I feel as if someone has turned me inside out and wrung me dry as I stare out the window of the city bus on my way home from Michael’s office. I’m like a different person, a shy, meek version of myself. I have no tears left. Outside my window the streets of Hollywood are gritty and full of people driving in cars, walking in clusters, and waving their arms as they talk on cell phones. Beside me I overhear classical music from a businessman’s iPod and the scene outside becomes suddenly hyper-real, like a music video. Boys in wool caps and low baggy jeans jive down the street, their basketball bouncing to the orchestral beat of pavement. People waiting for the bus cock their heads in synch with timpani as they hear the coughing diesel in the distance. A mom scurrying her kids across an intersection runs remarkably like a chicken in tempo with staccato piano.
There’s so much life out there, life that has nothing to do with me. I watch and feel sad that I haven’t noticed anything outside these windows in a long, long time.
The bus turns the corner on Santa Monica Boulevard toward the beginnings of suburbia, rows of older bungalows and untidy scraps of front lawn. Soon enough the lawns are greener, the homes restored, and I can feel my own neighborhood creeping up on me. Mother has always loved our house that she and Dad bought when they first got married. Then it was one and a half bedrooms and one bath. She told me once that Dad went out on a limb adding the second story in a bungalow town. It was still a short, squat, blendy kind of house, a compromise of aesthetics but with room for two kids. Yet somehow, even though they made room for us, I never felt as if there was room enough growing up. Not room for me, the weird one, the troubled kid with no clean underwear whose only solace was dance class, the only place I ever fit in until Molly and Cristabelle made even that too much torture to bear.
The bus passes streets that lead to the houses of kids I know, dead starlet’s estates with elegant driveways and rambling guest quarters behind locked gates. Hollywood is a weird town, and even though it’s the only place I’ve ever lived, still I feel that weirdness. Home is home but the rest of this neighborhood is like some movie set. As we near my stop I see some neighbors walking their gangly puppy and have a vague memory of an older dog. I remember Mother saying that the dog died and the family was devastated. She said they waited over a year to get the new puppy. I wonder how Mother knows these things about the people who live all around us and wonder what they know about me. I wish I could remember my neighbors’ names. Did I ever know?
The bus goes past our street and I catch a glimpse of our house halfway down the block, all wood trim and yellow paint and those mailbox flowers Mother spends the weekends planting and watering and trimming while inside my laundry pile is reaching the ceiling and last year’s Christmas boxes are still in the living room, stashed behind our couch, waiting for someone to put them into the crawl space above the hallway. Mother’s home, her van’s parked in the driveway. Keith’s bike is parked by the front steps with his helmet and Rollerblades and skateboard cluttering up the walkway. The usual.
The bus stops on the next corner and I exit.
“Bye, Jessie,” the bus driver says, and it startles me. I forgot that I used to know the black man with the high cheekbones. We used to talk sometimes. Isn’t his name Ernest? I’ve been taking this bus for years to Beverly Hills to shop, to my ballet and tap lessons, back when my life was normal. I nod, my throat too raw to utter sound. I feel like I’m the one in a time warp. Did the last year even happen?
I walk slowly back down the sidewalk and turn left onto my block. I step over the skateboard and newspaper and I realize I don’t want to see my family. I just want to go straight to my room and bury myself under blankets the way I tried to bury myself under dirt once. I unlock the door and dash up the stairs.
“Jessie?” Mother calls from the kitchen. “That you?”
“Yes,” I call down. “I’m taking a nap.”
There is silence as I creep the rest of the way. I stop in the bathroom and take a long drink from the faucet before climbing under my blankets and slipping into another
* * *
“Jessie,” someone says, way too soon. “Dinnertime. Wake up.”
I open my eyes to darkness and smell Keith’s after-practice stink in my room.
“In a minute,” I say, wanting to fall back asleep but I know tonight we’ll sit down at the big table and have a real family dinner. I get up and even manage to fix my hair and wash my face before I go downstairs, an effort that seems as difficult as if I were doing it underwater.
The dining room, which usually doubles as a workspace for Mother and home to her incessant realty paperwork, is candlelit. The table is silvered and crystalled, shining sweetly against the dark wood of the walls. I see Dad seated at the head of the table, forking potatoes onto his plate and smiling at Mother. Even Keith has cleaned up and has his freshly-showered wet hair slicked back. It’s rare to see Keith clean these days. I look at them all, at Mother handing Keith the platter of brisket, and I wonder when the last time it was that I talked to them, like real people, like family. There’s always the usual pass-the-butter and school-was-fine conversations at these rare family dinners when we’re all actually home at once, but I haven’t told one of these people how I’ve really felt in a long time, and I even bullshit Michael half the time when I really “talk” to him. Dad always says I can talk to him anytime but he means about Jimmy’s latest game or my school work, not the important stuff. I sigh as I take my seat. I take a long drink of my ice water, the ice cubes clatter to the bottom of my empty glass.
Mother notices the headband pulling back my hair. “You look nice, Jessica.” I smile meekly up at her and take the meat platter and put some on my plate. I will sit here and eat this food and I will stuff it down inside of me like the words that will never leave my lips, I think. I will stay full of the words and the meat and I will be silent forever and smile and nod and be polite and no one will be upset.
“So Jimmy’s game was a real upset last week, I hear,” Dad says, and I stare at him blankly. Did he just ask me why I’m upset? I wonder at his psychic way of drawing me out and I think of The Granddaughter.
“Yes,” I admit, and a lump grows in my throat, the food wanting out, the words coming up. Oh God!
“He’s a good player, he could get a scholarship. I’m sure his dad’s counting on that, pass the butter, Keith-O,” Dad says, smiling and winking at me.
I blink and think, here we go. I even look behind me to be sure The Granddaughter isn’t standing there, everything feels so surreal.
“You want some melted butter for your asparagus, Greg?” Mother asks.
“No thanks, Diane, this will do,” Dad replies, and I feel my head pop. I completely freak out.
“Wait . . .” I hear myself say. “Wait. Please don’t talk anymore. I have to say something.”
The table becomes too quiet, the forks stop scraping the plates, the candlelight seems to intensify as the outside sky dims to violet after the sunset. The chewing stops, the wall clock stops, the breathing stops, the world stops. The lump moves in my throat, the pain building.
“I’m sorry,” my mouth says without my permission. The words hang there. Dad doesn’t get it.
“Sorry? About what, sweetie?” he asks, and Mother places her hand on his and nods toward me. Dad’s lips purse together as if battening down the hatches, expecting a storm. Keith squirms, the only movement besides the flickering candles in the room.
“I owe you all an apology. For last year. For trying to kill myself. God, I’m so sorry! I thought you were all . . . I don’t know . . . overreacting or something. I even thought it was your problem, not mine. But now I see that the problem is something I made, like a mess I made and didn’t clean up. I get it now, that I caused this thing, this broken thing to happen to our family. I don’t even know what I broke, trust or something, but now I get it that I totally messed up, and that what I broke can’t be fixed. I don’t know how to fix it.”
I sob. The tears I thought had dried out of me come back. Keith cries too, hiding behind his hands. Dad looks like the storm hit him. Mother stares at me. She stands, comes over to me, lays her cool hands on my head and helicopters behind me, smoothing my hair as she presses my head into her belly.
“Oh, Jess,” she says with a cracked voice. “I’ve waited such a long time to hear you say that to me.”