by JoAnna Novak
And the next moment I was among them, though days had parted us—boxes piling nothing, boxes knocking my hips with angel ecchymosis, blue-black waiting to bloom: arms, calves, tomorrows smudged aquarelle with bruisery—and I swallowed the room, careening plus wine.
How would I ever escape?
Wah-wah, Lee said, Friend #1, when I spilled complaint in our fun.
Slunk over couch, sloshing from cup, three brunettes again, together, holiday-fat feasting kin.
Fate—transparent, untoward—had prettied me in adulthood, the instant I’d been banded.
Come over, said Collins, Friend #2, champagne! Moving! Wed Friend. She picked me up in a loaner: dachshund-shed everywhere, glinty change, stubbed squares, glass.
There’s glass on the seat, I said, depositing coins in the console, but mostly I worried about my skirt.
Wah-wah, no one bought me a Christmas present.
Thirty, my husband said over the phone, aren’t you an adult?
I heard our dog cow. I pictured her radical teeth. Cheetos, we called them.
What are you, a little girl?
Thirty-six hours before, I’d gorged in MA (say Mass): souffléd pancakes, apples, cinnamon syrup.
We did things like, husband and I, procedured the otherwise blah, blah, blah.
Christmas morning brunch: a blunt powdered sugar buzz, a be-hind bon voyage, a bereavement for we-don’t-make-nice-with-our-in-laws.
The Civilized East was where I lived; my family and girlfriends mired themselves Midwest, more middling every year, self-congratulating Chicago, like, hey, look at this sweet state-shaped tattoo. Even Nan, my sis—young, easy mimic; newly legal, knowing-it-all—bought into neighborhoods: I mean, Lakeview, Lincoln Square, Gold Coast.
Nan! Where are you going tonight? my mom shouted. I sat passenger and watched the traffic cops harp on Midway’s arrivers. Nan was seven years younger, seven men more than me. She swiped earrings from Macy’s, totaled an Escape. She funded her trouble on being the youngest. My mom smashed her phone into her face. Buck-town?
I heard my sister, even still, through the line: Mom! Logan Square.
I wanted things, this, that, can I say? A check or cash, a nice sweater—maybe mohair, an instrument (hey, old clarinet!), long earrings to catch in my hair. More. My hair tangled, tugged, a quick out of New Englanding life, a stranger yanking me down just a minute. Not the strangeness of my past self. Not the strangle of my family.
Manful hands. A minute! Who would fault me?
Be glad you’re not here, I hushed to my husband. I mumbled at my kiddie bed and anchored my ambivalence; Posh Spice moued from the wall, the same as in eighth grade. Underneath her thumbtacked sheet, ghost-paint, Radiant Lavender, fresh-preserved—the pastel of your birthstone, said my mom in a burst of twenty years ago; memory deluged that room, everything thrashing me into some swampy corner.
Nan kept the place a hole, clothes hoarded and shored beneath the bed, pants stacked on snappable bins, boxes (chintz and shoes) burdening the drawers; the hamper was veiled in dry cleaning sleeves, plastic to protect the silk from ticking on wicker.
That’s awful, Lee had said when I told her, one flute-deep; but besides Collins she was my best friend. I counted her blessings: a carpeted condo; a tryst with an Oscar nom; a bouffanted ma, freakishly thin. How can your mother let her disrespect her house? I would tell her to get out!
Separation wasn’t the word for it. My husband and I shared deodorant. We smelled apricotish, bothly banned aluminum from our underarms.
But, really, I packed my nicest shirts. Tit-less, I went for wears you’d want to touch me up to feel. So, okay, sweaters: polka-dotted and Italian polamide, cashmere and snake print, pink and green and graybrowndove. My leather wrap skirt.
Always cold, I clung to the pretense of warmth so my mother’s worry would shut up.
After Midway, my brother met me at the food court escalator; we’re heading to the Mustang, he said (he sprung for the lot!). Then he told me he ate fifty mini-muffins at Christmas breakfast that morning.
Before Mass or after, I wondered.
And Mom’s compote, he said. Boozy, I knew, souped: frozen cherries burbling their gush in bourbon; scarlet peaches cleaved from season; lingering cinnamon sticks.
Yeah. I’m bulking up.
Wet gunk dribbled about the garage. We’d shopped; I gifted myself. Curbed by concrete, wind chill dwindled the air, and I smelled everything I loved about Chicago: grease, gas, corn starch, kith, ken, heart, dagger, adipose tissue, and ribs.
A Dodge with Collins’s family plates barreled through the crosswalk: illegal and bad manners in Massachusetts.
Which home was home? The one where I’d be knocked off obeying traffic laws or the one where patient strangers awaited my thawing recoil—would they stop, would they stop: yes.
Bro-man Lare: Uh-oh. Someone got the boot. Merry Christmas.
(See the hubcap, a slush-hardened yellow bolt, next to our black ride.)
Hey, I said, when the interior glowed green.
Your seat. He twisted a dial. My bottom was heated, leather, instant.
Does this have anything to do with Slimer? Ecto-Cooooooler?
All right, Hare.
How fast we took Ogden, immaculate with snow in the sweet dusky night. Oakbrook was a globe haloed in trash: Burger King, Starbucks, Butterfly Orient, Cash—Loans, Doctors, Cars, Parts.
Burger Wop! I said. Dad still calls it.
Not okay, H.
My one mask: comic. Penance for years of angsty-angst, pained-little-ol-me, a tragic droop. German for that I wanted, along with French for a little bit, just this afternoon, now, yes, oh, and Spanish, oyé, no no no.
Weird would be my siblings, everyone together, all in order. Facts help here! Scrubbed and rubber-gloved, swabbed of thought: Hare, oldest; Lare, middle; Nan, baby. 30, 26, 21.
Don’t forget Fina!
Oh, Dad. That dog’s kind of dumb. (Unfixed eyes, brushy beard, bounding the four-quick-stairs; sixty-five pounds of love: Dad.)
Mom, Dad, Fina; Pye, a fox terrier, who came when I left for college, like my curtain foretold no way could I return with Human Sexuality credits and a readiness to rumpus in my own bed.
This is the beginning of the end, Mom tells me halfway through, frisky in her orange bug—no signals, rampant accelerator surges—in your father’s eyes. You’ll wind up just as bad as us. Do you want to stop for candy?
Ferrarra’s—fresh Jordan almonds, bins and bins of nostalgia-junk—is close, a mile or two, ten minutes, not out of the way! The interstate is a corridor of salt-crudded trucks, swerving bozos, HONK TO IMPEACH OBAMA fluttering above a Forest Park overpass, a vitreous cube of cars on cars, billboards: Ditka wants YOU to fight off the FLU!
I’d never had a flu shot; most days, I didn’t wash my fresh fruit.
But we just ate brunch, I think. And before that, a doughnut. And yes, maybe he’s projecting (Dad). Protecting (Ditka).
My marriage? The end?
Out loud: Dad really said that?
Oh, goes Mom. I wasn’t supposed to mention. But he says a wife should keep her husband close. Especially at the holidays. Hare. You can always move back home.
Weird siblings, weirder every year, weirder with the cold, winter draws them near.
They call it clouding, and it happens on the couch.
Should I say more?
A mission-style couch, leather-cushioned, dark cherry wood, ambiguous pattern.
May I disclose?
Three fleece blankets (Harley, Howling Wolves, Harley; cake-cake-caked with canine stink slobber stink) bury them.
We’re head-to-foot! they yell! Head-to-foot.
My mother’s grimace furrows into her brow; my dad shakes his head, eyes goof-loose, a cartoon duck, amused or confused.
Did you fart, Nan?
No, she squeaks.
Lare-Bear. (Coy wink.) Did you?
I stretch on the rug, feeling the left-out feeling swell my right quad.
Disney lulls them to sleep; they wake to zap food from the freezer—pizza rolls, beef taquitos, dumpling-wonton things; they gorge in their stupor. Am I the only person who doesn’t curl before the tube? I pin myself to my twin bed with a fat book, and gulp my ill thoughts. Hypnagogique.
That’s weird, I tell Collins. Right? Yessss.
And my husband:
Harriet, that’s fucked up.
And the woman I see:
Where does your dissatisfaction take root? Do you store it in your stomach? Have you tried that UV bulb?
You don’t need to go home, the woman I see says; you’re an adult, the choice is yours.
Mm-hm. My fastest self comes out in her office; oh, I prattle, and laurels of self-deprecation wreath me: I am so inarticulate, I say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
The woman I see nods; does she know she’s hard to peep? Her eyes bunked deep in her skull, her scab-kissed calves, her pleather swirly chair—.
After one session, I almost quit.
That shallow I am: a wrong face could sicken me.
What’s more, I couldn’t tell my husband: worms, I saw, curled up tiny knots, in her waiting room, waiting to feed on Psychology Today.
I think, she says, measuring her goodwill, that you’re very articulate.
What do you and Marcia talk about, my husband asks.
He scratches the dog’s tum, what he dubs leather. What? Is that not good?
Hey! Good for us, says Collins, before we finish the Veuve, in desperate gulps, the way best friends can, guardless, shameless, glutful. We’re basically happy!
No mention yet of my presents, their absence.
We concurrented therapy, one August Saturday smoky with failure.
I was getting suicidal, I said. Really bad, in Saratoga. (I saw myself sobbing the long hall of ladies’ stalls with their Pepto-pink doors, redoing my lips, dropping a quarter in the attendant’s basket for one two-ply towel, back to the bathroom, scratching my wrist with an earring post like I was fifteen again, thinking if I had a gun, if I had a gun, if I had a gun while my husband cheerfully steered his parents around $6 trifecta fun.)
Now that I see my family every week, I can’t stop cutting, said Collins. (I flashbacked to her high school slices, cuneiform on her wrists and thighs, my inadvertent twin.)
Our nods giggle in unison. Unwittingly, we settle on the same appointment time, the same day of the week; even time zones couldn’t tear us apart. That’s girl love.
The day after Christmas, Nan and I take the 10:15 Metra from a nice southwest village. You know, downtown with barre studios and mac bakeries and specialty salt shop.
Ugh. Eye roll at seatfuls of teen fleece. Her volume disobeys her. Suburbs.
The suburbs. (Before us: Stone Avenue, Western Springs, Hinsdale, Downers Grove, Naperville, Joliet, more, more, more, at last, Aurora.) From whence we come, toots (rhymes with foots), I imagine my mom saying. Fifteen hours in Illinois and already their words, their whining, their ways of drinking coffee or slurping juice engulf me.
We have time before lunch, I say. And I’m meeting Collins, not until four. What do you want?
Hollywood, Brookfield, Riverside, Forest Park, Berwyn, Cicero, Chicago Union Station: stops, beneath which I clipped my ticket, wedged my wants, broke away from the coated brown seat-top, the green-swim of world passing by through the dirty glass.
A cooler sister than you, she says. Kidding … or not.
Oversensitive, says my husband.
Looking for recognition, says the woman I see.
Have a nice shift, I say to my sister.
There is time for everything in Chicago. The handicapped stall across from Nuts On Clark fits two comfortably, with dual hooks to hang your stuff on the door, with variegated metal to collude your spine. I saw my husband, cuddling our dog. The cervical verdict: tears and tears. I met a stranger. Goodbye.
JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and the editor of Tammy. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Guernica, DIAGRAM, Quarterly West, and other publications. The author of four chapbooks, her first full-length collection of poetry will be published in 2016.