It's ladies' night at Junior's Boot 'n' Scoot. A lone couple swings around the dance floor to "Cherokee Fiddle." They're in matching plaid shirts with pearlescent snap buttons and black, ornately stitched boots. He wears a black Stetson, and you estimate, as he expertly throws his partner out and reels her back in, that his belt buckle must be about the size of a dinner plate.
You sit, alone, at a cocktail table drinking a diet soda. Ada, your mother, is chatting with her new best friend, Candy Leahy. They're drinking old-fashioneds and laughing. You don't want to know about what.
Where did this Leahy woman come from? You don't remember her from your previous life, which is now a blur that turns black if you think too hard. Before, Ada's best friend was Honey Reynolds, who lived next door to your small rented cottage. You remember it clearly: ramshackle trailer homes, crumbling pavement, a stray dog or two, and an amazing view of Galveston Bay.
For reasons that still confound you, Candy Leahy's butter-yellow ranch house in Seabrook is what you and Ada pulled up to when she said, "We're here." Here, it's impossible to sleep. Ada kicks and snores, so you can't share the queen-size bed in the room she's renting from Candy. You spend a lot of time in the living room on the end of the couch, waiting for people to free the thing up.
It's always a long wait. Candy claims her two-thirds on weekdays when she and Ada don't do happy hour.
Candy says that she loves any TV program that makes her feel nearer to her God. The Love Boat. Dynasty. Magnum, P.I. On Sunday mornings she curls up on the couch in a filmy apricot-colored nightgown and watches Reverend Robert Schuller's telecast from Crystal Cathedral. Tammy, her six-year-old, brings Candy her coffee, cigarettes, and buttered toast. Candy usually extinguishes a cigarette into her plate and spits and sputters when she bites into ashes.
Now there's MTV, too, which popped up out of nowhere for you. Dallas, Candy's eight-year-old son, lives for rocking out full blast in front of the set whenever he can. You keep your tote bag with your few belongings, a pillow, and a light blanket in the corner behind an end table. Occupying just half of a cushion, you sleep in the fetal position, clutching the pillow over your ears.
You sit on a blue molded fiberglass chair with your hands clasped on your lap. You wear cotton gowns -- one slipped into from behind, the other from the front. You are smiling. Radiant. You rejoice at everything you see. There's a long, wide hallway with mirrored plate glass at both ends. You see yourself in the glass. You are beautiful and important.
Your mind is an immaculate chamber drenched in sunlight and God loves you. You are clutching a crumpled brown paper lunch sack. On it are scrawled the names of all of the people whose aid you came to before you were dragged here. The names you have are meaningful. Their value cannot be measured as of yet, however. You're not certain what you are supposed to do with this bag and its many names, but you know you are supposed to do something.
"How many fingers?" Shane, the nurse, makes a peace sign. You smile and peace-sign him back. He shines a small flashlight in your eye.
"What year is it? Who's the president of the United States?" He reaches over and delicately touches you on the side of the head. You scream and push him away.
"Listen," he says, "you've got contusions. I need to figure out -- "
"But I've got enough signatures," you say, pointing to the faded names on the paper bag. "I just need to find who to deliver them to."
Shane looks over his shoulder and calls Deborah, another nurse, over. They talk quietly.
You dangle the bag at arm's length. It's got everybody's name and why you were chosen to be the one carrying it. Because you do have to be carrying it. When they glance over at you, you beam.
"It's just that I've lost my little yellow Putt-Putt golf pencil," you say. "Would you happen to have one of those little yellow Putt-Putt-type golf pencils?"
Your mother gestures to the cocktail waitress, Sue. Her pens and slim order book are cradled in a red leather shoulder holster. She wears red vintage peewee cowboy boots, fishnets under super-short denim cutoffs, a tight tee with the Junior's Boot 'n' Scoot logo. Her child-size red felt cowboy hat is bobby pinned to her starched curls.
"This is my daughter," Ada says, pointing at the top of your head. Can you believe it?
"You look more like sisters to me!" Sue smiles at you and winks. "Want another coke?"
A balding guy with a mustache and a gut trying to wrestle its way out of his cowboy shirt asks Candy to dance. She thrusts the back of her hand under his nose. He shrinks back for a moment, confused, then smiles and kisses it.
"Wes," he says.
They slowly two-step to a Mickey Gilley tune. Candy's five-foot-two; Wes over six feet. On many turns she steps on his arches the way a little girl does with her father at a wedding.
People are always calling your name here, so every time they put a bandage on your bruised head, you must remove it so you can hear better. Because if there's anything obstructing your reception, you will only hear the really obvious calls and miss the ones embedded in background noise. And all of them are important.
It appears that you're famous for something. You're smart and you've done something to make everybody love you. And you love them. All of them. In the "I'd die for your sins" kind of way. Something at the very essence of being. You see everything. Everybody knows that. You're the Second Coming. You have to be -- they messed up the first time by sending in a guy. Shane tells you to get to bed.
Candy and Wes return from the floor. She fans herself. "Well?" she says in a tinkly voice. "Would you have us die of thirst?" She gestures to you and Ada.
Wes makes the another round sign at Sue. He stands as close to Candy as she will let him, and she pounds her little fists on his belly like it's a big drum.
A few minutes later a bearded man about the same age as your mother and Candy shows up with two bottles of beer in one hand and two old-fashioneds in the other.
"Sue sent me."
"Neil!" Both Candy and your mother light up.
He's in tight, faded wide-legged jeans and a chambray shirt unbuttoned past his chest. A lit Marlboro dangles from the corner of his mouth. He squints and passes one of the longnecks to Wes. He's holding two highball glasses at arm's length, with his thumb and forefinger stuck in the drinks.
You're pretty sure he's violating all kinds of health codes.
Ada takes one of the drinks, and he passes the other to Candy. She grabs it and sucks old-fashioned off of first his index finger and then his thumb.
Wes shifts uncomfortably. Ada crosses her arms.
"Oh, poo!" Candy giggles and winks at you for some reason. She pats Wes's bulging stomach. "Where is your sense of humor?"
You wish you weren't here. You don't want to see your mother melting for this Neil Basker, this hairy disco cowboy. His gravelly voice is creeping you out.
"Neil," Ada purrs. He wraps his arms around her and kisses her neck.
Did you just hear her do a baby voice?
"Get a room!" Candy throws ice at them.
When "Behind Closed Doors" begins to play, Ada pulls Neil toward the dance floor. She crushes her cigarette out, waves bye-bye, and sticks her tongue out at Candy. She turns and presses herself as close to Neil as she can and says something only he can hear. He grabs her butt.
The blue fiberglass chair has become your permanent spot here. You must stay put so the right people don't have to go looking around for you when they come to take you away from all of this. All of this: doctors, nurses, art-therapy sessions with construction paper and silver glitter, gray globs of oatmeal on orange plastic trays, fellow patients, corridors of cold gray linoleum, even your blue fiberglass chair.
It's clear that the doctors and nurses don't believe you when you tell them your ride will be here soon. The patients believe you, but now they want to come along, and while you think they are really nice, you just can't get close to them because when the time comes -- and the time will come because you know that all you have to do is wait for it -- they won't be invited.
Candy points across the dance floor to a table of guys in white button-downs. One has his loosened tie thrown over his shoulder. None are in anything resembling Western wear, which is okay, since the Boot 'n' Scoot is on NASA Road 1 across from the Space Center.
"Wes!" She jumps up and down on the tips of her slingbacks and clutches his sleeve. "You go over there right now and get one of them for her!"
You watch her round face and can't help thinking of some demented pixie gone to seed. Her magic, you judge, hasn't worked for a while. She and your mother are forty-two. You look at her bleached, ragged pixie cut. Her face is pocked and coated in pancake makeup a couple of shades darker than her neck.
Right now when she looks at you, though, you picture a rubber doll that's been left out in the yard to rot.
"Huh?" Wes shakes his head. He looks at you. You shake your head. Candy sticks her tongue out at both of you and marches across the dance floor, waving like she's hailing a cab.
It doesn't matter what they give you. You cannot sleep. You are told to be calm, and that's simply impossible at this point in time. You don't need sleep. You've explained this to each member of the staff. A number of times.
And yes, you have tried lying still in bed and closing your eyes and looking at the back of your eyelids. You've pictured calm blue oceans and quiet forest clearings. You've actually counted sheep. A number of times. Who makes this shit up?
You watch Candy drag one of the younger men from the table and across the dance floor toward you, and you know right this minute that you ought to be somewhere else. Back in school. Anywhere that's not with your mother and her friends in Junior's Boot 'n' Scoot. You look at your lap.
Candy's captive is tall and moderately thin. His eyes are brown and he wears glasses with Buddy Holly frames. His hair is dark and short, and he runs his hands through it. He alternates between touching his hair and jamming his hands in his pocket. Candy yanks one of them out and places it on your forearm.
"This is Craig!"
You are shaking as you walk toward the ladies' shower. Your teeth chatter. You couldn't stop screaming the night before and were thrown into solitary. You didn't stop screaming until an hour ago, when you promised to calm down.
Why are you always so afraid? What are you always trying to say? It must be important or you know you wouldn't say it. Obviously something that the doctors and nurses don't appreciate.
And how did you wind up on this ward in John Sealy Hospital in Galveston? Since you've been here, you've noticed that fewer people have appreciated what you have to say. Some of your fellow patients still pay attention. When you lecture about what has been surgically implanted inside of you -- a large oil drum cauterized shut -- all of the women listen and nod. They say "Yes" and nod their heads, particularly a chubby Jamaican woman with tight black curls. She wears her own muumuu.
You wish you had your own something. Not a muumuu. Something else. All of your clothes and cigarettes have been stolen. Last week, you spotted a guy holding the carton of cigarettes with your last name scrawled across it in black Sharpie. You told him they were yours, and he said they were his and he walked off, and you knew he wouldn't even let you bum one off of him.
Craig studies Candy, then turns to you. He crosses his eyes and smiles. You smile back, but you're sure your smile makes you look like you're trying to be polite while simultaneously suppressing nausea.
You were beautiful before this life, this drag of a life, with patients you have to explain things to and staff that won't let you explain anything. You remember that much. It's morning. Patients are lined up for meds, and you step into the hall after another night in solitary. You know now that you are no longer beautiful at all. You're hollow and gray and dulled by the handful of pills you line up for twice a day. Pills that aren't doing anything but make you feel slow and nauseous and fuzzy. Your role as the bringer of truth feels distant. You are not the bringer of truth. You are the person you can't quite focus in on when you look in the mirror.
"You smell." Shane takes a look at you and tells you to take a shower.
"A shower. What for?" You don't look dirty. You don't feel dirty. "Why don't you take one?" You cross your arms.
Shane puts down his paperback copy of The Stand, rises, takes you by the shoulders, and marches you toward the bathroom.
"Okay, okay!" You wiggle free.
The Jamaican woman, in her muumuu, stands alone in the center of the group shower. You say "Hi" and begin peeling off your gowns. Before you're out of one arm, she's circling you and ululating, louder with every unintelligible incantation. Her howls reach a crescendo, and she clamps her meaty palms on your ears.
Shane yanks the door open and ushers in Cheryl, another day nurse.
"Now, now, Miz Henry!" She takes the Jamaican woman by the hand, and the woman howls with laughter.
You tug the gown back up your shoulder and go to your room.
"You can go back to your friends," you say. "I won't take it personally." You look behind you. Candy and Ada are giggling.
"I see them every day," he says. "Except for Henrik. And I'll be seeing him every day from here on out." He cocks his head. Waylon and Willie are singing about who's hurting whom, and who's gonna pay, and how many hearts must break. "Wanna dance?" he says, hiking a thumb over his shoulder. You half-nod, he takes your trembling hand, and he leads you to the dance floor.
"You're shaking. What's wrong?"
You mumble something unintelligible.
He looks confused.
He smiles and nods to the guys at his table. One of them gives the thumbs up! "My coworkers."
He pauses for a moment. "Were you going to say something?"
"We're all at NASA," he says. "Henrik arrived yesterday. He doesn't speak a word of English except 'cowboy.'"
He lightly grips your left forearm and right hand. You give him another nearly nauseated smile. You wish you could stop picturing yourself from above, because what you see below is a scrawny mental patient in a hand-me-down hot-pink blazer with linebacker-worthy shoulder pads from Casual Corner.
When night comes, the fluorescent light makes the hall as bright as daytime, but the reflective glass at each end is a dark mirror. There is a girl who looks like she might be you pacing from one end to the next. Her hair is matted. She's not wearing any shoes. When Shane comes along and forces you into the room you share with the big woman who only ever gets out of bed to pee, you resist. You can't sleep. You can't try to sleep. You can't even lie down.
"You must get some rest." Shane guides you to the bed, pulls back the sheet, and points. You lie down, but grab at his arm. "What?"
"I'm afraid," you say, feeling something tearing at your heart, in your stomach, in your veins. "I'm afraid."
"Of what?" He sounds annoyed. More than usual.
"I don't know. Not yet."
"Oh. Okay. We'll all be at the nurses' station when you do." Shane leaves the door open halfway.
Below Neil Basker's one-bedroom apartment is his shrimp, bait, and fish shack facing the dock. You show up here every morning at five.
You've always hated fish. No matter. Ada says that it's a good job, and that you need a job.
You don't have many clothes you can wear here. The only things you can ruin came from the bag you were given when you left John Sealy: a pair of overalls, a men's long-sleeved button shirt, a yellow tee from Jimmy's Taco Shack, and an aqua dirndl skirt. You wear the tee and the overalls every day but laundry day.
You spread crushed ice over wooden tabletops and arrange upon them large sheepshead fish. You try not to look at their tiny, square, uniformly aligned teeth. You're always relieved when the Vietnamese restaurant chefs buy them first thing so they can't creep you out all day.
You feed the bait shrimp and check the aerator.
At first light, Ronny pulls his boat up and releases the nets. You climb aboard, help him dump his haul on the deck.
Ronny waves. He's tall and thin, somewhere in his late thirties. He's stooped from years of bad posture, and he slicks his thinning hair back into a ponytail. One of his front teeth juts out a bit, causing him to bite his lower lip when he talks.
"Hey!" His drawl is thick Louisiana Cajun. "What's new?"
On your first day of this job, he asked you to a matinee of Death Wish II at the Cineplex. You declined. You look into his scarily light blue eyes and understand that any friendly response will only provoke another invitation.
"Nothing's new." You help him take in the net. "Nothing's ever new."
Shane comes around with your nightly meds, which aren't making you get any better. You don't feel charming anymore. You are no longer basking in the knowledge that everything is going to be just fine. The sun-filled compartment of your brain has gone filthy and dark. The people on the TV and in the halls who were once hailing your celebrity are now calling for your head. You are accused of sins you're not sure you ever committed, and the word is that it doesn't matter. You will be punished for them anyway.
"I think I'm a murderer," you whisper. "They are going to kill me."
"Who's 'they'?" Shane shakes his head. "No. But you have got to take a shower. Please."
You are planted in your usual spot on the Leahy sofa, combing your just-washed hair with your fingers while you watch the eleven o'clock news. The man wearing a rubber Richard Nixon mask who robbed a 7-Eleven is still at large.
Ada, Neil, Candy, and a muscle-bound blond in a pink polo, who's closer to your age than theirs, all crash into the TV room through the sliding glass doorway. All but the pink-polo guy are laughing and stumbling over one another.
You pull closer into the corner of the couch, hoping you are invisible. You're not. Neil is holding both Candy and Ada up by the waist. He chuckles in his raspy way. Candy reaches over and shoves her hand into the front pocket of Neil's jeans.
"I think I feel something!" she giggles. "Sssshhh!"
Ada looks queasy. "You're an asshole."
The pink polo waves and extends his hand to you. His neck is really thick. "I'm Dave."
"She really is an asshole," Ada says.
Candy pushes away from Neil and lunges for Dave. She squeezes one of his biceps. "Isn't he amazing?!" He catches her and holds her upright. "We're going to have an orgy," she says. "You coming?"
Ada throws her purse at Candy's head. "What?" Candy screams, touching her ear. "She never has any fun!"
Neil guffaws. "Hey! More the merrier!" Your mother leans into him and tries to pull him toward her bedroom. "I'm sick," she says. "Come put me to bed."
He scoops her into his arms and carries her down the hall. "Don't you folks start without me."
You hear Ada's door open and shut. From the den you hear Candy calling Dave a "disgusting little perv with a little dick." A glass breaks. Dave stomps through the TV room and forcefully slides the glass door shut behind him. You are tucked into a blanket-covered ball, but you peek at him with one eye. He points to one of his ears and makes the crazy circles with his index finger. You clamp your pillow over your head.
"Is he gone?" Candy is at the kitchen counter separating the kitchen from the TV room. You wish you couldn't hear her sing her silly high-pitched, out-of-tune vodka vodka vodka song.
Neil appears from the hallway and pounds on the counter with his fist. "Give me some of that and stop singing about it, for shit's sake." They laugh and whisper, and it sounds like they're drinking a lot of her vodka vodka vodka.
You hear them fumbling around, and you thank God when their voices get softer as they go down the hall and you hear a door slam.
Alexandra, Candy's twelve-year-old daughter, is only at the house every other weekend. She doesn't know where your mother is, and she doesn't know where her mother is and she doesn't care. She'd rather be at her dad's in Seabrook because he has a pool. The two of you stare at the TV.
Dallas, Candy's eight-year-old, runs in and stands in front of the set. Alex throws one of the couch cushions at him. "It's The $100,000 Pyramid!" Dallas lunges for the remote on the coffee table. Alex grabs it first and they struggle with it until she pries it out of his hand. She holds it at arm's length over her head. "Ha! I win!"
Dallas stamps his foot. "I want my MTV!"
She laughs. "Hey butthole, why didn't you just say so?"
She flips the channel. Dallas plops himself down on the carpeting and stares at the screen. Def Leppard lip-synchs "Photograph."
You only clean Neil Basker's one-bedroom apartment once a month, which is a relief because you're always finding stuff in there you'd rather not find. Like a copy of Shaved magazine. Or anything -- an abalone hair clip, a silver charm bracelet, a blue and white striped makeup bag that you recognize as Ada's.
On Sundays, from 11 to 3, you sit in a lawn chair on the side of NASA Road 1 beside an enormous red Igloo cooler and a three-foot sign that says FRESH SHRIMP in red hand-painted letters. It's so hot your Jimmy's tee is completely stuck to your back.
A dark green Honda pulls over and stops just a couple of hundred feet from where you sit. A dark-headed guy in a tee and cargo shorts hops out, rounds the car, and stands over you.
You shield your eyes from the sun. "Okay?"
"Craig? From the Boot 'n' Scoot. I was -- "
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry." You scan him from his Nikes to his Rockets cap. You still can't really see his face. "Did you want some shrimp?"
There's an angry mob outside. They want you dead.
You try to tell people that you are to be executed so to please have some respect, but you still can't remember what you did. Something terrible. What did you do to make everyone in the world hate you so much?
You're scared and you want out. Out of this place, out of these clothes. You stand in front of the dark mirrored glass, crying and tearing off your hospital gown. Shane grabs you from behind. You kick and scratch, and he calls two more over to help force you into solitary. You know that you should not be put back here. Horrible things will happen to you now that your mind is scratched and filthy and filled with the most vile language and thoughts you never realized you had inside you. You scream until you faint.
When you awake, your mother is sitting on the side of your bed, causing your sheet to pull too tight. She has a carton of cigarettes in one hand and a grocery bag on her lap.
"I can't afford the rent on the cottage without your paycheck," she says. She starts to cry and puts her hands over her face.
You feel bad for her, but you've got a lot more important shit to think about. Like whether you're to be stoned to death or burned at the stake.
She sniffles and turns to you. "They say you're not getting better."
You want to tell her that there never was anything wrong and that all of this -- all of the kicking and screaming and howling -- is part of God's plan, and you don't want to further upset her with the news that her daughter is a monster that everybody in the world wants dead.
"I don't have to come back," you say.
"Come back? Here?"
"No." You point to the ceiling.
"Oh, for Christ's sake. I don't know what to do." Ada stands and dabs at her cheek with the kleenex. After a minute she sniffles and shakes her head. "I hope you can wear these," she says, pointing to the bag. "They'll be too big. You've gotten so thin. Why won't you eat? Why don't you get better?"
She places her palm on your cheek. "I'm not a lesbian," you say, placing that hand back on her lap.
"What?" She holds up the carton of cigarettes. "I'm giving these to the nurse so you don't lose them."
You grab Ada by the sleeve. "I can't breathe," you whisper loudly.
Why do you pretend not to care about stuff when you really do? You would be eating enchiladas right now if you hadn't mumbled "I dunno" when asked your restaurant preference. Instead, you're looking down at a black rectangular plate with two pieces of maguro and a pair of chopsticks.
"No? You don't like?" Craig expertly scoops up a piece of hamachi from his plate and stuffs it in his mouth. He eyes your plate. "I've heard it's okay to eat it with your hands," he says. "I mean, it's not impolite."
You immediately dismiss the idea of picking your food up with your fingers in front of him. You stare down at your plate again, feeling your face go red.
Chopsticks in hand, he reaches over, picks up a piece of maguro from your plate, and holds it in front of your mouth. He raises his eyebrows. "Open wide," he says, laughing. "Here comes the space shuttle." You open wide and he shoves it in. You start laughing, which makes you cough a few times as the sushi goes down. You laugh again, clutching your throat.
"Is this going to happen everywhere we go?" He mixes pickled ginger and wasabi in a pool of soy sauce on the small porcelain dish next to your plate. He dips the other maguro in it and holds it up for you again. "This is going to be embarrassing at Spaghetti Warehouse."
He flicks a grain of rice from the side of your mouth.
"I'm a mental patient," you say. "I just got out of a mental hospital, and I am a mental patient."
He looks up from his own piece of sushi. He chews, swallows, and nods.
Neil Basker and his buddies worked the better part of a year fusing a small trailer home onto a pontoon boat. The Nancy is more floating mobile home than seaworthy vessel, and she is never floating any farther than her fifty-foot tether will allow. But she is a boat, and you've noticed that your mother and her friends around here love nothing more than to party on a boat.
"I feel so uncomfortable," says Ada. "I feel like a party crasher. He hasn't called since the night we all ended up at your house."
"He's had a lot of things going on these days."
Ada narrows her eyes at Candy. "How would you know?"
Candy just giggles and waves her away.
With the exception of Ronny, whom you dodge, everyone, as usual, is around Ada's age. Women with long, brightly lacquered fingernails and patterned scarves chat and flirt with men in Hawaiian shirts covering their beer bellies. A lot of the men, including Neil, wear captain's hats.
Neil is at his purely decorative captain's wheel and greets your mother enthusiastically.
"Miss me?" Ada sidles up to him. He gives her a long kiss and pats her bottom.
"What about moi?" says Candy. Neil chuckles and grabs Candy by her thick waist. "Mon Cheri." They kiss, look into each other's eyes. Ada nudges Candy out of the way and says something to him that you can't hear.
"Bosun!" he shouts to no one in particular. "Man the wheel!" Neil laughs, and the two of them disappear inside the trailer home.
You climb a rickety ladder to the makeshift deck above. Candy is sprawled over a yellow chaise lounge. She's wearing a straw hat with a huge floppy brim and big, round, white-rimmed sunglasses. A squatty man with fat ankles and a comb-over stands beside her chair. He's jammed his hands into the pockets of his white Bermudas. He rocks back and forth on his heels.
"Dale here is just on his way down to get us another drink!" She smiles up at him and rattles the ice in her red plastic tumbler. Then she bugs her eyes, makes an "O" with her mouth, and covers it with her open palm. "Oops!" She points at you. "She can't have any. She's on a lot of medicine. For her nerves. Or something. Just bring her a soda."
"I'm fine. Thanks."
Dale descends and Candy whispers theatrically, "He's completely in love with me."
"Oh." You watch Dale carefully descend. "I'm sorry."
She bursts into a raucous laugh. "I like you," she says, wagging a finger. "You're more clever than you let on." She winks and lights a long white cigarette. "Your mother's crazy. So possessive!" She looks up at you, shading her eyes with her hand. "Not regular crazy. Boy crazy. It's like we're in junior high."
You press your lips together, praying she will just shut up now. She doesn't. You climb back down.
You've not made any progress, nobody can figure out what's really wrong with you, your body and your mind will not settle down. Diane, the art-therapy lady, has banned you from the craft room for throwing silver glitter in the air instead of sprinkling it on faded construction paper. You yell and laugh and run back and forth in the main corridor.
"Slow down." Shane emerges from the TV room and walks with you. He puts a hand on your shoulder.
"They're giving you something new," he says.
You think that's great, but it has nothing to do with important matters. Like how people are still wishing you dead and how you deserve it. Stuff way more important than Shane telling you that the doctors are changing your meds.
"Just give me the documents and I'll sign them."
Shane stops and you resume your pace.
"Please take a shower," he says.
Craig takes you to see E.T. at the multiplex. Afterward, you walk through the empty parking lot to his car.
"That totally sucked," he says. You say nothing and he looks over at you. "You thought it sucked, right?"
"I don't know." You don't think it was so bad, but you don't have an opinion about much of anything these days. You feel like you're padded all over and can't feel anything directly. "I thought -- well, no. I don't know -- "
He lets out a hoot. "You'd have to be insane to like -- " He catches himself and faces you. "Oh, man, I'm so sorry."
"For what?" You look into his eyes. You immediately realize that he's read For what? as a generous sign of forgiveness, when in fact, you hadn't really been paying attention to what he said.
Since the afternoon on the Nancy, Candy and Ada have gone from curt responses to not speaking at all. Although you rather prefer it this way, you now have to get up at 2:45 rather than 3:45 so your mother doesn't have to ask Candy for a ride to work.
Today you're sitting on the bottom of the steps leading to Neil's apartment waiting for Ada to pick you up. It's a clear, crisp Texas Gulf winter day, and you watch her careen down the graveled alleyway and screech to a halt. The top's down on her black LeBaron, and she has on dark glasses and a black scarf. She stops short with a screech and lays on the horn. Leaving the car running, she hops out, slams the door, and starts shouting. She grabs a handful of gravel from the drive and pelts it up at Neil's sliding glass door.
You make for the passenger seat and fiddle with the radio. "Conway Twitty? 'Tight Fittin' Jeans'? Really?"
Upstairs, Neil stomps onto the landing and shields his face with his forearm. "What the fuck?"
You pull up your knees, wrap your arms around them, and tuck in your head. You've gotten good at it. Ada is still scooping up handfuls of gravel and pelting him. "How could you? With her? You disgusting pig!"
Neil slams the door behind him and jogs down the stairs. He's barefoot, shirtless, and way too hairy to be wearing such short cutoffs.
"What's this? Some kinda PMS thing?" He marches over and roughly grabs her wrist. The gravel in her hand sprays over both of their heads.
She jerks her arm from his grip and examines her wrist. "I trusted you!"
"Trusted -- trusted me?" He laughs. "Who told ya to do that?" He brushes gravel from his hair.
Your mother screams, lunges at him, and slaps him across the face. Without a pause, Neil strikes her so hard with an open fist she falls down. Her sunglasses fly off of her face. She touches her cheek and winces. "You're such a dick."
"You seemed to like it well enough."
She storms over to her side of the car, gets in, and slams the door shut. You open your door and pluck her sunglasses from the gravelly drive. Ada's face is turning purple and yellow and grayish blue. Her eye is swollen shut. You hand her the sunglasses. She puts them on, throws the LeBaron in reverse, squealing the tires and throwing up a cloud of dust. Neil waves and runs toward the car. When Ada sees him, she slams on the brakes and looks back hopefully.
He gets to your side of the car and grabs the top of the door. He catches his breath. "You?" He points his hairy finger right in your face.
"Yeah. You. You're fired."
When you get back to Candy's, Ada cries and shouts that she can't stand being there another second. She opens and slams cabinet doors shut until she locates Candy's vodka vodka vodka. She totes it under her arm, marches to the back bedroom, and slams the door shut.
Geoff, Craig's roommate, is a flight surgeon and is in Russia for a month. You venture inside the apartment. The sculpted carpeting and walls are the same light beige.
He ushers you toward the couch. "Please keep in mind that I am, in case you hadn't noticed, kind of a nerd." He ducks into the kitchen.
The dining set, single bookcase, as well as coffee and end tables are of the same dark cherry. With the exception of the lamps, the surfaces are empty. Hanging slightly askew above the sofa is a framed and signed poster of Buzz Aldrin. The rest of the walls are bare. You sit on the very end of a beige sofa and push yourself into the corner.
Craig returns, looks around the room, and hands you a diet soda in a red plastic Astros tumbler.
He says he likes dogs, but he can't get one till he has a house of his own. He asks you if you like dogs. You do. He asks if you'd ever want to go to a museum and you say "Sure." He takes the remote and aims it at the wide-screen TV. He flips through a few channels. He finally settles on MTV.
"Have you seen this?"
You tell him that Candy's kids watch it all the time, that you like it okay but that you were happier not knowing what David Lee Roth actually looked like.
The hall frightens you after they dim the lights, shut off the TV, and herd the lot of you toward your rooms. Tonight is especially unsettling. You pace back and forth. The blurry vision of what must be you materializes each time you near the mirrored glass at each end of the hall. Long, tangled dark hair. White gown. Are you awake or asleep? You scratch at your arms. Your blood rattles and boils in your veins. Your head is pounding.
You pad down the hall in your bare feet. There is a bright yellow, industrial-size trash bin in front of the smoky reflective glass. It's positioned in the very center. You wonder why you've never noticed this before.
You watch your dark reflection as you approach. You hear voices. Voices mixed with radio static. A woman is laughing.
You hold very still as Craig reaches over and kisses you. You kiss him back. His lips are very soft. Every movement feels either tentative and unsure or simply clumsy, so by the time he tugs at your shirt, you've become anxious, too self-aware. You raise your arms and let him pull it off. You look down at your lacy pink camisole.
"That's nice," he whispers into your neck. "Mine aren't that nice." He kisses you and puts a hand on your chest.
Something inside of you goes cold. You place your hand over his.
He draws back. "I'm so sorry. Too fast?"
You wonder too fast for what. You wonder what were you doing just a month earlier. Sacrificing yourself to attain immortality? Something like that. Now you are so far away from the thoughts you had, you wonder if they belonged to someone else. You've always seen Craig as a pleasant picture that's slightly out of focus.
"Nah," you finally say. "It's not that. I'm just, um, not totally here, I think. I dunno."
He places his warm palm at the base of your neck. "You feel pretty here to me."
"No -- it's like there's a piece missing or something." You lace fingers. "My brain moved. I don't think. I don't feel."
You're a blank. A warm lump of nothing stuffed into too tight jeans and a black tee over a lace camisole.
"Hmm." He points the remote at Phil Collins lip-synching "In the Air Tonight." He shrugs. "I hate Phil Collins anyway." He turns to you. "I bet you're on a lot of medication."
"Yeah," you say, "but it feels like more than that."
You look at your reflection as you touch the top of the yellow rubber trash can. It looks as if your eyes are missing. Like you've got two empty sockets. You lift the lid. At the bottom is a severed head. You scream and throw the lid at the glass. It's somebody you know. More than just somebody. There's a dead head staring up at you with its empty dead eyes, but it keeps changing. It's your father. Your mother. Your boyfriend from seventh grade. Shane. You shut your eyes and scream and thrash until you feel people holding you down.
You open your eyes. Shane and another nurse are standing over your bed. Things are different. You feel different. Your forehead is throbbing. Your arms and legs ache. Your mouth feels furry. You can't remember if you ever brushed your teeth in this place.
"What smells like shit in here?" You look around the room, to Shane and two male orderlies. "It totally smells like shit in here."
You sniff at your gown, at your sheets, look all around you.
"It's me," you say. "Oh my God. It's me."
The LeBaron idles in front of Candy Leahy's ranch-style house. You're in the passenger seat. Your suitcase is in the backseat, and Ada comes out to the car with two book-size cardboard boxes.
"Screw me?" Ada shouts over her shoulder. "No -- screw you, lady!"
Candy, in just her long filmy nightgown, runs out after Ada and grabs her by the forearm. One of her boobs falls from her plunging neckline, and she stuffs it back in.
Ada pulls away and sneers. "All of a sudden, she's modest."
Candy is panting. "You can't have my Tupperware!" She reaches for the boxes in your mother's arms, and your mother elbows her so hard Candy falls to the driveway on her butt.
"She's delusional!" Ada drops the boxes next to your suitcase on the backseat and gets in the car.
"Have a nice life, bitch!" she shouts. "And it's my Tupperware!" She screeches out of the circular drive. Ada looks at you briefly before she pulls onto the main road. "Woman wouldn't know a piece of Tupperware if it hit her on the head."
You sit shivering on a concrete bench in front of the hospital in your knee-length aqua dirndl skirt, yellow tee from Jimmy's Taco Shack, and dark green flip-flops with Green Bay Packers logos on the soles. It is sunny and bright and cold. Your shins are bruised and covered with scratches and scabs. There are bandages on your left forearm. The white noise in your head feels tangible. Everything you see -- the hospitals, buildings, houses, even your hand resting on your thigh -- seems far away. Or on the other side of thick glass.
Ada pulls up in the LeBaron. "Need help?"
You shake your head and get in. Ada takes you by the chin and looks over your face and neck. "My God," she says, shaking her head. "You're emaciated." She starts to cry. "You're all beaten up."
You look through the windshield. It's too bright out here. The colors need to be turned down.
You scratch your bruised, hairy legs.
"Can we go to Jack in the Box?"
Craig has been training at the Marshall Space Center in Alabama for the past two months. It's the first time you've seen one another since you and Ada moved out of Candy's and into an apartment walking distance from Ada's job. You're now a cashier at the grocery store across the street. It's also the first time you've seen Galveston since you got out of John Sealy.
After your dinner at Gaido's seafood restaurant, where you had a view of the Gulf and ordered a cheeseburger, you and Craig take a walk along the seawall.
It's dark and you can't see John Sealy from here, but you can somehow feel it. You think you could probably put on a blindfold and find it right now. You can pick it out from among the scattered houses and other high-rises in dark silhouette.
Craig wraps his hand over yours, and you walk from the seawall down to the sand. You both slip off your shoes and stand there, feeling the water lap over your ankles.
"You look really good," he says.
You step away from him. "Are you making fun of me?"
You look at him, at the cloudless night sky, at the three-quarter moon.
He reaches over and pulls you close. You close your eyes and kiss for what feels like a long time. You open your eyes at once. He smiles.
You drift away and wade slowly through the tiny waves. You step carefully, feeling for glass as you continue out. You are in up to your knees, to your hips. You slip down an unexpected slope and find yourself completely immersed. Your hair floats about you, and the silvery lights on the water's surface waver above. Silence in a vacuum.
You recall the magic powers you once had. They're gone. You know that. But being here, below, makes you wonder if maybe they haven't left you yet. You squeeze your eyes shut, open your mouth, and try to inhale.
You emerge, sputtering and crying. Craig drags you to your feet. "What are you doing?" He throws his arms around you and buries his face in your damp hair. He squeezes you tight. "What. Are. You. Doing?"
You look at the sky. You are alive. Knowing that should make you feel better. It doesn't. You left something down there. The secret to your own universe. All of the answers are lost. And how long will every waking moment be a wade through quicksand? You were once mesmerized by colors intense as Panavision. Now everything, everyone, is bleached out like an old Polaroid.
Craig runs the tip of his finger down your cheek. "You should wear waterproof mascara the next time you do that." He looks you up and down.
You trudge to the seawall hand in hand. "You'd better be dry by the time we get to the car or I'll have to leave you here." You elbow him and he laughs. "Hey! I like you but not enough to ruin the upholstery, okay?" He turns to face you. He smiles. So do you.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Laura Lark. All rights reserved.