You Can’t Get There from Here
by Lyralen Kaye
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.”
“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?”
“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.