I hadn’t slept since college and it was no one’s fault really, it just happened so; therefore, I mostly sat by my window each night watching people, some of whom had taken to watching me back. One fellow likes making a game of it and one night brings me soup. He pushes back the curtains to get a closer look.
“So what are you up to this time?” he asks and I tell him, same ol’, same ol’. Through the window, I take the soup with both hands and thank him.
“Quite sweet really.”
“I made it myself.”
After one sip, I say, “No you didn’t,” and he cops to lying.
“I didn’t. But I could have.”
“May I come up?”
Well I am all alone here on account of my no-good stepmother who told me all sorts of lies about the world out there and about men in particular to make me snooty and paranoid. And it’s true I still fancied myself a virgin if ever the tease. It was the favorite of all my many accomplishments, all the more so for the fact that I went through life in an exceptionally lovely and disinterested bubble. Untouched and pandered to, and wise enough to never nibble just anyone’s bait. So naturally I’d tell the fellow to buzz off ‘cept I am feeling first-rate and generous and he’d obviously taken the trouble to shower and shave tonight unlike the other times when he came by to yell clever insults and tell dirty jokes about him and his boys. Then, hiding under all that manly scruff and waiting for me to smile he’d look a wee embarrassed. Plus, before she left tonight, evil stepmother went on a vicious tear about my wolfing down her cupcakes.
On and on she raged!
“Oh-ho, yes, you swear you’ll always have that figure!” she cried out, her voice hoarse and strained, her eyes oh-so close to popping right out of their sockets.
“You’ll get diabetes!” she said.
“Your legs will fall off!”
“You’d think you’d at least pay for what you hoover up around here.”
“A grand swine you are! Oh, yes!”
“What cosmic forces could I call for help!”
You see, vicious even for her so of course I say to Scruffy,
“Um, ok, come in, but only for a tiny bit and only to be, you know, polite.”
“So tell me why don’t you ever come out?” is one of the first things he says.
“But I never see you except at night, sitting by that window, wrinkling your nose at everyone.”
“Oh, that’s only you.”
“What do you do all day?”
“Same. I never get tired so I don’t sleep. I know. But why? If I’m not tired?”
“Are those yours?” he asks, noticing the cupcake wrappers by my table.
“You know, maybe…”
“What can I say? I am also forever hungry.”
“Stepmother made them for some kid’s birthday party, and there they were, bite size perfect, frosted and tempting.”
“All of them? At once?”
“It’s quite a craving, do you understand? And the most decadent ones satisfy best.”
“So you leave here sometimes, you said?”
“During the day, though there’s not always that much to see and truthfully I’d much prefer sitting by my window.”
“Wanna go outside?”
“No. First it’ll get me in loads of trouble; second I’m rather more used to the world coming to me.”
“Funny. As for getting in trouble, you’re grown.”
“Which means what?”
“What time do you expect her back?”
“She was called last minute. To midwife a baby. That was an hour ago. I’d say three hours if it’s standard and it rarely is. Even the hospital on Seventh calls her with all their impossible cases. Control freak moms-to-be and whatnot.”
“We can hangout.”
“What do you have to offer?” I say.
“And I can bake cupcakes.”
That was the start of my relationship with Rocky. After that he’d come by when he knew stepmother was out. So not often but more than a few times. I suspect he knew her hours at the co-op on Union Street. With money and encouragement from dad, she started the business before I was born. She was ahead of her time he’d told me. One of the first doctors of herbal medicine, and to do it alone. Well she kinda lost it shortly after –said dad, ‘with your birth and all, she needed time to adjust’ — and with business getting worse, he practically gave the place to the first people who asked. Two Canucks. I guess he convinced her to give it up, told her there was better. In any case, with things the way they are at the moment, she asked the kids now running the place to let her help out in exchange for things. Behind her back they still call her a kook. She knows, I suspect, but doesn’t care.
A few evenings back when stepmother said she’d be at the shop — “Not for long,” she’d said closing her flat purse — I didn’t expect to see lines around her neck and mouth. For the longest time, people who knew her from her early days with dad, playfully called her a witch because she looked the same way she did at nineteen. I was with her once when some old guy tried to pick her up, swearing she was cutting class.
“Agnes,” she’d said, as she got ready to leave. She was grave and calm and I felt compelled to listen. “You don’t have to follow but I want you to hear me. You’re fine and beautiful and talented. You can leave a lot of wreckage in your wake. You know that, everyone does. But don’t be deceived, the good times won’t last forever.”
Since I’d never made any such assumptions, and wasn’t even sure where this was coming from (she wasn’t the heart-to-heart type) I thought, whatever. She was simply tired, I figure. Of me. Of everything. Rocky swung by the minute she left the house.
“Can I come in?” he asks, biting his bottom lip.
“I just got here.” I liked to sit and watch on my own time, eat some sweet, maybe play some games, check out the scene before I could ever be seen, so of course, for me his sudden appearance was no fun but an intrusion.
“The witch left didn’t she?”
“Well that’s what you call her,” he says.
“I know. I was…you shouldn’t say that.”
“So you want me to crawl in?”
He was fun at first. His vulgarity and couldn’t-care-less-ness, his sarcasm and coarse jokes. His endearing commitment to entertaining me while I sat in the jokey tiara and girly dress plus pants combo I’d fashioned together for the day. An okay break from my books but now, I’d tired of him. “Oh,” I wanted to say, “Sir, you so have the wrong idea.” But even before I saw the glint of metal by his foot, as he climbed through the window, I knew he wouldn’t be like all the rest, easily dismissed, laughed away to oblivion. Nah, he wasn’t going anywhere. He wouldn’t disappear, a bitter fool, proud tail between legs. He knew too much. He was coming in and there wasn’t much I could do.
“You know she could be back at any moment,” I say standing up, and I tried looking fierce but he just laughed.
“So?” he says. We stood toe to toe and I realized he was the same height as me. “She should know about me, shouldn’t she?”
“If you’d like I could…”
“I mean, that other night. You’re a wild one. Agnes, don’t resist. You enjoyed it. Now,” he says, “have you got any bread?”
“No,” he laughs again and tries to pinch my cheek, “bread. I feel for a sandwich.”
“Help yourself,” I say.
“I want you to make it,” he says sitting on the piano stool. He jerks his right heel out front, straightens his leg, then looking all around says, “Niiice.”
I shrug, go to the kitchen, and make him a cheese sandwich. “It’s all we’ve got.”
“Don’t give me that,” he says. “I saw the upstairs, the furniture in your mother’s attic. Don’t tell me what you’ve got or not.”
“You’re all right.” He lays in on the sandwich. “Play me something.”
“I don’t think you should be ordering anyone around.”
“Just play me something. Like you did that first night. That was special.”
I swallow hard, not at all sure what to do. I ask to get a manuscript from out of the piano stool. “Sure,” I say. “And what should I play?”
“Same thing as last time only different, you know. I think, tonight’s even better.”
I sit and play a piece I’d never played before but I doubted he could tell the difference.
“Nice. See, same but different.”
We go on like this for the rest of the night. Him, doing his thing — teasing, quizzing. Me — dodging, waiting. I can’t give the exact details, but it must have been shortly after he slides his hand between my legs that stepmother comes in.
“Hello,” she says in that crisp imperious way of hers, glaring unbelievably at Rocky, her nose holes tense cylinderettes.
“Hi,” he says, moving towards her to shake her hand.
“Yes? And I can help you how?” she says.
“Me and your daughter, well, we’re seeing each other.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. Perhaps we can discuss it.”
“That correct, Agnes?” she says to me, “I wasn’t aware there was something going on. And quite a gentleman, he came to discuss.”
“Well see, we’re planning on being together,” he says.
My stepmother continues staring and says nothing. “Excuse me, young man,” she finally says, slow and calm, edging towards the door, “but I can’t imagine what business you’d have here…”
“You need to let go, ma’am. What day are you living in? Your daughter is smarter than you think. I’ll be back. Your little one here, she’s shy now but ask. She’ll tell you. I’ll give you some time.” And, to my relief he left. As I said, I don’t remember the details of that night but she did mention dad.
“I told him the whole fancy private school business was a waste. But he was an old fool. Creoles. I mean, for what? Have you learned anything about life? And you sneak. Don’t think your dad and me weren’t aware of the company you keep.” She put her purse and coat away, complained about a neck ache, and went straight to bed.
The next morning at breakfast she said nothing about Rocky, just watched me carefully.
“What now, Agnes?” she said when I reopened the fridge.
“How could you possibly eat more? And what’s this you’ve been eating? For breakfast? You don’t even like lettuce.”
“I’m craving it now.”
“The same lettuce,” she said scornfully flicking at the bits on my plate.
“Like your mother. That’s all she wanted when she was with you. This lettuce. And garlic and honey…We should leave here,” she said.
“This is a dangerous one, let me tell you.”
“How do you know?”
“I will not have it!”
“So he’s a little, you know,” and I wrinkled my nose again, “but it’s silly to leave on account of him. First off, this house is all that’s left of dad.”
“All that’s left of dad? Is that how you think of him? All that’s left of dad.”
“We don’t need to leave the only thing he left for us.”
“It is a nice house I’ll grant you that but I can’t afford it any longer. Things are tight. I’m drowning, Agnes.”
“Since when,” she says to herself.
As soon as she said that I did start to notice things. The leak overhead, the broken tiles in the bathroom. Instead of WholeHearty Palace’s spiced delicacies arriving promptly at six by the doorsteps and the exotic takeout that were standard when dad was around, we had slowly come to rely on soup can leftovers from the store. Those fine, fine cupcakes it turned out, she’d hoped to sell. Needing work, she was trying to start something and showing what she could do.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“You’re every bit your mother,” she said as she washed up. “Go back to your books or whatever.”
Right after that first night with Rocky, and before all of this, I’d met someone, a fellow I really liked this time. A taste of Rocky must have kicked the bad-boy crave for good, ‘cause here was another bookish someone, shy and free, sitting on my favorite park bench. I was roaming the area by the lake as usual and considered myself lucky when he peeked up from his book and smiled. I sat on the opposite bench and started to sketch him. I’d gauge my pencil and pull it close to my right eye, then far away again, before scratching his features on paper. My little trick worked because he walked right over and asked to see what I was doing.
“Very interesting,” he said when I showed him my sketch. “I’m flattered.”
“Not too much though I hope,” said I.
“And you’re not shy.”
I fell in love. Simple. And it doesn’t matter how much you believe me. Yes, life really seemed different just then. That is, as if things were beginning to make some sense. I was ready to put away all the stupid frou-frous, return to school, make myself of use. Care for this other person, plan my days, do my share of chores.
We were chatting near the merry-go-round when I saw stepmother heading towards us.
“Uh-oh,” I said to him, as he followed my eyes then quickly put his arms around me.
“Let’s go now,” she said to me, standing some feet away, arms akimbo.
“No,” I said, “I want to stay here.”
“Let’s go,” she repeated, and this time she marched right over and dragged me by the arm.
“That hurts!” I said, “No, I’m not going. I don’t want to leave. I’m not going with you.” But the more I resisted the rougher she got. I remember her literally shoving me in the car.
“What do you think this is?” she asked me, and I looked at the note. It said, ‘Peter, Peter pumpkin eater, had a wife and could not keep her, put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well’.
“Well of course it’s a nursery rhyme,” I said.
“It’s from your little fellow.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I suggest you stay away. ‘Had a wife and couldn’t keep her,’” she repeats under her breath. “Presumptuous.”
“I don’t think you understand,” I tried to say.
“Of course not. Let me show you where he lives.” And she drove me to a halfway house twenty minutes away.
“He never mentioned it,” I said.
“No?” she said, “We need to report this.”
“And how would that work?” I said. “An order of protection? Is that it? And I mean would we politely hand it to him?”
“We’ll tell them to find and stop this man.”
“It’s a silly nursery rhyme.”
“It’s a threat, plus, he broke in.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes,” my stepmother nearly shouted this, “he did.” We returned home so stepmother could check up on things one last bit before heading back out, and it was true Rocky had indeed kicked his way in. The house was turned inside out.
“He led me to the attic,” she shouted in my ear. “Him and some goon. Care to hear what happened next? They knocked me around then tied me up. See this? Look at it! See what they did? But the whole time, Agnes, I thought, I shouldn’t have been too surprised.”
Stepmother touched the locks of hair that had stuck to her damp forehead and said, “But what’s the use. As my mother used to say, you can’t fix what went bad from morning.”
“Is this about dad again?”
“So precious, you. You and your mother. But for reasons I’ll never know he could never say no to either of you.”
“That’s stupid,” I said.
Dad died when I was away at college, the same time I started getting by on less and less sleep, and developed my late night cravings. I wasn’t sure what happened between my mother who gave me up to chase bigger dreams, and my step. I grew up knowing only stepmother and I wouldn’t have even known that if she’d never made a fuss of it.
“I tried to understand,” she said, “even agreeing to take you in when your father begged, explaining his mistakes and said your mother was unfit.” I noticed the smudge of blood by her wrist. “Honestly, Agnes, I can’t stand the sight of you,” she said. “You’re on your own. Good luck.”
I wanted to say I was sorry, about this and the cupcakes. About the house falling apart, the money troubles, and dad not being here. That I realize it wasn’t easy to raise the bastard daughter of your husband’s mistress. Instead what I said was, well the time’s right, I suppose. I’d just today made up my mind to leave.
I took a shortcut through the park. It wasn’t yet evening. By the woods, sitting on the hollowed-out log, a gang of kids shushed each other as I walked by, my eyes still following the ground. Who knows what they were up to. I was anxious to find my new guy and give him the good news. I figured he’d be by the lake.
“Ah, found your way back,” he said.
“I did it.”
“But I can’t take care of you.”
“We’ll manage,” I said.
“I’ll move in with you. Get a job.”
“Move in with me?”
“You don’t want me to?”
“I don’t know about that, Agnes, I mean…”
“You suggested it.”
“Yes, but, I thought, well, you were clearly miserable at home. I wanted to help.”
“You said you loved me.”
“No, see…” He moved closer to squeeze my chin. “You weren’t listening.”
“Agnes, I’ve already got a girlfriend.”
“Minor detail you forgot?”
“I must have told you.”
“Hmm, well, did you ask?” And after a pause he tells me, “It’s true, aloneness is too awful to contemplate, I know, and sometimes so is solitude, but still it’s worth a try.”
“What a smarmy piece of shit you are,” I said, “And what do you know? You don’t know what you’re talking about see, and that’s really terrible.” I felt a jab near my heart, I swear I did, and my breaths grew quick and shallow. My fingertips turned icy.
“Sorry,” he said.
Across the field was the street exit and I figured I’d head that way to look purposeful. “What for?” I said without looking back. I rubbed my hands together, and blew on them for warmth.
I watched my shadow on the sidewalk. My head appeared pointy, my arms spindly, and my hands looked like claws. My shadow played with the street lights, darting out in quick, sharp movements. Walking with pincher-fingers, I felt rough, and impatient, and able to do harm. Either way, unlucky for me I had a direct view of the delicatessen halfway down the block on the other side of the street. If only I could smash in and grab the goodies on display, but I walked past with my hunger. I aimlessly followed my shadow which took me all the way downtown. I decided to walk west towards the highway for a closer look at the water and the city skyline and had been walking a while when I saw my old tutor from college approaching a café near Bank Street. I’d decided to slip in if just to ask for water and see if I could pick up some free chocolates.
“Hello Rene,” I said as he studied the menu posted outside. “Remember me?”
He motioned me to a table in back and by the window. What I’d remembered about him was he’d invited me and another girl from our class to a party and said he wouldn’t go if we didn’t. “Suspicious,” was how the other girl put it without saying much more. His tired boy-blue countenance remained the same. I had my water and chocolates.
“Try the rosé at least,” he said, “it’s good,” but instead I watched him finish his spaghetti as he told me about his recent travels with various girlfriends. I wondered if his wife knew about his affairs and simply didn’t care.
“Where’re you heading?” he asked me.
“Nowhere in particular,” I said.
“In that dress…” he pinched my arm and smiled, “You look like you’re on your way to church.”
“A flimsy mini-dress, so must be.”
“You look virginal, very sweet.” With a wink, he goes back to his food and says, “but we know better, eh?” I took his class same time dad died and I welcomed his singling me out for his kindness and attentions. Sitting here listening to his ease in talking about his women friends made me wistful in a way I couldn’t explain. And as the night continued I started feeling weirdly disembodied and free. It was as if I’d merged with my shadow, this dark real self, frail and hidden, growing in size and shadiness but also light – freer than I ever could be of all weight. I looked across the water at the city lights and remembered feeling greatly comforted by the strange dark night with its starless moonless sky. In a short while I’d be out there, just me, still curious, communing with all the other select anonymous. I’d continue walking and eating the rest of my chocolates until I was worn.
Soon enough, I found work as an au-pair, which came with room and board. A stranger had tipped me off to a café that posted decent job listings. This was it, I thought. I had things to prove.
“You’ll have to make yourself amenable to our schedules,” said the wife.
“I can do that,” I said.
“And, it’s not much money,” she said, as she looked me from toe to shoulders.
“I don’t need much to live,” I said.
“Well, we do vacation in Maine,” she said, “so that will be a treat.”
I lived in a closet-sized room, and did my best to care for her two spawns, both precocious redheads. For some reason they took to me, and there were times, as I learned to prepare their meals, when I thought of my stepmother. I thought about leaving home, and life on the street. Decisions I had to make.
I looked at the boys during breakfast when their mom was getting ready for work, and their dad lagging in bed, and wondered, what kind of mother I would have made. I wanted to think I did the right thing. You can’t raise a kid without a roof overhead. Unlikely that she’d believe me now, as I get the boys ready for school, but I wanted stepmother to know I realize motherhood was not easy.
I thought about stepmother, and mom and dad, more and more, as I was also starting to think a lot about money. I could hear stepmother in my brain. She’d mention my ingratitude, and how I’ve had it so easy. She’d say, ‘Of course you’d think it possible to get by on good looks and good intentions alone, dear Agnes.’ She’d put ‘good intentions’ in air quotes. “Well, it’s not enough,” she’d said to me once. “And, you’ll find out, but don’t let me be the one.”
My time with the Smiths eventually came to an end. But before then, I sat late one night by the riverside, scratching out a plan on what to do next. Mrs. Smith had given me a diary, and encouraged me to write in it, every night, before bed. In the beginning, I felt she would watch me like a hawk, making sure I followed her detailed instructions to the ‘T’. Then she eased up and stopped hovering. She’d give me the car keys and tell me to go so and so. Or, invite me to stay at the family beach house, the two of us alone. Without mentioning names she’d tell me about her clients, and ask me about myself. She’d let me talk and talk, without interruption or comment.
“We don’t keep girls beyond a year,” Mrs. Smith had explained sadly. Hubby kept to himself mostly, and worked hard to avoid speaking to me, beyond what was cordial. She worked as a mediator, he in business. I decided I wanted what the Smiths had—each other, career, kids, vacations and home. How do you get all that? It occurred to me for the first time that the good life doesn’t happen by positioning yourself just so, as love and fortune falls into your lap. I won’t call it a realization, but I felt grateful for the work. I looked back on my life and started identifying all the lucky breaks.
I’d met two women by the playground, nannies, who taught me a thing or two. Right now, it’s about work and grabbing opportunity with both hands.
“All those thing you want? I say they happen when you’re ready,” one of the ladies said to me. “And sometimes only ‘if’.”
“And you’re young,” the other said. Both ladies were considerably older than me.
“You seemed so alone when I first saw you,” said the first. “What I mean is, these things are common. We all have the same dreams. Hold on to your big plan, plan A, whatever you want to call it, just make sure it isn’t the only one, and you’ve got some others, from A to Z.”
I collected my pay from the Smiths, as I stood with my back to the door. I removed the wad of cash from the envelope, as they waited for me to count it all the way through. “Good then,” I said, as I smiled and thanked them and made my way out the door.
Camille Goodison is the author of Chance Wanderer and Other Tales of Hunger and editor of Out of Many: Multiplicity and Divisions in America Today (Cat in the Sun Press). She is associate professor of English at New York City College of Technology, City University of new York.