I never pass through Oak Ridge without visiting the old house. I invent excuses, hairdresser and nail appointments, implausible runs to the grocery store. I point to yard sale signs in nearby neighborhoods from which I can steal away on foot, or I grope in my purse for wads of bills and push them at my two children.
“Daddy will buy you ice cream,” I say and ruffle heads dusted with downy hair.
They love Oak Ridge. They know something will happen as soon as they cross through the tunnel. And they all yell tunnulllh in their childish voices, my husband grinning at me, as the lights strobe away behind us. The sun gets bigger and wider ahead, and I have trouble breathing. My hands clench on the steering wheel.
The wailing syllable quivers, as Tim takes an unobtrusive breath and rejoins, breaking the rules of the tunnel game.
Meaghan calls him out on it, but they don’t have a squabble. Not in Oak Ridge. They’re watching me with their bright eyes. Mommy who tucks them in at night. And later, Mom who takes away their ipods. And later still, Mom who buys them condoms and birth control. “For acne,” I say. “Just be safe.” And I hug them, because there’s so much to lose in this world. And because losing is so easy. Their bright eyes watch me. Mommy who always has an adventure in mind for Oak Ridge. Or she might be having an affair. Or she might be seeing an old friend while, now, they cruise around in her SUV and try not to remember how Dad used to drive them to get ice cream before he left. Maybe she’s a drug dealer. Maybe she’s an addict. Maybe. Maybe she’s got another kid they don’t know about, a daughter or a son. Maybe that’s why Dad left.
But now, today, who cares. And they rummage in the glove compartment for my stash of cigarettes. They light up, turn on the digital radio. Tim closes his eyes and maybe thinks of Lily Ketchum and of how her hips move when she walks up the gymnasium stairs. Meaghan opens the car window to let out the smoke and inspects her fingernails, which she can’t stop chewing. They’re disturbingly short, and red gashes fill their cuticles. She doesn’t know what to do about them. Perhaps she’s afraid they’ll never look womanly and that she’ll never be perfect, and life is stupidly short and what if she never marries or what if she marries and has kids and ends up like Mom. She squeezes her lips together, wishing.
The owners know me by now.
Their children know me. I am the aging woman with the Gucci purse and the ironed collars and the face that causes their parents to shoo them out when I arrive—out, out to play in the back yard with its wooden swing set, and out to the curb to catch the bus, and out to run errands, “here’s a fifty, just go,” and out to the movies, too, or to the mall or bookstore, or now, out to pick up diapers for their own kids who happen to be visiting.
They no longer ask what I’ve come for. I don’t think they want to know. That is why they send away their children. Such lovely children. “And how they’ve grown,” I say, the nicety saccharine on my tongue.
“Time flies, doesn’t it.”
“I don’t want to be a burden.”
“Oh, not at all. Something to drink?”
“No. Thank you.”
They are kind people. They no longer carry the phone with them, just in case I turn out to be a thief or a murderer or worse.
They follow me softly several yards behind, as I enter their house and pad into the living room and down to the basement door, shine of new paint on it. The whole house smells of blueberry muffins. This is what babies do to a home, I think. The kind of spruce and polish that seeps into the food, into the air, into the thick, powdery carpet. For a moment, it’s the first time again, and outside my babies are in their new plastic car seats with their pink gums pressed to their fingers; and my husband’s fingers gently touch first a nose and then an ear, a nose again, a dimple, waiting for me.
“Just to see,” I say to him, sitting in the passenger’s seat. The gray van smells salty clean and pungent.
“Will it help?” He’s concerned for me. For us. He’ll try anything. Later, he’ll try prescription drugs and therapy and alcohol, video games, marijuana, and prostitutes.
“It can’t hurt.”
They unlock the basement and let me in, and my knees pop as I descend the steps. I grip the handrail and find it, too, smoother than I remember. Darkness seeps out from the edges of the twisted energy-saver bulb overhead. In corners, the darkness curls around old toys. A tricycle, a child’s worktable complete with plastic hammer and screwdriver. Darkness curls around a forgotten loveseat, too, its upholstery frayed, little chunks of batting punching through. Around a crooked floor lamp and Christmas boxes.
I kneel at the far end of the room. I kneel on the bare concrete floor, and the skin of my legs sticks to the raised chinks and strips of cement. I finger the lip of new paper that covers the wall before me and listen.
In the SUV, my children are performing a ritual, too. They open their doors and stub out their cigarettes on the sidewalk. Tim paces the length of the car, flips open his cell phone, and decides not to call. Meaghan leans against the door, holding her arms to her chest, her hands in her elbows. A warm breeze tousles her hair, and she inhales cut grass, old wood fences, the faint nose-wrinkling odor of cows.
In the darkness, I listen.
“Promise.” His voice breaks.
We are too young to promise, I say now, but my lips don’t move. My body doesn’t move. I listen.
“Promise you’ll remember,” he says, and his hair is black and bristling like the legs of a spider. My hand trembles in his. It trembles, too, against the paper on the wall. Tulips. They have put tulips over it, I think, and I restrain myself from ripping them off, breaking their little stems.
“It’s the most important thing,” I tell him. My voice is girlish and trusting. I love him. I will promise him anything.
His lips taste like the peaches we ate for breakfast. I have never kissed a boy before, I say, wanting more. I grip his hands, then, and my voice is so far away when I tell him how I’ll come here, I’ll come here and put my fingers here, just where our names are, here, and here, and then he’ll always be safe.
I am still listening, and my fingers still huddle over the deep engravings, imperceptible now because of the wallpaper; I am still here, kneeling, listening; and I force away the other voices crowding this one small memory. Like a black pebble in a valley pregnant with stones, and this small, forgotten one at the very bottom. But I have taught myself to push them aside, the other voices. And so I do now with ease, as I kneel, shoulders hunched, head bowed, my breathing deeper, slower, meditative. I push out the new babies in their car seats, and the whisper of stubble on my cheek and the bright pain of my daughter’s pop-fly exploding against my face; I push out the starry nights and the cold showers, Tim’s first word, the thunder of airports and of hurricane warnings, cheering crowds, blaring traffic; I push away estrogen pills and birthday cakes and job interviews, PTA meetings, sweaty palms, high school dances, pimples and broken arms and strep throat, lacy dresses, church services, cookies and pomegranates, wedding rings and honeymoon islands, aneurisms and urns, red wine. Peaches.
I have cut through the wallpaper with my fingernails.
His lashes are long. They remind me of palm branches and I almost say so, but his eyes are black pebbles as we bring our lips apart. His eyes are hungry and desolate. I will never see him again. His hands are soft and small. We are so soft, both of us, and small. We make our promise in the empty house, and I am filled with purpose.
My heart contracts in a burst of affection.
“Safe,” I murmur. “Safe.” I trace the lines, like grooves in a tree, in a coffin, in a crucifix. I murmur into the wall. And my breath goes out of me.
I know he can hear me. He can see me, kneeling here, keeping my promise. I know.
They pull down the street just as I exit the house. I feel a sharp, icy ping of shock, and recoil from their concerned faces. My lips form a word I do not speak, and then I buckle in. I reapply my lipstick.
We drive silently, and I sniff, detecting cigarettes. My breath catches and I pick tulip petals out from under my fingernails.
Up front, they speak softly together. I listen but can’t hear them. It seems their voices are a long way off.
Finally, they turn, and Meaghan asks me about the house.
“I was visiting a friend,” I say.
“Just a friend.”
They’re angry, but I push them aside. They tumble away like so many smooth stones.
– Lora Rivera holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and works as fiction associate for the Claire Gerus Literary Agency. She writes literary and young adult fiction, as well as juvenile fantasy. Her stories and poems appear in many print and online journals; a full list can be found at www.lorarivera.com. She lives in Tucson with her husband and three cats.