Editors' Pick

Rent Asunder

Same old story, Gen spits. But no, really, this is serious. And seriously, it is all about the setup, your perfect send-off. Clasp the leather cuff and wind the silver bracelets onto his wrist, hand him the other necklace with the big cross (the one with the diamonds on it), make sure he’s got that ring today, kiss him, pray.

And then, because it so does not bear thinking about, get the fuck out of here until the day is done. Beach, shopping, movies, whatever—just go.

By noon, she is already way too hot, too uncomfortable, but then this is her setup on those days—the black jeans and tee and a shirt of his and the big hoody (and what she’s got on underneath everything else but she’s not going to get into that), her standard circles of necklace and choker and chain, his two bracelets mainly for safekeeping, the doubled-up rings. And yes, it’s all basically required, all part of the armor. All your major blessing and protection kind of thing. So hey, she can just suck it up. Sweat it out.

Summer, she suddenly notices, might actually show up again. Flat waves proceed across the Bay to ocean and beyond. Seagulls swoop another prize and soar. Breeze. Sand that’s almost sort of warm. For a minute, Gen can almost remember the good parts of being a kid. Wait. Good parts?

Never mind. She is obviously freaked this time, way more than usual. Listen, she would almost make a couple of trades with God. So, I mean, if You could just keep him safe, I’ll… I don’t know, be sick with some scary disease? No, really. Or wait, You know how much I want to have a baby. I swear I would give that up for him to be done with this, get out of this madness, be out of it for good.

But none of that stuff ever works. The street is the street. Prayer is prayer. You’ll be lucky if they ever meet. She rubs her temples and sighs, flops down behind the biggest rock. And. Does he even really even love her for sure?

Clouds rush suddenly north. Sun stripes her designer bag and then her clasped hands. Pretty soon it’ll be time to move into Shopping Phase but right now she’s going hold on! Just a few more minutes by this rock, just give me another little dose of this sweet sweet sun. She lies back, molding herself into the yielding bed of sand, squeezes her eyes shut. Fuhh. A different life, and they could be nestled here together tasting salt, pressing into each other, sailing across sparkling waters, flying someplace else…

Shit, she is way too sensitive, the salt being now from her goddamn tears. Her long fingers close, then open to release sand; her limbs and thoughts and heart softening all over again, melting in the April warmth. Stop. Who said she wanted into this sweetness and this pain? Time to fricking get up and go.

Gen strides through Cosmetics, two warring perfumes on one wrist, five different shades of lipstick slashed across the back of her other hand, takes the escalator up, blinks at the perfect mannequins standing silent like made-over gargoyles in niches all the way up the wall, smells caramel popcorn, heads for the chocolate bars. The mall is such beautiful bullshit, she thinks. Taste me. Buy me. Bite me.

“Oh, sorry.” She’s just clipped a clueless teen with her bag. Accidentally, but not that it felt so bad, not that she cares. What she would actually like to say is, “Move!” Because she is trying to go one-track-mind, trying to make it into a different day. Out of her way.

As usual, the shopping is a gas, a high. Until it totally isn’t. She is not allowed to call him on these days, not under any circumstances whatsoever. It freaks her out but she will respect it until the day she dies.

One more stop, she decides, the last lingerie store, and then she’ll go home. Do her little super-model show thing in front of the big mirrors, have a bubble bath and the rest of the brandy cheesecake. Then wait it out.

Except now she remembers she was wanting to maybe get them something for the living room. Their place is nice―expensive, high-class―but it always seems like something is missing, like some big painting or one of those digital photo album things or, well, something. If he loved her as much as she loves him, he would—Moving on… A bra, two thongs, and five really sick camisoles later, she is broke, exhausted, hoping he hasn’t gotten back before her.

But of course not; what is she thinking? It is always all day and half the night usually.

Always deep into the dark hours of holy shit, where is he? Right into the desperate stupid tears. No, worse than that, even. Mostly it is all-out omigod what happened is he even still alive?

Girl. Could you chill? She dumps everything on their new white couch, talks herself down as far as she can, then fumbles a pill for the rest. Computer, solitaire, another frigging sandwich. She is not cut out for this. (What if he’s not even telling her the truth?)

She turns the TV up, but oh geez. No, she does not want to watch a game show. Hello, she is not interested in some dumb-ass soap opera in Portuguese. Omigod, she does not want to hear the news. Shit, but it’s not like she can turn the thing off.

Screaming matches and dance competitions, murders and cartoon aliens and lame new sit-coms and pimped-out houses and motorcycles and people who can’t sing. Garbage. Crap. But did they ever have a TV when she was little? No, they did not. (Screaming matches free. No cable required.) They did not have much of anything. Just shut up.

Anyway, so now of course she has to have one, a big screen, and really, if you keep it at just the right volume, there is something sort of weirdly cheering about it. Like a voice you don’t have to listen to but at least it’s there. Just a nice who-cares-about-you-but-whatever voice. She stands half-dressed before the smiling weatherman, contemplating her loot. No, forget the fashion show. Just take her makeup off, put on the negligee, check out.

When she wakes up, her cell phone is spazzing but of course she’s already missed it. She reaches for the lamp, knocks it over, jumps up to turn the pole light on, squints, blinded, finally gets to Last Call, which is a blocked number. So, not his. Who was it? The questions flare again. The raw fear. If he really loved her so much, he wouldn’t even be do—All right, stop. Just go back to sleep.

Oh sure. The TV mutters and flashes and stares. The Weather News all over again, a red convertible whipping down desert roads, your perfect bride and groom running barefoot on the beach. She gives them the finger. Why can’t they live somewhere else, have like a real house by the ocean, bury each other in the sand, him carry her back to their canopy bed and lick all the salt off, surround her once again?

Sirens. She is so dazed, so messed up, she can’t even tell if they are outside or on the screen. No idea what time it is. Is he okay?! How is she ever going to get back to sleep now? She hits the light, rolls herself into the covers, pulls them over her head. Sleeps.

“Gen. Gen.”

He is back (but he is bleeding). It is all okay (but Sonny doesn’t really sound okay, or look okay). She tries to get both eyes open, to sit up. Everything is fine. (Well, probably not, but listen, he is alive, he’s home.)

“Gen. We gotta get out of here. Now.”

What the hell is he talking about? She was just getting to sleep. He needs to get some sleep. What time is it? Good night.

“Get the fuck up, I said.” He pulls her to her feet, doesn’t hug her, slides something out from underneath the mattress. “Get your fuckin’ clothes on and let’s go.”

This is not how it is supposed to go, not right. He is supposed to come to bed with her now, her reaching over to hold him like it’s the first embrace of all time. Him enfolding her, saying, “Hey. I’m home, baby. Safe and sound with my lady.” Pulling her into him until she feels herself turning inside out, sliding into his skin, until they are sweetly wholly enmeshed, never to be rent asunder never not ever again.

“I said now!”

Gen does not take kindly to commands, especially out of a dead sleep, so the next thing you know she’s out of there.

Not out of there at his command, not with him, but madly dressed, furiously grabbing her always ready overnight bag, taking off out of the bathroom before he gets what’s happening, down the alley, crossing Figueroa, losing herself in the backstreet maze.

Ten minutes later, veering around a damn dead rat, she stops to catch her breath, suddenly sees herself running and dodging through the streets of LA like a total idiot. What the hell? It’s not like Sonny isn’t street-smart, for fuck’s sake, and hey, did you notice there’s not much of a crowd to lose yourself in at 6 in the morning? Now she’s started shaking, her teeth chattering along. Omg, what has she done?

She didn’t want to run away from him. She does want to be with him. She just…

She just totally fucked up is what. Just completely ditched her old man (like, when he seriously needed her!), and she can’t even begin to imagine how furious he must be. Her luck, of course Sonny is the kind of person who stays mad and keeps himself really mad and finally when he almost starts getting over it, then all of a sudden something sets him off and he remembers and makes himself mad all over again. For at least a week or so.

A week?! Where is she going to go?

She has to pee so bad. Taking the next alley, squeezing in behind a dumpster (hopefully nobody in these buildings is up yet, nobody at work yet and looking down on her urgent

maneuvering, her ass in the morning sun, her relief and her rush to get her panties back up, her skirt back down, and get out of here), she recognizes the lean of a certain telephone pole, a loop of wire hanging from the next one over. Harlan. His place. That window right up there.

So next thing she is sitting in his kitchen crying. It’s sweet to see him, his gentle eyes and looping dreads, but that is not to say that this is your relieved kind of crying. It’s more like Red Alert, like now what in god’s name has she done this time, like oh holy shit.

“Well well well.” Harlan is putting coffee in front of her, asking if she wants some toast.

“No. I mean, what?”

“Toast. You want some? I got some margarine.”

“No. Yes. Okay. That sounds good.” She starts to cry again.

“Hey, it’s just margarine. Nothin’ to cry about.” He gives up on the humor. “Honey, you’re a mess.”

Great. Thanks. Like she doesn’t know. Hasn’t her whole entire life from one stupid second to the next turned into an absolute and total mess? Plus somewhere between here and there, she’s lost her cell  phone.

When she wakes up, all she can remember is something about more toast, something about her phone. Until she remembers that oh yeah, minor detail, she’s just fucked off on Sonny Ray, former bodybuilder, love of her life and in the running for biggest badass in the whole big City of Bad Angels. And not only that, but sure, she is in another man’s apartment, hell, another man’s bed from the looks of it, and never mind that Harlan and her just went to high school together and there was never anything, like honestly, nothing between them, because it is all about How Things Look.

And this looks really really bad.

Not that he is going to find her here—she has never even mentioned Harlan ever—but now it’s like she is so freaked, she doesn’t dare leave but then the longer she waits to go back to him, the worse it will be, is she right?

She splashes her face, wonders if any of these towels are remotely clean, uses toilet paper instead. Besides which, go back where? What did he mean they had to get out of the house? And like, still? Man, everything she owns is there, including that sort of rose-pink camisole she just got and really likes. Shit. Shit. Shit.

And then if Sonny’s place, their place, is off-limits, how the heck is she going to find him?

“I’m not.” Her head snaps up as if it was some sudden intruder who said this. Not her. But it might be true.

No it’s not, no it’s not.

“Harlan,” she wails, “do you have an extra toothbrush?”

He’s on it. “Bingo,” he says, squishing past her into the bathroom. “You are one lucky lady. Got my free dental appointment last week finally.” He rummages around in the medicine cabinet and then the drawer. “Here you go. Never used.”

“Sweet. Thank you.”

He sidles back out. “You can use the gray towel.” Then from the kitchen, “I’m making toast.”

Gen is a long time brushing her teeth, almost like when she was a kid, when it was her dreamy time, the only part of her mostly awful day where her eyes would soften and everything around her sort of dissolve, and with the rhythm she might remember Grandma Violetta or the lake or her stuffed rabbit that got lost the second time they moved. Or even Sammy when he was still a chubby baby, and that would make her smile.

She squeals as something brushes her leg, sees the cat. “Oh. Nice. Hey, kitty.”

“That’s Bear,” Harlan calls. “Breakfast is ready.”

Bear follows her to the kitchen table, where a double of him meows by Harlan’s chair. “And this is Susie. The noisy one. My babies.”

He never seemed like a cat kind of person before but that’s fairly cool, she thinks, and tilts her head, studying him for a sec.

“Close your eyes,” he says. “Hold out your hands.” She does.

Before she can look, he gives it away. “Jam! I found a jar way in the back of the cupboard.”

Oh great. Actually, it looks fine, besides which it doesn’t seem like there are any alternatives. “Cool. Raspberry. My favorite.”

“So what happened?”

Her knife clatters onto the floor. “What do you mean?” As if. “I mean, well, it’s a pretty long story.”

“I bet it is.” He blows gently on his coffee. “Honey, I am so underemployed, I am completely unemployed, which tells you I got all day.”

What to tell? Does it really start with yesterday (was it just yesterday?) or is it a very long story?

The jam reminds her. The cats make her feel safe. “I ran away. I didn’t mean to.”

“Baby, how can you run away without meaning to?”

Oh, easy, but now all of a sudden she is wondering which time she’s actually talking about. From the Alhambra Avenue house when she was ten? From Auntie Gina’s? From the fricking foster home? Would that be from school, or maybe from her first completely lame and totally disgusting job? Or else from the next or the next or how about every other job she ever had the misfortune to ever be hired for. Maybe from—

From Sonny, of all idiotic things. She licks the last bit of jam off her spoon. “My… boyfriend. He had some stuff to do. Every once in a while these… things come up, you know. So he tells me like that morning or maybe the night before, and so I help him get ready and then I have to basically just suck it up all day and think about other stuff and hopefully sometime in the next 24 hours, he gets home again safe and sound.”

Harlan picks Susie up, sits back like he’s waiting for more.

“So that’s about it.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Um, what happened?”

“Oh.” She starts to pick up Bear, then feels awkward at the mirror image, ends up dropping him. “Well, so after S— uh, after he left that morning, I got dressed and hung out at the beach for a while and then I went to the mall and bought a bunch of stuff and finally I went home and he wasn’t back yet, so I took something, not much though, to go to sleep, and next thing I knew he was shaking me and saying we had to get out of there.”

“How come?”

How the hell does she know? “Anyway, so I was like so bagged, I didn’t want to get up at all, and then he yelled at me, and I kind of freaked.”

She doesn’t like the way Harlan is looking at her. “It’s not like he ever yells at me hardly. He was sweet. He is. But he was like, get the fuck up! and I was like, forget this, man, and so I took off.”

Harlan is staring off into the distance. “Doncha know. Sometimes we gotta be really careful about saying forget this, man. End up leaving a whole bunch of things behind.”

Okay, she knew it wasn’t a good idea to talk about this. Now she is all freaked-out again. Listen, she’s not leaving anything behind. Been there and done that way too many times. Not a chance. “Hey, listen, I need to use your phone.”

“Phone? You gotta be kidding. This is still a low-rent situation, kid. Just the basics.” Something happens to his expression. “Sorry if it doesn’t measure up.”

“No. No! You’re being awesome.” She leans across the table. “Thank God you were still here.”

“Yep. Like I said, you are one lucky lady.” He sweeps his arms out to his sides. “Right where you left me. Speaking of leaving and all.”

“I…” There is absolutely nothing she can say. It’s true.

Suddenly he grins. “But you didn’t mean to, right?”

Gen wants to cry, tries to laugh. “Right. No, really.”

“It’s okay. I actually got over it pretty good, Princess G. With the help of a couple of felines. Even if—”

There is a thud from the next apartment, major banging, a series of shrieks.

Harlan sees her face. “No worries. Bunch of actors moved in. Opera singers or something. I forget.”

As if in proof, a high C, then another thud.

“Usually they’re not up this early.” He clears the table, peers out the smeary window as he does the dishes. “Oh, I forgot. It’s not that  early.”

Gen grabs a sponge for the counter. “I guess I somehow slept in.”

He takes the sponge away, gives her a cloth instead. “I guess so.”

She stands holding the cloth inches above the counter, eyes unfocused. “I don’t know. I mean, I seriously don’t know what to do.”

“When to go back?”

Only her mouth moves. “When. Where. How.”

Harlan puts a hand on her wrist, lets out a long breath. “Or maybe why?”

Snapping out of it, she looks almost wildly around the room. “What do you mean why? Obviously I know why.”

But it isn’t actually so obvious to her anymore, and suddenly she’s thinking, wow, you know, she is still really tired, and maybe she just needs to go lie down again, just for a bit, and then later she can think better, later she can figure all this stuff out.

Harlan turns her toward the bedroom. “Go for it.”

Sirens in the distance, the room heavy with dusk. A cat growls, then jumps off the end of the bed as she stirs.

There is like this code. You do not ever question Sonny Ray. You do what is required. You have each other’s back. She has completely and totally struck out.

But no, how could that happen so fast, so stupidly, so not what you meant to have happen?

Next door, a series of knocks, a long groan. Okay, fine, it’s not true that her and Harlan never— It’s just that way back when they were in history class together, when they were high school buddies, it would have been the last thing they ever imagined, like ludicrous. And now, looking back to when it did happen, still it was like a million years ago, like another life, which is what makes it feel like they didn’t actually—

Anyway. They totally did. She lived here. She left. Anything else you want to know, Your Honor?

She is starving. She should actually be going out and getting stuff to put in his fridge. Nice job spending everything on freaking panties and bras. Which Sonny would never have noticed anyway. What if he has another—Stop! Sonny and her are fine. Well, they were fine.

Still, there’s got to be some simple solution. No worries. It’ll come to her. For sure.

Out the window, power lines, then rooftops are disappearing into black. Dark that doesn’t feel right, it’s getting to her. I mean, how long did she sleep, anyway? She clicks the bedside lamp but nothing happens. Maybe Harlan has made some tea. Or more than toast.

Feeling her way from bed to dresser to chair, she finds the door, opens it to dark, with small glints of light, a meow, then utter silence.

“Harlan?”

There is nobody here.

She remembers her way to the kitchen, flips the light switch. Omigod, nothing again. What is going on? Her hand touches the back of a chair so she sits. Now what? After a few minutes, she begins to see the dark rectangles of cupboards, the slope of table, a candle leaning in a jam jar. Matches almost right under her hand.

Light helps for a minute. Soft. Warm. But then not really. Here she is all alone. Here she is starving, still not a clue what to do. Here she is five freaking years later, exact same place, like some old rerun, like turning the same corner again in the goddamn maze, like some kind of circles of hell.

If I don’t get out of here, she is starting to think. But the shadows hold, nothing is clear. Does he even love her? Did he ever even? Did who ever even? Fuhh. The chair clatters as she stands.

“Okay. So, I’m leaving. Like, right now.” She looks down, as if her bag will be a hand’s reach away, her jacket waiting for her. She can’t go all the way back to the bedroom in the dark.

Of course she can. What is she, crazy?

She can. She will. Halfway through the living room, she realizes she forgot to bring the candle but her eyes have adjusted. It’s okay. Gen suddenly laughs with relief. What was her problem, anyway? She is so out of here. So on her way home.

Stumbling into the armchair, she finds her hand on a piece of paper, a scribbled note, heads back to the kitchen so she can read it:

Baby G.,

Slight problem with cops – Could be awile –

Take care of S. & B. –

Luv,

H.

Holy.

Okay.

By the time she makes it to the bedroom, never mind the out-of-here—what was she thinking? It’s way too late. And besides, now… She waves her hands in front of her as if everything of the last day (three days?) can all be madly erased. From a sagging armchair, the gaze of a very old doll. Was that there before? She reaches unthinking to pull the scrap of blanket up over the naked china shoulders, gives her a pat. Listen, she’ll totally get this all dialed by tomorrow morning.

Which comes fast, both cats apparently up on the situation, both on the bed, kneading the thin cover. It hasn’t occurred to her till right now. This is the only bed, this is his bed. And there is like no couch. So where the heck did he sleep night before last? The cats renew their efforts, want her up. What do they even eat,  anyway?

Once she has figured that out, once Susie is crunching happily, Bear looking on, Gen stands uncertain at the sink. Almost thirty hours she’s been holed up. Like she’s the one who did something wrong, like she’s a freaking criminal or something.

She opens the door to the hallway a crack, then wider. No signs of mayhem. What did she expect? But now she’s breathing shallow, her eyes recording the smoke-stained walls, the missing linoleum, a gob of spit. The noisy neighbors’ paper.

“Gang War Threatens,” a headline reads.

She freezes, leans for it, decides otherwise. Takes in the acrid smell from the stairs, the silent doors that ring the landing, then closes hers.

Stands with her back pressed against it as if it’s holding her up, as if she is keeping something out.

Bear twists in and out around her ankles, a small and fairly disturbing yowl with each figure eight.

“Hey, shh. Kitty cat.” Funny she didn’t notice before how much this one is like BonnieRose, like her cat from when she was little, from before—everything else. Before whatever transpired did so. Before her, let’s just say, attitude.

Which was? Fine, she can tell you exactly what it was. Right, so if you’re gonna run away from home, you might as well have a whole shitload of shit to be running away from. Hearing that, people got the picture, thought she was pretty tough. Exactly what she wanted them to think. Because what if, god forbid, she was actually more like what she feared she was? Sleeping on all those couches, squatting in the abandoned house out in Rancho something, staying way too long in the penthouse of that out-of-state guy, that absolute total jerk. Maybe she was a loser, a teenage orphan, just a seriously lost little girl.

Maybe she was none of the above. Maybe she was only Genoveffa (don’t ask, apparently it was this old-school Italian name of some great-grandmother or something, but she has always been Gen) Bryant, not really sure where to go, what to leave, where to head for next. A girl kind of basically just trying to keep herself all in one piece. She has done fairly good. Or, hasn’t she?

She double-locks the door, kneels down to smooth her hand again and again through the soft and striped fur of her fine lamenting cat.

“Don’t you worry, Baby Bear. No worries.”

So. Yeah, she’s pretty much decided. So, she stays.

 

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