Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
When Trisha comes to town we have to go out. She’s the bitterest soccer mom of all time and as part of her escape from home she wants to get drunk and complain about her workaholic husband and over-scheduled, ungrateful children. No one appreciates how much she does for them. All she does is give, give, give, without getting anything back, et cetera. I don’t really mind—I enjoy a good martini, and while Trisha rants I don’t have to worry about getting sloppy, given that she’s always sloppier—except that even her complaints are part boast. She has to mention her busy husband and the two hundred thousand he rakes in a year. Her children’s after-school activities for the gifted are just so freaking expensive and time-consuming. There’s a needle in every one of these remarks, pricking at my skin, saying See, Sherri? See?
I do see. I see it perfectly clearly.
This year she shows up with new hair. Her old hair was nicer—she inherited our mother’s dark, shiny waves instead of the thin, blonde frizz I got from our dad’s side—but now she’s highlighted it two or maybe three different shades, I can’t really tell. There are some blonde stripes in there, some red, something she calls “caramel.” Her head looks like candy corn. “You like?” she asks as soon as she gets inside my house, setting her luggage down. It’s a rhetorical question, so I don’t answer. She’s wearing pink Juicy sweatpants and a French manicure and looks like she could be on one of those reality shows, a housewife from somewhere, mascara’d and miserable. I give her a hug and tell her I’m glad she came, which is mostly true. She is my competition, my Irish twin, the thorn in my side. Also: she is my best and oldest friend.
She takes a deep breath and looks around my house, stretching out her hands like she’s feeling the air inside it. “I’m so glad to be home,” she says, by which she means Easton. Because she lives off in Silver Spring, Maryland she can afford—in addition to a five-bedroom McMansion and a Lincoln Navigator—to be sentimental about the Lehigh Valley. She’s always inviting me to visit her place but I don’t feel comfortable. It’s not her husband’s fault. He’s actually nice, Mike, but I sit around the table with him quizzing the kids on homework and current events and I keep a vacant smile going while I think, I’m not smart enough for this.
When I serve the eggs she pokes at them, frowning sadly, like they’re some poor animal that died without dignity. She also remakes the coffee, saying mine’s not strong enough.
One time he asked me a question about Rhesus monkeys. Now I have thoughts on many aspects of the world, but on the subject of Rhesus monkeys, I will leave opinions to the experts. I just looked at him, desperately I guessed, and he dropped the subject, the kids smirking down at their plates of seared tuna and organic salad. Ever since then, I can’t sit in their house without a rising panic in my mouth that I might be asked to weigh in on Rhesus monkeys. So now Trisha comes to me, usually in January after she’s suffered through another Christmas that failed to live up to her Martha Stewart-generated expectations and needs to blow off some steam.
I fix her a drink.
We sit in my kitchen, sipping screwdrivers for the Vitamin C. It’s snowing outside, light and dry, the kind of flakes that don’t so much fall as hang in the air like dust. She asks me if I’ve heard from Rose.
“No,” I say.
She puts her hand on mine. Her nails are so pretty. “Just had to ask,” she says, and we move on.
The first night we stay up too late watching movies and drinking vodka. I wake with a headache, which I seek to repair with eggs and bacon. The house seems smaller with Trisha in it, in a good way. When Rose was little I used to make Sunday breakfasts like this, and Sid would come downstairs with his hair all mussed, what was left of it anyway, and he’d go straight from sleeping to eating. He was a man who liked his food. I’d make a face for Rose out of a pancake and two strips of bacon. Even when she was a teenager, even during that gruesome year before she left, she’d still come out of her room for Sunday breakfast.
Trisha comes in and tells me I’m cooking the eggs too long.
“You’re drying them out.”
“I don’t like them gushy.”
“Not gushy. Soft. It keeps them flavorful.”
“Flavorful? ” I ask. I don’t know where she gets these words, probably the Food Network. “Full of salmonella is more like it.”
She sighs and waves her hand dismissively. Trisha has this gourmet side. I blame it on Silver Spring. When I serve the eggs she pokes at them, frowning sadly, like they’re some poor animal that died without dignity. She also remakes the coffee, saying mine’s not strong enough. I tell her she’s being obnoxious and she says I’m oversensitive; by the time the meal is over we’re barely speaking. To make peace, I let her dictate the plans for the day: tonight she wants to go to the casino. And before we can do that she wants to get dolled up—a massage, a pedicure.
When she sees the look on my face, she adds, “I’ll pay for it.”
I both hate and am grateful to her for this. So I say, “You mean Mike will pay for it.”
Instead of getting mad she raises an eyebrow and says, “Honey, I pay for it all the time, ” and we both laugh.
Trisha and I agree on this much: people who look on the bright side all the time are hypocrites at least some of the time. To say that shitty things are shitty is to speak honest truth about the world
So we doll. We sit side by side in lounge chairs at the mall while Vietnamese girls pumice our feet. It makes me feel funny, the way they’re down there working on us, but Trisha kicks back, closes her eyes, and moans with enjoyment. She likes to be treated like a queen. In between the pumicing and the polish she keeps up a stream of commentary about her life. She wants to redo the kitchen but Mike says the current kitchen works just fine. “The current kitchen is crap,” she says. “The fridge leaks and there’s mold behind it that five different cleaning ladies haven’t been able to get out. Meanwhile the countertop, which was supposed to be scratchproof, is totally scratched. That granite cost a fortune and it looks like a bathroom stall in a bus station. I’m telling you, my life is a nightmare.”
I glance at the Vietnamese girl below me, but she’s half-watching music videos on a karaoke TV on the wall and doesn’t seem to be paying attention.
“And then there’s Kyle,” my sister says. Kyle’s her youngest. “Sherri, he picks his nose and wipes it on the walls of my house. He can’t use a tissue why? Every time I round the corner there’s another booger on the freaking wall.”
I’m on her side with this one. “That’s disgusting.”
“Obviously,” she says. “Every time I talk to him about it he just denies it. Like there are any other possible suspects. Like maybe there’s some stranger that breaks into our house at night and doesn’t steal anything, just leaves his boogers.”
“What does Mike say?”
“What he always says. That he’ll grow out of it. That I’m too negative.”
We exchange a meaningful glance. Mike’s always saying that Trisha’s too negative. Our parents raised us to say the truth about the world, same as they did. I remember the day Trisha brought home her first boyfriend, Nick Perreira. He was no prize; he just had a car and a fake ID. “You’re an idiot,” our mother said. “He’ll treat you like shit and you’ll wind up crying on the phone to your friends on a Friday night.” Six months later Trisha flung herself onto my bed sobbing because he’d gotten her pregnant and wouldn’t have anything to do with her. We grew to appreciate our mother’s blunt honesty. Our children don’t seem to feel the same way about us. But maybe we just have to give it time.
Trisha and I agree on this much: people who look on the bright side all the time are hypocrites at least some of the time. To say that shitty things are shitty is to speak honest truth about the world.
We tip the girls and leave the salon with painted toes.
The casino opened since the last time Trisha was home and to hear her talk about it, the Lehigh Valley was a desert that just got its first oasis. Which is kind of a joke I’m making because the casino is called Sands. We go to dinner first, wearing dresses and heels, and I look OK but Trisha looks better. The older you get, the more money helps you out. When we were younger, we were both pretty, but now people’s eyes skate over me and settle on her. Although this could also be because she talks real loud and keeps telling our waiter, “You’re a cutie, James!” She’s already a bit drunk. She gets out of James that he goes to Penn State Berks and majors in biology.
“I bet you’re really smart,” she says to him.
“Ask him what he thinks about Rhesus monkeys,” I say.
“Never mind.” It’s always around this point in her visits that I get weary of my sister. I start to crave my quiet house, the way I can talk to myself or to Sid out loud—yes, I still talk to him, even though he’s been gone for three years—or shuffle around in my sweatpants eating peanut butter straight out of the jar. And that’s how I feel after two days of Trisha. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with her all the time.
It’s still nice that she visits, though.
James brings us steak and martinis and we agree it is delicious. The casino is packed, hectic with lights and noise. It’s the nicest place I’ve ever been around here, and as we start to gamble I’m feeling loose and happy. We play some slots, drink some cocktails, and then head over to the table games. I lose twenty bucks to an old dealer who calls me “ma’am.”
We exchange a meaningful glance.
“Screw this,” I say, and we hit another table where the dealer is cuter and younger. I don’t mind losing money but I’d like to have a good time doing it. We order drinks and Trisha plays first. She wins fifty bucks! Like she even needs it. When she sees me glowering, she laughs and says, “The drinks are on me.” Just our luck, the young dealer immediately goes on break, but the next one coming is young too. He keeps his head down as he readies the setup, muttering his dealer patter, and at first I don’t recognize him. Cyril.
Trisha doesn’t notice that I’ve stopped talking. Listening’s never been her strong suit. Of course he knows it’s me and he won’t make eye contact. He looks better than the last time I saw him—he’s put on some weight and the acne’s cleared up. His hair is short now, no more braids, and in his white collared shirt he actually looks semi-respectable.
“Place your bets, place your bets,” he mutters. There’s one other person at the table, a middle-aged guy wearing an Eagles shirt, and he stacks his chips then looks at us expectantly.
We play and lose, play and lose.
I try to exchange a meaningful glance with Trisha, but she’s not paying attention. She sips on her drink by lowering her head, without holding it in her hands. It would be cuter if she were thirty years younger.
“Hey,” I say to Cyril. “I didn’t know you were in town.”
He mumbles unintelligibly and Trisha finally figures out something’s up.
“How long have you been back?” I say.
“Are you living at home?”
He shrugs like it’s none of my business. My hands are trembling so bad that some martini sloshes on the table, and Trisha blots it with a napkin. “Sher,” she says. “What’s up?”
“This is Cyril,” I tell her.
“The one and only.”
Cyril must have pressed some button somewhere because a lady materializes beside the table, blonde, name-tagged, a supervisor. “Everything OK here?” she asks brightly.
“Fine,” Trisha says, also brightly. The lady looks confused—clearly she was expecting a couple of rowdy drunks. “We’re just waiting for our dealer to, you know, deal.”
The lady supervisor pats Cyril on the shoulder, and he lifts his head, shooting her a plaintive, panicked look. If I didn’t hate his fucking guts I’d maybe feel sorry for him.
“Go ahead and deal, Cyril,” I say. “We’re here to play. We’re here all night.”
Trisha laughs her mean laugh, the one I’m sure drives her husband and kids crazy, and I laugh too.
We play and lose, play and lose. I’m in the hole a hundred bucks, which is my budget for the night—Sid taught me that, that it’s OK to lose as long as you prepare for it. He was a budget supervisor, so profit and loss sheets were his thing. But sometimes you have to throw the budget out the window. I’m playing until Cyril gets off his shift, that’s my plan, then I’m going to follow him to the break room or the parking lot and beat the shit out of him until he tells me what I want to know. That’s as far as I’ve gotten in my thinking, when Trisha starts needling him. Are you working here full time, Cyril, shouldn’t you be in school, Cyril, do you make good money, Cyril, what do young people around here do for fun, Cyril? The way she says his name is like a swear. In answer to every question he mumbles until she asks him to repeat himself. It’s fun watching her torment him, like swatting mosquitoes is fun. It’s satisfying to see the blood squirt out of them, even if you know it’s your own. Whether because of Trisha’s questions or Cyril’s weird mumblings, other people are avoiding the table and for ages it’s just the three of us, losing, dealing, needling, rinse, and repeat.
I’m on my fourth martini and the air in the room feels hot and thick around me, propping me up. I used to drink a lot of martinis when Sid and I first met, before Rose was born. Then I gave them up for a long while. To be a mother you have to have your wits around you. Sitting here now with Cyril across the table from me, close enough to touch his arm, the wiry black hairs above his wrist, I start thinking back to that time, and even earlier, back to when I was his age. In college I used to have these dreams—I guess they were sex guilt dreams, me being Catholic—that I’d gotten pregnant by accident and had to cover it up. In the dreams I always kept the baby but tried to hide it. I had this one recurring dream that I hid the baby by keeping it in an aquarium in my dorm room. I’d come home from class and sprinkle fish flakes over the water, my little fish baby rising to the surface to gobble them down. It looked just like a regular baby, fat-cheeked and dimpled, but it happened to live in a tank of water.
Remembering this, I get a little weepy, thinking about all the years between then and now, about the dream of a baby that you could keep in your room, suspended in a tank, safe from the world. What happened? I think to myself. Where did my fish baby go?
It’s possible I say this out loud.
Cyril looks at me and says, not at all mumbling, “Oh, shit.”
“Where is she?” I ask him. I mean it to sound aggressive but it comes out drunkenly morose instead. “Where’s Rose?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“When was the last time you saw her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know how to get in touch with her?”
He shakes his head.
The whole time we’re interrogating, him he never makes eye contact. This is different from before: he used to stare at me, defiant, or maybe numb, I could never tell which. His eyes were dark and featureless. He’s not a particularly good-looking kid. I never heard him crack a joke or say an interesting thing. I couldn’t figure out what drew Rose to him, and I used to complain about this to Trisha, on the phone, until the day she snapped at me, “She doesn’t have to think he’s a genius, Sherri. He’s her drug dealer, for god’s sake.”
See what I mean? The truth.
If you could have seen her as a little girl, my Rosie, then you would know what happiness looks like. She laughed all the time. Her bed was piled so high with stuffed animals you couldn’t even see the blankets, but Rose insisted on taking each of the animals into bed with her, so none of them would be lonely. I still don’t know how she went from that little girl to the skinny teenager who skipped school and spiked her hair and pierced her tongue and lower lip and who just laughed at me when I told her the truth—“You’re going nowhere, Rose”—and who grabbed my wrist and twisted it until my tears came and said, “You’re nowhere, Mom, you’re the definition of it,” and who marched out of the house as she had a hundred times before during that long bad year, only instead of coming back at three in the morning, or the next day, she never came back at all.
“Listen, you little fucker,” Trisha says to Cyril now, pointing her French manicure at him, “you tell us something about Rose or I’m going to kick your ass from here to Sunday.”
She and Cyril were going to ride trains, her friends told me when I tracked them down. They said something about New York. They said they knew some people who lived in tunnels and that sounded cool.
They said they were going to California.
They said they wanted to see Spain.
They said they knew a guy who could get them work in Canada.
I thought she’d call or send a postcard, let me know she was OK. We’d been fighting for months over this and that, school, her friends, her clothes, but she knew how much I’d worry, right? She knew I’d need to know she was OK? I said this to Trisha, on the phone, but it felt like a lie, because some things I’d kept even from my sister. Like how bad the fights got. The time she spat on me in the parking lot at the mall when I wanted to buy her some nice clothes. The time I found her passed out on her bed, eyes rolled back in her head, and when I shook her awake she smiled gently at me and said, “Hi, mommy,” and I was so happy to hear her talking sweet to me that for a minute I was glad she was on drugs.
Calls to police, calls to her friends, relatives, none of it turned up anything. Thank God Sid wasn’t alive to see it, though I guess if he’d been alive, maybe it wouldn’t have happened. Just the two of us together, me and Rose, was too much for that house. Sid diluted us; together, we were too strong.
“Listen, you little fucker,” Trisha says to Cyril now, pointing her French manicure at him, “you tell us something about Rose or I’m going to kick your ass from here to Sunday.”
She’s all sparkly in her fancy dress and her jewelry and her shiny striped hair. In retrospect I can’t 100 percent blame Cyril for what happens next, which is that he laughs.
“Oh my God, you little punk,” she says, and hits him smack across the face.
“Trisha!” I say.
Cyril’s standing there with his hand pressed to his cheek, very still, eyes blank. He looks like someone who has a lot of practice getting hit. I grab hold of Trisha’s arm and pull her back. The supervisor is coming from across the room, I can see her making her way. I realize that I’m extremely drunk, like maybe going to be sick right on the table drunk.
“You’re pathetic,” Cyril says to Trisha.
“You’re pathetic, you crystal meth-snorting piece of shit!”
Not for the first time I hear Sid’s voice in my ear, calm and gentle. It’s OK to lose, he used to say, as long as you prepare for it.
I look at Cyril. The room is swimming, the lights from the casino dancing unhappy steps. “She’s still alive, right?” I say. “She’s OK?”
He doesn’t say anything. Those black eyes give nothing back. Trisha’s expensive rings have cut a line along his cheek. By the time the supervisor gets to us, I am crying.
We sit in the car for a while, our breath clouding the interior.
“God, I wish I had a cigarette.”
“That was pretty COPS back there, Trish.”
“What a punk. I used to think you were exaggerating, but now I know you weren’t.”
“I’m too drunk to drive.”
“Let’s just sit here for a while.”
We turn on the radio. Trisha hums along off-key and if I were more myself I’d be irritated and tell her to shut up. I think of my daughter sleeping in a tunnel beneath New York City. I think of her in Canada, huddled in a snowstorm. I think of her with a strange man in a bad house in some dark city without a name.
I don’t know how much time passes before I wake up. The radio is still playing and Trisha is still staring out the window at nothing, scratching shapes into the condensation. Suddenly the back door behind me opens and Cyril gets in the car. I don’t turn around, just look at him in the rearview mirror. It’s so dark that I can barely make out his face.
“Last time I seen her, we was in Baltimore,” he says, speaking quickly and without any mumbling. “Staying with a guy named Hank. He was all on top of Rose and she left one morning, didn’t say where she was going or nothing. We didn’t get along too great by that point anyway.”
I nod, though I’m not sure he can see me. “Was she still using?”
In the shadows, I imagine him smirking the way kids do when adults try to talk about drugs like they know anything. Using. But when he answers, his voice sounds sincere.
“Sometimes. She mostly stopped though. After—”
He sighs, and then talks fast. “After one time in Newark when she OD’ed and I had to take her to the hospital. She was fine though,” he says. “They fixed her up real good.”
I’m holding my breath. Trisha seems like she’s holding hers, too. Out of the corner of my eye I can sense her looking at me, and all I want is for her to shut up and keep out of it.
“Cyril,” I say, and I try to pronounce it gently this time, as gently as if he were my own son, “do you think she’ll ever come home?”
This time he doesn’t even pause. “No way she coming back. She hated it here.”
I flinch, but I know he’s right.
He opens the door and gets out of the car. The last I see him he’s running away across the parking lot, his white shirt ghostly in the headlights of my car. Jesus, I think, that idiot child didn’t even put on a coat to go outside in January. I hope Rose has more sense than that. I don’t know if she does or not.
Trisha clears her throat. I wait for her to tell me the truth: that Rose is probably involved in some terrible situation. That I might never see her again. That I’m the one who drove her away. See, Sherri, see?
Instead, she offers to drive home.
“I’m not sober yet but I’m close,” she says.
I shake my head and say let’s just wait a bit. We sit in the parking lot, watching people stream out of the casino and into the darkness, heading to their cars. They’re all bundled up against the cold, young people chattering, couples leaning against each other. It’s funny how they all seem thrilled and happy, their breath like flags in the dark. How you can’t even tell from looking at them whether they won or lost.
Alix Ohlin’s novel Inside and her story collection Signs and Wonders are both forthcoming in June 2012. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and on public radio’s Selected Shorts. Born and raised in Montreal, she lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Lafayette College and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.