It’s November in Florida. The sun is a pat of butter, pale and mild. A cool breeze ruffles the sparse slash pines and my wispy bangs. My seventh grade class is on a field trip in the Savannas Preserve, trudging through miles of wetlands, toting pads of paper flapping like heron wings. Our assignment is to jot down our reflections of this ecosystem—sketch what we observe, note how it makes us feel.
Squish. Squish. Swish.
I trail S. as he wanders through the marsh, all short-boy swagger and Umbro shorts. He is my height, four foot ten, but his limbs are tanned and taut from intramural soccer.
Squish. Squish. Swish.
When S. turns around to give one of his buddies shit, his hair is dark and shiny, rippling like the reeds. When he cracks a perverted joke, his eyes are dark and shiny slivers of shadow—the kind I chased across playgrounds on wobbly toddler feet. S. makes me feel inside the skin, makes me feel body blood bones bursting with ache. I capture these details, sketch them in thick unwavering lines, never once holding my pencil.
S. and I both wear sleeveless flannel shirts with hoods. I tease that we are twins, and he flings mud in my direction, speckling my tight-rolled jeans. I recognize this as flirting and giddily kick a glob of earth at his shins. And instead of fleeing, S. storms toward me, arms outstretched, knees marching and raised to the sky like he’s about to score a goal. He is tickling and poking and knocking me off-balance. Ass sinking into earth. He immediately apologizes, pulls me toward him, toward the sky so that I’m rooted again in the muck. It’s OK, it’s really fine. The steely fence of my smile surges with electricity. For the rest of the trip, I wish he’d push me again. That I’d fall senseless, at his whim, a solid smack to the dirt while the world continues to spin.
As we leave the preserve, Michelle yanks me by the wrist. She wants to know whether I like S. And then Kristen C. and Kristin T. and Cristyn want to know too. I shrug like I’ve seen ingenues do in the movies—a coy but giddy lift of the shoulders to the rose of the cheeks, a cinematic surrender to the romantic machinations already underway. When they giggle and collect the escaped hairs from my ponytail, smoothing them into place, I know that they believe I can play this part: a girl on the verge of being wanted.
On the bus ride home, I pull the window down. The air tiptoes across my skin, murmurs in my hair. My flannel hood billows behind me as I catch S. smiling. I utter something sly to make him laugh. He opens his mouth wide, shows me the gap between his teeth—the cracked window I can slip inside.
While Grandma doles out more goulash, Dad ignores us all. He grabs the cordless phone, heads for the garage, slams the door behind him with a vacuum-seal whoosh. Before arriving at our grandparents’ house, my brother and I are passed around like Tupperware to family friends and neighbors. While Mom endures yet another hospital stay, they take care of us. I can’t remember the new ailment or injury that’s led to her current visit—just that I call 911 and we’re whisked away to warm homes where light lives.
We eat unfamiliar breakfast cereals around actual kitchen tables. Groggy moms remind us of last night’s homework, pat their son’s bedhead, comb their daughter’s hair until it shines. We stumble on mundane family dramas with no sharp edges and walk away unharmed, mystified that not every home houses deep secrets about dying and divorce. One day I hear one of our temporary guardians on the phone with our elusive dad. I wait for clues to his whereabouts. When the guardian asks after Jerry and Elaine, I know he’s living with our grandparents. This whole time he’s been just a fifteen-minute drive from where he left us.
I hear this guardian consoling, her empathetic sighs: You’re a good man, Mike . . . You did the best you could in the situation . . . You lasted longer than most of us would . . . Caretaking for someone so sick isn’t easy, Mike . . . and the drugs they prescribed . . . morphine . . . no, not easy at all. What she fails to say is that he’s also a good man who’s fallen in love with his wife’s former nurse, his wife’s former friend, that staticky and impatient buzz currently on the other end of Grandma’s phone.
I’m glad to see Dad again—even if he is distracted, even if he is a shifty-eyed ghost who drifts through rooms. When I have him in my sights long enough, I see that he’s changed. He’s grown his hair out past his ears and wears a hoop earring. He’s stopped smiling, laughing, speaking in TV catchphrases, speaking at all. He chews his nails to fill the silence until She calls.
Dad is our sullen chauffeur. He drives us to the mall, drops us off at the arcade, picks us up from rec center dances. He buys us music with explicit lyrics, lets us blast it on the boombox in the backseat because the car stereo’s broken. He lets us drive with the windows down because the AC’s a piece of shit. When he’s not shuffling us from place to place, he shuts doors behind him, shuts us out.
It’s in the booths of mom-and-pop restaurants tucked away in strip malls that our former dad emerges. He turns the plastic menu over in his hands, beaming as he reads each item and its description, seeking out the strangest and spiciest dish and encouraging us to do the same. He asks us boring but welcome questions about friends and school. He resurrects an SNL character impression or two. Even then, he is prone to wandering off. The conversation abruptly ends with his mouth biting the air and his eyes turning somewhere deep and inward. My brother and I then turn to our meals. We paint our mouths in the radioactive orange of wing sauce, poke at bobbing hunks of ox-tail, pierce mounds of sweet plantains atop paper-thin steaks.
It’s the sound of our cutlery scraping against plates that jolts him awake and leads him back to us, his passion for food reawakened. He stuffs himself silly before helping himself to our leftovers. He licks everything clean. For a few brief hours, he is sated and without want. For a few brief hours, he is ours. But as we wait for the bill, his eyes begin to bulge with a different hunger and he checks and checks his watch until it’s time. Time to head home and swallow the words dripping through the phone, those morsels of love devoured in secret.
Michelle’s my friend and I don’t know why. She wears real bras, matte lipstick, pressed powder. We wear the same brand of jean shorts but they carve her ass into denim sculpture. During English class she once reassured me, her pearly nails on my downy thigh: Don’t worry. Once you grow boobs and get rid of those braces, boys will notice you, too.
Michelle’s flawless but she’s no soothsayer. I catch S.’s eye before my teeth return to smooth, before my chest becomes rough terrain.
In marketing class, S. and I make it official. We send the signal that we’re “going out.” This means we hold hands underneath our desks while the rest of our class watches, our eyes glued to the movie that our oaf of a teacher crammed into the VCR before cramming himself into a corner for his midday nap. I can’t focus on the plot because of the incessant chatter of my classmates, their immature hissings of disbelief, their nervous chuckling as they gawk at the newest couple. I’m afraid to face S. I’m afraid to do this wrong, so I keep my palm in his, slick but faithfully entwined. My neck aches from craning to face the raised television, my pits form puddles, my mouth goes dry. S. is nothing more than sweaty fingers. I can barely recall what I like about him, but I know that I do.
Michelle leans over, rests her dimpled chin on my shoulder, her chocolate curls grazing the milk of my cheek as she whispers in my ear. She asks me why I’m not wearing a bra underneath my bodysuit, why I didn’t shave my legs if I knew I’d be wearing shorts, why I didn’t take her advice and wear a darker lip shade. I keep my back to her. My mouth curves into a sad slit of remorse she can’t see. My back hunches into an apology she can. Without explanation, I let go of S.’s hand and scoot my chair back until I’m nearly in Michelle’s lap. She snatches dirty blond wisps from the front of my head, pulls them tight into tiny braids, reminds me of the rules: Bras aren’t optional, even for someone as flat as you. It’s about the nipples showing through . . . It doesn’t matter if you forgot your electric razor at your old house, borrow your dad’s crusty razor if you have to, and remember to shave your underarms when you wear a tank top, sheesh . . . Your hair looks cuter when it’s braided like this, front strands on each side, but no bumps when you pull it back, remember?
I nod, inhale her words along with her bubblegum breath, and then get lost in my own.
Yes, remember. Remember you’re not pretty yet but a boy holds your hand and you’ve dreamed of this. Remember you’ve dreamed of this to keep from crying, to keep from falling apart, from falling into the black because there is something you do know: Your body needs to be approved, wanted, it needs to make the cut. Because bodies that don’t make the cut are ignored, abandoned by hands, by hearts, left in hospital rooms to rot and apologize for the ways they’ve failed.
Mr. C. turns out the light and plugs in his mini-planetarium. The walls of the custodian closet instantly freckle with the universe. He directs our eyes to the back of the door. Who can see the Big Dipper? The North Star? But S. and I turn away from the skies to crouch on the rough of the carpet, our tongues, tiny cyclones, swirling through one another’s hard and slick spaces. Our first kiss. Our classmates form a circle, softly cheering while Mr. C. rambles on about belts, bears, and the afterglow of dying stars. When the lights turn on, I am burning and crystallized. When the lights turn on, I am infinite. When the lights turn on, S. exits swiftly and does not look at me for the rest of the day.
The remainder of our relationship consists of half-hour phone calls on weekends where we stammer our way through pretending to care about each other’s hobbies, and a gift exchange on the last day of school before Winter Break. I give him a Beavis and Butt-Head necklace from Claire’s. He gives me a beaded anklet—also from Claire’s. At this point, S. wants to dump me but knows it’s the holidays. He doesn’t know about my sick mom or anything else.
I am still awake on Christmas Eve, nestled into the couch, my face pressed into the pillow when Dad gets home from the mall near midnight, muttering obscenities, running a hand through his hair while berating himself for the crap he’s managed to scrounge up.
Shhh, you’ll wake them up, Grandma whispers, pointing to the closed door down the hall.
My dad and brother sleep in Grandma’s guest room, a White Musk-scented arrangement of mahogany furniture and ceramic music boxes. I take the couch because it’s the room with the TV. It’s also where Grandpa sits in his La-Z-Boy until dawn watching B-movies in silence, the ghostly light reflected in his glasses. I like to watch him watch his genre fare: bikini girls and masked murderers. His face, an inscrutable but placid mask. As his son breaks down in tears, Grandpa’s TV continues to sell things at a loud and insistent volume even though it’s much too late for anyone to purchase. The stores have all closed. Christmas is here. Christ is born.
It’s OK, my boy, Grandpa placates in his gentle tone, putting a hand on his trembling shoulder. Dad tosses two small white jewelry boxes and two unwrapped CDs underneath Grandma’s puny tree. The boxes contain sterling silver rings with crushed stones, one for me and one for my brother. Neither of us have ever worn rings. Next to the rings rest the new Color Me Badd album for me and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle for my brother. The tree branches droop with the weight of gaudy mirrored ornaments. Partly rusted angels.
My brother and I spend the first few hours of Christmas morning silent and solemn, our throats hanging heavy with what remains unsaid. I cram my mouth with hunks of Andes Mints piled high in Grandma’s candy dish, swallowing my stabs of disappointment with Dad’s last-minute gifts. We brandish our jewel cases in the air with ringed fingers and muted joy. Thanks, Dad. Just what we wanted. But he’s looking at his watch again, cordless phone cradled in his hands. For our red-eyed father, it’s clear this year is the horror version of that classic Christmas movie, that we’re his Ghosts of Christmas Past, reminding him of what he’s missing. And he’s afraid he’ll never reach his Christmas Future. With Her.
After a breakfast of cookies and eggnog, we dawdle, gathering our hand-wrapped gifts to bring to Mom and anticipating our first Christmas in a hospital room. We’ve celebrated numerous birthdays among doctors and nurses, an Easter in ICU, but never Christmas. Dad’s already idling in the driveway, gripping the steering wheel, sipping coffee from his ceramic mug. Sunglasses on, engine groaning. Grandma smacks her lips in disapproval. Hands on her pink polyester waist, tight perm shaking. You kids hurry it up, she grumbles. You don’t even know what your father is sacrificing for you. I’ve never heard her speak like this. Grandma spoils us, indulges us, rushes to our defense with root beer floats and a kind word when any adult dares let us down. She is the first to defend us against Dad’s no it’s a school night or that food is crap with a just let ’em stay up, Michael and a Cool Whip helps them grow. But now it’s a withering look and don’t you know your father has places to be.
For the half-hour drive to the Vero Beach Rehabilitation Center, Dad is a caged chimp, gnawing at the dry nubs of skin cracking above his splintered nails. His boombox plays Michael Bolton CD singles, a Toni Braxton album. Songs about the kind of love that tortures the mind, the kind of love that is more than love and stronger than any word can describe.
Once our visit is over, Dad will rush through holiday traffic to drop us off at our grandparents’ and turn right back around, hightailing it on the turnpike and driving the four hours to Palatka to be with Her. He’ll have only dinnertime and the dwindling hours of evening to spend by her side. When dawn breaks, he’ll have to return to us. But the trek—the strain and stress of it—will be worth it. Because She exists. I know this is how he feels because I know this feeling. It’s the feeling I get when S. greets me in the morning with a gap-toothed grin, when he hugs me outside the bus loading zone at dismissal. It’s the feeling of air filling the lungs. Of forgetting where you end and they begin. Of forgetting what’s come before or what will come after.
There’s no tree, no lights, no tinsel, no music at the rehab center. There’s a holiday events calendar pinned to the lobby bulletin board and sad paper snowflakes lining the halls. There’s both of my aunts and my other grandmother passing around gifts and a tin of Danish butter cookies. There’s Mom anchored to her bed, surrounded by ribbons and bows. There’s her wan smile when she sees my dad lingering outside the door. There’s his awkward hello and his abrupt exit and his pacing the halls for the next few hours.
Mom jokes she’s the youngest patient. I kiss her steroid-swollen cheeks and laugh. She rumples my brother’s hair, caresses the back of my hand. The slow drip of her IV is meant to buoy her spirits—maintain her mood somewhere between jolly and serene. But in the middle of her self-deprecating quips, her warm professions of how much she misses us, she begins to doze. Presents remain unopened in her bruised arms, punctured wrists wrapped tight around whatever crummy gifts we brought.
My aunts cackle about something morbid from their childhood, distracting themselves from the ailing and unconscious centerpiece of these festivities. They distract us with a bounty of gift bags, some with tissue paper and some without. Some items still include tags, and almost everything is from TJ Maxx. There’s the Miami Hurricanes Starter jacket, a double-sided Flintstones tee, the red Umbro sweatshirt I asked for that reminds me of something S. would wear. I want to tell Mom more about S., but it doesn’t seem like the right time. Her eyes aren’t open, and when they are, she’s asking with that faraway look why Dad doesn’t come in and join us. It’s the look he gets when he’s thinking about that woman, the woman my mom can’t bring herself to remember.
In the Skatetown USA parking lot, Dad studies my bulldog jowls with concern and begs me to reconsider. I’ve spent the day at the orthodontist’s office: eyes seared by fluorescents, ears disarmed by lite FM. Dr. Wilson manipulated my mouth with latex and cold metal. She plucked four of my teeth from the vulnerable hinge of my jaw. You have a crowded mouth, she declared before prying my cheeks wide. We need to make space.
Dad, I’m fine, I mumble, stuffing my cheeks with fresh gauze, metallic petals blooming between my remaining molars.
Dad acquiesces, hands me a five-dollar bill and says, Just call me from the pay phone if you feel any pain. Otherwise, I’ll be back at ten.
How to explain that no pain will stop me from staying until the last all-skate of the evening. How to explain that I resemble a monster from Grandpa’s late-night movies, but S. is here and I must follow him around until he will no longer have me because I don’t have a bedroom, a father who looks me in the eye, or a mother who can tell me what to do to keep getting kissed.
Dad’s hatchback rolls away, and I don’t turn around to wave goodbye. Instead I stand just outside the rink entrance adjusting my floral Lycra top, clamping down on the cotton, mustering a close-lipped smile. The night hums with a muffled freestyle beat that swells into a bass-trembling frenzy when I open the door. A doll voice sings over Nintendo noises that when she hears music, it makes her dance. I catch a whiff of the timeless aroma of roller rinks everywhere: corn dogs and Marlboros with a hint of sock sweat.
Beyond the skate rental counter, the rink gleams like an icy pond under alien siege. It’s like Mr. C’s planetarium but brighter and bigger and way more immersive. Purple and green squiggles of light flash across the walls while a constellation of bright white spirals in the center. Silhouettes of preteens, parents, and little children whirl through the laser mist, the sound of their coasting wheels rumbling against the hardwood. Some float by with ease. Some totter and clamber and cling to the arms of those they love and hope love them—trailing like comets.
When I still lived at home, I used to skate all day on my back patio. Mom would begin to slur from the medications and Dad would slam his fists against hard surfaces and I’d slip through the sliding glass door, taking to the large slab of gray concrete with speed and bravado. Radio blaring, I’d glide in graceful circles, flying past the view of the backyard, all green and mysterious, beyond the mesh screen. I’d roll myself into oblivion, lost to time, belting out what my mom called “risqué” lyrics until dusk fell. Then I’d reluctantly plod into the kitchen, sweaty and satisfied. I could deal with my family as long as I had a place to spin my wheels.
But when I’ve laced up my skates, I roll right past the rink and straight to the Mortal Kombat console. I spot S. standing on the toes of his dirty Adidas, lording over his video game pulpit, jerking his joystick in ecstatic circles. I feel something like my heart lurch into my throat. I feel something like the possibility of escape. I linger near Player 2’s punch buttons and hope S. will give me a playful shove before asking me to join in the game. I’m good at this one; I play it with my brother. I know most of the Friendship Fatalities, how to use Scorpion’s spear to cheat (back, back, low punch), how to take your opponent by surprise with a sweeping kick, a swift uppercut to the jaw.
S.’s friends announce my arrival, but he just furrows his brow and bares his buck teeth, concentrating on the pixelated violence in front of him. A crowd forms, rapt with wonder, as S.’s avatar removes another avatar’s spinal column. “Finish him!” they shout, and he happily complies, high-fiving his pals in victory. I join in and place my open palm in the fray. S.’s hand weakly meets mine and then his eyes. And when I see the dull black of his pupils, his face grimacing, I know there’s nothing left here to chase. We’ve reached a dead end. The window in his mouth is barred shut.
The game continues, round after round, with S. in the thick of the action. He continues to ignore the pathetic shape of me hovering at his side. Defeated and deflated, I skate beyond the heaving mass of seventh grade boys to conceal my blows. Maybe not tonight, but soon, S. will dump me. Or one of his friends will do it for him. I won’t know whether it’s the way I kiss or simply the way I am, but there will be a reason he’ll never disclose. Michelle rests a hand on my shoulder with a knowing look and offers a sip of her Pepsi. I forget to remove her lipstick-stained straw and suck. All I taste is blood.
I want to tell Michelle I’ve shaved my legs, including the knees, but what’s the point. No one can tell in this dim light anyway. Plus, she’s too busy flirting with S.’s best friend, a moon-faced cutie in a Looney Tunes tee she’d never let touch her. Everyone knows she only lets Hot Chad from high school secretly finger her on park benches after school. I roll my eyes and then my wheels out to the rink, leaving my life as a wanted girl—a girl who belongs—behind.
I swerve and sway, back and forth, around and around, until my feet grow heavy, until my thighs burn and quiver. As I round each corner now, the air resists my body like a magnet repelling. It doesn’t matter. I keep skating, song after song, until my legs feet toes are numb and quiet. Until all I can feel is the dull ache of my mouth. My gauze sags and shifts. It slides to the top of my palate, creeps to the base of my tongue. I try to push it back in place but end up grazing those gummy vacancies, the bitter tang of leaky battery on my lips.
My mouth is no longer crowded; there’s enough room now. My teeth will straighten, the braces will be removed, and eventually I’ll find a boy who takes serious notice. But as I dart between the shadowy forms of the other skaters, this thought offers no comfort. Because there’s still too much space, too many places to lose ourselves and one another, to hide and to flee. Dad’s crawling out of his skin; Mom is trapped in hers. And I’m still searching for a place for mine to matter. S. was a way to matter. He was a distraction, a way to skim along the surface, a way to suspend myself before I fell back into the black—that tumult of questions begging to be asked.
What will happen now? What whim will I find to fill up my time? To carry me away from the sad and the silent, away from the diseased and the dark? How long will Dad live with his parents? How long will we? And what about Her? Will she become more than a disembodied voice in our lives? And what if I want her to be more? What if I don’t mind? What if I actually understand? When will Mom return home? What is home? And for how long will she live there? How long will she live at all? What will happen now? What will happen?
I round another bend and see S. in the arcade, still holding court. The Advil’s worn off completely. My mouth is a throbbing wound. The DJ announces “couples skate only” and I exit the rink, breathlessly rolling to a stop. I lean my heaving body against the railing and watch the couples sail by, the breeze at their backs, the whole world open to them in a way that isn’t scary or precarious. I wipe the sweat from my brow and absently lick those hollows in my mouth again. I remember what Dr. Wilson said before I left her office: Don’t poke around in the holes left behind. Forget they’re there. But it’s hard to forget when the tongue reminds. When everything reminds you of what’s missing.