When you killed yourself, everything stopped and kept going, and that mixture of inertia and constant motion sent me reeling.
We debated, briefly, if Shelly should still perform in the final night of Bye Bye Birdie, but it was her second play and her first lead and she wanted to, and I wanted her to, and they rewrote the program for that night to add your name and a little tribute to what you’ve done for the school, the theater department and for Shelly, and they dedicated that performance to you. Shelly got enough roses to open a flower shop. You know and I know she cannot stand pollen. But it was okay.
And life kept going on, as everyone insinuated that it would and as I knew it would. Wake, funeral, interring, repast, leftover casseroles, all that shit. I returned to work and everyone looked sorry. Their pasty winter faces folded down in something like residual grief and it turned my stomach so that I couldn’t eat lunch. Instead, I masturbated in the handicap stall of the bathroom and I didn’t even feel guilty for doing it. I just sat there on the toilet, my winter-weight tights coiled around my ankles, my vagina sore from plunging in while dry. And I made spit bubbles, sitting there, refusing to think of you.
When Shelly was done with school for the year, I took a leave of absence from work and we took a road trip. I made plans as we went and I suppose I wanted to keep going, but in early August, Shelly begged to go back home. Back in Massachusetts, I returned to work for a week, but then I quit my job in September to volunteer for a political campaign. I attended rallies and went door to door in two months to persuade people to vote. When my candidate lost in November, everything felt hopeless and I didn’t know what to do.
Shelly got into that year’s musical, Into the Woods. She had wanted the role of Little Red Riding Hood or The Witch, and she got The Witch. “It’s because of my hair,” she said and I nodded in agreement. “Mr. Kinsey said he could have cast me as The Baker’s Wife, but he said he wanted me on stage more, leading the search.”
“I send people on quests into the woods to get what they wish for, but they should be careful what they wish for. Or so it goes in the play. I love Sondheim.”
“Sounds interesting. Good witch?”
“Not really. She’s complicated. It’s a little racy, too.”
“Do you want me to help at all?”
She shook her head no. I suppose, what could I do to help? You were the artistic one. You helped with set design. I always stayed out of the way until opening night and disappeared again until the last show. But this time, I didn’t want to be alone or idle, so I kept myself busy by going to her rehearsals. And I started smoking again. I’d sit in the nearly empty high school auditorium and watch the students run lines and find their places. I would listen to the director carefully tell the high schoolers how horrible they were at acting, at singing, at dancing, at feigning love. I’d go out and smoke whatever pack of cigarettes I happened to pick up that day, because I hadn’t set on a brand yet, and another mother would come out and smoke with me and tell me about how awesome her kids were as if Shelly were a piece of shit. But I told myself that Shelly was not a piece of shit and this woman didn’t think that; it’s just that everyone’s kid is the best kid in the world.
The third day of rehearsals, she asked, “Which one is yours?”
“The tall one with all the curly hair.”
She nodded, blowing smoke out at the same time. “The lead girl?” She looked disappointed. I wanted to make her hurt more.
“The lead again. She was lead last year,” I said. “Yes, that’s her.”
“Her dad?” she started. I turned on my toes, like doing the twist. I said, “She’s not a good dancer. It’s not her only flaw, right? We all have many. But it hurts her in musical theater.”
“Your daughter’s awesome.”
“That’s true.” I said. “All daughters are awesome everywhere.”
Shelly would look at me from the corner of her eye. She never sat next to me. We hardly talked. Once she asked me, nearly October, “why can’t you be still?”
I stopped what I was doing. I wasn’t still. I was sitting on the couch with crossed legs, shaking one leg as if I were rocking a baby, flicking some French rose-flavored cigarette in the ashtray I held in my other hand, bobbing my head slowly, and I had only sat down. I stopped all my movement and asked, “what do you mean?”
“You’re constantly moving. Since Dad died, you can’t stay still. And you’re always looking around you like you’re some kind of cokehead or meth patient. Perpetual motion woman.”
In anger, I stood, upending the ashtray to the floor and spilling pastel-colored cigarette butts and fancy French ashes on the rug, the ashtray thumping like a head hitting something stationary. I had a raised hand to, what? I would never hit Shelly. “Perpetual motion mama,” I said.
I let Shelly have a Halloween party. Her fellow theater students came in intricate costumes worthy of Hollywood. There were about twenty kids, three mothers, one father, and me. The adults had beers and bloody marys. The kids had punch and caffeine. We had scary themed food. I made sure everyone was comfortable—I was making sure—and Shelly told me to be still. “I got it,” she said. “Me and Val,” Valencia or something, “we’re the hosts.”
“Your daughter’s beautiful,” one of the mothers said to me. Shelly was beautiful. Tall and thin with small breast and hips. Her hair lit around her like a bush fire in unkempt coils. She looked like something not quite me, not quite you. I leaned back against the wall and watched Shelly bounce around from kid to kid, entertaining, constantly entertaining.
“I’m sorry,” the mother said, “for what happened.”
I nodded. The apologies, nearly a year later, came yet. I closed my eyes and tried to still myself, as my daughter requested I do. I took a gulp of bloody mary and let the tomato pulp roll over my tongue, sludge down my throat. I let it like lava warm me beyond warm, too much. I kept drinking. When I opened my eyes again, glowing but tired kids in makeup and costume were bidding Shelly goodbye and thanking her for the party. One of the fathers was making out with one of the mothers. The other two mothers were in deep conversation. Soon, Shelly was in front of me. She kind of hugged me. “Thanks, Mom,” she said. She had been so cold to me, for months, cool as a vodka ad, and I fell into her hug. I glommed on.
“Mrs. McGinty? Are you going to be okay?” I looked at Val, who asked the question, and I shook my head just once as if I were disturbing a fly. I was crying.
“I think I drank too much,” I said. And you had killed yourself. I was drunk and you were dead. One of the mothers must have helped me upstairs because when I woke up, she was still there, staring at me and stroking my cheek. I jerked a little and she didn’t change what she was doing.
“How embarrassing for Shelly,” I said.
“Who are you?”
She leaned in and kissed my head. It felt maternal and I felt okay about it. I grinned a little at her in thanks for her comfort, and she kissed me on the mouth. I kissed back. “I’m sorry,” she said. I didn’t say anything. I sat up. My brain seemed to rush into the front part of my head, where this mother had kissed me, and concentrate on an evil spot of pressure.
“Where is Shelly?” I asked.
“In her room.”
“And is he still president?”
She smiled at me. “I should go.”
“Did you vote for him? It’s okay if you did. I don’t want you to go yet. I don’t want you to, you know, I’m not gay. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being gay!”
“But I don’t want you to go.”
“I won’t go. I’m Tonya’s mother. We’ve talked about her? We smoke together at rehearsal.”
“Is she still here, too?”
“She, Val, and your Shelly are all downstairs.”
“Then you’ll stay for breakfast.” I reached over and took her hand. It was not as smooth as a woman’s hand should be. Clearly, she washed dishes and did other things. She said that she was a hairdresser, I believe, in one of our conversations outside of the school’s theater. I imagined, even in gloves, chemicals seeping into the pores of her skin, roughening her hands in some places, smoothing them in others. “I want you to kiss me again.”
Tonya’s mother kissed me again and my whole body stirred. “I still don’t know your name. I should, right? We’ve talked so often. Here, my name is Aiesha.”
She smiled. “Delirium tremors,” I said. “Is that the term? Am I hallucinating?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m Minnie. Like the mouse.”
“The mouse. How’s Mickey? Would he mind us making out?”
“Mickey is actually named Jeffrey. And he is an asshole.”
I called our new arrangement makeshift. Tonya slept on the couch, Minnie slept with me, and Shelly skulked everywhere in the house, but mostly in her room. She looked at me whenever we met as if she hated me. Sometimes, I would try to touch her and she would always flinch away. I chose to act as if it were always this way. Shelly chose something else.
And I couldn’t get a read on Tonya for anything. She was an elusive child who spewed all her energy on the stage and at our makeshift home, she’d close up and look around for a dark corner. Honestly, I didn’t care too much because she wasn’t my child, but I worried that if Tonya wasn’t happy, Minnie would leave.
None of this was simple. Jeffrey, Minnie’s husband, often came and yelled through the walls, threatening us with cops and social workers, saying that he wanted Tonya back. He’d call Minnie a dyke, a butch, a cunt cruncher, a whore, and me a homewrecker, a desperate widow, confused. Sometimes, he’d get in and we’d have to physically work to get him out, Minnie and me. When that happened, Tonya and Shelly would watch and wait, wanting him to go away and for Tonya and Minnie to leave with them. “You’re my wife, Minnie,” he’d say. “Why are you here? Your son’s still home. What about him?”
Also, I don’t think Shelly and Tonya liked each other. They didn’t dislike each other, but they weren’t friends. Our arrangement forced them together in a way that they were both uncomfortable with. They were cordial. I did see that they did not appreciate what was happening, but I enjoyed having Minnie so close to me.
And Minnie cried in her sleep. When it happened, I would lightly stroke her back and her hair. I’d kiss her awake and tell her that everything was okay and would be okay. It was late November and late at night when I finally asked about her son who was still at home with his father. We were in bed, and I knew she was awake because she kept shifting positions next to me. “Is he in high school, too?”
“He’s a seventh grader. He’s a bright little guy. I want him to come here.”
“Should we get a bigger place?”
I could hear her sit up, see her silhouette move. She clicked on the lamp on your side of the bed. “I have to go home sooner or later.”
I sat up, too. “No. Tell him that I’m grieving and that I need a friend.”
“That’s not true, is it?”
“It’s true. You know that I’m still in mourning. I am lonely, too. You wouldn’t be lying to him. Am I the first woman you’ve been with? I mean, is this the first time Jeffrey fought to bring you home?”
I sat back against the headboard and crossed my arms over my chest. I felt like a stupid girl. She asked me if I wanted a cigarette and I couldn’t answer. She said her son’s name was Jeffrey, Jr. and that he had ADHD and he drew pictures of naked women and penises all the time. “I don’t mind because tits and ass keeps him focused. And dick.” She lit a cigarette and I wanted her.
“Bring him here,” I said.
“If I do that, he’d report me, Jeffrey, Sr. He’d have both kids and I’ll be out on my ass. Well, I suppose that I’ll be here until you tire of me.”
“I won’t tire of you.”
She looked at me with one eyebrow raised. She stared at me for a slow second, then shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
I lay back down and turned away from her. I felt anxious. My legs scissored back and forth. She put a hand on my back and I stood and went to the bathroom. There, I pissed and then I paced the tile. I put on my robe and left the bathroom, my bedroom, down the hall to Shelly’s. I knocked and she didn’t answer. I didn’t know what time it was. I knocked again.
“Who,” I heard, the word disappearing into sleep.
“Shelly,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“I’m coming in.”
Shelly was always a clean kid and her room was as neat as a staged home on a realtor’s showing. She lay like a vampire against her pillows, her arms and hands placed across her chest. I had a horrible thought that she, too, was dead and despaired because without her, I would have nothing. But she breathed and I sighed away my irrational worry. I went to her and embraced her. I could feel her narrow chest beneath her nightgown, the skin, bones knitting themselves into adulthood. Was she still growing? Two years from now, she’d be gone. College or whatever. The thought made me hold her tighter. Because two years from now, I’d be alone.
“Mom,” she said. She pet my head. “What is it? What time is it.”
“I don’t have an answer for either one of those questions.”
“You’re too witty for the hour.”
We quieted down and Shelly held me in her arms. She fell back asleep and I stayed there for a short while. I got up to leave and she stopped me. “Eventually, she’ll go home. Tonya says they always leave eventually.”
“Yeah? Always, huh? Why does Tonya go along?”
“She’s not too crazy about her father. Loves him, but she doesn’t know what to do with him. And she feels like she has to watch her mother. . .”
“She told you this?”
“. . .and wash the potatoes. . .”
“Go back to sleep, Shell.”
Minnie grew distant. She would come home later at nights and she didn’t show up at rehearsals.
The play was going to premier in a week. Shelly and Tonya talked more, if only about the play, but Minnie and I talked less. I tried to busy myself with the play. I helped pass out fliers and I assisted the costume designer with last minute costume adjustments or changes. For the first time in years, I sewed.
On the first Thursday of December, the girls were at school, Minnie was at work, and I was home. Again, I started packing your things away for donation and again, I must have stopped. I must have let my mind wander. I opened my eyes to find that my hands were shaking as they hovered over a box of windbreakers. I stood up and it was too quick, the movement, and my head ached like I had fallen down on something solid. The doorbell rang.
Do you remember that I was the suicidal one and you were the happy one? My therapist (I had a therapist and you did not. The weird thing, David, is that when you killed yourself, I stopped seeing my therapist. Just stopped going to her office. She knew. The whole town knew what happened. She came to the wake and told me, though I avoided her for most of the time that she was there and I would have gotten away with it if it were not for Shelly, that I ought to go see her. I only nodded at her. Then she called me that June, the first June, and I told her that I was in Mississippi, because I was; Shelly and I were on that road trip) called my suicidal thoughts suicide ideation. After a year of seeing her, she said that she believed that I would never hurt myself. I told you this. You nodded. I was the suicidal one! Now, I can’t imagine doing it. There was Shelly to consider.
I bent down again to take care of your windbreakers, but I couldn’t get the box closed, or there was not enough in the box. I didn’t know what the problem was.
Downstairs, I heard Minnie talking to someone, their voices soft. I knew who it was. I listened as she walked up the stairs and came into the bedroom. Her face was drawn downward and I could see that she was older than me. “You’re leaving,” I said. She nodded.
“Does Tonya know?”
She nodded. “Jeff got her after school.”
“Jeff. Was that him at the door?”
“Didn’t you notice me packing?”
I had noticed her packing. Maybe that’s why I tried packing your things again? I knew she was leaving. “What are you guys doing over Christmas break?” I asked.
She shrugged. “We usually go over into New Hampshire to visit Jeff’s parents.”
“Jeff. Do you love him, Minnie?”
“I love him enough. Are you going to be okay?”
“No. I will never be okay.”
Minnie looked at me. She looked at the box and around the room. She knelt near me and slid the box away. “Don’t do that yourself,” she said. “Hire someone or have a friend come over and do it while you are away. Don’t be here for that. Do you want me to do it? I can do that for you.”
“You should go with Jeffry, Sr.”
“Do you want me to come out and get your husband’s things?”
I stood up and my head swam again. I faltered and Minnie, standing up, reached out for me. “I don’t want you to leave,” I said, steadying myself in her arms. I tried not to cry, but I could feel myself crying. I refused to sob. “Just let go,” I said. “Just leave.”
She let go and I stood up straight. She left the room, went down the stairs, left the house, and I left the room, I went down the stairs, left the house, left the door wide open, I walked after their car that Jeffry, Sr. drove, my face immobile (I hoped), Minnie looking after me, looking at me with pity, and they picked up speed and drove away. I kept my pace, I kept walking.
You and I took this path many times, often after dinner on warmer days. Now, it was nearly winter and cool and I didn’t have a jacket or sweater. I was just in a tee-shirt. Maybe I was cool or even cold. Maybe I was still crying. I walked on into the woods on the little footpath, with the rickety wooden bridge that you swore beavers gnawed on, to the cackling creek that seemed to move slower in the heavy weather, to the little waterfall. I stood and watched the water, cloud white where it hit the rocks, and window clear where it flowed in the creek. I stood there until I noticed the cold, and I stood there longer, and had Shelly not come, I would have stayed forever.
“So, Tonya and her mom are gone, huh?” she said.
I didn’t answer. Shelly put her arm around me and pulled me in close to her. She had grown over an inch since you died. She was thin yet, but she was strong. She said, “I know you know this, but I miss him, too.”
“If you know I know this, then why say it?” She shrugged. I said, “What else is on your mind lately? It doesn’t have to be about your father.”
“There are a couple of things. A few things. Like, the play next week. I keep running through my lines. Paul Cormier, who is in the pit orchestra. He plays trumpet and trombone. I tried to introduce you to him at the party. I think we’re dating? I’m thinking about why Dad did it. I’m worried about you, but you seem calm now. I mean, you’re not doing anything but looking at the water.”
“What’s on your mind?” she asked me.
“You are growing up and I’m afraid that I’ll miss something. Paul Cormier? I didn’t know that. I’m missing things already. I’m distracted, I know. People are unhappy. Your father was unhappy. That sounds pat.”
“It is pat.”
“He loved us.”
“That’s pat, too. Aren’t you cold?”
“I’m cold, but we’ll go home after I tell you this, okay? I didn’t know Minnie’s name until she came here for your party, but we used to talk during rehearsals. She’d go on and on about how great Tonya was. When she asked who was my child and I told her, she seemed wowed. You wow people, Shelly. You wowed your dad, too. I don’t want to be obvious, but I want you to know—”
“I know, Mom. People have depression.”
“Okay. I also am thinking about what should I do next. I have to start working, right? Maybe? And next year is your last year of school. I don’t want the same kind of job, though. I want something—oh, I was talking about you! This is all relevant.”
“Mom, you’re moving too fast again. Or you’re talking too fast.”
“I know. So, Minnie said that you were wonderful. She used the word awesome and I guess since then, I’ve been going around looking at things and people in awe. Everyone and everything has something in it worthy of wonder and fear, of glory.” I closed my eyes and tried to breath in the world around me: the loamy dirt wet with melted snow and dead leaves, the crispness of the running water, the threat of a storm coming in from the northeast.
DeMisty D. Bellinger's writing has appeared in many places, including The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Little Fiction | Big Truths, and Anomaly. Her chapbook, Rubbing Elbows, is available from Finishing Line Press. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and for a Pushcart. One of her flash stories was selected for The Best Small Fictions 2019. DeMisty teaches creative writing and gender studies in Massachusetts, where she lives with husband and awesome twin daughters.