Jillian Luft is a Florida native currently residing in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Hobart, Booth, Pigeon Pages, The Forge Literary Magazine, and other publications.
Boston is burning itself over a baseball game. Outside of Fenway, the local evening news zooms in on a few torched sedans. Undercarriages in flames like hibachi grills. White boy ruddy faces rejoicing. Game 4 of the 2003 ACLS. A Red Sox victory.
I care about baseball because I love you. I want to wake you up to celebrate Johnny Damon and Pedro Martinez and all those other shaggy-haired rascals hellbent on breaking the curse. Once you view the game highlights, I want you to bang me against the TV, so my bare ass kisses static. I want you to tell me it’s all okay, that it’s only the oysters like you said—no, slurred—before you passed out with puke on your tongue.
Boston ties with the Yankees for the series. So, they revel and pelt the pavements with their empties. Some brawl in bars while others lay waste to their beloved hometown with spray paint and gasoline and alcohol-impaired decision-making. At first, I don't understand why their response to winning is as if they’d lost. Then I think about all the times I lucked out when I thought myself doomed. Hope, victory, delusion—whatever you want to call it— can feel like you’ve managed to cage death. Like you have to edge closer and reach through those bars to truly know what you’re up against. Like you can only make sense of your good fortune by testing it.
I watch you in your clammy, fucked-up sleep. You’ve been this way for hours. Still and corpse-like. You don’t stir, but you sweat. God, do you sweat. You’ve got that after-vomit sheen, skin the color of a dead tooth. You’re still wearing your good clothes but we’re not going anywhere.
In my new lacy underthings, I slump against the bed frame. I glimpse my wan face in the mirror and behold a pouty, bare-breasted child. I contemplate the ways my skin folds when I cry, the way my eyes retreat into my babyfat cheeks but leave wet traces. The way I look when I’m alone: pathetic but honest.
The celebration-cum-riot continues. Drunken, gap-toothed bros too close to the camera. Mouths like clogged drains. I wonder if I could spy the mayhem outside our hotel window, but I’ve no idea where Fenway is. I’ve seen so little of this city since we arrived this morning. Just a raw bar kiosk in Quincy Market, the inside of a Victoria’s Secret, a basement Mexican restaurant in Faneuil Hall, and a shitload of Dunkin’ Donuts. If I didn’t know about Paul Revere and the cobblestones, I’d think there’s no rich history here. Except for sports, of course.
The truth is I don’t need history. I’m happy to be lulled—no, fooled— by the present, the way our bodies find ways to collide from moment to moment, the way your hands and mouth and dick quiet my fears, make me forget about everything else but us.
It feels like grief when you’re lost to me like this. I worry you’ll wake up and forget—no, remember—what we’ve done. You’ll see it differently and then you won’t see me at all.
You blame the oysters, but I ate them too. It’s not bad seafood and it’s more than the booze or the drugs—though they certainly play their part. It’s that you haven’t seen your boys in months now, that you are reminded of your youngest when we landed at Logan because it’s his namesake. It’s the foggy realization that even in these clandestine and anonymous spaces where no one knows our sordid origin story, the odds of this working out don’t change. Wherever we go, there we are—totally tragic and out of control. The havoc our passion creates is literally making you sick, but you’ll never admit it.
This trip is intended as an escape. A respite from the harsh demands of your wife’s lawyer, the real repercussions of our workplace romance, the tenuous nature of our cohabitation. Sober truths await us in Florida, bitter and anti-climactic like the Ecstasy comedown we recently shared at your best friend’s wedding.
I hoped for an evening of memorable romance, some sort of affirmation that the hardship, the wild impulses, the inevitable hurt, the inadvertent destruction, the sheer and total dysfunction of it all is worth it. I hoped, at the very least, you’d take me to Cheer’s.
But I refuse to wallow. This is our vacation, goddammit. We’re in Boston and we’re in love. I grab the stationery off the nightstand, uncap the pen with my teeth. I lay on my stomach like a homesick camper, my head resting at your feet. While I stare at your stubbly mask of a face, I pen you a love letter. You’re my destiny and I find a dozen eloquent—no, florid and insincere ways— to tell you so. I write about everything but tonight except to say that when you’re sleeping you look pure, except to say I know forever and it’s you.
Eventually you wake up and reach for me, chapped lips forming excuses. I silence you with my girlish grin, gift you the notepad with mute anticipation. When you read my words, you cry just enough to seem genuine. Your voice is sturdy and weighted with promises far too heavy to keep. You say I love you like it’s an instant replay. You chant my many pet names until I nearly forget who I am. This is the way I like it best: to be lost in your perception of me; to place faith in mutual fantasy; to root for us, the underdogs, whose love will win out if they continue to ignore the rest.
When we return to Florida, your wife finds my letter in your glove compartment. I thought you’d be more discreet, more appreciative of this private—no, performative—testimony. She rips it to shreds; makes you promise I’m gone. And you do but then you don’t. Until you do.
I realize now what I’ve lost, you say. You tell me I need to find another place to live, another person to love. And I wonder who’s really lost what when I whisper, okay, while clenching a throw pillow that probably once belonged to her. And that night, as I thrash and wail in our big white bed, lost in all that I’m losing, calling out to you on the couch, pleading for you to come and hold me, the back of you sighing my name with pity and indifference, I still think I can turn this around. I’ve done it before. Like that night in Boston. I can assure us that what we have is kismet, record-breaking chemistry, a riot of the human heart that can’t be contained. I refuse to let all the rapture—no, destruction—be for nothing.
Everything hinges on Game 7 of the ACLS: a trip to the World Series, the reversal of a curse, a city’s restored belief in themselves. Part of me—no, nearly all of me—thinks you’ll come back if the Red Sox pull this off. At Yankee Stadium, a tired yet determined Martinez remains on the mound long after he should. His manager checks in with him but decides not to pull him out. And when Wakefield closes in the 11th inning and Aaron Boone nails a home run, it’s not the result of some sinister voodoo. If the fans were honest with themselves, they’d admit it was the way the game was played.
We’re in a blizzard, the sheer white of it haloing our Nissan Maxima as we careen across the northeast interstate, miles and miles away from the tropical green swelter of our backyard, the cicada buzz of Florida. Starting somewhere in New Jersey, the weather blots out the roads, swallows exit signs, engulfs my parents, younger brother and me in its silent magic. Our burgundy sedan skidding slightly as our mouths open in unison to the light falling soundlessly outside. For the first time in our lives, we feel like the lucky ones. Sole witnesses to a quiet miracle, a record-breaking weather event. This is a real indoor thrill ride, an attraction the likes of Mickey Mouse and company have never seen. Stay off the roads, the voice within the radio warns. Black ice and low visibility. And that poetic caution just encourages us further. As we pass rest areas and off-ramps, a collective thrill electrifies our innards. We’re probably the only car on the road, my mother brags. Mom’s body, nearly healthy, can now journey distances. Untethered from her bed and hospital rooms, she craves the foreign frozen white she’d once seen as a child. And now it falls endlessly. A gift.
The warm air streaming through the vents smells like burnt Doritos. I layer the tiny worlds of pop songs playing on the radio over the large natural one zooming by outside and everything seems to matter more. I press my face against the window, the cool against my cheek as close as I’ve come to touching snow. I don’t even need to, I think. This is enough. My family and I cozy in our puffy jackets, the nylon squealing with our every breath, the vast and beautiful emptiness of the landscape moving past us, the vastness of this moment.
This memory I trust because of the comfort it offers--the illusion of a comfortable family, bonded through adventure, united through endearing naivete. It’s everything after the snow melts and the trees disrupt the sky and the mountains choke the horizon and the Man and the Woman and their Boy and their Girl greet us from the front of their smalltown New York home that eludes me, that blurs at the edges like a lucid dream. We meet this family through a sick neighbor of ours, an older woman dying of breast cancer. It is the Man’s mother. Every month or so, the Man and his family fly down to Florida to visit the ailing woman and her husband. When she eventually dies, we get closer to the Man and his family. Well, it’s mostly the Man and Mom that become close, soft murmurs in living rooms, secret jokes exchanged, exaggerated laughter over telephone lines. Illness connects people, I guess. The whiff of death like pheromones. The last name of the Man literally means “fair one.” Synonymous with snow.
It is the Man’s idea that we make the trek up north and explore his roots. Most memories from this vacation are faint but pleasant: day trips to a dairy farm and abattoir, hikes across rocky streams, rollicking down unpaved roads in the center seat of the Man’s big truck, safely wedged between him and Mom while the trees grow taller and thicker, snagging us in their spidery canopy. My dad follows close behind in the Maxima. I catch his face in the rear view but can’t tell what his mouth is doing.
Other memories are visceral reels of film unspooling in my brain. So vivid and surreal that I wonder what’s been erased, replaced and edited and for what narrative purpose. For instance, the boys at the bottom of the hill. We view them from across the road, standing in their makeshift tool shed, the gaping maw of the open garage. The Boy, the eldest of us four, asks them to play. They answer back with spit and cussing and dark curls threatening and rosy mouths sneering. The slightly bigger one wields a hatchet, says he can cut us up. Says his parents aren’t home. Says we better start running. And then, inexplicably, these dark and curly child demons are chasing us through the graveyard that snakes along the Boy and Girl’s property. With hatchet in hand, the bigger one sprints, intent on violence. The smaller one appears to be walking on all fours. My feet scramble over the homes of the buried, the Girl with the name of a poisonous tree pulling at my hand, her golden ponytail fleeing from her neck in panic. We run and run, zigzagging through the names of the dead. I think of the monstrous men from horror movies who chase children with weapons that maim, that slaughter. There’s a fence, wooden rungs just tall enough for us to clamber over. And we do with gelatinous knees and oily palms. The Girl presses on my shoulders, pulls me down onto the icy earth behind a large tree. The Boy and my brother are there too, crouching and speaking loudly with frightened eyes despite the controlled clench of their rounded jaws. The Boy puts his index finger to his lips to calm and soothe us. His hair is spiky blades of grass that do not waver. I think I’m in love. The boys from the garage do not jump over the fence. Their profanity fades, the thud of their sneakers on hallowed earth vanish. Breathless, we head back to the house. Our parents have been there the entire time. Drinking wine and talking about that TV show where everybody knows your name. No one mentions the bone-aching terror we just experienced. We were just playing, we say as we enter the indoor warmth, removing our shoes and gloves, our outerwear. The adults nod dumbly, their glasses empty.
But it is the last night of our trip that plays in eerie soft focus and slow motion, unvarnished by time. The events recounted are impossible to confirm. The Boy has since died and he was the source. The Girl and I nestle in sleeping bags on the Boy’s bedroom floor. My brother rests on the bottom bunk and the Boy perches at the top. The wood creaks beneath our tiny bodies with the ginger movements of the adults downstairs. The smell of pine and flannel mix with the herbal and gamey scents leftover from dinner. Like a miniature sun, the boy’s night light burns, casting us all in slabs of shadow, as he tells us what he saw. His eyes raised to the ceiling, his voice small and hesitant as if it’s his own weighty confession. I can feel him growing older and wearier as his words grow brighter in the fiery orange light. Each utterance sparks and singes, then quickly turns to ash. Sometimes, I get confused and think I saw what he did, too. My mother and the Man sharing a furtive kiss, mouths briefly touching as the kitchen faucet runs, an undried dish in my mother’s manicured hand. The Man holding my mother’s face like a jewel to the light of the moon through the bay window. Deer meat from the Man’s early morning hunt thawing on the counter.
No one says anything except the Girl who asks what it means. No one answers her because we already know. Like the graveyard chase, we never speak of this again. I don’t recall sleeping.
On the ride back to Florida, I spy on my mother in the side view mirror. She’s upset because the cassette she bought at the mall is warped and my dad is driving too fast. Her mouth is a firm terracotta. She wears sunglasses and stares straight ahead because there’s nothing left for her to see. Decades later, I find a poem she wrote during this time in her journal. It’s on a random page near the back in careful blue lettering. The first line: “He’s moved your heart again and/the moon casts a shadow/over a grave.” I flashback to that house on the hill bordering the resting place of the dead. I never consider that this poem could be about my father.
The last stanza reads unfinished: “Does he dream your dream?/Are you just a memory?/Only you aren’t what he remembers.” I try to parse each line and insert myself into the shared dream of my mother and the Man. The dream of not being forgotten or misremembered, of time staying sweet and static, the present incapable of defiling the past. I cling to the Boy’s remembrance, his glimpse into this shared dream. I imbue it with vibrant color and detail as if it belonged to me.
My mother ejects her tape, meets my eyes, and limply waves. I raise my hand before skating my fingers along the passenger window, thick clear lines cutting through the mist. The shapes recede as the pane fogs over. Messages unseen.