First day of summer and Isaac sits on my step. Leather jacket, faded jeans, cigarette. I think of something to say.
“Those will kill you, you know.”
“Most pleasurable way to die, you know.”
My heart sputters when he says things like that. For fifteen he’s unreasonably good at blowing smoke rings and talking about death. His dark, blank eyes hypnotize as they analyze. I can’t stop myself from pulling the cig from his fingers, putting it out against the concrete step, and pressing my lips against his.
He always just tolerates this. My lips press desperately into his for the slightest response until he gives in and presses back a little. My favorite part of the ritual is that we never speak about it, except for his sly smile and my sigh.
“Kimberly!” Mom shrieks, eyes squinting through a rip in the screen door. “What kind of example are you setting for the children?” It would be a lie to say they aren’t even around because there’s Bethy, six, running to my ankles and insisting I push her on the swing.
“We can go somewhere else if it’s a problem,” says Isaac, always.
“You’re the problem,” says my mother, half-joking and half-serious, always. She glowers at me. “You know I need your help here. Especially in the summer.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I say. I swallow my anger and it builds up in my chest like phlegm.
I take Bethy’s hand and walk her to the swing. A more accurate verb is saunter. When I turn around quickly enough, Isaac doesn’t have time to hide his smile, and I’m light again. Bethy scrambles onto the swing and cautiously lifts her feet up, and I expertly press against her back and she is flying. Long ago, before the second swing fell off, before I had periods and acne, before Dad had his first seizure, before I could realize what crap life actually is, Isaac and I swung up to see who could go up the highest. It was always a tie and then we would screech to a stop with our bare feet just to make matching clouds of dust.
He came over for the first time when he was five and his mother dragged him over from across the street to my house, Bunny Hutch Daycare. I was five too, and annoyed that my mother chose to fill our house with other women’s crying, shitting babies. We had no choice but to become quick allies, if not friends.
But I didn’t really think it was an advantage, growing up next to him. He had too much time to get used to me. The only interesting thing about me are my hips, which seem too extravagant for this small Minnesota town, for this house where each slice of stale bread is treated like treasure. Otherwise I look like a farmer’s daughter. Small lips. Large but dull brown eyes. Clumsy man hands. Hair the color of dishwater. I see him looking at the pretty, rich, popular girls at school like they’re candy. Still, he hangs around here. I’ve seen him make excuses to much blonder, larger-breasted girls so he could spend more time with me. And now, despite his even lips, I see something like want in his eyes.
We stay like that: Isaac staring behind a veil of cigarette smoke; Bethy yelling higher higher; me halfheartedly pushing and thinking too much about him. Mom comes to get the twins cleaned up and I take Hannah’s place on the swing. The sky darkens and I feel the itch of real or imagined mosquitoes. Mom calls out the window, “Dinner!” I tell Isaac to come up with me.
Both parents’ heads turn when they see him. “Isaac! Stay, stay. Invite your mom over if you want,” my dad says quickly, before my mom can break her grimace enough to speak.
“I’m not sure we have enough food for everyone, dear.”
“Oh, we have plenty.”
Isaac pulls out a chair, hesitantly sits. “I wouldn’t ask,” he says, “but you know I like your cooking better.” This always softens my mom’s expression, just a bit.
Dad scoops up a steaming plop of the hotdish for Isaac, then presses his hands together. As he starts to pray, Isaac is blowing on his food. “Dear”—pfft— “Heavenly”—Pfft— “Father.” Isaac always forgets that we pray. He belatedly puts his hands together, looking almost embarrassed.
As we eat the only sound is silverware scraping against our plates. It gives me too much time to think.
The reason why it’s like this—why Isaac is so often half-invited to awkward dinners—is that Isaac’s mom has different men over a lot. Almost every weekend you can expect to see some sheepish man closing Isaac’s front door and slinking off. Also, she’s a terrible cook. To my dad, this is no reason to like Isaac less, as he’s always had a “judge not lest you be judged” kind of philosophy.
But for some reason, my mother’s never liked Isaac’s mother or by extension Isaac. Maybe it’s the freedom that woman has, to not be tied down to an invalid. Maybe my mom doesn’t like how she raised Isaac and who he became because of it. Maybe she thinks that Isaac is a bad influence on me, her precious only daughter. The best clue is a memory so old and faded I’m not all that convinced it wasn’t a dream. My parents hushed arguing as I walked up the stairs. Their gaping lips and wide eyes as they saw me. Mom unable to stop herself from saying, “Did you really think that woman would take care of you like I do?”
When Isaac has finished, I tap him on the shoulder so I can walk him to the door. I watch him as he walks across the alley to his house, swings his hips dramatically side to side, and I laugh in spite of myself. When I’m with him, my parents’ worries seem so distant. It’s some other woman yelling at some other girl whose father is some other sick man.
Mom hangs up the phone gently. She’s squinting, the clear sign that she is trying not to cry. She pops in Cinderella, ignores Hanna’s and Bethy’s protests that they’ve seen it too many times, and fumbles through her coat pocket for her keys.
She doesn’t have to say a word. I know what’s going on, even though it’s been a year. Dad must have had a seizure at work, so she has to bring him to the doctor. The tumor must be back.
For having brain cancer, my dad’s pretty chill about it. He just goes to work at the plant, comes home, eats two helpings of dinner, and goes to bed. Sometimes it acts up and he has to stop working. We live off sick leave, then vacation pay. He sits in the living room watching construction shows and popping methadone. And then the doctors zap him enough and he gets better. I tell myself I don’t have to worry.
“Don’t forget to make lunch,” Mom says. “And I don’t feel like dealing with Isaac today. He can’t come over.”
I wait just until the clacking sound of her engine fades before I dial Isaac’s number.
He’s over in a second and Bethy and Hannah run from the screen to chant “Isaac! Isaac! Isaac!” He smiles lightly at his fame. The kids get sick of chanting his name eventually, as they always do, when nothing magical occurs. I back into the kitchen and he follows.
“What happened, K?” he murmurs.
“He’s back in the hospital.”
He frowns, brushes my cheek, walks past me. He digs in all our cupboards, pulling out old cookbooks and rusty pans until he finds what he is looking for: a giant silver thin-bottomed pot.
“WHO WANTS ISAAC SOUP?!?!?!” he bellows. The twins crash into the kitchen to watch. Here comes the magic. Every Isaac Soup is different. He somehow knows, after tasting a scoopful, exactly how much of which spice it needs. Our cupboards are full right now—the soup gets noodles, carrots, onion, celery, garlic, tomato, and corn. They won’t be so full when the vacation pay runs out.
Hannah and Bethy help cut the vegetables with butter knives. They take turns ducking their heads in the steam, taking a big whiff, and rubbing their tummies in anticipation. Their wide eyes track us as we ladle deliciousness into their bowls. We set the bowls in front of them with the condition that they blow off all the steam before eating.
After I fail to move Isaac scoops me the biggest bowl, blows the steam into my face. I thank him, but I cannot raise a spoon to my mouth.
“Is it awful that my dad’s in the hospital and the only thing I can think about is how my mom left me to watch the twins?”
“No,” he says in an almost rude way. He takes a big slurp. “Look, Kim, if I were you I’d never put up with this shit.”
The twins watch us, interest piqued at a swear word.
“Jesus!” he says louder. “Can I say anything around here?” They giggle.
It’s uncomfortable, the way he always takes the side I want to, but can’t. I set down my cold bowl, turn away.
He stands puts his arms on my shoulders, kneads out the knots in them. He could be an exorcist because it feels like his hands can free demons. Makes me feel so light I want to cry. I don’t want to feel better.
“Isaac, why are you here? Why do you still come here.”
“Because you’re my girlfriend.”
“OOOOOOOOOH,” the twins say in unison.
“Your girlfriend? When did that happen?” I say.
He pinches my side. “You will be, anyway. In a year or two. When you finally stand up to your mom.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You’ll be so much more beautiful when you’re free.”
It’s like he slapped me—I feel a sting and then numbness. I’ve imagined this love avowal for years, and I expected to be grinning in victory. But it’s happened too quick, all at the wrong time, said the wrong way.
Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my—
Isaac pulls me out of my book and we’re down the stairs, through the door. Bare feet on the metal bars of his back wheel, arms around his chest, and we’re already off. We ride through cracked gravel and alleys and unpaved roads. Right past stop signs. Faster, faster, I tell him. I hit his back. We stop at the railroad tracks.
A sign at the side of tracks says Private Property. I stop and stare at it. Swallow because guilt is a feeling I can taste—a sour clamminess at the back my throat.
“You want to kiss me, don’t you? Kick down that sign.” Isaac often taunts me like this, offering his lips as a prize for being brave.
I stay where I am until Isaac throws down his bike, plucks the sign out of the ground himself, and raises it in the air like he’s protesting.
I told Isaac a week ago that he had to get me out of the house. Both my parents have this new habit of staring at the walls, and I don’t really feel like I can join in. Every morning he knocks on my window and I climb out from the edges of my long-broken screen. I tell him I don’t care where we go, as long as it’s away. He’s clearly taking advantage of having me at full teasing disposal.
Most of the places we’ve gone to had the Private Property signs: an abandoned farmhouse, an old church with its own graveyard, the tiny grocery with the owner who doesn’t bother to lock his door. Isaac’s dared me to climb up a silo, lie on top of a grave, and eat a pickle from a ten-year-old jar—none of which I have done.
But I know he’s being sweet. Distracting me.
Isaac claims to have memorized the train schedules, but I still look behind me once in a while, just to be sure. The fact that we are walking between two parallel tracks makes it all the more frightening.
Isaac walks in one track and I step into the other, cross my arms. So we walk evenly in silence, each in our own tracks, until Isaac stops and turns to the side. Past the rail farthest from me, there is only a foot before the ground slopes sharply down to a road. He steps backward onto that rail. Doesn’t hold out his arms or lean.
I know that I should be shouting at him to get down, but there’s something strangely beautiful about it. For once his eyes are undoubtedly centered in mine, and they’re vulnerable, and they’re (I blush at the word) loving.
I realize that it’s never been invincibility that attracts me to him—he looks terribly fragile up there—it’s that he’s not afraid.
If the wind blew he would just fall right over, and he wouldn’t mind at all.
“Mom!” I yell in the general direction of the kitchen. “Is Dad up?”
“Yes. But don’t bother him.”
“I just want to—”
She comes out and puts her palm toward my face, a signal so rare and grave that I’ve learned to respect it. “I’m going out. But let him rest.” After shrugging on her purse she walks out and slams the front door shut.
She’s been strangely protective lately—and I’m not sure if it’s of me or my father. It couldn’t hurt to play chess with him or something, could it?
“Kimber-lay! Kimber-lay!” My dad’s voice fills up the room with my name and the twang at the end that always makes me laugh.
I fill up a glass of the coldest tap water and walk up the stairs weighed down with guilt. When I open the door I am little shocked—he’s standing in his nicest khaki shorts and crispest polo, perfectly authoritative. I don’t think I’ve seen him so awake in years. “We’re going for a walk,” he says.
“Mom said—” But his finger to his lips makes me smile before I can finish. He strides down the stairs, opens the door, and fills the entire frame with his wide shoulders. “Summer already!” he shouts. Then furrows his brows. “Better mow when we get back.”
I can only follow in his confident steps. He turns at the unpaved road that lines our house, stops at its end. He smells the lilac bushes weighed down with purple blooms. Then he pushes back the boughs to reveal a small dirt path. The woods here are sparse, but enough to house beavers and birds and the occasional wide-eyed deer, and it’s always been a place to go when the house is boring.
The path is more grown over than I remember it—probably because with his cancer, my dad hasn’t been able to walk it as often anymore. He told me once that before him and my mom moved in, no one seemed to realize that the land was public property. That he singlehandedly formed the footpath, became a micropioneer.
Once we are under the canopy, my dad stops, just to breathe in the air. He looks at me, and patches of sun shimmer over his smile.
“How are you and Isaac doing, huh?” he asks, winking.
“What?!” I blush. I had no idea he knew about my feelings for Isaac, let alone that he would encourage them.
“It’s okay,” he says. “Your mother feels differently, but I know he’s a good kid. He’s been through a lot and turned out pretty well given his. . . situation at home.”
I nod, but I don’t really get it.
“Oh, stop. Stop,” he begs. I haven’t said anything, but I recognize his urgency for quiet. He squints up at the canopy, stretches his arm toward my shoulder, but I whisper that I see it, I see it. A White-Breasted Nuthatch, rarely so far north. Its blue feathers contrast with the lime green leaves. It’s like the view of earth from space.
“Birds,” he whispers, “are the embodiment of freedom.” He’s looking up and he does look free. A smile stretches his face open. His arms tremble as he tries to lift them up—or maybe the rising and falling is his attempt to fly.
Instead he falls. Collapses on the path he no longer has the time to tread.
I’ve done my chores perfectly today. In the morning I made my bed, scrubbed the toilet, even took out the trash before she screamed for me to get my ass out of bed. I welcomed each kid racing up the stairs with a smile. For lunch, I expertly microwaved seven meals—you want them to all be lukewarm by the time you serve them so they don’t burn their mouths and cry but not too cold that they only stir it all together and pout. You also can’t serve one kid before another because that is asking for a coup. So you heat the first meals longer than the last ones.
I didn’t let my anger show when they snuck into my room and declared it their fort. Painted my white carpet with my nail polish. I never really cared about the nail polish (it was a birthday present from my grandmother, certified gender-enforcement officer)—but I did care that there would perennially be a shiny pink stain on my carpet. I just shooed the tykes out and pressed the door closed behind us.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Mom tells me later. She is burping the youngest charge. Her eyes mist and she smiles in her sad way. Usually I take this kind of thing as a compliment, even though she only says it when I’m doing something of use to her, like sliding dusty Cheerios into the trash or talking down a testy two-year-old.
“What are you going to do when I graduate?”
“What do you mean?”
“I want to go to college.”
Mom pauses, places the baby in its crib.
“We’re not going to help you pay for it,” she said. “We can’t.”
“Whatever. It’s six o’clock. I’m going to go hang out with Isaac in a bit.”
She tilts her head. This isn’t how our conversations go. “No, you aren’t going out with Isaac. You’re going to go to your room and think about your tone. And then you’re going to finish cleaning up.”
My gut wrings itself out, like the emotions can drip out of it like a rag. I let anger fill it back up.
My phone buzzes—probably Isaac texting that he’s here. Mom glares at me. “I don’t even know how you see going out as a possibility. This place is still a mess.” She is speaking in that angry, disappointed tone that she knows usually makes me cry. “You know I need to help your father with his medicine. I don’t know what’s gotten into you. We need your help now more than ever.” I am standing at the door. “You know he doesn’t have much longer.”
A knock—Isaac’s warped face warped through the wavy glass window. I let him in before she can stop me. He enters, smiles at me, then narrows his eyes at my mother’s red face.
She’s standing on her tiptoes the way she does when she’s angry. Her head a foot above ours, she yells, “Are you kidding me, Kim? You’re going to pull this? Right now? I don’t have time for your teenage angst. Go to your room, NOW.”
“I’m sorry if my being my own person is an inconvenience to you.” The words come out stronger than expected. There is a sick satisfaction in saying something you’ve always wanted to say at exactly the moment that it will hurt most.
Isaac presses his bewildered smile against my lips. Just pulls me toward him, slips his hands into my hair, and frenches me a few inches from my mother’s face. She shoves us out the door and we stumble away.
“Ohmygod, you fucking did it!” Isaac throws his hands up and shouts with the intensity of a sports announcer. My laugh sounds strange and far away.
My father’s grin is enclosed in a frame. Mom took that picture when he was in the hospital and she brought him a Big Mac. Some people walk up to the casket and look in at his real, dead body. My legs are not capable of that. The begonias on either side make my eyes run from allergies. Rows and rows of people I barely know.
The pastor talks. My mother talks. People look at me and it takes a while to register that I am supposed to say something. I stand up, but I don’t try to make it to the podium. “The least you could have done,” I say, “would be to have some birds. Flowers? You know he was allergic like I am, right? What the fuck. It’s like you don’t know him at all.”
Bullshit hymns drive us out of the room. In another room there is weak coffee, bologna sandwiches, runny coleslaw, tasteless melon.
After stirring the food around my plate for an hour the conversations dissipate and we are allowed to leave.
As soon as I step out, I see Isaac sitting on a bench.
“What are you doing here?” I ask. Then, “Why are you so late?”
He looks down. “My mom’s passed out in our living room. I tried waking her up, but I decided to just walk.”
We’re quiet for a while. I sit down next to him and everything is still so goddamn beautiful and I’m mad that Dad doesn’t get to see this. Out here there are birds. A red-winged blackbird flying to her nest of hungry young. The sun staining the prairie grass yellow. An oak tree’s rusty leaves. Churches ought to be set in dismal places to make it easier to—
I clench the cold metal edge of the bench. When I finally glance at Isaac he’s staring just past my face.
You would think that the circumstances would have prevented this: his lips, on mine, at the worst possible moment.
His eyes waver on mine as I push him off. His hands shake toward his shirt pocket for his pack, but he stops himself. I wait for him to say some sort of apology, but all I get is, “I’m going to stop smoking.”
I’ve been standing for a while. At first his stupidity makes me speechless, but then it only makes my words clearer: “I’m glad you stopped smoking. You’re going to have a long, healthy life without me.”
If I sit here any longer, I won’t be able to move at all. I stand up and walk out the door, not at all sure where I am going. A sharp wind whips scraggly leaves off of trees, and I really should have brought a jacket. I want to walk downtown or by the water tower, but I can only pace the alley. I stop at the entrance of the forest.
Memories haunt this place like ghosts. My dad walking me through these woods when I was little. As we walked, him putting his hand on my shoulder and holding me still until I looked up and followed the trail of his pointing finger. Cardinal. Conneticut Warbler. Just a Mourning Dove. A strange, almost effeminate habit for a man in our town. How he said he didn’t like hunting. Rather watch animals than kill them.
A braver person would enter, but I can’t see through burning eyes. So I turn back toward the only warm, stable thing I’ve ever had.
Isaac hugs me, of course. Stiff. Doesn’t say a word. Neither do I. I sit on his velvety green step, dangle my legs through the railing. He drapes his leather jacket over me and it falls off. He tries again, holds it there by wrapping his arms around me. A sadness fills me where longing used to be.
I got here, but I can’t move again. Even as the sky fades from blue to orange to violet. Maybe he says things, but I can’t hear. But now I break, and tears down my face and snot everywhere and my whole fucking world is ending. Isaac gets to witness it. He ducks into the house, comes back with a roll of toilet paper, watches me wipe off my wretched face.
The last thing Dad said to me in that hospital room was that before he came home from work every day, he was out in that forest, watching the birds. It was the only little thing he did outside of work and us. Made him forget that he was dying.
Isaac buries his head into my hair until his breath is hot against the back of my neck. He says, “You make me want to live.”