"Keep me awake."
I knew my brother's voice instinctively, as part of my own voice; I must have answered the phone in my sleep. Just as instinctively, I didn't speak.
"Come on, Jess, talk to me. Keep me awake."
"What do you want me to say?" Before he spoke, I already knew two things: It was a rainy Saturday night here in Seattle, and it was after last call in Weatherford, Texas because my brother was driving home. Always: keep me awake. Always the 3 a.m. night ride home. The first time I was 12. For once, he didn't try to protect me from the imperfections of human nature, from his need to drive drunk despite the danger; before that night I didn't know our mother left a goodbye note because how can leaving be explained to those who are left behind?
You would've thought Noah would get tired of talking since he worked customer service at State Farm Insurance. He sounded vulnerable so early in the morning, like the little boy who blocked the door to our parents' bedroom so I wouldn't see our mother's missing beauty products and jewelry, how the mirror would be empty except for our open faces, no plastic pearls or gold chains hanging from edges. He sounded too young as he accelerated out of control, as if I'd tell him no, as if I'd let him slip into that diamond firing darkness by himself. I guess, maybe, sometimes I did. But I never used to.
"Anything. I'm 30 minutes from home," his words slurred. Car windows down, I heard his dirty blond hair whipping in carousel-like wind, pictured him driving: left hand crossed over on the right side of the steering wheel, his body slouched deep into the bucket seat, his right hand clenched on the gear shift. He leaned, only protected one side and left himself open to attack. If he crashed, if the airbag deployed, his arm and the seatbelt would compete to bruise his body the most. But he never wore a seatbelt, thought maybe his arm was enough protection, offered enough abuse.
"If Mom called would you want to know," he mumbled.
With those words it felt like I had never slept; Noah never brought up the topic of our mother first.
"What? Mom called?"
But Noah started singing about smoke rings in the dark without answering, blinked out of focus and forgot I existed.
The man in bed lying next to me stirred, looked out of place against my disheveled lavender sheets, the star patterned quilt forgotten and crouched on the floor. I didn't know his name, but I remembered he drank whiskey sours and stroked the straw in my Hurricane like he strummed his bass guitar, rhythmically, instinctively. Last night, I couldn't look away from his hands as he drove me home and unlocked my door. He had scanned my music collection as I found us a bottle of vodka and glasses. He had picked Coltrane's Lush Life, looked at me and said, you're dangerous. I'd never picked up a man in a bar, taken him home, and not asked his name before slipping out of my clothes. I didn't know how to end a one-night stand.
With the apartment windows closed against the rain, the bedroom was suffocating; humidity pressed against the glass like perspiration clung to skin. Chills appeared. I wouldn't be sleeping again tonight. I threw the covers off, stood up, and thought of grave dirt, thought I should throw something, but I only kept what I loved around, and I couldn't stand the idea of breaking.
"Well," I said to Noah loudly to break through his singing, "you saved me from a nightmare, so I guess I should say thank you." But it felt wrong. A death wish. I didn't want to say thank you, I wanted to say grow the fuck up. I wanted to say be safe. I wanted to say I've got company or why do you do this? But as the youngest, I was used to feeling helpless.
"Yeah, well, you always did dream big," he laughed.
Big. His definition and mine differed, but we both just tried to get through the night.
"So what kind of trouble have you been into tonight?" I asked, but I already knew. He started out at the Red Hen, played pool, drank Bud Light, and picked too many Eagles songs on the jukebox. He lost, no matter how much he played with his high school wingmen, Sawyer and Ben. Around midnight, they headed over to City Limits.
"Bars, the gang, the usual. There was this girl."
"Yeah, listen, you and I, we never really talked about sex. You know, safe sex and waiting until you're ready."
I groaned. My dad's idea of the sex talk, between hauls to and from Florida, was one word: Don't.
"Yeah, well, it's a little late, really, don't worry." I headed to the bathroom; my brother wouldn't notice the stream of urine, the flush of the toilet. Even though he was drunk, I tried to mask the sounds. It was an intimate situation. These were the moments we hid, the needs that marked us the same as everyone else–as revealing as his drunk drive home, as revealing as the questions I asked when he wouldn't remember in the morning. With the phone pressed against my cheek, I washed my hands with antibacterial soap and stared at myself in the mirror like I expected something to change.
"Are you peeing?" he asked.
"No, just washing my hands," I lied and held my breath.
"Okay. Listen, it's just, I know you've been dating a lot," Noah said before breaking into the chorus of All My Exs Live in Texas.
I opened the door and faced the man in my bed, only he wasn't in my bed but leaning against the entryway. Staring up, I waited for him to speak. The strong Latino heritage was evident in his face, and I didn't know how I missed it earlier. His hair was rumpled like a balled up t-shirt, the only semblance of clothing on his nude body. We couldn't escape each other in my tiny studio apartment; we barely fit in the tight space of the doorway, I tried to squeeze myself into a beam of wood, but he made no move to become smaller, to adjust to the space. Inches separated us from the frame and each other.
"Excuse me," he rumbled and stepped into the bathroom. His chest brushed against my shirt, my breasts reacted with a flinch and shiver. He wasn't waiting for me, but his chance to relieve himself. I blushed and moved away, but he didn't bother to close the door and the sounds echoed through the room.
"You know, this talk doesn't matter, you won't remember it in the morning." I settled deep into the couch, watched the bathroom door. I used to ask about our mother. Noah would repeat her goodbye letter, the words our father burned. I'm sorry. It doesn't mean I don't love you. It's a choice–not good or bad, right or wrong–someday–. An unspoken promise of future failure, a broken kind of love. When I moved, I left a letter under the air-vent in my room, ripped pieces out of my journal to build a supply of words for leaving. Go. Escape. Desert. Forsake. Vanish. I always huddled over that vent for warmth in the winter, turned my nightshirt into a heated air bubble. The old shag carpet scratched my skin, but masked the empty echo of air between the floor and the ground when someone walked from one room to another. I wanted to leave that letter; I didn't want anyone to find it.
"Maybe someday you'll find my letter," I said impulsively, "I wonder if it will explain anything."
"Have you left?" Noah asked.
Some people didn't realize when they had been left, when you were gone even as you stood next to them. Gone filled spaces too, even if you couldn't see the ghost face of the one who left. Like existing inside a window, you could trick the mind into feeling touched like light tricked clear into having color, rainbows into appearing closer.
I wanted to answer yes I've left, but instead said, "everyone leaves." There was a reason why you should believe in clichés. Through the phone, I couldn't tell if he sighed, cried or sung; sometimes, I thought all three were the same.
"Not everyone," he mumbled, "how's your job going?" And it was my turn to sigh, cry and sing because even if he didn't know it, he had already left too, packed and pushed off that ledge even as he held so tight to the idea of home; his home was just a place to sleep.
Working at the Space Needle, every day I stamped holes and tore tickets looking not at hands, shoes or handbags, but faces. I punched and tore by feel, without glancing down to ensure the tear occurred along the dotted line or if the hole aligned with the designated hole-punch location. I hardly ever missed my mark; at the end of the day, when we sorted and organized, I knew which holes were mine. Punch holes were as telling as signatures, showed steady or erratic hands, tired or strong wrists.
"Mostly just tourist PDA . You'd be more surprised at what I haven't seen. Your turn, tell me something," I said.
"The sex talk," he prompted, "mom would tell you that–"
"No. Dad already took care of it." Kind of. The one word sex ed talk from my dad happened just after he caught me, his 13 year old daughter, shirtless with a boy on the couch. I still remembered just before he walked in, my favorite part, slipping the shirt over my head, such potential in the intention to take clothes off. After that night, I wasn't allowed to date.
"I remember," Noah chuckled, "I could hear him yelling at you to put your shirt on as I walked up the driveway."
"And you told all your friends," I said.
"It was too good to keep secret. You won't believe me, but mom called the house last night, around 3 in the morning."
Everything happened in the middle of the night; if I could climb the Space Needle at 3 a.m. I would. But still, my brother was drunk, and I didn't blame him. I too had moments of thinking I saw our mother waiting to hand me a ticket, perhaps with a sorry or love you written on one side and a phone number on the other.
"What did she say?" I turned on the TV to an infomercial, some exercise machine guaranteed to make you lose unwanted pounds. When I was younger, I used to watch I Love Lucy reruns lying across my wisteria-printed daybed. The tiny TV across the tiny room sat on the antique hope-chest my mother started for me, but never finished: lace doilies, quilts and silverware. That painted hope-chest lid still hung on my apartment wall, but I left the base in Texas to fill up on its own with dust. As a teenager, I used to climb out my bedroom window, push aside the snowball bush, and sit on the trailer hitch to smoke a cigarette. Even our singlewide home was only a trailer hitch away from leaving, as content on a two-lane highway as a plot of land. As a child, when our father left for days, I waited for him, aware of his absent more than his present, but my mom stayed home with us where the potential to run barely existed, just a phenomenon flash from the corner of her eye. I never waited for her. When she finally saw the chance to run she couldn't resist, hadn't built up a tolerance. We didn't see escape until it smacked us in the face. Sometimes, our breath was the only thing we wanted to take with us. Through the years, my brother and father always came home, although the potential to run must have been painfully present everyday: a semi-truck or a fast car, different engines and top speeds but the same possibility.
"I remember more than you," Noah replied.
And he did. I closed my eyes. When mom left I was six. I couldn't remember her, except through pictures: light brown, almost gray hair, brown eyes, a penchant for dangly earrings. Vanilla bean always brought her image to mind. I saw him once, my mother's lover. I came home early from a sleepover, remember his scruffy beard, the way he tossed my My Little Ponies sleeping bag on the floor, how when we watched a movie they sat so close together. That knowing and want to know about our mother kept Noah still, and I needed to keep moving.
When I opened my eyes, the man from my bed stood before me. My view consisted of bare skin, from his chin to where jeans began, an expanse that was strangely hairless like he waxed his chest. If I looked straight, I'd be faced with his zipper.
"I'd know the sound of mom's hum, rhythm of her breath," Noah insisted.
I immediately held my hand up to my lips to silence the man before me. He held up his fingers to his lips, blew pretend smoke, made a fist with his hand, flicked his thumb up and down a few times. My purse sat open on the end-table table, I waved towards it. He shoved his entire hand in; his hand, bigger than the purse, looked as if he pulled on a glove rather than searched for cigarettes and a lighter. When he stepped outside he left the door cracked open.
"So what about this girl at the bar?" I asked Noah.
"I bought her a Hurricane. She reminded me of you. A younger version of mom."
"Well, brother, that's just creepy," I said, trying to keep the tone light, but I hated being compared to our mother.
He laughed, "we just talked about family and home. I thought I should call you. It's been a while." It'd been a while since we talked, but not since he phoned. I wondered, when our dad called late from the road, from some rest-stop in Arkansas or Ohio, did our mother have another man resting beside her in bed? Did she ever not answer the phone?
The man came back inside, smelled wet with smoke, took off his shoes, bypassed the living room and headed to the kitchen. The couch faced the opposite direction; I didn't turn around, thought perhaps he needed a drink, whiskey or tequila. Maybe he needed a towel to dry himself off because he knew the sight of rain on his skin might have made me ask him to stay.
Back in the living room, barefoot, the edges of his jeans dripping, he stepped over my knees propped against the coffee table, and I felt a few moist punches before he sat next to me. The result of his kitchen foray: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk, the only edible food in the apartment, but the mushy snack looked out of place in his large hands.
He pointed to the TV, pretended to press buttons with his fingers, rummaged beneath my thigh and bunched up my robe, before he finally found the remote and switched to the Sci-Fi channel, to reruns of the Twilight Zone. He unmuted the TV; on the screen, a man held a match to a doll's face. The doll gasped. The man said, "then you do have feelings!" And the doll replied, "doesn't everything?" Something about her brown pigtails and stiff movements was disturbing. Maybe it was the innocent blankness in her eyes as she said "my name is Talky Tina, and I'm going to kill you." How could the man eat and watch that at the same time? I stood up and walked outside to the patio.
Noah had been talking but I hadn't listened, he continued, "well, then we closed the place down. The gang's still at Denny's eating breakfast."
At the moment, I knew nothing was between his face and the dark, grassy night but wind. In my mind, I tracked his location, the roads he drove. He had left the E-Z Mart where he stopped for Marlboro cigarettes. Less wind meant he was at the stoplight at Pearl and Main St. The radio blared still, even muted by the wind. I wondered how we could hear each other; thought sometimes we really couldn't. Sometimes we tried not to. It reminded me of past Taco Bell dinner runs, how Noah's old, hand me down '67 Camaro rumbled and coughed at the drive thru window, flaked black paint off in my hands, how we ate plain bean and cheese burritos night after night and drank Dr. Pepper. Sometimes I thought our mother nursed us on Dr. Pepper, that we had Dr. Pepper veins. The faux arches and fake stucco soothed; when we went inside to eat, the plastic sucked at my legs and swinging under the waiting line bars was as fun as a jungle gym. Noah wrecked that Camaro late one night, speeding somewhere only he knew, seeing something only he could see, jerking the wheel too late. The late night phone call from the hospital, the hospital unnaturally bright. I thought he should be dead, the way his closed eyes and bandaged head rested against a scratchy hospital pillow.
I walked back into my apartment as the Twilight Zone episode ended, as Rob Sterling narrated, "of course we know that dolls can't really talk, and they certainly can't commit murder. But to a child caught in the middle of turmoil and conflict, a doll can become many things: friend, defender, guardian. Especially a doll like Talky Tina, who did talk and did commit murder, in the misty region of The Twilight Zone. "
I walked into the kitchen, eyed the canned yellow squash I kept in mason jars on the counter. Those gold ringed tops were cold to the touch. My mother left her wedding ring under my pillow; I found it a few days later, and sometimes even now I felt it under my pillow late at night.
I poured water into a mug and stuck it in the microwave, grabbed a bag of apple cinnamon tea and a bottle of whiskey. The plate inside the microwave spun to the hum of electricity. If I listened hard enough, I heard steady beats. The microwave beeped. I plunged my teabag into a plain mug that said I'm a coldhearted bitch but at least I'm good at it. Poured whiskey in until the hot, brown liquid threatened to flood.
"Hey," I said uneasy at my brother's silence, "how's dad?" He slowed to drive over the railroad tracks just past Cherry St, I heard the impact rumble of tires.
"Same. How's Seattle?"
Our dad still worked as a truck driver; gone for days at a time, lost to the road, to driving, to fast music and fast wind, to CB chatter and dark, deserted rest stops. Did he look for her on the road, in all the towns and cars he passed by? Did he notice when she left? We didn't call to tell him, but let him come face to face with her absence, to walk through the front door of it. For years after she left, I slept in the cab of his truck; whenever I woke and saw the porch light reflect red metal and chrome rims, I'd take my unicorn blanket and sleepily climb into the area behind the seat. Once our dad didn't noticed, drove all the way to New Orleans before my waking yawn caught his attention. After that, he started checking.
"Aren't you going to ask again?" Noah said quietly, as if he has been preparing himself. Heavy wind noise meant he was on Highway 95.
"You know, you already asked, always ask. 'What does her letter mean, will you read it to me, do you think she will ever come back.'"
I didn't realize he remembered these moments.
"No," I answered, "your answer is no, anyway."
He was silent. I moved to the patio window, leaned my head against the glass. I heard an electronic tango coming from the bedroom, the simultaneous sure and hesitant beats. The music was replaced by a pause then, "hola?" He spoke rapid Spanish into his cell phone; I heard the Texas borderlands in his accent, remembered hot, rainless days. Who called him at three in the morning? Who did he carry inside of him? I was suddenly grateful for his presence, to know that he too catered to someone else's long distance need. As the man pulled on his pants, the sound of cotton against skin penetrated the silence, then the teeth of his zipper. When his feet slipped into shoes and gently thudded against the floor, I felt the contact deeper than the sex hours before.
I felt movement behind me, watched as the man shrugged lightly into his shirt. I turned back to the window. I had seen him leaving, he saw me seeing, so the quiet, lack of explanation seemed like choice, and it was. What could I say with the phone tight to my ear filled with my brother's breath and Texas wind? The man slid away, and I let him. The door closed with a soft snap; I made no move to throw the deadbolt.
"You haven't heard from her, right?" I asked Noah.
"She used to make grilled cheese sandwiches shaped like stars and sprinkle sugar inside."
"I don't remember." But I could imagine, staring out the window at the wet road studded with streetlamp light.
"What would you say if I had? Heard from her, I mean."
He was home; I heard his breathing, suddenly loud without the music and wind, echoing in the stillness of the carport where our dad parked his rig. I walked under that carport a thousand times, felt the wood grain prick, slide splinters under my skin and fingernails, scratch my back and pick at scabs. I never saw what my brother stared at on the ceiling, why he sat so still, his car idling for hours; I thought maybe our mother collected our hearts like a charm bracelet and then hung it on a nail next to the ceiling. She was waiting to come back but wouldn't return until we stretched, until we reached for it, reclaimed our hearts as our own. But we didn't know how. He started to recite the note she left. I'm sorry. It doesn't mean I don't… I gently suffocated the phone in the couch, but I didn't hang up. I'd never been able to walk away from anything.
I opened the front door and stepped out onto the second floor walkway, empty without plants or anything worth nurturing. The rain was hot, ran off the balcony to the one underneath, warmed my skin even as the wind cooled it. I was drifting. My brother and I were both drifting, circling the absence of our mother. I sunk to the concrete, didn't care that I landed in a puddle, the littoral zone of this small river. The puddle slowly gained in size. The Space Needle towered in the distance. Did my mother ever visit Seattle? I told myself I would recognize her, but that could be a lie like so many others. My hair dripped, leaving countable watermarks, its own city on my robe. Like a map, I designated which drops were trees, historical landmarks, construction delay signs, underground veins and caves, sewer systems or housing developments. But this city would never be known, just dry out and be lost again.
I always carried this picture in my red leather wallet between my Texas driver's license and my Washington State one: Noah laid stomach down on the floor, chin in hand, swinging legs and I straddled his back wearing a Transformers t-shirt, smiling. We weren't smiling at each other, but at our mother, luminescent in her dark beauty, sitting cross-legged beside us tickling us while she laughed at the camera. Whether at home or someplace else we were always staring, a kind of hopeless people watching. Abandonment felt like that picture, harmless, biting, seemingly like something it wasn't, something to carry. I went inside and rummaged through my purse needing to see it. Lip-gloss, pepper spray, and lighter but my wallet was gone, like it never was, like so much that wasn't.
Before the rain-city on my robe could dry from existence, before I could feel the loss of that picture, I heard steps coming up the flight of stairs. Maybe it was the man from my bed; he took something from me, and now he offered something in return, to replace what he stole. I wasn't sure he could. Maybe he left a sock or his watch on my nightstand. I wondered if I'd let him into my apartment again. He knocked softly, his body outlined in my porch light. I opened the door; Noah stood there dripping wet with his phone pressed against his ear. I looked over his shoulder, but the night was empty.
"I thought you hung up," he said as he brushed past me and into the apartment. He closed his phone as I closed the door.
"Is it better to know or not know something for certain?" Noah asked. He unzipped his leather jacket, revealed the Flash Gordon t-shirt I sent him for his birthday, pulled a thick envelope from his inner jacket pocket, the one over his heart.
"You're here," I said, still questioning the night. My apartment felt like home with my brother's presence, like that Texas trailer and, not for the first time, I was ashamed at how my family defined me, how even the new was simply defined by the past, how, either with our eyes opened or closed, we were all satellites circling an imploding planet.
"To know or not know?" Noah asked again. We hadn't touched, hadn't greeted each other as if we'd never been apart. I looked behind me to the door again, willing time to reset itself, willing the person in the room to be a stranger. Asking questions across miles and telephone lines, when answers seemed as unlikely as sequential eclipses, I told myself I wanted to know. Yet when faced with the prospect of knowing if the rocks in my hands were gold or fool's gold, would I choose to not know, to stay suspended a little bit longer? My eyes focused on the envelope, the heavy, seal-broken mouth in my brother's hand, as if it were our mother herself. I took the envelope from him, gently stuffed it back in his jacket pocket. What beauty laid in the truth, when beauty could be found equally in mystery, in dreaming, when dreaming allowed you to sleep, when sleeping allowed you to wake up?