Angie waves her hand in the air. “I want some. Pick me, chica, pick me!” She dives her hands into the bowl and pulls a runny handful of slime to her mouth, smacking her lips and making Cookie Monster eating noises.
Most of the runoff goes back into the bowl. Some joins the layer of scum already ground into the carpet. At one time I would’ve cleaned up the mess immediately, but not anymore. I’m exhausted. Running a house and raising a six-year-old are tasks for a mom, not a 17-year-old daughter. I’m ready to jump out of my own skin over my mom’s absence, but I put all that aside, bump Angie out of the way and stick my face into the bowl, pretending to lap it up. I lick my lips and tell Helen it’s delicious and she giggles. “More!” I demand. “More! I must have more!”
Helen laughs so hard she nearly spills the entire bowl. “Cakey -– you are silly.”
Cakey is Helen’s nickname for me. My name’s Cate, but for the longest time she thought it was Cake, the coolest name in the history of cool names to a six-year-old. Angie grabs the side of the bowl opposite me and we dramatize tug-of-war. After Helen tires of us and we’ve assaulted the rug with a few more gobs of goo, Angie guides Helen into the bathroom to clean her up and I stare at myself in the mirror and attempt to rearrange my sunburned face, which is taut and shiny and kinda painful. Suck in the nose, plump the lips, smooth the wiry mop that zigzags from my scalp. I look like a constipated person who’s been electrocuted. I polish it off with dark red lipstick. I’ve never been one for shimmery pink.
When Helen returns she’s changed into a fresh pair of pajamas and looks reasonably clean except for a few beads of pink slime scattered throughout her smooth blonde hair. She tears into one of the tiny packets of expired airline peanuts that are strewn throughout our house and shakes them into her mouth. A stab of guilt reminds me that I haven’t fed her dinner and we have no food in the house. All that’s left is the stuff we don’t want. The old stuff my mom brings home from the airline -- nuts, pretzels, and tiny bottles of the crappy drinks, like seltzer water. When she comes home, that is, which is practically never. As a flight attendant, she was never home much to begin with. But now that she’s doing transcontinental flights, forget about it. She’s out of our picture.
“How do I look?” I ask Helen. She’s better than a mirror. If there’s a problem, she finds it. Plus, it pleases her to articulate my flaws. And, coming from her, it almost pleases me to hear them.
“Like an apple with hair.”
And because I speak Helen-language, I know she means the sunburn and the tangle of hair I haven’t trimmed in over two years. No matter what she says I look like, it’s always appended by “with hair,” because the hair is, well, let’s just say notable.
“But I like your skirt.” I’m wearing an above-the-knee skirt, very unusual for me, but it’s early May and unseasonably hot. And I’m trying to, you know, align myself with the climate. Okay, I lie, lie, lie. I’m trying to seduce the boy I’ve dedicated my life to loving. I want to hug Helen for only calling out my hair and pink face. That means my thighs don’t look as bad as I fear they do. Oh, these small victories, they count!
“Must we go?” Helen juts out her bottom lip and throws her hip to the side like a teenager. After nearly a year without a real mom, she no longer acts her age.
Angie snorts. “Your sister’s on a suicide mission.”
“Huh?” The words don’t alarm her because they don’t register.
Angie leans down and makes a big show of whispering into her ear, but of course it’s loud enough for me to hear. “She likes a jerky boy. Who doesn’t appreciate her.”
Helen widens her eyes and speaks in a comic, lilting tone. “Well that’s bad news!”
“You don’t want to go?” I ask Helen the question with sympathy, even though I’m making her go no matter what. Of course she doesn’t want to go! What self-respecting six-year-old would want to go to a kegger? She can smell a bad idea from a million miles away. Her older sister, on the other hand, is a bit less astute.
“Mom wouldn’t make me go.”
Laughter tickles my teeth and I clench down against it. Mom isn’t here. Mom hasn’t been here. The idea of mom even being a mom at this point is a total joke. “Angie will stay with you at the party. She doesn’t want to go, either, so she’ll be by your side the whole time.”
“Why do you wanna go?” Helen asks.
“Because I was asked.” I don’t know if Jason really likes me or not. I know the rumors, so probably not. But maybe it’s enough to be wanted for once in my Godforsaken life.
Helen drops to the floor as though she’s been shot in the chest and rolls around dramatically. She drapes her arm over her eyes and whines. “Why doesn’t Angie stay here with me?” She lifts her arm, stealing a quick peek at me and apparently deciding I need more convincing, so the arm lowers back over her eyes and the squirming and moaning continue.
Angie plops onto the ground next to Helen. “Because Angie doesn’t feel like sitting in this roach-infested apartment all night. Besides, your sister needs backup. I don’t trust homeboy or his friends.”
I feel badly for making her go. I do. But I also feel badly for me. 17-years-old and I still haven’t even kissed a boy on the lips? How does that even happen? It’s embarrassing, of course, but there’s also the longing. I just want him, like, always. I want and want and want and it feels like I’ve swallowed a pocketknife. Imagine living your life with the blade of a knife piercing your Adam’s apple. That’s how I feel all the time.
And then earlier today Jason and I sat on the cool grass, the sky stuffed with layers of gray clouds, the sun casting a stripe of bright yellow across the hillside beyond us, the glowing band looking surreal and somehow nuclear, at odds with the shadows above and below. I tutored him, as always, on linear algebra. As always, nothing got through. And as always, a hint of flirtation bled into the air and dangled, not enough to grasp onto, more like a flickering interest, temporary and impossible for me to categorize. Then he invited me to his party. And instead of actually considering it, I rambled some excuses. An invented Comcast appointment, a bad grade, redemption, responsibility. And then, he kissed me. On my cheek.
There are plenty of explanations for this. Maybe he suffered an acute seizure and forgot, well, everything. Maybe a lacrosse ball finally knocked him silly and he’s experiencing a concussion, as over 300,000 high school athletes do each year. Or he’s about to become the youngest recorded case of early-onset Alzheimer’s ever. I considered taking advantage of his mental impairment and licking his face, but the kiss was the kind you could spend 30 years deconstructing and still not feel certain of its intent. It was slow and intimate, but also on my cheek! Not a French kiss, for sure. But not a fast peck, either. He’d made his eyes all big and irresistible and said, “Well, if Comcast can come another time, you know where to find me.” And as he sauntered away, his jeans hanging promisingly low on his ass, I knew that no matter how humiliating it proved to be, I’d be at that party later. None of this would stand unless I could storm the castle, steal the Prince’s heart and emerge clearly victorious. Not ambiguous-cheek-kiss victorious. Kiss-on-the-lips victorious.
The next thing I know, Helen’s shoving barrettes into my hair and Angie licks her index finger and smudges the liner under my eyes.
Angie smacks her lips in approval. “You look fly, girl.”
Helen swats at Angie. “Stop calling her a fly!”
Angie shrugs. “Flies are beautiful. Have you ever seen one close up?”
Helen wrinkles her nose and sighs. “So we should make you look like a fly, too?”
“Guuuuuurl, I’m already a fly.”
Angie’s curvy in all the right proportions. Big boobs, bigger butt, small waist. From behind, when you just see flashes of her mocha skin, the obscene sway of those hips and the ripple of her long hair that’s halfway down her back, she looks like some Columbian goddess, a Sofia Vergara minus the shiny dresses and the red carpet, but then she turns and hits you with a rotten case of untreated acne, a face that resembles the surface of Mars-craters, boils, a dry, red wasteland. She long since gave up trying to get her mom to take her to a dermatologist. With six kids and no health insurance, Angie’s skin is the least of her family’s casualties.
In the car, Helen nestles her head into her car seat’s side protection pads and plays possum. Her eyelids twitch with the effort and she smiles. Angie lights a joint in the passenger’s seat and tries to pass it to me. I shake my head and give her a dirty look for lighting up around Helen. As if I’d even consider smoking that shit before the biggest moment of my life. Jesus.
Helen leans forward against her seat’s five-point harness and tosses her hair. “She’s cigaretting the place up again.” Her 35-second nap is over. She coughs and I feel my cheeks redden. I hate Angie for making me an even worse teenage mom. It’s not like I needed any help in that department. But I’m really mad at my mom and the excuses, caveats and broken promises. I guess she’s making money for once, but I haven’t seen any of it, so I don’t particularly give a fuck.
Angie reaches into the back seat and tickles Helen’s feet. “I want to trade in all my brothers for you. Whaddya say? Wanna come home with me and save me from those mongrels?”
Helen twirls her hair around her index finger. When Angie keeps waiting for an answer, Helen sighs and says, “Trading family members is out of the law. Duh.”
Angie bangs on her seat and flails. “It’s so unfair! You’re so much cooler than them!”
Helen shrugs as if to say: tough shit you stinky smoker. Some lame commercial for a hardware store comes on the radio about a dad scaring away his daughter’s date with a chainsaw and just then, as if she’s reading my mind, Helen asks, “What was your dad like?”
“He was the same dad as yours.”
“No, but what was he like?”
I see what the question means to her. She was less than a year old when he left. She never knew him and no one ever talks about him. But she knows she once had one and would now like to know what she lost. But I’m not about to get into that conversation here, a block away from what could become the best night of my life.
When he left my mom, he quit his job, wiped out our savings and started traveling around the country racing motorcycles and shacking up with a woman half his age. He never paid a dime of child support and doesn’t call on birthdays or holidays. Technically he lives less than a half hour away from us, but really he vanished. I can recall his face because I recently found my mom’s stash of pictures. Before that, I was getting his face confused with the face of an actor, or maybe someone I invented completely.
“Not now, Helen. Please?”
Angie thwaps me on the back on the head. Me. The driver. “Don’t be bitchy.”
I ignore her and meet Helen’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “Okay. Sorry.” I’m not about to incite The Wrath of Helen right now. Her fits can be epic, herculean, Shakespearean torrents of screaming, thunder, cyclone winds and punishing rain. “He was a jerk.”
Helen’s eyes pan out the window and we ignore one another for the rest of the drive. Cars line both sides of the road, bumper to bumper, for three blocks on either side of Jason’s house. I hyperventilate and sit there for as long as I possibly can. In other words, until my two “children” start whining.
As we walk toward his house, it’s hard to catch my breath and Helen’s yapping doesn’t help.
“Oh. My. God,” she says. “Gabbie lost a tooth at school. One in the front row. It looks so ridiculous.” She looks up at me and places her fingertip over one of her front teeth like it’s a gap. “Now one of mine is loose. What if I lose it at school, for God’s sake?” She laughs like this is high comedy.
Helen is the youngest in her class. Her friends spit out baby teeth like the tooth fairy is planting ponies under their pillows, but my sister doesn’t even have a loose one yet. We check, like, every morning. No wiggle. No shot of joining the ranks of the toothless anytime soon. I’ve tried distracting her with gummy vitamins and singing toothbrushes, but she always remembers to check.
“It’s this one right here.” Her finger points to a front tooth, but drifts indecisively to an incisor. As if a smaller tooth equals a smaller lie.
I poke her in the belly and run through my list of “rules” -- stay put, don’t leave Angie’s side, don’t eat or drink, don’t talk to strangers and, oh yeah, did I happen to mention to stay wherever I put you?
When we get to the doorstep, I try to figure out how, exactly, one enters a party at Jason Sellers’s house. Doorbell, knocking, simply walking in, what? I’m relieved when a drunk chick stumbles out the front door, spilling beer on Helen’s foot. We step inside and it’s loud, hot and sort of smelly.
No one greets us. In fact, people wrinkle their noses at me, confused about Helen. I want to scream at them all. Six-year-olds don’t stay alive on their own! It’s not my fault! Selena Duras, cheerleader, community service ho and Jason’s ex-girlfriend, looks up from her conversation and gestures in our direction. Five heads turn. Necks crane, lips flap, eyes narrow and it feels like someone’s crushed my head between two cymbals. I slide my arm around Helen and pull her closer. Angie has the same look on her face I saw the time she paged through my AP chemistry book.
I push Helen toward a plaid loveseat. A boy that looks vaguely familiar sits across from her in a matching chair, scrolling through his phone. He doesn’t acknowledge us.
Helen wipes her nose with the back of her hand. Her finger plunges into her nose and I yank it out and mumble obscenities at her. She looks nervous, like I’m about to drop her into the mouth of a volcano. “When can we go home?”
What home? But I don’t say that. “I just need to find someone. Be right back.” I hand her my phone so she can play Candy Crush.
Angie slides onto the couch next to her. She pats Helen’s knee and gestures to me that I can leave, she’s got this. “It’s cool, baby,” she says to Helen. “I’ll hang with you.”
Helen tugs the hem of my skirt before I make a clean getaway. “Where’s Momma?” Her mouth slides into a pout. She’s the saddest six-year-old ever. And all of the breakfast-for-dinner nights, cake-for-breakfast mornings and R-rated movies in the world can’t fix it.
I clench my teeth. Any mention of my mom causes my jaw to seize up. I scoop Helen’s hand into mine, squat down and smooth her hair. “We’ve talked about this. She’s away for work.”
“On a plane?”
“On a plane.”
“I have no idea. On her way to Los Angeles? Or Philly, maybe?”
“I hate planes.”
So do I. But for me it’s only one of the things about my life that sucks. I try to be sympathetic. To Helen, it’s everything. “Give me 15 minutes.”
I don’t look back, even though it feels wrong to leave her. I should grip her up, carry her back to the car and let her sleep in my bed tonight. Part of me wants to. But I’m the saddest 17-year-old ever. If I can just feel the heat of a boy’s lips on mine once before I’m legal, I won’t long for anything else ever again. I’m being weak, but there’s also something sort of strong about going after the one thing I want. Finally. Plus, she has Angie.
I spot him in the kitchen talking to Derek, one of his lacrosse-playing besties. I linger in the periphery of the room trying to make myself visible to him and invisible to everyone else. I run my hand along a granite countertop, pretend to study a painting of carrots. A look of recognition passes across his face when he sees me, but it’s fleeting. He returns his attention to Derek and keeps it there.
My body feels naked. I look down to make sure my shirt’s still buttoned and my skirt still covers my thighs. Ugh. He’s blowing me off. Figures. Maybe I knew this would happen all along.
Selena knocks into me from behind and snickers as she strolls past. Her legs are like twigs, so skinny I could crush her in the palm of my hand. Next to her I’m too tall, too meaty, too tragic. She tips herself right into Jason and hooks her arm around his waist. The conversation stops and restarts to include her.
I give it another minute, two minutes, five, ten, or maybe not, maybe just 30 seconds. The truth is I have no sense of time. Each moment he ignores me feels like 50 years. I search for something to do with my hands, somewhere to put my eyes, a place to put my body, but nothing feels right or lasts long enough to make me feel comfortable. I feel eyes on me, wondering what I’m doing here, willing me to cry or scream or explode or catch fire. Sweat beads above my upper lip and under my hair. This is stupid. So stupid. This is stupid and I am stupid. The humiliation boils over and I run from the kitchen and down a cramped hallway staggered with black and white family photos of white beaches and windswept hairdos and linen pants rolled up all those slim, tanned calves. Plowing down pretty people like they’re bowling pins, I cause beer to splash across the walls and spray above my head, a few drops raining onto my nose. My actions are too big for this place. I try not to look at the people I’m hip checking out of my way, because each time I snatch a glance I see myself through their eyes. Check it out. There’s drama with the freak. Shielding my face and moving fast, I try to forget them and concern myself with self-preservation, safety, Helen, home. I reach the end of the hallway and though I see the back of the couch where I deposited Helen and Angie and could easily go to them, I don’t want them to see me flipping out, so I duck into the recessed doorway of a bedroom or a bathroom and try to catch my breath, wiping at my eyes with the hem of my dark skirt.
And then I can’t go to her because Jason’s standing in front of me. And then he’s opening the door and gesturing for me to enter and raising his eyebrows at me, waiting, and following me inside and I’m not at all surprised to learn that I chose to hide in his bedroom doorway. Isn’t that just how things always work out for guys like him?
Posters dot the walls, but not like the frayed, discolored posters in my room. These are framed. Pristine. Most are of rappers, a surprise because the Jason of my imagination listens to Radiohead and Arctic Monkeys. Jason pulls the door closed behind us and approaches me slowly, tentatively, like he’s expecting bites, claws, even roars.
I expect him to apologize, he looks so concerned, but instead he says, “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
I face him. The smell of my sweat mingles with his cologne, something masculine and musky, the standard-issue boy smell. “I’m leaving.”
He grabs my hand and holds me there. “You know you probably gave Jenny Lumas a black eye?” He can’t help but smile, and that’s what gets me. Stepping closer, he stands an inch away at most and his body heat warms me. “And I haven’t even talked to you yet.”
I laugh. “You want to talk?”
His arms hang at his side, but we’re close enough that his fingertips brush the skin just below my hem. Every hair on my body stands at attention. I step forward and take the kiss I’ve been pining for. His tongue pries my mouth. I slide my hands up the back of his shirt, then back down, resting them on his protruding hipbones. I kiss his neck, then let him kiss mine. I want to know the feeling of this, and the feeling doesn’t disappoint.
He pulls back from me and looks at me without an ounce of irony. His face is sincere, like he wholeheartedly believes what he’s about to say. “It’s okay. I would never hurt you.” He runs his hand down my arm and pulls me closer.
I’ve heard that before. Or something very similar when one day my dad said to me, “I would never leave you,” and then he was gone. I’m sure he meant it at the time, or was trying to convince himself or make it true with words. But if it’s true, you don’t need to say it. And now I know that Jason’s not a bad guy, or isn’t trying to be anyway, but that I’m his conquest. A short-term goal, a fleeting desire. And it’s not what I want.
“Hey,” he whispers. “Come back to me.” He lifts my chin and searches my face.
This is the up-close, and it’s so different from the far away. Up close, I realize that I’ve completely hyped this guy. The pores on his nose are too big. His ears are pointy. Gnarled chest hair peeks from the collar of his shirt. And even if he were physically perfect, he still couldn’t be the Jason Sellers of my imagination, the one who reads me Rimbaud and brings me to my knees just by brushing his thumb across my cheek. I’ll never get what I want because I want a fantasy.
My longing, the craving that had me twisting my sheets at night, staring out my windows by day, absent in my own life, is gone. I smile because I’ve triumphed. I got my kiss and left him wanting more. I’ll leave the room first and probably never talk to him again. It’s a sad triumph, but somehow it still makes me smile.
Mumbling thanks, I feel the burden of the past nine years lift from me like vapor. He asks me to stay. He grabs my arm. He flattens himself against me, breathing into my ear and onto my neck, begging me to stay, but the moment has passed.
In the hallway once again, I don’t give anyone a second glance. I don’t care who’s there, what they saw or what they think. I don’t care whether going into a room alone with Jason has changed their opinion of me. I just want out of here. I just want the people who have wanted me all along. That people that will stay with me tomorrow.
All that changes when I walk into the living room, over to the couch where Helen once sat. The only trace of her now is my phone, which lays face down on the floor by my feet. I spin in a circle, searching. I see the back of Angie’s head, nodding. She’s talking to some guy in the kitchen, holding a red cup like everyone else here. I keep looking. Maybe Helen got up to steal a cookie from the tray, or pilfer a glass of water from the kitchen sink. Maybe she’s chatting with someone close by. Maybe she had to use the bathroom, and I shouldn’t worry that she’s gone, along with the vaguely familiar guy that once sat across from her. I take deep breaths and calmly walk to Angie. Grabbing her arm, I say, “Helen,” and I can tell from her widened eyes that she left her there for longer than she should have. I realize I never actually saw them on the couch right before I walked into Jason’s bedroom. I saw the couch and assumed.
“I got up for a minute to get us something to drink,” Angie stammers. “She’s not in there?”
I storm from room to room, calling her name, scanning the faces, hoping beyond hope that this isn’t as bad as it seems. I run outside and the thick heat slows me like quicksand. How could I be so stupid? I jog a circle around Jason’s house. Pink flowers poke from the moist shavings of freshly spread mulch. I scream her name. No answer. The wind rustles the leaves of the flowers and nearby trees and it sounds like whispering. When I glance back toward the house, Selena’s watching me through a window, laughing.
I run to the road and debate whether to go left or right. Angie shows up by my side and when I take off down the street, she goes the other way. I try not to be angry with her. I know this is all on me. I run faster than I ever have before. It hurts and I’m grateful for the physical distraction. I scream her name so loudly the lights in the cookie-cutter houses blink on one at a time in consecutive order.
I make promises to the universe. I promise to never leave her behind again. I promise to put her needs ahead of my own. I promise not to go schizo about boys or parties or things I don’t have. I promise to never ask for another thing, ever, not one thing, if I can just get her back. I promise to live my life, not some stupid fantasy. If just this once my bad behavior could become a forgivable mistake. A thing we can look back on and laugh at.
I think of the distance between us all. Of paths we take away from one another. My dad driving jagged lines across the country, a senseless game of connect-the-dots. Of my mom’s gently curved flight routes, swooping frenetically from one end of the country to the other. And now Helen. Where has she gone? Where might we intersect?
I stop running when I’m panting so hard I can’t breathe. My chest aches and my vision blurs. My breaths are short and shallow and do nothing to give my lungs the air they need. What if Helen ran away? What if the police don’t find her? What if the police do find her and won’t give her back to a 17-year-old with a MIA mother? And then I let my mind go to the really bad place. The place where someone took Helen and hurts her. The place where Helen doesn’t come home, and if she does she’s not Helen anymore.
Up ahead, I think I see the outline of someone duck behind a tree. I run towards it. Maybe it’s the creepy guy who sat across from her. Maybe he’s got a van nearby. Maybe I can take him and get her back.
I skid to a stop by the tree and see that the shadowy stranger is Helen crouched behind the tree, sucking her thumb. She cries when she sees my face.
I’m an equal mixture of joy and anger, but her tears take my anger away. Sometimes I forget that she’s only six and it’s not her fault that we’re all we have. I shush her and stroke her hair until she calms. I close my eyes and cannot believe I’ve been given this pass. I feel as though someone tossed the Hope Diamond into my lap for no reason whatsoever. Like I’ve literally been handed a jewel instead of a lifetime of regret. I promise I won’t lose it again.
I usher her across the street to a nearby playground and deposit her on a swing. “Why did you leave?”
She moves so that her belly is across the seat and she pushes herself along in a circle, twisting the chains until they can’t twist anymore. “I couldn’t find you or Angie. Then Selena said you left.”
I bite my tongue and draw blood. “I didn’t leave. I never would’ve left you there.”
She lifts her feet and the chains unravel, spinning her around in circles. Her legs and arms are lifted so she forms a perfect arc.
She must’ve been so scared. I want to give her something, and all I have are words. “I didn’t know our dad well. He was mostly miserable when he was home. I made myself cry when mom said he was leaving, but I was actually relieved.”
She nods and grunts. “What did you do in there? Why couldn’t I find you?”
“Nothing.” I deflate, feeling empty for what I’ve just done to her and sad because I realize my explanation may be true. The ache is gone, yes, but these ends don’t even begin to justify it.
She twists the chains on her swing again, preparing for takeoff. “What should we do now?” She lets go and the rusty chains cling. She leans too far forward and loses her balance a little, shrieking.
I flatten my stomach across the plastic seat on the higher swing next to her. I follow her lead and wind myself up. “Just what we’re doing.”
I let go and spin as she spins. She goes one direction, I go the other and we don’t crash. It doesn’t matter to me that everyone we’ve ever loved has left us. I don’t care about their mode of travel or the thousands of miles between us. It’s clear to me that this is how Helen and I will spend the rest of our lives, regardless of what anyone else does or doesn’t do. I’ll always be following her lead. I’ll always be mirroring her, making sure we don’t crash.