You Can’t Get There from Here: Chapter Four


You Can’t Get There from Here

by Lyralen Kaye

Chapter Four

            The next night, after listening to Janet talk about Thomas and his negotiations with the priests—he’d agreed to pay a generous monthly stipend, but wanted to see Beth every other weekend—Erin called her friend Patti from the kitchen phone, and made plans to go to Collette’s Bar that Friday.

“I’m going nuts,” Erin said, wrapping the phone cord around her wrist and slinging one leg up over the low partition. “My Mom is either bitching or telling me about all the ways I can help her. Beth asked if I was gay. I’m thinking of heading to Mexico. Like, yesterday.”

Patti laughed, but her voice was serious when she offered to let Erin stay at her apartment. Erin declined. She just wanted to go out. She wanted, she told Patti, to get laid.

“Better watch it,” Patti said. “You’ve got a bit of rep around here.”

“Come on!”

“You always pick someone up.” Patti’s voice was dry. “Rachel hears about it.”

“I thought we’d been through this.” Erin tucked the phone between her shoulder and head, looked around to see if Janet were nearby.  “About Rachel, I thought I told you–”

“They call you a heartbreaker.”

Erin’s leg dropped to the floor. “What do you call me, Patti?”

Patti didn’t answer. The silence stretched between them until Erin started moving, her foot tapping the floor in regular beats, like a metronome.

“Patti? You’re my best friend. What do you call me?”

“I think you’re the queen of all exits,” Patti said. “But I didn’t mean to get you upset. Let’s just go and have fun, eh? Tell your mom you’re staying over if you want.”

Erin agreed. She hung up, pale eyebrows drawn together.

She spent the day going through her backpack and doing laundry. Late in the afternoon, she borrowed Janet’s car, drove over the bridge into Portsmouth, staring at the ice floes, the strong currents eddying dark in the gray light of winter. She parked in town, stopped to talk to a travel agent about Mexico. Then she went to the bank where she kept the money she’d earned during her two years in Japan—the most money she’d ever made in her life, and she’d managed to save nearly all of it. Once, she thought she saw a gold car snaking through traffic behind her, but she couldn’t be certain. When she’d left the house, Janet had been on the phone with Thomas’ lawyer, arranging visitation with Beth. Thomas would see her for the first time in over a month on Saturday, and had asked if Erin might come along.

“No way,” Erin said to Janet. “What does he think this is, old home week?”

Janet frowned. “Think of me,” she said. “And of your sister—”

“Forget it, Mom,” Erin said. Then she’d grabbed the car keys and headed for the door.

Now, she looked back over her shoulder. No gold car. But Thomas wanted her back, and Erin knew how he was. Apologies and gifts would follow her like a virus, as they had when she’d been studying in Paris. She had known then to send them back, to build a fortress of refusals. But this time she could feel the jacket he’d bought for her settling over her shoulders like a belief in love. She kept seeing his broken skin, the slack flesh around his jaw. She tried to steel her body back into strength, tried to tell herself she didn’t feel sorry enough for him to do what he wanted.

Before she drove home, Erin stopped at the Portsmouth mall, where, counting out the bills like days she was giving up in Mexican cities, she bought more Christmas presents for her mother and sister, the conservative sweaters and skirts Janet liked, new leather sneakers and an IPod for Beth along with a gift certificate for ITunes. Then, she bought a stereo for Patti’s truck.

Janet was in the kitchen when Erin came in. Her head was bent over a laptop, her blonde hair gathered back from her face with a scarf, a navy turtleneck hugging her chin. She looked up and smiled at Erin with just a small turn at the edge of her lips. Erin noticed the plea in her mother’s eyes just before Janet began to speak.

“I’m looking for a job,” Janet said. “I’m afraid it’s rather hopeless. I don’t even know what to do. Your father never wanted me to work.”

Erin stopped, raised a blonde eyebrow. “You want to get a job?”

Janet nodded. She looked back down at the laptop’s screen. “Beth’s in school,” she said. “And we’ll need money. There’s a job here, just temporary, at city hall. It’s on a computer, typing in records. They say they’ll train.”

“Email them,” Erin said.

Janet turned all the way around in her chair so she faced Erin, her arms upturned at her sides, her face open in appeal. “I don’t know how.  To write a resume.  Or what to say to them.” She looked at Erin from under her lashes. “Would you ever do it for me?”

Erin started to shake her head.

“Just this once? To find out what I should do?” Janet looked up into Erin’s face. “It’s so easy for you, Erin.”

Erin head tucked down toward her chest. She started to blow up her bangs, then stopped herself. She looked at her mother.

“Please?” Janet said. “It’s really hard for me.”

Erin looked at her mother for a long moment, her stomach tight with pity. She pulled up a chair, opened Word, and typed in her mother’s name, address and phone number.  “Tell me what you’ve done at the church in the last five years,” Erin said.  “That’s your job experience.”

Janet ticked off duties—household budgets, shopping, taking messages, scheduling home and hospital visits.

“And you do all this for free?” Erin asked, typing quickly.

“I’m happy to do what I can,” Janet told her.

Erin opened Gmail, created an account, taught her mother how to hit send.  She wrote an email and attached the resume.

“Thank you, Erin, really,” her mother answered. “I never could have done that.”

“You can do it now,” Erin said.

“I don’t know.”

Erin began to pick a thread out of the fraying cuff of her leather jacket. “I may not be here next time.”

“You could be,” Janet said.

“I’m heading to Mexico after–”

“And you’re a good daughter to help your mother,” Janet told her. “Thank you.”

Erin frowned. “I’m not a good anything,” she answered.

Janet stared, her cameo face stripped of artifice, vulnerable. Her hands clasped and unclasped on the table top, so Erin sighed, then explained how to save the resume into a file folder, how to attach it, how to make changes if the job had a different focus, the words like gates trying hard to stay closed. Janet’s green eyes grew wide as Erin handed her a pen, made her take notes. For a moment, Erin wanted to touch her mother’s hair, hold her as she would a child, say it would be alright. She clenched her fists. She couldn’t afford to love her mother, couldn’t afford to remember that once, after days of grounding and hitting Erin, Janet had gone to a parenting class at church and had come home with an assignment to tell Erin what she loved most about her. Voice thin with effort, she’d told Erin she loved her protectiveness, the way Erin always noticed when something was wrong. Erin had been sure, when Janet reported back to the parenting class, that her mother would get an A, but what Erin remembered was the strain, as if saying anything good about her daughter cost effort, as if it were work. Another time, when Erin was a teenager, Janet had come up behind her in the bathroom, touched the long strands of Erin’s hair, let the pale red-gold silk drift through her fingers, and said the word pretty. Both times, Erin fell inward, collapsing into the detonating force of her mother’s approval, the desire to hold it, to find an way to inhabit that brief moment forever. But almost immediately she felt the moorings of her life begin to disappear. Without the familiar structure of anger and distance, Erin thought she might fade away completely.

Now, she dug her fingernails into her palms. She finished the job instructions, picked up the bags of presents, and walked up the stairs to her room, thinking of Patti’s moon face, her stubborn chin. Erin couldn’t wait for the evening to come. For the first time in days, she might be around people who possessed some form of sanity.

*                        *                        *

Erin left the house at nine, telling her mother and sister she was going out and wouldn’t be home until the next day. Identical frowns creased both their faces. When her father had lived there, and Erin came to visit, no one had ever spoken about when Erin came and went, where she slept. But now four tiny lasers circled Erin all the time, trying to hold her in place. She walked down the gravel driveway in darkness, thinking of the maps tucked into her backpack like tickets—to the beaches of Cancun, the ruins and waterfalls in the jungles of the Yucatan.

Patti’s truck was parked at the end of the road. Opening the door, Erin slid into the cab next to Patti’s new lover, a woman she hadn’t really met, only seen asleep the first night she’d arrived. Older, gray haired, the woman had a face so young it shone. Patti’s lovers were always at least ten years her senior; they always left Patti at the first sign of trouble. Now, Erin looked over the woman’s shoulder at Patti and grinned mischief, her nose crinkling. Patti started to protest, shaking her head.

“You’re a lot younger than Patti’s last girlfriend,” Erin said to the woman.

Patti’s lover turned. “Really? Tell me about her. Patti won’t.”

“Shut up, Erin,” Patti said. “Older women are great.”

“That’s why I like you.” The woman leaned over and kissed Patti on the cheek before turning back to Erin. “You don’t agree?”

“Erin’s an equal opportunity lover,” Patti said. “Over-twenty females is her only criterion.”

“We’re not talking about me,” Erin said. “We’re talking about your ex.” Erin turned to look at the gray-haired woman. “She was a jerk, that’s why Patti doesn’t like to talk about her. She left, what, two days after your grandmother’s funeral?” Patti glared, but Erin continued. “And Patti’s grandmother was the only one who still talked to her then.” Erin lifted an eyebrow, kept her eyes on the woman’s face. “We’d hate to see something like that happen again. I mean, Patti’s got the most generous heart of anyone I’ve ever known.”

The woman stared at Erin.

“Ignore her,” Patti said. “She gets really obnoxious after she sees her family. Plus, she thinks she’s my mother. Make sure you get her permission if you every want to ask for my hand in marriage.”

“I think it’s terrible that anyone did that to you,” the woman said, laying a hand on Patti’s arm. “You should have told me.”

“That’s what we want to hear,” Erin said, relaxing against the seat.

“Yeah,” Patti said. “Right. Can we talk about something else, please?” She frowned at Erin, muttering her heart wasn’t so generous she wouldn’t consider a well-placed kick to shut a certain person up, but then Erin smiled and her pale eyes held Patti’s affectionately until her friend’s face softened.

“Okay,” Patti said, turning her eyes to the road. “I’m a fucking saint. Now what else is new? Really.”

The rest of the ride was punctuated with loud laughs from Patti and her partner as Erin told the story of her mother asking Erin to help her get a job.

“Maybe I should go to the interview in disguise,” Erin said. “In drag, most likely. Pretending I’m her.”

Patti hunched over the steering wheel, laughing, but when they parked in downtown Portsmouth and got out of the truck, Patti touched Erin’s arm. “You alright?”

“My father gets to see Beth tomorrow morning,” Erin whispered.

“Shit,” Patti said, shoving a clump of thick hair behind her ear. “You better not be there. Want to have breakfast at my house? If you can keep your mouth shut, that is.”

“I’ll be good,” Erin said. “I just do it because I love you, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah. Family sucks and lovers leave.” Erin held up her hand; Patti high-fived her. An awkward silence filled the truck.  “It’s just something we say,” Patti told her girlfriend.

“After her last girlfriend, you can see why,” Erin explained.

The woman looked from one of them to the other. “Okay,” she finally said. “Whatever.”

They pulled into the parking lot and got out of the truck.

“How to win friends and influence people,” Erin whispered to Patti.

“Fuck you,” Patti whispered back.

“In your dreams,” Erin said. “Now go make up with your girl.”

They walked into the half-light of the bar. From upstairs the sound of guitars and women’s voices floated down like smoke, but the ground floor fanned noise forward from pool tables in the back toward an empty dance floor up front. Erin breathed deeply, slid through the women at the bar and bought three beers and a shot of tequila. She tossed the shot back as soon as the bartender put it in front of her, took a breath that ignited the burn in her throat, then carried the beers to Patti and her lover, whose heads bent toward each other, talking intently. Erin handed them their beers, then backed away.

She went to the pool table, signed up to compete. Erin racked up, knocked three stripes in, dominated the first game. And she kept winning, so long after Patti and her lover had made up and gone to talk to friends, Erin still bent over the table, the cue’s narrow tip staining her fingers chalk blue. She’d been drinking all along, lining up her beer bottles on a wall shelf to keep track. By the fourth game, she’d had seven.

In between games, she’d move out of the light and lean on her pool cue, one hip jutting out, her T-shirt pulled tight over her breasts. A ball of heat grew in her belly as she watched the women. Sometimes, when one walked by, she’d make eye contact, a smile breaking surface on her face. One woman stared at her, frowning; Erin swore at her softly, turned back to the pool table, but underneath the breath of cold, she could feel warmth. She played another game and won, then asked for a break. She walked to the bar, conscious of her movements. She surveyed the room quickly. A woman was watching, her eyes dark in a face that shone copper and brown. Spain, Erin thought, Latina. The woman started walking toward Erin, her movements slow as summer.

Erin leaned back against the wooden lip of the bar, stretched out her legs. When she took the woman’s hand into hers, gave the woman her name, breath eased out of her mouth in one long slow sigh.

“I’m playing pool,” Erin said. “I’ll be done soon. Then we can dance.”

“Don’t you forget.” The woman cocked her head to one side. One hand touched the end of Erin’s braid.

Erin tipped her head to the side. “No worries,” she said.

Back at the pool table, her first shot sent three balls into corner pockets. She won easily. Occasionally, she looked up into the line cast by the other woman’s gaze, let it reel her a step forward.  Then, near the end of the game, she spun around and saw Rachel at the bar, dark curls falling over a thin face with its pointed chin and delicate bones—a face that looked only slightly different than Erin remembered, a little older, less innocent, but still open, Erin thought, still carrying that odd mixture of intelligence and bewilderment, as if the world Rachel longed for was just out of reach.

Erin didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t seen Rachel since they’d both graduated college, hadn’t really talked to her since they’d broken up in their sophomore year. Rachel lifted a bottle of mineral water, drank. Her face, with its sharp and asymmetrical bones, was too oddly shaped for prettiness, but her deep set-eyes were beautiful. She watched Erin without smiling and lifted a hand.

Erin signaled she’d come over and talk, then went back to the pool game. She’d been leading by four balls, but she lost badly, missing every shot. She stood staring at the floor, memorizing its cigarette burns and beer stains, turning the cue around and around in her hand. When the game was over, she high-fived the woman who’d beaten her, a wry twist to her lips. Then she walked across the room to Rachel, smiling first at the woman who waited for her near the dance floor.

“Still the same?” Rachel asked, her head tilted toward the woman.

“Rach,” Erin said, softly. “Does it matter?”

Rachel looked up, and their eyes met. Erin felt heat rising in her face. She started rubbing her own pale arm with blue-stained fingers, leaving behind streaks and dust.

“I’m sorry,” Erin said suddenly. “You know I am.”

“Let’s not do this,” Rachel told her. Then she sighed and tried to smile. “What country you in from anyhow?”

“Spain.”

“So tell me about it. How come they got gay marriage if they’re so Catholic?”

Erin started explaining the country, the women she’d known. Rachel wanted to know about Judaism in Spain, about the history of the Inquisition and the effects of the Holocaust, how the European Union had changed the culture. Erin answered her questions, feeling the slide into familiarity, something she couldn’t afford: warmth, the light of ideas in Rachel’s eyes, the remembered feel of small hands on her face, the way Rachel’s fingers had whispered over the bruises that stained the oblong plates of Erin’s quadriceps, thighs, shoulders, back. Rachel had hidden Erin in her bedroom late at night, after Thomas had thrown Erin from his house, made love to Erin as if her skin might break if Rachel didn’t touch her so gently. At the end of high school, Erin had lived with Rachel’s family until she could move to Provincetown for the summer.

“I wish you could see these places,” Erin said.

Rachel looked away. “Sometime,” she answered.

“My mother kicked my father out of the house,” Erin said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Rachel turned to face her. “Oh Erin,” she said.

“He wants to see me.”

“Why? He in the mood to break someone’s arm?”

Erin’s shoulders curved forward.

Rachel reached out a hand, put it over Erin’s longer and paler fingers. “I’m sorry, but I saw what you looked like after he hit you, remember?”

Erin wanted to lean into Rachel, give over all the tiredness that hovered just under her skin. A mistake, she thought. I keep making the same mistake. Then she felt a hand on her elbow. She followed its pressure, looked into the dark eyes of the woman she’d picked for the night. Her body went cold.

“Go ahead,” Rachel said.

Erin looked at her.

“It’s okay.” Rachel let her fingers brush so lightly over Erin’s that Erin wasn’t sure if they’d actually touched her or not. “Just be careful at home, all right? Take care of yourself.” Then she turned away.

Erin’s pale eyes followed her, stunned. But when the other woman took her hand, Erin walked out onto the dance floor. She glanced back to where Rachel was standing. Some woman had come to join her. Their heads bent close; they kissed.  Erin lifted her head and felt each small mirror of the strobe light bounce off her skin. She began to dance. When the woman reached for her, held her waist with both hands, Erin let herself slide forward. Rachel had someone, didn’t she? It didn’t matter what Erin did now.

*                        *                        *

They kissed in the bar, then outside, in the shadows of a Portsmouth alley, their hands inside each other’s coats, searching for skin. Their breath steamed into each other’s mouths. Erin thought, Now, here, I don’t care about anything. But the woman was already pulling away, laughing, leading Erin to her car, a Honda with Massachusetts plates. They began to make love on the leather seats, their clothing opening under each other’s fingers. Erin tried to push Rachel’s face from her mind—the tangle of dark curls, the stubborn off-center chin, but it hovered even as Erin moved her mouth over the other woman’s breasts, as she shut her eyes, leaned back, let herself move into forgetfulness.

When it was over, Erin hungered for more, for the woman’s skin, rich and textured, for a deeper erasure of Rachel’s touch, of her parents’ voices. They went to Patti’s, where the door was open, a note left for Erin to be quiet. They spoke only in whispers, going to the kitchen for hot drinks, but as the woman backed Erin up against a counter their breathing grew deep, exhales coming with force, like wind, like tides. Erin’s mug crashed onto the tiled floor; she heard Patti’s voice in the bedroom. The woman asked if she should stop, but Erin waited only a moment, and when Patti didn’t appear, pulled the woman’s body against her own.

Finally, toward morning, they fell asleep. Erin woke to the woman kissing her good-bye. She watched the long slow movements of the woman’s body as she dressed, as she walked to the door. They didn’t ask for each other’s number. Erin lay back down, tossed her braid out from under her shoulder, and went back to sleep.

Excerpt from Saint John the Divine in Iowa


Image

I was telling someone that the piece of writing of my own that I love the most is a sermon that’s part of a play & screenplay.  The character is Reverend Alex, and I got to play her.  I was saying that while I LOVE acting, like big passionate love, often, in performance, it ends up a little disappointing–like I’m not ultimately present, or I’m not connecting as well as I’d hoped with my scene partner, or the laughs don’t come the way they did the night before.  Of course you roll with that, but when it comes to this monologue, it was different.  Just getting up and saying these lines, that are my manifesto,  to say them as a woman committed to a spiritual life in community, to a life of integrity and love, so that the words became bigger than me or my life, meant more to me than any other artistic moment I have ever experienced.  I got to do it 14 times.  Here are the words.

(Frances exits.  Reverend Alex walks forward and addresses the congregation.)

 

Reverend Alex

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world:

Have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world:

Have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world:

Grant us peace.

Reverend Alex

In the Gnostic Gospels Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is inside you, it will save you.  If you don’t bring forth what inside you, it will destroy you.”

Most of the time, when we think of bringing forth what is inside us, we think of the gift of who we are that comes from God. Our ability to love, the truth of our self-expression, the naming of what we want in life, the claiming of our own strength.

But sometimes what is in our hearts is dark. Sometimes we find fear, or jealousy, or weakness, our deepest flaws, the ones that hurt the people we love. Jesus knew about this. In the garden of Gethsemane, he said, “Father, let this cup pass away from me.” He knew what it was to be faced with something he might not be strong enough to accomplish.

I imagine Him alone in that garden, with darkness falling, with the soldiers on their way, and I think of what He did not tell his disciples, of what He must have felt He had to suffer alone. I think of His return from that death, when He could finally say, this is what I understand to be my Father’s will, this is what I have seen that I can now share with you.

Be part of me. Touch my hurt. See how I am wounded and redeemed at the same time.

Jesus knew about wanting the cup to pass and having to drink anyhow. We can turn to Him for this. But we do not have to be alone in Gethsemane. We can learn to turn to each other. When we bring out the dark side of our own hearts, we say, “I am weak here. Help me with this.” We heal in the humility of acknowledging the human condition we all share. We confess our weaknesses, knowing we are already forgiven. We are all, one way or another, in need of the Light that comes when we bring forth what is inside us.

(Slowly, the light fades on Reverend Alex.  As it does, Jesus appears, the lights shift. 

They look at each other, and this time, she does see Him.)

 

Reverend Alex

Everyone wants to be known.  Everyone.

 

Jesus

(Softly.)

Thank you.

(Lights go to black.  End of scene.)

You Can’t Get There from Here: Chapter Three


You Can’t Get There from Here

by Lyralen Kaye

Chapter Three

Janet cleaned incessantly for the next two days, walked with her feet pounding on the wood floors, staccato, like a soldier’s.

“You’re a great help,” Janet said, staring into Erin’s eyes. “Sleeping all day. And don’t blow up your bangs at me all exasperated.”

“I have jet lag,” Erin said.  She pulled her lower lip back in, tried to breathe through her nose.

Janet pushed past her with a hard nudge. “And you don’t want to hear about your father. Which is just fine, Erin. But your turn will come. He knows you’re here, and I’m sure you’re next on his hit list.”

“What is going on?” Erin asked. She didn’t really want to know, of course. And she certainly didn’t want another conversation about Thomas, especially since he’d been skipping his nightly vigil.

“I have responsibilities,” Janet said. “Not everyone in this world is Miss Carefree. I have bills to pay, did you ever think of that?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Erin said.

“You should,” Janet told her, turning her back and walking away. “You’re part of this family.”

“News to me,” Erin called after her mother. “I didn’t know I was part of anything,”

Janet didn’t respond. Erin blew up her bangs. She would have thought that her mother would feel calmer, now that Thomas was gone. Janet should be glad not to have to talk about him, think about him, see him. But her mother, through the days that followed, continued to complain about money, raise her voice over small disputes, and clean. In the evenings, she went to her room and read romance novels with steamy covers. Sometimes she called out for Beth or Erin to bring her things: cups of tea, Heath Bars, ice cream. They answered quickly, carrying food to her room like supplicants.

On the fourth day, Beth looked up at Erin with a plea in her eyes. Dark blonde hair fell over her shoulders, held back with a child’s pink barrette, but her eyebrows pleated together in one thick, worried line. Erin could refuse her nothing. They played game after game of Parcheesi, Monopoly, and Pokemon. On a long walk, passing over the frozen rafts of earth, crusted with salt and old frost, Beth led Erin to a neighbor’s house, where they played on an old trampoline, jumping first together, bouncing each other up into a sky promising snow. Erin, laughing, almost fell; she reached out and grabbed her sister’s hands. Beth pushed Erin over, then crawled off the tramp to stand beside it. She stuck out her tongue. Erin returned the gesture.

“Turn a flip,” Beth said.

Erin, shivering in her leather jacket, stood up and jumped on the canvas. She shook her head. “It makes me nervous,” she told her sister.

Beth crossed her arms over her chest, stared up into Erin’s face, her small jaw, so like her father’s, set stubbornly. “I thought you weren’t afraid of anything,” Beth called, her voice loud even in the wind. “That’s right, isn’t it?”

Erin stared. “I’m just a little butch,” she said under her breath, “Not some hero.” But she jumped higher, listening to the creak of the springs. With one last push, she turned in the air, and fell flat on her back, body spread like a snow angel over the faded green canvas. All breath left her lungs. Beth crawled up and looked down at her.

“Happy?” Erin asked, reaching out a hand so Beth could pull her up. Erin looked directly into her sister’s eyes. “Am I still the great fearless hero?”

“You are.” Beth jumped down and started walking toward the ocean. “You just go away too much.”

Erin didn’t answer. She ran to catch up, stared into her sister’s face with its turned-up nose and spattering of freckles, wincing, remembering the time, when Beth was six, she’d told Erin she didn’t like her anymore; she didn’t even care if Erin never came back.

“Is it because you’re gay?” Beth asked.

“What?” Erin stopped walking and put one hand on her hip. “How the hell do you know that?”

“I heard that butch thing you said.” Beth stuffed her mittened hands further into the pockets of her down jacket and bent her head. “And I hear you on the phone when you talk to your friends. Besides, you’re pretty old to never have a boyfriend. And you’re not ugly or anything. You have the most beautiful color hair in the world. Mom says it’s strawberry blonde.”

“I’m glad you don’t think I’m ugly.” Erin’s voice was gentle. “But I don’t leave because I’m gay, Bethie. I just like to see different places.”

Beth shot her a disbelieving look.

“Okay,” Erin said.  “And I don’t want to live near Mom and Dad.”

They walked for a while, dirt and ice crunching under their boots, the wind whistling against Erin’s upturned collar, reddening her ears and face. Beth’s eyes pooled blankly forward, toward the hard surface of the earth.

“What?” Erin finally asked.

“You don’t want to live near me?”

“Of course I want to live near you.”

“And will I be gay?” Beth turned and faced her sister. “Does it happen if you don’t like your Dad?”
“Whoa.” Erin pulled her jacket tighter around her. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” she said. “And if you were, you’d probably know. I did. When I was little, even. I liked Dad a lot, then. Better than Mom.”

“Oh,” Beth said, hunching further into her jacket. Dark wisps of blonde hair escaped the wool threads of her pink hat. She didn’t speak again until they were almost home.

Erin watched her, tried to tell her stories of Asia and Europe, of running with the bulls at Los San Fermines in Pamplona, of the way the patios in Cordoba looked in the spring, blanketed by flowers and the smell of Ducados cigarettes with their tobacco negro, red wine spilled on flagstones by the strangers that moved from one house to another. Erin moving among them, transfixed by language, Spanish spilling from her tongue, the light of candles falling over her face. Or the lanterns at O-Ban, the Japanese festival of the dead, and the lines of people dancing in a street lit by flickering flames, carrying altars and singing. Beth kept walking, her head down. Finally, as they crossed the back yard on the way to their house, Beth slid her mittened hand into Erin’s pocket.

“You’re my sister,” she said. “I love you no matter what. So you should just come home. You don’t have to live in our house. Other sisters get apartments near their families.”

Heat pricked the backs of Erin’s eyes. She squeezed Beth’s hand. “Never give up, do you?”

“No.”

Erin chased her sister into the house, tracking snow over her mother’s spotless floors, snow Beth ran to clean up as soon as they stopped laughing.

*                        *                        *

That night Erin saw the Buick again, this time closer to the house, close enough so she could see Thomas’ streak of red hair. Upstairs, her mother and Beth slept together in the king size bed in Janet’s room, ostensibly because Beth had been having nightmares, but also, Erin knew, because Janet wanted comfort. Erin watched the way her mother pulled Beth close, held Beth against her body. Erin tried to say something to her mother about Beth needing to receive comfort, not give it, but she hadn’t been able to finish the sentence. Janet had stared her down. So now, watching out the window, Erin felt anger rise through her body until even her veins and capillaries grew hot. She grabbed her coat, and walked out to the running car.

She stood outside the driver’s side window, exhaling white steam that mingled with the clouds of exhaust, looking down at her father’s face. He snored, his mouth open, his head tilted off the headrest. Skin hung loose around his square jaw, marked by new veins and broken blood vessels. His shirt was stained with brown splotches of bourbon, and a film of white dimmed the deeper red of his hair. Asleep, his body was a loose sack, even his beer gut grown emptier and smaller.

Bags and wrapping paper, boxes with ribbons, stood in piles on the back seat. Erin’s eyes passed over them, stopping at the bright yellow logo of Maine’s best leather shop. She caught her breath and stood absolutely still.

“Bastard,” she said. She rapped on the window with her knuckles.

Thomas didn’t respond.

She rapped again, this time louder. His head slipped down the seat. She cursed, kicked a stone that pinged up against the car. Then she opened the door and rolled the window down half-way.

“You’re not going to die here,” she told her father. She gave him a push, but instead of waking, he fell over, his body thudding against the seat. “Shit,” she said.

She closed the driver’s door and stood looking at the packages. Slowly, her fingers inched toward the back door handle. They touched the cold burn of metal. Opened the door. Then, quickly, before she could change her mind, she grabbed the yellow and white bag and opened it. Inside was leather, black and soft. She pulled out a jacket, then a pair of chaps.

“Shit,” she said. “Shit, shit, shit.” She held the jacket up against her chest: just her size. The crush of leather in her hands smelled like earth and the skin of animals, like wind and speed. Like him. He had known exactly what she would love, and he had bought it, probably the most expensive jacket in the store. She put the chaps in the bag, but held the jacket gently in her arms. In the front seat of the Buick, her father snored again, loudly.

Erin lay the jacket on top of the bag, then went back to the house. Taking off her boots, she walked quietly up the stairs to the attic, where she looked for, and found, the sleeping bag she had used for camping in high school. She carried it back downstairs, then sat in the living room with a sheet of white paper in her hand. After a few minutes, she started to write. She told Thomas if he wanted to see Beth, he should get his lawyer to call.  Parking in front of the house was stalking, and illegal. She’d call the police if he did it again. You shouldn’t drive when you’ve been drinking, she told him. You could kill yourself.

Erin folded the paper, picked up the sleeping bag, and went to the car, where she covered her father with army surplus green, her hands smoothing the ribs of down and tucking them over his shoulders. She put the letter on the dash and lifted the leather jacket to fold it. But once it was in her arms, its quilted lining against her cheek, she shrugged the old jacket from her shoulders and let it fall to the ground. She put the new one on. It fit. Perfectly.

She stood still, looking at her elongated reflection in the back seat window—red-gold bangs over a pale forehead, the black collar of the jacket triangling against her cheek, silver zippers stretched across her chest, eyes frowning over the strong bones of her nose. She could imagine the swing of her leg over the padded seat of a motorcycle, feel the call of speed and road.

Inside the car, her father snored. She exhaled, blowing up her bangs, then stopped, seeing the stubborn set of her own jaw in the car window. She thought of Janet. Don’t blow your bangs up at me. Erin swore, pulled the jacket off, folded it, and shoved it in the bag. Shivering, her old jacket under her arm, she ran back to the house, braid flapping against her back, her boots thudding against the sharp points of gravel.

Thomas was gone the next morning, but Erin found herself wandering restlessly through the house, trying to ignore the gravitational pull to the garage, where her father kept his Harley. Her feet moved of their own volition until she made her way to the garage door and opened it. Staring into the empty concrete room with its organized metal shelves and grease-stained floor, she thought about the rides they’d taken together before the night of the strippers, before everything went bad, Thomas’ wide back in front of her, her gloved hands on the sissy bar of the bike. She could see his thick hands zippering her first leather jacket, his voice soft as he instructed her on how to sit, how to strap the helmet securely. He’d taught her how to lean into a curve, how to ride fast, the wind against their skin, the world opening into possibility. She’d looked up into his blue eyes, the network of broken blood vessels across his pug nose, and seen the world he could give her. He’d laughed, tossed her in the air without warning, and she’d known, with her legs flying above her head, what love felt like. He used to say she was better than the son he’d wanted, tougher, because she never cried or complained or whined; because she sat with his friends in bars and learned their jokes, because she could catch a fly ball or a line drive, could throw a football high and true, because, in her father’s eyes, she was afraid of nothing.

Had she known, standing in the circle of warmth that surrounded his body, unable to tell him about Janet and the punishments that came every time Janet’s face wore that pinched look, the one that pushed up the sharp corners of her bones around her eyes and colored them red, that he was not what he seemed? Standing in the garage doorway, she could see the pride in his eyes, feel his arms lifting her up, remember the seriousness and care in the way he taught her to ride. She could feel the wild freedom of the bike. Her throat closed so tight it was hard to breathe.

“It was the first thing he took,” Janet said, coming up so quietly Erin hadn’t noticed. “You, of all people, should have known that.”

Erin jumped and turned around to face her mother. Janet stood looking up at Erin, her face lit by its own pale translucence, shining out from the shadows, an accusation.

“He also took the contents of our savings account. The morning after you got here. I went to the bank and found nothing,” Janet said. “Now I don’t have money for Christmas.”

“The day after I chased him off?” Erin asked.

“He’s trying to get even,” Janet said.  “I told you.”

“He might have bought presents—”

“I don’t care what he bought, he took my money.” Janet tapped her foot on the floor. “He spends it like water.”

“I know.” Erin knew he had always spent it on her.

“Maybe if you talked to him—”

“No,” Erin said.

“That’s what he wants, Erin, for you to like him again—”

“No.”

“Then would you please tell me what you think I’m going to pay bills with—”

“Go to the bank. Now. Cash in a couple of the CD’s that are in both your names. Open a new checking account in your maiden name. There’s got to be money in the checking accounts, right?”

Janet nodded.

“Take it. Then tell the bank you’ve separated and he’s not to get into your accounts. Or better, open new accounts somewhere else.” Erin looked at her mother. “Can you do that?”

Janet’s face paled. Erin waited, her blue-jeaned legs so tense they lifted her almost to her toes. Janet opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “Can’t you go—”

“You’re the only one who can do it.”

Janet stared.

“Sorry,” Erin told her. “But it’s got to be your signature.”

“What will he do?” Janet asked.

“Why do you always worry about that?”

“I know what he’s capable of.” She turned away, crossing her thin arms over her chest, blonde head bent. “You’ve never had to be afraid of anything, Erin, but not everyone has it as easy as you do—”

“Stand up to him,” Erin interrupted. “And for Christ sakes call your lawyer.”

“He’s always busy.”

“Then get a new one,” Erin said. “And think of some subtle threats to get Dad to return some of your money.” Erin shrugged. “You’re better at that than I am. You know what he can’t afford to lose.”

Janet lifted her head. Her green eyes held Erin’s. “You were always the one he loved.”

Erin stared, then stepped back and slammed the garage door.

“You’re what he doesn’t want to lose.”

“Bullshit.”

“When you were little—”

“That’s over.”

“I remember when you thought your father was the best thing in the world.”

“I remember when he started hitting me.”

Janet shrugged. “That wasn’t until you were a teenager. He never loved anyone the way he loved you. I should know.”

“I didn’t do anything…I didn’t try—

“I know that.” Janet turned on her heel. Then she looked back.  “I don’t blame you.”

Janet didn’t wait for a response, not that Erin could have given one.  Her footsteps sounded against the wood floors with purpose. Erin wanted to call out, to tell her mother about the gifts in Thomas’ car stacked like offerings, like a currency he did not yet know would never buy him entry back into their lives. She wanted to say, Don’t make me hurt him, but all she could do was watch the slender white of her mother’s back as it turned the corner, moving out of sight.

You Can’t Get There from Here: Chapter 2


You Can’t Get There from Here

by Lyralen Kaye

Chapter Two

“You’re nuts,” Patti said as Erin stuffed clothes and toiletries into her backpack. “You’re welcome here.”
“She wants me to help her,” Erin said. “And I said I would.”

“Why should you do anything for her?” Patti sat down on the edge of the couch, her gray sweatshirt bunching around her middle. She ran one hand through her thick black hair; it stood up in new clumps when she was done. “She’s been a bitch to you forever.”

“I feel sort of responsible,” Erin answered. “For Beth.”

“But you know how you get, Erin.  She uses Beth against you, and then you freak—”

“I barely even know my own sister, do you realize that? Seeing her once a year doesn’t exactly cut it.” Erin dug her nails into her palms.

Patti sighed. “My mother and brother decided to start speaking to me earlier this year. You know how long it’s been? Since that time they kicked me out and you had to rescue me in high school. I was stupid enough to get excited about seeing them. After five minutes of civil conversation they had a lot to say to me. Most of it was about Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“I’m sorry,” Erin said.

“They call now. I got an answering machine to screen them out.” Patti looked down, started rolling up the sleeves of her sweatshirt. “Of course I still listen to their fucking messages. Hoping, you know? And it doesn’t do any good. It just tears your heart out.”

“It’s not so bad for me. I mean, about that. My mother just pretends I never told her I was gay.”

“You have other problems,” Patti said.

“My father’s gone. Maybe I can make things better. For Beth—”

“There’s Rachel,” Patti interrupted. “She still asks about you, God knows why. She has a new girlfriend. But we could have her over.”

“I was an asshole,” Erin said. “I’ve just never been any good at the long term thing. I bet she asks to make sure we won’t ever run into each other.”

“You’re as stubborn as you were when you were sixteen, you know that? You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Funny, I thought I’d mellowed. I’m at least willing to consider the possibility that I may not be right all the time. I mean, I wouldn’t mind being wrong about Rachel hating me. I wouldn’t mind being her friend.”

“Well, you’d never know it.” Patti stood up, took two steps across the living room, and picked Erin up by the waist. She swung her around while Erin laughed and yelled to be put down.

“What is it with you?” she said, laughing.

“Proving dominance,” Patti said. “I’m the alpha.”

“Dream on,” Erin said.

“Yeah, well you better be over here a lot, that’s all I’ve got to say,” Patti told her. “Your mother isn’t going to steal my yearly visit with you. There, I draw the line.”

“Me too,” Erin said. “If there’s a line to draw, that’s where I draw it.”

* * *

            That night, rolling around in her childhood bed, Erin couldn’t sleep. The moonlight from the window over the desk pushed past her eyelids, so she adjusted the blinds. Sitting for a moment on the edge of the bed, she listened to the silence of the house, the wind outside, the hum of an engine in the driveway. She grew still, listening. She hadn’t heard the car drive in over the gravel—maybe she’d been in the bathroom. Quietly, she pulled on her jeans, zipped them with cold fingers, shoved her feet into her boots. Her heels knocked loudly against the waxed floors as she walked down the hallway to the panel of glass at its end, the one that looked over the front of the house. Her father’s car sat in the driveway, its gold paint a touch of gilt against the leafless trees. Swearing, Erin stomped down the stairs. Flipping on light after light, she went to the window and pulled back the curtains. She imagined her father’s head turning, imagined he could see her there, her body fragmented by the small squares of glass, the bars of white wood.

She waited for a moment, then found her jacket and walked out the front door in hard deliberate strides. Ten feet from the front porch, she heard the click of gears shifting; the engine roared. The Buick—a company car as always, she was sure—started to pull away. She could just see the shape of her father’s head in the car’s shadowed interior. Stumbling over the gravel, her legs unsteady as stilts, Erin ran after it.

“Ever hear of a restraining order?” she screamed into the cold.

Her father drove down the dirt road, tires spewing up stones as he fishtailed, the red glow of his taillights trailing side to side. He skidded and nearly hit a tree. Erin gasped, standing in the night air, her jacket open, until the lights died like stars. She walked slowly back to the house, shrugging at Janet, who stood at the top of the stairs, a robe belted around her waist, face pinched, white and hungry.

“He was drunk,” Erin said, looking down into her mother’s frightened face. “He’s gone now. Go to sleep.”

“He’s gone?  Already?”

“If he keeps driving when he’s like that, he may be gone in more ways than one,” Erin said. “He won’t be back tonight. Tomorrow we can see about a restraining order.”

Janet shook her head. “I could never do that.”

“You have rights, Mom.”

“I have to live in the real world,” Janet said. “I can’t afford to just…confront him like that.”

Erin sighed. “Go to sleep,” she said. “Beth said you don’t get enough sleep.”

Watching Janet walk down the hall, Erin waited, then turned off the downstairs lights. Back in her childhood room, she undressed and sat on the edge of the bed, her breathing ragged. Looking out the window, she saw the curved scythe of moon. Sitting there, it seemed time faded, as if the past had its own gravity, as if the pull of that pale light reached for her across continents, across time. She shivered. Without thinking she began pulling at her old dresser drawers, looking for long underwear, sweatshirts, the clothes she’d worn after motorcycle rides. The clothes she’d put on after she’d driven her father home from the strip bar.

She froze, her fingers still clasping the bronze handle of a drawer. Deliberately pushing the drawer back in, she sat back on the bed, resisting the swift undertow of memory. She tried to concentrate on counting backward in Spanish—cien, noventai-nueve—it was no good. Between the numbers she couldn’t help listening, expecting to hear sounds—Thomas’ heavy stumbling footsteps, the drunken thud of his briefcase as it went down, or the roar of his motorcycle. She couldn’t help remembering how the meaning of those sounds had changed. Dad, she thought, just once, like a cry. Sitting there, in her old room, she couldn’t tell herself it didn’t matter that she’d lost him, it didn’t matter that once she had waited for his footsteps, that she had been warmed by the rough tenor of his voice growing louder as he yelled at her mother.  That she had thought he was on her side.

He had been. And somehow, that had caused everything, Erin thought, even the strippers. Though long before that night, she had heard Janet crying in the bedroom next door, the sound wild, more like an animal than a person. Predictable: the next day, after the crying, Janet would call loudly for Erin to get up, to vacuum, dust, polish silver, clean out the attic, rake leaves, one of a million tasks that had filled her days when she was too small to refuse. Erin had longed to be outside, to hide in the trees and wild grass, or fly over the mudflats, chasing the herons and egrets until they lifted up, their long legs dangling, then rising as their wings beat, heavy kites slow in the wind. She ran after them, leaping into the air, imagining a more permanent escape from the prison of their house. Erin didn’t want to think about the price she had paid for such escape: a paddle had hung on the kitchen wall on a special brass hook, its warped rectangular surface covered with black ink, surrounded by small drawings of animals in red. If the little deers don’t mind, the paddle read, hit them on their cute behinds.

Erin remembered Janet’s tight face, the way she’d stood, examining tables and trunks, the way she’d checked for dust under all the knickknacks and rapped Erin’s hands with the edge of the paddle for any mistake. She remembered Janet saying Erin was more trouble than ten normal children, why didn’t she just quiet down, quit asking questions, quit asking for books, for time, quit asking to go to museums, movies, libraries, plays? Why wasn’t Erin grateful for what she had? And Erin knew, remembering, that Janet had never said these things in front of Thomas.

One afternoon, Erin had run out of the house right after school and played in the marshes until dark. She could still see the fervent spread of sky, flaming upward in a mixture of orange and gray. She could feel the freedom in her small body as she reached up to touch the branch of a tree, as she pulled one stalk of marsh grass after another. Walking over the mudflats, she stripped off her shoes and pretended she was a girl in a book she’d read, rescuing a boat trapped in the water by walking lightly over mud flats that might sink at any moment from beneath her feet. She knew that she, like any girl in any country, could become a hero, someone for whom God had created a specific destiny. She could feel it in her body; the slender white of her bare feet growing blue with cold, her arms held out for balance with her shoes dangling over her shoulders, everything in her reaching, a girl poised for flight into the unknown, her face flushed with color, expectant.

When she came home, Janet was waiting, the skin on her face taut and pinched. She looked at Erin for a moment, and Erin tried to hide the freedom of the afternoon, wash it from her face. Janet’s eyes narrowed.

“What are you supposed to do after school?” Janet asked, her voice rising with each word. “Tell me, Erin.”

Erin took a step back. “Help you clean.”

Janet glanced at the mud-stained bottoms of Erin’s pants, the untied shoes with their dangling laces and yanked the paddle from its hook. She grabbed Erin’s arm, her face mottled and red. “And now you’ve left mud from the door to this room, haven’t you? Answer me! Haven’t you?”

Erin glanced quickly behind her. She saw a footprint back near the door. “I’ll clean it, I promise–”

“You are the most inconsiderate girl I’ve ever met! I would never treat my mother the way you treat me.”

The paddle swung down in a loose, wide arc. Instead of hitting her backside, it glanced off Erin’s skull with a sharp crack. She reeled, tripped, fell to her knees. Crouching, she gasped, looking up at her mother as Janet lifted an arm and hit her again, across the back.

“That’s what you get for disobeying me.” Janet held the paddle poised, half-lifted, at her side. “You will learn to do what I say.”

Erin curled tighter over her bent legs. Janet’s mottled face came closer. She gripped Erin’s arm, yanked her to her feet, began pushing her across the polished floors toward the closet.

“No,” Erin whispered. “Not again. Please, I’ll clean. I’ll do the dishes, I’ll—”

The closet door opened. Erin tripped over the vacuum cleaner as Janet pushed her inside. She sprawled as the door shut behind her. She turned over, pulled her knees to her chest. She began pushing against the floor with her feet, back, back, the floor under her buttocks moving until she could feel the wall at her spine, familiar, stationary. She inhaled, the fumes from bleach, ammonia, Lemon Pledge entering her lungs.

“You’ll stay in there until I say,” Janet called from behind the door.

Erin heard the chair pushed into place. Slowly, she stopped shaking. The scent of bleach pushed in at her until she started to fade. Her breathing slowed. Her arms clasped her knees. France, she said to herself. She closed her eyes, felt the world tilt, felt herself slip out of her body, out of the house until she was transparent, until she didn’t exist. France, she said again. It was the word she’d use to find her way back.

Later, the chair pushed away from the door with a loud scraping noise. The door opened. Erin’s eyes snapped open, then blinked against the light. Janet bent down, stretched out an arm. Outside, Erin heard the sound of a car motor shut off.

“Out,” Janet said. “If you know what’s good for you, you won’t go complaining to your father.”

Erin scrambled past her. Ran up the stairs to her room. She slammed the door, and stood with the jamb at her back, feeling its ridges against her muscles as she listened to her mother yelling, to her father’s footsteps on the stairs, heavy and slow. He opened the door of Erin’s room, turned on the light, brushing waves of red hair back from his wide Irish face. Looking up, Erin could see the faint cleft in the center of his nose. She grabbed hold of one of his legs with both arms and wouldn’t let go.

“You can’t fight with your mother, honey,” Thomas said.

She held him tighter.

His hand came down on the top of her head. She yelped, wincing. He touched the swelling on the crown of her head with the tip of a finger.

“What happened?” he asked.

Erin pushed her face into the cloth at his hip, burying her nose in the smell of beer and smoke. She inhaled deeply, taking the bar smells deep into her lungs.

“Erin?”

“Nothing,” she said.

“You can tell me,” he said. “We’re buddies, aren’t we?” He loosened her arms from his legs and picked her up. She wound her arms around his neck, trying not to cry, trying to be strong, motorcycle strong, as tough as he had always taught her how to be. He pushed her hair away from her face. “Let me get you some ice,” he said.

She heard his voice downstairs, swearing at her mother; she heard Janet’s voice rise, heard her own name. Then, a thud. She sat up, ears straining for any sound, but the silence lasted and lasted, stretching, it seemed, from her room to the kitchen. She heard Thomas swearing again, but this time, Janet didn’t answer. Soon, heavy feet pounded on the stairs, and Thomas returned, frowning, the blood high in his face. He carried a cloth bag full of ice and a towel.

“Erin,” Thomas said.

Erin didn’t answer.

“Erin,” her father said, sitting down on the bed. “What did your mother do?”

She leaned against his side, smelled the familiar mix of bourbon and starch, both embedded in his businessman’s shirt.

“I want to hear your side. I think I know already, but I want to hear.”

“Nothing.”

“Erin.”

“I played outside,” she said. “I got mud on the floor.”

“She hit you, didn’t she?”

Erin didn’t answer.

“Erin, I know she hit you.  Just nod your head.”

Erin looked up at her father.

“I knew it,” he said. “That fucking bitch.”

She flinched.

“I’m not mad at you,” Thomas said.

He touched her hair gently, finding the lump again. Erin rested against his lap as he held the ice in place. He spoke softly about where they’d go that weekend, all the way up to the border of Canada. They’d camp, even though it was cold. Maybe one of the other motorcycle riders he knew would bring a kid her age. Falling asleep to the sound of his voice making promises, Erin believed the deep tenor would block forever her mother’s arms coming down, the crack of wood against her body, and the closet door opening and closing, leaving her alone in that small hard world in the dark.

*                        *                        *

Erin sat on the edge of the bed, head heavy in her hands, temples pounding. She reached up, pushed the pads of her thumbs against her aching eyes. The memory of her father’s hands in her hair, his voice promising escape, made every cell in her body cry like a separate child. When she was little, she had believed he could cure anything. She had been wrong and now…now he was gone, leaving her with Janet, with two mothers—the one who’d hated her and the other, who now called her, said she wanted her near.

Erin could see, like a photograph hung on one of Janet’s white walls, her mother’s figure silhouetted against the back porch. Janet’s hands stayed hidden, behind her back, but her face was blotched red with rage, her eyes the green of algaed rocks, and just as hard. Blinking, trying to dispel the memory, Erin lay stunned, trying to dispel the memory. She wondered if she should go back to Patti’s. Outside, the world began to grow faintly light.

She dozed off at dawn, was awakened by Beth’s small hands pulling on her shoulders as Beth called her name, saying, you promised. Groaning, Erin got up. She held Beth’s hand tightly as they walked down the stairs to the kitchen, wanting to ask, to say something, but Beth smiled at her, looked up with her sea eyes clear of memory.

“Drink some coffee,” Beth said, standing on tiptoe to pull a mug from one of the cabinets. “Wake up, will you?” She slid across the tile floor and started tickling Erin.

Janet, sitting at the kitchen table with a checkbook in front of her, frowned. Erin couldn’t meet her eyes. Splashing cold water on her face at the sink, she muttered something about using the car. Then she grabbed the keys from Janet’s outstretched hand, and went for her leather jacket.

“She’s a bear in the morning,” Janet said to Beth. “Just like her father.”

“Right. I’m just like him,” Erin said.

“I didn’t mean that,” Janet said.  She reached out a hand, then dropped it as Erin slung her jacket over her shoulders.

“I’m going out the front, Bethie,” Erin said as she left the room.

Driving Beth to school in Janet’s car, she pulled her mother’s crucifix from the rear view mirror and put it in the glove box. Beth giggled.

“Listen,” Erin said. “I want to ask you something serious.”

“Okay.” Beth pulled one leg up to her chest and held on tight.

“Has Mom ever…punished you?”

“She grounds me sometimes. But mostly we get along. Only now she always wants me to sleep in her bed when Dad comes and…you know. And sometimes she doesn’t talk for a whole day. Or she yells.” Beth stared out the window, began pulling at a loose thread at the top of her knee sock.

“But she doesn’t hit you?”

Beth shook her head, kept pulling at her sock. “Mom’s okay, Erin. Really. You just have to be careful when she’s in a bad mood.”

Erin’s shoulders relaxed. She poked her sister. “I came home so you’d have someone to talk to,” she said to Beth. “Unless you’ve started talking to the furniture, going loca on me.”

“Say something in Spanish. Say something really long.”

“Mi hermana es muy pequeníta, pero habla todo el dia de qualquier cosa, incluso sus novios. Ella tiene veinte mil novios, cada uno muy celoso.”

“What’s that?”

“I said that you’re the size of a mouse, but you talk all the time and have twenty thousand boyfriends who are all very jealous.”

“You did not!”

Erin smiled, pulled the car to the side of the road and picked up her sister’s friends at their bus stop, laughed and answered their questions, let them play rap music on the radio. Their plaid uniformed bodies packed tight in the back seat of the car blurred in the rear view mirror to a panel of blue and gold. Finally, she pulled up at the school.  Beth, before she got out of the car, leaned over and quickly kissed Erin on the cheek. Smiling into Erin’s long gaze, Beth’s face was lit as only a child’s could be. Erin sat still, holding the image of her sister’s sea eyes, her thick brows, turned-up her nose, remembering Beth as a toddler, the high sounds of her laughter, the way she’d run across a room to Erin as if the source of love was found in her sister’s arms. Remembering, Erin wanted to believe Beth had grown up unscathed, that Beth, running over the mud behind their house, had never returned to beatings or closets.

Janet was sitting at the kitchen table when Erin walked in the house. Half hidden by a low partition, the phone at her right hand, she looked like an injured bird, head down, slender shoulders hunched beneath her blouse. The defeat eroded the image of the night before, until the memory of the taut spine, the open closet door, turned to shadow and all Erin could feel, looking at her mother, was pity. Hadn’t it always been this way? Thomas appeared and Janet became someone small and defenseless, someone Erin was bound to defend, no matter the cost. But afterward Janet returned to herself, to the mother Erin knew, beauty the veil over a woman hard with duty, who arrived promptly for parent conferences, sat upright in church, and believed in being a lady, keeping her problems to herself. Erin looked at her mother’s back, at the low wall between them, the hook where the paddle had hung, now strung with patchwork oven mitts. The shining surfaces of the kitchen reflected back emptiness like a thousand mirrors. Erin hesitated, but then Janet lifted her head; Erin saw the two telltale spots of color on her mother’s pale cheeks. She froze. When Janet opened her mouth to speak, Erin turned quickly and walked away before she could hear what her mother had to say.

A few hours later she woke to the sound of vacuuming. Putting a pillow over her head, Erin tried to go back to sleep. Sounds of cupboard doors opening and shutting, of low heels on wood floors, of banging pans, penetrated the soft down over her ears. She got up, showered, put on jeans and a T-shirt. Grabbing her leather jacket and a couple pieces of fruit, she walked out of the house into the dead blades of marsh grass, the smell of salt. Shivering, the sweet tang of apple in her mouth, she reached up once to touch a tree, but the mystery had gone; she was only cold. Sighing, she hoped by the time she got home Janet would be over it, whatever it was.

You Can’t Get There from Here: Chapter One


You Can’t Get There from Here

by Lyralen Kaye

Chapter One: 2012

 

Erin stood in the school hallway, shaken out of the six years of her life in Spain, France, and Japan by her mother’s voice. She could feel the moment like a snapshot, a stilled image before everything began to shift away from her toward an end she couldn’t see. Until now, Erin had told herself it was easy to endure her mother’s hostility on her yearly visits, easy to stay with friends and find rides to see her sister, and easy, always, to leap again onto the wide sweep of road she’d taken to get away from home.

But in the beginning of December, the secretary at the language institute in Madrid where Erin taught English came into an empty classroom and handed her a message. Erin stood dumbfounded at first, blonde eyelashes shading her pale blue eyes, almost too shocked to recognize her mother’s name. She looked at the secretary’s dark skin, into her darker eyes, before turning to the classroom window. Fumes from the cars blew up from the street; the gray Madrid sky shifted so a brief glimpse of light slipped through as if by mistake. She opened the note. It said to call, whenever she could. Now.

The secretary waited. Erin extended her lower lip and exhaled, blowing up the bangs that hung over her forehead. She spoke in her native American.

“Shit,” she said. “What does she want?” She stuffed the note in the pocket of her Oxford shirt and spun so fast her long red gold braid flew over her shoulder with a soft thud.

Halfway out the door she stopped and turned around. The white-blue of her attention washed over the secretary, bathed her and held her up as Erin smiled an apology, her face changing from bone-hard to a gentle mirth, as if she and the secretary shared a secret, as if they were the only people in the world. The secretary smiled back. People usually did.

Erin walked around with the message in the pockets of different pants for almost a week. She didn’t have a cell phone, she would tell her mother, and didn’t plan to get one. This was more or less true—she didn’t have a phone, but thought about getting one all the time as long as her parents never got the number—but the message sent stitches of cold threading through Erin’s stomach. She could borrow a friend’s phone; she just didn’t want to call.

On Friday, she finally asked one of the other teachers, an American who had an internationally cell plan, if she could borrow his phone.  It was her short day at work, so she’d changed into what she joked was her post-Catholic-school uniform: men’s white T-shirt, jeans, leather jacket, worn black boots, so she could hit the bars afterward.  She dialed the number, listened to it ring in Maine, hoped against hope her little sister would answer the phone.  She imagined her mother, who worried about money until her bones showed through the translucent skin of her face, who’d never given Erin a dollar toward school or travel; she felt a shutter snap close, each detail of the house in Maine grow in her imagination—the wooden floors, the white cabinets, the single bed with its window over a winter marsh.  Erin closed her eyes.  She didn’t want to remember, today or any other day, what she’d left.

The phone clicked; she heard her mother’s voice, soft, its usual edge almost inaudible.

“I have news,” Janet said.

“Yeah?” Erin answered. She shifted her leather jacket back on her shoulders and leaned against the hallway wall, scuffing her boot back and forth on the floor.

“I asked your father to leave.”

Erin’s body snapped up in one single motion. “You did what?”

“Your father has moved out. I wanted you to know, so you could come home and stay here with Beth and me.”

“I can’t believe it. How? Why did you? I mean, good for you.”

“You think so?” Janet’s voice came through the line high and uncertain, young.

“Yes, Mom. This should have happened a long time ago.”

Erin could see the long porch on the front of the house, feel the cold air whistling through, and her father standing with his legs apart, his hands on either side of the beer belly that hung over his belt. She could hear his unsteady feet climbing the porch stairs, the curses he muttered under his breath. She tried not to remember when those curses had been about her.

“I’m not putting you through school so you can study some stupid liberal arts subject that won’t get you anywhere,” he’d said the last time she’d spoken to him, when she was still in high school.

“I don’t need you to,” she’d answered. “I have scholarship offers. Three of them.”

Now, Erin crouched down, sat on the floor.  Behind her, the hum of classes in session rose and fell. “What happened, Mom?”

“I was volunteering at church. A woman told me she’d gotten her marriage annulled and she took me to one of the priests. He said I should leave, Erin.”

Erin rolled her eyes. Traffic with priests, she thought, our ever-living salvation.

“I thought it would be nice to have a family Christmas,” Janet said.

Erin didn’t answer.

“Just us three girls.”

“I don’t know—”

“You do want to see your little sister, don’t you?” Janet asked. “Or are you so cosmopolitan you don’t care about her any more?”

“Don’t,” Erin said. She stood, walked down the hall to the window at the other end, looked out into the bustle of people around the building’s glass doors that opened out onto the street, a street that led into Madrid’s center, into cobblestone plazas and city parks, a sky far from ocean and Maine.

“Will you come home?”

Erin turned away, leaned against the sill. “I do want to see Bethie,” she said. “But I might have other plans for Christmas. My friend Patti’s expecting me, but I was thinking of staying here. My job’s offered me more money—”

“But you have all that money you earned in Japan, don’t you? You can afford it, Beth told me you could—”

“What is this? You never wanted me around when Dad lived there—”

“Well, he’s gone now. Things are different.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“Erin, I know you think I’ve made mistakes—”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“Listen to me. Your father sits out front in his car. At night. I had the locks changed, but I don’t know what he’ll do. Please.”

“Why don’t you call the police? They’re not in another country.”

“I can’t do that. Everyone in town would know.”

“If you want to stop him you’re going to forget about what other people—”

“He’s crazy, which you know as well as I do. And Beth doesn’t say anything, but she comes to my room with nightmares and I know she’s scared. Here, you talk to her.”

“Mom!” Erin said, but Janet slapped the phone down on a table. In the background she called to Beth, asking her to talk to Erin because “she listens to you”.

“Please come home, Erin,” Beth said when she picked up the phone. “I really miss you. If you get here early enough you can come see the Christmas show. I’m the only sixth grader singing a solo and I’m not even scared of everybody looking at me.”

Erin exhaled a round circle of mist onto the glass screen in front of her and closed her eyes.

“Are you there?”

“I’m here, Bethie. I miss you too.”

“Then come home. Mom really wants you to, and you can sleep in your old

room—”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Well you can sleep in my room and we can talk a lot and you can tell me everything about Spain and speak funny words if you want and please, Erin, it’s been so long—”

“I came home last year, remember? I just didn’t get to see you much because Mom wouldn’t let you come out with me.” Erin ran a hand through her bangs. “Is everything all right?”

“I’m scared,” Beth whispered.

Erin’s whole body went still. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. “Are you okay?”

“Dad broke the dining room window the day he left. He was yelling and yelling at Mom—”

“Did he hit her?”

“No, just broke stuff. But he was so mad, Erin, and then, after he left she wouldn’t stop crying. Now she cleans all the time. Sometimes she yells, but mostly she doesn’t talk at all. She stays up late and in the morning she looks really tired. I don’t know what to do—”

“Okay,” Erin said, her mind full of her sister’s blonde hair, her freckled cheekbones, the pleading Erin hated to see in her eyes. “Tell her I’ll come.”

“Yeah!” Beth screamed. The receiver snapped down against wood; Erin held the phone away from her ear.

“She’s dancing around the kitchen,” Janet said.

“It will be good to see her,” Erin answered. “But I was thinking about Argentina next, or maybe even Mexico. I want to be warm.”

“I don’t know why you have to keep moving around so much,” Janet said.

“I like it.”

“And this is very difficult for me,” Janet added. “You have no idea what it’s like—”

“I remember.”

“Well—”

“I’ll write and tell you when I’m coming.” Erin hung up and stood for a moment, clenching the phone. She had no trouble remembering the chasms of silence in her mother’s kitchen, the times she’d waited at the end of the driveway like a servant, making sure her father had left. The thing was, she didn’t want to think about the white walls of that house, the Maine winter, her mother’s tight face and her father outside in his company car…she shook her head as she walked toward the school office to leave the phone for her friend, trying to ignore the weight in the pit of her stomach, the knowledge that she was making a terrible mistake.

* * *

The morning after she arrived in New Hampshire, Erin woke early enough to see the faint pink of the morning sky through the window of her friend Patti’s apartment. She got up off the couch and reached for the jeans she’d worn the night before, which still smelled of smoke and beer from the women’s bar they’d stopped at on the way back from the airport. For a moment, she smiled, because Patti, who she’d known since high school, had kept picking her up in a huge hug, though Erin was taller. Patti’s clumps of dark hair, the heavy flesh of her arms, Erin’s legs brushing against the ground, the clatter of boots and the way they both laughed—this was Christmas, Erin had thought, Patti’s once a year bear hug. Something to count on.

She went to the kitchen, drank half a cup of terrible instant coffee, wishing for café con leche y tostada at one of the standing bars in Madrid with their marble tops. She tossed several handfuls of icy water over her face in the bathroom, then straightened to examine her eyes and the deepening shadows of jet lag underneath them. Standing there, her gaze critical, she tried to see what her mother and sister would find: a tall woman, grown into her mid-twenties, gestures without hesitation, chin tilted forward, eyes narrowed and leached of color as if she had stared too long into a fire so wild it had burnt her to the bone, leaving behind carefully banked embers, the last vestiges of passion. She grinned at herself, thinking, I can do this.

She walked across the apartment and picked up the keys to Patti’s truck—her friend was working second shift this week—and quietly opened the bedroom door. The wide expanse of bed stretched toward her; Patti’s dark head buried in her lover’s shoulder, the down comforter pulled up to her chin. Soundlessly closing the door behind her again, Erin let the two women sleep.

She drove over the bridge into Maine, her hair still matted from sleep, a long peach tangle. Turning down a frozen dirt road, she passed stripped branches of winter trees, then marshlands that in summer smelled of salt and fish. The truck bounced over potholes. Erin punched the brake with her foot, swung into the driveway, and leapt from the truck. The front door opened; Beth ran outside, the wings of her pink robe flapping open over her pajamas.

“I told you, Mom, I told you,” Beth yelled back over her shoulder. “I’m not going to school today.”

Beth always tried to get out of school. She had test anxiety, went blank when she was called to answer questions at the blackboard. The other kids used to make fun of her, but the last time Erin came home, she’d driven Beth to school, strategized with her sister for ways to protect herself. The test anxiety remained, Erin knew, but Beth had friends now. Erin bent to hug her sister, then lifted her up, tried to swing her around.

“You’re too big,” she said, giving Beth a smile that might hold her, as Erin’s arms had been unable to do. Beth had turned eleven, a thin, short eleven, but too big to pick up. Probably, Erin thought with a wince, too big to be treated like a small child. Erin would have to learn her sister all over again—wasn’t it like that every year? Beth’s hair, once white-blonde, had darkened to the color of honey and hung thick around a face like their father’s, one from Ireland’s south—freckles, turned-up nose, crescent eyes that changed expressions in quick mercurial leaps, from sadness to a child’s excitement.

“It’s hard,” Beth said.

Erin nodded. “I came as soon as I could,” she whispered.

Janet stood framed by the dark wood of the doorway, unmoving, her blonde hair gathered back from her face in a gold clip. The sweater she wore gleamed white, its cowl neck falling in folds below her face, a fine gold cross cradled in one of the sweeps of cloth. Erin hadn’t remembered Janet as so small—the crown of her head barely topped Erin’s shoulders. Before, it had always seemed that Janet was the one standing over her. Beth held Erin’s hand as Erin nodded to her mother and walked in the door. Janet didn’t touch her, but she looked up at Erin, really looked, her eyes washing over the shadows in her daughter’s pale skin. Her eyes widened, and Erin saw the whisper of a plea.

“The world traveler,” Janet said, “finally deciding to come home.” She smiled, a slip of warmth in an oval face from an antique cameo, high cheek-boned, clear-skinned, made up with green eye shadow and rouge. She stepped back into the living room’s wide spaces as if an invisible ruler measured her vertebrae. She looked, for a moment, so beautiful, almost the unhappy young woman Erin remembered, the one Erin had studied, trying to learn what combination would unlock that rigid spine, let loose the gentleness that Erin had thought must lie beneath the surface of her mother’s life.

“I’ll do what I can,” Erin said without volition. Then she clamped her mouth down hard, knowing the danger of such offerings. She followed Janet down the hall, past the formal rooms they never used. The house was as Erin remembered: the floors stretched long in the lines of its planks, refinished trunks still used for end tables. But on the walls her mother had hung antique tools—small hoes, scythes, long-bladed shears—the dark wood and metal sheen of their bodies polished like ice.

“Can’t you mess this up a bit?” Erin bent down, whispering to Beth, who giggled.

“Don’t give her any ideas,” Janet said, smiling over her shoulder at Beth. “She’s got enough of her own, believe me.”

Erin looked up, but Janet kept walking, her plaid wool skirt pulled flat against the backs of her legs. “Excuse me,” Erin muttered. “I think I must have come to the wrong house. Or maybe this is the twilight zone?”

Beth nudged her. Erin wanted to say she’d never heard Janet tease anyone. Jokes, teasing were her father’s province. He was the one who had stood at the center of their lives, with his stories and laughter, his anger and drunkenness, pushing at all their corners and walls.

Janet made popovers and boiled apples for breakfast. The popovers, Erin noticed, had improved—they were only slightly deflated. Erin ate quickly. When she yawned during the meal, covering her mouth with her hand, she smelled cigarettes on her skin from the bar the night before. Beth did most of the talking, twining her legs around the legs of one of the caned blue and white chairs at the kitchen table. Erin listened as her eyes moved over the new stenciling, blue flowers rimming the ceiling and doors. Janet had been busy.

Janet looked at Erin and smiled tentatively. “When your sister was a baby,” she said to Beth, “she used to run down the road whenever we took her outside. I remember one day when she was about four I turned around to get something I’d forgotten, and when I looked back, she was out of sight. I found her at the neighbors talking away, asking them all kind of personal questions. After that, we had to get special locks for the doors, ones too high for her to reach. We had to make sure she didn’t pull a chair over to sneak out.”

Erin crossed her arms over her chest.

“Was I like that too?” Beth asked.

“Erin?” Janet said.

“I don’t remember.” Erin slumped further in her chair, blowing up her bangs. “But I read some book about a girl who used to do that. Her mother got a dog leash and tied her to the porch railing.”

Janet’s lips disappeared into a white line. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She stood up. “Beth, go get ready for school. Your sister obviously doesn’t care to be civilized this morning.”

“Mooommmm,” Beth said.

Erin looked at Janet. “I didn’t mean—”

Janet pulled Beth’s chair back. “Now,” she told Beth. “No arguments.”

Beth followed Janet out of the room, stopping to stick her tongue out, her small nose wrinkled, eyes crossed. Erin heard sounds of footsteps on the hardwood floors, Janet’s voice gone shrill, drawers opening and closing. She put her head down on the table. She heard Beth protesting, over and over, even as Beth clumped back down the stairs, even as her sister walked slowly to the front door.

Janet came back, standing in the doorway for a moment, her gaze so taut Erin felt the temperature of her body drop a few degrees.

“Can you try to make things easier for once?” Janet asked.

Erin shrugged, bent her long legs first one way, then another, stretching them under the small table. As Janet sat down, Erin’s feet seemed especially large. Janet wore low-heeled pumps on feet that were narrow, elegant. Looking at the row of copper pans hung like a string of harvest moons, Erin imagined beaches, stretches of tropical water, islands full of coconut trees and villages where no one spoke English. She imagined herself anywhere but here.

For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Erin leaned back in her chair, folded her arms, blew up her bangs with a sigh. Janet’s mouth thinned to a white line; Erin waited, tense, one leg twisting back and forth until finally, Janet’s face and mouth relaxed. Erin stopped a sigh mid-breath as Janet looked at her. Erin could see, as her mother began to talk about the parish priests, that she didn’t want to fight. Janet’s face flushed pink when she told Erin how Father Michael had been so helpful.

“I couldn’t have done it without him,” Janet said. “And he knows all about you. He says you’re a free spirit and told me soon you’d be working in Alaska teaching Spanish to huskies.”

Erin sat straight up in her chair. “That’s not funny, Mom.”

Janet frowned. “You’re so sensitive, Erin. He just meant no one can predict what you’ll do next.”

“Don’t go telling him stuff if he’s just going to make fun of me.”

“Do you really think you can tell me who to talk to?”

Erin crossed her arms over her chest.

“He makes me laugh.” Her fingers tapped on the table. “And he recommended a lawyer for me.”

“Great.”

“Don’t be sarcastic.”  Janet paused. “Look at me, Erin.”

Their eyes met. Erin saw the high color on her mother’s cheekbones, the flat surface of her eyes. “Sorry,” she said.

Janet lifted her head, touched her shining cap of hair with narrow fingers, explaining she’d needed the priests, and Erin should understand how hard it would have been without them. The women at church gossiped about her now; she said, re-clipping her barrette, some even blamed her, and thought she should have kept the marriage. They didn’t know about Thomas’ temper, about the drinking and the lying. Janet’s eyes dropped suddenly, green glass locked tight against storms.

“I haven’t loved him for years,” she told Erin. “If I ever did.”

“Where is he?” Erin asked.

Janet shrugged mildly, a ladylike gesture. “He has an apartment in Portsmouth, I think. Right in the center of things.” She looked at Erin. “You’re not thinking of going to see him.”

“I never think of that.”

Janet nodded, a simple acknowledgment. “He has lots of friends, of course,” Janet said. “Everyone loves him.”

Erin frowned, crossed her arms over her chest. “Do we have to talk about him?”

“He’s your father. You don’t have to see him, but you can hardly forget he exists.” Janet watched Erin without moving. “Especially since he’ll probably be sitting outside watching you tonight.”

“Still?” Erin asked. “Does he come every night?”

Janet shrugged.

“I was going to stay at Patti’s.”

“But Beth needs you!”

“Mom—”

“He got worse, he drank more, he didn’t come home, hardly spent any time with Beth. He wasn’t like that to you—”

“Give me a break—”

“Why do you think I asked you here? So you can just keep traveling around the world having the time of your life as if you have no obligation to anyone, not even to say where you are half the time and no phone, no way to get in touch with you, not even the people who raised you, not even your sister—”

“I said I can’t talk about him.”

Janet’s thin hands came down hard on the table. “What about me?”

Erin stared, her shoulders bunching up near her ears.

“I said, what about me? He does all these things and you just don’t want to talk about it. Isn’t that wonderful. Isn’t that a luxury you get to have, all by yourself.”

“Talk to the priests, Mom.” Erin stood and took a few steps toward the back door. “Sue them if they break the silence of the confessional.”

“You’re so funny, aren’t you?” Janet stood up, a plate in her hand. She took a step forward. Erin flinched. “Erin! You promised you’d help.”

Silence filled the space between them. Erin could hear her heart, pumping without mercy beneath the bones of her chest. As if from a distance, she noted for the first time the changes in her mother: the almost imperceptible thickening at her waist, the lines not even make-up could hide around her eyes and mouth, the gray roots growing along the white edge that separated her shining hair. Janet’s body seemed to be battling gravity; her tight posture looked harder to maintain. As Erin watched, her mother’s head dropped toward the white cowl over her chest.

“I’m so tired,” Janet said. “And he just won’t go away.”

Erin’s voice grew gentle. “You’ve got to make some friends, Mom.”

Janet turned away, carried the plate to the sink, where she put it down with a sharp crack. “I can’t trust anyone,” she answered, without looking at Erin. “Your father always gets there first.”

“That will change. They’ll get to know him.”

Janet kept her back turned.

“I’ll be back later,” Erin said, taking the last steps to the door. “When Beth gets home. And I’ll sleep here, if that will really make you feel better.”

“It will, Erin.” Janet said.  “I knew I could count on you,” she added shyly.

“Don’t,” Erin muttered, as she stepped quickly outside. Closing the back door firmly, she stepped into the icy air of Maine, breathing cold as if it could alert her cells to the common danger of family.

You Can’t Get There from Here: Prologue


You Can’t Get There from Here

by Lyralen Kaye

Prologue: 1999

The first time Erin Donnelly walked into the strip bar to find her father, she was fourteen. Pulling her red-blonde hair out of its ponytail holder to make herself look older, she’d slipped off her Dad’s motorcycle onto the asphalt of the parking lot with a clatter of the boots he’d bought her for riding, just a little too big so she could grow into them. She walked with a swagger, like she knew what she was doing, because the bouncer stood, arms crossed over his chest, watching. Though she’d grown taller than most of the boys in eighth grade, Erin knew she could only pass for sixteen, not twenty-one. The bouncer glared, but she convinced him to let her inside, holding a motorcycle helmet in her hand like a talisman that connected her to her father.

Music pumped through the bar. She stared at the bodies of strippers with their creamed skin, the glare of yellow lights playing over their muscles, and it seemed she almost knew them as the harbinger of an adulthood that rushed toward her, relentless. She inhaled with a sound sharp as a whistle, forced herself to stay still. Slowly her eyes adjusted to the red candles that lit the back of the bar. Across the room, her father sat alone at a half-moon booth with two empty shot glasses in front of him. She crossed the room, aware of the men watching her, and it seemed, suddenly, she wore a Catholic uniform skirt, saddle shoes, not passing for sixteen at all. She kept her head up, walked right to her father and faced him.

“I thought you were just going to the bathroom,” she said.

He looked at her, the muscles of his wide Irish face slack, blue eyes mapped with red. “I wanted a drink. Erin? You’re fine, Erin. Right? You’re fine.”

She sighed, helped him to his feet, watched him stagger to the door of the bar, wondered what she’d say to him about getting the motorcycle home.

“You drive,” he told her when they got to the bike, his words slurring into each other. “Like I taught you. No one will ever know. Ready?”

She swung a leg over the bike in answer. And then she concentrated on pushing the bike up with his weight behind her, pushing the electric start, turning the gas handle toward her with her right hand. She leaned into a curve that took them out the parking lot and back onto Route 1. Her slender arms cramped from her grip on the handles as the miles ticked by, up the wide highway back from Massachusetts to Maine. Alert to every shift of her father’s weight, she shivered under her leather jacket, ground her teeth, gripped harder. Finally, she steered onto the gravel of their driveway. Behind her, he listed to the side; for a moment she thought the bike would slide out from under them, that they would land on the cold, stone-covered ground, but then she compensated for his weight and braked. As she switched off the headlight, she listened to him breathing, smelled bourbon and sweat.

“Shit Erin,” he said, digging his heels into the gravel with a harsh rasp. “Did you have to take that turn so hard? I think I’m going to puke.”

“Well don’t do it on me,” Erin answered. “You should be grateful I got you here.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m grateful. Okay, I’m grateful.”

“Because if you ever do this again—”

“You did good,” he told her. “Chip off the old block. I’ll let you drive as much as you want next time. Not just in parking lots, either.”

The porch light came on he spoke. The front door opened, and her mother stepped outside, white face gleaming in the dark as she peered forward.  Her pregnancy swelled under a wool sweater whose ends didn’t quite meet. She must see them, Erin thought, as her mother crossed her arms. For a moment, Erin froze. Her breath formed clouds as it escaped the plastic visor over her helmet. She watched, her eyes dilating, as the shadow of her mother’s body fell toward them. Behind her mother the house—pristine, Maine clapboard, hardwood floors in large rooms—stretched like a cavern. Erin didn’t need to look to know what she’d see: the rise of her mother’s blonde head, the stiff neck and spine, the way her lips thinned to a white line, the way she stood, a statue, unmoving. Erin wanted to call out, to beg, even just to say, I know I’m too young to drive, but I brought him home to you.

Her father gripped her shoulders from behind; Erin dug her heels in, grabbed the handlebars to keep the bike from falling. He dragged a leg over the bike and managed to stand, swaying. Erin sighed, pulled off her helmet, and walked toward her mother, trying not to look at that white face with its two high spots of color. As she hurried by, her mother placed a hand on Erin’s back, gave her one hard shove. Erin stumbled, fell, scrambled back to her feet. She glanced back over her shoulder, still moving toward the first of the steps upstairs. Her father already stood in the doorway behind her. She sighed with relief.

“Nice, Thomas,” her mother said.

Red hair flattened from the helmet, his paunch pushing forward against the bright gold zipper on his leather jacket, Thomas swayed forward. His face changed, lips slackening as they had in the strip bar. His thick fingers reached up and tweaked her mother’s breast.

“Nice, Janet,” he said, and laughed.

Erin stared. Her father, who took her riding, who bought her leather, her father, who drank, but not like this, not when he took her out on the bike, her father who, riding, threw his head back and sang Irish folk songs into the wind…Erin’s boots banged up the steps, away from both of them. She could hear him reeling into the kitchen, and her mother quietly making her way up the stairs.

In her room, Erin tried to stretch the painful cramps from her hands, tried not to think of how her mother would make her pay. Sins of the fathers, she thought, shivering. She pulled on a hooded sweatshirt from Notre Dame. She stood, then, went to the window and watched clouds file past the moon’s dingy pearl surface. Around her the sounds of the house stilled; she heard her father’s footsteps in the hall, and then, for a while, nothing. She waited, her body tense and cold.

Later—how much later she didn’t know—she heard the sound of whimpering, coming through the wall muffled, but high-pitched. She couldn’t breathe. The sound continued, like the faint mewing of a feral cat, crying over its wounds. Erin dug her knuckles into her forehead.  She knew she should be strong, like a hero, like Jeanne d’Arc, like Harriet Tubman, like King Arthur, someone who couldn’t stand to see a woman wronged. Dad, she thought, just once, like a cry, because he was the one who had taught her strength. She started to shake. She took one footstep, then another. Made it to the center of the room. She knew if she could just keep moving, what she would find when she knocked on her parents’ door. She thought of her mother’s belly, of the child that would be her brother or sister. Her body flattened by night, by sound, she took another step, then another, heard the whimpers grow louder as she stepped into the hall. She walked quickly to her parents’ bedroom, knowing if she waited any longer, she’d lose her nerve. She knocked. The sound stilled. No one answered.

Erin knocked again, loudly, her knuckles rapping on the thick wood until they hurt. She heard her father’s footsteps approaching. And then the door opened into the rest of her life.


The Fantasy Family


I come from a family of magicians.  We create illusions–not of rabbits or birds appearing out of nowhere–but of who we are.  You might say I come from a family of players–and it’s true, three of us have been involved in the theatre–but our greatest illusion requires layers of deception; and we are masters of this.

Take, for example, 1985.  The four oldest siblings (of six) were all 19 or older–I was the eldest at 25, my brother 24, my sister, 21, my youngest brother 19.  I had come home to live after college–for just a year–because I was convinced my two youngest sisters (15 and 9) needed me.  I thought they needed me to love them, to make them feel that they were good enough as they were; and, speaking of delusions, I thought this was my job, my responsibility, a spiritual obligation.

I lived with my sister the Waif (21).  I remember going out to bars, down into Philadelphia, with my siblings and our friends, and how they admired us.  They thought of us as close, as friends as well as siblings, as fun, as cool.  My sister the Waif (also the Party Girl) was particularly good at this spin–she was the club any cool person wanted to join.  But there was more–the way we inclined our heads toward each other, the way we danced together, the way we (my sister and I) tried to get our brother (24) to drink and loosen up.  The unspoken bond, the complete wordless understanding.  These things existed–we felt each other’s feelings, we were bonded, a unit; and, masters of illusion and spin, we could make it look cool.

I wanted it to be cool.  I wanted to fit in.  I wanted it to be true, that family, our family, could have some kind of love and comfort to it.

Of course, born into this family, I own the legacy of spin.  And to spin convincingly, the first person you must convince is yourself.  I knew my family wasn’t what I wanted, but I convinced myself if I loved them enough and worked hard enough, I could turn them into what we seemed to be.  At the same time, I couldn’t get far enough away.  So while I’m living 5 minutes from my youngest sister, living with the Waif, with my brother the Lost Boy (19) about to move in at any minute, I’m also saving every penny I earn to move to Japan.

The fantasy family–that knows our secrets without having to be told, that cares, that loves, that accepts…the siblings who we can talk to about the things no one else quite gets, the hope that the alcoholic father will get sober, the narcissistic mother will turn her gaze toward us…the dream dies hard.  It is the dream we can’t give up, and at the same time as we spin illusions for the outside world, we spin delusions, promises we know each other will break.

In early 1985, our friends from the various restaurants at which we worked and three of the four eldest decided to go down into Philly.  I wanted to go to the Rodin museum of art; my sister wanted to take me and my brother to South Street to get some gargantuan margaritas.  It was a moment of crashing reality for me.

We drove to the city, and arrived at the museum.  As our restaurant friends toured the small museum–a walk around and out, maybe 5 minutes, maybe 10–and my brother and sister did the same, going outside to smoke cigarettes and maybe pot, I stood in front of the Cathedral (one of Rodin’s sculptures of hands), disappointment seeping through me.  But I also rose on the wonder of those hands, of intimacy as holy; I understood, with my body, the truth of a single moment of touch, the meaning it could hold.  An atheist, I sought meaning in art; I always found it in Rodin.

I was the last person to leave the museum.  One of our friends, my soon-to-be girlfriend, waited for me at the door, her eyes shining.  An older guy, who my sister thought to set me up with, joined us.  He looked at me.

“You see something in this none of the rest of us can see, don’t you?”  He said.

I nodded as he named my loneliness.  Because my fantasy brothers and sisters would have seen it, too, that holiness, that presence in touch, that desire for meeting.  I didn’t know why they didn’t.  I didn’t know why I did.  What made me different?  Seriously.  I had gone to live in Europe, to swim in those waters, to dream of joining the legacy of artists who had come before me–literature, poetry, sculpture, architecture, history, painting.  I craved those things like water or air.  Why didn’t they?

We rejoined the group.  At a Mexican restaurant on South Street, my brother the Lost Boy sat next to me and snuck sips of my margarita.  We’ve always looked alike–I imagine the sweetness of the picture we made, our dark heads inclined toward each other, our voices low as we talked mostly to each other.  The happiness that fell over us, the bond, the love, the deep attachment.  And for a moment, Rodin and the siren’s song that would define my life vanished.

In the world of psychotherapy, the word enmeshment occurs again and again.  My Lost Boy brother had been betrayed and abandoned by both parents; in my memory incidents stand in stark relief of my attempts to protect and comfort him.  I have always said that we were the two gifted children in a family of extremely intelligent people–that felt like part of the bond…this sensitivity, this quickness of understanding.  When it came to each other, though, the special place we occupied was defined by the darkness that surrounded it.  We had no need to explain to each other the pain we carried; it was, after all, the same pain.  Both scapegoats, both rejected, both sensitive, both too smart…we were joined in what Patrick Carnes calls a trauma bond.

No need for a family of magicians if the truth can be uncovered without shame.

I have found myself pulled back, however briefly, into the family spell, into the unmet longing for closeness, and I find that I am not the only lonely family member–in some way we are all lonely.  In some way we all feel solitary–the only one that gets it, the only one that…fill in the blank.  Nor am I the only possessor of truth…or even the one free of denial.  As I spoke, over the last few weeks, with one of the other magicians, I found my own denial chiseled free so that I had to see more.  And why is more always worse than you thought?

I know, I know, that while family darkness is ubiquitous, so is real love, however conditional.

But I write this in awe of the fantasy family, and respect for its power.  I thought I had let go of my fantasy family, that I had grieved, but it seems I have only let go of the fantasy parents, and my siblings remain, in my heart, with that unspoken bond…that I thought was the Cathedral.  Only it turns out it’s not.

Yesterday my partner and I had a conversation in the car about how small boned she is, and what is achievable of her desired body and we held out our hands to measure and laughed, as we always do, at my large hand and her small.  But that is my Cathedral–those two hands.  Love, and the work of living in love, trying to be better for the person I love, being messy and imperfect with her, laughing and teasing her for her quirkiness, and the sudden sacred moments when she is all I see or need to see.

Shared pain isn’t a Cathedral.  That’s what the fantasy family is built on–shared pain and the denial of that pain.

I have often wanted to skip the stages of healing to get to “all done.”  I don’t get to, and with my partner, now, in mid-life, I’m so glad about that.  We had a fight yesterday, and I don’t get to pretend it’s all okay today.  I get to turn to her, and open, and know her better.  I get to build another Cathedral and another, and another.

I wish I could do this in the family from which I come, but the truth is that I don’t know how, and I never have.  In all these years, I’ve learned to prefer cathedral-building to the spinning of illusions.  Maybe, looking at the statue in the Rodin Museum of Art in 1985, all I saw was that possibility, all I felt was its call, and in the end, that mattered more to me than anything else.

I would like to spend the rest of my life building Cathedrals.  And I think I can.  I really do.