by Elizabeth Green
I come home after a long day of cleaning toilets and this is what I see: My sixteen-year-old son answers the door; his face is bloody and ballooned out around the eyes and nose. His fat lip leaks blood, his right eye is completely sealed shut by swollen, purple skin. His face looks like an old rotting apple. And he’s so handsome otherwise.
Jake isn’t wearing a shirt; he rarely ever wears pants for that matter. He lives like he’s in a nudist colony. It’s a rare thing I caught him wearing pants, kind of a blessing. I’m not a huge fan of casual nudity, but Jake has always done whatever he wanted from day one. Kind of like me, and I like that quality in him.
“What the hell happened to you?” I ask, and push by him. I throw my car keys inside the door and walk into the kitchen. My back hurts, my neck hurts, my hands smell like Clorox and faintly like urine.
“Fight,” he says.
“What was it over?”
“There’s no food here,” he says.
“What am I supposed to do about that?”
“We have food, Jake. We have….” I open the cupboard and pull out a can of corn. “This.”
I throw it at him. He catches it and looks at it with a sad expression on his torn up face.
“Did you lose any teeth?” I ask, my mind whirling with thoughts of dentist bills.
“Nah,” he says, reading the information on the back of the can. He’s oblivious to my relief. His one elbow is busted open. Fresh, glistening blood slowly makes a path down his arm. This fight was recent. I look at his ribs, how protruded they are. I want to wrap my arms around him but, instead, I tell him we’re going out for dinner: a big Italian dinner with pasta and breadsticks and a fair amount of wine.
One day a week Jake and I don’t talk about Melissa. So we talk about something else, anything else, never mentioning her. We need one day of normalcy, even if it’s fake. But I have to bring this up. As he struggles to slurp a spaghetti string through his ballooned lip, I tell him.
“Her birthday is next week,” I say.
Jake looks at me, gets the spaghetti in his mouth with his hand and cocks his head. “We don’t talk about her on Wednesdays.”
“I know, but her birthday is coming up soon.”
“What do you want to do about it?”
“I don’t know; I don’t have anything for her yet.”
“This one has to be good,” I say.
“I know,” he says quietly. I feel terrible for having brought it up. Now there’s a dark cloud over us. I ruined our happy Wednesday.
“Just don’t get into any more fights, either,” I say. “She hates violence.”
“I don’t think I’ll be cleaned up by next week.”
“Maybe you should have thought of that before you got into the fight.”
Jake says nothing. He pushes his food around with his fork. I say, “This food is expensive, eat.”
“They were making fun of George again,” he says after a moment. George is the school custodian, and someone Melissa befriended right before she went into the hospital. He’s a hunchback. He stands at about five feet, almost completely bent over, and is one of the nicest people in Jake’s school. He’s in his thirties, a little younger than I am.
“George is a grown man, he can take care of himself,” I say.
“It bothers him, Ma. And it would bother her, too.”
“How many did you fight?”
“Three guys,” he says.
“Three on one? Where were the teachers?”
“It was after school.”
I finish my wine. Our waiter comes by and takes away our plates. There are no leftovers. Otherwise we would box them. The lighting shifts down a few notches to something more romantic. I like it when they do that in restaurants. I feel like I can disappear even further into the woodwork and become someone else. But this lighting is false. Mood lighting is just what its name implies: something to change the mood, not the reality.
The waiter sets the check on the table. Jake and I both look at it out of habit: fifty-five dollars and seventy-nine cents. Almost what I make in a day.
“You want to drive?” I ask him.
“Sure,” he says.
“On three,” I say. “One, two, three.”
We get up and swiftly walk out. If you run, you draw attention. If you walk slowly, you draw attention. If you walk with purpose, walk like you’re supposed to be walking out, no one suspects a thing. The host nods at us politely. I nod back; tell him the food was wonderful.
Jake hops into the car and starts the engine. I slip in beside him. He’s down the road before I can put my seat belt on.
“Thanks for dinner,” he says.
“It was nothing.”
On my lunch break I go to Macy’s and drool over the iPods in the vending machine. I’m not thinking of myself here. I’m thinking of the kind of smile I’d get from her. I look over my shoulder at the enormous makeup section and wonder if I shouldn’t get her makeup as well. She’d want to feel pretty, right?
I see my reflection in the vending machine glass and try to ignore it. I try to the see through the graying, frizzy hair; the dark, deep-set eyes and the wrinkled skin. I don’t look at my figure, curveless and skeleton-like. I see through my reflection, ignoring the old woman in the vending machine, and stare at the shining pink iPod. I can see Melissa using it. Not in a hospital bed but while running down the road near our house.
“Do you need help, ma’am?” asks a large security guard.
“No, I’m just browsing, thanks.” I walk out, embarrassed. I must have stood there for ten minutes, losing time, dreaming away.
I get back to the hotel and start on the second floor rooms. I wheel my cart to room two-fifty and knock.
“Housekeeping!” I say, a smile in my voice. I have the sort of tone that sounds like I’m really fucking excited to clean the urine ring you left around the toilet and touch all of your pubic hairs as I make your bed.
The door swings open. A tall, handsome man stands before me. He has reddish hair, a strong chin and bright, green eyes.
“We’re going to be a few more minutes. We’re leaving soon.” Behind him I watch a dark-haired woman with coffee-colored skin throw her thick hair into a messy bun at the top of her head. I swallow, feeling small and insignificant because they are both so beautiful and purposeful and young. I wish this for Jake. It troubles me that I don’t think of Melissa here.
“Sure, that’s fine,” I say, and walk away.
When they’re gone I go back to the room and walk in. The place smells of acidic aftershave and rosewater. The bed is a mess. Sheets are thrown to the floor; the pillows are on the plush chair by the window. One of the woman’s long dark hairs lies on the white fitted sheet. With the hotel room door open, I sit on the bed and touch the sheet, imagining life in my twenties, unable to recall most of it.
I go to the bathroom and see her makeup lined up on the sink. Dark blushes and dark eye shadows. Her lipstick is a purplish red, something that would go well with her coffee skin. I imagine her putting on the makeup in this mirror, and the red-haired man wrapping his arms around her waist. I imagine her laughing as he kisses her neck. Suddenly she is Melissa, and she has all the makeup on her pale, thin face. It isn’t right for her, but she’s smiling. She isn’t beautiful in it, but she loves the act of putting it on more than the final result.
I take most of her makeup but leave her the blush. I slip it into my pocket and begin to clean the bathroom.
In the next hotel room, among some William Faulkner and James Joyce novels is a small, silver iPod. I feel the weight of the makeup in my pocket and decide that if I’ve already gone this far, I might as well go all in.
The headphones have little butterflies on the earplugs. I stand there messing with the damn thing until I can figure out how to make it play. Eric Clapton comes on. It’s music I like, but something Melissa would cringe over. Or maybe she’d just be grateful, having never received a thing like this in her life.
I never stole from hotel rooms before. I walk out on my restaurant bill, I return shoes that I’ve worn for a night, and I even put little holes in shirts so I can get discounts at the register. Stealing from hotel rooms is a new thing, and I’m troubled by how easy it is. I put the iPod in my other pocket and start to clean their room.
Jake’s knuckles are red. He rubs them as he sits beside me. His skin is dry and flaky. He has cracks in his hands like an old man. His old cuts and bruises are healing on his face, but a new one has blossomed open on his chin. A large gauze strip secured by a Band-Aid hangs off the fresh wound.
He taps his sneakered foot. I look at the principal’s degrees on the walls and wonder when the hell he’s going to bother to come in and start this. Jake sighs and rests his head in his hand. I pull a small piece of paper from his thick mess of brown hair. He doesn’t notice.
The door whines open and in walks fat Principal Jordan. He’s bald and pasty, short and round. He sits at his large desk and looks at us. He makes me think of a dressed-up pig.
“Sorry about that.”
“It’s all right,” I say.
“I’m not going to pretend I don’t know what you’re both going through right now. Because I do.” His voice is low for his size.
“I’m sure Jake’s told you,” I say.
“I didn’t tell him.”
“It’s just common knowledge around here. And I know what it’s like to be a teenager. I remember it. I got into a few fights myself,” he says. I suppress a smile, imagining him with his short little arms and legs throwing punches. I bet he was on the receiving end of every fight he ever had.
He pulls on his pressed, button-down shirt to straighten the creases and continues. “But Jake, this isn’t your first fight. This isn’t even your third. What’s going on? What’s the provocation?”
Jake says nothing.
“Listen,” he says, leaning forward. “You ran Tom Anisewski’s face into the flag pole. They all said you started this fight. You know he lost two teeth from that?”
Jake nods. I swallow, back to imagining bills and possible lawyer fees.
“What should we do?” I ask. “Is his family pressing charges?”
“I don’t know yet,” he says. “I’m talking to the family tomorrow.”
“Tom…” Jake started. He blinked a few times, cringed. “They grabbed me after school. There were two of them on me.”
“Names?” he asks, taking a pen in his hand.
“Tom starts punching me. It was hard to fight back,” he says, directing it to me. “I tried to get away. But then George comes out, tells them to knock it off so they let me go. Then Tom says…”
“What did Tom say?” he asks.
“Tom says Melissa must’ve…must’ve blown George. You know, for George to care if I was getting beat up. But really, Tom asked Melissa out a few times and she always said no to him.”
Principal Jordan puts a hand on his bald head. Having written nothing, he puts his pen down and interlaces his fingers.
“Then what happened?”
“Then I sort of lost it. I went after Tom and well, you all kind of know what happened from there.”
“Were all of these fights about Melissa?” the principal asks.
“Pretty much,” Jake says.
“You have out of school suspension. For a week.”
I can feel Jake suppressing a smile beside me. He is jumping for joy under his morose, tired façade.
“Now can I talk your mother a moment? Alone?”
Jake looks at me and says, “Sure.” He gets up and walks out, the heavy door clicking shut behind him.
“I’m so sorry about him,” I say.
“Carol,” I say.
“It’s good that Jake defends his sister. It’s nice to see that he loves her. But he can’t keep doing this. I’ve seen boys like him grow up and become doctors and accountants. Have nice lives. And then others, if they don’t stop, they just end up in jail. And all of that starts with you, Carol.”
“Maybe you should start having more teachers around after school to make sure none of this shit happens.”
“Is that your suggestion?”
“Yes,” I say, getting up. “Jake’s a good kid. He’s not going to end up in jail.”
“I hope not.”
“He won’t. And if those asshole kids start to trash-talk my daughter, I hope Jake breaks every one of their little health-insured teeth for it.”
I walk out, shutting the door behind me.
In the parking lot, Jake says, “I heard what you said.”
“Just get in the car.” I start the engine. It sputters and stops. I turn the key. It won’t turn over. I try it again, and the engine sounds like an old man’s cough. It fails into silence. I rest my head on the steering wheel and feel my throat tighten. I can’t afford to fix the car. I’ve hit a financial wall. That’s it. If the car goes, we just don’t have a car anymore.
For one terrible moment, I think about what things would be like if we didn’t have to pay for Melissa’s treatment. Things would be okay then. I wonder if Jake ever gets these thoughts. I squeeze the wheel, hating myself.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“It’s not your fault.”
I close my eyes. When I open them, Jake has the iPod in his hand.
“Where’d you get this?”
“I bought it for Melissa.”
“You opened it?”
“I got it from a friend.”
Jake looks at me for a long moment. He doesn’t believe me.
“What?” I say.
“It’s nice.” He puts it down where he found it.
“Did you get the charger for it?”
“It needs a charger?” I ask.
“They just want you to keep spending money on these damn things, don’t they?”
“Thanks for defending me,” he says.
“Whatever happens, please just don’t end up in jail. I want that dick to be wrong about you.”
I take his hand and squeeze it. I turn the key, the engine coughs and hitches to life. I’m grateful the stall happened here and not as we were running from a restaurant.
The click of my high-heels echoes through the hall. I sound important, as if I'm on a mission. Jake is holding the balloons, and once in a while they bang into my head. I bat them away as we make our way to the reception desk.
“Hi, Angie,” I say.
“Hey, Carol. Jake.” Angie smiles especially at Jake, whose face is beginning to get that nice purple look.
“Hey,” Jake says to her.
“What happened to you?”
“Fight,” he says, looking at his feet.
“Did you win?”
“This time I did.”
Angie smiles at him and I can see a spark of something sweet between them. She’s a few years older, but I wouldn’t mind if he brought her around once in a while. Maybe a girlfriend would calm the kid down a bit.
“Melissa’s awake, last time I checked,” Angie says.
“Thank you,” I say.
We walk down Hallway C, where they keep Melissa hooked up on a bed of dry sheets, in a room of white walls.
It’s strange walking into room two-fourteen. It’s always the same but it never feels natural or easy. There’s always that stark clean smell of muted sick. The geometric curtain around the bed. The large, sliding glass window that looks out to a canopy of trees. The sink, the toilet, the mechanical bed, the food tray, the cards, the pictures, the machines. The false cleanliness of human deterioration.
She is sitting up in bed, reading an old book. She looks pale and old, and a little weaker than the last time I saw her. Her blonde hair and eyebrows are gone. Her narrow shoulders slump over toward her book. She doesn’t seem to notice us standing in the doorway. I can’t believe she’s fifteen.
“Hi, sweetie,” I say.
She looks up and smiles. Her crooked teeth look yellow against her pale skin. I go to her, wrap my arms around her and swallow down the lump that rests heavy in my throat. Jake ties the balloons to her bed and gives her a careful hug.
“What’s the occasion?” she asks.
“It’s your birthday,” Jake says.
“Oh, I thought that was tomorrow.”
We pull the chairs up to her bed and talk about the nurses. We talk about school but we don’t tell her about the fights. She doesn’t seem to notice Jake’s healing face, which is a relief. I talk about my job; I talk about people in town. We discuss movies; we play cards on her blanket-draped legs. She opens the makeup and the iPod, and she doesn’t seem to care that the iPod doesn’t come in any packaging or that the makeup is too dark for her complexion. She is as happy about it as she can be. She is as present as she can be. Jake notices her distance, her slight disengagement.
We knew the story going in. We knew it wasn’t going to get any better—in fact, it would get much worse. But it’s not something you believe until you see it.
I can tell that Jake is going to be very quiet on the car ride home. That we both are. There will be no radio, no small talk. He will go to his room and shut the door and deal with it the way he can, and I will busy myself with the house.
The balloons are the brightest things in the room. Their color explodes from the drab white walls and the gravity of the hospital. Melissa looks at them and there is sadness in her eyes. She knows that when we leave, the balloons will remain, leaving a memory of something better, until they can’t stay up anymore. She understands what they’re trying to do, and what they’re ultimately failing to do. They only work to change the mood, and that’s all.
You can put a pig in a suit, a hunchback on a saint and balloons in a dying girl’s room, and it won’t change a damn thing.
Just as I thought: I drive home and it’s silent in the car. We fly by the trees, the mailboxes, and the houses. I wonder if Melissa can see the canopy of trees from her bed. I wonder if she wants to.
“I want to see her again tomorrow,” Jake says. “I have the week off; I might as well.”
“Okay.” I pull into the driveway of our tiny, one-story home. I want to tell Jake that I love him, but he’s already out of the car.
I follow him into the house. He goes up to his room, shuts the door and turns on something loud and tinny. The drums shake the walls but I don’t tell him to turn it down. It’s a nice distraction.
I go under the sink and grab the cleaning supplies and start in on cleaning the toilet, but I find that it’s already pristine. Everything is. All I do is clean this tiny house. I sit on the bathroom floor, feeling anxious. I don’t know what to do now. I rest my head on the tile wall, feeling Jake’s music course through my bones, and I don’t know what else to do.
Elizabeth Green graduated from the University of the Arts with a BFA in Theatre Arts. Her short stories have been published in The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Flask and Pen, Inwood Indiana and The Absent Willow Review where she won Editor’s Choice Award for the month of March in 2011. She currently lives in Philadelphia where she is saving up for an MFA in creative writing.