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A Real Family

A REAL FAMILY

 

Dad got his act together a few months before I turned fifteen. He wanted us to start a new life together, so he rented a white, one-story ranch house thirty or so minutes from town and drove us there the day after school let out for summer. Everything we owned fit easily in the backseat of his maroon station wagon. We drove with the windows down and I watched fields of fireflies deepen into constellations as the wind sucked words out of his mouth and whirled them into the night. I imagined I could see them, silver and gold flecks blown across distances to sleeping ears, seeds of dreams I’d never know. While he talked he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel rhythmically, as if to music I couldn’t hear. I could remember him tapping his fingers that way on the kitchen counter the night Sheila left. I didn’t care about Sheila so much—my own mom had died in a car accident before I was old enough to know her—but Dad had been pretty keen on her and soon after she took off he started drinking again. It wasn’t long until he’d lost custody of me and I’d been sent to live in foster homes for two years while he binge drank his way in and out of the hospital and then rehab. Now he was on the up-and-up and I was supposed to forget about my foster family, whom I’d liked, and the thing that had happened with Marcos, which I was pretty sure I’d liked, and act like those two years had never happened. Even now Dad was saying something about paint swatches he’d let me look at when we got home, so I could decide what color to paint my bedroom. “There’s about ten different shades of purple. You still like purple?”

By the time we pulled into the long, gravel driveway of the rental, the night had become cool and wild and I felt a panther inside of me waken, sensed its yellow eyes looking through mine, and knew I couldn't be indoors, couldn't unpack boxes and engage in polite conversation with my suddenly-present dad, who just wanted to know what I'd been up to these past couple years, who I was, what I was interested in. I turned to say something of this to him, but before I could form the words his jaw loosened and he withdrew the tiniest bit from me, as if he'd seen a hint of yellow in my eyes.

    "You okay?" His words were normal but his voice sounded far away, as if someone had carved out a moat between his mouth and my ears.

    "I wouldn't mind getting some air."

    "I need your help unpacking. Stuff's not gonna sort itself."

    "I know that, Dad. I'll help in the morning. Right now I need to be alone.”

    "Oh yeah, sure," he said, shrugging as if it made no difference to him. I watched him carry our suitcases up to the porch and let himself in through the front door, his shoulders rolled forward in kind of a defeated way. I waited until a light came on before getting out of the car.

A few minutes later I was exploring the field behind the house; by summer’s end it would box us in with corn, tall and uniform like Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army. For now the young shoots were green and tender and the earth was soft and dark beneath them. I meandered under the moon and listened to the earth's chant of frogs and crickets. I spoke my own language, then, among the ripening stalks. There was no need to wrestle with words or intentions. The dampness of the night was a translation of my heaviness and the scurrying of tiny feet was the field's response. Our conversation was complete without utterance; we flowed in and out of the same space.

I wondered where Marcos was now, whether he was thinking of me.

When I opened the front door to the house I was supposed to think of as home (despite never having set foot in it before), Dad was waiting up with the television on. Almost everything else was still in boxes except for a few kitchen appliances. He was slumped on the floor among boxes, a can of sprite in his hand, the folds of his tummy bunching together like an accordion. I knew if he laid back they would smooth out into the soft swell of flesh I'd rested my head on so many times as a small child, and it made the years between then and now feel slippery as the minnows I tried to catch in my hands when he took me fishing for my seventh birthday. I had felt their sleek sides writhe against my skin, but by the time I raised my hands from the water they’d slipped from my grasp. "Sit down, kid."

I sat next to him, breathing in the familiar yet unfamiliar scent of his skin.

    "I hope you know I've changed," he said, forehead furrowed as if he hadn't been rehearsing this speech while I was wandering the field. "Things will be different now. You have a home, a family. You're no floater anymore." He took my hand, tenderly or hesitantly. "That look I saw in your eyes tonight, I don't want to see it again. You're safe now, understand?"

    "What look?" It's the same question I would ask my mirror for years to come, after nights out with boys I wanted to kiss but who only wanted to fuck, and still later when I stopped trying for kisses and instead tried for stability, balance, a lifestyle that people kept calling "adulthood" but which always seemed too tight a shoe to fit.

    "That look like you aren't neither here nor there. That look like you don't belong, or you don't want to."

                

*                *                *

 

In the evenings of our first summer there I'd walk past Dad slumped on the couch, trimming his toenails while watching the news, periodically brushing clippings onto the floor and absentmindedly rubbing them into the carpet with his foot. "I'm going out," I'd say, bristling at the possibility of a confrontation, but those were still seldom, and he'd usually just bark cautionary advice at me, such as "don't hitchhike", or "watch out for snakes, Caterwaul". That was his nickname for me—Caterwaul instead of Catarina, which had been my mom’s choice. Occasionally he'd be struck with a vague sense of responsibility and he'd stop me with questions. "Meeting anyone?" "Whereabouts are you headed, anyhow?" "When will you be back?" I was evasive and usually managed to satisfy him without giving any real information.

Most of the time I wasn't up to anything. I'd hide out in a sunflower patch in an abandoned lot a couple doors down, listen to the hum of bees while making up stories for their comings and goings. Or I'd come across Grumpus, a shaggy brown mutt who seemed to belong to no one in particular but with whom everyone in the area was familiar. He'd swish his wavy tail and trot alongside my heel, uttering the occasional grunts and growls that had earned him his name. Sometimes I'd wander down the road to the Stephensons' pond and stick my feet in the water while braiding thistle crowns for Ash and Izzie, the Stephensons' twin girls, who were twelve or thirteen, only a year or two younger than me. Somehow the age difference seemed bigger than it was, and they'd keep their distance, eyeing me with admiration and slight fear. Even when I brought them apples or made dandelion bracelets for them, they would thank me with wide-eyed devotion and then scamper away to the privacy of their shared little universe, one I found foreign and delicate. When I was their age I'd been dressed in hand-me-downs three sizes too big for my malnourished body, hanging out with other kids who'd been abandoned or abused or neglected, kids whose presence was never guaranteed; one minute they were there, the next they were being scooped up by rehabilitated or adoptive parents, starting a brand new life that may or may not land them right back where they started. Ash and Izzie's sweet little dresses and clean, smooth hair made me feel like I was a hundred years old, like I was something that belonged to the earth and not other people.

It was after one of these occasions that I came home a few minutes past our usual suppertime to find Dad sitting at the dining room table with his hands folded and a solemn expression on his face. "Why don’t you sit down, Caterwaul. I’ve got something I want to discuss with you." Next to his hand was a big, brown book and a pamphlet of some sort. The television was off and it looked like he’d combed his hair. I was curious. I sat.

He smiled at me. It was a strange smile—confident, generous; it didn't fit his face. "I met someone today.” He paused, his smile growing even wider. “I think the two of you will get along just fine." I thought of Sheila and mentally shrugged. He’d had other girlfriends. It was the space they left behind—the one he’d so often filled with booze—that worried me. Dad watched me as if he expected me to prod him for further details, but when I said nothing he continued on, unfazed. "Name’s Jesus. You've probably heard him come up in conversation from time to time, though I suspect usually not in a way he'd approve." He was grinning now. I grinned back, and started to slide my chair from the table. He stayed my hand with his own, and his face sombered. “I know it sounds like a joke, but I’ve never been so serious about anything, Caterwaul. I’ve been having a hard time lately. Been having a hard time most of my life, actually.”

    “A hard time with what?” I knew he had a penchant for jacking things he could just as easily afford to buy and frequently drank too much, but lately he seemed to be reformed on both these points, and he was holding down a steady job as a driver for Schwan’s Home Service. Honestly, he was more stable, seemed happier, than I’d ever seen him.  

He looked thoughtful. “As you get older you might find it harder to get out of bed in the morning. Get dressed. Put food in your mouth. Tie your shoes. Fasten your seatbelt.” He grimaced. All of a sudden he looked much older than he was. “Maybe one day those things will seem repetitive. A little bit like you’re not sure why you’re doing them. Like there’s a black spot on the wall above your bed, and every morning you wake up and scrub it off, and it takes work, and time, and it wears you out, but you do it anyway, and when you’re done the wall is sparkling white and you’re able to go about your day. But next morning it’s there just the same as before, only it’s bigger, and harder to scrub off, and your muscles are still tired from the day before, and the day before that, and before you know it, it seems like all you’re doing all the time is scrubbing at that damn spot.”

I didn’t say anything. Truth was, that black spot seemed familiar to me, more familiar than I wanted to admit. I thought of Ash and Izzie, their straight white teeth and smooth nails. My own nails were chewed to the quick. So many afternoons spent wandering alone, looking for ways to pass the time.

    “Anyway, today I talked to someone. He sat me down and shared his story with me. Told me about being a born-again Christian. Course I’ve heard stories about being washed in the blood of the lamb before; my parents dragged me to church a few times growing up, and there’s always those door-to-door religious nuts. But this is different. I can feel this is something different, and I want you to feel it too, before you waste half your life looking for something you’ll never find and pissing on everything you value like some scared dumbshit cat.”

Dad’s conviction made me think of Marcos, and how it had felt to lie down in his bed with him, to see his eyes looking at me, to feel his fingers tracing the jut of my collarbone, the curve of my shoulder, as if he were an archaeologist brushing away the dirt of centuries.

Dad looked into my eyes a little longer, both of us silent. Outside a mourning dove cooed, a lazy, tired sound that made me want to lie down in the sun and let the heat of the afternoon blot out my thoughts. I broke eye contact, the legs of my chair scraping the floor with an abrupt screech as my hand slid out from under his. “Keep me posted,” I said, and left him sitting there with his Bible and his pamphlet.

 

*                *                *

 

I knew before I opened the door that I was home too late, that Dad was going to pick a fight, that he’d smell the cigarette smoke on my skin and hair and it would be all “Lord Jesus”-this and “for God’s sake”-that. The living room light was on and I imagined his shadow brooding in the doorway between the living room and the foyer. I’d been down at the river with Dusty again, and this time we hadn’t just necked, we’d gotten further; I’d let him put his hands down my pants and feel around. It was mostly curiosity that made me do it. I liked Dusty but I didn’t think I wanted to have sex with him. I didn’t have any qualms about being “sexually active”, but I also didn’t think having to worry about pregnancy and STDs and all that other stuff was worth having sex with Dusty, who was nice but not very interesting, and whose breath always bordered on smelling bad. I hadn’t disliked the sensation of his fingers rubbing up against me, but my pubic hairs kept getting snagged and he was trying too hard to use his tongue on my ear at the same time. I stared at the tensed muscles of his arm and imagined the gentle pressure of his hand on the back of my neck tightening; for a second I couldn’t tell what was real and happening with Dusty and what was just in my mind, so I’d pulled away. After that we’d smoked and laughed at the ducks on the river, their white tails wiggling in the air as their heads disappeared under water.

After a while he’d admitted to me that I was the first girl who’d let him do that; I’d assumed since he was sixteen—which made him two years older than me—he must be more experienced at sex, but it turns out I was pretty far ahead of him. I didn’t feel so bad after he told me that; I figured if he really liked me he would probably pretend that he’d been with a lot of girls before me to make himself seem more attractive. Since he was honest, I thought we could probably go on being friends.

Standing outside the front door I double checked to make sure my blue jeans were zipped and applied another coat of chapstick so my lips wouldn’t betray. I knew there was nothing to be done about the cigarette smell, so I took a deep breath and opened the front door.

    “You’re ten minutes late.”

I could tell he was in a temper. The vein in the middle of his forehead bulged and his voice was too even. I almost expected to smell booze on his breath.

    “Where were you?”

    “I was at the river with Dusty.” It didn’t occur to me to lie. Dad usually didn’t worry about who I hung out with as long as I was home by eight and hadn’t been doing anything obviously disobedient, like smoking.

    “Come here. I want to show you something.” His voice made me uncomfortable. It was pinched and laced with triumph. I could feel myself bristling.

He led me to the corner of the living room and sat down at the computer desk. He moved the mouse and the screensaver disappeared to reveal a Christian website about teenage pregnancy and abortion. He clicked on a photo. “Look,” he said, without any explanation. It was a fetus at six weeks. It looked like a tadpole. Underneath the photo was a caption that read: God created us in the womb.

    “Dad, why are you showing me this?” I started to back away, already shrugging it off as another one of his weird post-born-again rants. He spun around in the chair and looked at me hard, harder than I knew he could, as if he knew exactly what Dusty and I had been doing.

    “If you get yourself knocked up and have an abortion, I may not find out about it, but God will. I can guarantee you right now that killing an unborn child is a one-way-ticket to Hell.”

    “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, for a second doing exactly what he’d wanted me to do when we first moved in here, which was to forget about everything that had happened in the two years we were apart. “I’m fourteen. What’s the worst I could be doing?”

    “Don’t pull that with me. Dusty’s not a Christian and I know full well what he wants from you.”

I felt instantly guilty, not about Dusty but about Marcos, because what I’d done with Marcos couldn’t be further from Christian, seeing as he was married and all. I flushed and had to choke back a snarl. “What I do with Dusty is none of your damn business! I haven’t done anything—and if I had, it would have been while I was in foster homes, and whose fault would that have been? I’m not doing anything wrong, or irresponsible, so lay off.” My voice was convincing, but I lowered my eyes, afraid they would give me away.

    “You’re fourteen,” he sighed, and suddenly he was just my dad again, tired and resigned. “What would you know about responsibility?”

 

*                *                *

 

In my dreams it happens slowly, because there is no one to catch us, no one who might come home early and see something they shouldn’t. Marcos runs his hand along my green flannel pajama shirt at leisure. Our faces are close, but not quite touching, and I swim through the space between to reach his pupils, dark planets peopled with doubt and desire. I want to colonize them. I want to look in them and see only me.

 

*                *                *

 

For my fifteenth birthday Dad wanted me to have a sleepover with other girls. He said he’d make us pancakes and we could stay up all night watching movies and doing each other’s hair. I told him I didn’t have any girlfriends and he got huffy.

    “Why don’t you invite Ash and Izzie?” He was making eggs and bacon for breakfast and he kept over-cooking the bacon. He was determined to get it right, so there was a growing pile of blackened bacon sitting on a plate next to the stove, as well as a bowl full of scrambled eggs that had long gone cold.

    “They’re little kids.”

    “They’re not; they’re only a year or two younger than you.”

    “We have nothing in common. They still play with dolls.”

    “Well I don’t see why you can’t make friends with girls your age.” He gesticulated exasperation with the spatula, flinging grease on the tiled floor of the kitchen. He didn’t notice. “Don’t you know anyone from school?”

I’d been going to Beaver Creek High for a couple of months now, and after going to a city school it was a bit of a culture shock. I was used to being able to blend in without trying. At Beaver Creek I was a beacon unto myself just by being new. I did my best not to draw attention to myself and read books during my lunch break. Still, I sometimes caught snatches of speculative conversation coming from somewhere nearby. My classmates seemed to know a lot about me, though they never bothered to confirm rumors by way of the horse’s mouth. I hadn’t made any friends because I wasn’t interested. I could see no resemblance between myself and these kids with their long histories of PTA moms and family farms. Sometimes I shared notes with the girl behind me in Spanish class, but I didn’t even know her last name.

    “Can’t we do something, just the two of us?” I asked, reaching for a piece of burnt bacon. He swatted my hand away, and finally produced two perfectly crisp and fatty strips. He handed them to me on a folded paper towel and smiled. I continued. “I just want to watch Indiana Jones and eat an obscene amount of ice cream, okay?”

Spatula still in hand, he enfolded me in a giant bear hug, and I thought he might have been crying because his shoulders were awfully tight, but I couldn’t be sure. Behind him bacon hissed and spat in the pan, spattering the stove top and counter with grease. For the first time since moving into that house, I felt like maybe we could do it, maybe we could be a real family—the kind you see on television, the bustling and bickering, the rhythmic banter a thin veil covering unshakeable bonds—and I hugged him back, his body smaller, more fragile than it had any right to be. When did I become so big inside his arms? How long until he shrunk into something I could no longer see?

            

*                *                *

 

A couple weeks after my birthday had passed, Dad insisted on dragging me to church. It was a non-denominational congregation called Bread of Life and the building was clean and boring. It was surrounded by a plethora of bushes and plants that didn’t flower. If I was going to be forced to go to church, I’d have preferred a Catholic congregation; at least then I could distract myself with the beauty of the architecture and tradition, the exquisite stained glass windows, the strict liturgy. There was nothing worth looking at inside Bread of Life. The walls were white and bare. There weren’t even proper pews, only chairs lined up to face the front. Apparently this was a temporary solution while they raised money to remodel the church. The service opened with “worship time”; instead of singing hymns like in movies, there was a band with a few older men and one young guy with long hair wearing ripped jeans and a Got Jesus? t-shirt. The lead singer sang a handful of hymns updated to match their strumming guitars, as well as some popular rock ballads where the “he” or “she” or “you” of the song was changed to “God” or “Christ”. There was a plain wooden cross that hung behind the pulpit where one of the Elders delivered his sermon. That was what they called the clergy at Bread of Life: Elders. There were no pastors or priests or bishops; there was no one “in charge”. There were nine Elders and they would take turns addressing the congregation from week to week. This week was Elder Paul and he resembled the old man from Babe so much that I was disappointed when he didn’t end his sermon with “That’ll do, Pig.” The women all wore ugly floral dresses with shoulder pads and the men parted their hair on the side and wore their nicest pair of blue jeans. Afterward they all stood around talking about how great the sermon was, and then they exchanged corny jokes and bellowed fake laughter.

I left Dad with his new friends while I went to the bathroom. Two small girls scampered out as I opened the door, giggling and glancing up at me distrustfully. I peed and washed my hands, and then stood looking at the bubbles popping in the basin of the sink. I stuck my finger into the soapy foam and then held it up to the fluorescent light. The bubbles popped one by one over the course of several minutes. I waited for what seemed like a long time for the last miniscule bubble to disappear, and then there was nothing but a soft film of residual soap coating my finger. I was rinsing it off when an older woman entered the restroom and went directly to the mirror. Her eyes were wide and brown and she didn’t seem to be looking for anything in particular, but rather checking to make sure her reflection was still there. She smoothed her puffs of blonde hair and inspected the saggy skin beneath her eyes for a moment before noticing me looking at her.

    “Hello there!” Her smile was instantaneous and uncrackable. She reapplied powder to her face and rubbed some lotion between her palms. She hurried out and her giant smile lingered in the mirror for a moment, like the Cheshire cat, before disappearing.

I dried my hands and followed her out. I noticed my dad standing with two other middle-aged men. They were all sporting the same confident posture, shoulders thrown back and hands in pockets. They were all chuckling the same chuckle, which seemed to hold no mirth but rather an assurance that everything was dandy, everything was A-okay.

    "Larry, Jim, this is my daughter, Catarina." He beamed at me, his shoulders thrown back in a show of pride, but beneath his smile was an anxiety on which I couldn't put my finger. I slouched, hoping maybe if I shrunk his friends would lose interest in me. Instead, one of them—Larry or Jim, I didn't know one from the other—started quizzing me about my interests, wanting to know if I could sing or dance, if I'd be interested in joining the Sunday choir.

I explained that I couldn't carry a tune to save my life, and one of the men excused himself while the other grunted disappointment in my lack of musical abilities. "That's a shame. Anyhow, you ought to check out Youth Group this Wednesday. Lots of kids your age go. In fact, let me introduce you to my daughter Jessie—hang on a sec—" He reached out and seemingly pulled a girl out of thin air. Her blue eyes were round and bored, and her blonde hair was scooped up into a messy bun on the center of her head. Her dad placed an arm around her and told her to say hi to me, which she did with a perfunctory little smile before turning to him and whimpering, "I'm hungry, can we go home? Mom said she'd make lasagna and paint my nails for school tomorrow."

The man glanced at me and saw something on my face that made him turn to Dad with hesitation, as if mentioning a mom who cooks lasagna in front of me might be taboo. I rearranged my face, trying to make it look as bored and casual as Jessie's. He shrugged—kids will be kids—and said, "See you next week, Doug. Catarina, nice to meet you."

Wondering what we were going to do for lunch, I turned to Dad just in time to see him covering up his own trail of disappointment. He nodded it was time to go without looking at me, and it was only as we sat in the station wagon and pulled out of the church parking lot that I realized I was the source of his disappointment. He'd expected me to be some kind of sign he could wear in public, proof of his okay-ness, a banner which read "No Harm No Foul". In the half a second in which I may or may not have felt a pang of jealousy at the ease of someone else's family, he'd marched head-on into a field of all his past failures. He wanted to look at me and be reassured, but I just kept reflecting things he didn't want to see. He drove us home in wounded silence, and I did nothing to distract him.

 

*                *                *

 

When Ash and Izzie invited me to their house for their parents’ Halloween party, Dad insisted I go. I asked him to at least come with me, but he said he’d better not, since there was bound to be beer and cocktails for the adults, and being around all those people drinking when he couldn’t would be a bummer. I humored him, mostly because I suspected if I spent time with Ash and Izzie every once in awhile he’d be less critical of the time I spent wandering around my myself, or hanging out with Dusty by the river, which was becoming more and more frequent of late due to the fact that he didn’t mind me being quiet and he wasn’t stingy with his cigarettes.

The week before the party Dad drove me into town to shop for a costume. We went to a big Halloween warehouse and I tried on three or four witch costumes to appease Dad, then pleaded with him to let me dress up as Cleopatra. My own hair was long and dirty blonde, but with a glossy black wig and eyeliner I would look older and sophisticated, sleek and confident as Marcos’s wife, Bianca.

Marcos and Bianca had lived next door to my last foster family. There were seven of us in all, foster kids of various ages and backgrounds.  We'd often show up in two and threes at their house, where we'd hang out with their two kids and swim in their pool. Bianca was a lawyer, and worked a lot; she was often gone, or upstairs in her home office. I remembered her as tall and serious and powerful, in contrast to Marcos, who had a mischievous demeanor and laid back approach to parenting. I admired her finely tailored suits, which didn’t hide her curves but announce them, and her dark berry lips, which were often turned pensively down at the corners.

One time I’d seen her at night, long after I was supposed to have gone home; she’d been straddling Marcos on the couch in the living room, wearing a black lace garment that left little to the imagination and holding a cigarette in one hand. I’d crept out the back door and across the lawn to my foster family’s house. For weeks to come I’d feel a little thrill whenever I remembered that black lace neckline plunging into the shadow of her cleavage. In bed at night I’d lay still and picture myself ten years in the future, tall and big-breasted as Bianca, standing in front of a man who looked like Marcos from behind but who could have been anyone, any man with eyes trained perfectly on me.

But it was me Marcos had wanted, not Bianca, who rarely had anything in common with the woman I’d seen that night. Marcos might not be the best husband in the world, but he was a good dad, he was there, and that’s what he needed from a woman, that’s what he needed from me.

As if some hint of what I was thinking had shown in my face, Dad took one look at me and said no, no way in hell was his fifteen year old daughter going around exposing her chest and belly. I grew sullen at the word “chest”, which accurately described my utter lack of breastage, and half-heartedly picked out a Wednesday Addams costume. At least I still got a black wig, and I’d have a good excuse to look glum at the Stephenson’s party.

But the next morning I found Dad scrolling through a Christian parenting forum on the internet, and his tune had changed entirely. "I think you should stay home on Halloween, Caterwaul." He said conversationally, as if he hadn't been the one insisting I go in the first place. I mentioned this to him.

    "I know it was my idea. I don't know what I was thinking. I'm still new to this whole ‘living according to the Word’, you know? I've been talking to some other Believers and they all agree that Halloween is Satan’s day. I was just looking at statistics for the number of supernatural occurrences that are noted on Halloween versus other days of the year. It’s really disturbing. Numbers don’t lie.”

    “What are you even talking about?” I felt like someone was using Dad as a mouthpiece; I was half-tempted to start shouting at the ceiling: Hello? Who’s there? Am I being Punk’d?

    “I’m talking about spiritual warfare, Caterwaul. I’m talking about us versus them.” He said the words like he knew what they meant. I stared at him for a second, trying to gauge his seriousness. He didn't crack; this was real. It occurred to me that his black spot hadn’t gone away, never would. He had just replaced drinking and kleptomania with a Bible and Christian parenting forums. "Whatever,"  I said, heading for the front door. "I never wanted to go in the first place."

 

*                *                *

 

I got home from school the Friday of Halloween to a note from Dad.

 

                               Caterwaul—

                                       Ran to town, be back soon. There’s pizza money on the table—order

                                       whatever you want!

 

                                Love,

                                Dad

    

I was hungry, so I dialed up Joe Schmoe’s Pizza straight away and ordered a large thin crust with pineapple, onion, and bbq chicken. Dad would eat anything and never complained about my bizarre combinations. It was four o’clock and he’d probably just gone for snacks and movies; we’d agreed the night before to have a Tim Burton marathon. I didn’t see how watching movies about ghosts and ghouls was any less of a contribution to the “spiritual decay” of our culture than eating candy and reading tarot cards at someone else’s house, but I decided not to mention that to Dad. I figured he’d be home by five, five-thirty at the latest. I went and laid down in the field behind our house while I waited for the pizza to arrive.

I used my hands to shield my eyes from the sun, and peeked through the cracks between my fingers. Late October was my favorite time of the year. Everything was stripping itself down to the bare bones of winter, but despite the crispness of the air, it still remembered summer and carried with it a hint of gold. As I sprawled on the dirt among stumps of cornstalks recently harvested, breathing in the old, old scent of earth and shivering pleasantly, a memory snuck up on me. It was indistinct, only an impression of a moment, really; my mom’s hands buttoning my baby blue child’s coat; Dad’s lips on her forehead; a laugh, maybe my own. I exhaled deeply, and didn’t feel sad exactly, just tired, and cozy, and suspended somewhere outside of time. There was a hawk circling high in the sky, so high I could barely make out the shape of its wings. I watched it grow fainter and fainter, burrowing into the sun.

It was five-thirty by the time the pizza guy came (Joe Schmoe’s stressed quality over speed, which was fine by me), and I sat in the kitchen and ate two slices, and after a brief inner battle, the crust of a third. I pulled out my homework assignment for Algebra and worked at it half-heartedly to pass the time, but when six-thirty rolled around and Dad still wasn’t home, I began to get a nagging feeling in my stomach, one that made me look through the kitchen cabinets with suspicion. I didn’t find anything, but by seven o’clock (still no Dad) I was certain that he wouldn’t be coming home until well after midnight, and he wouldn’t be the one driving.

There’d been no tell-tale signs this time, but that didn’t mean anything; he’d dived headfirst into the bottle after considerable periods of sobriety before, and though he had the support of his church group to keep him on the straight-and-narrow, I couldn’t help but think of that black spot, the one he woke up to every morning, the one he’d tried to replace with God. I didn’t know the nature of his black spot, didn’t know if it took the shape of mom’s face like mine sometimes did—when it wasn’t whispering with Marcos’s voice; maybe his just smelled like liquor, or felt like a hot hole in his stomach every time he opened his eyes. I didn’t know, and I decided I didn’t care. He’d pulled me from a foster home in which I was reasonably comfortable, from makeshift parents and siblings whom I’d liked and didn’t have to worry about, from proximity to a man who found me desirable and interesting, and dragged me out here to mingle with a bunch of Bible-thumpers—for what? For the past to play itself on repeat? How long before child services came, carried me away to the next temporary home, the next set of complications and confusions?

I pictured him slobbering in a dark pub, prattling to a stranger who wouldn’t remember his name in the morning, stubbornly shoveling dirt into a hole with no bottom. I went into my bedroom and put on my Wednesday Addams costume, donned the black wig. I applied white powder to my face, slipped black Mary Janes on my feet. Eight o’clock came and went, but I wasn’t there to see if Dad came through the door. I marched down the road to the Stephenson’s house, and welcomed whatever spirits might follow me there.

    

*                *                *

 

The party was much bigger and more sophisticated than I’d imagined. I had pictured girls my age in all the usual bordering-on-sleazy Disney costumes, sitting around a Ouija board and drinking coke, maybe spiked with the slightest hint of rum, their parents holed up in the kitchen and complaining about work. On the contrary, the adults were the main event, and the theme (which had somehow gotten lost via my word-of-mouth invitation) was literary. Married couples dressed as famous fictional pairs--Gatsby and Daisy, Heathcliff and Catherine, Anna and Vronksy, etc. They stood around sipping fashionable cocktails a hired bartender had made, and swayed to classical music that came from a record player in the corner. Beethoven or Bach, something unrecognizable to me. The girls (and boys) my age were just as sophisticated; one boy had come dressed as Frankenstein (not his monster), and a quintet of girls had come as the Bennet sisters on the night of the ball at Netherfield, pearled and curled and tinkling polite laughter. There were a few other kids (and an adult or two) who were clearly as bewildered as I, and they picked self-consciously at their warehouse costumes. I later deduced that there had been proper, printed invitations, and those of us that hadn’t gotten them had been last minute invites, people who might benefit from a night of decent human interaction—a kind of charity I would never understand. Ash and Izzie were dressed as Sebastian and Viola (in the guise of Cesario) from Twelfth Night, but even as girls posing as boys (or in Izzie’s case, a girl posing as a girl posing as a boy) they were charming and sweet. They didn’t make me feel bad about my cheap costume; in fact, everyone seemed to get a kick out of my surliness, which at this point wasn’t pretend. Everyone was friendly and gracious, the food (homemade malted milk balls, pumpkin pasties, caramel apple spice cookies, etc) was delicious, and the adults turned their heads whenever one of us wanted to sip from their complicated and beautiful drinks. All the same, I wished I were at home with Dad as originally planned, vegging out in front of the television, or even better, alone in the field behind our house, the nubs of harvested corn stalks crunching beneath my feet, the only sound other than my own breathing.  

As the night wore on and the guests drank more, the party devolved into something a little more familiar to me; there was no Ouija board, but eventually a few of us snuck down to the basement for a game of spin-the-bottle. I had sipped one too many cocktails at this point, or else I would have snuck out and gone home. I had a familiar, tingly sensation that spread from the center of my belly out toward my extremities, and when Ash and Izzie plucked a half-full bottle of champagne from the bar and brought it down with us, we all took turns sipping from it until it was empty, then Ash set it on the floor and spun it. I watched the green glass shimmer in the candlelight as it spun, quickly at first, then slower, stopping in front of Izzie. The twins looked at each other mischievously, as if this had somehow been planned. The boys in the room snickered with excitement and the other girls rolled their eyes, probably having witnessed this act before. Ash leaned in slowly, almost shyly, and planted a short-lived but tender little kiss on her sister’s lips. Izzie laughed, open-mouthed, sparkling. Everyone cheered, and then it was the girl on Izzie’s right who had to spin the bottle. We got almost halfway through the circle of people before the bottle found me. The spinner was a tall, dark-haired boy sitting across the room from me.

He was cute, and when the bottle called I felt my pulse speed up; he grinned and we met in the middle. I didn't know his name but he smelled good, like cedar shavings, and as he leaned in to kiss me his hand tensed on mine. Eyes closed, I barely had time to register his nose brushing my nose before my bottom lip was in his mouth and he bit it hard enough to hurt. I murmured a tiny ow, but he must have taken it as a sound of pleasure, because he didn't let go; instead he sucked on my lip like he wanted to savor the wound left by his teeth. My hand jerked out from under his and he retreated; part of me didn't want him to, and I sat frozen in the middle of the circle, aware it was no longer my turn, but stranded somewhere just outside my body, unable to make it move. When I opened my eyes again everyone was staring at me, expectant. I sat back on my haunches, ignorant of whoever was next to spin the bottle, ignorant of the boy who had kissed me, ignorant of my bleeding lip, of everything but the sensation of being abandoned by my own flesh, which was rapidly morphing into a map I couldn't read. The alcohol and the confusion held hands in my head and a warm numbness spread through my veins, prompting me to leave behind the circle, the boy, the bottle; I went up the basement stairs like a sleepwalker, oblivious to my own intentions.

Next thing I knew I had locked myself in the guest restroom, trembling before the mirror. My eyes gazed into eyes I’d inherited from Dad, eyes so dark they could easily be mistaken for black. Shadows like bruises beneath them, ones that refused to fade. My lips parted in a snarl; a cornered animal or a bitch in heat? I didn’t know what I was looking at. I couldn’t tell what I was looking through.

My hands sought the soap dispenser, then the faucet. The water ran and ran while I tried to make sense of my reflection. My black wig hid dirty blonde hair. The white powder masked a dirty girl. Dirty thoughts, dirty want. His eyes, black black black. Marcos. The man in the back of my mind. Memory like a tongue running down my spine.

The water was cold; my fingers grew numb. Soap suds swelled in the sink, burgeoning like cancer. I shut off the water, scooped the bubbles into my hands. Held them out to my reflection like some kind of offering to a harsh and hungry god. Not Dad’s god, not the god of Sunday smiles and pamphlets tucked beneath front doors; this god was ancient, and swallowed its sacrificial girls from the inside out.

The bubbles seemed permanent, as if they’d grown from my very pores. Their hard little surfaces shimmered beneath light bulbs glowing bright white. The did not pop or turn to liquid. They shone, motionless as diamonds.

It came as no surprise to me that the diamonds had voices; a tiny colony of identical voices that sang in unison as I quivered over the sink. I imagined a miniature choir of angels, but I knew that wasn't right, because the voices were really all part of the same voice the way individual leaves all belong to a single tree, though each makes its own sound when the wind moves through them.

The voices filled me with a calm, blue light, a blue much like my first winter coat, the one with buttons too slippery for my chubby little fingers. Blueness and certainty; certainty that enough time had passed, that it was safe now, that the time had come for me to talk to Marcos, hear his voice, his words saying that he missed me, he’d been thinking of me, he wanted to see me, touch me, hold me…

I turned the faucet on and washed the bubbles off my hands, watched them slide gracefully down the drain into whatever underworld they would soon inhabit. Then I shut off the faucet and slipped out of the restroom.

From there I walked, as if in a trance, into the Stephenson's office, where I knew they kept a cordless telephone, and picked it up from its charger.

I glided through the kitchen where a few adults were sitting around a table playing gin rummy. Mrs. Stephenson was pressed against the table, her boobs squished up beneath her cards as somebody's dad leaned over her shoulder to peek at one or the other. She called after me as I opened the screen door to the back porch. "Cleo, honey, do you need a ride home?" The other adults erupted into sloppy giggles, as if her forgetting my name was more embarrassing than her flirting with her kids' dads, whose wives were undoubtedly in the other room flirting with her husband. But maybe Mrs. Stephenson wasn't so drunk after all, maybe she could just see the purpose in my walk as I closed the door behind me and stood out on the back porch, the cordless phone trembling in my hands. Maybe instead of two braids and a white collar she'd gotten a glimpse of the woman I was trying to be as I dialed the number I knew so well.

As the phone rang I breathed in the scents of Mrs. Stephenson's butterfly garden. During the day yarrow, chicory, and honeysuckle attracted a variety of butterflies; black, tiger, and spicebush swallowtails, monarchs and viceroys, painted ladies and mourning cloaks. There were splashes of purple ironweed, and the hummingbird feeders would be visited by iridescent green blurs, and an optimistic cat would creep about under the bench, hoping to catch an unsuspecting bird.

Tonight there was only the scent of the butterfly bushes bleeding into the air, and the blooms of great white moonflowers, their round faces mimicking the one in the sky. Instead of birdsong there were frogs, and in place of the cat lurking in the shadows there were my own desires, preying on me. The phone rang and rang. I didn’t even think of hanging up. He answered.

His voice lapped up like the ocean, unchanged, threatening to engulf.

    "It's me." I didn't have to explain. He would know. Some part of him would have been waiting for me to call.

    "Catarina?" His tone instantly guarded, hushed. I could picture him cupping his hands around the receiver, as if to keep my voice from leaking into the room.

    "I was just thinking about…Well, I'm at a party. Everyone is drunk." I couldn't string the words together the way I wanted them. They came out jerky, like corpses risen to half-life.

    "Hang on a second." His voice hushed, I could picture him creeping into his wife’s office, closing the door behind him, settling down in her swivel chair in the dark. "Catarina, god. I can't believe it's you. You know they wouldn't tell me where he'd taken you. Are you alone?"

    "You said you'd call sometime. You had my number." I couldn’t keep accusation out of my voice. It's not what I’d wanted him to hear; I'd wanted to sound mysterious, flippant, just-out-of-reach. That's how he likes me best, I thought. When he can't tell what I'm thinking. When he doesn’t know it hurts.

    "Kitty…" His pet name for me, when it was only the two of us. "You know how hard it is, with Bianca and the kids. She's been home more lately. I didn't want to risk it." He paused. I could hear his breath, could picture him folding his legs, leaning forward, intent on making me feel attended to, as if I were the center of his universe. I could feel it working. "I've thought about you every day. Especially on your birthday. You’re fifteen now, right?"

He'd remembered. Of course he'd remembered. I sank into the fantasy.

    "Remember those green flannel pajamas Bianca got you last year? You looked so good in those, with your birthday hat and frosting on your nose." Of course I remembered them. And what had followed. “Did you have a cake this year? Did you miss me?”

I breathed yes into the phone, and thought it a hundred times more.

    "I thought so." He exhaled deeply, and I knew what was happening now. "I can still picture you in your flannel, the shirt that buttons up all the way to your chin. All tucked in under the blankets. I'd sit on the edge of your bed, and you'd smile that sleepy smile…" he went on, his words farther apart as they became less important, only a backdrop for what was really happening. This part was less interesting to me. I felt my thoughts pulling away from my body, separating like oil and water. This was how it went, him whispering and me wandering through the most banal thoughts and memories, like the time I came home from school to find Sheila in the living room wearing pajamas and coloring in a Disney princesses coloring book, her hair a tousled lion’s mane, her eyes bleary and dark. She’d stayed home from work because she was sad, and she invited me to come color with her. By the time Dad got home we were curled up on the couch with root beer floats, watching Harry and the Hendersons and giggling comfortably. Two weeks later, she was gone. I hadn’t thought of that memory in over two years, but here it was surfacing with Marcos’s voice in the background.

Afterwards, when he was done, he would tell me he loved me. It would be easy to imagine the rest; the blanket pulled up over our bellies, my head buried in his chest. As he talked I saw two costumed people at the other end of the yard, coming home from a stroll, their voices low and intimate. One of them was Dusty. I hadn't seen him at the party before. By the way they stood a foot apart, curved toward each other but not touching, I could tell they liked each other. His laugh rang out and she punched his arm playfully. Then they leaned toward each other, their hands entwining. They came together as softly as two shadows, his head resting on her shoulder, her hands stroking his hair. Their embrace lasted a long time before they wandered back into the house.

On the other end of the phone Marcos was interrupted by a woman's voice. Bianca. I couldn't hear what she said, but even with his hand muffling the receiver I could hear him say, "No one. Wrong number." A few seconds passed and his voice returned, even more hushed than before. "Listen, Kitty, I have to go. Let me call you back later this week, okay? Maybe we can meet somewhere. A hotel? Just the two of us, like old times. I've got your number, I'll…"

I didn't hear the rest because Mrs. Stephenson's exaggerated laughter was coming through the screen, and someone was yelling "gin rummy!" over and over as if no one was listening, and someone else had dropped a glass and there was a lot of gasping and swearing and giggling, and anyway the phone was lying in the grass, face-down, words draining into the earth. I was running through the Stephenson's yard, my Wednesday Addams wig slipping off my head and into the grass, and there was nothing to bear witness to but the moon, great white spot in the sky, brilliant headlight beaming its promise onto my glowing skin.

 

 

This story was originally printed in Issue 10 of Prick of the Spindle