“What?” he said. “You gotta learn these things. You gotta learn them the hard way, otherwise you don’t learn them at all.”
Image by Flickr via Jillian Freyer, The Ritual, 2012. Courtesy the artist
My mom and I were going to stop to break up with my boyfriend on our way to Emerald Isle, but the muffler fell off of my car right before we got to the exit we needed to take to Raleigh, and my mom said we couldn’t stop anymore. I was driving, and I had been waiting for this exit for three hours, since we left home. I started crying and for a while I was crying so hard, I could barely see. The car was so loud that I could barely hear, either, and my mom was trying to talk to me but I didn’t care because I was mad at her for not letting us stop. Finally, she got in my face and yelled, “PULL! OVER!” so I did and we switched seats. I cried for at least ten more minutes, which was more tears than it sounds like. My mom yelled over the noise that it was okay because we would get the car fixed when we got to Emerald Isle and I could stop in Raleigh to break up with James on the way back. I yelled that my vacation was ruined.
We had no choice but to spend the next three hours in silence, or not in silence, but not saying anything. My mom drove in the right lane. She put on her sunglasses and tried to ignore all the cars passing us and staring.
I had insisted on taking my car, because I didn’t want it to look like my mom was driving me to break up with my boyfriend. My plan had been to drop her off near James’s house and to pick her up when I was done, but now all of my plans had gone to shit.
When we finally got to Emerald Isle, my mom’s boyfriend Mak was unloading beer from his car, and my brother Noah was on a walk with the dog, meaning he was smoking weed somewhere and letting Petey chew on rocks. The three of them had left Virginia at the crack of dawn that morning because Mak was in a big hurry to get to North Carolina to play golf. My mom and I had waited to get our hair and nails done, because my mom wanted to look good for her boyfriend’s brother’s wife, and because I wanted to look good for when I turned single.
We were renting a house with Mak and Mak’s brother’s family, the Henderchenkos. They were the Henderchenkos because Mak’s brother used to be Boychenko and his wife used to be Henderson, and by combining, they saved themselves six letters and a hyphen.
The house was smaller and crappier than I had imagined when my mom said we were getting a nice, big house for everyone. There were only three bedrooms, and I guessed I was sharing with my brother, which left my mom and Mak in the second bedroom, and the Henderchenkos—Andy, Tina, and their son Dylan—in the third. Unless Dylan was sharing with me and Noah, but I didn’t think my mom and Mak would do that to us.
We had been on Emerald Isle at the same time as the Henderchenkos for the past several years, but we had never shared a house. I liked them fine, but they were very serious people. They were always dressed up, even at the beach. Tina wasn’t as pretty as my mom, but she worked much harder at being pretty, and it somehow made my mom want to go get her hair and nails done. Andy was in much better shape than his brother because Tina didn’t let him eat carbs. Andy also had all of his hair, and I wondered if Tina had a hand in that as well.
The Henderchenkos got there shortly after my mom and I did, and we followed Mak outside to meet them. Mak and Andy hugged and thumped each other on the back. They looked like before and after pictures of the same man—the same face and the same height and roughly the same age, but Mak fat and bald and dressed like shit, and Andy thin with hair and wearing a polo shirt and khakis and a belt. If I were my mom I would have been disappointed to find out that I was dating the “before” brother and not the “after” brother, but she didn’t seem to mind. Tina was also wearing a polo shirt, with a khaki skirt and wedge sandals. She hugged me and my mom and Mak. Dylan got out of the car dressed like his parents. He didn’t look at anyone, and he ducked when Mak tried to tousle his hair. His mom made him say hi and he said it to the ground.
Dylan was twelve and seemed like he was two or three years away from realizing that he hated his parents, but he wasn’t there yet. For now, he liked to sit as close to his mom as possible, and other than that his only hobbies were whining and watching anime. He had this weird energy that clearly came from the shows, like he was playing out the action sequences in his head at all times—cartoon creatures battling in midair, crashing into each other and throwing balls of fire, set to ominous music and slow-motion flashes and explosions.
The Henderchenkos toured the house and confirmed that Dylan would be sleeping with his parents by putting all of their suitcases in the room with the queen bed and the twin bed. Then Tina declared that the women needed to go shopping. Mak had gone to the store, but he had bought only beer, a loaf of bread, a pound of lunch meat, and a box of donuts.
My mom was using her polite voice, which she reserves for people in the service industry, my friends’ and Noah’s friends’ moms, and her own mother, whom she was estranged from for most of her life.
I went with Tina and my mom, and on the way to the store they agreed that the house had been grossly misrepresented on the website, and talked about what the weather was supposed to do all week. My mom was using her polite voice, which she reserves for people in the service industry, my friends’ and Noah’s friends’ moms, and her own mother, whom she was estranged from for most of her life. I had never wondered if my mom and Tina were friends, but now I understood that they weren’t. I was worried that I was going to have to follow them through the store, listening to them talk politely about food, but when we got there they decided to split up.
“Can I take Natalie?” Tina asked my mom. “I haven’t seen her in so long.” She put her arm around me.
“Sure,” said my mom. “I’ll meet you guys up front.”
Tina started in fruits and vegetables. “So,” she said, “how’s school?”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“You’re majoring in international relations?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “I don’t have to decide until next year.”
“The sooner you decide, the better,” she said. “You should be looking for internships for next summer.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I heard you have a boyfriend,” she said.
“Sort of,” I said. “I’m trying to break up with him.”
“Oh no!” she said. “Why?”
“He’s very serious about me. Very, very serious.”
“But that’s a good thing,” said Tina.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Maybe,” I said.
“Well I obviously don’t know this guy,” she said. “But you need to think strategically, Natalie. You need to find a good man in college, because after that all you’ll find is bums.”
Maybe she was right, but I would rather be single for the rest of my life than be with James.
That night the grown-ups got drunk. Noah went for another “walk” with Petey, and I spent the night reading in bed. Around midnight I went downstairs for a glass of water and found the four of them plastered. Tina told me how much she and Andy loved me and how smart I was and how pretty I was. Mak told me he would love me more if I played golf or really any sport. My mom kissed me goodnight and sat back down with her arms around Mak.
Early the next morning I woke up to someone starting a racing car. I lay there for a moment trying to block out the noise, but it was too loud. Noah had come home at some point and was fast asleep with pink earplugs in. Petey was awake and looking out the window and wagging his tail. I opened the bedroom door at the same time my mom opened hers. Petey jumped on her.
“I think that’s my car,” I said.
“No shit,” she said.
We went downstairs and out to the porch. Mak had jumper cables between his car and mine, and was trying to start them both.
“Honey!” my mom yelled over the noise. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Mak turned off my car. He looked very hungover or possibly still drunk. He was wearing golf shorts and a wifebeater.
“My car is dead,” he said.
“You hear that noise, right?” said my mom.
“Yeah,” said Mak.
“You remember that the muffler fell off?”
“Yeah,” said Mak.
“Okay. Well. Why don’t you take her car and drop it off at the place near the golf course?”
“Fine,” said Mak.
“No!” I said. “He’s drunk, he’ll crash it.”
“If he did he would be doing you a favor,” said my mom.
Mak transferred his golf bag to the trunk of my car.
“Ugh,” I said.
Mak started my car and backed out and drove away. I was sure the whole island was awake now.
“Don’t even ask,” said my mom.
We went upstairs and back to bed.
When I got back up the women and the boys were eating breakfast. Tina and Dylan Henderchenko were eating fruit, and my mom and my brother were eating Lucky Charms. Dylan had clearly been crying at some point in the last ten minutes.
“What’s up,” I said.
“Not a whole lot,” said my brother.
I poured myself a bowl of Lucky Charms and sat down.
Dylan started crying. “How come she gets to eat them?” he howled.
My mom looked at me and rolled her eyes. “What’s up is Tina and Dylan are going to the amusement park, Noah is going on a hike with Petey, Mak is still golfing, and Andy is going to take a rest day.”
A couple of summers ago, my mom started letting Noah take hikes in the National Forest instead of going to the beach. Not coincidentally, that was the year he turned thirteen and started smoking weed. My mom and Mak knew what he was doing, but my mom had been a pothead in high school and Mak still smoked, and they thought it was better than drinking. At first they said he couldn’t do it in the house, and on cold nights my brother would put a sweatshirt on Petey, put a parka, a ski mask, and goggles on himself, and they would go for walks. The second winter Noah started smoking in his room, and I didn’t know whether he thought nobody noticed or just didn’t care.
“Can I go on the hike with Noah and Petey?” said Dylan.
“No,” said Tina.
“Why not?” he said.
“Uh,” said Tina and looked at my mom.
“I don’t want to go to the amusement park,” he said.
He said it so sincerely that I almost felt bad for him.
“Well,” said Tina. “I’m sure Noah doesn’t want you to tag along.”
“I don’t mind,” said Noah.
“I guess I could go with you guys,” said Tina.
“No!” said Dylan. “Noah gets to go by himself!”
“Noah is sixteen,” said Tina. “You’re twelve.”
“I’m almost thirteen,” said Dylan.
“You turned twelve last month,” said Tina. “Let me think about this.”
“It’s obviously not my call,” said my mom, “but I know Noah would take good care of him and not do anything stupid. Right, honey?”
“Yeah,” said Noah.
Dylan lunged at his mom with his hands together, begging.
“I’ll talk to your father,” said Tina. She turned to my mom. “If the kids go hiking, we could get mani-pedis.”
“I would love to, but I just got one,” said my mom.
“We could get lunch,” said Tina.
“I promised Natalie I would go to the beach with her,” said my mom. “Maybe another day?”
I didn’t think he was that smart, but he was probably too smart to be trusted. If he were my kid, I would have never let him out of my sight.
While Tina and Andy deliberated, Noah went out for a short walk, my mom packed lunches for everyone, and I went upstairs to put on my bathing suit. Dylan watched a show in the living room. Apparently, he was usually allowed to watch one show a day, but since it was vacation he was allowed to watch two. I walked through the living room and Dylan screamed at me.
“You made me miss a part!” he said. “Now I have to rewind it and watch it again!”
“Okay,” I said. “Sorry.”
From what I could tell, he watched a lot more than two shows a day. The night before, I had heard him watching on a computer in his room. His parents didn’t seem to notice. They thought he was the smartest kid ever. I didn’t think he was that smart, but he was probably too smart to be trusted. If he were my kid, I would have never let him out of my sight. Best case he would watch anime until he had a seizure, worst case, who knows.
Finally Tina came downstairs with a verdict. Dylan could go on the hike with Noah for a maximum of four hours. Every hour, on the hour, he would call Tina to check in. He would take Andy’s cell phone. When the four hours were up, the boys would come back to the house. On their way back they could stop at the convenience store to get a snack, but they had to come home to eat it, no loitering.
Dylan was flying around the house, not hearing the instructions. Tina had to sit him down and repeat them.
“I really think they’ll be okay.” My mom stared at Noah.
“We’ll be fine,” said Noah.
The boys left for the National Park, Tina left for town, and my mom and I left for the beach.
“Tina will never speak to me again if Noah gives Dylan weed,” said my mom.
“He won’t,” I said.
“That kid could use some weed,” she said.
“Maybe, but Noah isn’t going to give it to him,” I said.
We lay on the beach and my mom read and I listened to music. I liked to listen to one song on repeat, and for the past week or so I had been listening to this song from the seventies.
My mom went in the water and then sat on my back. “What’re you listening to?”
“This song called ‘I’ve Never Been to Me,’” I said.
“I know that song,” she said.
“You do?” I said.
“Yeah, the one about not having kids?”
“No, it’s about travelling.”
“No, it’s about not having kids. The singer regrets all of her sleeping around and travelling around and stuff.”
“Are you sure?” I said.
“You’re the one listening to it,” she said. “Why don’t you listen to the lyrics?”
“I am, it’s all these names of places.”
“Nat, I know that song. It was popular when I was in college. All my girlfriends hated it.”
I listened a few more times and decided I still wanted it to be about travelling. I wanted to break up with James and go to any of the faraway places in the song: Monte Carlo, Nice, the Isle of Greece.
I met James my first week of college, and we dated all last year. I stopped liking him a little bit over winter break, when he called every day and I started dreading his calls. When we were at school I didn’t mind hanging out with him every day, and every night for that matter. I had sort of had boyfriends in high school, but none that wanted to hang out with me day and night, and none that left me little notes, and none that really, really liked going down on me. I guess there were some red flags, but I didn’t know what red flags were at the time, and my mom had to tell me what that term meant. The hanging out all the time was probably a red flag, as were the little notes, as was the fact that I would fall asleep while he was going down on me and he would just keep going. Anyway, I didn’t get sick of any of that until winter break, and then he wouldn’t stop calling, and suddenly I got sick of all of it at the same time. But when we got back to school he was so nice and I didn’t really know anybody else, so I didn’t break up with him but I made a lot of rules. We were only allowed to hang out every other day, and we were only allowed to spend the night every other time we hung out. I got the timing for this rule from my bathing rule as a kid—I had to take a bath every other day and wash my hair every other bath. As a kid it seemed like more than enough hair washing, and in college it seemed like more than enough James.
James didn’t do well with the rules, so I had to make more rules—no surprising me outside of my classes on the days we weren’t supposed to hang out, and then no surprising me even on the days we were supposed to hang out. Then no surprising me on my way out of the dorm with my favorite breakfasts from the dining hall. And then no surprising me at all, for any reason.
Basically, my first year of college was a total bust. I didn’t make any friends, and I didn’t do well in any of my classes, and I didn’t learn anything about my life. All I did was date James. And by the end of the year I didn’t even want to do that. I told James we could talk on the phone over the summer, but that I was going to be busy and I wasn’t going to be able to visit or talk every day or even every other day, due to the being busy. He seemed fine with that and every time we talked he said he couldn’t wait to see me in the fall. He also sent me notes and presents, including an Entenmann’s danish that I love, overnighted, like they don’t have those where I live. After a month of this I couldn’t take it anymore, and I came up with the plan of breaking up with him on the way to Emerald Isle in August. Then I waited for weeks and weeks, and here we were, lying on the beach, on a ruined vacation. I felt better than I had in the car when the muffler first fell off, but this was supposed to be the first week of the rest of my life, when things were going to start getting better.
“I’m gonna go jump in,” I said.
“Want me to come with you?” said my mom.
“That’s okay,” I said. I waded into the water and then dove. I swam along the sand for a few minutes and then floated on my back. The water felt good and I felt completely empty, my stomach and my brain, like I didn’t have any thoughts at all.
Eventually my mom got in the water and got her head wet, and I followed her back to our towels and lay down. My mom handed me a sandwich and a beer, and we ate our lunch. When I was done I went to sleep, and I woke up under a beach umbrella and next to Mak’s big belly.
“You were going to get a real bad burn,” he said. “You were out like a drunk. Drooling, the whole nine yards.”
“Thanks for the umbrella,” I said.
My mom came up from the water and straddled Mak on the chair and shook her hair all over him. He wrapped his arms around her waist and bit her shoulder.
“Get a room,” I said.
They ignored me and eventually my mom got off of him and lay down on her towel.
“I took your car in,” said Mak.
“I know,” I said, “thank you.”
“It does not look good,” he said.
“What?” I said. “Why not?”
“They said it never would’ve passed inspection in the state of North Carolina. Bottom is rusted out, holed out, nothing for the muffler to hang onto.”
“North Carolina sucks,” I said.
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, wouldn’t have passed inspection in the state of Virginia or the state of anywhere else either.”
“We’ll work something out, honey,” said my mom.
“I’m going to Raleigh no matter what,” I said.
“Fine,” said my mom.
“I will crawl there if I have to.”
“We’ll get you there,” said my mom.
I checked my phone and had eleven missed calls from Noah. My mom took my phone and called him back. She repeated everything to me and Mak—“Dylan got caught shoplifting at the convenience store… a lighter… a Zippo… Tina is picking them up.” We got our stuff together and walked back to the house and waited for them. I was kind of excited. I was pretty sure this was going to be a shit show.
When Tina’s car pulled in, both boys and the dog were in the back seat. When they all got out Tina looked furious, Dylan was crying, Noah looked tired, and Petey looked happy.
“I think we all need to have a conversation,” Tina said to my mom.
“Okay,” said my mom.
I decided I wasn’t included in “we all” and stayed outside with Petey. I watched Noah follow everybody inside and felt bad for him.
I sat under the front windows on the dining room side, where I would be able to hear them. If it had been my mom leading the investigation she would have brought everyone to the couches in the living room, but I knew Tina would bring everyone to the table.
“Andy!” I heard Tina yelling. “We’re here! Come down!”
“Tina,” Andy said, already downstairs. “Please, don’t yell.”
“Somebody has to yell,” she said.
“Okay,” he said. A chair dragged on the floor.
“Dylan, do you want to tell us what happened?” said Tina.
“It’s not my fault,” Dylan sobbed.
“What happened?” said Andy.
Dylan cried harder. “Noah took things!” he said.
“Noah, is that true?” said my mom.
“No,” said Noah. “Well, I took matches.”
“You did?” said Tina.
“Matches are free,” said my mom.
“But not for kids,” said Tina.
“It’s not shoplifting,” said my mom.
“Why would anyone take matches in front of a little kid?” said Tina.
“I’m not a little kid!” said Dylan.
“I didn’t even think about it,” said Noah. “I always put some in my pocket.”
“How is Dylan supposed to know the difference between matches and a lighter?” said Tina. “Dylan, did you know that you weren’t supposed to take the lighter?”
“No,” he wailed. “I didn’t know!”
I kept waiting for one of the men to say something. An elderly couple walked by very slowly, holding hands. It looked like the man couldn’t see very well or at all. I waved to them and the woman waved back.
“It seems like everyone did something wrong here,” said Tina through the window. “We shouldn’t have let them go out on their own. Noah shouldn’t have taken the matches. Dylan shouldn’t have taken the lighter. Andy?”
“Hold on,” said my mom. “Noah taking the matches didn’t mean Dylan had to take the lighter.”
“Dylan was clearly influenced by Noah’s actions,” said Tina. “Andy!”
“I agree,” said Andy.
“Noah didn’t do anything wrong,” said my mom.
“He shouldn’t be taking matches,” said Tina.
“That’s not your problem,” said Mak.
“It’s my problem now,” said Tina. “Isn’t it?”
“No, it’s not,” said Mak. “Dylan is your problem, Noah is our problem.”
“Noah’s not a problem,” said my mom.
“You know what I mean,” said Mak.
“Well, Dylan’s never been a problem before today,” said Tina.
“Fuck you, Mak,” said Andy.
“Okay, boys, you can be excused,” said Tina. “Dylan, go to our room and wait for us to come up.”
Noah must have made a gesture, because my mom said, “Yeah, honey.”
The second hit wasn’t as bad, and by the end of the joint I was used to it again. Maybe I would have been happier if I smoked more pot.
I heard Dylan and Noah go up the creaky stairs, and then heard one of them come back down. Noah came outside and I crawled out from under the window. He pointed to the road with his thumb, and Petey and I followed him. We could hear the grown-ups raising their voices as we walked away.
“You hear all that?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I hate that kid.”
“He’s okay,” said Noah. “It’s not his fault.”
“It’s not his fault that he sucks?”
Noah laughed. “Yeah.”
“You really think he didn’t know not to take it?”
“Oh, he knew,” said Noah. “He came running out with this crazy look on his face, and then when he realized the guy was behind him he tried to make a run for it.”
“Why didn’t you tell them that?”
“Wouldn’t have helped,” he said.
When we got to the woods Petey ran ahead, wagging his whole body. Noah lit his joint. He passed it to me and I took a hit. I almost never smoked anymore and it caught me in the throat. Noah laughed.
“Mom and Mak stood up for you,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
The second hit wasn’t as bad, and by the end of the joint I was used to it again. Maybe I would have been happier if I smoked more pot. Everything slowed down in a way that was very relaxing. In high school Noah would sometimes talk me into smoking up with him at night, or on the way to school in the morning. Whenever we smoked before my pre-calculus class, I felt smart. I still wouldn’t know what the numbers meant, but the board would seem organized, and the numbers would seem independent from each other, like they were each doing their own job. On those mornings I wondered if I was going to solve some problem that nobody else had ever solved in the whole history of math.
When we got back the sun was setting. My mom and Mak met us in the yard and said we were going out for pizza. Mak got in the driver’s seat and we all got in the car.
“I’m really sorry,” said Noah.
“It’s okay, honey,” said my mom. She reached back and patted him on the leg. “It’s not about you.”
At the pizza place no one knew what to say, so Mak gave my mom, and by default us, a play-by-play of his game that morning. Usually my mom shut him down as soon as he started talking about golf, but tonight she was asking questions and nodding.
On the way back to the house, my mom turned around to face us. “I was thinking maybe we should head out tomorrow,” she said. “Nat, we could pick up your car and stop at James’s on the way home.”
“We’ve only been here for one day,” I said.
“I thought you were dying to break up with him,” said my mom.
“I am,” I said. “But you guys don’t have to come.”
“I want to,” said my mom. “I’ll feel more comfortable being in the car with you, if something goes wrong. And I think Noah is ready to go.”
“I am,” said Noah.
“What about Mak?” I said.
“I’ll stay,” said Mak. “Keep up appearances.”
“And play golf,” said my mom.
“That’s another consideration,” said Mak.
I texted James to say I was going to stop by the next day.
When we got back the Henderchenkos were in their bedroom. We all went to bed quietly. I woke up to Noah squeezing my wrist.
“I’m going to go watch the sun rise,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“You should watch it with me,” he said. “It will make you feel better.”
I made myself wake up and we took our blankets and pillows off our beds and walked to the beach. We put one blanket down and the other on top of us. Petey lay on top of the blanket, with his butt on me and his head on Noah.
Soon there was the faintest glow at the end of the water. I propped myself up on my elbows. The sun came up slowly and then quickly. And Noah was right, it did make me feel a little bit better.
We watched until the sun took its place in the sky. When we got back to the house, Mak was putting his golf clubs in his trunk.
“What are you two doing now?” Mak said.
“We watched the sunrise,” I said.
“Deep,” said Mak. “How’d you wake up in time?”
“I didn’t go to sleep,” said Noah.
“You didn’t?” I said.
“Genius,” said Mak. “Listen, you guys want to get some breakfast? We can get donuts and I’ll take you to get your car, Nat.”
I got in the passenger seat and Noah and Petey got in the back seat. Noah went to sleep immediately. He couldn’t get up when we got to the donut place so we got him his two favorites and put the bag on the floor in front of him. When Mak and I were done with our donuts, he said we had some time to kill until the car place opened, and that it was the perfect amount of time for a round of pitch and putt. I wanted to resist but it was too early in the morning.
When we got there we took Petey with us and left Noah in the car. The course was thick with fog. On my first hit I almost made it to the green.
“Not bad, Fat Nat,” said Mak.
My mom didn’t let him call me that, but I didn’t mind because I wasn’t fat and he was. On my next hit I almost made it to the hole. Mak told me to sink it in, so I did.
“Par!” he yelled.
I pretended like I didn’t care, but my heart leapt. I wondered if it was possible that I was suddenly good at golf.
On the way to the next hole I asked Mak if we ruined the vacation.
“No,” he said. “Not for me, anyway.”
When we got to the next hole I missed the ball twice and then hit it about fifteen feet.
“Ooh,” said Mak.
It took me about nine hits to get the ball up onto the green.
“Thanks for sticking up for Noah,” I said.
“He didn’t steal anything,” said Mak.
On my twelfth or thirteenth hit I got the ball in the hole.
“Honestly, that kid’s a little piece of shit,” said Mak. “I mean, he’s my nephew, I love him. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t trade him for another one if I could.”
At the next hole Mak told me to hit down on the ball, but I missed and hit the ground so hard it sent vibrations to my brain, and made Petey jump.
“Christ, Nat,” said Mak.
“Sorry,” I said.
“So, this boyfriend of yours,” he said while I swung again.
“Soon to be ex-boyfriend,” I said.
“Right,” he said.
“I feel bad,” I said. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yes he did,” said Mak. “He was boring as hell.”
“Shit, Mak,” I said. “Thanks for telling me now.”
“What?” he said. “You gotta learn these things. You gotta learn them the hard way, otherwise you don’t learn them at all.”
I hit my ball halfway down the fairway and he hit his to the green.
“You need a man who knows how to deal with you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said.
“You and your mom,” he said, “you two are real firecrackers. You need men who know how to set you off.”
“Why would I want to be set off?” I said.
“Because if you’re not you’re bored out of your mind.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
We played the rest of the holes almost in silence, except for Mak trying to give me pointers on my game.
When we finished the ninth hole he said, “You’re getting real good.”
“Really?” I said.
“No, not really,” he said.
Noah was fast asleep in the backseat, but there was frosting on his mouth. Petey licked him and he stirred. We drove to the car place.
“I got ‘er up and running,” said the car guy.
“Will she make it to Virginia?” said Mak.
“Maybe,” said the guy, “but not more. Never would’ve passed inspection in the state of North Carolina.”
“I heard,” I said.
“The bottom of the car is rusted out. You got a hole in the back where the muffler was, and pretty soon you’re gonna have some holes in the cab. This floor is gonna crumble.”
“Is that safe?” said Mak.
“No, sir,” said the mechanic. “Car has a floor for a reason.”
When we crossed the bridge I asked my mom if we were ever going back. “We’ll see,” she said.
The car seemed fine to me. Mak followed me back to the house. When we got there my mom had packed up our stuff, and we loaded it into the car and transferred Noah and Petey to my backseat. Tina came out to say goodbye to me and my mom. She said she didn’t want to wake up Andy and Dylan, but that they said bye. She gave us both hugs, like she wasn’t having a huge fight with my mom.
When we crossed the bridge I asked my mom if we were ever going back.
“We’ll see,” she said.
My mom and Noah slept most of the way to Raleigh, but when we got close my mom woke up and asked me if I was nervous.
“I guess,” I said.
“I’m proud of you,” she said.
“Why?” I said.
“Because it’s easy to stay in a relationship that’s not bad but not good,” she said.
I wondered what relationship she was thinking of. Obviously not her and Mak, which was gross but definitely good. Maybe she meant her and my dad. Or Tina and Andy.
“Like Tina and Andy?” I said.
“Ha!” said my mom. “Oh my god, sweetie, you couldn’t end up like Tina and Andy if you tried.”
When we got to the mall we woke up Noah, and my mom went inside and Noah and Petey disappeared into the trees on the other side of the parking lot.
I drove up the highway feeling jittery. I couldn’t wait to get there, but I had no idea what would happen when I did. I tried to imagine some best-case scenarios. Maybe he had another girlfriend already. Maybe she liked surprises, but he didn’t even need to surprise her because they were always together. Maybe James sent me the coffee cake out of cheater guilt.
Or maybe he would come out to me. For this scenario I ignored his great love of the female body, and concentrated on his sensitivity and his strong commitment to feminism. If he was gay he would want to stay friends, but I thought it might be too late for that. I was so sick of him.
I tried not to let myself think about one other scenario, but it had occurred to me at some point in the last few weeks, and had been creeping into my thoughts ever since. I didn’t want James to die, but if I got to his house and he had been in a terrible accident, or had succumbed to a brief but devastating illness, I would be off the hook. Not only would I be off the hook, I would be like a girlfriend-widow.
When I got there, James’s parents were in the driveway and they gave me hugs and got into their van and drove away. I wondered how they knew what I was about to do.
James looked happy to see me. He also looked monogamous, straight, and alive.
James looked happy to see me. He also looked monogamous, straight, and alive. He gave me a big hug and a kiss and he went back in to get the lemonade he had made from scratch. I sat down on the wicker couch on the porch.
“I’m so happy to see you,” he said when he came back. He sat next to me.
“Uh,” I said.
His face fell a little.
“We need to talk.”
His face fell the rest of the way.
“I don’t think I want to be together anymore,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“What happened?” he said. “What changed?”
“Nothing changed,” I said. “I just want something else.”
“There’s someone else?” he said.
“No, I want something else. From my life.”
“What else do you want?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But don’t you want something else, too? Something different?”
“No,” he said.
“I think this will be better for you,” I said. “You’ll find a better girlfriend.”
“No I won’t.”
We sat there for a minute that felt like a year. Finally the effort of keeping my eyes open made one of them water.
James looked at me and then put his arm around me and tried to guide my head to his shoulder. I realized he thought I was crying so I put my head down, even though that was the last thing I wanted to do. He wrapped his arms around me, and we sat like that forever. Finally he let go and said, “We don’t have to make a decision right now.”
“But I already made a decision.” That sounded bad so I added, “I’m really sad about it, though.”
Now he put his head on my shoulder and started to cry. I patted him on the leg. Soon, but not soon enough, his parents came back, saw him crying, gave me a look of death, and went inside.
“I guess your parents hate me now,” I said.
“No, they don’t,” he said. “And I will never hate you.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess I should get back on the road.”
James walked me to my car and gave me a very long hug that involved swaying from side to side. When he let me go I got in the car, and I felt something give under my right foot. I shut the door and looked under the mat, where there was now a hole that I could see his driveway through. I thought I would have more time before the floor crumbled. I rolled down the window.
“Is your car okay?” he said.
“Yup,” I said, “great.”
“I’ll see you in the fall,” he said.
“Yup,” I said, hoping that he wouldn’t. “I’m sorry again.”
He didn’t say anything. I backed out and was about to pull away when he yelled, “Wait!” He pointed to a spot on the blacktop. “Did that just fall off your car?”
“Nope,” I yelled. “I don’t think so.” I waved and pulled away.
Driving back to the mall I thought I would feel electrified or something, but instead I felt calm. When I got there, I pulled into the parking lot and called my mom and Noah. My mom came out of the mall.
“Mission accomplished?” she said.
“Mission accomplished,” I said.
Noah and Petey came out of the woods and got in.
We headed toward Charlottesville. The sound of the road tore through the hole in the floor and filled up the car.
Lauren Holmes grew up in upstate New York. She received a BA from Wellesley College and an MFA from Hunter College, where she was a Hertog Fellow and a teaching fellow. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.