My Brother


I published this poem at least 20 years ago.

Whispering to Each Other in the the Darkness

I turn off the car radio and sit
with my brother in the darkness
of a Pennsylvania winter. He is crying
and I am looking at the moon. He asks

me to stay, he begs to come with me.
Across the stiff grass is tin shed
that protects him from sudden beatings.
I have been the one to find him, his knees

tucked beneath his chin, dark hair swept
over his forehead, legs that won’t stop
shaking. I have led him inside, my arms
hung around his shoulders like a shawl.

Now, we sit without speaking, and I
am thinking of the warmth of milk
tested against my wrist, the brushes
he pulled through my hair, dolls caps

I placed on his head. “You are my real
mother,” he says. Fingers of streetlight
briefly touch our wet faces,
shadows clasped tight in our arms.

You Can’t Get There from Here: Chapter Five


You Can’t Get There from Here

by Lyralen Kaye

Chapter Five

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—”

“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.

Beth nodded.

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?”

Erin sighed.

“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.”

“What?”

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

Patti whistled.

“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?”

Erin nodded.

“You nuts?”

“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.”

“Erin!”

“It’s just, that’s the reason for everything.”

“For what?”

“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.

“It’s okay.”

“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—”

“Jesus, Erin!”

“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.

“Mom—”

“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.”

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.

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.

Family Legacies


I don’t know how people do families.  I mean, seriously.

Take me, for example.  I don’t do family well AT ALL.  I barely do my in-laws.  I find all the relationships and intersections and anger and history so overwhelming.

I have always admired Thoreau.  And anyone else who takes off and lives alone for years.  (Though his mother did bring him food.  I love the idea of being a hermit who gets free takeout.  I could fully embrace the idea, especially if my partner had the next cave over, because she is the one person I don’t care to do without for more than say,  5-10 days at the outside.  When we’re getting along, that is.  But adjoining caves with free takeout?  Sign me up.)

Anyhow, I have recently had the opportunity to see myself reflected in my family members, and I am struck, more than anything else, by our competition and arrogance.  I mean, first of all, I have known for at least a decade that competition, constant comparing and keeping a score sheet, and thinking I’m better than other people, were persistent problems in the way I construct the world.  And, okay, I’m one of six, so the competition was going to be a given under the best of circumstances…and it wasn’t the best of circumstances, believe me.

I will say, speaking of my own arrogance and my struggle to get a lot more honest about what it covers up, that the piece I can’t let go of is thinking that I’m the smartest person in the room.  Well, the city, probably.  Maybe the state.  Who knows.  The universe?  It’s not out of the question.

And my ridiculous memory makes it look that way a lot.  My partner has no memory to speak of (although she has an incredible talent for finding things I’ve lost), but what I’ve learned is that she is often wise, caring and decent.  She’s also much more intelligent than she gives herself credit for.  I find that while we laugh at my arrogance and are able to hold it lightly, this is only possible because I respect her kindness and really want to know her view on things.  There are many kinds of intelligence.  My partner is a deeply emotionally intelligent person.  (Except when she’s not, and boy do I remember every single one of those times.)

Anyhow, I am beginning to see that the sibling competition(which comes from wanting love and attention that was just plain unavailable) leads to arrogance.  Basically, in my family, everyone thinks they’re better than everyone else.  The sober ones think they’re better than the drinkers, and the drinkers think the sober ones are conformist bores, and the religious ones think they are morally superior, and the ones in therapy think they’re better than the ones not in therapy and the thin ones think they’re better than the heavy ones and for all I know the men with hair think they’re better than the bald ones.  Any excuse.  The comparisons never end.

Because I have avoided my family so assiduously, I thought I was the only one who was so ridiculously screwed up and arrogant, but with just a little bit of contact in the last 6 weeks, I’ve learned it really is a family condition.  I’d love to write a play in which there was a multi-media component advertising the thoughts of all members of this huge family in which they’re secretly comparing and judging.  Only of course it’s not a secret and everyone’s hurt that they’re being judged and judging each other even worse to defend themselves against the hurt of feeling judged.

Human beings are truly insane.  All of us.

I would like to cop to the fact that with my family, I have a lot of one-up thinking.  And yet I can see that some of my relatives have good things in their lives that I wish I had–even if I don’t like their behavior otherwise.  And I can certainly see that when it comes to being complicated, difficult and high maintenance, I can hang in with the best of them.  Especially the complicated part, I like to think, but here it is, me constructing the world, so who knows what is true and where I’m letting myself off the hook.

I don’t know how we do families.  Maybe people just love each other without the pain and angst that fuel the competition and arrogance in my family.  I don’t know.  I kind of doubt it.  So I am just grateful, every day, that I am allowed not to know, and that I can watch myself constructing the universe and laugh about it enough that in the end I have a brief opportunity to just get present and know one right thing at a time.

On my good days, that is.  I’m hoping this is one of them.

Metta for all of us, in and out of families, doing our best to find love instead of competition, wanting so much to belong to something that we hope will last.

Metta.  I can’t change any of it, maybe not even myself, but still, metta.  Peace.