I half-expect Chris to be draped in an American flag like a patriotic version of Jesus. Since enlisting, he’s all pro-war now, existing in a blind state of sacrosanctity. He shits red, white, and blue, and has Uncle Sam on speed dial. They grab beers together, talk sports. Bald and uniformed, no one would know that just last week Chris lit illegal fireworks off his parent’s pontoon and drank vodka tonics before noon. That he suffocated lizards and shot small dogs with bb-guns, gratified a Wendy’s. Growing up, his parents thought he was going to be a serial killer, not a soldier. Now, he tucks his shirts in and says, “Yes, ma’am.” Ana saw him help an old lady cross the street, so I guess Chris is a regular boy scout now.
Back when we were together, Chris never pulled out. I used to resent him for this, but I don’t anymore. I wouldn’t have minded getting pregnant, not really. It would have been a nine-month holiday of glazed donuts, pickles drenched in peanut butter, being lazy. I could have handled the morning sickness, the swollen feet, the back aches, the weight gain. I would have survived. I think about dying my hair neon green so my conservative family can discuss it behind my back. But boxed dye never lasts, and I hate wearing those plastic gloves. It’s not like I would be a good mom or anything. I’m not an idiot. Moms have ponytails that swoosh and schedule doctor’s appointments and eat fresh fruit. They floss. I barely remember to brush my teeth. Ana says Cadet Chris is coming over around 2. I hope to have an aneurysm before 2.
Outside, Dad’s nose is already peeling. His cap is on backwards, and he’s wearing a cutoff tank, the one with the bald eagle on it. His smile expands beyond his face as he fires up the grill. I haven’t seen Chris since he asked if he could hit me during sex. I said no, and he joined the army that afternoon. Ana’s convinced he enlisted as a form of self-punishment. It’s because he’s a sadist, but he doesn’t want to be a sadist, she said. I thought about submitting myself to him as an experiment—mostly, because it would be something to do—but I was tired and really wanted someone to paint my nails a happy person color. Getting hit for someone else’s pleasure just sounded hard. I knew I wouldn’t be getting anything out of it. Pain never excited me all that much. I already hated myself enough.
When my dad’s friend, Eddie, got laid off, he moved into the guest room for a couple months. Eddie made it a routine to piss while I was in the shower. I never told anyone about it, but it felt morally wrong, like killing an animal or running a red light on purpose. I started paying attention to how I shampooed my hair and thought about kissing Eddie on the mouth and telling people about it so he could go to jail. Really, I just wanted attention, and that didn’t sound like a good enough reason to ruin his life. When Eddie left, Mom let me binge-watch cartoons and never made me shower if I didn’t want to.
I lace up my tennis shoes and throw on a skimpy white tank top. There’s a ketchup stain near the bottom, so I tuck it into my waistband. My hair is so greasy that it looks brown. Dark, like dad likes it. I clasp the necklace Chris got me for my birthday around my neck, tight enough that it feels like he’s choking me. There’s already a red mark thrashed across my neck like a tiger stripe. I look pretty in an uncomfortable way—in the way bad car crashes and deep gash wounds are also kind of beautiful. Downstairs, Mom is playing old people music, something sad and twangy. She’s a pescatarian now, which is just an excuse for her to order sushi whenever she wants. Mom doesn’t care about animals. Once, she opened the backdoor so Jamie, my pet ferret, would run away. It ran and ran and ran.
“Caroline!” she yells.
Her voice is so stupid.
I wish I had a stereo so I could blare it and then everyone would know I’m going through something and leave me alone. I stare at myself in the mirror and open my mouth as big as I can. I watch, waiting for something to escape it; the big, black hole inside me. Nothing happens.
I draw black eyeliner under my eyes and apply Dad’s stick deodorant. Ana’s toothpaste is caked to the mirror like permanent marker. Nose hairs clog the sink. Mom’s stopped cleaning the house on grounds of combating the patriarchy. She’s tired of being ‘oppressed.’ Now, the house is always dirty, and Ana and I aren’t allowed to have friends over. Not unless we clean the house, which neither of us are interested in doing. The barbecue is fine though because it’s outside. People can come over if they don’t go inside.
I stomp down the stairs to the kitchen. Mom hands me a cookie with red and blue sprinkles on it. Her lipstick is drawn above her lips, and her self-tanner is blotchy. There’s orange residue all over her white t-shirt. I wish she’d just poison herself in a bed of UV rays and get it over with. That would be less embarrassing, but she loves to embarrass me.
“You’re welcome,” she says. “For the cookie.”
“It would be better if it wasn’t store bought.”
She calls me an ungrateful little shit, and I don’t argue with her.
I shove the entire cookie in my mouth and eat a second while she lectures me about getting a job and moving out and starting a family. I go outside while she’s mid-sentence. From the window, I watch her throw her hands up in the air in exasperation. I wonder if she truly hates me or if she’s just a bitch because she doesn’t love me and wishes she did and doesn’t know how to channel that energy without being called a “bad mom” by the neighbors. Dad’s face is clouded by grill steam. He’s already got a beer bottle in his left hand.
“Mom is on a Come-to-Jesus kick,” I say. “It’s exhausting. What’s happening? Do you not fuck her anymore?”
Dad laughs. “Cut your mom some slack. She thought you’d go on to cure cancer or something. You were such a driven child.”
“So, what? I’m a massive disappointment now?”
“Yeah. Something like that. Hey, toss me the paddies.”
Dad wipes his face with his King of the Grill apron and readies his tongs. I swear, he’s only happy when he’s manning the grill. I become very aware of my teeth against my tongue. They feel weak, like in seconds they’ll dissolve into the ether, leaving me toothless.
“Dad, why are we celebrating Chris?”
“Caroline, come on.” He evenly distributes the paddies across the grill as if he’s going to be judged by a celebrity chef. “He’s going to the army.”
“Yeah, but he’s a prick.”
“Everybody’s a prick.” Dad downs the rest of the beer and hands it to me. “Get me another, would you?”
On my way to the cooler, Dad says my hair looks better dark. I go upstairs to research the dinosaurs. I want to understand how they wiped themselves out or why they did nothing when they realized they were getting wiped out. When I hear Chris’ voice, I hide under my covers, disappointed that I can’t disappear. As a child, I thought magicians could do that for a person. From the window, I see him. He’s wearing an America flag shirt, just like I knew he would.
When I move 90-miles north to Chicago, I start seeing a banker who works for some nondescriptive hedge fund. He has big teeth and a bad hairline and always wears three-piece suits that remind me of mobsters. He lives in an apartment with glass walls and steel appliances. From his room, you can see Millennium Park. I put my forehead against the window and watch. Down below, the people look like ants, the cars: bugs, the trees: miniature and decorative, pieces from a tiny Christmas village. The banker wants me to do rich people stuff, like read my horoscope and drink $7 iced coffees. My horoscope is never what I want it to be, and the coffee is shit. I draft hate mail to the horoscope column and leave one-star reviews for the coffee chains. During the day, I paint and repaint my nails pink and yellow and blue. I hide the evidence of my cheese danish binges, buried at the bottom of the trash. When I’m alone, I dive into manic depressive episodes so deep that I lose consciousness. I flush chunks of my hair down the toilet; all of my clothes are too big. I’ve spent my entire life letting myself off the hook for being pretty.
Sometimes, I feel like a mannequin in the banker’s apartment, or a hospital patient. I check my wrists for bandages, for an identification bracelet, but there’s never anything there. His place is clean and sterile, like a psych ward. Once, I spent an entire day looking for hidden surveillance cameras or peep holes. I found nothing. I crave human interaction. Touch. Taste. Smell. I’m afraid to go outside without the banker. He pays for everything, so I quit my server job and move into his guest bedroom when he asks. The curtains are peach, and there are 12 decorative pillows. I don’t know what to do with all of them. I throw three out the window.
My mother calls to ask how I’m keeping. I tell her I’ve met Jesus in the shape of a rich balding man. She cautions me to be careful and to not take drugs from strangers. She doesn’t want to read about me in the paper; it would be disgustingly predictable for me to overdose. I laugh at this because I know she’s trying to be funny, but mothers aren’t wired that way. I think about telling her I’m pregnant. I don’t though because it would only be worth it if I could see her face, and I honestly don’t know how she’d react. She might be happy.
The banker is 23 years older than me. He tells his friends he’s intimidated by my ‘supreme youth’ but in a productive way, like standing next to someone who is significantly taller, or richer, smarter. This doesn’t bother me because he buys me expensive gifts wrapped in tissue paper. I act surprised when I open them and thank him, nauseatingly. When I’m in a good mood, I clap. This gets him off and always leads to hair-pulling, hate sex. The banker leaves bite marks and bruises down my spine like a trail of polka dots. It isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s easy, being submissive. You don’t have to do anything. I’ve stopped looking at him when he’s inside me. His pupils expand so big that his eyes turn black. I don’t know how to be loved, I think. This is why I’m like this. I’m not capable. It’s my mother’s fault. It’s easier to blame her than to accept responsibility. The banker is probably the devil. Not Jesus. I know this. I lie still anyway.
Because I am the banker’s plaything, I lose all sense of self-worth. I stop eating cheese danishes and deprive myself of water, soap, sunlight, cartoons, flowers, fresh air. I stare at blank screens and watch Lego-people in long coats walk to work and then, eight hours later, walk home. When Ana comes to visit during her holiday break, she calls me a ‘malnourished zombie.’
“By the way,” Ana says, pausing to inhale what’s left of her salad. I move my fork around in a circular motion, but my salad stays untouched. I can’t imagine chewing. “Chris was promoted. Apparently, he’s doing well in the army.”
I think about the day Chris pounded into me so hard, I couldn’t walk. When I mentioned it, afterwards, he said I needed to toughen up. I cried while he rinsed off in the shower. He always showered afterwards. He said it was to rid himself of me.
Even my salad mocks me. “Good for him.”
“You look like shit, Caroline. Like, real shit.”
Ana’s hair has grown out. It touches her shoulders now, which means it’s been months since we’ve seen one another. Specks of red lipstick clump together at the corners of her mouth. If I were in a comedic mood, I’d ask if she’s taken to drinking people’s blood. It wouldn’t surprise me. As a child, she ripped the heads of our Barbies off with her teeth. Her eyes are pale, as if someone’s put a layer of fog over them. It seems like I’m seeing her nose for the first time. I don’t actually know anything about her, but she’s family, so it doesn’t matter.
“Thanks. I feel like shit.” I push my salad away. “So, did you get a nose job or what?”
“Jesus. You can’t just ask people if they got a nose job.”
“You’re not people. You’re my sister. I thought that made me immune to formalities, or like, being politically correct. I can be a dick because we’re blood.”
“Yeah. No. That’s definitely not how it works.”
Ana wants to complain about the salad. “It has an aggressive amount of lettuce,” she says. “Nobody actually likes lettuce. They just order salad to be perceived as a person who orders it. Like if you eat salad, you automatically have your shit together.”
We throw our salads into the wastebin and go to a burger joint down the street. Ana orders two double cheeseburgers with fries. She offers to pay, so I let her. The banker doesn’t give me an allowance. He doesn’t want to monetize our relationship. I pay for nothing.
“I think we eat so much because we were denied real pleasure as children,” Ana says. Burger juice swims down her chin and onto her orange Camp Tecumseh t-shirt. She went with our high school class. I was out with strep throat and never got a shirt.
“Yeah. You’re probably right.”
I cover my mouth with my hand. The banker watches me eat, so I have to pretend I’m a polite person. He doesn’t want me to gain weight. He says it would mess up his image of dating a younger person. This is baseless, I think, because young people are fat too. My mother never gave me seconds and kept me on a calorie intake plan, so this isn’t shocking to me.
Ana burps and doesn’t say, ‘Excuse me.’ I find her disregard for manners intoxicating. I want to drink her in hopes that I’ll become her, in hopes that I can burp in public and get away with it, in hopes that I won’t be stuck, chained to this stranger in three-piece suits. “So,” she says. “When are you going to introduce me to Eric?”
A breeze comes in from the left, forcing me to acknowledge my surroundings. Yes, weather exists. Global warming is real. People wear coats and hats when it’s cold. Birds fly horizontally. We adhere to stoplights and abide by laws made by old men in white wigs. We avoid sugar and dark sodas, drugs, strangers, alligators, sharks. People complete 30 minutes of daily exercise and check-up with their doctors. There’s a whole society of people out there, a whole system. I readjust my sweater to hide my collar bones. They’re sharp now. My hips too. If I run into something, I bruise. Whenever I see myself naked, I gag. It’s hard to believe someone with money finds me attractive. It must be a fetish.
“Oh. I forget he’s an actual person with a name.”
Ana scoffs at this. Since getting older, it’s become harder for us to gage one another’s feelings. She can’t tell when I’m serious or kidding, which depresses me, and I can’t tell if she’s mad or hungry, which depresses her. Though, Ana does have a buffet of problems she decides she wants to talk about. There’s this rash on her forearms that won’t go away, her roommate wants to fuck her to see if she’s bisexual, she’s meditating with a 40-year-old mom she met on Facebook Marketplace, and she doesn’t think she wants to be a veterinarian anymore. She had to dissect a black cat in class and didn’t make it to the bathroom. Puked orange specs all over the hallway. Everyone talked about it. Even the professors.
“Maybe I should drop out of college,” Ana says. “Like you.”
We both laugh at this. I wish the banker were here to tell me how to act. A group of loud-talking students come into the burger joint. I wish I could leave.
“Yeah. No,” I say. “Don’t do that.”
I close my eyes and pretend I’m on an abandoned island. Just me, floating in zero gravity space with no air circulation. The burger feels heavy in my hands. Finishing it will be impossible, I know that. I blink until Ana comes back into focus. I wouldn’t be shocked if she weren’t here at all and I were just imagining her because I miss her. I reach out to touch her, and she squeezes my hand. She asks if I’m ok, but I know she doesn’t want the real answer. I’m older. I look at my hands as if they’re not mine, but his.
“So, have you seen Chris?” I ask.
“No. He comes back this weekend. It might be good for you to see him. Dad’s doing a barbecue. Come on, you love his barbecues.”
“No? I hate barbecues. Of any kind. Especially Dad’s.”
“If you come maybe Dad will shut up about you.” She swallows a fistful of fries without breathing. “Oh. By the way, he’s in love with that Rite Aid girl. I swear to God he would ask Mom for a hall pass if he knew she wouldn’t leave him. It’s pathetic. He goes to Rite Aid, like, twice a day. He’s all depressed because of you.”
Dad only calls me on the weekends when he’s drunk. He’s taking me leaving personally. It’s not like you had a bad childhood, he slurs. Was it really that awful? I tell him no. It wasn’t. I wasn’t beaten or chained to a wall. They bought me rollerblades when I asked for them and got me birthday cakes with the correct number of candles. The banker told me that growing up, he lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his entire family. If you compared the banker and my upbringings side-by-side, I had a rich life. I know that. I wanted for nothing.
Sometimes, Dad and I stay on the line just to listen to each other breathe. I pretend we’re looking at the same moon, which is stupid because we are looking at the same moon. I never invite him to Chicago. I’m embarrassed of how I’ll act if he actually showed up. Of how he’ll act. I don’t think I can survive being pitied by anyone, especially him, but I do feel bad about leaving him with Mom and Ana. Objectively, they’re the worst. But he’s learned how to use the Miracle Mop, which I guess is a good thing. The house is cleaner than it’s been in years.
“Caroline, you should come home and see everyone,” Ana urges. This time her voice is short, like she doesn’t care about my feelings. She takes the burger out of my hands and shoves it into her mouth. I don’t stop her. “We’re actually worried about you.”
I hate what “we’re” insinuates. I picture the entire family and the neighbors and my 9th grade Algebra teacher all got together to discuss my well-being, like as a public debate. I’m not in the family group message anymore. No one fills me in on breakups or appointments or sales. It’s as if they think I’m incapable of handling information.
“Well, don’t. I’m fine.”
“Yeah. Ok. You’re fine.”
I consider spitting in her face for the sole purpose of contaminating her so people in our family can worry about her too. I stand up because she’s finished our food, and I don’t see the point in continuing a conversation neither of us are going to win.
I walk Ana to the bus station, her chunky black suitcase wedged between us for safety. Her skin is prettier than mine. Better. Clearer. If I didn’t know her, I’d say she’s a character from Greek mythology. Helena. Artemis. Cassandra. I want to ask her how she does it, but my voice is a box of broken pencils. I can’t imagine expending effort on my physical appearance. No one sees me besides the banker, and he likes me this way. He likes sad and broken.
There’s a family with two young kids waiting beside us. The kids are kicking each other’s shins, and the parents are smoking obliviously, pretending their children don’t belong to them. Men in big suits yell into cell phones. A younger couple with acne laces their fingers together as if the physical pressure of their hands will morph them into a singular entity. A middle-aged man wearing trainers reads a beat-up paperback. I want to know where they’re all going. I want to know who’s out there waiting for them. I want them to invite me.
“About the nose job,” I start.
Ana puts up her hand to stop me. “Don’t. It’s fine, really.”
“It looks good,” I tell her. “And I’m not just saying that. It seriously does.”
She touches her nose and smiles. “Thanks.”
The train pulls up and Ana gets on without hugging me. She doesn’t turn around to see if I’m still there, but I wave her off because we’re family and that’s what family does.
I walk all the way back to the banker’s apartment. By the time I get inside, my clothes are soaked through. It’s dark outside.
A week later, I’m down five pounds and sensitive to light. The banker wants to take me out for steak and mashed potatoes, but I don’t have an appetite. I turn on Cartoon Network for noise. The banker goes down on me while Tom and Jerry chase each other around a mansion with lots of chairs. I haven’t shaved, but the banker doesn’t mind. His work friends are bringing their wives to the dinner. He says this like it’s enticing, as if I actually care about his work friends and their wives.
“I’m not a wife,” I tell him. The television glare hurts my eyes, but I keep looking. I register nothing. I don’t even know what’s on the screen anymore. I hear myself say: “If you really want me to go, then you’ll have to propose to me.”
The banker gets down on one knee without asking if I’m being serious or just joking.
The next day, I have a rock on my left hand, weighing down my finger. It’s difficult to perform simple tasks, like brush my teeth, drink coffee, masturbate. I don’t take off the rock in fear that I’ll lose it or flush it down the toilet on purpose or pawn it.
When I call home to tell my family I’m engaged, Chris answers. I know it’s him by the sound of his breathing. I’ve been gone almost a year now.
“Caroline? Is that you?” he asks. His voice is high, like someone punched him in the nuts as a hate crime. He clears his throat. His voice lowers. “It’s me. It’s Chris. Chris Hannon.”
I pull the phone away from my face, slowly, and stare at it wondering how the telephone towers fucked up this massive, but it’s my home line.
“Don’t hang up,” he says.
I only stay on the line because he sounds pathetic, which makes me pulse. Everywhere.
“Why are you answering my parent’s phone?”
“We’re having a barbecue. I just got back. From war, you know?”
“Oh. Yeah. Ok.”
I hold onto the wall to keep myself upright. Outside, a family sets up a picnic at the park. Two parents, one daughter. They laugh and drink lemonade and swat away the bees. I cross my fingers, hoping the little girl gets stung so I can see what she looks like when she cries.
“Aren’t you going to ask how I’m doing?” Chris says.
“No. You can tell me if you want, but I won’t actually listen.”
I’m surprised at how easy it is for me to say this. It’s like I’m slipping back into the old version of myself, putting on an old pair of jeans. But not really.
Chris laughs. I imagine squeezing the inside of his brain with my hands until it pops. Until it rains little pieces of Chris’ red, white, and blue brain. I hate him or whatever.
“You were in my macaroni and cheese yesterday,” he says. “And on the milk carton and at the movies. I dream about you too. I don’t know what that means, but I think I miss you.”
I sink down onto the floor of the banker’s apartment and try to recall Chris’ face from memory. I feel like a wet dishrag spread out across a long table. Chris could whip me with it, the rag, and I would stand there, pointing to all the places he missed. I wonder if you ever stop loving the first person you loved. If you loved someone once, you probably always do.
“Ok. Great. Can you put my dad on the line?”
Chris wants to apologize, but I tell him it’s ok. He didn’t try to kill me or anything permanent, he just wanted to inflict pain on me. He wanted to hit me and leave visible marks and make me cry. He didn’t do anything that bad. Not really.
“Can I come visit you?” he asks. “In Chicago.”
I drag a loose nail on the inside of my thigh until my skin bursts open. My thick, crimson blood paints the banker’s floor. I watch, excitedly.
When we first got together in the 9th grade, Chris prided himself on doing nice things for me. He bought me food, opened doors, let me wear his letterman jacket, complimented me. It was the first time anyone had gone out of their way to make me feel special. I don’t know what happened to him, to Chris, but he got mean. For a while, I thought it wasn’t his fault. I thought maybe he got struck by lightning and lost all of his positive atoms. In my head, this seemed better than any possible alternative.
I swallow. “No. I don’t think that’s a good idea. I want to talk to my dad now.”
Dad ruffles with the phone. He’s drunk, I can tell, and in a way, I’m relieved. I know he’ll be diplomatic about the whole marriage thing. He won’t make a scene.
“Married?” he asks. “Who to? Jesus, Caroline. Why are you breaking my heart during a barbecue?”
“He’s a banker in Chicago. I’m marrying him because he asked me to.”
“Well, shit. That’s not a very good reason to marry someone. But, it’s your decision.”
I breathe a deep breath, so deep I’m convinced my insides are getting eviscerated with a paper shredder. I stay on the line, and when I close my eyes, I’m 13 again. Using strawberry soap in the shower. Singing along to the radio. Sneaking cookies with Ana. Running through the sprinkler. Laughing at nothing. I notice Eddie watch me through the cracks in the shower. My teeth chatter though the water is hot. My shoulders are scalded pink. I wonder how my life would look had I told my parents about Eddie. Maybe he’d have gotten help or been put on medication or jailed. Maybe he’d be a father. A husband. A good lover. A person and not a monster.
His skeleton fingers show up in my nightmares. His dark hair clouds most of my judgements. I wonder where Eddie is. If he’s alive. If he’s happy. If he’s miserable. If he goes into other girl’s rooms. Sometimes, when I shower, I think of him. I wonder if he’d still want to watch me shower now that I’m older. Now that I’m 25. I think it’s why I started seeing the banker in the first place. In the right light, I swear he looks just like Eddie.