Fine Print Literary Magazine, May 2018
“The auctioneers need everything out by next Friday,” I said into the phone.
“But I was just there,” Jess whined. “Literally. Last weekend.”
“I know,” I hated the apology in my voice. Me too, I wanted to remind her. Just a week ago we’d sat side by side on the cold, wooden pew, our sweaty hands clasped for a moment. I’d seen her up close, the crease between her perfect, lush brows having deepened a little. Just barely, though. She was petite and pearly, like a viral Pinterest post. I still hated her, but I hated myself more for persuading her so gently to help me clear out our childhood home.
I felt a lie creeping up, much in the same way they did when I had to sell myself to a new gallery. Yes, I’ve just been accepted to a few galleries overseas. I was constantly trying to convince people. Always cajoling Jess into doing anything. Someone other than me should have raised my sister.
“Dad wants us both there,” I said, knowing she’d read the irritation in my voice as directed toward him, not her. “He really wants to see you,” I lied again. Just five minutes ago, he’d told me on the phone he was glad I’d offered to handle the auction.
Had I offered?
Jess blew into her phone. “Fine.”
I could tell she really wanted to hang up. I hung up first, almost involuntarily, my fingers wanting just as badly to shut her out as my brain. She probably went back to some wide-shouldered jock she’d invited up to her apartment. I didn’t doubt for a moment that Jess was fine. Dancing on her shiny floors like a porcelain ballerina. Untouched. Her seams stitched and secure as ever, as if she’d just taken a long weekend and not actually gone to her own mother’s funeral.
I, on the other hand, was unraveling. Everything I touched seemed to be turning to shit.
And while I’d spent those last weeks with mom, breathing in onions, I’m sure the extent of Jess’s discomfort had been the seedy Thai salon where she got her nails done.
Two months earlier, I’d settled into a job at a Catholic elementary school in Montgomery County, four beltway exits from my mother’s apartment building. She’d moved after our neighbor on Crown Street had seen her walking outside the house wearing nothing but a necktie. I wish our neighbor hadn’t bothered to email me a photo of it, because the image of that 1980’s geometric tie hanging loosely between her drooping breasts was seared into my memory. The idea was that if she decided to do it again, at least there would be a doorman to bring her back into her own flat before she made it all the way to the street.
But then I’d gotten a call from her doctor, who recommended we hire a live-in caretaker. He worried she might be a danger to herself. My marriage had been failing since it started. This was just the excuse I needed.
While packing my stuff, I’d somehow managed to finally tell Michael, my husband of two years, that I didn’t think his French girlfriend was that pretty. This had been a small victory for me, because up to that point I hadn’t actually admitted to myself that she existed, even though I’d seen him fondle her skinny thighs through the window of Rizzo’s Pizza. He’d stood in the doorway and scratched his crotch through his khakis, as if thinking of her was making him hard. I’d been so scared to bring her up, but as I watched him push his hand against his zipper, I couldn’t help but laugh a little through my nose. It occurred to me that if my mother wasn’t crazy and potentially suicidal, I’d have probably stayed in Brooklyn, with him.
After clearing out the smaller half of our shared closet, I purposefully ignored the ten or so mostly unfinished canvases that were leaning against the bedroom wall.
“Don’t you want your paintings?” he asked when I passed him in the doorway. We hadn’t discussed the future of our marriage, but this felt like a form of closure. It would suffice.
I stopped and glanced at his feet. The toes of his socks had holes in them.
“I figured you could use them,” I said, not entirely sure where I was going with it.
“For what?” he asked.
I still couldn’t look at his face. I still couldn’t say exactly what I wanted to say.
“You know, to feel good about yourself.” I smiled, and it must have not been the cynical expression I’d intended, because he tilted his head and shook it slightly, like a scolding parent.
“Marie, come on,” he said. “Don’t be pathetic.”
I noticed he’d untucked his button-down shirt, and it hung crumpled over the top of his pants.
“Maybe my failed paintings will remind you that you’ve always done what you wanted to do. And you know what,” I finally gazed up at him, “not very many people can say that. You should be proud.”
Moving in with mom allowed me to focus on my mom, whose depression had intensified since I’d last seen her. It wasn’t depression anymore, either. It was madness. Mom’s new obsession was to boil onions like they were corncobs. The condo smelled like a third world bathhouse, at least I imagined it might be like that in a place with no deodorant or running water. The onions ended up in the trash. I couldn’t stop her from buying more and boiling them while I was at work. And I had to work. Mom’s social security check barely covered the onions after I paid her rent, let alone therapy and pills. Either the pills were useless or she wasn’t taking them.
Just days after settling into her top-floor apartment, I was annoyed to find that no one had secured the windows or balcony doors. I bought safety locks and removed the handles. She talked about the height of the building all the time, too. Like a kid who talks incessantly about their first rollercoaster ride. It freaked me out. The apartments on the top floor of this building were nicer than the rest, or at least that’s what the doorman had told me. He said ours was one of the only ones in the building with wall-to-wall carpet.
At the office, my supervisor, Patty, treated me like a pet parrot, asking me to repeat everything she said. “How many lanes open for parent pickup on Tuesdays? Mmm?” Two, I’d answer. “Only two lanes open for parent pickup on Tuesday,” she’d say back, staring at me with her big eyes with her lashes curled into tiny tubes that rested on her lids.
I hated my job. The only way I could get through the day was by denying the fact that any of this was even happening. That I had ever left New York. That I had ever attempted to be a painter. Or someone’s wife. The fact that I was still hung up on someone I’d met right after I’d married Michael. I’m sure Jack never thought about me, or those three months we sneaked around. The last I’d seen him was in a brochure for a gallery in Chelsea, where his pretentious abstracts were being showed. I didn’t go. I wanted to, but I didn’t.
“So,” Patty said. “They will be spraying for yellow jackets next week.” She tapped my desk with her rust-colored acrylic nails. “We need to send a form home.” Her hand lingered, as if she were about to play my desk like a piano. I noticed the nails were even longer than last week.
“Why do we need to send a form?” As soon as I said it I realized how dumb I sounded.
“For the chemicals?” Patty looked genuinely concerned for me, like I was a toddler getting into the cleaning supplies. “Marie, seriously,” she said, shifted her weight and tapped my desk again. “Repeat after me. We need to warn parents about the chemicals.” Patty rolled her eyes in defeat. “I’ll forward the email. Make sure you include the name of the pesticide. Full disclosure.”
I could feel my face heat up. I’d been hired for my ‘fun, loving personality’ and ‘experience with children,’ and my facade was almost entirely dissolved by now. The one day I’d volunteered to teach art at a public school in Queens, I’d actually left early, telling them I was coming down with something. I never thought I’d need to explain my ‘experience with kids’ on a resume. I never thought I’d need a resume.
I googled “spraying yellow jackets” just as Patty’s email dinged in my inbox. Martial arts videos popped up at the top of the list. By the time I realized I’d typed “sparring” instead of “spraying” in the search bar, I was already feeling Jack’s black belt around my naked waste. I was in his loft again. The air was stagnant with lower East Side summer heat. Jack grinned at me from the foot of the bed with his fists clenched tight near his bare chest, the white karate jacket hanging on his shoulders. I caught myself chuckling at the memory of him showing off his moves.
Behind me, Patty cleared her throat at her desk. I could hear the wheels of her chair squeak. She was probably coming back to talk to me, but I closed my eyes and lifted two fingers to my lips, an imaginary cigarette, and hunched a little behind my computer screen. I could feel the smoke filling my lungs. Jack tightened the black belt around my waist and took a puff of my cigarette. Dust and smoke floated around us in the bright sun that his wall-sized windows let in. Coldplay echoed around us. It was all yellow.
“You misspelled spraying.” Patty’s warm coffee breath hit my cheek. My whole body tingled. “I just emailed you. You didn’t need to look it up.”
“Oh, yeah… Oh, okay,” I said. My tongue was stuck. I wanted a cigarette so badly.
“Anyway, they say it’s not that terrible for you.” Patty tapped my screen with her nail, as if to ensure I open her email.
“What?” I turned to look at her, confused. “Smoking?”
“No,” Patty said and shook her head, the permed red curls unmoving around her face. She closed her eyes, exasperated with me. “The pesticide. For spraying yellow jackets?”
I had entered the memory of Jack’s loft apartment swiftly and unresisting, the way I used to jump into Lake George in my teens, screaming in my orange bikini, while everybody else took their time, I’d always be the first one in the icy water. That’s how I’d fallen back onto his futon, that stupid electric blue wall mural looming past his slim body over me. And I was still there when I turned the key to my mother’s apartment. How had I driven around 495 without crashing into anyone? Hadn’t there been traffic? What had they talked about on WAMU? Stem cell research? All I could hear was Jack’s breathing on my neck. All I could feel was the black belt tightening around my stomach. How had I parked in the garage without paying attention? Usually, as soon as that automatic gate lifted, my whole body tensed, I’d lean forward and squint, inch my mom’s maroon Lincoln forward, maybe five miles per hour. I’d become senile, I could almost feel the concrete through the car doors. How did I do it? I’d been so lost in the memory of that night, the one I swore wasn’t a first night, because there would never be a second.
I stood behind the door to my mother’s apartment. I didn’t want to go in. She’d be in there, peeling or boiling more onions, talking about how long it would take to fall down from the balcony. And then my mother would go into a fit, she might already be pacing the floor. There was a path around the side table in the entryway, I’d noticed how the loops in the rug had flattened, her incessant pacing trampling a section of the otherwise perky berber carpet.
“Hello?” Jack answered. I had dialed him. Just like that. His voice sounded sleepy.
My back slid down against the wall and my voice bounced awkwardly when my bottom hit the floor. “Ja-ack? It’s me. Marie.”
“The fuck? How are you, woman?”
This was such a mistake. I’d forgotten how he used to call me woman.
“I’m good, I’m good,” I answered, trying to sound the way people did when they’d had years of therapy and finally forgiven. Only I hadn’t done either. “I was just, honestly, I don’t even know why I called—”
“Nah,” Jack interrupted me. “It’s nice to hear from you. What’s going on with you these days? You still paint? Still married?”
“Um, we’re actually—”
“Oh, shit—” Jack interrupted again. “I gotta take this. Can I call you right back? It’s the gallery. I’m actually in D.C. for a show tonight.”
“Oh, D.C.?” My voice was shrill. I swallowed.
“I’ll call you back.” He said, and hung up.
Before I could stop myself, I had found out where he would be. I stared at the clock on my iPhone, and the blue, wiggly line on the map from my mother’s apartment in Chevy Chase to the private gallery in Georgetown.
It was nothing. Like throwing an apple out the window.
He wouldn’t call me back, I knew that much. But my hands were already trembling, and I already knew what dress I’d wear.
I pushed open the heavy apartment door. I saw a few letters by my feet on the rug, picked them up and shut the door behind me quickly to keep the cat from running out into the hall. The pungent smell of onion peels and cigarettes hit my nose.
“Mom?” I said, shuffling the letters in my hands, staring at them but reading nothing, my heart pounding in my chest. I walked forward, put my purse on the side table when something hit my eye. Something heavy, like a dangling fist. I rubbed my eye, trying to dissolve the sting with the moisture under my lid. The thing hit me on the cheek again, I could barely breathe, it was right there, hanging over me.
I stepped back, the sharp corner of the side table dug into the back of my legs.
Tube socks. All I saw was tube socks at first, the gray ones, bubbled over the toes, ready to fall off. Bare, unshaven legs, oddly purple in color, so skinny, like chicken bones in a picked over rotisserie container. The brown skirt that made her look even thinner, a fifties balloon shape, now hung there crooked off her hips. I wanted to straighten it. I wanted to keep looking all the way up to her face. I want to pull her down and tell her that the skirt didn’t look good. But the chair was knocked over on the carpet, and I aimed for the cage within the legs, fell forward, and vomited.
I didn’t go in the ambulance. I stayed behind, waiting for everyone to leave. A female cop with bad breath kept asking me if I wanted to call anyone to come pick me up. I just stared at her. Hours later, I was cleaning up my mess, and as I sprayed Lysol on the carpet for the twentieth time, I found myself wondering if they’d find boiled onions in her stomach. Would they open up her stomach? Would they bother to look inside someone who died from self-inflicted strangulation? I wanted them to. I wanted someone to call me and say, “Marie, we found out that she’d been eating boiled onions for years, and it turns out that boiled onions can cure depression and bi-polar disorder, but your mother didn’t know that they should have been red onions, instead of Spanish yellow.” I mean, there had to be an explanation.
My phone buzzed and rang on the counter. I ignored it. But thirty seconds later, a ding startled me. It took me a minute to realize I’d received a voicemail.
“Heyyy, woman,” Jack’s voice sounded like he was calling me from a bathroom. “Sorry I had to hang up earlier. I agreed to do this benefit for some friend of my dad’s. Hideous. So, what’s up, Marie? I know I was a douche back in the day. Nice to hear from you. Anyway.” The phone beeped in my ear, abrupt and indifferent, like a hospital heart monitor.
I tugged the last piece of paper towel off the roll and scrubbed the nubby rug some more. Behind me, a pile of used-up paper towels had formed. It made me think of the only leaf pile we’d ever had at the Crown Street house.
I had to get out of the apartment. I had to get away from the memories of my fucked up family creeping out from everywhere, even from a heap of soiled paper towels.
I couldn’t stay there.
It’s amazing how you can function normally, how you can zip up a tight, black dress, lean over and push up your breasts to fill in the bust. How you can pick something out of your teeth and decisively choose a shade of lipstick. Then be turned on by the late-night jazz on WAMU as you drive around a vacated beltway, completely unharmed, completely disjointed, completely going to see your ex-boyfriend when your mother lies dead underneath a set of crisp, peroxide-smelling sheets somewhere.
I didn’t go in. I didn’t even park my mother’s Lincoln. I left it idling in front of the painted brick townhouse. I’d known enough to leave the flashers on. A single, bright lamp shone over me in the darkness. I stared at the glossy, black front door. The chewed nail of my forefinger stung when I pushed the button doorbell harder than I needed to.
I asked for him. I waited.
“Marie,” he whispered through my hair, pulling my head close. “The fuck?” He kept my neck in his grip, then pulled me away, admiring me, my head like a small painting of his. He was still so smug with that permanent, gorgeous grin.
“I live in D.C. now,” I heard myself say. I realized I hadn’t bothered to wear underwear. On purpose. I wanted him to know, so I led his hand down. There was no reason to use words.
We’d both studied art. We both had stained hands and paint under our fingernails when we first met. But it wasn’t what we shared. I’d stared at the overambitious murals and oversized canvases scattered all over his loft, while he pushed me against the wall, and had me, wide open, on the concrete slab of the kitchen island. The way his tongue made my insides run, and my breathing nearly stop, was better than painting. I let him talk about color to me, as long as he colored my hunger with his fingertips.
I’d started earlier with my studies, worked harder than him and known more about technique. But he had the right last name. Jack was everything that was wrong with my world. A reminder of how a girl like me would never make it. And tonight, I just wanted to be swallowed by that wrongness. I wanted to disappear into an abyss where my name didn’t matter. I pulled him into my mother’s car. He didn’t try to stop me.
When we reached the canal, and I parked the car into a back alley, all at once I saw Jack in the passenger seat, as if for the first time. I saw myself in that dress. My breathing must have been odd, or maybe there was vomit in my hair. But Jack didn’t reach over to kiss me. He just stared at me, and then he opened the door and walked away.
I sat in the darkness. I let myself make the most hideous sounds I’d ever heard. I screamed until my throat was hoarse and the skin of my arms was blotchy and red. I pulled at the roots of my hair and shook in my seat, stomping my feet against the floor of the car, the seatbelt locked too tight across my chest. I’d parked myself in an alley of my worst fears. It didn’t even feel real, but when I looked down at my white knuckles, I couldn’t believe how little it would take to rip open the flesh and reveal my bones.
I should have never been a mother, she’d said to me, too many times to count.
And now she was lying lifeless somewhere, excused from breathing, while the poisonous, incessant pumping of my heart throbbed in my veins and thrashed in my ears. I wanted to tear off my dress and run into that little, private Georgetown gallery, have Jack paint on my naked body with knives and relieve this tightness.
I wanted to strangle myself with that geometric tie.
The next three days, I couldn’t eat or drink. I smoked when I felt hungry. I answered the phone, fed the cat, cross-checked dates for obituaries, picked a grave-stone from a catalog, and took one shower, ten minutes before leaving for the service.
I sat next to Jess. The warmth from her body made me want to fall asleep.
She’d probably done her makeup for an hour for this before getting on the train in New York. Her long, blond hair was perfectly blow-dried. I stared at her, noticing the bounce of her long bangs. I had to make an effort to breathe, and when I exhaled a strand of hair lifted around her ear.
All at once, I was back in that leaf pile, I couldn’t stop myself. Jess’s tiny ears were getting red in the brisk air, under toddler wisps of hair. I could see her knitted strawberry hat, the one we lost inside the heavy, wet heap. In our yard on Crown Street, no one had ever raked the leaves before, but that day, our clothes were covered in brown, sticking lumps of them, like pieces of flaky chocolate pie. We hid under their denseness, screaming and giggling, sure that any minute our dad would change his mind and tell us to get out. But he didn’t. He sat on the Adirondack chair with the chipping paint, smoked, and laughed at us. It was the first time he’d been there by himself to take care of us. The last time, too.
We never did find her hat.
After the service, I struggled to talk to people, most of whom I didn’t recognize. My cheeks burned from the forced smile I’d cemented on my face. Someone had brought a casserole or dip that smelled strongly of onions, and I had to twist my fingers around Jess’s tight designer skirt to keep myself from fainting.
Of all things. How many times had I looked at my mother, silently begging her to turn normal, for just a second, to smile at me and my friends? To hand me a fucking sandwich and ask me, How was your day, Marie? Here I was, faking a smile for her, realizing that what I ended up wanting was just some of her disrespect, just a little bit of that neglect that she’d flaunted so unapologetically. Just some of her nerve. I wanted the nerve to tell everyone to fuck off.
She’d left me wanting so much.
A week later, I picked Jess up at Union Station again. She looked like she hadn’t been sleeping well, or maybe she was hungover. Either way, I felt hopeful she’d started to unravel too.
I was shocked to see his car in the driveway, but didn’t show my surprise to Jess. Dad hugged us both. He felt stiff and impersonal. He must have gotten here early to walk through first. He’d found the geometric tie somewhere and put it on. Hadn’t he seen that picture of mom wearing it, naked? Or maybe he had. Maybe that’s why he was wearing it. I had to take a few deep breaths to keep from laughing.
Dad stared out the bay window in the dining room and pointed.
“Remember that giant leaf pile we made, right there?” he turned to us, a huge grin on his lips.
A snort finally escaped my mouth. Jess made a face at me.
“That was when it all started, with your mother,” dad put his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Either of you remember?”
“I don’t even remember living here, honestly,” Jess looked around and scrunched her nose as if she didn’t like the smell of the place. “I don’t remember you at all, dad.” Then she looked at me and snapped, “why the fuck are you laughing?”
I forced my lips closed. She’d always had that effect on me.
“Well, I remember,” dad continued, like we weren’t even there. “And, Jess, I remember we lost you in that leaf pile.”
“The hat…” I mumbled, having managed to stop smiling.
“What’s that?” Dad asked me, walking into the next room.
“We didn’t lose Jess,” I said. “We lost her hat.”
Dad stopped and tapped the doorframe with his left hand, the ring on his finger making a small knocking sound on the wood. By all appearances, he’d moved on from us. From the family he couldn’t fix. To him, we were partially still hiding in that leaf pile, screaming. A picture. A still expression. Solidified in time, unmoved. His was a privilege that belongs to those who don’t stay and live out the rest of the memories.
I wanted something from him. What was it? An apology?
“Where did you find that?” I asked dad, pointing at the tie.
He turned to us and looked down. “This?” He touched the tie and looked up. “Why?”
“Can I please have it?” I said. It had just occurred to me how much I wanted it.
Jess’s phone started ringing.
Dad loosened the tie and handed it to me without saying anything. It was still warm when I rolled it up and put it in my pocket.
I didn’t want anything else from the Crown Street house.From the condo, I kept the cat and the side table. I figured that if I could eventually come to see it as just a table, if one day I could pass by it and no longer feel it jab into the back of my legs, I’d finally be convinced that there was a reason I’d been there.
Even if it was just that I’d been willing to live with the mess and walk through the rest of mom’s days with her. Even if it hadn’t really helped either of us.
In three years, though, the table would be unrecognizable. It would stand in the corner of my studio, covered in jars of brushes, used up sandpaper pieces, paint stains, coffee cup rings, a dish of cigarette butts and a tin of half-squeezed oil paint tubes. There had been so many brushstrokes on the dependable flex of the canvas meeting my hand, so many dabs and blots, wipes onto a rag and of brow sweat onto the back of my arm. I guess any table would have worked.
But then again, maybe not.
When I’d gotten back to mom’s apartment that afternoon, I’d undressed in the entryway, and hung the tie around my neck, letting it dangle between my breasts. That evening, I packed up the apartment and answered the door for Chinese takeout, completely naked.