by Jonathan Durbin
It is too early to be up when the girl rises to pack. Winter rain taps the window but otherwise outside the street is silent and dark. No joggers or dog walkers or idling delivery trucks. No cars, not yet. No sign of Mike Lavoie.
The girl wishes for a cigarette but there isn’t time enough to smoke. She isn’t allowed anyway. There is no smoking in the shelter, the boy made that clear. If she smokes there they’ll be forced out and then where will they stay? Her mother’s? Nowhere is safe. Not anymore. The boy rolls onto her side of the bed, his hair thick with night grease, and mutters into her pillow. It sounds like You know better.
Their luggage lies open on the rug at the foot of the bed. The girl and the boy agreed to take just the one suitcase. Any more luggage and they’d be weighed down, that’s what he said. They might have to leave the shelter in a hurry. But the suitcase is half-full and they’ve barely the things they’d want for a long weekend. A fraction of their socks, a sampling of their underwear. A small quota of tees and jeans and hooded sweatshirts. Her things and his things thrown together, mixed up inside.
They argued about this last night, like they argued about it the night before and the night before that too. The girl cannot imagine how they will pack everything into a space so small. Fear of mistakes has led her to dither and ask the boy’s opinion about silly things. Which Nalgene bottle he prefers. If they should buy instant coffee or grounds. If it’s all right for her to bring whiskey.
Stop worrying, he has told her again and again. The shelter is equipped to last a long time. Months, maybe a year. Mike Lavoie has stocked it with tins of tuna and bags of salt-cured pork, iodine tablets and a generator and fresh batteries for flashlights. Oxygen canisters and Ibuprofen and cases of disinfectant wipes. Two motorcycles with full tanks of gas, and all the bullets and rifles they’ll need to hunt or defend the land.
“It’s near the ocean,” the boy explained, lying beside her in their bed one night last week. He held his phone up for her to see, so she might coo over a smudged photo of a cabin lost in the woods. “Pack a bathing suit.” When she pointed out it was January and the Atlantic rough with ice, his face tightened. “It won’t be January forever. We should feel lucky he invited us.”
She pads to the hall closet to check she has what she needs. First here then the bathroom then back to the bedroom to wake the boy if he’s not already up. She aims to be quick about this, but when she opens the closet and pulls the chain for the light her stomach turns and she is so sick she must grip the doorframe for balance.
Inside the closet there are stacks of bedding and all their spare towels. Dresses and coats and button-down shirts. The low black heels she wore the night of his graduation and the lace-up white Keds she wears at the hospital. The lovely clean smells of detergent and leather. All her neat, calm, orderly things, neatly and calmly waiting to be used.
She does not feel lucky.
There might be some stale cigarettes in one of the jackets from last fall. Or hadn’t she hidden a pack behind the bedding on the top shelf? She could smoke one before the boy gets up. But she promised him she’d stop smoking and for the most part she has. He doesn’t know she has refused herself a vape pen or patches or nicotine gum. He doesn’t know how hard she is trying.
Besides, if she did smoke, she’d have to wash her hair before Mike Lavoie arrived. Otherwise he would smell it on her. How many times must she be told? There is no smoking at the shelter. This is non-negotiable, an exilable offense. And she does know better. She is a nurse. Was a nurse. She cares about her health. Cigarettes are one more thing she has to leave behind.
“Are you ready?” asks the boy. She startles, glancing over her shoulder. He stares at her from the dark at the end of the hall.
“Almost,” she says.
“He’s going to be here soon.”
“I’m just finishing.”
“All right,” he tells her. “Go fast.”
The boy is naked and thin. Too thin. In the half-light cast by the closet bulb she can make out the lean muscle of his thighs, the sinew in his chest. How long has it been since she touched him, really touched him? She cannot remember. He looks starved now, nearly feral. But he’s always been a rake. When they first met at the hospital she used to wonder if he ate at all. They would wave to each other from across the floor, she with her clipboard, him arm-in-arm with one of her patients. He’d shuffle along beside them, a physical therapist for old women with new hips and IV drips in their arms. Over coffee she joked that he made them sweat, and that made him laugh, and he asked her to dinner. Only if you eat, she replied. Don’t make me feel fat. He laughed again, and at dinner he ate, and that dinner led to another dinner, and another, and another, and all their dinners added up to this. Back then he was softer. They both were. Everyone was.
Is there indoor plumbing at Mike Lavoie’s shelter?
“I’m serious,” he says. “Get going. I don’t want him thinking we’ve had second thoughts.”
Mike Lavoie, Mike Lavoie. She is so sick of thinking about Mike Lavoie. If only he hadn’t asked the boy to join his private practice. Since they began working together the boy has been angrier, closed off. He goes out with Mike Lavoie a few nights every week and won’t talk about what they talk about when he returns. On the few occasions she has met Mike Lavoie, he studies her in a way that makes her feel strange, as if he sees something guilty in her that she has never seen in herself.
It’s worse when the boy does share. The old ladies at the hospital used to ramble about harmless things: daughters and sons who never visited or called, grandchildren at college, pets at their condos and the handsome young doormen who helped them with packages. They didn’t claim to be from Panama or friends with Keanu Reeves. None of them said they’d once lived in a yurt. The old ladies hadn’t worked as sous-chefs in Vietnam or driven cars in parades at Pebble Beach. They couldn’t tell the boy they’d been investors in Facebook if they didn’t know what Facebook was. And even if they had been rich, they never would have spent their money on a survival shelter by the coast. They never would have offered to advance the boy a year’s rent.
“Please, honey,” he says. “We’re running out of time.”
She nods and waves him off with the back of her hand. The boy shuffles into the bedroom. She hears him open a drawer and whisper to himself as he digs through his clothes. He mutters when he can’t find what he’s looking for, and there’s a click as he turns on the bedside lamp. Light spills into the hall. In the glow from the bedroom and closet above the girl’s hands look pale and fine-boned. Her nails are pink but the polish has chipped. Her toes also. It is a young color. She is almost too old for it. If times were normal she would graduate herself to deeper shades, adult shades, maybe by her birthday. But times are not normal. This color will have to stay until it sloughs off on its own. There is no time now to repaint them. Another thing she wishes she’d thought of earlier. Like the hair on her legs, light brown and winter-long. She should have shaved. If the girl and the boy were still new to this marriage, her legs would already have been smooth.
What must he see when he sees her today? A girl in a threadbare yellow nightshirt. A girl with thickening thighs and too-small breasts, short brown hair and a trembling chin. A shrill and nervous girl. The girl her mother, in one of her mother’s old bourbon rages, had warned her she would grow up to be.
But are her nerves her fault? No, not really. The news is awful. Everything is awful. When the first soldiers arrived, it was as if they’d been dispatched only to underline how serious things were becoming. Now they’re all through the streets, stationed outside her hospital, at the airports, by the city’s tunnel entrances, lining public squares. Soldiers not much younger than the boy, boys with smooth foreheads, patrolling the BQE, stalking either end of the Brooklyn Bridge. Soldiers at their apartment door last Sunday, bright young boys with guns too big for their bodies knocking and knocking and asking for proof of citizenship, please.
A drawer slams in the bedroom. “Have you seen the passports?” the boy calls out.
“We’re not going to Canada,” she says quietly, as if to herself.
“I know, but we can’t leave them here.”
“What did you use on Sunday?”
“I showed them the cable bill.”
“They were all right with that?”
She pinches the bridge of her nose as hard as she can. Then she says, “Check the shelf under the TV.”
They last used the passports when they flew to Mexico in the spring. Five nights in a honeymoon suite near a wildlife preserve. Here is the black two-piece she wore the day they drove to the beach where turtles bury eggs. She removes the swimsuit from its place in the closet drawer and rubs the top between her thumb and forefinger. The Lycra smells musty. It is still white with salt. She changed into it in the back seat of their rental Jeep as the boy stood watch. That day they swam and built sandcastles and slept in the shade, and when they woke they drank tins of beer dripping with ice from the cooler in the trunk. The girl thought to herself then how beautiful he was. Delicate lips and striated shoulders, his skin browned by the heat. How he looked at her, like it was difficult to look away.
Hanging at the back of the closet there is the dress she wore the evening of his graduation. A backless black thing with a Mandarin collar that fit snug on her hips. The reception was at a restaurant on the East River and when they danced the lights from Queens jittered on the water’s surface like cracked stars. The girl can picture the girl she was in it, remembers how its hem brushed her ankles as she moved about the room. That night she thought she could tell something of the future in the boy’s face, a promise of easiness between them. Then they drank too much, bitter gin martinis with peels of lemon, and stumbled home at midnight to pass out on their couch. The girl drapes the dress over her arm. The fabric still feels tender against her skin, as if its cotton had been soaked in hangover.
There is the navy suit she bought for her interview at the hospital. To its left is the gray cashmere dress she wore on her twenty-second birthday. That dress was too hot for July, but the boy made reservations at a French restaurant downtown and told her it felt like velvet. And here is the tweed overcoat her mother gave her that year, the year her mother stopped drinking, as much a present as another apology. Between its somber weight and mute autumn colors it is the most adult piece of clothing the girl owns. She likes the way its wiry threads scratch her palm, how cool its horn buttons always are to the touch. Pushing it back by its front so she might admire it in full, the girl feels a lump in its left breast pocket. Inside the pocket she finds an old pack of Parliament Lights. Junkie cigarettes, the boy used to joke, to which she’d sometimes reply, Hey, my mother smokes these. Her mother, who smokes inside, even in winter, buried beneath blankets by an open window. Her mother, who returns from meetings stale, skin yellowed, smelling of nicotine and black coffee. Her mother, whom she can’t invite to the shelter with them, who hasn’t heard that the girl will soon live in the woods.
There are three cigarettes left. The tobacco is dry. She pulls one out and brown flakes sift off its end. If she lit it would it taste curdled and harsh? Or would it be salty and sweet, like warm drawn butter? Sometimes Parliaments surprised you.
“What are you doing?” asks the boy. He has walked halfway down the hall. His chest is bare but he’s wearing pants at least. Stiff dark jeans, the ones Mike Lavoie likes. No good for a road trip.
“I wanted to make sure I have what I need,” says the girl, palming the cigarette, hiding it from view.
“We’re going to be late.”
“I’m sorry,” she tells him. “I’m moving slow.”
“Move faster.” He runs his hand through his hair and pulls at his bangs. “What is
this? Do you think we’re going on vacation?”
She shakes her head.
“Why are you taking nice things?”
She looks at the black sheath on her arm, the ties of the swimsuit dangling from her hand. Somehow, too, there is the navy suit under her arm. Her long tweed coat pulled half out of the closet.
“Help me,” the boy says. “I can’t do this alone.”
“I’m trying.” The girl stares at her feet. “It’s just that it’s a lot, you know?”
“No, I don’t. I really don’t. We don’t have a choice.”
The boy spins and walks back down the hall, his naked back twitching. He whimpers with frustration and it sounds like the noise an animal might make, a shorthaired animal with its paw crushed in a trap. As he stamps into the bedroom and out of sight, the girl has a flash of things to come, a vision of how it will be for them in the woods. She sees him walking away from her there too, cradling a rifle in his arms the way new mothers cradle infants. It will be raining where they are but also warm, a gray July day that smells of moss and charcoal, and the skin of his back will be brown from dirt. She might wish him luck, hoping he kills a doe or a rabbit or even something small, a vole, a mouse. She might stand on the cabin porch to watch until he disappears into the trees. Afterward she’ll wash their clothes in the frigid well water, doing her best to scrape months of grease out of their jeans and socks. Once the rain stops she’ll hang them on the clothesline they’ll have strung up in the clearing between two Douglas firs, wishing for a wind to come. If it’s late in the afternoon Mike Lavoie might rise from bed, bearded and thick with grime. He’ll scratch his muscled chest and ask her when the boy plans to return, his eyes crawling over her body. She’ll move faster with Mike Lavoie there, the girl is sure of it. Just as sure as she is that her mind will be clouded with thoughts of everything that could have been had they not quit the world.
“They’re not here,” says the boy from the bedroom. “I can’t find them.”
There is a long pause before he speaks. When he does, his voice is brittle and small. “The passports. Are you even listening?”
“Check the top drawer in the bureau,” the girl tells him, clutching the closet doorframe with her cigarette hand.
She needs to get going to the bathroom. There is so much more they need to take. Why has she left this to the last minute? Inside the cabinet are extra tubes of toothpaste and dry shampoo. Leave-in conditioner and a six-pack of floss. Backup toothbrushes and travel soaps, sunscreen and bug spray, hundreds of tampons in an economy-sized box. Too much for one trip. Probably too much for two. But she does not go to the bathroom. She steals down the hall the opposite way, away from the bathroom, away from him.
Their kitchen is gray and empty. They have already thrown everything out from the fridge. Their dishes are all in the cupboards and the sink has a dull gleam from dawn leaking through the window in their nook. The girl hangs the clothes she’s carrying over the back of a chair and tiptoes around the table to sit on the sill and look outside. Today will be cloudy with a mix of rain and sleet. The streets are a mess of slush.
She turns to face the room. From this angle, she thinks, their kitchen seems new but also disappointed, as if it has never been used before. It smells dour, sterile, of fresh white paint. When she and the boy first moved in together they spent one Saturday painting the cupboards. In the late afternoon they sat on the floor and drank. The wine tasted acrylic, like the Sherwin-Williams paint they used, and the girl mimed choking and joked about calling Poison Control. The boy laughed. Then he pushed aside her hair and kissed her ear. I’ll take care of you, he whispered. I promise.
The kitchen smell stings her nose and knots her stomach into sharp little twists. It is hard to inhale, and now the girl’s breath is short. She pants. She needs fresh air. She is sure that if she can’t get some fresh air she will be sick right here, at their kitchen table, in this nook where she and the boy used to eat dinner and breakfast and keep each other company when they cooked. Turning back to the window she places the cigarette on the sill and opens the frame as wide as it will go. In rushes winter. Cold rain needles her face and hands.
The wind pushes at her cheeks and cools her scalp. It blows the cigarette on the sill into a roll but the girl catches it before it slips from the ledge. Parliament Lights. Her brand of cigarettes. Her mother’s brand of cigarettes. Her mother who lives in a tiny one bedroom off Wall Street with a suffering mouth and sour eyes, and all her talk of sponsors and make-goods and sobriety and pain. The widow who only softened once the girl moved in with the boy, afraid to lose her daughter, afraid to be left behind. There’s only love in the leaving, the girl thinks, clutching the cigarette in her fist. In bed last week when she told the boy how worried she was to leave her mother he shrugged and sighed. “She can’t come with us,” he said. “There isn’t enough room.”
She hears the suitcase rolling on their hardwood floors before she sees him. The boy enters the kitchen and glances at the window, giving her a dim look. “This isn’t funny,” he says. “Mike’s here. He just texted.”
“I couldn’t find the passports,” he continues.
“Did you check the bathroom?”
He scratches his neck. “Where in the bathroom?”
“Why would they be in the bathroom cabinet?”
“I don’t know,” she says, her hands shaking. “Maybe they’re there.”
“Are you going to help me look?”
The girl opens her mouth, but the only sound that comes out is her breath, choked and whistling. It sounds like How can I leave this? There is a terrible silence. It threatens to suffocate them both.
“Honey,” he says, finally. “What’s wrong?”
Mike Lavoie, Mike Lavoie. Mike Lavoie with his gym-built body, ready for the end of the world. Mike Lavoie with his easy cash and cabin near the ocean and all his fucking promises that things will be fine. The man who talked and talked and filled the boy to the brim with nonsense. Nonsense about survival and nonsense about murder. Nonsense about waiting out this madness in the middle of the woods. Mike Lavoie waiting downstairs in his Toyota Tercel, muffler smoking in the cold dawn air.
“Oh god, I’m trying to help us,” says the boy, his eyes bright and voice thick. “I’m trying to show you I love you.”
“I know,” she tells him. “It’s okay.” To free up her hands and finish this off the girl places the stale Parliament in the corner of her mouth. She leans back, gripping the windowsill for balance, and stares at the boy. She stares so hard she feels she could pull the tears right out of his eyes. But it’s hard to focus on him. The day keeps rushing in behind her. Wind freezes her neck. A car horn blasts. Someone’s dog whines. There are matches in the junk drawer, but that’s too far to reach, and he’s standing in her way, besides. Rain drums like fingertips against the girl’s back, cold and impatient fingertips counting down time until the girl and the boy remember who they were to each other, or she understands how much easier it would be to forget.
Jonathan Durbin’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, One Story, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, New England Review and Crazyhorse, among others. His nonfiction has been published in the Village Voice, Travel + Leisure, Interview, Paper and elsewhere. He has been awarded residences at The Ragdale Foundation and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and is currently at work on a novel and collection of short fiction.
Illustrations by Courtney Bennett (Featured image: “Hollow,” second: untitled)