Like a Reflection of Water
I Dream about Lainey
She’s dressed as a pioneer woman, something Little House on the Prairie, all hanging braids and calico. She organizes, commands us: her family and me. We stack boxes in the almost-empty farmhouse; we go where she points.
I can see her family ascending a hill, dragging satchels and leading a horse. Lainey and I arrange the rest of the sandbags around the house as the rain comes. She says we have to leave, we have to follow her family up to higher ground before the floods come. But I can’t find my hair dryer and need to find it before we leave.
As I start to look through the boxes I can no longer remember what I’ve lost. I find earmuffs, scissors, and pack them in my bag. Someone knocks on the door, but when I turn to see who is there, I can only notice how the water has risen, how it laps at the windows, brown and calm, but surrounding.
The soft click of Mia’s bedroom door signals that she is finally asleep and Eric will join me on the couch just as soon as he stops in the kitchen to wipe down the countertops. I pull my knees up and tuck my feet between the couch cushions. I am trying to read a magazine, but find myself flipping pages, no headline or infographic holding my attention for more than a moment. Then a photograph stops me: Bad Water Basin, Death Valley.
Eric’s hand reaching for my knee as he lowers himself down ignites a small spark, shocking me. With his other hand, he reaches for the remote and settles against me. “No,” I say, frowning. “It’s quiet. Let’s have a moment of quiet please while she sleeps.”
He sets the remote back where he found it, extending his other hand under the edge of my shorts. “I can be quiet,” he whispers, grabbing the magazine out of my hand and tossing it.
“You just lost my place,” I protest, but he is on top of me, his hand smelling of orange and garlic over my mouth.
“Let’s be quiet while she sleeps.”
I try to bite his hand. Unsuccessful, I lick. He smears my spit across my face and laughs, finding my wrist to pin above my head. I shift to stretch myself under Eric’s weight, close my eyes. His fingers find a zipper, his teeth find my lip. His mouth tastes of tomato sauce, of too much oregano. I don’t protest this lack of ceremony. But as he enters me, I can think only of that magazine photo: half the sky perfect desert blue, half cloud and gray as stray walls of water rain reckless against the salt flats.
Eric’s face is red and scrunched when I open my eyes. He lifts himself up slightly before letting his full heft crush me. I hear my phone ding near the front door. “Get up,” I say.
Mia cries when I tell her she cannot come with me. Missing soccer practice is not an option. She screams as Eric buckles her in the car. Her black cleats kick the back of his seat. He turns the radio up. It’s her favorite song, and he starts singing.
They leave. I sit in my own front seat. Quiet, eyes closed. Just a minute here before I get on the road. The quiet at Lainey’s house will not be restful even though I’ll be alone. I would like to cry, would like to stay at home. I know this is not an option and buckle myself in. I turn the radio off.
Like a Reflection of Water
Last week I unplugged the refrigerator and donated the canned goods to the food bank. I had planned on starting a bedroom closet today, but instead I’m on the back patio, sitting in a plastic chair barely holding itself together.
The one-eyed neighborhood cat Lainey called David Bowie rubs against my leg, his fur sun-soaked and warm. He is looking his age these days—a little scrawny in the haunches, a little gray around the mouth. A skittering leaf catches his eye. He throws a half-assed pounce before turning to me, letting out a strained yowl. I pat my lap and he jumps, turning in a circle, settling in. A flea hurries over the thin-furred ridge between eye and ear. David Bowie purrs as I pick the flea off and crush it with a tiny pop between my fingernails.
The patio table, rusted, lists toward me. Jam jars packed with cigarette butts pickling in rain water, cracked and empty plant pots, a pink plastic toy shovel, a cassette tape, a half-used bag of potting soil, and a flat of dead tomato seedlings sit on top, fading in slow decay. A crusty, muddied heap of blanket rests under. Cans and bottles tossed over the fence, Ho-Ho wrappers and chip bags flown in with the wind litter the overgrown grass of the yard. The fig tree needs trimmed and is dropping spoiled stains on the patio.
Summer will end soon, but the sky barely lets on. I should clean up back here instead of inside while the sun is warm and rising. I should see about a gardener or find that neighborhood boy who offered to mow the lawn. I scratch David Bowie’s chin. I can feel the scabs under his fur. He closes his eye and with each exhale, a slight nose whistle accompanies his purr.
A screen door slams next door and two little girls scream and run to their swing set. The chains need oil and creak with the strain of legs pushing and pulling. I want these sounds to ignite something. I want them to remind me of Lainey and me as kids.
But nothing comes; I can’t remember this house as it used to be.
I urge David Bowie down and go inside. I’ll probably need to get the floor refinished before the house will sell—the hardwood in the kitchen warped and swelled while absorbing. Under the water.
I remember a dream I had last night: walking through a narrow space, door after closed door on either side. It had been dark, but the ceiling shimmered like refracted light, like a reflection of water.
It was a neighbor who found Lainey’s body. From her yard, in the middle of a cigarette, the woman had seen water pooling on the patio from under the back door. When Lainey didn’t answer the knock, the neighbor turned the knob. I used to give Lainey such grief about not locking doors, not keeping things safe. The neighbor found her in the kitchen, on the floor, the faucet running, the sink overflowing.
The coroner suspected a blood clot. Venous Thrombus.
Lainey had left a will, at the insistence of the family lawyer, after her mother died. He said since no one was left. Lainey made it easy: she left it all to me. So, I guess, technically the house is mine now. Mine to clean out. My responsibility. Just like her to give me something I don’t want to deal with.
Sell: her car. Sell: the house. Donate: all the books, all the clothes. Sell: espresso machine. Sell: refrigerator. Sell: her father’s tools. Sell: kitchen table and chairs, dining room table and chairs. Sell: hutch. Sell: her mother’s teacups. Trash: decades of magazines (National Geographic, Scientific American, Playboy) Trash: living room couch (as old as me, maybe older). Sell: nick-knacks and tchotchkes (the taxidermy crow, the desert rose, the brain coral). Donate: towels and sheets. Trash: prescriptions, shampoo. Trash: mattresses. Sell: bedroom furniture (three sets). Sell: Lainey’s desk. Shit. What do I do with her bills that need paid? Give them to the lawyer? Am I the one who has to call the cable company, the bank, the collection agency?
See, the thing is. The thing is, before they found her, before they found ICE-Elise in her phone and called me, Lainey and I hadn’t talked in years. Since the wedding, since the baby. She didn’t approve, she shut me out. She refused Maid of Honor, refused Godmother.
The thing is, she hadn’t gone to college like we’d planned. We’d live together, that was the plan. We’d get an apartment and a couch and we’d figure out the world together like we’d always done. Elaina and Elise. Besties. Togetha forevah.
The thing is, there was the freak accident that took her brother—the sneaker wave at the summer beach party. The same week they found the tumors in her dad. And her mom—she couldn’t bear another loss—emptied every bottle she found into herself: Dramamine to Docetaxel. Lainey deferred. I left for freshman orientation.
See, the thing is, as I take the pictures off the wall, stack her brother on top of her mom on top of her dad on top of Lainey, as I seal the box with tape that screeches across the top, and as I am not sure who I am saving these pictures for, I wonder. I wonder why I didn’t stay.
I give Mia the pink plastic toy shovel and a new green watering can, just her size. I give her a tomato plant, a pepper plant, a packet of sunflower seeds from the clearance rack. I tell her she’s in charge of Daddy today. She’s in charge of planting our garden.
She digs erratic holes in the flowerbed Eric has cleared for her. She doesn’t notice the dirt on her knees, the smudge across her cheek. He helps her jiggle the roots from the square plastic containers. He is more patient with her than I could ever be.
I sit in the driver’s seat, I watch them through the windshield. Quiet. Just a minute here before I get on the road. I buckle myself in. I wave. I don’t tell them I don’t want to go, I don’t want to stay.
The blanket on Lainey’s bed is the same one that’s always been there: red stripes faded to pink, weird stain that was nail polish we tried to bleach out. I lie down, cover my eyes with my arm. Exhausted. My fingers touch a tag as I try to bury them beneath the pillows. I try to tuck the tag away, but it lifts away completely, and I flick it aside. Too tired. All this. Everything.
It feels like fire smoldering inside my face when I need to cry. This time I don’t tell myself Mommy can’t cry in front of Mia. Mia’s is not here. I am not a mommy. I didn’t want to be a mommy.
I pull a pillow to my face and feel the release of tears, finally, and turn on my stomach, like Lainey had laid, her body shuddering in silence, when her brother died. And I sat beside her then and stroked her hair and her back until she fell asleep and I curled up beside her and I held her. I turn to my side now, reach across the bed, reach for her, reach for something I didn’t know I missed. Curling into myself, I hear a crinkle of paper under me and reach for the stray tag. Tears still blur, but I can see it is something else, folded.
I sit, I unfold, I try to catch my breath, I smooth it against my knee:
The front of a convertible. Legs, luminous, standing in the front seat, viewed through glass. Butts in cutoffs, leaning against the convertible’s windshield. The naked backs of two girls, arms raised into the perfect desert blue. Lainey’s fingers entwined in mine, holding up the cloudless sky.
Her brother’s photography project. “We’re going to be his models!” Desert. A borrowed convertible. Bring sunglasses. Bring extra water. Extra sunscreen. Bring a map, the roads aren’t marked out here. Take off your shirt because it’s art. Because it’s hot. Because it’s the desert and you don’t even sweat. Because girls are pretty.
“Go up those rocks and I’ll stand here. Face the wind. Right just like that.”
Catch her eye. Feel silly, not like a model. Laugh until she laughs too. Because you’re both half-naked in the middle of nowhere and someone is taking photos but you can’t even hear his voice anymore over the wind. Keep climbing.
Feel like you might faint when you get to the top. “No, really, I might.” Let her help you sit down in the shade of a boulder. Let her fan you with her hand. Let her kiss you because you’re pretty sure no one can see, because you can see that she’s pretty. Let her help you down. Let her get you water. Let her brother go off alone to take photos of the salt flats, of the storms spilling erratic in the distance.
When you sit in the back seat, in the shade of the rocks, feeling better, lay your legs on her lap. Let her kiss you again. Kiss her back. Feel her skin against yours, how it feels smooth and salty. Think: Elise and Lainey sittin’ in a tree. Think: I love you. It’s okay to do this here. No one can see.
This morning on my way to work I was listening to that tape you made—the one with Pixies and The Sundays and Soundgarden—such a weird mix. But I love it. Anyway, I was thinking about you.
I had the worst day at work today. Brenner was being a fucking asshole. I can’t even believe the shit he pulls sometimes. I really wanted to punch him. Then I got home and I missed everyone so much. I can’t even tell you how it feels sometimes to be here alone, to be in this house alone. I just took a bath and cried and cried. It feels like you’re all I have left and you’re gone. David Bowie still comes around sometimes, the little fucker. At least he hasn’t completely abandoned me.
I’m sorry I freaked out while you were here. I’m just really afraid you’re going to leave me too and I don’t know what to do about it sometimes.
Glad to hear things are going well with Eric. I’m doing okay. I’m glad you’re happy. I
I Can’t Even Tell You How It Feels Sometimes to Be Here Alone
I dig her shampoo out of the black trash bag in the hallway and pour it under the bathtub faucet, letting the bubbles foam up. I undress, slide under the water, slide into space Lainey once occupied. It feels like you’re all I have left and you’re gone. The scent of the bubbles doesn’t remind me of Lainey like I want them to. But in the water I feel like I’m floating. I’m floating on the water, on nothing, just floating, floating on a warm wave that is sweeping over earth, over cracks in the desert. It sweeps in, it gently sweeps everything away. I don’t know how I’m still floating, but I ride the wave in until it stops and rests me on the grass in Lainey’s backyard. It’s warm summer with a slight breeze and Mia is in the flowerbed. She waves, but I cannot reach her. Without water my limbs are impossible to lift. Mia swings on a tire swing, laughing. She says she is glad I’m happy. She slips through the hole and as I try to catch her, my leg splashes into the bathwater, jerking me awake.
I hear my phone ring in the other room. It’s Eric’s ring. I don’t get up. I slide deeper under the water, the bubbles on the surface spin in whorls around my breasts like tiny galaxies in other skies. I will stay here longer.
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