Excerpt: 'Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self'
Wherever You Go, There You Are
"I need you to take Chrissie for a little bit," Aunt Edie says, because apparently I pass for a role model these days. It's Thursday night, and they're standing on the doorstep, unannounced. Aunt Edie doesn't bother coming in. She looks exhausted, her eyes puff y from crying, her usually impeccably braided white hair hanging loose and disheveled. Her last living sibling, Chrissie's grandfather, has been in the hospital all summer, and odds are he isn't coming out again. I tell Aunt Edie that I'm going out of town tomorrow—which is true, there's a half-packed suitcase on my bed to prove it. She tells me I can take Chrissie with me, which more or less settles it. Chrissie breezes past me. Her footsteps on the creaking wood floor of my father's house swallow her hello. I have a long list of reasons why Chrissie shouldn't come on this trip, but few of them I'll admit to myself, let alone to my great-aunt. In any case, she isn't leaving much room for argument.
"I'm tired," says Aunt Edie. "She needs someone to look out for her, and I've got other things on my mind right now." She reaches into her purse and stretches out her hand to give me Chrissie's cell phone, which Chrissie is apparently banned from using. "Her father's not leaving Bobby's bedside," Aunt Edie goes on, "and Tia can't take her because she's too busy with nursing school, so that leaves you."
I stop myself from asking who it is Tia's supposed to be nursing. Tia is Aunt Edie's granddaughter, my cousin—Chrissie's, too— but she is not a nurse or a nursing student. She may possibly own a nursing uniform, but if she does, it has breakaway snaps and she's generally wearing a G-string under it. I don't know where Aunt Edie got nurse from, but no one's allowed to say Tia's a stripper. Tia's job bothers Aunt Edie for reasons involving hellfire and eternal damnation. It bothers me because even though Tia's twenty-five like I am, she looks thirteen. I love her, don't get me wrong, but she's got chicken legs, and nothing in the way of hips or boobs, and a big head with wide almond eyes and a long blond weave, and while I can imagine many reasons why men might pay good money to see a real live woman, there's something unsettling about so many of them paying to see a real live Bratz doll.
In fairness, there isn't much else to do in Waterton, Delaware. It's close to everything else in Delaware without actually being part of any of it—about an hour away from the noisy hedonism of Rehoboth Beach's and Ocean City's boardwalks, about an hour from the suburban sprawl subdivisions that might as well be North Maryland or South Jersey. It's not quite the Delaware that's mostly pig and tobacco farms, though there are farms in Waterton, and a fresh fruit and vegetable stand every mile or so, and the world's largest scrapple factory. When you approach the city limits from the highway, there's a painted wooden sign that says welcome to waterton: wherever you go, there you are. It doesn't tell you that where you are is a city that gets seventy percent of its annual revenue from ticketing speeding tourists who got lost on their way to the beach. It's mostly a town that still exists because no one's gotten around to telling it that it can't anymore. The highlight of most people's weekends is losing money down at the Seahorse Casino, which is forty minutes away and not even a fun casino. It's just a big room full of slot machines and fluorescent light, and the only drinks they serve are shitty beer and something called Delaware Punch, which tastes less like punch and more like the Seahorse Casino is determined to single-handedly use up the nation's entire supply of banana schnapps. Considering the options, it makes sense that Tia does good business here.
I live here because right now I have no place else to be. The house I'm staying in is my father's, and was my grandfather's before that. It was either come here and be alone for a while, or move in with my mother, which would have felt like an admission of failure on both of our parts. The house is on the back corner of a parcel of land that was once large enough that it meant something for black people to own it back in the day, but it's been divided and subdivided through the years—split between children in wills, sold off piecemeal to developers, whittled down so that, between the fifteen of us, everyone in my generation probably owns about a square inch of it. My father moved into the house twenty years ago, after my parents' divorce, looking for a place to get his head together. Or at least, my father's furniture moved into the house; my father himself got into the antiques market and seems perpetually on a plane to some faraway place in pursuit of a stamp, a coin, a rare baseball card, anything of more-than-obvious value.
Now that I'm here again, I can hardly blame him for leaving so often; I am learning the hard way that it's not a good place to get over anything. In every room of the house, fighting with my father's coin chests and signed sports posters and ceramic knickknacks, there's a reminder of what people are supposed to mean to each other. The set of initials carved into the handmade frame of the front door. A sepia-toned photograph of my grandparents, who died within weeks of each other, months after their forty-fifth anniversary. The lavender corsage my grandmother wore at her wedding; my uncle Bobby found it pressed into my grandfather's Bible decades later and had it framed on the wall of the master bedroom. The wooden archway leading to the dining room, the one that had been knocked down and rebuilt by my father at Uncle Bobby's request, the year a foot amputation confined his late wife to a wheelchair too big to fit through the original doorway. The wedding quilt on the living room wall, the one thing besides their life savings that my grandparents had salvaged from the house they fled in Georgia, hours before a mob torched it on a trumped-up theft charge. As a child, I'd taken comfort in the house's memorabilia—I imagined this was the sort of unconditional love that all adults had eventually—but now, fresh off the end of my last relationship, the house feels like a museum of lack: here is the sort of love you never saw up close, here are souvenirs from all the places your father was when he was not with you, here is something whole that one day you will own a fraction of.
Chrissie's sprawled out on the bed I've been sleeping in since I got here a few months ago. It's the same bed I slept in when I visited here as a kid, with the same Strawberry Shortcake sheets I never had the heart to tell my father I outgrew, and lying on them Chrissie looks like a little kid herself. Her hair is tied up in a silk headscarf, which means she must have spent half a day blow-drying and fl at-ironing it movie-star straight, humidity be damned. She's wearing cut-off s and ratty sneakers and smells like a bottle of tamarind perfume I remember her borrowing from me the last time she was over here.
Chrissie's parents are splitting and she's spending the summer in Waterton, Delaware, with her father because that's supposed to make her OK with it, except her father's been cocooning himself in the hospital all summer, and Chrissie's spent most of her time so far playing hearts with Aunt Edie and the two widows next door, and the rest of it mysteriously unaccounted for, though Tia's filled me in on some rumors.
"Where are you going?" Chrissie asks me, nudging my suitcase with her elbow.
"We're going to North Carolina, I guess. Aunt Edie wants you to come with me."
"What's in North Carolina?"
I consider the question. "A friend" would be a lie of omission; "an ex" would put Brian in the same category as Jay, who I came here to get away from. Jay, who still lives in the apartment with my name on the lease and is probably fucking another girl on my sofa right now.
Jay, who earlier this week sent me an e-mail that seemed to presume I would take time off from not speaking to him, and working on my own dissertation ("She Real Cool: The Art and Activism of Gwendolyn Brooks"), in order to proofread his ("Retroactive Intentionality: [Re]Reading Radical Artists' Self-Assessments").
"A friend," I say. "Brian. He's in a band. He wants me to see his show."
"A friend you're meeting in your underwear?" Chrissie asks, sitting up and gesturing toward my suitcase, which for the time being contains nothing but toiletries and underwear. She arches her eyebrows at me and giggles. "What kind of show does he want you to see?"
"I haven't thought about the clothes yet. Underwear is the easy part of packing. There's no deciding. You can't go wrong with underwear."
"So the only panties you own are black lace?" she asks, smirking into the suitcase.
"Shut up," I say. "You shouldn't be looking through other people's underwear. And what do you know about lace underwear, anyway?"
Chrissie blushes so red I'm sorry I asked, and then just as quickly starts singing, "I see London, I see France, Brian's gonna see Carla's slutty underpants . . ."
Given my history with Brian, this is too close to true. Every item of non-underwear clothing I've considered packing I've rejected because it would seem like a deliberate provocation. I don't own much that Brian hasn't ripped off of me at some point in the past, even when he was seeing other women, even when he was with the fiancée before the one I'm ostensibly going down there to meet. I shush Chrissie off to bed while I finish packing, but I hear her in the next room, tossing and turning, riffling through the pages of a magazine.
When I finally zip my suitcase shut, I go back into the bedroom to check on her. I haven't seen too much of Chrissie since I've been in town, and she thinks I've been avoiding her. She's probably right: lately watching Chrissie has been like watching a taped recording of my own adolescence, which is nothing I want to revisit.
Though the lights are off in the bedroom when I go to check on her, I can tell Chrissie's only pretending to be asleep.
"Night, Chris," I say.
"Night," she mumbles.
"Hey," she calls as I start to leave. "Can Tia come with us tomorrow?
It'd be fun. Like a girls' road trip."
I consider the many reasons why this would not be fun. Tia never liked Brian. Once he made the mistake of telling her he understood oppression because he was half Irish and one-eighth Native American.
After that, Tia always called him he-who-has-metal-in-his-face, because of his eyebrow piercing. Brian never liked Tia, except for that one time in college he drunkenly asked me if I thought she'd be into a threesome, and I stopped speaking to him for a month.
"Tia's working," I say. "And anyway, she needs to be around in case anything happens with Uncle Bobby. Aunt Edie's going to need her."
"People are going to need us too," Chrissie protests. "He's my grandfather."
"Of course they will," I say. "We'll come back if anything happens."
The truth is, I'm not sure who needs me. My father paid an obligatory visit to Uncle Bobby, and then did what he does: he's spending the summer in India looking at death statues. We are all walking around on eggshells, waiting for a death the way people wait on rainstorms when the sky promises bad weather, but so far nobody has talked to me about it, and nobody has asked me to do anything more difficult than make potato salad.
It's afternoon by the time we get on the road the next day, and we spend hours stuck in beach traffic. Chrissie's awake enough to resent that I've confined her cell phone to the glove compartment. It's beeping because someone's left her a message, and between the beeping and her whining, I'm thinking of opening the glove compartment myself. My cigarettes are in there, but nobody, especially Chrissie, is supposed to know I smoke when I'm stressed.
"It could be my parents," she says. I ignore this.
"We might as well not even be driving," Chrissie says. "And I'm hungry."
"Well, then you should have eaten when we stopped for brunch,"
I say. Chrissie has been doing this thing where whenever we eat out together, she orders whatever I order, then suddenly remembers she can't eat it because she's on a diet, and has two bites and three glasses of water instead. At the diner on the way out of town, she had three french fries and a mouse-sized nibble of her grilled cheese.
"I wasn't hungry when we stopped," she says.
"Then you can wait until we get to Richmond for dinner."
The traffic picks up around the Bay Bridge. In the glove compartment Chrissie's phone is still beeping something insistent.
"You should let me get it," she says. "What if my grandfather died?"
"Then someone would have called me," I say.
Both pleas for her phone having failed, Chrissie sulks, actively.
Her sulking takes the form of rummaging through her miniature beaded purse in search of beauty product after beauty product.
When she is done with the glitter lotion and the lip gloss and the eye shadow, it's true her skin has a glow to it, but her hands are covered in sparkles, like a kid who's just finished an art project.
"I'll let you answer the phone when you tell me why Aunt Edie doesn't want you to have it in the first place," I say.
"I've got a boyfriend," Chrissie says.
"Of course you do," I say.
"So, I can talk to him?"
"Pick up the phone if you want, but you shouldn't, he's an asshole."
"You've never even seen him."
"Don't have to," I say. "He's a fifteen-year-old boy, which means he's an asshole by default, or he's older than that, in which case he's an asshole for dating you."
"I don't look fourteen," says Chrissie, which answers one question but isn't any kind of counterargument to my original point. It's true, though, she doesn't look fourteen, in the way no girl looks fourteen once she's got tits and an ass like Chrissie's and men have stopped looking at her face. She's the wrong kind of pretty, the kind that's soft but not fragile, the kind that inspires the impulse to touch.
The boyfriend doesn't answer when Chrissie calls him back.
"Asshole," she mutters.
"Look at the water," I say, because we're driving over the Chesapeake, and I've always thought it was a beautiful view, the wires of the bridge cutting into the image of the water beneath. Passing through the bridge with the sloping wires on either side always feels to me like being inside of a giant stringed instrument. Chrissie looks sideways out the window for a second, then turns back to me.
"We're going all the way to North Carolina just to see this guy?" she asks.
"What else do you want to do?"
"I think maybe I should go to a doctor."
"What's wrong with you?" I ask. I'm already checking out the traffic headed back to Delaware, because if this kid tells me she's pregnant I'm turning the car around and giving her back to Aunt Edie. I've already done my lifetime share of abortion hand-holding.
"I think my vagina's broken," she says.
"OK," I say. "OK, look. I don't know what that means, and I don't think I want to, because as far as I'm concerned, you don't have a vagina and won't for ten years, and even then I probably won't want to hear much about it, OK? Talk to your mother about this stuff ."
"If I ever met a woman without a vagina, it's my mother," Chrissie says.
"Don't say that," I say, because you're supposed to remind people how they actually do love their parents. Chrissie's mom is away at a summerlong church retreat. For a while she sent Chrissie postcards that said things like you're never alone when you're with jesus and I put all of my eggs in one basket and gave them to the lord. Chrissie finally wrote back, Can Jesus make me an omelet, then? He's kind of a crappy mom otherwise. She hasn't gotten a postcard since.
"Is something wrong?" I ask. "Are you sick or something?"
"No," she says, "but we tried to have sex last week and I hadn't done it before and it didn't work."
"What do you mean, 'it didn't work'?"
"It wouldn't go in," she says. "So he stopped and I left because I thought maybe there was something wrong with me."
"Well, what did you do beforehand?" I ask.
When she answers, it becomes clear to me that this kid has no idea what's supposed to be happening, and neither does her boyfriend. I feel kind of sorry for her entire generation, because they've learned all the theatrical parts of sex so they walk around pouting and posing like little baby porn stars, and all the clinical parts of sex so they know when to demand penicillin, but not the basic mechanical processes of actual pleasure, which everyone assumes someone else has covered.
I didn't know shit about sex when I was her age, but at least I was allowed to say so; no one expected us to be certified experts. It's not my subject of choice, but I don't know who else will explain things to her, except maybe Tia, which seems dangerous. When I'm done,
I tack on a speech about how she's fourteen and emotional right now and he's probably too old for her and even if there's a condom it could break or fall off and she could die, and besides, she's not comfortable enough with her body to enjoy anything that happens to it yet, and there's lots of things she can do that aren't actually fucking.
Maybe I've kind of freaked her out, because somewhere north of Columbia we pass a Friendly's, and she gets all excited about it. Even though we're nowhere near Richmond I agree to stop when she asks. She's dropped the diet stuff , at least, but if you've ever seen anything more disturbing than a kid eating a Reese's Pieces Happy Face Sundae after you've just explained to her how to give a proper blow job, I don't want to hear about it.
Chrissie sleeps most of the rest of the way to Raleigh. I could use her to keep an eye on the map, because I've only been down here a handful of times, and I hate this stretch of highway. There's something about the compressed space of cars that makes people want to say things out loud, maybe just to see what echoes back, and every memory I have of this part of 95 is a memory of argument. The first time I went to Raleigh, I was about Chrissie's age and my mom was driving. On the way back, we were trying to get out of the state a few hours ahead of the tropical storm that was on its way, but already it was thundering and lightning, and the rain was steadily splattering onto our windshield, distorting everything on the other side faster than the windshield wipers could clear it.
The argument we'd been having was stupid. It was Father's Day, and she wanted me to call her boyfriend, this jackass dentist she'd been seeing for a while, and wish him a happy Father's Day. The dentist was always blowing my mother off at the last minute. He yelled when they fought, and sulked when he didn't get his way. He'd stretched his fairly substantial income to its natural limits, and was always "borrowing" money from my mom that we never got back. You could smell the bullshit coming off of him, unless you were my mother, and then you thought he was the answer to our prayers. I said the dentist had his own kids and I already had a father to call, and my mother said my father was out of the country and the dentist's kids weren't going to call him, and I said that's because even they know he's an asshole. My mother got all huff y and cried and said she was just trying to have a family, and I said she already had a family, at least until I was eighteen and I could get away from her crazy ass, and she pulled over and slapped me and then said, I'm getting out now, and until the car door opened and the sting of the rain hit me, I didn't know out of what.
Through the stream of rain on the windshield, I watched my mother get smaller and smaller because of distance and water. It was like watching a person deflate. I understood that if she wasn't coming back, I wasn't going anywhere, not because I was still a few months away from my learner's permit, but because I lacked the instinct to run. I understood, for the first time, how much I loved my mother.
I understood that if I could help it, I would never love anybody that much again. When she got back in the car ten minutes later, soaking wet and both of us still crying, we didn't say a word about it—not then, not all the way back to DC.
I want to wake Chrissie and tell her about this as if it's a warning: Don't push too hard; your last chance to see a person the way you wanted them to be may come at any moment. One minute you have a parent, or a friend, or a lover, something solid, and physics tells you their resistance will always be there to meet you as you press yourself into relief against them. Then all of a sudden your mother is a fading outline in a thunderstorm, wet and weak and so far out of reach; or your lover who may also be your best and only friend is pulled so quickly into someone else's life that you don't even realize he's left yours until you're getting a save-the-date card; or your father is somewhere at the other end of the world and even if you had a number for him, you'd feel wrong calling to tell him to quit collecting stuff when it's painfully clear that you have nothing to offer to replace it. But I don't wake Chrissie because she's sleeping like a baby, and anyway, she isn't a baby and she doesn't need me to tell her what it is to watch somebody let you down by being human in the saddest and neediest ways, what it is to push at something that has long since given way. It hits me like my mother's slap that just watching me these days is teaching her this lesson.
I wake Chrissie up just before the highway exit so she can read me the rest of the directions. The bar is not hard to find and has its own parking lot. On the outside it's kind of like a giant cottage, mute stucco with a brown shingled roof. Inside, it's big and dimly lit. The ceilings are high and the splintered wooden rafters are showing. We're still early for the show and there are only a handful of people in the bar. I can see Brian onstage with his back to me. I try to sneak up on him, but before I get all the way there he turns around.
"Hey, stranger," he says, hopping down from the stage. He hugs me like I've just gotten back from a war. The smell of him is like if someone made a perfume out of cigarette smoke. "I missed you, kid."
"I missed you too," I say, kissing him on the cheek. Chrissie smirks beside me, and starts humming the underpants song under her breath again.
"Who's this?" asks Brian, taking note of Chrissie for the first time.
"I got to pee," says Chrissie. She walks off in the other direction.
The sound of her heels against the floor of the mostly empty bar is less of a controlled staccato and more of a stomp, stomp, stomp.
"Who was that?" asks a shaggy-looking guy messing with the keyboard.
"That's fourteen and it's my cousin," I say. "I've got a knife in my pocketbook and I will cut you if you touch her."
"Shame," says the keyboardist. "You legal, then?"
"Stop flirting with my sister," says Brian, hugging me to him again.
Brian and I call each other brother and sister because it lets us pretend we have an excuse for still knowing each other. In anyone else's life, Brian would be the college ex I never spoke to again, and I would be the crazy ex who'd once deliberately destroyed his brandnew guitar. But instead of being embarrassed by everything that's happened between us, we're both comforted by the fact that someone else has seen us at all of our possible worsts and hung around anyway.
There was a point, maybe even a year, where we were fucking each other for the conversation afterward. Not that the sex was bad, it just wasn't the point anymore. We talked about our futures, the ones we never dared to imagine being full of anything but chaos. We toasted to the shortcomings of the various potential stepparents we'd grown up with: between the two of us, nineteen in total. When he was at his drunkest, he always told me the story about the time his mother passed him off as a neighbor she babysat, in order to date a banker who didn't want kids, and when we were done laughing as though it were hysterical, him imitating the banker and his eight year- old self, one of us would cry for real, and I would hold him and tell him I was sorry he was so fucked up, and he would tell me he was sorry I was fucked up enough to want him anyway.
"So, where's this poor girl you've tricked into marrying you?" I ask. "Is she locked up somewhere so she doesn't escape before the wedding?"
"Ha," says Brian, but his smile feels forced. "She's on her way. Alan and I came in the van with the equipment."
The last time Brian got engaged, he would have cracked up at the joke. The last girl was an actress, someone he met at an Exxon convenience store on a road trip right after the play she was in had ended its run. They'd gotten engaged a month later, two weeks before she got called to New York for a better gig. Brian came to see me right after she left, and we'd spent the weekend in bed with each other, him talking about how wonderful she was, me reminding him of all the other women he'd said that about. I'd met Jay two weeks later.
When Brian's engagement inevitably fell through, we joked that if things had ended between them a few months sooner, he could have kept the wedding date and married me instead.
Brian and I almost did get married once, but not for real for real.
We were in Vegas, which is a city I've always loved for its ability to be at once shameless about its fantasy self and honest about its real one, which is the only reason I've ever loved anything. A college friend with too much money had invited us out there for a birthday party, and we were champagne-drunk and tired of the Strip one night. I said I'd always wanted to get married in Vegas, because marriage was just a big fl ashy spectacle designed to cover up the tacky tragedy of human loneliness, and why would you get married anywhere you could forget that? Brian said he'd always wanted Elvis at his wedding, but only if it was fat Elvis, and anyway, us being us we might as well get our first divorces out of the way early. All of it was kind of a joke and kind of not, and I don't remember why we didn't do it, just that we ended up riding those gondola boats around the underground of The Venetian all night instead.
Brian bounces off to get me a vodka tonic, extra lime—he doesn't have to ask what I'm drinking—and while I'm waiting for him to come back, or Chrissie to reappear from the ladies' room, the fiancée walks in the front door. I haven't seen her picture, but I know her right away. She's wearing a vintage Wonder Woman T-shirt stretched tight across her chest, and Brian's got a thing for both boobs and comic books. She's cute. Platinum blond hair, layered and flipped up at the ends, a dab of frosted lip gloss. If her look was a smell, it would be grape bubble gum. Her name is Miranda. Brian met her at the go-kart track two years ago, but they've only been dating six months. She's an elementary school teacher who moonlights as a semiprofessional local comedian. Ever since he met her, I get random text messages from him, jokes and one-liners, and I know it means he's watching her perform.
She obviously recognizes me when she sees me, and even though her smile seems genuine, I resent this girl already—not for having him, but because I'll have to have her now. She's like a crayon drawing he's handing me, and like her or not I'll have to pin her to my refrigerator for years.
"So, what do you think?" Brian whispers when he returns with my drink.
"Nicely done," I say.
He looks relieved. When Miranda comes over, she hugs me first, awkwardly smushing into the hand I'd extended to shake hers.
"I'm sorry," she says, laughing a little as she pulls away. "Was that weird? I feel like we already know each other."
"No," I lie. I'm saved from making further small talk when Chrissie finally rejoins us, looking like she's ready for a glamour shot. She's let her hair down and combed some sort of glitter through it, and put on mounds of blush and eye shadow and a coffee-colored lipstick that's a good two shades too dark for her skin tone. I can't open my mouth to tell her to wash her face, because I'm too busy trying not to laugh at her. "Your sister?" Miranda asks.
"Cousin," I say.
"Clearly, good looks run in the family," she says. Her voice fl utters a little when she laughs. "And those are great shoes," she says to Chrissie.
It's as if she has studied a playbook on meeting your fiancé's exgirlfriend. Chrissie looks at me like she doesn't know whether it's OK to accept the compliment. I look away, because I don't want her to think she needs my permission to like the girl, but I also don't want to give it. Besides, Chrissie's shoes are tacky stiletto sandals from Payless, and I probably should have talked her out of them this morning. Brian ushers Miranda and me to a table up front, and then disappears to bring back drinks for her and Chrissie. By the time he gets back, a beer for her and a Shirley Temple for Chrissie, a decent crowd has started to filter in. Before the set he squeezes my hand for luck, then gives Miranda a closed-mouth kiss. Chrissie watches this like it's a spectator sport, and seems pleased enough that I've brought her into my real life that she's reconciled herself with the indignity of drinking the Shirley Temple.
"This is kind of all right," she says when Brian finally starts playing, which, given her usual tone these days, is like she's handing him a Grammy.
Watching Brian perform always makes me feel weirdly proprietary about him, which is stupid, because this is the thing about him that has to be public. But I was there when he was making this shit up on his guitar, and when he'd wake up at three a.m. to whisper a song into my ear, and when he was ready to give it all up and get a real job and I told him not to. When Miranda leans forward into the music and closes her eyes like Brian is singing to her directly, something in me snaps. "Isn't he great?" she whispers to me between songs, opening her eyes again and looking so sincere that I have to look away to stop myself from telling her he isn't really hers, that she only loves him because she'll never know him the way I do. It makes me happy when I recognize myself in a lyric, even if the lyric is I lied, you lied, I lied, to really love something is suicide, because how I feel about Brian hasn't been about love in a long time, it's been about mattering the most, and as I count the songs, I'm confident I'm still winning on that scorecard.
When the set is over, Brian and the keyboardist, Alan, disappear backstage for a minute, and Miranda asks a million questions about Delaware. I let Chrissie answer most of them, which means that the answer she gets most frequently is "dumb," followed closely by "stupid." "Still," says Miranda, "summer's great when you're a kid, isn't it? I get jealous of my students sometimes—they don't know how good they have it."
"Summer's awesome," says Chrissie. "My grandfather's dying. And my dad won't even talk to me about it, and my parents just got divorced, and my mom's at Bible camp trying to join some weirdo cult thing because she's lonely and is trying to pretend Jesus is her boyfriend, and my boyfriend works at a gas station and has never left the state of Delaware, even though he's older than me and Delaware is, like, ten feet big and he apparently doesn't understand enough about sex to make it work right so I can fuck him to get my mind off things."
She takes an emphatic sip of her Shirley Temple, even though the drink is nothing but melting red ice by now, and stomps back to the bathroom. A guy at the bar reaches for her arm as she passes him, but she doesn't break stride long enough to notice.
"I'm sorry," Miranda says, sliding her chair out of the way so I can go after Chrissie. I stay put.
"She'll be fine," I say, by which I mean that I can't help her. I think of offering to get Miranda a drink, but her first beer is still barely half gone, an observation that prompts me to push my own empty glass behind a napkin holder. The tables in the bar are covered in old newsprint that's been lacquered over, and I try to make out the words to one of the stories shellacked beneath my drink, but can't read it in the dim light. Beside it, a vintage ad warns me: Perspiration Ruins Panty Hose!
"Is this weird for you?" Miranda finally asks.
"Which part?" I ask, and she doesn't press it. I keep an eye on the bathroom door to see when Chrissie comes out.
"I know about all the nonsense, with him and women," she says after a minute. "I'm not an idiot. I'm not pretending this is foolproof. But you should see how serious he is about things these days. About his music. About not fucking up the way he has before. About being honest with himself. About dealing with all the stuff he's not over. You made him a better person. I hope you know that."
"If I did," I say, "it was an accident."
I laugh, and we both pretend I'm kidding.
By the time Brian and the keyboardist stop mingling with the crowd and selling ten-dollar CDs with homemade covers, Chrissie and her slightly smudged mascara have rejoined us. Miranda and Chrissie and I are doing our best impressions of people having fun in a bar, and I find it briefly hysterical the work we're putting into emotionally containing ourselves in front of a guy who prints out all of his song lyrics and sets them on fire in mini trash cans when he gets really angry, until it occurs to me that maybe he doesn't do that anymore.
While a folksinger in a long tie-dye dress sets up her sound equipment, the speaker continues playing the crappy Top Forty that started when Brian went off , and Alan grimaces. He's taken off the black collared shirt he performed in and is wearing a T-shirt that says i'm not a gynecologist, but i'll take a look. His arms beneath the cap sleeves are covered in baby-fine hairs, dirty blond like the hair on his head. Dirty is the right adjective for him altogether.
Chrissie whispers something into his ear that I hope is musicrelated, but probably isn't because of the way he turns away from her and licks his upper lip. He whispers something back to her and she smiles.
"Alan," says Miranda, while I'm still trying to figure out where to intervene, but he ignores her and keeps talking to Chrissie.
"There's your smile," he says. "Not that you don't have great pouting lips, but something's gotta give. You're fourteen, right? Whatever it is, it's not forever."
"My parents are splitting," she says again. "And my grandfather is dying. So it's pretty much forever." She does this dramatic halfsigh thing and puts her pout back on.
"Chrissie," I say, "stop it."
It's not that I doubt she's upset, it's that I'm watching her turn into the kind of girl who always needs to assert that something tangible is wrong in order to justify making things worse. Alan knows she's overdoing it, too, because he smirks a little and raises his beer glass.
"To death and divorce, then," he says, "which are forever."
"And marriage," I say, clinking my drink to his and nodding at Brian, "which is not."
Miranda's looking at Brian like she's waiting for him to say something, and he's looking at the floor like the universe will work this one out without him. I look at Miranda, the startled flicker in her eyes fading to something almost wounded as Brian stays silent, and for a second I feel something like triumph. Then I look at Chrissie. Her pout is gone, and she is smiling at me with a giddy sort of pride. It makes me want to hit something that this is the thing that has finally put me entirely back in her good graces.
Miranda grabs her purse from the back of the chair, and makes a show of fishing out her keys. When she finds them, she holds them aloft for a second, like she's not sure what happens next.
"OK," she says, standing up. Nobody looks at her directly. "I'm going home."
"I'm sorry," I say. "It was just a joke. I shouldn't have said it."
"I hope next time we meet, you find our engagement just slightly less hysterical," she says. "I want to like you. Brian wants me to like you."
Brian still doesn't look up. "Are you coming with me?" Miranda asks. He throws up his arms as if this decision is out of his hands.
"I can't leave before Angie's set is over," Brian says. "I'll call you later. I'll get a ride home with Alan."
"Yeah you will," says Miranda, and I want to tell her right then how much I like her, how at this point the last fiancée would have been weeping and begging and making a total fool of herself, but she's already leaving. Brian doesn't get up.
"You're a bitch," Brian says to me—not like he's mad, just like it's an observation.
I turn to Chrissie to tell her to go outside for a second, but Alan is already motioning her toward the bar. I let them go and turn back to Brian.
"I'm sorry," I say. "This probably wasn't the best week for this.
We're all a little high-strung."
"Are you OK?" he asks. He puts a hand on my knee. There's a faint flicker of a scar below his index finger, from where I accidentally burned him with a cigarette lighter once.
"I'm as OK as I get."
"I really do love her," he says. "Not the idea of her, but her. This isn't like the other times. I'm trying to do something right here."
"Which other times?" I ask.
"Don't do that," he says. "I'm not going to lie to you about what you and I were. Are."
"I know," I say. "I know. I'll apologize to her tomorrow."
"If she's speaking to me tomorrow," he says.
"Why wouldn't she be?"
"Right," he says. His hand is still on my knee. "Why wouldn't she be? I'll call her later."
I lean into him and reach for the cigarettes in his shirt pocket, and brush my arm against his while he lights my cigarette.
"I should get Chrissie," I say, but I don't look away from him. The look in his eyes could melt glass. Chrissie's laughter from across the room interrupts our silent negotiation. She's standing at the bar with Alan and a girl in a tissue-thin tank top. Alan's already got his hand on Tank Top Girl's hip, and Chrissie's holding something in her hand that is clearly not a Shirley Temple and probably not straight soda. Her eyes are scanning the room, and I assume she's looking not for me but for a guy she can use to make Alan jealous, because she doesn't realize she's already lost this fight.
"I should get her out of here," I say. "Where'd you find that asshole?"
"Please," says Brian. "If I weren't here and you weren't babysitting, you'd have gone home with him already."
"I go home with a lot of assholes," I say. "At least I don't love any of them anymore."
"Really?" says Brian.
"I'm over Jay," I say. "We don't speak. And anyway, he told me once that love was not a real thing because it was comprised of too many subsidiary emotions."
I wait for Brian to laugh, but he doesn't.
"Jay wasn't the one I was talking about," he says finally.
"Stop," I say. I look away from him and then turn back.
Brian told me once that I was the only woman in the world he was completely honest with. He said my problem with relationships is that I make everyone feel like it's good enough to be who they actually are. At the time I had thought these were both good things.
"Trust me on this," he'd said. "Appreciate the liars. When people don't hide things, it means they don't care enough to be afraid of losing you."
Chrissie finally seems to realize she's been outplayed and starts to head back to the table. Behind her, Alan has his hand on the small of Tank Top Girl's back and is leaning in to her ear. I watch Chrissie walk to us. I can tell her heels have started to hurt her, because she's scooting her feet across the floor instead of picking them up all the way. As she gets closer, I slide away from Brian. Chrissie stops halfway between the bar and our table and looks over her shoulder to see if Alan's even noticed she's gone. She's smart enough to look only a little disappointed when she sees he's still thoroughly engrossed in Tank Top Girl's earlobe. When she sits back down at the table, I slide her half-full drink away from her.
"Hey," she says, "I'm thirsty."
"You should've thought about that before you asked Alan to put rum in your drink."
"You should have thought about that before you brought me to a bar."
"Touché," I say. "We're leaving soon."
Chrissie looks curiously at Brian, then glances back at me, and I try to relax my face into blank nonchalance, as if she's the only one immature enough to imagine this night ending differently.
It's barely after midnight when I finish my cigarette and Chrissie's drink, and Chrissie pretends she wants to stay through the end of the folksinger. It's the worst pretext ever: the folksinger is singing a song that's about either a blow job or her psych medication, and she keeps wailing, You cannot make me swallow, and no one wants to listen to that. I'm hugging Brian good-bye and apologizing again when the phone rings. It's Tia. I step outside because I can't hear her over the background noise.
"Where the fuck are you?" she says.
"I'm in North Carolina," I say, "with Chrissie. I told you we were going."
"Did you?" she says. "Well, look, get back here. Uncle Bobby died. Everyone's at the hospital."
"OK," I say, and I take a minute to go get Chrissie, not because
I'm broken up, but because I feel like I'm supposed to be and I can't walk back in there too composed.
When I tell Chrissie, she doesn't lose it at first. We're standing outside the bar, and then she sits on the toadstool bench outside the place with her arms folded across her chest and the overhead light washing out her makeup. She looks like such a little kid then that I'm sorry I brought her here to begin with. For a minute she doesn't say anything, and then the floodgates open. It's the first time I've actually seen her cry in years, and it's so much that crying isn't even the right word for it. Brian comes out to check on us but when he sees her he walks to the corner of the parking lot.
"He doesn't even fucking talk to me," Chrissie says, when she can talk again. "All summer I've been there, and he doesn't even fucking talk to me. I would have sat there with him. I would have sat in that hospital with him all fucking summer long."
"He's trying to be a good dad," I say. "He's trying to protect you.
He's trying to be a man about things."
"Yeah, well. He's being an asshole," she says.
"They don't really know the difference," I say. "You'll go home.
He'll feel better. He won't say it, but he will."
"I won't feel better," she says, "I won't ever feel better."
"You will," I say, which may be a lie.
The best thing about the two years I spent with Jay is that splitting the rent let me pay off my credit cards, so I'm able to put Chrissie on a last-minute red-eye flight to Baltimore. Tia promises to pick her up there when the flight lands. I don't go back with her because of the car and because there's nothing for me to do there yet. The next few days will be comfort and shifting obligations, but no one will miss me or need me the way Chrissie's father needs her right now.
My own will take a few days to fl y back from India, and his current girlfriend, someone he met on a cruise to London, will be with him to comfort him in the meantime. Aunt Edie will have Tia. I am, for a moment, absurdly jealous of Chrissie, because there is not a single person in the world my mere presence will comfort right now, not a single place I need to be more than this one.
Brian's waiting in my car outside the airport. He drives without asking me which hotel, and I know if I end up at his apartment I'm not sleeping on the couch, but the thought of waking up next to him suddenly feels more terrifying than comforting, more like undoing something than fixing it.
"Stop," I say. "Stop the car."
"We're on the highway," he says.
"So get off the fucking highway, then," I say. At first I think he's going to ignore me, but he gets off at the next exit and pulls into the parking lot of a Waffle House just past the exit ramp.
"What's wrong now?" he asks.
I don't answer him, I just get out of the car and slam the door.
It's still Saturday night in the parking lot—more drunk strangers and other people's problems than I can handle right now—so, after watching a girl vomit into the bushes and then go back to screaming at someone on her cell phone, I bang on the window until Brian leans over and opens the passenger-side door. I sit back in the seat and fasten my seat belt while he leans his forehead against the steering turn away from him and look out the windshield, into the window of the Waffle House in front of us.
If you have ever been to a pancake house in the middle of the night, then you know how resolutely depressing it is—you live in one of the few cities where it is never actually the middle of the night. In a city like this one, the first hour or so after bar time may be upbeat, because people are still trying to get something from the night: joy or sex or gradual sobriety. At around five a.m. you'll see the first waves of people beginning the new day or ending the night with sleepless exuberance. But between those hours, the pancake house is a dead zone for possibility. Everyone is there for lack of something: good and nourishing food, sufficient coordination to drive the rest of the way home, an appropriate person to love or fuck, a reason to get up the next morning.
I allow myself to say out loud that maybe it is simple lack, and not some unbreakable connection, that has kept Brian and me attached to each other all this time; that for a long time all I've been in his presence is the absence of better things. He stays quiet. Through the window, I watch a middle-aged man in a trucker hat stare at the back silhouette of a girl in ripped fishnets and a too-tight miniskirt, not exactly lecherously, but like she is a planet he has never been to, something so far out of this reality that he might as well look carefully.
"Just fucking go," I say to Brian. "I'll be fine if you just go."
I can hear him breathing, and his arm is touching mine, but just barely.
"This is me," he says. "I'm not going to leave you. And anyway, it's your goddamn car, and I'm not walking home."
"Fine, then. Stay," I say.
I look away from the Waffle House window and back toward the highway. The traffic keeps going by, candy-painted SUVs, slick sports cars, an eighteen-wheeler.
"I should take you to your hotel," Brian says quietly, but he doesn't start the engine and he doesn't get out of the car, and we sit there like that, waiting for something better to present itself.
Excerpted from Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans, published in September 2010 by Riverhead. Copyright 2010 by Danielle Evans. All rights reserved.
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