There are plenty of two-lane Georgia backroads that are more scenic, more interesting, more worthy of historical footnote than Highway 166. Like most things about south Douglas county, it’s nothing special. But it’s not the road that gets me. It’s the memory of belonging to it.
I went back one afternoon, and it was strangest thing. An old sign maybe, or the look of the heavy clouds, or the light-headed feel of speeding over the top of a familiar rise; maybe it was the way the two smooth double yellow lines plunged downhill into the secret, galloping heart of the Dog River basin — but I felt as though I was splitting in two, slipping back into the past, back into myself, back to what I never was, and becoming whole again.
It’s the opposite experience when I turn around and head west toward Carroll County. The farther away I drive from the Chattahoochee and Anneewakee rivers, the less I sense that measurable, ambient magic. The barometric pressure bears down and the energy goes flat. The pine-covered Piedmont takes on that cheap and plentiful Dollar General feel where land is just tied up in pens and squared inside fences, subject to the whims of bankruptcy and clear cutting and poverty and church. In the westbound lane, Highway 166 is just another means to a billboard.
But heading east toward Atlanta, my old dreams came back into radio range. Just past the roundabout at the signless gas station, I started to feel the river in the air; the trees felt taller, the green darker, the hills higher. My car was no longer driving so much as sweeping across the shoulders of the planet like a magnet. Wherever it is I thought I was heading, whatever person I thought I was, it’s all just scratching sounds as my needle crosses over these grooves. I longed to light down and push the old electricity, to stop driving and become a song as I wade into the water. But I knew I couldn’t do that anymore, and the sadness this wrought was both transcendent and acutely predictable. I reached out the window, trying to hold the wind in my hand. Forget the malls and the steakhouses. My toe on the gas pedal through this stretch of nowhere catapulted me into the past, into a temporary greatness that rivaled a hypo in the arm. It was a thundering avalanche of glorious, unfulfilled wishes, coaxing me to recall how happy I was, back when I was so unhappy. Maybe that’s what made these two square miles so haunting: they could be bought – but at a price I could never pay.
I did pull over though, at a place in the road where the treeline had been replaced with a posh new neighborhood from the low 600′s, complete with sculpted landscaping and repetitively aspirational edifices. Uninvited, I pulled in to see how much land had been carved up, wondering if they had corrupted my beloved river. It was, after all, my river. I pushed eastward down one street and then another until finally a cul-de-sac on a hilltop brought the neighborhood to a stop. Without thinking, I drifted out of my idling car and onto the clay, feet sinking into straw and sprayed blue hydroseed. The empty windows of new bedrooms circled me on all sides, watching. The old forest had suffered a blow but survived beyond this point, resuming farther downhill, obscuring the river valley that someone had thankfully decided could not support another mediocre golf course.
I turned to consider the vaulted foyers of the generic slate-colored McMansion next to me, biting back my mortgage-induced jealousy. Do you know how lucky you are ? I asked. To live on Pottery Barn Drive above the banks of the Anneewakee? Where your children can walk down to it anytime they choose? I paused to admire the impeccable masonry on the cobblestone roundabout. It was really freaking nice. Do you even know? I scolded. The lawn said nothing, looking as soft and velvety as a brand new shag carpet. No you don’t, I concluded, And I bet you’ll never even miss not finding out.
I was a such a weirdo, staring at a stranger’s house on a street I didn’t live. It was inundating me with answers, but I refused them, gathering up my haughty illusions and peeling out of the neighborhood. I got back onto 166, much slower now, rolling down toward the Anneewakee bridge by the farm where my ex-family still lived. I peered out my windshield, the prodigal daughter who has no plans to return.
Like everyone else, I’d read in the news how the floods had taken out the old bridge. But I couldn’t believe the transformation. The DOT crews had scored all the trees off the lush banks to expand the curve and make way for this massive white platform of impenetrable asphalt and fortified guardrails. My tires tapped across it in slow motion, absorbing every detail. I did not look at the farmhouse that was now fully exposed in the background, but instead down into the muddy water below. I saw my younger self down there, wading up to her knees, back when the bridge was small and old and immersed in shade. I was so full of love, so well-meaning, and all my silly plans had fled like hummingbirds. Somewhere down there, a tiny piece of south Douglas soil still belonged to me. Probably no bigger than a footprint, but it had loved me back from the first moment I’d ever stepped into her creek, tilting my head back in the sunlight, covered from head to toe in the wordless ecstasy of a single idea: home.
Of course, it was the floods that washed away the bridge over highway 166. But maybe, when I left, the loss was recorded somewhere deep in the mud, in the weedy periphery where no one looks, below the poison ivy and the rock and the pile-ons, down below the water where the earth feels everything. Maybe my leaving left the tiniest fissure of sadness, and if not for that injury the flooding Anneewakee would never have ripped the concrete in half. I’ll keep that as my parting story. Because it never really was my home, and never will be again. But sometimes, belonging to a place has nothing to do with where you have to live.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like Justin’s roommate Abdul. I fucking hated him.
I hated his gigantic girlish face and white pasty skin. He was so pasty that it looked like glue was spread all over his lips, leaving warm sticky spit-stalagmites on the inside of his cavernous mouth. I hated how he never really chewed food, he just masticated it to a paste, leaving bilge-like residue in the corners. Then he would retreat to the darkest corners of our apartment, weightlifting the cans of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup that his mom had sent him in her nervous care packages. Sometimes I stole power bars out of the boxes because fuck you Abdul.
But what I hated most about Abdul was the horrible suspicion that he was the male version of me. And that he was going to steal away Justin, my college Soulmate™ .
(clearly, we were meant to be)
Justin my Soulmate™ had became friends with Abdul because of Kung Fu . Abdul sucked at Kung Fu and Justin was a sucker for people who sucked, weak skill-less people like me that he could take on as disciples. But the layers of paste around Abdul’s ego swaddled him like a Jesus diaper and prevented him from admitting that he sucked; instead he nursed tons of little injuries to explain why he couldn’t do things. Can’t practice tonight, he’d tell Justin. My shoulders are so sore. My back is out. My elbow is sprained – the corn medley was way heavier than I thought.
“You take it easy,” Justin would soothe him, forcing my eyes to roll so hard that I had to thump my head softly against the wall of our love nest.
Abdul, Justin and I lived in a dirty one-bedroom apartment with Joe, Justin’s freshman year roommate. That’s four people to one bedroom. Justin and I took the office, Abdul took the coveted actual bedroom and Joe, Mr. Laidback within Limits, slept in his walk-in closet on a palette next to the keg, a few paces away from last week’s dinner and a glass of fluffy mold. He survived like that because Abdul and Joe had made one simple agreement: come January, they would switch rooms.
But when the time came to switch, it suddenly dawned on Abdul that he was a massive pasty cunt, and as such he psychologically imploded.
“My rotator cuff injury…” he stammered. “My hamstring…” His week-long bedhead had fluffed itself into a massive cloud of ineptitude. His mother was going to send a note from their pediatrician.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” grinned Joe, sipping a protein shake. “We had an agreement. And it is officially next semester. Pack it up.”
“I can’t sleep on the floor!”
“Why? I had to.”
“Why can’t she live in the closet?” he asked, pointing to me.
Oh, oh. It is on, IT IS ON motherfucker. Thinking these words, I cowered slightly behind Justin.
“Why do some people get to have their own bedroom all year long, man?” Abdul said. “And she’s not even paying any rent, man!”
“Justin and her count as one person,” Joe said, laughing to himself.
“I’m already paying for an off-campus dorm,” I explained.
“Well, go live there!” Abdul said, not looking at me.
“He’s got a point,” said Joe, shrugging.
I flashed back to the time Joe had used sunscreen to write expletives across my sleeping back, resulting in the most shame-based sunburn ever. I couldn’t trust him either. Justin and I had our hands full as it was, always defending how non-retarded our love was.
Justin: “You guys knew going into this that she was living with me.” Joe and Abdul stared at him, saying nothing. “What. Don’t any of you believe in love?”
“My mom is not paying for me to live in the closet,” Abdul kept on, and Joe burst out in delighted, high-pitched laughter.
“It’s fun living in the closet,” said Joe. “But I’m coming out. And I’m coming out tonight.”
Abdul called his mother. And though she was irate, she could not fly in from Cleveland to bail out her 20 year-old toddler. Abdul sat on the couch and chewed absently at her Power Bars, bits of the wrapper dangling from his lips, gathering his pasty superpowers. You could see it on his face. He was going to make us all pay.
He methodically moved his furniture and all his cans out of the bedroom and stacked them up by our breakfast nook. It wasn’t so much a nook as a breakfast suggestion. A breakfast shithole. Then he went to Home Depot and bought nine-foot foil-covered insulation panels, which he sawed and duct-taped together a to cordon off the door into the kitchen. Joe watched the ongoing construction with equal parts glee and disbelief.
“But Abdul,” he said, knocking lightly on the makeshift wall. It caved in, revealing Abdul sitting alone under the lone light fixture. He jumped up, fumbling to push it back. “What if I have to get something out of the fridge? What if I’m hungry?”
“Figure it out!” he shouted from inside, a pasty cry for help.
Joe paced the narrow apartment hallway, talking on the phone to the Georgia Tech guys one floor down.
“Yeah, can I come get something to eat?” he asked. “No. I can’t use the kitchen. That’s a good question. Because Abdul moved into it. Yeah, his bed and everything. Sure, come see.”
While the neighbors helped fashion a stepladder over the kitchen sink, muddying the countertop with their sneaker prints, Abdul withdrew inside his insulation space pod, staring at his shiny walls while doing sets with diced tomatoes. Eventually his vengeance reached critical mass and he emerged to smite me, his Mortal Enemy.
I had only left Justin’s side for, say 30 seconds to go to the bathroom, but I returned to find Abdul, paler and bed-headier than ever, glancing at me with shifty eyes as he wooed Justin with questions on correct Kung Fu form. He gave me a warning look.
“So, in your opinion, Justin,” Abdul asked, “is Jiu Jitzu superior to Kung Fu?”
Justin muted the television and suddenly creamed his pants, spouting forth about balance and chi and synergy, halves of a whole, the universal path.
Jesus dicking Christ, that pastyass motherfucker. I sat on the opposite couch, listening to the intense lecture, pretending to care. Since being a Soulmate was my fulltime job, I had no choice but to sign up to take Kung Fu classes with Justin and Abdul. I couldn’t let Abdul sit in MY passenger seat polishing Justin’s nun chucks like they had some special past-life bond. Cracka, please. Dibs.
The elitist Kung Fu school was terrifying, full of grown men with anger issues who lived to grovel. Their master was Sifu, the very same Sifu who had taught Steven Seagal everything he knows. Steven’s glossy autographed head shots hung crooked in the waiting room.
I paid my dues with grocery money and purchased the black uniform with the magical insignia of the dragon. Then I was promptly thrown in with the lions. As the lone female, I quickly became Sifu’s object of disgust.
He beheld my weak form and deer-in-the-headlights expression and wondered aloud in Mandarin why I had not been drowned at birth with the other girl-babies. He sent his sweaty, white, round-eye assistant over to fix my stance. He couldn’t even grow proper arm hair. It grew in blonde tufts, like patches of crabgrass all over his skin. But Sifu was dark, tough, and smooth, and completely non bilingual. When he scolded me again for not having a clue, I listened with all my might, towering over his head, trying to lip-read the mangled English he barked my way.
“Ma’am! Peas stall for tare!”
I looked left and right to mimic what everyone else was doing. Other students glowered, like, duh. Wrong arm.
“Ma’am, you ah put in qwa, ok? Dat?”
I studied his urgent gestures, and tried to copy the cocked wrist, nodding.
“Ma’am, you for two in do hanny secaw. Peas!”
His assistant finally tugged me out of line, to sit down in the female time-out corner where I could ponder things better suited for blondes, like shiny pieces of tin foil. I hung my head. Even my uniform deserved better than to swaddle my oversized, dimpled American ass. Meanwhile Justin broke the academy record for most push-ups ever performed on a single index finger. The other guys wiped their sweaty brows in disbelief while Sifu nodded silently, eyes twinkling with approval.
Abdul played with his knobby elbow, whispering, “Justin’s my best friend,” to whoever would listen.
“Is not,” I muttered back, checking my hair in the trophy case.
After class, when Justin was done bowing to everything not nailed down, we walked out into the strip mall parking lot where he continued to practice his technique with streetlamps and No Parking signs, and eventually me. Just hold still, he said, like this, and I stood with arms aloft like the human Kung Fu dummy, while he spun around and pantomimed varying methods of death.
“ Twist the arm, here! Straight to the neck, like so! It’s beautiful,” he marveled, holding me in a headlock. “Like a dance.”
“Yeah,” I choked, eyeing Abdul. “Fluid and peaceful. Like our love.”
“And deadly,” muttered Abdul.
“Yes!” Justin gasped, releasing me. “I love you guys because you get it.”
See? I wheeled around at Abdul. Fucking see?
“ Come here Abdul,” Justin said. “Now let me try it out on my best bud.”
And that was the day a sparkly little piece of True Love™ died.
On the drive over, I came up on two dogs humping in the road. Their retinas reflected my headlights, refusing to move aside, disinterested in their own demise. The last time I’d driven to a man’s house for sex, I’d passed a dog that had just gotten run over on the double yellow lines. So maybe this was a step in the right direction. Okay not the right direction exactly, but at least one that was slightly less dead.
Don’t be shy, he’d texted me, twenty minutes before. You may get a kiss at the door.
A kiss at the door, huh. Cue the release of adrenaline-laced butterflies, just south of the border.
He was the realm of suches – such a face, such a body – physical attributes that incite saliva and blood and love-making and blot out the decision-making sun. I’d only seen him once before – supple lips and saturated forearms and silence, eyes shaded under a ballcap, all the trappings of the instinctive and stupid, hot southern boy.
At the stoplight I checked the dials in my dashboard: all read-outs steady. The clock said 11:30. Meanwhile the ones on the inside were looping round and round, losing altitude. His texts had come in hot and heavy all afternoon, driving me to distraction, eventually driving me to his door, leaving every important task undone. Not just undone, completely invisible. Lust was like that, your very own internally manufactured nicotine and dopamine and ephedrine supply. My charged electrons were bumping into his, equally excited and equally opposed, unable to power anything.
In a few minutes he was going to undo everything, he was going to get up on the inside, I was going to touch whatever I wanted, orally fixate to my heart’s content, and in the process lose my groove, my composure, my self-respect, strewn out my open car window like paper as I politely excused myself down into the ditch.
Oh but it was all so new! And also, the same thing as always.
Most days weren’t like this. Most days I didn’t get to relive bad habits. I walked from the automatic doors into the rain, my plastic bags and my car keys, my hair like an old scratchy blanket. Most days young men were a thing of the past. Most days were so identically plain that I completely forgot: I was young too.
The men outside the grocery store huddled under the awning, smoking and staring at me, and I never dared look back at them. I’d see them corralling carts in the rain, or walking hunched under a hoodie, loading a couch into a pick-up, flanking their wives in the store. I brushed shoulders with them in the aisles at the flea market, drove past them in my car, always doing a doubletake from a safe distance. Sometimes the shape of their shoulders would stir a memory, a man’s hand on my back, his chest under my cheek. Those things left such a fissure behind, dragging across the landscape like a melting glacier. The Epoch of Suches. Almost grown in now, filled in with shrubs and weeds, and soon: one black minivan.
I was good about keeping to the mundane. Better than most, actually. My two boots hitting the puddles. The choking smell from the plastic factory nearby. The dead cement depot overhead, on the hilltop by the railroad tracks. The trains always heaving forward, always leaving, then coming right back.
Hmm, he wrote. Can’t wait.
In his driveway, his beat-up pickup. A porch light casting a cold light. His unfamiliar form in the opened screen door.
“I saw these dogs…in the road,” I mumbled, nonsensically, climbing the cement steps.
“Yeah,” his voice was so gravelly, like the air in his throat was dragged down a dirt road too. “I was worried it would be hard for you to find.”
That didn’t make sense. Our arrows had flown straight over each other’s heads. There was no kiss.
Inside, an old washing machine in a mud room.
“Hi,” I said, and cracked a joke about something, anything.
He said nothing. We spoke two different languages. Whatever.
“I’m keeping the light off, it’s a mess,” he said, and turned his back to lead me through a cold, pitch black room. In the moment that he paused, I soaked him up from top to bottom, t-shirt, and a muscly, narrow ass in soft sweatpants. Sleeping clothes. Taller than before. I wasn’t breathing anymore, not like normal. He looked back and I realized that his hand was reaching back for mine. I startled, trying to understand. The shape of that curving palm, the flesh just above the thumb, strong fingertips, big hand seeking a small cold one. I reached forward and took it, shockwaves rippling up my arm. All the prior digital sex, the robotic syntax and exposed pictures, all of it safe and non-tactile, nothing approximating a warm human memory. But my hand in his, closed around the bars of the iron gate inside me. Everything I’d forgotten I really wanted, on lockdown. I melted a little, my heart like red wax. It was damage that I would feel later, when I would try to light the wick on my own, and fail.
The darkness gave way to a tiny warm bedroom and a glowing space heater. Gray light from a murmuring TV flashed from an adjoining room. His sheets were pulled back, his phone near his pillow, waiting on my texts.
I froze, not knowing what to do. He maybe said something then, something obtuse and dumb, but all I heard was the gritty growl. My purse and my clothes, where to put them? Where to stand, what to do. I could barely see his face and body in the dark, and I wished he would flick on a light. I slipped off my boots and sat on the edge of his bed, perched on the edge of the deep end. He sat next to me, and I could see the plane of his smooth lips, and we started to kiss.
I kissed like a kid at first. I always did. It was the best part of sex, really. The innocent pressing, the lip to lip. If it was good, it would feel like nothing at first, like air, like kissing a wall. But only because of the deadly delay while the serotonin or the estrogen dumped hard, polluting the bloodstream with fog and bliss. My god, it had been so long. I kissed him just barely, ten times, twenty, imagining him in the daylight, the way he looked at work within the boundaries of appropriate distance. It always amazed me that I could jump these insurmountable walls, erode them under my fingertips. I reached around and touched his neck, arching my back to get more. The chemicals were talking now, and I was along for the ride.
I slid back on the bed and watched him undress, the shadows hiding behind the ridges of his bare chest. He had a good body, but so what, big fucking deal. But I stared hard at it, memorizing.
I slithered up on top of him, eye to eye, ready for the intake, the uptake, the all-consuming meld. But instead he reached his fingertip and tucked back a loose strand of my hair. I froze, still as a mouse, letting him. All circuits recalculating. Wait, what was that, exactly? Tenderness, maybe. A mutation of it. A bomb went barreling down to the core, burrowing below the magma. It registered, a direct hit to my fortress, but I covered it up with my teeth, slipped it under my tongue, overrode it with purring, writhing hips.
He was getting it in now, and I was getting the relief I needed, the body buzz that comes from being roughed up, hollering out a year of pent up days. But all the sound and fury was predictable novelty really, stuff you can brag about and walk away from. But the hand in the darkness, his fingertip on that hair? These were the variables you had to watch out for. These were tricky.
And then it was over. Thirty minutes, maybe? Forty-five? Somehow, I had actually believed it would go on forever. Or at least another hour.
I laid with his arm under my neck, chest heaving, blood in my ears, breathing long and deep. I wanted to curl into the heat of his right flank, to cool into a pretty mess and light down on a placid lake of Twilight-grade togetherness. For a minute I skimmed this ridiculous yearning, gliding face to face above it, longing to rest fully on his sprawled body, and sleep. But my mouth was dry, so instead I swallowed. It was the loudest sound in the room. He stirred, and I lifted my head and sat up, looking around, wondering what to do. I did not belong here. I wanted to belong here. I was rendered into a statue, hovering slightly outside my body.
“You can stay if you want,” he said. And I grabbed with both hands at this chance to get my cool back.
I stood up beside the bed and began picking up my clothes, readying to leave, watching him watch me.
Only when I was fully dressed did he flick the bedside light. Strange. I could see his smile for the first time, white teeth in the warm yellow light. Stupid hot boy. An effortless checkmate. I kissed him at the door. He didn’t kiss back.
He never came back for more. Don’t tell anyone, but it made me cry, just a little. It took a full week to get the outstretched hand out of my system, the feel of that arm under my neck.
“I know him,” my hair dresser told me a few weeks later. She was a pretty blonde, who was making me into one too. I hadn’t even told her his name. Just that he was 25, and where he worked – all very generic details, disclosed in the interest of figuring out why I hadn’t gotten a second conjugal visit with his stupid hot worthless ass. But I’d forgotten the cardinal rule of small towns: they are very fucking small.
“I know him,” she repeated.
The hairdresser next to her started getting very excited, her eyes wide, comb suspended, hand over mouth.
“I know him too.” She paused her haircut long enough to lean into my face and whisper his name. “Am I right?”
“Oh god!” I said. “How did you…?”
“I knew it.”
“He likes older women. He’s not very smart though. Only interested in one thing. When he gets it, he’s gone.”
“Ohh,” I said. “Oh. Well. I feel better, because I was thinking, y’know, it wasn’t good for him or something.”
“Nope, he did the same thing to me.”
And all at once, just like that, my equilibrium restored. All my superpowers returned. I loved women. Women: the only shining path back from a male mindfuck.
A week into completely forgetting him, a text came in. From him, of course:
You can’t talk at the beauty shop. I know those girls. Going to get us in trouble.
Trouble? I wondered, titillated at the sudden reappearance of his name in my phone. Then irritated. “Trouble” was for people who were still fucking. “Us” was for trysts that had not yet passed their textback expiration date.
Me: You’re gonna get yourself in trouble, player.
Him: I haven’t said a word. And Lisa was like six months ago.
Me: Oh and she said you’d been with one of her clients too.
Him: Have no idea who that would be but just don’t think it needs to be beauty shop talk.
I stepped back from my phone, taking stock. Hmm, what fresh hormone was I experiencing now, exactly? Dripping into my veins, making my fingertips shake? Oh. Rage. It was rage. Interesting. Because there was a lot of stuff in my life I couldn’t do – like be late for the drop-off line, or wash darks and lights together, or forget to feed the hamsters, or have one-night stands during which I successfully resisted the ancestral estrogen-linked mandate to bond like superglue to whatever idiot I happened to wake up next to – but talking? He didn’t think I needed to be talking about it? To other women?
Will bullies stop bullying you if you pray hard enough? Why did God make you so fugly and the assholes so hot? And can a girl give good head and still reduce her chances of going to hell by 35%? These and other pertinent questions of faith can all be yours by clicking below.
While my house was being looted, I was at a concert staring up at a beautiful singer. My row looked rapt and featureless in her light, like we were all extras in someone else’s movie. I was wearing a big fluffy faux fur jacket, a rock star accessory from Target, best suited for a permanent audience member. When I left my house that night, I was more concerned with that stupid outfit than the bolt on my backdoor.
Earlier, my friends had pulled in my drive to pick me up and I’d tottered across the cement in heels, instantly horrified by how tall I was. Overdressed. My compadres looked like normal people, the way you might look on the way to the store, whereas I appeared ready to headline a drag show. My cheap elastic polyester cuffs amplified my desperation.
“You look nice,” my friend Tom said. Then, reading me again. “You alright?”
“Yeah!” I said, trying to show him a painfully placid face. “I’m great!”
His second guessing was unwelcome. Weren’t my eyebrows ironclad? Good manners whipped to stiff peaks? But alas, I was see-through at the cellular level, just like my house. Just like my blinds left stubbornly in the up position, always letting the light in and the secrets out.
We cheered at the concert, gathered our purses and coats, and moved into the lobby. The artist posed with fans and autographed t-shirts at the merch table. Flashbulbs popped.
As darkness fell, my Christmas lights glowed warmly over my fireplace, giving a luster of midday to electronics below. Maybe the thieves had been watching me for weeks from the woods. Me, dressing and undressing, curtains never drawn with proper consistency. Or maybe they’d just been passing by and couldn’t believe their luck. A laptop that glimmered on the kitchen table. A door knob that yielded to the turning.
On the way home from the concert, we rolled to a stop just outside of Carrollton in a sea of blinding blue strobes. A fire truck had angled to block off an intersection. For ten minutes we idled, watching police officers wander around the scene of an accident just out of sight. Finally Tom turned the engine off, straining to see what was going on. The pulsing whine of a life-flight helicopter hovered overhead, invisible except for its single wheeling searchlight, scanning the perilous whips of traffic lights as it floated down, down , down. Humans disembarked and approached a waiting ambulance, slipped inside it, and then nothing happened. Twenty minutes more. We waited and watched. And then we watched the others drivers waiting, and waited to see if we could see what they were watching. Somewhere, in the middle of this ring of steaming traffic, the life of one person hung in the balance. Everyone shifted inside their passenger seats, bored and sleepy. I tried to make a joke. My breath fogged in the air, my teeth chattering.
Meanwhile back at my house, shadows crisscrossed the living room.
Finally they rolled the gurney across the intersection, loaded it back into the helicopter, checked their hatches and sprang away into the night. The traffic moved, and in minutes I was delivered with well wishes into my garage, where I clicked in the dark, tripping over bikes and bags. I couldn’t wait to take off my satin pieces and my pointed belt and slip into a hot, sleepy bath. I opened the door into the kitchen, surprised by how cold the house was. I veered into my bedroom, dropping my purse in the doorway.
My bedroom was messy, sure, I always left a mess before I went out. I turned the bath spicket to hot and let the water wash over my hands, and returned to the kitchen to check the thermostat. That’s when I saw the back door gaping wide open. The tattered screen lifting slowly in the breeze.
I held my breath, listening. I could hear the heat straining on full blast through the vents.
I left it unlocked. Maybe. And what. The wind pushed it open?
My laptop. Hadn’t it been sitting right there? On the kitchen table? It wasn’t. Not anymore. The pen was still on its left, the bowl of oranges on its right, but the 12 inch by 12 inch space in the middle where I loved to sit and type had totally vanished.
I took a step backwards, then another, as if socked in the stomach in slow motion. I retreated to the other side of the kitchen where I had a safer vantage point of the living room. I could still hear the bath running, running in a totally different sort of house now, as I peeked inch by inch around the corner. The Christmas lights shone on the empty spot atop the TV shelf where the xbox used to be. Its absence, and the shiny wood veneer beneath it, hit the back of my retina, and then filled in my understanding. Robbed. Robbed.
In a woosh, I panned out to take in the floor, all my chincy baskets pulled out of their shelves and overturned. Ransacked. All the empty cases, the strewn wires, the plugs stripped of their valuable ends. I listened again for movement. Whoever had bulldozed through here was long gone, but it was almost as if I could still see him, smell his tracks. He’d taken all my portable things out the back door, leaving a trail of video games into the dark woods. I tried to take it in all at once but it crushed me flat, left me whimpering like an animal, trap shut closed on my foot.
Oh no, I heard myself saying. Oh no. I rummaged my purse for my phone, swirling around the receipts and the keys, spilling stuff out the top. Had I deserved this somehow? And what is the post-robbery protocol, exactly? Call Mom and check. It was surreal, how everything had totally changed, from hot bath to 911. It took me a full minute to gather enough wits to press three numbers. I should never have left.
With the receiver pressed to my ear I began to walk circles through the house, flipping lights, tripping over scattered junk. The cat cowered under a bed. The sundries and the staples and the cheap things were in abundance now, the costume jewelry and the vinyl accessories and the dirty dishes and the yard sale possessions. But all the tasty filling, the quality-of-life upgrades – the speakers and the iPods and the video games and the cameras – the things you watch sales for, the things you eBay auction and stand in Black Friday lines for – the things you pay for with blood sweat and installment plans – all these were instantly erased. They say you can replace material things, but the truth is, sometimes you just can’t.
I flipped the light on in my son’s room, and saw all his stuff overturned, dumped, yanked out of the walls, ripped, the cases emptied, the Christmas presents toted away in his missing backpack. I started to cry and heave in a miserable, helpless rageful mess.
That’s how I looked when the cops showed up. Oh please, do come in, strange men. Come join my disaster. I stood erect, arms folded, while they stepped awkwardly around all my shitty pieces. They ignored my tears and my gasping curse words to methodically snap photos of the scene. In their faces I saw myself, still in my ridiculous ridiculous fur jacket, skintight black pants, teetering heels, mascara melting. They saw me as I truly was, in my native space: dressed like a call girl against scuffed walls and carpet stains, kitty litter crunching underfoot in the kitchen, nerf guns and papers and a garbage can at max capacity, overcrowded cupboards, makeup all over the bathroom counter, hair dryer on the floor, bed unmade . You couldn’t tell where the mess ended and where the crime began.
In the bedroom, I turned off the still-running bath, noticing for the first time that the thieves had ripped the drawers out my bedside tables, emptying their embarrassing contents onto a nearby rocking chair, including a pile of spilled porn DVDs. The police officer peered closer. I observed it with him, then strained away, as if it all belonged to someone else.
“I didn’t …leave those…there,” I mumbled.
He gave me a double take, wondering what I meant, and if I was really going to force him to acknowledge this pile of elephants in the room.
“So, should we collect them as evidence?” he asked, trying to maintain a police officer face. “For prints?”
“Possibly,” I nodded, eyeing the bouquet of naked asses on Backdoor Bitches, volume 3. “Because they definitely, I mean, I didn’t…” I wanted to explain this as if I was a doctor identifying the cause of death, but instead I sounded exactly like the murderer. “I haven’t touched those, uhhh, like … maybe two years ago uhhh but …not … recently.”
He made a step toward them as my voice trailed off, but then he froze, his sidearm and badge now rendered powerless in the force field of Pure Awkward.
“Hey Jason, would you get an evidence bag?” he called to the junior officer. Jason popped his head in my bedroom door, and I realized how pimply he was, no bigger than a boy scout. His starchy police uniform looked huge, gaping around his neck. He was zealously taking pictures from every angle.
“Any idea who did this?” I asked, suddenly feeling very small and tired and gross.
“No way to know for sure,” offered the big cop.
“Do you have any enemies?” asked the boy scout. “Anyone strange who’s visited lately? A repairman maybe?”
Big cop flashed him a look.
“Nah,” I said. “You have to have friends to have enemies.”
Oh nice, Dawn. Nice. What were they supposed to do with a comment like that, exactly.
“It’s probably just kids,” he interrupted. “Based on what they took. Do you have any serial numbers on any of these missing Xboxes?”
“Yeah, let me look.”
I excused myself and clicked out into the garage, opening up the door for some light. I paused to study the ominous shape of the police cruisers parked by my mailbox. In every direction, my neighbor’s houses were shuttered up tight, quietly sleeping. Not so much as one curiously parted blind. I might as well have been living in a colony on the moon.
I gave the cops my numbers and my information, and then they gave me a case number and some boilerplate answers, and then left me motionless in my living room, ankle-deep in my overturned life.
It was almost one in the morning. I eyed the dark panes of the backdoor and shuddered. I made one last call to a girlfriend across town.
“Did I wake you?” I asked, pacing furiously.
“No I was just watching TV.”
“I was robbed.” I touched the kitchen table and then the floodgates opened, melting me down in a hot stream of self pity.
“Oh Dawn!” she said, which was exactly what I wanted to hear. “Do you want me to come over?”
“No,” I sniveled, lying.
“I’ll be right there,” she said. “I don’t even have a bra on. I’m leaving.”
And that was how the night ended and the next day began, with her sitting on my couch protectively, like a sentinel. Seeing her there made me real again. I wasn’t just a pile of second rate accessories or an audience member or a case number with no remaining net worth, I was a woman. A proper member of the human experience. I sobbed a little, and then we cleaned up the mess and I changed my passwords. And then when there was nothing else to surmise over, no steps to retrace, I told her about the DVDs.
“Humilllliating,” I groaned. “Fucking porn. Porn that I never even use! Jesus Christ, my life.”
“Why don’t you call back. Tell them you found more porn and you need an officer to come back right away and look at it with you.”
I planted my face in the couch and laughed.
“Yeah. Hello, emergency? Hi can I have my porn back now?”
“That’s right. You’re just calling to check on it. To see how it’s doing.”
The missing cat wandered out of hiding and into the room where we were both wilting. Like most things that night, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Watch this,” I said, desperately fishing a doll bonnet and frock out of my daughter’s room. I picked him up, cooing sweetly as I wrangled his obedient limbs into pink panties and an elastic hat. He looked so pissy and sad, limping away with his buttfluff splaying out the seams, that neither one of us could breathe. He looked just like I felt.
“Come here kitty,” I apologized, collapsing in a fit of hysterics. “Bad mommy…I’m such a …bad … mommy.”
And just like that I was me again, still overly transparent and consistently inappropriate, now missing a couple hundred of my nicest and most embarrassing pieces, but alright nonetheless. Sometimes the only thing that sets a wrong right, especially at 3 in the morning, is the right kind of wrong. That, and a girlfriend who can help you recognize the difference.