Inside Someone Else
by Melissa Swantkowski
Tim leans into the front seat to start the ignition and find a song on the radio. The clock blinks 5:48 in green. I drink from a warm red Gatorade and recap it. The air in the van is stale. Ash and old beer. His cigarette falls, lit, to the floor, and I slip my shoe onto my hand and crush it out. My shoe goes on my foot. Tim pops a beer. I crawl into his lap. My nose near his armpit. Like how we sleep, but in the night he pushes me off and I press my body against the cool side of the van before creeping back. Mary, too much, he says in the mornings, shaking me from him. What would you do if I left you? But he laughs.
Outside of the van it is not quite night. A leftover storm wind that licks at the pine trees and sends cones to the ground. The flat, empty weekend asphalt of the elementary school parking lot, and then there is a girl. She steps from behind the van as I slide it fully open.
Are you lost? Are you okay?
I am speaking as the girl peeks inside the van. She doesn’t seem surprised by what she sees in there, as if perhaps she has been listening to us, or at least waiting, hoping we were what she’d find. Her hair is slicked back into a tight ponytail. Bangs nearly covering her eyes, and a jean skirt carefully faded and ripped on the thigh. Her tube top just barely shows the swell of her little chest. I think of my sister and the clothes she tries to buy. How my mother puts them back on the rack. How maybe this is my own memory of myself. My bare feet are on the hot, black ground. My beer still in the van where Tim switches the song. Never can listen all the way through. Never can wait.
Leave her, get back here. Tim puts his tongue between his lips. Licks the rim of his can.
I have a little sister, I say. Her name is Cindy and she goes here. Do you go here? I point to the empty windows, shadows of hanging things inside.
She shrugs. Smooths her bangs.
Are you lost?
Tim, suddenly beside me. Leaning in from behind. Does she speak?
I’m thirsty, she says.
What’s your name? Do you want a Gatorade?
I want that. Points at Tim’s beer.
I like this girl, I really like this girl, Tim says.
What’s your name, I ask again.
April Clemens. She pokes a finger into the mouth of Tim’s beer before taking a sip. He opens a fresh one and takes a long pull.
April leans into the van. It doesn’t smell good in here. It stinks. She covers her nose and mouth. Each chipped nail, a different color.
It smells, Tim says, like the free world. Enter at your own risk.
April puts her beer on the edge of the van floor and climbs in, ignoring my hand in front of her. My hand is there, for what reason, I am not sure.
How old are you?
Almost thirteen. She separates her ponytail into two sections and pulls. Everything tightens.
My sister’s eleven. She has hair just like yours but longer. I bring my hand back to myself.
Cindy. Her thick hair coiled like a yellow nest at the base of her skull. At my parents’ house, for dinner, I let her have one drag of my cigarette. Was waiting in the driveway for Tim to pick me up after. I’m not interested in sitting around a dinner table with your parents pretending to be something I’m not, he said. No, no I don’t want that. You pretending to be something you’re not. But he might be something else, if not more, then at least other than what he thinks he is. Let me try that, Cindy said, or I’ll tell. She put her hands on her little hips and waited. Easier to shut her up than explain I didn’t care, it didn’t matter if she told or not.
Your sister’s a bitch. April picks at the rubber of her sneaker. A name is written on the sole. Neon highlighter along just one edge. Something drawn in Sharpie inside the crease of her knee.
She’s okay. She’s pretty smart.
She ratted out Jimmy Devane.
A raised eyebrow, the answer.
She wouldn’t do that. You must have the wrong Cindy.
It is her. It’s the same Cindy. Cindy the bitch.
Cindy would. At dinner with my parents, things went poorly.
Cindy, in my mother’s old apron, a discarded thing. Two small pockets. They let her leave the table. Don’t want Cindy around this, they said, and we were all silent, daring each other to speak with full mouths. Upstairs, Cindy’s dolls; still lined up in a row. Cindy playing school. Cindy playing house. Cindy playing how I used to.
My mother following me with two twenties in the doorway. I’d give you more, but Mary. Glancing over her shoulder. But Mary, she says, putting her hand on my cheek. I know you think you’re…that you love this boy? but Mary just go to school. Sometimes there’s no later. Her soft palm against my face growing hot. A sting as if she’d slapped me and then Cindy behind me in the driveway, sneaking up, patting that pocket of her apron.
Guess what I’ve got, Cindy says. Guess what I’ve found.
Are you playing a game? I ask. She shakes her head and holds out three butts, my lipstick kissed around them. A tiny empty glassine bag. I’d been in the bathroom. Flushed it all I was sure. I reach out to clean up, but she clenches her fist.
Nope, she says. I need to keep them.
For a game?
Give me another, Cindy says.
No you’ll get caught. She might anyway. I don’t want you getting caught. It’s not good for you.
I won’t, Cindy says. I know how. My mother calls her back inside.
A brief fierce hug, Cindy’s soft round head reaching nearly to my neck and long-too-fast-grown arms wrapped around my waist. My garbage with her. A souvenir.
Tim picks me up with windows rolled down. Tim with the radio up. Tim singing along and leaning his whole body out as we go. I am his eyes on the road. I am his hands on the wheel. There is something about the cool air, moving fast, isn’t there? Not just that night, all the way back to the first time, Tim saying, I think I’ve seen you around. You’re something.
My friend Rafe said, You know he has a reputation.
More than one.
Why a van? I ask. It smells terrible in here. I can laugh. It’s like something old.
The guy that owned it before me used to make laundry runs for a hospice.
You’ll get used to it.
It’s so easy to get used to it. Tim pulling me in saying it’s yours, this. His messy apartment, roommates moved out. A hole in the wall fit for a fist. I sit on the toilet and see into the hallway, into bedroom. A hole at knee level, peephole, to watch Tim smoke and sleep. Mattress on the floor; blankets like a nest. Tim saying don’t go home tonight when he’s still inside of me. We are hidden. It’s so easy to get used to it. Tim hunched over his knees, swatting me off, but then I know I can bring him back. Wrapping him with my body, Tim leaning into my shoulder, you get me, he breathes. You’ll give it to anyone, won’t you baby, Tim says when he’s still inside of me. Tim with the same clothes from yesterday. It’s just one night in the van. Tim already familiar. Tim someone I can crawl inside. Tim can love me.
April taps my leg. Your sister’s a whiny baby bitch. I hate her.
Who the fuck are you? This is a mistake. I reach for her beer to take it back.
Tim grabs my arm mid-reach. We should all just chill out a little.
He pulls me closer and puts his lips on my neck. Let’s shut the door.
Can I have more? April shakes her empty can. If you’re going to do that? Can I have another?
Not shy, this one. Tim grins.
Maybe you should go now, April. Go on and get home. I nudge her with my foot.
Isn’t Mary being a bummer? The door clicks into place. Isn’t she the worst?
April is talking. I got that shit with my own money. I’m like if you touch my shit I’m going leave. I’m gone, see. And they are like April language. April be respectful. And all the while going into my drawer and throwing shit out because it’s not appropriate. And I’m like oh no, no fucking way
Tim flicks his lighter. Scrapes a pile on the dash and runs his nose against it. Come here, he says. The lighter hits a joint. I turn my head. Catch his smile. Familiar, usually meant for me. He inhales, makes a fist. Presses the fist to April’s lips and blows. She coughs, recovers.
It’s not the first time I’ve done this, you know.
Of course not, Tim says. Arm around her. You’re okay.
What’s wrong with my sister? I ask.
April rolls her eyes. Are you still on that? Anyways like I was saying
Want to get really wasted? Have you ever done that? Tim is back at the dash. Wiping his nose.
I’m still on that. I’m saying, again and again, I’m still on that.
Tim is back in the front seat. The radio again. April, what do you want to listen to? What do you like? He’s asking. No, he says. No, no, no, not that one, he says to each band she names.
Like, then why did you ask? If you’re going to be saying no to everything?
Drink your beer. Relax. I’m going to teach you something. Listen. He finds another one of his songs and comes back.
Then, I’m out of the van. Sitting on the curb, sweat falls into the space between my tits. Things are going astray. Have been going astray. Going forward. Going astray. Going ashtray. Going anyway. I walk towards the pool. Run into Rafe. Other boys I used to hang around. What’s up? They want to know. Still hanging out with that guy?
Want a beer? Ain’t seen you in around school or anywhere.
Stupid, Mary. Rafe shakes his head.
I want to explain. What I’m like is half me and half not me. I am wrapped up, but I am set loose. Say this. We lean against the fence links. Pass a brown bag. Three little kids in water wings run back and forth. Tag. Lifeguard climbs up the ladder. Diving board bounces one two three.
Let me explain.
Nah I get it. Typical, but really stupid. I’m leaving after summer. Got into State.
Rafe drains the bottle. Chucks it.
Oh yea? Well, I am going to finish. I just, well I am.
Gotta go, Mary. He waves to someone I don’t know. And I’m spinning, a little too drunk. Rafe says something like take care. I’m sleepy maybe Tim and I could. What if I don’t go back.
In the van, Tim next to April, looking so tender with her. Arm on shoulders. Hand brushing hair from eyes, Tim is whispering in her ear. I want to tell him. She is young, too young. I shouldn’t have left and I am relieved she is okay. Relieved Tim isn’t bad. I want to crawl up next to him. Push my face into his skin and breathe in. Have you wanted to live inside someone else? April will go home. We will close the door behind her. Radio and air conditioning. Tim should have an apartment again in a week. This is my plan, I should have told Rafe. I am still playing house.
You’re like a mother bird, I say. Tim chomps his teeth at me. Dribble of beer to the floor. How long have I been gone? April’s legs are tucked beneath her. Get in.
Mary’s back, Tim says. Another joint, rolled, dangled, between his fingers. Up to his lips.
Her face is dirty, I see. Cry-stained. She’s fucking crying! Tim says.
See if she wants some. He hands me the joint.
Her eyes stay on the floor. He pushes a beer into her hands. Leaves one, open on the floor, for me. Inside the cooler ice has melted. Water and cans. I pour a bit of beer onto my shirt.
Drink. He says. She takes a small, pained sip. Shifts. A leg moves out, back in. She’s so very much younger than us.
Do you think we’re bad people? I lean in and whisper to her. She flinches. Steadies herself. I wipe her face with my damp shirt. This is wrong. I dip the corner in the cooler and wipe it again with the water. It’s okay, I say. She flattens her palms against the floor of the van. Fingers bent back farther than they should be able to.
Let’s get her an ice cream, I say.
No money for ice cream, Tim says, sing-song.
Did you scare her?
Her hair is greasy but soft. Ponytail loosened. She has been sweating. I fix it. Fix her tube top. Pull it up. She swats at my hands.
Why is my sister such a bitch? I ask. I need to know.
Tim sits heavily beside me. His fingers grip my bare toe. You were gone a long time.
Maybe you can be friends with my sister.
Where are you supposed to be? I ask April. I move to wrap my arms around her. I force her head onto my shoulder and she resists. Her body upright, rigid.
Where are you supposed to be?
She doesn’t have anything else good to say, Tim says.
She moves then, maybe just be a shrug. But I let it go. Tim hovering over both of us.
Get her out of here, Tim says.
Let her stay a minute.
Go on, Tim says. We don’t like you. She doesn’t move.
It’s okay, I say. Even though she hates my sister. She is fragile and quiet. Our arms touching still, a little tremble.
She’s like a hummingbird, I say.
Buzz, Tim says. Pinches the skin just above her elbow, and I think I must be able to feel it, too, as he twists flesh and holds it tight with his thumb and forefinger until she jumps from the van and runs to wherever is next.
Melissa Swantkowski is an editor at Bodega Magazine and one-half of The Disagreement, a reading series that looks for the funny in the sad, grotesque, and the perverse. She lives in NYC and is currently at work on a novel. You can read all of this again, and more, at melissaswantkowski.com.