AN INTRODUCTION BY JULIE BUNTIN
I remember exactly where I was when I started reading Back Talk, Danielle Lazarin’s debut collection of stories; in a car headed to the airport, angry at my attention span for resisting capture by two of the three books I’d brought, worried — yet again — that I was losing my ability to read. You know the feeling. You read sentences over and again, failing the books, failing yourself, condemned to staring out the window or mindlessly thumbing through Twitter.
Enter Back Talk, my last chance that day. From the first sentence of the first story in the collection, “Appetite,” excerpted here, my attention stopped cannibalizing itself, and took hold of the story in front of me. “In Val’s bedroom before Arthur Binder’s party, I have one of my black boots on my left foot, and one of my dead mother’s shoes — oxblood leather, two-inch heel — on my right.” The sentence itself is extraordinary, darting just ahead of where we think it might land, coming into focus when Lazarin modifies “mother” with “dead,” and juxtaposes that phrase against the jarring but lovely “oxblood leather.” It is hard to write a sentence that good; it is even harder to contain, within a sentence that good, a perfect blueprint for the story that follows. I have spent a lot of time talking about one sentence, when in truth, every line drew me through the book so fast that I had to read it again to pinpoint exactly what I’d found so tantalizing about each sentence. In “Appetite” — as in all the stories in Back Talk — there’s great pleasure in the collision between style and emotion, sometimes within a single image or phrase. “Appetite” follows a family in the aftermath of the loss of their mother: each character fumbles through their different experiences of grief, trying to reconcile themselves with the fact that hunger goes on, that the body goes on, that they will go on. Claudia, the narrator, is so street-smart, so wise, that I kept forgetting that she was fifteen, and then the first sentence would come back to me — dead mother — and I’d remember why.
Why is it that when we fall in love with a book, we so often remember the details just before our full immersion? The highway scrolling by, the mysterious popcorn smell in the backseat. Lazarin’s writing is so full of attention to her characters, to their internal landscapes — tipsy Claudia distracted by a pile of broken glass; the way it feels, in mourning, to unexpectedly encounter the lost person’s clothes — that being in their minds is an antidote to our mindlessness. To read such precise observations, language tuned to its clearest pitch, can give us back the gift of thought, of concentration. Lazarin helped me get outside of my head and see. Read her story.
Author of Marlena
Hunger Continues After Death
by Danielle Lazarin
In Val’s bedroom before Arthur Binder’s party, I have one of my black boots on my left foot, and one of my dead mother’s shoes — oxblood leather, two- inch heel — on my right. “Which one?” I ask Val.
“The right,” she says, “but with the first pair of jeans.”
“Yeah?” This is not the first time I’ve taken the shoes out of my parents’ room, but I’ve never worn them before.
“Yeah, definitely. Those new?”
“New-ish,” I say.
At the party, girls say they like my shoes and I say thank you; I pretend they are mine.
When Val follows her ex-boyfriend from the living room into a back bedroom, she leaves me on the arm of the chair she was just in, alone with a boy I don’t know. He’s looking straight at me as he exhales the last of a cigarette through the window screen before extinguishing it in his glass, one of the good ones from the locked part of the liquor cabinet. Because he is beyond handsome, and because he is likely out of my league, I say, “Can I help you?” trying my hardest not to smile.
“I know you,” he says, and pats his pockets for another cigarette.
“Oh yeah?” I am still trying to be cute, though he hasn’t said this in a flirtatious way.
“You and your friends ran out on the check at my uncles’ diner last weekend. You have a cigarette?”
It’s true. We were short ten dollars, and somehow it seemed smarter to not leave anything at all. I want to throw up. I also want to kiss him, this boy who clearly doesn’t want to kiss me back.
“I don’t. My mother died of lung cancer.”
“And before she died, she didn’t teach you not to steal?”
Come, my mother used to say when she was particularly frustrated with me, I want to hurt you, just a little bit, as she pinched me.
“Had you been boys, we would’ve come after you. Rich girls,” he says, shaking his head.
“I’m not the one in private school.”
“Have we met before?”
“Nope.” I don’t know him, but I recognize his friends; they go to an all-boys private school in the Bronx.
He tells me his name, George, and asks for mine, and then uses it when he offers to refill my empty cup, a plastic one. “Tell me what you want, Claudia,” he says, and I feel sweat under the band of my bra at my name in his mouth. While he’s in the kitchen, I peel off a twenty from sixty dollars I’m keeping for Val, who loses things too easily, who has yet to emerge from that back bedroom. I hold it out to him when he hands me my drink. “This is all I have, but give it to your uncles.”
Our fingers graze as he takes it. He thanks me. The diner, he explains, is the last of its kind in New York. “People like to eat shit out of trucks now,” he says.
At half past twelve George asks if I am staying much longer. I look at the door where Val is with her now-not ex. The last thing I want is to be stuck on a late-night subway platform with the two of them, as they paw at each other or rehash their last breakup. I find Val’s jacket in a pile in the bedroom and zip her two remaining twenties into a pocket.
Once outside, George asks, “Which way?”
“Me too,” he says, but already I don’t believe him.
George rides with me to my stop, the last one. He walks the five blocks to my building as if he knows where he is going. When I ask him where he lives, he points downtown and east. “Oh, that way,” I tease him. “Yes, precisely,” he replies.
He takes the step below mine outside my building, asks, “Is your mother really dead?”
“I’m wearing her shoes,” I say, and we both look down at my feet.
“Doesn’t prove anything.”
“I may be a thief, but I’m not a liar.”
“Will we?” I ask, when I want to ask why he hasn’t kissed me, when he does, with one hand on my waist, which he uses to push me gently toward the building when he’s done. On the train he put his number in my phone but won’t take mine. “You’ll call,” he assures me, shooing me up the steps. He doesn’t move from his step until I am through both sets of locked doors and safely in the lobby.
Our building used to be grand, sixty years ago. Now the floor dips right before the elevator, worn down by years of impatient waiting. The mosaic around the mailboxes needs cleaning and repair; the crests of its ocean waves, though we live nowhere near the ocean, swell no more. Tiles fall off every month; the super slips them into his pocket with a headshake. When I was a child, I’d work them like loose teeth. “Stop that,” my father would say while flipping through the mail, and I would put my hands at my sides, my fingers itching to finish the work. Back then, Josef was our super; he’d cup my chin every time I brought him a tile, as though I were bringing him gold coins. When Josef moved upstate to live near his grandkids, we got a new super. He’s good at fixing plumbing, but he doesn’t talk much; he doesn’t smile at the kids, though I guess I am not a kid anymore. A few upscale restaurants have moved in; more strollers, nicer ones, take up the sidewalks, the steps to the subway station, but our building seems to be falling down despite this, despite all the people who show up in our neighborhood with their money and their dreams and their ripe uteruses. Somewhere in the building’s basement, there is a collection of tiles big enough to construct a new ocean.
The elevator smells of my neighbors’ sins: takeout, trash, too much perfume. In my fifteen years, I’ve ridden with them all: the pot dealer in 8C; Mr. Rivera, his crumpled receipts falling from his jacket pockets; dirty boots and hangovers; and my parents, who gathered themselves in a steely silence after a fight, before they entered the world pretending to be happier than they were. Tonight, I am grateful to ride alone, to not have anyone know I am coming home this late.
Off the elevator, I slide out of the shoes, rest for a moment barefoot on the cool floors of the hallway. It’s not the heel that bothers me, but the toes; they pinch. I only remember my mother wearing the shoes twice: to a cousin’s bar mitzvah, and to a dinner with my grandparents. Both times she ended the evening in stockinged feet. The shoes are at least twenty years old but it’s as though no one has worn them, and I count on this when I return them to my parents’ closet in the morning, while my father is buying the paper. I’m not sure Dad even knows they’re there anymore, that he can remember what we’ve kept of hers and what we’ve thrown out. The only evidence is the slight ache I have in my arches the next day, a secret he’s not interested in discovering.
I was twelve when my mother died. It took three years. Before she left, we let her have as much anger and fear as she wanted, even as it suffocated the rest of us.
My older sister, Michelle, asked once to go to boarding school.
“You only have a little more than a year to go,” Dad reminded her.
“I just want out of here,” she whimpered across the kitchen table, and my mother gave a little moan from the other room as if to say she was on her side. Then Mich leaned over her baked ziti and cried. I remember thinking how selfish she was; I thought she was crying because Dad had said no. He returned to his dinner, wiping his mustache between bites.
Seven months after my mother’s death, Mich left for college. Last spring break, her sophomore year, while everyone else her age was getting tan and wasted on beaches in the southern United States, Mich came home. It felt foolish to even utter the word spring in New York; moisture still dripped, cold, from the heating pipe in the bathroom, from our noses. It had been a miserable winter. The snow fell regularly but wouldn’t stick. The sidewalks were slicked with a sheet of ice so thin we walked with our feet clenched for months.
I’d imagined Mich coming home with interesting friends and stories, with music I’d never heard of, but most of our conversations were her clucking at me, her tone dripping with the kind of pity I’d been trying to shake now that I was finally in high school, now that fewer people knew the big horrible thing that had happened to us. But instead, college had made her more serious than she already was. She either dismissed her classmates for their ignorance about “real-world problems” or droned on endlessly about her course work, always circling back to impending world collapse, alternately due to population explosion, political implosion, or the general stupidity of humanity.
During that break, she insisted we sit down for dinner every night, as though we had ever done this. One night she made us roasted chicken and potatoes, with two kinds of greens she’d taken the train all the way to the market at Union Square to get. As soon as we sat, she started talking, and I was eating because in truth, it had been a while since we’d had food that good. Dad was too consumed by his chicken to even nod along to Mich’s chatter like he usually did. They both had bottles of beer at the top of their plates, and I could tell he was relaxed, happy to have her home.
The whole time she talked she was shaking salt onto her potatoes and it was as though she was unaware she was doing it, a zombie’s hand at work. I waited for her to take her first bite and be shocked by the snowcap of salt she was amassing on the world’s smallest pile of mashed potatoes, but she forgot to do that, too.
“I think I’m just going to stay home,” she said. “I don’t think college is for me. Not now.”
My father put his fork down and reached out to touch her shoulder. And for the twentieth time in my recent memory, Mich cried in her food at our table.
I took more mashed potatoes, because it was clear no one else had the stomach for them. There was a time, my father says, when I didn’t eat, when I refused to sit at a table for more than a few minutes, the world far more interesting than food. I don’t remember that. I’m not one of those girls. I have an appetite.
The morning after I meet George, I hear my father on the phone, early, before he’s started the coffee. When I come out to the kitchen, he’s leaning against the counter, phone in his hand, hair askew. “Come downstairs with me?” he asks. “Your sister’s here.”
Back in New York, Mich found a boyfriend, someone she had gone to high school with who she’d always had a thing for. She moved in with him in Queens over the summer, and my father and I got our quiet back. When she comes uptown to see us now, she’s a touch lighter than she was when she was at school. As we wait on the same steps I was on with George hours earlier, I ask my father if that’s over now, too, if John broke up with Mich.
“She didn’t say, exactly. I don’t really know.”
“Okay,” I say, not asking him what he didn’t ask her.
“And weren’t you staying at Val’s last night?” my father asks.
“Changed my mind.”
“Just let me know next time, will ya?”
“It was late. I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Just send a text,” he says, but doesn’t ask how I got home, who took me home.
A few minutes later, John’s car is idling at the curb. My sister slams her door and starts unloading blankets from the backseat into my father’s arms. Dad’s glaring at John, who stares out the front windshield as though none of us are there. Dad wants to drop the blankets and be that father, the one who gets in the face of his daughter’s shitty boyfriend, but he’s too busy being the father holding the pile of blankets.
“Some help here, Claudia,” Mich says. Her voice is hoarse, her cheeks flushed.
“What, your arms don’t work?” I say to John through the small opening of the passenger’s side window. When I close the trunk, he drives away.
The three of us wait for the elevator, our arms full. No one wants to be the one to say it, but after a few minutes it’s clear the elevator is broken. Dad starts up the stairs with his load and Mich and I follow. We haul each box, each garbage bag stuffed with clothes, up the five flights silently, until we are done.
There’s a spare bedroom, but it’s the one Mom died in, the one that was mine before the cancer came, the one we all pretend isn’t there. Mich drops a bag on the bed opposite mine, into the mess of my schoolwork and discarded outfits.
“I’ll move it later,” she tells me.
“It’s okay,” I say. “We’ll figure it out.”
The first place George takes me is the diner. We’re walking around Midtown one afternoon the following week, and he asks me if I’m hungry and I say yes. It’s so different in the daylight, I don’t realize where we are till his uncles are around us, kissing him on both cheeks. They call him Georgie and wink at him while looking me over. They do not seem to share his memory of the night I was last here.
“It’s okay,” he says as he takes my coat and hangs it on a hook between the bathrooms. He directs me to a stool at the end of the counter; he fills a cup with water for me. Through the window that leads to the kitchen, George says something to the cooks in broken Spanish. They wave him in, and he tells me to sit tight. I watch him push up the sleeves of his shirt and cook, the gentle way he moves the eggs around the griddle, his long eyelashes, the curves of his muscles under his T-shirt. Plate in hand, he motions toward an empty booth. George sits next to me while I eat, chewing ice cubes from his soda cup, taking bites of my omelet without asking. As his extended family rushes around us, looking sideways at the kitchen while they take orders, at us, George lifts my free hand and kisses the back of it. “Good?” he asks about the eggs.
“So good,” I say. “Thank you.”
Before we leave, he buses the table, not letting me help. This is how the next eight months will go: George won’t ask me what I want but he will give me what I need. Here I am, being a kind of girl I swore I’d never be, but it’s just for a little while, and I like letting him handle it, every time he tells me something is okay even when it’s not.
The dog in the apartment next door howls. We can’t ever figure out why — it’s not sirens, or doorbells, or fighting neighbors. One evening, I find Mich in the kitchen, listening.
“So sad,” she says, and gestures to the wall with a half-peeled carrot.
“You’ve never noticed that?”
She shakes her head.
“He’s been doing that for years.”
She returns to her pile of vegetables. This is how my sister is all the time now, her hands on some long-ignored kitchen tool, or flipping through one of my parents’ old cookbooks, its pages so unused I can hear the spine cracking as she presses her weight into the book. She wears an apron more than she wears shoes, only leaving for her job at the library or grocery shopping. She turns her phone off for days. The battery drains, and when she recharges it, there are messages from her friends, whom she waits weeks to call back. She’s never been better, I hear her tell them, another lie in our house.
The last time we went to the store together, she popped an old CD of my mother’s, Nina Simone, into the car stereo. “I love this song,” she said when “Ne Me Quitte Pas” came on, raising the volume. “Listen,” she said to me, and I let her translate each lyric for me, even though I take French. She got through the part where Simone sings about being her lover’s shadow: of the shadow itself, of his hand, of the goddamn dog. Her voice cracked on this last one. “Ugh, it’s so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it,” she said. “Right?” She smiled, but in that sad way of hers.
There was a time when I would have argued with her, or at least laughed at her intensity, but I like coming home to find her in the kitchen; I like eating her food, sitting with her while she makes it.
“Whoa,” I said, and she took this as agreement.
Today, I take my usual spot on the other side of the island where she’s working.
“Shit. It’s five thirty already?” Mich asks, pushing a strand of still-wet hair out of her face. She gets clean for cooking the way other people would for dates or jobs, so at least there’s that.
“Five thirty-two,” I tell her, reading the time from my phone, where there are no messages from George. He’d rather see me, he says. I think of watching him come around the corner toward me earlier this afternoon, how his steps quickened when he spotted me.
“Where were you all this time?”
“With George,” she says, a conclusion.
Mich purses her lips before igniting a burner. “He’s taking up a lot of your time.”
“He’s not taking it. I am giving it to him.”
She pours oil in a pot. Her hand still on the bottle, she asks, “Have you?”
“Not yet,” I say.
“Well, be careful,” she says.
“Yes, I know, condoms and all that.”
“Well, yeah, but that’s not what I meant.” She shakes her head. “Can you grab me a clean dish towel?”
I find one in the drawer next to the sink. My mother’s mind, efficient till nearly the end, is still at work in our kitchen, even if she rarely used it to cook, not like this. Mich pours me a glass of wine from the bottle she’s cooking with. When she hands it to me, I can smell herbs on her fingertips. She says, “But that’s it,” though I haven’t even asked for any.
She bangs a wooden spoon against the top of the pot, shaking off bits of onion. “You should invite him for dinner.”
“I want to meet him.”
“Yes, but does Dad?”
“Dad just wants us to be happy, that’s all.”
I picture George at our table, the way he spreads his elbows when he eats. He’d sit in the chair my mother used to sit in, next to my father, because that’s the only one left. Would doing so cause Mich to cry into her food again? Just last night I caught her looking at pictures of John online, with new girlfriends, perhaps. He is leaning into the laps of so many different girls in these photos, it’s hard to tell if he’s committed to any one of them in particular.
“I don’t care,” she said. “I just want to know.” She had a glass of wine in one hand, the rest of the bottle on the windowsill next to her bed. Dad buys these for her, too.
“It would be okay if you did care,” I said.
“But I don’t. I just want to see again that he’s a douchebag.”
She nodded her assent but kept clicking.
“It isn’t worse, right?” I ask in the kitchen, after a few sips of wine have made us both comfortable. “A love heartbreak, over what we went through with Mom?”
She rolls her eyes. “That’s stupid. You don’t even know how stupid that is,” she says.
“How could that feel worse? I don’t understand.”
“Not worse, but, well, you don’t understand. It’s just . . .”
“Yes, fuck,” she says, and stirs her soup.
One Friday morning Val and I are on the same bus to school. She stands above me, her hip against the pole. Her earbuds dangle from her hands, as though she is thinking of putting them back in.
“You going tonight, to that party on the East Side?” I ask her.
“I don’t know yet,” she says, the start of a string of maybes till, by spring, she’ll barely be talking to me at all. She scrunches up her pale face before she says, “You think it’s a good idea to bring George?”
The week before, George, a little drunk, forcefully removed the arm of one of our friends from my shoulder. The friend said he was bruised, but he’s a known exaggerator.
“He goes to an all-boys school; he doesn’t get it,” I say. And then, “George is the nicest guy I’ve ever met.”
“To you, maybe.”
When we get off the bus I start up the stairs without her; I’m late for French. I overslept this morning; Mich must have turned off my alarm, and though I’m planning to be furious with her for it, midway through class I reach into my bag for my workbook to find she packed me a lunch. Today it’s a stack of handmade summer rolls, pomegranate seeds, and a hunk of cheddar she made me promise not to tell Dad the price per pound of, each in its own container, and a five-dollar bill, her backup plan, folded in thirds at the bottom of the brown paper bag. I eat in a corner of the library, hiding the bag behind a physics textbook, alone and happy about it.
That night, I go with George to the party. On the train uptown afterward, I lay my legs across his lap. We make jokes about the couple standing by the doors fighting, a pair of earbuds stringing them together. We think we won’t ever be them; we can’t possibly. Mostly, though, we ride in silence — a good silence, not like the one Val gave me at the party, not like the one that settles over the dinner table at home after we’ve run out of things to say about the food Mich has made.
I drank too much at the party. We get off a stop early so I can get some air. We walk along Seaman Avenue, Inwood Hill Park dark and empty next to us. Tipsy, I think the puddles of smashed car windows on the sidewalk are works of art. So many little pieces to reflect the streetlights, and I want to get closer, and I do, and then George’s arm is across my ribs, holding me up.
“Hey,” he says. “You’ll hurt yourself.” He waltzes me away from the glass to a bench. He sits next to me.
When he pulls out a cigarette, he apologizes. He always does.
“I don’t care,” I say. “Really. It’s not like I’m going to marry you and you’ll die on me like my mom did.”
“Um, all of it.”
“You are going to marry me, then?”
When I turn to look at him, George is staring back at me as though he wouldn’t be afraid if I said yes, even if I meant it. No man has ever looked at me so fearlessly, not even my own father.
“Smoking had nothing to do with it,” I tell him. Then, I still believed my mother had stopped smoking before either of us was born. I didn’t know that she’d walk to the park after Mich and I had gone to bed, sit on a bench like the one we are sitting on now. Then, this belief mattered.
“I didn’t mean that, to upset you.” He puts his hand on my knee.
I take his half-smoked cigarette from his fingers, stealing a drag before I stub it out under my boot. I climb onto his lap and draw my legs around him, kissing the bones around his eyes, his jaw. Underneath his coat, I find his belt buckle.
“Not here,” he says, and takes my hands out.
When we are pressed against each other somewhere — at parties; lately, midday at my apartment — the only thing George will say about it is “No rush.” He says it into my ear, with that sweet smile of his, and even though I will say to him that I’m fine, that I want to keep going, he is the one who stops us. Maybe he is afraid of me after all.
On the bench, I whisper to him, “No one is here. No one is watching.”
He laughs, says, “Someone is always watching,” before giving my longest finger one hard suck, before he convinces me it’s time to go home.
One Tuesday I cut pre-calc to meet George. Mich is at work; I check her shifts, which she puts on a calendar she’s bought in the kitchen. Her life is the only one on it. The elevator is broken again, but I make it up the stairs without seeing any neighbors. I drop my backpack and jacket by the front door, which I leave unlocked for George, as he knows it will be, as he knows to lock it behind him. I’m early, and I have to pee. I walk past my father’s bedroom, the door to which is open, which is odd; he shuts it every morning, though Mich tells him it’s better to air the apartment out, and she’ll crack the windows till we have a nice draft going that no one wants either. She must have opened the door before she left. When I go to shut it, I see them: two sets of soles, a mass arching the blanket that’s always folded at the end of the bed. Just feet, but it’s enough. They don’t hear me. He won’t know, but I’ll know, always.
I grab my things and shut the door, push the elevator button, forgetting. I get down the stairs as fast as I can in socks. I run into George on the third floor.
I have to sit down; I can’t even make it to the next landing. I put my head on my knees and breathe. A school social worker taught me this in sixth grade, when I thought I was having a panic attack. My mother wasn’t even dead yet, but I practiced it, because I knew I would need it one day.
George rubs my spine. “Hey,” he says. “What’s going on?”
“My dad is fucking some woman in our apartment,” I say from between my knees.
“Come,” he says, taking my shoes from me and undoing the knots. “Let’s go.” He slides them on my feet, ties the laces again. We go out the front door of my building together, quickly, but George holds my hand, makes it seem like we’re in no rush at all.
On Sunday Dad and I are in the car, the trunk full of groceries. He is whistling, though the radio is tuned to a talk station. It is one of those moist winter days when you could be tricked into believing spring will be here soon, except for the gritty piles of snow that sit at the edges of the sidewalks, for the fact that the calendar is just over the hump of March. At the supermarket, we followed the pattern we’ve fallen into when shopping for Mich: my father steering the cart, calling out the contents of the list to me. He doesn’t like reading the boxes, and he is easily confused by the various green leaves of herbs, so I bring the items to the cart, which he still fills with what we’ve always eaten: the same shape of pasta, rotisserie chicken, pre-sliced cheese, things Mich rolls her eyes at when she puts them away. Every week, as my father watches her items move across the scanner, he mumbles, “Cheaper than therapy,” and half-grimaces.
I spent the past few days recalling to George the odd hair clips or new kinds of pens that have surfaced on the coffee table, the multiple confirmations of my spending the night out every now and then, and these kinds of moods — whistling and an unfamiliar lightness — that overtake my father so rarely I don’t want to ruin them by asking where they come from.
“What if he marries her?” I said to George.
He shook his head. “He won’t,” he said, but I thought of my father reciting the mourner’s kaddish at my mother’s funeral when I’d never heard him utter a prayer, of all the things I don’t know about him.
Dad takes the Dyckman exit off the highway, and as we take the hard left onto Henshaw, the CD, the Nina Simone, starts playing. The car does this sometimes; no one cares to get it fixed, but usually one of us switches back to the radio or shuts the CD off. Neither of us does that today. It’s in the middle of that song, the one that Mich played for me.
“What language did you take in high school?” I ask him.
“Useful,” I say, trying to be sarcastic, but when I’m nervous everything I say is monotone and even, and he misses my joke.
“Not really,” he says.
“I’m worried about Mich,” I say, in the same tone.
“What about?” he asks, his eyes on the road.
“She seems…” I search for the right word, but the best I can do is “bad.”
“You mean about John? That’s just a little heartache. She’ll be fine.” He goes back to whistling; the track has switched to something that’s more in line with his birdsong, and he picks it up.
Of course he believes this, because what is love in my family if not inked in suffering? Mich crying in her bed in the mornings before she thinks I’m awake, the line of women who leave my father by various means — cancer, growing up — the girlfriends who will never last more than half a year at best, or who he’ll push away (I’ll never know; I’ll never be kind enough to ask). Even my mother’s favorite stories were about the outrageous fights of our downstairs neighbors, all the words and shattering objects we were privy to. “It was like a war,” she’d say, gleefully. Ne me quitte pas, everyone in my family sings, happy to hear about suffering, willing to be the shadow of someone’s dog. But I am not yet sixteen, and I am still afraid of pain — for myself, for all of us.
I shut off the music. “I know about your girlfriend,” I say.
“She’s not my girlfriend. Not that that is your business.”
“Whatever. I saw her on Tuesday, at the apartment.”
“And why weren’t you in school?”
I don’t answer. I didn’t plan to mention the woman; I didn’t plan to have to explain myself.
“Claudia. Why were you home?” he asks again.
“I was meeting George.”
We turn onto our block. All the questions that follow cross his face. He pulls a U-turn up to the hydrant by the side entrance of the building. He pops the trunk of the car but doesn’t unlatch his seatbelt.
“Get the groceries.”
“God, don’t you see it? Don’t you see anything anymore?” I ask.
I sit in the front seat, waiting for an answer, or a punishment, as he gets out of the car and starts lifting the bags out. Then he opens my door for me. He’s gone before I can get the bags in my hands.
Upstairs, Mich is working on her latest obsession, some historic pasta sauce she found in a book. Yesterday, she went to three different shops on Arthur Avenue for the ingredients. I drop the bags at her feet. “What’s wrong with you?” she asks. Her face falls into a reflection of mine, sour. I wonder if we still look alike, the way we did during that brief period of time when we only wanted to be with each other, and suctioned ourselves to one another’s bodies on the street, on the subway. Mich went to middle school and that stopped, along with people commenting on our resemblance. “You look sick.”
“Yeah. I’m not feeling well,” I say, and go into the bathroom.
“Dad parking?” she calls out after me.
I don’t answer.
I strip out of my clothes and get into a hot shower, where I can cry in peace. Mich comes and knocks on the door but that, too, I pretend I don’t hear.
Dad comes home with two bottles of wine, whistling again, but he isn’t talking to me. It’s muggy in the apartment, and the long cooking of sausages and tomatoes only makes it more so. I pour myself a glass of wine. Both Dad and Mich notice it, but neither says anything. They talk about the markets on Arthur Avenue, how much they’ve stayed the same since Dad was a kid, how his father, an otherwise observant Jew, once brought home a pork sausage and his mother lost it on him. My father eats with gusto, even though tomato sauce gives him heartburn, even though there are beads of sweat on his brow. Halfway through dinner he stands to take off his shirt, tossing it onto an empty chair. He finishes the meal in his undershirt, a white V-neck that barely conceals his hairy chest. “It’s good,” he says to her, and she says she’s glad he likes it.
Dad offers to do the dishes, and I go straight to my room. “You feeling better?” Mich asks when she comes in a little later. She takes her socks off, puts them in the hamper.
“You need anything?”
“No,” I mumble into my pillow.
I listen to her undressing, zippers and the pull of a brush through her hair. She says, “Look, they’re never gonna be who you think they are. It’s better to start lowering your expectations now. It’s the only way to be happy.”
I want to tell her it’s not George, that it’s Dad, that it’s a woman who will always be a stranger to us, that I am scared I’ll never remember our mother correctly, but I’m so afraid of breaking Mich’s heart any further that I don’t, not that night, not ever. I pull my blanket up over my chin and say good night.
I invite George to dinner in the same breath I tell him about the fight with my father. We’re walking out of a movie. Outside, the late winter wind has returned like those muggy days never happened. It hits me in the chest, but George puts his arm around my shoulders.
“Ah, I don’t know if that’s the best idea,” he says.
“He’ll like you,” I say.
“No,” he says, “he will not.”
He’s right. No matter how polite George is, my father will sniff out his cigarettes, how easily I take his lead.
“So what?” I say. “Fuck him.”
“That’s your dad, Claudia. Respect him.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“You’ve only got one parent left. Don’t fuck it up, and don’t use me to do it.” His arm is still firmly around my shoulders. George was always kind to me, even when he wasn’t being gentle.
At the corner I stick my hand up for a cab as though I have the money. It’s a long ride, all the way west, uptown. Someone will be up; someone will pay for it. They will be upset, but they will do it.
“What are you doing?” George asks me.
“Going home. Alone.”
“Okay,” he says, and kisses my cheek as a cab pulls up.
By the time we hit the West Side Highway, the Hudson black out my window, all I can see is George as he held the cab door open for me, him letting me go. The cab takes the curves of the outline of Manhattan, and I concentrate on the sound of wheels going over the highway like the gallops of a large horse. Uptown, nothing glitters at you. Mostly what you see is New Jersey, not a rising skyline, not the possibilities of all the lives waiting to cross your path. You try not to look back when you head in this direction.
Mich is waiting outside the building, welcoming my heart break home with a credit card she hands me through the cab’s window. When I get out of the car she puts her arm around me, asks if I am okay.
“I just want to go to bed,” I say.
“I know,” she answers.
“I’ll come,” George says. We’re lying on my bed on our stomachs, watching the rain hit the windows.
“Invitation rescinded,” I say.
It’s predictable, how my saying no to him ignites a hunger for me, the way it makes him behave more like a teenage boy than ever before, as if he is remembering in one fell swoop all the yeses I’ve given to him before this no, the foolishness of his insistence that we be so sure, leave no room for doubt. He leans on his elbow, starts to rub my back. All of our clothes are off within minutes. I get what I want, and when it’s over he recovers everything he has tossed to the floor as he undressed me: each sock and T-shirt layer; he turns my jeans the right way around before he hands them to me.
In New York, everyone wants to lay claim to a piece of something. They write on the walls of the subway tunnels, where it’s dark and wet and full of rats. They stay long enough to write poems. I lay claim to George for a little while, and then I let him go because I think it’s good practice for the rest of my life, because I think the longer you love someone the more it hurts, the more you have to imagine them in places they’ll never be again. I thought at some point in my life I’d stop having those dreams about my mother, dreams so stupid and small they could be memories, but they’re not: her sitting in the passenger’s seat of the car, or locking the front door, then checking her coat pocket for her wallet. I thought I understood a way around loss. I wait a month before I tell George we shouldn’t be together anymore, before his breath on any part of my body stops making me crazy with desire, before I say that it hurts me more than it hurts him, because I need to believe that’s true. For years, I’ll picture him where he no longer is: the maroon sweater he folds, the school insignia face-up, and leaves on Mich’s bed, the gentle way he closes a door; I’ll fill the apartment with more ghosts.
On the evening after I have sex with George, I come home to Mich and Dad standing over three trash bags in the living room. Mom’s clothes are draped over the couch; the plastic hangers she so hated litter the rug in a messy stack. We’ve tried to clean out Mom’s room before, but it hasn’t ever been enough. I touch a dress over the easy chair. I want to remember her wearing it, but I can’t. There is a small pile on the end of the couch where I usually sit. Things for someone — it’s not clear who — to keep. The clothes don’t even smell like anything except our house, and that is a smell I won’t recognize till I’ve moved out, years later, when Dad mails me a jacket I left in the apartment by mistake.
“What can I do?” I ask, though I do not want to do anything.
Mich hands me a box of jewelry. “Pick out anything that looks nice.” She examines the bottom of a pair of shoes to see how worn they are. I look at her, but she isn’t looking back. “Or that you want,” she adds.
After a few minutes, I put the jewelry in my hands back into the box. Play stuff, my mother would say. It doesn’t remind me of her, but still.
“I’m going to order a pizza,” I say. I am starving.
“I was going to make us cod,” Mich says.
“Pizza’s great,” Dad says. “Then you can both help. We can get it done, once and for all.”
I can’t, but Mich does. She saves me a few things — a pair of earrings my mother wore as a girl, a couple of dresses I am still not the right size for, whose shoulders bear the bumps of crappy hangers, untouched for too long. The shoes are nowhere. Maybe I should have asked for them, but I didn’t.
It’s summer and I’m at the park, walking a dog Mich says we are just fostering but that she’ll try and convince my father, unsuccessfully, to keep, till she moves out again, deciding that a life with a dog is a fine substitution for the company of a man, for us. The dog’s name is Taco. He’s small and scrappy and always sticking his snout along the baseboards, making me paranoid we have mice. Still, I like having a reason to get out, to separate the chunks of time between my babysitting jobs, walking kids home from camp and cutting up apples for them, and shopping runs for Mich.
I take Taco out to the edge of the peninsula, where even on a muggy day like today you can still find a breeze. Under the trees, the ground is dirt dry, littered with bottle caps and ribbons from balloons from birthday parties, two of which are in full swing around me. I’m pouring water into my palm for Taco, feeling a bit crazy for doing so, when I hear the whoops of the boys up on C-Rock. All summer long they jump from the cliff edge, scaling who knows what just for a chance to plunge into a dirty river with a current that could kill any one of them. Today, must be five boys up on those rocks. Bare chested, T-shirts tucked into the back pockets of their shorts. I know George has done it, not with the boys he goes to school with, but the ones he’s known since he was young, before private school. When he first told me, I refused to believe him. When I understood he was serious I asked, “Isn’t it cold? And dangerous? You could die.”
“Nah, it feels good. It’s beautiful.”
We were on the roof of a building down the block from me, where one of his cousins was a super. When the metal door closed behind us I felt like we were going to be locked out up there, in a place we weren’t supposed to be. And then I turned around to see the view. The last bend of the Harlem River. The other rooftops, empty. And George, freshly showered, grinning ear-to-ear, as though he’d built every one of the things before us, laid each brick, cut the pathway for the canal, made the leaves of spring begin to bud. He was wearing a clean white T-shirt, a nice pair of jeans; the breeze was warm. He’d brought a blanket, a bottle of wine.
I turned to look at C-Rock, the river below, how little shore there was beneath. I didn’t know which part of it he thought the beauty was in — the proximity to death, the feel of the freezing water rising to meet you on a hot summer day — but I didn’t want to picture him doing it. I covered my eyes. “Let’s not talk about it anymore, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, and took my hands off my eyes, placed them around his waist. Over his shoulder, I watched a lone yellow cab try to find its way out of a tangle of one-way streets, like a fish separated from its school, desperate and hungry and alone.
On the peninsula, Taco crawls under the bench, where there’s shade. And then I see George, next in line. I don’t know if it’s him, actually. It looks like him to me, how he holds his body, or in this case, doesn’t — no hands over his knees, not fetal and scared like the kid who went before, who yelped like a kicked puppy. This boy’s arms are out to the world. No screaming, just falling.