The first time I saw Brigita Bozik, Connie and I were smoking pot through the basement’s tiny window like we did every day after school while the sluts went off to tennis or field hockey practice. Was Brigita hot? A goddess. So who wouldn’t gawk at her ripe, spandexed ass as she thrust into her silver convertible for one of her enormous protein smoothies? She was squat-formed, powerlifted, and so crazy-pretty in peeptoe stilettos pecking down our embarrassing, root-buckled driveway. Connie and I exchanged oh-my-gawds. What could a woman like this want with my stupid, stupid house?
It was typical Connie to get paranoid and spaz. “Hide!” she commanded, bowling her all-elbows body into my closet to take cover from nothing. The Game of Life and all my old swimming trophies came tumbling down. Upstairs, I heard the Morning Dove curdle from our bird call doorbell, signaling Brigita’s arrival to my mother who’d be stationed, as usual, in the breakfast nook zoned out on her computer, Amazoning. In what she’d taken to calling her “work space,” taped-to-the-wall random children of co-workers and distant cousins—frozen in years-old holiday cards—stared down as Mom placed specialty items in her virtual basket. I couldn’t understand why she refused to remove the sleeping newborn in a nubby acorn hat pulled over its squinty little eyes; the toddler pulling an iconic red wagon; the careful Matroyshka row of blue-eyed boys at the beach—matching white shirts and rolled jeans—salty smile keyboards descending. Ooooooh-ooh, ooooooh-ooh the bell echoed as I watched Brigita startle, her muscles poise to fucking handle the fucking situation. But when Mom appeared—all boiled wool clogs and high-waisted jeans—Brigita softened. The threat was nil.
“My name is Brigita Bozic,” the voice of power surging through stones said, “for Mr. Harbison physical therapy.” Mom’s planters of pansies averted their cups: their lives— though velvety—sucked.
“Well!” Mom said, sizing Brigita up, using the tone she saved for the rage of unpleasant surprises, like the bug zapper Dad Amazoned her for their anniversary gift or my recent announcement that actually I would be postponing the college application process to study bread making at Bread Bazar, the bakery downtown where Stevie worked. I’d learn to knead something into a knot, was my plan.
On the guitar his older brother left behind when he went to college Stevie liked to strum “This Love” and “Daylight” by Maroon 5 so badly and constantly. He often asked me to braid his long, strawberry blonde hair into pigtails. The night we spilled the bong on Connie’s Keds and cracked the case of the Bieber/Brittany conspiracy, he scrawled a question over my door in thick green marker: REALITY OR REALTY?
The basement was my bedroom and we all called it The Dungeon. Paint skin peeled from the plaster—my parents didn’t care—so we’d taken to graffitiing the walls using the jazzy array of Sharpie markers I kept in a Royal Dansk tin. The tin had been my mother’s and fender bender dents scalloped the edges. Tilted from side to side the markers inside made a rollercoaster sound. Connie always picked purple to draw these annoying doodlebug creatures which were frazzled circles with googley eyes, heart antenna and heart noses. She developed a whole colony of them and each had a singular, well-defined purpose in her made-up world but sometimes, just sometimes, I deemed it apt to float the notion her civilization had turned on her, their queen in a unicorn T-shirt. Total. Doodlebug. Anarchy. And oh, I would say, how you will burn.
My thing was drawing squiggly mazes—sprawling, neverending, fingerprints.
Sometimes I drew so many twists the fumes zombified my eyes. These puzzles lead no place, but, even so, Stevie liked to trace through them with an unlit European cigarette; I kept those in a silver antique case I pocketed from America’s Thrift. Inside an inscription read, To Sylvia, Always, J. “To Helen, Always, S,” Stevie would mock as my gut fizzed. Once, when our three buzzed heads floated up to the ceiling to merge with the water stain profiles, I told my friends I’d die without them. Then, I had a fake seizure on the floor.
“She’ll swallow her tongue!” Stevie pretended.
“Amputate something!” Connie squealed.
Meanwhile, I imagined petal-versions of my friends kissing me, kissing me, nice-nice, nice-nice. Lips pollenating my ear, florid air along my neck.
Leaving Connie in the closet, I crept up the stairs to spy and for snacks, a fiend. I found Brigita and my parents in the den, wah-wahing in hushed conversation. Mom and Dad were all sunk into the love seat’s fault line, rapt by Brigita who was holding court from the forbidden seat of Dad’s disgusting recliner. The chair’s fabric was corduroy and worn, soft and stale-smelling, but in a pleasing way. Kind of like Dad. On the wall behind her, the benevolent Talking Bass looked on. I’d Amazoned the singing fish for Dad’s birthday and, together, we’d programed it to sing “Funky Cold Medina.”
“Protein!!” Brigita suddenly cried-out.
“Cold coolin’ at a bar and I’m lookin for some action!” The Bass replied.
The noodle casseroles that filled our family all untwirled.
“Ham?” Mom followed up, “Bacon?” I felt sharply embarrassed for my hush-voiced mother, her cupped bangs and Life is Good t-shirt. Her squishy, vibrating arms were so soft but they never found their way around me.
Next, Brigita informed my parents that she preferred to rehabilitate couples in unison, “for solidary, support, teambuilding,” she said. “It is not just the Mr.,” she went on, “I see the weakness in you both. The deficiencies…”
“Team-building,” Dad repeated, as if it would help him understand, “deficiencies…”
“Yo,” I interrupted, slouching in. “I came up for something.” Up close I was able to fully appreciate pageant-ready Christmas of Brigita’s make-up. Likewise, I saw her tinseled eyes take me in. The splendor of me. The too-tight Furbee t-shirt of me. The ironic acid-washed pleated me jeans. My freshly green Manic Panic-ed ½ shaved hair contraption.
“Yo?” she returned. “Hi there, kiddo,” Dad said. “Allow me to introduce Mrs. Bozick” he pronounced it, Boo-suck. “She’s gonna help this old man get in shape.”
“And me, too,” Mom added, a bit too thirsty. I felt her sadness and my sadness figure-eight the way it did when she exclaimed, “We’ll be remodeling the den into our very own home gym!” I knew that Mom was already taking mental inventory of the supplies she’d have the pleasure—the purpose—of Amazoning, the march of boxes that’d arrive at the house. Styrofoam peanuts, tissue paper, bubble-wrapping blisters spilling out. All of those warranties to carefully file away.
“Awfully—and I mean, awfully—pleased to meet you,” I said to Brigita. Then, to Mom, I said, “Did you get my bag of Hot Fries as requested?” Who knew why I said things?
“This,” Brigita said, gathering her composure, looking at my parents as she gestured to my body as if she was pointing out the leak we’d all been ignoring, “This…situation. Was not in email.”
!25!Our daughter is not a this, I waited in vain
to hear on my parents’ loving lips. She’s our
Six-months post-radiation, Dad was still loose and whitewithered—his skin like an un-ironed business shirt. Sunken brown Jell-O eyes caved in his whole face. They got it all and nothing was wrong anymore, Mom assured me the one time we discussed his illness in The Dungeon by lava-lamplight. I was stretched out on the lumpy futon staring at the groggy red organ blobs slow-dance as Mom talked to my feet. I heard the words “sarcoma,” “leukocyte,” “remission” directed at my toes. But the thing was, it was very, very difficult to understand what she was saying—really, to pay any attention at all. For some reason, all I could think about was Tiffany Watkins, that perfect tall blonde in her perfect white tennis skirt, who was, of course, named Tiffany Watkins, not Helen Harbison otherwise known as Hardy Harby because of thick bones and schooner voice and not Tiffany Watkins which is the name of wishbone legs and petal nose, the name of crisp linen drying in a clear sun staring through me as I walked eternally down the school hall. “Nice hair,” she’d said. “Awesome, cool, thanks,” I stumbled in that glittering moment before understanding, finally, that I was a total freak and who did I think I was fooling. And the Cheshire grills of all the rows of lockers repeating. Remission. I remembered it from the SAT prep course I’d been forced to take. It is a temporary or permanent decrease in the manifestations of a disease. Alternately: the act of forgiveness.
“Sweetheart,” Mom said, squeezing my foot. “Earth to sweetheart?” I was staring so hard at the lava lamp my temples throbbed. One of the blobs looked like Bob Hope from that special I’d watched with Dad on T.V. We liked specials a lot.
What Mom could not explain was that even though Dad no longer manifested the “golf ball sized” tumor lodged in his scrotum (“Fore!” he’d call out the window of his Oldsmobile, backing down the driveway to head to chemo), he was a different Dad, a switched-out version. I couldn’t remember the last time he slugged in the Cokes from Mom’s Volvo, or changed into his flaking Flyers jersey for hockey night, or called me in to the den to watch Godzilla for the zillionth time. Specials. Monster movies. Our thing. When Sharks Attack. The Mummy. Them! It Came From Beneath The Sea. Those enormous tins of stale popcorn from CVS that everyone hates? That perfectly divided pie chart of orange, yellow, and iridescent brown? We could eat the hell outta those in the screen-suffused darkness, cozy beneath the Snoopy blanket.
Just as promised, within Brigita’s first week on the job at 6308 Sherman Street, the den had been converted to a home gym. Each day, through The Dungeon’s little windows, I watched Brigita’s legs ripple past as she hauled in some new piece of equipment that UPS could not quite handle: medicine balls, dumb-bells, weighted bars, abdominal rollers, cushioned mats, elastic bands, a weight-lifting chair. I just cooled it while they did whatever they did up there, clanking and bumping around to the tunes of Brigita’s chosen soundtrack of Celine Dion, Shakira, and Enrique Iglesias. In the evening, when the coast was clear for me to emerge and scrounge for something edible or watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta reruns on the kitchen’s itty bitty white TV, Dad would still be wearing his swishy track suit, sipping some sort of unnatural concoction. It seemed the new cyborg Vitamax 5200 Mom had Amazoned could pulverize anything.
“Want me to make you one?” Dad asked one night, raising up the septic sludge like Robert De Niro offering me one final toast. Admittedly, Dad did seem more upbeat since he’d been working with Brigita, his surfaces less like yellowing tracing paper. “Eh? Eh? Good for what ails, ya?” he motioned, cheers-ing air. But I knew what was in there: carrots, oatmeal, collard leaves, and cashew milk, with a “chaser” of two Active Man tablets. I sort of did want to try the stuff, just to see what would happen, but instead I gagged, fell to the floor, and died the way I liked to do, with lots of extracurricular convulsions. “Oh, well,” Dad said, poking me with his newlyordered lambent orange Nike, “she was fun while she lasted.” For effect, I twitched one last time. “Even though her hair was green.” I remained dead like that until Dad shuffled up to bed.
Once he was gone I rose, ravenous. I went to hunt through the fridge but only found a dense jungle of kale and mustard greens that had crept over my flat Mountain Dew and calcified bean dip. Gone from the freezer was the Stouffers Mac’n Cheese. Gone from the pantry was the perpetual bag of dill pickle chips. Instead, the cabinets were a redundant citadel of boxed and jarred replacement powders, bars and supplements; Optimum Opti-Man, Life Max tablets; Promax, Supreme Protein, Bio-nutritional Powder. Crunch bars. Creatine. Fish Oil. Flax. Enormous vessels of Cytosport Muscle Milk powder in chocolate fudge flavor.
I dipped a licked finger in an open can and it tasted of nothing. No, it tasted like a spoon.
“You try with peanut butter spread on banana,” Brigita commanded, coming out of fucking nowhere. She’d taken to staying at our home later and later into the evenings to take advantage of our ridiculous internet connection which, at 10 gigabits per second, was the fastest money could buy. She was working to “revamp website” and did not like to go to Starbucks because of all the stares. And my parents clearly liked having her around—as if she was the extra muscle we all needed. “I make you,” Brigita said to me, her large hot hands on my shoulders, guiding me to a chair. Little jolts from her fingers, like lightning.
What choice did I have? I could feel the blubbery, tectonic layers of my pubescent body fold over themselves as I hunched at the table and watched Brigita move expertly around the kitchen, soundless in black velour. I saw her sift carefully through our stack of colorful, mismatched stacks of plates—Mom thought the look cool, eclectic—until she finally settled on the plastic one underneath them all, the tiny plate from my Winnie the Pooh set, the one decorated with a honey-drunk Pooh and two little bees circling his head that was so familiar I couldn’t even see it anymore. So many things in this house had become invisible. And now I was noticing, for the very first time, just how many roosters there were in this kitchen: a queue of cawking gimps peered down from their thick strip of wallpaper border, beaks half-open in a scream. Had they always been there?
“Powerful animal, rooster,” Brigita said, as if reading my mind. “Is all about assertion. Good health. Beginnings.” She reached over my shoulder to place the banana smeared with peanut butter and chocolate powder on the table. She smelled of Old Spice deodorant and department store perfume samples. Soft swish of her platinum ponytail against my cheek.
“Is ants on log,” Brigita said. I noticed the row of raisins she’d placed on top.
I am blob, I thought, my brain mimicking her accent. Her eyes were cupped by silver eyeshadow moons. She’d softened toward me. “Come, take snack,” she said, “I show my awesome website.”
After I popped the last raisin into my mouth, Brigita led me into the breakfast nook where I saw the familiar sight of Mom silhouetted against her astral blue computer screen. I peeked over her shoulder, expecting to find the customary column of home décor merchandise—oversized aged-oak trunks, faux Native American wall hangings, slick 400 count sheets in pastel shades called Capri and Wisteria—but instead, I saw a muscular bleached blonde in a fuchsia bodysuit pump across the screen in time with Soulja Boy’s, Rolex on My Wrist. It was Brigita.
“Your mother is,” she paused to find the right word. “Whiz? Whiz with this technology.”
“Mom?” I said.
“Check it,” my mother said in a new, deeper voice.
“My name is Brigita Bozic,” Brigita announces from the computer screen, bicep-curling as she speaks, “I am two-time NPC champion and Ms. Olympia 5th place, 2005.” Unattached man hands cut into the frame to cinch a tape measure around Brigita’s bicep and, eventually, the tape halts at 20″. Some sort of death metal surges in the background which initiates a slide show of Brigita snapshots. Here is Brigita on the beach: impossible muscles bulge terra-cotta against her puny lemon bikini, her sprayed-high mane pouring into the ocean behind her. She closes her eyes in that contrived, Days of Our Lives way, mouth parted as if to catch a tear of sea spray. And here is a stylized winking Brigita in a baseball cap at Disneyworld, flanked by Goofy and Donald Duck; this time she wears jean cutoffs and a Minnie half-top that showcases her egg-carton abs. Here is another one, Brigita on a shopping expedition, Prada and Gucci bags looped through her arms. Here is Brigita sipping a margarita in a restaurant booth flanked by a horseshoe of equally orange, beefed-up girlfriends. Here is head-to-toe black leather Brigita confidently mounting a Harley. Here is Brigita at the zoo, a lorikeet perched on her shoulder. Finally, on the last slide, we see Brigita on stage in that same fuchsia bodysuit. She is pulsing, covered in sweat, a colossal gold trophy raised above her head. She looks happier than anyone I’ve ever seen. She looks like she got exactly what she wanted. To want a thing and get it. I wonder what that would be like.
“And now,” the voiceover continues as she stares into the camera with an expression both terrifying and seductive, “I want share all this with you.” She points directly at my heart, Uncle Sam style, and I feel all tropical. “Call for your personal training session today.” Big white numbers flip flop across the screen and the video concludes.
Brigita and Mom share a high-five. Mom is giddy, proud. Burly.
“What I say,” Brigita goes. “Mom genius.”
And, yes. It’s great. But because I only know how to play the ghoul when it comes to Mom—the ungrateful asshole everyone expects—I just start laughing. I don’t even know why. And it’s not just any laugh, either. It’s uneven, high-pitched, origin-less. Brigita’s corny video? Mom’s clogs? My future stretched out before me like a jammed highway?
“Helen,” Brigita begins, concerned, maternal, until Mom interrupts.
“You know,” Mom seems to spit, “You know, your father and I…” and then she trails into the words I refuse to hear, “And then there’s you, Helen,” she continues, gaining grit. I’m almost rooting for her as I hear, “disrespectful,” “ungracious,” “green hair,” “mess,” “…and it’s just we’re all wondering what kind of person you’re becoming.”
Brigita’s throbbing pectorals, veiny, producing. Two gargantuan ochre nipples. Then the ropy gush of chocolate Muscle Milk thick down my gullet. Then that full space in the distance, that exit sign of nerve endings. Little zaps waterskiing. And perfume sampler cards, like kites, flitting along a swept silver sky. Gelatinous clouds pulling toward, away, back to each other. Balloon popping. This is my dream.
“Whoa,” Stevie says, “that is seriously fucked up.” His hair is in braids, but I didn’t do it.
“You are such a kinky slut,” Connie adds. She’s wearing a flat-billed Pokémon hat turned sideways and I can’t identify one reason we’re friends.
“Whatever, it’s hard to explain,” I give up. I blob.
“In that case,” Byron, who sometimes showed up out of nowhere, said, as he farted a fart to end the universe.
“And now,” I pronounced, doing my most embellished trill, “you and you and you, may leave.” I tipped my invisible hat at each intruder. Maybe I wanted them to whine. Maybe I wanted them to want to stay. But they left, leaving the stink of Byron’s ass behind them. So I finished our joint and slipped my copy of Muscle and Fitness out from beneath my mattress to greedily skim the index: Common Push Up Mistakes, The Next Challenge; Metabolic Booster Workout; Tips to Strengthen Waning Nighttime Willpower: Seven Reasons You’re Always Hungry, And What to Do About it. “Getting in shape?” The CVS clerk had asked, as he plunked the Butterfingers in the bag.
“There is a castle on a cloud,” I explained, “I like to go there in my sleep.”
If one is high enough and staring at oneself just so in the bathroom mirror, arm rolled just the right way, one might see one’s tricep bulge a little bit. A teeny muscle, a shallow wave. If one shows said ripple to Connie or Stevie they, A) won’t even see it, and, B) will collapse in a giggle-glut on the floor anyway. Option C) could be to show it off to an Eastern European bodybuilder who has taken residence in one’s kitchen, one’s life, but, D) she could try to recruit me to work out. Or, worse, E) one’s parents might be proud which might heighten all the expectations I have kept so very, very low.
So, F)uck it. I won’t show anyone.
Between Brigita’s training session with my parents, and her website sessions, and her vague, yet capable use of Dad’s garage-full of tools, she never seemed to leave our place at all. Brigita and Dad liked to work on her car. They’d be out there all afternoon, the convertible’s hood up, Celine blaring, both of them sipping smoothies, Brigita in ridiculous cut-offs that only she could pull off. Occasionally Mom would take them a tray of kale chips and apple slices. Mom did a flirty spin as she placed the snack down. I’d sulk, but in closer proximity than usual. Instead of blowing vape smoke through the basement window to erase them, I’d perch on the porch where it was cool and shady and blow vape smoke to surround them.
“Let’s do something!” Mom said one afternoon, as if truly inspired. “Let’s all have an adventure!”
This meant what it always meant: a trip to Oakwood Mall.
“Helen!” the three of them called out my name, in unison. It was weird.
As it happened, the mall was one of the few places my parents and I still went together, mostly because I hooked up with my cohorts once we arrived. Hunched into my earphones as we drove, Dad needlessly accelerating between each red light, Mom white-knuckling the above-door grip, I watched the shifting nimbi above waver between their duck and frog identities. They were having a hard time deciding. I could relate. Brigita rode in the back seat beside me. Her overwrought body coupled with her juvenile fashion sense and barbed detachment gave her a peculiar, ageless quality; she could be twenty or fifty. A loose string from her cut-off shorts twirled onto her bare, meaty thigh. The gems barely hung on to her busting AC/ DC rhinestoned tee. As she jerked back and forth with Dad’s terrible driving, I noticed that through the rear and side view mirrors Mom and Dad also had their eyes on our guest.
The plan was to meet Stevie and Connie for some light shoplifting while my parents scavenged Sears for Dad’s brand of athletic socks and hit Books-a-Million so Mom could comb the summer reading display for novels to Amazon later, on the cheap. Allegedly some sort of spectacular sale was on at GNC so Brigita was pumped; she was almost out of Shredz Thermogenic and whey protein powder. While she was there, she’d pick up a vat of Muscle Milk for “Amy and Paul.” Who were these people? They were my parents.
Like globules from a single drop, the four of us stepped through the mall’s automated doors and dispersed, my parents in the direction of Sears, Brigita to GNC, and me to Starbucks, where Stevie and Connie would be waiting. I paused in front of the alternate universe of Dippin’ Dots to see Stevie slumped into a chair slurping a gargantuan iced coffee, Connie’s flatbilled Pokémon hat sideways on his head. Or was it his to begin with? Absorbed in her phone, Connie sat beside him, her usual salted Pumpkin-Spice Frappuccino topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce squinched between her knees. The picnic-style table they picked was outfit with an umbrella— but why? Seeing me, they catapult from their chairs and like a Bollywood routine gone terribly wrong began to twerk off-time to the mall’s confusing muzak which both was and was not Robert Palmer’s Simply Irresistible. A crowd formed. A toddler stopped and pointed. The kid’s mother yanked his rag doll body on toward The Children’s Place. Stevie sidled up to Connie and she issued that same snort from sixth grade when Stevie gave her the wedgie to end all wedgies. Connie spent her seventh-grade year trying to jockey a second wedgie which was how I knew for sure she was in love with Stevie, too.
“You are not the droids I’m looking for,” I said.
Then, we went to Spencer’s.
The security guard at Spencer’s Gift Shop was a friend of Stevie’s brother and he did not give a fuck how many rubber vomits, fart pianos, vibrating panties or Star Wars Boba Fett dog tag necklaces we stuffed under our shirts and down our pants. Spencer’s was our customary target, a place of nostalgia for me as the origin place of my lava lamp. The lamp had been a gift from Mom two years ago when I managed by some miracle to pass Spanish, back before Dad’s diagnosis, before Mom really got into Amazoning. And the truth was it made me acutely penitent to imagine her in this store, alone, tentatively negotiating the aisles of doohickeys for something she thought I’d like. At Vassar, she majored in cultural anthropology. Her senior thesis was on the evangelization of the Sawi tribe of the Netherlands in New Guinea; specifically, how they gave up their long-held custom of cannibalism and immolating widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres.
“Let’s change it up,” Connie said when we got to the Spencer’s doorfront. “Vicky C’s?” she suggested, giving Stevie the soggy sex look we sometimes practiced into mirrors.
Victoria’s Secret. Whatever. In truth, it was a stellar suggestion. Inspired, even. Lotta drawers at Vicky C’s. Lotta bins jammed with flimsy fabric to slip up sleeves. Like sitcom criminals or like people who actually cared about something, the three of us arrived on a plan: posing as a couple looking for a certain special something (Connie’s words), Connie and Stevie would approach the ditsiest looking saleslady. Meanwhile, ninja-like, I’d go to town on the merchandise.
“Stay away from the displays and stick to the periphery, then head to the fitting room,” Stevie commanded.
“Sir, yes sir!” I shot him a hammy salute.
And so it was. Connie and Stevie accosted a relatively young saleslady with Taylor Swift bangs. She seemed eager— even honored—to assist my stupid liar loser friends. But be calm, rest assured, my veins did not surge flames as this “cute couple” popped between displays, the saleslady posing various slippery teddies against Connie’s pencil figure while I crammed whatever merchandise I could under my “4 out of 3 people struggle with math” T-shirt. Obviously, the shirt, also, was from Spencer’s.
“May I please have a fitting room?” I asked this question to nobody—no, to the mirror-light, the fake silk, the frozen mannequins with blow-job parted lips, the molecules spiraling air like secret party favor tops—and in a British accent for some reason?
Once in the fitting room stall, illuminated by my funhouse reflection and a beastly fluorescence, I strapped on bra after bra, one on top of the other, the lace gouging into my skin. I was marshmellowing, marshmellowing, losing sight of our careful plan. I stuffed my jeans with G-strings. Then, to top things off, I wrapped some weird kimono robe around that whole disaster. “Aren’t you lovely,” I said in the voice of Emma Thompson to the cartoony cranes and parrots screaming up the robe’s exterior. Then, just as I was getting the nerve to somehow put my shirt and jeans on top, through the thin crack in the fitting room door I noticed a customer surveying herself in the three-way mirror. Roused by the gauzy red push-up and matching boy-shorts she rocked, the woman struck a quarter turn and flexed. With the sheerest sachet of piquant perfume. Of course it was Brigita. Brigita my boo, Brigita my bomb, Brigita my belle, my bitch, my coach, my mouth, my dad, my mom.
They say that when you die there’s that moment your whole life flashes before your eyes, like a movie. You see your first steps, an anime march of singing birthday candles, a Converse sneaker just sitting there, your mother’s arms, your father’s hands, a dead hermit crab, a dead hamster, your first kiss, pancakes in the shape of your name, and the rest I can’t possibly divine. But they don’t say anything about what happens to your sour, caged meat-heart and all your careful plans when you bail on the boredom of a shoplifting binge and the boredom of useless friends and start to run before you know you even begin. I saw Brigita. I ran. Who knew why I did things? I ran past Brigita Bozik before she had a chance to take me in. I ran past the crowds of bovine shoppers, past Jamba Juice, and the Hallmark Store, and Sunglass Hut, and The Limited, and the tiny airborne helicopters and molester massage chairs of Sharper Image. I ran with such speed and grit I almost impressed myself. The more I ran the more I almost felt. The more I almost felt, the more I was Helen Elizabeth Harbison.
Before I got back to the car at the agreed-upon-time I slipped into a restroom and threw the piles of undergarments in a tiny trashcan. Brigita, somehow, was already there, poised against the Oldsmobile. Mom and Dad, Big Brown Bags bulging, followed.
“Amy, Paul,” Brigita said, surveying me with pride, “you must know daughter fast?”
WU? UOK? (What’s Up? You Okay?) It was group text from Connie. So many emoji’s.
ADIH, EOL, I replied. (Another Day In Hell. End Of Life.)
But in truth, Mom and Dad hadn’t even mentioned the Oakwood Mall. In fact, that very night they both came down to The Dungeon together with grilled cheese and fries, Dad with a freshly Amazoned Frankenstein DVD to watch with me on my computer. “Ugh! Ugh!” he said, arms outstretched. On the tray, Mom supplied a tiny vase with a single violet bud peeping out.
DPUP, wrote Byron (Don’t Poop Your Pants) (Poop emoji’s infinity)
CY, CUNS, wrote Connie (Calm Yourself, See You In School)
GAHOY, wrote Rachel (Get A Hold Of Yourself)
CY2nite, wrote Stevie. (See You Tonight.)
I fell asleep after watching the movie with Dad and woke to Stevie poking me with a half-empty bottle of Peach Schnapps. It was late. Too late. Those vampire dudes on the CW—slicked, scrubbed, randy? That was tonight’s Stevie. I took a sip of the syrupy liquor and laid back down. He rummaged for the cigarette case. “J is for…” he began, opening the case and thumbing the inscription, initiating our customary game. I wanted to go back to my nap. I’d been having a Frankenstein dream. I’d been dreaming of coming alive.
“Jeremiah,” I joined in, dazed, “a banker who moonlights as a poet.” “John,” he said, lighting a Vogue, “Sylvia’s tutor who knows he shouldn’t but does anyway.” Still, I enjoyed talking like this—it made me feel like an indie movie. The Flaming Lips would go with our little scene, I thought, as he brought up Ryan Adams on his iPhone. The Dungeon floor was beds, I’d never been so keenly aware of it—the mattress, the old futon, a beanbag, the newer futon. He laid down beside me. A billow of deodorant released.
!100!My love for you is real
!100!It moves like a summer breeze
!100!My love for you is strong
!100!Lord it brings me to my knees
I was aware of my bosoms as they officially heaved.
For a thousand years his playlist seemed to continue, each song more relevant to this moment than the last. For “ambiance,” Connie had convinced me to web lights all over the walls down here, and now each spark seemed to be its own lambent being.
“Okay, so J is Sylvia’s Biology tutor,” I continued, nervy, needing to fill the silence.
As if on cue, he rolled on his side to face me. “Anatomy,” he specified and grabbed my left breast. Grabbed how you’d snatch the last biscuit or catch a line drive. Caught. Snagged. It hurt. In an instant the vacillating bulbs became ridiculous, a gimmick. Stevie’s hair-slick made me sick. My enormous chin zit throbbed beneath its too-peach Cover Girl cake.
“I’m starving,” I said, squirming away. “Let’s raid the kitchen.”
“Fuck,” Stevie said, sucking in one last drag, “yes.”
Moving through the dark living room we were careful not to disturb the furniture, slumped like sleeping cattle. The profiles of Mom’s plastic flower sprays zigzagged from transparent glass vases. Shadows of her vaguely native mask, her bowl of wooden apples, the far-off percolation of her plug-in garden fountain. But my parents had long been asleep, adhering to Brigita’s strict policy of lights off by nine-thirty. To heal one needed to rest, she liked to say. Another thing she said: for a growing girl hunger is good.
Stevie and I made our way to the kitchen and combed through the cabinets, discovering only the fixings for soy cheese and rice cake sandwiches, but loaded with ketchup they did the trick well enough. For me, anyway. I watched Stevie spit a clump into his sleeve and change his mind. Through the kitchen window—its invisible division—there I was and there I wasn’t, merged with the willow tree’s wind-movement, its concurrent reach and pull. I thought I heard Stevie say something to me but could not be sure. Then there was the sound of a door closing, of something escaping, but I felt too utterly swept in the branches’ sway to turn away.
That night I dreamt of fish, whole crimpled schools of them, brushing their scales across my skin. I woke late, clear, reflective. Heading out of The Dungeon, I noticed a pancake in the shape of H left by Mom on a clean white plate. The Post-it note beside it read, “Shhhhh” in her loopy doodle. The sugar and carbohydrate content were forbidden by Brigita, but sharing a secret with Mom, even a pancake secret, felt nice.
“She rises!” Dad said, doing his very best Gregory Peck as I stumbled in. He was in his flannel PJ’s holding a one of his Vitamix concoctions.
“She does,” I said.
As I went into the cupboard for the one remaining box of Frosted Flakes, I saw Dad probe his reflection in the window and do a funny flex. “Probably not, probably not,” he muttered, “but there’s this Fit at Sixty contest in Florida that Brigita keeps mentioning…” He squinted into the willow leaves that swayed across his appearance. “I mean, I don’t know,” finishing off the glug with one swig, “but who ever knows what is going to happen,” and, then, “have you ever noticed all the goddamned roosters in this goddamned kitchen?”