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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: February 12, 2018

A A A | A A A

Submitted: February 12, 2018



Shoes, socks, scarf-

“Where are you going?”


“I have an early morning.” I leaned over and grabbed an earring, wondering if I had its match, knowing it would bother me if I left it on his floor. Knowing it would bother me more to stay and have this discussion again.

“You never spend the night,” Dom accused.

“Can't sleep next to someone,” I said.  Even if that weren’t the case, the streetlamp just outside his window would have kept me awake.  He lived on one of those south Philly streets that lit the entire block up at Christmas. Strands of lights were slung between houses creating a canopy of festiveness overhead.  It might be pretty but try living in it and you’ll never sleep again with Santa blinking into the window all night.

“You don’t want me to have blue circles tomorrow, do you?”  I forced myself to sound light. Almost cheery. Was I ever cheery anymore?

“They might think I socked you one,” he pretended to laugh, pretended that he was ok. And then he didn’t.  “You never try.”

I perched on the edge of the bed. Just for one second to shove my shoe on. I didn’t even bother putting on my socks, just stuff those in a pocket, as usual.

“Honey, this isn't my first time trying,” I huffed. I was shoved into all of my clothes (socks in pocket, feet in shoes, arms in jean jacket sleeves) which meant it was time to leave.

“Just stay,” he murmured.

“I gotta go.”

“What if we were in your bed, huh?”

“Doesn't matter where. I can’t sleep next to someone.”

“Take a Benadryl and pass out.” His hand snuck out and touched the soft skin of my inner wrist. “Always worked when I needed to sleep in the back of the HumV and shit, if I can sleep during an airstrike in Kuwait, I bet you can too.”

I sighed, letting out more air than I knew was left in my lungs. Instantly, his touch withdrew. I wasn’t even sighing at him. I was just tired. But it made him clam up and that’s a good thing.  I didn’t bother comforting him.

“We'll talk in the morning.” I said and left.


The damn bus wasn’t running at that point and I got a blister walking home in the soggy damp of a night that wasn’t quite raining but also not quite not.  My socks were still stuffed in my pockets and, by the time I remembered to put them on, it didn’t make a difference.

Of course, it wasn’t working. You just don’t date someone from South Philly if you’re from Fishtown. Hell, you don’t even go to South Philly if you’re not from there. Except for the stadiums.

Cabs sped by but I didn’t get in one. We were saving most pennies now that Mom was sick and the twenty bucks to get up town just didn’t seem worth it. Plus I liked the quiet of the city at night. The city didn’t exactly sleep but the people and vermin that came out at night were an odd kinda comforting. Straight up cats and delivery bikes and homeless people who leave you alone. Sometimes a rat or a cockroach.  One time I saw a possum. I don’t really hold it against people anymore when they call it Filthy-delphia.

After more than an hour of trudging home, I opened the door just in time to hear mom sploosh all over her blankets. The antiemetics didn’t work for shit. Neither did the pain killers. God, how did she manage to get sick on the chair from across the room? We had her set up on the pull out couch in the living room cause my sister thought it was easier that way but that was apparently a bad decision for the grammy’s cross-stitched chair.

I drowned her in towels that we’d just gotten last month but had washed so often they were now well worn.  At least this time she didn’t mess herself. We’d had to buy so many new pairs cause she kept doing it. She wouldn’t let us say things like “shit herself.” She was too dignified for that. Too proud. But she was the first to admit we came from a family too big in a town so poor they had canned their own food. And not in the gentrified, hipster way that’s fair trade, organic, and pesticide/migrant-worker-hand free.

It was hardly morning and I hadn’t slept but I was more starved than sleepy. After I got her back to bed, I snuck to the basement and shoveled into my face what I will call a midnight snack (although it was much closer to breakfast).  I’d set up a microwave down there cause the smell of the food bothered Mom too much for me to do it in the kitchen anymore. Which nixed any home cooked meals but, really, between the sympathy lasagnas and canned soup, who needed to cook anymore? My only friend was a naked lightbulb and a dead cockroach I’d covered with an empty paint can and decided to deal with another day. That day hadn’t come yet.


My sister, Janet, showed up halfway through Mom’s mid morning bout of vomiting and rushed in to start coddling. That’s what Janet was good at. Taking over things. Taking care of things. Which left me to clean up, the task I infinitely preferred.

I got back from tossing the towels in the wash just in time to hear Janet say pointedly: “Fiona’s seeing someone.”

I hissed at her between my teeth and cleaned up Mom’s breakfast, which she’d scarcely kept down, as they barraged me with questions.

“How long are you keeping this one?” Janet asked.

“What do you mean?” I evaded.

“He looks like a... what's the word for ‘the Jersey version of hick’?”

“Guido,” Mom supplied. She was one of few words nowadays, especially after vomiting but she was always the first one to disparage against Italians.  Another reason I wasn’t about to tell them anything about this south Philly boy.

“No, that's the Jersey version of ‘chav’.” Janet shook her head. She’d actually gone to a college that didn’t have “community” in front of it and had spent a semester in London and inserted words like “posh” and “cheers” into her Philly accent. “He doesn’t wear tracksuits.”

“How the hell do you know what he looks like?” I asked.  Mom’s spoon clattered against the bowl in my hands as I stopped midway to the sink. Tiny Philly row home means that the kitchen and living room are basically one and the same so I couldn’t even escape to go do dishes.

“I stalked you on facebook. How else am I gonna know what’s going on in your life?”

Dom had posted something, tagging us at a restaurant which had seemed innocuous enough (and we’d been arguing about something recently enough) that I didn’t make a stink for him to take it down.

I turned on my heel with a huff, slamming the bowl into the sink and I expected it to clatter into two parts. Somehow, it stayed whole.

“I’m just teasing.” Janet came up behind me, wrapping her arms around me and I knew I had to submit or else she would throw a fit. She held on -I swear I waited the appropriate two Mississippies- and just as I pulled back, she kissed me on my temple.

“Seriously?” I scoffed and shrugged her off.


At least I was prepared for Mom to die. Watching her decay was a mess but at least I knew it was gonna happen.  

When Jared died, it was a shock.

We had been seeing each other for a year. But that was it. I knew after two weeks he was the last new dick I’d see... I should probably say something more romantic than that.  He was that last pair of arms that would ever hold me? Statistically unlikely but, sure, that sounds nicer.  I kept waiting for shit to change my mind but each day after only solidified it. This was the man I’d spend my life with.

They called it SADS. Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome. A whole bunch of words that mean “Shit, I have a dozen degrees that I paid half a million dollars for and even I can’t figure out what happened.” They said it was probably some preexisting heart condition or something but they just kept saying SADS and I wondered if they were setting an expectation or giving me a prescription.

I don’t like to think of myself as the mournful-widow type. But I cried almost everyday for him. Not even trying to. Sometimes the tears exploded out of me as I sunk onto the kitchen floor, hyperventilating.  A lot of the time, they would just leak out. At the bus stop, at my desk at work (before Mom got sick and I had to quit), onto my pillow. And I couldn’t stop. I felt like a boat sinking, the more water I released, the more available to drown in.

Maybe I was like a water tower and everyone was getting nervous because they thought I’d flood the town with my sadness. I probably did.  Lots of people didn’t talk to me after that. They stopped knowing how to speak to me when it was a chore to even make eye contact.

That leaking thing kept happening for awhile and then Mom got sick and I didn’t so much “wake up” as “continue”. My limbs began to do things that I hadn’t been able to make them do since Jared had died. Sometimes, it still burst out in that late, late, almost-morning time when I made food in the basement with only the cockroach for company. Otherwise, the tears were pretty much over. Pretty much everything was over except for continuing.


“I can’t do this anymore,” I said into the phone. Dom didn’t respond for awhile and the silence stretched like silly putty. For awhile you think it’ll keep stretching and then all at once, a chunk plops on the ground and you’re left with the carpet-infested, plastic strings that you have to wind back up.

“Yeah,” he finally said. “But you really never could, could you?”

“If you’re gonna get petty, I’m just gonna hang up.”

“I’m not being petty. You’re the one who won’t let yourself care.”

I hovered over the end button but I didn’t wanna feel like a total dick later so I let him keep talking.

“Hey, at least I’m not the one who’s afraid to say what I feel,” he sighed. “They’re just words, Fiona. Words matter but they’re not torture. Shit, after SERE, there’s nothing I’m scared of.”

I think I’d take the torture.


As if that wasn’t enough of a shitty day, Janet brought her kid, Tara, over because the preschool was closed that day.  It was enough of a chore to keep Mom together and four-year-old Tara kept getting tangled in Mom’s cords and running head first into the heart monitor. Don’t they teach kids how to not kill themselves? Shouldn’t that be a more pressing lesson than how to color inside the lines?

When I wiped up Tara’s most recent tear spillage (right after Mom’s recent mouth spillage), Tara sniffled and said “Can we get ice cream, Auntie Fony?”

When she’d started talking, Tara had issues with pronouncing full out “Aunt Fiona” and it stuck, no matter how much her mother tried to pronounce the three syllables of my name. It was fitting though. For most of her life, I hadn’t been myself. I’d been this shell of someone just trying to clean up the messes before another got made.

“Not right now, Rugrat. Go color a picture for Grammy.”

Tara settled in next to Mom who looked at me with eyes that seemed heavier than my own. I realized it was the first time she’d looked at me in awhile. Really looked at me. As more than just the hands attached to the food I was bringing her or the back taking her dirty dishes away; the arms lifting her upstairs to bathe or the backside bending over to remake the pullout. She finally looked at me and we stayed like that for the few minutes it took Tara to scribble something that we would have to pronounce “beautiful”.

“You ever going to bring that Guido around to meet me before I kick the bucket?”

Since when was Mom even lucid enough to care? She’d never been a particularly mothering sort before getting sick and, since then, she hadn’t had the energy to do anything more than just live to the next day.

“He’s not around anymore.”

“Hmm.” Mom grunted and then made the same sound when Tara held up her drawing for praise.


Later that day, Janet finally came by to pick up the rugrat but Tara and Mom were down for their naps which was a damn relief. Janet wanted to do her usual bustle in and clean the house, especially since her spawn had torn it apart this morning. But I convinced her to let them sleep for awhile. Any work we did would rouse mom and since Tara wasn’t a hide-in-the-basement-with-the-cockroach kinda girl, we put on our coats and huddled in the cement and chainlink cubby that passed for a back patio. Tara lit up and I watched the white-grey sky that always hung over this city in the winter.

“You know you never touch Mom,” Tara said. For a second, I wondered if I could pretend I couldn’t hear her over the sound of a siren going by.

“What do you mean?” Why was everything in this family so heavy? Why couldn’t they just say “hey how’s your day fine kthanksbye” like normal families?

Tara took a long drag.

“You never touch her. You clean her up. You clean the mess but you never touch her. Never rub her back or hold her hand.”

I shrug. “That’s what you’re for.”

“Is this about Jared?”

I half shake my head and then pretend I had been turning my neck to check on Mom through the window.

“Been almost a year and a half, hasn't it?” Janet asked. “Woulda thought you'd be getting over it by now.”

I cleared my throat as I felt the leaking begin again.  I had gotten really good at inconspicuously blinking just frequently enough to dry out my eyes and just infrequently enough that no one noticed.

“She's gonna die,” Janet said almost cruelly. “She's not gonna pull through and you gotta be ok with that, being around here all the time.”

I let air out between my teeth and it whistled. “It's not like I have a choice to not be here. Can you really take off work or miss Tara's swing classes? God,” I exploded. “Why can’t your kid be a kid and just play with a bucket and some leaves or at the very least take a normal class like soccer?”

Janet sighed her prim-little-Janet-sigh out of her nose tapped her cigarette ash off with a section of chain link.

“You just have to be ready.”

I wrenched the backdoor open and stomped into the basement. At least cockroaches didn’t pry.


Janet had a brilliant idea the next day since Tara still had off. Something about the school being repainted or resprayed for bugs or something that I, in all honesty, didn’t listen to. So Janet took the day off (wild thing that she is) and we went to the movies. All of us. Janet said it would be a multigenerational day and I’m sure she’d scrapbook about it someday (she took enough pictures to fill an album). Of course, everyone else in the entire city had the same idea as us and the theater was packed with children running wild.

So we went to see some kid movie that Tara was almost old enough to see.  Janet was worried she was still too young and she’s gonna get scared but we watched this movie and suddenly I realized I’m the one crying. We’re supposed to be bonding over a stupid kid movie and I was legitimately crying. God, wasn’t that stage over? I couldn’t blink this away so I stood up, hoping to fall apart a little more privately. But I couldn’t see my own shoes and I trampled some popcorn that the ushers hadn’t cleaned up as I felt my way to the exit.

It was so stupid. In the movie, the puppet got lost (it’s orange so I really can’t tell what gender or creature the creators were going for) and it couldn’t find its parents so it wandered around, asking for help and nothing looked familiar but the puppet just wanted to get home like frickin Dorothy except it didn’t have feet, let alone ruby slippers to click its heels so it was stuck and scared and holy shit, I just had to get out of there.

After the sea of crunching popcorn boobytraps, I escaped and I found myself in the bathroom. One of those giant ones with a hundred stalls and I kept my eyes trained on the ground, hoping no one would look closely enough at my red eyes. I had to pee. Fuck, did I have to pee and maybe I could get myself together. I followed my own feet until I was behind the closest divider.

There was already pee in the bowl but I didn’t want anyone to see my splotchy face so I locked the door anyway. I would flush soon enough. I let my bladder loose and, suddenly, all of me loosed itself and I was sobbing, gushing onto my own knees. I kid you not, I was sobbing on this toilet. The music and ninety-nine other patronizers of this bathroom thankfully covered up my sounds. I sank into my own lap, not caring how yellow the bowl was beneath me, how the yellows mixed and swirled and found each other.

“Fiona?” I heard from the entrance of the bathroom. I didn’t say anything. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to find me. I didn’t think I could pull myself together and, gee, why don’t your lungs listen to you when you tell them not to breathe so fast? The real thing that stopped me was Janet would never forgive me for peeing on someone else’s pee without flushing first.  Before I could decide what to do, I heard a knock and “Fiona, I see your shoes. Let me in.”

With some tissue, I wiped all of myself because at this point, there wasn’t a part of me that wasn’t damp with tears or piss or clammy sweat. Eventually I pulled enough of myself together and my pants far enough up that I unlocked the door. I didn’t let Janet in though. I was not about to have this out in a cubicle for a billion other people to hear. I brushed past her and walked out into the blustery parking lot. It had started to flurry but not in the fun, isn’t-this-romantic-at-Christmas way but rather in the, this-is-gonna-make-the-ride-home-terrible way.

“Would you stop walking away from me?” Janet asked “You always walk away. You never just stop to have the conversation.”

“I don’t wanna talk.” I wound around the back of the movie theater where the dumpsters were. Away from prying eyes. Damn, movie theaters might be some of the best places on earth that take you to all corners of the world on screen, but their back alley is one of the dreariest places I could imagine.

“Yes, I know. You never wanna talk. But you obviously need to. Well adjusted people don’t burst into tears about a puppet.”

“Thanks. I didn’t feel bad enough.”

“Is this about Mom?” Janet tried to touch my shoulder. “Was this multigenerational day too much?”

“It’s not Mom. I don’t know what it is.”

“Is it Jared? Is that still bothering you?”

My hands started shaking. As if it would ever not bother me? As if I could ever just get over that? I was living, wasn’t I? I was “continuing”. Wasn’t that enough for her?

“Shit, everyday I have to go out in the world, knowing that kind of love exists. And it doesn’t anymore. Not for me, at least.”

“So you’ll meet someone new. Someday. Dominic seemed nice.”

I scoffed. The few words she’d spoken about him were to call him a hick. She clearly wasn’t his biggest fan. And in all honesty, neither was I.  “You don’t get love like that twice in a lifetime.”

“It’s as if you LIKE drowning in the sadness or something,” Janet marveled. “It’s like that’s the only part of you that exists anymore.”

“Like it? LIKE it? Do you think I like having panic attacks just because my phone did the double buzz that his used to because he had an android and it divided the messages into 140 characters? And I see his name in my voicemails and I never let myself listen to them cause then I’ll know I hit rock bottom. I used to think Rock Bottom was a place and it was Valley Forge cause if I knew I ended up there, I never got off 76 and just keep going until the road ran out. And the only reason I never go there is because I’d have to pass by his grave and I can’t handle that.”

“It’s been almost two years,” Janet pleaded.

“Do you think I don’t count the minutes? The days it’s been? I thought life would go by faster than this. That one day it would speed up and I’d see months had flown by and how different it was except it stays the same and I stay stuck and the days just add up and slowly I’ve spent more days miserable than I spent with him. I’ll never get out of this fucking nightmare.”

“Why can’t you get unstuck?”

Did she really think I could get unstuck from those room-temperature hands? I’d always known he was there in bed because he would kiss my forehead.  I never knew if that was conscious or if he just did it out of habit or if it was just something he did in his sleep. And he’d always shifted cause my mattress bothered his neck and he always had to rebunch the pillow but that morning when I shifted, he didn’t shift. And when I snuffled into his armpit to get closer to him, he didn’t expand his arm to let me in. He just lay there. I had to actually struggle out of the rigor mortis grip.  

“I wish I knew.”

© Copyright 2019 Cait. All rights reserved.

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