Her brother had promised to meet them in the Doubletree lobby at seven-thirty, but it was eight already and the revolving doors released only strangers. Cassie’s feet hurt and her arms flagged around Ella. She gave the baby—freshly bathed, smelling of aloe and almond—to Scott and used her cell phone to try Ben. The machine answered, the now-familiar tones of a hoarse-voiced kid, dance music playing in the background. She hung up without leaving a message. She pitched the phone into her black canvas diaper bag then dropkicked the bag across the snappy checkerboard floor.
“Take it easy,” said Scott. He massaged his jaw, the way he did when he was irritated or stressed. He looked at her as if she were a dangerous animal. She felt a repellant electric force spring up around her.
“I’ll be right back.” She asked the young desk clerk to check for messages. He was dark and good-looking, probably an actor. His ears were pierced—she could see the neat little holes, although he’d taken out the earrings for work. There was a tender look about his soft mouth and shadowed upper lip that reminded her of Ben.
“Sorry,” he said.
Cassie marched back to Scott and Ella, retrieving the bag on her way. “We’re going to his house.”
“That’s a little intrusive, don’t you think?”
“I have to see him.”
“That’s one idea.” His voice became level and deliberate. “Or we could just call him in the morning.” Scott was in the last year of his residency, but Cassie liked to tease him, saying that he should have been a diplomat. When they were first married she’d found his reasonable ways erotic. Now, however, they tended to get on her nerves.
“Fine. I’ll go.”
She handed the ticket to the valet. She turned left out of the driveway, then right onto Pico Boulevard, where the setting sun dashed orange light across the hoods of cars. She saw palm trees, a high slope of wildflowers, sky and ocean and flashy motel signs, one of them in the shape of a mermaid combing her hair. A Ferris wheel turned slowly down the beach, the spokes stark and black against the bright sky. She pulled a map from the glove compartment. It was oddly exciting to be without Scott or Ella, as if she were breaking the law. She glanced again to her left and the harlequin lights girdling the Ferris wheel went on all at once, dimmed by the sunset, but definite.
She got off the freeway and turned down a series of side streets. The houses were low, painted drab colors, and fenced with wire. Trash littered some front lawns. She pulled into the driveway of a blue split-level with metal siding. She locked the car, knocked a few times, then tried the knob. The door opened smoothly into a main room. Takeout containers spilled sideways on a coffee table, cigarette butts studded a plate of pad thai.
“Ben?” she called.
She started forward, wincing as her sandal pulled away from something sticky on the floor, and headed down a narrow hallway. A half-open door revealed the bathroom. Dirty water streaked the tiled walls, as if someone had been trying to scale them. A washer and dryer faced a flimsy shower stall. Red lipstick across a mirrored medicine cabinet read, “Fellatio rocks!”
She peeked into the bedrooms, three of them side by side. The one in the middle was Ben’s; she recognized the poster of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The blinds were drawn. She smelled sleep in the room, hibernation, beer and nicotine, and an accumulated sweaty, bodily odor which reminded her abruptly of the way her own room in college would start to smell when Scott came to stay for the weekend. An avalanche of comic books lay in the corner, half covered by a blanket. A full ashtray sat on the unmade bed. She moved the ashtray to the night table. The sheets were from home, her mother’s, white with tiny faded rosebuds. She knew how soft the material was, she had slept in those sheets herself. Her hands itched to pull them straight and neat, and she would have but they were stained in places—a spot near the headboard resembled blood—and needed washing first.
The phone rang, a shrill sharp cry that made her start. Her hand fluttered towards the receiver; she pulled it back, then picked up. “Hello?”
A rustling, but no response. “Hello?” she said again.
“Is Ben there.” An older man’s voice. A cell phone—parts of his words were lost.
“Who is this?”
“It’s Victor. Looking for Ben.”
“Ben’s not here. Who are you, Victor?” she asked sharply, but the line had already gone dead. She held the phone in her hand until it began to beep.
She heard the front door open and close and she couldn’t remember if she’d locked it behind her. She took an empty beer bottle from the bureau. Ben stood at the threshold, scrutinizing a piece of paper, his head bent. He didn’t turn around and she stood looking for a minute at the back of his neck, which always reminded her of his childhood. There was something she used to do then, when he was young and scared easily—if she came up behind him she’d knock on the wall and this startled him less than a sudden human voice.
She knocked on the doorframe. He turned around.
“Where were you?” she asked.
He moved past her into the kitchen. He smelled rancid, as if he’d left his clothes in the washing machine too long before putting them in the dryer. He eased himself down at the Formica table.
“The Doubletree, right? I was there. I drove all the way to Pasadena.”
“The Santa Monica Doubletree. I told you, like three times.” She rinsed the beer bottle and put it beside the sink, then sat across from him, brushing aside an empty bag of Doritos.
“I guess that makes more sense.”
She patted his hand. His fingernails were filthy. She wiped her palm surreptitiously against her denim skirt. “We’re still going to dinner, right? Do you want to ride with me?”
“Then you have to come all the way back here.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I’ll just take my car,” he said. “I have to meet someone later.”
His black Jetta nosed the rear of her rented Taurus. She put one hand on the door and watched him dig in his pocket for the key. “Victor?” she asked, but he didn’t answer, just slid in and slammed the door. She backed out after him and trailed him down a side street, towards the freeway. He pulled out abruptly into traffic. She waited for a break then caught up and followed at a safe distance.
They’d flown out to participate in an intervention. A kid named Joaquin had called them, explaining that Ben was addicted to prescription pain medication. Joaquin had sounded excited and proud, as if planning a surprise party. Now that Cassie thought about it, the few times she’d talked to Ben over the past year he’d sounded spaced out—not so different from his normal self, but it bothered her that she hadn’t caught on.
She pulled into the circular driveway of the Doubletree and left the car at the curb. Scott and Ella were nowhere in sight. Cassie called the room.
Scott said, “I just ordered room service.”
“You’re not going to come with us?”
“Ella’s asleep. I’ve got work to do anyway. Tell Ben I’ll catch up with him tomorrow.”
Ben waited, smoking intently, his elbow resting on the rim of his open window. “It’s just us, okay? Scott’s not going to come.”
He flung the hot coal of his cigarette to the pavement by her feet. She ground out the spark with her sandal. She climbed back into her car and followed him through the illuminated night, the Ferris wheel a showy loop now, the many colored bulbs chasing each other in a slow spin. She was disappointed too. She was anxious for him to meet Ella; as if she had something essential to prove to him and Ella was the proof. And she disliked being alone with her brother. Together they struggled through embarrassing silences, as if they shared a terrible secret. Years ago, when she was in high school and he in middle school, she’d thought of him as one of her best friends. They used to watch television on Sunday nights, a whole line-up beginning at seven with 21 Jump Street and ending at eleven with The Honeymooners. They would make popcorn and turn off the lights and lie back on the floor, and the whole ceremony of it would cheer her. But she went away to college and he morphed into a full-fledged teenager, grouchy and pale and mysterious. Once she’d come home to find a used condom by her bed. She stripped the sheets, put on her mother’s yellow rubber dishwashing gloves, peeled the thing up off the floor, and dropped it out the window. Then she threw the gloves away and washed her hands. She wanted to ask him why he’d decided to have sex in her bed instead of his own, but she couldn’t bring herself to say anything. He probably would have just made something up anyway. He was constantly telling her strange little lies, as if trying to conceal himself from her. One afternoon, that same vacation, he came into the apartment with a bag of takeout. “Chinese food?” she asked—she thought she could smell it—and he nodded. But later she saw remnants from the Greek diner in the trash.
“I answered the phone at your place.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“I thought it might be you. So who’s Victor?”
“He’s a friend of mine. Did he leave a message?”
“No.” She scanned the giant menu, not registering anything. “What’s good here?”
“The hotdog burrito is really good. That’s my favorite.”
She didn’t think it sounded very good, but she felt it would be unfriendly not to order it after having gotten the recommendation. Ben ordered the shrimp tacos, what she’d actually wanted. She felt he’d tricked her somehow. “I thought you said that burrito was your favorite.”
“It is. But I don’t like getting the same thing.”
As she handed back her menu, she was startled to see a Diego Rivera print in motion behind the waitress’s head. She put both her hands on the table. “Are we moving or something?”
“It rotates,” said Ben. He gestured towards the floor. They were seated on a platform in the center of the restaurant. “That’s why I wanted to sit here.” She noticed that they were now occupying an entirely different spot from the one in which they’d been seated.
Ben finished his beer quickly and ordered another one. Cassie sipped her club soda. Across the room, on the stable lower level, she recognized a young actress from the WB. The girl bent her head and blew through her straw.
“How were your midterms?” Cassie asked.
He closed his eyes. “I haven’t gotten my grades yet.”
“I called you. I wanted to wish you luck. I left a message with your roommate.”
“Oh, yeah. I called back, but it was the wrong number.”
Cassie spun the knife at her place, too aggravated to look at him. She doubted she’d left the wrong number. Either his friend had bungled it or Ben had misread it. And why didn’t he have her number? Couldn’t he look it up and try again? Couldn’t he call information? Did he even know how to spell her new last name?
He pushed his chair away from the table. “I’m going for a smoke.” She saw him duck, check himself out in the mirror by the door, run a hand through his hair. Both of their dishes had arrived by then but Cassie reached across the table and took a bite of Ben’s tacos, jabbing her fork so that it scraped across the plate.
She glanced towards the actress and was confused when she saw, in the girl’s place, an older couple sharing a heap of nachos. Then she remembered that the restaurant rotated. She looked around—the girl was behind her. Cassie wondered if Ben liked to come to this restaurant when he was high. She wondered if he was high right now.
He appeared in the doorway and checked for their table, then slid into his chair, smelling of smoke. He ate slowly and systematically, as if unbelievably bored by the process. He finished half of his tacos, then put his knife and fork at four o’ clock, which surprised Cassie.
The waitress sashayed by their table. She backed up and looked curiously down into Cassie’s plate. “You know that’s wrapped in paper, right?”
“Your burrito. It’s wrapped in paper.”
Cassie touched her food and lifted the thin sheet of paper, the same color as the flour tortilla. She felt herself blush. The waitress put her hand over her mouth.
“Are they good like that?” said Ben. He leaned forward, suddenly energized.
“I’m sorry,” said the waitress. She looked at Ben and giggled. “I thought you knew.”
Cassie experienced an infantile sensation of being ganged up on. “Obviously not.” She felt something between her teeth. With her pinky nail she worked out a small wet wad of paper. She held it up to the light, then flicked it across the table at her brother. It landed on his shirt and he flicked it back at her.
“Do you want to do a shot?” he asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“Come on. Let’s do a tequila shot.”
“I’m driving. So are you.”
“One shot. We’ll get dessert.”
“I’m nursing Ella.” This wasn’t something she wanted to share with him, but she didn’t know what else to say. She thought of her baby’s closed eyes and outthrust lips. She felt a wetness and a tingling around her nipples and was glad she’d slipped in the nursing pads.
“So you can’t do one single shot? Well, I’m going to have one.” He signaled for the waitress.
“Fine,” Cassie said. “I’ll have one too.”
They clinked glasses, bit into lime wedges, licked salt from their wrists. The liquid burned her throat, and she coughed.
Lying awake next to Scott Cassie recalled her brother’s early sweetness, how he’d often struck her as a sad little boy. After their father’s death he’d became preoccupied with horror, with dire possibilities and terrible choices. He asked impossible questions, such as, “What if we were in a plane and it exploded?” or “What if the building fell down when we were in it?” Cassie would say, “You don’t have to worry about that. It’s not going to happen.” He’d ask, “Would you rather be blind or deaf? Would you rather have your hands cut off or your feet? Would you rather eat a live rat or have bugs lay eggs in your brain?” I don’t want any of that, she’d say, and he’d tell her, no, you have to pick one.
Ella cried out and Cassie stiffened, raising herself on one elbow. The cry stopped. The baby twitched in her crib.
He would become frantic when their mother went out for the evening. He would run into Cassie’s room, his features wracked with the kind of pure misery Cassie now saw on Ella’s face when she was exhausted or colicky. “She’s dead!” Ben would wail. “I know she’s dead!” He would list the different ways their mother could have been killed, and Cassie would try to calm him. But often they would end up calling their mother at the party or restaurant. Ben would sob quietly beside Cassie as she described their mother to a hostess or waiter. There would be a terrible pause as she was located, then her voice at the other end, asking Cassie if everything was all right.
Cassie woke at seven-thirty to Ella’s cry, surprised to see sunlight coming through the heavy plastic blinds. “She slept through the night,” said Scott. He lay on the floor by the couch, resting between push-ups. He didn’t go to Ella right away, but knelt on the bed and smoothed Cassie’s hair away from her face. She reached out and put her hand around his crotch, through his boxer shorts, something she used to like to do when he kissed her goodbye before an early run. He pressed his hand against her head and hesitated. Then he got up and lifted Ella to his shoulder and laid her down beside Cassie. “We should put her in her own room when we get home.”
Cassie nursed the baby and set her back in the crib. She went to the window, light and relieved. She pulled up the blinds and looked west over low stucco buildings to the Ferris wheel turning evenly amid two puffy clouds. She could see wedges of blue sky between the spokes, the tiny heads of passengers, the metal cars, each one a different color. Behind the wheel the ocean broke the clear morning into a million pieces of light.
“So what’s the plan?” Scott asked. She turned from the window. He’d switched to sit-ups. She watched his tense face appear and disappear.
The intervention was scheduled for five o’clock. Cassie had been assigned the task of keeping Ben with her for the day, then bringing him to Joaquin’s apartment, where his friends would be gathered.
“Ben said he’d meet us in the lobby.” She began to brush her hair. “I’m afraid he’s going to freak out when we get to Joaquin’s.”
“He might.”
“Maybe I should give him a heads-up, or something.” Scott counted under his breath, his arms extended over his knees. “I’m worried it’s not going to work,” she said.
“So am I.” He sat up, sweating.
“What’s it like, this Oxy whatever?”
“OxyContin. It’s soporific—it makes you sleepy. I took it when I broke my ankle. It’s delightful, actually.”
“So why aren’t you hooked?”
“Because I have my shit together.” He stood and stretched, reaching towards the ceiling and cracking his knuckles. “That’s why.”
She got dressed in a skirt and a button-down shirt, one of the ones she’d bought to make nursing more convenient, not what she really liked to wear. Scott claimed the shirts were sexy, but she didn’t really believe he thought so.
“I’m going to nurse Ella again now, so I don’t have to later.”
“Why not later?”
“So?” Scott had two sisters, both with small babies. When Beth and Jill came over they unhooked their bras right in front of Scott—as casually as they’d slipped off their coats—and the three of them sat around complaining about their mother, a woman so impatient she’d given all her children one-syllable names.
“So—I don’t know, just because.”
At eleven fifteen Cassie took out her cell phone. Then she saw her brother coming through the revolving doors with his hands in his pockets, looking lost. He stopped, startled, when he saw Ella, as if he hadn’t actually believed in her existence. “She’s so small.” He reached out to touch Ella’s head.
Cassie grabbed his wrist. “Your hands are filthy,” she said.
Something hostile and familiar caught in his eyes. His fingers curled into a fist. “Maybe later.”
Cassie strapped Ella into the baby carrier, and they walked down to the promenade along Pico Boulevard. A path wound through the sand. Rollerbladers and bicyclists whipped by, sunglasses strapped around their heads. The Ferris wheel jutted from a paved bedrock halfway down the beach. Food carts glinted at the base of the wheel and adults and kids hung together, looking up. A girl in shorts and a bikini top clutched a spray of red and blue balloons. The wheel stopped and started again, and music moved toward them, so wistful and colorful it made Cassie want to run towards the high, precarious turning. Ella flapped her arms, suddenly excited.
“Let’s go for a ride,” said Cassie.
“Cool. I’ll go.” Ben threw down his cigarette and stepped on it.
“I’ll stay with Ella,” Scott said.
Ella burped and spat up a little on Cassie’s shirt. Cassie wiped the tiny lips. “Don’t you think she’d like it?”
“She might. I wouldn’t.”
“Why not? She’s safe in here.” Cassie patted the baby carrier.
“No. You can’t take a baby on a ride like that.”
Cassie sighed. She glanced at her brother, who was gazing steadily at the end of his cigarette, toeing the ground. He looked over and caught her eye. A suppressed smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
They stopped for lunch. Ben ordered a beer and then excused himself to smoke, away from Ella.
Scott said, “He shouldn’t mix alcohol with Oxy.”
“I think that ship has sailed.”
“It depresses the central nervous system. He could stop breathing.”
Cassie bent her head to Ella’s pink leopard print cap. She thought of Ben alone in his dark smelly room, doped up on painkillers. She thought that she would never let Ella do such a thing to herself.
Scott massaged his jaw. “Look,” he said. “Why don’t I take Ella back to the hotel after this. I’ll give her a bottle. You can spend some time alone with Ben. If he doesn’t bring it up, you should.”
Cassie emptied the pad thai down the disposal and washed the plate. She found a garbage bag underneath the sink and threw away the takeout containers. She collected cans and bottles. Ben watched her, rubbing a hand against the back of his neck. “I have to brush my teeth,” he said. He went into the bathroom. The thought of what it was like in there made her feel a little desperate. But if his teeth needed brushing, he should brush them. She gathered stray bits of rice and noodles off the coffee table with a dry paper towel and wiped it down with a wet one. She spread her cardigan on the couch and sat. Ben emerged from the bathroom with drops of water on his face. Then he went to the kitchen and returned holding two Budweisers around the neck. He handed one over. The bottle was wet and cold. She rolled it against her forehead. “It’s good to see you,” she said. She took a sip of the beer, then another, grateful for the familiar, sour taste.
Ben tilted his head back and drank quickly. He put the bottle on the table and spun it between his palms. Cassie watched, mesmerized, feeling the alcohol a little already. “Want to see a trick?” She slipped off her wedding ring and held it between the thumb of her right hand and the index finger of her left. She flicked it and set it spinning on the table, a shimmering globe of gold with a shadowy axis. The ring spun for about a minute then clattered over and lay flat. She put a finger in the center and swirled the ring on the glass table top. The friction made a smooth, satisfying sound.
“A girl at work taught me that,” she said. “When I was working, that is.”
“Do you like being at home with Ella?”
“Yeah. I mean, of course I do. I love being with her. Everything she does is so amazing, and she doesn’t even do much yet. But it can also get kind of tedious.”
“Hang on,” said Ben. Her beer was empty. He took the bottle and came back with two more. She curled her legs up and leaned against the arm of the couch.
“Being at home with her,” she said, “it’s like this weird combination of every second being so precious and then also so dull. Like when she smiles and makes her little sounds I’m thinking, wow, this is so amazing and none of this is ever going to happen again. But then I’m looking at the clock, thinking how much longer till bed time, or nap time or whatever.” She’d wanted, expected, to feel ecstasy—everyone had said having a baby was like falling in love, and she did, but instead of euphoric she felt restless and sometimes melancholy, crying when she had to put away the clothes Ella had already grown out of, or when she heard the Boccherini she’d listened to in her hospital room.
He nodded intently. “I feel that way too. Like I really should be out hiking and skiing and stuff because soon my life’s going to be over. But then I’ll be tired or just in a bad mood and I won’t even get out of bed until like, three o’ clock.”
“I was shopping in this Italian market in my neighborhood the other day. And the owner looked into Ella’s stroller and said, ‘These are the best days of your life.’ In a way that’s true but it kind of depressed me.”
Ben had lit a cigarette and was ashing into his first beer bottle. “That’s like what Mom said when I was leaving for college, freshman year. She said, ‘Ben, my years at college were the best years of my life.’ And I said, ‘That’s pathetic!’”
“That is pathetic.”
“I made up my mind to have a bad time just so that I’d never want to say that.”
“Are you?”
“Not that bad. Just not great.” He got up and went to the kitchen again.
“I’ve got to stop,” she said, but she took the bottle from him. “I’m getting drunk.”
“Are you serious?”
“I haven’t caught a buzz in eleven months.”
“What about when you were in labor? Don’t they give you drugs?”
“I got there too late.” Her breasts felt suddenly hard and swollen, so she got up and went to the stereo, which was sitting on the floor, and looked through a pile of CDs on top. “Can I put something on?”
“That must have been really painful.”
“Yeah. It was brutal.” She chose Blood on the Tracks; the disc was sticky, so she spat on it and rubbed it dry with the edge of her shirt. She took an Eminem album from the CD player. “Where’s the case for this?” she asked, holding it up, but there wasn’t any answer. She looked around and saw that Ben was sleeping, sitting up, his mouth open and his head falling sideways at an amazing angle, like Ella in her car seat.
Back on the couch she sat with her legs crossed, drinking her beer and listening to the music and watching a strand of drool soak the neck of her brother’s UCLA t-shirt. She took one of his cigarettes from the pack on the table and smoked it to the end. She stood, feeling dizzy and pleasantly sick, and walked again down the narrow hallway, to Ben’s room. The top sheet with its tiny roses lay in a frantic tangle at the foot of the bed, as if he’d had a frightful dream.
She shook the pillow from its case, stripped the top and bottom sheets from the bed, and carried the armful of linen into the bathroom. Trying not to breathe too deeply, she lifted the lid of the washing machine. It was already occupied by a knot of clothing, clinging as if frightened to the interior sides, darks and lights all twisted up together. She paused, clutching the sheets to her hip. She inhaled: urine, mold, Irish Spring.
Who knew how long the clothes had been left there. Weeks, possibly. They should be washed again. She let the sheets drop to the floor. She reached in and pulled something from the knot, a dark hooded sweatshirt with a metal zipper, like something a goblin might wear. The hood flopped and the thick wet material sagged in her fingers.
In a way she’d liked Ben’s dependency on her, as a little boy. It had given her an authority and sense of power she’d used to navigate her relationships with boyfriends, teachers, friends. He seemed so vulnerable it was almost exciting, and sometimes when he sobbed with his head in her lap, their mother out with whatever man she was seeing, she had to push away the urge to scare him further—she had to silence it with the sound of her own voice, soothing him, saying reasonable things. He seemed so sweet to her still, even after his voice broke and he grew taller than she, even after she looked over one night in the middle of Married With Children, during a scene featuring Christina Applegate, and saw to her horror that he had an erection.
For a while after she started college, she pretended not to notice the bored hostility she roused in him and heard in his voice when she called, saw in his gestures and expression. She kept his picture over her desk and watched the shows with her roommate on Sunday nights and waited for things to go back to how they’d been until she realized, abruptly, that they weren’t going to. She’d been home over Christmas break, her sophomore year. She’d slept late and when she got up she took a shower, dried herself off, and began to get dressed. She stepped into her underpants and remembered that she’d washed her bras the night before and hung them to dry in the pantry. She liked nice ones—she bought them at a boutique around the corner, and the woman in the shop had told her they would keep their shape better that way. Ben still had school and their mother was at work, so Cassie left her room and started towards the pantry, just like that. It was cold in the apartment—the building turned the radiators off during the day when people were out—and her nipples hardened in response. She swung open the kitchen door and saw her brother at the counter in flannel pajamas, eating cereal.
He paused with his spoon in his mouth. He looked at her. A hundred things struggled in his face. He swallowed. Then his expression snapped shut and became mean.
“Nice rack,” he said.
She retreated to her room and stayed there until she heard the front door slam, and then she cried for an hour. She didn’t understand why—it was only her brother. She should have just thrown something at him.
The sweatshirt drooped in her fingers, dampening and chilling them. The Dylan disc skipped to its end and then ended. She felt the throb of a techno beat as a car passed outside. She jerked open the dryer, flung in the sweatshirt, t-shirts, all of it—no fabric softener, no quick cleansing of lint—and yanked the knob. The machine started up, began to swish and thump. She heard the metal zipper hitting as she left the bathroom.
She sat on his bed, hands by her sides on the bare mattress, for she didn’t know how long. Through the window she saw the brown bulk of a UPS truck, heard the lazy rush of traffic from the freeway. She went to Ben’s bureau and opened the drawers, moved her hands stealthily amidst t-shirts, underwear, and jeans, all wadded into balls and in no particular order, until she found what she was looking for: a Ziplock bag of white pills. The dryer beeped. She slid the bag into the waist of her skirt, heaped the clothes on top of the dryer, and put in the sheets—then she paused, and lifted a Knicks t-shirt from the dry pile. Back in the living room, she stashed the pills in the diaper bag, next to the wipes.
She shook her brother’s shoulder. He opened his eyes right away, looking alarmed.
“Here.” She dropped the shirt on his lap. “You drooled on yourself.” She returned to the other couch and leaned forward, facing him, linking her hands around her knees. Obediently, he lifted the UCLA shirt over his head—his chest was scrawny and white—and pulled the Knicks one on.
“If you’re not having a bad time,” she said, “Then why are you addicted to painkillers?”
“Scott told you.” He straightened the t-shirt. “I kind of thought he would.”
She shook her head. “Are you okay?”
But he was staring at her chest. She looked down and saw two wet spots soaking the thin material of her blouse. She hunched her shoulders and pulled her cardigan back on. “Come with me to the hotel,” she said.
“What are we going to do?”
“We’ll get ice cream or something. Ride with me, okay?”
She drove fast. Ben leaned his head back in the seat next to her, closing his eyes. The sour taste in her mouth had settled unpleasantly; her breasts dripped under her bra, and a filmy dampness sat on her skin. The traffic and sun spun at her and she blinked, forcing herself to pay attention. “Wait here,” she said when they reached the lobby. “I’ll send Scott down.”
Ella was sleeping in her car seat, on top of the coffee table. Scott sat on the couch, staring quietly at a pastel landscape over the bed, his ears as alert as a puppy’s. His book, a collection of essays on near-death experiences, was open on his lap. He must have just finished an essay. He liked to pause between them, as if cleansing his palate. Ella opened her eyes. Cassie began to unbuckle her from the seat. Scott closed the book, marking his place. “You’re doing that wrong.”
“No I’m not.”
He put the book down on the table and leaned forward. “Like that.” He looked at Cassie. “Have you been drinking?”
“Just one beer.” She lifted Ella from the seat.
“I can smell it.”
“Ben’s downstairs. Will you go make sure he doesn’t vanish?”
“You should probably pump before you feed her next.”
Belligerence spread over her like a heat rash. “Why are you so uptight? I’m sure a billion European men don’t freak out every time their wives have a glass of wine.”
“Who’s freaking out? Not me.”
“And you know, you shouldn’t put the car seat on the table like that. She could fall.”
“She was one foot from the ground.” His calm tone was specially designed to infuriate her. With her free hand, she snatched up the book and threw it across the room.
“I’m going for a run.” He pulled on shorts and sneakers.
“But you have to stay with Ella.”
The door slammed and the room was quiet.
Cassie brushed her fingers across the baby’s velvet face. The long eyes flickered closed and open again. She held Ella close, put her nose into the soft, smelly neck. Regret tugged at her. Scott had rearranged his schedule and taken a hard-won weekend off from the hospital to accompany her. She walked to the window and watched the Ferris Wheel turn against the pale sky.
She changed her blouse, tied the cardigan around her waist, and strapped Ella into the baby carrier. Waiting for the elevator, she caught sight of herself in the brass doors and thought that she looked not old, exactly, but not really young anymore. It was her bra size, the extra weight, but also something else. Her buttoned blouse and knee-length skirt were exactly the type of thing her mother used to wear when she went out in the evening. She pulled the pink cap over Ella’s head and thought of the silence the apartment would sink into as her mother closed the front door, so anxious to leave, the hallway smelling of perfume, conditioner, her mother’s relief, Ben’s muted but escalating dread; the refrigerator chugging on and off, the radiator clanking like someone walking in chains.
“Did you get into a fight or something?”
“I really love Scott. But he can be such a prude.”
They walked until they reached the foot of the Ferris wheel. “Let’s go,” said Cassie. “Let’s go for a ride.”
She pulled on her sweater and buttoned it over Ella’s pink cap. She bought two tickets and pulled her brother up the steps, past the attendant, through the metal gate. Ben put out his hand to help her onto the car, which rocked like a cradle as she slid back on the vinyl cushion. It was all smaller than it had looked from the ground, designed for couples and parents with small children, and the space between them was minimal. Cassie kept the sweater over Ella’s head as the attendant checked the safety bar and the car bumped forward, and once they’d left the ground she undid the buttons and let the sweater fall back. Ella’s small head pivoted curiously.
The car stopped, rapidly swinging. Cassie sat up straight and grabbed at the safety bar. They seemed to be hanging directly over a shish kebob stand. “What’s happening?”
“They’re letting people on the ride.”
They jerked up and backwards and stopped again on the outward crest of the wheel. The beach spread out below them, brilliant and white. Rollerbladers weaved recklessly around pedestrians. The cars on the boulevard had lost their colors to the brightness of the sun, and everything sparkled and gleamed—the dirtiest hubcaps, the tips of tiny waves, the hairs on Cassie’s arm, her silver bracelet. She turned, gingerly, to look at the machinery. The spidery, whitewashed spokes of metal seemed rickety and makeshift. “Well, I wish they would stop.”
“There’s not much of a line.”
“Maybe Ella and I should get off.”
“You’ll feel better once we get going.”
They moved farther up and back, to the top, and the ride began for real. Ben was right, it wasn’t as bad as the stopping and starting, but they traversed the circumference of the wheel with alarming swiftness and Cassie kept her arm around the baby carrier, her other hand on the safety bar. They passed swiftly over the platform. “It feels faster than it looks,” Cassie said.
Ben rocked so that the seat swung again.
“Please don’t do that.”
Ella turned her head from side to side. She flapped her arms.
“I had a dream about her last night,” Ben said. He twisted so that he faced them, putting one elbow on the back of the seat. “I dreamt that she was crying and I picked her up. She was just this totally generic bald baby. I have really weird dreams, with this stuff. You know how normally you wake up from a bad dream and you’re all relieved? Now it’s like, even when I wake up it’s still going.”
“That sounds horrible.”
“But if I take more pills I feel all right. Calm.”
He shifted his elbow on the back of the seat and watched Ella. “She looks so soft,” he said. He ducked his head and looked her in the eye. “Hi, little baby.” He spoke self-consciously; reminding Cassie of how strange she herself had felt talking to Ella in those first few weeks. “Did you know what you were having?”
“No. But I thought I was having a girl.”
“Only boys for me.” He bit into one of his dirty fingernails. “Too much worry with girls. Girls are so vulnerable. Their bodies. Something could happen to them.”
Cassie laughed. Then she slapped him across the face. His skin was warm and young. The sound cut in a competent, satisfying way through the dry air. His mouth opened a little and his cheek turned red.
“You’re a jerk,” she said. “I flew out here with my four-month-old baby because I was worried about you.”
He held his hand against his cheek, where she’d hit him.
“Your friend called us. We’re doing an intervention, and that’s why we’re here.” She looked away, wondered if Scott was still running.
“I thought you were just like, coming to visit me at school.”
“It’s today. Five o’clock. I’m supposed to take you.”
He let his hand fall from his cheek. They circled over the platform and rose back up. The car halted at the top and swung briskly. Her insides swung in the opposite direction. She grabbed for Ben’s shoulder, keeping her other hand on the back of Ella’s head. The music stopped. Cassie heard honking from the boulevard, the massive rush of waves. Several minutes went by—five, then ten, and they didn’t move. “We’re stuck,” she said. She tried to look down but the controls were directly below them, and when she moved the car moved too. She felt suddenly envious of the people on the ground, walking around on the beach, eating ice cream, pushing strollers like nothing was happening.
“Cool.” Ben leaned forward so that the seat rocked. She pushed him back against the cushion.
“I never should have brought Ella up here.” As if she’d understood Cassie’s words, Ella began to cry. She opened her mouth wide, withholding the sound for about ten counts. Like thunder and lightning, the silence and the cry were directly proportional—the longer the silence, the louder the cry. Cassie stroked her cheek, her ear, the curve of her jaw.
“Yeah, probably not.” He looked at Ella. “Her face is so red.”
A wind blew off the ocean. Cassie felt sand in her eyes, her mouth. She pushed hair from her face and wrapped her arms around the baby carrier. The leopard print hat jumped from Ella’s head and spun away, a pink dot against the blue sky. Cassie bent her face to the baby’s and closed her eyes. “I wish she would stop crying,” she said.
“She’s freaking out.”
“I can’t stand it.”
“I would give you something if I had it with me.”
“I have them. I took them from your drawer.” She groped for the diaper bag and shoved it onto his lap, keeping her head down and her eyes closed. “The pocket with the zipper. Inside.”
She felt his arm against hers as he rummaged through the bag. “Put your hand out.”
She closed her fingers around the pill.
“Chew it,” he said. “It works faster that way.”
She bit down and tasted bitterness at the roof of her mouth, on her tongue.
“Give it a minute.”
And she kept her eyes closed, listening to Ella’s screams, until she did start feeling something—a looseness in her shoulders and hips, a balancing of her nerves, her fear shrinking to a tiny dot and disappearing, her senses coming together and beginning to swim, taking her somewhere exquisite.
She opened her eyes and looked at Ella. “She’s so upset.”
Ben whistled a few notes of something she couldn’t identify. “How do you feel?”
Ella wailed. Cassie watched her face, small around her wide-open mouth. She wished she could give her a pill. She thought of the dark, drafty house back east, the wakeful nights, the long walks, the long days. She said, “Every day, no matter how hard I try to pay attention and appreciate her, I feel like I’m missing something.”
“Tell me about it.”
She shook her head. “You want to quit, don’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should at least lay off the booze. You could stop breathing or something. Scott told me.”
He took out a cigarette, looked at it, and put it away. He peered over the side of the car. “It’s a long way down,” he said. “If this car fell, we would definitely be killed.” He swung the seat again.
“Don’t do that. I mean it.”
“What do you think, would you rather fall from a thousand feet or suffocate to death?”
“I’d rather live, thanks.”
“Would you rather slide down a banister made of razor blades and land in a pool of alcohol, or swim in a sea of manure filled with sharks?”
“I wouldn’t want to do either of those things.”
“You have to choose.”
“No. I don’t.”
“Whatever.” He took the cigarette out again and this time he lit it. He said, “I shot up once too.”
“Heroin, you mean.”
He tossed the match over the side of the car.
“What was it like?”
“It was like . . .” His brown eyes looked past her dreamily. “It was the best I ever felt in my entire life.” His t-shirt flapped in the wind and she caught that funky smell again. He dragged deeply on his cigarette. His beautiful young skin flushed, stirred by the atmosphere or some concealed emotion.
Ella began to choke. Cassie adjusted the baby carrier. She unbuttoned her blouse. She unhooked the clumsy bra. She put Ella to her breast, directed her nipple between the bare gums, parted in a vast scream, and tickled the pliant cheek until the baby latched on and Cassie felt the pull of her active mouth. Ella thrust one arm in the air, and Cassie watched her eyes roll back in her head.
Ben scooted away—out of aversion, Cassie thought immediately, but then she realized he was watching, curiously, his body turned towards her like before, when she’d hit him.
“It looks like it would hurt,” he said.
She watched Ella’s jaw working and rested her hand on the baby’s waist. “It did at first. But not anymore.”
“How do you know when she’s hungry?”
“She cries. And then she has this special face that she makes.”
“Does it feel good?”
“Really soothing. Sometimes it puts me to sleep.”
Milk soaked her bra, sliding freely down her ribcage and stomach. Ben reached out with one grimy finger and gently touched Ella’s cheek. Then he cupped his hand over her bare head. “Her hair is so soft,” he said. Ella squeaked and unclenched her fist, spreading her palm towards him as if trying to fend him off. He removed his hand and rested it against his own cheek, leaning back. “That’s okay,” he said.
The music started up suddenly and they began to move. Ella was sleeping now, Cassie’s nipple lolling in her mouth. “I wish we could just stay up here,” said Ben.
Cassie felt the sun on her hair, her face, her shoulders. “I’m supposed to take you to Joaquin’s,” she said. They paused to let someone off. She held Ella against her shoulder and hooked herself back up.
“It’s not going to help.” They jerked downwards again. Cassie felt her stomach glide into her chest.
“Don’t be like that,” she said. “Jesus, Ben. These are the best years of your life.”
Their car halted over the platform. The attendant lifted the bar and extended a hand. Cassie gathered up the baby carrier and pushed the diaper bag towards Ben. She climbed from the seat, Ella in her arms, ardently sleeping. Her legs shook violently, the way they had right after she’d given birth—the television still playing some legal drama, Ella naked below a bright light, a deep, unknown smell filling the hot room. She turned to her brother. “Let’s go.”
He shoved his hand into the diaper bag, removed the pills, and slipped them into his own pocket. Leaning forward, he extended the bag to her. Veins stood out along his skinny arm. “You’ll need this,” he said. She curled her fingers into a fist, but when Ella stirred on her shoulder, she took the bag and held it to her hip. Ben yanked at the safety bar and shifted to the middle of the vinyl cushion, inhabiting her place as if she’d never been there at all. She made her way down the steps. Her body felt flimsy and strange on the ground. She turned at the gate and watched the letters on her brother’s shirt shrink and blur and disappear as the wheel carried him up, then out of sight.

Bayou, ’08

3 Responses to “The Best Days”

  1. Patriot Sit-inside Fishing Kayak E | large tote bag reps Says:

    […] for young children. Graco has 14 stroller listed on their Web site. Peg Perego has 6. The major difference in the two companies is the marketing strategies. Their strollers seem to be of good value and well […]

  2. Kilo Vermek Says:

    Though it’s hard at first, try not eating 3 hours or more before bedtime.

    You can reverse the situation easily if you’re willing to.

    However, with the proper mindset and determination, It’s
    just not losing weight that would matter in the end, but the better quality of life that
    it is going to reward you.

  3. zayıflamak istiyorum Says:

    Necessary Protein Solutions for Vegans and Non-meat
    eaters:. To lose weight fast is easier than you ever imagined.
    However, with the proper mindset and determination, It’s just not
    losing weight that would matter in the end, but the better quality of life that it is
    going to reward you.

Leave a Reply