she buried her face in his downy-soft fur.

 

She had no idea how she and this obese cat had reached the top of some sterilized, plastic-wrapped food chain stamped with red-and-blue logos. She had no idea why she was pressing her face into a cat instead of a turkey, even though she decided the cat must be considerably softer. She was still on the couch by the time her dad got home. After contemplating asking him, she figured he wouldn’t have an answer like the man from the Pop-Tart aisle. She rolled the cat off her lap, ran to her father, and hugged him, burying her face in his stomach. Her mom and brother received similar hugs when they arrived home. When the dish of chicken got sent around the dinner table, she took it in her thin, youth-spindly fingers, picked up the serving fork, and looked down into it.

Fifty-Eight Degrees

Her sister drove her to the beach and helped her out of the car and rolled out a towel, where the pair sat down.

 

“It’s like I’m an old person and you wheeled me out of the nursing home to come sit here and feel like I have some kind of real connection to the world,” she said, projecting a scowl out over the twinkling, playfully lapping waves. She batted down her ferociously messy hair as a small gust of wind passed through.

 

“Come on, you have a broken leg,” her sister responded. “I’m just trying to get you out of the house. Like, stop you from always being in bed on your computer.”

 

Pulling her wild hair back into a knot, she let out a loud snort. She watched a seagull bobbing on the water and marveled at the way they tuck in their wings and turn their torsos (are bird bodies called torsos?) into little perfect boat-hulls, then just bob along, staying afloat not because of the resistance they put up against the water’s swells and waves but just by tucking in and letting the waves carry their little white-and-grey bodies.

 

She sighed. “Yeah, I guess.” Twisting the ring on her index finger, she looked back at the road, then forward to the water, and said, “You know how you feel so much more connected to a place when you’re actually in it, like, with your feet and your hands and you’re breathing its air, instead of being in a car, or a bus or something?”

 

Her sister nodded. “Yeah.” She hoped her sister actually felt it.

 

“I think I just feel like I’m here but I can’t fully be here, you know, like, to be able to run in the woods and have the air smell like pine and lake and taste cold and to feel the ground being soft and things like that. It’s so much harder to connect to a place with the windows shut.

 

“And, to be honest, I think most of the problem is that it’s hard to not feel a little closed off all the time. Some people complain about the fact that taking a picture of a moment ruins the moment, but I think sometimes I feel like I’m trying to take a picture of everything I see or feel, like I’ll be out with friends and think about how I’m going to remember the night later, or I’ll be looking at a skyline or an ocean and just be trying to think of how I’ll tell people about the experience later or how it’s gonna, like, expand me as a person or something. And that’s not even to mention the times I’ve been looking at something incredible and thinking, ‘Hmm, what’s for dinner?’ or deciding what I’m gonna say when I text someone back or stupid things like that. Somehow it’s hardto actually just be somewhere, a lot of the time.”

 

Her sister didn’t say anything at first. They both watched a seagull take off from the surface of the water. Finally, her sister spoke. “Why is it always so cold when we go to the beach?” It was true. Both girls were wearing sweatpants and burrowed in sweatshirts as they sat and looked out at a clear sky and shining, bouncing waves that could have well been on a California postcard. Alas, these were the Great Lakes. Her sister’s fingertips peeked out of their sweatshirt-sleeve burrows to check the temperature on her phone. “It’s fifty-eight,” she announced.

 

“We’ve been doing this forever, though,” she said, “going to the beach when it’s cold out, I mean. Like when we were little kids and literally didn’t know any better, like, what warm beaches were or anything. Fifty-degree water on a seventy-degree day was some kind of paradise oasis we could float in all day while Mom or Dad sat onshore and marveled at our complete inability to notice our own blue lips and shivering. I guess I never even realized it until I went to school in New York that my internal thermometer is a messed up piece of shit.” She was laughing a little now. Her sister chuckled too.

 

“Remember the day we swam behind the Pancake House for like, four hours because we found that giant stick, but came home and had no idea why we were so itchy, and it must have been something about the water near all the industry and shops or some sort of bug or something but we kept pleading to go back because we left that big stick, and he, or it or whatever, needed us?”

 

“Remember trying to get the sand off of our butts when we got out of swimsuits at night?”

 

“Yeah, man, those were the worst times, oof…”

 

That night, the sisters sat in front of the TV at home and tried to pick the sand out of the toe of her cast. When the cast got cut off, though, several months later, little grains of that afternoon were still pressed into her foot under the wrap and plaster, dark and solid amidst the white, soggy dead skin peeling off her foot. She remembered that afternoon on the beach.

 

 

 

 

 

What Growing Up Is

She didn’t smoke and she never smoked but he’d still offer her a drag every time. They were sitting on the edge of the wall of the bridge at night and staring out over the river, the bronze industrial lights reflecting much brighter than the stars. They were close but not touching, not anticipating touching, not nervous, quite comfortable, slouched, feet swinging.

“No thanks,” she said.

He took it back and inhaled. “What was I saying? Oh, yeah, it’s bullshit. Nobody ever really grows up or anything like that. I remember when I first started realizing neither of my parents knew what they were doing. And then I get here and realize I have no idea what I’m gonna do with my own life.”

She leaned back on one arm. “Yeah, I don’t know what I’m doing either. But I think there’s a way people grow up.

“You know how when you’re a little kid and you decide you’re going to, say, draw a picture, and make it the best picture anyone’s ever made, of, like, the perfect strip of green grass with a yellow sun and a single red flower? And it’s gonna look just like real life? And it doesn’t, but you’re still convinced that that was a good start and someday you’re gonna do it right. And then you get to school and work as hard as you can but realize you can do less than what’s perfect or even right and be okay. Perfect is scary and tall and unobtainable but you can skip a last proofread of a paper and go to bed, and drop a math assignment for no reason, or use Wikipedia as your source or whatever, and then it becomes this thing where it’s okay to cut corners because you want to and because you know you don’t have to be the best you can be to skate by. And you make money and buy groceries, then a Honda, then a Benz. It starts to be okay to make other people do work you could have done yourself. It starts to be okay to sell medicine for way more than it costs to poor people, or use child labor on some other continent, or let people not be treated right in some way because it’s not happening in your immediate vicinity and you’re gonna go home and there will still be one ice cream bar left and your flatscreen TV and your wife who’s alright and your kid who’s asleep and you’re just complacent with all of what’s right around you. I think that’s a part of what growing up is, for a lot of people, at least.”

She said this and immediately wanted to take it back, to chomp back down on the sour paragraph and swallow it whole. He could sense her going stiff through the cool night air. In her peripherals, she watched the butt he’d been smoking fall from his lips into the river, and pictured some sickly brown urban river fish trying to take a nibble of it and gagging.

“You’re right but you’re wrong,” he said. (She could have cried with relief.)

“I think the thing is, when you’re an adult, you get to decide what you’re gonna sacrifice for. And, I mean, it could be money, but loads of people pick civil rights or healthcare or music or research or their kids. My mom always worked two jobs; it took until I moved away to realize she picked me. But I don’t know what I’m gonna sacrifice for yet. I don’t know what means that much to me yet,” he said, absently flicking his lighter. “But there’s no way I’m getting some trash job where I’m not. Sacrificing, I mean.”

She pulled her arms further into her sweatshirt, and stared out over the water. Her braid was unraveling, and she anxiously stuffed back locks of hair. She wanted to tell him he was right without just vapidly saying, “Wow, you’re so right.” She realized she was going to have to live his words to prove them.

“Do you want to get a burrito?” he said. She replied “Sure,” but didn’t get one, only picking at a hot brown paper bag of chips. They walked back to his room and watched some show with a guy in a suit and tie and a studio audience that was intended to coax the actual audience into laughter. She dozed off and he chose not to wake her, instead tucking a few extra blankets around her.

 

When he woke up in the morning and left his bedroom, he saw she was still asleep on in the tiny living room, nestled in the corner of the couch. It took him awhile to realize what he was going to sacrifice for.

Man Stares At Painting

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He’d been leaving a lot lately, Fridays (his half-day) at mid-afternoon, still in his slacks from work, his shirt’s crispness gone limp but with the sleeves rolled up to display wiry, strong forearms. He’d sigh at his desk, pushing his hair back from his forehead, stand up, take his wallet from the counter, stick it in his back pocket, slide back into his leather shoes, and just go out the apartment door. He wouldn’t wish me goodbye. He’d turn and give me a slow, purposeful nod, half a smile shining through dark eyes above the graying bags that had been hanging below them lately.

He’d come back roughly three hours later, often with a bag of takeout food in hand. Hot falafel or white folded Chinese-food cartons. He’d set the warm brown paper package on the coffee table as he’d sit down beside me, undo the top button of his shirt, and pass me the first pair of chopsticks, often telling me about whoever he’d sat across from on the T.

Where I saw a canvas backdrop, he saw an intricate lace of stories and lives. He’d smile shyly at the small children whose legs dangled from the grubby train seats beside us, and stand to attention when an elderly person would enter the car, grabbing the top rail and beckoning the individual to the now-vacant seat. He could look around a crowded Dunks and instantly pick out the “characters,” the guy talking to his bagel or whatever, but never made fun of them, instead seeming to point them out in wonderment. I think he was one of the few people with the ability to sit in the car in a crowded intersection and fully comprehend that the bodies in the cars that surrounded him were not background actors but individuals with a backstory just as rich and toned as his own, and who were going from somewhere to somewhere with purpose. I had never heard him honk.

Tonight, he was taking extra long to come home. I decided to ask him. That is, where he seemed to go on Friday afternoons. I paced to the fridge and opened the door, letting the cold waft of air and white light wash over me. Maybe it’s not always the same place, I thought, extracting an apple from the crisper. This didn’t make sense to me, though, since the entire experience seemed so uniform: leave at 3:15-30, work attire, return just in time for dinner. I spread a dollop of peanut butter on the apple’s smooth, red-green dappled skin.

As time drew nearer to three hours, I wondered if he didn’t want me to know, if the location was deliberately hidden. Tension crawled in my stomach and chattered in my teeth—I didn’t want to fight. I couldn’t. My adrenaline accelerated when the doorknob turned, and my heart thumped uncomfortably. He entered smiling, two giant subs wrapped in festive yellow paper in tow. “Vegetable or beef?” I reached for vegetable.

“Where,” I started and faltered, voice crackling, “Do you… go?” I stared down at my knees. My mouth was as dry and papery as the restaurant napkin in my hand.

I turned to see his face, unsure what to expect, but finding mellow congeniality. “Do you want me to take you tomorrow?” he asked. I nodded heartily, too relieved to seem overeager.

Rather than alleviating my wonderings, the prospect of the big revelation in less than twenty-four hours just accelerated the thoughts’ bouncing around in my mind, colliding with visions of stacks of paperwork, fragments of grocery lists, single lines of songs, tangled conversations, and titles of articles and books I’d told myself I’d “look at later,” reverberating off the sides of my skull and ringing. My feet sticking to the cold floor, I traipsed to the bathroom in the night to take some Benadryl for sleep. Saturday morning, I awoke eagerly, bounced through my run from Kendall down Commonwealth, and downed two slices of dry toast in four or five chomps.

I sat by his side on the T wondering again if I was going to meet another person, one he knew in a spectrum different than my own. He, like everyone else we met in college, exists in numerous circles outside the school, from family and old acquaintances to previous dates and jobs. Perhaps it was someone he met at work. We transferred at Park Street, and I kept pace at his side rather than asking him which train we were changing to.

Northeastern slid by outside the window of the car, and when the train slowed to a stop at the MFA, he stood and beckoned for me to follow. I glanced around on the sidewalk, from the manicured grass park to the tall-fenced soccer field, but he led me into the museum proper. Without looking back, he led me up to the center floor, to Europe, and the impressionist landscapes. He halted in front of a Monet seaside.

I must have looked expectant, because he seemed almost embarrassed. “When I’m about to have a panic attack, I come look at this painting. These too, sort of,” he said, indicating the neighboring pieces. “Sometimes everything’s just so overly full of stuffand feels so complicated, like it’s kind of smothering me, that I need to come stand in a white room with a tall ceiling and look out ten windows at fields and seas and just breathe.” His hands had sunk into his pockets. Mine followed suit. He seemed to think it was his turn to look uncomfortable, to look away.

“I think that’s great,” I said. “I think that’s really cool, like, if I didn’t take a break and go for a run every morning I’d lose my mind, and that you work way too hard for such a young guy. And I love the way these are painted in neat little dabs, like the most vivid sunny day I’ve ever seen.”

I wasn’t staring at a painting, though. I was staring at a man staring at a painting, and it was the greatest work of art I’d seen in a long time, possibly ever.

The painting spoke to me. “Do you want to get falafel after this?”

I responded, “For sure.”

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(Note: there is an actual Man who Stares at Painting, but I have never met him. One of my favorite professors said a friend of hers goes to the Met every time he verges on a panic attack to look at the same painting, and that idea just really got me)