This is Just Temporary
Winner of 2010 Generation XYZ Prize
SHARON MAKES AN UNOFFICAL LIST OF BEHAVIOR THAT IS ACCEPTABLE WHEN ONE IS DEPRESSED. First, cliché and obvious thought it is, one is allowed to wear pajamas in the afternoon and eat ice cream out of the carton. One is allowed to go to the liquor store multiple times in a week and stash a bottle of gin under the bed as if one were sixteen, even when one is not. One is allowed to spend hours online checking, in meticulous detail, all of the things one’s friends and ex-boyfriend are doing. Especially when said friends and ex-boyfriend were posting photos of parties one is not attending, or were in any way publicly, electronically, flirting. Finally, one is allowed to snap at one’s parents and sleep for most of the day, camped out in front of the TV or shut away in one’s room. Sharon writes down the list in her notebook and stares at it. She wishes she could write a self-deprecating poem, maybe, or a humorous essay on the topic. Instead she throws the pages against the door of her closet. It is the only thing she has written since arriving home.
Sharon had told the girl that she had forgotten what winter really felt like. She had said this even though it wasn’t particularly true. A few weeks before, when she had stepped off the plane and felt the near zero temperature blast through the thin plastic exterior of the jet way, the goose bumps she had felt rise along her skin had been familiar. She had tugged at her inadequate long sleeved t-shirt and hurried into the warmth of the airport. Her mother stood at the baggage claim, her face red from the cold, shape lost under a bulky black coat that reached to her knees. Her mother’s jeans were stuffed into a pair of snow boots and she had held Sharon’s coat in a ball against her stomach. She waved when she saw Sharon, and reached out to touch her daughter’s cheek when Sharon stopped in front of her.
“We’re so glad you’re home,” her mother had said.
“Yeah, me too,” Sharon said, unsure which of them was lying. On the way to the car Sharon walked a step behind her mother, her toes becoming numb and curled in the tips of her sneakers.
The silhouettes of Sharon’s co-workers move toward their cars and Sharon watches as they pull out into the street. She clicks the top of a pen a few times. She has to have something to say. The headlights of the cars passing on the street behind her blink in and out of the rearview mirror. Sharon tries to imagine a driver for each car, invent a destination that might draw them out on a cold winter night. But no faces come to her and the cars slip past anonymously, aimlessly. The bits of slushy snow that clung to the bottom of her pants are melted, making the car smell damp. The warmth seeping into her jeans from the heated seat makes Sharon feel as though she has peed her pants. Frustrated, she tosses the notebook onto the passenger seat and starts the car.
The house is dark. Her parents have also forgotten to leave the door open for her and Sharon fumbles in her purse for the key. Inside she makes her way by touch to the bathroom. She starts the shower and takes down two of the guest towels her parents keep on the top shelf of the closet. They are larger and softer than what Sharon’s mother calls the “every day towels.” Sharon showers and then dresses in an old t-shirt of Sean’s and a pair of sweatpants. She leaves the towels wet and crumpled on the floor.
It takes Sharon a few minutes to realize that it is Saturday. She had gotten accustomed to having the house to herself when she woke, but she could hear them now, from the kitchen. A bubbling of laughter drifted up the stairs. It couldn’t be just her parents. What would they have to laugh about? The wood floor is cold, forcing Sharon to slip her feet into the hot pink slippers she had found tucked beneath the bed. Each slipper has a yellow crown stitched onto the top, a remnant of a Princes phase Sharon had intended to leave behind when she packed her boxes three years ago.
It is her brother. And a skinny redheaded girl in a tight green sweater. They are the laughers. They are sitting on stools at the island in the center of the kitchen, both grinning. Ben is waving his hands and recounting some story for their father, but stops when he sees Sharon and juts his chin toward her.
“Hey, sleepyhead,” he says. Sharon gives her younger brother half a smile. He is three years her junior, an age difference that gave them just enough distance to make them more friends than rivals. But Ben hadn’t called Sharon to let her know he was coming home and even though Sharon waited a moment in the doorway Ben didn’t move to hug her hello.
“Me? Sleepyhead? From the boy never gets up before one p.m. if he can help it?” Sharon had meant to sound amused or teasing, though her voice quivers close to defensive. Ben laughs, shrugs.
“Things change,” he says.
“She’s aware of that much.” Sharon’s mother hands her a coffee mug as she says this. Her parents are leaning against the counter, and from over her mother’s shoulders her father raises his eyebrows at her. Sharon fills her mug with coffee and takes a place at the center island.
“I’m Renee,” the girl says, extending a hand toward Sharon.
“Yeah,” Sharon says, not taking it. “The girlfriend.”
“Uh… yeah.” Renee turns a charming shade of pink.
Ben has turned back to their parents, finishing the conversation Sharon had interrupted, something about the editor of his newspaper giving him a hard time. The university he and Renee attend is only a couple hours away, and this is the first time Ben has been home since Christmas.
“Did Benji drag you back here so he’d could get some free laundry?” Sharon asks. Renee shakes her head and gives Sharon a slightly puzzled look.
“No, he does his own laundry.”
Sharon opens her mouth to reply, but closes it again. She doesn’t have a lot to say about this new Ben who got up in the morning and knew how to operate a washing machine.
Sharon had once spent half a night listening to Sean cry through the thin wall of their apartment. He had turned on the TV as a cover, but Sharon knew. She sat on her bed and drank rum and cokes, idly browsing the internet. When she was finally forced to leave the room and cross through the living room that now served as Sean’s room he had reached out and grabbed her hand.
“I’m gonna do laundry tomorrow,” he said. “Want me to do yours?” It was, Sharon had decided, the most manipulative thing anyone had ever said to her.
“No,” Sharon said.
“I mean, it’s not a big deal. I just know that sometimes you don’t like to do it yourself.” He squeezed her arm. The laundry, itself, was not the problem. Yes, she hated the way he ignored it, re-wore dirty socks to avoid doing it and never remembered to set aside the quarters he collected in his pockets when she asked him to. But it wasn’t the reason they broke up. Sharon went out into the hallway and dialed Ben’s number. It was pathetic, calling her baby brother for comfort. When his phone went to voicemail Sharon had hung up, but didn’t return to the apartment until she was sure she could keep her composure long enough to make it back to her room dry eyed. Sean had sniffled loudly when she passed him.
“What time did you get in last night?” Sharon’s mother asks. Sharon shrugs.
“You were out? A night on the town?” Ben teases.
“No, at work.” Sharon gulps at the coffee, though it has burned the roof of her mouth.
“Oh,” Ben says, “You got a job?”
“A real familiar job,” Sharon’s father says. She glances at him and though he’s smiling the tone of his voice isn’t an exact match.
“Yeah,” Sharon sighs. “I’m back at the garden.”
“Seriously?” Ben snorts.
“What’s the Garden? Some kind of greenhouse?” Renee asks.
“No,” Ben says, “It’s the Olive Garden. Sharon worked there in high school.”
“But it’s just for a little while, to make some money until she can find something else,” Sharon’s mother rushes to clarify.
“Or before she goes back to school, finishes those last few credits,” Sharon’s father amends. Her parents share a look and Sharon stands and moves to refill her coffee mug. She takes longer than necessary with the pot in her hand, drawing out the moments she can stand with her back turned to them.
Back in her room Sharon sits on the floor, leaning against her bedroom door, balancing her laptop on her knees. She checks her e-mail, but doesn’t open the new message from Sean. She knows what it says. He misses her. Come back. He is doing the laundry. Or, he’ll be more honest. He’s sorry. Instead, she opens a new word document and alternates between staring at it and staring around her old room. Stickers from bands she no longer listens to are stuck to the closet, Babysitter’s Club novels fill half a bookcase in the corner and the corners of the posters on wall are starting to curl. The whole room, Sharon thinks, is like a peek into the embarrassing past. It is like the third grade school photo her parents had framed and hanging in the hallway; the one where her short hair forms a frizzy halo around her head, Sharon caught in half of a toothless smile.
It was not a terribly busy time for the Olive Garden. The holidays had ended, Valentine’s day had passed and if people were venturing out into the still cold and grey nights of March, it was for a bar and basketball games, not generic Merlot and Never Ending Pasta Bowls. Sharon had been ready to explain herself to Marsha, when she first showed up. Yes, I’m back from New York, Sharon admitted in her head. It wasn’t working out, you know? Rent is crazy. When Sharon said this in her head she rolled her eyes and came down hard on the “z” sound. And I was sharing a small place with an ex-boyfriend. Not a good situation. In Sharon’s head her former manager laughed at this, assured her that Sharon could have the best shifts, as many or few as she wanted. Temporarily, of course, she didn’t expect Sharon to become a lifer or anything. In real life Marsha had just returned her to the schedule without much comment. If it occurred to Marsha that she hadn’t seen Sharon in three years, she didn’t let on.
“Hey.” One of the younger girls appears at Sharon’s elbow. Sharon stood in the back, near the large soda fountain. “Do you think you could take table nine for me?” The girl smiles and leans in to whisper, her neat blonde hair swinging. “They just sat down, but I was hoping to get out of here, and I’m only waiting on one other table to pay.” Sharon wanted to say, tough shit. Just text your loser meathead boyfriend and tell him he’ll have to wait an extra hour before he can feel you up in the back of his car. The girl looked like the type who’d crawl into a football player’s backseat at the drop of a hat.
“Yeah, ok,” Sharon said. It wasn’t like she had anyone, horny eighteen-year-old or otherwise, waiting for her.
It takes Sharon thirty seconds to regret following her better angels. This is how long it takes her to grab the list of specials and turn the corner. She stops and looks over her shoulder, but the girl who had pawned off her table is gone, already across the restaurant, running her last bill for the night. Too late.
“Hi! How are you!” Sharon’s voice is aggressively cheerful.
Robert, who had once pricked his finger trying to pin a corsage to the strap of Sharon’s prom dress, looks up. He had let his hair grow out and had become, unfairly, better looking. Brief high school boyfriends were supposed to back on a few pounds and lose their teenage charm. A few strands fall across one eye and Sharon thinks of Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet. There had been a period of seventh grade when Sharon had watched the movie once a week with her friends, ritually pausing, rewinding and replaying the scene in the bathroom when Romeo peeks through the fish tank at Juliet, his hair brushing against his forehead in what could only be described as the most impossibly sexy hair scene of all time.
“Rob! Hey! How’s it going!”
“Oh my god, how are you?” Robert asks, untangling his fingers from those of his date. Sharon thrusts the list of specials towards him.
“Great!” She couldn’t seem to stop talking in exclamation points. Sharon rushes through the list of specials though her tongue sticks against her teeth as if she is talking through a mouthful of glue. She wants to get away from the table before the conversation inevitably turned toward catching up and a summary of the years that had passed since they’d last seen each other. “Take a look! What can I get you to drink!” She doesn’t need to, but Sharon writes down their drink orders. Two glasses of red wine. She stabs the order pad.
She gets stuck when she offers them freshly grated parmesan cheese. There isn’t anything to say once Robert nods.
“So,” Robert says, “I thought you were getting out of here?”
Sharon forces herself to smile, watching the tiny flecks of cheese build up like snow. “I got sucked back,” She instantly regrets the use of the word “suck.” It sounds juvenile and ugly.
Robert waves his hand to indicate he has enough and laughs. “Yeah, that’ll happen. I’m applying to PhD programs, so I think I’ve finally got my escape route planned.”
Sharon nods. The edges of her mouth are starting to feel numb, but she keeps smiling.
“English,” Robert continues as his date twirls pasta around her fork.
Sharon takes a step away from the table. “That sounds great! Let me know if you need anything.”
Robert doesn’t take the hint. “Weren’t you going to study English?”
“Yes,” Sharon admits. “I did, yeah.”
“Yeah, yeah. And at Columbia, right?”
“Oh, I’d kill to have a degree from Colombia. You’re lucky.”
“Yeah,” Sharon said. She feels as though she is standing back at the airport, looking at her mother’s ratty jeans bunch unattractively around her legs. “Lucky.”
Robert and his date leave Sharon a generous tip and she waves at them as they pause before the door, preparing to step outside. Robert kisses the top of his date’s head and pulls up her hood. Sharon can see snow being blown against the glass doors, and knows that the cold will be biting. Sharon trails them outside by half an hour and clamps her mittens against her head as she dashes to the car. It surprises her, once she is in the safety of the car, to realize the dampness on her face are tears, and not a last bit of melted snow. Sharon reaches for her cell phone, and maneuvers in her phone book until Sean’s name is highlighted. Sharon knows it is past one in New York. She also knows that he will pick up if he sees her name on the caller id. They said they would try to stay friends. Sharon thinks of that night he first took her out, the way he playfully pulled her into a bank of snow and then pressed his warm lips against her icy cheeks. She thinks about the way her parents, both on the line that last time she called to say she was coming home, got quiet in the same instant. Maybe you shouldn’t have moved in with him, her father had said. What are you going to do if you don’t graduate, her mother had said. Sharon lets herself cry, lets herself gulp at the air like a fish suddenly pulled to the surface. It passes and Sharon slips her phone back into her purse. This is, she thinks, the scene in the movie with the melancholy music. The point just before she’d wake up, hit with poetic inspiration. Or the point just before she would run into the quirky but good looking stranger who would make moving back to the Midwest worth it. Or, this was the point in the movie when the serial killer leapt from the back seat and slit her throat. Any of which, Sharon thinks, would be an improvement.
It is snowing again. For a few days the weather had been deceivingly spring-like, turning the snow left on the ground to dirty, half dissolved piles at the edge of the streets. But winter wouldn’t let go that easy and it returned to below freezing again. Sharon is freshly showered and dressed in sweatpants after a lunch and half of a dinner shift. Her parents are both hovering near the phone on the kitchen wall.
“There is black ice on the road,” her mother says, by way of explanation.
“Ben’s driving back, and he said he’d call if he had trouble,” Sharon’s father adds.
“I just drove back and was fine,” Sharon says.
“It’s getting dark, now. Ben had to drive farther,” her mother says. Sharon is reheating leftover casserole and she slams the microwave door a bit harder than necessary.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t want anything to happen to perfect little Benny,” she says.
“Oh, Sharon.” Her mother doesn’t bother to hide the exasperation that creeps into her voice.
“Have you been writing?” Sharon’s father asks. It’s been a while since you’ve shown us something.”
“No.” Sharon sits with her plate in front of her.
“Nothing?” her mother asks. This time her voice is near pleading and Sharon looks at her. Her mother’s face is tight, the crow’s feet around her eyes seemingly deep. Sharon wishes, suddenly, she had something to offer, something she could hold out to her mother to say look, look what I made.
“Mom, I said no.”
“Well, how’s it going at work?” her father asks. “Is Marsha glad to have you back?”
“I guess. It’s fine.”
“Have you looked into transferring any credits? Maybe finish up school around here?”
“I don’t think that’s an option, Dad.”
“Have you been looking into any jobs? I think almost everyone wants a degree.”
“Dad.” Sharon says the word as if he were the child.
“David,” Sharon’s mother says, almost gently. “Not everyone. Not Marsha.” Sharon and her father both look at her mother, but before either can speak Ben steps in through the side door.
“Oh! Benjamin.” Sharon’s mother steps close to hug her son. Sharon pushes her fork at the casserole, which is limp and a little too yellow, butter pooling beneath it. Sharon’s parents move down the hall and Ben, shedding his coat and winter layers, steps toward the fridge,
“No Renee?” Sharon asks.
“I’m starving,” Ben says. “What are you eating?”
“Uh, yeah…” Ben looks skeptically her plate. “Is there anything else?”
“Mom’ll make you something.”
“Nah, it’s too late to do that.”
“Whatever,” Sharon shrugs.
“Want to go to Harry’s?” Ben asks, brightening.
“Now? Are you sure it’s open?”
“Yeah, sure. The kitchen is open until eleven, too, and I could go for a burger. Come on.”
“I’m not even dressed.” Sharon holds out a leg to demonstrate, but she smiles.
“How hard is it to put on a pair of pants? Jesus. Let’s go. I’ll buy you a beer. We’ll walk, too, so we can both enjoy ourselves.”
“Walk? It’s like a mile and freezing.” Sharon says this even though she is already heading towards her room to change.
The bar is not crowded, but it is hot and loud. Sharon and Ben choose a booth near the back. She toes off her mother’s boots, which Ben had insisted she wear for better traction on the not yet shoveled sidewalks.
“I can’t believe you’re twenty-one,” Sharon says as they clink their glasses together.
“Yep, all grown up.” Ben takes a long drink of his beer and smiles at his sister. Sharon looks around. A few people sit at the bar and a group in the corner is hitting quarters into a cup and yelling, occasionally pounding on the tabletop with their fists.
“How are things? How’s the Garden?” Ben asks this, at once teasing and genuine.
“I dunno. Ok. I mean, sometimes it’s just…” Sharon cocks an imaginary gun to the side of her temple. Ben laughs. “Mom and Dad think I’m a total loser,” she adds.
“I’m sure they don’t,” Ben says. Sharon reaches across the table and helps herself to a French fry. She had left most of the casserole sitting on the counter.
“They kind of do.” Sharon blushes. She doesn’t want him to make her argue the point. “What about you? How is Renee?”
Ben, still tearing into his hamburger, just nods.
“Do you love her?” She had watched him date a string of girls, none of them serious or staying in the picture long enough to make it to their parent’s kitchen table.
“No, no, we’re not there, yet,” Ben laughs. He doesn’t protest as Sharon takes another fry. “You loved Sean.” It is not a question.
“Sometimes it was more like I wanted to love Sean.”
“I just wanted someone. And Sean just happened to want me.” Sharon had expected it would take a couple of beers before that came tumbling out. She tilts her head back and drains the remainder of her glass, as if she can make up to for it retroactively. Sharon expects that now Ben will ask why she came back. Now he will say what she knows her parents have been thinking, what he has been thinking and Sharon takes a deep breath, ready to shut him down, to snap at him that really, she is fine and she will figure it out. Ben slurps at a bit of ketchup on the side of his hand.
“Well, good riddance to him, then,” he says.
Sharon remembers Ben as a small boy, then, sitting next to her the school bus and kicking his small feet into the back of the seat in front of them. An older boy had turned around to glare at him and Sharon had stuck her tongue out at him in defense. When the boy dropped back out of view Ben had giggled and Sharon, quickly, kissed his cheek. She wishes they were kids again and kicks his shin lightly beneath the table.
“Another round?” Sharon doesn’t wait for him to reply before standing. Sharon slides into an opening at the bar next to a woman who was sitting alone, nervously folding a napkin and smoothing it out again.
“Hey, cute purse,” the woman says, pointing at Sharon’s bag and smiling.
“Thanks,” Sharon says, signaling for two more beers from the bartender.
“Yeah, I like it, too.” A man had stepped up on Sharon’s other side. He was tall and round and a thin line of perspiration formed on his upper lip. “How are you girls?” the man pressed, leaning forward to include the woman in an unsubtle leer. Sharon and the woman exchanged a look.
“Fine,” Sharon said, taking up the beers now in front of her. “I gotta…” she gestures towards Ben. “Sorry.”
“Thanks, Share-bear,” Ben says as Sharon takes her seat. “Next one is on me.”
“But Renee? That’s good?” Sharon asks.
“Yeah. The ‘rents like her, so that’s good.”
“Right now they probably like her more than me.”
“Oh, sis, give yourself a break!” Ben admonishes.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sharon brushes him off. She glances behind her, and sees the man eagerly chatting with the woman at the bar. She points them out to Ben. “It could be worse. I could be out alone with a guy not quite as good looking as Phillip Seymore Hoffman hitting on me.” Ben almost chokes on his beer and Sharon bites her lip to keep from laughing too hard at her own joke.
Ben and Sharon step out of the bar after four rounds. It is no longer snowing and the temperature has dropped. Wispy clouds hang in the sky, unmoving without the earlier wind. Sharon leans on Ben’s shoulders to look up toward the sky. The stars are not crystal clear, but the view is better than the cut up sky Sharon had grown accustomed to in the city. The bar is emptying out. Sharon and Ben stop to pull on gloves and button their coats. The woman with nervous hands steps out next to them and hurries into a white sedan.
“Hey, I think you need this,” Ben says, pulling his stocking cap over her head. “I don’t want your ears to fall off.”
“What about you?” Sharon asks, tucking her hair more neatly into the cap.
“I’m a man!” Ben yells and pumps a fist in the air. “I can withstand frostbite!” He is full of drunk bravado. Sharon and Ben walk slowly toward the corner, both shuffling their feet along the sidewalks, unsteady. They pause, waiting for the light to turn green. The white sedan rolls up next to them. Sharon peers in, but can’t see across the passenger seat in the dark to know if the woman is looking back. Sharon waves.
It happens, like these things do, in both slow motion and in the blink of an eye. The walk sign and green light pop on. Sharon and Ben need to step over some built up snow before they can step into the crosswalk. The sedan rolls forward. No one sees the truck. It is black and driving without headlights. It feels, for the first half second, as though the night itself has taken shape and hurtled through the intersection. Adrenaline sparks through Sharon’s system before, a long second later, she realizes what is happening. The white sedan almost pulls past and the truck catches it on the bumper. The sound of crashing metal breaks into the air. The truck doesn’t stop and it is swallowed back into the night. The white sedan spins, its wheels locking into a shallow groove on the road that had turned slick and dark. The car twirls. The car smashes. Spun a hundred and eighty degrees it twirls and smashes into a streetlight, still on the same side of the street only now facing the wrong direction. Ben is pulling her and then they are there, next to the car. The windows have been blown out by the impact, and the pole pins the driver’s door closed, blocking the handle.
“Call 911!” Ben instructs as he leans to examine the woman. Sharon doesn’t know if her hands are shaking from cold or fear. She has to squint to see the street signs but she keeps her voice even. She looks at the woman. Blood trickles down from her hairline. Sharon looks at the snow instead, the places where the shards of window glass puncture the snow along the curb. It sparkles, tiny earthbound stars. Sharon hates herself for this thought and looks away.
“An ambulance is coming,” Sharon says, first to Ben and then to the woman.
The woman’s eyes are closed and she is making low moaning sounds from the bottom of her throat. Her hands have fallen onto her lap and Sharon thinks the tips are turning blue. She pulls off her mittens and fumbles to put them on the woman.
“You’ll be ok,” Sharon says. “You’ll be ok.” People in other cars pull over. Sharon and Ben stand next to the car window, their shoulders pressed together in a feeble attempt to block the woman from a wind that isn’t blowing. Was it a hit and run? What did the other vehicle look like? Did you get the license plate number? The newcomers mill nearby. They hear the siren before they see the ambulance. “You’ll be ok.” The words repeat themselves so that by the time the paramedics appear and lift her to a stretcher they are all Sharon hears, even as her lips stop moving to form them.
Ben has been taller than Sharon since he hit age fourteen, but as Sharon watches him talk to the responding officer, swinging an arm over the intersection to detail the crash she feels as though she has noticed for the first time. Tall Ben. Adult Ben. She is glad he does his own laundry. A familiar purple minivan approaches the scene. Sharon is puzzled for a minute. She had missed the moment Ben had stolen to call them, as she stood, waiting, fumbling with the woman’s cold fingers. Sharon’s parents fall out of the van almost before it had come to a complete stop. They are both dressed in pajamas. Sharon’s mother’s legs are bare under a nightgown, her sock-less feet stuffed into sneakers. Sharon feels as cracked open as the car next to her.
“Mom?” Sharon says, her voice almost too quiet to be heard. “I’m sorry I took your boots.” Her mother doesn’t stop to respond or look at the car or ask what has happened. Sharon’s mother barrels into her, wrapping her arms around her head. Sharon’s mother laughs into the top of Ben’s hat.
“It’s ok, sweetie. You’ll be ok.” And though Sharon had been repeating the words like a mantra, she believes them for the first time. Sharon’s father and brother step up behind her. With her head bent down Sharon can see the snow clinging to her mother’s pale skin. Sharon tries to move but her family stands still, curved around her so that Sharon’s knees finally give out, she is able to stay on her feet.
Margaret LaFleur's work has appeared in Stone's Throw Magazine and at The Millions. She recently graduated from the MFA program at the University of San Francisco and currently lives and writes in Upstate New York. You can visit her on the web at margaretlafleur.com
| Our Stories Literary Journal, Inc. © 2006 |