Dinosaur Junior By Julie Bartoli (2014)

Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, Winner (2014)

Sid sits on the overhang outside his bedroom window, watching cars. It’s one of those deadbeat summer days, mid-July and steaming. This week the number one song on the radio talks about driving with the windows rolled down, but Sid has yet to see a car that isn’t sealed shut with the A/C blasting.

From Sid’s window, he can hear everything. His mother singing in the shower. The television playing CNN to an empty sofa. His father yelling at his sister, Gianna, for wearing a sheer skirt.

“I can see your underwear.”

“What color is it?”

“White.”

“Wrong.”

Something crashes to the hardwood floor. Seconds later his bedroom door flies open. Dad stomps in, eyeing Sid’s stained Kinks T-shirt and the jeans that hang from his fourteen-year-old lack of an ass. Sid smiles and gives his father a crooked wave.

“You’re kidding me,” Dad says. “We have to leave in five minutes ago. Get ready.”

He slams Sid’s door hard enough to knock his dream catcher off the wall. Sid jumps. If Dad were in anger management, it’d be a one-step program. Forget the thirty-day chip; a seven-hour chip would be an unprecedented miracle.

Sid turns back to the street, resting his elbows on his knees. Two blue cars pass in a row, followed by a black Buick, followed by a knock on the door. He tenses, thinking it’s Dad the Sequel – twice as pissed, this time with fists. But it’s just Gianna, standing in a loose black dress with both hands on her hips. She looks like a naughty nun.

Sid shifts, tugging a bag of headache inducing Mexican dirt weed from his back pocket. He tosses it to Gianna, and she catches it with one hand.

“Let’s take a walk,” she says.

• • •

Kettle Pond. What used to be a place for catching largemouth bass is now the colloquial smoking spot. Sid packs a tight bowl and brings it to his lips, lighting and puffing. He feels smoke hit his throat and inhales. His thumb plugs and releases the cap to an unsung melody. He lights up again. This time, it stays cherried. Sid elbows Gianna and she takes the bowl with both hands, as if he were handing her a tray of fine china.

She breathes in and holds the smoke in her lungs for a minute. On the exhale she says, “I can’t stand him.”

The bowl makes another rotation. This time Gianna’s buzzing insight is, “He doesn’t give a fuck if we get there on time. He’s just worried everyone else will.”

This continues until it’s kicked. Gianna bangs the bowl against her kneecap. Sid says, “Occam’s Razor.”

Gianna nods as if that makes perfect sense, even though she has no idea what he’s talking about. She almost never knows what Sid’s talking about. He’s a boy of few words, but the ones he chooses are scientific jargon or observations that only make sense in hindsight. He’s like a little Buddha. A weird little Buddha with no friends.

Back at the house the duo make a pit stop in the garage, raiding their stash of eye drops and spray deodorant. They give each other a once-over and decide there’s nothing suspicious on either end, save for the fact that they both giggle at the sound of their own name.

“Sid! Gianna!”

“That’s our cue,” Gianna says, and Sid follows her upstairs.

• • •

Ambrosini family party. Same old bullshit.

It’s little Sarah Ambrosini’s First Communion, making her the fifth member of the Communion of the Week squad. Of course, it’s held at no place but the Italian Club. Rage on.

Dad’s drinking beer with his father and brothers, even though he prefers wine. He claps Uncle Vinny on the shoulder and they laugh, clinking the necks of their bottles. Vincent Junior runs by and Dad ruffles his hair, asks about school, about girls, “You must have to fight ’em off.” Junior forces a laugh and walks away. With that, it’s back to football. It’s always back to football, even though Dad doesn’t even watch football. Sid knows for a fact that he doesn’t have the patience. Five minutes after the kickoff he changes the channel, then looks the final score up online.

Sid thinks his balding father has nothing else to talk about. Thinks he’s a good guy, but lacks the capacity for intimacy. Can’t connect well with others. Sid understands that. But, what he doesn’t understand is his father’s undying need to fit in, to appear normal. To eliminate any inch of personality, any speck of uniqueness. Sid wonders if his father will ever allow himself to really exist. He decides he doesn’t want to think about it.

Sid moves on, searching for his mother. She’s pulling her usual disappearing act. At these gatherings she becomes one with the wallpaper, appearing just in time to kiss everyone goodbye and get a head start to the Acura.

Instead his eyes land on Gianna. She’s the center of it all. Beaming, grinning, carrying babies on her hip as she table-hops between first, second, third and so forth cousins. Sid wonders if it’s real. It seems believable. Seems almost like she’s enjoying this bullshit.

They lock eyes. Gianna smiles, plops baby Anthony into his mother’s lap and joins Sid by the Club entrance.

“We done, yet?”

Sid laughs. If only.

“I feel like I’m on display,” Gianna says. “Everyone keeps giving me the once-over. Do I have toilet paper stuck to my ass?”

Sid shakes his head.

“Then what is it?”

Sid shrugs. He looks at Gianna. She’s looking at their cousin, Amy. Amy is the prettier one. Everyone knows it, especially Gianna. Where Gianna has curves, Amy is thin as a pin with long black hair down her back. She looks like a dancer. Gianna looks like a pizza maker.

“She’s gained some weight, eh?” Gianna says, nodding in Amy’s direction.
Amy sees this. Thinking Gianna is beckoning her, she rushes over. The two embrace, gushing over how lovely the other is. Sid stares with blank eyes. Then he walks away.

• • •

“Is this car feeling shaky?” Dad says.

No one answers. He takes this as an invitation to continue.

“Maybe the tires need to be realigned.”

“Gianna, sweetie,” Mom says, twisting around so she’s facing the backseat. “Can you make it a point not to tell people that your boyfriend is coming over this late at night?”

“But he is coming over. And it’s only eleven.”

“I know. We just don’t want any rumors starting.”

“Like what?”

Say it. Say it. Say you don’t want people to think they’re fucking. C’mon Mom, say it.

“You know.”

“No, I don’t.” Gianna looks embarrassed, humiliated even. Thought that she’d done everything right that night. She was so friendly and she looked so demure and everyone loved her. But it’s always something, isn’t it? Always something. “Enlighten me.”

“It’s family business,” Dad says in a voice that’s quick and gruff, a voice like a warning.

Gianna slides back into her seat, silent. Dad looks into the rearview. Without meaning to, he locks eyes with Sid. The two stare at each other, unwavering, for half a second. Dad turns away first. Sid keeps both eyes on the mirror for the rest of the drive.

• • •

That night Gianna’s boyfriend does stop by. His name is Jeremy and he’s on the football team. Sid doesn’t remember what position he plays; he just knows it isn’t quarterback. Jeremy drives a Honda Civic, the safest thing on four wheels. When he pulls into their driveway, his car windows are shut. He rolls up in front of the garage, and then does a nine thousand point turn so that the car faces the street. As he walks up to the front door, he keeps licking his hand and running it through his hair. When he sees Sid sitting on the overhang, he stops doing this and waves.

“Hey.”

Sid nods in his direction. Jeremy looks like he wants to say something else, then decides against it. Rings the doorbell. Dad answers, all smiles. “Jeremy, how you doing, son? How’s the season going?”

“Over, Mr. Ambrosini. It’s summer.”

Gianna leads Jeremy into the basement, where they screw to the tune of Late Show with David Letterman. Gianna asks him to hold her arms down and he does. She asks him to slap her and he does. He doesn’t ask why that gets her off, but it does.

Afterward they bathe in the glow of television light. The boyfriend says he loves her. Gianna says she loves him, too. She doesn’t really know if she means that. Doesn’t really know what that means.

Sid watches Gianna walk Jeremy to his car. He has quick, rigid steps. Looks permanently constipated. Sid liked Gianna’s last boyfriend, Ted. He wore safety pins as earrings, drank whisky sours from mason jars and listened to The Dead Kennedys. He was fun. Jeremy, not so much.

Gianna takes her time coming back to the house. The air is thick, humid, and to move through it is like swimming. She watches the trees move against the sky. Lets her hands brush against the soft parts of her thigh. She thinks that may have been the best sex of her life. Lying there like that, passive and pinned down – well, it’s almost like she didn’t have a choice in the matter.

For once, Gianna barely feels guilty.

• • •

Mom asks Sid to watch TV with her, so they sit side-by-side on their new leather couch, watching CSI without really watching. Mom’s thinking about the barrio, about the shithole condominio fechado her family shared when they first moved from Portugal. The way the bathroom stank of merda no matter how many times you cleaned it. Trash on the sidewalk – not normal shit, either. Hypodermic needles and condoms and flat tires. A jungle of water pipes and pipe dreams. When she was younger, she’d collect these things. Hoard them in her closet, ’til Mãe made her trash it all. She cried that day. Big fucking time.

Aqueles que são meus, Mãe . Essas são minhas coisas. Those are my things.

A shift, now to when she first brought Dominick home. The way her sister, Judite, raised her eyebrow at the Eye-talian. The way she hissed, “Boa sorte com isso um, Maria.”

“He’s a good man,” Maria said. “He just had a rough childhood. His father was abusive.”

“That shit doesn’t exactly skip a generation.”

Judite. Married the sweetest cop in the whole damn city. Bought all their furniture from Goodwill. Washed out the smell with Lemon Pledge. Told Maria to, relax, Rica Cadela, we can’t all have granite countertops. This is what we can do. This is all we need.

Without warning, Mom starts to cry. Sid swallows and looks over at her. He feels like he should say something, but can’t think of what’s appropriate. Maybe he should touch her shoulder. Is that weird? He’s never done it before. He doesn’t even know what’s wrong.

“I want to call my sister,” Mom says, wiping snot from under her nose.

Sid stands up, moving toward the phone, but she cuts him off.

“Don’t. It’s late.”

She doesn’t know what she’d say, anyway.

• • •

Gianna and Sid sit under a cone of street lamp light at the edge of their neighbor’s driveway. They pass their second joint, heads flashing like hot slot machines – all noise, light, and fever. Clouds hang overhead, obscuring moonbeams, leaving the street darker than usual. McMansions lit by porch lights. Some are bigger, some smaller, but all fundamentally the same. Gianna snickers.

“I’ll never live in this neighborhood.”

Sid contorts his lips into an O, blowing three perfect smoke rings. “Yes, you will,” he says.

“What?”

He shakes his head. Thinks of Jeremy, the way he looks like their father, walks like their father, talks like their father. Thinks of Gianna earlier, at the party. Faux smiles and butterfly kisses. On a different team, but playing the same game. Stuck. So fucking stuck.

“You know when you look at the sun, you’re not really looking at the sun?” Sid says. “At least, not at that moment.”

“Eh?” Gianna’s too far gone for this shit. Ears ringing. Tongue numb.

“The sun is eight light minutes away, so you’re actually looking at the sun eight minutes ago.” Sid pauses. “Which means that if aliens were looking at us right now, they’d be seeing dinosaurs.”

• • •

Three in the morning but Sid can’t sleep. He’s leaning out his window, smoking a joint. Feels like he’s from another planet.

He looks back at Gianna, dozing peacefully in his bed. She’s nineteen, but still afraid of the dark. Scared of the way things go bump in the night because she can afford to be terrified by such trivialities. They live in a good part of town. High tech alarm system. Nothing can get in, so her mind gets out. The only part of her that’ll ever get out. Stuck.

Sid doesn’t mind her presence, though. Except now he has to sleep on the floor.
He takes another hit and tips his head back, blowing smoke into the gauzy sky. Everything is still, silent, flushed in the dim washed moonlight.

Sid hopes that in the future, when those aliens are looking back on the present, they don’t see his family. If they did, they’d be so confused. Modern technology and ancient people. A shiny house where everyone’s so sad.

He brings the joint to his mouth, using his free hand to wave at the night sky.

This story first appeared in the 2014 edition of LRR.

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