the writing disorder


New Fiction


by Priscilla Mainardi

      She hoped he was waiting. They had a pact to meet Fridays at this time on the weekends she spent with her father, but today she was late, very late. Her father had held her up with his ridiculous idea that he would move to California and she would go with him. She bounced on the balls of her feet at the light, cars racing by, until she saw her chance, then darted across the four lane road that circled in front of the art museum. She ran around the museum building, panting, army bag bumping her hip with every flying step. Down along the edge of the park, the boathouses flew their medieval flags above the dank sullen river. Would he be here, waiting in their little patch of woods away from the road, with a joint or some beers? School was out now and they hadn’t met since it ended, but nothing had changed; they were each just a grade older. Then she saw him, sitting on the grass whistling “Heart of Glass.” He hadn’t seen her yet, so she slowed to a walk. Oh, she could look nonchalant if she tried. It was practically her specialty.
      He still didn’t look up, intent on the dusty ground or his red laces or the black cuffs of his jeans. If only Jenny, her very best friend, could see him right now, with his long lashes and hair jelled up, earrings glinting from his nose and ears and right eyebrow. Then he looked up and the song ended. It seemed like the real thing but I was so blind — He smiled. She dropped down on the grass beside him and kissed his lips that tasted of smoke.
      “My father held me up,” she said. “He had to talk to me. He’s moving to California and wants to take me with him.” She had blurted it, not knowing she would.
      “Hey, Alicia, that’s pretty sweet. Where in California?”
      “Napa. My uncle has a farm there, or more like a ranch, with horses to ride. My dad said he’d get me riding boots.” Her mom had promised her boots for her birthday, way back in May. “But I don’t think I want to go. I mean, my whole life is here.”
      “Well, don’t get all worked up yet. He might be just playing you against your mother, like always. He might not even want to take you.”
      Ouch, why had she told him anything about her parents? True, she felt like a cat toy sometimes, batted back and forth, but why would her father say he wanted to take her if he didn’t? Now Holt was kissing her again, his mouth like smoke, and reaching around to unhook her bra that she didn’t much need yet. Her breasts were so small but Holt didn’t care; she seemed to have everything he wanted. He made this quiet patch of grass feel like their own place apart from everyone else. She put her face in his neck and inhaled, smelled sunshine and grass. It was June after all, summertime, and she should be happy. He pulled her down next to him and she closed her eyes, her hand small in his as he pressed her fingers to him, the hard bump there. Then he was unzipping her jeans, his fingers inside her, stroking her faster, faster, the pleasure growing stronger until it burst, a cascade of fine sparkles filling her head. She clung to him, wanted to hold on forever while the roar of the traffic came back to her ears and the wind whispered in the branches above them.
Then she heard a rustling sound and Holt pulled away. He sat up and opened a little square of plastic.
She put out a hand to stop him. “No, Holt wait —”
      “I don’t get you, Alicia, I thought you’d want to. Especially if you’re leaving.”
      Leaving? Oh yes, her father, how could she have forgotten even for a moment? Don’t think about Dad right now, no thoughts of Dad. “I want to but — ”
      How to explain she wasn’t a virgin. She hadn’t led Holt to believe she was, hadn’t said one way or the other. She was embarrassed to say she’d made it with Jordan under the Boardwalk last summer. How trite was that but what really got her was that the jerk hadn’t called her again. She didn’t want this to happen with Holt, didn’t want to string him along either. Smiling, she took the rubber from him, but instead of putting it on, she bent her head and took him in her mouth. He was so smooth, he slid in easily, and it was over in a moment.
      Holt was holding her and grinning. “You’re not bad, Alicia.”
      She grinned too, felt relaxed and smoothed out, her limbs gone limp on the grass. She closed her eyes and heard the flare of a match, then smelled pot. Holt took a big hit and leaned over and put his mouth on hers and blew smoke into her. She took a few more hits and her thoughts began to fall down around her like something just smashed. Jenny without a clue about any of this and how much Alicia wanted to tell her about Holt, maybe just to see if how she felt was real. Her dad wanting to take her away, trying so hard to get her interested, showing her pictures of the ranch in Napa where her uncle lived. Juliet, her mom — she only thought of her as Juliet now, though her Dad, Eric, was still just Dad — would want her to stay, or would she? Had her parents even talked about her going?
      “Here, Alicia.” Holt was holding out a joint for her. She wanted to say no, I don’t want to carry it, it’ll show all over my face I’m guilty of something. But Holt would think she was uncool so she took it and stuffed it in the bottom of her bag.
      “I gotta get back, I only said I was taking a walk.” Dad hadn’t minded, probably wanted to get drunk alone like always, sitting in the dark apartment. She got up, buttoned and fastened her clothes, dusted herself off. “Do I look okay Holt?”

      The apartment was hot and stuffy and empty. She tore back the living room drapes, opened the window, inhaled the gritty air, and fell back onto the brown leather couch, a cool animal. Dad must have gone out to drink. Too much silence. Turn on the television, flip around to a rerun of “Full House.” Memories of afternoons at Jenny’s when they were kids running back and forth to each other’s houses, playing Parcheesi on the porch with Jenny’s sister, Naomi so little she didn’t go to school yet. Upstairs Jenny smoothed pattern pieces onto fabric, red and blue plaid for a skirt, showed Alicia how to set the fabric under the needle, pull the thread to the back to break it off, press out the seam. The fabric smelled clean and the humming machine of oil. They baked a cake from a mix and licked batter from the mixers, the metal sharp and cold on Alicia’s tongue. Vanilla was the absence of chocolate. Her mom came to get her and chatted over coffee in the kitchen with Jenny’s mom, Mimi. Alicia and Jenny sat side by side on the porch couch not touching, Naomi on the floor, watching television as night closed in around them. The moms ignored them until it was dark, then pulled them apart. Alicia was dazed, blinking. “Say thank you, Alicia. Say goodbye, you’ll see each other in the morning.” Such a long time to be apart. Jenny’s dad, Philip, came in and kissed Mimi hello, setting off an ache inside Alicia that she didn’t understand yet. Walking home with her mom, skipping ahead, singing a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view, ponytails bouncing, homework dashed off. Dinner with Dad in a stony silence, wolfing down one thing at a time in order of worst to best.
       Then she was eleven and her father was gone and she cut off her long brown hair with Jenny’s sewing scissors. Her father moved downtown and she started spending every other weekend there, sneaking off to South Street to gets her ears pierced and smoke cigarettes. They sold the house in Drexel Hill and Juliet made her move to the condo in Germantown, dragging her away from the quiet shady street where she had lived from birth two doors down from Jenny and Mimi and Philip and Naomi. Alicia demanded to go to public high school instead of Catholic girls’ school, then ditched school to smoke pot and drink in back of the Wawa. She kept waiting for the ax to fall, but Juliet had gone back to work downtown and was too busy to notice. Alicia doctored her report card, forged Juliet’s signature, dyed her hair black in the bathroom. She plucked her eyebrows out completely, and fucked Jordan Lowry under the boardwalk. Really that was the only thing she regretted.

      She was starved when “Full House” ended, her stomach a void. She put frozen pizza in the toaster oven, its wire shelves crusted with old cheese. The cold french fries she ate standing with the fridge open were greasy and pasty and salty all at once. The pizza sizzled. Smell of smoke. Don’t burn your tongue, Alicia. Stale chocolate cupcakes in greasy cellophane, loops of white icing, a handful of raisins like little dried turds, so sweet and chewy. Milk so cold it tasted white, another cupcake, more milk. She would never fill up. She went back through the living room, the brown couch hulking and the tables a sinister gray in the blue light of the television, to her bedroom where her dolls stared back at her with blank faces.
      Her skin itched in patches, the way it did when she came out from swimming in Ocean City, running up from the beach with Jenny to the outdoor shower, slamming its flimsy board door, standing under the water until Philip called down from above to save some for everyone else. Now she went to the bathroom and dropped her clothes on the floor, ran water for a bath, poured in a dollop of Mr. Bubble. Innocent flowery smell. The water, a warm caress, filled her mind with Holt touching her, his eyes on hers, his intent look as she moved against his hand. She craved that quick rush of feeling, had to have it, needed it so often and so suddenly, no matter what or where or who she was with, had only to think of Holt’s mouth or hand, or see the word sex somewhere, anywhere, for the need to come on her. She pressed her legs together, or used her fingers, or anything, her make-up brush, a couch pillow, the hard edge of a dresser drawer. After, the feeling of regret, almost of shame, that was part of it: heat, satisfaction, shame.
      Thoughts drifted through her head like a sea breeze. She moved her hand from the edge of the tub, where the scummy metal soap dish hung, across her nipples, down her belly to her crotch, and what about the soap? How would that feel? She reached for it, knew she’d hate herself when she was done, but couldn’t stop herself. At least she’d smell clean. She edged the bar from the dish. Could she fool herself that she was just washing?
      Bang! What the! — out in the hall. Not her father, he always called her name. What then? An earthquake?
      Hold still, Alicia. Listen.
      Nothing. Silence. The humming silence of the air conditioner, distant roar of cars below. Stay still, keep alert. There had been an earthquake when she was a baby. Juliet said she heard the brooms falling over in the closet. It was possible, even in Philadelphia. What about California? She could never move there. Fires, too. Wildfires, everyone evacuating, pets trapped and roasted. What if the apartment was burning down right now? Had she turned off the toaster oven? Here she was, naked on the fourteenth floor. She’d never make it down the stairs in a fire, the idea made her dizzy. How would she ever fly?
      Stealthily she got out of the tub, wrapped a towel around herself, and opened the bathroom door. She put her head out, listened for a moment, then quickly crossed the hall to her bedroom and slammed the door. Her bag was on the floor, contents spilled out into a big mess, her notebook, make-up, wallet and key ring, a little flashlight her father had given her along with some pepper spray, the joint from Holt. That must have been the crash, her bag falling from her dresser. Not an earthquake. She squatted down in her towel and shoved everything back in.

      Jenny’s room, framed photos on the wall: an old church, boats floating in a harbor, Jenny and her mother in bathing suits lying together on a towel. Tall trees waving outside, now and then a car crawling by, Naomi asleep finally down the hall.
      “Wow, California. Are you excited?” Jenny sat at her desk, her face round, flushed, eager to hear whatever Alicia had to say. Alicia sat on the bed, dipped the brush in the bottle of black polish on the bedside table and smoothed it on her toenails. Their tiny pearly shapes reminded her of shells.
       “Not really. Everyone is here. You, Holt, Juliet.”
      “But you could get away from your mom. You’re always complaining about her.”
      Was she? Juliet wasn’t that bad. Who was Jenny to say she was? Juliet was a little preoccupied with fighting with Alicia’s father was all, maybe a little preoccupied with work.
      “Anyway, you’re lucky, it sounds great.” Jenny was happy for her. Alicia wanted to hit her happy face, wanted her to say, “Stay, Alicia, I need you here.”
      “I don’t know if I want to go,” Alicia said. “Maybe I want to get away from my mom but I don’t want to get away from you or Holt.”
      “Did you tell Holt? What did he say?”
      “He said the same stuff you did. You guys should get together, put me on the plane.” Maybe she would go. That would show them. She lay back on the bed. Jenny sat down and picked up her foot. Warm hand, jolt of heat running up her leg.
      “You have the teensiest feet.” Jenny held out her own big foot, in its Indian moccasin. She wore moccasins, winter and summer. “Can I draw your foot?”
       How odd. But kind of flattering. Jenny turned her foot this way and that, fingers tickling Alicia’s ankle. Alicia flipped around on the bed, laughing.
      Jenny posed her foot and went back to her desk. She picked up a pencil, her red tongue caught between her lips. “I want to get my ears pierced. Do you think you could do it?”
      Alicia felt a nervous flutter at the top of her stomach. One Saturday soon after she met Holt, he’d put another hole in each of her ears and one in the top little swirl of cartilage. She’d told her parents she’d had it done at the mall. Not a word out of either of them. Typical.
      “Mimi won’t take you to a jewelry store or something?” she said.
      “She doesn’t want me to. I’m too young. How do you get away with all your stuff?”
       “I don’t ask.”
       She watched Jenny shade in each tiny toenail. She wanted Jenny to give her the sketch to hang on her own wall. She could see herself slipping it into her bag carefully so it wouldn’t be creased. If Jenny gave her the sketch, it meant Jenny loved her and she shouldn’t go to California. If Jenny kept it for herself, she would go.
      Jenny dropped the pencil, picked up the sketch, frowned at it, and let it drift down onto the pile of junk on her desk. Didn’t even put it up on the wall!
      Alicia hated Jenny now, wanted to hurt her, get back at her. She sat up, pushed out her breasts, braless in her tank top, and touched her nipple lightly with her fingers. “Did you ever let a boy touch you on top?” she asked.
      Jenny’s freckled face reddened. Her mouth dropped open. “Oh, gross, Alicia. Don’t.”
      Alicia could see the gleam of Jenny’s braces. She felt a pulse of heat, the way she felt with Holt. She dropped her hand, embarrassed, mad at herself for embarrassing Jenny. Why did she always try to shock Jenny, when Jenny was the one she loved the most?
      “Jesus, Alicia, I’m only fourteen, I don’t even have a boyfriend.” Jenny jumped off the bed. “I’m going to check on Naomi.”
      “Jesus, don’t leave. I’ll stop, I promise. C’mon, we’ll do your ears.”
      Jenny grinned.
      Take charge, Alicia. You can do this. “Go get a needle, an apple and some ice. And some alcohol to clean these.” She took the little silver balls from her ears. “We can sterilize the needle with my lighter.” Alicia got it from her bag. Jenny ran downstairs for the other supplies. She came back with an orange, a safety pin and a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
       “Is this okay? Naomi ate the last apple.”
       “We’ll make it work. Peel it.”
       “Alicia, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
      “Of course.” She took a pen from the desk and made little dots on Jenny’s ear lobes to mark where to put the holes. She lit the lighter and held the pin to the flame until it was almost too hot to hold. Jenny pressed a section of the orange to the back of her ear lobe and Alicia jabbed the safety pin into the little dot. Blood poured out. Gush of red, smell of metal. Alicia jumped up and screamed, knocking over the bottle of alcohol.
      “Shhh,” Jenny said, clapping her hand over Alicia’s mouth, “you’ll wake up Naomi.”
      Alicia took a deep breath. Clean smell of Jenny’s hand. Jenny took her hand away and gave her the earring. Two drops of blood ran down the side of her neck. Alicia wanted to lick them off. She pushed the earring through the hole, then did the other ear.
      Limp and exhausted, she lay back against Jenny. Jenny felt warm and strong. Alicia wanted to lie like that all night. But Jenny shrugged her off and went to the mirror and smiled at her reflection. Alicia got up and stood next to her. Jenny was her best friend, she loved her still, more than ever. “You look beautiful,” she said. She hugged her and kissed her on the cheek.
      “We forgot the ice, didn’t we?” Jenny said. That was hilarious, they had to laugh together over that. Then Alicia caught sight of the bed. Blood stained the bedspread, and the room reeked of spilled alcohol. Alicia blotted the bedspread with a towel, then used a corner to clean off Jenny’s neck and ears.
      They went downstairs and watched “Titanic.” Alicia loved it: the sinking ship, the fear, the highs and lows of hope and despair, the impossible shipboard romance. Would anyone ever give up their life for her? Unlikely. No one was even trying very hard to keep her in Philly. She looked at Jenny, engrossed in the movie, earrings gleaming. She wanted to sleep next to Jenny in her big warm bed, but when Jenny’s parents got home, Mimi took one look at Jenny’s ears, figured Alicia for the culprit, and sent her packing. Dark streets of West Philadelphia. Silence in the car, Philip’s hands white on the wheel. She was a bad influence. Not that she cared. They could blame her all they wanted. Soon she would be gone.

      Fuzzy-headed daylight. Nothing on television. Dad at the Phillies game. Damn him for waking her, calling the whole thing off. Your mother says you can’t go. Why can’t I? She’s not even here for me anymore, even when she’s home she just phones it in. Forget it, Alicia, it’s over. Why are you caving so easily?
      Bite of soggy Lucky Charms, cardboard taste, stale mouth, eyes leaking tears. Bowl in sink. Staring hard at dish drainer, tiny dish drainer big enough for a family of one. Her sad sack of a father. Now he would go without her.
      She took the subway to 5th Street, then headed down to South. Pavement melting. Punishing heat. Stupid father, stupid leaking eyes. Zipperhead swarming with teeny-boppers. Crinkling stiff leather boots, burgundy, matte black, army green, metallic silver-blue. Burgundy, please, size five and a half. Lace them all the way up, take a couple of steps, smile sweetly at purple-haired salesgirl. Can I try a five please? The girl left to look for them. Slip out the door.
      Run, Alicia, run. Don’t look back, don’t look around. Run.
      Run north, zigzag through back streets and alleys to Market Street. No one was chasing her. No one even noticed her. She plunged into the subway station and rode back up Market Street, then walked over to the park. Holt would be there. It wasn’t Friday but he would be there lying on the shady grass. Once I had a love and it was a gas
       She turned up the path to their spot. There was Holt, but it was quiet, too quiet. He was pressed up against a tall skinny blond, his mouth on hers. Asshole couldn’t even wait until she was gone. Throw something. No, Alicia, don’t. Don’t let them see you. Run.
      Run back down to Market Street, boots squeaking, stabs of pain at her heels. Wait on the platform, screech of the train, then the rumble and swerve out to 69th Street. Wait again. Finally the 102. She slumped on the seat, rested her face against the greasy window, closed her eyes on the day.
      She jumped down at Garretford Station. A rumble approached from the other direction but she darted across anyway, dodging cars, horns beeping, sprinting to beat the oncoming trolley. Seconds later a metallic screech, whoosh of air. She’d made it.
      Then she was walking up Jenny’s street under limp leaves, along shimmering cars, picturing Jenny’s house, cool, welcoming. She looked in through the window. Jenny sat with her parents and sister around the porch table. Pink and yellow paper plates covered in cake crumbs and smears of dark frosting were scattered around a game board. Philip set down his plate and leaned over and kissed Mimi on the mouth. Jenny reached out her hand to shield Naomi’s eyes. Naomi laughed and shook a cup and rolled the dice onto the board. They were playing Sorry.

Priscilla Mainardi was born and raised in New Haven and now lives in New Jersey, where she is a registered nurse. She is currently working as a freelance writer and editor, and completing an MFA in fiction at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. Her work appears in Nu Bohemia, Toad, and Nursing Spectrum.

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