I keep getting lost in the middle of places I know well. I wander through the middle of downtown like it’s a corn maze. The streets all blend into each other, everywhere the air is fraught with the latest Abercrombie & Fitch cologne that smells just like the last one. I bump into people, but no one pays me any mind. Even the Green Peace workers, who usually ambush me with their clipboards and good causes, leave me alone. They let me wander aimlessly by them, probably assuming that my signature on their petition wouldn’t be worth anything. My fingers are freezing, clinging to the rough cutout handles of the cardboard box, but after a while I don’t feel them anymore.
Luke and Mel offered to pick me up from downtown this afternoon, but I told them no, and even though I can’t imagine getting onto a bus right now, I’m not sorry. I don’t want to see anyone, especially not people who look healthy and happy and sane.
Eventually I sit down at a picnic table in front of a hot dog stand. The man running the stand gives me a look for loitering and not buying a hot dog, so I order one and then let it get cold because I’m not hungry.
I close my eyes hoping that when I open them I’ll know what to do next. Whether or not to read the letter. Whether or not to throw the box in the trash and forget the whole thing.
“You’re stalking me now?” Neil is standing in front of me when I open my eyes, holding a hotdog and chuckling. My throat is dry from the cold, and it doesn’t make any sound when I open my mouth, but that doesn’t matter because Neil keeps talking. “What are you doing down here? I mean, I guess you have just as much right to be downtown as anyone. I just wasn’t expecting to see you again. Not today anyway. But it’s a small world.” Nothing he’s saying means anything. His manner is completely new. Like he’s forgotten everything, and now I’m just another girl he knows. I wonder if he thinks I look so much better that he needn’t be so delicate with me anymore. Then I wonder if he’s really looked at me at all. “Oh, Mackenzie, this is Sadie. She’s another one of our trainers. Or she will be. We’ve just been studying for the certification exam together. Just taking a break to grab some food.” I shift my gaze and notice for the first time that we’re not alone.
Sadie. She’s got jet black, wavy hair that’s in this very messy and elegant fishtail braid over her shoulder, and these absurdly beautiful, dark Persian features. Her build slight, but very toned, and her all-black, exercise apparel highlight this. She’s also holding a hot dog that’s smothered in cabbage, relish and mustard and then a diet coke. What a bitch.
“It’s nice to be meeting you,” she says in a very thick, exotic accent from somewhere sexy. She reaches out to shake my hand, tucking the can of coke under her arm.
“Mackenzie is a friend of Melanie’s from Juice & Harmony,” Neil explains to her, and she just keeps smiling at me.
“We love Melanie,” she beams, like I’m a child that needs convincing that she’s in the company of friends. “Ooh! What have you got in this box? Shopping?”
“Oh. The box. Um, no. It’s nothing. Just-- I’m just donating some things. To a charity. I mean, well, just to GoodWill, really. Salvation Army, you know. It’s just a box of things my friend Beth brought by... that I can’t use.” I glance at Neil to see if he’s caught on at all, but he’s just contentedly eating his hot dog, doing that blinking thing at Sadie.
“This is very, how do you say? Generous?” She looks to Neil for confirmation that she got the right word, and when he smiles reassuringly, she oozes pride. “Very generous of you.”
“Well, I do what I can.”
She takes a huge bite of her hot dog and gets mustard all over her face.
“Look at me, a total chaos!” Her failure to grasp the English phrase “such a mess” does not endear her to me any, but obviously Neil is tickled pink and grabs some napkins, trying to help her get cleaned up.
“We should probably get going,” he says when they’ve stood there giggling over mustard for basically an hour. “Good to see you though. Hang in there, Kenz.” He pats me on the head, like a dog, and then smiles at Sadie.
As they’re walking away, he puts his hand on her lower back, and she leans her head on his shoulder, laughing. It feels like getting stabbed for a second, and then it feels utterly irrelevant.
I take out my phone and dial Mel, but then hang up. My teeth start chattering, and without thinking I get one of Gerald’s sweaters out of the box and put it on under my coat. Then I force myself to eat the cold hot dog because I decide I’m probably starving. It mostly tastes like rubber. I sit for another few minutes, and then get out my phone again.
Alice says she can be here in fifteen minutes if traffic’s good.
The Bellevue house is obscenely large for two people. Alice has it decorated like she expects it to be chosen as the set for a modern remake of Gone With The Wind.
We leave the cardboard box in the car, and immediately she takes me up the stairs to their guest room. “What you need is a good rest, and some one to take care of ya,” Alice says, squeezing my face. “I’m makin’ you some of my grandmomma’s special recipe chicken. No ifs, ands or buts. Some hot chicken and a big ol’ cuppa tea.” She draws the shades and turns on a sound machine, setting it to “Waves”. I sit down on the featherbed, and kick off my shoes. The feather down on the bed swallows me up, and I feel like a little kid again. “And give me that phone of yours.” She holds out her palm and, reluctantly, I hand it over. “I don’t know what kind of no good woman bothers a little girl with her mess. But I’ll tell you, if she calls again I’m going to give her a piece of my mind.” I don’t think Beth really counts as a “no-good woman.” She’s barely a breath older than I am. As hard as I try, I can’t get the image of her grief-stricken face out of my mind. I wonder what her close friends must have thought about her getting involved with some hobo twice her age. And then I think that maybe Gerald was her closest friend, and this is the most terrible realization.
“She won’t call again,” I assure Alice, and I hope, for Beth’s sake, that I’m right.
“Well she’d better not. A no account floozy, that one. No need for the likes of her around my little miss.” I try to push the afternoon out of my mind as I climb under the covers and start to close my eyes. I don’t quite know why I’m so tired, but I suddenly feel like I could sleep for the rest of the day. For the rest of the week, even. Then, just as I’m drifting off, I have a thought, and start awake again.
“Alice?” I manage to catch her right before she leaves the room. “Could we maybe not mention any of this to my mom? I think the whole thing with Beth would just upset her more.” She comes back over to the bed, and plops down next to me.
“Of course we won’t, sugar lump. Of course we won’t. But don’t you go worryin’ ‘bout your momma. She’s a tough bird. So just close those pretty eyes of yours and let Aunt Alice fix your chicken.”
She bustles out the door, and I try to nestle down and get back to a tired place. The guest room decorations are nautically themed. Alice has mounted a series of display shelves over the bed and then filled them with miniature sailboat models that Walt loves to build in his spare time. “It’s becoming very chic to use art in place of a headboard,” she told me, and I had agreed with her, though I don’t know that this counts exactly. The drawer pulls on the dresser are designed to look like tiny Captain’s wheels, and she even replaced the windows with these little porthole style look-outs that make it feel a little bit like you’re in Martha Stewart’s submarine. All of this, with the addition of the waves coming over the sound machine-- I decide that I have to go to sleep to avoid getting seasick.
When I wake up, Alice has left a plate of fried chicken on the bedside table with an enormous buttermilk biscuit and a glass of milk. I take a few bites, but, delicious as it is, I find I can’t get interested in eating. Usually I’m one of those people who eats as a method of distraction.
When I was five and my parents were still fighting all the time, I would build myself a blanket fort in the basement and then sneak half gallons of ice cream downstairs to my new headquarters. The blankets, I discovered, blocked a lot of the yelling, and the ice cream took care of the rest. Eventually I outgrew the blanket forts, but not the food.
In high school it was red licorice and in college it was cheese puffs. Since college I can usually get away with just about anything, though the more over-processed it is, the better.
Mel hates when I eat instead of talking about my feelings. “You want to be talking,” she says. “That’s why you feel like you have to keep your mouth busy with snacks. Because really what you want is to be talking.”
I pick the skin off the chicken and eat some of it. It’s mostly grease, and a for a few minutes I think it’s helping, but then I start to feel a little nauseous. I break down the biscuit into fat bread crumbs, and set a few of them on my tongue at a time, letting the bread go all soggy and dissolve. I’m completely disgusting, but I don’t care. Disgusting feels better than nothing. I run my greasy fingers along the plate, writing my name in chicken fat cursive, and then I wipe my fingers on Gerald’s sweater and pull the blankets back over my head.
When it starts getting dark, Alice comes in and informs me that she’s used my phone to call my boyfriend, and that he’s on his way to pick me up and take me home. “There’s nothing like the safety of a man’s embrace,” she says, and I try not to throw the leftover skinless chicken bits at her.
I should have called Mel.
It’s almost eight o’clock when Kevin arrives. His black eye is yellowing now, and it’s making him look a little jaundiced, but Alice hardly notices. She pulls him into the corner of the guest room and tells him not to let me out of his sight for at least the next 24 hours. That with the few days I’ve had, I’m at risk for self-injury and depression. He looks at me over her shoulder, his brow all furrowed and anxious. The way they’re whispering about me and gawking makes me feel like an animal in a zoo.
I watch while they pack up the remains of the chicken so I can take it with me, and Kevin moves Beth’s box out of Alice’s car and into the backseat. Today he is driving a red Jetta, much more understated than the Saab, and the vanity plate that says “IM SASSY” tells me he must have borrowed it from a girl. I wonder, aimlessly, what he told her when he asked for her car. No doubt that he needed it to pick up his sick sister.
Alice squeezes all the air out of me when we say goodbye. “You know you can always call on your Auntie Alice for anything,” she says, tucking some of my hair behind my ear. Her eyes go all watery, and I hug her and say “thank you” in a voice I hope sounds sincere.
Everything is blurry and dizzy on the drive home. I want to blame the lack of food, or the long nap in the middle of the day, but if I’m being honest I think it’s just me. My mind keeps going back to what might be written in that letter. I don’t know what I am hoping it will say. Maybe it’s just a piece of paper with “I love you” scrawled on it. The idea of that climbs inside my heart and explodes. My face flushes hot, and I gasp for air that isn’t coming, and Kevin’s whole car has that horrible new car scent that should be illegal. I roll down the window and gulp down as much fresh air as I can, but it isn’t enough. I beg Kevin to pull over and when we do, I hurl myself out the door and throw up on the front lawn of a big, stately townhouse.
I stay kneeling on the sidewalk outside the house for a while, until I hear Kevin getting out of the car. He doesn’t come near me, but just stands curbside, leaning against the back door and watching me.
“If you want to say something, then say it,” I plead, but he doesn’t. I feel the gravelly concrete pressing into my knees, and think I should stand up but I’m too woozy to manage it. Instead I look through the front window of the townhouse. It doesn’t seem like there’s anyone home, but I picture that they’re this big, happy, yuppie family with dogs and Ivy League aspirations based on the light fixture in their dining room.
“You know I’m supposed to be going back to San Francisco at the end of the week,” he says at long last. The way he says it irritates me, like he thinks I’m going to disintegrate without him. Like I haven’t been just fine without him for basically three years now. I try to stand up, but I fall forward onto my hands, and it’s all I can do not to lay down in the grass and give up.
“Yes, Kevin. I know that.”
“I’m just telling you because I want you to have a plan for when I’m not here to--”
“Oh my god. Don’t. You didn’t have to come get me. I mean, thanks for coming and everything, but you didn’t have to. I’d have been fine.” This is a lie. I hear him moving closer to me, and I force myself onto my feet, pressing my eyes shut to stop the world from spinning.
“What I’m saying is that I’m worried about you, Mack.” He puts a hand on my back, his other hand on my shoulder, and steadies me against him. I lean into his chest and let my muscles relax. His voice is soft in my ear. “I mean, can we be honest for a second? Because as much as I think Alice is a fucking head case most of the time, she’s right. You’re not in a good place to be by yourself.”
I laugh weakly. He sounds like an action movie, where the hero rescues the blonde from some big disaster and then whispers to her, “You shouldn’t be alone tonight.” And then I stop laughing because I’m so uninterested in Kevin being my hero.
All I really want is to feel like everything’s going to be okay. I want to feel like the stupid things I promised myself on New Year’s Eve are still the very most important things there are. I want to feel like my whole life is ahead of me, and like anything might happen at any moment. Like I am so young and so wise beyond my years. So independent and strong and resilient. And I’m so angry that none of that seems to mean anything at all anymore.
I pull away and look at him. He’s got this very concerned face on, and I think about how much I love him still. He pushes my hair out of my face and raises his eyebrows in this way he does when he wants things to magically be better. He smiles gently, his hand lingering on my cheek.
“Stop it,” I say under my breath, breaking his stare to look at the ground..
“Mack, come on.”
“I said stop it.” I back away from him and walk towards the car. That it’s Kevin here with me suddenly feels unacceptable. He is so close to me that I want to kiss him, but I can’t, and so I want to scream. “You didn’t even want me,” I say before I realize what I’m saying. “Stop acting like you’re gonna be my knight in shining armor now, when you didn’t even want me.”
“I didn’t want you?” I shouldn’t have said anything. “Hey, hold on. What are we talking about?” He follows after me, grabbing my arm before I can get in the car.
“This is such a fucking bullshit thing!” I’m yelling now, and I see the lights come on in the neighbor’s house. “This whole thing with us is bullshit! Everyone is bullshit!” I sound crazy but I can’t stop. I can hear Mel’s annoying therapist voice in my mind: you want to talk. “My dad’s dead. Is that what everyone wants me to say? That Gerald’s dead and it fucking sucks? I mean that’s the problem isn’t it? That’s why everyone is buzzing around me and staring at me all the fucking time, right? Because my dad died, and you’re all worried that I’m losing it? Well I am. I am losing it.”
There is a silence, and he looks away from me, uncomfortable. His breath makes these uncertain clouds in front of his face, and so I just stare into the side of his face, and pray that he can feel me doubting him.
“My dad was a mean, crude, horrible failure of a human being. He was greedy and drunk and miserable. He lashed out at the people who loved him, and he made it impossible for me to trust anyone and he gave his wedding ring to some hotel manager infant that’s barely a second older than I am and then he died. Because apparently being absent my whole life wasn’t enough for him. And so now I have to deal with it. I have to deal with it. And I have to do it on my own, because Mom has Jimmy, and Nathan has Lana, and Alice has Walter, and Mel has Luke, and Neil has fucking Sadie... and you--” Kevin has long since let go of my arm. He is looking around cautiously, and I figure he’s nervous that one of the neighbors is going to call the police about the noise, so I lower my voice. “You didn’t want me. You. Who will go home with idiot bartenders and do filthy things with their roommates that end in black eyes and hangovers and, probably, STI screenings. You, who sends me self-congratulatory text messages about your sex life like a fucking cocky middle-schooler. Who will brag about all of it in a family restaurant under the guise of ‘caring about our friendship.’ You didn’t want me.” I swallow a pathetic laugh, and run my face through my hands. “So now my dad is dead and I’m alone even though there are fucking people everywhere who want to stroke my hair and pat me on the back and tell me that I look like I’m doing better. Even though it’s impossible that I’m doing any better because, my dad is still dead. And so... I really- more than anything- just want to go home.” I notice for the first time that I’m shaking and I don’t know whether or not it’s the cold. He makes like he’s going to step toward me, but I shake my head, too exhausted for any last-ditch gestures of kindness. “Can you just take me home, Kev? And then you can go to San Francisco or to New York or to fucking Siberia if you want. I don’t care. Just take me home, and then you can go.”
Growing up, I desperately wanted to become a part of the Big Brother, Big Sister program. In case you don’t know, Big Brother/Big Sister is basically a program that matches you up with a young person and then you’re just pretty much their mentor. You help them with school, and you help them with life, and you do a lot of nice things together and help them to understand that sometimes life is good and everything isn’t all bullshit.
I used to talk to Gerald and Mom all the time about how I’d be an excellent role model because I know a lot about a lot of things, and how it wasn’t fair that I didn’t have a younger sibling with whom I could share all my vast knowledge. Mom always nodded along and encouraged me, because that’s what mothers do. She said that being a role model for others can be a very helpful way to learn a lot of things about yourself, and that she was sure I’d be great at it. Gerald was, more or less, neutral on the subject, and I always took that to mean he thought I’d be terrible.
Unfortunately, to be eligible to be a Big Sister, you have to be at least 18, and by the time I was old enough I had more or less forgotten all about it because there was other shit happening.
I think now that that’s really the kind of older sister I would have been: around when it was convenient and beneficial to me, and then completely detached and unavailable when there were other, decidedly more important, things going on.
This is how I am.
After Kevin drives away, I stand outside for a while, looking up the street where his car has long since disappeared up and over the hill. I’m not waiting for anything, and yet it seems like if I go inside I’ll miss it... whatever it is.
First I wish I’d said nothing, then I wish he’d pushed back harder. I wish he loved me in exactly the way I wanted instead of the way he does. I wish I knew if that would even be enough, or if there is never enough with me.
Next door, Larry is coming home with arms full of ferret food and sawdust bedding. He gives me a nod and I give one back, like neither of us is devastatingly lonely.