Lonely, Lucky, Brave

By Jillian Jackson

When I hit on the scratch ticket I was at Castle Island with Hannah. We used to go there every Friday. After Hannah finished walking dogs and I finished up my shift at the café, we liked to pack a lunch and watch the planes flying into Logan airport. We always ate turkey sandwiches that I stole from the café and drank wine out of cans. We finished a family-sized bag of salt and vinegar chips.

That afternoon Hannah was wearing my favorite cardigan, a Good Will find, pink and covered in sparkles. She had on pink lipstick that had smudged a little bit on her bottom lip. We were watching the planes, our bare feet in the cold sand. It was April and we were glad we could sit there without our jackets on, even though we were a little cold when the wind picked up.  

“It’s time,” Hannah said. She reached into her bag and dug out the tickets. She dealt them like cards at a poker match, back and forth, one and one. All ten.                     

We always split the cost of the tickets evenly and we shuffled them up so that we wouldn’t know whose was whose. We had a rule: if either of us won less than twenty, we bought more tickets, kept going until we came up empty. More than twenty, we didn’t have to split it, but the winner had to do something nice for the other person, something appropriate to the amount: a candy spree at the corner store, a round of fancy cocktails, dinner. Even though we usually split everything, we liked the idea that we wouldn’t split the money. If fortune shined on one of us, we figured that we should respect that. We should let that person enjoy it fully.           

I was distracted. I did not go about it with the usual gusto. I was thinking about everything except the tickets in front of me: my cold fingers, the customer who asked me if they could buy a carton of eggs from us because they did not want to walk to the grocery store, that my landlord was raising the rent in the fall, and where would I live then? I couldn’t afford the city anymore.

“Liv,” Hannah said. “Olivia.” 

I looked down and saw nothing but little tiny pots of gold on the ticket in front of me, row after row, tiny black words: winner, winner, winner, winner. The numbers below the pots were much larger than I was used to, much larger than I had ever seen before, a 2,000 and then a 5,000 and then a little symbol that doubled everything.  

Hannah stood up and screamed, swearing over and over, holy shit. She hugged me, still screaming. With her arms around me, her hair smelling like strawberries, I saw a plane fly over her head, the roar of it swallowing up her joy.                                        

She let go and we sat back down, breathless. I held onto the ticket so tightly my palm began to sweat; I was instantly afraid I would lose it, that something would happen in between now and what I would need to do to make the money real.                    

“Oh my God,” Hannah said. “What are you going to do?” 

I felt a little dazed. “I’m going to Disneyworld!”

She laughed. 

“Actually,” I said, “I think I’m going to Europe.”

“That’s amazing, Olivia.”

I grabbed her by the shoulders. “I have to do something nice for you,” I said. “With the money.” She was quiet. I looked at her more seriously than I ever had before, in our whole ten years of friendship, from awkward adolescence to then, the beginnings of adulthood. I held onto her shoulders. The space between us felt warm and alive. “Come with me.”                       

When she smiled sadly, the space between us died a little. She took my hands off her shoulders and held them tightly. She said, “You know I can’t do that.”           

She was saying this because she knew that underneath the question was another question, and underneath Hannah’s answer was another answer. We knew the way best friends know. In eighth grade, drunk off our first beers in her father’s backyard, she asked me, flat out: Are you in love with me? And I said no and we never talked about it again. So we had known for a long time, but it felt like now we really knew. 

On the beach, the wind even colder now, she hugged me. Into my ear, she whispered, “But you still have to bring me back something nice.”                                       

                                                                                          ***

Castle Island had been my choice for our Friday ritual. I had always wanted to travel but had never been on a plane. No one in my family had. No one could even imagine the cost of a ticket. We could not conceptualize money in that way, spent like that, on a vacation. We were also all afraid of flying, a fear so deep in all of us it seemed inherited, genetic. When someone we knew had to fly, my grandmother would light saint candles, white pillars in skinny glass jars, a blurry picture of mother Mary emblazoned on a cheap plastic label. She would pray in Portuguese. She would let the candles burn until she got the call that the person had landed.  In spite of that full-body, paralyzing fear,  I still fantasized about traveling. At Castle Island, every time a plane roared above Hannah and I, I would feel a pang in my chest. I wanted to go wherever the plane was going. I wanted to endure the suffering of the flight, because I knew on the other end there would be rewards,  pleasures  I could never access if I stayed on the ground. I wanted to go with Hannah, her cold hand in mine.  

            Back in middle school, after that night at her Dad’s when she asked how I felt about her, Hannah never treated me any differently. I kept expecting it; all the girls around us were turning on each other, talking about who in the locker room put Wal-Mart lotion on her legs instead of Bath and Body Works, whose socks were at an awkward length, who had cut her hair and was now, unequivocally, gay. But our friendship carried on uninterrupted. We slept in the same bed, we changed in the same room, when I cried she would hold me and say, you can cry your tears directly into my lungs if you want. But the whole time I never stopped wondering what I had done to make her ask the question in the first place. 

***

Exactly one month after I hit on the ticket, I was at Logan airport, waiting in line to board my flight. Hannah and I hadn’t seen each other since that afternoon. It was the longest we’d ever gone, but we were still talking. That morning she texted me to remind me to hydrate. 

Once I got on the plane, I was nervous, so I thought about Hannah.  I remembered things about her to keep myself calm: how she was always head to toe in pink. How I would help her bleach her hair and she would tell me when it tingled. The way she still said, coolio. Like, that’s so coolio. She is the only person I know who uses that word in that way. How we had been inseparable since we met at band camp in sixth grade. I played the tuba, embarrassingly, and she played the flute. She can still play “My Heart Will Go On.” Her hair was so long then, it went all the way down her back, none of the other girls had hair that long. She would put all these little clips in it, little sparkling butterfly clips like I would see in Seventeen

People say flying is nothing. They don’t talk about the way the air hums. It felt extravagant and dangerous to even sit there, in the plane, to see the tops of the clouds, to see the ice crystals forming on the window, to feel the darkness around me, to wear my terry cloth socks, drinking tomato juice on ice.                                        

                                                                                          ***

After taxes: about ten thousand. I had already given some to my parents, about three thousand so they could catch up on some bills and buy a new living room set. Another five hundred to my brother to help with his credit card. The plane ticket, round trip, was about nine hundred. I had gone to a state school, thank God, so I didn’t have much in student loans. I told myself that maybe after the trip I could save part of the money and try to invest. I knew that rich people always turned their money into more money, and I thought, why can’t I do that? I thought maybe one of the regulars at the café could help me.                             

When I landed in Spain I checked into a hotel in Madrid for a few days. Already I felt like someone different, like the flight had changed me. For the first time in my life I was not painfully shy. Instead it felt like I was making friends wherever I went. I had easy conversations with strangers. In the line for breakfast, a woman told me that if I was not vegetarian, I should try the ham and cheese croissant, and then she picked up the metal prongs and placed a croissant on my plate. On my second night, Gabriel, one of the men who worked at the hotel, called me gorgeous. I was wearing red lipstick and sitting in the lobby, looking at the map on my phone to try and figure out how to get to where I was going for dinner. I liked how when he said it, he sounded like he was talking about giant pits in the earth: Gorges, baby! he said. Gorges. I took it as a sign. My love life was turning around. I was a marvel of nature.                 

After Madrid, I rented a car and drove to Avila, because the Convento de San José was there, and nuns had always fascinated me. I like to think it is simple in the nunnery, and quiet. Your purpose is clear. You hear the bell and then you go to mass. Bell, fast, or eat. Bell and then you cross yourself and go to sleep. I like that nuns make things sometimes, like really good cheese, and that they wrap it and stamp it, emboss it in gold. I appreciate their willpower, the idea of outrunning your impulses. Or, that your body is only this meaty thing, while you are so much more than that. 

When I told all this to Hannah years ago, Hannah who went to Catholic elementary school, she said, “You’ve never actually met a nun, have you?”                              

Avila was centered in a medieval fortress. The guidebook said the wall around the fortress was very large and completely intact, and that this was rare in Europe. This was exciting to read but, in fact, underwhelming to see. It was a big, old wall. It seemed to me something a man might be excited about, but it had none of the nuance or complexity that I looked for in an attraction.       

At the convent, they charged admission to see the finger of Teresa of Avila, a saint. At the front desk of the little Teresa museum, a nun took my admission fee, and she smiled politely, but I didn’t get any sort of special impression from her. 

I walked through a dark basement full of relics, tapestries and prayer books, paintings of Teresa herself, flecked with gold, and then at the end there was the finger in a glass case, looking like a tiny mummy. I thought about performing a heist, bringing the finger back for Hannah, who I knew would be repulsed and delighted. I stood there looking at the finger for a long time.                         

After the finger, I made my way up and out of the basement, out into the bright sunlight, and I found a little table to sit at in the massive plaza. Sitting in massive plazas quickly became one of my favorite things about Spain. I also drank a lot of fresh orange juice that came out of a machine, a clear machine so you could watch the oranges as they were crushed into juice, whole oranges.                       

As I sat with my orange juice, I saw a woman sitting by herself, crying. She did not even attempt to cover her face. She was wearing a sleeveless linen sundress and comfortable sneakers, a ceramic espresso cup in front of her. I knew I could either ignore her, like everybody else, or go up to her. She probably wanted to be left alone, since, in my experience, usually when people cry in public it’s because they want the feeling of everyone looking and then looking away, but I decided to walk over. Like with Gabriel, I was newly brave. I was not sure what language this woman spoke, even, but I carried on in English. “Excuse me,” I said. “Are you okay?”

She was startled at first. “Oh,” she said. She covered her face with her hands. She tried to wipe her mascara away with her fingertips. “It’s nothing. I’ve just had a terrible day.” She had what was maybe a British lilt to her voice, just shy of an accent. I could tell that she was older than me, much richer than me. She had thick, dark hair flecked with gray around her temples. She was wearing a fashionable, chunky necklace. A statement necklace. She reminded me of the women I would see when I went to art museums in Boston, artsy chic, but she did not look dowdy the way some of them looked. There was something very youthful about her. She had a natural glow, like a woman in a skincare commercial.                   

“Well, it’s only 11am. Your day could get better.” 

I reached into my tote bag and pulled out a box of yemas, a candy made out of sugared egg yolk that I had bought in the gift shop. “Here. These might help.”                 

She ate one. “That was not good,” she said, and we both started laughing.

“I know.”

“I wish it was.”

“Me too,” I said. “Is there anything else I can do?”                           

She was looking down, twisting the empty sugar packet from her coffee between her manicured fingers. “Would you go somewhere with me?”                            

“Somewhere in particular?”                           

“To be honest, no.” She looked a little nervous, then, like I was a horse she was afraid to spook. “I just think that I’d like to get out of here.”                          

I don’t know what came over me, but to this woman I said, “I have a car.”             

I felt luck strike me again. I did not know this woman well, but I had the feeling that, like me, she was doing something completely out of character. We were both in the right place at the right time, and the universe had opened up to let us through. 

So like that we got into my rental car. Like that we were driving. There was someone beside me in the passenger seat. When she said, I would like to get out of here, I wasn’t sure if she meant here, like, the sitting area, or here like Avila, or here like Spain. I figured she would stop me if we went too far, but she looked content. She had the window all the way down, the wind blowing her thick braid apart. Long strands of hair were whipping against her face.                     

After a few minutes, she said, “I’m Lucy,” but she didn’t sound so sure. I had the distinct feeling that it could have been a fake name. This made me more convinced that her bad day had been very bad. She reminded me of that feeling in the wake of heartbreak, when you feel like you can be whatever you want, like the world has no rules. 

“I’m Olivia.” My name sounded strange, too. Even though I hadn’t lied, I still felt a little like a different person. “Do you want to go back to where you are staying?”     

“Absolutely not,” she said. “If you don’t mind.”

“Okay, no, not at all.”

I fiddled with the radio. I found a station that played jazz.  “I love jazz,” I said, but it wasn’t true. I had never actively chosen to listen to jazz. I waited for Lucy to react, to share how she felt about jazz, but she only nodded slightly, still looking out the window.

Lucy told me that she had been traveling with her husband, who was in Spain on business. I thought about asking her what I should do with my money. She seemed like the kind of person who would know. But talking about money seemed too real, too unromantic, so instead I said, “Hey. Do you want to go to Portugal?”                     

She laughed, a rich, genuine laughter that bubbled up out of her. “Okay!” she said.            

When I told her Porto was four hours away, she said she didn’t have anywhere to be. We were both excited by how easy it was to get to another country. All of a sudden, we were on our way to somewhere else entirely, bound together by our shared enthusiasm.

“I like that we are driving toward the coast,” I said. “It feels right.”

“It does. The pull of the ocean.”

We talked about the ocean for a while, which is an easy thing to talk about, because who doesn’t love the ocean? Who doesn’t have something nice to say about time they spent by the water? I told her I love the way my skin feels after a day at the beach, that I don’t mind the sand sticking to me. She said that I should go sailing one day, that I would love it, and I said, yes, sure, I’ll check it out, as if sailing was just something I could pick up, and in the moment I convinced myself that maybe I could.  

After, Lucy filled the time with stories that felt only halfway believable.

She said she went to boarding school in Switzerland. She said she loved to ride horses, that her aunt had owned a horse named Fable, and that Lucy still felt bad because as a child she hadn’t known the aunt’s name; she was just the aunt with the horse.           

Outside the window, the roads were smooth and curving. We drove through places that felt like deserts, then like mountains. We drove through farmland and saw tiny white brick buildings with decaying fences, abandoned, graffitied.

After I maneuvered through a particularly narrow passageway, Lucy said, “You’re a good driver.”

“Thank you.” 

Hannah taught me how to drive when we were seventeen. When I cried because I dinged a parked car, Hannah gave me tough love. She said that I had dinged a car but there were worse things and that I needed to get over myself, and she was right, and I did, and I think about it often, getting over myself and just getting on with it

After a long stretch of silence, Lucy said, “I like to keep a few jokes on hand, in case I ever need them.” 

“Let’s hear one!” 

“What do you call a sleepwalking nun?” Then, she said, “A roamin’ Catholic.” And then, she said, “Get it?” 

I laughed, and it seemed like some kind of magical coincidence, that she would tell me this joke about nuns. 

After a while, hour two or three, maybe, I looked at Lucy, this person who was unfolding before me, this person who was undoubtedly beautiful, and I started to wonder: could I love her the way I loved Hannah? Could I love the dip in her shoulders? The birthmark under her eye?

At the Portuguese and Spanish border, there was a moment of anxiety – men with massive guns slung on their backs, stopping cars at the checkpoint – but we passed through with ease. I felt lucky then, too, but it felt less like luck and more like a kind of dizzying privilege. Lucy and I tipped two imaginary glasses toward each other and pretended to cheers. 

When the sun dipped lower in the afternoon sky, I noticed Lucy’s wedding ring for the first time; the light was reflecting a tiny rainbow on the dashboard. She saw me looking at it, and she said, “Can we take a break? Get out and stretch our legs?”        

I saw that the coast wasn’t far, so we took an exit and we stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of wine, vinho verde, and then we drove a little further so we could drink it by the ocean out of little plastic cups. We pulled over when we found a park and we sat together on a bench facing the ocean.          

The park was on a cliff, high up, and down, way down on one side of us, we could see a little beach. On the other side the waves were crashing and far away a little man was perched on a jagged edge, a feather-thin fishing line dropping down below him. When I looked straight ahead, it was all blue, blue, blue, a kind of blue that made me understand why so many of the tiles in Portugal were blue. 

I couldn’t believe Hannah wasn’t there to see it with me, and I felt the experience making a space between us, a wide, horrible hole.                             

Lucy unscrewed the bottle and poured some into our cups. “Cheers, for real,” she said. The wine was so tart it made the back of my mouth hurt.                 

After she finished a glass and topped us both off, Lucy said, “So, what brings you here?”

 “I won the lottery.”

“Congratulations. That’s amazing.”

I thought, this is where I should bring up the money, when I ask her what I should do. But instead, I said, “My family is from here. Portugal. A few generations back.” 

“Here? Exactly?”                                

“Somewhere around here. I don’t know, exactly.”    

As we were sitting, I noticed a rock on the ground, perfectly smooth and flecked with pink. I picked it up and put it in my pocket for Hannah. I knew she would like that it didn’t cost anything, that there was nothing else like it, and that it came from a beach on the other side of the Atlantic. 

And then, before I even thought of what I was doing, I hurled the stone into the ocean. I was so far up I couldn’t hear it splash, but I felt it. I felt the moment when it was gone twist in my gut.

After I poured the last drops of the bottle of vinho verde into our cups, Lucy started to open up, her face looser, her shoulders relaxed. She took a deep breath, like she was about to dive into a pool, and then she said, “Today I realized that I am married to the wrong person.”

I could see immediately how traveling could answer this question for someone, could bring this to light in a way other things couldn’t. I wondered where her husband was. Still in Avila, maybe, admiring the wall.                                   

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

She had started to cry again already. “I just don’t know what to do.”

“Well, you don’t have to decide anything right now. Not today, even.” Then, to make her feel better, I said, “I have something complicated. With someone back home.”   

“Complicated is no good,” Lucy said. “Easy is better.” She reached for my hand and I let her take it. She ran her fingers over mine. She rubbed the inside of my wrist with her thumb.                      

We drank so much we got hungry, the pits in our stomachs full of wine. So we left the car and wandered down the street and over into town, into the only restaurant that was open. 

We had to wait outside to be seated, and while we were standing Lucy told me not to worry, that she would pay for everything, for dinner, for wherever we ended up staying tonight, but I barely heard her: I was distracted by the light, how there was a peachy-pink stillness to the early evening, warm and lush.                                 

When we finally sat down across from each other, the tiles on the table were blue, and we were served a copper pot full of seafood and rice. Great waves of steam rolled up when Lucy pulled off the lid. She was smiling. I knew it felt good to have warm steam on your face after crying, after your face was covered in tears, tight from the salt.                               

We ate so much, and we drank more wine, and after we finished eating Lucy came over and sat next to me. She put her head on my shoulder. I let her keep it there and I felt the pattern of her breathing under the din of the restaurant. I could smell her perfume, warm jasmine. I could smell her lip balm. I could smell her moisturizer, her hair. She smelled rich, and I knew that when she went home she would still be rich, and that when I went home I would not. I would never be rich again. 

I did not want to think about what would happen when we left the restaurant, when we went out into the night, into the dark car; I did not want to think about how I all of a sudden I felt so far from my life that it felt like I’d woken up on the surface of the moon. So instead I kissed the top of Lucy’s head. I counted the freckles on her shoulders, eight. I tried to love that number, tried to love the shape of them, like Cassiopeia. I closed my eyes.


Jillian Jackson is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction at Boston University and the recipient of a St. Botolph Club Foundation’s Emerging Artist Grant. Her work appears in The Iowa Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, and others. Her story “A Leo, Like Jackie O” was cited as a distinguished story in The Best American Short Stories 2019. She teaches at GrubStreet and lives in Providence, RI, where she is at work on a novel. 

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