*Image: “What Isn’t the Home of God(dog)?” by Alexandria Heather, 44×30, mixed media
By Florence Sunnen
I wake up to the phone ringing, and the sun wedges itself between my lids. I peel my cheek off the notebook page I fell asleep on. The ringing comes from underneath a pile of clothes. The light is deep; it is the afternoon. I dig around for the phone and answer.
On the other end, Laura’s voice is rough. “I hate when you do that,” she says.
I lean back against cool plastic. My chair catches my back in a cheap and wobbly way. “Do what?” I close my notebook with my left hand and check the small mirror on my desk. There are small marks, probably ink, on my cheek.
“Answer the phone like that. I could be talking to anyone.”
I grind the heel of my hand into my eye, rubbing the sleep from it. “Don’t be stupid.” My eye makes smacking sounds. “Can you hear that?” I ask.
“What?” Her voice is impatient.
“Nothing,” I say. “What’s up?”
“I need to get out of here,” she says. “I need a walk.”
Laura rings the doorbell with her bike between her legs. My parents are out, so I don’t have to tell anyone where I’m going. Because I don’t have a bike, I walk while Laura cycles next to me so slowly she almost falls over a couple of times. We both cuss at the cars passing us by at great speed, and when we start going uphill, Laura walks alongside the bike, holding the saddle.
Our hair is the same colour: dark auburn. In school, people used to think we were related, which was what first drew our attention to one another. After a few years, we started talking. We went for walks, listened to the same music, became close. People said, “They’re cousins, right?” In the afternoon light, our hair turns red, and because Laura has a sense of the dramatic, she decides we should make use of this. We start practising our school presentations in the afternoon, close to the window. After school, we usually go to her house and pretend to do homework. On her computer, we look up beer commercials and make fun of how happy the people in them are.
“I guess beer makes you attractive,” Laura says.
“And it makes everyone love you and your jokes never bomb,” I add.
“And it will never make you old or fat or sad.”
Laura’s father is a concert violinist. He used to know every musician and artist in town. When Laura was younger, their house buzzed with people every other night, people holding drinks and shouting lines from songs at each other, gossiping. Things are different now. Her parents don’t have guests over anymore, but their bins still rattle with empty bottles when the garbage men pick them up.
In the evenings, Laura’s father comes in from practice, and we hear him make his way to the living room in the dark. Laura’s mother works the night shift, so they keep the house dim and quiet in the afternoons and evenings while she sleeps. Laura goes downstairs to greet her father and they talk for a while. Their voices are hushed, and only occasionally some of their words drift upwards to where I can hear them. I try to stay in Laura’s room, looking at something on the screen, but sometimes I head out into the upper hallway and peek through the railing. From there, I can see into the dark living room where he is watching TV with the sound off, the box with his violin leaning against the armchair, his slumped figure flickering in the blue light. Underneath his bare feet, the carpet is balding. Laura sits on the armrest, saying words that sound like school, and tired, and dinner. Laura’s hair is almost black, almost blue.
Laura drops her bike in the grass and we sit on a couple of rocks. She takes off her shoes and rubs her bare feet against the grass. She closes her eyes against the light and rests her chin on her knee. I keep an eye on her bike because I know she won’t.
“I’m going overseas next year,” she tells me. She puts a hand over her eyebrows, as if the sun was increasing in brightness.
“University,” she says.
We’ve been having this conversation on and off during the past months, and now she has decided.
“Can’t you stay?” I ask. I know it’s not a real question. So does Laura.
“I could, but why would I?”
“Money,” I say.
She has been scratching a bug bite on her thigh, and her skin starts glowing pink under her nail.
“The most expensive thing is getting there. Travel costs. It’s not exactly a train ride. But after that, it’s just like living anywhere else.”
“So why leave?”
Laura doesn’t say anything but is suddenly very interested in her bug bite.
“Aren’t you scared your plane will crash?”
The skin on her knee is bright red. I know she isn’t thinking about anything I have to say.
“No,” she says finally.
Eight months later, she books an early morning flight and asks her parents to drive her to the airport. Her mother is the sort of person who will hug her and cry in front of everyone, and Laura will pull away from her with a dark heat in her cheeks.
I don’t go to the airport with them; the night before she leaves, we hang out in her bedroom. Her bags are packed, out in the hallway, and she has her tickets and passport. We sit on the floor with a garbage bag between us and inspect her bedroom for things she doesn’t want her mother to find.
“She goes through my stuff when I’m out,” Laura says, “and she’s not subtle about it, either.”
“She wants you to know she’s watching,” I suggest.
Laura takes condoms and lube out of her night stand. Then a packet of cigarettes and a small vibrating bullet. She throws the cigarettes into the garbage bag, shoves everything else into her backpack. “I can’t wait,” she says. The flight is in less than twelve hours. The last drawer in her desk is locked. We look around for the keys but can’t find them.
“Well, if it’s locked she can’t get into it either, right?”
“It’ll only make her try harder,” Laura says.
“She’s like a guard dog,” I say, making Laura laugh.
I find a pair of scissors and hand it to her. Laura shoves the scissors into the cheap lock and pushes and twists until the lever on the other side slides away.
“That would’ve been no problem for her,” Laura says.
I think about her mother, with her tired nurse face. “I’m not sure she’s that crazy.”
Laura pulls a stack of diaries from the drawer and starts flipping through them. Among them is a small purple notebook she’s had for years and in which she used to write short entries on guys she’s slept with.
When we were fifteen and I was still a virgin, she let me read a few pages while she was finishing her homework. I lost my virginity about six months after Laura did. “The first time isn’t supposed to last very long,” she said. “If you start feeling self-conscious, suck your belly in as tight as you can.” So I lay underneath a boy, my skin sticky against his, in his attic bedroom on a hot day with my stomach pulled in as tightly as I could. I felt the pressure of his chest and the room against my ribcage. When I told Laura, she nodded and smiled. “Did you have pizza afterwards?” I asked if that was a requirement. She said, “No, but it’s a nice thing to do.” I thought about the boy’s face, how distracted he had seemed. I wondered if anyone had ever seemed distracted with Laura, but I didn’t ask.
Laura shoves her notebooks into the backpack and looks through the bottom drawer again before closing it. “Last night in this dump,” she says.
“What about Christmas?”
She closes her backpack and puts it near the door. She runs her hand through her hair. Sighs. “Guess I’ll have to.”
Dinners with Laura’s family are rare, and usually quiet. On the nights her mother is working, her father eats by himself in front of the TV and Laura takes snacks up to her room. Tonight, all of our bodies are arranged around the dinner table: it is covered in food, the ceiling lights reflected in its polished surface, as if the room is blinded by its own ability to bear light. Our food is arranged on white plates over which Laura and I are bent. Laura’s mother smiles at me, passes a bowl of potatoes that have the texture of glue. From the radio pours a whole orchestra, then later a lone clarinet. Laura’s father sits with his napkin flung over his shoulder like a barman, digging at the meat.
Next to me, Laura wraps her ankles around the legs of her chair. The cuffs of her shorts are cutting into her thighs. I’m wearing a sweater and shivering; even the warm food can’t help me. On the skin of Laura’s legs there is no visible evidence of the cold. For months Laura has been complaining that she doesn’t belong here, but every part of her seems to fit; she wants to escape, and yet she belongs in this house that’s always too cold, too dark, too quiet. Laura with her hair that’s red only in the light of day. She fluffs it to make it seem wild, but after a while the hair smooths back down to its natural state, crushing her attempt at rebellion with its tameness. And Laura fluffs it up again, scratching her scalp with both hands, shaking her hair as if to shake it free of something fundamental.
“Done packing?” her father wants to know. Laura chews, nodding. Her mother reaches out and touches Laura’s cheek with her hand–a small caress–leaving it there. Very softly, like a slap underwater. Laura pulls away, leaving her mother’s hand floating in the air for a moment before it retreats and returns to the table without a sound.
“Well,” her mother says, “you’ll meet so many people, and learn so much.” The small smile she always has. “And we could come visit you for Christmas, if you’re too busy to come home.”
Laura doesn’t respond or look up from her food. Her mother turns to me, the smile still on her face. “Would you like more peas? More sauce? Are you sure? Water?”
I shake my head over and over; I say thank you, making it sound as gentle, as grateful, as I can.
“You don’t eat much,” Laura’s father says, still looking at his plate. Laura looks up at me. We can’t tell who he’s talking to. The clarinet is clinging to a note in a way that feels embarrassing.
Her mother, still smiling, asks me, “Are you going to miss Laura?”
Laura grunts. “Oh God.”
“I’m asking. Isn’t that a normal question to ask?” Her mother turns to her father, who shrugs and reaches for the bowl of potatoes.
“I will miss her,” I say.
Laura lets out a laugh, high-pitched, then a small gurgle at the back of her throat. “That’s great,” she says.
Laura has to go to bed early that night, and we hug goodbye at the front door. The house is dark and I hear her mother washing up in the kitchen. She has taken the night off from work, but Laura didn’t eat much of the dinner she made and has barely spoken to her. Laura’s hug is tight, and I can feel her stomach gurgling against mine. “I’ll eat on the plane,” she says.
Her father is snoring upstairs.
“I’ll send you postcards.” One of her hairs, or perhaps one of mine, crawls up my nose.
Laura is taller than me, and skinnier. She is wearing yellow bunny slippers on her feet. You wouldn’t be able to tell she is about to leave for a new life somewhere else, somewhere that requires a plane to get to.
“Okay,” I say.
“And I’ll tell you if I meet anyone cute,” she promises.
Eventually, Laura lets go because she needs to go to bed. I pull the front door shut behind me. A moment later, Laura’s mother comes running after me, offering to drive me home. I say no, and thank you. She lingers in front of the house a while, watching me walk away. I wave a few times, worried she will feel abandoned if I don’t.
The next year Laura’s father is hospitalised for organ failure. They put him on a list and find him a donor. One morning I get a call from Laura, telling me she’s in town. On the phone, I ask about her family without mentioning her father; I assume she understands.
“They’re fine,” she says. “I don’t really know.” The words come slowly from her mouth, but then her tone changes. She begins to plan for the future: she wants to have coffee. I say, “Whatever you want, I’m here for you.”
Laura laughs. “I’m a lucky girl.”
We meet at a café, which isn’t something we used to do. Our friendship has always taken place outdoors, or in her parents’ house. Cafés used to be places where people met to talk about nothing. That’s what Laura said. Now, the morning is sunny, but we sit indoors, our cups clanking as we set them down against the marble. We hunch, with our fingers pressed around the cups like freezing women despite the shining sun. Some of the people passing by are wearing shorts, and on Laura’s upper lip sits a little veil of sweat.
She doesn’t talk about her father, but about her life overseas.
“It’s hard to explain,” she says, and her cheeks light up pink under her tired features. “It’s different in so many ways.”
I nod. I try to look envious because I know she wants me to. But my eyes find it hard to remain on Laura’s surface; they melt right through her, as if ice had turned to jelly. Her clothes haven’t changed much, except she wears shirts now, and heels. She used to look strange in shirts, like a child in uniform, but now she wears them with ease, as though she’s never worn anything else. Out of her comes a stream of words, nervous and flickering with the safe, reassuring past: references to our school friends, to teachers she wants to see, places we used to go. But sometimes there is a silence like a pothole that leaves us sitting there, dizzy with a shooting discomfort in the neck. The coffee drains from the cups as if the solid world had become porous.
Laura cocks her head to the side to stretch her neck. She closes her eyes tighter than seems reasonable in a public place. I apologise for being distracted.
“Don’t worry about it,” Laura says.
The whites of her eyes are red when she opens them. Outside, a pneumatic drill is tearing the road apart. Laura looks smart and grown-up, glowing with exhaustion. I rub my ankles together; they are safely wrapped in the same boots I started wearing two years ago, when Laura first told me she was going to be an engineer, when we both knew her home would soon be somewhere else, and when I started feeling unsafe in the world.
Laura says, “It was so good to see you. Sorry I haven’t called much.”
I scrape some of the polish off my fingernails. I get up to pay for our coffees and when I return to the table, Laura is standing with her jacket slung over her arm. We hug, and for a moment I feel her clinging to me, her fingers digging, the whole weight of her body hanging as if limp from mine.
Then her phone rings; it’s her mother calling in tears, where is she and why isn’t she home? Something like rage crosses Laura’s face, before she smiles, uncrumpling the corners of her eyes as if putting knives back into their drawer.
She promises to call. “I will,” she says.
As she swings around the corner she allows her shoulder to graze the wall. I stand in the warmth of the sun and watch the corner for a while. It looks empty and clean, as if Laura had never passed in front of it. A few of the sun’s rays fall into my eyes, and I squint the street and Laura away.