by Amy Feltman
“Can I say it?” I ask.
“You can say it if you want,” Lucy says. “I don’t want to deprive you of your agency.” She goes heavy on the Women’s Studies speak when she’s upset. The car engine makes a kind of wheezing sound. I forgot to move the driver’s seat back and my lanky legs are uncomfortably scrunched. Lucy looks out the window as we drive past the cornfields, the sun warm on our cheeks and arms. The road is mostly empty, three thirty on a Tuesday afternoon. We both have off from work, our funeral clothes still on the floor of Lucy’s bedroom from last week. Her eyes are the color of Anjou pears.
“I love you,” I tell her, and squeeze her knee in the spot where she’s most ticklish. She involuntarily laughs, and then looks pissed at me for it, which is okay. The sky is wildly cloudless, flat horizon everywhere I can see. Somebody on the side of the road is selling blackberries and peaches from a wooden shack. Lucy scoops her dark, thick hair into a ponytail and rolls down the window, curling her fingernails over the glass.
“Words don’t really signify anything,” she says. “My dad used to say it, too, but he sure as shit didn’t mean it.” There are lots of things she could be referring to, but this doesn’t seem like the time to ask questions.
“He probably did, the best way he could,” I say. Three years ago, when Lucy was a sophomore in college, she got a C on her math final and he brought home slices of watermelon and marble pound cake. Consolation prize. We sat on the deck and ate it all, getting mosquito bites and finding comfort in the silence. At least that’s how I felt about it. Though later Lucy said she wished, just once, he would try to make her feel better with something besides food. “It’s like I’m a dog,” she said.
“Walker,” Lucy says, as the car rocks slightly while we turn onto our exit. Through the window, the grass patches bordering the highway seem fluorescent and unforgiving. “You know what I appreciate about you?”
I can’t tell whether she’s about to be sarcastic or sentimental. “What?”
“That you assume the best of everyone,” she says. “It’s a really beautiful quality in you. But, right now? I just want to vilify him. Can we do that?” I nod, pulling down my baseball cap down further over my eyes.
When we get to Lucy’s house, her mom, Maureen, is scrubbing the outsides of Tupperware containers. Yellow plastic gloves that dangle loosely around her elbows cover her hands, and I can tell from the lump on her right finger that she’s still wearing her wedding ring. “Violet,” she calls. “Is that you?”
“Wrong daughter,” Lucy says, kicking off her sandals into the center of the living room. The patchwork quilt on the sofa is not quite covering the cigarette burn stain on the right cushion. I adjust it carefully, and Lucy gives me a look which says, everything is flawed; don’t try to hide it.
“Church tomorrow at eight,” Maureen says. “Hi, Walker.”
“I plan to be asleep tomorrow at eight,” Lucy says. “But your warm invitation is duly noted.”
“Walker, you see you have to clean the outsides of the containers too?” Maureen says, tilting her head to the side to acknowledge me and ignore Lucy. Her face is splotched with pink, whiskery lines of mascara scattered around her wrinkled eyes. “Because otherwise, the bugs. They will come.”
“Cleanliness is important,” I agree.
“Infestation,” Maureen says. “Imminent.” She’s scrubbing furiously. The sound of the water running fills the kitchen. It smells like Clorox and ham. Lucy takes a seat at the wooden table, fiddling with a pile of plastic cutlery and a purple vase filled with mummified carnations.
“Maureen, maybe—“ I start.
“All your father wanted was for you to get right with God,” Maureen blurts out suddenly. Lucy doesn’t reply, and I look at my shoes, which are speckled with dust and dirt. “For you to be married in the church where your father and I got married, and Violet and Joe. For you to be—“
“Well,” Lucy interrupts, her face flushing. “It’s a shame about those kindergarteners I murdered last week, then.”
“Irreverent,” Maureen mumbles, barely audible over the sink. “Impossible.”
“Maureen, why don’t you go lie down?” I suggest. “Lucy and I can finish washing those containers for you.”
“They’re clean,” Lucy mumbles, low enough so that only I can hear.
“When I was twenty-three, I had a full-time job and a baby,” Maureen says, aggressively staring at the back of Lucy’s head. The line where Lucy’s hair used to be dyed red runs through her ponytail like a current. Maureen rips the gloves loudly off of her wrists and then places them sweetly on the countertop before leaving the room.
At the dinner table, Violet has mismatched potholders over both hands and a glob of mashed potato clinging to her hip. She stares at the chicken with a frozen smile on her face, trying to figure out the best angle to begin carving. The skin of the bird looks crispy and inviting, the smell of kosher salt heavy in the air. Joe is touching the tip of his pocketknife to his index finger, his thick eyebrows positioned into an expression of enthusiasm. We’re all hungry. Violet brings the chef’s knife onto the wooden cutting board and winces at the sound of metal against wood. Lucy bites her lower lip so that it seems to crawl underneath her tongue.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Violet says, then repeats her accidental motion: metal, wood, metal, wood, metal, wood. Then her puffy lower lip falls open, remembering that there’s no need to observe their father’s compulsions any longer. Dinner was the hardest for him. They tried Styrofoam cups, plastic cutlery, but it didn’t help. Every action with a fork or knife took him four times as long as the rest of us. He sat, hunched at the table, trying desperately to finish his lasagna before it got gummy and cold, Maureen drinking glasses of wine to accompany him, eventually turning on an incarnation of Law and Order to pass the time until he’d beg for her to just leave.
It had gotten better, then worse. Then worse.
Probably took him all fucking day to do it, Lucy had joked, and I touched her shoulder while she laughed, a rattling, prolonged laugh that sounded like a cat toy that had gotten stuck inside a dryer.
“Just cut through it,” Lucy says.
“I want to get it right.”
“I can help you, baby,” Joe volunteers, pushing up his sleeves to show his muscles. He has the kind of arms that always look flexed and camera-ready. All of my limbs are twiggy and brittle. I kept thinking I’d grow out of it, but here I am, a twenty-something with the body of a fifteen-year-old, eczema on my elbows. A chin sharp like a shark’s tooth.
“Isn’t this what husbands are for?” Lucy asks.
Violet’s face reddens. Her overtweezed eyebrows furrow together. “Thanks, baby,” she says quietly to Joe, sliding into the chair. Her seat cushion slides from underneath her, the bright blue sunflower print of the fabric making her pale legs look unevenly pink. “I don’t appreciate your tone,” she shoots back at Lucy, who is folding her paper napkin into a tiny rectangle—sixteenths, thirty-seconds.
“I don’t appreciate being lectured at for an hour about my life choices.”
“I just don’t understand why you’re so resistant to doing what everybody else does,” Violet says. “Who made you this special snowflake? That you get to say husband like it’s a dirty word. That you get to turn your piggy nose down at everybody who believes.”
“I do not,” Lucy says, “have a piggy nose.”
“Your nose is perfect,” I say.
“Fine,” Violet says, putting her arms up like a prisoner. “Your nose is a work of art. Your nose rivals the Mona Lisa.”
Joe cuts the chicken’s legs and breasts and thighs into shards of meat.
Suicide is basically murder, Violet had said. He’s basically a murderer, and we took turns hugging her so that she would stop talking.
“What’s so wrong with a traditional life?” Violet asks her, putting her hand over Joe’s. He takes the hint, sitting at the head of the table, forking a leg onto his plate with a thud, smiling with his rabbity teeth exposed. Joe reaches over me for the bowl of mashed potatoes, clocking me affectionately on the head with his free hand. His fist, however nicely intended, feels a little like a rock. Joe shakes his head at me, his mouth full of chicken, to imply a union between us men at the table. I make the face I use at work, when library patrons want to renew their books for a third time, and squeakily push the potatoes back in front of my plate.
“You’re making it sound like I’m the judgmental one,” Lucy says.
“You think you’re too good for all of us,” Violet replies.
“Wanting different things doesn’t mean I’m condemning you.”
“Violet, you wanna pass those carrots?” Joe asks.
“Yeah, how are those different things going?” Violet asks. “What’s on sale at the grocery store this week?”
Lucy grits her teeth. “Because you’re so fulfilled as a teacher’s aide.”
“Are those maple glazed?” Joe tries again. “Smells great.”
Violet passes the carrots towards Joe and me. “Cider,” she clarifies.
“The economy is shitty,” Lucy says. “I’m not the only qualified college graduate who’s had to take a minimum-wage job this year. When was the last time you read a newspaper?”
“Don’t cuss at the table.”
Joe scoops a handful of baby carrots onto my plate with his fork and spoon. He, too, is careful not to let the metal touch the bottom of the white ceramic dish. Though maybe he’s not aware of how habitualized this has all become. Maureen is running on her new treadmill upstairs, the swish-swish machine sound making me feel like we’re underwater. Joe and I eat our carrots, crunching through a silence saturated with hostility.
“Maybe you know more than me, but it’s not really helping you, is it?” Violet says finally. I pass her the chicken and she puts it right back down. “You’re not just disappointing me. You’re disappointing Mom, and Dad up in heaven, and Jesus. You act like an ungrateful child.”
“You are so sanctimonious,” Lucy says. “Did you just use yourself as a mouthpiece for Jesus Christ?”
“You live in sin,” Violet says. “You have for years. Do you really think that we think you go bird watching out there in the woods? And you know darn well that he’d marry you if you let him.”
“Violet,” I say. “I’m right here.”
“Well?” she says. “Am I wrong?”
“This is why I won’t go to church with you,” Lucy says. “Because you feel entitled to tell everybody how to live.”
“Am I wrong, Walker?” Violet presses.
There’s a long pause. Lucy’s eyes are bloodshot and digging into me.
“Cider on those carrots is real nice,” I say, hating myself for acting exactly like Joe. “Don’t you think, Joe?”
“Mm. Where’d you get the idea for that, baby? Classy.”
“What, you don’t want to engage with this conversation?” Lucy asks, swallowing hard. She accepts the carrots when I pass them to her across the table. She hasn’t taken a bite of anything. Her cheeks look like they’ve been dusted with flour.
“You’re both grieving,” I say. “It’s not the time.”
“Let the ladies have an emotional, irrational conversation, is that what you mean?” Lucy says.
“No,” I say, my voice hard. “That is not what I mean, Lucy. I was trying to be compassionate and you’re making me out to be a sexist.” No one says anything for a minute. The chicken looks cold and scrape-colored.
“Now who’s judgmental?” Violet says, smiling victoriously. Lucy throws her contorted, accordion of a napkin onto her plate and leaves the room, her sandals snapping up against the soles of her feet.
In Lucy’s bedroom, the sound of Maureen running is even louder—the whirring like a spaceship landing in a made-for-television sci-fi movie. Lucy is standing on her desk, pushing the corners of her Edward Hopper print flat against the wall, one foot unsteadily balanced on a pile of notebooks and coordinating colored folders. In the painting, a woman with light hair is sitting alone on a white bedspread, her fingers touching her shins as she looks out the window. I always thought it was a lonely image to have on your wall, but Lucy thinks it’s peaceful. I guess it makes sense—it’s never quiet here, a two-bedroom house with five people in it. Violet and Joe converted the basement into “their apartment” to save up money for their hypothetical baby. Except for Sunday mornings, when everybody else is at church and Lucy makes us eggs in a skillet with avocado and bacon on top while she tries to scrub the pale green from underneath her fingernails.
I go to mass in the afternoon, back in Lewiston where Mom and Quincy and I used to live, so we always have time for avocado-y eggs and sweet potato pie after. Our lips sticky with marshmallow topping and confectioners sugar on the crust. At first, Maureen and Caleb, Lucy’s dad, were really suspicious of Presbyterians. Pussyfooting around Christianity, if you ask me, Caleb had said on more than one occasion, carefully pouring his unsweetened iced tea into his mouth so that the bottle didn’t touch his teeth. But then Lucy became herself, and started wearing a tiny gold wishbone around her neck instead of her gramma’s cross, and anything I did looked pious in comparison.
Lucy keeps facing the wall, her body stiff. I know she knows I’m there.
“Were the carrots really good?” she asks quietly, in her highest, most tired voice. Her gray tee shirt is a little shrunken and thin. I can see the vertebrae in her back.
“I brought some,” I say, holding up the red bowl with a layer of potatoes and carrots interspersed, like tulips in a garden. Though she still refuses to turn to look at me. Both hands against the Edward Hopper print to keep steady.
“I’m sorry,” Lucy says.
“I just don’t always want to be this emblem. The man who behaves as all privileged men behave. It puts so much pressure on me,” I say, sitting on her bed. The polka dot duvet is faded from years of sunlight exposure. “I’m not the whole patriarchy.”
“I know you’re not.” She hops from her desk to her wooden chair, swinging her legs a little. “I just felt defensive because you were on Violet’s side instead of mine.”
“I was very open about my affinity for your nose.”
Lucy smiles, reaching for the red bowl. I pull a fork from my cargo pocket and hand it to her, watching her features soften. “My nose appreciates your support,” she says, savoring the lukewarm potatoes for a second before swallowing.
I fold my hands into a nest of joints. “Wanting to marry you doesn’t mean I’m on Violet’s side,” I say. “People can come to the same conclusion for different reasons.” Lucy nods slowly, chewing thoughtfully. “But, Lucy,” I say, as gently as I can manage. “She’s your sister. She’s trying to help.”
“She must have put something in the potatoes,” Lucy says. “That everybody’s on Team Violet all the goddamn time. She doesn’t have the answers to anything, Walker.”
“I know,” I say. “That’s my point.”
She doesn’t say anything for a long time.
“It was the carrots, I think,” I say. “Secret tampering.”
“They always get you with the root vegetables,” Lucy says, sitting next to me, resting her cheek against my knee.
We lie still, trying to sleep, failing. My arm tingles underneath the weight of Lucy’s body, her shoulder blades sharp. The heat of her skin feels like it’s radiating through me.
“Broccoli,” I whisper.
“4073,” Lucy says, her voice faint and melodious against the whirring of the ceiling fan. Going through the produce codes from the grocery store is one of our favorite can’t-sleep games, of which there are many. “Macroeconomics,” she mumbles, for my turn of the game.
“HB 172,” I say, picturing the shadowy aisle in the library closest to the handicapped bathroom. “Bananas,” I say, passing the baton back to Lucy. It’s been six months and nine days as a circulation assistant— the longest I’ve worked anywhere. A job that was given to me as a favor to Mom, a postion that was officially mine after I assured Mrs. Slone that I am not allergic to dust and don’t mind working alone. The students studying business and economics wear bluetooths and collared shirts with cufflinks. My co-workers re-heat the coffee in the coffeemaker instead of brewing a fresh pot. On my cart, the right wheel is perpetually squeaking.
“4068.” Lucy seems to muse about this and my eyelids get heavy, feigning sleep. A little while later she says, “I started to have a dream where we were drinking tea from these miniature porcelain cups, except they were overflowing with blond hair.”
Like her dad’s hair—silken, bright. “What happened?”
“Then I was here,” she says, turning her face so that she’s speaking into the side of my neck. “Walker.”
“I want to leave,” she says. “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“On November 20th, we’ll have enough to move,” I reply, imagining the Excel spreadsheet that maps out our dismal financial situation. Twenty-nine hours a week: just enough so that we don’t have real benefits. Lucy gets the stale bread from the deli counter half-off and spends the difference on used books from Amazon, even though we both wish we could afford to buy from an actual bookstore with a bearded person manning the cash register.
“We have enough now.”
I involuntarily grind my back molars. “I’m not taking money from Quincy,” I say. My big brother: watery-eyed, stuffing cocaine in the underbelly of travel-size hairbrushes. Middle management, he’d call himself with a seedy grin. There were people who hurt, people who wanted. Quincy had an entrepreneurial spirit. If he feared punishment, it wasn’t the kind from God. If he feared anything, he wasn’t going to talk about it.
“I meant the money from Dad,” Lucy clarifies, kissing the space between my nose and my lips.
“We can’t spend your inheritance,” I say. “What about your loans?”
“Everybody has loans.”
“Not everybody goes to college,” I say, a little bitterly, remembering my failed one-semester stint in academia.
“You’ll figure out what you want to do,” she says, squeezing my shoulder.
“You should spend it wisely.”
“Really? Because my mom bought a fucking treadmill.”
“Is Maureen your role model?”
“I just need to be somewhere different,” Lucy says. “I want to be surprised at the end of the night instead of telling Mrs. Harris that no, Violet isn’t pregnant yet and yes, it has been unseasonably warm this winter. I don’t want to know that we’ll drive to Omaha for our big anniversaries and to Smith’s for our half-year anniversaries and share that shrimp cocktail with the horseradish sauce.”
“I like that sauce,” I say. “The little bit of brown sugar.”
“I like it too. But I just want more… possibilities. I don’t want to know every place that we can have sex outside without getting caught in like, a fifteen mile radius.”
“That time on the hiking trail,” I say, remembering.
“The cottonwood tree,” Lucy says, slipping her fingers into mine. In the silence, my memory fills my body with the sensations of that night: her lips, a little chapped, rough at the corners; her eyes full of something like light as she whispered my name, again and again, urgently. “But do you see what I’m saying?”
“I do,” I say.
She wiggles upwards, her lips dry on my earlobe, her breasts soft and triangular against my bare chest. “What if we just left? Packed some bags and got on a train?”
The train in my head is a wooden one, on the floor of the living room, back when Mom and Dad were still together and Quincy was always the captain of a ship made from cardboard boxes and ocean waves made of plastic trash bags. “Where would we live?”
“Chicago,” Lucy answers immediately, in a tone that makes me realize this is closer to a plan than a fantasy. “We’ll find an apartment with one of those brick walls. Adopt a dog from an animal shelter with a missing limb. Eat deep dish pizza.”
“What will you do?”
“Something with women and education,” she says. “Empowerment.”
“You’ve thought about this,” I say. Lucy’s quiet. “What will I do?” I ask.
“The same thing you’re doing here,” Lucy says, trying to be gentle.
“My job doesn’t matter, is that what you mean?” I ask. “I’m replaceable?”
“Does it matter to you?” she asks back. “Is anything keeping you here, besides me? And memories?”
My mouth feels like it’s full of tiny pebbles. I keep my eyes askance, lowered. “The church, I guess,” I say. “Pastor Katie.” The silence that follows, in which Lucy struggles to respect religion from a non-sociological standpoint, is gnarled and rough, like tree bark.
“Isn’t this what it’s all about?” Lucy asks. “Following opportunity? Fate?”
“That’s not what it’s all about,” I say, not unkindly. “Luc? What if I say no? What if I want to go to work on Monday and shelve HG 4028?”
She cups her hand around my chin. “Please come with me.”
I think about my life: reserve book slips, paychecks for $473.88 every two weeks, frozen pizzas in Lucy’s noisily broken oven. Pastor Katie, talking about God like He’s a neighbor she makes lemonade for. The sunburn-pink, bruise-purple Nebraska sky, stretching over cornfields. Soybeans, Hackberry trees. Imagining a life without Lucy feels like trying to open my eyes underwater for the first time. My mouth is salty and dry.
“We can bring God too,” Lucy says. “And a telephone. You can call Pastor Katie when we get there.”
My hands are sweating. I place them, palms up, on my stomach, and Lucy blows on them to help the feeling that my body is overheating. “Do we have to get a dog that’s missing a limb?” I ask finally.
“I think we can negotiate the minutiae.”
“I would come with you,” I say. “But I don’t have a windbreaker.”
“I’ll buy you the snazziest gear for inclement weather you’ve ever seen.”
“Is this for real, Luc?” I ask.
“This is real, Walker.”
She buys two Amtrak tickets on her iPhone while I re-fold my tee shirts into squares, stuffing them in a navy blue Pan-am bag that was her mom’s, long ago. Phone chargers, laptops, Converse with frayed laces; Lucy’s favorite dress, crisp white with red buttons around the collar. Deodorant, birth control pills, wallets and headphones, and the wishbone necklace. We don’t talk. When the bag is full, she finds another carry-on in the hall closet and fills it with socks and underwear. I sit on the edge of the bed, watching her. My heart feels like it’s humming, the anxiety shaking like a room where the bass is up too loud. I keep swallowing the nighttime taste in my mouth; keep wiggling my fingers into a wave, making sure I’m not asleep. How can this be happening? I guess this is something that is happening.
“Snacks,” Lucy whispers finally, and I follow her to the kitchen, where the lights are still on and she’s naked, beautiful—all legs and freckles on her shoulders, her body ropy and smooth. She’s ransacking the cabinets, capturing a bag of seedless green grapes and a box of strawberry pop tarts. I write with a ballpoint pen on a napkin: We’ll call you when we get there. Everything’s okay.
Lucy adds an addendum: The car is at the train station.
“Maybe you should say something about love,” I suggest, and Lucy turns out the light.
In the car, on the way to Lucy’s graduation, I’d cradled the red-edged tulips and baby’s breath through a cone of plastic. Joe kept his left hand clasped over Violet’s thigh, his skin ruddy against her olive-tinted stockings. Caleb was fidgeting in the passenger seat, holding the Snapple bottle between his knees while Maureen sighed loudly at the traffic. “Swarming,” Maureen mused, almost rear-ending the silver Corrolla in front of us. “Twenty thousand students,” she said to no one in particular. The sun was warm through the windows, incubating us. Maureen exhaled as though she were smoking a cigarette, tilting her head up. “Women’s Studies,” she said.
Caleb made a sputtering noise that he quickly turned into a cough. “I think I felt something,” he said. I peered around the passenger’s seat to examine the back of his head, his body language. His posture was slumped and panicked. “The Snapple bottle,” he continued. “Tiny bits of glass.”
“What about the Snapple bottle?” Joe asked, still new enough to this that he couldn’t recognize what Caleb was talking about. Violet pushed her lips into a self-conscious smile, trying to ignore it. Her dress was yellow and thick cotton, like a dishtowel.
“Caleb, please,” Maureen said. “Not now.” The Corrolla moved forward, but we stayed perfectly still.
“Chipped,” Caleb said, his voice strained. “The glass is chipped.” He kept his hands wrapped around the thickest part of the bottle, extending his arm towards Maureen. She kept her eyes on the road.
“You would’ve felt it when it happened,” Maureen said flatly.
“I feel it now,” Caleb insisted. “Look at it. Look.”
“Does he want something else to drink?” Joe asked Violet.
“Joe, baby,” Violet said. “It’s not about Kiwi Strawberry.”
“When was the last time you heard of this happening to someone?” Maureen snapped. “They can’t just manufacture glass that simultaneously shatters upon human contact.”
The car lurched forward. We rolled into the soggy field, which was functioning as a parking lot for graduation day. Maureen was right; it was overflowing with family members in church best. Grandmothers in dark leather shoes and plastic beaded necklaces; pink and orange roses, little sisters with neatly plaited hair and grass-stained white sandals. Violet put one of her hands over Joe’s, looking sorrier and lovelier than I’ve ever seen her.
“Just because you don’t say it, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Caleb said to Maureen, who rubbed her eyes.
“Patience,” she whispered, pulling into a parking space marked by two small orange cones that reminded me of high school. Lucy was graduating in three years instead of four, Phi Beta Kappa. Getting a head start on her unemployment, Caleb had joked earlier, when he’d seemed more like himself.
“Mom?” Violet said. “We should go, if we’re going to get seats together.”
“I think you mean Dad,” Maureen said.
“Give me the bottle,” I said, unbuckling my seatbelt. Caleb held the Kiwi Strawberry behind him precariously. When I took it, I could feel the clammy coldness from his palms on the label.
“Be careful,” Caleb said.
“What are you doing?” Joe asked.
“I’m trying to help,” I said, taking a tissue crammed inside a pocket on the back of the passenger seat and smoothing it against my leg. The pleat of my dress pants stood up pointed and straight, like an undulating wave in a cartoon ocean. I uncapped the bottle and the sound made Caleb wince. The pink juice soaked through the napkin in an arch.
“What’s your favorite flavor of Snapple, baby?” Joe asked Violet.
“Peach,” she replied, her voice hushed. “Iced tea.”
“Look,” I said, leaning up to Caleb in the passenger seat with the wet, glass-less napkin. “No shards, see? Everything’s okay.”
Caleb sat with his elbows frozen perpendicular to his legs, holding his head up. “You have to throw that napkin away,” he said, raspy. “It’s not safe.”
“We need to leave,” Maureen announced, a little hysterical.
“I’m suffering from internal injuries,” Caleb said.
“She only has this one graduation, Cal,” Maureen said.
“I only have this one body, Maureen,” Caleb answered. “Dammit, I can’t just—it chipped. I felt it chip.”
“We need to leave now,” she repeated. “If you’re going to stay, that is your choice. That is the choice you are making as Lucy’s father.”
For a second, no one moved. Joe cleared his throat. I felt a bead of sweat roll down the back of my neck, into the collar of my recently pressed blue Oxford shirt, the one that Lucy had picked out.
“Unbelievable,” Maureen said, dropping her keys into her cavernous taupe purse with gusto. “Fine. Ruin another day with your imaginary ailments.”
“Dad,” Violet said. But when he didn’t answer, she followed Maureen’s lead, and Joe didn’t look back at me as he shut the door behind him. No one seemed to notice that I’d stayed back, too.
“I can feel it,” Caleb said quietly, still staring ahead. “In my throat.”
I held the bottle in my lap. “I know you think so,” I said. “But I checked it too. The rim. The glass is fine. Nothing is broken.”
“Don’t be naïve,” Caleb said, his voice tremulous. I didn’t know whether he meant that of course he’s swallowed a tiny shard of glass, or of course things will be irreparable with Maureen, or Lucy, after this. “Why are you here?” he asked.
“Why didn’t you leave with the others?” he said. “I haven’t been very kind or welcoming to you, these past years. I know you heard me call you a pansy, that time.” I stared intently at the Snapple bottle, though my expression was safely hidden with the seat separating us. I desperately wanted to bend my knees until I could hear the joints crack. “Told Lucy she deserved better,” he remembered aloud.
An aimless burnout, he’d said, spitting the words into her face. I’d listened from the other side of her bedroom door, waiting for her to tell him to go to hell, and she did. We climbed out of the window and picked the elderberries from the Harris’s trees, indulging until the purple stained our fingertips.
“You’re struggling,” I said. “Wouldn’t have been right.” Though maybe there was a part of me that didn’t want to see Lucy graduate—the fluorescent lights of the stadium, her scarlet and cream-colored gown. Part of me that always felt that Caleb was right. We were safe in the car, two overdressed, damaged men, and if I had to explain later, I knew I looked compassionate, altruistic. That no one would doubt me, the good Christian, and I felt like a fraud. Forgive me, I thought.
“I can’t get to where I need to go, anymore,” Caleb said, after a pause.
“God will help you find your way,” I replied, firmly.
“Walker,” he said, and waited. “And what if there’s no way for me to find?” he asked, holding his trembling hands together, his thumbs pressed white over each other into an X.
It’s almost five in the morning when we get to the train station. Lucy doesn’t pause to say goodbye to the car, yanking the Pan-am bag by its long, twisted handle so that it bumps into every part of the backseat before she retrieves it. The water tower looms next to the station, enormous and wooden. I picture the back of Caleb’s neck, vertebraed. Lucy isn’t pausing to say goodbye to anything. It was her father’s car—vacuumed, air freshened to smell like clean. It was her father’s car, but he never drove it, and neither do I.
I find myself holding a small, rectangular packet of iodized salt, the kind that McDonalds uses—powdery. It must have been in the cupholder, but I don’t remember searching for anything. “Walker,” she says. “Don’t get sentimental.” The skin under her eyes is a shimmery blue from not sleeping, or maybe from not taking off her makeup the day before.
When we were young, Quincy and I used to pretend to be explorers—Columbus, Magellan, Marco Polo. Sometimes we held hostages, old receipts with faces drawn on. Sometimes we were pirates, trading collateral: salt and vinegar chips in crinkly packages, honey mustard pretzels shaped like cigarettes. He never wanted to play hide and seek, even then. I was too scared, and he didn’t think anywhere was out of bounds.
“I’m right here,” I say, taking the carry-on with me. The seats on the train are almost exactly the same color as my jeans, but slimy, warm with someone else’s heat. The windows are bigger than I expected, though it’s still a little dark outside. Lucy graciously takes the aisle seat, kicking her shoes off immediately and bending into some yoga-ish posture. Her toes look like pink beads in the gray, almost-morning light. “California Zephyr,” I say. This train has seen the ocean. Lucy’s smile is full of teeth and her right dimple, and she leans over to kiss the squarest part of my jaw.
“I’m so excited,” Lucy says, and I hug her hard so I don’t have to keep looking at the expression on her face. Her happiness wafting into me, like a scent I can’t stop smelling. Breathe, breathe, I tell myself: God brought you here. God brought you to Lucy, beautiful, impulsive, full of risk and life and hope and movement, Lucy. Her voice in my ear. Her cheek on my clavicle, softness. Peeling oranges, leaning across the kitchen table to kiss my forehead while she beat me again in Trivial Pursuit. How sometimes she opens her mouth wide like she’s trying to encompass me, and even when my jaw muscles ache I keep going, wanting more.
She pulls back from the hug. “What about you?” she asks, wide-eyed.
Help me to feel something else, I think, picturing Pastor Katie: her overly permed, fluffy mullet; the small jowls around her chin, puckered, pale. The Sunday she threw a fistful of yellow feathers in the air and told us to take them all back, and the feathers were our words and actions. Be careful, she told us: honor, respect. Love. Everything means something. It’s just the change, the fear of the unknown, which is sitting in my chest, glacier-like. Maybe opportunity feels this way. I wouldn’t really know. Lucy knows. God brought you to Lucy and Lucy knows because God knows. The transitive property. It always made sense in theory. Faith.
“Remember when we met?” I ask.
She laughs. “Which time?”
We’d been in the same class since kindergarten, but we didn’t know each other well, then. I was the person who was a little scared of her—tall, combat-booted Lucy, toting around Tess of the d’Urbervilles to read during lunch. Eating Granny Smith apples during class, crunching through physics, algebra. She seemed dissatisfied and hostile, especially in contrast to her chipper, doe-faced sister. But there was something I always liked about her, anyway. She never walked in a straight line, always veered across the hallway like she was moving towards a light the rest of us couldn’t see.
The summer after Lucy’s freshman year, while I was working as a receptionist in my second-grade teacher’s daughter’s floral shop—a job which, like every other, had been a favor to my mom through Pastor Katie—I stopped into the grocery store on my way home, looking for mint. It was warm, the kind of heat where I kept pulling at my shirt to try and eliminate the possibility of the sweat visibly soaking through under my arms. Lucy had her hair cut short around her ears, dyed a light auburn that made her eyes look extra green. I smiled politely, put my small plastic bag on the conveyer belt. Looking at her, trying to think of something to say, I realized I still smelled like orchids.
“Do you know what kind of herb this is?” Lucy asked, looking around to make sure the other cashiers hadn’t noticed her hesitation. The one next to her, Maria, had big hoop earrings on that kept flickering in my peripheral vision like a migraine.
“Mint,” I said.
Lucy sighed. “I put the code in for oregano. Shit.”
“That’s okay,” I said. She dabbed her fingers on a sponge. “I don’t mind.”
“They’re not the same price. I’ll have to void it.” Lucy scanned the deli counter, looking for her boss. Andy, I think his name was—a wide-stomached man who made a lot of noise as he walked. Lucy punched in a code, and the receipt spit out a string of numbers that ended with the word VOID in large, black letters.
“I would’ve paid the difference,” I said, as she pulled a list of produce codes down from a clipboard near the blinking blue screen.
“I don’t need you to rescue me,” she replied. “Mint,” she said to herself, dragging her finger along the printed-out Excel sheet. “4896…” Lucy typed the code into her register, and then stared at me for a long moment. I felt very aware that I’d never been in love, never been looked at unblinkingly by someone so brave. Lucy seemed to be challenging me somehow, daring me to call her a bitch, dismiss her as someone cruel or uninterested. But I kept looking, and I felt like I was supposed to be there, looking. Her eyes were green. Maybe she did want me to rescue her.
“I used to work here,” I said. “A few summers ago. There was that guy who used to come in with his burlap bag, and he’d fill it up with Fancy Feast, those little cans. Always wore a fancy suit, big shoulders.”
Lucy cracked something like a smile. “Catsby,” she said.
“That’s clever,” I said. “Is he still around?”
“Nobody really leaves here,” she said, putting my mint in a plastic bag. “That’ll be one dollar and eight cents.”
I dug into my pocket for exact change, stalling. “You will,” I said. “Remember that diorama you made in Miss Collier’s class? It was like the Taj Mahal. The most opulent shoebox there ever was.” I put the eight cents in her hand first, then the dollar bill, which was wrinkled and missing a corner. No machine would have accepted that dollar.
Lucy smiled for real, and her face seemed brighter, lovely. “I can’t believe you remember that, Walker.” She handed me the plastic bag, and I hoped she would try to touch me but she didn’t. “Thanks,” she said, still dimpled, still looking at me.
“Can I call you?” I asked. My voice felt unruly, outside of myself.
“You should call me if that’s what you want to do,” she said.
I paused. “Is that what you want?”
“Yes,” she said. “It is.”
Now Lucy has her head on my shoulder, and the weight of her is both comforting and constricting. My body is tense and tired. “What about when we met?” she asked, after a silence. “I forgot what you were saying.”
I love you. I love you.
“I did too,” I say. “Let’s sleep.”
We drift. Around the fourth hour, I ask Lucy why we didn’t take a plane, and she says, “To see everything.” But the train trudges across Iowa, and it looks a lot like Eastern Nebraska—hilly, green. It’s an eleven-hour ride and I don’t even really like Pop Tarts or grapes. We buy grilled cheeses from the dining car and the bread is soggy with butter, plasticy. Lucy listens to Mumford and Sons on her iPod, tapping out the banjo part on my knees. I touch the top of her head, catching strands of her hazelnut-brown hair on my hangnails.
There’s a fluttering feeling in my throat, like a tremor.
I wake up as we’re pulling away from Princeton, Illinois, when Lucy shifts her weight from me to accept an apology from a stranger. “It’s okay, really,” she says. I open my mouth to ask what’s wrong, but Lucy pre-emptively squeezes my knee to reassure me. The girl, who has committed some kind of transgression, stands in the middle of the aisle, re-fastening a leather buckle around a purple and white flowered hat box. She is petite, probably around our age. Her face is heart-shaped and dark black eyeliner rims her eyes. The girl is wearing a silk orange scarf tied around her neck and tight, light overalls that barely reach mid-thigh, and I try not to look at her legs, which are olive and slender.
“I legit whacked you with my purse,” the girl says, laughing apologetically as she gestures to the hatbox. She looks at the guy sitting in the window seat, the mirror image of where I am sitting, and she touches his hand. “Logan. We’ve been on the train for like twelve seconds and I’ve already assaulted a stranger.”
Logan pushes his tortoise-shell sunglasses to the top of his head. The sleeves of his green button-down are rolled up to his elbows. Is that a handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket? There’s something too self-consciously put together about how they are both dressed, like I expect them to break into song with a parasol at any second. I try to catch Lucy’s eye to see if she feels the same, but she doesn’t seem to notice. “Not a surprise,” Logan says to the girl. “Klutz of the century.”
“I try to be humble about my title,” says the girl. Her teeth are pearly. “Anyway, I’m super sorry. Do you want a muffin? I can so give you a muffin if you want.” She drops the hatbox on the seat next to Logan and rummages through it dramatically. Lucy observes them, her mouth pursed. “A muffin sounds good,” Lucy says to the back of the girl’s body.
“A-ha,” says the girl, handing Lucy a lumpy, tin-foiled package. “They’re brown sugar lemon mascarpone. I was trying to go vegan but it’s like, really too hard. I’m Camilla, by the way.”
“Lucy,” Lucy says, eagerly unwrapping the muffin from its foil. “This smells amazing.” She looks at me before she takes a bite. “Camilla, this is Walker.” I blink in her direction, waiting for my introduction to continue. “My boyfriend,” she adds. I reach across Lucy to shake Camilla’s hand. I realize suddenly that I can’t remember the last time we, together, met a new person. The word boyfriend feels charged again, our legs touching in the train seats. Lucy breaks a crumbly piece of the muffin top with her fingers and deposits it in my palm. Logan introduces himself and we all smile widely at each other, at least I try to.
“Where are you guys coming from?” Logan asks.
“Nebraska,” Lucy says, a little bashfully. “We’re moving to Chicago.”
“Traveling light,” Logan says, nodding. “I’m into that.”
“We’re just living here for the summer, and I still packed like forty books,” Camilla says, retrieving another muffin from the hatbox. “You must be so excited to move! Nebraska,” she says, letting the left side of her smile flatten into a grimace. “Do you really love corn?”
“It’s the best vegetable,” I say, and Camilla laughs. Lucy looks at her lap.
“We were just visiting this friend from Oberlin, and like, there is nothing to do in her home town. It’s all elm trees and making your own cocktails on a porch.” Camilla looks over at Logan for support and he nods, eyebrows raised. It’s not that they’re any more judgmental than people I know, I tell myself; it’s just different, a millipede where I was expecting a spider. Why are you going over to Lucy’s again? Mom had asked, smelling of grease from the diner. Maureen is a lush, and Caleb is a whackadoo. You’ll catch the crazy, Walker, and I looked at her until I couldn’t anymore.
“Maybe it’s more a problem that Sara has no real drive,” Camilla continues. “Maybe we shouldn’t blame the small-town factor. She’s so smart,” she says, turning to face Lucy in her seat. Her leg is folded under her body like a wing. “But she doesn’t do anything with it, when we’re not studying. I don’t get people like that. Spending six months of the year really interested in theory and how things work, and why they happen, and then the rest of the year just watching marathons of What Not to Wear and muddling blackberry mojitos.”
“She’s boring, is what you mean,” Logan summarizes.
“No, it’s not, it’s like she’s not interested in challenging herself. She just wants to be entertained,” Camilla counters.
“Samizdat,” Logan says, and the three of them nod, although I don’t know what he’s just said. I don’t want to have to ask.
Lucy scratches the back of her neck, stiff. Maybe she is thinking that Lucy’s friend sounds a lot like me: all potential, no outcome. Though I can’t make my own mojitos. I wouldn’t know what to mix. “Like she doesn’t look at things critically when you’re not in a purely academic setting?” Lucy asks.
“Yes,” Camilla says. “Exactly.”
“Although,” Logan points out, interrupting what seems like a significant look between Lucy and Camilla, “it’s not as though any of us can be engaged with sociocultural analysis every minute of the day. You bought a copy of People magazine at that kiosk. You didn’t want to spend this train ride wrestling with Kierkegaard.” Camilla scowls at him, a deep flush over her cheeks.
“I did totally buy a copy of People,” Camilla says, digging it out of her hatbox. “That doesn’t mean I resist discussing infinite resignation.” She hands Lucy her copy of the magazine, a glossy picture of Tiger Woods on the front cover. “I just meant that the proportion of time that Sara spends dissociating herself from her surroundings is completely intellectually counterproductive.”
“I’m playing devil’s advocate,” Logan says.
“David Foster Wallace loved pop culture,” Lucy says. “He was always watching TV. And he used to assign really mainstream mystery novels to his classes. Mary Higgins Clark.” I look at the magazine cover in her hands, TIGER IN TROUBLE in bright, school bus yellow letters.
“There’s Mary Higgins Clark,” Logan says, “and then there’s derivative garbage.” He tilted his head towards the Tiger Woods cover, petting a small square of stubble on his cleft chin. “Here we are now, entertain us, am I right?”
“It’s a shame,” I say, and I’m surprised by the intensity of three pairs of eyes staring at me. “His family.”
“No privacy,” Lucy says, in an agreeable tone.
“If only Daddy weren’t a celebrity, he could have his affairs in private like everybody else,” Logan says, and Camilla laughs.
“What a smooth talking commandment-breaker,” Camilla says.
“You say that like it means something,” Logan replies.
“Ain’t no party like a party in hellfire,” Lucy says, deadpan, and they laugh.
“Hashtag, God is dead,” Camilla says, and I scoop the rest of the muffin crumbs into my mouth and feel the graininess against my tongue and look out the window, at the azure blue sky and the cotton-ball clouds and feel the freon air blowing on my skin from above, and try to breathe.
“Did you just verbally tweet a reference to Nietzsche?” Lucy asks, and I can tell by the way that she licks her bottom lip that she is intentionally avoiding my eyes.
“It does,” I say, out of sync with the rhythm of their conversation. “Mean something.”
“Oh shit,” Camilla says, after a beat. She momentarily clasps a hand over her mouth for good measure. “We offended you! The corn aficionado.”
“God isn’t dead,” I say. “Fidelity isn’t meaningless.”
“Meaning is subjective, obviously,” Logan says, pulling the sunglasses back over his eyes. His voice is flat and strong, the way a confident child recites multiplication tables.
“I wouldn’t say meaningless,” Camilla says, rubbing Logan’s knee. “But maybe old-fashioned? To think that there’s one person for you and loyalty is black and white, and if I drunkenly make out with a stranger at a bar that that expresses some capital-T truth about my relationship with Logan. Like, I just think that’s not how real life is.”
“I believe in forgiveness,” I say.
“Maybe there’s nothing to be forgiven,” Lucy says, turning to me, and my mouth goes dry. Her lips are chapped, lines of flaky skin like meandering rivers on a faded treasure map.
My hands feel dirty, as though the butter and sugar and flour from the muffin batter have soaked into me.
“Speaking of failed reconciliation,” Logan says. “Mills. Show them the postcard.”
Camilla pulls a folded postcard from the back pocket of her overalls. “Sara’s grandmother got this in the mail. We’re so stoked.” Lucy leans across the aisle to retrieve the postcard from Camilla. I crumple the green polka dotted muffin tin into a tiny, stained ball and let it sit in my pocket. “It’s an invitation-only divorce estate sale. I think it’s going to be a classy disaster.”
“Invitation only!” Lucy exclaims. “Only the coolest kids are able to witness the disintegration of their holy matrimony.”
“That’s exactly what Logan said,” Camilla says. “Plus, do you have to show them the postcard to gain admittance? Is it like getting ID’d at a bar?”
“Only the bar is your life’s failings,” Logan says, and they all laugh. Lucy, to let me know she hasn’t forgotten me completely, rubs the middle of my back with her knuckles, which usually alleviates whatever hurts. The postcard, bent in the middle, has the words VALULABLE ART and ONCE IN A LIFETIME printed in bold-faced letters.
“You guys should totally come with us, when we get to the city,” Camilla says, her smile warm and charming. I imagine briefly what it would’ve been like to meet other girls at college: floral-scented, light haired, dreamy girls with tilted heads and painted nails; girls who liked football teams or their families; girls who planted their own basil and clucked for their cats to come play with furry fake-mice on polished wood floors. Chocolates in heart-shaped boxes. Then there is Lucy, accepting Camilla’s invitation, and me, staring into the reflection of myself in Logan’s sunglasses, wondering what I can say.
The inside of Union Station is full of brassy lamps and wooden benches and tall, variegated columns that stretch up to a ceiling made of glass. It’s grand and ornate and marble-floored; Grecian, terra-cotted walls. Camilla and Logan are walking quick, her hatbox swinging into my knees as we pass pale, lumpy-kneed ladies squinting at maps in front of kiosks with multi-colored pamphlets. Lucy’s face is radiant, and she laughs breathily, scanning the crowd before we follow Camilla and Logan: men in navy blue suits, a group of almost-teenage girls in Catholic school uniforms and identical iPod wires emerging from their messenger bags.
“All things go, all things go,” she sings in my ear, and I try to make my expression match hers. “We made it,” I say.
Camilla and Logan are leading us outside, Camilla and Logan are hailing a cab, Camilla and Logan are climbing into the back of a yellow car and I am sitting there with them. And Lucy. The seats of the taxi are lined with black vinyl and a tiny screen is talking to us, discussing the news, the weather, over the cab driver’s radio station, which is some kind of African gospel music. Camilla shakes her hair out and then re-braids it, her fingers weaving quickly through thick dark curls. We are surrounded by cars, stopping what feels like every few seconds to sit in front of another mammoth, duct-tape-gray building—thirty? forty? stories, exhibiting the reflections of the traffic patterns, seas of red break lights. Our cab driver is talking to someone in a language I don’t recognize. Or maybe to himself. We stop short on a bridge, and I lean over Lucy to see through the window. “There’s a river, just in the middle of the city?” I ask.
“Geography doesn’t seem to be your strong suit,” Logan says, laughing.
“Don’t be mean,” Camilla says, smiling big at me. “They’re far from home.”
“They’re not baby geese,” Logan says.
“It’s beautiful here,” Lucy says, clasping her Pan-am bag tightly between
her knees. The clusters of skyscrapers along the water start to vary in color and shape—some of them brick, some stone, all menacing, somehow, with tiny windows and fire escapes. The trees on the street look dwarfed, their green leaves soft and furrowed. We pass a yoga studio, a café with a sign for locally raised lamb burgers; a garden, a parking garage.
“Where are you thinking of living?” Camilla asks Lucy. “We’re staying in Wicker Park. I have three words for you: pine nut pancakes. You would not believe. Oh, and Logan Square too. Or Bucktown?”
I exhale through what feels like a tiny straw. Hypoxic.
“Probably a hotel tonight?” Lucy asks. “And after that, I have no idea.”
“Adventurers,” Logan says. “Nice.”
“So much,” I say, unexpectedly swallowing the rest of my sentence: to see. Then I think of the hotel, how nice it will be to drink tap water from glasses that we won’t have to wash immediately afterwards; falling asleep with the TV up loud, room service on gleaming silver plates. White sheets. French fries with miniature jars of Grey Poupon and fancy ketchup. Her skin on my skin; the steam of the shower. Maybe this is what I wanted. If I am here, maybe it is because I am supposed to be.
We pull up in front of a townhouse. Brick; limestone; big glass windows that jut out over a small patch of well-trimmed grass and a hedge sculpted into a figure eight. Camilla waves a blue card over a black machine that beeps happily, accepting her invisible money, before Lucy or I have a chance to hand her any cash. “Don’t worry about it,” she says, dismissing Lucy’s protest with a big wave of her hand, and I picture my pay check: the nubby perforated corners, the many columns of deductions and figures that I’ve never bothered to understand, since it all adds up to the same bleak result. Picture the library: stacks of burgundy and forest green and ink-blue textbooks with that slightly bumpy texture, waiting to be re-sensitized in the metal machine that clicks when it’s working and buzzes impatiently when it doesn’t. Please don’t abandon ship this time, Walker, Pastor Katie said, putting a hand on my shoulder. I know you can do it.
“This feels surreal,” I say to Lucy, exhausted, fumbling with the suitcase.
“I know,” she says, leaning her head against my shoulder there, in the street, with Camilla and Logan waiting on the sidewalk in their shined shoes and sophisticated clothes. The sun shining light on her milky skin. “I’m so glad to be here,” Lucy whispers, touching the side of the cab as it leaves. Then her hand moves to her face, and she reaches to lay her hand on the car again. Metal, skin, metal, skin. Metal. We look at each other. She has his eyebrows, sandy-colored and arched high. “I’m glad,” she repeats, pulling away from me.
“Ready?” Camilla asks, waving the postcard like a red flag at a bullfight.
The woman standing in the foyer is wearing an out-of-fashion power suit with boxy shoulder pads, typing furiously on a Blackberry. Her eyes are wide-set, her expression apprehensive as Logan hands her the invitation. He is confident, assured, with a slight nod of his chin. The woman clears her throat. “Feel free to look around and let me know if there’s anything you’d like to discuss,” she says, in a voice hoarser than I’d expected. She smiles at Camilla, eying the silk scarf, still tied in a precise bow. I try to imagine what she thinks as she sees Lucy and me: wrinkled, unkempt. The top of Lucy’s gray bra is peeking out from underneath her tee shirt, collarbones protruding. The denim around my knees is starting to bunch up, stretched.
Windows reach from floor to ceiling in the living room and the kitchen, looking out onto the city: cement, skyscrapers, the cool blue-green of the lake. Camilla and Logan lead through the apartment, Logan’s boat shoes quiet on the mahogany floors. The suitcase hits the side of my leg, bruising. A tall crystal vase sits on the marble kitchen island, three red roses arched gracefully in place. “I could sleep on this counter,” Camilla observes, “and you would still have room to chop an onion over on that side.”
“Is that a Richter over there?” Logan asks, squinting towards a large, speckled canvas on the opposite side of the room. “Stop daydreaming about sleeping in a decadent kitchen.”
“It’s not,” Lucy says, peering. “Just an imposter.” She breaks away from them, wandering across the living room—skipping the dark wooden china hutches, the blue and white porcelain dishes, various silver objects and serving ware. I’m surprised that she doesn’t seem interested in taking it in, barely pausing before she hits the narrow white hallway. The sound of footsteps and other people entering the townhouse echoes throughout, and I can hear Camilla laughing. I put my hand on Lucy’s waist, and she turns to give me a tight-lipped smile as she turns the gold doorknob.
“Can we go in here?” I ask.
“We can do anything we want,” she says, putting her suitcase down in the corner. The bedroom is huge, wallpapered on one side with a maroon brocade pattern that looks English and royal, and the largest bed I’ve ever seen is in the center, not touching any walls, with a dark wooden canopy overhead. Exposed wood beams slope from the ceiling downwards into a triangle. An ornate rug sits on the floor, and I’m afraid to step anywhere near it. A painting with two blurry, bright rectangles touching vertically is hanging on the wall furthest from us, and many glass boxes with different pieces of jewelry are on the carved dresser with small, white price labels.
Each of those was probably a gift, I think, gravitating to the diamond rings. Anniversaries, birthdays, little velvet bows. And someone wanted them, once. “It’s sad,” I say, and Lucy turns, rubbing her hands on her thighs.
“Meaning their sense of decorating?” she asks. “How could anyone live like this? How could you read a newspaper or drink a can of coke in this house? It’s so sterile. Made for Pinterest.”
“No, the act of splitting up their lives.”
Lucy thinks for a minute, then picks up one of the boxes. “It’s a crystal tarantula,” she says, in wonder. The spider’s body is shaped like a peanut, the legs long and spindly. The sunlight catches on bits of the glass, a prism. Eight legs, and two antennas, curved into each other at the center. “Kind of beautiful,” she says, and I nod, although I think it’s grotesque. Of all the things to create. She carefully puts the tarantula back on the dresser, and I catch the smell of her hair: vanilla, coconut.
“Forty-three per cent of marriages end in divorce,” Lucy says. “It’s not a national tragedy. It just happens.”
“It doesn’t just happen,” I say. “It’s not a hailstorm. People give up.”
“People are always changing,” she argues. “You can’t expect them to change in compatible ways just because they wish they could.”
“You don’t get to leave someone just because things are hard.” There is a pause, and a cold expression on her face that I usually associate with Maureen. I think about hugging her. The struggling, the suicide—I didn’t know it had gotten that far. Or maybe I did. We stood in our funeral clothes, eyes on the ground, not wanting to talk about God or illness or mystery, and I thought of forgiveness. Lucy kicked at the ground, trying to sully the soles of her shoes.
She keeps staring at the spider, and I try to understand the silence. Lucy must be worried that this is too much, I think. She’s been distant, she’s been ignoring me, she’s the reason we’re in Illinois surrounded by strangers and objects and we’ll go home, back to the familiar. Everything is too high here, out of frame—lofty, elevated. “I—”
“Why not?” she asks. “What is living, besides enjoying the things you can control?” I pause, not sure how to respond. “You don’t have to value sacrifice more than satisfaction.”
“We should be hedonists?” I ask. “What about morals? Commitment?”
“Didn’t work out for these guys,” Lucy says, her eyes fixed straight ahead. “Walker,” she says, and when I hug her, her body feels inert and stilted. Her voice is far away, like it’s coming from the bottom of a hole in the earth. “I just don’t believe in this,” she says, speaking into my shirt. I can feel the wetness of her breath on the cotton. “I’m never going to believe in this.”
“What’s this?” you ask. The top of her head is soft under my chin. “Can you be more clear about your antecedent?”
She doesn’t crack a smile. “Do you really not know what I’m saying?” Lucy asks, breaking the hug in half. She picks up the tarantula again, the crystal creating a smatter of rainbow on the opposite wall. I resist the urge to pull her back into me, to run my fingertips along the lines of her bones. I try not to think about what she’s not saying. He’d marry you if you’d let him, Violet had said, and I scooped carrots into a bowl. Waited for her to turn around, when she was ready.
“You can’t say never,” I say. “Things change. You just said.”
“I know, Walker, but—” Lucy says. She puts the box down on the dresser, sinking into a cross-legged position on the floor. Her knees crack, and I can see the spot where a tiny hole in the knee of her jeans is beginning to show. I sit down next to her, both of us avoiding eye contact. The seriousness is heavy, exhausting. I want to be back on the train, chewing through grilled cheeses with scratchy throats and dehydrated lips. “But don’t you know exactly what you want me to be?” she asks. “And don’t you know that I can’t be that for you?”
I reach under my shirt collar, rubbing the fabric with my thumb. The sound is quiet and comforting.
“You’re perfect,” I say, my voice strained. There is pressure, weight that comes from both sides of my chest, the space between my ribs, like invisible fingers, pushing in, and my shoulders are locked in place, hammered, and I can’t. What if she leaves me here, jettisons off with Logan and Camilla, abandons suitcases full of faded gray-white socks and chargers to appliances I won’t have? I remember the look on Caleb’s face as he inspected the napkin full of tiny shards of imagined glass, the way that his watery eyes seemed to be fizzing with nervousness.
I remember the feeling of Lucy’s body pressed against me, the first time, thinking of temptation, of softness. It’ll be okay, I had thought, giving in. It’ll be okay because she’ll always be mine. My wife. Barely a transgression, eventually. The warmth of her skin, the dampness of her hair right out of the shower. Guilt, tangling up. Hey, sinner, she whispered into my ear, don’t be so gentle. “You’re the only thing I see in a room,” I tell her.
Lucy puts her hand on my knee. “I want you to see the rest of the room.”
I stretch my long, vaguely aching legs in front of me, concentrating on the
places where the denim has faded, like tributaries on a map. There are more people circulating through the apartment, chattering about prices and antiques on the other side of the wall. The fabric of my shirt feels thin, still wet in one spot from Lucy’s tearful face. If it means nothing to you, why can’t you marry me? I want to say. We’ll have salmon, I know you don’t like chicken. You can pick the song for our first dance, something inappropriately solemn and British and folky. Quincy will be cleaned up by then; Pastor Katie will wear that ugly tweed jacket she reserves for special occasions in the fall. Just be mine. I hate Camilla’s verbal philosophy hashtagging and Logan’s boat shoes and the way the air here is wet with humidity. I want to fall asleep in your bed, in the spot where the mattress is worn through from our weight, night after night. I want to know that Mrs. Harris will keep asking nosy questions about Violet. I like the brown sugar in our sauce.
“What do you want to say?” Lucy asks. “Say it.”
Speckles of fractured light skirt across the wall like insects. Something has already shifted. My breaths feel shallow and knotted. I won’t change her mind. I will sit here, on the floor next to her, until she decides she wants to stand. I will want to buy her the crystal tarantula, but I won’t be able to afford it. We will be quiet on the subway, tripping over luggage and each other. We will find somewhere to live. Lucy will change the channel whenever we see a show about weddings or brides or God. I will try to forget there are other things that I want. I will be thankful for what I have. I will be thankful for what I have.
Lucy unexpectedly leans forward a little, cupping her hands over her nose and mouth. She is about to sneeze. I say, “Bless you.”