What You Miss
Sarah Terez Rosenblum
Sarah Terez Rosenblum is a writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She freelances for publications and sites including The Chicago Sun Times and Pop Matters. Her fiction has appeared in kill author and Underground Voices. Her debut novel, Herself When She’s Missing is forthcoming in June 2012 from Soft Skull Press. When not writing, Sarah supports herself as a figure model, spinning instructor and creative writing teacher at Chicago’s Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it, actually.
You’re not heading home for redemption. Your mother’s the one who gave you her genes; she’s the one who wandered around drunk in a see-through nightgown. Nature or nurture, she’s the one to blame.
You’re not making amends either. You won’t decide to get sober for a good five months and even then you’ll resist the syncopated rhythm of AA’s obligatory steps. Make direct amends except when to do so would cause injury. If you’re so powerless at step one, how can you make that judgment call at step nine? As your father the scientist would say, the whole paradigm is contradictory. He got sober white-knuckling it. If you’re worth anything, you’ll do the same.
. . .
“Why are you going then?”
You stare at your fresh-faced girlfriend. At nine in the morning, she has been to the gym and dry cleaners. She’s stopped at Starbucks for a latte and called the salon to make an appointment for next Tuesday. You’ve only just slung your legs over the side of the bed to sit with your throbbing head caught between your hands.
In the car, you inquire about your girlfriend’s workout, civility the goal. By the time you register her response, her quick pause has grown to resentful stillness. She hates silence of all kinds, but car silence is her least favorite. Hoping to appease her, you let her select the music. The CD player inhales Tegan and Sara’s new disk, and their voices blare, zealous and chipper as a pair of chortling squirrels. You don’t wince though your headache strains forward, a dog on the verge of slipping his leash.
For hours the California landscape surges past. Slowly, sprawling city turns to tranquil desert, the billboard choked horizon replaced by open sky. You reach Hoover Dam with two remaining hours of daylight. Long shadows slant across the road. Your girlfriend stirs awake as you pull into the parking lot.
“What is this?” she asks. You don’t answer until you’re staring into the gorge. She wrinkles her nose when you tell her.
“It looks vaginal,” she says. “And I think my mom came here with my Gran when she was sixteen. What?”
Like a five-year-old asking what crayons are made of and why vegetables aren’t blue, your girlfriend insists you explain your every move. At first this made each day fresh, and you finally understood why people want children. After six months her questions chafe. Sometimes you don’t feel like justifying yourself. It requires self-examination, a thing for which you are rarely in the mood.
“Why did you laugh?” she pushes.
“I don’t remember.”
She snaps your picture. “Take one of me,” she says.
A few months later when you download the photos, you’ll delete yours but print the one of your girlfriend. You’ll gaze at it for long minutes, running your index finger over the line of her strong thigh muscle beneath her tight jeans.
. . .
“What’s Lake Mead?” your girlfriend asks as you pass a sign. She photographs clouds floating easily above you, lining the winding road like a celestial retaining wall.
“A place I used to go as a teenager,” you say, and she takes a picture of a second sign. “When I was your age,” you add, teasing. You’ve swallowed eight Aspirin by now and eaten some of the Wheat Thins your girlfriend tucked into a canvas bag. You’re not exactly sprightly, but you no longer look like you should be wearing a hood and carrying a scythe. Your girlfriend giggles and you touch her knee.
“I’m not a teenager.” She sips from her water bottle.
“You could pass for sixteen,” you tell her because it’s true and it turns you on to say it.
“Would you have taken me here when you were sixteen?”
“You wouldn’t have wanted to come.” You park the car a few yards from the water.
“I would.” She rests a hand on your arm.
“Then you’d be stupid.” You hand her your vest. “Put this on.”
Hands deep in your pockets, you walk to the water’s edge. Your girlfriend lags behind, leaning awkwardly to check her hair in the side view mirror. You haven’t been back in twenty years, but the air smells the same.
Your girlfriend wraps her arms around you and nuzzles into your neck.
“The summer I got my driver’s license, I’d come here every night.” You resist the urge to lean back into her. “I had this shitty ‘69 Javelin and I’d drive up at dusk and sit out by those boulders.” You pause, remembering the leftover warmth of the rocks under your legs as the air around you turned nighttime-desert-cold. “Sometimes my friends would be here and they’d have wine and I’d watch them pass the bottle, and sometimes I’d pretend to take a sip. I don’t think I ever drove home before two. Never did less than sixty and when I got to the ridge near my house, I’d close my eyes, stomp the gas, fly down the hill and through the stop sign at its base.”
“You’re lucky you weren’t killed.” Your girlfriend crosses her arms over her body.
“The jury’s still out on that one.” You open the front of your fleece-lined jacket tucking her against your chest. “Let’s go back to the car.”
The hotel you’ve chosen is miles from the strip. You feel guilty about not giving your girlfriend the full Vegas experience, but this was all you could afford, and you’ve already spent more than you should.
“How do I look?” she yawns. It’s only nine o’clock, but she’s drowsy from the thin air. In truth, she looks confused. She’s wearing jade flats, black lace-trimmed leggings and a tunic over which she has draped a large filmy scarf. A trail of silver stars arcs from each of her ears and she carries an enormous yellow patent leather purse. You figure she was about nine the first time this look came around. You were twenty-six. Smug in your bolo tie and blazer, you thought all of your straight female friends looked like French circus performers.
When your girlfriend first moved in, you routinely came home to find your belongings rifled, tackle boxes half-open and junk drawers rearranged. At first indignant, afraid of what she might learn, you soon remembered the things you keep hidden live mostly beneath your skin. The only embarrassing item she turned up was a discarded bridesmaid dress, souvenir from a cousin’s wedding, the last dress you ever wore.
“I can’t imagine.” She fingered a row of peach ruffles.
You shrugged. “It takes time to decide who you don’t want to be.”
She was most troubled by a photograph of you, taken at some bar around 1985. Still crouched inside your closet when you came through the front door, she didn’t bother looking guilty.
“You were so beautiful, not that you aren’t still,” she said.
“So?” You helped her to her feet, slipping the photo from her hands.
“I wouldn’t have had a chance with you.”
“And when I hit forty I had to lower my standards?” You folded the photo into your back pocket.
“Isn’t that how it works?” she asked.
“I got a job at ‘Circus Circus’ a year after it first opened,” you tell your girlfriend over a bottle of wine in one of the hotels. They all snake together and you’ve lost track of yourself in their caterpillar curves. “They were just starting to build the strip up, and all my friends were jealous.” This is true but not much of an accomplishment. By the time you got that job you only had one or two friends.
“What did you do there?” Your girlfriend leans back in her chair, cheeks flushed.
“I was in charge of…you know.” You rub a hand across your eyes, “the stall where you throw hoops over bottles.”
“Thing was rigged, but I let the pretty girls win.”
Your girlfriend looks away. “We’ve been sitting here for hours. Can we eat now?”
Standing takes too much concentration and you wonder if she notices. The row of half-empty wine bottles that rattle each time you open the refrigerator door has escaped her detection. You take your first drink earlier each day, but she hasn’t said a word. Both are more conspicuous than the sixty-second delay as you wait for the ground to firm beneath your feet, so likely you’re safe. She wasn’t raised by alcoholics. She doesn’t know the signs.
You buy her a twenty-five dollar cut of sushi at Mikado and watch her savor the crimson fish. You sip more wine and tell her the seafood is packed in ice, flown in daily from Japan. As usual, the breadth of your knowledge impresses her, so you don’t mention you cribbed the information from a card propped at the edge of the black lacquer bar.
The slot machines look different than you remember. Computerized now, they have buttons to push rather than a metal arm to tug. Your girlfriend says she doesn’t want to gamble but you insist and hand her a ten-dollar bill. Her first time, but she agrees the crank’s absence makes the experience less satisfying. She’s ecstatic when she wins thirty dollars. She jumps up and down and out of her shoe, which slides under a bank of slot machines. You have to borrow a casino worker’s flashlight to find it.
Back at the hotel, the sex you share surprises you. You thought by now you wouldn’t need her. Afterwards, you lie on your back; your girlfriend’s damp face pressed to your neck.
“I don’t want to go.”
“But it’s what you came for.” She sounds even younger in the dark.
“I don’t know about you, but I came for the champagne buffet.”
“Be serious,” she props herself on one elbow. “You haven’t seen her in ten years.”
“I am serious. Have you ever been to Las Vegas buffet? It’s worth the six hour drive.”
She drops her head to your shoulder. “It’s okay to be scared.”
Her breathing slows and deepens as you think about what she said. You are not scared, exactly. You picture your mother’s shabby ranch house. The last time you visited you brought your girlfriend at the time, a tall Puerto Rican beautician who, now that you think about it, was probably anorexic. You had this idea that maybe if your mother saw how settled and adult you’d become she’d finally accept you, but her boyfriend wouldn’t let you bring the beautician inside.
“We don’t want to upset Margaret.” He blocked the door casually, ice clinking against his glass. “She prays for you every Sunday and now you want to rub your lifestyle in her face.”
Your mother hasn’t been to church since your father got fed up and left her, but you made your girlfriend wait in the car. In her bedroom, your mother’s scent seemed meaty, like a long simmering stew. She wanted you to hug her, so you did, but you gagged.
. . .
Growing up, you plugged your nose whenever your mother leaned in. She smelled medicinal but somehow earthy too. One day the young man who lived next door saw you cringe. After your mother went inside, he called you over to the wooden fence.
“Don’t like your ma?” He asked.
You didn’t tell him your mother repulsed you or that since your father quit drinking, he couldn’t stand her either. Instead you shrugged and refused the ten-dollar bill your neighbor offered.
“Think how many Snickers bars you could buy,” he said. You were certain he was mocking you but you weren’t sure why. After that you learned to squeeze your nostrils shut from the inside.
. . .
“I’m not scared,” you whisper into your girlfriend’s hair. “But I hate how she smells.”
“On TV they use menthol,” she murmurs.
You’re pretty sure she’s dreaming.
“Did you hear me?” she asks.
“To block the smell of a crime scene, like when there’s a decomposing body. The detectives dab Vick’s Vapo-Rub under their noses.”
“If it works on a corpse I guess it’ll work on my mom.”
. . .
The next morning you leave your girlfriend behind. She’ll work out and get a massage.
“Charge it to the room,” you say. You don’t know how to explain the money is about to run out. After you get sober she will tell you your gifts were too extravagant. She didn’t need to go to every restaurant in Los Angeles; she was already impressed. You’ll think she’s sweet for saying it, but you’ll know it’s a lie.
. . .
Four hours later, when you return to the hotel, the man at the front desk waves you down. It seems your girlfriend passed out on the elliptical machine.
“Some people are more sensitive to altitude,” he says. “It’s not uncommon.” Perhaps not uncommon, but it would never happen to you.
Your girlfriend is pale and apologetic. You kiss her and load the suitcases into the car. Although her frailty makes you hate her a little, you’re grateful for the distraction.
On your way out of Las Vegas you stop at a roadside diner.
“Did the menthol work?” Your girlfriend spoons oily chicken soup into her mouth, her skin no longer grey. You nod, sipping coffee. How could you have thought half a bottle of wine would be enough to combat a whole day’s stress?
“Actually it did.”
“I told you.”
“I got close enough to hug her.” You say.
Your girlfriend wipes her slick mouth.
“That’s a good thing, right?”
. . .
At your mom’s house, a live-in nurse answered the door. Your mom was too much to handle, her boyfriend confided, she could no longer make it to the bathroom on her own. His back and knees were giving him trouble so he wasn’t any help. He told you all of this through a thick cloud of cigar smoke before the nurse let you in.
“What exactly is wrong with her?” you asked, coughing. Her boyfriend sipped his whiskey and soda. “You know how it is,” he said
“Is that my dolly-babe?” your mother called.
“That’s right, honey. Your dolly came all this way just to see you.” Her boyfriend winked at you. “Go on in.”
You glanced at the nurse, but she was folding laundry, her back turned accusingly away.
Two hours into the drive, the cars on the highway cluster like storm clouds. In the midst of illimitable desert, homebound weekend travelers glut the road. You’re part of a line without beginning or end, just a confounding, eternal middle. Of course your girlfriend’s asleep.
“I have to pee.” She says, rubbing her eyes like a child. Normally you refuse to stop for her. You’re convinced she can hold it longer than she thinks.
“You were sleeping until two seconds ago; it can’t be that bad.” Still, you join the ragged line of cars headed for the off-ramp.
The lone gas station for miles, its gravel parking lot is clotted with mini coopers and limousines. Inside, your girlfriend heads for the bathroom. After she’s finished, she’ll need to reapply makeup, fuss with her hair. Though a swarm of B-list actors and agents stand between you and the register, you’ll have time to pay for your screw-top wine and step outside to drink.
The procession of cars easily readmits you. In Los Angeles, a fellow driver would prefer you crash into a concrete pillar rather than slip into his lane. Here you’re all in it together, reconciled to your five-mile-an-hour crawl home. Your girlfriend yawns then tucks her head to her chest. An older woman in a Jetta behind you smiles each time your eyes meet in the rearview mirror and a man ahead flashes you the peace sign when you catch his eye. This must have been how the settlers felt in their trail of covered wagons, trekking west to find gold.
After another hour of quiet, you’re so familiar with the surrounding drivers that it’s your girlfriend who seems a stranger.
“You going to tell me more about your visit?” Suddenly awake, she watches you.
“There’s not much to tell.”
She’s just bored and antsy. She doesn’t care what you have to say.
“What was it like to see them?”
You pause long enough to fortify yourself, but not long enough to be accused of ignoring her.
“He’s the same. Jackass alcoholic. She’s slightly more coherent in person, but she doesn’t get out of bed. Until they hired a nurse she didn’t even shower, just doused herself with perfume.”
“Is she really dying?”
“Three bottles of gin a day for fifty years, near as I can tell.”
“Not cancer or anything?”
“Babe, I don’t want to discuss it.”
“Don’t you think you should?”
“No.” You watch her. She hates when you take your eyes from the road. When she looks away, you tap the CD player, skipping through “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Some songs you can’t hear without driving fast.
. . .
The second time the man next door invited you over, your father had gone for good, though your mother claimed he was away on business.
“What kind of business trips do scientists take?” you asked and watched her face collapse.
The day your dad emptied his closet, you found your mother on the back porch, empty bottle at her feet.
“What’s for dinner?” You tried to sound like a kid on TV. “Mom!”
She looked at you. “What is it?”
“Are you okay?” You didn’t want to move toward her, but knew you should.
She laughed. “What a stupid question.”
“Can I do something?”
“You already did.” For a moment you thought she’d paid you a compliment. Distance in her eyes said think again. “What’s done is done and that’s why we’re here.” She made a dusting motion with her hands as if fed up or baking.
“Did what?” you whispered. “What did I do?”
She gazed at the sinking sun blazing orange through the fence slats. “Got born,” she said.
In the yard, you sat on your heels, jamming a stick into the dry, crumbling earth.
“Bad day?” your neighbor said through the fence. The Blue Oyster Cult spilled from an open window across the street. “You busy?” he asked.
You stared. No one had asked you that before. No one had thought you might have plans of your own.
“Got people to do? Things to see?” He chuckled.
“No.” You shook your head.
“Come on over.” He said.
It was your choice to walk toward him. There is so much you should never have done.
. . .
“Why didn’t you drink when you were a teenager?” your girlfriend asks, fiddling with the ends of her hair.
“What?” You’ve been listening to Bono sing, “On your knees boy.” Your ex liked to fuck to this song. Your girlfriend repeats the question.
“Same reason I didn’t smoke: my parents did.”
“You still don’t smoke.”
“You ever smoke pot?”
“I hated it.”
“But you liked cocaine.”
“Yep.” Your fingers choke the wheel.
“What did you like about it?”
“Are we filming an after-school special? How to teach your teenaged lover about illegal drugs?” Usually when you mention her age, your girlfriend turns harmless and giggly. This time she’s on a fact-gathering mission, not to be deterred.
“I liked how it made me feel,” you answer. “Why else?”
“I don’t know.” She unzips her makeup bag and removes an emery board. “I’ve never done it.”
“And you won’t. You’d never be able to stop.”
“How does it feel?”
“Like you know what you’re going to say before you say it, you’re guaranteed everyone you meet will love you and you never have to worry about a thing.”
“Until three a.m. when you’re hiding behind your curtains because you think someone’s on the front lawn with a shotgun aimed at your window.”
“If you hadn’t been arrested would you still have quit?”
. . .
You should have been flush from the thousands you siphoned from your clients’ accounts when the police pounded on your friend’s front door. But you’d lost your restraint along with your apartment by then, and money went straight up your nose. When the police came you were pajama clad, curled on the couch watching Cheers. You acted obedient so they let you get dressed. You kept hoping someone with more authority would show up and convince them there’d been some mistake.
At the station, you called your father.
“I’m in jail, dad,” you said when he answered, “I’m sorry. I need you. I’m scared.”
The click when the line disconnected was gentle and prolonged, as if by hanging up slowly he wasn’t hanging up at all. When you finally slept, your dreams echoed your father’s voice. “You’re the same as your mother,” the words he’d spoken just before the click. The next day you awakened certain your cellmate, long-fingered and whisper-thin, had patted your back as you slept. You tried to catch her eye when your friend came to bail you out, but she never lifted her gaze from the floor.
. . .
“I don’t want to be your case study,” you say.
Your girlfriend looks stung. “I’m sorry.” If she were sorry she’d stop. Instead she comes at you again.
“You haven’t done cocaine for ten years, so why start drinking?”
“What does one have to do with another?”
“I thought…” Your girlfriend pauses, chewing the inside of her cheek. You’re struck again by her youth. A Midwestern thing, maybe; there’s no one like her born in L.A. Her eyes went wide the first time you fucked her. For months you couldn’t get enough of that look.
“I thought if you were addicted to one thing, you weren’t supposed to try other things like it, other addictive things.”
“That’s what people say.”
Gathering trash in Griffin Park was better then an orange suit and no privacy, but the drug rehab program they stuck you in seemed worse. Parole felt a blessing though, so you did what was required. Your counselor, an antagonistic old man, seemed to love his disease. You remember thinking he probably put tacks in his own shoes in order to strive against something. According to him, addicts would snort sugar packets if they could get their hands on them. They’d over-apply moisturizer and figure out a way to abuse ballpoint pens.
“Wednesday nights,” he said, balancing on the back legs of his chair, “I order myself a pizza. I have a few slices, maybe four or five. Then I put the box on the kitchen counter. The rest of the night, watching TV, checking on the people I sponsor, but all the time thinking about that damn pizza. Pineapples and Canadian bacon. Sometimes I go three hours without touching it, but I never stop thinking. I always give in. Then I’m sick and I’m queasy but the next week I do it all again. Why?” He jerked forward, slamming the chair’s front legs on the floor. “Because I’m an addict: I’ll abuse any Goddamn thing I can. I can’t drink and I can’t do drugs, but that don’t mean I’m not an addict.”
. . .
“But addiction runs in families…” Your girlfriend keeps her voice high and off-hand.
“That’s not what I choose to believe.” You slide Lucinda Williams into the CD player. If you’re going to submit to interrogation, the background music better be tolerable.
“Your mom’s an alcoholic, though. Aren’t you the same?”
. . .
Later you will explain the conversation took you by surprise. You weren’t prepared for her questions. You will tell her you were lost in thought, remembering the way your mother looked from the doorway, a fragile figure on a bed heaped with quilts. At first the menthol made the skin under your nose tingle, soon you went numb. When your mother clutched you to her chest, your head sank easily to her shoulder. You couldn’t smell a thing.
Still later you will take responsibility for your actions. It doesn’t matter if your girlfriend startled you. You shouldn’t have wrenched the car to the side of the road. It was your choice to hit her. There is so much you should never have done.
When you apologize, your girlfriend will nod solemnly, a look of superiority on her sweet face.
“You were in your addiction,” she’ll say sympathetically. “You’d never hit me again.”
Conducting your ‘fearless inventory,’ you’ll stare at your composition book—black Rorschachs on white—the kind you’ve impulsively purchased but left blank for decades, the kind you had when you were ten. Uncapping your pen, you’ll search for words to explain what’s missing, how for years imitation was sufficient; you staged a show about normalcy in your living room and invited the people you love to stop by. You thought if you could perfect all the gestures you’d become what you approximated. Now you suspect hard work won’t fix what started out broken. You were born without something; worse, its absence feels right.
You won’t write this in your notebook, college rule. It’s wiser to act like an addict in recovery, not make any sudden moves. Certainly don’t admit you sustain yourself with the memory, held like a mantra, tucked beneath your chin. Someday, not now, you might choose to confess it, how you soothe yourself to sleep at night remembering: car swerved, seatbelt warning light aglow. The long line of cars rolled past, their occupants, gawking, but what you felt right then was worth it, the satisfying sting of your palms, wild against her skin.