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A room away from the wol.., p.3

A Room Away From the Wolves, page 3

 

A Room Away From the Wolves
 


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  Instead of seeing the old friend, we went to see my father. It didn’t go well. After, my mother didn’t want to plan another trip down to the city, just the two of us. She didn’t want to pose for pictures in dark alleys or people-watch on a park bench or buy greasy food to eat right there in the street. She didn’t even want to try on a dozen pairs of boots on Eighth Street. Months passed. I couldn’t remember her ever speaking of us visiting the city again.

  ━━━━━

  It came back later, waiting like a glowing gem dug up from deepest dirt and now sitting in open air, in the palm of my hand. The city.

  This was the first thing that came to me when I dragged myself out of the trees after they ran me out of the party. When my knee gave out and it got to be too much to keep walking, I sank down on the asphalt, there on the dotted line. The dark behind my eyelids matched the dark on the road. I heard a rush in my ears. I pressed the heels of my hands into my eye sockets until I saw stars.

  A van was rattling toward me, boxy and taller than an ordinary car.

  I heard and felt it before I saw it—the growling hum, the rumbling under my body. I stood, my arms up, trying to catch the driver’s attention, but the van didn’t slow. It sped by so quickly it almost clipped me. So quickly I could have blinked and been back where I was, waiting for someone to drive by and save me.

  When I opened my eyes again, the wooded road was empty. All that remained were the stars in my eyes, bright spots burned into my retinas, as if I’d looked where I wasn’t supposed to. A single, pointed thought remained in my head.

  The city. It was only two and a half hours away.

  I could see it from a distance, like in one of those postcards of the skyline at night taken from somewhere across the river. All shine and sparkle, dazzle and promise. I narrowed the focus in my mind on the skyline. It became smaller and smaller until it was just a window. A fire escape. A single light dancing.

  My mother always said I had a vivid imagination.

  I started limping along the shoulder of the road, leaning my weight every so often on a passing tree, but I stopped feeling the pain. It was almost like I was there already, swaying on new legs in the glittering night that used to know my mother, and now might know me.

  ━━━━━

  I found myself at my suitcase under the willow when the sun was lifting up. It was officially the next morning, and I was channeling my mother, or at least who she used to be, positioning myself on a good, visible bend of Blue Mountain Road, in view of those faint and far-off blue mountains, with the bugs swarming my ears and the sun bearing down. Suitcase parked between my legs. Makeup slathered over my aching black eye. Thumb up and out. One good eye trained on the road that would lead to the city. No going back now. No fear.

  Part of me wished she would drive by and see me standing in the gravel, melting in this heat, that she’d get out of the car and hug me to her and say she believed me, she’d never not believed me. She forgave me for all the ways I’d messed up, she would always forgive me. I could come back to the house. I could unpack the suitcase. I could stay.

  Another part of me willed myself cold. That part wouldn’t let me drop my arm or stop trying to flag down passing cars. That part stood firm.

  I was ready, dripping with sweat and thirsty, if only a car would stop. I stared down Blue Mountain Road with purpose. The sun was directly in my path, and I aimed myself right for it, willing a ride to come, even though it hurt.

  No cars would stop. They kept going, whizzing past, as if I were invisible or an obvious threat. This was taking longer than I’d expected, longer than I’d planned.

  People rarely hitchhiked around here anymore, so maybe the drivers didn’t know what to do when some lone teenage girl used the road as her personal bus stop. Hitchhiking was the pastime of murder movies, lost to the 1970s, and probably illegal now in the state of New York. But I had no one to ask for a ride, and I didn’t have a car, or my license anymore—that got taken away almost as soon as it got issued, after I wrecked my mother’s Toyota. All my cash was rolled up in my pocket. All my hopes were aimed at the next willing driver. It was this, or walk.

  What came at me next couldn’t be recognized as a car. It was a moving blur, veering onto the shoulder where I was standing, and I couldn’t focus my eyes on any part of it. Then the distinct green of the approaching hood registered, and I saw the pinched face of the girl behind the wheel as she concentrated her aim. Charlotte drove a green car. Didn’t she see me? She was speeding up, and she would do that for sure if she saw me, especially after last night. I stumbled back into the weeds, into the shade of the willow. The car kept going—our house was a half mile away—and two heads were visible through the rolled-down windows on the passenger side, one in the front seat and one in the back. Daniella and a friend. I saw their gaping mouths as they laughed, probably at me, showing their fangs, and something cold and wet washed over me as one of the girls threw the dregs of a soda out the window. Soon as it happened, it was over. The car took the bend and didn’t turn back. No one looked at the retreating road to see me there with my suitcase. No one cared. I was out in the middle of the road, giving the green car the finger, when another car finally did stop, a gray hatchback with a strange man at the wheel. He slowed, seeming unsure, until he pulled over a few yards ahead and waited for me to catch up.

  His window descended, and I felt the blast of cool air that let me know he had air-conditioning. But when he turned, he seemed to cringe at the sight of me. His knuckles tensed as he gripped the wheel. There was the state of my clothes: I was soaked from the backwashed soda and ice. But it was my face he seemed stuck on—he spent an intense moment taking in my face without saying a word. I checked my reflection in the side mirror. The marks, such an unnatural color, pooled under my left eye. The scab on my lip was crusted. There was something going on with my ear.

  “You need a ride to the hospital?” he said, after a sizable pause.

  “I’m okay.” He didn’t seem to believe me, so I added, “I saw a doctor, I’m fine, really. It looks worse than it is. Do you think you could take me to the train station? Metro-North?”

  He still seemed so unsettled. I almost expected him to speed off in a squeal of tires, or tell me to settle for the bus. What he didn’t know was that my mother had taken the train eighteen summers ago, so I would too, even if it was nearly an hour’s drive. That was how her story started: window seat, river side, hopeful ticket: one-way.

  “I’m meeting my mom at the station.”

  These were the magic words. I didn’t give a backward glance at our driveway in the distance, or even the willow tree that had once been our spot, as I shoved my suitcase in his back seat and climbed into the front. I waited for him to ask where I was going so I could tell him New York City, but he didn’t. He never asked. I worried my cheap drugstore cover-up wasn’t covering enough, so I dug around for the sunglasses I’d swiped from my mother’s dresser weeks ago (she thought she lost them at yoga) and popped them on. At this, he turned away from me, as if I’d blocked out all questions along with direct sunlight. That was a move of my mother’s, and I’d done it perfectly.

  I was a known liar, I was a thief, but I was also my mother’s daughter. She’d know where to find me, if she chose to look.

  Vacancy

  “Wake up.” A voice close to my ear. A streak of white light.

  The train intercom crackled to life. “Next and final stop, Grand Central Terminal. New York City.”

  I bolted up in my seat. Strangers shuffled around me, and I wasn’t sure who among them made sure I knew we’d arrived. I must have drifted off against the window—there was a hot spot on my cheek. My head pulsed with a painful ache. My mother’s sunglasses, which I’d kept on the whole trip to camouflage my swollen, purpling eye, were perched crooked on my nose. I’d like to imagine she arrived at Catherine House wearing these same sunglasses—de
ep-tinted, a subtle touch of armor to hide her own bruises—but she got this particular pair years afterward.

  The suitcase I’d stowed on the rack above me was still there, undisturbed. I had the cash in my pocket, the directions on my phone. I could feel my heart beating a little too fast, its echo in my ears, and as we coasted through the still-dark passages of Grand Central, it took over all else.

  I was here.

  The train rolled ever so slowly through a series of tunnels, seeming like it would never reach the station, that maybe there was no station, that the city was only a story my mother told me, or one I told myself. The overhead lights flickered off and on, and shadows hugged up against the scratched windows, wanting in. Passengers crowded the aisles, clogging the exits at either end of the train car, so I was left in the middle, still in my seat, practically alone. I lingered at the window.

  A dim-lit platform drifted past, deep in the bowels of the station. Not a soul was on it. Murky sections of tunnel rolled by, unused and blocked off. The view was industrial and surprisingly fragile at the same time, like the bones of the city could be broken with a swift kick and no one was supposed to know. For a moment, I thought I saw a burst of nature in the grimy machinery, a wild tree growing out from the third rail, alien and budding the green of my mother’s long-lost garden. But it was a splash of graffiti claiming the hidden space. It wasn’t alive. The train sped up and blurred it to black.

  At last we stopped. The lights came up and stayed up, and an underground station was visible. The doors opened, and people rushed out. I grabbed my suitcase, my hopes, my coiled nerves, my unformed dreams, and I stepped out onto the platform.

  ━━━━━

  I might never have known how to find Catherine House if my mother hadn’t kept the phone number all these years on the bulletin board in the bedroom she shared with him. Their room on the first floor had a door to the patio that they never kept locked, which meant someone could sneak around outside the house and get in that way, without needing the more visible hallway and door. She used the space over her dresser not for jewelry or a mirror, but to gaze back into her past, to have a reminder of who she was in front of her face every morning when she searched for clean socks.

  Tacked to the board were photographs from when she was young, the kind printed on curling, glossy paper, her hair burgundy, or crayon yellow, or blue-black. Ticket stubs from movies and plays and ska shows. Keepsakes, like a withering four-leaf clover kept preserved in a plastic baggie, art postcards of starry nights or ponds with water lilies floating on top, beheaded birthday cards, a single clipping from the Village Voice about a festival screening of short films with her name in small type, circled, starred. Pinned at the base of the bulletin board were the emergency numbers any mother should keep on hand: poison control, local hospital, dentist’s office. And there beneath all that, sparkling with pin holes, crusted with age, a card, catherine house of new york city, as if she might one day have a dire need to rent a room and escape us all.

  I didn’t have time to go through her drawers before I heard her coming, but I confiscated the card, and later, after a few echoing rings, someone did answer the phone when I called. There was a vacancy, the voice on the other end told me, eager, almost as if expecting this call. The room was mine, but I should get there, fast, and bring cash.

  The thing was, it turned out Catherine House wasn’t so easy to find in a physical sense. From Grand Central, I made it downtown, to the West Village. I was close, or should have been. Yet showing on my phone screen was a gray area, unmarked and untethered by cross streets. I wasn’t sure where to find the address in the nest of gray, and it didn’t help that on the corner of the actual street there were two signs with the same name. waverly pl said one sign. waverly pl said the other, as if the street split into two sides of itself. Here I stood, waving my phone in the air, when I stumbled into her.

  She was on the sidewalk, near a blue van with dried mud crusted on its tires, though every street I’d seen here so far was smooth asphalt glistening in the high heat. The van was parked before a sign that said no parking, and she was shaded by its shadow. Maybe that was why I walked right into her.

  The impact sent me reeling into the sign, which was sharp-edged where she hadn’t been and crooked in the concrete. The suitcase toppled to its side, skidding off the curb. The van was more decrepit the closer I got to it, with a clutter of mangled tickets on the windshield and a boot on its grimy tire—it might have split apart if taken out on a road. The girl had long eyelashes, and short hair that showed off her neck. Her skin was faint brown, her eyes were deep brown, with golden flecks, almost amber. At least I thought they were, as I’d only been close enough to see for a single moment. She’d materialized from out of nowhere onto this patch of sidewalk. Or one of us had.

  “Go ahead,” she said as she helped me with my suitcase. “Say it.”

  Not counting whatever anonymous stranger had woken me on the train, she was the first person on the island of Manhattan to speak to me.

  “I’m sorry . . . What should I say?”

  “Yes, that’s good. Go on. Say you’re sorry. For trampling me.”

  I couldn’t tell if she was serious. She had my suitcase still, hugged in close to her, and I wasn’t sure if she’d decided to keep it.

  “I am sorry,” I started. “I think I’m lost, and—”

  She held up a hand to make me stop talking. “You’re not lost.” Then she turned, distracted. “You hear that, don’t you?”

  I wasn’t sure if she was listening to something inside the van or beyond it. The city swelled with noise. It banged and clanged around in my ears and filled my head with a persistent, growing thrum, brimming in the back of my skull. My head was still hurting, and my eye was pulsing from last night. Maybe I should have seen a doctor.

  “I don’t hear anything,” I said.

  “Exactly,” she said. “It’s so quiet. Too quiet. When it gets quiet like this, you know something’s off.”

  I gazed around at the block, unsettled. It wasn’t that quiet. She was shooting a stare past the booted blue van, into the distance. I followed her gaze, but all I could see was a tree-lined block and another much like it beyond, a man on the sidewalk, then no longer on the sidewalk because he slipped into a doorway, a yellow taxicab speeding past, not stopping. Apart from that, we were alone.

  “There’s nothing going on,” I said. “Not that I can see.”

  “You’re positive?” I wasn’t sure if she was playing with me or if she knew the city so well she could sense a foreboding tremor when I couldn’t. If she knew to run when I didn’t. All I could think was, if she did start running, I’d probably follow.

  I shrugged.

  “You should watch where you’re walking, by the way. You could get run over.” She pushed the suitcase at me, but one of the wheels was jammed, and it didn’t go. I pulled it back toward me.

  “Thanks.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I headed off, dragging the suitcase behind me, until I remembered I didn’t know where I was going. She hadn’t moved from beside the dilapidated van, but the sun had, creating a glaring silhouette that made the expression on her face impossible to decipher. There was a cowlick in her hair, a swirl sticking up that caught my eye and wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t know for sure if she was smiling as she leaned her weight against the van.

  I walked back in her direction. “Do you know where I can find this address?” I held out my phone, and that was as close as I got. “I think it’s broken.”

  She took a step toward me. “Hmm,” she said.

  I had a thought. “Do you know this place? Catherine House?” I recited the street address. My mother may have stood on this very corner trying to find her way that summer long ago. I could sense her shadow, the faintest trace. “Do you know how to get there?”

  “I might.”

  I waited for more, but
there was no more. Instead she was staring at me, openly. She was taking in the state of my face. The sun was blazing, and every gouge and scratch and purple stain must have stood out. It cut through the makeup, making the mask I’d tried to wear all the more obvious.

  “Is it that way?” I asked, pointing.

  She tapped her foot.

  “Is it that way?” I pointed in another direction.

  She itched her nose, keeping her face neutral. “If you’re supposed to be somewhere, you’ll find it. If you’re not, you’ll walk right by and miss it.”

  What did she mean? There was something taunting about the way she’d said it, also playful, as if this were a grand and possibly cruel game.

  I didn’t want to play a game. I wanted to find the house and make sure I had a room. I wanted to plant myself somewhere and stay firm. I wanted my mother to come calling—and then what? I didn’t have that answer. My feet hurt, the suitcase had tipped over and lay flat on the sidewalk, and there wasn’t a single missed call from an 845 number on my phone.

 
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