You Can’t Get There from Here
by Lyralen Kaye
When Erin got home the following afternoon, Janet sat in the living room, a romance novel open on her lap, her head had fallen to the side. Asleep, Janet looked almost kind, her blonde hair a halo around her cheekbones and forehead, around her closed green eyes. Her slender body cradled by the cushions of the chair, lines smoothed from her face, she was a madonna at peace, softened by the snow-refracted winter light, capable of nurturing. She seemed a woman for whom the American dream had been written; and Erin could almost imagine she would wake a different person entirely.
For a long moment Erin stood without moving. Her stomach turned over, her skin itched from smoke and sex, she wanted desperately to shower. Instead, she watched her mother, sleeping—hands flat on her lap, her maroon skirt spread over her knees, the shimmer of light on her nylons—and almost left her there, almost said nothing at all, as if that were the only gift she could offer, the only tenderness possible between them. But then Erin saw Beth’s schoolbag leaning against the wall, she lifted her head and listened for her sounds of her sister in the house. Silence echoed back at her, mocking. She shoved her hands into her pockets and swallowed, hard.
“Where’s Beth?” she asked loudly.
Janet started awake, gasping. Her eyes shut, then opened again. They looked like an animal’s, trapped. “You scared me,” Janet said.
“Sorry. Where’s Beth?” Erin clamped her lips together, tried to bring her voice down, tried not to yell.
“With your father. He came late, no surprise.”
“You let him take her?” Erin pushed her fists against her thighs until they hurt. “Was he drinking?”
“How should I know?” Janet asked. “It’s impossible to tell, except when he’s angry.”
“You let Beth go out with him and you don’t even know if he was sober? Christ, what’s the matter with you, Mom?”
“It’s our new agreement. He gave me back some money and I agreed—”
“Is there anything you won’t sell to get more money?”
“Lower your voice, Erin. You can’t come in here using language like that—”
“Right. I can’t say anything. I’m just supposed to watch you destroy my sister.”
Janet stood up, folding the book carefully, without taking her eyes from Erin’s face. “What do you think I should have done?”
“How about driving her to meet him, and then picking her up?”
“Well maybe if you had been here instead of out doing whatever else it is you do—”
The back door swung open. “Mom?” Beth called.
Janet and Erin stared at each other.
“Janet?” Thomas’ loud footsteps sounded on the kitchen floor. “Beth,” he said. “Maybe they went Christmas shopping.”
“I’m out of here.” Erin hissed, turning on one booted foot and taking three long, quiet strides toward the stairs.
Janet kept her eyes on Erin’s face. “We’re in the living room,” she called out. “Erin’s here. Come on in.”
Erin reached the first step, took the next two in a leap.
“Hello, Erin,” Thomas said. “You should have come with us. It was fun, right Beth?”
Erin turned her head so fast her braid hit her in the mouth. Thomas stood across the room, in a brown turtleneck and jeans, his cheeks pink from the cold. Though he’d lost weight, his body filled the doorway—muscled shoulders, football player’s wide neck, girth resting on a wide leather belt. Beth, half-hiding behind him, peered around, her face scrunched up. She opened her mouth, looked at her sister, but no words came out. Heat brushed Erin’s cheeks. She tried not to look at her father, his thick muscles, the plea in his eyes—tried not to hear the soft note in his voice, the one that appeared only when he spoke to her. She clenched her fists, stepped up to the next stair.
Beth tugged on Thomas’ shirt. “I want to show you something,” she said, glancing back and forth between Thomas and her sister. “In the kitchen.”
“Erin?” Thomas held out a hand. “Can we call a truce? It’s been a really long time.”
She looked up. His off-center blue eyes—clear, her mind noted, not bloodshot—held hers. But as he moved toward her, she stepped up again and shook her head.
“Say hello to your father, Erin,” Janet said. “He’s been wanting to talk to you, you know.”
Erin glanced at her mother, saw immediately the flood of color rising through her mother’s neck to her pinched face. But Janet stared back, not giving an inch.
“Not to bother you, Erin,” Thomas said quickly. “But Beth tells me all the thing you’ve been doing. Everything you always said you’d do. She says you speak half a dozen languages and you’ve got another degree…I always knew you could do whatever you wanted, but this, the whole world—”
“Stop it. Please.” Erin bit down hard on her lower lip.
“Listen to your father, Erin,” Janet said. “He should have a chance, don’t you think?”
Erin didn’t turn her head.
“Your father gave me back the sleeping bag you covered him with the other night,” Janet added. “Obviously you care about him.”
Erin felt the blood drain from her face as she looked at her father, as if she could cry out to him, tell him to make her mother stop. Thomas lifted his hands helplessly. She dug her fists into her eyes to stop their burning, but suddenly she was fourteen again and she could see strippers and then, like a single frame of a movie, her parent’s bedroom door opening, the light falling over her father’s chest, pale skin, the glint of thick red-gold hair. The sound of her mother’s sobbing. The tears on her own face.
“Mom, Erin’s crying,” Beth said.
“I never meant to hurt you,” Thomas told her. “I never meant to hurt anyone.” His voice shook.
“Yes,” Erin said. “You did.” Erin looked at her mother. “It used to be you. Before me, remember? Before I helped you—”
Janet’s face went so pale Erin thought she might faint. But then the two spots of colors appeared on her cheekbones. “No,” Janet said. “Don’t say that—”
Erin turned back up the stairs, took the rest of them two at a time. Behind her, she could hear Thomas walking out into the hallway, calling her name, saying please, saying, I love you, Erin, can’t we please forget the past, I won’t do those things again.
She couldn’t hear any more. Throwing herself on her bed, she cried as she hadn’t since she was a child, gasping for breath between sobs, hands over her face until she started to panic, her chest constricting, the breaths tearing in and out of her lungs. She curled tight, drew her legs up under her chin. She tried not to breathe.
Outside, in the hallway, light footsteps tapped slowly toward her room. She heard knuckles on the door, softly at first, then louder.
“Erin?” Beth asked, opening the door. Her face was so white Erin could see each separate freckle, even through her tears. Beth took three quick steps to the bed and crawled in, sliding her arm over Erin’s trembling back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Jesus Beth, you’d think it was your fault.”
Beth moved away. Erin rolled over, her face aimed at the ceiling, but she could smell pizza in the fibers of her sister’s green sweater; peripherally, she saw a faint red stain at the end of her sister’s sleeve. She grabbed Beth’s hand.
“Mom and I were fighting, okay? It’s not your fault our parents are assholes. I can’t stand it when you blame yourself.”
“I brought him home,” Beth whispered.
“How the hell else were you going to get here?”
“Sometimes I wish I’d never been born,” Beth said, sitting up so the red tights over her legs bagged loose at the knees. “Maybe then Mom wouldn’t have had to stay—”
“Maybe then I’d be locked up in an insane asylum.” Erin sat up, swung her legs over the side of the bed, wiped her face with her T-shirt.
“But nothing, Beth,” Erin said. “We’re getting the fuck—oops, sorry. We’re getting the hell out of here. Go steal Mom’s car keys. I don’t care what she says.”
Beth stood up. Her eyes were red, her skin blotched. The white Christmas tree on her sweater hung stiff away from the wool. She looked so hurt that Erin pulled her into a rough hug, held her tightly for a moment before pushing her toward the door. Beth moved slowly from the room. Erin stood up, sighing, and followed her. Past the bathroom they paused, listening for voices, but silence echoed up the stairs. Outside, an engine turned over. Gravel pinged up against the undercarriage of their father’s car as he drove it toward the dirt lane, back to Portsmouth.
“Free at last,” Erin said.
Beth looked up and said nothing. Her eyes, changing as Erin watched, to a darker, harder green, filled with water. Beth shook her head and walked down the stairs. Her shoulders heaved under her sweater. Erin reached a hand out, but Beth shrugged her off.
“You don’t understand,” Beth said. “You don’t understand anything.”
“Then tell me.” Erin turned Beth around, lifted her chin. Her sister’s eyes, swollen and red, bored into hers. “You’re mad,” Erin said. “I didn’t know you were mad.”
“They hate each other and you hate both of them. I’m the only one who doesn’t hate and I can’t stand it. Sometimes I wish you’d all just shut up.”
Erin’s hand dropped to her side. “I won’t talk about them any more,” she said softly. “I promise. I didn’t know.”
Beth watched her, searching her face. She nodded to herself. “I can’t go with you though,” Beth said. “I have to go see about Mom.”
Erin’s brows furrowed and she opened her mouth. Beth stared. “Okay,” Erin finally said. “If that’s what you want.”
* * *
It snowed Christmas Eve, leaving Erin stranded with her mother and sister. She took Beth out for a snowball fight. They didn’t talk much; and Erin watched her sister carefully. At first, Beth lifted the snow with her hands flat and open, her mouth closed in a straight line. Then, Erin tugged off Beth’s pink knit cap. Honey hair tumbled out; cheeks pink, Beth chased Erin until she tripped over the edge of the driveway and fell down. Then Beth shoved snow down her leather jacket. Erin ran after her, yelling. Only on the way back in the house, when Erin’s fingers and feet were numb with cold, her T-shirt soaked under her jacket, did Beth speak.
“Don’t worry so much,” Beth said, her eyes studying the snow at her feet. “It’s okay if you really need to talk to me about Dad or something. I didn’t mean what I said.”
Erin bit down hard on her lip. “It does matter,” she said. She went inside, changed her shirt, socks and gloves, and came out again to shovel the walks and driveway, giving Beth a lopsided grin and pat on the shoulder as she opened the back door. She didn’t know what else to do.
Outside, her boots crunched over gravel and the crisp coating of ice. She dug the shovel in, lifted it, her muscles straining as she cleared the steps to the front porch, the walkway, her sides and armpits pouring sweat. Maine had woven its blanket of white over the trees, their house, the field of marsh and grass. Silence hung in the thick sky, in the covered branches; even the sound of the sea seemed muffled by the snow. Erin lifted the last shovelful of heavy white slush, glad for the pain in her muscles, a distraction from the growing dark inside her. When she stomped into the kitchen, rubbing her cold hands together, Janet brought her hot chocolate, and talked about church, the priests, some new computer trick she’d figured out with email. Sitting at the kitchen table, Erin cupped the mug in her hands, bent her head to inhale its steam. Her mother’s voice droned on. From the upstairs came the sound of pop music on Beth’s stereo.
In the large front living room, family presents sat piled around the tree Thomas had brought over. The gaudy colors—red and green, gold and blue—on the wrapping, along with tinsel and the smell of pine, enlivened the room. Making an excuse to her mother, Erin walked in for the hundredth time and eyed the biggest box, which was wrapped in three sheets of unmatched Christmas paper and tagged with her name. It looked like Thomas’ handwriting, with only the from Beth in different script. Erin could almost smell the earth of new leather mingling with the sharp bite of pine, but no matter how many times she stared at the box, it didn’t go away.
* * *
On Christmas morning Erin pulled on jeans and an old sweatshirt, edged quietly down the stairs, and tucked the box far behind the tree. An hour later, Beth came down wrapped in her favorite pink robe, twin to their mother’s. She looked like a blonde angel, and Janet, following, like a madonna. Janet came quietly to the couch, where she sat with her legs crossed, hands folded in her lap. Erin plugged in the green cord of the tree lights, and it began: Beth exclaiming over each gift, jumping up to hug first Erin—for the IPod—then Janet.
Erin opened gifts from her mother with cold white fingers, head bent to hide her reaction. The cell phone and charger, she set aside. She bit down on her lower lip, and opened a small box that held gold hoop earrings; she didn’t have pierced ears and didn’t intend to get them. Her head snapped up, but Beth handed her the gifts she’d bought: a small flashlight for camping and a biography of Margaret Meade, who had always been Erin’s hero. Erin took a deep breath and smiled at her sister, who sat surrounded by open boxes. When Beth smiled back, Erin pushed her gifts from Janet back under the tree. A shower of pine needles fell over them. Janet watched, her face pinched and white, her unblinking eyes fastened at a point just over Erin’s head. She stayed that way, unmoving except for her hands, which folded the same piece of ribbon over and over again, until it was small enough to fit between her fingers. Erin pulled Janet’s unopened presents from under the tree, piled them near her mother’s feet. Janet’s eyes glanced down, then quickly away.
“Come on,” Erin said. “They won’t bite or anything, Mom.”
Janet lips turned up at the corners, an attempt at a smile. After a long moment, she picked up a gift and began breaking the pieces of tape with her fingernails, folding the paper carefully and laying it on the couch. Finally, she pulled a wool skirt from its tissue paper wrappings and held it up in the air. Her face grew tight; she didn’t look at Erin or speak, but kept opening the boxes. Finally, after the third box, she held up a sweater the exact green of her eyes.
“Oh, Erin,” she said. “They’re so…nice. I haven’t had new…they’re so expensive.”
Erin’s shoulders relaxed. “Consider them your new work clothes,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll get be more responsible than anyone they’ve ever even heard of.”
Janet didn’t answer. Erin caught a glimpse of her mother’s eyes filling before her head dropped. Her thin hands turned up in her lap. Neither of them spoke. Erin looked frantically around the room, searching for the windows and doors. It was Beth who got up and put an arm around Janet’s shoulders, bending forward so their two blonde heads leaned together, Beth who made them change into Christmas clothes—Erin let Beth tie a green ribbon at the end of her braid, though she wore her uniform T-shirt and jeans—Beth who started a card game by the tree until the afternoon dinner was almost ready.
“There’s another present,” Beth whispered after Janet left the room. She leaned forward, the gold bells hung on her red sweater jingling like tiny chimes. “For you, Erin. It’s from Dad and me.”
“Dad?” Erin asked, frowning.
“It’s mostly from me please open it I know you’ll love it and I want you to have it please!”
Erin dragged the box toward her slowly. “You wrapped it?” she asked.
Erin tore at the sheets of unmatched paper in quick sudden motions, then opened the box and pulled out the leather jacket. She sat still, the material crushed tight in her arms, its thick smell familiar in her nostrils. Her body began to go numb—a spreading sensation that started in her chest and pushed outward, until she couldn’t feel Beth, or their house, or her mother in the kitchen. In her mind, she stood alone in the cold, looking down at a sleeping man with red hair a shade darker than her own.
“Try it on,” Beth said. “I bet it will fit.”
“It fits,” Erin said, but she slid her arms into the jacket’s black sleeves, knowing, as she did so, she couldn’t give it back, especially after her promise to Beth. He had her.
Beth drew her knees up under her chin, the dark gold of her hair falling over her shoulders. Her sea eyes studied Erin’s face eagerly. Erin tried to smile.
“It’s only perfect,” Erin told her. “You want to keep my old one for me?”
Beth frowned. “Why can’t you keep it?”
“Nevermind, there’s more,” Beth said. “Look in the box.”
Janet came back and stood in the doorway. She, too, had changed to a red and green dress, decorated with trim of Christmas plaid. Erin held out her arms, turned the collar of the black jacket up over the white of her shirt.
“Wonder how much that cost him,” Janet said. “But it looks good on you, Erin.”
Erin exhaled loudly, blowing up her bangs. Without looking at her mother she turned back to the box. She pulled out the chaps, and was surprised to see, beneath them, a hardcover book. She picked it up.
“The Road from Courain,” she read out loud. She flipped open the front cover to read the jacket, and ten hundred dollar bills started to slip out. Ten. She could see their green faces fanning open. Touching them gingerly with a forefinger, she moved them aside and read what Thomas had written.
First payment on a debt long overdue, he’d written on a white card. Get a Ph.D. in anthropology like you’ve always wanted or a motorcycle or take yourself somewhere like the Outback she describes in this book. I’m sorry. I love you, Dad.
Erin’s breath caught in her throat. Her hands tightened on the book and her face blotched red. For a moment, she wanted to trust him, wanted to forget so she could believe the gift came without barter or obligation; and she could see what the money would buy her: the beaches in Cancun or in Sydney, the train passes, the weeks of waking up to any destination she wanted. She fanned through a few pages, biting down on her lower lip. She rubbed the money between her fingers. The numbness faded. Now she just felt cold.
When she looked up, both Beth and Janet were staring. Erin held up the money; Janet took a step forward and held her hand out, palm up.
“He’s trying to give you my money,” Janet said, her voice rising.
“He says he owes it to me,” Erin whispered. She put the money back into the book and closed it, her hands trembling.
“He doesn’t owe you anything.”
“You said he should have asked me before he took it out of the account.”
“I think you better take that back.” Erin rose and stepped forward. “Thomas is not the only one who never gave me a dime toward school.”
“You had your scholarships. You didn’t need money.”
Erin knuckles gleamed like bony moons over the shiny tan cover of the book. “I lived on boxed macaroni and cheese and had to work to pay for that. For the first couple years, my scholarship only covered tuition. I was poor. I even went to food pantries. Twice.” Her eyes drilled into her mother’s. “Take it back.”
“Mom,” Beth started to say.
“Bethie, please stay out of this,” Erin said. “If she’ll just take it back, we can end this, and have your Christmas.”
“It’s my money.” Janet crossed her arms. “You’ve never needed anything. Why can’t you let me have it?”
“I never needed anything?”
“You’re so independent. You’re always saying.”
“I’m not giving it to you.” Erin tucked the book under the new jacket, holding it tight to her side as she picked up the chaps. “You can rot in hell without it. I’m sorry I ever helped you, you hear?” She was screaming. “Since he can beat the shit out of me whenever you get pissed at me no matter what I’ve done for you and neither of you owe me anything and I can just take care of myself. I wish I’d let him take every penny.” Hot tears burned the skin on her face. Turning, Erin made for the stairs. “At least he knows what I like,” she said. Then she looked at Beth. Backed up against the living room wall, Beth was sobbing, her skirt crumpled in her fists.
“It’s Christmas,” she said softly.
“I’m sorry, Beth,” Erin said. “I’m just…sorry.” She turned and walked up the stairs, slowly, this time, as if her body might break apart, skin, muscles, bone, fraying into the white silence of the house. This time, as she sat against the headboard with her father’s gifts in her arms, no one came. She found herself listening for his footsteps, for the sound of a car in the drive, for the way he’d opened the bedroom door to look for her, his thick hand on the gold knob, red hairs gleaming over freckled flesh, hands that would smooth her hair, lay cool cloth on her bruises. But that was gone for good, taken by a cold night, a bar, by her mother’s whimpers from behind a bedroom door. She gripped the leather jacket, told herself it was right not to love him. The room grew dark, and she sat still, trying to banish all memory. In her mind, she painted pictures of Mexico—beach hotels, sand, wide stretches of water. Slowly, she built the world around her, took herself away from winter. When the last piece fell into place, when she was speaking Spanish to a woman who leaned toward her, flashing power and dark eyes, Janet’s quick raps sounded on the door.
“Don’t come in.” Erin pulled her knees to her chest. “I don’t want to talk to you.”
“I saved you dinner,” Janet said.
“Right.” Erin buried her face in the leather skin of the chaps.
“It’s Christmas, Erin.”
“Right,” Erin said again. “It’s my fault, isn’t that what you came up here to tell me?”
“I want you to come down.” Janet voice started to fade. “That’s what I wanted to say. I really wish you would. So does Beth.” Footsteps sounded on the hall floor as she walked away.
Erin got up, put the book carefully on the bed, and went to stand at the window, hugging the new jacket tight over her ribs. Outside, the forked limbs of trees bent toward the frozen ground, laden with their burden of snow. She knew exactly how heavy the snow felt, exactly the toll it took, the way the branches might freeze, break away completely. Calls of the last gulls sounded in the distance. She went back to the bed, took the money from the crisp new pages of the book and slipped it into the inside pocket of the coat. She patted it down. This might be the closest Janet had ever come to an apology, but Erin would decide about the money. No more games, she thought.
When she went downstairs to the kitchen table, Beth climbed onto her lap and buried her swollen face in Erin’s neck. “It’s okay,” Erin said. She looked up at Janet. For the time their eyes connected, Erin could see her mother knew it wasn’t. Maybe, Erin thought, she’d finally admit it never had been.
* * *
The next day, Janet went on her interview and was offered the job on the spot. After cooking the celebratory dinner, doing dishes and vacuuming the house, Erin got her father’s address from Beth. She borrowed Janet’s car and drove to his apartment in the second floor of an old Victorian near the water. She sat outside for a moment, slipping the money into a bank envelope, trying not to think of what she was doing, trying not to listen to the voice inside her that said she could take it, leave, never have to deal with him and whatever price he’d try to exact from the gift. She looked down at her leather-covered forearms and shook her head. The jacket, she knew, was bad enough. Tensing, she pushed open the car door quickly, forced herself to walk in the front door, climb the carpeted stairs, knocking snow from her boots as she looked from side to side. At the top of the stairs, a hallway stretched to the left, holding three doors, but right in front of her the rich smell of steak, the sound of her father humming an old tune from South Pacific identified his home as clearly as a name tag. She slid the narrow envelope under the door and took the stairs down two at a time. The singing stopped, but no doors opened, no voice called for her to return.
Later, at Collette’s, she sat at the bar alone, her pale hair hidden beneath her black jacket, shoulders slumped, a shot glass of Jim Beam in her hand. She drank three in a row, tipping her head back each time in a rough jerk. Finally, she switched to beer. The next morning she barely remembered the face of the woman she kissed in one of the bar’s dark hallways, the woman she made love to on the back seat of her mother’s car.
The next night, she went to Collette’s again, and threw up in an alley before driving home. It became a daily pattern in the week between Christmas and the New Year—tequila, Jim Beam, her blue-jeaned legs sliding from beneath her, bruises from the falls, and then the different women, hallways, making out on barstools, even going home to strange apartments. Finally, early New Year’s Eve, after Erin had played pool until she couldn’t stand, then taken a seat at the bar, the bartender told her she couldn’t have any more to drink. Not only that, the woman wouldn’t let her drive. She phoned Patti, who walked into Collette’s ten minutes later, her round face serious, hair clumped up over her ears.
“You should have called me,” Patti told Erin.
Erin lifted a shot glass and finished the last drops. “On my new cell phone, with its family plan, I could call you,” she said.
“Could have had a thousand bucks to drink up,” Erin said. “Christmas present from Dear Old Dad, along with this lovely jacket.” She slid her arms into the sleeves hanging on the barstool and shrugged the jacket onto her shoulders. “Gave the money back to the asshole.”
“You did what?”
“Kept the jacket,” Erin answered, running a hand through her bangs. “Had Beth give it to me, but she doesn’t want me to say anything bad about him.”
“Phone’s from Mom. Can’t give that back either.”
“They sure know how to get you, don’t they?”
“Beth needs to get out of there,” Erin said. “But if I take her, it’s kidnapping. I’ll spend my life in jail and my mother will have everything—”
“Okay.” Patti zipped the leather up gently, her head tipped back to look into Erin’s face. “Please don’t puke,” she said. “That’s all I ask.” She tugged Erin’s braid out from under her collar.
“Puked last night,” Erin said, lurching to her feet. “Or the night before.”
“I need someone to drive her car,” Patti said to the bartender.
“I will,” a woman at the end of the bar said as she stood up. “As long as it’s not too far.”
“York,” Patti told her. “Ten minutes, tops.”
“I wish you were my mother,” Erin said to Patti, leaning against her as they left the bar.
“I’m a bit young,” Patti answered. “But I think the job description fits, at least tonight.”
In the truck, Erin opened the passenger window and leaned her head out as they drove up the highway, and then onto the back roads. Her peach hair streamed out of her braid; her face grew numb with cold. She wanted to talk to Patti, but the motion of the truck made her stomach churn; all she could think about was getting air, lots of it, into her lungs. Finally, back at Patti’s apartment, Erin lay on the couch.
“I don’t get like this when I’m not here,” she muttered to Patti. “I swear. I don’t.”
“Sshh,” Patti told her. “Sleep.”
“You don’t believe me,” Erin said.
Patti didn’t answer. She left the room and came back a minute later carrying a blanket, which she spread over Erin’s body. Erin watched Patti as the room began to spin. She pushed one booted foot off the couch, planted it on the floor. It helped. A little.
* * *
In the morning, hungover, Erin listened as Patti told her about the bar gossip, about the women Erin had slept with, two of whom Patti knew. “Did I hear you right yesterday?” Patti asked. “You gave your father back a thousand dollars?”
“Nobody gets to buy me,” Erin said. “I have money from Japan. And I’m don’t make deals with the devil. Besides, there’s nothing in this world he could do to make everything all better.” Sitting in the narrow kitchen, a morning beer in front of her, Erin watched the frost spreading its cobwebs over the kitchen windows. She lifted her beer and took a long swallow.
“I don’t know. I think you should take it and say fuck him.”
Erin stared straight ahead without moving.
“Sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”
Erin didn’t answer.
“You sure you don’t want him to make it up to you?”
“Did I ever tell you,” Erin asked. “about the time my father took me to a strip joint?”
“Your family is fucking weird. Catholicism and strip joints.” Patti shook her head. “At least my holy rollers are consistent.”
“I hate your family,” Erin said. “I have fantasies about burning their precious bibles right in front of their eyes.”
“You ever do, I’ll help,” Patti said. She looked at Erin. “Tell me about the strip joint.”
“Strippers are bad luck. That’s what I decided. For me, they are the worst possible luck.”
“Erin,” Patti said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What happened when your Dad took you to the strip joint?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s just, that’s the reason for everything.”
“You ever think that God is some kind of crazy freak who just keeps making the same things happen over and over again?”
“Erin. You’re scaring me.”
Erin looked at Patti then, really looked. Then she sighed and drank the rest of her beer in one long gulp.
“The strip joint?” Patti asked.
“It was the last time I ever went riding with him,” Erin said. “I used to love that. We went everywhere—camping, restaurants, bars, you name it. He was like…he was my best friend before you.”
“Ever since I’ve known you he’s beaten the crap out of you.”
“Yeah, well. Things changed. Anyhow, this one day he decided to go to Massachusetts, God knows why. Usually we rode up north, taking back roads. Hey, remember the time I stole his bike and gave you a ride?”
Patti nodded. “I remember your bruises after he found out the next day, too,” she said.
“Right,” Erin said. “The usual.” She got up to get another beer. “Anyhow, we went to Saugus, God knows why. The ugliest strip in Boston. He took me out to eat at that huge Polynesian restaurant. He drank Mai Tais. I was supposed to be drinking a virgin pina colada, but he bought a shot of rum and spiked it. We were there for hours. One reason is, he decides to tell me the entire story of his childhood. He grew up the youngest of eight boys. His brothers used to chase him around with sticks in the woods behind their house. Sometimes when they caught him they’d tie him up and leave him there for hours. Once they took his pants off and made him walk home in his underwear. Like something out of Lord of the Flies.” Erin paused. “I felt so sorry for him. He was sort of shaking when he talked about it and he got all intense.”
“Poor him,” Patti said.
“I think they really hurt him. His mother didn’t stop it, either.” She looked down at her hands, then back up. “That kind of thing, it can really fuck you up.”
“He’s still an asshole.”
“Yeah. I mean, right.” Erin gulped her beer. “Anyhow, when we finally left the place, it was dark. He only drove about 500 yards up the road before he we pulled into the parking lot of this bar—the Long John something—and he walked inside.”
Erin stopped for a moment, tightened her hand on the beer, feeling the cold bite into her palm. The woman’s pelvis, the hoots of the men, the way she’d shrunk into herself. She took a sharp breath, drank some more beer, shook her head from side to side.
“Erin?” Patti asked.
“I’m fine.” Erin looked out the frosted window. She held out her arm, watched the dim light fall down its length like a sleeve. She didn’t even have to shut her eyes and the highway stretched before her, trucks and cars passing, her father’s body behind her, leaning back, the bulk of him so hard to balance. She could feel inside her the old determination, to make it, to hold on, to keep him safe.
“I hate talking about this,” she said.
“No, it’s not, Patti. That night was the first time he hit me.”
“God. How old were you?”
Erin shook her head. “That’s what I mean. About strippers and bad luck. In Thailand the women do tricks, did you know that? With ping pong balls and razor blades, shoving things inside them while the men watch, I went into this bar by accident—”
“And you know, back when I went with my father, I used to think if I could just do the right thing, I could make things stop, make them different …I don’t know. My mother. Me. Someone. And it’s all so fucking stupid. I mean, think of all the mythic heroes. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. King Arthur was offed by his own son. So why do I keep trying—”
“God, I hate when you talk like this.”
“Like everything I do is just shit, you know?”
“But when you try, people know you care.”
Erin looked at the floor, began tracing the tiles with one booted toe.
“You make things different, Erin. For me. And your sister. You make that little girl’s world better, Erin. You know you do.”
Erin opened her mouth, then closed it. She leaned her head down on two tight fists. “Fine,” she said without looking up. “Maybe I do something for Beth. But I’ll tell you this much. You can’t ever expect a reward. Because I stood up for my mother. And that’s when things changed. They got worse. Not for her. For me.”
“You stood up for her?”
“I just…I just…I don’t know. He was…out of control.” The legs of the kitchen chair scraped against the linoleum as Erin turned away. “Now she wants me to give her money. And, I can’t just fix everything, Patti. I can’t.”
“You don’t have to—”
“No, I mean, I have to get out of here—”
“Just come stay with me—”
“Patti. They’re killing me.”
Patti looked at her. “I hate to say it,” she finally said, reaching out a hand and pulling Erin into a hug. “But I think you may be right.”
* * *
The next afternoon, Patti dropped Erin at home. She leaned forward before Erin got out of the truck, gripped Erin’s forearms with her small chunky hands, and stared into Erin’s pale blue eyes.
“God knows I want you around,” Patti said, the flesh of her cheeks pale in the winter sunlight coming over the dash. She squinted—against sun or tears, Erin couldn’t tell. “But if you don’t hit the road, I’m going to come get you and buy you a plane ticket myself.”
“Really?” Erin said, her mouth starting to twist.
“I mean it.” Patti gripped her tighter. “We’re all each other’s got, right? Family is shit and lovers leave. You promised me.”
“That I’d never leave you, if you don’t count traveling around the world.” Erin remembered, the summer after high school—she’d been living in Provincetown with Rachel—and Patti’s parents had kicked her out of the house without even a bag of clothes. Erin had called in sick to work, borrowed a car and driven up to Maine the same day. On the way back, Patti had hooked her thumbs over the belt of her hip-huggers, leaned her head back against the top of the vinyl seat, and closed her eyes. She’d made Erin promise they’d never blow each other off, never lose touch. No matter what, Patti had said, sitting up suddenly, sweat staining the armpits of her black Annie DiFranco T-shirt, a small roll of fat pressed over her belt. Erin had promised, then taken Patti to the tiny apartment on Commercial Street where the three of them had lived until September, when Erin and Rachel had moved to school.
“Erin, no one who knows you could ever believe you’d live a normal life. Travel all you want, just let me know where you are. Which country, I mean,” Patti said. “Give me the number of your damn cell phone.” She let go of Erin’s arms, pulled her into a hug. Erin felt the soft folds of her friend’s stomach, smelled the shampoo in her hair. She hugged Patti back, hard. Then she punched her lightly on the arm.
“I’ll be fine,” Erin said. “Take care of yourself and make that woman treat you right.” She got out, listened to the gravel spin from under the truck’s wheels as she waved good-bye. Straightening her shoulders, she walked toward her mother’s house.
She stepped in the back door, her jeans smelling of smoke, her mouth thick and heavy with the beer she’d been drinking since morning, her promise to Patti loud in her own ears. Janet and Beth both turned to her, and she was suddenly aware of the circles under her eyes, the fact that she’d disappeared without calling them.
Janet crossed her arms over her chest. She was still dressed for work, the blue silk of her dress falling liquid past her knees. “Well, look who decided to show up,” she said.
“How come you go out every night?” Beth asked. “I don’t even have school and I never see you.” Beth’s face flushed, but she wouldn’t look away.
“I just wanted to see my friends, I guess.” Erin turned to her mother. “It’s time for me to move on,” she said, unable to look at Beth. “As soon as the roads clear, I’m heading to Mexico. I can get a bus to Arizona from here.”
Beth turned her back and stared out the window.
“Fine,” Janet said, turning back to the sink, her hands moving slowly under the faucet, rinsing off cups.
“Maybe we need you to stay, Erin. Did you even think of that?” Janet asked.
“Why? So you can use me to get money from Dad?”
“I’d think you’d be happy to help your sister.”
Erin looked at Beth’s back, the shaking of her shoulders under her Christmas sweater and lifted her hands. “Beth? I can’t. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I can’t. ”
Janet turned off the water and dried her hands. “People change their minds,” she said. “Every day.”
“No,” Erin answered. She folded her arms over her chest, her jaw set.
Janet placed cups in the dishwasher in orderly rows. “If you weren’t going so far we could come visit you,” she said. “If you stayed in this country, for example. I could at least call you when I wanted, no charge.”
“I don’t like this country,” Erin said. “And you never called me before.”
“Things change, Erin.”
They stared at each other. Erin looked away, saw Beth standing at the window, walked over, reached out an arm, and touched her sister’s shoulder. When Beth wouldn’t look at her, Erin pressed her hand to the glass and felt the cold sink into the palms of her hands. “Beth?” She bent down, but her sister turned away.
Erin sighed. “I bet they love you at that job,” she said to her mother.
Janet closed the dishwasher without answering.
Erin turned back to her sister. She pulled Beth to her, even though Beth struggled, flailing her arms to get away. “I’d take you with me if I could,” Erin said.
Beth twisted away. “No,” she said, turning her back again. “I’m staying with my Mom.”
Erin looked at her sister’s back, at her mother’s, at the hanging copper pans, the stenciling. She couldn’t breathe, as if Beth had lanced her, pinned her in place. No one spoke. Slowly, slowly, Erin started to back out of the room. “I’m sorry,” she said. Then she ran up the stairs to her room.
“They have a saying about people who keep running away,” Janet called after her. “Things catch up with you sooner or later. You ought to think about that.”
Erin, blindly shoving socks and rolled up T-shirts on top of the chaps in the bottom of her bag, tears rolling down her face, blocked her ears and thought of beaches, panels of sunlight, the contours of sand smoothing out beneath her body. “Mejico,” she whispered. “Mejico.”