The Neighborhood, The House
“So, what, are we supposed to hate each other now?”
I don’t know how to answer. If my mother had it her way, yes, the answer would be yes. She’s ready to burn it all down. Well, I guess she already has. But my mother doesn’t have a say in it. I answer Victoria’s question with a question of my own. “Are you mad at me?”
“Mad at you?” she repeats like it’s the most ridiculous question in the world. “It’s not your fault. None of this is either one of our faults.” Victoria pulls two Parliament Lights from a pack of cigarettes she has stashed in the breast pocket of the old flannel shirt she’s wearing. She hands me a cigarette, puts the other in her mouth, and lights it with a blue Bic. She cups her hand around the flame to keep it from being extinguished by the cold, light breeze. I lean toward it; I lean toward her.
Two and a half years ago that shirt was mine. Now it’s hers.
Two and a half years ago, they got engaged. Three months later, they got married. My mother, her father. We were in our freshman years of college when that happened. Not the same college. I was going to the University upstate. She was in the city. That’s where we both still are, three-quarters of the way through our junior years.
But let me go back to how we met. Me and Victoria, I mean.
She moved to town right before our sophomore year in high school. I liked her right away. She was quiet and strange—simultaneously warm to everyone, yet utterly detached from them, too. She showed an enviable disinterest in being friends with anyone or being accepted into any social circle. She wore a lot of black clothes and a rumpled Army jacket that looked like it might have actually seen combat in Vietnam. But her shoes were always colorful. Red sneakers. Green boots. Mismatched socks too.
In English class that year, they were teaching us how to write essays about personal experiences. At the end of that unit, the big assignment was to write a one-page essay about a life-changing event, and then read it to the class. I swear, more than half the boys wrote an essay about sports—how they got a hit that drove in the winning run; how they sacked the quarterback, which saved the game; how they hit a buzzer-beating three-point shot. Some of the girls wrote about that stuff, too. Softball and field hockey, things like that. Others wrote about vacations, like how going to Paris or Aruba really opened their eyes to the beauty of the world and other cultures. Like just because they ate a madeleine in some tourist-trap cafe along the Seine, they were somehow honorary French citizens.
Me, I wrote about my father. He’d died the year before that, in the middle of winter. Car accident. He’d gotten this new car. A Pontiac Fiero. Hadn’t even asked my mother. She said it was a midlife crisis car, since it was impractical. You know, two-doors, two seats. I thought it was cool as hell, though. Especially the pop-up headlights. My mom said it was dangerous because the thing was made out of plastic and fiberglass. My father Xeroxed a bunch of articles from Road & Track and Car & Driver about how safe it actually was, how the Fiero had a five-star crash rating from the NHTSA, how people were just afraid of new things.
I told him it was dangerous. She said it countless times and will for the rest of her life as long as she’s talking about him.
I don’t know if it had anything to do with plastic panels or fiberglass or any of that. Probably, it was just the ice. That, and the fact that my father wasn’t used to handling a little rear-wheel drive sports car in the snow, considering he’d been driving a massive Country Squire wagon since I’d been born.
The car had slipped, slid, and spun around nearly 270 degrees, whipping the driver’s side right smack into the trunk of a hundred-year old oak tree.
I told him it was dangerous.
My father held on for almost twenty-four hours after that, though he never regained consciousness.
I told him it was dangerous.
And that was it. My dad was dead. They say that kids can’t properly process things up until a certain age. Like fifteen or something, I don’t know. I guess I wonder if there is any actually proper way to process a thing like that. For me, it was an almost hour-to-hour thing. I’d be devastated, bawling, remembering every funny, silly, loving thing he’d ever done. The next hour, I swear, I had a hard time remembering what he looked like, and I’d be more concerned about how the hell the school cafeteria managed to make pizza taste so bad. I mean, for Christ’s sake, pizza. Then back to being gutted. Then having the best time of my life out in the woods, playing manhunt with the other neighborhood kids.
“I Told Him It Was Dangerous.” That was the name of my essay. Looking back, I realize it was less about my father’s death, and more about watching my mother change. She seemed more overwhelmed and angry than anything. Though, I think she kept herself busy because she’d have rather been overwhelmed than really think about the death. Maybe that’s the right way to process things. Maybe not. Is there any good way to mourn?
Anyways, the essay. The essay wasn’t some great work of art, I can tell you that. I think I wrote the thing in about twenty minutes, and it was one paragraph short of what the teacher had told us it should be. But she gave me an A anyway because, really, would you gonna give a kid a C for an essay about how his dad died less than a year earlier?
The next day, Victoria handed me a tape.
“What’s this?” I asked her.
“It’s a mix tape,” she said.
I turned it over in my hand and saw that she’d written the songs and artists in swoopy cursive. First in green ink, and then in black ink, giving the letters a shimmering, almost electric feel.
“A mix tape?” I asked, mostly because I wasn’t really sure what to say.
“Just a bunch of different songs that I thought you’d like. Not so much to cheer you up.”
“Cheer me up?” I swear, all I could was just sort of repeat whatever the last thing she’d just said was.
“More like, music to let you know you’re not alone. Made me feel that way, at least.”
“Feel like what?”
“Feel like other people knew pain. Sorrow.” She smiled at me, a little bashfully. “My mom died. That’s why we moved. My dad felt like he just needed to start over because everything out there reminded him of her.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry,” I said. “About your mom, I mean.”
“Sorry about your dad. I hope you like the tape.”
“When?” I blurted out, immediately realizing what a non-sequitur that must have sounded like, but she understood exactly what I meant.
“Last year. Right before Christmas.”
She smiled at me, and it was a really beautiful smile. She blushed a little. And then tears fell from her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean—”
Still smiling, still crying a bit, she sniffled. “It’s okay,” she assured me. “Maybe we can talk about it some other time.”
The next day, she read her essay. It wasn’t about her mom. It wasn’t about the cross-country move. It was about how she got this cassette player with two tape decks, which let her record her own mix tapes. “It’s like I can make soundtracks to my life,” she concluded. A few kids giggled nastily. One boy, the one who’d written about hitting a game-winning triple, said, “Okay, Steven Spielberg.”
Laughter rippled through the classroom.
“Spielberg doesn’t make soundtracks, moron,” I said without even thinking about it. “He’s a director.”
More laughter. Some of which was at my expense for defending her.
But Victoria seemed to be somewhere else, and if she heard laughter, I’m sure it sounded to her to be neither cruel nor directed at her. She smiled politely at the teacher, who nodded and thanked her.
I listened to the tape as soon as I got home. I wasn’t really much of a music person. I took a year of piano class in elementary school, but I didn’t have the talent. Or maybe I just lacked the inclination. I only listened to whatever was on the radio. Pop stuff, I guess is what it’s called. Some of it was catchy. Some of it was annoying. Some was both.
But that tape. That tape was a whole different thing. People crooning over dreamy washes of guitars about how bleak life was, about how lonely they felt, how hopeless it all seemed. My mother asked me what the hell I was listening to that night, and I told her I didn’t know. “It sounds miserable,” she said, and I looked at the handwritten tracklist to find that, sure enough, there was even a song called “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”
She was right. It didn’t cheer me up, but it perfectly reflected how I felt: sad, melancholy, hopeful, confused.
Next day, I found her sitting by herself in the cafeteria, looking happy enough to be alone, to read Jane Eyre as she sipped tomato soup from a spoon. I almost felt bad for interrupting her.
“I loved that tape,” I told her.
“So glad you liked it,” she told me and smiled sincerely before looking back down at her book.
I helped myself to a seat across from her and hurried to keep the conversation going. Or to start one, at least. “Is that what you listened to...when...” I trailed off, unable to bring myself to say the rest: your mom died
Victoria placed a small Kraft paper tag into the deep valley of the book block and closed her novel. “Well,” she said thoughtfully, “some of it. Not all of it. Everyone goes through things differently, and that requires different songs.”
I nodded. I got choked up, and I looked at the table, and I nodded some more. I really didn’t want to start crying. Not because I was afraid she was going to laugh at me, but because I felt like if I did, she would have understood. And, somehow, that would have just made the whole thing that much sadder, you know?
“If you want more music, I’d love to make you more tapes,” she said. She sounded sincere as hell. She always did. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was because she was trying to lighten things up.
“Yeah,” I said, trying to sound like I was fine. “That’d be cool. I don’t know a lot of music. But that tape,” and again here, I had to stop and look down at the table and nod.
“Good,” she said.
“You want to hang out after school?” I asked, sort of surprising myself.
A new kind of smile spread across her face. “Yeah,” she said. “That might be fun.”
“Did you know?” Victoria asks me and exhales smoke through her nose. “Never mind,” she says quickly. “I don’t want to know.”
“No. I had no idea,” I say, quietly. I feel guilty on my mother’s behalf. If I don’t, who will? She certainly doesn’t act like she’s got any regrets.
“Good. Because that,” Victoria points at me with the two fingers that are holding the cigarette, “would be something I’d be mad about.”
“I’m mad,” I shrug. Though, really, I’m not, and I immediately wonder why I’ve just lied.
“What are you mad about?”
“She broke his trust,” I say.
“Bullshit,” Victoria says, calling me on my lie.
“You’re right,” I smile. Victoria knows me too well. “I guess I’m a little disappointed, though.”
“I was just getting used to you being my sister,” I say, lying again. “Now, what? We’re just friends.”
“We,” she says both dreamily and bitterly, “are whatever the hell we want to be.”
“Well, what do you want us to be?” I ask, and I can hear my voice going up in pitch in a way that makes me feel self-conscious.
She answers only with a shrug. It’s one of the ways she’s changed since when we first met. She never would have just shrugged off half my questions back then. Victoria takes a drag of her Parliament, and I do the same. I swear, I only smoke when I’m with Victoria, which, these days, is only once every couple months for family gatherings.
All around us, I can hear the soft din of unseen traffic. It sounds a little like the ocean. I start losing myself in the sound when, finally, Victoria speaks up.
“Ready to be a homewrecker like whoever it was your mom was fucking?” Victoria asks me with a sly grin.
“Huh?” I honestly have no idea what she’s talking about, and the bluntness of her words takes me aback a little bit.
She gestures to the door behind us with a little nod and tilt of her head. And she’s still got that grin.
She and her dad had lived out near the eastern edge of town. I’d only ever driven through there on the way to the mall with my mom. But once I got to know Victoria, I spent a lot more time there. Whatever wariness her father may have had about her daughter spending so much time with a boy must have been brightly outshone by his relief that she had a friend.
I figured he’d known, of course. So that’s why I was so puzzled when he asked me casually, “James, what’s your dad do?”
I just sort of stood there, blinking for a minute. And for the first time, Victoria who never seemed to lose her steady, ever-pleasant composure, looked flustered. Finally, I stammered, “He worked for the phone company.”
Victoria’s dad, who was using a blue and white dish towel to dry a large, blue bowl, didn’t seem to catch the past tense the verb, and he immediately asked me, “Is he over at AT&T?”
I looked at Victoria, confused, amused, deeply uncomfortable. “I mean, he was,” I started to say.
“Dad, we were just about to go walk over to Dominic’s,” she interrupted me, and started pulling me out of the kitchen by the sleeve.
“You need some cash?” he called after us.
“No, we’re good,” she said.
“We’re going to Dominic’s?” I whispered. Dominic’s is a pizzeria. It’s still there. Great pizza. Really great.
“Yes,” she shushed me, and within moments, we were out of the house, walking down the street.
Once we were a few houses down, I started to ask her, “Okay, so, does he—”
Abruptly, she grabbed my hand and my arm. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I haven’t told him about your dad. He’s so happy I’ve got a friend, and he’s so focused on starting over, I didn’t want to…” but she didn’t finish.
“Didn’t want to what?”
“Well, I don’t know. Worry him?”
“Make him feel like,” and again, she was stammering and at a loss for words. Very unusual for her.
“Like, what, death is following him? Like you moved all the way across the country just so he could be reminded that your mom died,” I was trying to be funny, but the way the words sounded aloud were brutal. Brutal to her. Brutal to me.
“I mean,” she mumbled, “when you put it that way, yeah.”
I stopped walking. I was having one of those moments where the grief came roaring up on me far too quickly for me to be able to ready myself. And, there in my mind, I saw my father’s smiling face in more vivid detail than I was usually able to recall. I bowed my head, pinched the bridge of my nose, and squeezed my eyes against the tears that were on their way. Victoria wrapped her arms around me, and she started crying softly too. That only put me over the edge, and I let go of my nose, hugged her back, and let myself sob into the shoulder of her field jacket, which smelled old and musty and comforting. Like Christmas decorations, which emerge once-annually from the attic in their decades-old cardboard boxes bearing outdated beer and liquor logos.
And when we were done, we started walking again as we had before, only now we were holding hands.
We turned onto Summit Avenue, and a half-mile down or so, we came to a wide sort of driveway—one that we’d passed countless times before. Only, this time, it caught my eye and I stopped to get a better look. The asphalt was all cracked into uneven chunks. It was flanked by swaths of trees and brambles and weeds. Across it, a yellow metal gate secured by heavy chain and a fairly sizeable padlock.
“What’s back there?” I asked.
“No idea,” she said.
“Wanna check it out?” I asked, smiling. I felt like we could use a bit of fun, a little adventure.
Victoria seemed excited but nervous, and she blushed a little. “Yeah,” she said, “okay.”
I climbed up and over the gate. Victoria slipped beneath it. We followed the curving pavement path, walking cautiously, slipping from the sight of anyone who might have been watching us from the road. After thirty feet or so, the trees to our sides thinned, and we came to a small clearing. I looked at Victoria to see if she was seeing what I was seeing.
“Are those houses?” she asked.
There were three of them—all wood and sporting the same design: four sides and a simple gable roof. They looked like might have been white a long, long time ago. “I don’t know,” I answered her. “They look pretty small to be houses. But I don’t know what else they’d be.”
“Let’s check it out,” I said.
As we neared the first, it was clear it was a hollow shell. The window frames were without their panes, and two of the sides were missing boards. We peered through these large open slits and could see nothing but emptiness and shadow. We came around to the front and saw the front door was also missing. So, too, were the small set of steps that would have led up to it.
We followed the pavement to the next structure and saw that it was in similar condition. Though, it leaned more precariously. This house still had the four steps which led to a landing in front of the gaping, jagged rectangular hole where a front door once hung, but looked as if it had been ripped off by some giant, rampaging creature that had wandered its way out of a 1950s science fiction film. I climbed the first two steps, sure they would collapse and my leg would be gashed by splintered wood and rusty nails. But it held long enough for me to see what was inside, which was nothing at all.
The third was at the far end of the clearing. On our way, we could hear the main road off behind the trees to our left and yet another busy street on the other side of the trees to our right. Beyond the last structure, there was a border of trees only a few feet thick, and then a concrete sound barrier.
“I think that’s the freeway up ahead,” Victoria said. “Summit Ave is over there,” she pointed to the left, “so over there is…?”
“Must be 83,” I said referring to the designation of the state road that ran by the sewage treatment plant and the power station. “Also, we don’t say freeway here. It’s just a highway,” I teased.
“How is this here? How have they not cleared all this and put up another mall or more houses or apartments or something?”
“Beats me,” I said. See, this is what I mean? Being a kid and dealing with the death of a parent, you can be crying your eyes out one minute, and totally fine the next, exploring some old abandoned houses.
The third house was in the best condition. Though cracked, there was glass in the frames of the windows, of which there were five: one on every wall except for the front, where there were two windows—one on each side of the door, which was still present. We couldn’t see through the windows, though, because there were black curtains hanging behind them.
Without consulting each other, we both climbed the steps, as if we might have been shy, young prostheletyzers, sheepish but determined to spread the word of whatever god or goddess we believed in.
My hand hovered inches from the worn and tarnished metal doorknob.
“Knock first,” Victoria said.
And so, feeling a little silly, though also quite nervous, I knocked. We held our breath. The sound of the rushing commuters on the highway, on Summit Avenue, on 83 seemed to recede as we waited for some answer, some response. But there was nothing.
I grasped the doorknob and tried turning it, though it wouldn’t budge. A wave of relief washed over me, and I let go before the lock gave way or the door pushed open.
“Locked,” I announced, trying not to sound too glad about it.
“Okay,” she said quickly. “Let’s get out of here.”
And a moment later, we were holding hands and laughing as we ran across the clearing, back toward the yellow gate, back toward civilization.
But we returned soon enough. We always did. And we called the area with the three houses “the neighborhood.”
Let’s take a walk in the neighborhood.
The third house was, simply, “the house.”
Hang out after school? Meet me at the house.
It became our secret place. It no longer felt frightening or forbidden. It felt like ours. Like we’d inherited it. Like, somehow, we were the caretakers. And that did make me curious about just what it was that we were charged with taking care of. I had been tempted to break in, but Victoria had always convinced me to leave it alone.
I stub my cigarette out on the bottom of my old canvas sneaker. A shower of orange sparks rains down on the old, wooden steps of this house that we discovered almost five years ago, but that’s stood strong for untold years before we ever came along. “So, what, you want to just break in?” I ask her.
She shrugs. Her grin fades.
I pull a stainless-steel flask from the inside of my Army jacket. Her Army jacket. Or, the one that was hers. She’d given it to me the same night I gave her my flannel. Christmas Eve, freshman year of college. I unscrew the cap and tilt back warm, sweet Canadian whisky into my mouth. “That’s good,” I say.
She reaches over and takes a swig. “I’m surprised you’re hesitating,” she tells me, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “You were always the curious one. You were always the one wanting to find out what’s in there.”
“Oh you never cared what was inside?”
“I’ve always cared. But I’ve always been fine keeping it a mystery,” she corrects me.
Again, she answers only with a shrug. She takes another sip.
“You really want to?” I ask.
She hands me back the flask.
It was about a month after we’d first discovered the neighborhood, the house, and we were back at Victoria’s place. It was my first time seeing her father in as long. He’d bought us all dinner.
“No promises, Victoria,” he said, “but the guys at work tell me these are the best fish and chips in the area.”
“That’s not saying much,” she said.
Her father chuckled. “Good point,” he said, appreciatively. “James… Jim? James?”
“James,” I confirmed.
“James, where we lived in Oregon, we got some of the best fish and chips in the country. As good as England. Better than England.”
“Oh, nice,” I said politely, though I couldn’t really see the big deal about it. Seemed sort of silly to get all excited about fish sticks.
“You ever have fish and chips from this place? Lovelady’s, I think it’s called.”
“No. Never been.”
“Well, hopefully you’re in for a treat.”
I always liked Victoria’s dad. He wasn’t mysterious or artsy or quietly poetic like Victoria. He was just a good guy, you know? He was the kind of guy that got really excited to give you a styrofoam container of fish sticks and french fries.
I picked up a piece of breaded fish. Looked more like a chicken tender than a fish stick. I took a bite. “Hey, not bad,” I said and meant it.
“Squeeze some lemon on it,” Victoria told me.
“And try the tartar sauce.”
“Don’t try the tartar sauce,” Victoria told me. “Tartar sauce is gross.”
They both laughed like this was some kind of inside joke, and maybe it was.
“So, James,” her father said.
“Last time I saw you,” he said, and you could tell he was really choosing his words carefully. “I asked you about your dad.”
“Yeah,” I answered, trying to sound neutral, or maybe like I didn’t even remember.
“I’m sorry, if…” he started to say, but then he didn’t seem to know how to finish. “I,” he started to say, “had no idea.”
“It’s okay,” I said, trying to sound like maybe I still couldn’t recall what he was referring to.
“We, uh, Victoria and I, as you might know,” his voice was quivering just slightly, “went through something similar. And I want you to know that if you ever wanted to talk about anything. You can talk to us, to me,” he said.
“I really appreciate that,” I said, and I meant it, though I couldn’t really imagine having a heart-to-heart with him.
“James and I talk,” Victoria said. “But we have a lot of fun, too.” She smiled at me and her dad. “It’s good.”
“Good,” he said, exhaling. “So, what’s the verdict on the fish and chips, pal?”
“Pretty good,” I said.
“It’s okay,” he half-heartedly agreed. “Tell you what,” he said sitting back. “There’s really only one way to have the best fish and chips.”
“Oh no,” Victoria said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh yes,” he said holding up his hand. “You want something done right, you’ve gotta do it yourself. Isn’t that right, James?”
“Sure,” I said, a little confused.
“This Sunday. What are you and your mother up to?”
Victoria gave her father a surprised look.
“What? You guys are best friends. I should at least meet your best friend’s mother. What do you say, James? Would you and your mom like to have some homemade fish and chips on Sunday? No kidding, I deep fry them myself.”
“I mean, I’d have to ask, but sure,” I said. And I remember thinking, you know, I bet she’d really like that.
So, that’s how it all started. That’s how they met. It’s not like there were fireworks or anything. But they got along. My mom was polite, but she was distant in a way that she frequently is. And what I mean is, like, rather than being distant in a quiet sort of way, she was distant in a way where she asked a lot of questions about him, about his job, about Oregon, about what he studied, about his parents, even about his wife. It was almost like, by asking him so many questions, she didn’t have to talk about herself at all.
To our knowledge, they only saw each other at the occasional community or school event. And then every three or four months, we’d all have dinner together at one of our houses.
Truly, neither Victoria nor I had any idea.
Maybe they never considered that Victoria and I might have been more than friends—not that we were anything more than that. But still. It’s not like they asked. Maybe they were trying to protect us. Probably they were. And probably they were protecting themselves. I can understand how they’d want to be cautious, take things slow, maintain some privacy.
One of the first and only clues that something might be going on was the evening of our high school graduation. They took us out to a celebratory dinner, and as it turned out they were the ones who did the most celebrating. They had two cocktails before the entrees were served. They giggled incessantly and were going on and on about how proud they were of us. Victoria’s dad handed his car keys to Victoria, and he turned to my mother and said, “We’ve been chauffeuring these kids around for almost two decades. They got licenses now. I say, it’s their turn.”
“Steven, I couldn’t agree more,” my mother said in mock seriousness. “Now, the real question is what kind of wine.”
“Well, if it’s from Oregon, you know it’s good.”
“Oh, do I?” my mother said flirtatiously.
Victoria and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. But we were both enjoying it because, at the time, we had no idea.
My mother excused herself to use the ladies’ room, and Victoria’s father got up so he could track down a waiter. While they were up, Victoria and I grabbed their cocktail glasses and drank down what was left, which was mostly melted ice. And then we both saw it. My mother, waiting in line for the bathroom, and Victoria’s father approaching her, thinking they were unseen. He put his hand on the small of her back and whispered something to her. She smiled. He smiled.
“Are you seeing this?” I asked Victoria.
“Yes,” she said.
Her father’s hand drifted lower on her back, and I instinctively shielded my eyes from having to see my own mother’s ass fondled.
“Whoa!” Victoria said. “My dad is—”
“I don’t want to hear! I don’t want to hear!” I said.
“Your mother does not seem to mind,” Victoria said, almost sounding impressed.
A few moments later, her father was back at the table, completely unaware of what we’d seen. “So! High school graduates! Next stop: college. Incredible. Just incredible!” he said, patting Victoria’s hand.
My mother took her seat and picked up the two cocktail glasses. “Hmmm, seems that something happened to our cocktails, Steven,” she said playfully.
“Must be evaporation. These kids aren’t of legal drinking age,” he said, feigning naivete.
We’d chalked it up to the drinks, the occasion. But as it turned out, they’d been seeing each other seriously for over a year. We found that out on Christmas Eve. The four of us had dinner at Victoria’s house. Fish and chips.
My mother held up a glass of wine. And since we were not in public, they allowed us glasses, too. “Traditionally, we Catholics eat fish on Christmas Eve,” she said. “But tonight, we’re having it for another reason.” She looked at Victoria’s father.
He hoisted his glass of golden, shimmering chardonnay. “It’s very special to have you all here together. We’re so proud of you both---now a full semester into college.” He rubbed his daughter’s hand, and she smiled at him warmly, though a little nervously. “As you might remember, the first time the four of us were together was right here in this house more than two years ago. We had fish and chips. That was the beginning of a new chapter for Debbie and me. Friendship, healing. But tonight is the start of yet another chapter.” He looked at my mother, and I saw his eyes well up with tears.
She smiled at him warmly, though her eyes were not wet.
“We’ve been friends. But we’ve also been companions and partners. Not just in grief or in loss, but in love. And we’ve decided that it is better to be together than not. So, we’re getting married.”
I was so floored that I felt nothing at all. That’s what disbelief is. Disbelief is not a feeling. It’s the absence of feeling. It’s the mind being entirely unable to grasp or process something. It’s what I felt in the immediate moments after I was told my father was dead. And it’s what I felt in that moment, too.
“Well,” Victoria said, looking stunned, but putting on her best, most polite and friendly act, “cheers and congratulations!”
I’m facing the door now just like I did when we first discovered the place, and I’ve got this feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I know it’s not a good one.
I look back at Victoria, and she’s looking at me with an expression that suggests she’s really not sure I’m going to go through with it, or that I should.
I turn back to the door, square my shoulder up with it. I was never a football player, but it shouldn’t take much to plow through the door or crack the jamb enough to render the lock useless.
It comes to me. The name of the feeling, I mean.
I was attracted to her almost immediately. I didn’t tell her that right away, but she must have known. Because, months into our friendship, I tried to kiss her, but she turned her head, then wrapped her arms around my neck, hugged me, kissed my cheek and said, “I am not ready for that, but thank you so much, James.”
She’d tried her best to soften the blow, but, of course, I was humiliated.
I hoped that maybe someday, she would be ready. But time went on, the both of us as best friends—me the best friend who was hopelessly attracted to her. Every once in a while, we’d drink some booze we stole or had paid some stranger to buy us, and all of my truth would come spilling out—how beautiful I thought she was, how I really honestly thought I was in love with her. She would blush a little, would thank me profusely, would hug me and stroke my back, hold my hand, but would never, ever let me believe for a moment that the feeling was mutual.
I wanted Victoria as my girlfriend, but that wasn’t an option. So I had others. They never lasted long, but I needed the experience. Victoria would ask me about them, and I’d even tell her about the things we’d do physically, hoping they would make her jealous or maybe even turn her on. But, instead, she just seemed fascinated and attentive, like any wonderful friend. Of course, she never told me about other boys. Not that I asked.
And that’s how it was until that night they announced their engagement. My disbelief had finally melted away, leaving a potent cocktail of emotions swirling through my head: worry, resentment, amusement, and jealousy. But Victoria was magnanimous, and so I acted accordingly.
We celebrated. One bottle of Chardonnay became two, and for that evening, her father and my mother treated us as friends, rather than kids. Gifts were exchanged. I’d bought Victoria a new tape by a band called the Cocteau Twins. She was delighted and suggested we go listen to it right away. Off we went, grabbing the quarter-full bottle of Chardonnay on our way.
We got to her room, and she shut the door.
“I already have this tape,” she smiled.
“You do?” I said, utterly confused as to why she’d seemed so excited.
“Of course. I bought it the day it came out,” she giggled. And then added, as she removed the cellophane wrap, “But thank you. It’s a great album, and I’m glad to have a copy here.” She took the cassette from its case, put it in her stereo, and hit play, filling the room with music.
“I would have returned it,” I started to say, but she’d walked right up to me and kissed me deeply. It was honestly better than I’d ever imagined it would be.
“Let’s do it,” she said. “Now. Before it’s too late. Before it gets even weirder. Let’s do it now.”
There was that disbelief again.
“It?” I asked.
“Yes. You’ve been wanting to ever since 10th grade,” she said seductively.
“Thought you weren’t ready,” I stammered.
“Well I’m ready now,” she said and kissed me again.
And before I knew it, we were stripping each other’s clothes off and getting in her bed, a laughing, ecstatic, beautiful tangle.
We did it again three times, all of which were technically before they were married. That includes the last time when we did it one hour before we both accompanied them to the courthouse.
And then that was it.
I tried to initiate something occasionally when we’d both be home from college during breaks, but she stopped me every time. “I want to,” she’d say as she raked her fingernails down my thigh, “but we’re practically siblings,” she’d explain in a mocking tone that suggested she was mostly making fun of the circumstances, rather than respecting them.
“Why did you change your mind?” I asked her once. We were at the house, and I remember I’d been really afraid to ask, thinking it was quite possible she’d say something like I guess I was drunk.
“I always thought you and I shared some special bond, something more sacred than sex,” she shrugged.
I knew what she meant. Our loss. Her dead mother. My dead father. Our grief.
“But when they decided they could do whatever they wanted, I guess,” she shrugged, “I don’t know.” She looked sad.
It was hard to believe they were even married. By the end of our sophomore years in college, my mother seemed more distant than she did in that first year after my father died. Likewise, her father seemed more consumed by grief than he had since they’d moved from Oregon, Victoria told me.
So, I guess it wasn’t the world’s biggest surprise when we came back home during the March break of our junior year, and they told us they were separating. Victoria’s father confided in her that it hadn’t been mutual, that my mother had been cheating on him. Though the most hurtful part wasn’t that she’d been cheating, but that she hadn’t seemed even remotely remorseful when she was caught.
“So much for being siblings,” she said.
“No kidding,” I said.
“Should we head over to the neighborhood? See how the old house is doing?” she suggested.
I agreed. Of course I agreed. I agreed to everything she said.
I kind of rock back, my knees bent, ready to spring forward and smash through that door that’s been locked for God-knows-how-long. And then I stop.
“Why?” I ask her. “What’s the point?”
There’s the shrug again.
“What’s that mean?” I ask, imitating her so she can see how maddening it is when the only answer someone gives you is with their shoulders.
“What would the 16-year-old James say?” she asks me. “I used to have to physically restrain you from breaking in here. Come on, now’s your chance! No one’s stopping you! Let’s do it!”
“I’m not 16 years old anymore,” I say, and I walk down the steps, out on to the cracked-up concrete.
“So that’s it?” she says.
“It is for now,” I say.
“No,” she says, and she says it defiantly.
“No, this isn’t it!” she almost screams.
I’ve never heard her raise her voice. And I see now that she’s crying, which is something I’ve only ever seen her do gracefully and delicately. But now, she’s sobbing so hard, she’s almost gasping, and there are thick strings of saliva between her lips, and her nose is running, though she wipes it away with the sleeve of my old flannel shirt.
She walks slowly down the stairs and into my arms. I squeeze her, and rub her back, as her breathing becomes even.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers, and I don’t even know what she’s apologizing for.
“Me, too,” I say, just as unsure about what it is I’m sorry about.
I rub her back some more, and she rubs mine. I’m facing the house, the locked door, the black windows on either side of it, and I can remember how badly we, I, wanted to know what was in there. But now I think it’s better kept locked away. Because the truth is, I don’t think it’s anything as exciting as we once imagined it could be: money or jewels or old manuscripts or caches of old photos or vivid oil-painted masterpieces.
I think it’s probably just some old junk, rotting away in the shadows. Or maybe, it’s not even that. Maybe it’s nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Just empty space.
After all, I think, if you’ve got something worth anything at all, why would you ever leave it behind?