You Can’t Get There from Here
by Lyralen Kaye
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?”
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—”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“When you were little—”
“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.