An excerpt from Victoria Hetherington's digital fiction project I Have To Tell You (0s&1s, 2014).
When I was a kid I hung around with our grubby, red-haired neighbor, Patrick, who was old enough to have witnessed his few friends move away but young enough—I guess—to decorate his living room with lava lamps. Even though I felt pretty special those days, I understood he’d have to be a pretty lonely guy to actively befriend the twelve-year-old down the street, but I ate Fig Newtons and watched daytime TV with him anyway and played gently with his arthritic dog Leia when she was awake. Sometimes he’d tell me about grown-up life:
“The thing of it is, Davey, you have to look your best. Always, and early as possible. And you have to understand, too, that high school is fulla twerps.”
“Making a baby is the fun part and anyone can do it. But, and I’m not naming any names, some people aren’t qualified to raise kids—there should be a test you pass first.”
Or, after a hushed conversation with a rather pretty woman who showed up unannounced, some of which I overheard while making pancakes in his kitchen:
“When a girl like Lily comes by asking for root canal money, and she hasn’t called you in a whole entire year, you’ve gotta ask yourself why’s she showing up at your door.”
I’d always listen closely: Patrick, after all, had gone to college. But maybe sensing something from my parents, I set certain parameters with him: before entering his house, I always said something like “My mom wants me back at four,” and no matter how many cop shows we watched, no matter how many glasses of chocolate milk I drank, every time I’d leave, taking my first couple breaths of autumn air, I’d feel light with gratitude and boundless excitement for my future.
Patrick walked Leia every day even if—as I suspected was usually the case—she didn’t want to, and each time I spotted them from the backseat of my mother’s Volvo, en route to baseball practice—the two of them limping along with frequent stops—I’d yell hello and wave frantically. He’d give a weird salute, and if we hit a red light, my mother would nod at him, lifting a couple fingers from the steering wheel in grim acknowledgement. When we intersected with him for the fifth day in a row, I realized he might’ve started timing those afternoon walks to coincide with our drive to baseball practice. School started up, and our visits grew less frequent. November rolled around and the days grew gray and short, and through neighborhood osmosis I learned that Leia had died.
Patrick was a pretty nice guy, but I never went to his house again. The weird thing is, I thought about him all the time, vividly imagining his house from the inside—the way so few people knew it—Leia’s big bed in the kitchen and the unframed posters on the living room walls and the cops shows playing at 3pm, with the blinds drawn against the summer sun. Just one visit would’ve meant so much to him, I knew. What’s worse is I saw him all the time: at the end of nearly every after-school drive, as we pulled smoothly up our driveway, I’d spot him tossing mysterious garbage bags by the side of the road or tearing down the brown ivy that covered the whole front of his house or painting and repainting Leia’s doghouse, a new color every week. I brought it up with my parents, just once. Amelia down the street and I think he’s looking to sell, my mom said hopefully; He’s just getting everything ready for a new dog, I think, or maybe he’s got a girlfriend finally and she’s set to move in, and she’s got a dog, my kind-hearted dad suggested.
I can’t tell what’s wrong with Jen, but I know it’s bad; it’s bad in the specific way that things with Patrick were bad. She works to simultaneously mask and escape whatever it is through perpetual motion, so even when she’s scrubbed the place up and down she repaints it: she goes around covering up the pool, moving the bed around, buying new silk flowers for the drawing room table, throwing the old ones out like tattered newspaper. Just today she starts messing with the birdbath. Ten minutes before we’re expecting everyone for dinner, I find her out by the rosebushes in her white blouse and gold earrings, yanking it sideways. I come towards her and when she spots me she gasps, “This must weigh, like ninety pounds,” and I can smell her perfume from the pathway. “Oh, at least,” I say. “Marble is very, very dense. So look babe, everyone’s coming really soon.”
“Can we drain it?” she asks. “I just. It’s just that I can’t stand mosquito season. They breed in standing water.” We look at each other for a long moment, and then the birdbath slips in her arms, and I remember how heavy it is. I crouch beside her and she eases it into my arms. I tilt it further and the water drains out in the grass.
In just two hours the really bad thing will happen but I don't know that, Dave doesn't know that, nobody does. Right now the dread I've felt for days has subsided a bit and absorbed in watching Dave talk, his lips moving and the sweat above his mouth shining and his hair clinging wet to his neck, watching him so closely I get dizzy and everything else fades and shimmers. Dave loves me I’m his little lady. Dave loves me and I love him, Dave loves me he looks into me and sees himself. Dave loves me he cries sometimes into my hair, his childhood was hard and his divorce was bitter and I know her a little I’m sweet to her when we all meet at parties and Dave cries sometimes into my hair and I carry him around. Dave loves me I carry him around.
Watching Dave talk he says, you sure I can’t do anything babe? He's worried about me, and of course he is—I haven't been myself. Hot, hot day turning into golden evening the plants almost white it’s so bright, the grapevines lime-green where the sun shines through them, Dave pruning with his pliers, Dave with a basket on his arm. And I turn back around rip myself from watching Dave talk because I don’t want him to do anything I’ll do it all, toasting the buns perfect and keeping the hissing sausages and eggplant steaks juicy with olive oil, and roasting myself a little in the heat of the grill, and the salad bright in the sun ready to go, and everything’s perfect and almost ready, and I have made it perfect for him. He can’t do anything he does it all already he is it all already and that secures me, I can’t see around him anymore.
Watching Dave talk with guests as they arrive, watching his lips on cheeks and his teeth flashing and working through greetings and laughs. Young woman. Oh god they all look Sarah’s age. Watching Dave watch her and a little upset, probably upset because she is so young but I had my time now it is hers, watching her drawing attention like she doesn't notice, asking me can she photograph the food for her Inster-Gran and I say, of course honey. Waitress mode I slide into like a duck, nothing catches, smiles go easy and people grow warmer and time whips by. Watching Dave talk up at ceiling last night and understood, with pain in chest, we were veering into fighting, him saying I don't know why you keep that fucking job, well, this is why. Why is why? This, because these people are so jarringly here in our home in their beautiful clothes, these women in silk shawls I want to touch, these people some happy some not but not knowing anything other than the world that their silk shawls indicate, and the this is that I keep my fingers in the somewhere else I came from. The somewhere else what Dave loves about me too, he loves the Dave I show him but also the place he imagines I came from, it reminds him of home and comfort and childhood, the very different places that are my past and his, which have become the place that is really home for us both.
Watching Dave call the young woman—Lucy come meet Steven—back to him and young woman says to me, thank you, Jennifer. I tell her you’re welcome sweetheart, her limbs so thin so hairless smooth as tree-limbs, all white in the evening sun, showing through the material of her sundress. Watching the women in their silk scarves and loose beautiful white pants, thin cashmere thin silk artful drapery in purples pinks jade greens and deep reds, watching them watch the girl Lucy not with dislike or envy exactly but like she is both an unstable dam about to burst forth with floodwaters swollen by rain and its architect, solely responsible for the rupture. But the girl wants to dance with them and eat and enjoy, to belong and be. They enjoyed sun-warmed colt limbs before Lucy even was, and now she is. Watching Dave talk I know the men sense I stand apart I am untouched dancing across the water, and I carry Dave in this difference which is in fact an imperturbable sameness. This is also why he loves.
Lucy comes meets red-faced Steven, Steven very drunk too drunk for the early evening and strong sun, Steven takes her hand to kiss it, Lucy looks over at me and I shake my head and frown, Steven’s wife Carla is standing near me near the hot, hot barbeque watching, and I call her attention pretending like I just saw her arrive, taking her hand and make joke make play I bow to kiss it with loud smack and everyone laughs, so the tension the collective awareness of perpetual change or perhaps its merciless effects dissolves and we’re all just in the late afternoon sun, feeling how golden, feeling how good. With her straw-thin hands Carla readjusts her scarf against breeze in three careful movements and I reach out to touch the scarf and say my gosh Carla how pretty.
Carla stays near me she stands close, she looks at me about to respond and as I stare into her eyes her eyes grow unfocused and in an instant she crumples, she folds forward and I drop my tongs and the glass I was holding to catch her before she smacks her skull on the scorching lip of the grill. The glass must have shattered on the cement but I don’t hear it nobody does. I see Carla die and I remember thinking I know she has died before anyone else knows, even her husband. Oh, oh a couple people say as the talk ceases immediately not hushed but extinguished and Dave rushes over, rushes over like football player running through obstacles throwing aside small table sending glass plates olives moist canapés prosciutto-wrapped melon flying into bright blue pool he is suddenly by my side pulling Carla from my arms. No, no, no, no, no, no, no Lucy is going and keeps going with its own rhythm her rhythmic nos a terrifying inversion of yes of permission of signalling that the relationship between her and our husbands might shift from soon into now. Lucy will change into Carla; one is already the other.
Though an ambulance comes and the paramedics put her on an enormous steel stretcher I know she is dead I knew she was dead before I rescued her head from the grill. My hands around her thin arms the thinner silk scarf. I remember two things and the first thing is I left all the debris floating in the pool, the swollen-up canapés one syringe and two pieces of medical plastic maybe bags and paper floating thin as jellyfish until two mornings later. And the second thing was that Steven waited until Dave had taken Carla from my hands before jerking alive, before shambling stumbling over like a poisoned bear so drunk, maybe drunk enough to think she’d fainted, perhaps staunch non-drinker Carla had drank secretly when he wasn’t looking while he was busy talking to Lucy busy kissing her strange little hand.
Watching Dave talk in the mirror behind me two nights later, his body on the bed but so dark I can only see the sheen of moonlight on his thighs, stomach, and face as his lips move I look into the mirror for the first time, I look into my face and see the last expression Carla ever made and see myself make it—how horrible it is that I just did that—and I see in my own face for the first time my own death.