Fiction by Ashley-Renée Cribbins
Dee moved into a duplex near our old elementary school. She used to say she’d rather eat glass than end up stuck in Cloverview, but I’m kind enough not to remind her as she takes me through the grand tour. The last time I made it back to visit, she was living by the highway on a month-to-month lease, flirting with escape. Now, she’s utterly settled. In the upstairs bedroom, she points out the window to a corner of grass, just visible above the roofline of neighboring houses.
“See? You can see the park from here.”
It’s a good neighborhood for kids, apparently.
The tour concludes with the backyard, where two lounge chairs straddle the line between manicured lawn and wild weeds. Dee promised me some time in the sun. She kicks off her flip-flops where the cement stoop meets the grass and waits for me to do likewise. She cuts a wide silhouette in her cut-off sweat pants and a t-shirt that is probably her husband’s, and she kind of waddles.
By next summer, she’ll have her babies: one boy for each of her arms. Two summers from now, they’ll be the ones running barefoot across the lawn.
Two summers from now, I think, my life will be exactly the same: another book under my belt, two if I’m lucky, but the same empty city apartment, the same sense of displacement that comes with days spent on planes and on the road.
I watch as Dee lowers herself into one of the lounge chairs and leans back in a moment of closed-eye satisfaction. “So, how long are you in town for this time?” she asks. “I feel like I never get to see you anymore.”
I plop down heavily in the chair beside her and flip my sunglasses down over my eyes. “‘Til the end of the month at least. I had a reading scheduled for next week in San Diego, but they canceled.”
“Aw, Liz! That’s the worst.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I’ve been traveling too much anyway.” Part of me feels like a sulky teenager who could complain about anything, even the obligations that come with success. Dee just nods understandingly. She will probably be a good mother.
I feel a twinge of guilt that it’s been so long since I’ve last seen her. We’d met at a bar downtown, where she’d drunk two screwdrivers and hopped up on stage for the worst karaoke rendition of “Rock The Casbah” I’d ever heard. I remember feeling envious of how tiny she looked in her halter dress. From where I’ve been standing, she might as well have become large and pregnant overnight.
I watch her scoot around in the chair until she’s comfortable, then lace her fingers atop her belly. She’ll sing badly to her children and they’ll laugh and love it.
And while I’m thinking about Dee being a mother, not my traveling, not my canceled reading, and certainly not my ex … that’s when she mentions the tabloid.
“I figured you’d already seen it,” she says hurriedly. “I just thought, you know … in case you hadn’t?”
This is Dee-logic, and I remember, irritably, why I might have put off visiting her.
* * *
Of course I’ve seen the tabloid. I’ve seen it so many times that I can see those photos and that bold, mocking typeface on the backs of my eyelids. At least it’s a good photo of you, my brother said when he called to tell me about it. The photo is the size of a Saltine and cuts off the top of my head. But I suppose it isn’t hideous. I’m sure they picked it because the way I am raising my arm mirrors the way that Tommy is holding his above his guitar in the adjoining, much larger photograph.
There are pink circles around our tattoos.
Under our names, the copy reads: Tommy Pax and his pop-novelist ex still sport matching inked branches on their forearms. Though they’ve been separated for six years, Pax revealed in a recent interview they never finished divorce proceedings.
My agent said, I think the worst part is that they called you a pop novelist.
I think she was trying to make me feel better.
Dee is trying the same thing when she says, “Well, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?”
As recently as two years ago, the tabloid’s obvious confirmation that, despite my efforts, I’m still living in Tommy’s shadow would have made me spitting mad. But that anger has faded, the way most things do given enough time. Today, I find myself agreeing with her.
“They must have not known,” she says, “that when you put the tattoos together, the branches form two hearts. Otherwise, I’m sure they would have printed it.”
I close my eyes and try to act carefree, settling back in my lounge chair. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care what they think they know.”
What they can’t know, what no one knows – not even Dee – is that by the time I got those branches inked into my arm, I already knew my relationship with Tommy was over. We were still living in the same house, still sleeping in the same bed, but I would lie awake at night, watching him, and trying to dig inside myself for a trickle of the feelings that once overflowed my body and made me say I love you so many times it embarrassed me. At the breakfast table, I could see my own guilt and emptiness reflected in his face. He must have known what was coming too, when we found the tattoo designs we’d doodled on cocktail napkins tucked away in an old folder and decided to go through with it. We’d talked about getting them when we first got married but, as with so many other things, hadn’t made the time.
I’d let everyone believe the tattoos were a last-ditch effort to save our relationship, but that wasn’t true. In the end, I’d just wanted something permanent.
Have you thought about getting it removed? my agent asked me, and I had tucked my arm back under the desk.
My father begged me not to get something so large, not in someplace so obvious; he’d always been liberal, but he still believed the kind of tattoos that peeked out of shirtsleeves spelled no future, would negate the college degree he had made sure I received. I didn’t listen to him. Tommy and I didn’t think those rules applied to us and though time had proved us right, it didn’t feel like much of a victory.
I wish my father had told me instead, You’ll be making your business public.
* * *
“Hey, Liz?” Dee says. When I look over she is propped up on her elbow, eyeing me strangely.
“What?” I ask.
“Why didn’t I know you weren’t officially divorced?”
Dee’s face is passive as she waits for an answer, but there’s a crease between her eyebrows that doesn’t go away. Her cheeks are round with pregnancy, but in the unforgiving sunlight, the little lines around her eyes and mouth are making themselves known. I always thought she looked young for her age, but maybe not anymore. Or maybe I’m just looking for something mean to think, punishment for asking me something I don’t want to answer.
I close my eyes behind my sunglasses. “Let’s just enjoy the sun,” I say.
This is her cue to shut up. She does.
* * *
In Dee’s backyard in my old hometown, I am suddenly struck with this memory of Tommy, of a moment on our road-trip honeymoon.
We were at a rest stop. It’s the sun on my face I remember most, the bright red of my closed eyelids as I laid back on the picnic table. My bare feet rested on either side of Tommy, who was sitting on the bench, tickling the inside of my calf. Twenty-three-year-old Tommy. Tommy before he changed his name.
I wasn’t wearing underwear under my skirt, a habit I’d picked up in college. I was feeling a little bit sexy. Tommy’s cool fingers made their way to my knee. He was talking about what he wanted for lunch, how we needed to find the next IHOP or Denny’s or greasy-spoon equivalent because he did not want to have to choose between pancakes and fried chicken strips if he could have both. I remember that it was funny when he said chicken strips, though not exactly why.
From my position on the table, all I could see was the sky and the branches of the trees overhead. I could hear the sounds of the freeway, but surprisingly distant, car engines blending with the wind. I told him it felt like the undiscovered West, like we were pioneers, and didn’t even feel childish saying it.
Tommy stuck his head under my skirt and pulled my knees apart. I’m not sure why I let him, but I did.
We were the only two people at the rest stop.
I had disappeared so far into the feeling of Tommy’s mouth on me that I didn’t hear the car pulling up until it was parked right in front of us. When I jerked up and pushed Tommy away, I found myself staring into the shocked faces of an elderly couple through the windshield of their white Volvo. Tommy looked up too, and while I was horrified, he started laughing. He waved to them.
And like that, I was laughing too. He grabbed my hand and dragged me up off the table and towards the car. We laughed because we were embarrassed, but we knew it didn’t matter. We could have been anyone, any young careless couple. Nobody would think to take our picture or hold us up to public scrutiny. At that moment, we were just silly honeymooners.
* * *
On my way back from Dee’s, I drive a few blocks out of my way to pass by our old elementary school, abandoned to summer vacation. They’ve replaced the old wood and metal play structure with one that looks like it belongs at a McDonald’s, but the building itself looks unchanged. Its south wall still boasts the brightly painted mural I remember, with its pink clouds and smiling sun.
I slow to a stop just past the building, in front of the old climbing tree that marks the edge of the campus. This tree is over a hundred years old; I remember being told so repeatedly, by the yard teachers who blew their whistles and chased us away from it, as if that was a reason not to climb it. It’s had more time than I will ever have to grow its branches wide and strong. I know it would support me even now, if I were to grab a limb and hoist myself up into its cradle, as I sometimes do in my dreams. I know the place above those low limbs where the widest branch splits like shyly spreading legs: a narrow V I would lean my childhood body into, holding myself high above the yard until my arms grew tired. I’ve inked its shape into my skin, I can see it when I close my eyes, but looking at the tree now, I no longer know where to find it. Do trees rearrange their branches as they grow, changing the shapes of their pasts?
I trace a finger over the lines of my tattoo, permanent and unmovable. The map of where I’ve been, the story I can’t rewrite. Dee asked why I didn’t tell her I’d never signed those papers. But how could she understand that I’m the one who’s stuck, still hanging on, too stubborn to admit I’ve forgotten how to climb down?