This week's feature is from issue 49.1 called "transitioning" by Aimee Penna.
This week's feature is from issue 49.1 called "transitioning" by Aimee Penna.
This week's feature is from issue 50.1 called "On Foot" by Elizabeth Jacobson.
This week's feature is from issue 50.1 called "Divas' Division" by Carrie Shipers.
This week's feature is from issue 50.1 called "Monster" by Bruce Bond.
This week's feature is from issue 48.2 called "My Wife the Tornado" by Taylor Collier.
This week's feature is called "Two Hundred Words for Love," by Caroline Zeilenga from issue 49.2
Two Hundred Words for Love
When Tony calls I am back home, standing in my mother’s kitchen with my hands in a bowl of pastry dough.
“I thought you’d be at school,” he says. “I was calling your Mom because I lost your number.”
I haven’t been in touch with Tony in months. I haven’t even thought of him, not as much as I probably should have. He went to Iraq, I went to college. We wrote letters for a while, until I gave up on that.
“But where are you?” I ask. He tells me that he’s in post-deployment, headed home for good in another week. I fill a pastry bag and pipe out dough in little kisses.
“How was sophomore year?” Tony says.
“It didn’t work out.” I feel like a derelict saying it. “How’s Jess?”
He hesitates. “It didn’t work out.”
There’s a noise in the background and then Tony tells me he has to go. Before he hangs up he asks if I will go with his family to the base next week, and he gives me the phone number at his parents’ house. I pretend that I don’t remember it from high school and write it down.
“I love you,” I say.
Tony laughs. “Yeah,” he replies, then he is gone.
When I hang up the phone, Tony’s voice keeps skipping on the turntable of my brain. Hearing it jolts me backward in time: it’s like the real world never happened, art history is just some other idiot’s major to fail out of, and suddenly I’m living for free in my mother’s house again. Instead of a letdown life is just one big, blinding orb of possibility.
“You need to be careful,” my mother says, entering the kitchen. I doodle on a scrap of paper so I don’t have to look at her.
“They aren’t the same when they get back,” she says gently. “They want different things.”
There is some story about my mother, some marine in California before my father. An engagement that fell apart before her marriage, which fell apart later.
“They want to be settled. They want something normal,” she says.
“He sounds ok to me.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
Pretty soon a cartoon arm is dangling over the side of a bathtub and there’s a tiny quill pen. I’ve finished Death of Marat on the back of my mother’s bank statement. The oven timer goes off and I set down the pen. I’ve never made gougeres but I hope my mother likes them because there’s no way in hell I’m going to eat them. Butter, milk, cheese—that shit makes you fat.
“It’s fine,” I say. My mother goes back to her desk in the den.
“I love you,” I say to the empty room.
It’s all over the local papers: Deployment Drawing Down, 96 Troops Due Home from Iraq. The evening news starts a nightly countdown: 5 days to go for guard! 4 days to go! 3 days! My mother hands me a sympathy card. Thinking of you at this Difficult Time, it reads on the inside.
“Here,” she says. “It’s for Maggie and Bud. Sign your name.”
Maggie is a friend of my mother’s from work, and sometimes on Sundays they sit in the living room knitting sweaters. Sometimes Maggie puts down her needles and wipes her eyes, and my mother holds her hand.
Maggie’s son was deployed with Tony, then he was killed by a roadside bomb. The war was still new then, and casualties got peoples’ attention. The newspaper articles didn’t dwell on the specifics of the accident, except to say that he was driving in a military convoy. At the funeral, my mother and I stood on the football field with everyone else in town and bowed our heads while a minister’s voice boomed out of some staticky speakers. The marching band huddled on the twenty yard line and the brass section played taps. Amidst a lot of official gunfire Maggie and Bud and the son’s wife looked out flatly from their folding chairs, and beside them the state senators and the governor, and then a man in a dress uniform set off a cannon. When it was done my mother walked onto the stage to hug Maggie and they stayed stuck like that for a long time, while the snow wandered down and dusted their dark wool coats. The son was a few years older than Tony and I. He was not a man I remembered.
“Mom, I hardly even know them,” I protest.
She looks at me like she is surprised by all the ways I can find to disappoint her. “If everyone’s kid came home except yours, wouldn’t you at least want someone to remember that?” she says.
Tony was my best friend in high school. Even after he got together with Jess we spent a lot of time driving around, watching movies, pondering cliché ideas about life in big, starry fields or the tops of mountains at night. In a cow pasture, Tony taught me to sprint barefoot on my toes. We spent a whole summer hiking 4,000-footers in the dark. At the peaks, he showed me the different ways to make a fire—matches, sure, but flint and bow drills and wind and pelting rain, too.
“I’m going to teach you to survive,” Tony said.
The hangar at the base is a stuffy sea of old couples and young women and some men and a lot of children, balloons and posters hovering above everybody’s heads. Then they arrive, a river of sand-colored soldiers in their combat uniforms and the place is like a car speaker blown out with so much screaming and cheering. Tony hugs his mother first, lets her cry on his shoulder, and he shakes the hands of his father and brother and grandfather so fiercely he looks like he is delivering a mortal blow to some invisible thing in the air between their bodies.
His blond hair is much shorter than it was in high school.Having it cropped close to his head makes his face seem broader, his forehead taller, his dark eyes sunk back in his head. He looks like maybe life is starting to wear on him.
I stand back a little and smile because it feels like what I’m supposed to do, and then he hugs me so tightly my feet come up off the ground for a second and I like this weightless feeling. His neck smells like soap and sweat, and having his arms wrapped so tightly around me, just below my shoulder blades, reminds me that he used to do this at parties to make my back crack.
“Welcome home,” I say into his scratchy shoulder.
He sets me back down and says with a big exhale, “Fucking-A, it is good to be here.”
Everyone laughs and his mother cries some more while she is laughing, and as they move toward the car in one chattering mass I follow a few steps behind, feeling like the ghost of someone else.
You can tell what’s important to people by how many words they use to describe it. Before I left school someone in my dorm told me this wasn’t true, but you know the whole Inuit have 200 words for snow thing? Thin snow under fir trees. Windblown tundra snow. Dusting snow on sea ice. Love. If something isn’t very important, there’s probably only one word for it. Other than baking, this is my newest experiment: If we just have one single-syllable word, how many different meanings can I give it? For the last few weeks I’ve been emailing all of my friends just to tell them I love them. One of them sent a reply asking if I was thinking about suicide.
When Tony calls a few days later my mother answers and invites him over for dinner. He’s eaten at our table a thousand times before, but always in the way that Moms end up feeding any of the kids that are hanging around at suppertime. She puts on an apron, spends the afternoon rolling out pasta dough, marinating chicken.Things are getting complicated.
“Mom, this is ridiculous,” I complain.“We could be eating frozen pizza. It doesn’t have to be a thing.”
But she smiles like she hasn’t heard me—or worse, like what I have said is very amusing—and goes back to dicing peppers.
“Mom, are you high?” I ask for effect.
She giggles.“Oh wouldn’t that be a riot.”
“You do realize I’m not going to like date Tony, right?”
“Of course, dear.”
So why is she still looking so pleased with herself? I picture me, and Tony, and try to imagine how my mother thinks about us.
“You think Tony’s some kind of good influence, don’t you?”
She looks up.“Well, you can’t say he’s a bad one.”
My mother holds the pasta bowl out in front of her while Tony serves himself. He looks her in the eye when he says thank you.
“This is the most incredible pasta I’ve ever had,” he tells her.
My mother’s face glows pink.
“You should take lessons,” Tony says to me.
“Sure, maybe that’s what I’ll do,” I reply. “Live the American Dream through pasta.”
“You could do that.”
“I could,” I say, “but I’d rather just live like a crazy person in my mother’s attic for the rest of my life.”
My mother laughs in that persistently good-natured way of hers. “At least you’re learning what you don’t want to do,” she suggests.
I shake my head.
“Well, you are a good baker,” she continues. “What about culinary school? Or illustration—whatever happened to illustration?”
“I think school is bad luck for me.”
“Sweetie, you’ve got to make your own luck in this world.”
There is only one word for luck, too. Suddenly I think I can’t possibly shove even one of these rounds of bread in my mouth.Tony is watching me and not saying anything and my mother’s motherly optimism is hanging in the air above the candles, and I look down at my napkin and realize my eyes are watering. I am about to fucking cry over this plate of pasta. I consider pushing my chair out and running from the room like a little girl, or shooting my mother down with some quip about making the best pasta in a town that’s not even on the map, but neither of these makes any goddamn sense at all so I just hang my head like Marat posed in the bathtub.
Finally my mother clears her throat at the same time that Tony says “Well, I will say one thing about this place, the roads are a lot more fun to drive than in Fallujah.”
This doesn’t quite work, but my mother forces herself to laugh and then asks him if he remembers the time he found her stranded on the side of Center Road; the time he slithered around in the April mud to change her tire while she picked cowslips in the ditch for him to bring home to his mother. Tony says it wasn’t as bad as she is making it sound, but that his mother put the flowers in a vase on the kitchen table, and then everything is rolling again.
After dinner I tell my mother we’re going out. She seems a little disappointed, but she hugs Tony and then she hugs me too, and Tony and I stand in the driveway looking back and forth from my beater to his father’s station wagon, the same one we always rode around in.
Tony points to the wagon. “I’ll drive.”
“I’m driving,” he says, and I climb into the passenger seat.
“Where are we going?” I ask when we’ve been on the road awhile.
“Where do you want to go?”
I shrug. I wonder how many thousands of times these two questions have crossed in this car.
“I know,” he says. I wait for him to go on but he doesn’t, so I shove the dangling cassette tape in the stereo slot. It bursts into the dark space that is the two of us inside this metal shell: old and stupid noise not as tough as it sounds, the stereo turned up too high so that we both reach for the volume at once. Steppenwolf or some lame shit like that.I eject the tape and toss it dramatically into the back seat.
“My Dad’s gonna be pissed,” Tony says and we laugh.
I flip through the radio but it’s mostly commercials.The only thing we find is some sad country song. Not one of the usual twangy ones about cheating hearts or poker but this man and woman crooning miserably against each other over something big they have lost. It’s better than silence so I leave it on, but there’s this weight on my chest and I keep thinking about the maple trees without any leaves on the cover of Maggie and Bud’s sympathy card.
“If you want to, you know, talk about anything, I’m over here,” I say.
“Ok,” he says back.
The man is singing again, burying stuff in the yard. Memories or bottles or something.
“So do you want to talk about anything? That happened?”
“No.” After a minute Tony says, “They make you do a lot of talking before you leave.They don’t send you home until you’re pretty much talked out.”
Lullabies, funerals, pictures, something about drinking again. The woman this time.
“Do you want to talk about anything?” Tony asks.
The song ends and another one starts and finishes, and then Tony says with certainty, “You’re gonna fly.”
His words startle me. I’ve kind of forgotten about him. I was thinking about luck. What was the point of getting a degree or falling in love? What good was making your own luck if you weren’t born with any? “What are you talking about?” I ask.
But Tony is already signaling into the parking lot of our high school. I haven’t been here since the memorial service, though I’m not sure if Tony even knows where the service happened, so I try to think about the last time I was here before that, which would have been our senior year.
“No way,” I groan.
“Come on,” Tony replies.“You don’t even know what we’re gonna do.”
“I’m not getting out of the car.”
I unbuckle my seatbelt but stay put. Tony gets out without me, puts on a backpack he has stashed in the backseat, then comes around and opens my door. He pulls on my arm and when I still don’t move he ducks into the car, wraps himself around my waist and hauls me out like he’s removing a carcass.
“There’s nothing left of you,” he says disapprovingly when I am out. His hand lingers on my waist.
We stand under the streetlight, but I feel like a moth battering itself to death in this brightness and I am relieved when Tony takes my hand and tugs me across the parking lot, like this is the most normal thing we could do. And it is.
“Now!” Tony shouts, and I plunge the pole into the pit and kick my feet up over my head. I balance mid-air for a second, thinking the scales will be against me—I will slip back the way I came, brains splattered on the tar runway. But Tony is spotting by the pit below with both arms on the pole and he resists its falter. Then I am hurtling forward again, over the bar, plummeting down into the mat.
“Nice,” he says.“Do it again.”
I hold the pole like a jousting rod and jog back down the runway toward the dark oval of the track, and when I get to the end of it I turn and spring again, up on my toes like I am being chased. Like no matter what else happens, I will not be caught. Tony cues and I spear the metal pit again and arc myself upwards, but the timing is wrong and I barely get off the ground.
“Do it again,” he says.“You can’t hesitate.”
I try a few more times without much success. I hate the fact that Tony is down there spotting, waiting for me to miscalculate and crash, but also I love it.
Finally, I get the speed and the timing and the push right again, and up high I curve my body like a dolphin, shove the pole away from me and land on my back on the mat.
“Perfect!” Tony calls.“That was eight feet!”
I am still sprawled on the mat, which smells like plastic and mildew, when Tony picks up his backpack and flops down beside me. He pulls out two cans of beer and hands me one.
“I can’t believe you never did track,” he says.
“Pole vault might be the best legal activity ever,” I confess. “You used to do this, right?”
A floodlight is casting off the track shed, and in its dim twilight I see him nod.
“Maybe you should coach or something. You’re good at it.”
“Maybe,” he says, downing the beer and opening another. “If I ever make it to college, maybe I’ll vault then.”
“You should,” I say again.
Tony lies back next to me and I point out the big dipper, which is the only constellation I know.
“You were supposed to get a book out on them,” he tells me, though this is something I don’t remember at all. “You were supposed to learn the constellations and then teach me on one of our hikes.”
“Really?” I am doubtful. “I’ll put it on the life list.”
“Why did you leave school?” he asks suddenly.
It’s like thrusting Steppenwolf into the tape deck, jarring you from one kind of moment into another, something loud and pointless you weren’t expecting.
“I don’t know.” I want to roll off the mat and slink down into the sand of the shot-put pit like some kind of beach creature, but I lie there and wait.
“What happened?” Tony persists.
This isn’t part of the plan. College is something that came and went, some otherworldly experience that we did not share.
“Nothing. It never happened.”
“Fine,” Tony says.
I sit up and reach for another beer, and when I settle back in Tony puts an arm under my head. If it were anyone else this would be some unspoken breaking point—get away now, before this turns into a mishap, or lean in and let things go like they sometimes do. But it is only Tony and I know this is just another word for love.
We talk some more about the stars, and about the people we used to know, and about the disadvantages of living again with our mothers. Tony smells like cigarettes, though I do not remember him smoking, and motor oil, like maybe he has been working on cars recently, and I lie still with my head on his arm. I can feel his pulse there, knocking on the back of my skull like he is waiting for me to answer, but we just lie next to each other until I am drunk and sleepy. Being back here with him is like reliving your first snowfall.
A couple of nights a week, Tony and I drink beers together away from our parents’ houses. When he drops me off I sit up watching fireflies out my bedroom window, bursting into tiny explosions of light in the backyard.
“Did you meet any guys in college?” Tony asks one night. I know that he means did I meet any guys he would approve of.
“They’re not real,” I say, patting his knee reassuringly.
“You ever think about getting married?” he asks, and when I jerk my head around he must catch my expression, because he shudders. “Jesus, not to me. I just mean in general. In life.”
I shrug. “Doubt it,” I say. “Then again, yes, I probably will. Unless I want to live in my old bedroom forever, it’s probably the only way out of here. What about you?”
“Who knows. I thought I was going to propose to Jess when I got back. I don’t really want to die alone.”
“That would suck.”
We are sitting on the steps of this old farmhouse where no one lives anymore. Kids have smashed out all the windows and I grind a shard of glass into the dirt with my shoe. Tony is looking out into the scrubby field like he’s waiting for life to materialize there again, but it’s so obvious the cows are all gone and the barn is collapsed in a heap behind us that I feel sorry for him.
“How about this,” I begin.“If we’re both still here at thirty, and we’re both still single, we’ll get married. So we don’t die alone.”
“Thirty?” he says.
Even at twenty, thirty is another world altogether, something so far away and unimaginable you’re not even sure you’ll live to see it.
“Thirty.” I hold out my hand. He shakes it the way he shook the hands of the men at the base.
When July comes I paint the upstairs bathroom, which is what I promised my mother I would do last month in lieu of rent, and I go to my figure drawing class at the studio downtown on Friday afternoon.The model is a tall, slender man, probably early forties, with a long brown ponytail and a fascinating jawline. He stands with his weight shifted to one hip, a simple pose, but I can’t get the shadowing right on his face and his feet won’t stay planted on the paper no matter how many times I draw them. It is July 3rd, the day before Independence Day, though for some reason this is the date the town chooses to celebrate, and the streets are already filling with kids and flags and veterans in their customary caps. I have to hurry out of class to get my car down the main street and away from town before the parade starts.
The familiar little lump drops into my stomach on the drive home and I roll down the windows so that the wind shakes me alive, and I change the radio station a dozen times but still it doesn’t leave. The house is empty when I get home, my mother has driven to Maine to visit her sister for the holiday weekend. I open a beer and drink it in four big slugs. I bake a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies to fill the house with something that smells good. I put the radio on in the kitchen and turn it up loud, and when I still can’t throw the feeling of failure I go outside to the yard. Darkness has fallen but I wheel the push mower out of the garage and yank it alive to hear something roar. After a while I let the handle loose and the motor coughs and the blades spin and spin for as long as they can but then they lose steam and are still.
I pick up the phone and dial my aunt’s house. Who calls their mother on a Friday night? Even losers have plans on Fridays. I try to come up with a reason to call, some dumb question about the house or a message on the machine for her. I wish we had a dog so I could ask if she’d remembered to feed it.
“Hi honey,” my mother says when my aunt gives her the phone. I hear the clink of a glass and my aunt laughing in the background.
“Is everything ok?”
“Just calling to chat?”
“Did you leave the stove on?” The words rush out of my mouth.
“Because it was on when I came home.”
My mother is slow to answer. She sounds confused.“I didn’t even cook anything today. I left before lunch.”
I am suddenly furious with her. “You could have burned the house down.”
“Sweetie, are you sure?”
“Why would I make this up?”
“Oh my God,” she says softly.
Some little triumph fills up in me and for a second I feel better. But then I look around and I am still standing in my mother’s kitchen all by myself.
“I have to go.”
“I’m sorry,” she replies.
I put my palm down on each of the four burners, one after the other like I am giving a blessing. I let my hand linger there, tempting the universe to make one of them hot.
I go upstairs and open the bureau with the Hello Kitty stickers on it, which once again holds my socks and underwear. I am about to get high when I hear car tires crunching on the gravel drive. We don’t live near a damn thing, and our driveway is so long no one would cruise up it by mistake.
The darkness gets my mind sprinting, and as I walk downstairs my skin crawls. I remind myself about the chapters in the library books. I’ve been reading a lot about criminals lately—rapists, serial killers—and there seem to be two conflicting survival strategies when confronted. One: talk jovially and incessantly, to humanize yourself. Two: utilize the element of surprise. Step close and grab them by the throat before they can make a move. Pull their face in close to yours and scream threats.But both strategies say one thing the same—no matter what else happens, do not show fear.
I am decidedly on the side of the second strategy when the doorbell rings, but instead I find Tony on the step. I offer him a beer and he comes in and asks if my mother and I keep anything harder in the house.
“Yeah, nice to see you too,” I say, but already he is following me into the kitchen and I am pulling a bottle of gin down from the cabinet.
“Your Mom’s car is missing,” he says.
“Oh is it? That explains why I couldn’t find her.” But the words don’t seem to register with him at all, so I add, “She’s in Maine with my aunt.”
“Huh.” He is looking out the kitchen window, so that I’m not sure if he’s responding to me or thinking about something else altogether. He throws back the glass and asks for a refill. We get hopelessly drunk, sink into the couch and flip through channels on the television.
“Want to see something?” Tony asks. I shrug.
He grabs my arm and pulls me up. I follow him out the door, past the abandoned lawn mower to the driveway.
“Look,” he says, but I already am. A massive silver truck is gleaming there, so polished the moon is reflecting off the hood.
“No way,” I say, which makes Tony grin.
“I just got it today.”
I step closer to the truck. A piece of paper is still fixed on the backseat window, and my eyes blur across a heading, a price, a list of words and numbers indicating fuel economy and four wheel drive and safety ratings.
“I didn’t spend 18 months in the desert for free.”
I circle the truck with a reverence that I can feel Tony enjoying. I wouldn’t trust my rust-box to get as far as the highway.
“Joy ride?” he suggests.
“When did you turn into such a sailor?”
“When?” I reply, like I am just the me I have always been and there is no beginning and no end to anything. “Do you even know me?”
Tony opens the truck door. “I’m driving.”
We cruise the empty back roads that skirt around the mountains, and when I ask him to, he guns the truck around the loose corners so that we skid and hang suspended between the shoulder and the trees before Tony steers us, fishtailing, back onto the road.
“Got a smoke?” Tony asks.
This surprises me, because as an entity Tony and I do not smoke.“A smoke? What kind?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what kind? Cigarette? Joint?”
Tony seems to consider this. “Does it matter?”
“I don’t know. Would you smoke one and not the other?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well I have a pack of Parliaments in my bag, but that’s all I brought. I didn’t know you smoked.”
“So why did you…” but I just give up. It’s like talking to the mad hatter, which is not how being with Tony is supposed to feel.
He revs the engine over a little rise in the road, and for the tiniest instant we are airborne. I don’t feel like riding around anymore.
In a few minutes we are heading down Center Road, past wherever it is Tony found my mother stranded beside her deflated tire, and Tony slows the truck. We turn into the dirt parking lot beside the big white village church, which is an ominous black rectangle in the night sky, and I think understand why churchgoers always congregate in daylight.
“Am I gonna get saved?” I ask, but he just reaches into the back seat and doesn’t say anything, and I decide it is a good thing we have stopped, Tony is too drunk to be driving this expensive new machine tonight.
“Come on,” he says stepping from the truck, carrying something. I follow him, stumbling from the booze and the uneven ground, wishing I had a flashlight. We approach the church but then Tony veers off the walkway and around the back of the building, and I notice the shadows of headstones spanning the yard like orchard trees, enclosed by a hedgerow so that the cemetery isn’t visible from the road.
Tony walks a perfectly straight course up the line of graves, turns sharply in the middle and marches down another row in a way that tells me he has been here before. He stops at a stone, thick and round and non-descript as the rest of them in this darkness, and sits down at the base of it. He looks up at me and pats the grass. I sit cross-legged beside him and try to see his face.
“Are we having a séance?” I ask.
“Shut up,” he says.
I wait. Time passes. He isn’t joking.
“Just shut the fuck up for once,” he mutters. Tony leans away from me, fumbling with whatever he has brought, and then I hear a tiny snuff of explosion that my mind has to process because it doesn’t make sense here. A streak of something hits the ground, rolls like a grenade, and I connect it to the sound—the popping of a cork. I hear the sizzle of champagne for an instant and then Tony sits back again and tilts the bottle to his mouth. He pulls on it for a while, offers it to me. That pop, that sailing cork, they are supposed to be all expectation and merriment and things are starting to feel so fucked up I don’t even want to drink this champagne, but then I decide I better just do it.
I am pissed at Tony and maybe way deep inside a little afraid of the tone he has used so I sit silently and wait for him to make the next move. We take turns with the bottle and when it’s empty he says, “We promised we’d celebrate when we got home, so that’s what we’re doing.”
It sounds like something I would say, but I don’t remember this promise—not in my letters or during that phone call or even way back before Tony ever left.
I look over at Tony but then I look away because I am worried he will see how big and frightened my eyes must be. This is all wrong, I am supposed to humanize myself or scream deadly threats or whatever it takes to show I am not afraid.
“You know what the craziest part is?” he says.
I don’t say anything but I don’t know if he even notices me anymore, and he goes on. “The craziest part is I was supposed to drive that day.”
A rumble begins far off, and then there is a crack and Tony’s dry, smooth face glows orange for an instant and fades out again. I look up and see streaks of color melting back down from the sky. The fireworks have started in town.
Tony leans against the stone and draws his knees up. He watches, the now-empty champagne bottle resting in his lap. Then he begins to laugh. He lowers his head onto his knees and I can feel his shoulders shaking beside me. I consider putting my hand on his back but the way he sits there convulsing is like a fevered patient and I must be nervous I will catch whatever he has, because instead I tuck both palms underneath my butt the way children are instructed to do when they cannot keep their hands to themselves.
He sits up suddenly, smiling. “It was like the fourth of July every night.”
Tony gets up and walks farther down the row of markers, shoulders straight, bottle dangling at his side, feet slow and careful in a measured line. When he is a good distance away from me, he turns and smashes the bottle against a headstone.
It is a lot of work to half drag, half coax him back to the truck. The fireworks are still going off behind us as I drive us away from the graveyard. Tony is slumped in the passenger seat and I don’t know whether or not he is awake but out of respect to the ride I am now piloting I steer around all of the potholes on the drive home.
It is also a lot of work to haul his big body, slumped and staggering, into my mother’s house that night. I move the remote from where we’ve left it on the couch and cover him with a throw blanket. Then I go upstairs and watch the fireflies from my bedroom window. I must fall asleep at some point, because I wake at dawn to gravel crunching. By the time I open the front door Tony is gone.
The house has been tidied—the blanket folded at the end of the couch, the glasses from the night before coupled at the sink. My mound of flip flops in the entryway has even been straightened. It’s the kind of thing you do to your parents’ house after you throw a party you don’t want them to know about. It’s like removing all the evidence you were ever there. You ever existed at all.
I flick on a lamp in the shallow, grey morning light and bury my face in the couch cushions. They don’t smell like Tony, just dust. My head is throbbing and I imagine my brain inside of it, flaking and melting like snow.
Suddenly I hear it, the tapping against the open window above the couch. I sit up. I wonder if this moment will change me forever. But when I look out it’s only a June bug trying to fly through and reach the light bulb. It bounces against the screen and hovers for a minute and then it bounces again. Eventually it falls and lands overturned on the sill and I sit and watch it for a while, upside down on its big awkward shell, sticky legs waving around in a useless surrender.