Not If I See You First
I’m also sorry I’m talking to you like you’re actually listening. I know the universe doesn’t really work that way. If it did, if you were really watching, you wouldn’t need me to explain all these things. Still, this is how my brain wants to do it.
Now I wish I knew what you said to Scott that day you sent him away. Whatever it was, it worked. I don’t think I ever told you how grateful I was for that. If he’d kept after me like we were in some pathetic romantic comedy, I think I might have unraveled.
Except I did unravel. I know that. Mostly on the inside. Maybe you did, too. I could hear it in your voice, how after that you knew you couldn’t always protect me. I tried to get you to believe that it wasn’t your job. I don’t think I tried hard enough.
I cross my room and take the plastic pill bottle out of my scarf drawer, like every night. It’s the bottle of Xanax that was sitting empty on Dad’s nightstand the morning I found him. The bottle I didn’t know existed until that moment but had been hiding in plain sight for a while. The bottle the insurance company used to deny paying out his life insurance that would have kept the house in my name instead of Aunt Celia’s. The bottle I wanted back so much I punched the police detective over and over again until he promised to give it back once the case closed, which happened only a week later. The bottle Aunt Celia claimed proved what she’d always believed, that Dad was the weak one even though it was her own sister who drank too much wine that night and drove the two of us into that bridge support, killing her and making sure her screaming face would be the last thing I ever saw. And most important, it’s the bottle that taught me everyone has secrets. Everyone. No matter how much you love them and think you know them and think they love you back.
I open the bottle, take out a gold star, lick it, and press it firmly on the poster board hanging on the back of my door. A clean white rectangle filling up with stars that, when anyone asks me about it, I just say is tactile art, my Star Chart. Every night I get to add a gold star if I earn it. Tonight’s makes eighty-one gold stars. Eighty-one consecutive days without crying.
I know it was an accident. Oxycodone for your back, then some more when it didn’t work, along with some ibuprofen for swelling, plus some Xanax, and then a couple beers that made you forget you already took them and you took more, and extra Xanax because you were having a bad week, all adding up to stop your breathing sometime between one and three in the morning. I know you wouldn’t have left me here alone on purpose, no matter what the cops or the insurance people or my closest relatives say. I know it.
But I also know you kept your feelings inside, and they were bad enough to need all those pills. I don’t think it would have changed what happened, because I’m sure it was an accident, but maybe if I’d known I could’ve helped. Maybe you wouldn’t have needed the pills in the first place. Maybe.
I take off my scarf and tuck it and the pill bottle in the drawer and slide it closed. I brush the light switch to make sure it’s down—sometimes people don’t turn it off when they leave because it’s too weird for them to turn off the light when someone’s in the room—but it’s down so I know the room looks the same to everyone else now as it does to me. Or maybe not. I dimly remember how the moon and stars and streetlights keep everything from being as completely dark as it looks to me now.
I crawl into bed.
Good night, Dad.
etey has an endless fascination with anime, which isn’t great for me. I’m told the appeal is mostly visual and all I get is hearing bad actors reading badly translated dialog of badly written Japanese scripts. But it’s Sunday morning so I’m wearing my hachimaki while he wears his karate gi and the new purple belt he earned yesterday.
Someone walks into the living room and flops down hard on the leather easy chair. It’s Sheila; she’s the only one who would throw herself down nearby without saying anything. Now she’s texting. I sit with my head back on the sofa, not really listening to the show. I’m not even sure what it is anymore but it doesn’t matter because I can tell by the sudden crazy electric guitar and synth explosion that it’s the closing credits.
Aunt Celia calls from the entryway, “You girls ready?”
“Going somewhere?” Petey asks, sounding hopeful.
Even Sheila can tell he’s angling to come along and she says in her bored voice, “The mall. Shopping. Clothes. You’d hate it. Then we’d all hate it.”
“You’re coming anyway,” Aunt Celia says. “Dad took his car in for an oil change.”
“It’ll be fun,” I say. “I need new running shoes. You can help me get them.”
“But I don’t want to stand around for hours while Sheila tries on a million pants.”
“Nobody does, sweetie,” Aunt Celia says, walking into the room. “That’s why we’re dropping her off. We’ll come home after we buy Parker shoes.”
“Shotgun!” Petey shouts as we leave the house.
“Uh-uh, in the back,” Aunt Celia says. Dictators don’t follow rules they don’t like. “I’m up front with Sheila.”
“But if—” Petey says.
“It’s a provisional license,” Sheila says. “I can’t drive with anyone in the car unless Mom’s there sitting next to me. Get used to it.”
In the back with Petey, I hold out my hand and whisper, “One, two, three, four …”
He grabs my hand in the proper grip and whispers back, “I declare a thumb war.”
In the Ridgeway Mall parking lot, we meander around. I can’t tell if it’s crowded or she’s just trying to save walking five extra feet.
Aunt Celia says, “I thought you were meeting your friend at the food court? That’s way at the other end.”
“Yep,” she says. I have no idea who this new friend is.
Sheila parks and almost before the engine is completely off, she’s gone.
“Can I go to the video game store?” Petey asks.
“We’re not buying any video games today.”
“Just to look?”
Petey likes helping me but shopping is apparently a step too far, even for him.
“We need to help Parker get shoes, then we’re going straight home.”
“I don’t need help, actually,” I say. Not to stir up trouble; it’s just true. “We’re coming up on the door where the pet shop is, right? Once we’re inside, I’ll meet you back here in half an hour.”
“Great!” Petey says.
“No, no. Of course we’ll help you, Parker.”
“Thanks, but there’s really nothing for you guys to do. I know where I’m going and what I’m buying, and I have my credit card. I’ll text you if anything changes. If I get back to the pet shop before you guys, I’ll play with the puppies till you show up.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
That’s where it tips. I confess that suggesting the pet shop was a dig—the only thing more exhausting than Petey trying to get a video game is Petey trying to get a puppy—but the rest was an honest attempt to give her a chance. She blew it.
“I can’t buy shoes on my own for half an hour but Sheila can wander around all day?”
“It’s not the same, Parker,” she says in her world-weary voice.
“It’s exactly the same.”
“I’m sorry, but it isn’t. You don’t want to talk about it—”
“No, I absolutely want to talk about it. Why, exactly, do you need to be with me?”
“Well, it’s just easier when we—”
“I don’t need easier.”