Cold Water By Catherine Hires (An Excerpt) (2015)

Collins Literary Prize Winner, Prose (2015)

Nia was still sleeping when I woke up. She was snoring loudly as I crawled my way down the rickety ladder that supported my lofted bed. I walked past her bed, her open mouth smushed ungracefully against her pillow, and made my way into the kitchen. I turned on the sink, pulled the hair out of my face and stuck my mouth in the stream of cool water that poured out from it. Rubbing my eyes, I walked over to the wide double windows of the living room and opened them. It was sunny for late September, and the chill of the breeze made the hairs on my arms stand up as it wafted through the screens. I was still in my going-out clothes from the night before: a black tank top and a pair of short-but-not-like-slutty-short shorts. There was black soot on my knuckles where I had rubbed my eyes from the mascara I had forgotten to take off.

I ambled toward the bathroom. The muscles in my calves and thighs were sore and tense, like I had been driving all night. I plopped down on the toilet seat and focused on my toes for a few seconds before I noticed the blood in my underwear. Blood in underwear is not foreign territory for any woman; it’s usually more annoying than it is upsetting. You’ve either lost a pair of underwear or you have to spend a good seven minutes at the sink scrubbing them in cold water. The blood in my underwear was less alarming to me than the clumps of almost-black mulch that were also gathered there. I could smell them from where I stared down at them: the smell of grass and woods. The longer I stared, the more I smelled: cigarette smoke, muddy petrichor and wet pavement, twinged with subtle notes of iron and cheap beer. I staggered off the toilet seat and looked at myself in the mirror. The eye makeup I had smudged clouded around my eyes like black-brown bruises. I leaned into the sink and got close to the mirror, running my ring finger along my bottom eyelid to wipe away what little waterproof eyeliner I could.

I looked down my legs for bruises, but I wasn’t really searching for evidence. I was as pale as I was the day before, remarkably markless. My quietly aching legs remembered the previous night before my brain and hands did, even as I stood at the sink scrubbing my underwear with the useless coconut-lime hand soap we kept there. The water made my knuckles almost numb as the black stains on them washed away. I let myself believe that the cold was why my hands were shaking for a full minute before I gave up on the stain and turned the water on in the shower.

I got into the shower with the intention of cleaning myself, but I just sat in the bottom of the tub while I waited for the hot water to turn cold and then warm again. The water intensified the smells in my hair, which had been matted with dirt and cinnamon whiskey. I let the foulness float away with the steam as I tried to cobble together some image of the night before that didn’t frighten me. Moments drifted in and out of my mind and melted together like the water pelting and rolling off my body, which looked even paler against the navy shower curtain.

I could remember everything to a point, but I couldn’t locate that point. The images were crisp when I closed my eyes, but blurred when I tried to string them together. My whole head, heavy with the post-drunken stupor that I was pretty well used to, felt vaguely disconnected from my neck. I remembered taking jelloshots, but the plastic flavor in my mouth tasted alien to me. I could remember avoiding someone, I could remember Taylor backing her car into a dumpster on the way out, and I could remember that I had forgotten my mostly empty bottle of cinnamon whiskey in the back of her car. I could remember kissing in the cold darkness and saying no and a hand over my mouth and again across my left wrist and cackling hysterically as he tried to put my shorts back onto me while I lay in the dirt. Sitting there in the shower, I laughed a little when I remembered that he tried to put my pants back on, and how bad a job he did of it.

By the time I got out of the shower, I had given myself a thorough, meticulous, mostly frantic scrub. Toweling off under the fluorescent bathroom lights, I felt less clean than I felt raw and red, like all my skin had been under the sticky part of a Band-Aid I had just ripped off. The tremor had left my hands and some tears had unwillingly made their way down the shower drain. The ache in my legs had crept its way up into my brain and I imagined it lining my skull, thick and black like the sludge you see on pictures of smokers’ lungs. My fingertips felt unfamiliar as I walked them over my flesh, trying to remember where the pieces of myself fit.

***

I walked out of the bathroom wrapped in my big orange towel. Nia, who was now awake but still sprawled out in her bed, with her laptop on her belly, said, “Girl, you need to take shorter showers. How was that party last night?”

“The party was pretty shitty, actually,” I answered, getting dressed in the corner.

“You got back pretty late last night for a shitty party,” she replied, not looking up from her computer screen.

“Yeah, well, Taylor may or may not have backed her car into a dumpster on the way out.”

Nia snorted. “Are you serious?” she asked, looking up and patting the Bantu knots on her head in disbelief. “How many people were in the car?”
“Eight.”

“Damn,” she laughed. “Is her car alright?”

“Yeah, believe it or not it looks completely unscathed.”

“Lucky,” she said. “But where was this party again?”

“Willy Oaks Apartments.”

“And what was shitty about the party?”

“Um,” I started. “Well, I didn’t really know the guys who were throwing it, you know? Also this weird fat guy was following me around all night and it was creepy.”

“Oh-kay. Why was he following you around? No offense, but you were wearing that huge flannel when you went out.”

“Well, there was a Star Wars poster in the apartment and I made a joke about it, and it was like this guy had never spoken to a female who had seen a Star Wars movie before, and so he followed me around all night trying to get me wasted.”

“Ew. Sexually repressed, over-attachable dorks are the worst. And he was fat?”

“Yeah, pretty fat. Kinda like a shiny, sweaty fat dude.” Nia squinted and stuck her tongue out. It was astonishingly pink against the brown button of her face. I laughed a little. “I’m going to get breakfast with Haley and them. You wanna come?”

“Look at me,” Nia replied. She was covered in blankets and propped up by at least five pillows. “I am not moving. Go.”

“Ok,” I laughed quietly, walking away. It was strange, but I was surprised by how easily I was able to pretend that it was a completely normal Saturday morning. The nagging pains in my thighs were my walking reminder that it was not a normal Saturday morning. Still, it was easy to fool Nia, and, waiting outside my on-campus apartment building to join a gaggle of brunch-craving college girls, I hoped that eventually I would find it just as easy to fool myself.

***

I was watching Haley apply a mildly disturbing amount of cream cheese to her bagel while I listened to her and Britney argue about the events of the night.

“You did not make out with Brian and Claire at the same time, Britney. Nope. No.” Haley was saying, flatly, her voice low and
cloying and her eyebrow cocked defiantly.

“Actually, she kinda did,” Rachel interjected, taking a bite of sausage as she gesticulated. “I saw it. Still not convinced it was a good decision though.”

“It was a good decision!” Britney said, with a flourish of her small hands. “We have gotten over all of our past grievances.” She
ran her hand through her electric pink hair. “Besides, it’s whatever, so.”

“That’s a really strange way of solving problems with your ex and his girlfriend.” Haley laughed. “You’re a stone cold slut.”

“Baby, I know it!” Britney joked.

“I am getting more tea,” I said, getting up. I had been sitting there for fifteen minutes listening to them prattle about nothing. I had thought that listening to them talk about nothing would be comforting in its simple single-mindedness, but after a while, annoyance broke through my private catatonia. The low hum of the dining hall was mainly composed of people talking about nothing. I felt mildly guilty about judging them harshly, but at the same time I was looking for anything to be even remotely angry about. I wasn’t going to give myself the room to think about my situation, at least not outside the walls of my small bathroom.

“I need more OJ,” Haley said, rising. She walked in step with me. “So,” she asked.

“So?”

“So did you have sex with that guy?” Her eyebrows were raised to match her playful smirk.

“Kinda yeah,” I sighed. I was trying my best to look aloof and nonchalant as I refilled my mug with hot water.

“Dude, quit walking around like a zombie,” she said.

“Regretting sex is like one of the main parts of being…” she paused, looking up for the right word. “One of the main things about being a part of our generation.” She laughed. “Besides, if you don’t regret it, you probably aren’t doing it right.”

“That’s healthy,” I said dryly, following her to the juice counter.

“I went on a run this morning while you were sleeping. Don’t tell me what’s healthy,” she grinned at me.

“Fuck you.”

“Shut up, bitch,” she replied. I rested my forehead on her shoulder while she refilled her cup.

***

In bed that night, I spent the majority of my time attempting to sink into my mattress. I couldn’t sleep for Nia’s snoring, but my mind was buzzing like a fly around a piece of meat. I thought that if I could build a wall around myself, somehow white out the memories I didn’t want, I could keep from rotting. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to invite that insincere “talking is healing” attitude from anyone I knew. Lying there, face close to the ceiling, I thought about what it meant to be a victim. I couldn’t be a victim if I refused to allow that night to exist in my mind. It couldn’t have been a crime if I wanted it, so I convinced myself that I wanted it. It took almost no effort to drop into the lie, to deny myself the thoughts I didn’t want to be thinking. I decided my brain was a malleable thing, to be sculpted and molded into the shape that I found most comfortable. I decided that my memory was an uncertain mechanism, and that the truth was not important as long as I avoided it.

Haley had watched me be led away by the hand at that party. I let myself believe that if she ever learned what happened, she’d blame herself. I let myself believe that forgetting was a way of protecting her from guilt she shouldn’t have to bear. It was a convenience that, in protecting her, I was protecting myself. I dreamed a million reasons to keep everything inside, not a single one of them was the fear that was slithering into my heart – that I was weak, and that my body was not mine.

This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.

A Tie By Joshua Couvares (2015)

Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, Third Place (2015)

Another shot. Tequila dried onto his knuckles, his fingernails. When he makes a fist, the skin between his fingers sticks together, like his hand’s one ball of flesh and bone.

It tastes like an extra-bitter version of Vicks nose spray is dripping down the back of his throat, the nervous up-and-down of his heel, the stick and unstick of his shoe against the grime on the bar floor.

He catches her watching him, like she’s calculating something out in her head, figuring the odds to a game he doesn’t know he’s playing.

Adam wonders how this would all end if it were a movie. But every time he plays it out in his head, the ending always changes.

“We shouldn’t do this,” she says, her hands resting on Adam’s belt. Her other hand pushes him against the siding of the building, its cold ridges digging into his shoulders.

It’s like he’s getting plowed into over and over again by a car made up of these little lines of white he keeps putting into his body, leaving less and less of him intact with each hit.

She’s laughing, leaning against the bar counter, staring right at him. Why’s she laughing?

It’s starting to occur to him that that’s what him and Rachel have been doing to each other for months — going at one another until there’s less and less of them left.

His phone buzzes. It’s his mom. He ignores the call, turns his phone off.

Adam’s gin and tonic slips out of his grip, all four dollars worth of it spilling out on the bar floor.

“I’ve never felt better,” she says.

Adam pictures Rachel middle-aged, married. What will she think of him then?

She says, “How good do you feel right now?”
She says, “How good is it to be in college?”
She says, “How good is to be this young?”
She says, “How good is it to be alive?”
She says, “How good would it feel to fuck right now?”

It sounds like a dare she wants Adam to take.

Adam’s almost sure he could have her right now, could bring her outside behind that parked Honda Civic where there’s nobody watching, could lie her down on the cold ground and dirty her dress, could feel his hands smear into the warmth between her legs, could feel the stretch of her panties while he slides them down her bare thighs, could feel the ache in his knees against the hard asphalt, could feel her small hands under his shirt so cold it burns his back, could hear the small slap sound of their bodies against one another, the heat and electricity of their hips and the screwed-shut eyelids and the tight breaths and stiffened limbs and loss of control.

“Here? In this parking lot?”

“Let’s be adventurous,” she says, her fingertips squeezing their way into his underwear.

Why not have her? He wants to fuck everything. He’d fuck the whole world if he could, because it seems like it’s always been trying to do the same to him.

But Adam keeps seeing her middle-aged, married with kids — older.

And what about the abortion she had to get because they’d been sleeping together, and what about the condom he doesn’t have, what about her boyfriend — and his friend — Tyler, and what would his mom think if she knew what he was doing?

His belt’s undone. She takes his hand, guides it between her legs, under her dress.

He doesn’t want this. He knows that, but he’s already doing it, and it feels good, how can he stop now? It’s different. It’s the same — same bodies, same tits, same ass. But different. He tries to get it over with as fast as he can, but his body is so deadened with alcohol and coke it takes an eternity, and when he finishes it feels like a tired yawn lost in a sea of noise. He gets up off the parking lot pavement, wipes off his penis with his hand, buttons up his pants, and looks at Rachel: she’s got that crooked twisted smile of hers. Like she’s happy because she knows she’s doing something wrong.

Never again, he tells himself.

This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.

Lights in the Night By Stephanie Mei Koo (2015)

Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, Second Place (2015)

Her bedroom lights haven’t been off for twenty-four years.

Oh, it is silly, isn’t it — to be scared of the dark? Yet here she is, shivering in her nightgown, far too tired to go to sleep.

She likes to think she is a reasonable woman. Those superstitions did not haunt her when she was younger, and why change now? Eighty-four is far too old for change. Eighty-four is far too old for such nonsense.

But she’s only that strong woman by the light of day. In the day, there are grandchildren and daughters and sons. There are hugs and simple I love yous and crayon drawings presented to her with proud smiles. There is the warmth and the smell of grass, and the colors, bathed by the sun, shine down on this moment, on this pedestal of her life.

She can’t see them at night.

In the night, he visits. His winter skin glows. He’s younger and his eyes are sharp, but his words are sharper and her heart is a soft peach. She tries to remember a time when they were happy.

You’re eighty-four. You’re supposed to be happy, she reminds herself sternly. The next thought is softer, sad:
Why can’t I be happy?

She shudders and tries to close her eyes, but she knows fully well that she’ll never get a good night’s sleep with the light on.

***

“Who are you?” he barks. “Get out of my house!”

The doctors said he wouldn’t be able to stand after the last episode, but he sure as hell is trying.

She blinks back tears that won’t fall. “It’s me, hun. It’s me.” But who are you?

He shakes and he stutters but she can’t tell if of anger or something else. She reaches for the phone – to call the police or the hospital?

“You aren’t my wife,” he manages to say. He is sitting down again but somehow this is worse. He is shaking his bottle at her. He’s not supposed to drink. “My-my wife’s twenty-two. She’s perfect. Not old. Not like you. I don’t love you.”

“Please remember,” she whispers. She hates this. She hates his twisted smile. She hates the tone of his voice. She hates standing here, quivering against a wall, a wailing cave-canary. She hates herself for wanting to hate him. Because she can’t. Not when this man here isn’t him.

Or is it?

The man laughs. It’s a crow’s laugh; the sound hurts her ears.

“Go away, Stella.”

The doctors say he needs to be monitored 24/7, but she flees before he could destroy her further. She knows it’s futile. She has given up on telling him her name isn’t Stella.

***

Small fires wink at her atop a cake and she kills them with a swift blow. Ghost-smoke trail from the candles and the room is suddenly dark. She doesn’t care. She can feel him beaming at her and he pulls her in for a hug.

“Happy—wait, how…” He shakes his head. “What’s…?”

Her eyebrows push together slightly and her delight feels like it was blown out, too. “What?”

He shakes his head again; his lips purse. “Nothing… Stella.”

She laughs at first. “I’m not ‘Stella,’ silly. Who’s that?” She stops laughing when she sees his green eyes cloud. Then they clear and he kisses her greying hair and she rolls her eyes.

“Happy birthday, Ellie-bean.”

***

Her husband comes home late nowadays. “Just work, Elle,” he calls it. “It’s busy at the office.”

“At 2:24AM in the morning?” she wants to protest, but he looks so tired, so worn out, (so guilty, but she doesn’t want to dwell on that), so she just motions him into her arms. He grasps her like she’s a lifeline. She squeezes back.

One night she stepped out of the tub and her raisin-skin did not swell back. One day he woke and his hair was eaten by the pillow. Yes, they’re still chasing their kids around, but soon enough Peter and Elena would be out of the house and on their way to their own lives.

“When things calm down,” he promises, “we can travel the globe. Like we said we would when we were young.”

“I’d love that,” she whispers.

“And I’ll always love you.”

Elle chooses to believe him.

***

“Wow,” Peter says. “Is that my sister?” The five-year-old peers at the pink bundle in his mother’s arms. Elena squirms, and Elle shifts the baby to keep her calm. Beside her, her husband laughs.

He chuckles. “Of course, silly,” he says, and ruffles their son’s blond hair. He’s taken after his father with his looks. “That’s my sister!” he asserts.

And this is my family, she thinks.

***

Her brown eyes study him when he sleeps and observe the gentle rise and fall of his chest. His warm breath just barely reaches her face. He’s not smiling— but he’s not frowning, either. She decides that he looks calm.

Elle smiles slightly at the sight of glasses still on his face. They help me see in the dark, he had insisted, accompanied with a wry grin tugged across his lips. She had laughed and told him there was nothing to see in the dark, turning off the light before climbing into bed.

The rhythm of his heartbeat lulls her back into a sleepy mood; she’s neither awake nor truly asleep. The sun from the window has not yet reached the bed, and she knows that when it does, it’ll cast its light on his hair: a golden halo.

She counts the freckles that scatter from his jaw to his shoulders, almost blending with his tan summer skin. There were twenty-four. Was it normal to want to kiss every one? Would it wake him up; would he squirm? She presses her lips to one on his shoulder to test it out, but he doesn’t react. So she inches her way up to his jaw, watching for a reaction. She leaves a promise behind with every kiss.

“Hi,” he whispers, sleepily, stirring at her touch.

“Morning,” she replies. And Kyle smiles, as radiant as the sun behind the curtain, and Elle smiles back.

This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.

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.