My boyfriend, Ricky, tossed his baby brother up to the yellowed ceiling of his parents’ single-wide, a family pastime older than Ricky. Lil’ Jay was eighteen months then; me and Ricky two days from our six-month anniversary.
When Ricky’s arms tired, he set Lil’ Jay down and lit a menthol. A coil of blue smoke rose to the ceiling. The floors were worn shag carpet, with wood paneling on the walls so thin you could hear a beer crack open from across the trailer. An assortment of furniture several times removed from its original owner was scattered throughout. The air had a permanent dust about it, the hot light of early afternoon streaking through the blinds, the dust a brilliant glimmering haze.
“Can you turn that down?” I asked. “Or off, even?” It was court TV and none of us were watching.
“Whatever you say, princess,” Ricky said, manually lowering the volume on the TV from eighteen to sixteen. “Happy?”
“Turn it off,” I said. “My head hurts.”
“Mine, too,” he said, and blew smoke into the ceiling fan.
Dressed in camouflage shorts and an American flag T-shirt, Lil’ Jay tugged at Ricky’s feet for more. His cheeks peeled back in a gummy smile, exposing the sprouting baby teeth that had deprived his family of sleep those past weeks.
“Again!” Lil’ Jay said.
Ricky’s parents had big plans for Lil’ Jay: he would be an astronaut, or a pilot, or at the very least he would be in the Air Force, which would be fine with Big Jay, who had joined the Air Force a decade after Vietnam. He used to say how angry it made him that he was too young for Nam. That’s how he said it, too, Nam, because he’d grown up with a TV always showing him that war. Big Jay stormed into basic training screaming, “Let me at ’em! Let me at ’em!” In hopes of sniping off one of those cone-shaped straw hats.
Big Jay and Em weren’t awful parents; by that I mean they didn’t beat their kids and no one ever went hungry. A passing grade if you ignored that the two middle brothers tried to steal a semi-truck full of Coca-Cola. They planned to get rich quick by selling it in the trailer park. To who? I don’t know. They were twenty miles south of New Bern, North Carolina, the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola. And people there were loyal, they bled the black ooze that was Pepsi-Cola, asked for it in IV drips as they slid into the next life. “Gas before Coke,” people said around town, some of them drinking gas, anyway. Ricky tried gas once, right from the pump, just to find out what it was all about, and he said it felt like rubbing alcohol did on a scrape, but all inside your mouth and down your throat instead. Maybe that’s what gave him that strange and beautiful voice.
I was a year older than Ricky but that’s never how it felt when we were together. I think it was because of his coarse black beard. I was convinced he was born with that thicket of moss on his face, that he came out of his mother’s womb reeking of menthol, same as how some people look the same from birth to death, how you can spot them instantly in old photographs. Ricky had jagged scars on the right side of his face — he never told me what they were from — and the scars made it seem like he’d been through more. That was stupid of me. After all, I was the one with my own place; he was back at his parents’ trailer. Ricky was there until he had a new job, but like a lot of things with Ricky, it was nothing but talk. Lil’ Jay became Ricky’s job in a sense. He’d lost his last gig at the water treatment plant after he knocked over a tank of chlorine gas and nearly killed half the night crew. Still, Ricky felt older than me, which is maybe why I’d been so smitten, both above and below him all at the same time, caught between different lives.
It was kind of amazing the way Lil’ Jay hung in the air, giggling as Ricky catapulted him. Ricky made the noise of a rocket blasting off. Though he was close enough to touch the ceiling with outstretched hands, Lil’ Jay never tried, never even considered it. Because it wasn’t about the rise, it was about the fall, the moment of suspense before gravity took back over. Lil’ Jay would hang there, level with the ceiling fan, one of the four laboring blades swinging an inch below the other three, and always, Ricky would catch him in the armpits, right where he had let go.
I practically lived at Ricky’s trailer in those days. I hated my apartment more than I could ever hate our fights. It was lonely there. I heard the chatter of the family who lived underneath me through the floorboards — sometimes I’d put my ear to the floor and pretend I was in the room with them. They taunted me with their togetherness. And worse, Ricky never wanted to stay over. That was one of our favorite fights. Either of us could get upset about anything, but it would escalate until Ricky decided it was over, tired of all the slapping and the shouting. I’d be in tears, and he would kiss me up and down my neck. Singing my name was all it would take to revive me, to slip off the doubt I felt. “Julie, Julie,” he’d croon until his nicotine lungs gave. I would dig my head into the hollow of his chest, putting my ear to those heavenly lungs and feel like there was nothing else for a little while. It’s how I thought death would be, what the feeling was, and I could not get enough.
Spending time with Ricky’s family made me forget about my own. Not that they were bad. Better than Ricky’s. On paper, a nice upper-middle-class family. When I was twenty, before I met Ricky, I lived with my parents and younger brother, Bill. My parents treated me like I was still in high school and not in community college. They asked after me whenever I was out late, scolded me about my grades — straight B’s — and told me which boys I could and couldn’t see. I was about to transfer to the University of North Carolina.
Bill had to deal with my parents’ crap, too, but as a seventeen-year-old he was still officially their prisoner. I could nominally claim freedom. Bill was one of those kids who didn’t like any color but black. I sat with Bill on his bed sometimes, stroking his dyed hair, promising him that one day it would all be better. I would tell him not to worry, that we both would be out of there soon.
Spring semester over at community college, the lease to my apartment signed in Chapel Hill, I boxed up my clothes. Bill was still grounded for wearing an earring, a tiny silver stud that became infected when someone had done it themselves in the bathroom stall during lunch. Bill sat down on my bare mattress. He scanned the room, maybe imagining what it would become when I was gone, or whether I’d ever be back. He didn’t have much to say, just that he would miss me when I was gone. I said, “You, too.”
Bill and I talked morbid. Like, our father, he was pretty overweight — that’s where Bill got his pudginess from — and we would joke about him choking on pork sandwiches or getting stuck in manholes, stuff like that. So when I asked Bill what he would do when I was gone, and he put up two fingers like a gun, pointing towards his head, I laughed. That was the relationship Bill and I had.
And Bill kept going. “I wonder how I’m going to do it,” he said. He explained all the different ways he could take a pistol to his head: from under the chin, from inside his mouth, from the side of his temple — that was his favorite. “My brains splattered on the passenger-side window of Mom’s minivan,” he said. But then, the silence that followed, knowing he’d taken it too far, he confessed, “I met someone.”
“A guy,” he said when I asked him who.
“I know that. But who is he?”
“We met on the Internet,” he said. “He goes to West Craven.”
“What’s he like?” I asked.
With a grin that he couldn’t hold back, Bill shrugged. Our futures were suddenly so bright that we were unable to see them, basking in the warmth of endless possibility.
* * *
Those afternoons, when I’d gotten off early at my receptionist job, Ricky and I would take Lil’ Jay out for ice cream or to the movies, or if it was nice, the park. There was one time in line at an ice cream parlor, when Ricky held Lil’ Jay over the counter to see the flavors.
The girl in the candy-striped apron reached down into the ice cream tub with the scooper. Through the angled glass, I saw the faint outline of our reflections blur together, three heads and one body. Our faces undefined, we could’ve been anyone. And that’s who I wanted to be. Anyone but me.
“And for your son, what flavor would he like?” she asked.
“Sherbet,” I said, before Ricky could correct her. “Make that two sherbets.” I desperately wanted her to believe that Lil’ Jay got a penchant for sherbet from me.
After we walked out of the ice cream parlor, Ricky got on me about it. “You can’t be doin’ that,” he said.
“Doing what?” I asked, knowing what I’d done. “It’d be weirder to correct her. Besides, he loves sherbet.” I leaned over to Lil’ Jay. “You love sherbet, don’t ya, bud?” The skin around his lips was stained pink, his nose, too. I took a napkin and wiped it off him.
“You gotta let him try other flavors,” he said. “You can’t pretend to be his mother, neither.”
My face went warm and a faint numbness pulsed through my fingers. “I wasn’t pretending to be,” I said.
“What were you doin’, then?”
“Playing along. Is that so bad? Can’t we have some fun every once in a while?”
“You and me got different versions of fun, then, sweetheart.”
“Forget it,” I said, and tossed my cone in the trash.
* * *
October of my freshman year, what Bill said would happen in Mom’s minivan did happen after all. I went home mid-semester. A handful of incompletes weren’t going to compromise my academic career. Bill’s Internet boyfriend turned out to be some punk from his homeroom, not a boy from West Craven with side-swept bangs and a bridge piercing. After months laughing behind a laptop screen, he posted all of the private chats around Bill’s locker, an act of humiliation that started a chain reaction. The gun box in our parents’ closet had a brass lock — no bigger than a BIC lighter — and you could put it under your thumb and turn the lock aimlessly. Three numbers out of a thousand combinations. That was all it took.
Am I responsible? That’s what I used to ask myself, and “Yes,” I said. “It’s all my damn fault.” If I had been there, if Bill had only called me, if I had said a word to my parents, if the school had seen the warning signs, maybe he would be alive. For the longest time I shifted the blame to wherever it felt comfortable, full well knowing I could’ve stopped him, but I put it on my parents, on the school administrators, on the punk kid who was later expelled. But the guilt has started to melt, like those glaciers you always hear about. How can you ever tell how much has melted?
A year after Bill’s death, I told Ricky. We’d been together four months. It was the end of summer and the air conditioning in my apartment was broken, so I opened all the stubborn windows for the first time. Ricky had been up most the night in the trailer with a teething Lil’ Jay. That afternoon was the first time he asked to come over.
Lying on the queen-size bed, we had finished making love, and Ricky lit a cigarette. Between the two of us, it was getting to where we had nothing left to say. I would start in on a story, or Ricky would start in on a story, and the other one would interrupt with the ending, or say, “You already told me about that.” Maybe that was why I decided to tell him, to shock him for once.
The sheets clinging to my back, I sat up to put my ears between my knees, wanting nothing more than to mute the grasshoppers outside my window and calm myself in the silence. With my lips almost shut, I took a long breath.
Ricky offered his cigarette. Damp with his saliva, I put the cigarette to my lips and took a hand to the thick black hair on his chest. I asked if I could tell him something. He nodded.
In a whisper I said, “I did something terrible.”
“Join the club,” he said, disinterested.
“Something really terrible.”
“Not you, princess. You don’t have it in you.”
I watched the cigarette ash fall to the sheets.
“You can tell me,” he said, and brushed away the ash. “But nothing you did could’ve been so bad.”
After I told Ricky, he looked at me with his head cocked, puzzled. “But you didn’t do nothin’,” he said.
“Exactly. I didn’t. I should have.” I waited for him to tell me more of what I wanted to hear, but all he did was take back his cigarette. I was reminded of my nudity and slipped my legs under the sheets despite the overbearing heat. “Can I ask you something?”
“How’d you get those scars?”
“I don’t talk about that.”
“Because I don’t. That’s why,” He flicked his cigarette out the open window.
“That’s not a reason,” I replied. I stared at him until he knew I was serious.
“Hey, now, let’s not fight. I’m allowed to keep some things to myself.”
“You keep everything to yourself,” I said, crying.
We made love then, but it was subdued, slow going; normally we clawed at each other like high school wrestlers. Neither of us enjoyed the sex. It was just something we had to do. Our bodies were close as could be but our heads were turned in opposite directions, mine towards the window and his towards the door.
Like I said to start, we were two days from our six-month anniversary — which turned into more of an argument about whether we needed to go out for it than a celebration of us. I was on a faded green couch they’d picked up at a yard sale. It was bigger than their old one and higher off the ground. After weeks of getting up to change the channel, I noticed the remote under a love seat. I felt like I could see everything.
So there Ricky was, tossing Lil’ Jay too close to the ceiling fan, and I told him to cut it out. We’d already been fighting about whether to take Lil’ Jay somewhere, too. I wanted us to go out to the park, and Ricky wanted to stay in. He would’ve been content watching television for the rest of his life. Ricky stepped closer to the ceiling fan with Lil’ Jay at his feet. He crouched and grabbed his brother at the belly. I told him to stop, crossing my arms.
“Or else what,” he said.
“Or…or…or…” I couldn’t come up with anything and then it hit me. “Or I’ll break up with you,” I said. Ricky sat Lil’ Jay down for a moment. Then it really started.
On the calmest setting, I could see each blade of the unsteady fan. Ricky grabbed the rusty brass tassel and tugged twice.
“You’re so stupid,” I grumbled.
“Dumb enough to be with you,” Ricky said. The fan started to wobble faster.
“I have a thing for losers.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s so special about you, then?” he said. “Nothing I can think of.” I tried to stay strong. I took a corner of the sofa cushion underneath me and squeezed, waiting for him to finish. I tried to look at anything but him: court TV, the patchy floor, the fan, the empty Budweisers on the table, enough to make a pyramid taller than Lil’ Jay. He went on about how my life wasn’t all that great, either, answering phones all day. “You know they have computers that can do that,” he said.
Ricky picked up Lil’ Jay.
“Don’t you do it,” I said. “Or I’m leaving.” The wooden blades whirled together and I could no longer distinguish one from another. The fan rocked at its base, bound to split from the ceiling.
Ricky threw Lil’ Jay up and turned around while he was still airborne. I raced to save him, but I wasn’t fast enough. Ricky turned back and caught Lil’ Jay a foot above the carpet.
Then I did it. I said the one thing you aren’t supposed to say to someone who lives in a trailer. “Trailer trash,” I yelled. For so long, I’d been holding it back, the truth I’d been ignoring, like a voicemail I hadn’t checked because I was afraid of what it had to say. “You are psycho trailer trash, worthless,” I said. My heart felt like it was trapped in the trunk of someone’s car. It spilled out of me so fast, all those words for Ricky, the words that define him now when I talk about my last boyfriend.
I ignored the rattling from above. If the fan dropped down on top of me, that was fine. “I won’t be here to watch you kill your little brother,” I said. I picked up my purse and scrambled toward the door. It felt like time was frozen over, like I was hanging in the air, waiting for the fall. I pushed open the front door.
“Kill my brother? Maybe then we’ll finally have something in common.”
I spat on his carpet and kicked through the screen door. Put another foot through to make my point. I jumped down the steps and ran behind the trailer, the nearest place I felt safe. I sat with my head between my knees. The world seemed so loud and empty. Because I am no longer that girl, I can look back at her with such pity, her face pointed to the dirt, loose strands of hair clinging to her cheeks. I want to tell her that before too long she will get over Ricky, and after that she will go back to school, and that one day, somewhere in the not too distant future, she will hardly mind being alone at all.