I wake to the sound of distant laughing flittering in with the morning. Sunlight spills in unimpeded through the sheer lace curtains that hang from the guestroom’s windows. Morning. I try to move the sheets aside and off, but my efforts find me stuck and twisted in them. And it’s just so tempting—the thought of just lying here forever in the tangle. But my own impassable thoughts are here too, and they make me sit up.
I think, maybe, I should have stayed home after all. I could go back in a few days. If I want.
I stand and stretch, trying to win back the function that sleep often robs from me. I can’t help but to glance at my own reflection peering back at me from the narrow free-standing mirror beside the dresser.
I guess I’m sorta average looking. I’ve always been kinda big, not fat just solid, and I inherited that from my father who’s built like a brickhouse too. I’m shirtless now and just standing in my boxers.
It was months ago, but there had been that stretch of time where I worked out every chance I got. I think I had looked pretty good. And I feel like I felt good then. It was a balance struck in more ways than just the physical. Going to the gym, focusing on one task at a time. I could channel my energies in that. But at some point, I slipped from routine and couldn’t find that momentum again.
And it shows. The definition in the muscle I once earned had smoothed out. And I just look… I don’t know. Tired.
I pass by the half empty glass of water on the end table and take my duffle bag off the dresser hook. I unzip and rummage through, a few articles of clothing spilling out in the shuffle. I put on a fresh T-shirt and new boxers, changing quick since this entire room is pretty much a glass window box facing the street. I locate the pair of jeans I wore yesterday, sitting on the floor next to yesterday’s shirt and my sneakers. I had probably gotten up last night only to discard them. I don’t remember. I slip into the jeans, one leg at a time. But I stub my toe on the side of the bed frame. Damn it.
The pain throbs and I just flinch and wait for it to recede.
Another bout of laughter fades in from the living room. I sit back down on the bed, cradling my foot, and try to listen through the walls. I recognize two of the voices. Grace and Frank. But the third I don’t. Probably Bryan. I can’t follow what they are speaking about, but it all seems light, like playful banter about nothing. I feel the weight of my phone in my pocket. I left it there from yesterday. I hadn’t heard it ring at all. I pull it out.
Mom tried calling me three times. I text her back letting her know I’m ok.
went to bed early
That was the truth after all. I sink back onto the bed using my duffel bag as a pillow. I check out what everyone else is up to. Swiping down and through the feeds. Someone’s admission letter to graduate school. A happy couple. One of my classmate’s Instagramming her food again. Someone else on vacation. Another landed their dream job. Everyone going out and doing shit. And what am I doing, really?
I get up.
I close out every app methodically and then toss the phone back on the bed. It sits there and blinks to black amongst the watercolor sea stars and sea fans of the bedspread.
I wander out of the guestroom with my toiletry bag.
Grace spots me in the hallway before I can make it to the bathroom. “Good morning,” she says, and motions me to come out.
“Ugh, give me a sec? Just have to finish getting ready.”
“Ok, honey,” she says.
I use the bathroom. Brush my teeth and wash my face. I try to avoid overanalyzing myself in the bathroom mirror under the harsh brightness. I have a faint shadow of stubble at the chin but skip the shave.
Grace is cooking at the stove when I emerge out of the hallway.
Tothe left of the kitchen, Frank and Bryan sit at the dining room table that overlooks a set of double doors leaving out to a raised deck and backyard. They’re in deep, albeit, impenetrable conversation that breaks when my father notices me.
“Son!” Frank gets up from his chair immediately and comes over. And there’s no dodging it, he hugs me and I just stand there.
He’s my father, sure, but it’s awkward. Performative and it’s like this expected thing I guess since we share the same blood.
“Hey Frank.” I say. He smells of cigarettes and detergent. It’s a weird and paradoxical mix.
When I break from him, I look to Bryan. He’s no longer the little kid I remember him as—the ringbearer at his mother’s wedding, tripping behind me at the garden reception. I remember him, bright eyed and desperate for any hint of attention. The little kid that had open heartedly asked if I was going to be his older brother. That was years ago.
He’s only three or four years younger than me. What seemed like an eternity then didn’t seem like much at all now. Even though he’s sitting, I’m thinking he probably stands around my height now, or maybe even a little taller. But he’s lanky and with pretty poor posture. He’s sitting at their dining room table hunched over his plate and shoving it down. When he looks up, I notice how much he resembles Grace, bearing the same curly reddish hair and impossibly pale skin. Except, he’s a little less refined. A splattering of uneven breakouts dot above the freckles on his cheeks.
“Hey,” I say. Because I don’t know what else to say.
Green eyes cut back at me and his expression is openly disdainful.
I’m struck with this feeling, like I’ve made some sort of irrecoverable mistake, but I don’t know where I’ve tripped up.
So, I just stand there and bear witness to him as he stabs a fork into his plate of pancakes. He finally returns a mumbled “hey” but he’s not looking at me when he says it.
A painfully long pause limps by before I realize that’s all I’m getting from him.
“You must be hungry,” Grace chimes in. Seemingly missing the entire exchange. “I made you a plate.” With a gentle hand she guides me forward to the table. Places down a plate of pancakes at an open spot at the table.
“Thank you,” I say. And I sit. The pancakes are not circular or uniform, and just kind of look like failed shapes that never took any realized form. She has a few cut strawberries surrounding them on the plate too. I cut in.
Yesterday, I had taken the train. Not the kind I am used to, those that traveled to the next borough or into the surroundings suburbs for an afternoon. No. This train seemed endless and I bought a one way. Grace picked me up at one of the stations. It was my idea; I didn’t want to burden anyone too much. I took it as far as the line could go to where I needed to be. This minor collection of dots and lines on a map. All I had yesterday was an overpriced croissant and too many cups of coffee. I’m starving.
Two birds. I eat.
Frank sits down next to me and we talk over breakfast. Grace comes over too and then it’s the four of us around the table.
Five, actually. I look down and see the dog darting under the table and between chair legs chasing invisible shadows. He notices me and comes over to sit by my feet. A quick tongue darts out to touch a toe and I pull back and tuck my feet further under my chair. That doesn’t seem to deter the little guy, he just lays down on his belly and crawls forward to follow.
“How are you, son.” That’s Frank, and I’m brought back to the conversation.
“Fine. Great actually.” I say. It’s all robotic now. “I made the president’s list again. I was inducted into the honor society in the spring. 15 more credits and I’ve earned my degree. Everything’s great.”
It’s all the truth on paper.
“You inherited your mother’s smarts.” My father says this, and he means it as a compliment, I think.
Though, I can’t help but to say, “Her work ethic too.” I watch for any sign of impact.
But there’s nothing. Frank just laughs and pats me on the shoulder.
“Great job, son.” He says.
Shit just doesn’t stick to him. He doesn’t care. And I wish that was a trait I had inherited from him.
I force a smile and continue eating. Take another bite of pancake. It’s plain but it’s good. The strawberries are a little bitter but this lifts me a little. I’ve come to appreciate the little things in life, the unsung heroes are the things that are exactly how I expect them to be.
I glance over to Bryan’s plate and notice it is now mostly empty. A graveyard of syrup remains.
“Oh! I forgot syrup!” Grace says like it’s this profound realization to her. With my mouth currently full I don’t have time to stop her. She runs back to the kitchen and places it before me.
I swallow and thank her. “No thanks, I’m avoiding stuff like that,” I say.
“Oh. Right.” She says, a little doe eyed looking at the back of the bottle. “It’s real maple… I think.”
“Thank you, but I like them on their own. Did you make them from scratch?”
She blushes a little at this. “Box mix. Nothing fancy, though I tried shaping them into hearts.”
I look down at the pancakes. I’ve already cut into one. They don’t look like hearts, but for some reason I find myself smiling at this. “I see it. And they taste good. Thank you.” I say it. And mean it.
I finish eating and answer more questions. It always feels like interrogation. I give topical answers. And dance around the subject, of why after years of invitations I choose this summer to visit.
Eventually, Frank says his goodbyes and hugs me again before leaving for work. He’s dressed plainly, just a pair of cargo pants and a t-shirt. Bryan goes with him to catch a ride to school. He’s in his senior year of high school so classes probably run for another week or so.
Grace stays. She works from home, and points to the first door upstairs where her office is. “Please, help yourself to anything. Don’t feel shy. And if you need anything let me know.”
I spend the rest of the day in the guest room until it’s time for lunch. I can’t even nap. It’s impossible with the brightness of the room. So, I pick up my phone and scroll through the feeds again. The further down I go the deeper the knot in my stomach seems to sink.
At lunch, Grace makes herself and I a salad with more of the strawberries and a sweet tangy dressing on top of some greens. We talk nonsensically about healthy eating while the dog Wrinkles dances around our chairs.
When dinner comes around, we again gather at the table. And this time, I’m prepared. I talk about my classes, my plans for the future. It’s all middling conversation, even better rehearsed with smiles and embellished anecdotes. And Frank says he’s proud of me. Grace too. So proud…
But the more I speak about my accomplishments the more distant they feel. Like they’re not really mine or they never really mattered. And that feeling of wanting to crawl right back into my skull appears. I try my best to stay engaged and off my phone through dinner.
~ * ~
Three days pass by and each is pretty much the same as the next. In the mornings I make awkward mini migrations from the window lit guestroom, to the bathroom for peace, and eventually wander out into the kitchen.
I was caught the first day at the coffee machine with Frank. He doesn’t even drink coffee anymore. He tells me about these protein shakes he’s trying and I was kind of excited about that, being a health nut once myself, but my enthusiasm dimmed when he mixed it. Adding sugar even. I mean, that’s fine, I guess. A little. But he follows it up with a packaged donut on the way out. As if one good thing will cancel out the bad.
The second morning found me standing faced off with Bryan for the fridge. And I’m not surprised when my ‘good morning’ is met with a glare. I still don’t know why he keeps looking at me like I’ve kicked a puppy or something. But I’ve consigned myself to the fact it didn’t really matter anyway. I’d be gone soon.
He had opened the fridge door and considered the contents for a few moments before pulling out a carton of orange juice. He drank it right from the container. And then put it back. A little spilt down his shirt and I had to bite my tongue to keep from commenting on it. He had wandered off without saying anything else.
What a prick.
Today, thankfully, I’m alone. I have the timing almost right by now. Grace was somewhere upstairs working from her home office.
I pour a cup of coffee and sit on the sofa. It’s almost routine now. I got my coffee, my notebook and a pen. And the pug, Wrinkles follows and sits beside me close, always touching. I like the quiet and easily exchanged company Wrinkles and I share.He sits by me and asks for nothing except for belly rubs or scratches on the ear. And I find myself obliging.
Wrinkles’ face is a little droopy and close up I notice little sprouts of grey around his muzzle. ‘He’s a rescue,’ Grace had told me yesterday, when I finally mustered up the courage asked about the lost eye. ‘He gets around just fine,’ she had said. They had adopted him from a shelter a few years ago and now he was part of the family.
We’ve never had a dog. Me and mom. It makes sense though that Frank would have one now. He’s always wanted one I guess.
When I was ten, a few days before Christmas, I remember him bringing home a puppy after work one day. A coworker had a litter and my father had jumped on the opportunity. The puppy was warm, and all excited limbs, tail wags and licks to my face. Mom and Frank had argued for hours about it. Mom won, naturally. Our lease didn’t allow pets. Because no one had the time to take care of a puppy.
The puppy went to another family before Christmas Eve. But another memory slips through the crack uncalled for. I had cried. How shamelessly I sulked through Christmas holiday. ‘I’m sorry honey.’ my mother had said. Frank said: ‘lighten up. It’s Christmas’.
Morning light is everywhere in the living room now, spilling in from the skylight high on the ceiling. It also comes in sideways through the glass sliding doors that look out to the deck and backyard.
I don’t bother with the tv, it’s just noise. I scribble down lines in my notebook. The mornings here sound like songbirds and endless forest echoed with insect sounds. Wrinkles snores lazily beside me.
Graceoccasionally passes through the house during the day. Over the week, Grace and I have developed this quiet understanding and she keeps a comfortable distance aside from a casual pat on the shoulder and a smile when she passes through the living.
I can tell she’s concerned about me. And I hate that honestly.
I began to suspect she knew by the end of the first day. By today, I’m convinced they all know. But I didn’t want to talk about what happened in New York. That wasn’t why I came here.
In the afternoon, I find myself retreating back into the guestroom. Sunlight floods the room. There are only two walls really, the wall by the door and the other by the side of the bed. The other sides make up the corner of the house and are lined with tall windows that start at the hip and go up all the way to the ceiling of the room. It’s more a sunroom then a guestroom.
The bed is pushed up to the window facing the front street. The curtains are sheer, and I often find myself, in those forever moments before I settle down for a nap, searching for interruptions in the symmetry of the lace pattern.
It feels like a million degrees today, and because Grace either doesn’t believe in air conditioning or my father is too poor to afford it, I shed my shirt and jeans and just lay in my boxers. I have the windows open as far as they go, but they are the kind that doesn’t open but more than a few inches.
I hear activity on the street and sit up a little to glance properly through the curtains. I see the runner is back at it.
He's just—some guy. I’ve seen him running back and forth down the street in the afternoons for the last three days. Up and down the same street, it’s almost like he’s trapped there in this really boring routine run every day. Even though I haven’t really stepped farther than the driveway these last few days, there wasn’t much to see. The street this house straddled sits at the top of a fork in the road, but the dividing branches are dead ends. Their endcaps stop a few houses down abruptly with a wall of thick forest that leads nowhere.
The runner is disturbed by the heat too. Even from my window perched above the street, I can appreciate. He’s wearing a tight black t-shirt and I can see his form better. It’s not close enough to really see the details. But the sum of his parts worked. Really, worked.
He’s lean but athletic and he carries it well through his proportions. Square lift of his shoulders, trim midsection and downward to show modestly built legs. And my thoughts slip, ludicrously, and I wish he’d run the other way so I could see what his ass looked like.
I lean a little farther forward to steal a glance, but then he looks up. I stop, drop low on the bedspread and roll to the floor.
Suddenly jolted by how embarrassing it is. I go back out to the living room thinking I’m safe.
How wrong am I. Bryan is staring right at me. He must have come home straight after school. Probably got out early or something. Last day of classes I guess. But I didn’t see or hear him come in. He still has a backpack slung over one shoulder and this look on his face like he’s disgusted. “Dude. What the hell is wrong with you?”
There’s a pause, until I realize it’s like barely afternoon and I’m just standing round in my boxers in someone else’s house. Running from unexpected eye contact from a stranger who probably didn’t, I hope, see me. To his credit he was probably onto something there. What was wrong with me?
“Nothing.” I answer.
Bryan rolls his eyes at this and wanders back upstairs, brushing by the plants on the upper landing. His bedroom door shuts with a slam.
~ * ~
I dread the weekend, but it comes and the peaceful rhythm of my movements around the house ends with Saturday’s arrival.
We pile into Grace’s car. A shopping spree to prepare for Bryan’s graduation party tomorrow. Grace drives. Frank drums along with a pop song on the radio. The superstore was supposed to be ‘just down the road’. But the road was as featureless as it was endless. And down the mountain it was mostly flat and empty stretches with some activity popping up on the main road. Gas stations. A waffle house . Motels. Seemed liked the place people just stopped when in route to somewhere else.
This meant that for most of it I ended up just looking through my phone while I sat in awkward silence next to Bryan in the backseat. There couldn’t be enough space between us.
It’s obvious that Bryan really doesn’t want me here.
We’ve spoken only a handful of times over the last week. ‘Hey’ he said to me the first day, by way of introduction. The second, when we accidentally crossed paths in front of fridge, though, I don’t think he actually said anything. Thursday at dinner I had gotten ‘pass the peas’ out of him, but I didn’t get a ‘thank you’ when I did. Yesterday was the most I had gotten. With him asking point blank: ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’
I know I don’t exactly open up conversation either but damn. He doesn’t seem shy or anything. He has loud conversations with Frank and his mother. He had friends over a few nights, I didn’t see them, but I definitely heard them all stomping around upstairs. He even called Frank ‘dad’ sometimes which is weird, but he’s a weird kid. And for the record, Frank calls everyone younger than him ‘son’.
Eventually we arrive at the superstore and Bryan sulks away from our own awkward family pod to go flirt with a cashier. The cashier is around his age, probably a classmate of Bryan’s. She has blue hair, it’s long and in a sloppy bun on top of her head the ends a little frayed and the color fading out to green. Too many piercings and heavy-handed eyeliner. She has a cute smile though and an unapologetic laugh that I hear from across past checkout. Bryan leans in and says something I can’t hear but can only imagine. She laughs. All despite a line forming at the checkout.
What a little prick.
“What would you like to have for the BBQ?” Grace asks me later while we’re in the freezer section.
“I’m fine with whatever.” I say, glancing through the seemly endless selections of frozen packaged food behind frost touched glass.
“Get whatever you want. Can never have too much.” Frank says, grabbing another two boxes of hamburger patties out of the freezer.
We have tons of stuff in the cart already. Packets of hotdogs, hamburgers and a few packs of thick cuts of steak. Chicken, for shish kabobs. Buns and bread. Huge containers of egg and pasta salads. And there’s enough chips and junk to feed a small army.
“Are you still a… what do they call it? Vegan?”
“Vegetarian.” I corrected. “At least I’m trying.”
Grace browses the freezer doors before stopping at one. “How about this?” she says, pulling a box of some sort of meatless hamburger patties from the freezer. She’s so excited about it.
Lately I didn’t have the self control to stick to anything though. Whatever she picked up didn’t seem appealing, but I don’t have the heart to break that smile on her face. It’s like she’s worried I’ll starve or something. “Sure, that looks good.”
She smiles and puts it in the cart and presses on. My father hangs back with me as we traverse down the next few aisles.
“How’s your mom been?” he asks when we are in the condiment aisle. I don’t really want to look at him and instead stare intently at the drama of Grace’s decision about what brand of ketchup to buy farther down the aisle. There’s five.
“She’s good.” I say.
And I hope he leaves it at that, but he pushes on. “Is she happy?”
I turn and level my eyes to his. Happy? “Of course. She made CFO last year and makes six figures. And what do you do again? Are you happy?”
He’s slow to the punch but I see the words hit this time. A crease forms at his forehead. That stupid, perpetually easy-going look is staggered now. Is it bad I find some pleasure in seeing him crumple a little?
“I’m glad for her.” He says it flatly. But he doesn’t answer my question.
Grace wanders back, unaware of the entire exchange. “Look, green ketchup.” She says holding up the monstrosity.
Frank turns away from me, and affectionately puts an arm over her shoulder. Grace puts the bottle in the cart, and I follow them down the rest of the aisles.
~ * ~
It’s still awkward. And we are at the bakery section waiting for the pastry worker behind the counter to write on the cake that Grace selected. It’s this huge faux sheet cake made up of cupcakes. I find my escape, by volunteering to select veggies for the BBQ.
I’m in the produce aisle when I spot the runner from behind a mountain of tomatoes. His back is turned so can’t see me. He’s not in his usual workout clothes, he’s in dark wash jeans and a black t-shirt. His hair is black or at least a very dark brown and it’s longer than most guys keep it. He’s wearing it pulled back and I wonder for a moment what it looks like freed.
Then I notice who he is talking to.
They’re friends? They don’t really look like friends; with Bryan’s attitude I’m surprised he even had friends.
The runner is a little older, probably around my age, early 20’s. Why the hell would he bother to hangout with Bryan and his friends? I’m still too far away to hear their conversation. And it shouldn’t matter anyway.
I grab a plastic bag and pick out a few tomatoes.
And then the neat pyramid of them comes tumbling down before me. I scramble to stop the slide. I stack them all back as neatly as I can, but they keep falling.
“Seriously. Dude.” That’s Bryan. I look away from the pile of produce. Just Bryan. Thankfully. I look past Bryan’s shoulder and notice the runner was gone. Hopefully he didn’t see all that. Although, how could he miss it?
“What do you normally like on your burgers?” I ask, hands working quick to right the tomato stack.
“Bacon.” He says, definitively. And before I have a moment to respond, he disappears back towards the checkout line.