”I am going to outside to meet somebody.”
After a second’s worth of silence, Grannie cackles with malicious delight.
“As if.” She is behind me, always behind me, watching and listening. Criticizing and degrading. “You? Meet somebody?” Another cackle erupts from her. I try not to let her get to me. But it is hard.
“I am. I really am.” I get up from the chair and move towards the kitchen holding my coffee cup. Grannie’s cackling follows me.
“You are not. Remember, Gracie. We’ve had this conversation before.” She shouts it after me. In the kitchen, I deposit my cup in the sink, and then walk to the bedroom to find pants. I glance out of the window to check the weather. Blue skies and bright green leaves. Spring. I can almost smell freshly mowed grass on the air and hear ecstatic birds chirp and tweet above. A smile stretches my cheeks in unusual ways.
“Are you going somewhere?” Dad. Sounding worried.
“Yup. Have you seen the weather outside? It is beautiful. I thought I’d take a walk down to the pier, have an ice cream. Stracciatella and Strawberry. Remember?”
The grin on my lips widens. I haven’t been down to the pier in years, but back when I was a kid, dad and I would walk down there every weekend, fishing, talking and eating ice cream. The last time I was there was back when I was fourteen and hung up on Jesse Lipmann, who thought he was a cool surfer dude. I would watch him from the end of the pier. Pining and worried that he might drown.
“Are you sure?” Dad draws out his question as if he doesn’t know how to end it. I roll my eyes and ignore him. I open my closet and look at the clothes hanging there. The cool black jeans that are just a number too small or the gray corduroy slacks, baggy and comfortable. The jeans of course. In honor of Jessie Lipmann and being cool. I wriggle them on, then check the mirror. The sweater clashes with the jeans so I pull out a shirt, the color of the sky outside, light blue. It is beautiful.
“Take me with you.” Josh says from the edge of the bed. He sounds happy and excited. I smile, but shake my head.
“Nope not today, you little monkey. Today me, myself and I, will go outside and meet someone, and you, you will cramp my style.” I wink at the mirror. “But tomorrow we can go to the park, feed the squirrels.”
“Aww but I want to go today.”
“I know. But tomorrow, monkey. I promise.”
”But why do you need to meet someone. I am right here. And Dad and Grandma and …”
I interrupt his wheedling litany.
“Because sometimes a girl wants more than just her family around.”
“But, why?” Oh, he is so young, so innocent. What does he understand of long lonely nights in a cold bed shared with no one? What does he know of the physical longing for a touch, slow and lingering? Tears suddenly burn my eyelids and I shake my head and don’t answer him.
Instead, I pull off my sweater and put on the blue shirt. It is soft and so, so gorgeous. I think it is the first time I have found a reason to put it on. A giddy feeling of happiness fills my stomach with butterflies, banishing the tears. I can almost see the one I am going to meet. Tall, broad-shouldered, a blond bear with an easy smile and warm, tender hugs. He will be sitting at the end of the pier, his feet casually dangling over the edge while he watches the gulls swoop across the horizon.
“Honey. It will be dark soon. Can’t you wait until tomorrow?” Dad the worrywart is back, almost as wheedling as Josh.
I snort at him. He hates that.
“Dad, it is three in the afternoon. It won’t be dark for hours.” I look down on my feet. They are bare; I can’t go outside with bare feet. It is not warm enough for that, not yet. I remember hot summers, peeling off my shoes and walking down the pier in my bare feet, feeling every splinter and roughness and loving it. My mom always gave dad this look when we came home and she saw my feet. “What?” he would say back, shrugging his shoulders. “She’s got kevlar skin.” Mum would just shake her head and dad would wink at me when she wasn’t looking.
“No but, dad. Not today. I am going.” I ponder the line of shoes at the bottom of my closet. There’s the trainers, white and boring, the ballerina flats, black and pretty, and the sneakers, bright red and sassy. I grin and grab the sneakers, feeling the colors of my choices boosting my energy. Gorgeous and Sassy. That is a great combination. Another flash of the blonde guy at the end of the pier. He will look at the shoes first, me standing over him, then his gaze will travel all the way up my legs and stop at the shirt. After a second he will finally look me in the eyes and smile this wide happy smile. The butterflies in my stomach quadruple.
“You’ll look like a scarecrow.” Grandma, tutting disapprovingly. I decide not to give her the pleasure of a reply and smirk at myself in the mirror instead. I sit on the edge of the bed, lacing up the sneakers. Josh makes a sobbing sound. He’s probably lying under the covers, hiding and sulking.
“They will not support your ankles right.”
“Dad, stop it. I am going outside, even if my shoes will hurt my feet. I will go outside if it starts to rain or if the sun decides to go down early, I will go outside if the world split at the seams. You can’t dissuade me.”
“I don’t like it. I think it is dangerous out there. The world is filled with dodgy men and criminals and…”
“Oh god! Shut up Dad!” Even though I’ve decided not to let him get to me, he grates on my nerves. I try to shake it off and walk out into the hallway. I’ve got three jackets. A heavy woolen pea coat for winter, a windbreaker for spring and a fleece jacket for whenever neither is good enough. I don’t want to wear either of them; I want to show off my beautiful blue shirt. But it might get chilly down by the pier so I grab the fleece and fold it over my arm.
I am ready. The keys hang on their hook just inside the door. I stuff them into my pocket, then realize I need money for the ice cream as well. I rush back to the kitchen and grab a handful of quarters from the cookie jar. I am almost out of breath in my excitement, in my hurry to get out. I run back to the front door and pull the door open. And crash into a man standing on my doormat, holding a brown paper bag in the crook of one arm. I scream, a sound that makes ice water trickle down my spine, and he grunts then takes a step back so I have to grab the door to stay upright. I step back across my threshold and stare at the man.
“Gosh, I am sorry.” He says, looking a little shaken. He’s tall and stringy, with dark curls and dark eyes. I take another step back and hold on to the door handle extra hard, ready to slam the door in his face. “I think this is yours.” He looks down into the brown paper bag and holds out a slip of paper. “You’re Grace Chapowski right? Number 321B?” He glance at the door. The number 1 has been missing for years. It suits me just fine.
“The delivery guy left it at my door. I live right next door.” He smiles and looks past my shoulder into my apartment.
My brain has gone eerily silent and my body is rigid with apprehension. He is a stranger and I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to act. Do I smile and say thank you? Do I grab my groceries and slam the door in his face? Do I scream and make a scene? I don’t know how to handle this.
Air lodges at the top of my breastbone and dark panic starts to unfold itself, threatening to smother me. I must look like a ridiculously dressed deer caught in the headlights, I think to myself while the silence stretches and he shuffles his feet.
“Well. I will let you go. Here.” He holds out the bag towards me and, like I am a robot, my arms reaches out and takes hold.
I want to open my mouth, say thank you and smile at him nicely. I want to invite him inside and offer him a cup of coffee. I want to hug him and kiss him and…
I step back and close the door while he stands there, still looking a little shocked and surprised.
The paper bag splits when the door clicks shut and out tumbles milk and apples, a chocolate bar, a loaf of bread. A can of tomatoes. Half a pound of mince. I slide down the door, as tears starts to stream down my face, sitting among my groceries, sobbing and horrified. Embarrassed and so alone.
“Shhhhhhh. It will be all right, darling. Everything is going to be alright.” Mother’s voice is strong and soothing in my ear. “I am right here.”
“Scarecrow clown.” Grannie doesn’t do pity. She does glee and spite. “Couldn’t even say hi to your nice neighbor. He could have made you handsome babies, that one.”
“I told you honey. It is a dangerous world out there.” The worry is gone from dad’s voice. He sounds relieved and happy instead. “Come inside; let’s go sit in the window. What do you say?”
“Can we build a fort?” Josh shouts from the bedroom. “Oh please Gracie…. Come and build a fort with me.”
“Your groceries will spoil out here. You have to get them in the fridge. You can make pasta bolognese for dinner. You always loved bolognese, didn’t you darling?”
The image of the man I was going to meet starts to fade. I have lost. I know I won’t go outside now. The moment, the momentum is ruined. I have let myself down. They have let me down. They should help me, support me, but all they do is weigh me down, so I drown in the ever-present overwhelming fear.
A flash flood of rage catapults me from the floor.
“SHUT UP. JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP, ALL OF YOU. I DON’T LIKE YOU. I DON’T WANT YOU.”
I stomp into the living room, stopping in the middle of the room. My legs are trembling with pent-up energy, my fists are shaking, my teeth are gnashing against each other. I am about to explode. I want to run out of the door. I want to jump out of the window. I want to barge out into the hallway and throw myself at the dark-haired man. I want to escape. I want to live.
But I can’t. I am in prison. Living room, bathroom, kitchen and bedroom. Mom, dad, Josh and Grannie. They hold me here against my will. And I have nothing to fight them with.
I catch my reflection in the glossy surface of my TV and the rage dissipates. My beautiful blue shirt is wrinkled and splotched with tears. I can’t hear the birds chirping any longer. I can’t smell the spring in the air. I can’t remember the face of the blonde man at the end of the pier.
I move to the window and slouch into my chair. The sun winks in the distant blue of the ocean, almost blinding me, erasing the last few dregs of hope. Alone. I am all alone.