PART 4 OF 4

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“Everything all right, Sarah?” Roberta yelled out from her desk as she passed in the hallway. It was the next morning. Sarah thought she might be able to slip by again, not have to speak to her until lunch time, but Roberta must have been waiting. She stopped, leaned against the doorway to Roberta’s classroom and blew out a deep breath.

“You usually say goodnight,” Roberta said.

“Students and their romances.”

“Yep, so much drama.” Roberta hadn’t looked up from her stack of papers yet. “Talking to this girl a couple days ago. She was so upset because this kid she slept with went around telling everyone about it. I mean details about what they did, intimate stuff. Even the teachers know.” She leaned back in her chair. “I’ll never get over how brutally they treat each other in high school.”

“Not any more brutal than out there,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, but stuff in here spreads like a virus.” Roberta looked at her. “The walls are thin, the windows large, and everyone’s got their eyes peeled for trouble.”

Dominic started the engine and it shook the whole inside of the car, not violently, but like a lullaby.

She didn’t mean to, but Sarah looked away, down the empty hallway.

“Come on in,” Roberta said. Sarah walked in and sat at a desk in front of Roberta’s.

“There was this kid when I was student teaching,” Roberta said. “Matthew Nielsen.” She leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling. “He was gorgeous. I mean just fantastic. And he never smiled, so he had this dangerous, brooding thing going on, which I’ve always fallen for.” She grinned. “You know I was just barely twenty-three and he was a senior, seventeen, I think. I used to have dreams about him. You know, teaching in your underwear, but with a twist. He’d be the one who undressed me while I was writing things on the chalkboard, or while we were discussing a diagram of a fallopian tube in the text book, things like that, and all the students would be watching and taking copious notes.” She laughed. “Everytime he walked into that classroom my mind would go blank, so I’d write out scripts for myself so I could get through that period each day. He wasn’t a great student. Not horrible either, but I started finding problems in his work that I needed to discuss with him after class or after school. Legitimate problems, mind you, but problems others had and ones that weren’t all that unusual. He’d barely talk, but something about him just sent me through the roof. I started having little daydreams. Innocent ones, where we had dinner out. He’d be wearing a suit, the lighting would be dim, and, of course, in these little dreams he knew how to dance the salsa even. I’m a big girl and was big then too and guys weren’t exactly crashing down my front door.” She leaned forward and put her elbows on the desk. “Imagine that, big Roberta Vasquez dancing the salsa with blonde haired, blue-eyed Matthew Nielsen.” She waited a minute. “Then one day he came into class wearing braces. He smiled to show them to one of his friends. It was the first time I’d ever seen his teeth. He looked so young, even younger than his real age, and the obvious finally hit me: he was just a kid. Somehow I’d stopped seeing him as one. I’d started thinking things, like, ‘There’s only four years between us’ and stuff like that, but he was just a kid afterall.”

“You never told me that.”

“Well, you don’t go around admitting to other teachers you’ve had fantasies about your students now, do you?” She spoke through a laugh. “Not exactly a great resumé builder.”

Sarah laughed and tried not to look nervous.

“Remember who you are, Sarah.”

* * *

Three weeks later she found herself on the threshold of a decision, one she couldn’t delay much longer. After leaving Royal Coffee she knew there was only one place to go, her house. She understood enough to know that an eighteen year old boy didn’t stick around indefinitely without something in return. Depending on how you looked at it, this either made young men callous and vulgar or self-conscious and needy. With Dominic, she had decided, it was the latter. It would be a personal insult not to sleep with him, a pain that suggested his worthlessness.

“Take me for a ride,” she said.

“Where?”

“Anywhere,” she said. “I just want the feeling.”

They had parked behind the store in employee parking. Normally she wouldn’t let him drive her around in his car; it was too conspicuous, its shiny chrome and tinted windows just begged for attention, but today she wanted something else, she wanted the immediate pleasure of his world. Her car was a Volvo station wagon, steel reinforced for safety, room in the back for bikes, snowboards, a boy or all three at once. It was an adult car, a liberal minded teacher’s car, a mother’s, full with the weight of social responsibility. Dominic’s, though, was full of too much shine and polish to be anything but a toy. A boys’ pleasure vehicle, so layered with watery lacquer paint and sub-woofers and bouncing radio lights that there was no room for anything but the desire to experience, and she wanted to be immersed in that world, that little window in time so perfectly tuned to sensory overload.

He opened the door for her and held it until she swung her legs inside. Her skirt was pulled up a bit, and she watched him watch her skin and he noticed her watching him and they were together in that knowledge, encased in the secret of it. She leaned down in the seat, her back sliding against the slickness of vinyl upholstery. Dominic started the engine and it shook the whole inside of the car, not violently, but like a lullaby. She watched his face, so serious, his jaw tight, his sunglasses hiding his eyes, the tinted windows concealing him from everything outside of it, and she had the sense of being wrapped in his insecurities—the smell of his cologne, the shininess of the paint, the slick, oily feel of the seats, and the very deliberate way he shifted gears, like he was in the cockpit of a passenger jet or guiding a space shuttle into orbit.

The sun was swallowed up by clouds; grey would be the final color of the day.

He drove down Estudillo and onto the freeway, and took the turn-off to Highway 17. The houses and strip-malls and tangled on and off-ramps were replaced by groves of redwood trees and green rolling hills pinned against the permanence of blue sky. The wind rushed around the car and he downshifted into third as he rounded a corner, his fingers spreading out around the silver ball as he slid it into the slot, his feet depressing the gas pedal that rocketed the car up the edge of the ridge, the engine rumbling with the strain but still gaining speed. He shifted back into fourth and the car settled, the ground just inches below them blurring away, the heat of rubber sticking to the pavement like life depended on it, and it did, she realized. He took another corner and the weight of the car shifted too much and she could see the canyon below them falling away in landslides of dirt. But the car stuck to the road and that’s when she realized the adept moves of his hands on the steering wheel were meant to impress her – the way he pumped his foot to rev the engine, the way his hand fluidly shifted in rhythm with the mechanics of the car, like his body moved in synchronicity with fast moving life. All of this was supposed to put her in awe of him, was supposed to turn her on. And it sort of did, but not in the way he believed it would. It turned her on because of the absolute need of it, the amazing fragility of his need to have such power over someone.

When they reached the top of the ridge, they drove along the spine of coastal mountains. To their left was the bay and little toy airplanes floated below them to a landing at the airport. To their right, just over her shoulder, was the endless blue of the Pacific and except for this strip of backbone they drove there was nothing else but sky. Something turned over in her as Dominic powered the car through the sky, a rising freedom that was dangerous and young and unscarred. She felt it as sure as she rocked within the car, as sure as he sat next to her, and she reached her hand over and placed it on his leg. He didn’t smile, but she could see the pleasure in his face, and when he pushed in the clutch to shift once again, she felt all the working muscles beneath the fabric of his pants. This was the freedom of a boy in a car, the freedom of not understanding that life was more boring and more important and full of more consequences than you could possibly imagine in just eighteen years.

Then the road fell toward the west and the ocean that was once beneath them, flat like something to walk across, became bigger and bigger and filled up her vision with its rolling and white-capped strikes at land. When they reached the beach, Dominic parked the car and leaned his head against the seat and looked at her. There was silence for a moment until the roar of the ocean replaced the roar of the engine. Dominic leaned forward to kiss her, but Sarah refused.

“Let’s walk,” she said.

The summer fog sat in the distance, fingers of clouds stretching towards land. A fierce wind blew in ahead of it and spit salt water into the sky so that a light mist landed in their hair and wet their coats. Beyond the jetty, in the gunmetal shadow of the coming fog, were row upon row of waves building and crashing and then receding back into the expanse. A few surfers threw themselves down the face of waves, their black bodies falling into the whitewash and disappearing. Sarah sat down in the sand and Dominic sat next to her. The surface was warm, but on the tips of her fingers, just beneath the surface, she felt the cold sand dig underneath her nails.

“Is this the place?” she asked.

He nodded. Something had changed in him. Maybe it was the refused kiss, but he was pouty, distant.

“When you come here now, what do you think?” she asked.

He used a stick to dig into the sand. He shook his head. “I don’t know, you know.” He looked out towards the crashing waves. “She’s too far away. My old man, well, he’s gotta be dead to me, you know.” He smiled, an ironic smile that was like a slash of pain across his face. “Not giving a shit’s like being dead to someone, don’t you think?”

“I don’t really know. Giving a shit—as you put it—doesn’t seem to matter much.”

A large wave crashed, one of a set, and she watched the frothy ocean creep closer towards their feet.

“That’s wrong,” he said. He pulled the sunglasses from his face. “That’s hella wrong, Sarah.” He looked at her and she could tell he was scared, scared that this friendship she’d offered him was fake.

“You’re beautiful,” she said.

“Beautiful? Shit, that’s like telling me I’m cute.”

“Well, deal with it,” she said.

The sun was swallowed up by clouds; grey would be the final color of the day.

“You know you’re not in love with Maria,” she said. “If you were you’d follow her, no matter what I or anyone else said.”

“Maybe I still will.”

“You won’t,” she said. “What you call love is not love.”

“What is it then?” he said.

“Something else.”

The wind whipped salt and sand into the air. She turned her face away from it.

“Well, if it’s not love,” he said, “I don’t think I want it, because nothing felt like her, you know. Nothing.”

“Your first?” she said.

“My only.” He said it and then he was embarrassed.

She thought he might be lying. “You’ll know it’s love when you take it for granted, when you expect that it’ll always be there, when it becomes a part of you, when it settles into something other than sex and other than beauty. And when you lose it, when it’s taken away, you’ll have to follow it just to find yourself again.” She waited. “You’re not in love with her because you’re here with me.”

“I’m not in love with you,” he said.

“That’s good.” When she said it he stared down at the sand like he was counting every grain, like he was afraid to lose it against the tide.

She leaned forward, not far, but enough. He turned his head and she put her hands to his cheeks and kissed him and he let her.

* * *

They had cleaned the bullet hole. He had been shot in the chest, and the hole was so small, so perfectly round, that it seemed utterly harmless. There was more damage when he broke his leg falling from his skateboard, she thought, but this damage was near the heart, this damage cut through the lungs. When the man asked her if this was her son, she looked at him and felt such a brutal anger that she had to hold onto the inside of the pockets of her jeans to keep from hitting him. She looked at him for a moment, the way his hair was perfectly parted, the paperwork in his hand he needed to file, the way his pencil sat between his fingers ready to write his official notes.

She looked back at David’s body. She could see the lines of unused veins beneath the surface of his skin. He was naked from the waist up, below the waist he was covered with a white sheet. The sheet clung against his legs and his groin and at the end of the sheet his blue feet stuck out, bare except for a plastic tag tied to his toe. She wanted to pull the sheet from his body. She hadn’t seen him naked since he was a child, and this suddenly seemed to her such a shame. She looked at his face; there were still traces of pink around the edges of his nostrils, color clinging to the lids of his eyes. She touched his hair, felt the curl of his eyelashes, and ran her fingers along the edge of his thin nose. She touched his chest and laid her hand on the softness of his stomach. The skin was cold and smooth like waxed paper.

She nodded slightly.

“That’s a yes?” the man asked.

His right knee pinched the skin of her thigh and she moved with the pain in a way to make him feel she was moving with desire for him.

“Yes,” she said, and she hated him for making her say it. He was a skinny man, the color of a worm.

He pulled the sheet back up over David’s face. She almost crumbled; she could feel things collapsing inside her, but she imagined him sleeping and this helped her keep her feet. The skinny man pushed on the edge of the table and it slid into the mouth of the body-sized tomb. When David’s head was all the way inside, he closed the door and slid a small piece of paper with David’s name and a number written in blue pen into a small plastic sheath on the outside of the door. It looked like the call numbers to an author in a library card catalogue.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “I’m sorry.” But his voice was too formal, business like.

The room was horribly cold and she began to shake uncontrollably; the muscles of her jaw hurt, but she wanted to stay.

“Do you have kids?” she said, her voice accusing. He stared at her. “Do you?”

“No,” he admitted, and he seemed embarrassed by it. She knew he wanted her to leave; he had turned his body towards the door and even began to lift his hand to guide her out. She didn’t turn but stood and faced him directly. She wished he would push her so that she could push him back, knock him down, kick him in the stomach. She wanted to say something, to tell him how hard it was to raise a child, and how he knew nothing about any of it. She wanted words strong enough to make him bleed, but then she heard her own question and realized, now, that her answer would also be “no”.

* * *

Dominic took the freeway back from the beach, and what had been an hour drive before took only twenty minutes this time. She made him park his car around the corner, on a cul-de-sac that few people ever drove down. The walk was long to the front door and she felt the loneliness in the time of day, the lull before men arriving home from work, the anxious peace of a neighborhood empty of teenagers still out cruising, hanging out with friends at malls. Dominic tried to lay his hand on the small of her back.

“Don’t do that,” she said.

He immediately removed his hand and replaced it in his pocket.

“Wait until we’re inside.”

All the windows were shut and the drapes pulled and with the deep shadows concealing the brightness of the sun, the house was full of flat, dull light. The effect was like that of coming into a long closed museum; the air was stale like sediment settled in the follicles of a carpet that needed to be shaken.

Her experience with men, including her own husband, was that when they got this close to a woman’s bed, there was little hesitation. Once he got within sniffing distance of bedsheets, he took control, owned the room and you in it. It wasn’t until after the man left that you had yourself and your possessions back. She expected that call to action; she expected Dominic’s hand on the back of her neck immediately; she expected grasping fingers, powerful lips, a walk backwards like one long fall towards her bed.

But what she got was something else entirely. He stood near the kitchen counter, his hands thrust into his pockets. This was new ground they were treading, and even Dominic seemed afraid of it. She breathed more easily and her eyes briefly welled with water, the same thing that happened at school when a student said just the right thing or clearly understood a difficult concept through much exhausting thought.

“Can we open a window?” he asked.

“No, we can’t.” She walked over to him, smiled, and pulled his coat from his shoulders. He stood and let her, one arm tugging free and then the other. “Come in and sit down.”

She retrieved a cold bottle of vodka from the freezer and two glasses. She had learned to drink the vodka straight with a twist of lemon, but in the afternoon heat and the eyes of a boy that now made her self-conscious she added a measure of cranberry juice to sweeten it. She joined him at the couch, where he had separated the slants of velor blinds to look out onto the dull, quiet street. When she sat down, he turned abruptly as if he had been caught peeping through the window of another woman’s house. The blinds stuck, and a thin, bright ray of light flooded her vision with floating particles of dust.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“Four-thirty.”

He nodded and seemed to be making some sort of calculation in his head.

“What time do you need to be home?”

“Six.”

“You’ll make it,” she said.

She took a sip of the drink. “I want you to tell me what it feels like with Maria, what makes it worth all the risk.”

“Don’t wanna talk about Maria,” he said.

“Then show me.”

He reached and took a sip of his drink while he gave her his most striking, well-practiced sexy look. This is what he’ll look like in a bar someday, she thought. Some day when he’s lonely and lost. He set the drink down, his hand shaking just a little to jingle the ice more than he would have liked.

“Show me, Dominic.”

His face reddened and he shifted his weight nervously on the couch, the sunlight catching the side of his unwrinkled face. Sarah ran her hands down the dusty blinds until her fingers caught on the one shade out of alignment. With a little more pressure from her hand it snapped into place and cut out the light. He moved towards her and she leaned back on the couch.

The sun had fallen lower in the sky and the house was shades of grey shapes: the grey of square walls, the darker grey of furniture, the carpet like a rainy day ocean. And then the slate colored ceiling hovering above her, strangely foreboding and closing in. His fingers worked at her blouse buttons as he tried to kiss her, his lips freezing a moment on the hot nape of her neck as he concentrated on the second button his fingers couldn’t unhook. His right knee pinched the skin of her thigh and she moved with the pain in a way to make him feel she was moving with desire for him. He reacted to the lifting of her hips by remembering that his mouth was supposed to be kissing her neck and he began to kiss so hard, so pressing as if he were trying to bore his lips through her that she nearly laughed out loud. She had to help him with her bra, which made him embarrassed and frustrated, a feeling she watched him forget when he was revealed the full view of her breasts. Then it all became too much for him and he awkwardly tried to do four things at once: remove the remains of her shirt and unhooked bra with one hand, kiss her left breast, and use the other hand to unbutton her jeans, while simultaneously wedging his foot down in the inseam of the pants to pull them down.

This time she laughed, but an admiring, maternal laugh which stopped him in mid-motion but did not upset him. “Slow down,” she said. “I’m not running away.”

She helped him remove the rest of her clothes and she was aware of the blue color of her skin in the light; she felt a rush of self-consciousness but then she realized he wasn’t noticing such things now and forgot the feeling. Once her clothes were removed, he hesitated, a shade of fear running through his eyes before she began to strip off his shirt. She looked away, over his shoulder to the sunlit lines of the closed shades. When she helped him slip off his baggy pants, she looked at his eyes.

“It’s okay. You’re doing fine.” She was surprised but glad he needed so much reassuring.

But he was a stranger, some being that traveled through her and on to know things she should have known before him.

When he was undressed she lay back down on the couch and looked up at the ceiling, until he fell on top of her and his face filled up her vision. He tried to get inside of her, but he missed and she reached down to help him. His face changed immediately. She watched it go through stages, of fear then astonishment—a look that made her want to hold him and keep him with her forever—and then a loosening of every feeling but desire, a simple, unambiguous need. There was no sense of ownership, no thoughts of work or other women rolling around in his head, just the desire to feel. There was an innocence in it that she would never be able to explain to anyone.

It didn’t take long and when he had finished he looked at her, his eyes watery, the skin on his neck flushed and patchy. He smiled and rested his head on her chest. She pulled him close, her hands rushing over the tight muscles of his back, holding him against her. Some day soon he’d graduate, go to Oaxaca, maybe, go out into the world and stumble through it. He would figure out that this wasn’t what he wanted, and that would be okay. She’d let him go, possibly even keep in touch, if he’d allow it. But for now, she’d hold onto him as long as the world allowed it, as long as secrets could be kept, and as long as the life of a mother mattered to a boy.

She touched the back of his head, kissed him on the lips and his closed eyes.

“We must get you home,” she said.

* * *

She watched his back from the window as he walked down the front steps of the house. She thought for a moment about saying something to him as he walked away, but what that would be she didn’t know. She didn’t, though, and let him go in silence, watching him until he turned the corner of the street to find his car.

She made herself another drink and then went into the garage and found empty boxes and a roll of foam packing paper. It was her intention to take down the pictures, as Patrick had done, to wrap them carefully in the foam, and secure the ends with tape. She would then stack them one on top of another in the boxes. With each layer, she would lay towels atop the frames, before laying down the next row. When she was done, she would fold together the opening of the boxes and tape each one shut. Then she would place each box in the attic, hide them behind the old shirts and rusting weight set, to gather dust. She could remember the smell of his hair, the sourness of his dirty clothes on her hands after washing, the feel of his skin, the tiny sound of his voice as a boy, and the strange, low presence of it as he became a man—but he was a stranger, some being that traveled through her and on to know things she should have known before him. His face smiling on a bridge, his face straining to pull a fish to shore, his hands opening a gift he hated, his lips drinking a Coke on the beach, his bare chest emerging from surf, and each one she would wrap like something old but not quite forgotten.

But there was one that kept her from packing them away. It was a black and white of David as a baby. She remembered taking the picture. He was strapped inside the baby-seat, his pudgy fingers grasping at the padded bar that held him in place. It was Easter and Patrick was saying goodbye to his parents, standing just outside the open door to the car and saying things about love and visiting soon. It had been unusually cold that April and the wind swept into the car and it mixed with the heat coming through air vents. David hated the seat and he twisted his tiny body and grasped at the bar that would not let him go. He began to cry, an angry, frustrated yell, as Patrick pulled the car out of the driveway. When they reached the freeway, David was in full wail, his mouth opened so wide you could see his tonsils, drool running down his chin. Patrick said she should hold him in her lap, but she had said it was too dangerous.

She found the Polaroid camera in her bag; David had been fascinated by it and everytime she pulled it out he stared at the boxy thing in her hand and reached for the floppy picture that came out of its mouth. But this time he was too upset and his face was red and his voice filled the car and he threw his fists into the air. She held the camera up to her face and reached out to him to get his attention. When she did, he saw the camera and stopped crying. Just then she snapped the picture and when the flash lit up the small center of the car, he laughed, a small giggle like something gurgling up inside of him. It was this picture she looked at now, those eyes like freshly blown glass, his face full of curiosity and wet with a forgotten anger.

When the picture came out of the camera, he reached his wet hands out to grab it and she let him because it kept him quiet. She watched him for a moment as he held the picture in front of his face and then dangled it from two fat fingers over the bar of the car seat. She turned around to look out the window of the car driving 70 miles per hour towards home, past fields of orange groves still filled with grey puddles, past newly built houses sitting beneath freeway overpasses. The car was warm and next to her was Patrick, his hands on the wheel, guiding them through lane changes and the twisted mess of highway interchanges, and for that hour everything she loved was within touching distance, just a few inches of empty space away.

Alan Drew’s first novel, Gardens of Water, was published by Random House in 2008. To date, it has been translated into eleven languages and published in eighteen countries. In 2004, he completed a master of fine arts degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a Teaching/Writing Fellowship. He lives with his wife and two kids in Philadelphia, and teaches fiction writing at Villanova University. He is hard at work on a second novel.

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