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The Pistol Princess


  • pg 1
									The Pistol Princess

             a short story

             by Tyler Patterson
       I’m dreaming I’m a child. Most of this is memory but there are details, many

more details, than I should be remembering and it’s like I’m living it again. I am sitting

at my little desk and coloring. I can remember doing that. I used to take coloring books

filled with princesses and draw little guns in their hands. Ever since I saw an episode of

Charlie’s Angels I began to pretend I was one of them. I’d tip toe down the hallway,

press myself up against the wall, and curl my hands into little pistols, waiting for

someone to walk around the corner. When someone would, I’d jump out in front of him

and yell, “Freeze it, buster!” I am pretty sure none of the Angels said that but that was

my impression of the sort of things Angels did. They’d jump out in front of criminals

and tell them to “freeze it.” If the person I surprised was my Papa, my grandfather, he’d

throw his hands up in mock fear and surrender to me. I’d slap pretend handcuffs on him

and then frog-march him to the other side of the house, sit him down, shake my finger at

him in a menacing way, and tell him to stay put. “Oh, I will, I will. Please don’t hurt

me,” he’d say. And it took all my self control not to start giggling.

       Eventually, pretending to be an Angel seeped into a lot of other things I did.

Sometimes whenever someone started telling me a story, I’d stare suspiciously and

wrinkle my nose at them like I suspected them of lying. At other times, when I was

bored and my mom and my dad and my grandpa were watching television, I’d run into

the family room and tell them to stay inside, enemy agents had us surrounded, and then

I’d run out of the room, pistols at the ready. And I ruined every coloring book my mother

ever bought me by drawing little pistols in the hands of all the princesses. The walls of

my room were covered with them. Papa nicknamed me the Pistol Princess and while he

was alive at least I wore that name as a badge of honor.

        So I’m sitting at my little desk and coloring. A box of crayola crayons is poured

out around the desk and I grab colors, the brightest ones, at random and fill in the dresses

and the tiaras and the shoes. And I use a black or a brown crayon for the gun. I hum

something to myself and I poke my tongue out a little bit between my lips for

concentration. It is important to stay within the lines. I like the way her hair is yellow

and the dress is pink or red or blue and the grass is green and the sky is blue and toads are

green and her necklace is white or red or purple or blue. It makes me happy. Next to the

crayons are a pair of scissors, a well worn Ramona the Pest book, a cup of kool-aid, and a

picture of me at the lake. In the picture, I’ve got a gap-toothed smile and I’m straining to

hold up a fish with one hand and with the other hand I’m making my trademark pistol

and pointing it at the fish.

        In the corner of my bedroom, in between my bed and the wall, there’s a little table

and on it sits a tape player radio. The antenna is extended out but right now I’m listening

to a mixed tape of some of my favorite songs. Right now, it’s the Bangles and then,

because I have listened to it a hundred times and know its order by heart, it will be

Madonna, Genesis, and then White Lion. I sing each song a little even before it starts.

Because I remember all of these things. And that the window is open. I remember the

exact picture I was coloring when my father came in. A princess is looking out her

bedroom tower window. Something is frightening her. I know from the page before and

the page after what it is. I know that a giant has come to take her away and force her to

have painful giant babies. That’s the picture before. And I know a noble prince has

inserted himself between the giant and her lonely bedroom tower. I know this is the

picture after. But still the picture of the princess looking out her window haunts me to

this day. Occasionally, at random moments, it comes back to me. The shock. The terror

in her face. At something just out of sight, something so awful, something so humbling,

she can do nothing but stare, her shoulders bracing inwards as if she’s about to jump

back, but her feet are stuck flat, bolted to the floor. One arm half-raised to defend

herself. The other arm still hanging down, only the hand semi-curled ready to grab hold

should something appear worth grabbing hold of. She has no idea what’s coming.

       So I’m coloring her. A little pistol in her hand because she needs something in

that hand. That’s when my father comes in and speaks with no tenderness in his voice.

       “Lisa. Honey. Are you ready?”

       He’s standing at the door, wearing a dirty white t-shirt and boxer shorts. He

hasn’t shaved for days, and his eyes are red. I look at him for a moment and in my throat

I feel words, lots of them, but none of them quite make it. He waits. And I turn back to

my coloring.


       I grab a red crayon and starting mixing it in with the blue dress to make purple. I

feel him behind me. It’s like a rush of blood from my ears to the back of my head

towards my father, like a compass pointing true north, and I fight every impulse to turn

around and look at him when he speaks to me again.

       “Lisa. You need to say goodbye to your grandfather. It’s time.”

         I put down the red and grab black. And trace around the brown pistol I started

earlier. My fingers press hard to make the lines darker. I trace around and around,

burying the hand with the pistol.

         “Now, Lisa, we talked about this.”

         My father is tired and hurt and the anger which is almost always in his voice starts

to take over. I feel every syllable like a slap in the face.


         The crayon falls out my hand and onto the floor. For a moment, I wonder should

I bend down, defenseless, to pick it up. But then I grab brown. And my father takes two

hard steps towards me and I imagine his hand flying to my arm to spin me around and

force me out of the room.

         Then my mother at the door, “Don!”

         My father is breathing, hard angry breaths, just behind me. The window sill turns


         “What are you doing?”

         She sounds exasperated. I don’t see it but I know they face each other from

across the room and in that space, hidden away from view, there are scratches and bruises

and broken furniture and burst bubbles. It’s the adult version of the quiet game. The

next one who speaks will lose. And even though I cannot see my father right now, I

know what it is I would see if I could. For it was in his face ever since. Regret and

loathing. An oppressive and unrelenting loneliness. The Princess’s shoes turn pink.

         “Papa is dying,” he says.

         “I know, honey. I know.”

       And for a moment, this moment, there is peace. My father walks out of the room.

And my mother steps in, walks over to my chair, and puts her hand on my shoulder to

turn me gently. She kneels down at my side and runs her fingers through my hair.

       “Lisa, baby. Don’t you want to see Papa? He wants to see you.”

       My mother’s eyes are soft and begging. Her voice is plaintive and forgiving. I

see her face like I never have before. Milky smooth cheeks. Wide eyes and thin brown

eyebrows raised in a question. In my dream, I see the history of before and everything

after. The years of scratching out peace when my father wanted her to be more than she

could be, than anyone could be. The years of self-bruising when he left us to start over

and eventually died a drunk alone and far away. And even in all of those years, even then

the face, the face that was never empty or angry. The lips that always welcome me, the

eyes that always want to hold me, the subtle dimples that always feel like home to me.

Even in my dreams, she always shows me this face. And I don’t understand that at all.

       “No one wants to rush you, honey. Do it when you’re ready.”

       She accentuates every sincere and hopeful sentence with a stroke of my hair. I

feel a swelling rise in my chest and up to my throat as a rush of words threaten to break

through and I know I want to throw my arms around her and confess my fear of Papa’s

sickness and his dented green oxygen tank and the little tube poking out of his face and

the pallid color of his skin and his ghastly smile when he sees me. But the words are too

big to make it through. I still see the sagging shuffling walk that he managed before he

had to lie down forever. I still hear the awful strained long drawing breaths from that

ridiculously questionable tank. The sad pathetic attempts to smile through the pain. The

distracted terrified staring into nothing when he thought no one was looking. The forced

cheery air he gave when I got home from school. And behind it lurking something else.

Someone else. And eventually I start to feel that my mother is too close, that her fingers

are patting me instead of petting me, and that she is stealing my air. And I shrug and

twist my shoulders and turn my head to avoid those fingers and I strain and shift in my

chair to face the Princess again. And her tiara turns blue.

       “Whenever you’re ready, Lisa. Just tell us when you’re ready.”

       The thin dark blue drapes are falling and rising, and then falling and rising, like

deep autumn sighs, and I’m trying to deny the morning. But it’s here. I know it. My

oscillating fan turns away and I can no longer ignore the daylight. I try to blink away the

morning but it keeps coming back and I blink again and it comes back. And again. I’m

only half undressed and the blanket is mismatched and off centered as if I had just spent

the night wrestling the covers. But the bed is not the only sign of unrest. Some of my

clothes are trapped mid-escape in half-closed drawers and some are in haphazard piles

scattered all over the floor intermingling with belts and shoes and bras and underwear.

My cell phone stares dumbly back at me turned on the side table so I can see its display.

No missed calls. No messages. No voicemails. Just the time and a stupid wallpaper

picture I’ve forgotten to change. My back is turned to the other side of the bed.

       I lay there thinking. Big, big thoughts and tiny, tiny ones. Until I’m not even

sure why I’m lying here or why I should get up or what time I got home or why my head

hurts or even the last time I said a word that made sense or who I was even talking to.

       I’m alone. Except for the apartment there to judge me. The clothes, my cell

phone, pictures on the wall noting and not approving. Some smiling apparitions of

myself glaring back at me and taunting me with their warm self satisfied glows and in

their eyes the knowledge of some secret I’ve forgotten. I see their smiles and their long

brown hair and instinctively my hand reaches up to feel mine – short like a boy. And I

sigh. Maybe I’ll go blonde. I roll over to my back and extend my arm out to the other

side of the bed. I watch my fingers held out away from me and realize for the first time

how far the other side really is. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed that before.

       The drapes keep rising and falling, billowing inside like breaths, and I smell the

drying grass outside. I close my eyes and feel the occasional breeze as it comes in

through the windows and sweeps the loose paper around the apartment. I think I opened

every single window when I came home last night. I don’t remember doing that. But the

sensation of lying here with my eyes closed and the occasional breeze and even the soft

crinkling of paper being swept around – it’s not a bad feeling. And I lay there and feel

heavy and lazy and imagine a room full of people shuffling around my apartment,

moving things this way and that.

       I know that nothing really changes anymore. I wake up with the awful eating

away inside feeling, like a creeping infection, and I pick at myself. I conduct a full scale

audit of every conversation the night before, every joke laughed at and faked, every

interest feigned, and this awful eating and picking. I’m not the only target. Everyone

I’ve met and talked to, every person who bothered to try, who had the nerve to look at me

and try. Who had the temerity to stop and to see and to say, this will do for an effort or

two. I tear them apart in the mornings as well and find monsters in their chest, avaricious

motives, and jagged hungry teeth poking through their smiles. And most mornings or

afternoons, eventually, I tell myself it is no use to sit and dwell on that. It’s time to have

fun, it’s time to go out, get my drink on, and dance like there’s no tomorrow. And I want

to drink, flirt, dance, and even at times fuck away whatever is eating at me. It seems to

work for awhile. I laugh and reach out and touch and lick the sugar for all it can give me

and if I’m going to be eaten I want it to be with sugar and if I’m going to eat I want to eat

sugar and I cast myself about the bars and the men and taste a bit of oblivion. And before

the eating within begins again, I just want to fade away completely. When the parasite

wakes up in the morning, I want it to reach out for my delicious insides and find nothing

there. I want to disappear and sometimes I want to die. But I never do. I lunge and dip

and dance with sweat and longing, alcohol and men, smiles and phone numbers, smoke

and random inappropriate confessions. And hope for a spark, a feeling, and a morphing

into something new. But always I wake up with the monster in the morning. And the

drapes rising and falling, people moving and shuffling, and the strange irregular

breathing. Nothing ever changes. I’m still me. The creeping infection is still inside and

I don’t know how to make it stop.

        The phone sits there with nothing to say and will every time I look at it. I know it

but I can’t stop.

        After I shower and put on mostly clean looking clothes, I sit on the couch and

wonder why. I’m left to wonder because he never bothered to say. I can’t ask him

because he won’t call me. And even though I can’t talk to him, I’m still hearing from

him with every left behind magazine, old notes he wrote to me, the copy of his key still

on the floor next to the door under which it was slipped after he quietly walked out one

night while I was sleeping. An old ticket stub to a movie he went to see without me next

to some lint placed on the dresser where he liked to empty his pockets before crawling

into bed and pulling me into him. Some neglected mail still scattered around the kitchen

counter and the coffee table, most of it unopened because he almost never opened any of

his mail. A pair of socks. A notebook where he would he would write down lotto

numbers he wanted to play, football injuries before placing bets, and tic tac toe games

he’d play against himself while he was thinking. Even his hair, left behind on the comb

he forgot to take with him, little chunks of stubble on his razor. There are little pieces of

him everywhere I look, on the wood paneled floors, on the couch, the kitchen table, and

his pillow. I can still smell him on his pillow and the faint imprint of his body can still be

felt on his side of the bed. He left, but he wasn’t gone.

       Sitting there on the couch with the windows open and the dark blue drapes

continuing to dance and twist the incoming light, I know that this has to stop, this moping

around, this listlessness, this craving of calm peaceful dreams and fearing equally the

morning and the night, these long aimless days spent sitting with my knees hugged into

my chest and the television blaring, the complete disappearance of my ambition and my

will to recover, this willful embrace of oblivion. I know that I have to let it go. Let. It.

Go. I have to get rid of him. But I sit among the remnants of his presence, his coffee

mug left on the counter with the last of his coffee caked on the bottom, his toe nail

clippers, his couch blanket, shopping lists, his ash tray and spent cigarettes, and even his

pile of clipped up and refrigerator posted coupons. All of it infecting me with his

memory. I have to get rid of it. I have to clean.

       Papa and I are walking down the trail. He’s listening to me talk about the

Ramona books, occasionally pointing out a bird’s nest or a pretty plant on either side of

the trail. I’m wearing white and pink boots and a light red and pink dress. My hair is tied

into a pony tail and as I talk and walk it’s flopping back and forth from one shoulder to

the other. Every now and again Papa puts his hand on my back just below my neck and

gives me a gentle nudge to turn when the path gives us a choice. I would remember the

way anyway but I like it when he guides me. I love the trees and the crooked dirt paths

and the way the sunlight pokes through especially thick woods and the stillness and

finding a bird perched on a branch and almost not quite hidden among the leaves and the

light and the quiet. And I love that Papa likes to show me.

       My mother and father are not what you call outdoorsy types. Mother treats the

outside as if it’s simply an interruption between destinations. She won’t even hang out at

the pool. Dad will sit outside when the grill is fired up and he’s having beers alone or

with some friends or smoking a cigarette. But even growing up with Papa who always

went fishing and liked to walk along hiking trails and learn about nature, my father never

enjoyed it. Mostly Papa would go on these walks alone or sit in his little fishing boat for

hours on the lake in a dumpy fishing vest and a dumpy hat, and wait for the fish to bite or

watch the dragonflies skim along the water, mating. I think Papa would have liked to

share the time but he wasn’t one for pushing and he certainly wasn’t going to beg his son

to join him. I think my father resented that and so he never went. But as soon as I was

old enough, Papa asked my father if I might like to join him. I think mom and dad

appreciated the break and were willing to let Papa watch me for pretty much whatever he

wanted to do. And unlike my father, I was enthralled and excited and a little bit scared of

all that I didn’t know. I suppose living in my house, with my parents struggling to

survive, struggling to save, and struggling to make it through their marriage, walking

around outside in a land without walls, full of wonderful smells, and strange and peaceful

sounds was exciting. Plus, I love Papa.

        And today we’re walking and he’s listening to me jabber away. We stop where

there’s a log and he motions me over to sit down next to him. He’s out of breath and I

don’t remember ever seeing that before. He’s got his dumpy round hat on and I reach up

and pull it down at the front so that the front part of the bill hangs over his eyes. He

cocks his head, tightens his lips, and squints at me in a mock menacing manner. I laugh

and lean back, drawing both pistols out of the air, and say, “Don’t try any funny stuff,

mister!” There’s surrender in his face as he puts both hands up and shakes his head as if

to say, “Who me?” I laugh again. Papa’s breathing is starting to sound a bit more regular

but for a moment I notice something about his face. His cheeks are red, very red, but the

rest of his skin looks pale and a bit off color. I even see a little bit of a green tint along

his forehead and there’s sweat. Papa’s face is long and he has deep handsome smile lines

that run along his cheeks and little lines beside his eyes. Sometimes he puffs up one

cheek full of air and leans in for a kiss. And when I kiss him, feeling the scratchy

invisible stubble of his skin, the air bubble in his cheek is pushed over to the other side

and Papa looks at me in exasperated amazement like I was supposed to get rid of it. So

Papa turns the other cheek and I try again, giggling, but the air bubble just moves to the

other side again. And maybe I laugh or I yell, “Papa!” But he always turns the other

cheek and I kiss him again. And so on. And so forth.

       We sit there quietly now and I watch the wind rustle the dead leaves and twigs on

the ground. There’s a torn bit of paper struggling against some brush. I watch a

caterpillar crawling up the bark of the tree beside me and resist the temptation to grab a

stick and poke it. I do not know how long Papa wants to sit here but I sense there’s no

rush and I’m content to sit with him. I lean against him and put my head on his arm and

my face across his shoulder and look down at his hands. It’s so quiet out here.

       I tell him about school and what it’s like to ride the bus with the neighborhood

kids who sit in the back and tease the awkward boy with glasses and a funny shaped

mouth. I tell him about my teacher who is enormously fat and always says things like,

“You better believe it” and “That’s what they say.” Rumor has it that when she gets

angry she’ll yank you by the ears and pull you outside into the hallway and maybe even

the principal’s office. I tell him about the boy who makes faces at me and is always

turned around in his chair and smiling at me with his faces until the teacher tells me to

stop talking. The boy doesn’t seem to care if he gets his ears yanked and turns right

around again when she’s not looking and sticks his tongue out. He really bothers me.

Once I got so frustrated with him I squinted my eyes and clenched my fists and felt this

surge to hit him but stuck my tongue out instead. And wouldn’t you know it? That was

exactly when the teacher looked. I had to pull my desk to face the corner for the rest of

the afternoon. After class that stupid boy told me that was a very pretty face I made and

that I should consider looking like that all the time. I grabbed his book bag and threw it.

       Papa laughs and puts his arm around me. “Maybe he likes you.”

       I push away from him and glare at Papa.

       “Just saying.”

       I stare at him with my eyebrows up. I cannot figure out if he is making fun of me.

       “I gotta pee.”

       Papa tells me that I will probably have to squat in the woods unless I feel I could

wait. I didn’t. He stands up and puts both hands on my shoulders to face me the right

way and points in a direction off the path. He says to walk about fifteen steps that way

before going about my business and when I am done I am to call for him and he’ll answer

so that I won’t get lost. The woods are pretty thick off the path. It is a smart plan but it

makes me nervous.

       “What if there’s a snake?”

       Papa smiles and says that he doesn’t think there are very many snakes out here

and I probably won’t see any. I tell my feet to go but they don’t go. Papa smiles again

and says that he’ll just be right here and that I won’t see any snakes. Just take care of my

business and he’ll be waiting. Papa sits back down on the log and looks up at the

branches above, looking for birds. He really does love the birds.

       I step forward and off the path, carefully lifting my pink and white boots over a

large fallen branch, and then I turn sideways to minimize the prickly branches of the

bushes on either side of me. Once through there I look ahead of me and try to pick a way

through the woods to a spot that might be okay. Papa starts to hum behind me and it both

comforts me and reminds me that I am walking alone. I start to count. 15 and 14. I

notice how jagged the trees look from here as they rise up and strain past one other to

drink in the sunlight. 13 and 12 and 11. I see a big bulging mushroom on the ground and

kick it. When I do, it explodes into a grey-white powder. Papa’s humming stops. 10 and

9. There are bunches of leaves and twigs in haphazard piles on the floor of the forest but

they’re not like the leaves I’ve seen from the trees in my yard. They’re darker and heavy

and moist on the bottom side. I bend down to look underneath some of the leaves. It’s

pasty and gross and I see a rice-sized crawly thing fall from my hands and curl up into a

ball. I stick my boot on it but that doesn’t really do anything to it. 8 and 7 and 6 and 5. I

am starting to feel a bit lost but I resist the urge to call out to Papa. I don’t want him

thinking I’m some kind of baby and I don’t want him to stop taking me out fishing and

hiking. 4 and 3. It’s cooler here than in the path. And it’s getting darker with the trees

overhead hogging all of the light but also because it’s getting late. 2 and 1.

       I stop by one of the thinner trees and realize that squatting is going to be a bit

more difficult than I thought. There’s the question of balance. And then there’s the

question of underwear. I imagine that peeing all over myself or my dress as I’m trying to

squat won’t impress Papa very much. I hike up my dress, place one hand on the tree next

to me, and awkwardly yank down my pink underwear with the other one, stepping out of

them with one boot and then the other. Then I bunch up my underwear with one hand,

use the other to steady myself and squat down. The air is considerably cooler now that

I’m exposed. I look around in front of me but only halfway pay attention. The pee is

bouncing off the leaves below me and I can feel a bit of its spray against my legs and I try

to ease up a bit. As I’m bending down with my underwear bunched up in my hand, and

my thigh muscles starting to heat up, I see it. Not even 12 inches from my face.

       I see the snake.

       I wake up. For a moment the lingering life of my dream is a bit unsettling. I

swing my feet over the side of the bed and onto the floor. As the morning world creeps

in, I smell the fresh air coming through the windows and take notice of just how different

the apartment feels when waking up to it completely clean. No clothes on the floor or

hanging out of the dresser drawers, which are closed and the wood polished. The air is

different and clean and clear with a lemony pine sol scent. The thin dark blue drapes rise

and fall as before but it feels welcoming, like an absent minded caress across the back.

It’s like I moved. I step onto the floor from my bed and feel only the carpet. I walk

without obstruction to the bathroom. Towels are folded neatly on the racks. The counter

is clear and the fixtures are sparkling. It really is like being in a brand new apartment,

one that was hidden beneath the shabbier, drabber apartment to which I had grown


       I stand leaning forward with my hands on the bathroom counter and look closely

into the mirror. The tone of my morning inspection is friendlier. Could this face launch

a thousand ships? Probably not. But it still has a shine, especially this morning after

days of intense, and desperate, scrubbing and cleaning. A full night’s sleep can do

wonders. There are no bags under my eyes and my face is clear and smooth, and lacking

for once the tell tale signs of make-up being left on overnight. Of course, being blonde

for the first time in my life is a bit of a shock. Right there staring back at me this

morning really is someone new, someone ready to start again. And there’s something

else here that’s different. On my face. I’m grinning. I’m actually grinning and I cannot

help it. My stomach is rumbling and hungry and happy. There’s a good healthy sore in

my arms and hamstrings from all the lifting and carting of trash the past couple days. But

it doesn’t matter. I’m grinning because when I look around I can feel it. When I was a

kid, we used to stand in doorways and try to spread apart our arms and strain to lift them

against the doorway and count to thirty. Then we’d step forward and our arms would

spread apart on their own, weightless and wonderful. Like that. Like when you’ve been

on your feet all day and you don’t even know how tired you’ve been until someone offers

you a chair and you sit and your feet and your legs are finally able to let go of the strain.

It was like that. And he is gone.

        I step into the shower after checking the water. Today I want it hot, scalding hot

as if to strip that last layer of dead skin, to shed that lingering bit of the past, to emerge

red baby faced and new. I stand directly beneath the head and let the hot soothing water

massage my scalp and flow down my face. I never truly wake up in the morning until

this moment. And I wonder if this is how it feels right after an exorcism, when the

parasitic demon has been cast out and you know that this flesh and this mind is finally

and irrevocably yours again, having been infected and captive for so long, having been

subjected to its whims and steady infirming nitpicking. Finally and forever. The past

few days have been hard. There were times when my head was pounding and times

when I wanted to curl up into a ball on the couch and wish away the nausea. And there

were times when I was on my knees and out of breath from just a few moment’s worth of

scrubbing and I looked up and saw all the dirt and grime and trash and I wanted to cry but

instead I got angry and scrubbed and panted and said fuck it to the breathing. And now

it’s gone. Completely stripped away. And I’m grinning. I run soapy fingers all along

my curvy body and turn and turn under the water and still I’m grinning. To think that

just three days ago, I never wanted to leave my bed. I never wanted to open my eyes or

reach out with my hands or feel my soapy fingers through my short, short hair. And now

I just want to open my eyes even more and suck in everything I can and I want to let my

fingers touch everything, feel everything. I’m brand new.

       I step out of the shower and grab a big clean puffy towel and wrap it around me.

One of my favorite things in the world, just after I step out of the shower, is to go straight

back to bed and lie there as the steam and heat of the water dissipates off me and into the

air. This morning it’s even better that I could have thought. I am lying back on my

towel, diagonally on the bed. My arms are extended out to either side and I let the air of

the fan make its way across my body and back and across again. My stomach growls

happy hungry sounds. Nothing can touch me now. I close my eyes. To feel the air. To

hear its irregular rhythms as it sneaks in through the window. To smell pine sol trees. I

am in my head again. And it’s glorious.

       The waitress puts down two Red-Headed Sluts, one in front of me and the other in

front of Marlee. Then she places an ice bucket of beers on the table and I give her some

money. The shots are a compromise with Marlee. In exchange, tonight, we’ll take it

easy: no boys. Although it was my idea, in typical Marlee fashion, before we even found

a table in the corner away from everyone, she starts to pretend a night without speaking

to boys was her idea also. She keeps saying things like, “I’m glad we decided to do this.”

And as she does so, she widens her eyes and nods knowingly as if there’s this whole story

of boys and drama in her life she’d just as soon as not get into, and then tops it off with a

little snort of air. I don’t really know but I think it’s her way of feeling a stronger kinship

with me. She knows it’s been rough for me the past few weeks trying to forget and move

on. So she makes as if her boy troubles, which don’t really exist, are similar. When

we’re with other friends, she acts as if we’re going through this together. If someone

asks how things are going, she’ll jump in and say we’re fine, all the while sporting this

sympathetic eternally patient you’ll-never-understand expression on her face. She’s

shallow and a liar and extremely insecure. But she’s simple, predictable, and protective.

I think that’s what I need tonight.

       “Ready?” Marlee’s got her shot ready. My stomach is queasy and protests a little

but I know by now how to ignore that.


       And with flick of the wrist, the shot is gone and rushes down my throat like

fermented cough syrup. Marlee smacks her lip and lets out a loud ostentatious sigh. I

glance through the menu. I need to eat something but dread slightly the inevitable

dialogue that always follows ordering food at a bar with Marlee. And sure enough….

       “You getting something?”

       “I haven’t eaten all day.”

       “I’m hungry too but I probably shouldn’t get anything.”

       There’s a hint of pleading in her voice, especially there at the end. Basically,

Marlee’s fishing. I’ve been through this conversation with her so many times that an

edge starts to creep in my voice. “Then don’t.”

       “But I’m hungry.”

       “If you’re hungry, then eat something.”

       There’s a blessed pause of silence here and for a moment I hope that this is as far

as it goes. Will Marlee sense a lack of sympathy and stop trying to push? I take a sip

from my beer and look up around the bar. It’s not busy yet and there’s a good chance it

won’t be for most of the night. That’s one of the reasons we came here. No pool tables,

no big screen TV’s, and no dance floor. Just a lotto machine, a dart board, a couple trivia

machines at the bar, and loud music. There are a couple pockets of people, one hanging

around the bar and at the adjacent stand-up tables, and another in a booth on the opposite

end from where Marlee and I are sitting.

       “It’s easy for you. You can eat bar food every night and stay skinny.”

       I slap the menu down on the table and finally look at Marlee. She’s looking back

at me, waiting and hoping for me to say she looks fine. Except that she doesn’t look fine.

She’s fat and she wears things that make her look fatter.

       “It’s simple, Marlee. If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat.”

       “But I’m fat.”

       “Then don’t eat.”

       Marlee’s got a choice here. She can challenge me, call me mean, and ask me how

I could talk to her that way. Except that she would never do that. The most she does is

feels sorry for herself and talks about going home. Or she can move on. She moves on.

       “I never thought I’d ever see you as a blonde.”

       Why would she?

       “It looks good, Lisa. As usual.”

       The last line was her last attempt, for now, at fishing for compliments. When

she’s not complaining about herself, she’s go on and on about how beautiful she thinks I

am and how guys always seem to like me and nobody ever pays any attention to her. It

makes me very uncomfortable. I drink a larger sip of beer.

       The shot has really started to work its way through me and my empty stomach, so

I walk to the bar and order nachos and cheese sticks. While I’m waiting to get the

bartender’s attention, one of the guys at the bar tries to strike up a conversation with me.


       Sometimes, pretending not to hear a guy works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

       “Hey there. Can you settle an argument for me?”

       Ugh. Why not just introduce yourself? If there’s one thing that ties the majority

of men together from all over the world, something that seems to come attached to the y-

chromosome, other than the obvious, it’s the need to do something original from the first

moment he meets a girl coupled with the complete inability to do so. I finally turn to face

a guy in his late 30s, early 40s, wearing an awful honey-I-just-molested-the-babysitter

moustache, and a 10 year-old Garth Brooks t-shirt.

       “What?” I’m hoping being short with him will help him get the hint. But I fear

that he’d actually rather talk to a girl who didn’t say much. He is standing next to

another guy except this one is different. I don’t know what the difference is and I don’t

much care. But he’s different. I see this in a split-second but don’t let my eyes linger on

him any longer. I have to be very careful about the signals I send these two. Otherwise

they’ll be hovering around us all night.

       “If you were stranded on a deserted island with the two of us and the entire future

of the human race depended on you choosing one of us, who would you choose?”

       For a moment, I really am speechless. But then I see the bartender walk by.

       “I don’t know. Excuse me.” I order my food and return to Marlee. But not

before I hear the second guy say that the question doesn’t even make sense.

         “What does being stranded on an island have to do with the future of the human


         Marlee has her phone out and is writing a text message to someone. I’m not

really sure who her other friends are beside me but they apparently get a lot of text

messages from Marlee when we’re out together. Basically, any time I start to talk to

someone else and she’s left out of the conversation, she grabs her phone and starts

tapping away.

         “Who was that?” I guess she noticed I was approached.

         “An idiot.”

         “The skinny guy was cute.” I turn around to see which one she was talking about

and immediately regret it. They were looking over right when I did so. Crap. I tell her

the other one has on a Garth Brooks t-shirt and she laughs, though I can tell she doesn’t

really know why it’s funny.

         We sit in silence for a few moments and I take a few sips from my beer and watch

Marlee with her cell phone. I haven’t checked my phone obsessively for a few days, not

since deciding to clean the apartment. But the rush of waking up in a clean apartment is

starting to wear off. If I’m being honest there are still moments when I’m alone and I

construct fabulous scenarios in my head of running into him and he’s contrite and wants

to be friends and I tell him, in a smoldering but charitable tone, that I didn’t think it

would be such a good idea, for me. And I would add that “for me” at the end, after a

pause, like a cherry on top of a whipped cream and hot fudge sundae of revenge. Or I

would meet him by chance and he’d ask how I was doing and I’d say fine and then he’d

say something like, you know, I really did try. And then I’d say, really? You tried? And

then I’d rattle off the times he fell short with me, the times he pulled away or diminished

me or preened at my expense in front of his friends, or the times he could have done

things to make it easier for me but didn’t, the times he knew that what he was doing

bothered me but did it anyway. And this among many other scenarios where I finally get

to tell him, in effect, he was wrong. Wrong about himself and wrong about me. Wrong

to give up and wrong to leave. But mostly now I just feel a little sad and try to do things

I never did while he was around. Like dye my hair. I don’t know what it means or what

I’m trying to say but at least I am saying something, I guess.

       “So I’m having dreams about my grandfather.”

       Marlee looks up. She scrunches her face. “Really?”

       “Yeah, it’s weird. I haven’t thought about him for years. He died when I was

pretty young.”

       “Awww.” Marlee hits a high note at the end like she would if she saw a picture

of a puppy. I don’t know why. “I love grandpas.”

       It’s an extremely weird thing to say and I start to reconsider whether I should

open up to her about this. Sometimes, Marlee has no clue how to talk to people and

merely guesses at reactions to things people say, hoping to strike an appropriate note.

Now and then, she guesses badly and it’s jarring.

       “Um, okay.”

       She realizes she missed and starts over, pretending the last five seconds never

happened. This happens a lot with her.

       “What did you dream about?”

       “Well, I had two dreams. The first one was the night before I first started

cleaning. Basically it was around the time he died and it was so vivid. Like I remember

the music I used to listen to, like White Lion and the Bangles.”

       Marlee laughs rudely but cuts it short as soon as she remembers I was just talking

about my grandfather dying. It comes out like a snort. When we were kids, the boys

used to say she had a donkey laugh.

       “The second one was from this morning. It was from when he used to take me

out hiking and we were out in the woods. I had to go pee and while I was squatting out

there in the woods I saw a snake that scared the hell out of me.”

       “Oh, I hate snakes! And spiders and bugs with long, long legs.”

       I press on as if she isn’t talking. “It was probably only a little baby garter snake

but I saw it while I was bending down peeing with my ass in the wind and my underwear

scrunched in my hand. I think I dropped my underwear out there, to be honest. I

remember walking home with my Papa, that’s what I called him – Papa. But I remember

walking home with Papa without any underwear on.”

       She giggles. And I wonder again why I decided to tell her this story. What

purpose does it serve?

       “So I woke up and, right when I get out of the shower, there’s someone knocking

at my door but I’m still naked from the shower and I have to throw on my robe and run to

the door. I open the door and it’s my neighbor, Mark, and he wants to invite me and

what’s-his-face to the fish fry they’re having that afternoon right down at the clubhouse

in the apartment complex.”

       I have no idea where I’m going with this.

       “Mark’s a guy that’s lived next door to me with his wife and he’s super nice but

kind of average looking. But for some reason, I start to flirt with him. For some reason, I

really want him to…. I don’t know. I just want him to like me, suddenly. He

compliments me on my hair but asks about what’s-his-face. He’s respectful. And it’s so

obvious he’s into his wife and she’s always been nice to me. But that just sort of adds to

the appeal. He hadn’t shaved in a few days and I tell him it’s sexy and he should

consider growing something, a beard or something. He was a little surprised and

uncomfortable, I think. I mean, I’m standing there half-naked in my bathrobe and telling

him he’s sexy. It’s like a bad porn flick. He just smiles at me and says thank you. I

suddenly feel really awkward and make some terrible joke about I’ll be sure to put some

clothes on before checking out his fish fry. He nods and says good, good. I closed the

door and slumped down on to the floor and thought, what the fuck is wrong with me?”

       It’s obvious that Marlee has no idea how to react to this story, if you could call it

a story. Confession would be more appropriate, though a confession of what I have no

idea. Finally, she leans over the table and giggles forcefully, but again she has no idea

why it’s funny.

       “You have a crush on your neighbor.”

       I suppose of all the possible interpretations of my story it could be worse. Still,

whatever the reason for flirting with him, I didn’t feel very good about it. And even

though I was in a very good mood when I woke up this morning, it’s gone now. I could

try to pretend that what happened hadn’t actually happened, or that Mark didn’t notice I

was flirting, but the pretending only goes so far. I can’t fake it to myself. I don’t know

how far I would have gone if Mark hadn’t been a half-way decent person. It bothers me

that I left myself vulnerable to someone else’s sense of decency. And it bothers me that

now, to Mark, I’m that girl. And I hate to think he might be right. What if deep down

inside, I really am that girl? Because I know a part of me wishes he hadn’t been so

decent. And I wonder what would have happened if it had been someone else, someone

with fewer scruples, someone who might have seen my weaknesses and taken advantage.

I don’t know what to make of that part of me that hopes for such things to happen. But it

seems to be at its worst when there are boys around. So, before coming out tonight, I

decided it would be better to avoid that for now. Hence, no boys.

       But for some reason that isn’t going to be easy. The skinny guy walks over.

Marlee notices him first and her giggling changes into some kind of higher pitched look-

what-we-have-here hum in her throat. I look up and he’s smiling at me. This is the first

time I give him more than a glance. He is cute though not skinny upon further review.

He’s lanky, which I guess gives off the illusion of skinny, and tall but he’s got a little bit

of a rounded belly. His arms aren’t very muscular and he really does not seem to fit in

with the rest of the country-music, tattoo, and weight-lifting crowd. And the moment he

opens his mouth confirms it. He speaks in a voice that’s strong, even, and intellectual. I

do not smile back.

       “First of all, I’m sorry for the idiocy from before. My name is Andy.” He is

looking straight at me while he’s talking but abruptly turns to Marlee and holds out his

hand. The transformation in her is profound. Initially, like me, she struck a hostile pose,

but the moment he turned to her and gave her his hand, she melted and smiled and I could

see the puppy love visions beginning to erupt in her mind.


        “Nice to meet you, Marlee.” And then he turns to me. His eyes are brown and

smiling but not in any flirtatious way. Respectful. Sympathetic. This guy’s good.

        “And your name is?”

        “Lisa,” I say quickly. “Look, Andy, I don’t mean to be rude but I….”

        “Nice to meet you, Lisa. And again, I’m sorry about before. My buddy is kind of

an idiot sometimes but he means well.”

        “Okay, but as I was saying, I am not really interested in talking to anyone right


        Marlee leans in her chair over towards Andy, trying to get his attention back, and

says, “Girls night out.” And then laughs loudly as if a girls night out is the most hilarious

and absurd thing ever, tilting her head in my direction as if to say that it was my idea in

the first place and she’s just being a good friend but if he were interested….

        “Well, I figured as much,” Andy says and then pulls up a chair and sits down with

us. “I was actually just going to buy you two” (and on the word “two” he turns to look at

Marlee who fakes a bit of a blush) “a drink but I see you’ve got plenty here.” Andy

motions over to the bucket which is still mostly full.

        “If you figured that out by yourself,” I say a bit too sharply, “why did you bother

coming over here?” Marlee snorts again, except this time it was a desperate I’m-not-

responsible-for-her-please-look-at-me laugh. She really does make the most expressive

little noises.

        Although the question was rude and I certainly made no attempt to make it sound

less rude, Andy seems pleased as hell to answer it. “Because to be honest, I was tired of

my friends. I don’t really hang out with them very often so it can get to be a bit much.

And also because I know that what we say we want and what we really want isn’t always

the same thing.”

        “So you’re saying that even though I say I don’t want to talk to anyone tonight

except my friend here, I really do want to talk to someone.”

        “Yes.” And Andy looks at me right in the eye. His expression is earnest and

sincere. I’ve almost never seen anything like it. Behind him I can see that the crowd is

picking up a little bit. It might get busy here tonight after all. In a way, I feel good about


        “You don’t believe me?” he asks.

        “I think you’re full of shit.”

        “If I’m full of shit, then you’re full of shit.”

        Marlee pulls out her cell phone.

        “I’m sorry. Did you just say I’m full of shit?”

        “No, I said if I’m full of shit then you’re full of shit. There’s a difference. See, I

have a little confession to make.”


        “I’m psychic.” Again, Andy is looking me right in the eye. I just stare at him and

keep waiting for the punch line.

        “Fine. You’re psychic. What am I thinking?”

        Andy pushes back his chair a bit, rotates his head to loosen his neck, and stretches

his arms as if he’s getting ready for an exercise. Then he places two fingers on each

temple with his elbows out and digs his focus right into my eyes. And it’s like that for a

few moments, as I’m thinking in my head, “Go away, go away, go away, go away.” And

I’m actually hoping at this moment that he is psychic. I wonder if he’s just trying to

think of something to say now that he’s got all the attention and dug himself a hole.

Then, suddenly, with a bolt of inspiration, he tilts his head down and away as if slightly

embarrassed, smiles and says, “Thank you.” As if I’d just confessed a deep and burning

love for him.

       “It wasn’t a compliment I was thinking.”

       Andy smiles. “But it wasn’t your mind I was reading. I was reading your heart.”

       Marlee just about spits half a beer across the table and guffaws loudly. I can’t

help it. I smile too. I feel the smile fall down my spine and roil around in my gut. He

shouldn’t have done that.

       “Why don’t you have a beer, Andy?” I say that as more of a command than an

invitation. I smile without really feeling it and look him in the eye. I can see he doesn’t

believe my smile but he returns it warmly, pulls out a chair, and glides into his seat. He

then takes a beer, opens it, and offers it first to Marlee and then me. Marlee says no

thanks and I just show him the one I have.

       “Let me ask you something,” I continue. “Do you believe that there’s only one

person for everybody?”

       Andy looks down at his hands to consider the question. Marlee cocks her head

too, straining with thought. “Sort of,” he says. “The few people I’ve met who were in

love, I mean really in love, it’s hard not to believe they were meant to be together. You

can actually see how they fit together. But then again, not everyone gets that. I know

more people who aren’t in love with the one they’re with than who are.”

       Marlee jumps in. “I believe in soul mates.”

       I know the real power in a conversation is in silence. Andy takes a sip of beer and

looks up to see that I’m waiting. At first he’s a bit confused but finally thinks of

something to say.

       “What about you?”

       Without hesitation I say, “I think timing is everything.”

       “Well, then, that’s pretty much the opposite of soul mates, isn’t it?” I nod my

head. I am leaned back in my chair but I am anything but relaxed. My fingers hold my

beer over my lap and I’m making eye contact with Andy, waiting.

       “Because I know that time is always time and place is always and only place and

what is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place,” Andy says. Marlee

gives Andy a funny look.

       “It’s a poem,” I say. “Part of one.”

       Andy smiles, impressed. Marlee nods and says, “Deep.”

       “So do you believe that?” I ask.

       “Sort of,” he says again and laughs as if it were a joke. “I think people all need

different things. And sometimes that even changes for a person. Like one year, it’s

probably best to be around someone who’s a good a listener because maybe you’ve got a

lot to say because maybe you’re getting over a pretty hard time. And so maybe it works

out great because of all the good listening. He gets to feel important and she gets to feel

like he really cares. But eventually she no longer needs to talk about it so she doesn’t

anymore. And then he starts to wonder why she never talks anymore. That’s timing.

And then of course, maybe what she really needed all along was this particular guy

because he’s got it all. Everything she wants anyway when she’s healthy. But she’s still

with listener guy and he’s done nothing wrong. She thinks leaving him will kill him,

break his heart. So she feels responsible. She longs for this other guy. But stays with the

listener because it’s the” air quotes “right thing to do.”

       I take a swig and look down.


       Looking around the bar, I notice again that it continues to pick up. Dart boards

are full, the stools at the bar are taken and people are standing behind the seated waiting

their turn to order, the three booths are full, and the noise of conversation and music are

starting to make talking normally impossible.

       I look at Andy and he has to lean in to hear me because I continue to talk

normally. “So you respect the timing?”

       “Well, yeah, I guess. But I’m not sure what that really means.”

       “It means that if someone wants to be alone, you leave them alone.” And this is

the first time, I think, that Andy senses danger. But it’s only a moment, a brief flash of

shock in his eyes. He catches his bearing. Still his smile is gone. Finally.

       “There are different kinds of alone. Some people will say they want to be alone

but what they really want is to be saved. Other people want to be alone because they feel

they deserve to be alone. And still others will be alone and feel alone no matter what you

do, so what difference does it make if you leave them alone? They’ll feel lonely even

when you’re with them every second of the day. Because you can’t relate or you can’t

read their heads right or know when to reach out or when to keep your hands to yourself.

You can’t take away their loneliness. The best thing you can do for people like that is

make them feel unalone.”


        “Yeah. Unalone.”

        When Andy speaks, it’s with sincere sounding feeling. As if lurking behind his

words and pushing them forward is the hint or history of failure itself. Yet something is

missing. If there really was failure then there would be fear too, right? Where’s the fear?

        “You want to know what I think?” I ask. It should be painfully obvious to anyone

at this point that I am not friendly, that I am angry, that I am not interested, and that I just

want him to leave. But he sits there with an open face, waiting for me to speak, waiting

for the words that will no doubt come to tear him apart, to shred his stupid confidence,

and to get him the fuck away from me. He waits without defense. And I think that

makes me want to hurt him more.

        “I think you’re full of shit.” I say. My words are fired across the table like a shot

across the bow.

        “Really? Again with the full of shit.” He sits back, crosses his legs, and folds his

hands in his lap. Then he smiles. A warm and forgiving, understanding and sympathetic

smile that disarms me. And then he hits me back, gently and truthfully. “Someone’s

really done a number on you, huh?”

        And Marlee tries one more time. “Why do you think we needed a girls’ night

out?” Her hands edge towards his as if to welcome him into our little circle of pain.

Without even showing that he noticed, Andy reaches over and picks up a menu absent-

mindedly and then puts it down. I was wrong. He isn’t good at this. He is great. Marlee

can’t even feel his rejections.

        “I don’t know if this will make you feel better,” Andy says and leans towards me

and for the first time all pretense of neutrality between me and Marlee is gone. It’s me

he’s zeroing in on and now even she knows it. I expect the cell phone out any second.

“But there was a moment when you walked in here, I looked up and saw you.” He stops

smiling and starts to look down a bit while he talks, slightly embarrassed and completely

sincere. “My friends noticed you too and they started making comments, like they do.

I’m sure you kind of figure what they’d say.”

        I nod. I do know.

        “But I think I saw something different. I mean I’m sure I saw everything they

saw. You’re beautiful and I think you know that.”

        Marlee’s face is buried into the light of her cell phone. Pretending to ignore us

now but she is not ignoring us.

        “And there was something about the way you walked in here. And something

about the way you’re sitting there. I can’t quite place it. But I think….”

        He meets my eyes. I can see that his brown eyes are really quite soulful and I feel

them reaching out for me. I hold my breath.

        “I think it changed me. To see you like that. To watch you like this. I was

embarrassed that my friend talked to you. It bothered me that all they saw was this hot

girl walking in the bar and it’s like some competition to get your attention. Because

there’s pain there and the competition harms you, I think. And I didn’t come here tonight

to meet anyone and I’m not really very good at this, this whole going out to the bar and

try to get some girl’s attention thing. I don’t really believe in it. I don’t think it’s the way

I’m built. But I couldn’t avoid coming over here and I know you want to be left alone

and you’d rather just drink these beers and talk to Marlee and go home after a nice night

without drama. It’s obvious that drama is the last thing you need and it’s not really what

I’m about either. But I couldn’t avoid coming over here to talk to you. The only thing I

was feeling when you walked away was this feeling that the moment was slipping. I

could be the guy who never knows what if. Or I could see. I could see if that thing I’m

feeling that’s pulling me towards you, if that’s something in you. Speaking to me. In

spite of what you say.”

       Andy stopped. And waited.

       Just like that, completely open, completely sincere, defenseless. Waiting.

       I open my mouth and close it again. Marlee isn’t even pretending to monkey with

her phone anymore. It sits there in her hand flipped open and gawking at her. I realize

now it isn’t that Andy is good at this or even knows what he is doing. He’s real. He

actually likes me. He probably does feel something when he looks at me and it probably

isn’t limited to his libido. And for a moment, I allow for the possibility that this isn’t an

act. He really is understanding and funny and genuine and willing to make an effort, to

meet more than halfway, to carry more than his share. For a moment, I notice his gentle

coordinated fingers as they hold his bottle of beer. I see the receptive and disarming way

he sits at a respectful distance, the way his face waits patiently for a response from me.

And I see that he would wait that way forever if I could just give him a sign.

       I take a sip and lean forward. He leans in too. And it’s even easier than I thought.

       “I think, Andy, I know the answer.”

          He raises both eyebrows and his face is intent with acceptance and understanding.

Something inside me stirs, is waking up again. And I feel like smoking a cigarette,

though I quit months ago.

          “I’d fuck your friend.”

          I sit back and level my eyes at him. He looks like I’ve just socked him in the


          “If I’m on an island. I’d fuck your friend. Now leave us the fuck alone.”

          He gets up and pauses before stepping away, as if he wants to say something. But

as he opens his mouth, Marlee jumps in. “In other words, dipshit, leave the fucking


          And it’s at this moment, I remember why I love her.

          I run the bath. I’m tired and a bit drunk still but I feel like taking a bath to unwind

before bed. I grab a clean big puffy towel from the linen closet and place it on the toilet

next to the bath tub. One by one, I take off my socks, my shirt, my pants, my bra, and my

underwear, tossing each into the laundry bin. As I do so, images from the night come

back to me: the big pile of nachos with chili and cheese and sour cream, the bucket of

beer, Marlee with the cell phone in front of her face, Marlee making jokes and laughing

about what I said to Andy and what she said to Andy, the bar as it steadily got busy

throughout the night, the various regulars and not so regulars who tried to come over and

start a conversation, but none like Andy. And then of course, Andy. Who slunked away

to his friends and stayed for a little while, lingering there in the corner of my eye, but

who eventually and suddenly disappeared. Then, at some point, the bar got empty. The

plates piled up because we kept ordering more food, the beer bottles got emptier and

increased in number, and the world started to spin, and I started to swim through it every

time I stood up, and then it was time to go home.

       The water in the tub keeps rising but I’m not ready yet. In the mirror, staring

back at me, leaning forward with her hands flat on the bathroom counter, is me. Short

blonde hair, unmanageable and spiky, growing out uneven. Skin that used to tan in the

spring and summer but now, in the fall, pale and almost translucent. I can see the future

in this face. I can see where the skin will start to sag. I can see where the lines will start

to form, where the color will fade even more than it has. My neck is thin and my

shoulders are moving beyond what might be called attractive and I know the bones will

only start to show even more as the muscles obey the tug of age and gravity. All the bar

food and beer, the unhealthy living, is softening up my stomach, rounding it off and

though it doesn’t quite hang over my belt yet, it does rest too easy upon it. I stand up

straight and turn my body and see the ever flattening of my ass, like two mud flaps on a

truck. I turn back and lean into the mirror and search the eyes of the woman in front of

me. I look for some trace, some sign of the girl I used to be. Where is the Pistol

Princess? Absentmindedly, my fingers trace along the scar on my chest. After all these

months, it still shocks me to see it like a long pink worm embedded between my breasts.

The more I recover and the better I feel, the less I am myself. The people I meet are

shadows and approximations and the things I say are like distractions and play-acting.

Play-acting like the wig I used to wear and then ditched when my hair started to grow

back and Marlee said that was brave. But it was more like apathy. I didn’t care anymore.

I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. The woman everyone saw, the one staring back

at me now, was an alien.

        I know why he left. Because I was no longer here.

        I search my eyes and my face to find some trace, some evidence of the girl I used

to be. And I find nothing. She’s gone.

        So it’s not just him and it’s not just Papa. I never said goodbye to me either. I

reach out and touch the glass and she’s reaching out for me too. I think about the boy

who used to make faces at me when I was a girl. And I try to make defiant faces to the

woman in front of me, like the ones I used to make to him – squinting my eyes, sticking

my tongue out, scrunching my face, none of it familiar. I know now that we make lots of

faces when we’re children but very few when we get older and that game children play

where the face you make when they hit you on the back has to stick is just a metaphor for

something real. At some point, out of all the faces we make when we’re kids, one of

them sticks and we’re stuck with it for the rest of our life. I just wish someone could

have told me. I sigh and turn off the bathwater. And for a moment, I don’t know what to

do. I look at the puffy bath towel and the hot water in front of me as I sit balanced on the

side of the tub.

        I think of Andy again and the way he looked at me before he left the table. There

wasn’t even anger there or even the impulse to curse at me or fight back. Resignation

and hurt. And that was the worst thing about what I said, the lingering effect that

infected his peace of mind. The idea that all his strengths were working against him.

The idea that his instincts, which certainly had me pegged except for one small detail,

were leading him astray. That is my legacy. That is what I do. What Andy could never

understand was that for me it isn’t about being loved. It’s about being worth someone’s


        I reach down into the water and pull out the plug. I stand up and without so much

as a glance to the woman walking away behind me, I go to bed.

        Alone in the woods, I’m a kid again. The trees tower over me like majestic

sentinels and the leaves swallow my feet. I swish and swish the leaves around by taking

long dragging steps and then kick them up in the air. I like the way the leaves fall around

me. I want to see how high I can kick them in the air and how many I can get in the air at

once. I turn and kick, around and around, as the leaves fly and fall. I spin and kick, and

blink and spin, and as the trees race around in a blur, the leaves seem to hover and orbit

me like I’m the center of the universe. And I feel a nervous stirring in my stomach as I

get dizzy from all the spinning but I laugh and stop kicking and hold my arms out for

balance as I continue to turn and turn. Then I fall. But the world continues to do

somersaults around me and I laugh out loud.

        Then I hear it. Soft at first, so that it takes a moment to figure out what it is, but

the sound lingers in my ears until recognition clicks pleasantly in my brain. It’s Papa.

He calls again.


        I jump up and sway a bit before catching my bearings but then I run full bore

toward the sound, through the woods as the branches whip past me and the leaves crunch

beneath me. I jump over a fallen branch and giggle wildly as the rush of wind roars into

my face and I push myself faster and faster and think that I’m almost quite certainly able

to fly if I push a little harder and one last burst to leave the world behind me…. I see

Papa now and I jump the last little bit onto the path and for a moment I’m tempted to leap

straight at him and hug him and hold him. But instead I stop just before him with a smile

across my whole face, panting and out of breath.

       “You ready to go fishing, Pistol?”

       He holds out a fishing pole for me to carry. He’s got a tackle box and another

pole in his other hand. The rest of the gear is already loaded up on the little fishing boat

tied up to the old wooden dock that he’s been using since he was a kid.

       “See any enemy agents out there?” he asks.

       I want to respond but I’m still catching my breath so it only comes out one word

at a time. “No…. All… clear….”

       Papa smiles and puts his hand on my back to steer me in front of him. I step and

hop and jump on the flat uneven rocks that serve as steps down to the water. They look a

little uneven in spots but I know that the feet of my family and other people’s families

before have been using these rocks for a long time. If my father were here, he would tell

me to stop horsing around and my mother would tell me to be careful and to walk like a

lady. But Papa doesn’t mind.

       When I get to the dock, which is as old as life itself, I run with my pole to the boat

and then wait for Papa. The wood on the dock is dark brown with deep grooves and there

are little gaps between the planks which increase year after year as the wood warps. I

watch the boat sway and pull against the single rope keeping it attached to the dock.

Papa likes to get in first. He holds out one hand for me and the other grips the edge of the

dock to keep it close to the boat. As carefully and deliberately as I can, I bend down to

put one foot in the boat and then the other. It’s a pretty small boat. Just enough room for

three, although two children can sit on the middle bench if they’re small enough. I put on

my life jacket and sit on a cushion right in the middle.

       Papa unties the rope from the dock and grabs a pair of old wooden oars to row us

out away from the shore. He doesn’t really need to but he likes to do this before turning

on the little motor. It’s a beautiful day with only a couple white puffy clouds in the sky

and I can see right through to the bottom of the clear water, at least until the seaweed.

I’ve always found seaweed a bit creepy. For one thing, it’s slimy and gross. And for

another, it makes the deep water darker and with that darkness comes the mystery of what

else might be down there. I don’t like to think about it. When we get far enough out, I

hear behind me the wheezing of the gas bulb as Papa primes the engine and pulls the

starter cord. One, two solid pulls and the engine sputters and kicks in. Papa sets it at a

low steady course and we head out across the water. I’m not sure how fast the boat can

go but I am sure I am never going to find out with Papa. He likes a steady relaxed pace

out to his favorite fishing spot almost as much as he likes fishing. I can always tell by the

pleasant look in his face as he scans the water, the other shorelines, and the small islands

sprinkled here and there along the way. He even chuckles to himself and shakes his head

whenever he sees a sports boat zooming by kicking up a wake. I think he believes that

they’re really missing something going that fast. And looking in Papa’s face sometimes

when he catches me watching, I think he’s right. It may be fun to see how fast you can

go, Papa seems to say as he winks at me, but look at how much you miss along the way.

And just like that, I see the way the water breaks and folds in upon itself as we slice

through it. I see the way sunlight dances upon the drops that linger and fall from the oars.

I see the seaweed swaying and leaning. The birds that circle ahead. The random

inexplicable bubbles that rise up from beneath the surface. And I see the way Papa’s

stubble grows in grey and gold and the way his dark brown eyes smile at me even before

his face does.

       We slow down more than normal and I know that we’re almost there. I look

down into the water, leaning over the side but very careful to spread out in order to

balance my weight.

       “Any fish down there, Pistol?”

       “They’re down there somewhere,” I say.

       Papa laughs and continues to angle us in so that we’re in line with the distant

shore and then cuts the motor. He reaches back behind him and pulls up the anchor. He

holds it carefully over the side and eases it down into the water. I think he’s counting

how many hands of rope he’s dropping the anchor in order to gauge the depth. Finally,

the anchor lands softly and Papa lets out another couple handfuls for drift. I grab my pole

and unlatch the hook. Papa’s already put my favorite lure on there: a flat water bug

shaped thing with watermelon colors. I hang my hook over to Papa who grabs it and puts

a worm on it for me. I don’t really like doing it myself and I’m not very good at it either.

But I am a pretty good caster, after plenty of practice and instruction from Papa, and he

watches me as I flick my wrist and lift my thumb off the release.

       And we sit there together on the little fishing boat I have grown to love so much.

A lot of the time we don’t even talk. I watch the end of my pole very carefully for any

sign of twitching or tugging. If I get bored with that, which happens sometimes, I pinch

the fishing line between my thumb and my forefinger to feel for vibrations. This frees up

my eyes to wander along the water, to pick out the gulls in the sky, or to watch some kids

jump off the flat wooden raft anchored in the water down the shoreline. And even now,

though I know this is memory and that I’m dreaming, it still all feels so real. My skin has

that golden baked feeling. The kids yelling and playing from a distance sound like gulls

crying. The breeze moves in irregular patterns across the water and in my face. The

feeling of being a kid again is irresistible. But there’s another part of me that watches

Papa, the way he hums to himself and studies the water just below his line, the way his

dumpy hat and dumpy fishing vest hang like organic parts of him. I want to speak to

him. I want to break the dream and out of the memory and talk to him one more time.

But the allure of being the Pistol Princess is overwhelming. My heart is lighter and I feel

more playful than I can ever remember, even more so than the first time through these

memories, because back then I had worries. Back then I feared loss and humiliation and

failure. Back then I was frozen in the face of uncertainty. But now I experience it all

again without those trappings. Now, more than anything else, I feel grateful. Papa is

here. And I want to tell him.

        I turn back to look up at him and instantly I know I’ve broken the memory. I

know because the air has changed and because there’s a trace of surprise in Papa’s eyes.

He feels it too.


        The syllables come out haltingly as separate words. And the sound of my voice

shocks me. It’s the sound of an adult voice.

        “Yes, Princess?”

        His voice is reassuring and familiar. I can hear the patched and harsh air in it like

it was at the end. But it’s still Papa’s voice.

        “Papa, I….”

        The words stop in my throat like a roadblock. I don’t know what to say. Is this

really him somehow? Do I want it to be? After what I did? I open my mouth to start

again but his face suddenly lights up and he yells, “Your pole! Watch your pole!”

        I turn around and the tip of my pole is darting down with intermittent aggressive

dips. Papa cheers and I pull back sharply on my fishing pole and lift it over my right

shoulder. I turn the reel quickly as I lower it and angle it against the pressure. It

definitely feels like something tugging though it’s not very aggressive. I’ve learned that

different types of fish fight differently and if I were a more experienced fisherman like

Papa I might even be able to guess what this one is. But as it stands, the mystery makes

the moment even more delicious. Papa is giving me instructions but he doesn’t need to.

I know them by heart. Don’t rush. Be firm. When the fish gives you slack take it.

When it fights especially hard just be firm. Eventually it will come to you. Just keep

taking up the slack. I scan the water for some silvery sign of my fish beneath the surface.

Papa’s got the net and he’s leaning over the boat waiting. He sees it before I do.

        “There it is!”

        I look where’s pointing and at first I don’t see it. But then I do, struggling against

the line, a small silver and gold dash in the water. Once I pull it over close enough to the

side of the boat, Papa scoops it up with the net and holds it up for me. Then he reaches

over into the net to grab it but I stop him.

        “Let me do it, Papa.”

        He laughs and moves the net closer to me so I can reach it. After leaning the pole

up over the side, I carefully balance my feet on the boat in order to stand up. My fish is

wiggling and still fighting in the net and I can see it gasping for breath. The hook is

lodged in tightly in its bottom lip. I extend my fingers out wide just like I was taught and

stroke down on the fish in order to get a good grip without cutting my fingers on its fin.

When I lift it up into the sunlight, I can see that it’s beautiful. There’s gold and red and

blue and silver which seems to bounce and dance off its body into the light. I’ve never

seen anything like it before in my life.

        “That’s a sun fish, Pistol.”

        I can see why. I make a gasping sound which makes Papa laugh as I turn it left

and right in my hand to watch the colors dance.

        “I’ve never caught a sun fish before, Papa.”

        But he knows that.

        “It’s a baby one.”

        “Really?” I ask. “A baby?”

        He nods his head and holds out his hands to show me how big they can get.

        “Normally, they get about this big. In fact, I saw one once that was this big.”

And he holds out his hands a little wider. I smile. “We’re going to have to throw it back,

Pistol. It’s not ready yet.”

        I don’t want to. But I watch it gasping in my hands and notice now how small it

is. I feel bad about the big hook caught in its lip and wonder if fish feel pain. Papa is

right. It’s not ready yet.

        “You want me to get the hook out?”

       “No, I got it.”

       At first, I try to get the hook out while I’m standing there. I reach over and pinch

the hook with the fingers of my free hand and tug on it, but it doesn’t give. I twist and

pull and then push it in a bit more and then pull again. When that doesn’t work, I sit

down on my cushion and turn away from Papa so he can’t see me struggling with it.

       “You sure you don’t want some help?”

       “No, I almost got it.”

       Except that I don’t. The little fish is still struggling, only now the struggling is

almost absentminded, like there’s no real hope to it. I twist and pull and twist in all the

permutations I can think of to loosen it up from the poor fish’s lip but none of it works.

It’s moving in my hand like one big muscle and the slick scales are starting to slide a bit.

So I grip the fish a bit firmer and pull on the hook even harder. Suddenly, I’m starting to

panic because it occurs to me that the poor thing can’t live out of the water indefinitely.

It can’t breathe. But it’s still trying to flip away from me and I have to grip it harder.

The fish’s eyes bulge a bit out of its head and dark brown gooey stuff leaks onto my

hand. I close my eyes and pull with all my strength. With a wet ripping sound, the hook

comes free and in a panic I just sort of push the fish out over the side into the water.

       It plops under. I look at the goo all over my hands and as I reach over the side to

wash it off, the baby sun fish floats back to the surface. And just floats there, its gaping

mouth twitching but its body still.

       My face in the water as I bend over is frozen in horror. I look up at Papa as he

reaches over and places a hand on my shoulder. My mouth trembles and I feel warm

tears building up around my eyes and before the first drop swells and falls the light

around Papa distorts and blurs. I hear a gull overhead cry and suddenly I’m terrified of

what that means. The air in my lungs is rushing through me hot and uncontrollably. I try

to speak but the words are clogged again. Papa wraps his arms around me and kisses me

on the top of my head. I can smell him and I just try to bury myself into that smell and

smother the sounds of my voice crying. I can hear the gull closer now as it smacks

against the water and another one cries close by. The air in my chest constricts and I

squeeze Papa tighter and tighter. He holds me firmly and kisses me again and rubs his

hands over my back and rocks me back and forth. And my cries are interrupted by

searing bursts of air rocking my body in fits and spurts. Papa whispers that it’s okay, that

everything’s okay. He says that these things happen, that sometimes the ones we catch

are just too little to survive the shock of being caught, that I did nothing wrong, that it is

alright, everything is alright, and he loves me.

          And I know now that the dream is broken. This never happened. There is no

memory of this because I never had that moment with Papa. I feel his arms wrapped

tightly around me and can hear him whispering words of comfort. And the smell is

everything I remember smelling about him: the smell of pine and lake and fish. The feel

of his cheek’s stubble against my short hair as he presses me close. But this didn’t


          I push away from Papa and look at him closely. I see my face again but this time

as reflected back in his eyes. No longer a child but he regards me the same, tender and

attentive. This time the bursting from my lungs are words. And this time, they flow



       He nods and gives me a half-smile. His mouth twitches and he turns away

slightly and for a moment. He’s crying too.

       “Papa, for real?”

       He smiles fully and there’s a note caught in his throat as he sniffles and his hands

squeeze my arms. And then the rush of words.

       “I missed you so much, Papa. I do. And I’m sorry. I really am so sorry. I didn’t

tell you goodbye and that I love you or try to make you feel better when you needed me.

And it’s just torn me apart and you have no idea how much I’ve needed you.”

       He pulls me forward and I start crying and talking into his chest.

       “I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. Okay? I don’t feel anything. Nothing,

Papa. Nothing I do is right. I’m mean to people. I say mean things to people who are

nice to me. Papa, I don’t know why. But I’m not a good person. I can’t take care of

myself and I don’t know why. I don’t know how to take care of myself and I know

there’s something wrong with me. There’s something broke inside me but I can’t fix it. I

want to be good but I do mean things to people who are good to me and there’s

something wrong inside me. Everything’s wrong. Look at me, Papa.”

       I push him away again.

       “Look at me!”

       I grab my short blond hair and pull it.


       I pinch the ever softening flabby muscles in my arm.

       “Look at me, Papa!”

        I jab my finger at my chest and a final hot tear builds up and falls down my cheek.

The words come out slower now and the emotion leaves my voice, as if there are no more

tears or feelings to show, as if I were empty.

        “Everything I’ve touched is crap. And I don’t know why. I’m a mess. Even if I

knew how to fix what’s wrong inside me, it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. Look what I’ve

done with myself. I’m not a good person. And that is that. I’m damaged. No one who

gets close enough to see what I really am is going to love me. I’m no good. I know you

remember a better kid, one that was easier to live with and love. But now I’m just…


        With that my whole body deflates and suddenly I’m spent. At this moment, with

my grandfather sitting in front of me on a little fishing boat in the middle of a lake, I no

longer care what he says to me. Whatever it is, however much he condemns me now, I’ll

deserve it.

        But Papa says nothing.

        For a long time we just sit there and he stares at me while I find other things to

look at. I know I told him to look at me, but now that he is I’m not sure I like it. And

still he sits there and looks into my face. I steal a glance at his deep brown eyes and I

know what he’s looking at. He’s reading into my face the years of my life. The ones that

went on without him. I begin to remember some not so flattering moments, moments I

lied, moments I shamed myself, and times I gave away things that meant something to

me. The times I made myself cheap. And it hurts to compare those moments with how

much Papa used to value me, how important he made me feel. So now I don’t know if I

want to know what he’s thinking. I wish I could cry again. At least that would be

something, some sign that at least I miss what I lost, that there’s some semblance of a

conscience inside. But I can’t cry. So I sit there silently and watch the sunlight drip and

melt away into the water. This isn’t a real day. But it is a real dream. And soon I know

it will be over.

         Papa looks down and I know his assessment is finished. He grabs my hands to

turn me towards him and pull me closer. He folds my hands over my lap, and pats them a

couple of times. I know it is meant to be reassuring but it only makes me dread even

more his condemnation. This is the very last thing I can lose, I think. I know he’s trying

to lighten the blow. I know he’s trying to think of words that might let me down a little

easier. Papa reaches up with one warm palm and cups my cheek. He holds it there for a

moment. Just say it. Kill me now. He strokes my cheek with his thumb and then pulls

me even closer to kiss me on the forehead. He looks deep into my eyes. I can see and

fall forever into those eyes. He smiles at me and I feel the wells behind my eyes fill



         Papa grins.

         “You can’t have ruined what’s still beautiful.”

         And when I wake up it’s still night. The drapes are breathing in irregular patterns

and my oscillating fan brushes the air past me. I smell the pine sol and the lingering

wafting odor of my neighbor’s fish fry outside. In the dark, when the air is shuffling

around my apartment, because I still feel him, I know I’m unalone. I am filled with

crying again and the tears and the wet warm love inside me knows no end and I want to

keep talking to Papa. I miss him so dearly now and I want to ask him. I want to know if

he’s coming back. Will I get to see him again? Does it work that way? Do we really get

to see everyone again? And I can’t quite make out the words but I hear the wind whisper

as it brushes up against the drapes when it sneaks inside.

       I want to know if he forgives me. I want to know what it is. What’s still


       You are, he whispers. You and that big fraidy cat heart.

       And I want to tell him I love him. And to thank him for coming back, and to

thank him for loving me, even still. I want to say he was the most important special and

amazing man I’ve ever met in my life. Even still. And I want to tell him not to worry,

that I’m ready.

       Papa, I’m really ready now.


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