Every morning at half past ten, I meet Mathew underneath the bridge. Today he is walking back and forth close to the wall, kicking empty beer cans into the street. He looks at the cigarette, poised to be lit between his fingers, and decides that I am worth the wait. Pebbles get inside my flip flops, and my tank top rides up, the concrete slimy against my back, as he presses his palm against my stomach. His pinkie slips inside my bellybutton, but when I laugh, he turns away, toward the line of traffic coming from Queens. Sunlight glints off the roof of a red sedan, newly washed. I try to imagine us from the driver's perspective: two figures in the shadows, a man and a girl, the man's large hand on the small girl's stomach. I loop my arm around Mathew's shoulder, pull him closer. He steps to the side, as if what I want is a better view of the street.
On the dressing table, the brush and comb lay side by side, underneath the hand mirror. The backs and handles depict cartoon deer leaping over branches, blue bows around their necks, the paint chipped and leaving one deer without an eye, another without an ear, the forest battered as if after a storm. I wish my mother had taken better care of them. When I was a little girl, she kept them high on a bathroom shelf. As she brushed her long, blond hair, I would sit in the bathtub and watch, catching fleeting glimpses of what looked like Bambi. "These were your grandmother's," she'd say, and we'd both gaze up at the shelf reverentially. I had never met my grandmother, but I understood her to be a good, strong woman. I also understood the loud bangs - wood against metal, wood against porcelain, wood against wood - punctuating my parents' arguments, sometimes their silences, too.
Two months ago, on the morning before I moved in with my uncle in Brooklyn, my mother gave me the brush and comb and mirror wrapped in green tissue paper left over from Christmas. Their abused appearance disturbed me.
"They're old," I said.
I couldn't say what I meant - they were ruined.
My mother pressed her forehead against the doorframe, her arms crossed low over her stomach. Her toes met the place where the hall linoleum turned into my bedroom carpet, but she did not cross over.
"What did you expect?" she said. "You've always liked them, right?" She rubbed her bony elbows. "You should have something to carry with you."
I liked that, carry with you, as if I were about to embark on some great journey.
That night I showed the set to my uncle. I told him that these were once his mothers. I was asking for his help. I wanted a memory, a story. A connection.
He turned the brush over in his hand. "These don't look like her style," he said.
"Mom told me."
"Your mother," he said and stopped. He looked at me for a long time then placed the brush gently down on what was now my bed.
"Well," he said, "they do look like your mother."
I had to agree. I look like my mother, too. At fifteen, I have dark circles under my eyes, wrinkles around my mouth. At the scalp, I've found gray hairs mixed in with the blond. My nails break easily, and the beds turn blue at the first sign of cold.
Before I see Mathew, I smear on concealor, foundation, lipstick. I brush my hair so that it lifts high and falls back in fuzzy waves. I walk out the door pretending to be pretty.
Mathew first saw me at the bodega across from the subway station. I'd gone there to buy milk. Outside he asked my name and if I'd like a bite of his Snickers.
"We got to be careful," he said before we'd even touched.
I asked for another bite. He pulled down the wrapper, and I put both hands behind my back, leaned forward, and opened my mouth wide.
We were three weeks in before he told me about the wife and five-year-old son, Debbie and Dylan, living in his mother's converted attic. Debbie was his high school sweetheart. I'd already guessed nearly as much, but I resented him for bringing the truth out into the open, for making me an accomplice.
Back home in New Haven, I'd find him an embarrassment. My friends would make fun of his hair, his band tee-shirts, his age. "What is he? A throw-back to the 80s?" I'd join in and call him a creep.
If I hadn't been lonely, if I hadn't been bored, I never would have given him a second glance. But now the hours crawl by before I can see him again.
"Hot day," Mathew says.
He sits on his haunches and lights his cigarette. I place my hand on top of his sweaty head. His ponytail hangs thin and pointed, a rat's tail. I consider undoing the rubber band, combing out the knots.
"Yeah," I say, "but it's cooler out here than at my uncle's."
He nods slowly, as if I have said something profound. Traffic backs up under the light. A car horn blasts, quickly followed by a dozen others. Mathew winces.
"Jesus Christ," he says, grinning. "Hold your horses."
I crouch down next to him. His jeans are baggy around the knee; he's probably worn them several days without washing. But his tee-shirt smells fresh, like detergent and baby powder.
He flicks ash into the street. "You hungry?"
I don't want to talk. I want him to push me up against the wall again. I want his lips back on mine.
"I could go for some pizza," he says.
"It's too hot for pizza."
"Never, baby." He stands up, stretches his arms overhead. Through the too big arm holes, I can see his dark, damp hairs. "Never too hot for pizza."
During my first week, my uncle laid down the rules. "Respect my privacy," he said, "and I'll respect yours."
"Sure. Why not?" He spread his fingers, palms facing me, a gesture that seemed imbued with uncertainty. "Mi casa, su casa."
I barely see him. He works two jobs, as a janitor at an office building in Long Island City and a bartender at some fancy French place on the Lower East Side. In the beginning, he made an effort to stop home for dinner between shifts. My mother told me to be grateful, and so I still cook enough for two. I leave the Tupperware containers at the front of the refrigerator. Sometimes he eats, sometimes he doesn't.
His bedroom door is always locked. In the bathroom, I find nothing in the medicine cabinet but aspirin, toothpaste, deodorant, a box of baking soda. Under the sink, toilet paper and toilet bowel cleanser. He has no books, no CDs, no photographs. His furniture is sparse, bland, a bachelor's bare necessities. He gives me cash to do the grocery shopping, and I pocket the change.
"Tommy's a quiet man," my mother told me. "He's always been too shy to get married. We used to worry about him, you know, that he'd be lonely."
She sends postcards from the road. Making do, she writes. Or, Seeing sights! On the day the divorce was final, she sent a sunrise over mountains. Freedom rings!
In Alabama, my father lives with his girlfriend and forgets about the past. I thought about him when Mathew first snaked his hand inside my jeans. We stood in an alley, straddling puddles. Mathew kept his eyes closed, and I wondered if they used to do this, Mathew and Debbie, when they were my age, when every action still imposed a risk.
My uncle lives on the Bushwick portion of Myrtle Avenue, not as bad as underneath the trains but not as good as Ridgewood, Queens, where apartments give way to duplexes, then houses, and you might as well be in any suburb anywhere. My uncle's apartment sits over a shop that sells board games, the front windows displaying Monopoly and Risk in yellowed boxes, the edges dented and squished. I've often wondered who would spend money on games that look like trash. The shop is a throwback to some quaint era, out of place among the dollar stores and Laundromats, the Chinese and Mexican and Jamaican takeouts.
Two weeks passed before I got bored enough to go inside. I was met with a scowl by the stooped old man behind the cash register. He wore a white shirt, a blue and red striped bow-tie. He gripped the counter as his milky eyes, amplified by thick glasses, followed me around the store.
"Don't touch that," he said, making me jump as I reached toward a shelf of Chutes and Ladders.
"I might want to buy it," I said.
"Then ask me to help you."
His eyes floated, unfocused.
"No, thanks," I said. "I'm fine."
"Young lady, you could damage the merchandise."
When he took a shaky step toward me, I ran out of the store. I could imagine his hands like claws around my arm, his brittle nails breaking through my flesh, breaking off and staying embedded, lost inside my body. For days afterward I felt his decay covering my skin, a thin sheen no amount of showering could wash away.
Mathew offers me his hand. His gesture makes me feel like a lady. As he pulls me to my feet, I adjust my tank top so that my stomach no longer shows.
His tee-shirt announces Police tour dates from the year before I was born. I don't know whether he went to those shows, barely a teen-ager, already sporting that rat's tail, or bought the shirt for a dollar-fifty at Salvation Army. With Mathew, the story could go either way.
The sun bounces off white concrete, shocking us, making us stumble backward and consider retreating to the cool shade of the overpass. But Mathew presses on, my hand in his grip as we head down Myrtle Avenue, toward Queens, away from everything.
Last night my uncle didn't come home. I spent the evening curled up on the couch, my feet tucked under my nightgown, eating graham crackers and watching old episodes of Perry Mason. When I went to bed, I had the same nightmare that I've had all summer. A woman screamed. She was right outside my window, clawing at the sill, calling for someone, anyone, to help. When I opened my eyes, I found her silence disturbing. If I concentrated hard enough, I could hear her smothered breath, her dissipating moan.
In the morning the box of crackers still lay open on the coffee table. Crumbs speckled my uncle's copies of Newsweek and Better Homes and Gardens.
Once, when I was cooking pasta for dinner, my uncle thrust a glossy picture in front of my face. He had never stood so close to me. His breath was hot on my neck; he smelled like alcohol and citrus.
"Look at that, Chloe," he said, his finger obliterating the smiles of a pastel clad couple standing in front of two towering rose bushes. "Now that's good soil."
My mother never subscribed to magazines. She never bought flowers either. She couldn't see spending money on something you were just going to throw away.
I brushed off the magazines. When eight o'clock came and went, I tapped lightly on my uncle's bedroom door. He should have been getting ready for work, but I heard no answer, no sound at all from the other side.
Mathew and I pass the health food store, the lights out and the cartons of soy milk in the window covered with dust, and the second-floor karate studio, with its sounds of children grunting, tiny feet pounding, small bodies slamming. Outside the tattoo parlor Mathew lets go of my hand and peers through the glass door, looking for his friend Jimmy. I hang back, scuffing the soles of my flip flops against the curb. If Jimmy is there, Mathew will want to go inside, and I'll spend the next hour staring at posters of skeletons and cobras and garishly colored hearts while they shout at each other over the drill. They only talk about three subjects: baseball, stupid movies, and what some girl did, good or bad, to Jimmy the night before.
"Hey," I say, "weren't we going to eat?"
Mathew cups his hands around his eyes.
"You can visit Jimmy later," I say.
"I've got to talk to him now."
"Why? What's so important?"
A little boy on a bike pedals between us. I watch him disappear around the corner.
"I'm going by myself then," I say. "One. Two."
Mathew jiggles the door handle. Locked.
"Maybe there was an emergency," I say.
He turns toward me, his eyes scrunched up. "You think?"
"No, I don't think. Come on."
"You better not have cursed him. If Jimmy's dead in a ditch, it's your fault."
"Yes, I know. Everything is my fault."
"You," Mathew says. He shakes his head and smiles. "You don't even know, babe."
I hold out my hand, wiggle my fingers. With feigned reluctance, he takes the bait.
Sometimes when the woman screams, she is inside my bedroom. I open my eyes and still hear her. She edges beneath my fingernails, slides through my pores, until we wear the same skin. Together we take a long, deep breath.
On those sleepless nights, I sit down at the dressing table and pick up the brush. I slam it against the wood, again and again, trying to make the deer crack. They refuse to break. The remaining eyes stare up at me with woeful innocence. I throw back my arm, wrenching my shoulder, and bring the brush down with such force, my uncle bolts upright in bed, my mother pulls over to the side of the road, my father takes his hands off his girlfriend's breasts. They all turn toward me.
Grease leaks through the paper plates, streaking the yellow formica table. The pizza place is cavernous and too cold. A mirror, smeared with fingerprints, runs along the wall; as we eat, we both pretend that we are not looking at ourselves. Under the fluorescent lights, the circles under my eyes show, dirty bruises.
Mathew takes two large bites and then blows out his cheeks and does not touch his slice of cheese and sausage again. Neither one of us is hungry. We just needed something to do. I pick off my olives and scatter the black circles around my plate.
"I need to get a job," Mathew says.
I toss two dollars on to the table.
"What's this?" he says. "For my services?"
"For the pizza."
"What about the drink?"
I pull out another dollar.
"Cut it out," he says and folds the bills in half, tucking them underneath my plate. "You don't pay."
"Because you're a girl."
He pushes his straw in and out, squeaking against the plastic lid.
"Careful," I say, "I could be offended."
"Just call me old fashioned."
I give him an irritated look and stuff the money back into my pocket with exaggerated force.
We are the only customers except for two women at the back. One, a redhead, wears a turquoise sequined dress, the other, a brunette, a sleeveless, slinky black gown. They sit with their shoulders hunched, their heads pressed together. I wonder what they're discussing, what the night before could have entailed to have brought them here, in their styled hair, their hopeful outfits, to eat bad pizza and be made over into caricatures.
Mathew grips my thigh and works his fingers in a slow, circular massage that pinches my skin. Someday soon he expects to break my heart. Maybe he will.
"School starts in a week," I say. "That means I won't be able to meet you in the mornings anymore."
"I can't see you at night."
"So what are you going to do?"
"You'll go to school," he says, "and I'll get a job. We'll become good, responsible people."
I jerk my leg, throwing off his hand.
"Hey." He reaches for me. Our palms lie together, limp in the middle of the table. "Don't worry, OK? We'll manage."
"I don't like it here," I say. "I don't know why I had to come."
"You don't want pizza? I'll get you something else. Anything you want. Chinese, tacos, you name it."
"I'm not talking about the pizza."
At the back of the room, the redhead stands, placing her hands on her slim lips. Beneath the layers of carefully applied foundation and rouge, her face is unmistakably that of a man. A beautiful and tired man.
I look at Mathew, who is looking at me.
"What?" he says. "Chloe, what do you want?"
The brunette's back is to me. Between the straps of her dress, her shoulder blades stick out, the distance between them unusually wide. The paleness of her skin against the dark fabric strikes me as horribly, carelessly vulnerable. My mother owned a black evening dress. Once or twice a year, she would put on that dress and stand in front of the mirror, brushing out her hair while I sat in the bathtub and watched her transformation into a flawless, beautiful stranger. The next morning the dress would be a heap on the floor, stinking of wine and sweat, with white deodorant stains under the arms and long, blond strands where they shouldn't have been, the perfect surface ruined.
I think about her now, at a hotel in California, sitting by the pool. Her black bikini shows off her still flat stomach, her firm breasts. She never gets in the water; she never takes off her sunglasses. Above the chair, a palm tree flutters, casting shadows across her burning body. I want, for just a moment, to picture myself beside her. But I can't.
About the author:
Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's work has appeared in The Literary Review, PANK, Forge, and the anthology Gravity Fiction. She has an MFA from Columbia University and teaches English at College of Staten Island. She lives in Brooklyn, where she blogs about her life and reviews randomly chosen library books at www.courtneymauk.com.
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