One month before the end of Henry’s freshman year at Rutgers, his dad Logan called him with a job offer.
“Henry?” his father said, his name ending on a question mark, as if he doubted who was really on the other line. “I’ve got a proposition for you, son.” Since Logan had moved out, he had taken to calling Henry names like ‘sport’ and ‘son,’ almost as if by asserting who he was speaking to, it would make up for the fact that their once-tight familial unit had recently been broken.
It was a Sunday, late April. Henry was only home at his mother’s because she needed him to sort through his stuff. He had been putting off going through the teenage years of detritus for months. Now, phone in hand, he lay out on his old twin bed, the cord uncurling and stretching across his tall, thin frame. A poster of Cindy Crawford lazing around in an impossibly short white tennis skirt stared back at him from the facing wall. The room reeked of old socks and a faint stench of cat litter. It had only been six months since the separation but the house had finally been placed on the market. His mother planned to move into a one-bedroom apartment nearly forty minutes away, with only a pullout couch for Henry. Most of Henry’s things—including the faded poster from nearly three years ago—would have to be thrown away.
“What sort of proposition?” he asked.
“It’s about your summer plans. Going to get you out of your mom’s house while we can. It’ll do you some good to add some responsibility to your plate,” Logan added.
“I’ve got plans already.” Henry hadn’t yet mentioned his summer proposal of returning to his job as assistant manager at the hospital laundromat. In terms of responsibility, when not dumping sheets in the washers and running the dryers on high, Henry planned on smoking as much weed as possible, then renting every single Turner Classic film, beginning with “Rosebud.” Responsibility could suck his dick. He just had to get through the summer, his mother’s melodramatic phone calls and his father’s passive-aggressive bullshit, before returning to the dorms and his screenwriting classes. He knew that Logan, a tenured and extremely beloved history professor who was all the more popular these days among his fellow female classmates, didn’t care much for the movies, let alone anything else besides whatever latest grad student seemed to be occupying his bed. The job offer must have been some sort of peace offering.
“I’ve pulled a few strings with the vice president,” Logan explained. “She leaves for England each year, you know, goes back to her native land.”
“Is that right?” Henry didn’t care about what his father had to say, about the vice president or whatever ‘fatherly’ idea had just popped into his head. Through his open bedroom door, he could hear his mother in the kitchen, blending something in her new blender. The fridge was stocked with broccoli, kale, a cornucopia of garden vegetables. His mother, as far as he could tell, had given up on eating solids. He tuned out his father for a brief second, scratched his bare knee, and began to daydream about what he would order from the Thai Spot for dinner.
“… And she usually goes with an incoming senior, someone in government, but I told her it would be a real help to me if she could make an exception just this one time.”
Logan could make a brick wall blush, Henry thought to himself. He was that much of a flirt.
“It’s free,” he added, dangling the offer as both a sentence and a trophy. “Plus there’s a small, weekly stipend.”
Henry didn’t have to hear much more after that.
* * *
The following month, Henry discovered that the Blackburn house wasn’t just massive: it was the biggest on its block. Amenities included a two-car garage, a pool, even a small basketball court tucked neatly away in the right corner of the backyard. Henry unlocked the front door, momentarily forgetting about the alarm system. He stumbled over catalogs and junk mail already fanned out at his feet. He screwed up with the code on his first try, typing a seven instead of an eight, so that he was forced to type in the programmed three numbers all over again. By the time the shrill beeping had stopped, Henry expected the police to roll up, guns drawn. But the house was still, with only the sound of an air conditioner gurgling on low somewhere in the distance.
He walked straight into the den, glancing at multiple framed prints of enlarged seashells, their blown-up inner whorls momentarily hypnotizing. Framed posters advertised nautical photography shows in New York City. More actual seashells cluttered the baseboards. A fat calico Henry had been warned about strutted past, ignoring Henry. He continued to explore, browsing through the downstairs bathroom paneled with peach-colored Mexican tiles (nothing of interest in the medicine cabinet but Neosporin, band-aids and a toothbrush still in its plastic wrapper), sniffed at the expensive looking potpourri placed out on a side table (smelling like apples mixed with, oddly enough, Hawaiian Tropical Suntan Lotion). He took his time opening and closing cupboards throughout the kitchen, peering at the non-perishable items (Kraft macaroni and cheese, jars of marinara sauce). Henry ignored the note card propped up against the empty glass fruit bowl with what looked like even more instructions written out for him.
He made his way past the sunroom, crept past the darkened library.
The vice president had prepared for him, Henry could see. He kept searching for something to lord over his friends later, a cache of S&M magazines maybe or a lesbian three-way cassette tape buried among the multiple documentaries she had on hand. The most he could scrounge up was an expired pill bottle in the master bathroom’s middle drawer: seven Percocets loosely rattling around the bottom.
He pocketed one, and continued his tour.
* * *
That night, at a party, there were no girls to talk to. He didn’t know the girl who was throwing the party, but it didn’t ever seem to matter. The setting never changed, just the scenery: someone’s house, or apartment, or townhouse evacuated for the weekend by their parents. The props remained the same: a pony keg set up in a melting wading pool of ice, plastic half-empty liter bottles of Coke and Stoli on a side table, a bag of Doritos emptied out into a neon-colored plastic bowl. There was always a joint to hit, an Adderall to crush and snort in bathrooms whose floors were almost always streaked with mud and torn tampon wrappers. Inevitably, someone would throw up, someone would make out in a corner.
Minutes before his arrival, Henry had popped half the expired Percocet. He now chased it with a skunky sip from his red Solo cup. He had lost his friend Dan somewhere between the entrance and the keg stand. Henry began to wander throughout the host’s backyard, half-heartedly searching for someone to talk to, the Percocet—as he suspected—kicking in on mute, making the party drag on in trails behind him. The cover band Tequila Mockingbird was terrible, riffing on obnoxious accordion-accompanied versions of songs like “Under the Bridge”. Henry could see that he had gotten there too late. Girls had already begun to pair off with other guys they had come with or were too drunk for him to make any sort of progress with. He stared at them in a fog as they guzzled vodka-mixed drinks in water bottles. At one point, Henry thought he saw the girl from his Intro to Screenwriting class—Suzanne—all clavicle and cowboy boots worn year-round.
“What’s your poison?” he heard.
Henry turned to the girl asking the question. She was thin—thinner than most of the girls he liked—with one strap of her white dress dangling down her pale shoulder. Her hair was thick, wavy, dirty blonde framing her face in layers then stringing itself down her front, tickling the tops of her tits. She had acne on her chin but the rest of her face was as opaque as milk. She wore weird shoes: orthopedic sneakers with thick rubber soles that were black with thick white lace-ups. They looked new, immaculately clean, and didn’t go with her thin, cotton sundress. He couldn’t tell if the shoes were ironic or a medical necessity. He couldn’t tell if her whole outfit was shtick to begin with.
He tilted the beer cup in her direction, foam dangerously close to cascading over the side, as if he were toasting her. “Bud Light. It’s all they’ve got.”
She wrinkled her nose and leaned in. She was much shorter than Henry, maybe a good six or seven inches, so she tilted herself in, then up on tiptoe, her breath hot against his ear.
“No,” she softly whispered, “I can tell you’re on something much stronger than that.” Her hand first touched his elbow, then the side of his jeans, right above his hip. She was a close talker. Her wild hair smelled like oranges.
“What’s your poison?” she repeated, than rocked back down and on her heels, grinning up at him.
It took Henry thirty seconds before he realized she could tell that he was rolling on something much harder than the watery beer. He withdrew the other half of the Percocet from his jean pocket, and flashed it to her in a friendly gesture.
“Ah…” she replied, and snatched it from his hand, even though he hadn’t offered it to her. She examined the chalky white tablet.
“Percocet, right? Either that or Vicodin… All those pain killers look the same to me.”
She then popped the pill into her mouth, followed by taking his beer cup away from his hand and swigging from it as well. Normally, Henry would have been bothered by her casually just taking what was his, but the buzz was coming on strong now, and he was struggling with the right words to use in protest.
“Hey…” he half-heartedly said.
“Hey yourself.” She had drunk nearly half of his beer in one swallow. “I’m Caroline. Thanks for the goods.”
“You’re welcome, ” he said.
“Oh. Henry. I’m Henry.”
The microphone screeched feedback into the static night; the crowd reflectively booed their annoyance. Someone near the back of the house yelled, “Get off the stage, dickweed!” but the guitarist only strummed an E chord in response, before launching into “Janey’s Got A Gun.” Some girl screamed, “Oh my God, I love this song,” and Henry watched out of the corner of his eye as a flock of girls rushed and preened near the makeshift stage. Besides him, the girl—Caroline—kept talking, unaware that he was only paying half-attention. Beneath his right foot, Henry toed the muddy ground, tufts of cigarette butts and yellowed grass now mashed beneath his feet. The night smelled of Parliaments and vomit.
Henry politely listened to Caroline yammer on about pills and parties and people they may have both known through other people. While the Percocet had made his hands and tongue heavy, he noticed she was acting the opposite, as if on speed, her hands constantly parting the curtains of her hair. He stared over her head, absent-mindedly looking for a flash of cowboy boots in the crowd. It took him a beat to realize Suzanne had long since disappeared and that Caroline had suddenly stopped talking. Unprepared to call the night a loss, but not quite sure what next to do, Henry crumpled up his Solo cup. The sound of the plastic caving in on itself made the backs of his teeth hurt. Caroline stepped forward at that moment, and wrapped her long arms around his waist, then hung back, staring up at his face. He didn’t have time to think, to push her off or pull her forward, this strange, pretty girl as high as he was. So he did what only came natural and bent his own head down, mashing his mouth into hers, their tongues rolling around each other’s mouth like dogs wiping off stink in the park. His hand lightly stroked the strap down her arm. He felt goosebumps rise up in response.
She was the first to break the kiss.
“Where are you staying?” she asked, as if she somehow knew he had not headed home for the summer.
“The vice president’s house.” Henry didn’t know if this was some closely guarded secret he should have been keeping. He at least vaguely remembered he couldn’t have over any visitors but that admonition seemed like a distant country, far away from his current location. “I’m house-sitting there.” He felt the need to preface this then added, “my folks split so this seemed like a good enough place to spend the summer.”
He didn’t know why he had told her that.
“Faaaancy,” she replied, then—when he said nothing—politely added, “sucks about your folks.”
“Yeah, well…” Henry needed a beer. He needed his bed. He needed more of this girl’s mouth against his own.
“Can I see it?”
“See the house?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Can I?” The strap had been pushed up without his noticing, and her hair was now tucked behind her ears. Henry thought that her bra was too small, straining against her chest. It looked painful. It looked like she needed to take it off. In the darkness of the backyard, away from the porch lights, her acne suddenly didn’t look so bad.
“Sure,” he finally replied. “Why not?”
* * *
Caroline left while Henry was sleeping. He assumed as much would happen, her sneaking away when he had finally passed out somewhere between three and four in the morning. When he finally woke up, he was already running late. He had skipped his morning shower, thrown on the same jeans as the night before, smelling her on his fingers and in his hair. By the evening, though, her scent had shifted away from his skin and the whole night before seemed like a vague dream, one whose details escaped by the time his morning coffee began churning through his bloodstream.
It was only six, but Henry was starving. He opened the fridge, then the cupboard, trying to crib together some sort of cheese-meat snack before heading out for the night. As he glanced over the half-empty jar of Smuckers jelly, and the single servings of string cheese, he found himself turning over the details of the night before in his head. He had never done so much with one girl, let alone on the first night. Between sniffing at the mayonnaise, and cutting away mold growing on one of the remaining heels of white bread, he kept mentally turning over images of his fingers crammed inside Caroline’s mouth, her tongue probing his armpit. He felt himself grow slightly hard at the memory. How they had rinsed off together in the master shower, attempting to scrub off the stink of semen and whatever girl scent came from Caroline. How they had fallen back onto the sheets immediately after, hair still wet, trickles of water pooling in their belly buttons and inside their ears. Although she was only the third girl he had slept with, somehow it had felt like nothing he had ever done before. He didn’t know how she knew so much, nor did he actually want to know.
The doorbell rang, instantly killing his semi.
When Henry peered through the opaque glass window next to the solid oak door, sandwich still in hand, his T-shirt damp with the sweat of the job and the day, he was surprised to stare at the blurry outline of Caroline waiting on the porch’s front step.
“Hey,” he said, opening the door. “How are you? Did you forget something last night?” Caroline hadn’t left behind a number for Henry to call. He was genuinely surprised—and excited—to see her again.
In her right hand, Caroline held onto the red plastic drawstrings of three white garbage bags. She wore the same dress but looked more refreshed and put together than Henry knew he himself did.
“Hi,” she said. “Can I come in?”
Henry paused for a moment—the daylight and the sobriety scrubbing away at his previously clouded judgment. Blackburn’s oak-lined trees were quiet though, not even a dog-walker or car passed by.
“Sure,” he said, letting her pass ahead of him. He closed the door, turned the lock to the right. “What’s up?”
Caroline walked straight through the front entrance, past the den and into the kitchen. She had left her garbage bags in the front hall. Despite their stumbling and fumbling in the dark only hours before, it seemed to Henry like she easily knew her way around. Has she been here? he wondered to himself. Do I need to hide the fancy shit?
“I was in the neighborhood,” she said, as if it were normal to be traveling around with three garbage bags stuffed full of what Henry could only assume were clothes. “I thought I’d check to see if you wanted to go out and get a bite to eat.”
Henry held out his sandwich.
“That looks good. Do you mind if I make myself one?”
Henry couldn’t figure Caroline out. Once again, without waiting for a direct response, she opened the fridge, unwrapped the bread bag and extracted the other heel of the bread loaf that she quickly folded in half. She took out the mustard. She found lettuce that Henry had somehow missed. She took down a plate, popped open a soda can, even draped her lap with a paper napkin, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to walk into a stranger’s kitchen and make one’s self a snack.
“Where are you heading?” he asked, nodding his head to the back of the room, where the garbage bags lay slumped against each other.
She took a bite of her sandwich, chewed, swallowed.
“I’m not sure yet,” she finally replied. “I have a few options.”
“Do you have somewhere you need to be? Are you heading home?”
“Like I said before, I’ve got options.”
Henry struggled to remember what Caroline had told him about herself. The Percocet made the memory blurred at its edges so that only a few concrete details shone through clearly. He knew she liked pills. He knew that she was a year behind him, but he didn’t remember ever seeing her on campus. He knew she preferred to be on top. He knew that she didn’t have a problem with asking for what she wanted, and that—as evidently seen from her now finishing her sandwich—that she didn’t seem to have a problem getting it.
“Do you want to stay here tonight?” he blurted out. For one quick second, he remembered his father proselytizing the words “responsibility, Henry” but Henry tuned that voice out. If Caroline spending another night was anything like the night before, Henry was more than OK with her sharing the vice president’s king-sized bed with him.
If she was surprised by his offer, she didn’t even fake it.
“I think I’d like that,” she said to him, standing up from the stool she was sitting on, moving to the sink, running the plate under hot water. She began to dry the white porcelain, a cloth rag making slow circles around its circumference. The cat walked up to Caroline and curled itself around her thin ankles.
“You got any more of those pills?” she asked.
It was weird and yet it somehow wasn’t, living with another girl. Days at the laundromat passed by without much fanfare. Only one other person—a Puerto Rican twenty-three-year-old named Jenny—worked with Henry. Sometimes they’d take a break to chat with the deliverymen making their rounds, smoking a shared cigarette out back when hours were slow. Henry’s duties included manning the cash register for the three washers up front (a recent addition for neighborhood customers), going through inventory with incoming scrubs and outgoing sheets, making sure the detergent was regularly stocked and that there was always a supply of quarters on hand. His nights with Caroline passed by just as smoothly, smoking as much weed as possible, burning through rented classics Henry brought home every night. Laundromat, video store, the Wawa if they were running low on groceries and supplies, then back to the Blackburn house. As if by some unspoken rule, they stopped going to any neighboring parties. There was an endless supply of take-out options from the stacks of menus Caroline had discovered crowding a junk drawer. After that first sandwich, neither one confessed to any desire of turning on the stove. The fridge remained barren mostly, save for cans of beer and slimy takeout leftovers. Every few days, Henry called his mother but he did not visit, nor did he mention his new roommate.
That first Sunday together—nearly a week into sharing the Blackburn house—Henry and Caroline were coming down from a shared Percocet. Despite their being expired, the pills worked just fine. They were only down to four pills, though. Henry would have to ask around, see if anyone was selling a few loose ones for quick cash. As they absent-mindedly watched some made-for-TV movie, Henry—only moderately high—combed his fingers clumsily through Caroline’s hair.
“Ow,” she shifted her head from his hand. “That hurts.”
“Sorry. My bad. I have to call my mom in a bit.” Caroline didn’t say anything.
“What about your family? Upstate?” Henry placed his head flat against the back of her scalp. She had made an off-hand remark the other evening about having grown up in Kingston, a ‘bum shit town’ in her words, ‘where there is absolutely nothing to do’.
“Don’t you need to like, touch base with them or something? I mean, not that it’s a problem but it’s been like a week now, and I just thought you might want to let them know where you are? You can use the phone here, you know. If you need to call them or something.” Caroline shifted onto her side, Henry’s hand falling off its perch on her skull. She reached for the remote. She began flipping through the channels, unable to settle on the movie that moments ago was hypnotizing.
“Caroline?” Henry asked. “Seriously, like, don’t you think you should call them?”
She sat up, and pulled her sweatshirt over her head. Her t-shirt was practically see-through. It was impossibly thin.
“What about them?” she asked. She leaned back, away from Henry, and flipped from a basketball game to a preacher blessing a televised congregation.
“Don’t you think they’re worried about you?”
Caroline turned from the preacher, back to the basketball game, then quickly two channels up. Dan Rather was reporting on yet another bombing in Kuwait. She muted the television, pulled herself onto Henry’s lap, and then began kissing the side of his neck. In the background, over her shoulder, Henry watched night-shots of some dusty, foreign town blowing up green and electric in their palm-treed night sky. The explosions looked like phosphorous, glowing bright and toxic against the dark background.
“They’re fine,” she said. “They’re not worried.”
“What about your dad?” Dan Rather was wearing a Kevlar vest and seemed to be listening to a D.C. correspondent. The sky erupted like a volcano.
“What about him?” By then she was busy working her hand down the front of his jeans.
Henry decided not to ask any more questions.
By the second week of their cohabitation, Henry and Caroline had fucked in six different rooms of the Blackburn house: the bedroom (first afternoon, missionary) the master bathroom (Caroline sitting half in the sink, first evening), the den (lunchtime break, on the fancy Persian rug), the kitchen (Henry standing, Caroline’s right leg perched precariously on the kitchen table), the downstairs bathroom (against the sink, both standing, right before bed), and the outdoor shower which Henry didn’t want to use but Caroline had stubbornly insisted upon.
“Another room crossed off the list,” she panted, lying on her back. “It looks like we’re winning the game.”
“I bet we can tackle every room in the house before the month is up.”
Henry shook his head. “That’s a weird bet to make.”
“But a fun one, no?”
Her legs were splayed open like a croquet wicket, grass crawling up and into her pubic line. Beads of water still clung to her stomach from the outdoor shower. They lay next to the pool, afternoon shadows disturbing the chlorine, the pool cleaner sucking up leaves from the bottom, spitting up bubbles and summer detritus. In the aftermath of his coming, Henry suddenly noticed the backyard was very quiet, save for his labored breathing.
“We should put some clothes on,” he interrupted the silence. “Someone could stop by and see us.”
Caroline ignored him, stretching her arms over her head and arching her back so that her breasts stood at attention, rib lines nudging against her tanned skin. Henry peeled his boxers away from the skin, and began to search for his jeans.
“Where are my pants? They were just here a second ago.”
He shifted positions, rolling over onto his stomach then pushed himself up to a sitting position.
“You’re so uptight,” Caroline scolded. “Relax a minute, won’t you?”
Crumpled under a nearby bush, Henry located his jeans and stepped into them quickly. He turned, T-shirt now in hand, only to watch Caroline reach forward and ski her hand down the slope of her breastbone. She rested her palm against the hair between her legs. Her toes flexed up; her legs now opened wider. She began to move her fingers in a whirligig, her heels digging small grooves into the dirt and grass.
“Jesus,” he laughed nervously. “Cut it out, won’t you? Someone could walk by.”
The outdoor shower was shielded by the enclosure of a half-built wooden fence one would have to walk behind to access. But out here, Caroline’s naked body was in full view. If anyone turned into the backyard from the top of the driveway, they would see her, and Henry, both in plain sight.
Responsibility, Henry’s father had emphasized.
No visitors, the vice president had warned.
“And what do you think would happen,” Caroline asked, “if anyone caught me?”
Her fingers were now a blur before Henry’s eyes. His heart sludged up his throat. He strained to hear if anyone—the mailman, the garbage man, the gardener—was coming up the driveway. He could only imagine the look on the VP’s face, dear God, on his father’s face, were someone to see them.
“Caroline,” he tried to say. “Caroline, stop.”
The pool cleaner shimmied up one side of the wall, burping up oxygen and twigs.
* * *
Caroline had taken to calling the overfed cat Meatball, even though its name was Archie. Although Henry had stopped asking Caroline about her plans, he soon discovered Caroline paying—although not that often—for takeout or rolling papers. Fancier cat food made with real salmon started showing up in the cupboards. Meatloaf wouldn’t leave her side. It hadn’t taken her long to score a job fixing overpriced lattes and doling out scones at the popular town coffee shop, Small World. Henry welcomed the contributions, as infrequent as they were. Money from the laundromat, instead of stored away as Henry had originally intended, began to routinely go towards weed, more often than he had estimated for the summer.
“This is what responsibility actually means,” he told himself. The Blackburn house’s stipend covered frozen pizzas, boxes of Cheerios, gallons of milk, cases of Bud Light. Henry felt like a provider, hunting down sleazy dinners, gathering marijuana to obliterate the end of each day. There were no savings to think of but Henry didn’t once doubt his inviting Caroline to live with him. She never called home, never wanted to hang out with anyone else. The Blackburn house cocooned them.
* * *
Three weeks into Caroline’s staying at the Blackburn house, Logan called out of the blue. Henry’s shift at the laundromat had been particularly draining. Six extra loads of bloodied scrubs had been delivered. He had overheard one of the deliverymen mentioning something about extensive trauma in the ICU. Everything smelled like tin to Henry. His fingers were pruned from manning the extra machines. He was in no mood to talk to anyone, let alone his father. All he wanted to do was watch TV with Caroline, and turn in early for once.
“Hello?” Henry reluctantly answered.
“Just checking in, old chap,” Logan said, faking an affected British accent. Henry didn’t laugh. It was the first time Logan had called to check in since they had spoken about the job. The connection was fuzzy. He was losing track these days where his father was. Something about the Cotswolds, and research for his latest book. Something on Henry the VI or Louis the VIII.
“Who’s that?” Caroline asked.
“Shh,” Henry instructed, unwrapping his legs from around hers on the couch. He got up and began moving away from the den, stretching the phone’s cord as far as it would go.
“Who is that?” Logan asked. “Is that a girl?”
“It’s just Caroline, Dad.” Henry never was a good liar. He waved his hand at the TV, gesturing for Caroline to turn the sound down.
“Who’s Caroline? You never told me about anyone named Caroline.”
Henry walked into the kitchen, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. “She’s nothing.” He lowered his voice, looking over his shoulder to see if she was listening but she was high, immobilized by the news. Henry wanted to tell his father that he couldn’t know about Caroline because he didn’t know anything about Henry. It had been months since they had spoken.
“She’s no one,” he said instead. “Just a girl who needed to drop something off.”
Logan laughed. In the distance, Henry heard some woman’s voice. His father got off the phone shortly thereafter.
A few days later, Caroline showed up at the Laundromat.
“Surprise!” she yelled.
“What’s this? I thought you were at Small World until noon?”
Caroline had become good at ignoring his questions. It was the biggest pet peeve that annoyed Henry. Lately the list was growing longer. Caroline refused to answer his questions. She rarely contributed any money towards the excessive amount of pot they had been smoking. She left wet towels on the bed, barely remembered to clean out the litter box and once, he noticed her rifling through the vice president’s desk drawer (an oversight that he dropped quickly when she had given him an impromptu blow job as a means of evading his questions about potential theft). Now she strode over quickly to Henry, wearing her tight white jeans and another one of those sheer tops that showed off her lace bra. Her toenails and hands were painted pink. Her hair bounced in a messy ponytail off her acne-ridden face. Her zits had spread from the chin up her jaw line. Henry couldn’t help staring at them in broad daylight, usually when he was sober.
“Is Jenny here?”
“She called a little bit ago. Car trouble or some other bullshit excuse. I’m guessing she’s hungover again. Said she’ll be here by ten.”
Caroline walked around the front corner and sidled up against Henry like she was an animal rubbing herself down.
“The main morning shift’s been delivered already, hasn’t it? By my estimation that means we safely have at least thirty minutes until she’s due to arrive, right?” She reached her hand up and stroked the side of his face. “We have time to go to the back real fast, don’t we?”
Henry glanced around at the recently delivered floral scrubs piled high in the plastic gray carts on wheels, waiting to be sorted into washable and past saving. The truly bloody scrubs, the ones with stains as dark as wet asphalt, were put in a separate cart, carts sent back over to the hospital’s incinerator, where they were burned into ashes.
“I don’t know…” Henry stalled. “I mean, Jenny’s due any minute and besides, it’s not like you let me get much sleep last night.”
It wasn’t just last night, though. Before work that very day, instead of breakfast, they had tackled the dining room, Caroline on her side on the lacquered wooden country table able to seat twelve, Henry’s hands running through her hair, pulling back as if she were a horse being reigned in. Her hands had flexed out so that each vein shone copper blue. Harder, she had insisted and Henry tore into her so quickly, he was afraid he would break both the table, and the girl.
“I already locked the door,” she now told him.
Not the first time, this need frightened Henry. It was as she was trying to prove something to him, or something to someone not in the room, with her hummingbird-like intensity. Was she some sort of sex addict? He instantly felt ashamed and mortified at such a thought.
Caroline began to tug him to the back room of the laundromat, unbuttoning the clasp of her tiny, white jeans while walking. He groaned reluctantly at the glimpse of her pink, mesh thong, and pushed her through the back room’s swinging doors. They begin to stumbled over their undone, unbuckled jeans pulled down to the knees, until Caroline suddenly stopped, and let go of Henry.
Caroline quickly pulled up her pants; Henry realized this was a cue for him to follow.
“Did you hear something?” he asked but she shushed him, ignoring his question. “What? What is it? Why did we stop?”
“Is that?” She reached forward towards another delivered cart stacked precariously high with soiled blankets. “Is that what I think it is?”
Before Henry could stop her, her fingers touched a corner of the top blanket. Henry could see that something was sticking out from between the folds. She flipped the blanket over more, then immediately jumped back. She stepped onto his sneakers accidentally, pressing her small frame into his larger one, stepped back even more, so that now she was behind him, hands clutching his T-shirt.
“Holy shit,” she said. “Holy shit, I think that’s a baby, Henry.”
Neither one of moved.
“Do something,” she said. “Do something about the baby.”
The washing machines vibrated around them. Henry heard a buzzer go off somewhere. It sounded as if an incoming tide was rushing the room, with the swirling of wet clothes thumping in a rhythm behind the machines’ viewing glass. Henry stared at a baby’s wrinkled gray foot, more of a blue gray than an actual gray. A plastic bracelet, as big as the foot itself, was wrapped around the baby’s ankle. He inched towards the pile of laundry, the hum of the machines storming his ear canals. When he was close enough, he flicked the edge of the soiled blanket off the foot so that he instantly confirmed it was a dead baby on top of the hospital’s dirty blankets. Immediately, he flipped the blanket back over the corpse, covering it up entirely so he could longer see what he had just glimpsed: matted black hair clumped against a small head, the alarming waxiness of newborn skin.
“Fuck,” Caroline whispered.
Henry turned his head whip fast to avoid vomit splattering at her feet.
In the end, Henry was the one who called the authorities.
“We have a situation,” he told 911. He didn’t know how else to put it.
“Stay put,” the operator calmly instructed. “Dispatch will be there as fast as they can.” Henry wanted to tell her there was no reason to rush, that the baby was definitely dead but instead he merely nodded, then hung up the phone.
The machines had long since stopped running.
“Do you have any pot on you?”
“What?” Henry couldn’t think straight. He couldn’t stop debating if they should uncover the baby. At least the baby’s face. Something about having its face covered up felt wrong to him.
“You want to get stoned right now? Am I hearing you correctly?”
“The cops, Henry. I want to make sure we having nothing on us when they ask us questions.”
Caroline began to pick and peel at the nail polish on one fingernail. Other than that, she had seemed remarkably calm, even locating a stack of clean towels to clean up Henry’s vomit. There was an alertness in her voice that Henry had not heard before. All his former questions came swirling back to him. Has she been here before? How does she know that we’ll be implied? It’s not like we did anything. Why isn’t she crying?
Caroline’s face was completely devoid of tears. His hands couldn’t stop shaking. He felt like he was going to throw up again. He kept glancing back at the room as if to make a move to pick up the baby, offer up some grand gesture that proved he could handle the situation. Caroline, though, merely stared straight ahead at the door, as if she had been waiting for the cops to arrive all her life.
Henry watched her smooth back her ponytail, until all the stray hairs had been put into place.
There was an unnecessary ambulance and a police car. There were two uniformed police officers, a redhead, and another in reflective aviator sunglasses. Aviator cop pulled off the sunglasses and rubbed at his eyes.
“Explain for us how you found the baby, Mr. Baker,” red asked.
“It was just there,” Henry replied. “We were in back and we saw it and we called you guys as soon as we did.” The cops didn’t ask why they were both in the back of the room. Red subtly eyed the front of Caroline’s shirt.
“A mix-up with the hospital morgue,” one confirmed. “Honestly, these cases aren’t as rare as you think they would be. One package goes to the wrong room and the next thing you know, you’ve got a situation on hand.”
“Can I go outside?” Henry asked. Caroline made no move to get up from the stool she was sitting on.
“I have to call Small World,” she explained. “They’re probably wondering where I am. I only said twenty minutes.”
Aviator cop wrote something down on his note pad.
Outside the laundromat, Henry was quickly joined by red. He was talking to a young man sitting in the open back of the police cruiser. The man’s Orioles baseball cap was pushed down over his eyes, shielding them from Henry’s view. Red leaned up against the open door, his hands expanding upon some sort of apology.
“We’ll get you back to the hospital in a few minutes,” Henry overheard. The young man said nothing. “When you’re ready, we need you to come in to ID the body, OK?” The cop then began to walk back towards Henry, muttering something unintelligible into his walkie-talkie.
“The father,” he nodded his head. Henry continued to blatantly stare. He was wearing a white button down buttoned up to the top button paired with jeans and tan work boots. The ambulance had already pulled up front to the curb earlier, its lights and siren off, waiting for instructions. The driver now slowly began to maneuver it from the front to the back entrance.
“Do you have any gum?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t.” Henry patted his pockets desperately, thinking that if he kept searching, a stick of Trident might appear. “I’m really sorry,” he repeated, feeling like he should apologize for more than just his lack of a breath freshener.
“They need me to ride with them to the morgue to complete the paper work,” the man told Henry, “as if seeing her dead once yesterday wasn’t bad enough.”
So it was a girl, Henry thought.
“Those fuckers,” the guy continued to rant. “Who sends a baby to the laundromat instead of the morgue? We had the welcome home party all ready for her. Pink balloons, full spread from the Teeter, even some cigars to give out to the guys. But then she comes out all screwed up, not formed right, like something out of fucking Alien. I’ve got to tell my mom there’s a funeral instead of a party to plan for. And all these cigars? What am I supposed to do with these cigars? My wife won’t leave her bedroom and you’ve got this hospital calling us telling us they lost the baby? Who the fuck loses a baby, is what I want to know.”
Henry needed to call his boss, but he didn’t know how to go back inside.
“My wife was going to name her Rain,” the man continued, pushing himself out of the car.
“That’s nice,” he finally said.
“Yeah, but not that hippie bullshit Rain. It would have been Rain with a silent J in the middle. R-A-J-N-E,” he spelled out, as if there were any confusion. Henry didn’t know his role here in his response.
“I don’t get it,” he admitted.
“Her mom’s name is Jade. She thought she would’ve liked that, having her initial in there.”
Doctors in white coats walked past, cigarettes lit, not speaking.
“Why didn’t you just think to name her Jade?” Henry asked.
The guy frowned. “Because,” he replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, “Jade’s a white trash name. My little girl was going to be classy.”
Back at home Henry reluctantly prepared to go meet the dealer. They were running low on supplies and he figured he would pick up some sandwiches while he was still out.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?” he asked Caroline.
“I just need to shower, Henry,” she said, pushing past him and practically running into the master bathroom. “I really reek.”
He followed her into the bathroom, staring at her as she turned on the hot water and quickly stripped down. He sat on the closed toilet seat and watched her, waiting for her to bring up how awful and terrible and beyond strange the whole morning had been.
“What? Why are you staring at me?”
“I mean… Don’t you think today was pretty weird?”
She unhooked her bra, leaned down and pulled off the once-enticing mesh thong. Her clothes lay discarded to the side. If Henry stretched out his right leg, he could step on the delicate items, ruining them with his dirty sneakers. He drew his legs in closer, watched as she stepped under the spray, drawing the curtain across the shower so that Henry could only see the murky outline of her body.
“I can’t really hear you right now,” she yelled. He couldn’t tell if the outline of her hands was brushing shampoo or tears out of her eyes. “Can you shut the door? It’s letting all the steam out.”
Henry had arranged to meet up with the dealer in Hoagie Haven’s parking lot. He didn’t have time to go to the bank and break up the large bills he had on him. It was only until he handed over a hundred and sixty that he realized he had given too much.
“You got any change?”
“It’s cool, man,” the dealer swiftly pocketed Henry’s bills. “I’ll get you next time. You’re a solid customer.”
The more Henry thought about it, the more he realized that the fridge was stocked less and less with anything of substance, and that his diet consisted of microwave-nuked carbohydrates. He missed his mother’s cooking, even the weird green shakes she kept trying to force on him. He hopped in his car, driving faster than usual, as if he could physically feel the urgency of Caroline waiting back at the house. Ever since the baby and the cops, the siren-less ambulance and the whole morning in general, Caroline seemed further away then he even thought possible. He wondered if maybe it was time to suggest to Caroline that she find other sleeping arrangements. Despite all its many rooms, the Blackburn house was starting to feel crowded.
In his rush to return to her, not only did he mess up her dinner order—forgetting cheddar and horseradish on her hoagie—but he also forgot to pick up rolling papers from the nearby Wawa. Henry didn’t realize his error until he pulled into the driveway.
“Fuck,” he said out loud. The car’s engine ticked loudly in the aftermath of his turning off the ignition. One light shining from the den’s window seemed to glow blue in the early summer light. He got out of the car, arms heavy with twelve-inch subs and Styrofoam cups full of Dr. Pepper, and then entered the house loudly, slamming the door behind him.
“Did you get it?” Caroline called out.
Henry walked up to the den. Instantly he noticed that she was already deep into her wine. She wore pajamas: old torn sweat pants and a ratty large T-shirt—minus a bra—with a cartoon dog running across the back. YOU CAN’T RUN WITH THE BIG DOGS IF YOU STAY ON THE PORCH, it read. There were holes along the neckline. Henry had never seen her in these clothes. Usually she just slept naked or in his boxers. She wasn’t wearing any of her usual heavy eyeliner. Her wet hair donuted itself on top of her head in a sloppy bun. She had scrubbed her face so that the bumps along the chin were even more angry-looking. He couldn’t help but think that she looked ugly. A trashy MTV show blared loudly from the television. Caroline, unaware that Henry was staring at her, leaned over from the couch to the coffee table to refill her wine glass. It was half full but Henry witnessed her making sure to top herself off. She placed the bottle on the ground, by the foot of the couch, so it wasn’t in direct sight. It was three quarters empty. He couldn’t have been gone for longer than thirty minutes.
“I forgot the rolling papers.”
“Shit! Well, what are we going to do?”
“I’m sure there’s something around here we can use.”
“I can’t believe you forgot them Henry. You knew we were out!”
Despite her nagging, despite her attitude, Henry wanted to fix this, wanted to continue to provide her with everything that she asked for. He just didn’t know how else to handle the situation. He couldn’t kick her out, although all he wanted in that moment was to be alone. To piss with the door open and read a science fiction paperback and sleep with the windows open for once because Caroline was always cold and couldn’t stand warm air blowing through the bedroom. In the kitchen, he searched desperately for an apple to smoke out of. He found nothing. When had they even purchased perishables like apples and lettuce? He opened drawers and peered behind cabinet doors, cabinets he was already well familiar with. Eventually, in the back of a nearly empty pantry, he stumbled upon a box of tinfoil.
“We’re OK!” he yelled over his shoulder. “I found something!”
He tore out several sheets and folded the aluminum into some sort of pipe-like container. It wasn’t his best attempt at making a homemade pipe, but it would have to do. When he walked back into he den, he saw that Caroline had already broken up the fresh bud into tiny, disintegrating pieces scattered on top of a People magazine. Sharon Stone gazed up at them. Caroline quickly pushed together the ripe-smelling weed into a small mound then began stuffing it into the center of the pipe’s bowl. She placed her mouth to it, her eyes crossing with determination and focus.
“Careful,” he flicked the lighter, dangerously pushing the flame close to her face. “I don’t want you inhaling any tinfoil or anything.”
“I’m fine,” she insisted then drew deeper on the pipe. “I know what I’m doing here.”
“I just want you to be careful,” he repeated.
“Jesus, Henry, I got this.” She exhaled a thick stream of smoke. “Stop acting like my dad or something.”
After the pot had been smoked and the hoagies had been eaten, Caroline snuggled in closer to Henry. She placed her hand on Henry’s thigh. It felt heavy, like an oversized book had tumbled onto his lap.
“What are you doing?” he heard himself ask. The pot was strong, a different kind than he was normally used to. She began moving her hand in small, precise circles, edging closer and closer to his crotch. Henry stared down remotely, as if the hand belonged to someone else, as if his leg was not his own.
“You know, there are so many rooms we haven’t even thought to try out. The laundry room… The sunroom… It’s like this house never seems to end.” Her voice sounded clogged, as if she had swallowed magnets.
“You want to have sex, now?”
“What, you don’t?”
The pot made the room vibrate. Meatball-Archie batted lazily at the end of the window’s curtains that should have been drawn closed. They had forgotten to open a window, or close the shades. On screen, a model had begun to interview some rapper, his neck dripping with gold chains and medallions. Henry couldn’t make out what she was saying. Caroline unzipped his jeans. He didn’t say no but he didn’t say yes. He just sat there, now staring down, watching her first use her hand, then her mouth, trying to get him hard.
“What do you think the message you’re trying to promote is?” the model asked. Her eyebrows were thick caterpillars crawling across her forehead. Her bandage dress swathed her breasts and ribcage in an intricate spiderweb design.
“I’m just trying to reach out to my fans,” the man said. The medallions seemed to drag down on his neck with their weight.
It wasn’t working, Henry wasn’t sure why she couldn’t see that it wasn’t working, but she kept going down on him. That long, thick hair covered her face entirely so that all he could see was this head, this wild-haired head furiously bobbing up and down. It was useless: the day, the pot, Caroline trying so hard with her body all tensed up, as if she was staving off what she really wanted to stay.
“Stop,” he pushed her off. “Caroline, just stop.”
Her face crumpled—as if she has been slapped. She quickly composed herself, actually grimaced in anger, wiping the spit off her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Whatever, Henry. Sorry for even trying.” She practically hurtled herself to the far end of the couch. The television flashed shots of three girls drinking brightly colored drinks on a beach, next to an old man dressed as a sailor, holding up a coconut. She reached for her wine glass, and drank until only dregs line the bottom. Her swollen lips were stained purple.
“I mean, a thousand and one guys would be happy to get a blow job practically every five minutes. But I can see you’re just not one of those guys.”
“No, forget it. I’m stoned anyway,” she brushed him off in defense, not once looking away from the screen. The sailor tilted his head up to the sky and laughed, fake tits pressed up against his jerky-skinned arms.
In the morning, Logan called, waking Henry up. Caroline’s side of the bed was empty. Light streamed through the bedroom’s blinds: it must have been past nine. Henry didn’t explain why he wasn’t at work, nor did he think to bring up what had happened the day before. It didn’t matter. Logan didn’t ask once about Henry.
“I’m back,” Logan announced.
“Already? That wasn’t long.” He strained to hear signs of his father’s new girlfriend, but there was only his father on the line, sounding depleted of both expenses and energy.
“Yeah, well, you know, deadlines and all…”
Henry did not know what he was father was talking about.
“I want you to come by the new place tonight. You haven’t been over once.”
Henry laughed out loud at the absurdity of his father’s request.
“I don’t know… I think I have plans tonight.” It was such an obvious lie that his father started laughing too. Henry had never met any of his father’s practically underage girlfriends. From the stories alone, all the names and descriptions had blurred together: Montana (from the university bookstore) and Ashleigh (with an e, his father had groaned). He still hadn’t been to his father’s apartment located right off of campus, on a street lined with the town’s bookstore, an R.E.I and a frozen yogurt shop. He had refused to help him move into it.
“Come to dinner tonight,” Logan insisted. “I’ll cook. Bring that girl as well. We’ll make a party out of it.”
“There’s no girl…” Henry started to say but his father had hung up before he could protest.
He sat there for a minute, the plastic receiver bleating in his hand. He placed it down in its cradle.
“Caroline!” he called out. “Hey, Caroline?”
He couldn’t find her anywhere. He knocked on the closed bathroom door but it was empty. He peeked into the laundry room, the unused living room, each of the massive bedrooms to see if she was perhaps curled up at the foot of a bed or deep inside the recesses of some closet. He yelled down the basement stairs although they had no reason to go there. Eventually, he went outside.
“Caroline!” he yelled out, his voice pitched on a high note, strung with anxiety and a slight hangover headache. He found her smoking a roach by the pool, wearing the same ratty shirt and sweatpants from the night before. Her feet dangled over the diving board, trailing against the water. Ash drifted onto the surface. From where he stood, he thought she looked no older than fourteen.
“What are you doing?” It wasn’t even noon. The heat hummed around Henry. In the distance, cicadas shrilled their early morning song. A dog barked once, twice, then stopped.
Caroline blinked back at him, said nothing, sucked hard on the joint, its cherry glowing orange in her hand.
It took Caroline over an hour to get ready. When she finally emerged from the bedroom she was wearing yet another outfit Henry had never seen before. Usually Caroline wore tight jeans, flimsy T-shirts, a wardrobe that alternated every few days with a mishmash of fancy lingerie and frayed cotton underwear. But now, Henry watched her carefully navigate down the stairs, black heels clearly a size too big wobbling on her feet, a gold silk dress swishing around her legs. The dress was flimsy—expensive looking—with zippers cutting into each side around the curves of her hips.
“Wow,” he whistled. Caroline frowned at the compliment, staring down at the dress. She smoothed out a non-existent wrinkle over the front.
“I mean,” Henry backtracked for a second then said, “it’s just dinner with my dad. You would have been fine in jeans or whatever.”
“So you don’t like this?”
Henry blushed. “No, no that’s not what I meant, at all.”
She walked over the to front mirror and unscrewed the top to a tube of lipstick. He watched her begin to fill in the corners of her lips. It was such a dramatic look, such a better one than how she looked the night before, he couldn’t look away.
“Where did you get that dress? Is it new?”
“It’s my sister’s. She gave it to me when she got pregnant.”
It was the first piece of personal information she had ever shared with Henry.
“You have a sister? Wait, you’re an aunt?”
Caroline quickly capped the beige-colored tube and tucked it into a tiny purse she was clutching under one arm.
“Yeah, I have a sister. I told you this. She’s like eighteen months older than me.”
“Well, why don’t you talk to her then? What’s her kid’s name? How old is the baby?”
Caroline sighed, as if having to explain something to a small child or discipline a dog.
“She should be two, I think.”
“Should be?” Henry couldn’t stop repeating her.
Caroline opened the front door. As the late afternoon light filtered through the trees’ lush branches, streaming around Caroline, he knew, no, he was sure of the fact that Caroline had not once mentioned an older sister, let alone a niece or nephew.
“We’re going to be late,” she said. “Let’s talk about this later, OK?”
At Logan’s apartment, Caroline drank quickly.
“Son?” Logan asked, topping off Caroline’s glass of red wine. The raviolis had been eaten, the dinner table now scattered with scraps of Parmesan cheese and dirty forks. They had moved to the other side of the kitchen, “the living room,” where his father had opened a second bottle of wine. “You sure you don’t want anything?”
Henry rearranged himself on the couch that once belonged in their downstairs den.
“I’m fine. I’ve had enough. You know, driving and all.”
Logan rolled his eyes, and topped off his own screwdriver with more vodka.
“My son, always so cautious! Clearly takes after his mother here, and not me.” He winked at Caroline before sitting opposite her, next to Henry on the couch. “Tell me about yourself, Sweet Caroline,” Logan asked. “I’m sure young men call you that all the time.” The condensation of his glass lazily dripped over his ring-less hand.
“You’re the first,” she giggled.
“The first! I find that pretty hard to believe. Hasn’t my son sang that song to you?”
Caroline shook her head. “I don’t know what song you’re talking about.”
Logan gasped. Henry glared at his father; Logan ignored him.
“You don’t know Neil Diamond? He’s practically the king of pop! Oh you’re in for a treat.” He took another swig from his glass.
“I was just in Tokyo,” Caroline finally said.
“Tokyo?” Henry asked at the same time.
“Yeah, I was with a friend, traveling around for a bit. I was only there for a few days but, you know, it’s pretty far out.”
Logan nodded his head in appreciation, went to work on his cocktail.
“I’ve been there, once, myself. Back in the seventies. Couldn’t get over how foreign the place was.”
“Everything’s so clean,” she replied. Her glass was already empty. Henry watched her hands fiddle with her hair. Three and half weeks of living together, and he was only just now hearing about Japan. How did she fail to mention this? Going to Japan wasn’t like taking the train into the city. It was fucking Japan. Someplace Henry had only read about in history textbooks and Time magazine articles. He waited for more details about anything, the trip, the ‘friend’ she was traveling with, hell, he was sure at this point that it was another guy. For the second time in the past thirty minutes, he felt a stab of jealousy. But Caroline said nothing more on the subject and his father had already switched to discussing his favorite topic, “Gilgamesh.”
Before he knew it, Neil Diamond was bellowing out “Sweet Caroline” from Logan’s stereo, and Logan had Caroline up and dancing in his arms around the unfinished room. Henry got up and began to stack dirty pasta plates and cooking pots in the mildewed sink. The faucet dripped. The plates were mismatched, looked as if they had been purchased from a garage sale. He briefly noticed that Caroline’s feet were bare; her heels kicked off to the corner.
“I never taught you how to properly dance with a woman, son,” Logan called out over the music. Touching me, touching you, Neil sang. Henry said nothing, finding no reason to offer the example of how just the week before, Henry had taken Caroline to a tiny bar decorated with strings of chili-shaped Christmas lights. There—high on Adderall previously snorted off the car’s dashboard in the nearly-empty parking lot—he had spun Caroline in circles under the glow of the red lights before leading her into the grimy, graffitied bathroom and fucking her against the sink.
“Now this is how you dance with a woman!” Logan was showing off, dipping Caroline low so that her hair swept across the floor. Her gold silk dress flared up and between her legs, dangerously high. Caroline laughed, drunk, and twirled up and into Logan, brushing her breasts purposefully against his father’s back. The song ended. She curtseyed. Logan bowed. Henry didn’t know whether to be jealous or bored.
As Bob Dylan replaced Neil Diamond, Henry’s father stood near the stereo, sweating in his lightly-colored denim button down. He had gained weight over the past few months and yet it was weird how Henry could reluctantly see that his father was an attractive man. His brown hair was like some skinned bear pelt, full of mahogany colors and not even hinting at potentially thinning. He had a Humphrey Bogart-shaped jaw and three-day stubble that only accentuated the angles of his face. The weight on his body made him seem solid, like a redwood. Logan still smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. He pinched some loose-leaf tobacco from an American Spirits bag into a solo rolling paper that materialized out of nowhere. He licked the cigarette close and winked at Henry.
“Don’t tell your mother, OK? I’m not supposed to smoke around you.”
Next to him, Henry felt shriveled up, like a fingerprint smudge on a clean page. Logan lit the cigarette and inhaled hard, then swiftly tipped back what was left in his glass into his mouth, swallowing the pulp of the orange juice mixed in with the melted ice and leftover vodka. He exhaled clumsily. He was the only man that Henry knew who drank screwdrivers with evening meals.
“Can I have one?” Caroline asked.
Logan—drunk now too—reached forward and placed the wet end of the cigarette into the chapped mouth of Caroline. She inhaled gently, as if she were sighing, her eyes locked on his, the smoke clustering in small clouds around them.
“Don’t mention it,” Logan said.
All three could feel the electricity shift in the room. Logan eventually stabbed the cigarette out on a dirty plate smeared with vodka sauce, then rolled up first his right sleeve, then the left past both elbows. Henry stood awkwardly, hands dripping with foul sink water. Caroline, back at her seat at the makeshift dining table beamed up at Logan. Her smile radiated from her. There was no denial in witnessing her attraction to the man. She reached for the wine bottle that Henry could see was already empty.
And yet he said nothing still and only watched her reach.
The booze consumed, the cigarettes smoked, the night quickly wrapped up after that. Logan walked with them partially down his front path on their way to the car. He held onto Caroline’s elbow and she leaned graciously into his tall frame.
“Caroline,” he said, “it was an absolute pleasure having you for dinner.” Still holding onto her elbow, he kissed her on her cheek as a goodbye, near the mouth, not exactly on the corner, but Henry could see was close enough. He then pivoted, releasing her arm, and offered Henry his hand to shake.
“You take care of her, son.”
It was supposed to be a joke. But for a second, Henry recoiled from the order, his only internal response being, for fuck’s sake, how?
“Bye dad. I’ll take to you later, I guess.”
“Goodbye, Logan,” Caroline hiccupped then started to laugh. “Thanks for the pasta.”
In the car, their seatbelts closed with a defiant click. Henry fiddled with the AC, then the radio dials. He couldn’t settle on a station to listen to: country, NPR, jazz, nothing suited the moment. A metal band came on—something all electric guitar and mumbled monosyllables. Something Henry knew—finally, something!—that Caroline hated.
He left the station on.
“Are you cold?” he asked, playing with the windows. He pushed the window buttons down so a wet air swooshed into the car.
“I’m fine,” Caroline enunciated each word carefully, as if to prove she was not as drunk as Henry might have thought she was. “I’m just tired.” She leaned her head against her propped up hand. All the nail polish had been picked off clean.
In the silence of the drive, Henry’s thoughts leapfrogged from one image to the next: blades of grass woven in with Caroline’s pubic hair, the plastic ID bracelet around the withered foot of the dead baby girl, the young father’s worn baseball cap, Henry’s father’s hand snaking down the small of Caroline’s back. Inching down Nassau Street, he spotted—in the distance—police car lights spinning, their red and blue circles eventually filling the car with an uncomfortable glare. A cop motioned for them to stop. For a second, it looked like aviator cop from the day before. Henry’s bowels briefly seized, even though he was obeying the speed limit and only had two glasses of wine to drink.
“You guys are going to need to detour away from where you’re heading.” The cop motioned for Henry to make a right on a side street, before he could ask any questions. “Hurry up now, you’re holding up traffic.” Henry pulled forward.
“I wonder what happened?”
“Must have been an accident.”
As he shifted down an unfamiliar street that would eventually take him back to the interstate, Henry heard Caroline begin to cry. He didn’t stop or pullover or ask her what was wrong. He kept his foot on the gas pedal, his hands at ten and two on the steering wheel.
Don’t narrate this Henry scolded himself. Don’t make this something this isn’t.
At a party twelve years from then, Henry will bump into Caroline. “Caroline!” he will say, so shocked to see her after her abrupt move out of the Blackburn house, her departure the day after the dinner with Logan, just a slight shift in the middle of the night and by morning, her presence and smell and garbage bags completely gone. She wouldn’t even leave a number for him to reach her. For his part, though, Henry wouldn’t try too hard.
“Caroline!” he will yell, “I can’t believe it’s you!”
But Caroline will latch onto the arm of the guy she will be walking with, latch on a little tighter and stare up with dumb disbelief. She will stare at Henry and she will blankly ask, “I’m sorry, but do I know you?” And Henry will apologize, Henry will let her go, Henry will insist that he was mistaken because he will realize then that he does not know her, that he never knew her to begin with. That all the questions left unasked and even more so, unanswered, only meant that Henry lived with a girl for one brief month and learned nothing about whom she possibly could be. She would have become “just some girl,” as he had once told his father. And he wouldn’t remember her face, the acne trailing up to that sharp jaw to that beautiful, crazy hair, or the tender pink nipples that hardened at the slightest touch of his skin against them. No, he would always remember how terrible chalky the skin of the newborn looked, its eyes and nose scrunched into something unrecognizable, but the slope of Caroline’s taut ass, the bones of her elbows clocking forward, the nails chipped with ghastly pink, all that would eventually disappear.
But now, now Caroline was still in the car and Henry could not see that she was already planning her exit. He rolled the back two windows down so that the cold evening wind whipped their hair all around. After a few minutes, Caroline asked him to roll the windows up.
She was getting cold.