Authors: Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
They go every year, the three of them, driving down two days after Christmas and returning on January 2. They stay in the same inexpensive motel a block away from the water. The
ocean is Becky’s favorite place, even though she doesn’t swim well enough to go in past her waist.
My parents give each other a look.
“What?” I ask.
“The ocean’s too cold this year,” Becky says.
I catch my father’s eye and he shakes his head. “We’ll talk about it l ater.”
My mom stands up abruptly and clears the plates.
“Let me,” I say.
She waves her hand. “Why don’t
you and your father take Leo out for his walk? I’ll help Becky get ready for bed.”
The metal bar in the middle of the pull-out couch digs into my lower back. I flip over on the thin mattress again, trying to find a position that will coax sleep.
It’s nearly one
, and the house is quiet. But my mind is whirling like a washing machine, spinning around images and snatches of conversation.
As soon as we’d stepped outside, my father had pulled a box of Winstons and a matchbook out of his coat pocket. He struck a match against the strip, shielding the spark from the wind with his cupped hand. It took him three tries to get a flame.
It took me almost that long to process the news he’d just told me.
“A buyout?” I’d finally echoed.
He’d exhaled. “We were strongly encouraged
to take them. Those were the words on the memo.”
It was dark, and although we’d only walked to the corner, my hands were already tingling from the cold. I couldn’t see my father’s expression.
“Are you going to look for another job?” I’d asked.
“I’ve been looking, Jessie.”
“You’ll find something soon.”
The words had escaped before I’d realized I was doing exactly what my mother
does to Becky.
I flip over on the mattress again and tuck my arm over Leo.
Becky and I used to share a room, but once I moved out, Becky deserved to have the extra space. There’s a mini-trampoline with a safety bar and an arts-and-crafts table where my twin bed once stood. It’s the only home she has ever known.
My parents have lived in this house for nearly thirty years. It would be
paid off, but they needed to refinance it to cover Becky’s medical bills.
I know how much they spend every month; I’ve gone through the bills my mother keeps in a drawer in their sideboard.
My head is filled with questions again. This is the one that matters most: What’s going to happen to them when the buyout money is gone?
Thursday, November 22
Aunt Helen and Uncle Jerry host
Thanksgiving every year. Their house is a lot bigger than my parents’, with a dining room table that can easily seat the ten of us. My mother always makes green bean casserole with fried onions around the edges, and Becky and I prepare the stuffing. Before we leave, Becky asks me to do her makeup.
“I’d love to,” I tell her. She was the one I first practiced on, back when we were kids.
I don’t have my case with me, but Becky’s coloring is so much like my own—fair skin with a scattering of freckles, light hazel eyes, straight brows—that I dig into my personal makeup bag and set to work.
“What kind of look are we going for?” I ask.
“Selena Gomez,” Becky says. She’s been a fan since Selena was on the Disney Channel.
“You love to challenge me, don’t you?” I say, and she
I smooth a tinted moisturizer onto Becky’s skin, thinking of what my mother had said at dinner. I stopped going to Florida with them once I moved to New York, but my mother always sends me photos of Becky collecting seashells in a bucket, or laughing as the spray hits her stomach. Becky loves the nonalcoholic Pink Panther drinks with a little umbrella and extra maraschino cherries
that the server brings her at my parent’s favorite seafood place. My dad takes Becky to play miniature golf while my mother walks on the beach, and they all go crabbing at the end of the pier. They rarely catch any crabs and when they do, they always throw them back.
It’s the one time of year when they seem to truly relax.
“Why don’t you come visit me in New York after Christmas?” I suggest.
“I could take you to see the giant tree. We could watch the Rockettes kick and sing, and get hot chocolate at Serendipity.”
“Sounds good,” Becky says, but I can tell she’s a little nervous about the idea. She has come to see me in the city before, but the noises and crowds unsettle her.
I add some blush to try to bring out her cheekbones, then dab a soft pink gloss on her lips. I tell
her to look up as I gently apply a coat of mascara.
“Close your eyes,” I say, and Becky smiles. She likes this part best.
I reach out and take her hand, then guide her to the bathroom mirror.
“I look pretty!” Becky says.
I give her a big hug so she doesn’t see my eyes fill. “You are,” I whisper.
After my aunt Helen has served the pumpkin and pecan pies, the guys head to the
living room to watch the game, and the women decamp to the kitchen for cleanup. It’s another ritual.
“Ugh, I’m so full I’m going to barf,” my cousin Shelly moans as she untucks her blouse.
“Shelly!” Aunt Helen admonishes.
“It’s your fault, Mom. The food was great.” Shelly winks at me.
I reach for a dish towel as Becky brings in the plates, carefully setting them down in a row on
the counter. Aunt Helen redid her kitchen a few years ago, replacing the Formica with granite.
My mom starts to scrub the platters that Aunt Helen carries in from the dining room. My cousin Gail, Shelly’s sister, is eight months pregnant. She plops down on a chair at the kitchen table with a theatrical sigh, then drags over another chair so she can put her feet up. Somehow Gail always manages
to avoid cleanup, but for once she has a reasonable excuse.
“Sooo . . . tomorrow night everyone’s getting together at the Brewster,” Shelly says as she scoops leftover stuffing into a Tupperware container. By
, she means our high school classmates who are having an informal reunion.
“Guess who’s going to be there?” She pauses.
Does she really want me to start guessing?
“Who?” I finally ask.
“Keith. He’s separated.”
I can barely remember which football player he was.
Shelly isn’t interested in him for herself; she got married a year and a half ago. I’d bet twenty bucks that by next year, she’ll be the one with her feet up.
Shelly and Gail look at me expectantly. Gail is rubbing slow circles on her stomach.
My phone vibrates in the pocket of
“Sounds fun,” I say. “You’re going to be our designated driver, right, Gail?”
“Like hell,” Gail says. “I’m going to be in a tub reading
“Are you dating anyone in New York?” Shelly asks.
My phone vibrates a second time, which it always does when I don’t immediately open a text.
“No one serious,” I say.
Her tone is sugary: “It must be tough to compete
with all those beautiful models.”
Gail inherited her blond hair and passive-aggressiveness from Aunt Helen, who chimes in quickly.
“Don’t put off having kids for too long,” she says. “I bet someone is eager for grandchildren!”
Usually my mother lets Aunt Helen’s digs slide, but now I can almost feel her bristle. Maybe it’s because she was drinking again at dinner.
“Jess is so
busy with all those Broadway shows,” my mom says. “She’s enjoying having a career before she settles down.”
Whether my mom is defending me or herself with the exaggeration i sn’t clear.
Our conversation is interrupted when Gail’s husband, Phil, wanders in. “Just going to grab a few beers,” he says, opening the refrigerator.
“Nice,” Shelly says. “Aren’t you lucky, getting to sit around
and watch the game and drink while we women clean up.”
“You really want to be watching the football game, Shel?” he says.
She bats her hand at him. “Get out of here, you.”
I’m trying to feign interest in the discussion of whether yellow is the right color palette for Gail’s nursery when I give up and excuse myself. I go to the bathroom and slip my phone out of my pocket.
sweet aroma of the gingerbread-scented candle burning on the sink counter almost makes me gag.
Across the screen is a new text from an unfamiliar number:
Excuse me if I am intruding on your holiday. This is Dr. Shields. Are you in town this weekend? If so, I would like to schedule another session with you. Let me know your availability
I read the text twice.
I can’t believe Dr.
Shields has reached out to me directly.
I thought the study was only a two-part thing, but maybe I misunderstood. If Dr. Shields wants me for more sessions, it could mean a lot more money.
I wonder if Dr. Shields texted because Ben has the day off. It is Thanksgiving after all. Maybe Dr. Shields is in his home office, getting in a bit of work while his wife bastes the turkey and his grandkids
set the table. He could be so committed to his job that he finds it hard to turn off, kind of like the way I’m beginning to find it difficult to stop thinking about moral issues.
A lot of the young women doing this survey would probably love the chance to go back for more sessions. I wonder why Dr. Shields chose me.
My bus ticket back to the city is for Sunday morning. My parents would
be disappointed if I left early, even if I told them it was for a big job.
I don’t reply yet. Instead, I tuck the phone back in my pocket and open the bathroom door.
Phil is standing there.
“Sorry,” I say, and try to squeeze past him in the narrow hallway. I can smell the beer on his breath when he leans closer to me. Phil went to high school with us, too. He and Gail have been together
since he was in twelfth grade and she was in tenth.
“I heard Shelly wants to set you up with Keith,” he says.
I give a little laugh, wishing he’d move aside and stop blocking my path.
“I’m not really interested in Keith,” I say.
“Yeah?” He leans closer. “You’re too good for him.”
“Uh, thanks,” I say.
“You know, I always had a thing for you.”
I freeze. His eyes lock
on to mine.
His wife is eight months pregnant. What is he doing?
“Phil!” Gail calls from the kitchen. Her words shatter the silence. “I’m tired. We need to get going.”
He finally steps aside and I hurry past him, hugging the wall.
“See you tomorrow, Jess,” he says, just before he shuts the bathroom door.
I pause at the end of the hallway.
My wool sweater suddenly feels
itchy and I can’t get enough air into my lungs. I don’t know if it’s from the pungent candle or Phil’s flirtation. The feeling isn’t unfamiliar; it’s why I left home years ago.
I make my way to the back porch.
As I stand outside and gulp in the cold air, my fingers reach into my pocket and feel for the smooth plastic encasing my phone.
My parents are going to run out of money eventually.
I should stockpile as much of it as I can now. And if I turn Dr. Shields down, maybe he’ll find another subject, one with more flexibility.
Even I recognize that I’m coming up with too many rationalizations.
I pull out my phone and respond to Dr. Shields:
Anytime Sat or Sun works great for me.
Almost immediately, I see the three dots that mean he is writing a response. A moment later,
I read it:
Wonderful. You are confirmed for noon on Saturday. Same location.
Saturday, November 24
You have no idea how eagerly your third session has been anticipated, Subject 52.
You look as lovely as ever, but your manner is subdued. After you enter Room 214, you slowly slip out of your coat and place it on the back of your chair. It hangs unevenly, but you don’t adjust it. You sit down heavily and hesitate before you touch the
key to begin.
Were you lonely on Thanksgiving, too?
Once the first query appears and you open your thoughts, your true nature asserts itself and you grow more animated.
You are learning to enjoy the process, aren’t you?
When the fourth question emerges, your fingers move across the keyboard swiftly. Your posture is excellent. You do not fidget. This all indicates that you have
especially strong and clear feelings on this particular subject.
You see your friend’s fiancé kiss another woman a week before the wedding. Do you tell her?
What I’d do is this,
I’d confront him and say that he has 24 hours to confess, or I’ll tell her myself. It would be one thing if he were with his buddies at a bachelor party at a strip club and he put a twenty in a G-string.
A lot of guys do that sort of stuff for show. But outside of a situation like that, there isn’t any excuse. I couldn’t look the other way and pretend I didn’t see it. Because if a guy cheats once, you know he’s going to do it again.
After you write those words, you stop typing, hit
and wait for the next question.
It doesn’t immediately appear.
A minute passes.
Another minute passes.
A response is crafted:
Just a moment, please.
You look puzzled, but you nod.
Your answer is absolute: It seems you believe humans are incapable of reshaping their innate natures, even when their urges lead to pain and destruction.
Your furrowed brow and slightly narrowed eyes illustrate the depth of your convictions.
Because if a guy
cheats once, you know he’s going to do it again.
You are waiting for the next question. But it isn’t forthcoming.
Your responses have formed an unexpected connection; when linked together, they create an epiphany.
The vital lines in your previous answers are reviewed:
I’m not looking for a serious relationship.
You typed this in your second session.