Navigating adolescence is hard enough without family problems. This weekend, Patrick Hueller reminds us of what being a teenage boy is like, but also shows us one unique boy in a unique fight to become a man. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
When my mom calls to tell me that my father has been hospitalized, it doesn’t take me long to decide to use the information to hit on a girl. I’m standing in the entryway of my bosses’ house, looking through the screen door: Jeffrey, a 12-year-old third-grader with Aspergers, is rolling around the circular driveway in his heelies, while Kendra, the camp lifeguard, chases after him waving swim trunks and a towel. Kendra’s wearing a bathing suit herself—a black one today—and I watch her admiringly.
How did you find out? I ask Mom.
Rita told me, she says.
Rita’s my father’s girlfriend.
What’s the matter with him?
Something with his heart, Mom says.
As usual, Jeffrey’s chomping away at the collar of his t-shirt. He’s going around and around the driveway circle—air resistance pressing his shorts to his thighs—while Kendra follows him, her bare feet stepping gingerly on the hot asphalt, her backside clenching up like she’s wearing heels.
Mom tells me what hospital Dad’s in and asks if I’m going to visit him tonight.
We’ll see, I say.
This is a lie. I have no intention of visiting him tonight or any other night.
Outside, Jeffrey’s really starting to enjoy himself: gnawing away at his shirt, he’s treating the chase like it’s a game—keeping his distance, nodding his head almost frantically as he breathes out his nose.
I gotta go, Mom, I say.
When are you coming home?
I tell her I’m not sure.
Just try not to wake me up, okay? she says. The other night I didn’t know who it was traipsing around my house.
I say okay and hang up. Setting the phone down on the stairs that lead to the house’s main living area, I holler, Thanks, Mrs. Heston! and walk out the door. I pace myself so that I’m stepping onto the driveway just as Jeffrey is coming around the bend.
Hey, Jeff Gordon, I say. (That’s what I’ve been calling him ever since he got the heelies.) What’s our deal with those shoes?
Jeffrey stops. His shirt drops from his mouth. Our deal with the shoes is simple: he can have them as long as he behaves himself.
Do I need to tell your parents that you wouldn’t take them off to go swimming? I ask.
He shakes his head just as Kendra corrals him with her arms. Over his shoulder, she mouths me a thank you.
This is my fifth year at Heston’s, and each summer there seems to be at least one: one new girl from the high school joining Heston’s Family-Owned Summer Day Camp staff. One new potential summer fling for the male counselors to talk about scoring with as we sit on the hillside of the camp’s sports field and watch the kids play Capture the Flag.
This year, that girl is Kendra. She’s a junior, and I’ve been working on her for weeks. Last week, the second week of camp, I was stationed at the pool, and got to spend the whole afternoon with her.
We sat in lookout chairs together: me taking in her legs with the corner of my eye as I tried to think of something to say.
This is the life, huh? I said finally. Sitting out at the pool all day. I love getting put here.
Yeah, she said, looking at the pool and doing a head count. It can make for a long day when you have to teach lessons all morning.
I bet, I said, adding lamely: You don’t have the variety of activities the rest of us have.
We didn’t say anything for a while.
Still, I said, you’ve got to feel pretty important wearing one of these bad boys.
I readjusted my red rescue tube across my chest.
Mrs. Heston yelled at me this morning for not having it on.
Really? I’ve never heard her yell.
Not like really yell. I thought she was kidding at first. She was up there on her perch and I was so startled I didn’t really hear her and just nodded my head and smiled. Which I think just made her even more . . .
When she couldn’t find the right word, Kendra waved her arms and shook her hands and said, Aaaahhhh!
The whole time her face was half-turned: one eye on the Hestons’ deck, one on the pool.
I know what you mean, I said. That sucks.
We watched the water for a while.
Ummm, I give it a 9.762, I told a girl who had dived into the pool and was now reemerging. It was really good, but I bet you can do even better. Don’t you think she can do even better, Kendra?
I turned to her, smiling.
Mr. Heston says they’re not supposed to dive, Kendra said.
This week seemed to go a little better. I’ve been laying the groundwork in segments: making small talk during lunch, in the mornings and afternoons while parents drive around the circular driveway to drop off or pick up their kids, and whenever else our paths intersect. Then, yesterday afternoon, I finally got somewhere. I had traded with one of the guys so I could be at the pool again, offering my archery station today and to scoop up horse shit in the pasture tomorrow.
She didn’t say anything while she did her head count.
You know, she said when she’d finished, I’m not actually even counting.
We were sitting close enough that our arms touched.
I do it just because I feel like either Mr. or Mrs. Heston’s always watching. Like they just sit up there in their house and spy on me. This morning I got yelled at for not evacuating the pool.
Yeah? What happened?
I pressed my arm a little more firmly into hers. I couldn’t tell if she noticed.
A kid had forgotten to shower off before getting in the pool, she said, so I left to help him. I was only gone for like a second, and there was another life guard sitting right here.
She lifted the arm that had been touching mine and put some sun-bleached strands of hair behind her ear, the strands greasy from repetitive contact with her finger tips. Her left breast perked up and then dropped as she put her arm back next to mine.
You’re lucky, she said, turning to me. None of the other areas here are right next to the house.
Yeah, I said. I bet that can be rough. Like that time I fell asleep at archery—that wouldn’t have gone over too well if they’d found out.
I meant this as a joke, to lighten the mood. I’d never actually taken a snooze at the archery range. A few years ago a counselor had gotten fired for dozing in a hammock, but I’d never heard of that happening when bows and arrows were involved.
Kendra must not have picked up on my tone of voice, though.
Really? she said.
I mean, it was pretty bad, I said. I wake up and there’s a kid with an arrow sticking out of his back.
She was shaking her head now.
I know, I said. I wasn’t sure what to do.
So what happened?
Well, I couldn’t tell a kid to run and get help, not if I wanted to keep my job. So I just pulled it out myself. The arrow made a suction sound coming out.
I mimed pulling out the arrow, even made the suction sound with my mouth.
Kendra flinched at my reenactment.
Ewww, she said.
She was smiling, though, to let me know she was in on the joke.
We watched the water for a while. A third-grade girl, Lexi, took her arm off the side of the pool and splooshed underwater. When she resurfaced she was wearing plastic rings all along one arm. She braced her arm on the side of the pool again and looked at us, the giant foggy goggles she was wearing and her open mouth making her appear dazed. She let the rings slide off her arm, back into the water.
You know there used to be a diving board? I said to Kendra, a fact which was, to my knowledge, no more accurate than the ones about bow-and-arrow boy.
Really? Kendra said. Now you’re not even supposed to enter the water from anywhere but the stairs in the shallow end.
I shook my head. Things have changed, I said.
Then I remembered something: It was Tuesday. Mr. Heston would be at his second job, what he called his real job, and Mrs. Heston would be picking up their 8-year-old from piano.
But you know, I said, once you get to know the Hestons, they’re not so bad. I mean, sometimes you have to just ignore them, not let them get to you so much. Give them the finger as a sign of personal integrity, you know what I mean?
Kendra scrunched her face. The finger, she said.
Yeah, I mean, not literally, but through your actions.
I was getting out of my chair as I said this. Standing, facing the pool, I swiveled my neck toward the house, thought Please be gone and, holding up three fingers, said: Read between the lines, Mrs. Heston! and did a cannonball into the water.
When I poked my head above water I saw all the kids staring at me—some still getting over the surprise of my entrance, most smiling about it and moving in my direction. Kendra was looking at me, too, letting out a stunned laugh.
Come on in, I said. The water’s nice.
But she just stood there, laughing in disbelief, and I spent the rest of the afternoon letting kids take turns hanging on me. Just don’t squeeze so hard on my throat, I told them, pretending (and sometimes not pretending) to wheeze and gurgle my voice.
Kendra never joined us, but this morning, when I arrived at work, I found a note in my locker:
Wanna swim at my pool tonight? it said. No stupid spying bosses aloud!! Haha.
She’d even written down directions to her house.
After work, I decide to go home before heading to Kendra’s. I feel hot, sweaty, and chalky: in the afternoon I offered an activity called Give the Counselor a Makeover, and let 13 girls swarm me with wet chalk, smearing the stuff not just on my face but on my clothes, arms, even my hair. All the goops of chalk on my eyebrows and in my ears has hardened into crud.
At the top of the driveway I pull the emergency brake. I put the stick in neutral and let my car idle while I get out and go to the keypad next to the garage door, press the code and Enter and then get back in my car as the garage door opens. I have to do this—get out and use the keypad—every day, because Mom hasn’t given me a garage opener for my car.
She’s been living in this town house for three years now—ever since my father moved out and finally made official what had been for-all-intents-and-purposes almost as far back as I can remember. The house is a one-level, much smaller than the house we lived in until I left for college and, a few years later, Dad left for Rita.
It’s all relative, though. Mom told me that first summer I came back from college that she felt as though for the first time in a long time she could stretch her legs. The last five or six years before the divorce, Dad had slept on the basement couch while Mom kept their bedroom upstairs, an arrangement that seemed more than fair at the time but that for whatever reason ended up meaning Dad had dibs on the whole downstairs—not just the basement but the first floor, too: the dining room, the kitchen, the living room; it was all seemingly within his jurisdiction. Pretty much the only time Mom ventured out of her room was to go to work or to eat a quick meal in the kitchen. It’s really nice to go where I please, Mom said about her town house. Not that it was your father’s fault, she said. I don’t want you blaming him for what happened.
Anyway, she liked to say, what’s done is done.
Since the divorce, in fact, Mom’s assumed the role of keeping my father in my life. She’s not interested in the blame game, she’ll say. She’ll ask me how he’s doing, or what he’s been up to, or tell me she had lunch with Rita the other day, and man, that woman’s got a lot of spunk, doesn’t she? I’m really glad he’s found somebody, she says. It must have been awful, living in a house with a person you no longer love. He must have felt every bit as trapped as I did.
Every holiday and on his birthday, she’ll ask what he’s up to, and whether I’m planning on doing anything with or for him. She’ll even offer to pay, if it’s a matter of not having the money. To which I’ll tell her, Sure, I’ll give him a call, Mom and No, I don’t need any money, thanks anyway.
Then I’ll break my promise and hope Rita doesn’t tattle on me. Because the truth is, I’ve hardly talked to my father in almost three years.
Kendra doesn’t know this, though, and as I stand in the shower—pink, blue and yellow streams of water sliding off me, puddling at my feet—I rehearse our upcoming conversation:
Hey, she’ll say. How are you?
She’ll be in her pool with me, in her black suit.
Oh, I’ll say. I’ve been better.
Yeah? she’ll say, concern on her face. Why’s that?
It’s nothing, I’ll say, putting on a heroic half-smile.
Come on. You can tell me.
It’s just . . . it’s my dad. He’s not doing so hot . . .
And then she’ll feel sorry for me, and want to console me, and spend the rest of the night playing with my draw string.
Or something like that. Anyway, it can’t hurt my cause any, lobbying for the sympathy vote.
After I dry off I make sure to wipe off all the drops of water on the shower walls and floor with my towel, so Mom doesn’t see them when she gets home from teaching summer school. She said she shouldn’t even be able to tell I’ve been in there. Before she could put the old house on the market, she said, she had to spend hours scrubbing away the watermarks in my and the downstairs bathrooms, and she doesn’t want to have to do that again.
When I’m done wiping, my towel looks tie-dyed: splotched with pink and purple, yellow and blue.
It’s well after six when I find a mailbox with Kendra’s address and park next to it, on the side of the road. I walk up the asphalt driveway, which is squeezed on both sides by giant trees that look good for climbing: oak, I think, but then again they could be anything. I don’t really know my trees. The driveway turns out to be long, the house tucked a good ways back. A basketball hoop—one of those above-ground, ready-to-use, store-bought deals you fill with sand or water—stands off to the side, where the driveway widens out to fit a three-car garage: one big white door, one small.
The house itself is good-sized—red-paneled but not too red. Not an eyesore. I walk across the path leading to the house, feeling like I’m skipping even though I’m not as I step from one stone slab, over a crack, to another slab. As I approach the front door I see that Kendra’s written me another note:
Is that you???!!! the note says. The pool’s behind the house. Go around!
At the bottom of the page is another arrow, pointing to the right, and I move alongside some bushes and then find another stone path cutting through a garden on the side of the house.
As I approach the fenced-in pool, unlatching and then opening the door, I see that I was wrong: Kendra’s not wearing the black suit, as I’d imagined; she’s wearing a brown bikini. She’s floating on an inflatable raft, sun glasses on, her flat stomach whiter than the rest of her. She places her sunglasses on her forehead as I unlatch the fence door.
Hey, she says. You made it.
Yeah, sorry. It took me longer than expected to get the chalk off.
I’ve brought the towel I used after my shower, still covered in colorful splotches, and I hold it up for her to see. She laughs, sitting up, using her elbows to support her upper body.
You’re so good with them, she says.
I wish I could say the same about the kids with me, I say. I felt like they were beating me senseless with a rainbow.
I’d come up with this line earlier, in the car, and I hope it doesn’t sound forced. She laughs, her elbows digging into the raft sharply enough to be partly submerged in water. I’m not sure what to do, where to go. There’s only one raft. I sit down on the edge of the pool, dangling my legs.
I decide to take off my shirt: a white undershirt that is fairly tight and proves to be more challenging to remove than I’d expected. From a sitting position, I have to hunch and then pull the shirt over my shoulder blades and head, the cotton fabric making a static electric sound as it sweeps through my hair.
Kendra giggles. Alfalfa head, she says.
I grab the top of my head in both hands, screw up my face like I’m really pressing down hard, and take the hands off again.
Better? I say.
Kendra just raises an eyebrow.
Guess there’s only one way to get the hair back down, I say, and push off into the pool. Curling up in a ball underwater, I make a show of mussing my hair, just in case she’s watching. When I reemerge I say, There. How’s that look?
Like you’re wearing a helmet, she says.
In that case, I say, I need to let it dry off.
Are you going to use your colorful towel?
I turn to my towel on the side of the pool.
No, I say, turning back, I think I’m just going to let it air dry. Hmmm . . . I need a place above the water that will give me optimal sun trajectory.
Kendra puckers her mouth and squints her eyes, pretending she’s thinking.
Well, she says, the edge of the pool is always available.
Yeah, maybe that would work, I say. No, you know what? The edge of the pool is still just barely in the shade of the fence . . . I think I’m going to need to be right here in the middle of the pool in order to catch as many rays as possible.
Yeah, I say. Unfortunately, ma’am, I think I’m going to need to confiscate this raft.
Kendra ponders this.
Sorry. I don’t think so.
It’s for a good cause.
Finders keepers, she says.
In that case—I really hate to do this—but . . .
Stepping up to the raft, I grab hold of the side, bend my knees, and attempt to push the raft over. It doesn’t work.
Well hello there, Kendra says. Is there something I can I help you with?
Changing tactics, I dive underwater and come up underneath the raft, pushing with my hands and with my head. The raft raises up and I feel it lighten as Kendra tumbles off. I can’t see her, but I hear her giggle and say, Nice hat.
It’s a bit big, I say, but it keeps the sun out of my eyes.
Then I drop down under the water again and, in one motion, grab the side of the raft and pull myself on top of it. I’m facing Kendra now, and I pose for her: lying on my side, I rest my head in my hand.
That’s better, I say.
Kendra gives me a mock frown. Not for me it’s not, she says.
Too bad, so sad? I say.
How about we take turns?
Hmmm . . . no, I’m afraid if you want it back, you’re going to have to take it from me.
Yeah? she says, grabbing my arm and pulling it.
Unless you want to share, I say—or I start to say, because right then a voice says, Kendra, we’re leaving. Sure you don’t want to come?
I look up. A middle-aged man in a baseball hat with a flat brim is standing on the edge of the pool.
Yeah, Dad, Kendra says. I told you. Some people from camp are coming over to swim.
The man doesn’t look at me.
Your brother’s going to be disappointed, he says.
It’s just one game, Dad.
The man stands there, his shirt tucked into khaki shorts with an elastic waist band that’s pulled up too high over his potbelly. He looks almost straight down, at the pool. Bending over, he settles onto one knee and uses his hand to scoop at the water. He looks at us again, tilting his palm in our direction. He’s holding a big black bug.
Good source of protein, he says, smiling.
Ew, Dad, that’s gross, Kendra says.
The man stands up, tosses the bug over his shoulder, and says, We’re going for ice cream afterwards. You want us to pick something up for you?
No, we’re fine. Have fun at the game, Dad. Tell Sam I’ll be at the next one.
Okay, we’ll see you when we get back, he says, turning and heading for the fence door. It was nice to meet you, whatever your name is.
You, too, I start to say as the door closes.
I watch him step up the porch stairs, open a sliding glass door, go inside.
Sorry about that, Kendra says to me.
Oh, that’s okay. For some reason I thought we were alone.
We are now—for once.
Did you invite other counselors to come swimming?
No, she says, smiling. I just told him that.
Then she says, Scoot over, and clambers onto the raft, knocking into my body and then stretching out next to me. The wet fabric of her swimsuit top brushes my forearm, just above my elbow.
Hi, she says, her face inches from mine.
There’s a series of beeps—beep beepbeepbeep beep beep—and Kendra swivels her head toward the noise.
That’s my little brother. My dad lets him honk the horn like that every time we go anywhere.
She’s still looking in the direction of the horn.
Sometimes I feel like I can’t get away from them, she says. I mean—but she cuts herself off. Sorry, she says. We don’t need to talk about my family.
She’s facing me again.
No, I say. I know what you mean. Ever since my dad was hospitalized . . .
I stop talking, let the sentence trail off.
Really? she says.
It’s kind of hard for me to talk about.
When did this happen?
Just a little bit ago, I say. Something with his heart.
I’m so sorry, she says, her voice lowering in concern. Is he okay?
I don’t know. I just found out and I haven’t been able to visit yet.
She’s actually getting teary-eyed.
Oh my God. I didn’t mean to . . ., she says. I mean, we don’t have to do this. You didn’t have to come here.
I know, I say, but sometimes you just need to take your mind off it, you know?
I place my hand on her elbow.
You haven’t even gotten a chance to see him yet, she says. He hasn’t gotten to see you.
I’m just not sure I’m up for it right now.
I think about putting my foot on her leg, right on top of the ankle bone.
You’d be surprised, she says. Really.
You’re probably right, I say.
I offer a brave smile, move my hand to her triceps.
Why don’t we go now? she says.
She tucks her legs in, swivels her head again.
Yeah. Why not?
She rolls off the raft, starts heading for the side of the pool. The motion rocks the raft a little, and water swishes under my neck and in my ear.
Wait, I say. How about a rain check? I’m not even sure about visiting hours or anything.
It’ll be fine. Trust me. Did you bring any regular clothes?
I lie. No, I say. Shoot. I didn’t.
That’s okay, she says. We’ll get you into some of my dad’s.
It’s as we’re driving away—as I’m looking in the rearview mirror at the duffel bag of clothes I brought and hoping Kendra doesn’t notice them—that I realize, thank God, I don’t know how to get to the hospital. Dammit, I say to her, I don’t have any directions.
But she asks me what hospital he’s at and I tell her and she says, You’re gonna want to get on Highway 94.
When we arrive at the hospital, Kendra coaches me on the best places to park, then ushers me into the hospital, to the elevator, to the right floor, to the right nurse. She knows the nurse by name (Megan), asks her about her puppy—Is he still finding gum to chew in the yard?—and then tells the nurse my situation. After getting a room number, Kendra takes me by the elbow and shows me where to go.
We both poke our heads in the room and find my father sitting upright, watching TV in a hospital gown with a purple trim. He must be watching a ball game, because he’s yelling at the TV.
Are you kidding me?! he’s saying. That hasn’t been a strike all game and you’re going to call it now?
He readjusts the tubes going into his nose.
Hey, Dad, I say.
Dad turns his head to Kendra and me.
Oh—hey, guy, he says. I didn’t expect—I didn’t realize you were coming.
He picks up the remote control next to him and points it at the TV. I think he’s going to turn the game off, but instead he just mutes it: the blue light from the TV continues to shine on his head.
Who’s the lovely lady?
I’m Kendra, sir, she says. It’s nice to meet you. Then, to both of us, she says: I’ll be outside talking to Megan.
And with that, and a shoulder squeeze, she’s gone, leaving the two of us to stare at each other and wonder what to do next.
Did you recently grow and then shrink again? Dad says finally.
He’s referring to Kendra’s dad’s jeans, which I’ve pulled up over my bellybutton and tightened with a belt but are still dragging on the ground.
No, I say. Where’s Rita?
She’s around here somewhere. You know how she likes to socialize.
Yeah, I say, even though I don’t, not really: I’ve only talked with her a handful of times.
Who’s the young lady?
Just a girl from camp, I say.
And you dragged her to the hospital?
She wanted to come.
She must think a lot of you, he says.
I don’t say anything. Dad readjusts his nose tubes.
These things feel like giant boogies, he says.
He smiles. I don’t.
Just as long as they don’t stick any tubes in my pecker, he says.
I look around. There’s an unoccupied bed next to Dad’s. The room is dim, the TV providing the majority of the light.
What’s wrong with you?
I don’t know. Something with my heart, he says.
You don’t know?
My heart isn’t beating right, but beyond that, the doctors aren’t sure. One second I’m in for a routine checkup, the next they’re wheeling me off to intensive care.
Are you in a lot of pain?
Dad laughs: a grunt-sigh through closed lips.
I’m not in any pain. The entire thing has been asymptomatic. The medication has made me a little woozy, but other than that . . .
They don’t even know how long it’s been going on. I could’ve had this problem for years.
So, what—you could have just spontaneously died or something?
I don’t know. The whole thing’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth. Taking up a bed when there’s nothing really wrong with me. Having to tell people I haven’t suffered. From now on maybe I’ll just tell them I had a stroke.
Yeah, Dad says, licking his dry lips and transitioning into a smile. Although then I’d have to learn how to talk out of the corner of my mouth. Maybe a massive heart attack. I could open and close my left hand as I talked with people.
I watch him demonstrate with his hand. A heart condition with no symptoms—only my father. The guy can get away with anything he wants and never have to face a single damn repercussion.
Why not diabetes, I say. Then you can eat candy bars.
This is meant to be sarcasm—I’m all of a sudden really pissed off—but Dad nods his head and tells me he likes the way I think.
Rita, he pretend-calls, get me a nutty bar, quick! Yeah, I could get used to that.
He smiles again. Come to think of it, he says, even a common cold would be better than this. I could eat chicken noodle soup and those cough drops that taste like candy. Remember when you were a kid and you’d fake a cold just so—
Why not a broken leg? I say, cutting him off. Rita could give you a piggyback ride everywhere you go.
Yeah, dad says, nodding his head. That could—
Why not a coma? I interrupt. You could just sleep all day.
More nodding, more smiling, more silence.
You know what we could do, he says, is pretend I stopped breathing altogether. And you could revive me. I bet that would impress Kendra. To walk in and see you zapping me on the chest with those metal things?
He presses a button and his bed reclines. Lying flat, he says, What do you think? You think we could get her to fall for it?
I tilt my head, fake-considering.
It would have to be pretty realistic, I say.
I find Kendra talking to Rita. They’re in the main area by the nurse’s desk, and they’re laughing loudly together.
Rita notices me coming. Hey there, she says. Long time no see. I was just gabbing with your friend here.
I force a smile and turn to Kendra.
I’m ready to leave whenever you are, I say.
Oh, okay, Kendra says. Let me quickly say goodbye to your dad, okay?
I’ll be here, I tell her.
She turns to Rita. It was so nice to meet you, she says. Hang in there, all right?
You too, Rita says.
And the two of them hug.
As Kendra and I approach the car she says, Rita is so fun! And your dad, he kissed me right on the cheek.
That sounds like something he’d do, I say.
I unlock my door, get in, and reach across to unlock hers.
At first we don’t talk much on the way back to Kendra’s. I ask her if it’s this turn and she says, Yep, good memory, or No, it’s the next one, but you’re close.
As I’m merging onto 94, Kendra says, I’m so jealous you know how to drive a stick.
I do what I can, I say.
No, I’m serious. At the beginning of the summer my dad bought me a stick shift car, and all it does is sit in the garage all day because I don’t know how to drive it.
Why doesn’t he teach you?
I know he wants to. But I get home from camp and it’s like the last thing I want to do is spend a few hours making a fool of myself in front of my dad. Plus we’re kind of in a fight right now. He won’t even let me switch cars with him, you know? Just for now, I mean, just until I learn how to drive my car. He says there’s only one way to learn and I’m like yeah I know that, and I’m going to learn; I just want to be able to get to work. I mean, I’m not disagreeing with him—I want to learn how to drive it—I just don’t know how yet and until I do it would be nice to be able to get where I need to go.
I’m not sure what to say to this, so I just tell her, Yeah, that sucks.
She lets out a sighing noise and out of the corner of my eye I see her make a big shrug.
Sorry, she says. It just makes me mad.
I bet, I say.
We drive silently for a while.
Then Kendra says, The thing is, what we’re really fighting about isn’t the car; it’s that I wanted it so badly in the first place. I think he thinks I want to get away from here as fast as possible, get away from the family—which is probably why he got me a car I couldn’t drive. I mean, he’s right. I do want to leave for a while—go to a college away from them. But it’s not like I want to go that far away. I don’t think I could handle being too far from home. They’ve been such a big part of my life, especially recently.
As she says all this she manages to turn herself in her seat so she’s facing me: sitting cross-legged, her back to the car door, all without even having to unbuckle. I think she wants me to ask what happened recently, whether it’s connected to her knowing that nurse and her way around the hospital, but I’m not sure, so instead I just say:
Huh. Well, if you ever want a free lesson, let me know.
Thanks, she says.
She continues to stare at me.
The thing is, she says, my mom, she was sick for a . . .I feel like after tonight I should . . .
But she doesn’t finish her sentence.
I mean, she says, I know I should confide in you right now—that it’s my turn or whatever, but I don’t really want to. Not right now. It feels, like with Rita, I talked with her a little about it, and—it wasn’t her fault—but it felt like . . . I don’t know. Like just telling my sob story is supposed to reveal something about me. Like people understand me just by hearing some bad stuff that happened . . .
She stops talking.
Is that okay? she adds. If we don’t talk about it?
Sure, I say. I wonder if I should feel guilty for feeling so relieved.
Really. I know exactly what you mean.
Which isn’t true—not really. My problem is different. How do you talk about stuff, even if you want to, that doesn’t have any detectable symptoms?
A couple minutes later we ease to a stop at the last intersection before her house.
Hey, I say. You want a lesson right now?
It’s kind of late, she says.
I mean right, right now. Here. You hold the stick and I’ll tell you when to change gears.
I don’t even know what I’m doing, she says.
There’s a drawing right on the stick. This time all you have to do is pull straight down.
No, I’ll tell you.
I wait for the light to turn green.
Ready, I say, speeding up and pressing the clutch with my foot. Now!
She yanks the stick down.
Nice, I say. Now you have to go up and over . . . Go!
She pushes the stick, but evidently not up-and-over enough: the car grinds in neutral and Kendra jumps back.
Did I wreck it? she asks.
This car’s too old and crappy to get wrecked, I assure her, holding down the clutch. Try again.
She does. I release the clutch.
When we get to her house it’s dark. I turn into the driveway and park next to the basketball hoop. And thus concludes lesson number one, I say.
I hope I didn’t kill your car, she says.
You did great. It’s a much tougher angle shifting from that side.
Yeah, that must be it, she says. The angle.
She unlatches her door.
Thanks, she says, and she leans in and hugs me, her lips brushing the side of my face, the tip of her nose touching my ear. She leans back. Tell your dad I’ll be thinking of him, she says.
I nod my head.
We say Goodbye and See you tomorrow and I put the car in reverse. As I’m taking a left out of her driveway I realize I should have offered her a ride to work, and consider going back, but don’t.
We can talk about future rides tomorrow.
Letting the car idle at the top of my mom’s driveway, I punch in the garage door code, press Enter, get back in my car and pull into the garage.
In the house, I hear the TV and walk through the kitchen to the living room. I find Mom lying on the carpet in front of her leather couch, sleeping. I often find her here at night: when I questioned her about it she said something about her lower back and needing a hard flat surface, but every time I see her like this I can’t help thinking of the nights I found her sleeping on the floor after Dad had moved out of the bedroom. I don’t know why she did that—maybe it really did have to do with her back—but it’s occurred to me since that maybe it was because she didn’t feel right claiming space that had previously been shared.
A science fiction show is on, one of the Star Treks, though she likely fell asleep long before it started. To the news, probably.
I find the remote lying next to her and press Power. Mom wakes to the sudden absence of noise.
Hey, she says, squinting and groggy. Where have you been?
I visited Dad, I tell her.
Oh, good, she says. How is he?
I don’t know. I think he’ll be fine.
Mom nods her head, but her eyes are closed. I bend down and pick her up, an action I’ve performed many nights these last few summers. Each time, she feels smaller than the last—which makes sense, I suppose: the smaller she gets, the more leg room she has in her house. I bring her through the kitchen to her bedroom.
Mom wakes as I set her down on the bed.
You left the garage door open, she says. At first I thought someone might have broken in.
Her blanket is lying bunched at the foot of the bed. I reach for it.
Sorry, I say. It was just me.
—photo Flickr/julien haler