MEGAN PILLOW DAVIS
Everything is Breakable
Caroline says she’s clean, but I don’t believe her. She’s sitting in the passenger seat, putting on make-up as we drive down the Daytona Beach strip, looking for drugs.
She draws liner, thick and black, around each of her eyes.
“Too much,” I say.
She ignores me, drops the eyeliner in her purse. Next is lipstick, a color just a shade darker than her lips. In the rearview mirror, my lipstick looks just a shade off.
“Annie, let me drive,” she says. “I told you, I haven’t had anything.”
Her eyes are unreadable. Even though I don’t want to, I pull over at the next gas station. Caroline smiles at me, takes the wheel, and turns up the radio until I can feel the music through my seat.
Here in Daytona Beach, it is endless summer and endless night. A thousand neon signs make a thousand promises above the clubs and the bars and the souvenir shops. Crowds of people, thick as mosquitoes, pass us on their way to the boardwalk. Bikini-clad girls bare their breasts to us from the back of a red pickup truck. A boy circles his car around a McDonald’s parking lot, his sound system rumbling until the whole car rings metallic as a tuning fork and people put their hands over their ears.
It is day three of my vacation here, day three of my visit with Caroline. This place that my sister loves is dizzying. It makes me want things I’ve never wanted before–to talk to strangers, to buy loads of useless things to take back to Ohio with me, to see the ocean again. But there is no time for that tonight. It’s getting dark, and Caroline is looking for someone, a friend of hers we met last night who can get almost anything, and she won’t be distracted.
We park the car and walk up the street toward the boardwalk. There is the ocean, restless, rolling, glimmering silver-white. It is nothing like it is in pictures. I've seen it in person a couple of times now, but nothing prepares me for how endless it is, how it never stops moving.
Caroline is wearing a halter top and blue jeans. Her hair looks like someone dipped it strand by strand into sunset-colored paint. Now that I’m standing here next to her, with the lights and the ocean and the constant base thrumming the ground through passing cars, I can see that my skirt is too trendy, my shirt too tight. I am a sequin tacked against a piece of driftwood. I want to take it all off and go swimming.
And then there is an arm around my waist and the friend from last night is beside me, the guy whose name is a month, but I can’t remember which one, the guy who looks like a dream but who is not. He slides one hand under the strap of my tank top, and I shiver. I shrug my shoulder so that he will move his hand away, but he leaves it there. I look into his blue, blue eyes. Just like last night, they enchant me. I can’t stop staring at them, those eyes like blue dimes, like the color of the horse’s back in the Chagall print that hangs on my bedroom wall.
“You wanna roll?” says Blue Eyes.
Caroline shakes her head.
“What then, weed?”
She shrugs like it’s no big deal, like she’s got an acre of pot growing in her backyard, but what the hell, why not do him a favor and take some off his hands?
“Weed sounds good,” I say.
“Not that shit you got me last time, though,” says Caroline. “It tasted like Downy sheets.”
Blue Eyes smiles and rolls my tank top strap between his fingers.
“The stuff I got right now is sweet,” he says. “25 bucks.”
“I don’t have it.”
“We could work something out.”
Caroline lights a cigarette, takes a draw. She looks at me for a long time.
“Talk to my sister,” she says. “She’ll figure it out. I gotta get something to drink.” She turns and walks away from us down the boardwalk. And then it is just Blue Eyes and me. I take out my wallet, pull out the money, and hand it to him.
“I don’t want the cash,” he says.
For a moment, I think I’ve been wrong about him. Maybe he’s not so bad. Then he smiles, and I realize why Caroline left us here alone.
So I take Blue Eyes’ hand in mine and we walk down the boardwalk. I lead him behind a high wall that stretches between two hotels, and there is a stage there, shell-shaped with a half-moon shadow near the back. It is cave-dark and cave-quiet. He puts his hands underneath my shirt and pulls my skirt up around my waist. In the half-moon shadow, with two feet of stone between us and the shooting galleries and the people eating cotton candy, he fucks me against the wall. I look past him to the lights and the water. My eyes remember everything.
I see the boardwalk shiver beneath hundreds of feet.
I see the wink of ship lights along the horizon like glass beads on a string.
I see the moon halved by a curtain of sky.
His eyes are lapis lazuli, then hot glass, then some thick fog over a mountain.
Above him, a balloon stretches and curls into the sky. I close my eyes, and I am in it.
When he is done, he turns his back to me and zips up his pants. I pull my skirt down and smooth it across my thighs. When I look up at him, he is holding the bag of pot between two fingers. I take it.
“Next time,” he says, “I want to fuck your sister.”
I look into his blue, blue eyes, and this time, there is no enchantment, only words: eat me, they say. I want to push him against the wall and pull his eyes from his head like grapes from a vine. I want to hear him scream as I put his eyes under my tongue. Instead, I just watch him walk away.
I find Caroline on the boardwalk standing next to a soda fountain, feeding quarters into a fortune machine. When she sees me, she takes off her shoes and drops the quarters inside them. I take off my shoes and we walk down the steps of the boardwalk to the cool dark sand of the beach, and we smoke. The pot is sweet, just like Blue Eyes said. It takes the edge off of the world around me, smooths it away like sandpaper until there is nothing left but the ocean and the silhouette of my sister walking into the ocean in front of me. Darkness swallows her legs. Semen, warm as blood, runs down the inside of my thighs. Caroline walks deeper, deeper, until her head slips beneath the surface. Will she come back this time, I wonder? Or, as always, will I have to go after her?
There’s nothing to eat in the apartment, so we go to IHOP for breakfast. It’s the first breakfast we’ve eaten together in years. I have chocolate chip pancakes with heaps of butter. They taste like shit, but I eat all of them because Caroline is paying.
“What do you wanna do today?” She’s drinking coffee and watching me. We were out until four the night before and I am tired, my hair a mess, mascara circles under my eyes. Caroline looks fresh, like she’s slept for days.
“We could go to the mall, or up to St. Augustine. Or the beach.”
“You don’t have to work?”
“Shirley’s covering for me while you’re here.”
She rolls her empty sweetener packets into small, tight balls. “We should go to the boardwalk tonight. Remember that guy, March, that you met at the club? The one with the eyes? He’s always down there and most of the time he’s got good weed. Cheap too.”
Caroline seems into this guy March. He’s a creep. But our conversations are so rare that I can’t tell her what I think.
“Do they have rides and stuff?” I say instead.
“Yeah. Souvenir shops too. You can get some of that kitschy shit you like.” She sits back in the booth, her elbows cupped in the palms of her hands. A waiter walks by and smiles at her. The tray of drinks he’s holding tilts, and the glasses slide, fall, shatter. I put my hand over my mouth to hide my smile. Caroline throws back her head and laughs. She waves her hand at me, and we scramble out of the booth. The waiter, red-faced, just a kid with hair falling into his eyes, is putting pieces of glass in his apron. He looks up at her as she passes. Caroline lifts her long skirt up around her thighs and winks at him. He doesn’t smile back. I want to tell him I’m sorry, but Caroline pulls me out the door before I have the chance.
We take the Speedway road out of town toward the mall, windows down. Caroline turns up the radio and pulls her glasses down on the edge of her nose and somehow they don’t slide off her face like mine do. I wonder what we look like to the people in the passing cars. I sit a little closer to her and put my hand behind her seat.
By the time we get to the mall, my hair is limp and I’ve sweated through my shirt. Inside, the air is cold, and in a moment my shirt is icy, clinging to my skin. Caroline takes me into the kind of stores I never go to, stores where the music is loud and the salespeople sullen, where the mannequins tell some dramatic story with their arms. She stands me in front of a mirror and holds shirts and pants and skirts up against me.
“I can’t afford this stuff,” I say. I try to grab the tag on some rainbow-colored thing so that I can see the price, but she brushes my hand away. She holds up another shirt, a red sequined tank top that ties in the back with two strings, then hands it to me. I shake my head.
“You have money,” she says.
“I’m still in school. Mom and Dad pay for everything.“
“Let them pay for it then.”
“Right,” she says and hangs the top back on its rack. “They told you not to let me do this.”
“It’s okay. I’ll get it,” I say. I take the top to the cashier without looking at the tag or trying it on. Whatever it costs, I know it’s a waste, but I also know that when my parents get the bill, they won’t care. They never do. And it makes Caroline so happy that it’s worth it. As we walk out of the store, she smiles and puts her arm around me.
For a little while, we are like normal sisters. Caroline buys me coffee and a hemp bracelet with a shell woven into it. We spend the rest of the day on the beach. We smoke the last of the pot, and then we lie in the sun with our arms over our eyes, talking about nothing for hours. It isn’t until the sun goes down that we get quiet, and for the first time in a long time I feel really comfortable with her, like I can say anything.
“Will you come home for Christmas?” I say, and as soon as the words have left my mouth, I know it is a mistake. Caroline stands up and brushes her clothes off. The spell of the afternoon is broken. She doesn’t look angry or sad, just blank, like the mannequins we saw in the store today. For some reason that’s even worse, and I am desperate to make things the way they were before.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked,” I say.
“It’s fine. Let’s go get some ice cream.”
“Okay,” I say, even though I don’t want any ice cream. But instead of turning toward the strip, we walk further down the beach, where the sand is empty of footprints. We walk until we reach a house that is filled right up to its glass walls with people. The house is so bright and the beach so dark that I don’t realize until I almost walk into a wood piling that the house is perched on a pier stretching out into the ocean.
“Who lives here?” I say as we climb the stairs. She doesn't answer me. I turn to look at the lights trailing down the beach because they are like nothing I’ve seen before, getting smaller and smaller until they funnel away into darkness. When I turn around again Caroline is gone. I am surrounded by strangers. I take off my sandy shoes and slide along the walls. My clothes are almost the color of the wallpaper, and no one notices me. I find Caroline in the kitchen, leaning over the bar with a woman.
“Caroline,” I say, and they both look up. They wipe their noses. “Where did you go?” The woman has eyes so pale blue they are almost white, and her hair is coiled around the crown of her head. Her dress shimmers beneath the kitchen light. It is embroidered in a spiral of glimmering silver thread, as if a snail has circled her body from shoulder to hem.
“This is Annie,” says Caroline.
“Would you like to go on the sky-lift?” says the woman. “It takes you right out over the ocean.” Her smile is unreal.
“What’s a sky-lift?”
“It’s like a ski-lift, only over water instead of snow,” says Caroline. “Try it. It’ll be fun.” The woman walks over to the giant glass doors and flips on a light switch in between them. Outside, the sky-lift appears in the air above the pier, plucked like a handkerchief out of the closed, dark fist of the sky. It looks rickety, thrilling.
“Okay,” I say.
The woman takes me outside and makes me stand me on a dark square of wood and then she disappears. In front of me, the sky-lift begins to move with a shudder and a groan. Then the woman is beside me again and the chair takes my feet out from under me and we are rocking in the air, nothing but the pier and the waves rolling beneath us. I turn around to look at Caroline, but the chair behind us is empty.
“It’s beautiful here, you know?” says the woman, looking out at the ocean. “We’re right on the edge of things. We’re almost not in our own country anymore.”
“Is this your house?”
Her fingers against the back of my neck startle me.
“Don’t be afraid.”
Her hand is a feather tracing a path down my arm.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” I say.
“Because of your sister,” says the woman. “You know that.” In the dark, her mouth is full of pearls.
Then she lifts up the edge of her dress and the wind turns it into a silver-winged bird. She puts my hand beneath it.
And her skin is the edge of some great continent, stretching on for miles. I try to pull away, to tell her no, I don’t even know her name, but she kisses me. She takes the words from my mouth as if they belong to her. She puts her hands in my hair, her tongue in my mouth, my fingers in the folds of her skin. She moves her body against me again and again.
When the sky-lift dumps me back onto the pier, I have lost one of my shoes, and the woman’s smile still hangs in the air like a picture on a wall. She stays on the sky-lift and in a moment, the fist of the sky closes up around her. I am crying. I go inside to confront Caroline and she is still at the bar, leaning over a mirror. She looks up at me with empty eyes. There is a dusting of white powder beneath her nose. I want to scream at her, shake her. I want her to take me in her arms and stroke my hair and tell me she loves me, that everything will be okay, but she is looking at the mirror again, and what she sees there has nothing to do with me.
I leave the party and walk back down the wooden stairs to the sand. The beach is a dark gray crescent, the ocean a roiling, shimmering black that stretches as far as I can see. It looks the same both ways and I know I am lost, even with that bright glass house behind me. I can still hear the creak of the sky-lift as it circles around and around. I know that the woman is up there still, circling above the water, watching me. If I step away from the house, I think, I might just be swallowed up into nothing.
But between the houses there is light, and I follow that instead. After a long while, it leads me back to my sister’s bright blue apartment. I do not have a key, so I lay down in the hammock on the balcony. I fall asleep with the sting of salt in my eyes.
In the middle of the night, I feel something cold against the small of my back and I wince. Caroline is whispering into my ear: “I got you ice cream.” She curls up around me and sighs. “Eat it in the morning, I guess,” she says, her voice slurred. In a moment, she will be asleep, but before that she kisses me and whispers again: “You're a good sister.”
I want to hate her, but I cannot push her away. Instead, I wait until I hear the soft, even breathing that signals sleep, and then I take her arm and put it around me.
When I wake up, it is hot and still and Caroline is gone. Inside, I find the ice cream in the freezer, and I eat it for lunch. It is mint chocolate chip, my favorite. I lay on the couch all afternoon and watch reruns of Dallas and Dukes of Hazzard. I listen to Caroline moving back and forth between the bathroom and the kitchen and the bedroom. At seven, she taps me on the shoulder and tells me to get dressed.
“We’re going to the boardwalk,” she says. “Wear that sequined shirt I picked out.” I am ready in ten minutes and she is in the bathroom again. I pick up the car keys and wait. When she comes out, we go downstairs to the car. I get into the driver’s seat and turn the car north on the Daytona Beach strip.
“Let me drive when I’m done with my make-up,” she says. “I’m faster.” In her profile, there are no hints, nothing to tell me what condition she’s in. She reaches into her purse, takes out a tube of black eyeliner. She sees me watching.
“I’m clean,” she says. “I promise.”
Caroline meets me at the airport. At first I don’t see her - none of the faces around me are familiar - and then there is this beautiful woman running Caroline’s long-legged run down the concourse, and when she reaches me, she crushes me in her arms. I smell her familiar perfume, something gingery with a hint of orange that I remember from childhood, and I think that this is where home really is, not that other place I came from.
“Christ, why has it taken you so long to come visit me?” she says, and she stands back to look me over. I do an awkward little turn, and two old women passing by chuckle.
“It's hard. School and everything.”
“Oh, fuck that. I know it’s all Mom and Dad. They think that I’m going to spoil their baby just like I spoiled myself.” She puts her hands on my shoulders and turns me around again and I can’t for the life of me think of anything to say because I know she’s right. When she turns me to face her again, she’s shaking her head.
“You’re a knockout, kiddo, but Jesus, we’ve got to get you some new clothes. Where did Mom buy you that thing?” I look at my dress and shrug my shoulders. “Thank God she never cared about what I wore. Well, you can’t go out in that. We’re partying tonight.”
She takes me back to her apartment, an efficiency over a bright-blue souvenir shop just a block from the beach. She digs through her closet for a moment then hands me something black and silky.
“Wear this tonight. We’ll go shopping tomorrow.”
I look at what she’s given me. It is a dress only she can wear, strapless and black with the waist cut out on either side in the shape of a half-moon. I put it on, study myself in the floor-length mirror on the closet door.
“Perfect,” she says when she sees me, and when I see her, I wish I could just stay home. She is wearing a fuzzy white tank top and black leather pants that make her look as if she has been dipped in wax.
Outside, the air is thick with the scent of salt and I can hear the ocean, rolling and crashing just out of sight, like some great monster making its way toward shore.
“You get used to it,” she says, and lights a cigarette, something I’ve never seen her do before.
“Can we go see it?” I say.
“Tomorrow,” she says. “Right now, it’s all sharks and miles of dark nothing and dead things washing up on the beach. You wouldn’t like it.”
I think it sounds beautiful.
She takes me to this club she knows just a couple of blocks from her apartment. All of the girls there are dressed like her, but next to her, they all might as well be wearing paper bags. She gets me a drink, which I don’t like, and lets me have a sip of hers, which I do, so she lets me drink the rest.
At a high-backed booth in a dark corner, she introduces me to her friends. Hatter is slouched in the corner, his hat drawn down over his eyes. Mouse is busy playing solitaire. The guy she calls March is the only one who smiles at me. He buys me shots that taste like apples. He has the most beautiful blue eyes, eyes like indigo ink, eyes like velvet buttons, eyes the color of the glass I am drinking from.
“Are those real?” I say, and I try to touch them. He laughs and takes my hand and closes it in his and when he turns my palm over, there is a pill resting in it, smooth and white as a stone. Eat me, it says in small letters, and so I do.
“An angel for an angel,” he says.
“Those yours?” asks Caroline.
“Yep. And they’re free – for a kiss,” he says. She laughs and pushes his face away. I laugh, too.
“Not even if you paid me,” she says.
“How about from your sister, then? She owes me one, anyway, since she already took it. And I always get payment in full.”
Everyone looks at me. Hatter lifts his hat up off of his eyes and Mouse stops playing cards. Caroline is grinning, and so I laugh and lean toward March, closing my eyes, puckering my lips. I am a good sport. I will not embarrass my sister in front of her friends.
And it is just a kiss, the gentle fray of skin against skin. His tongue slides between my lips, surprising me, and the rush and tingle is like small fingers plucking at the edges of my skin. Then I feel his hand lifting up the corner of my dress and sliding between my legs, and my eyelids shutter open. He is staring at me with those blue, blue eyes. I push away from him, breaking the kiss and the contact. Hatter and Mouse clap their hands and whistle. My sister sits in the corner, an elbow cupped in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and it trails a thread of smoke to the light above us. She smiles.
“Like I said, payment in full,” says March.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I say. I get up from the table, and I run my hand along the wall until I am at the back of the club. There is a small door in front of me, and I open it. I duck inside, and there is the bathroom in shades of black and white, wheeling around like a broken compass so that I can’t tell what direction I’m going, and I have to hold onto the sink to keep from wheeling away. I think I’m going to be sick.
I splash water onto my face because I hope it will make me feel better, and it does. All of a sudden the sickness is gone and the room is stable and there is an arrow pointing me clearly to the door. When I open it, I am in a crush of people, and I am in love with them. They are so beautiful. Their hands and their faces are like the hands and faces of everyone I’ve ever loved, and they touch me like they love me, too. My skin is turned inside out and my nerves are lit with music. This is a wonderful world I am living in. This is the world I should always live in.
I find my sister again and I take her face in my hands. She and her friends are talking, but I don’t pay attention because there is something about her eyes. Someone says “How many did you give her?” but in Caroline’s eyes, a movie is playing: Here we are at my parent's summer party. It is the same party they hold every year. At the end of each summer, it is wrapped in tissue paper and put on a shelf. This year, like all the others, I have a new dress. My parents parade me around like a show dog. I blossom under the sun of smiles and compliments. The floor of our lanai is checkered like a chessboard, and people move from square to square, smiling and scheming and drinking glass after glass of my parents' champagne.
I look for Caroline, but I can't find her. She is always hiding at these things, hovering around the edges and pulling at the neckline of her new dress. She is the one who at five broke the lanai’s glass door with a basketball, who at twelve helped the neighborhood boys steal bottles of champagne, who at fifteen got caught giving my dad’s boss a hand job in the guest bathroom. I wonder what she will do this year – set fire to the rose garden? Burn it all down? I wouldn’t put it past her. In this house where everything is breakable, she is the girl who breaks everything. She is the only one of us who pushes back.
And then I see her. She is slipping out the door to the backyard. There is a rabbit in the yard, white and lithe, and it starts when it sees her, darts across the grass. Caroline follows. The rabbit disappears into a hole in the ground underneath a hydrangea bush. Caroline parts the hydrangea like a curtain and looks inside.
I tug on my father's sleeve and on the hem of my mother's dress. I say Caroline, Caroline, but they ignore me, just as they always do when they hear her name. Then, like stepping from land into water, Caroline steps into the rabbit hole and disappears, and it is as if she was never there.
My parents drive me to the airport. It is summer vacation, and I am going to visit my sister, Caroline, who moved to Florida years ago. The air is thick as syrup here and the roads are worse - Interstate 75 south of Cincinnati is glutted with cars.
Why she lives in Florida, I don’t know, my father says. His hands are ropes, then wrenches, then hammers against the steering wheel.
She’s a grownup, says my mother and runs her fingers through her hair. She’s not ours anymore.
My parents drive their car the same way they circle their fingertips around the lips of teacups. It takes us 45 minutes to get to the airport. If I had been driving, we would have gotten there as quickly as you can drop a teacup to the floor.
My father slides the car into a parking space like a key into a lock. Inside, my bags are checked and I am stamped ready for travel. We teeter like plastic figurines on the moving sidewalk. They smile. They pull me close for a kiss. We are the picture that hangs on our living room wall.
My parents talk about traveling as if it is a fable. The plane, he says, will drop into the sky like a coin into a well. At the bottom is Daytona Beach, and it is deep water, and there are monsters. You must be careful. Trust no one.
My father puts a hundred-dollar bill in the palm of my hand. For emergencies, he says. Keep it safe.
My mother brushes my hair away from my face. We trust you, she says. You are a good girl, she says. But you must watch out for your sister.