Jessica Hollander

THE GOOD GUY INTERLUDE

I found this article in The Daily Tar Heel about how to live longer, the small things you can do. I showed it to Sid. “We should try to live as long as possible,” I told him.

“Agreed,” he said, and we began running together some evenings. Although it wasn’t really running. We tried the shock-treatment method: sprint like mad down the street and then stop completely, lean over our knees for awhile, gasping for breath. In this way we could have many competitions, many winners and losers.

One night we sprinted the last block to his apartment, gasping, pounding on the pavement, and we saw this big woman with a mass of thin blonde braids sitting on the steps. She stood when we got close. She started screaming for Sid to run faster: “Come on! You can beat her!”

It was distracting. It wasn’t really fair.

When I caught up with Sid, he stood panting next to the woman. Between breaths he introduced her as his mother. He called her “Abby.” She only half-glanced at me. She smiled vaguely.

“Your girl looks about ten,” she told Sid.

“Oh, I am in some ways,” I said. “I guess the skin regenerates. I bet the ends of my hair are even younger.”

She kept looking at Sid.

“It’s the skinnyness,” he said.

“It’s my girlish charm.”

I wanted this woman to go away. This was my night with Sid: we’d developed an unspoken routine, to avoid the awkwardness of me showing up the same time as another girl, and I didn’t want to share him tonight. I wanted to sit down on the cement together and stretch awhile.

“Things didn’t work out,” Abby told Sid. “I should quit thinking they might. I should see my life as some fabulous ride with a few stops in the middle.”

“Exactly,” Sid said, grinning at his mother and then at me. “Life and its fabulous interludes.”

----

For most of May, I avoided going to my mother’s. Something repulsed me about her new place with all our old furniture, like the insides were the same but the skin had changed, and there were all these white walls, white carpets, and tall ceilings: an altar containing the death of our old lives. I didn’t lie about it. I told her the place was creepy and sad, and she wanted to know why I didn’t feel that way about my father’s new place.

“It’s not really his,” I told her. “That way I can hate it. I’d rather hate things than feel sad about them.” We were in the midst of our fast walk around Duke’s campus, surrounded by thick trees and blue-gray buildings, sharp with spikes and spires. With her new house, I was spending more time in Durham. Everything with my parents had been divided, territories by association: where they lived and worked, where they’d gone to school. I liked the neatness of the divide, the avoidance of awkward collisions.

“I’ll throw everything away,” Mom said. “We’ll buy new things.”

“They’ll feel like replacements. Stand-ins.” We crossed the street into the gardens, and I could feel her struggling, dropping behind. I’d become obsessed with exercise, with living.

“It’s just furniture,” Mom gasped. “It’s just a house.”

“Like I’m just me,” I said. “You’re just you. I can’t be scientific with weight distribution. Some things just feel heavier than others.”

----

My best friend Jenna was distracted all the time trying to get a real-deal education. So when I didn’t stay with Sid, I stayed with my father and his “roommate” Rebecca, who we still called his roommate, even though it was obvious to all of us they were squirming together beneath the covers. They emerged at exactly the same time each morning and conferenced in the hallway about who would get the bathroom first; except their voices, lately, were louder. They fought over the bathroom. Once they decided, I planned accordingly. I went downstairs when I knew Dad was in the kitchen, and we had breakfast together.

“Do you notice,” he asked me one morning, “her gobs of hair in the shower?”

Rebecca had long, flowing Goddess hair, and she wore it down lately, made it all fluffy.

“You could ask her to chop it off,” I said. We were eating cereal; we overloaded our spoons like ravenous animals and let milk dribble from our chins. We had regressed to being like children together; we were friends: five-year-old boys.

“Well, there’s picking it up,” he said. “That’s a possibility.”

“Humans are capable of that,” I agreed.

He had a bored look when she came into the room: sweet-smelling Rebecca, her hair blow-dried and curled, her face bright. Dad hardly said anything, just frowned at the table like he’d been given the worst toy of the season, while Rebecca went around, picking up our dishes, making sandwiches for our lunches, smiling, smiling, smiling.

It was funny, in a way. I enjoyed it.

----

Knowing enough people, Sid managed to work very little: helping neighbors with odd jobs, moving things, gardening, chauffeuring old folks around town. He socked away his money, most of it going to weed and weak beer, living cheap in Carrboro on a block lined with peeling porches and people in large floppy clothing sharing fast food and drinking from the same bottles. Sid spent his days at the Carrboro Co-op, playing Frisbee with the other unemployed hippie-types, and sometimes I met him for lunch. The bank where I worked was right on the divide – Carrboro on one side, Chapel Hill on the other. When he saw me, he’d do some crazy turn or dip with the Frisbee, and usually he’d fall. He came over to me dusty and smiling.

That evening I went to Sid’s and found him and his mother smoking pot in the living room.

“We’re glad you’re here,” Abby said, and then loudly to Sid: “Which one is she?”

Sid wouldn’t look at me. “Raimy.”

“The only one I ever remember is Claudia. She used to come over and help in the garden after school. Do you garden?” Abby asked me.

“I planted a packet of herbs before. When I was five. It didn’t grow or anything.”

“Raimy’s a banker,” Sid said.

“When I see a bank, I cross to the other side of the street.”

“I guess banks are necessary for society,” I said.

“I prefer to live outside of it,” she said. “I assume you’re not happy about this.” She held up the joint. “Being pro-society.”

“I’m just trying to stay healthy.” I looked at Sid. “I’d like to go for a run.”

They were sitting on the couch and nobody offered me a seat. I stood watching them, Abby working the joint while Sid shifted around.

“Mom’s staying for dinner,” Sid said.

“That’s great.” I went to his bedroom to change.

Later, I hesitated by the door, reluctant about his neighborhood at night.

“Just run toward Chapel Hill,” Sid called.

“I hate going to Chapel Hill,” his mother said.

----

As undergraduates, Mom had attended Duke, Dad UNC, so it was really a divided household from the beginning. My parents in separate rooms with separate televisions, and no one allowed to “corrupt” the other’s television by watching the wrong basketball team.

Nights the teams played each other, I ran from room to room, switching sides as I went. Until the Tar Heels were losing. Then, Dad patted the cushion beside him. “It’s not looking good for the good guys.”

He always won me over with his willingness to turn the game into an epic battle, a struggle against evil. Against “the Devils,” he pointed out. I wanted to be one of the good guys. I wanted to be on his team, but only when he was losing.

All May, I went to his place. I sat in the living room with him, played cards, rolled my eyes at Rebecca. Then one night I arrived and found Rebecca alone in the dark, picking up socks. Her hair hung in her face; she kept swiping it. The place was quiet and hollow-feeling, like the rooms above us had been scooped out and put somewhere else.

“I don’t understand the sweaty sock balls,” she said when she saw me. She lifted a scrunched black sock off the floor and held it between her fingers. They were like grenades, scattered around. “He comes in and throws them on the ground.” She stood up in the shadows. “He’s not here you know. I don’t know where he is.”

Abby was at Sid’s constantly; she stayed late into the night. She told me and Sid about her boyfriend moving out, completely unexpected: one day they were laughing, and the next she came home from the grocery and his stuff was all gone, her clothes and things strewn around the floor. It was a sad story. You could tell she felt sorry for herself. Sid called him an asshole, and then none of us said anything for awhile.

Finally Abby stood and said it was time to go. It was the first time she’d left without prodding.

Later, in bed, Sid had his arms around me and I was nearly asleep when he started shaking. My shoulder got wet. I should’ve enjoyed it. His happiness was what annoyed me most about him.

“I’m glad she’s back,” he said. “I hate that I’m glad.”

“You can’t help it.” I turned around and looked at him. “Even when you cry you smile.”

“But it’s a sad smile,” he said. “I haven’t seen her in months.”

“I guess she’s lonely,” I said.

“I don’t have a cure for that,” he said, hugging me. It was suffocating. I was just something to squeeze.

----

My mother suddenly had a lot of energy. She walked fast around Duke’s campus, her shoulders straight, her chin up. I had trouble staying beside her. I’d lost some motivation. The article on exercise promised stimulation, endorphins popping off in the brain, a pleasant ache of muscles, a feeling of improvement. But it wasn’t happening fast enough.

There were no signs I’d be living any longer than normal.

In the gardens, we saw a squirrel climb into a Styrofoam cup, and Mom opened her mouth wide and laughed.

“I woke up today and realized everything’s hilarious,” she said. “Every aspect of the world, if you think about it. My clothes, for example.” She pinched the middle of her shirt and lifted it in front of her. “Pink! How ridiculous is that?”

“I never liked color,” I said.

“Black’s hilarious too,” she told me. “You’re so moody all the time. Dark, dark Raimy. Raimy hates the world.” She laughed. “You see what I mean?”

It went on like this. The whole month of May, the mothers won. And we let them. They were unstoppable.

Jessica Hollander recently received her MFA from the University of Alabama. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Big Lucks, the Cincinnati Review, the Journal, PANK, Web Conjunctions, and West Branch, among others.
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