Issue 15 / Fall 2018
It’s the last day of school and I’m still acting like everything is normal. Benny, five days dead. I walk home from the bus, the sidewalk full of bright leaves and soy sauce wrappers that scatter when I kick them. Benny’s dead and I empty my backpack full of folders in the kitchen trash then make a grocery list for Anya, sharp tip of the pencil breaking lead. Anya’s shallow breath on the couch is louder than the fan, a Turkish soap opera flickering a lover’s spat on mute. Benny’s dead and it’s the middle of the afternoon on a hot as fuck Friday and she is asleep, curled up with her palms pressed under her head like prayer. I click off the TV and then our apartment is quiet.
When Benny was found slumped against the wall in a Laundromat bathroom I wonder if everything was this quiet. If I had been there, would I have run out the glass door into traffic, or would I have held Benny, wrapped my whole self around him in the bathroom while the pink soap drizzled on the rim of the sink. Benny nodding out against the tile, his eyes rimmed yellow like old wallpaper. I think the laundry was spinning and chugging in each unbreakable machine when they found him, swishing wet colors that hurled against the glass when he died.
I wake up sweating. Anya’s arm hangs off the edge of our bed as I slip off my underwear with a towel wrapped around my waist. I sit on the toilet seat with my hair up, cool water dripping down my neck. I find Anya’s cigarettes on top of the mirror, heavy with the lighter in the pack, then open the window, lean my elbows against the insect-littered sill.
After I flush the butt I hear Anya downstairs plunking dishes into the sink. I pull on a tank top. Since freshman year, I’ve told her five hundred lies, all to get away to Benny’s.
“Mi a baj!” she says, setting a glistening pan of baklava down to cool on the counter. I bite my nail, craving another cigarette.
“Raffa!” she says, wiping the same spot as if she’ll get a wish.
“What?” I say, leaning against the doorway. She throws up her arms.
“What’s this what?” she says, twisting her lip where the mole beneath her nostril gives her dark eyes a quick sparkle. She turns back and laughs into the counter, shaking her head. The sunlight from the window hits a strand of copper that sweeps through her still-healthy hair but she keeps it tied back in a scrunchy.
“So stupid,” she says to herself. I watch her wring cloth out over the sink, quick and hard, the way she used to swipe brushes through the spirals of my hair.
“I’m going,” I mumble. She turns back with a little smile as I hook my thumbs under the straps of my backpack. She’s two inches shorter than me but she stands on her tiptoes to look into my eyes. She looks inside, the flecks in her eyes like cameras readjusting minutely then snapping for evidence. After I leave she’ll sit puzzled at the dining room table, the way she used to stare at the Turkish to English dictionary.
“Where you going? Huh?” she says, stepping back down. What could she know—nothing or everything? I blink. “Huh?” Anya says.
“I told you! Serena’s.” And like that, I’m out the door.
This is what freedom is. Each crumbling block between my apartment and Benny’s. The field behind our old elementary school. The woods behind the field with giant rocks the size of houses where the broken glass glitters on the top like a beach.
Benny hung out between the trees, down by the rock in eighth grade, the year we became friends. I used to climb the rocks to get home, where I knew Anya would be waiting for me with her head out the bathroom window, batting smoke from the air. Down through the branches I saw him with his hood up over his eyes. His best friend Mickey had his back turned, spray-painting an outline of Marilyn Monroe on the flattened side of the rock. Benny tilted his chin up like he was about to howl.
“Hey!” he shouted, his hands punched into his pockets. Twigs broke under his stride as he walked closer.
“Hey, you,” he yelled, his face flickering under the leaves.
Now the woods are empty as I duck through the twisted opening of the chain link fence I leave rattling.
Benny’s house is tall and brick. From the thick window of a car, it could look like the home of a governor, but if you’re standing outside like me, you can see the front door is boarded up with plywood and the thirsty flowers have all their sorry heads bent in the boxes. Benny used to walk me through the side door after we’d been passing a bottle of Svedka back and forth on the swing set in his backyard. He would hold his hands over my shoulders from behind as we walked. Out of politeness, I’d kneel to untie my Converses.
Now I’m walking alone through the overgrown path towards Benny’s backyard, past the rotting fence and the aluminum swing set and the piled-up bricks. I keep my hand on the knob while a full minute passes. It’s unlocked. The kitchen is covered in blue carpeting with outdated appliances with knobs like old airplanes. It smells like Cutex and rain after it soaks the asphalt.
Through the hall, like a portrait of a darkened woman’s profile, Benny’s mom is sitting in the living room on the recliner, her matted black hair against the light from the shades. She’s watching an old episode of Friends. Relief passes through me like a slow sip of beer.
The first time I came over it was my fourteenth birthday and Benny led me by the wrist past his mother passed out on the recliner and up the stairs to the attic. He never said anything about her. One day we were naked under his sheets except for the pair of orange polka-dot underwear I kept on, feeling like a Creamsicle, half to stay cool and half to tease Benny, who once said girls were sexier with their underwear on. We were having a staring contest. I was watching the yellow in Benny’s iris blur to green as a tear slipped down my cheek.
I blinked twice and blurted, “Is there something wrong with your mom? I mean, why doesn’t she say hello?”
“Who, Woman?” he said with a grin. “She’s on lots of meds cause she’s a fuckin’ nutcase.”
Benny pinched my chin as I pulled apart a split end. He didn’t squirm. He was the only guy I knew with a beard but his gap teeth turned him back into a kid. He floated his palm on the small of my back as a line straight as the pills he crushed then snorted charged up my belly button.
“Hi, Woman,” I say, leaning against the dusty wooden stairway.
“Oh!” she says, reaching for her glasses. “I just want to see you better.”
Anya taught me to talk to strangers. Every time a new neighbor moves into our apartment complex, which is practically once a month, she pushes me across the walk to knock on their door to shake their hand. She watches from behind our screen door, like I’m doing it for her.
“Raffa,” she says in a slur slow as the hand she drags to her heart. “I’m happy you’re here.”
“I’ll be up in Benny’s room,” I say, playing along.
The upstairs bathroom is airless. I run the sink for the water that isn’t air, flipping open the mirror to find the Sesame Street toothbrush Benny bought for me. It’s meant for some kid with teeth the size of pebbles. Across the hall, Benny’s dad is watching CNN in his room. There’s an armchair in front of his twin bed and in front of the armchair I assume there’s a TV the size of a picture frame. The floor murmurs, the door cracked enough to see the smoke drift like weather over his head.
The only time I’ve seen Benny’s dad out of the chair was in the spring, when Benny and I skipped class to race up the stairs, tripping over jeans and belts on the way. An hour later Benny’s dad cleared his throat in the attic doorway. I stopped mid-step so that Benny tugged me too hard and we both stumbled down a step.
“Hi,” I said. Benny gripped my knuckles tighter, squeezing in some small part of my embarrassment.
“Hey, Pops,” Benny beamed. “I’ll cut those boards out in the yard later.”
Benny’s dad gets out of his chair, the whine of the door freezing me like an animal stuck in the road. Sunlight attaches itself to the smoke and drifts with him as one. And then his eyes are on me, and it’s like it’s Benny but he’s farther than I want him.
“How are you doing, Raffa?” he says.
“My mom kicked me out.”
“Ah,” he says, rubbing the back of his head. My eyes shift, branches swaying outside his window.
Up in the attic, I skim my finger over the smooth wood of Benny’s dresser, blow, and watch as the dust loses itself in the air. A Bruce Lee poster hangs on the wall, next to a road map of the human heart. Benny’s double bed sits in the corner where the ceiling slants down. There’s a skylight over it, so if you lie down at night, you can watch your own episode of Planet Earth in this soundless rotation. That’s what Benny liked to do, hold me as the sky spun imperceptibly, the purple carpet badly burnt from fallen ashes.
I sit in front of the floor-length windows. Nobody can see me, but I can see everything. On one side, the radio towers out in Dedham, on the other, a faded view of the Boston skyline. I wait for a long time, waiting for something beautiful to happen but it just gets darker.
I wait till it’s totally dark to flick on the light then pull open the bottom drawer of Benny’s dresser. Under crumpled shirts are Benny’s pill bottles and I make a straight line of them on the carpet. Two of them hold tiny blue pills that rattle like Tic-Tacs. The other is oversized with the label peeled off. White OxyContin dust chalks up the inside.
I stole the whole bottle once. We were having Serena and Mickey over, playing kings on the carpet.
“Two is for you!” I said, making my hand a gun aimed at Benny as he took a swig from his forty. Benny flipped a seven and we swung up our arms to the skylight. Halfway through, Benny and Mickey crushed pills up on Benny’s desk with his school ID and blew three fat lines as I pretended to braid Serena’s dirty blond hair.
Benny found the bottle in my backpack the next morning, hidden in a sock so they wouldn’t make noise.
“Why are you so nosy?” Benny said the next day as he pulled on a beater. When he had gone downstairs to pee, I rushed across the room and stuffed it in.
“Stop going through my stuff, Raffa, I mean it. They’re not yours to take.” Benny ran his hands through his gelled hair. I propped myself up.
“Come the fuck on, Benny,” I said. “They’re not yours either. They’re Woman’s.”
“Relax,” Benny said.
But I couldn’t. Late at night I’d twitch from sleep to the sound of Benny creaking down the stairs. Woman kept all her pills on the coffee table in a clear bin like a jewelry box separated into seven slots, tiny and blue as gemstone earrings, pink ovals, nubs like chalk. I sat by the stairs and listened so hard I thought I could hear the yawn of the box opening.
Back on Benny’s bed I tore my arm free from his grip.
“You don’t tell me things,” I said. “But I know you.”
“What’s there to worry about, then,” Benny said. He wrapped his arms around me even though he was the one shivering.
“You’re shivering,” I said.
“You’re pretty,” he said. “So pretty it hurts.” I bit into his shoulder, salt on my tongue. Everything about Benny had become slow. His eyelids as they fell, his skin, which looked grainy as an old TV. The smell from his neck like an old vegetable drawer.
I’d watch him itch his arms like a kid and calculate the missing pills, some days thirty down to eighteen, eighteen to seven, seven to none. I’d know there was none when he’d be chewing on discounted candy corn from the big bag. Or when he’d call Mickey, pace around the room then tear back quick to punch the wall without apologizing to me after. He’d stay home in bed, puking off the side, or worse, missing.
I get under Benny’s covers and study the worn black letters of Woman’s real name before the label got torn. I think about Benny’s gap teeth and how when people die in movies, the camera swings up across the sky and sweeps through blowing leaves so they are everywhere. I don’t feel Benny anywhere.
I wake clutching Benny’s pillow. I go back to his drawer to fold all his tee shirts, roll the sleeves army-style like Benny would. In the cedar closet I hang all his button-ups, smooth out towels from his laundry. I line up his Vans. I stick my hand in a dress shoe and find a torn wrapper, Suboxone, RX only. In his desk drawer, I hold up his pencils and find a black book hidden in the back. It’s colored in on the first page with outlines of pin up girls and ghouls. I flip to the center where Benny writes over everything twice in bold lettering. I search for my name but get stuck on Benny’s handwriting, all caps, severe.
WOMAN IS OUT OF SCRIPTS!!! It’s December. He drove to Downtown Crossing in Pop’s Jeep and found a homeless guy selling roses on the shoulder. Three needles for thirty bucks if the bum taught him how to shoot up, with the promise of Benny taking him to the ER. He had a rash on his leg that looked like straight up lava. Benny said shooting up wasn’t as hard as he thought it would be. He found a major vein, a hundred orgasms at once.
I go back to bed and bury myself in his sheets. I hear pots clatter downstairs. The sunny smell of burning bacon hangs in the air. My own hunger shocks me. It can’t possibly be my own. I slide my hands through the sleeves of Benny’s striped button-up, drift downstairs. Woman is by the stove and swings back when she sees me standing in the doorway.
“You scared me!” she says with a spatula in her hand. Her black hair is clipped at the top of her head and piled high like a squawking bird could fly out. She wears fuchsia lipstick and a silky nightgown that skims her ankles. Benny’s dad is at the kitchen table with the paper.
“You scared yourself,” he says. I sit across from him and drum my fingers against the vinyl seat. Woman almost dances to the table with the pan, prying neon eggs onto my plate.
“Thank you,” I say, holding a fork.
“Benny loves bacon,” she says, heading to Benny’s dad’s plate. I look up across the table. He sets the paper down and for a second, we stare at each other.
“That’s enough,” he says, and Woman thinks he means the eggs.
“Cha-cha-cha,” she says, dropping the pan into the sink.
He takes a deep breath as she shimmies into the seat between us. She turns to him, giggles, “What!”
Benny’s dad holds a napkin over his mouth and says, “Eat up,” his eyes watery as a painting.
That night I watch it get dark again. Then I go downstairs, same way Benny used to creak through the night. Woman’s slippers are kicked up on the recliner and glowing in the dark. Her soft snore makes a sucking sound. I can make out the legs of the coffee table, the giant box of Woman’s pills left open. Oxy’s are like mints, round and white. I’m holding four in my fist as I retrace my steps back up the stairs.
The next morning, I wake up with the pills still in my palm and dry-swallow all four. Then I wait. I wait for all my feelings to rotate further and further away from the bed like colored planets. I can see them, but even If I wanted to, I couldn’t reach out and touch them.
I go downstairs to pee and sit on the toilet as I stare at my toenails, half green since the last time I painted them. After I flush I stand in Benny’s dad’s doorway where he is breaking kosher and watching the History Channel. I’m high as fuck. Feels like a stranger peeling off dripping wet clothes. Pops looks at me. Fat bees hum lazily under my skin. I’m brave and honey-warm. His stacked books are a wilderness, old chairs and twirling gray smoke from his slack fingers. There’s a big window seat facing the backyard. It surprises me. I hold onto the doorway. I’m wearing Benny’s Bob Marley t-shirt and no bra.
“What’s happening, Raffa?” Benny’s dad says. I open my mouth to say something, but my throat sounds out a gasp.
“You want to watch this with me?” I nod. I sit next to him on the edge of the bed by his armchair. I skate my fingers through my hair and leave some pieces in my face. We’re both quiet, volume low on a documentary about the Civil War. He holds his hands out wide on either arm of the chair with his legs crossed, smoke corkscrewing up from his fingers.
Benny’s dad is going bald. I can see the outline of where all his hair used to be when the screen flashes gunpowder explosives all over us. It goes dark again, but when the gun cracks there are wrinkles that edge his eyes and his eyelashes are long and soft looking, like Benny’s were, like they’re meant for collecting dust. I close my eyes and I’m back at the stranger’s door, soaking wet, waiting to go inside. When I open my eyes I’m still there. I reach for Benny’s dad’s hand.
“Can you kiss me?” I ask. I think I’m crying. Benny’s dad doesn’t flinch. He leans over, both hands cupping my cheeks. I look up at him, at his lips, half-hidden by a longer beard than Benny’s. He takes me toward his chest. He kisses my forehead. Now I know I’m crying. We stay just like that. Then I pull away from him. I wander over to the window and hug my knees, looking at how small the swing set looks from way up here. He watches me from his armchair.
I say, “This is your fault,” and stay static as the swings, my head against the glass.
Benny’s dad keeps his cool. “It could be,” he says.
“It’s my fault,” I say, fingering the cord on the blinds.
“You’re not like how you used to be,” he says.
“How was I?”
Did Anya know? For the first time, all week, I miss her. All those blocks away and alone. Did she understand? Know how I used to be, too? Trying to put it all together, all those words in Turkish turning messily to English. I’ll run back through the trees. Kiss her head like she kissed mine after she tore through my spirals with the brush, never meaning to hurt me.
Anya, I’m going back up to Benny’s room for the last time. See Benny and me? It’s freshman year. I’m on the bed with my cheek in my palm and he’s standing above me wearing a black beanie. You’d kill me, but I kneel up against his hips to twist it backwards. Neither of us blinks. Benny glides back on top of me and cups both palms under my skull then smooths back the hair from my eyes. He unzips my jeans.
“Will I bleed?” I whisper, and Benny whispers back, “You might.”
He says, “Don’t worry.”
“Ow,” I say, searching Benny’s eyes the way you search mine for answers. I hold onto my neck where my heart beats and grit my teeth. He shifts my hips over the sheets and tries from a different angle. I push his chest back slowly.
“It hurts,” I say, sweat leaking down my back. Benny takes deep, desperate breaths.
“Do you want to stop?” he asks.
I shake my head no, Anya, because I didn’t want to be like you, asleep when the sun’s out, afraid to cross the walk. Benny walks naked to his dresser then yanks open the drawer. He comes back to bed with a closed fist, two OxyContin in his palm when he opens it.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“So it won’t hurt.”
Kate Wisel’s Pushcart Prize nominated fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Redivider as winner of the Beacon Street Prize, New Delta Review, and elsewhere. She has received awards to attend the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference, The Juniper Institute, The Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference, The Writing by Writers workshop at Tomales Bay, and Methow Valley. She is a Carol Houck fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin Madison this fall.