UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Look In The Mirror
Outside the window, a few leaves clutch onto the branches. They have little hope of hanging on. Foliage last survivors. Their fate is determined by nature. As with most things in life.
The backdoor slams and Kyle thumps his backpack on the floor. His shoes follow in succession.
“How was your day?” I ask.
“Good.” He surfs the fridge, and then grabs bologna, cheese, and mayo. He tucks a head of lettuce and a tomato into the crook of his arm. He looks like he’s holding a newborn.
“Did you wash your hands?” The school notices about H1N1 and airborne droplets have made little impact on the seventh graders. He hadn’t noticed the new hand sanitizers installed in the school hallway until I insisted he use them.Catherine DiCairano’s fiction has appeared in Word Riot, The Shine Journal, Bewildering Stories, On the Brighter Side and The Chick Lit Review.
He floor-slides to the sink, squirts a quick spray of cold water, and air shakes. A slice of bread starts his tower. Meat. Cheese. Mayo. Lettuce. Tomato. Repeat.
“Did you see your brother today?”
“Nope.” He takes an animal bite and a dollop of mayo trickles on his lip, but his tongue erases it faster than a windshield wiper.
Our relationship has turned into ping-pong conversation; I serve and he returns. It must be the age. Maybe if he brought friends home I could observe their interaction, but one of the benefits to having twins is they always have each other for company.
The impatient beep sounds outside. “I’ll get him,” Kyle says and smashes the last piece of sandwich into his mouth. His cheeks pouch like a chipmunk.
“Wait! Put your jacket on. Where’s your shoes, your socks will get all--”
Kyle pulls Conner’s wheelchair beside the television screen while he plays a bloody war video game. They share something normal. I don’t have to imagine what-if, I only have to look at Kyle to know what Conner could have been. Should have been.
My husband, Jack, couldn’t handle it. I tried to make a joke and tell him with our twins, we got the combo-pack. He didn’t laugh. He never laughed.
I never really needed Jack. Husband is such a generic term. Anyone can apply for the job. There aren’t any reference checks. Yet, he told me I stopped being a wife. I was fired, better yet, I was ‘let go’ with a long-term severance package. Jack just added husband to his resumé of previous positions held.
Mid morning, the school nurse called—Conner is acting out. Again. No fever. No cough. I fought to have Conner mainstreamed because he and Kyle could attend the same school. My visitor’s pass is smacked on my zippered coat. The coat hides my daily sweat shirt and lack of an early shower. Kyle calls my sweats ‘my uniform.’
The nurse’s office is always the same. White walls, a few plastic chairs, one poster about the dangers of drugs and another about teen pregnancy. The office isn’t very inviting.
Conner is slumped more than normal. He’s pale. When our eyes meet, he smiles. That silly smile of his. His front teeth slightly protrude and have an unusual straight edge to them. I think it’s because he’s never really chewed.
“How’s my boy?” I kiss his forehead and fluff his red hair.
“Mrs. McGuire,” the nurse says.
I would think after all these impromptu visits she’d call me Andrea. I never imagined she’d get to calling me Andy, but Andrea would be nice. The box of Kleenex sits on her desk and I grab a tissue to wipe Conner’s chin.
“Conner was at lunch with the seventh grade and the paraprofessional said he became agitated. As I said, there’s no fever or cough or congestion. His lungs sound clear.”
It’s difficult to imagine why she chose nursing as a profession; she’s about as compassionate as a sharpshooter in a firing squad. I reiterate what I’ve said for the last few weeks. “He’s so susceptible to pneumonia, and this is cold and flu season. He also hasn’t had his flu shot, yet.”
“I’m sensing a pattern.” She pauses. “I don’t know how you do it. I must call you every week.” She scribbles something on a pad, rips off the sheet of paper, and folds it in half.
I’m not sure if her comment is pity or a compliment. “I love my boy,” I say and smile at him.
And I do. During the birth of the twins, God must have said to the boys, ‘pick a card, any card.’ Kyle pulled the Ace of Hearts. Conner got the Joker. Kyle was born first and healthy. Conner got a life sentence in a metal prison.
“Is his backpack and supply bag here?” I ask.
“No, he was in the café. His backpack is in his classroom.”
“All right, I’ll run and get it.” I hold up one finger to Conner in a be-right-back.
The school hallways are empty. My rubber soles squeak on the shiny linoleum. I’m not convinced the floor is sparkling clean; I think the fluorescent light casts a misleading sheen. Classroom doors are ajar and words of mitochondria, the Cold War, and variables resound. A few papers stick out from ugly-colored blue lockers, pens and pencils are abandoned on the floor. Homemade posters announce the upcoming dance, basketball try-outs. One poster covered in half-glued cotton balls tells of the sign-up for the ski club. Conner won’t ever go to a dance or ski. I worry about the day I can’t lift him anymore. Or when I need to start shaving him. I’m going to buy an electric razor, because I couldn’t bear to nick his tender skin. I sling Conner’s backpack on my shoulder.
Noise resonates from down the hall. Kids sail around cafeteria tables. The odor is unmistakable—yeast. Dough. Homemade pizza. Girls wear little bits of clothes, even though it’s barely thirty degrees outside. Some have their navels pierced and dress according to the dangling ornament. In contrast, the boys’ pants look five sizes too large. Slipping and inching lower. A yank calls them back. Teenage boys and men do love to have their pants down—this must be practice.
Red trays ride on a conveyor belt. Industrial gray garbage cans overflow with remnants of chewing and talking. In their social world, adolescent alliances form in the name of friendship. Crushes will be born with the frenzy of hormonal surges. Kids will be bullied and made fun of—those insults covered in a sword of meanness will slice the tender innocence. Word-wounds never completely heal.
“Mom, what are you doing here?” Kyle whispers from behind me.
“Your brother’s not feeling well.” I hoist Conner’s backpack higher on my shoulder and admire my fine-looking boy. “Why are you in the hallway? Isn’t this your lunch period?”
He looks at his bright white sneakers.
The school bell blasts over my head. Seventh graders flood the hall. It’s a tsunami of kids.
“Mom, gotta go or I’ll be late for class.”
And he’s gone. Swept away into the sea of students.
A car is parked in my driveway. Fumes circle into the air from the exhaust pipe.
The pollution is Jack.
I slide open the van door, extend the ramp, and release Conner’s brakes. Jack’s car door closes. He uses his old key to open the house door. I don’t have to turn around to know he’s wearing a tailored suit.
“Conner, my man! How are you son?” he asks.
I inhale Jack’s expensive cologne, so familiar and foreign at the same time. I want to kiss his mouth and have our hips meet. At the same time, I want to kick him in the scrotum until he cries with excruciating pain. Jack is handsome and repulsive.
“I missed you since last weekend, little dude.” Jack glimpses at me. “He looks fine, Andrea. Is he sick again?”
I push Conner up the house ramp and wheel him into the family room, turn on the TV a little louder than usual and then walk into the kitchen. I hope Jack’s not expecting a seat and some hot coffee. He doesn’t need to feel at home. He’s not.
Jack fingers a manila envelope. I’m not sure what’s inside. Our divorce is final. Physical custody is mine, legal custody is joint. The financial arrangements are carved into granite thanks to the female judge who was my personal cheerleader.
Jack clears his throat. A habit I first noticed when he told me he wanted a divorce.
He clears again. “The school psychologist called. She and the social worker feel Conner may be acting out during the day, in order to have you called and bring him home. He’s beginning to miss important school time.” His eyes wander to the other room as a daytime game show blasts on the TV. A timer dings. Clapping ensues. I think somebody won the grand prize.
“And why would they call you?” I wonder if the grand prize is a vacation in a tropical paradise or a new car or a boat.
“Because I’m his father and I’m part of the decision making process although you tend to ignore that fact.”
“Well, let’s see, Jack. About missing classes? Conner won’t grow up to be a physicist, so I guess missing science class or pre-algebra is okay. And he won’t be a professor or a janitor or a lawyer or a gas station attendant, or a fireman or a sanitation worker. He won’t be anything, Jack. Not to mention, I don’t want a repeat of last winter. You do remember the hospital, don’t you?”
“Yes, Andrea. I was there the entire time. With the exception of sleeping in the room with him, because you couldn’t trust the staff.”
“His recovery wasn’t easy, Jack. Oh, but wait... you had that Vegas business trip that you couldn’t postpone, so you missed the every four hour respiratory treatments—around the clock. And the antibiotic that turned Conner’s intestines into a meat grinder.”
“I couldn’t cancel. You know that.”
The house is warm; I keep the heat up for Conner. I’m not taking off my coat; I’d rather perspire. “How’s Trixie? Still screwing her?” I ask.
“Tracy. And no, I’m not screwing her. I never was.”
“I bet you love those new tits of hers. Did you pay for them, Jack?”
He sighs. “For the last time, we had a few dinners when she found out her husband was gay. I needed a friend. She needed a friend. Her boob job has nothing to do with me.” He runs his hand through his hair and leans on the other foot. “I’m not here about Conner. I’m here about Kyle.”
“Kyle?” Jack changed the conversation-channel.
“They feel Kyle is becoming withdrawn, Andy.” He inhales. “I’d like Kyle to come to live with me part time and--” He exhales. “--and I’ll take Conner on the opposite times.”
I stare at him. He can’t be serious. Take Kyle away? Separate the twins? Jack care for Conner for more than a few hours would be parental neglect.
“At least hear me out, Andy. One of our boys has a handicap, but we can’t limit our other son either. This is a sensible solution for both boys. Kyle needs an identity. He has no friends.”
“Another McGuire family separation?” I want to laugh in his face with his backyard psychology. I pull the lapel of my coat closer. “What happens if Conner gets sick at school? Will you be on-call? Or call-on me? Can you cook now, Jack? Or should I send all his pre-packaged homemade meals for the duration of the visit? Did I miss something; have they installed an elevator in your walk-up?”
“If I could afford a nicer building, I would.”
“But you can’t.” I look at him with my eyes piercing his pupils reading his mind via our past history. “So, you want Kyle. We both know taking Conner is impossible with your living situation.” I should have started the chicken soup by now. I want the vegetables to simmer and be soft enough to mash. It’s probably not a good idea to take out a knife while Jack is in my kitchen.
“Enough of what Conner needs! What about what Kyle needs? You swore you’d clean out Conner’s equipment from the spare room. Kyle needs his own room.”
I did plan on cleaning out the other room. Conner doesn’t want to sleep alone. He can’t tell me, but I know. “They’re twins. Brothers. A family.”
“They’re individuals. Kyle needs to be separate from Conner. Andrea, you need to be separate from Conner. You’re blending into one person with him. You can’t see reality anymore.” Jack shakes his head. “Look in the mirror, Andrea. The goddamn mirror! Think of Kyle’s daily reflection in Conner, it must be a distorted funhouse image.” He throws the large envelope on the table. It glides across and stops near the edge. He dares me with his eyes to open it. Instead, I open the fridge.
Carrots. Celery. Onions.
The backdoor slams.
The envelope taunts me. I wait until I’m sure Jack has driven away. I loosen the clasp, unfold the flap and shake out the contents. Photographs cascade out. Paper clipped is one set of photos. They are of me. Or of the woman I was. Much thinner. Less wrinkled. My nails are polished; my hair is colored warm brown. Make-up complements my tanned face. I’m wearing my favorite bright melon-colored shirt. I’m smiling.
The loose photos are of Kyle. He’s playing basketball. He’s practicing karate. He’s jumping from a diving board doing funny poses and making goofy faces.
In every picture he is smiling.
I peel the carrots. They look like orange penises. Jack’s penis was smaller than the carrots. I press down on each one with a sharp knife and it snaps. Carrot slices shoot from the cutting board and ricochet from the counter to the floor. Snap. Jack. Snap. Jack.
“Mom! What the heck?” Kyle yells coming in the door. “Are you okay?”
The carrots polka dot the floor. “I am,” I whisper. “Don’t take your shoes off.”
Kyle approaches, carefully avoiding the landmines.
“Sit down.” I pat the counter.
He hops up and slides back tentatively.
I place my hand on his thigh right above his knee. “We need to feed you, since I don’t think you’re eating lunch. Then we’re going upstairs to empty out the spare room. And after that we’re going to buy a new basketball to replace the deflated one I ran over with the car a year ago. I bet the school team is holding a try-out soon.”
“Two weeks,” he mumbles.
“Think you can teach me to slam dunk?” I point outside.
He looks confused.
“I need to lose some weight and you need to get in basketball try-out condition.”
“What about Conner?”
“What about him? He can’t play. We can.”
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