Authors: Beth Nugent
In the car, the boy slides his hand between my legs and then puts it on the steering wheel. A chill in the air, empty streets, and it’s late. Every second takes me farther into the night away from her; every second sends me home. We drive to Inwood Park, and climb the fence so that we are only a few feet away from the Hudson.
—This is nothing like Ohio, I say to him, and he lights a cigarette.
—Don’t you go to school? I ask him. —Don’t you take geography?
—I know what I need to know, he says, and reaches over to unbutton my blouse. The thing about junkies is that they know they don’t have much time, and the thing about boys is that they know how not to waste it.
—This is very romantic, I say, as his fingers hit my nipples like a piece of ice. —Do you come here often?
What I like about this boy is that he just puts it right in. He just puts it in as though he does this all the time, as though he doesn’t usually have to slide it through his fingers, or between his friends’ rough lips; he just puts it in and comes like wet soap shooting out of a fist, and this is what I wanted. This is what I wanted, I say to myself as I watch the Hudson rolling brownly by over his shoulder. This is what I wanted, but all I think about is the way it is with us; this is what I wanted, but all I see is her face floating down the river, her eyes like pieces of moonlight caught in the water.
What I think is true doesn’t matter anymore; what I think is false doesn’t matter anymore. What I think at all doesn’t matter anymore, because there is only her; like an image laid over my mind, she is superimposed on every thought I have. She sits by the window and looks out onto the street as though she is waiting for something, waiting for rent control to end, or waiting for something else to begin. She sits by the window waiting for something, and pulls a long string through her fingers. In the light from the window, I can see each of the bones in her hand; they make a delicate pattern that fades into the flesh and bone of her wrist.
—Don’t ever change, I say to her. —Don’t ever ever change. She smiles and lets the string dangle from her hand.
—Nothing ever stays the same, she says. —You’re old enough to know that, aren’t you, sweetheart? Permanence,
she says, —is nothing more than a desire for things to stay the same.
I know this.
—Life is hard for me, the boy says. —What am I going to do with my life? I just hang around all day or drive my mother’s car. Life is so hard. Everything will always be the same for me here in this city. It’s going to eat me up and spit me out, and I might as well never have been born.
He looks poetically out over the river.
—I wanted a boy, I say, —not a poet.
—I’m not a poet, he says. —I’m just a junkie, and you’re nothing but a slut. You can get yourself home tonight.
I say nothing and watch the Hudson roll by.
—I’m sorry, he says. —So what? So I’m a junkie and you’re a slut, so what. Nothing ever changes. Besides, he says, —my teacher wants me to be a track star because I can run faster than anyone else in gym class. That’s what he says.
—Well, that sounds like a promising career, I say, although I can imagine the teacher in his baggy sweatpants, his excitement rising as he stares at my boy and suggests after-school workouts. —Why don’t you do that?
—I’d have to give up smoking, he says. —And dope.
Together we watch the river, and finally he says, —Well. It’s about time I was getting my mother’s car home.
—This is it? I ask him.
—What were you expecting? he says. —I’m only a junkie. In two years I probably won’t even be able to get it up anymore.
—Look, I say, coming in and walking over to where she sits by the window. —Look. I am a marked woman. There is blood between my legs and it isn’t yours.
She looks at me, then looks back at what she was doing before I came in, blowing smoke rings that flatten against the dirty window. —Did you bring me some cigarettes? she asks, putting hers out in the ashtray that rests on the windowsill.
—A marked woman, I say. —Can’t you see the blood?
—I can’t see anything, she says, —and I won’t look until I have a cigarette.
I give her the cigarettes I bought earlier. Even in the midst of becoming a woman, I have remembered the small things that please her. She lights one and inhales the smoke, then lets it slowly out through her nose and her mouth at the same time. She knows this kills me.
—Don’t you see it? I ask.
—I don’t see anything, she says. —I don’t see why you had to do this.
She gets up and says, —I’m going to bed now. I’ve been up all day and all night, and I’m tired and I want to go to sleep before the sun comes up.
—I am a marked woman, I say, lying beside her. —Don’t you feel it?
—I don’t feel anything, she says, but she holds me, and together we wait patiently for the light. She is everything to me. In the stiff morning before the full gloom of city light falls on us, I turn to her face full of shadows.
—I am a marked woman, I say. —I am.
—Quiet, she says, and puts her dark hand gently over my mouth, then moves it over my throat onto the rise of my chest. Across town, no one notices when she does this. Nothing is changed anywhere when she does this.
—Quiet, she says again. She presses her hand against my heart, and touches her face to mine and takes me with her into the motherless turning night. All moments stop here;
this is the first and the last, and the only flesh is hers, the only touch her hand. Nothing else is, and together we turn under the stroke of the moon and the hiss of the stars; she is everything I will become, and together we become every memory that has ever been known.
My mother pulls the kitchen curtains closed and the room goes from a kind of dull whitish to a dim yellow.
—Jesus, she says, and sits at the table. —Jesus Jesus Jesus. I really am going to die this time. She puts her hand to her forehead. —Jesus, she says again.
My father watches her from the stove, where he is scrambling eggs. —You know, he finally says, —if you wouldn’t smoke so much, you wouldn’t get such bad hangovers. Look at me, he says, —I never get hangovers. And why?
He pauses as if he expects her to answer, though they have this same conversation on the average of twice a week. My mother reaches in the pocket of her robe for her cigarettes. —Because, my father says triumphantly, —because I don’t smoke. He smiles and my mother lights her cigarette.
—Is there any coffee? she says. My father puts his spatula down and pours her a cup of coffee; when he brings it to her, they look at each other for a moment as she takes it from his hand.
—Your eggs are burning, she says, and he turns and looks at the stove. My mother watches him as he pushes the eggs around in the pan.
—I don’t know, he says, —these eggs look bad. He holds the pan up to his nose and sniffs. —I think these eggs are bad, he says.
My mother leans back in her chair and pulls the newspaper toward her as my father brings the pan of eggs to her.
—What do you think? he says. —Do you think these eggs are bad?
My mother looks at the eggs, then away. —I don’t know, she says. —Don’t show me any food.
My father holds the eggs out to me. They look a little odd, separated into shiny yellow clumps and pale liquid, but before I can say anything, he scrapes them into the garbage.
—There, he says. —I think those eggs were bad. You’ll have to have cereal, he tells me. —If we have any.
—Honey, my mother says to me. —Be an angel and see if one of the neighbors has a Pepsi for my hangover.
It’s a Sunday today, in a world before stores are open all the
time, and my parents know how to depend on neighbors–especially new ones.
—See if they have some eggs too, my father says.
—Jesus, says my mother, and bends her cigarette into the ashtray. —Don’t worry about the eggs, honey. Just get the Pepsi.
My father sits down at the table and she lights another cigarette. They both watch her smoke drift through the dusty light.
I stand outside the kitchen window, to decide which neighbor to try and to hear if they say anything about me when I am gone. My parents have only a few topics of conversation: the cocktail party they have most recently hosted or attended; my father’s career; my mother’s smoking; and, less frequently, me. I know each conversation by heart.
—You know, my mother says. —You shouldn’t have her asking all over for eggs. She hasn’t even made any friends yet.
—Well, my father says after a while, —I don’t see how that’s our fault.
The conversation dies here for a moment, and I imagine my mother turning her neck to look at the crossword puzzle in the paper, my father gazing at the table.
—Well, my mother says finally, —she is at that delicate age. Maybe this move wasn’t such a good idea.
My father is silent, considering which of his many counterarguments to use here. Whenever they have this particular conversation, I feel as if I am standing at the edge of a wood, facing a dark wall of trees, but when I turn to go back, there are trees behind me as well, and on either side. I am aware of being at that delicate age, though it seems to me that there has been no age at which I have not felt delicate, and no time at which a move did seem like a good idea. It is
possible, perhaps, that when I was a baby, it mattered less. When I go through our boxes of snapshots, I see pictures of myself, an unfamiliar baby held awkwardly in unfamiliar arms, or an older, uneasy-looking child, in front of unfamiliar houses, in the company of children whose names I have forgotten. I try to remember a single place of origin, one place that seems like home, but all I can see are my parents in lawn chairs, smiling into the sun, or at cocktail parties, raising their glasses happily, with shining eyes. These are the images of my history, and they transfer easily from state to state, as do we, with hardly a jarring note.
The neighborhoods we live in are all alike: neat, nearly new houses with driveways; inside they are all the same, too, with pale walls and light, hollow doors. Any bedroom I have had looks like any other bedroom I have had, and sometimes the things I own or wear or love seem to me to be as much a part of the houses we have lived in as things that are actually mine. The companies my father works for always move everything for us, so that on moving day, whole rooms are suddenly disassembled and disappear, reappearing in much the same arrangement in the new house. A doll I have had since childhood precedes me, carefully lifted from, then laid again upon the pillow of my bed, carried by whichever of the movers has a small daughter at home. Whenever I enter a new bedroom, she is already there, staring at the doorway with blank doll eyes, her blond hair stiff and clean.
In my new schools, my teachers sometimes ask me to tell the class interesting things about my travels, and I try to think of some, but in fact the America I have seen is exactly like itself: Franklin, New Jersey, differs, from my perspective, not at all from Arlington, Virginia, or Syracuse, New York. The houses and the neighbors and the streets are all just exactly alike, without difference enough even to help me make something up.
* * *
My father finally counters my mother with his trump, which is that he moves, after all, for his career, and his career is, after all, for us. Their conversation ends at last, as most of them do, in a kind of busy hush, and I look around wondering which neighbor is most likely to have a Pepsi. I have seen a girl about my age in the house across the street, so I start there, and it is she who answers the door. She looks exactly like I want to look: sleek hair, a fine long nose, and long thin arms and legs. She is clearly on the edge of adulthood and, facing each other, we seem to be going in exactly opposite directions, from roughly the same starting point. The room behind the girl is in shadows, and she looks at me but says nothing.
—Do you have any Pepsi? I say, but she just stares blankly. —It’s for my mother, I add. —She has a hangover.
The girl’s eyes drop from my face to my torso, to my legs and feet, then travel back up again, along my arms, gauging my appearance.
—No, she says finally, —we don’t have any Pepsi.
I turn to leave, but she opens the door wider and looks out past me at my house, as if she has heard something about it; then she stands back. —You can come in if you want, she says.
This is the smallest house on the block, and the dark room behind her is a living room that looks hardly used, full of large stiff furniture and slick clear tables.
—My parents aren’t up, she says, —but you can come to my room.
From somewhere in the house comes the sound of a television, and we walk up the short flight of stairs to an upper floor with only two doors. The room she takes me into has a boy in it, lying on one of the twin beds. He holds a comic a few inches from his face and does not look up as we enter.
—Beat it, Tommy, she says, and he lowers the comic. He seems to be about her age, and his long arms and legs stick out gracelessly from his cotton pajamas.
—You beat it, he says. They stare at each other for a moment and finally the girl turns and walks out. Tommy lifts his comic back up over his face. Comic books are scattered across the bed and on the floor around it, and a few shiny violent covers are tacked to the wall above his pillow. On the other side of the room, everything is drawn into neat little piles, stacked against the wall.
I follow the girl downstairs and into the kitchen; the sound of the television seems to come from the basement, which, in my house, is what they call a family room. The girl opens the icebox and leans on the door, gazing at the food inside.
—You share a room with your brother? I ask.
—So? she says. —Don’t you have a brother?
Behind her, in the icebox, I can see a whole six-pack of Pepsi.
—No, I say.
She pulls open the meat drawer and flips through the cheese and bologna.
—A sister? she says.
She turns and looks at me. —You’re an only child, she says, as though she has deduced this information from subtle clues.