The power and heat had gone out near midnight and the apartment was freezing. I stood at our bay window in my flannel nightgown, three sweatshirts and Chuck Taylors I’d graffitied with Wite-Out phrases that meant nothing unless you were in on the joke.
“Look at that one go!” Dad said, next to me, pointing at a mint green Honda that revved its engine and shot like a launched pinball down the icy hill below our window. He was wearing two plaid horse blankets and white rugby shorts that left his legs bare. His wool suit pants created a constant itch, he said, that only the air could cure.
“The red one’s not gonna make it,” I said. A red Cadillac had started off straight going down the hill, but it hit a long patch of ice and slid sideways.
“See, now that’s the stupid thing to do. Either go down fast and get down or don’t do it at all,” Dad said.
It was a Thursday afternoon. I was supposed to be in English class, watching Mr. Grant diagram sentences. Dad was supposed to be down in Jeff City having lunch with the daughter of the state insurance commissioner. He sold insurance, but he wasn’t an insurance salesman. Don’t say sales, Dad said, when I asked what I should say he did. Say deals.
We’d gotten up late and eaten a breakfast of fried chicken dipped in cold gravy from the doggie bags in the fridge. Now Dad sipped a beer like we were watching the football game. We lived in Kansas City and our apartment looked out on a faux-Spanish shopping plaza built in the twenties on the site of a drained swimming hole. Six blocks of high-end stores, restaurants and cerulean-tiled wishing fountains lay buried in snow from the storm the night before. The Plaza’s bell tower tried to chime but ice blocked its arches. I kept warming my hands in my armpits, then almost touching the cold window, watching it fog up in the shape of my hands.
“Look at this guy,” said Dad. A man dressed in an expensive overcoat, charcoal pants and a burgundy scarf got out of his car at the top of the hill. He leaned against the hood and watched the red Cadillac slide down too.
“Lawyer?” I asked. Dad and I liked to decide who people were. Bankers, housewives, CEOs, con men. A huge part of business, Dad said, was figuring out who people were. The first part of knowing came by watching. On weekends, we practiced out on the Plaza. I did the women. Tell me what you see, he’d say while we sat at the tables outside Latte Land or lunched at Fedora Grill. I learned silk from rayon, Saks from Sears, Supercuts from Mario Tricoci. We didn’t know who the people were and we couldn’t ask. But when I saw a woman the same way Dad did—a country club housewife, a catalog model, a mid-level manager at Sprint—his lips curved up, his eyes wrinkled and I felt the beginning of a warm, easy future where we went around as buddies, always. In just a few years, I thought, we would meet after work at Fedora’s polished bar and drape our jackets and elbows over the backs of our chairs. We would laugh together the way I saw Dad laughing with groups of men and women when I walked by the restaurant’s windows on nights I snuck out.
“Hard to say,” my dad said. We watched the man walk around the back of his car. “Doctor, could be. Maybe he worked all night.” Saint Luke’s was up the hill from our apartment building. Every night, ambulances drove emergency cases past our windows.
“On his way home,” I said. “Probably just delivered ten babies.”
“Yuck,” Dad said and swigged on his beer.
The man stuck his foot out and ran it in big sweeps over the ground, testing the ice with his boot. After a while, he went back to his car. He brought a silver Flying Saucer sled out from his trunk and began to get situated on it with his briefcase between his knees.
“I wonder why he took that one,” I said. You couldn’t control a Flying Saucer. A toboggan, like the one Dad and I used to ride together, you could steer. We didn’t have it anymore. It was in the garage behind the house we used to live in. Mom’s house now.
“He’s nuts,” my dad said, and laughed.
Two years ago, on a snow day, Dad and I would have been at Suicide Hill. It was a short walk from our old house. Dad always walked in front, his boots breaking first through the thick snow so I could walk behind in his tracks. Mom came last, dragging the toboggan halfway off the ground behind her as we waded down the middle of the frozen streets. Back then, I hated the itch of wool too, my wet breath collecting against my scarf, turning to ice as I tried to keep pace with Dad. I ripped it from my mouth every few blocks and trailed it over my shoulder, looking for a chance to lose it. But Mom never let me. By the time we got to the hill, it was always back, warm and itching, around my neck.
Now, the man on the Flying Saucer rocked forward with his briefcase. He pulled his feet up on the rim. Dad and I both put our hands on the window and leaned. We were standing shoulder to shoulder now, almost the same height. If anyone was looking up from the parking lot below, they would have seen us like that, framed by the window, our fingers pressed to the glass. Seen from far away, we might’ve been brother and sister, husband and wife. The Flying Saucer eased forward and tilted.
“He might go right through the intersection,” Dad said. He moved inside the blanket he wore and the fringe fluttered against me.
“He might go all the way to the creek,” I said. The creek was a ten-mile long ditch paved into a concrete trough. It was a block behind the fancy shops. All winter, it was full of filthy snow the color of ash plowed from the street above it.
The Flying Saucer slid another millimeter, then spun unexpectedly and the man faced us, looked right at us. Dad and I both jerked back from the window. The man’s knees opened and his briefcase flew down the hill.
“Oh shit!” Dad said. I echoed him. We’d made an agreement I was allowed to curse at home. Dad said I should learn how to swear. For emphasis, not for show.
Heavy snow flew at the man. His hat came off and caught under one of the Cadillac’s tires. He held on, but his body bounced against the ground and he yipped loudly in what sounded like pain. When he finally stopped, he was half-off the sled and splayed across the Plaza’s main street. He didn’t get up for a minute or so. I looked over at Dad.
“He’s fine,” Dad said. “He’s just lazing.”
The man rolled to his knees, stood up and began to limp, searching for his briefcase. I could see it, a square of heavy leather sunk deep in a snowdrift that blocked the doors to The Sharper Image. I squatted down and started to crank open the window so I could yell.
“Hey kid, are you not cold enough or what?” Dad said.
“It’s right there! In front of the store,” I yelled through the icy screen. The man looked up, spinning to find my voice.
“Sharper Image!” I yelled before Dad squatted and started cranking fast the other way. The man didn’t hear me and kept limping around the intersection. I walked away and lumped myself on the couch. Dad stayed at the window. At our old house, he sat on the porch and kept watch on the neighborhood. If cars went by more than once, if the minister next door was writing sermons in his kitchen, if the granddaughter of the old woman across the street borrowed her car too often. Always looking out.
Sometimes, when he came home late, I would stand next to him at the window and let his smell of office air and barroom rub against me while he told me his day. Mom was never a good listener, I knew. But I was. It was part of why she sent me to Dad. He wouldn’t last long without someone to listen. And anyway, she got tired of me, always in the house, watching her wine glass and listening to her phone calls with Kenny, her new boyfriend. Jesus, she’s so much like him, it’s like he’s still here, she’d say to Kenny. I was tired of her too.
“See?” Dad said, still facing the window. “People think if they can deliver babies or argue with judges they’re better than you. They’re not.”
“I know,” I said, and heaved up to use the bathroom.
On the way, I glanced out again. The man was gone but the briefcase was still there. The Flying Saucer stayed wedged in the snow where he left it, silvery and ignored. I hoped it didn’t belong to his kids. It probably did.
When the storm had come in the night before, Dad had a date. He had a lot of dates. They smiled wide and asked me what bands I liked or smiled tight and asked me about school. Their hands with long nails flicked open and closed or, if they were older, stayed deep in the pockets of their coats. They had bangs sprayed high or curled in an even line across their foreheads. They stuck close to Dad and looked uncomfortable when he left the room. I was bigger than most of them, taller and wider. Usually, my size embarrassed me, but I liked to make these women feel small. I stood too close and breathed in their perfume while they blinked their eyes, waiting for Dad to save them. The women were psychologists and real estate agents and healthcare market analysts. They were never mothers.
Dad liked when I scared them, winking at me on his way out the door even after he pretended to scold me for being rude, for saying nothing, staring. When he couldn’t decide between women, I’d get out a pad and make columns with each of their names and professions at the top. I really feel something when I’m with Betsy, he’d say. But Diane, just an incredible body. And Mary owns her own house. I’d write everything down, then we’d put it on the fridge so he could think about it. He always took it down before a woman came over. Once, I put it back up. I imagined the woman’s angry shouts, the hurt-animal look she’d give Dad and me before storming out. What happened instead: Mary pulled the list in my handwriting from the fridge, where she’d gone to get a glass of water in the night. She sat down next to me while I watched TV and put the paper on my thigh. Do you want me to call someone for you? she asked. Your mom or a teacher? I didn’t answer or touch the list. She drank her water, watched a half-hour of Alternative Nation beside me, then went back to bed.
The woman Dad brought home the night of the snowstorm wore Strawberry Body Splash. I’d smelled it when I woke up. I could still smell it coming from his hands when we stood at the window. It was one of the cheap sprays the girls in my grade used after gym class so we wouldn’t have to strip naked to shower. In my bathroom, I opened the medicine cabinet. My body splash was where it was supposed to be, but the silver top was halfway off. I didn’t know if I’d left it that way. This was not Diane or Connie or Mary, who had all pretended my end of the hallway didn’t exist. Strawberry Body Splash was someone new.
“Hey kid,” Dad yelled from the living room, half an hour later.
“I’m on the toilet,” I yelled back, even though I wasn’t. I was on the bath rug in the dark with my head near the sink’s footing and my shoes almost in the shower, moving my hands across my body, under my clothing. I did this often, almost compulsively, when I was bored. Late nights, I’d been watching movies with names like Double Intimacies and Night Eyes, keeping the sound low while naked women writhed for a minute or two underneath men who kept their clothes on. I wanted to know how it would feel if a man touched me, though one probably never would. What would they feel? What would I? I never did this in my room because Dad opened the door and started talking whenever he felt like it.
“Did you fall in? You got the Hershey squirts? What’s going on?” he said, his voice coming closer until it was outside the door.
“Nothing,” I said. He was quiet for a second. I pulled my hands through my sleeves, tore toilet paper from the roll and flushed it.
“I was thinking,” he said. “That idiot left a free sled there in the street. As long as we’re sitting in the freezing cold anyway, we could be out getting some exercise.”
“Yeah, okay, fine,” I said, and jumped to my feet, more excited than I wanted to be.
In my bedroom, I threw off the blankets and ran to my closet, heart beating. My skin was greasy. Grease was good for warmth. Underneath my nightgown, I pulled on tights and jeans, then stuffed the nightgown into my waistband. I kept the three sweatshirts I had on and didn’t bother with a bra.
I was only in my room a few minutes, but Dad was on the phone when I came out dressed. He put up an index finger. He was saying questions, not really asking them. Keep-her-talking questions, he called them. Yeah? Oh, really? I knelt on the couch cushions and rolled my eyes at him, but he didn’t look at me. After a while, he left the phone in the kitchen off the hook and went to talk in his bedroom. I went over, annoyed, to hang it up. Instead, I put it to my ear.
“No, baby, I’m from Texas, remember?” said a woman’s voice. Maybe the date from last night. Maybe not.
“I remember, sure. But Texas, Oklahoma, that’s about the same,” Dad said.
“They most certainly are not!” the woman said. Her voice had a soft twang and gravel. Texas.
“They are when you’re driving cross-country with a truckload of dildos,” Dad said. I knew this story. He’d been telling it since I was little. He was a truck driver and a bar owner, before I was born. The dildos fell out in the parking lot of a McDonald’s when Dad and his partner stopped for dinner. A man with a wife, three daughters and a hat brim ringed with bullets pointed a shotgun at them as they scrambled with handfuls of penis-shaped rubber. I only half-believed it, but I liked to repeat it at slumber parties and watch the girls squeal. Mom squealed too, when he told that one, and slapped him on the arm and laughed while she said his name—Patrick! After he moved out, she told me of course it wasn’t true. That a lot of things weren’t and I better learn to tell the difference sooner rather than later.
“No,” the woman said, serious, not laughing. “Dildos or not, Texas is nothing like dusty-ass Oklahoma.”
No sense of humor. She was done already. It wasn’t the date from last night. She sounded old. I hoped Dad would hang up now.
“Did you know dildos are illegal in thirty states?” Dad asked. Keep taking the conversation where you want it to go was another business move.
“Right. Is this one of them?” the woman said.
“Why?” Dad said. “You need one?”
I looked over at Dad’s door, across the hallway from where I stood in the kitchen. A sick feeling started in my stomach, but an excited feeling too. There was a change in Dad’s voice, from bouncy teasing to something hard. I knew I should put the phone down. I didn’t.
“How do you know I don’t have a pile of ‘em?” the woman said, with a little more gravel now.
“Maybe you do. Maybe you’ve got one in your hand right now.” Dad said. “Maybe you want me to tell you what to do with it.”
“Let’s see,” the woman said. “Let’s see if what you say and what I want bear any resemblance to each other.”
My stomach clenched around the fried chicken and I shoved the receiver away from me and pressed my thumb over the holes where my ear had been. I thought about saying something into the receiver—Dad would be enough to end it. Instead, I put it back on the counter quietly. Usually, when Dad was doing something with a woman, I could turn the TV up loud. But today was dead quiet and his laughs and growls came through the hollow wood door. I put on my coat and hat and boots. I tucked my keys in an inside pocket. I made sure the front door closed softly behind me.
I wasn’t allowed out alone. In our old neighborhood, I could walk around—to school, my friends’ houses, the Safeway. Where we lived now was different, Dad said. More bars, more men. But I couldn’t get used to being stuck inside. So, after Dad picked me up from school and dropped me off at our building each afternoon, I snuck out. It didn’t require much sneaking. I took the elevator down to the lobby, crossed the outdoor parking lot, then walked down an enclosed stairway that led to the shops and restaurants below. The rape stairway, my dad called it. When I came back from sneaking out, I ran up it as fast as I could so I only had a small chance of being raped. It smelled like pee and was usually lit by orange fluorescent lights.
The day after the snowstorm, the rape stairway was pitch black and freezing when I pushed open the heavy door. None of the Plaza stores were open, and the parking lot around me was empty except for the few cars in our apartment lot. I held the door half-open with my foot so the daylight could spill in. I’d been this way a hundred times and I could run down in a minute or so when the lights were on. The smell of clean snow came into the dark stairwell. It was almost sweet, like the storm had dug deep enough to pick up the first trace of spring. I practiced again in my mind how I would knee a rapist in the groin, push my thumbs into his eyes, and, as a last resort, pee on him and sing the Hallelujah chorus. Mr. Eckhart, our science teacher, suggested that during sex ed. It was better than just laying there, doing nothing, he said. I let the door slam behind me.
The sudden blackness was a strange relief. My arms and boots were gone, my greasy skin. Small clicks echoed, ice cracking in the tiled roof, maybe. I heard the blood beat in my ears, an underwater sound. I groped for the railing, painted iron with rough spots where dust and metal shavings blew into the wet paint. They picked at the tough fabric of my gloves as I started down the stairs. A tiny thrill went through me and I started down faster, loose-hipped, almost skipping.
On the tenth step, my foot slipped and I grabbed the rail with both hands to keep from falling.
“Goddamit, sonofabitch!” I yelled loud to keep from being scared, and pulled myself up again. My voice echoed and the wind moaned in the curved roof tiles, answering. I ran my toe along the edge of the step. Ice, but thin. I gripped the rail harder and started down again. I ran into a wall where the stairway turned a corner and flattened my hands against the stucco, turning. My mind leapt forward to the moment I would open the door at the bottom of the stairs. The bright snow would burn my eyes. I would march down the middle of the goddamned street and grab the Flying Saucer and bring it home. I would pound on Dad’s bedroom door and say Knock it the fuck off, let’s go, and wait with my arms crossed while he climbed into his brown, bib-front snow pants.
As I turned, a new smell hit me, sharp and nauseous. Strawberry Body Splash. It smelled like it did in French class, right after gym, when it still pulsed off our hot skin. Sweet on top of sweet, covering over a raw salt smell. The moaning I’d taken for wind started again. I took a gulp of air and waited to hear a second voice. Nothing. I went down another four steps before a soft rustle started. The perfume smell was even stronger now, mixed with sour breath and frozen sweat. I flailed my free hand through the air all around me. I slid my foot onto the next step and felt my boot crush down on something soft and jerky. The woman screamed.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry, are you okay?” I said, taking my foot off her, choking on my words. The woman made loud human noises–ha and ga and sh—but no words. The noises wrapped around us. She was below me somewhere, but I couldn’t figure out where her mouth was.
From the stair above, I held the rail and balanced on one foot. I lifted the toe of my right boot and drifted it out until it nudged the woman’s body. I pressed forward and felt along one side, my foot against what I thought was her ribcage, then slid it down her waist. She was spread out on her back diagonally across the steps. She screamed when I got to her leg and grabbed at my boot, but I shook my foot free, kicking her.
“No, don’t!” she screamed, filling the air around us. Then, in a screamed apology, “Jesus, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
I squatted down on the step just above where I guessed her head was and put my gloved hand on her shoulder to steady her, to steady myself.
“Hey, what happened?” I said, with a loud, almost angry authority that startled me. In the dark, in the absence of my body, I didn’t know how I was supposed to sound.
“I fell,” the woman said, weakly. “Leg’s broken, I think, all the way down.” Her voice was smaller and young now. It seemed to come from behind me, which terrified me. I stripped off my glove and put my bare fingers on her lips. They were cracked and lukewarm.
“Tell me your name, okay?” I said, hard and loud to keep from shaking.
“Jessie,” she said. No last name. Her breath was hot on my fingers. “What’s yours?”
I thought for a second. I had a perfectly fine name—Elizabeth. It was how teachers kept me straight from Ellen and Emily and Erin. It was what Dad called me when I was in trouble instead of hey kid. It was the first word Dad’s or Mom’s dates used—Elizabeth, so nice to meet you—so I could know they’d been told something about me. Who was I in the stairwell though? I stayed silent. I moved my hands onto Jessie’s head and felt the shape of it. She breathed faster and I could tell she was afraid, but I didn’t feel like comforting her. I knew I wouldn’t hurt her, but there was something that felt good about her not knowing, about her fearing me. Her hair was soaked cold near her skull and frozen down to the ends. My hands felt down her thin cheeks and wrapped gently around her bare neck. It was sticky and very cold. A few hours had passed since she left our apartment. Jessie swallowed and I felt her throat contract, her esophagus ridged against my thumbs. I took my hands away and began searching in my big pocket. Inside was the plaid scarf I still hated wearing. I stuffed the scarf under Jessie’s chin and tucked the ends around her shoulders.
“I’m going to see if you’re okay. Okay? You’re going to feel some pressure,” I said.
My hands kept moving down Jessie’s body, down her chest and her stomach, still clothed in the light blouse and short skirt she wore on the date with Dad. The blouse was silky rayon and the skirt was double knit jersey. Cheap material. I wondered if Jessie was pretty enough for Dad to ignore that she might be a receptionist or dental assistant, nobody special. Her body was thin, with small breasts and jutting hip bones that I ran my hands over, squeezing now and then, pretending to check for broken bones, but secretly enjoying what she felt like in my hands. Most of Dad’s dates were small like this. Mom was small too, when they were first married, then got a little bigger every year. I saw the appeal of tininess in a woman—Jessie’s muscles and bones were moving just under her skin. I felt a strange freedom or compulsion, a desire to keep touching her there, in the dark stairwell. I put one hand on her breastbone and slid my fingers from her neck to her belly. Touching Jessie was different than touching myself. I thought of how Dad must have touched her too, the night before, his hands on her chest and her stomach. I moved my hands under Jessie’s skirt and slipped them up her pantyhose-encased hipbones. She was cold even in the creases of her legs.
Her coat was thin, not a real winter coat, and it was open. I took my fingers away from her body and pulled the loose sides together around her waist. She cried out when I tightened the coat to pull the buttons through their holes.
“Hush,” I said. “Quiet, you’ll be alright.” I pressed my fingers into her ribs again.
“No,” she said. “No, don’t. Please.”
She put her cold fingers over mine to stop me. I moved my hands back to her head and cupped them around her ears.
“Do you hear the ocean?” I asked. “You’re on the beach. The sand is hot.” I had never seen the ocean except on television. But maybe Jessie had.
Part of me wanted to get Dad, bring down the blankets from my bed, let him pick Jessie up and carry her to our car. If I did, we’d have that story together and we’d be heroes in it. But I didn’t want Jessie to be a story Dad told dates or clients, keeping me in or leaving me out, depending on what worked best. Leaving out for sure Jessie’s terrible screams, the sick cold on her neck, my fingers all over her.
I don’t know how long I sat there holding her face, afraid of what would happen when I left. Jessie’s breathing slowed down until it seemed too slow. I forced my hands away from her, stood up and climbed down over her body.
“Where are you going?” she gasped. Her breath came rapidly again.
“Where do you think?” I answered. “Somebody has to take care of you.”
It was what Mom always said to me, before I moved out. Somebody has to take care of you.
Outside, the Plaza was almost silent, the air heavy again with a second snow coming east. Twenty minutes after my call from a pay phone, the paramedics came without sirens, throwing red and blue light on the drifts. I waited for them on the edge of a snow-filled wishing fountain. They followed me to the parking lot stairwell and shined their high-powered flashlights inside. They ignored me while I climbed up behind them. When the light struck Jessie, I was shocked by her appearance. She was middle-aged with dyed blonde hair and waxy skin that looked terrible now around her glazed eyes and blue lips. Her stockings were clumped with blood that had frozen and stuck to her skin. She turned her face away from the light, then back again, I thought, to look at me. They got busy sliding Jessie onto an orange board and I slipped out of the stairwell into the street.
I walked down the block to where the Flying Saucer was. The man’s briefcase was there too, heavy and wet and locked with a combination. I picked it up by the handle and looked up at our apartment window. Second from the top, all the way on the right. How would Dad see me from up there? Would he know it was me? Or just some big girl in dark purple nylon and beat-up boots?
When I got home, I dumped my coat and the briefcase in the back of my closet. Dad was off the phone and sprawled on the couch, asleep. A few minutes later, I watched the ambulance fight on chained tires up the big hill. I thought of Jessie in the back, sliding forward on the rolling stretcher, her body angled and hovering just above the track the man on the Flying Saucer had taken. When the ambulance was out of sight, a loneliness hit me. I replayed the last hour like I did with all big moments—the pretty September afternoon Dad left Mom, the muggy July night Mom packed my suitcase and carried it down the front walk to her car. I could have said I was Jessie’s daughter, could have climbed in the ambulance and held the blankets around her. Hospital nurses would have given me coffee and asked about the accident, about me and how they could help.
In my bathroom, I shut the door against the light. I spritzed the cold room with Strawberry Body Splash, curled myself on the floor and breathed until I was sick with the smell.
The next time I saw Jessie, she was standing in front of our bay window in a sundress, holding a glass of wine. It was an August Friday two weeks before high school started and I came in stinking from field hockey two-a-days. Dad hinted at a surprise on the drive home, but that didn’t excite me. His surprises lately felt like pushes in weird directions that had nothing to do with me—spiked pink golf shoes, a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, once an Avon lady who painted my nails with a bitter anti-biting liquid that I secretly enjoyed licking off. I’d joined the hockey team mostly to get him to stop, but now he talked about athletic scholarships and my elbow position when I ran. Jessie turned when we came in and I recognized her face instantly. My dropped hockey stick clattered in our entryway.
“Whoops!” she said. “Careful there.”
Dad went toward her, put an arm around her waist and walked her across the carpet to where I stood. She was tan now instead of waxy white. One calf was hatched along its side with two-inch surgical keloids and a light purple zag where the bone must have poked through. I was lightheaded, seeing her again.
“I’d like you to meet my daughter,” he said to her. “And Elizabeth,” he said, turning to me, “this is Jessie.”
I cringed when he said our names. Dad shot me a confused look. After the accident, I hadn’t heard anything about Jessie. Did he drop her, then pick her up again months later? They’d obviously been seeing each other for a while.
I held her eyes for a few seconds to see if she recognized me. I couldn’t tell. She looked comfortable in her tanned, aging skin.
She extended her hand to me. My hand was covered in sweat and dirt.
“Nice to meet you, Jessie, was it?” I said, business-like to hide my shock and embarrassment. Her hand touched mine and an instant, familiar current ran through me. The feeling frightened me. The secret of Jessie had carried me through the cold winter and spring, a fire burning under my ribs. Why had I touched her that way, why did I cherish the memory of her cold skin warming under my hands? It took all I had not to throw my sweaty arms around her, take her face in my hands again.
“Your dad tells me you’re kicking ass out there,” she said.
“I’m the worst player,” I said. “They only use me for corners because I block so much of the goal.” Dad’s face clouded. He hated it when I said something that made me look bad.
“I read an article recently,” she said. “About how women don’t take up enough space in the world. Taking up space is a good thing.”
“Well then, Elizabeth’s an expert,” Dad said, winking. If Mom was there, she would have said “Patrick!” and slapped him with a dirty look. Jessie stared at him, detached. Over the next few months, I would see her standing apart from him, scrutinizing, and I would scrutinize along with her. Do I like him? Can I live with him? I’d never seen someone appraise Dad this way. He didn’t seem to notice at all.
At dinner, I was talkative, almost feverish.
“He told you about Diane right? The marathoner?” I asked Jessie as I shoved my mouth full. “She used to make us pull over so she could shit in dumpsters behind the supermarket. She was used to going when she felt the urge. I mean, that’s what fucking potty-training is, right? The ability not to go when you feel the urge?” I laughed. This was one of my usual moves, talking about Dad’s former girlfriends.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Jessie said, sipping her wine, laughing like one of us had told a great joke.
When we brought the salad plates back to the kitchen, Dad whispered, “She’s one of us, don’t you think?”
I had no idea what he meant.
I could have let you die, I thought, watching her laugh again at a dirty story Dad told over dessert. After they were married, I held onto this thought when I needed power I didn’t have.
When it was time for Jessie to leave that night, Dad put on his jacket.
“Hey, you’re fine here until morning, right? I’ll be back to take you to practice early.” He left me alone overnight often, but I didn’t want him to go this time. I was alternating between a feeling that I was stupid and Jessie’s accident was a trick played on me—maybe by Jessie and Dad themselves—and one that said I was important, a force nothing could happen without.
“I really need to be at the field super-early tomorrow. Like five-thirty,” I lied. He looked at me with earnest eyes that said you need to understand. It felt vital suddenly to be the woman who gave the most.
“So, just be back by then,” I said.
“Five-thirty, got it,” he said.
Jessie was looking at us with that curious stare.
“Bye,” I said, and surprised myself with a quick lift of my arms. They went around her shoulders and under her hair so I was holding her neck again. Under her perfume was a salty scent I recognized. I hadn’t showered or changed before dinner, only washed the dirt from my hands and face. I wanted her to smell me. I wondered if she kept my scarf or if the paramedics threw it out. When I pulled away, she wore an odd, digging expression.
“Hey, do you like the beach?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. “I burn.”
I stood on our balcony and watched Dad’s car leave the lot. It was still half-light out, slate blue sky behind the domes and lattices of the Spanish towers. Smoke from restaurant vents carried smells of pork and beef fat. I waited ten minutes then took my keys and went down the rape stairway, well-lit now, to the streets. I didn’t worry about Dad seeing me anymore. In the early summer, through Fedora’s window, I’d caught his eye while he talked to a woman in a silver dress. He chuckled, shook his head slightly before turning to reach for his drink.
They hadn’t gone far. Dad’s Chrysler was parked along the creek, in front of the Raphael Hotel. The water was brown and smelled marshy as I crossed the bridge. I sat on a creek bench across from the elegant sign and took out the cigarettes one of the hockey girls had given me. The sun was nearly down and the lights in the hotel windows began to go on, rows of rectangles ascending to a lit marble cornice at the top. I panned my eyes up and down the facade, but no one appeared, and I went back to stand on the bridge. In the springtime, I had watched the Flying Saucer emerge slowly from the melting pile of creek snow where it had been deposited by the plows, loosening each day until it floated away.
I was leaning over the bridge railing when the man walked behind me and pressed his fingers into the backs of my bare thighs. The fingers were hot and dry, aftershave drifted forward. Traffic passed a few feet behind us while his fingers squeezed and rubbed, greedy, moving from the outer curves near my hips, inward. I breathed a few seconds, fear and joy striking nerves at random, so my own fingers itched in response. When I didn’t resist, a hand fit itself between my thighs and remained there a few seconds, kneading the skin. A woman’s low heels pounded close and the hands withdrew. I turned quickly and glimpsed the man—round-shouldered, khaki shorts, tennis shoes—but found my legs rooted to the sidewalk, trembling.
At home, I examined my thighs in the mirror. Little blue and pink bruises rose high above the green and yellow blobs where hockey balls had struck. I rubbed my own hand between my legs and sniffed the scent I left on him—rank sweat, mowed grass from my falls on the field. I took down a bottle of whisky from the cabinet and poured some, sipping it on the couch like Dad did, civilized. When I finished, I went to my closet. The briefcase was still locked so I found a hammer in the kitchen drawer, took it in both hands and beat the case until the frame bent and one of the locks popped off. Inside were rubber washers, fittings for a sink. A card said Brian Mikkels of AAA Plumbing. So much for figuring out who people were.
The stained suitcase Mom had packed for me sat next to it. I flipped up the metal clasps and the smell of our old house came up at me, steam radiator and canned beef stew. She’d packed my favorite clothes and jewelry, forgetting nothing I’d demand to come back for. I pulled out everything—sweatshirt from an old road trip, baptismal necklace, a pile of loose snapshots in a stationary box—and slid my hands through the sateen pockets, looking for I didn’t know what. When I didn’t find it, I put myself to bed thinking about Jessie, as usual, but now my mind drifted to the man’s hands on my legs, to my plan to stand on the bridge the next day to see if I could make it happen again.