Alix Ohlin’s short story “Money, Geography, Youth” was published in the winter 2016 issue of the Missouri Review. Ohlin is the author of two novels, The Missing Person and Inside and two collections of stories, Babylon and Other Stories and Signs and Wonders. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and on public radio’s Selected Shorts. She teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, and at Lafayette College.
Money, Geography, Youth
Vanessa was home. She repeated the word to herself, tucked into her childhood bed, a twin with a pink comforter that barely covered the reach of her adult body and was somehow all the more comforting for that, hoping that if she whispered it often enough, the place would feel like it was supposed to. In Ghana, she’d slept on a cot in a room with three other volunteers, and when she closed her eyes at night she fantasized about luxuries she’d once taken for granted: a long shower, a sweating bottle of Arizona Green Tea. Every two weeks, when the NGO officer swung by and granted them each fifteen minutes of Internet access on his laptop, instead of answering e-mails she browsed the Instagram accounts of her LA friends, gazing at their bright but bleary faces, their arms around drunk friends at parties in the first year of college they were all enjoying. On her own Facebook she’d quickly post some line about how Africa was changing her life, she felt so grateful and humble, and then she’d log off, hunger unmet.
Scrolling back now, she could see that Kelsey’s Instagram had been sparser than usual, just an occasional picture of the beach or her cat Max—Kelsey wasn’t in college either, unlike just about everybody else—but in Ghana she hadn’t been online often enough to notice. Kelsey’s e-mails were pedestrian and stilted (“How are you? I am SO PROUD of you for what you’re doing! LA isn’t the same without you J”), but she was a terrible writer, always had been; Vanessa had been doing her English homework for her since they were twelve years old. Vanessa’s father, by contrast, had sent paragraphs-long messages, three or four every time she checked, that made her zone out while skimming, the same way she zoned out when he talked to her in real life.
Still, she was sure there hadn’t been any clues.
When he picked her up at the airport, her father was dressed in his business uniform, a light gray suit with a blue shirt, no tie. He wrapped her in his arms, telling her she was too skinny but looked great, a mix of contradictory messages as usual, and she felt his stubble scrape against her ear; also as usual she felt overwhelmed by his body, his affection, while simultaneously wanting to be held next to it forever. Reflexively she thought, as she had since her mother left, This is everything I have. This five o’clock shadow, this not-completely-effective antiperspirant, this forced but genuine joviality, this Dad. They were happy to see each other but still ran out of things to say by the time they hit the 405.
“So your flights were okay?”
“You already asked me that.”
“Sorry.” He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, smeared his chin with his palm. He seemed keyed up, thrilled to see her—almost too thrilled to speak—which was gratifying.
“So how’s work?” she asked.
“Great. Hectic. Super hectic, really. Kelsey is a huge help.”
“Kelsey? Oh, right. The internship. She hasn’t flaked on you?”
Her father frowned. “Why would you say that?”
“Come on, Dad. You always said yourself she isn’t the most reliable person in the Western world.”
This tic of her father’s, always to specify a geographical range, as in This is the best hamburger in the Western world, used to drive her crazy, until she ate at what she’d been told was the best burger place in Accra and thought, You know, he has a point. She meant to tell him this, once he laughed in recognition at hearing her use his own pet phrase. But he didn’t laugh. Instead his expression grew serious, and he turned his head to look at her for so long that she was about to say, “Dad, the road—” but then he sighed, glanced back at the traffic, and said, “She’s been a godsend,” which was not a phrase she’d ever heard him use before in her life.
So she said nothing. The highway rose and fell, the stutter and swerve of traffic as familiar as her own pulse, and beside it palm trees and fast-food signage poked out from the June gloom. The sunset was ebbing, leaving flashes of neon as its hopeful replacements. She wanted a milkshake. She wanted a taco. She wanted everything ice cold or piping hot. To dip her toes in the ocean, to rinse the gunk from her scalp.
As he parked the car in the driveway her father cleared his throat. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he said, but then didn’t say anything. Vanessa had her hand on the door handle, was halfway out of the car, saying “Tell me inside,” because she couldn’t wait to see her room, the kitchen with its well-stocked refrigerator, the bathtub, so when he said, “Kelsey’s here,” she only thought that he’d done this for her, what a sweet gesture, inviting her best friend to welcome her home, and she missed the part, or maybe he mumbled it, when he said, “We’re together,” and he had to repeat it on the threshold, as she opened the door to the house she used to call home.
Kelsey was standing in the foyer, wearing shorts and a hoodie, one foot overlapping the other, and she gave Vanessa a hug and said, “I guess he told you! I know, it’s so weird,” and held up her hand with the engagement ring.
Vanessa thought, if she says We didn’t plan it, it just happened, I am going to kill her or myself.
“It just—” Kelsey started, and Vanessa didn’t want to kill anybody, so she interrupted and said, heading for the kitchen, “I’m starved.”
What followed was the longest shortest dinner of Vanessa’s life: ten minutes spent picking apart snacks that Kelsey had arranged on a platter while Vanessa watched her move around the kitchen. The explanations tumbled out of her father and her friend, each of them completing the other’s sentences, her father’s large hands slapping the table every so often, gently, wanting to touch Kelsey’s shoulder or hand but holding back, for Vanessa’s sake, she could tell. Kelsey had started out working as an intern, become a trusted advisor, and somewhere along the way graduated to girlfriend. They’d kept the relationship secret because they wanted to tell Vanessa first, and doing it long-distance didn’t feel right. But now they were happy, happiness spilled from them, sloshed like liquid from a drunk person’s glass. Through the scrim of joyful phrases Vanessa eventually discerned that not only were they together; not only were they engaged; but Kelsey was living here, she had moved in months ago.
She ate an olive, a slice of cheese.
Her father said, “You must be exhausted.”
Kelsey said, “I know this is a lot.”
Vanessa couldn’t have said how she felt. There were no words for it. At this same table, her mother had harangued her about grades and boys, had helped Vanessa and Kelsey frost cupcakes for an eighth grade bake sale. Also at this table, she’d told Vanessa about the affair she’d been having, with a Swiss oncologist named Hans—a man of great purpose and integrity, she said, as if reading from a certificate of achievement—whom she intended to follow to Europe, to make a life of intentionality. Vanessa had been to visit them once, had toured the clinic where Hans treated poor people who couldn’t otherwise afford care, while her mother helped their families. Her mother had let her hair go gray and wore fuzzy sweaters that looked hand-knitted, though Vanessa didn’t know by whom. Before she departed, Vanessa’s mother had kissed her and told her—her voice somehow both urgent and lazy—to let herself be happy. Then she’d added, like an afterthought, “Let your father be happy too.”
Vanessa stood and stretched, rubbing her eyes. “Congratulations, you guys,” she said.
At least that’s over, Graham thought, getting into bed beside his child bride. He didn’t ever call her that out loud, of course—she would have been hurt, and rightly so, and anyway they weren’t married yet—but he nonetheless thought of her that way, hearing Tracey’s sardonic voice in his ear. His ex-wife’s imagined commentary was a running counterpoint to his thing with Kelsey. You don’t live with someone from senior year of college through your forty-sixth birthday without folding them into your brain. In the three years she’d been gone, he’d come to realize that he depended on her judgment just as much as he had when she was still around; he depended on it even when he chose to defy it. So he let her speak to him, chide him, mock him when he deserved it. Sometimes he’d be listening to her, and Kelsey would say, “What is it?” She was sharp enough to see through his muttered excuses but young enough not to question them directly.
Of course it was possible he’d chosen her for exactly this reason.
So yes, okay, fine, Tracey, he was a cliché, patching his shattered ego together with the affections of a beautiful, dark-haired nineteen-year-old. But Kelsey wasn’t just some kid. Her character was tough; her life hadn’t been easy; she had essentially raised herself. To see how she responded to the simplest kindness was to understand how much had been denied her.
She’s your daughter’s age, Tracey’s voice said to him at the office, when they first started bantering. Picture Vanessa with one of your friends. That had pulled him up short. But quickly—so quickly—Vanessa, away in Africa, became an abstraction. And anyway he’d never really understood his daughter, a fact he wouldn’t admit to anyone, especially her, especially not after life had made him essentially her only parent. When he’d first met Tracey she was a feminist activist; she went to marches for reproductive freedom in Washington and argued politics for hours, and the edge never wore off her, even after decades of marriage and home-buying and social work and motherhood. She could always smite you with a phrase; she could wither the world with the moral force of her gaze. When she told him she was leaving, he wasn’t surprised; he was only amazed that this restless and sharp-tongued woman had stayed put with him in one place for as long as she had.
Yet in Vanessa they had somehow produced a mild, biddable child, a girl who, when asked what she wanted to do, what her dreams were, once thought over the question and answered gravely, “I’m not sure . . . maybe marketing?”
Then again, after Tracey’s departure Vanessa had weirdly not struggled in school at all, had applied herself as diligently as ever, and she surprised everyone, the guidance counselors and Graham, by announcing her plan to do volunteer work in Africa for a year. She said she wanted to do something good for the world. So she deferred NYU and off she went, and Tracey whispered in his ear, accusingly and correctly, You’re relieved to see her go.
He drove her to the airport, he wrote her every other day, he followed the news about Ghana, asked questions about her activities to which he received only the most cursory responses. He worried about her constantly. And then he fucked her best friend.
Who was lying with her back to him now, hunched beneath the duvet, hiding the tattoo of a compass that reached across her delicate shoulder blades. When he’d asked her what it symbolized, she said, “That I have a sense of direction.” Kelsey was thin but strong, with black hair forever falling in front of her eyes. He brushed it away and wrapped himself around her, feeling her relax back into him, her need soothing his.
“Maybe I should leave,” she said. “Maybe it’s too weird.”
He knew she didn’t mean it. He kissed the nape of her neck, the fine dark hairs there. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said. “You’re mine.”
In the morning Vanessa woke to a bright, empty house. Only when she walked into the kitchen did she realize that it wasn’t morning, but two in the afternoon. The central air kicked on and off in a steady, plush rhythm. She poured herself a glass of juice and wandered around, touching her fingers to things as if to confirm their reality. The kitchen counter, the living room sofa, the bathroom towels. In her father’s bedroom, Kelsey’s clothes hung on one side of the closet; her shoes stood in a rack on the floor. The bed was neatly made. In their bathroom she fingered the pill bottles: her dad’s antidepressants, Kelsey’s ADD meds. She took a couple of Kelsey’s, washing them down with a handful of tap water. By the time she showered and dressed, her brain was pleasantly humming and the colors everywhere felt deluxe. She drove around for a while, just for the pleasure of driving, then stopped at an In-N-Out Burger and ate outside without sunglasses, squinting and chewing. Her teeth felt wooden in her mouth: uncertainly fastened, ready to splinter. George Washington had wooden teeth, she remembered. She wondered what kind of wood and how roughly hewn. She drank a Coke down, then refilled, picturing the first President grinning in lightly carved maple or birch, twigs and leaves gathering at the corners of his mouth.
“Look who it is,” a voice said, interrupting her thoughts. “Miss United Nations.”
With some difficulty she focused her gaze on the speaker, a boy with shaggy brown hair wearing a navy blue T-shirt with a picture of a baby on it. The baby was smoking a cigar. Out of context—and everything felt out of context at the moment—the boy was hard to place.
“You don’t even recognize me,” he said. “I’m wounded.”
“Who are you?”
“It’s Barry,” he said. Seeing her empty expression, he switched to a reciting tone. “Barret Oliver Bernstein,” he said. “You may remember me from trig, and AP History, and music camp between eighth and ninth grade, and also I think we spent seven minutes in heaven at Jane Rodriguez’s thirteenth birthday party. Man, Africa has made you a snob, Vanessa Palkovsky.”
“Barry,” she said. “God, I’m so sorry. So very sorry. God.”
“Are you high?”
“Kind of. Something.”
“I didn’t even know you were back.”
“I just got here,” she said. She stood in front of him, drinking her Coke, her mouth worrying the plastic straw, fixated on the almost painful burst of bubbles against her lips, the sweet acid of the drink coursing down to her gut. She opened her mouth to say something else but burped instead, and then shrugged. Her time in Ghana hadn’t changed her vitally but it had rendered her temporarily immune to certain things.
Barry laughed. “I’d ask you to sit down, but I don’t think you can.” Only when she followed his gaze did she understand that her foot was idly kicking the stem of the plastic table where he sat, tapping it in concert with the sips from her straw.
“I was thinking of going to the beach,” she said. “Want to come?”
He stood up instantly, crumpling his napkin into a swirl of ketchup. “No offense, but I’d better drive.”
In the car he said he was going to community college, which frankly sucked but was all he could afford after his dad lost his job and emptied Barry’s college fund so they wouldn’t lose the house.
“I didn’t even find out until, like, the last minute,” he said. “I thought he’d been working as a consultant for the past two years. He had a home office and stuff.”
“Consultant’s what old people say when they’re unemployed.”
“I understand this now,” Barry said. They were on the freeway, not rushing freely but moving at a stately, caged pace through midafternoon congestion. Vanessa kept burping, a slow but constant stream. “I was packing for school when he came into my room and said, ‘There’s something I have to tell you.’”
Vanessa smiled at him for the first time. “Prefaces are the worst,” she said.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Barry repeated in a stagey tone.
“I’ve been earning a living as a male prostitute.”
“Your grandparents aren’t in Tacoma. They’re in jail.”
“I really am adopted, though. I just found that out too.”
“Wait, seriously?” She clapped her hand to her mouth.
She laughed. The beach was cloudy and windy, the surf flat, and a row of surfers paddled hopelessly in a line not far from shore. They walked for a while without speaking, then sat down in a sheltered spot in the dunes. Vanessa’s stomach bucked unhappily. After a few minutes she stood up, walked quickly away from Barry, and threw up her hamburger by some rocks, wiping her chin with the hem of her shirt.
“I’m not used to the food here,” she said, sitting back down next to him. Seagulls were already making a feast of her vomit, jostling each other angrily to get at it.
“You’re a tourist in reverse,” he said. “A stranger in a strange land. Etcetera.”
“Don’t say etcetera,” she said.
Her lips were chapped, and she pulled at a shred of skin until it bled, then rubbed her reddened fingertip absent-mindedly on her thigh. Farther down the beach, a big dog and a small dog were running into the waves, the small dog fearless, the big one hanging back and barking. Which seemed like a metaphor for something, but she was too tired to think of what. Kelsey’s pills were wearing off, leaving a headache behind. Barry put his arm around her shoulder; he smelled—she couldn’t have said what she meant by this, but the notion was clear in her mind—American. For a while she leaned her head against his shoulder, and then she leaned over into his lap and gave him a blow job. When he finished, she rested her head on his legs, and he ran his fingers through her hair. It seemed funny that she’d forgotten him, when she’d known him for so long.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” Kelsey heard someone saying outside. She wasn’t eavesdropping—she had the kitchen window open, because she hated central air, something she couldn’t bring herself to tell Graham, who liked to cool the house to 67 degrees. She’d confessed to him the greatest secrets of her life as if they meant nothing but found it almost impossible to share her small preferences, her littlest needs. Vanessa laughed: a brisk, knowing snort. Glancing quickly outside, Kelsey saw that it was Barry Bernstein. Vanessa didn’t ask what the thing he had to tell her was, and he didn’t go on. Kelsey wondered why Vanessa was hanging out with Barry; he was nice enough, but they weren’t close friends. He was a little bit emo, he drove a decent car, he wasn’t completely unfortunate looking. In high school he’d just been there, a landmark without distinction, like a Del Taco you passed every day in your neighborhood. Why would you suddenly stop in and eat?
The door opened, and her best friend came in looking red-eyed and splotchy-cheeked, her fair skin a collage of pinks. One day back in California seemed to have weathered her more than eight months in Africa had. Kelsey placed her hands on the granite counter, spreading her fingers as if seeking traction; she’d thought about taking the ring off when she saw how Vanessa looked at it but couldn’t bring herself to. It was her favorite thing she’d ever owned or worn.
“You’re allowed to make eye contact, dude,” her best friend said. A few years ago they’d start calling each other dude in ironic imitation of the bros at their school, and then the habit had stuck with them for real.
“Sorry,” Kelsey said. “Do you want something to drink? I was just getting some water.”
Vanessa said breezily, “Let’s have some wine.” She came around the counter, jostling Kelsey affectionately with her hip, and pulled out a bottle, the opener, two glasses. As kids they’d snuck sips from whatever bottles were open, adding water to keep the levels up. She didn’t ask Kelsey whether she wanted any now, just doled out two hefty pours.
“Cheers,” she said.
“Listen, Van. I feel like we should talk, or whatever.”
Vanessa took a long sip. Her eyes were hazel and steady, her pale hair lank. They used to dye each other’s hair with box color, but in Ghana her hair had gone back to the uncertain shade she called “blah blond.” She was the calm one, the one with the nice house, the girl adults always said had a good head on her shoulders. Kelsey wasn’t any of those things. When Vanessa set the glass down, her lips were shiny and wet. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s talk.”
“I just—” Kelsey moved forward into the impossible task of discussing the choice she’d made. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
It was the wrong thing to say, she knew, the wrong apology. The right apology was I’m sorry I’m sleeping with your father and it will never happen again and things will go back to the way they were before. But she wasn’t going to say any of those things.
Vanessa said, “Does my mom know?”
Kelsey was startled. “I don’t know,” she said. “She didn’t hear it from me.”
Vanessa laughed. “No, I guess not.” She tilted her head to the side, surveying Kelsey, a serious, appraising look, and her eyes grew foggy. Kelsey knew that she was thinking about how long they’d been friends. She knew everything Vanessa was thinking, just as she could predict that Vanessa would drink half her wine at once and then sip the rest; that Vanessa would buy time in the silence by pushing her hair behind her ears with both fingers and then clasping her hands behind her back. She’d seen Vanessa invent these gestures, cobble together a personality from them. Some gestures they’d come up with together; many of them they shared. They had the same handwriting. They wore the same size shoes.
They’d met in middle school, when Kelsey’s parents moved to LA from Oregon, and Kelsey Parr was seated next to Vanessa Palkovsky. Was it a friendship, or a habit of long association?
Kelsey wanted to press forward, to dispel the fog in Vanessa’s eyes. She wanted to be seen as she was now, an adult, not as the skinny, friendless kid in Walmart clothes on whom Vanessa—Kelsey knew this—had taken pity. “Your dad is such a good guy,” she said stiffly. “We make each other happy.”
“Dude,” Vanessa said. Her tone was of arch amusement. “Keep it in your pants.”
“I just wanted you to know,” Kelsey said.
“And now I know.”
She darted forward and kissed Kelsey on the cheek, the kind of kiss you’d lay on your grandmother or your aunt. Her lips were rough. And then she was gone, carrying her wine glass high as if keeping it above water.
Kelsey drank her glass down and poured another. She’d known things would be weird when Vanessa got back—how could they not?—and she wasn’t going to panic about it. With Graham, last night, she’d asked for comfort, because she knew he needed her to; it reassured him to hold her in his arms, murmuring consolations. In the morning they had sex, quietly, and afterward he wore the same look of infused confidence as every boy she’d ever slept with.
In the months leading up to graduation, Vanessa had told all their friends that she was taking a gap year—she kept calling it that, in a pseudo-Euro affectation that Kelsey found more and more irritating—and Kelsey would say, “Yeah, me too. I’m going to spend a year working at the GAP.”
“No, but seriously,” Vanessa would ask when they were alone, “what are you going to do?” She couldn’t fathom that there weren’t any enriching life activities on Kelsey’s horizons; she couldn’t imagine a future that had no plan. The things that drove Vanessa—grades, extracurricular activities, the all-consuming goal of college acceptance—had always felt abstract to Kelsey, the staged rituals of some civilization to which she didn’t belong. She wouldn’t even have made it through senior year without Vanessa’s help, plus the Ritalin, of course.
When her parents were still married, way back when, money was scarce. But after the divorce, things were even worse. Her mother moved in with a guy named Gary; they both started drinking every day at 5:30 and didn’t stop until they passed out. They had nothing in common except the drinking, but it seemed to bond them pretty tightly. Also, Gary paid the rent. One day in seventh grade her dad said he had a job in Vegas and disappeared for a year. When he came back, he took Kelsey and her little brother to the park, bought them ice cream from a truck as if they were little kids, and explained that he’d done some work for the wrong people, and as a result of that work, he’d be spending the next five to seven years at a federal detention center in Stockton. “It’s probably best if you don’t visit,” he’d said, although neither of them had offered.
When Kelsey discovered the Palkovsky’s house, it felt like a TV set: rooms impossibly bright and large, people guffawing at familiar jokes as if on a laugh track. With an exhalation of relief she began to spend all her time there, the de facto second child. She didn’t cause her own family any trouble. She swallowed her ADD meds in the morning and some illegally obtained Xanax at night. After her high school graduation, she went out to dinner with her mom and Gary at Joe’s Crab Shack, and her mom said, “Maybe you should think about the army.”
“What?” her mother said. “They pay for your college and stuff.”
“I don’t think she’s interested in a military career,” Gary said. He was right, but everything he said was snide. He’d made it clear that she’d have to find her own place to live soon; he’d bought a pool table on Ebay and wanted to put it in her room.
“Maybe Dad can hook me up with something,” Kelsey said.
Her mother sputtered, as Kelsey had known she would. “Don’t even joke,” she said.
And that was the extent of their conversation about college.
Vanessa was so alarmed by Kelsey’s lack of a plan that she arranged for Kelsey to work for her dad. He was a headhunter, and most of his work involved meeting clients; he was always out for lunch, drinks, coffee. In his absence, Kelsey filed and answered the phones. She updated the website. She e-mailed follow-up surveys to recently placed clients and employers and categorized their responses. Despite her complete lack of investment in the work, she looked forward to going to the office every day. When he came back from meetings, he’d rehash them for her, imitating the clients, and he was really funny when he did it. She’d always thought he was kind of a fox—he was charming, and he worked out—although she would never have said so to Vanessa.
The first time they slept together, it was at a hotel, because doing it at his house would have been too weird. Afterward he wanted to take a bath together. She was afraid it would be infantilizing and awkward, but he was right; it was romantic. Then she stood on the bathmat while he dried her off, working his way downward, until he got to her right foot and frowned. “What’s this?”
Her pinky toe looked like it had been chewed on by a dog. There was a split nail that never seemed to grow right. Instead of trying to make it better, she allowed herself to make it worse. She peeled the skin. She ripped the nail from its bed. As soon as it grew back she started over. The whole toe was always raw and red, rubbing against every shoe she wore, a slice of exposure.
“It’s my worry toe,” she said. “My theory is, everybody needs to destroy a little part of themselves. If you pick it right, like you do it consciously in a small way, then you’re safe from doing it some bigger way. You get it out of your system.”
He continued to look at her, his head tilted, as if he were listening to some sound outside the room. If he kisses my worry toe, she thought, this thing is over. But he didn’t. He got a fresh towel, two towels, and wrapped her in both, then draped the hotel robe over that, and she was laughing and saying, “Stop,” and he wrapped her in every towel in the room, making her a terry cloth mummy, layers upon layers, heavy as a cast, and then he carried her to the bed and unwrapped her like a gift.
A month passed, and Vanessa and Kelsey did not talk again. They spoke often—had dinner with Vanessa’s dad, watched a movie together on the couch—but they never talked because, honestly, Vanessa didn’t see the point. In high school, their history teacher, Mr. Calderon, had habitually used an expression she hated: “It is what it is.” It’s a fucking tautology, is what it is, Vanessa had wanted to say but didn’t because she was an honors student, and that kind of comment gave you a reputation with teachers. Mr. Calderon seemed to think this phrase would soften any terrible historical fact he was required to present to them. The Huns had massacred their enemies and raped their women as a technique of intimidation. Not very nice, but “it is what it is.” It used to drive Vanessa crazy, but now it fit her circumstances perfectly. My best friend is going to marry my father. It is what it is.
Of course they weren’t best friends anymore; now they were related instead. They were cleaved apart and drawn together at the same time.
A few weeks after her mother left, Vanessa dreamed she came back, full of apologies and regrets, a dream so vivid that when she woke up, she couldn’t believe it wasn’t true. Bereft all over again, she padded through the house to her parents’ bedroom. Her father, asleep in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, was curled in the fetal position on top of the duvet, the light still on. He’d made a ball of the clothes her mother had left behind and was sleeping with his arms around it. Vanessa could see her mother’s blue cardigan, her Orioles sweatshirt, her bathrobe. Her remnants.
Whenever she tried to be mad at her father about Kelsey, she thought of that moment and the anger dissolved, reforming into some cluster of pity and betrayal and confusion that she held like her own ball of rags, thick in her arms.
And there was something else. To her surprise, she’d fallen in love with Barry, a development that soothed and preoccupied her. Barry was always available, as eager to get out of his house as she was to get out of hers. He was taking a couple of classes and working at a car dealership, but somehow he always picked up his phone immediately, always texted back right away, was always interested in going to a movie or for a hike or to a beach. Not that they did those things very much. Mostly they drove around looking for places where they could park and have sex in his Sentra.
They didn’t discuss their families. Barry knew about Kelsey—everyone from school had heard, and she kept getting texts of fake concern from the most gossipy girls in her network—but he never asked her about it. In return, she never brought up college, even though she’d be leaving for New York in six weeks. They did each other the kindness of pretending their sore spots didn’t exist. When he drove, he put his arm around her and she put her hands on his thigh, his knee, his hip. After they were done having sex, they lazed around until they were ready to go again.
By the end of July she’d started spending nights at his house. His dad was too ashamed about the college fund thing to give Barry a hard time, and Vanessa’s dad was in a similar state. So they’d crawl into his bed with takeout and watch TV, chewing messily, wiping their hands on the covers. His room, like hers, was schizophrenic, halfway done molting his childhood self. The shelves held old Legos and a chemistry set and a leather-bound Torah he’d gotten for his bar mitzvah, and his desk held his work ID and car keys and macroeconomics textbook.
They were watching a TV show about a psychic who solved crimes. Vanessa liked anything about psychics; she was drawn to extrasensory information, any hint that the dead cared what the living were up to. She was lying on her stomach with her face too close to the screen; her mother would have scolded her for it. Barry rubbed her back with his knuckles.
The psychic accused a Botoxed woman in a short dress of having killed her husband. The woman burst into tears, though her expression remained the same.
“Do you think you’ll go back to Ghana?” Barry said suddenly.
Vanessa blew some hair from her eyes. “That’s a random question.”
“I was just thinking. I’ve never been that far away from home. My mom is afraid of planes, so we never flew anywhere, and now there’s no money.”
She made a vague sound in her throat. She wanted to hear what the psychic was saying; she was pressing onward, showing the villainous woman no mercy, expositing the crime and its motives.
“I think it’s cool you went,” he said.
She wished he would stop talking, and he did. He was sensitive to her silences, one of his many good qualities. She didn’t want to think about travel or departure, or planes, or her own imminent trip to college. Ghana had been an exercise in failure. She’d found the program herself by Googling “volunteer in Africa,” and the website had shown adorable children in polo shirts and khaki shorts being read to by teenagers like her, in rooms with brightly painted walls. Everyone looked clean and happy. Of course she’d known the reality would diverge from this advertisement. But what divergence! The orphanage was dusty and rat-infested, and there were no brightly colored walls with murals of fish and flowers. What she hadn’t expected was how much she hated it there, how tedious the work was, how hard it was to entertain a sickly two-year-old. She experienced a visceral revulsion to the small bodies, their sores and runny noses and tears. The other volunteers handled it better; two of them were hard-core Christians and kept saying they were so blessed to help God’s little angels. Vanessa rolled her eyes at this, and one of them caught her doing it, and that eliminated the possibility of friendship. The third volunteer was a guy from Minnesota who never spoke to adults but came alive around the kids, tickling them, picking them up and holding them upside down, shaking them as if to see what would come out. The children ran to him with their arms out, begging to be upended. When they saw Vanessa, they stopped and stared distrustfully, picking their noses. Sometimes she made faces at them, not nice or funny faces but crazy ones, scary-on-purpose ones, and they backed away, knowing with their unerring kid instinct that she was an adult to steer clear of.
In turn, Vanessa began to do anything to avoid spending time with them; she mopped bathrooms and built a latrine and peeled vegetables in the kitchen for hours until her hands were red and cracked. Still, she’d stuck it out, the whole seven months of the program, because she didn’t want to admit how badly it had gone wrong.
She had gone to Ghana for her mother, who had always talked about “privilege” and “myopia” and the “cultural self-absorption of the American electorate” and who used to make Vanessa spend every Thanksgiving at the soup kitchen and every Earth Day picking up trash along the Arroyo Seco trail. Vanessa didn’t care about the kids at all; she’d thought that going to Africa would get her mother’s attention. But after an initial congratulatory e-mail, her mother’s focus returned to her new life, the one that had so fully absorbed her. Vanessa didn’t interest her anymore. And that was just as true in Ghana as it had been at home; she was motherless everywhere.
Barry kissed her neck.
“Lie on top of me,” she said.
“I’ll crush you.”
“That’s what I want,” she said.
He spread himself on top of her body, his hands on hers, his cheek against her ear. His legs on her legs. Her lungs contracted, shuddered with effort. She took short, shallow breaths and waited gratefully for the world to go black.
Graham and Kelsey were tasting cakes. They’d agreed on a small wedding, a simple ceremony on the beach. Kelsey had suggested eloping—she thought it would be funny if they got married at city hall and then went through the drive-thru at In-N-Out in a white dress and tux—but Graham was convinced that ultimately she’d look back on it with regret. He didn’t want to begin their life together with no sense of occasion. He believed in the need for symbols and trappings, the consecration of moments. Otherwise life was a mess of emotions, fraught and terrible, lacking form to contain them.
Kelsey said, “If it means I get to taste a lot of cake, I’m okay with it.”
She joked around about most things to do with the wedding, but he sometimes caught her staring at the ring with a look of shocked and tender gratitude. He was sure she cared about all of it more than she allowed herself to show. At the bakery, he fed her vanilla bourbon cake with white chocolate ganache, holding the fork to her mouth, then kissing the crumbs away. The caterer averted her eyes with a politeness that seemed prudish. Anger rose in him, sharp and furious; he thought, You don’t know how I’ve been starved.
Kelsey asked for the carrot cake—which was absurd, who would have carrot cake at a wedding, but she could choose whatever she wanted—and the chocolate, and the coconut. She was enjoying herself. The caterer had brought her a piece of paper and a pen to make notes on, but she wasn’t writing anything down.
“Don’t you have any other kinds I can try?” she said.
The caterer was Graham’s age, tastefully made-up, her hair dyed purple-red like a turning bruise. She got up and returned to their table with two more samples. Kelsey exclaimed happily and set to eating. Sometimes he was amazed at the amount of food she could put away.
“Well,” the caterer said, smiling tightly. “Any thoughts?”
“Let’s have all of them,” Kelsey said to Graham. “A cake bar.”
“That sounds festive,” the caterer said. “Might I suggest—”
“Or cupcakes,” Kelsey went on. “With sprinkles.” She gripped Graham’s leg under the table, then moved her hand up his thigh. He sat rigid.
“Cupcakes are often popular as a second option. In addition to a cake for you to cut, of course.”
Kelsey was nodding, smiling at the caterer. “His first wife left him,” she said sweetly. “I’m the second option.”
“Kelsey,” he said.
The caterer opened and then closed her mouth. Kelsey said, “Babe, let’s go.”
In the car she put her legs up on the dashboard, her toes tapping the windshield.
“Forget it.” She waved her hand. “I just wanted to shut her up. Oh, man, I ate too much cake.”
Later, in bed, he was seized with his own appetite. He rolled on top of her and kissed her until she was ready, then slid inside. Her hands trailed across his back, so lightly he could hardly feel them, then gripped his shoulders as she shuddered. He was sure she enjoyed herself with him, but she never seemed to lose control entirely; she stayed inside her body, somehow just beyond his reach. Afterward, doubt sat heavy on his chest. Maybe to her it was all a staged game, a sequence of skits. “Am I being played?” he said.
“Don’t say ‘played.’”
“Well, am I, whatever?”
She nestled against him, in the crook of his arm, fitting herself there. Tracey’s voice was mute, refusing to guide him. He could not be abandoned to this absence. Kelsey told him not to worry; she was already falling asleep, which she did easily, every night; it was her most child-like attribute. Once he’d asked her what she’d dreamed about, and she said she didn’t know. “When I wake up, I never remember anything,” she said. How he envied her. How glad he was to have her near.
Vanessa was leaving. In a week she’d be on the East Coast, a place she’d only seen once, in a brief college tour over a long weekend with her dad. She had a double off Washington Square with a girl named Megan from Philadelphia; they’d already shared pictures on Instagram and agreed on a color scheme for the room. Megan was going to major in art, and she took aesthetics seriously. Vanessa hadn’t known what to answer when Megan asked about her own major. But when she texted, Unclear, Megan hadn’t seemed fazed. Excellent. You’re opening yourself to the world, she wrote back.
At home Vanessa repeated this to herself as she sorted and packed her things. She had to fit her whole life into what she could take on the plane. In Ghana, she’d grown wildly possessive of the few items she’d brought with her from home, her woven bracelet and high school track team T-shirt and notebook, things that when she got back to LA seemed shabby and dumb. The experience had taught her that attachment was arbitrary and separate from value. Or so she thought. When she was with Barry, attachment didn’t feel arbitrary at all. As their time together dwindled to weeks, then days, they began to talk about the things they’d worked so hard, over the preceding summer, to ignore. Barry spoke about his father, who kept trying to make amends with misplaced gestures: tickets to Dodgers games and hamburger dinners, gifts to mollify a seven-year-old. “I can forgive him for taking the money but not for lying to me,” he said.
“Really?” Vanessa said.
“No. Fuck him for taking the money.”
Vanessa told him how she tried to stay out of the house as much as possible, but she couldn’t not see Kelsey’s sandals by the front door, her drink on a coaster in the family room, her dad and Kelsey together, a constantly airing TV show that she couldn’t turn off. She could tell that her dad was happy with Kelsey; he cooked meals and asked questions and made jokes like he used to do when she was a kid. If their interactions were pleasant but awkward, they’d always been sort of pleasant but awkward, so it was only a question of degree. They were both watching the calendar, counting down the time to her departure.
She would come back here. She’d come for Christmas and maybe spring break at first, and over the summers she’d find internships or research opportunities. She was good at applying for things. She’d go abroad junior year, and then grad school in something, anything. She wouldn’t live here again.
It was what happened to everybody.
But when she thought about leaving Barry, panic squeezed her breath. On her last night, they drove around listening to music, not talking. Her father had wanted her to stay home and have dinner with him and Kelsey, but she’d said no; understanding that he no longer had prerogative, he didn’t argue. Vanessa was full of tears that somehow refused to fall; her head felt heavy with the quantity unshed.
Barry wasn’t saying much, but he held her hand as he drove, curling her fingers up, then uncurling them, counting them as if each time fearing a different result. She knew he felt like yet another thing was being taken away from him. But he would never ask her not to go. Like her, he’d been raised not to make demands.
“I want you to come with me,” she said suddenly.
He didn’t answer.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Transfer. There are community colleges in New York.”
“Where would I live?”
“I’ll get an apartment. You’ll live with me.”
“We can do this,” she insisted. Her voice was part whisper, part wail. “We can.”
She waited for him to say the practical things: about money, geography, youth. To articulate the internalized thoughts of their parents. Instead, he clenched her fingers into a fist inside his fist, which hurt but at the same time was not unpleasant, and said, “OK. Yes. OK.”
There would be a plan; they would be together. In a state of exhilarated relief they drove back to Vanessa’s. Barry walked her up the steps, and they lingered under the porch light, kissing now, sadness waylaid.
“There’s something I have to tell you,” he said in her ear.
“You’ve decided to become a woman.”
“I am my own twin.”
“You killed a man in Mexico.”
“I want to marry you.”
She stood circled in his arms. The future swept her like a fever.
In the bedroom, Kelsey heard voices. Graham was out with a client; he had dinners most nights, and he’d come home clutching his stomach, freaked out about having eaten too much, requiring Zantac and reassurance. She’d finally called her mother and told her she was getting married.
Her mother said, “You marry an older man, you’ll wind up being his nurse.”
“I don’t mind being his nurse,” Kelsey said.
“You don’t mind now,” her mother said.
Kelsey hung up. She liked making Graham happy. And she liked living in this house; she liked watching TV on the king-size bed while waiting for her almost-husband to come home. She had solved the riddle of her future, and she was pleased.
When she heard the voices outside—she had the bedroom window open, though when Graham’s car pulled up in the driveway she would hurriedly close it, knowing that he’d strip off his jacket and say, first thing, “Is the AC not working? It’s hot in here”—she knew it was Vanessa and Barry saying good-bye. Unable to stop herself, she went to the kitchen, closer to the porch, so she could see and hear them better.
Her friend stood in the porch light, wearing jeans and a purple T-shirt she and Kelsey had bought together at the mall before she left for Ghana. It had a spaceship on it, Kelsey remembered, which was funny because Vanessa hated anything to do with sci-fi or fantasy. She wouldn’t see horror movies either. She wanted to be tethered to the real. The spaceship had an evil-looking alien inside it who was dropping bombs on a group of stick figures—mom, dad, two little kids, all cowering and running away. Underneath it said, Nobody cares about your stick figure family. The T-shirt was so stupid that it made them laugh and laugh. They’d spent most of their time together looking for things to feel superior to.
Barry moved into the light and put his arms around Vanessa’s waist. He whispered something in her ear. Kelsey leaned closer, trying to hear. But they’d stopped talking. Vanessa reached her arms around her boyfriend’s neck and rested her head against his shoulder. They looked like kids at a middle-school dance, frozen at the end of a slow song. Then she raised her head, smiled at him sweetly, and they kissed. Kelsey held her breath, and it seemed to take all the strength she had to leave the kitchen, granting them their moment. She walked quietly down the hall and into the bedroom, and although she closed the window and got into bed, pulling the covers over her head, still she could see them and hear them, rapt in the midst of a moment she’d never have.