WORDS: KATHLEEN RADIGAN '17
IMAGE: RICK MANAYAN '17
A flicker of emotion blots the teenaged clerk’s face. She pauses from pitching a peach into a bag and rubs its sunset skin with one hand. She looks like she hasn’t laughed in months. I bag my own frozen foods. Pork chops and green beans for dinner, Toll House cookie rolls for Andy. Suddenly she remembers me, the customer, and the corners of her lips twitch up. Instead of apologizing, she asks, “Have you considered going green?”
"What?” I ask, hands full with a Tupperware of chicken salad.
“It means you bring your own bag, or buy one from us. An environmentally friendly alternative to plastic.”
I can no longer detect a trace of interesting sadness. Just teen girl boredom. Walk through the world with eyes shut, plugging causes.
“I’m a returning customer,” I say, “and I don’t need to waste money on one more thing.”
She drops a can of salsa into the bag and says, “These plastic ones get into the ocean and catch on dolphin snouts and strangle them. Have a nice day, and thank you for shopping at SavesMart.”
“Excuse me,” I say. “Is this how you’re trained here to interact with customers? Can I speak to your supervisor?”
She leans on her hip. A woman I recognize, Mars from the PTA, approaches dressed in the red and white SavesMart uniform, gold “Deli Manager” badge gleaming above the chest pocket.
"Hey, Mrs. Bell, there a problem over here?”
The girl’s eyes drop. Sun is gone from the window and suddenly in the back of my mouth I taste one summer as a burrito server at a Mexican joint off the Jersey Shore boardwalk. Thick air simmering. Coming home smeared with grease, smelling like black beans three showers in. Slipping on new underwear then passing out on a bare mattress in the room I shared with Polly. We lived on the third floor of a house we called The Freak Motel. The man downstairs had pets that barked and scratched at walls. I’d wait for the key in the door that meant Polly was done bartending for bodybuilders so we could climb out our window onto the roof and watch the Ferris Wheel flash against the black sky like a spinning city angel, and sneak to the tide pools at five to watch the sun rise in a secret grotto we found.
“No, your cashier was just edifying me about the environmental cost of these plastic bags,”
I say. “I had no idea about the dolphins, did you?”
“Dolphins rape people, you know,” Mars says. “Bethany, do your job.”
In the parking lot, I lug bags into the trunk with heavy arms. We have a babysitter for the first time in weeks. I splurged on leather Colette pumps and they are pinching my feet, but the interview was pleasant. We split a bag of pita chips and a tub of hummus. The secretary complimented my wedding ring. She asked about my certification and the student teaching I did during college.
I said, “I guided an arts and crafts project in which each child designed their own personal crest, illustrating the things they cared about most.”
“A coat of arms!” she squealed.
“Fourth graders make you think,” I said. “Hurt feelings, in fourth grade, bring on scratchy voices and runny eyes. But by June, girls sneak old issues of Cosmo to school in their homework folders. Some are wondering how babies will grow in their stomachs but they’re also just figuring out Santa’s fake. The boys roar like apes and swing their hands across jungle gym rungs, running in blurs, you know, comparing calluses, asking girls ‘Do you know what a virgin is?’ with devil’s eyes.
“I never taught a real class,” I added, “because you know, I graduated and the summer after, my Andy came along.”
The principal and secretary nodded.
I said, “You know how things are when you’re a parent.”
“Of course,” they murmured.
I rely on platitudes to bond with strangers who are also mothers. As I shut the trunk, I hear a thud of feet and lift my head.
“Hey!” The dolphin savior stands before me, pink and out of breath. “Forget something?” She hands me my wallet. “It’s a good thing you just left. I wouldn’t have known it was you from your picture.”
"Thanks,” I say. “Yeah, it was from a few years ago.”
“You look like a punk,” she says, “Your perm was wild. You completely changed.” I examine the photo on my license, searching for wildness.
“Hey,” she says, “ I just wanted to thank you for not throwing me under the bus earlier because, I mean, you totally could have.”
“Don’t mention it,” I say. “Just try to have some respect for your customers in the future.”
“I usually do,” she says, leaning against the hood of the car parked opposite mine. Her hair spills behind her like leaves. “Last February I won Employee of the Month because I drove Lisa to the hospital when she cut her finger slicing steak. I didn’t tell Mars about it so we didn’t have to throw the meat out.”
“That’s revolting,” I say. “And probably a health code violation.”
“What I’m trying to say is, today was an especially shit day because my boyfriend broke up with me this morning. It was before first period and I kept welling up in chem so I had to fake cramps to get sent home. We have a male nurse. I’m Bethany, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you. Sorry about your breakup.”
“It’s shitty. Thought I was going to marry him.”
We look at each other and don’t say anything. The evening air is blue. A car alarm groans across the lot.
I say, “I’m sure there’s someone out there who’ll be even better for you.”
She shifts her weight against the Honda Civic and I’m struck with the urge to warn her about something. I don’t know what.
I’ve been dreaming lately about the night I lost Polly. I was nineteen. She and I had zipped ourselves in black mini dresses and teased our hair. She’d leaned so close I could feel her breath on my cheek as she brushed my eyelids with moon blue eye shadow and black mascara. At the bar, whiskey stung our throats. We spun on a floor scattered with peanut shells and paper umbrellas, held hands and twirled as couples rubbed around us under the thrum of the bass. Polly got drunk. Men bought her shots because her hair was corn-silk that swung around when she danced. Her mother always said she was glad the two of us were friends.
“Because I’m plain-looking?” I joked.
“No!” she said, her red mouth twitching. “Don’t be ridiculous, Sarah. You’ve got this marvelous, unusual beauty. I mean, because you’re sensible. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders and I know you’ll keep my Polly safe.”
A sweaty man snaked a hand onto her waist and leaned in to whisper something. She giggled and fell against him, flattening against his hairy body. His arms sunk around her back.
In the dream, I’m standing in the middle of the floor with torsos bumping into mine, struggling to walk to her, but the floor turns into a treadmill cycling backwards and he swings her on his shoulders, carrying her out the door like a euthanized animal.
That night, though, it was less dramatic. I tapped her shoulder and said, “Let’s go home.” She shooed me away and stumbled out of the bar into the black air, clutching his meaty forearm with both hands.
After a half-hour, I staggered off the dance floor and down the boardwalk the wrong way to a strip where lights burned red and the music stopped. The stars spun like Ferris Wheels.
“Polly?” I asked no one. “Are you here?”
A mile away, the ocean stirred in its sleep. I started to cry in low chokes. Suddenly, a man spoke behind me.
“Uh, hey,” he said. “Are you ok?”
His hair and beard were blowing in the wind and he struck me as a Biblical savior, the kind you’d see clutching a staff in a starless field.
“I’m looking for my friend,” I said. “She went off with a guy. We said we wouldn’t leave with anyone but she wanted to go with him and I mean, she might be fine but she might not.”
“What bar?” he asked.
He held up his arm for me to lean against and started walking us back.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
He told me he’d been working as a fry cook at Captain Jack Steam Shovel’s. He was spending summer with his parents while he saved up for grad school in the fall.
“What’s your friend’s name?” he asked.
"What’s she look like?”
“You’ll know once you see her. She couldn’t be anyone else but if she wasn’t her she’d be Gwenyth Paltrow.”
I tripped on a loose plank of wood and he squeezed me.
“Ope,” he said. “Sorry. Didn’t want you to fall.”
He told me years later that he’d been near panic, debating whether to call Hal’s or the police. At the time, though, I trusted that he’d lead me to Polly, then home. I would’ve let him walk me to the moon. His warm arm on my back was a buoy.
I wanted to lay my head on his chest and fall asleep.
He asked, “Are there any places around here where you guys go to hang out?”
“Yeah,” I said, “Grotto cove.”
“Where?” he asked.
“Our grotto,” I said, and then, embarrassed by my false sense of possession, “By the tidepools. A cave down by rocks at the end where we hang out with lobster rolls and listen to music and stuff.”
Kieran said nothing, just started walking faster. When we reached the end of the boardwalk, where lit signs advertised “VIDEO ARCA S” and “FOXY LADIES” we ran down the sloped blue hill and found her naked in the grotto, making drip castles in the sand with her fists. Her hair hung in sandy strings and small red cuts scraped her face. Black make-up bloomed under her eyes.
“Polly!” I shouted.
She stared. “Who’s he?”
He said, “Kieran,” extending a hand for her to shake, then quietly retracting it. We combed the beach for her dress, then wrapped his jacket around her waist.
I asked, “What happened?”
She looked at me with unfocused, sandy eyes.
I asked, “Where did he go?”
Kieran said, “Should we call the police? Or bring you to a hospital?”
I said, “Who was that guy? Did he rape you?”
She said, “I want to get the fuck home. I have a headache.”
Kieran walked us to our door and then scratched his number on a gum wrapper for me to keep, he said, in case I needed him to talk in court or something. He muttered goodbye and disappeared up the boardwalk toward a street of shingled beach houses. Polly fell asleep face-down on the mattress that night. In the morning, she quit her job, moved all her stuff into her Honda and left for her parents’ house in Virginia where she stayed until school started up again in August.
I called Kieran and asked if he’d meet me at an oyster shack in town. We didn’t talk about Polly but guilt softened and opened us. We scraped out the pink insides of shellfish with small forks and talked about our families and favorite books. Two years later, a pregnancy test turned up positive and we got married. Our son has messy hair and eyes like a beetle’s wings. Every day we ask, “Why don’t you take your shoes off? Why don’t you eat three more bites of pizza?” He says, “My tummy doesn’t like pizza.” When strangers see the three of us, they suck in and say, “Oh, my. So handsome. Just like his daddy.”
I wake Andy and brush his teeth. I roar like a racecar so he’ll eat veggies. I yell, “Vamanos,” and “Swiper, no swiping!” and carry him on my shoulders so he can see the world from a giant’s eyes, marinate chicken and say, “You’re a goofa loofa is what you are.” Then I tickle his stomach. When Kieran comes home, we eat. He is often anxious, hands clenched around his silverware, muttering that if he gets denied tenure, we’ll have to move. He painted a solar system above the nursery crib. At night, he creaks out of bed into his workshop to type the novel about Apartheid he’s been writing for four years. He might be a genius. We don’t fight but there are landmines we jump over in conversations.
“The problem is, you don’t know whether someone out there is really gonna be better for you, or if that’s just a bunch of bull adults spew to make kids shut up about their broken fucking hearts.”
Bethany stares at the highway, watching a white stream of headlights.
I say, “Sometimes people say things they want to be true. Even if they’re not sure.”
"How can anyone be sure?” she says. She picks a scab on her wrist, “That’s what I hate. When adults pretend to be sure about things and really they’re wrecking the environment with carcinogens and hanging out with people they hate because they feel this sense of obligation. I never want to feel obligated to do anything or love anyone or find some mythical soul mate who’s right for me. I don’t even want to trust another person again because even when you meet someone who’s into all the same shit you are and underlines the same parts of books and has the same favorite Beatle, things that seem like signs when you’re living them, and you’re like, how can this person not be right for me? Finally someone has my back. But no. Even then, they don’t.” She clears her throat.
I say, “Sometimes people do have your back, but you have to have your own back first.”
She eyes me from her spot against the car, and I know I sound like a little league coach in an ABC Family Special.
“I broke someone’s heart once,” I say.
"Yeah?” she asks. “Old flame?”
“Nah,” I say. “My best friend. I didn’t come to her aid right away at a time when she really needed me, and after, we stopped talking. We’d see each other on the quad and make eye contact and avoid each other. I was into this new relationship, you know? With the man I ended up marrying. I didn’t even invite her to the wedding. I was selfish. We haven’t talked since college.”
“Sounds like you were a horrible friend,” she says.
“We used to throw the best parties.” I say, “So many people would sleep over, there’d be no floor space left. Once she slept in the bathtub, and I couldn’t find a place to crash so I was wandering around wrapped in a blanket, freezing cold with all these passed out people curled up in blankets on the floor, feeling totally alone, and in the middle of the night she woke up because, you know, I was on the toilet. And I looked in the tub and saw her and said, ‘Polly?’ and she said, ‘Shut up or get in.”
“Did you?” Bethany perks up.
“Oh yeah,” I say. “We slept in the tub that night. Laughed a ton. She was someone I really trusted. Oh well. C’est la vie.”
“C’est la vie?” she asks.
“That’s life,” I say.
Bethany says, “How can you be so blasé?”
“You can’t cling onto everyone,” I say, swinging my car door open. “I have to get home. You’ll be fine. Adulthood isn’t bad.”
I pull out of the lot and she stands in the space my car left with hands flopping at her sides like fish. I assume she’ll walk back into SavesMart to resume lecturing about endangered species but when I merge onto the interstate, she’s still standing there. As I drive home I imagine myself leaning against someone strong and letting him lug me anywhere, but my hands stay curled around the wheel. I pull into my driveway, step through the door and drop my bags on the floor. Andy runs to me barefoot, waving his arms, and I carry him to the kitchen on my shoulders.