By: Shae M Hall
Jess and I sat on the roof outside her bedroom window sucking on Marlboro Lights. We held our cigarettes like they do in movies with our wrists arched, our fingers straight. We moved them as we talked with our hands because it made us feel grown up. We owned the place that summer morning, as the sun peeked over the trees, painting the sky pale yellows and oranges. We were eavesdropping on the birds as we snuck in the last few puffs before Jess’s mom would stumble sleepily out to her Taurus to start her double shift at Waffle House.
I loved spending the night with Jess. Her house was everything my parents hated and for all the right reasons. There was little, if any, supervision since her mom worked so much. When she was home she wasn’t really ever around because she liked her privacy and her bottle of Smirnoff. It was the opposite of my house. My parents practically interrogated anyone I brought through the front door, and I could never have anyone over unless one of my parents was home. They asked questions about my day, where I was going, when I’d be back.
There wasn’t much to do in northern Kentucky so I pretty much stayed out of trouble. We lived in a neighborhood of cookie cutter houses, each with neat rows of vibrant tulips or pansies in well-groomed flowerbeds. A small birch tree grew in each front yard. The only places for a kid my age to go were Jimmy’s Roller Rink, Florence Cinemas, Florence Mall or Sports of All Sorts where there was Putt-Putt, Bumper Boats or a few batting cages.
It was the last week of summer break before entering Ryland High School and I was still hoping that I would magically grow breasts so I would fit in. All my other friends, especially Jess, could fill out cute little tank tops and t-shirts. I still looked the same, flat and curveless. I was turning fourteen, and I still looked like I should be playing with my Easy Bake Oven. The way I was going I’d never get a boyfriend or a date to the homecoming dance in October.
I exhaled the smoke through my nose and sighed. “Can’t believe summer’s almost over.”
“No shit,” Jess said. “We didn’t even do anything cool. This sucks.”
I butted out my cigarette on black shingle before tossing it in the gutter two feet away. “So, high school…are you nervous?”
Jess shook her head in the dying darkness as the sun rose in the east. “Nah. I mean, we got each other.”
“But we don’t have any classes together.”
She frowned but didn’t say anything as we heard the front door close beneath us, the rattling of keys locking the door, and a smoker’s cough. Her mom appeared below us on the walkway, a scowl on her sleepy face. She was heading toward her car. She looked up, frowned again, and tossed her bag in the front seat. “What are you doing up there? How many goddamn times have I told you to stay off that roof?”
Jess rolled her eyes. “I’m just sitting here, Peg. No biggie.”
“I’m your mother. Don’t call me Peg. And get off the goddamn roof!” She sighed, her shoulders sagging. “Seriously, babe. You’ll break your freakin’ neck.”
Jess and I made our way carefully back up the sloping roof in the growing morning light and through the bedroom window back onto Jess’s unmade bed. Her room was a mess of dirty clothes, school books and stuffed animals.
“You’d think we just started climbing out there.”
I shrugged. “There’s no way my mom would let us sit on the roof.”
“That’s because your mom gives a shit. Mine just doesn’t want the neighbors to think she’s a bad parent.” Jess folded her legs underneath her and sat back against the wall.
The house was quiet except for Jess’s fish tank sucking and spitting water through its filter and the sound of the Taurus rumbling out of the driveway and onto the street. It chugged loudly and faded in the distance.
I knew what came next, the routine of raiding Peg’s makeup and catching the bus on the corner to the mall. It had become our summer ritual, something to do.
Peg kept her makeup scattered in a big blue Caboodles container on the back of the toilet. Caboodles hadn’t been cool for years, but Peg wasn’t about trends or fads. She had her own distinct style. Jess and I often joked that she was frozen in the seventies with her Farrah Fawcett hair and electric blue eye shadow. I didn’t care though. Peg was a little more risqué with her vibrant looks than my mother. My mom chose the natural route with her pale shades, and she usually lacked makeup all together.
I wasn’t allowed to own makeup yet, except for lip balm and the occasional thing that I bought on allowance like clear mascara, so I reveled in the thought of going through Peg’s Caboodle, even if I wasn’t brave enough to sport her bold shades. The box displayed a wide array of tacky colors; the inside looked like a box of crayons had exploded. I pushed aside loud eye shadows, screaming yellows and blues and greens. I settled on the only nude color I could find, carefully sliding the brush across my narrow eyelids as I made faces in the mirror.
“It doesn’t even look like you have anything on,” Jess sneered. She was sitting on the edge of the bathroom sink in front of the large vanity mirror, her legs dangling between the counter and the toilet.
I shrugged as I pulled the caps off several red and pink lipsticks. “Doesn’t she have any lip gloss?”
“Yeah, like a clear one or something?”
“Lip gloss is for babies. These,” Jess held up a siren red lipstick in an expensive gold case and twirled it, “Are Chanel. Why would you want a lip gloss when you could use these?”
I crinkled my nose. “I don’t wanna look like a hooker.”
Jess laughed and lit a cigarette. “She must be a hooker to afford Chanel. That shit is expensive.”
“Maybe she saves her money from the Waffle House.”
I continued digging through Scrunci’s and bobby pins, cotton balls, face sponges, and makeup until I found some mascara, an old tube that was crusted with layers of black.
“Your mom’s not so bad,” I said.
Jess laughed as she applied foundation that was too dark with one hand, leaving a makeup line. She flicked her cigarette in the other hand. “She’s not so bad, but you have it made, Ellie.”
I opened my eyes as wide as I could in the mirror and flicked on a small amount of flaky mascara. “I don’t have it made. I live in a concentration camp. I can’t do anything. They know every move I make. They’re Nazis.”
She laughed as she inhaled from her Marlboro. “At least they care. And besides, you have two parents that really love each other. That’s gotta count for something.”
She was right. I was the only one in the neighborhood who still lived with both my parents. Everyone else was from a single parent home, and it had been like that for as long as I could remember. My parents did love each other, and no matter how controlling they were, I understood that it was simply because they cared. I had grown up watching them steal kisses in the hallway, sneakily smacking each other on the butt when they didn’t think I was looking. It was gross and I usually made my opinion known, but secretly, somewhere deep inside, I sort of admired it.
“I hope I make crappy dinners one day for my kids, and we all sit down at the table for dinner together. I hope my husband loves me and we grow old together. Shit,” Jess chuckled, exhaling smoke rings. “I just hope he sticks around. Most dads don’t, ya know?”
I sighed. “My mom does make crappy dinners, huh? Her meatloaf is lethal.”
Jess smiled as she blended her makeup line. “Better than a Banquet TV Dinner.”
“Your dad’s not bad either,” she added.
I rolled my eyes and took a draw off what was left of her cigarette. “Just a little nosy.”
“Nah. He just cares.” She turned on the faucet to rinse the ashes out of the sink and smiled. “To the mall?”
“To the mall.”
The Florence Mall was dead at eleven in the morning except for mall walkers in tight exercise pants and sweat stained-sweatshirts. Frumpy moms pushed their babies in strollers as they window shopped. The smell of Starbuck’s and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels drifted from the awakening food court as we made our way past Lane Bryant, Wilson Leather, and a photo shop called Click.
Bath and Body Works, one of the few stores that had already raised their metal gate, stood on the corner. I loved the small shop, though I owned very few things from there. Jess and I waved nonchalantly at the sales clerk in her fresh uniform as we wandered to a shelf of scented lotions, splashes, and creams.
Expensive fruit and floral scented body splashes and lotions carefully lined the shelves like soldiers. The small store was full of the fancy plastic bottles all arranged neatly by color, waiting to be sprayed and sniffed. Each pricey bottle wore a picture of ripe oranges, raspberries, melons, or apples. Lotuses, lilies and roses were printed in vibrant colors on the labels under tempting, tantalizing names like Midnight Pomegranate, Warm Vanilla Sugar, and Ripe Red Raspberry. I pulled the cap off a body splash and sniffed the sweet smell of Country Apples.
“I want this one,” I said.
“So get it.”
I opened my wallet and stared at the five singles folded neatly in it. I was too young to work, but too old to be without money. I frowned at Jess and closed the wallet back, tossing it in my purse. “No can do. I really wish Dad wasn’t such a tight ass.”
“Still can’t get him to fork over more dough? Thought you were cleaning out the garage for extra cash?”
I sighed and sniffed the nozzle again. “I haven’t finished it yet. Can you front me?”
Jess pulled a blue bottle of spray off the shelf and doused herself in some sort of citrus scent. “No can do. They’re like fifteen bucks a pop and I don’t even get an allowance. You’re lucky.”
I sighed and placed the bottle back on the shelf.
“What’re you doing?”
“Putting it back. I don’t have enough.”
“Go ahead and get it.”
“With what? My good looks?”
Jess laughed, her white teeth flashing as she nudged me. She continued to study the shelf. “That won’t get you very far!”
I nudged her back. “Whatever.”
She lowered her voice and leaned closer as she sniffed a bottle of lotion. “Just treat yourself.”
“Jess, I don’t have enough.”
“You don’t have to have enough, dummy.”
I stared at her, confused.
“Just take it,” she whispered.
“Like steal it? You want me to just take it?”
“Shh! Jesus. You want a megaphone? Lower your voice. Besides,” she smiled deviously. “It’s not stealing. It’s a five-finger discount.”
“Five-finger discount? I’ll pass. I hear they eat bologna in jail, and I don’t like bologna. And my dad would kill me. No way.”
“Can I help you ladies find anything?” A petite sales lady stood inches behind us. According to the name tag pinned on her uniform, her name was Amanda. My heart thumped heavily in my chest and I swallowed hard as my face grew hot. Had she heard us?
“Nope. Just looking.” Jess said. She looked innocent as always.
The woman smiled. “Let me know if I can help.”
I shifted my purse back onto my shoulder nervously as Amanda weaved through the displays back toward the front of the store.
Jess went back to sampling the bottles on the shelf and sighed. “Your loss, Goody Two Shoes.”
I rolled my eyes. I hated that nickname. Next to Jess, I deserved it, I guess. My parents refused to let me go to the mall and hang out without an adult, and they would freak when I asked them to go to a party. I was never allowed to spend the night with anyone without my mom talking to their mom. The humiliation of this often led me to lie about my whereabouts. The only place I could go without question was Jess’s and that was because I kept them in the dark when it came to the supervision at her house. They knew very little about Peg, including the amount of hours she worked and what her daughter did. Ironic, considering she lived one street away.
I ended up spending my last couple of bucks on a flavored lip gloss with glitter in it and made my way out of the store and back into the main corridor of the mall where the crowd was growing a little thicker with shoppers, employees, and old people.
Outside in the sunlight, we barely caught the bus home, shouting for the driver to stop as he began to pull away from the sidewalk. We had pushed through the revolving doors of the mall, frantically running after him. It was just like Jess to always make us late.
We dropped our change in the slot and made our way past the several passengers where we found a seat toward the back where we plopped down. It wasn’t until after the hiss of the air brakes and the rumble of the engine as the bus increased speed that I saw Jess pull it from her bag. She had her classic evil smile spread across her face, the one where her thin lips nearly disappear, as if swallowed by her teeth. I hadn’t seen that look since she had drank half her mom’s Peach Schnapps’ last summer.
“What were you thinking?” I asked.
Jess smiled. “I was thinking that my best friend really wanted this.”
“But it’s stolen!” I looked around the bus, suddenly aware of several pairs of eyes
on us. An older woman with bluish gray hair frowned at me and shook her head.
“I told you…five-finger discount.” She grinned widely, her eyes crinkled and sparkling.
“It’s not a discount, Jess. It’s stealing.” I whispered.
“Fine, then. Take it back.”
“Sure. I’ll just walk right in and return it,” I said, shaking my head.
“Just chill out. It’s not a big deal. Besides, I stole it not you. And who’s going to find out anyway?”
“That’s not the point.”
Jess shrugged. “Fine. Give it to me. I’ll keep it.”
I rolled the bottle around in my hands. The gold label, the picture of red apples falling out of the basket-it was all very tempting. It did smell good, and I had nothing like it at home. I pulled the lid off and sprayed my shirt generously. I loved the smell. Jess was right, my parents would never know. I tossed the bottle in my purse and zipped it closed before I could change my mind.
She patted me on the shoulder to show her approval. “That’s my girl.”
“You’re trouble,” I said.
She laughed as the bus slowed and then stopped on our street. “Trouble? You’re so good, Ellie Foster, you make my grandma look like trouble.”
She laughed loudly as I followed her down the bus steps and onto the sidewalk.
Dinner was always served at six sharp in my house and everyone was expected to be seated on the dot. My mom’s biggest rule. For years she had insisted on family time and that we needed to eat together, share our day’s events. I hated it. None of my friends had to do it, especially Jess with her Hungry Man dinners and Ramen Noodle Nights. I envied her freedom, her space from her mom’s questions and concerns.
I was in my seat at 5:55 with Jess beside me. Mom was doing her last minute dance in the kitchen, her small hands encased in large red pot holders as she hovered over the oven, waiting for the timer to buzz. It smelled like spaghetti sauce.
“What’s for dinner, Mrs. Foster?” Jess asked politely, her voice sweet and interested.
“A new recipe.” My mom grinned, her eyes twinkling. She shifted her weight on the white linoleum and placed her hands on her tiny hips, curveless and straight like my own. “I clipped it from Better Home & Garden last week. I’ve been dying to try it. It’s Baked Chicken Lasagna.”
“Baked Chicken Lasagna? Why would someone want to mess with lasagna anyway?” Steven asked. He was setting the table, carefully arranging forks and knives on the white tablecloth. He grinned.
Jess smiled sweetly again. “Smells delicious. I can’t wait.”
“I can.” I groaned, rolling my eyes. “Last time she got something from a magazine we ordered pizza. Remember the Pot Roast Disaster, Mom?”
Steven grunted. He was probably remembering the same stench I was.
“Ellie!” My mother’s blue eyes narrowed to slits.
“Well, it smelled like burnt beef in here for at least a week. Why can’t you be normal and pop in a Stouffers or something?”
My mom ignored me as the buzzer rattled. Her gloved hands lowered the oven door and the smell of chicken mingled with the smell of tomato sauce through the well-lit kitchen.
“Hassling your mom over her new recipe?” My father entered the kitchen, making his way to the sink to wash his hands. He shook his head as he winked at me, something he did to signal a joke between the two of us. “I almost stole the recipe card this morning. I thought someone should take it upon themselves to be the hero for the family. I almost swiped it.”
My mom nudged him, “Jack! You and Ellie knock it off. I oughtta make you eat lunch meat sandwiches for the rest of the week.”
“That would be a step up!” My father hooted, drying his hands on a towel. My father was the older image of my brother. They both had the same unruly brown curls and crooked front teeth.
The experimental lasagna wasn’t bad and neither was the dinner conversation as Jess and I smiled and nodded at all the right times. We waded through questions about our day, whether we were ready for the upcoming school year. Steven chewed loudly and occasionally muttered something between swigs of milk.
“So, Jess. Are you taking any elective classes?” My dad winked at me. “Ellie says she’s taking Home Economics. What about you?”
I moaned. “Dad, leave her alone.”
Jess smiled and wiped her mouth on her napkin. She reached for her glass of water. “Actually, yeah. I’m taking Foods 101. I thought it’d be fun.”
I stared at her. “You are?”
She nodded. “You sound surprised.”
“Well, I am. I didn’t know you were interested in cooking.”
Jess took a sip of water and set her cup down carefully, the ice clinking gently. “Yeah, why not?”
I shrugged as my mom placed a lemon meringue pie carefully in the center of the large dining table.
“No biggie. Just didn’t know, that’s all.”
Mom sliced through the pie and served it on small white plates. She passed them around the table and once again forks clinked on glass.
A couple days later I woke to silence; the only noise was the soft settling of the old house. Mom and Dad both worked in downtown Cincinnati, she a receptionist at P&G and he a financial advisor for a 401K company. Steven had stayed over the night before with a friend down the street. I was free to watch reruns and eat Honeycomb from a mixing bowl with a large spoon on the living room floor in front of an old Brady Bunch episode. This was a secret of mine. I loved ruling the house and doing things my own way. After Alice helped Marsha with her broken nose, one of my favorite episodes, I made my way to my parents’ room where I snooped through my mom’s makeup and jewelry collection whenever I wasn’t raiding Peg’s.
My mom had a vanity in her room that sat caddy corner against the pale blue paint that she had chosen years before I had been born. On the top there were fancy glass bottles of expensive perfume in pale yellows, soft blues, and some as clear as water. They were all carefully placed, the sun shining through them, casting colorful prisms on the opposite wall. I had peeked in the drawers enough to know which held hair accessories, expensive jewelry, and cosmetics.
I pulled the bottom drawer open first, the one I recalled from memory as holding the best stash. I shuffled quietly through the drawer even though I was home alone and should be for some time. I settled on a taupe eye shadow and dull brown eyeliner and began to carefully paint my eyes in the wide oval mirror.
I didn’t stumble across the secret until I began pushing through the cluttered drawer for mascara.
That’s when my fingers scraped the bottom and I noticed the piece of paper there, folded into a small square. The paper was thin and worn, the creases threatening to tear as I unfolded it carefully. The corners were yellowed and fragile. I wondered how old it was, how long it had been tucked away. I’d snooped through this drawer a million times and never felt the paper beneath my fingers. It was old, though, I knew. I gently rubbed the corners of the stationary, careful not to crumble the corners. They looked like they would flake into ashes.
It was a piece of stationary, fancy and beautiful. I unfolded it and stared at the black ink. It was not my mother’s handwriting, nor my father’s. I knew immediately that it belonged to someone I had never met, and as my heart began to pound and my brain began to digest the words before me, I knew I had just stumbled across something big, a secret that could destroy everything good I had ever known.
It was addressed to my mom, each letter of her name written carefully in long hard strokes. The ink seared into the stationary beneath the weight of the hand that had written it. Even at fourteen I knew that what I was about to read would change something inside me, alter the person I was, change the way I saw the world around me. But I couldn’t stop my eyes as they moved from left to right and then down to the next line of cursive writing to start over. I read it so fast the first time that I started over from the top and read again when I was done, my heart pumping and pounding with nervousness, anger, and fear with each word.
Rebecca, it said, please stop trying to avoid me and what happened between us. I have risked my family just like you have risked yours…
I felt sick to my stomach as I hurried through the letter the second time. I pulled the small stool out from underneath the vanity and dropped on it, my feet grateful for the support. I held that letter with its twisted flower design in the margin, the pretty colors blurring and smearing as tears filled my eyes. I didn’t attempt a third read but instead held it in front of me staring at the dark writing. All the colors smeared and ran together like a child’s picture drawn in sidewalk chalk, bleeding in the rain.
Where had it come from? And why hadn’t I found it before? My stomach lurched as I imagined my mother sitting on this very stool reading this very letter over and over. My fingers traced the delicate creases once more. Recently, I thought. She had read it again recently. And where had my father been while she reminisced over her old lover?
I stared at the flaking corners, curious as to how old the letter was. It was so worn and fragile, but there was no date.
I read it over and over and over again, picturing my mother’s face. And then I thought of my father. I thought of the way he looked at my mother, the way he smiled and laughed at all of her jokes. I wondered how many times he had pretended to like her dinners, her bad haircuts. I felt sick to my stomach as I read, not once or twice, but three times, the name that was scribbled sharply at the very bottom of the last page.
I didn’t know Daniel or what he looked like, but I hated him. I felt like smashing the vanity mirror and all the pretty little bottles on the top of it. But I didn’t, because as furious as I was in that moment, as much as I was consumed by my anger, I began to feel sorrow creep in. I was ashamed. Then I felt foolish, even embarrassed, for my father, my unknowing, naïve, clueless father.
I folded the paper back as neatly as I could, following the same creases that Daniel, or maybe my mother, had previously made. I slipped it carefully into my front pocket of my jeans and stared at myself in the mirror of the vanity. My mother’s makeup was running down my face, smeared by the tears that began to drop one by one from my blue eyes, the same narrow eyes that belonged to my mom.
I’m not sure how long I sat in the sunlight that afternoon thinking of my mom and dad sneaking pats on the butt in the hallway, or the embarrassing little kisses that they would sneak that used to make me moan and complain. Those little affections suddenly made me frustrated. They were false, and I knew it now. They were lies, those little touches, those little private moments that my parents shared. They were fake, as phony as anything I had ever known.
I pushed the drawer on the vanity shut and rearranged the contents on the top precisely as they had looked when I had first come in. And with my mother’s love note in my pocket, I closed her door behind me and plodded down the hall to my own room so I could read it over and over again.
After my eyes were dry and my mother’s makeup washed from my face, I changed my clothes and walked to Jess’s house. In my wallet was my mother’s note from Daniel. It was folded securely inside, practically burning there. It was all I could do not to take it out and read it again. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I knocked softly on Jess’s front door and waited for the sound of the lock to slide aside. It did so a few minutes later, and she was smiling faintly at me.
“You sounded upset on the phone. What’s up?” She examined my face “Have you been crying?”
I shrugged. “I’m fine. Can we talk?”
“Yeah, sure. Peg’s at the Waffle House.” She waved me into the kitchen. “You want a Coke?”
I shook my head as she opened the fridge, retrieving the generic can of cola for herself. The kitchen was barely lit, the dirty blinds pulled, blocking any afternoon light from filtering in. Jess’s house lacked the natural light that mine had. But that wasn’t all her home missed. There was the absence of lemon-scented cleaners, sparkling linoleum, the smell of a slow cooking dinner in the crock pot. In fact, there was no crock pot, only opened boxes of cereal, an empty milk container, and some dirty dishes. I could smell the damp scent of mildew from somewhere.
I pulled my arm slowly off the sticky kitchen table, unable to identify the substance that tugged at one of my arm hairs. Then I reached into my bag and pulled it out for her to see.
She pushed a dry, unloved house plant from the center of the table and stared at the object in my hands. “I don’t want it,” I said, handing her the bottle of apple body splash. And it was true; I didn’t want it at all.
She moaned. “That again?”
I pushed it closer to her, past the goo that was caked on the table.
“It’s not a big deal, and it’s over with.”
“It is a big deal, because it’s not right. I changed my mind. You keep it.” I waved my hand dismissively at her. “It’s dishonest and stupid, and I don’t want anything to do with it.”
“Stupid,” I said.
She took the bottle of Country Apple body splash from my hands and rolled it around in her own. “Fine. I’ll keep it. I should’ve never given it to you.”
“You mean stolen it for me? I never asked you to.”
She took a swig of her Bubba Cola and grunted. “Whatever, Ellie.”
I pushed my chair out from under the table and stood up, grabbing my bag.
“You know what your problem is? You think you’re so perfect. You and your perfect mom and your perfect dad with their perfect dinners and perfect smiles. You think you’re better than me, but you’re not.”
I tried not to let her see the tears welling in my eyes in the poor light that spied through the dirt and grime on the blinds.
“I never said I was better,” I said quietly. “I know I’m not.”
“You’re such a spoiled brat.” Her eyes narrowed into angry slits. “You have everything and all you ever do is complain…I wish I had this…I wish I had that. Oh, poor little Ellie!” The bottle of body splash shook furiously in her hands.
“Why would you be so mean?” I asked, fighting to stop my lips from quivering.
“I’m not being mean, Ellie. I’m being honest.”
I threw my bag back on my shoulder and headed toward the door. I didn’t hesitate or turn back to look at her. I opened the door quietly and then I closed it back behind me. I wondered if she was watching me through the blinds or if she had just gone back to her soda like I had never been there.
My stomach flipped somewhere deep in my gut. It was kind of like the way your stomach rolls and flips as you surge down the final steep hill of a roller coaster ride, the part where you’re not sure if you’re going to throw up or not.
I crossed the street, my own house with the green shutters coming into view as the sun poked out behind a thin, flat cloud. I made my way past mailboxes, parked cars, a dog in his front yard on a chain staying cool under a small birch. And one by one my feet moved toward the front door of the only home I had ever known.
Shae M. Hall is a freelance writer who lives in Lakeside Park, Kentucky. She is a member of Cincinnati Writer’s Project. Shae has been published in Creative Living. She was previously a fiction editor for The Licking River Review and The New Madrid. She has a MFA in Creative Writing from Murray State University and a Bachelor degree in Electronic Media Communication and Creative Writing from Northern Kentucky University. Shae is currently working on a collection of short stories. In her spare time, Shae enjoys reading literary fiction and cooking.