Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3035 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014


by Tara Kipnees

There are kids dying in Africa and all I’m thinking about is taking a drive down the crappy Garden State Parkway with the windows down and the radio blasting something I only half-like because I’m too lazy to transfer my CDs to the car, and then coming home and eating heaps of Phish Food while Judge Judy mumbles something about an illegitimate child and people laugh.

Natalie was the only person who really loved me, and now she’s gone. My therapist says I need to accept that. Move on. Not forget, just move on, she says, with her beady eyes all small and set back and almost lost in the frame of the tortoise-shell glasses that I can’t imagine her without. I wouldn’t be surprised if she emerged from the womb in those glasses and her name is in some medical journal buried among all the very formal-looking books that line the wall behind her. But then she must not understand, I think. She must not understand what we had. The way I’d imagine Natalie’s fingers on the knobs of my breasts when she turned the dial on the radio, the way the radio always reminds me of her, and the sun, the way it floated through her skin. No, I tell myself. She can’t understand, or else she would say “Don’t let go. Natalie is all you have and all you ever will have, and the earth has stopped spinning without her, and only if you take her old Kinks records into bed with you, and stroke them from under the sheet stained with her eyeliner will it ever turn again.” So I don’t know why I see my therapist anyway, but I guess I have to, because everyone seems to be really worried about me, always asking things like “Are you okay?” in this sympathetic tone, as if that would make me unload before them, and then taking a sip of wine and drifting to someone else who’s wearing a really nifty scarf. See, this is the kind of thing I could have laughed with Natalie about if she were here, rolling her eyes at men dressed in tweed jackets and gold watches, picking daisies from the pot by the front door for us to eat (just because a person should know what a daisy tastes like—and if it tastes anything like it looks). That was Natalie. She loved rolling her eyes, and eating things, and we did both of those things together a lot. I feel like if two people roll their eyes at the same times, that’s a pretty special thing. You don’t find that too often, and that’s what Natalie and I had, I explain to my therapist, who by now just looks like a giant pair of tortoise-shell glasses in pantyhose.

Natalie and I met the summer before 11th grade, when I started having visions of myself dying. Not just dying regular, like really dying: getting my head chopped off in some medieval guillotine scene surrounded by peasants and their lords, freefalling through an endless tunnel, getting buried by a sandstorm in the Sahara and I can feel the tiny grains fill my mouth and underneath my fingernails. Meeting Natalie helped a lot. Well not with the visions, but with the panic I felt after them. I figured after I met Natalie it was okay if I died, because I at least accomplished three out of the five things on my bucket list: 1. Sing karaoke in a manner that results in the summoning of police. 2. Visit Graceland (I’m not sure how this one got on, but it must’ve been for a good reason). 3. Flick off a teacher (I exed this one off at seven and many times since). 4. Fall in love. 5. Win an eating contest (not like a spur-of-the-moment one in a diner with your kid brother, but an organized one with a trophy and ribbons and all, that I could put up in my room and tell my kids’ friends about one day when I really want to embarrass them). And how many people go out with that kind of done-on-bucket-list:not-done-on-bucket-list ratio, anyway?

“Do you have another piece?” Natalie asked as I chewed my spearmint Trident, I imagine bovinely, watching Mr. Clissold fumble through an endless parade of keys till, wheezing with relief, he opened Room 333 the Saturday morning I took my first SAT. And I, like someone watching a meteor fall on her neighbor’s lawn, did nothing but stand there, paralyzed, gum hanging half-suspended off my bottom lip. And how was I supposed to concentrate on a test after a moment like that? The whole time they were asking about equilateral triangles and the meaning of words no one actually ever uses all I could think about was her backpack accidentally touching mine in the hallway, or her fingers, like pale branches, clinging to my knee under the table in the cafeteria where I’ve eaten at least three hundred soggy tuna melts, or her voice, aching and weightless, calling my name across Langdon Field, yellow and red leaves falling like confetti.

It took me a good two months to muster up the guts to talk to her again, though I’d watch her from afar: floating over Formica in combat boots, sneaking out of biology to smoke up in the alley out back, checking her black lipstick in the tiny oval mirror fastened to her locker with sticky tack, handing in her Calc test early and picking at loose cuticles till the bell rang. What a fucking number. And she was hot, too, which really got me, and made me ask myself why she seemed so married to the dark side when she could be blowing kisses to the football team in cotton candy lip gloss and making all the girls spend homeroom wondering what perfume she wears. Even covered in purple streaks (grape flavor Hi-C I guessed) her hair was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, hints of copper and blond revealing themselves in the right light (which was almost always the case in Room 240), and often pieces of it would brush against her lips or her eyelashes as she walked, and she would push those pieces aside, and I’d catch a glimpse of her eyes, hazel, and her cheeks, that always looked as if she’d been waiting for a bus in the snow.

“Nice kicks,” I told her when we, fortuitously, were both in line at the water fountain. And that was it.

She invited me to smoke out back with her and then we walked into Westfield and got ice cream shakes from the diner (one chocolate, one strawberry) and she told me about her mom, who collects Lenox figurines, and her dad, who held her down and hit her with a belt once when she listened to a song about two girls making out in a car. It was Pink Machine, the song, and I’d listened to it a lot, too, usually when everyone in the house was asleep, and I could touch my hand between my legs under lace-trim blankets, looking up at glow-in-the-dark stars stuck in make-believe constellations.

I told my therapist about the Pink Machine song and the hitting, and she suspects Natalie’s dad has control issues stemming from his bad relationship with his mom who left him no money when she died, even though she had like a ton, and forced him to make something of himself all on his own, which he then did by starting a company that sells dog cardigans. I even read an article about the company’s “brilliant entrepreneurship” in the paper and brought it to Margaret, who was pretty interested in the whole saga. Margaret, my therapist, and I are on a first name basis. When people ask me her name, I always have to remember to say Dr. Roth, or they give me this look like “Wow, something must be really wrong with you.” And then I think “Well, yeah, I see a therapist. That didn’t tip you off?” Though I guess nowadays seeing a therapist is like going to the dentist. Everyone does it, just not on a first-name basis. And I guess it would be weird if someone told me his dentist’s name was Lenny. But I wouldn’t be like, “Oh, that person must have terrible teeth.” I’d just be like “That person must have a nice dentist.” But I guess I give people the benefit of the doubt too often, which is something I need to work on. I decided that myself. Margaret wasn’t involved.

Even though Margaret and I are on a first name basis, I can still tell that’s she’s not all there. Like, for example, she has a husband and kids. But if her husband hanged himself from the beams of a horse stable, she doesn’t think it would be healthy to believe her world was over, and apparently thinks she would be in control of such thoughts (if she even had them), which to me sounds like an insane person, and kind of reminds me of my mother, who listens to everything her therapist says and probably believes all therapists walk on water or something holy like that.

When Natalie hanged herself, everyone found out because the maid, who is now suing over her PTSD, screamed so loudly everyone in the house heard, even though the house was past the lawn and pool, both perfectly rectangular and predictably sparkling, like everything in Natalie’s house. “I hate how everything in my house is so shiny,” Natalie told me. “It’s like someone goes around spraying everything with glitter, or those oily suntan lotions. I can’t look at anything without having to blink.” Natalie also believed this was the reason she got so many headaches, which I agreed was entirely possible. I couldn’t imagine living in a place like that. I mean, before Natalie, I used to think my house was bad. Usually when kids from school would come over I could see this look in their eyes like “Holy shit. Who actually lives in a place like this?” And then they’d get all distracted looking at some ornately framed painting of a lemon, or the curtains, which my mom was always fixing. Apparently the folds wouldn’t stay the way she wanted them, all symmetrical and straight, like columns with a very slight, practically invisible curve. What really shocked me is that that stuff actually impressed people. There’s no way someone looks at curtains like that and doesn’t realize that a great deal of effort was put into the folds, which is really embarrassing, if you think about it.

Basically, my mom invites every guest into her soul and says, “There’s really not much in here,” and her lack of a basic human entity is apparently something that she’s proud of, and something that people don’t seem to mind. I mean, I recognize that’s harsh, calling my mother soulless, and it’s not all the way true. If someone was drowning, and my mom didn’t exactly love what she was wearing that day, and the water was a reasonable temperature, she would probably jump in. But that’s as much as I can say. I actually discussed this with Natalie, this soulless thing, and we were wondering where it came from, like if it was genetic or something and if scientists will one day discover the soul gene, and people will be able to get soul transplants. We both agreed that would be cool, and that we’d probably want our parents to get that procedure, though it’s hard to imagine people willing to undergo a surgical procedure to add something to themselves that they don’t even think is missing. So I guess even if someone invented the procedure, it would be a moot point.

But anyway, I guess what this all boils down to is, how am I supposed to listen to Margaret with all these people running around soulless? I told her, “Margaret, when Natalie died, she took me with her. There’s nothing left for me here. I’m telling you.” I don’t know why I said it. I knew what Margaret’s response would be, but sometimes I say things, even though I know they’re pointless, or maybe I think she’ll say “You’re right. I don’t know. You can’t really move on, I guess.”

But how do I even know what Margaret’s curtains look like? Maybe they’re all symmetrically pleated like the ones in my house, in which case it’s easy for her to say what she said, which was “It’s hard to see it now, but there’s a lot of truth to the saying that time heals all wounds,” because there are so many other idiots out there with nice curtains, or at least ones who appreciate them (the curtains, and the people who love them), and can talk about shit like that without wanting to punch themselves in the face. And I love how people talk like that, you know, like time is the metaphorical Neosporin of life. Anyone who says “Time heals all wounds” is just saying “Don’t worry. After a while your pain will get sufficiently buried by new experiences that are more readily accessible to your goldfish-esque memory, and you will be unable to remember how spectacularly awful you feel now, and maybe you will be able to rationalize how maybe that spectacularly awful (now less spectacularly awful and more manageably awful) feeling has made you a better person and helped you live your life more fully, because it made you realize that everything in life has an end, and that end can never be predicted, and everything you love will be taken away from you, and the realization of all this, if you numb down the pain enough, can help you put things in perspective, meaning you are aware of life’s fragility, and try to fill the ephemeral moments with as much meaning as possible, which is what the person you loved and lost would have wanted, and in that way, you are carrying on said person’s legacy, but really you are just coming up with a story to survive, because it’s impossible to live life carrying all that pain, and in reality, all you want is that person to be back, and it’s sad to think that what you love can be gone so quickly, without warning, and if you think about it enough, it’s almost impossible to love at all, unless you get amnesia, or are really good at self-delusion, which you need for happiness and just to be, really, unless you’re some Buddhist living in the trees who only forms relationships with flowers or bees, which in my book doesn’t count as a real relationship, and if Darwin was all-the-way right, I’d probably already be dead.”

Maybe I want to feel the pain, though. Maybe the pain is the only thing telling me I’m alive. Maybe I need the pain as much as I needed Natalie. And maybe that’s selfish, I admit, to make this all about me and what I’ve lost. But what pain isn’t selfish, really? If it wasn’t selfish, would we even realize our pain, or just feel nothing? I’ll ask Margaret over my next visit. She’ll probably say something totally off, but once in a while she surprises me and says something smart, or knows something really crazy (once when I told her life seems too long she told me there was a clam who lived to be 405), which is probably the only reason I even tell her anything real instead of just, like, telling her that I’m really bummed this reality show I pretend to like is over.

I remember once Natalie and I went to see this movie at the Westfield Cineplex. Something about a kid who accidentally gets into a time machine and is able to find his mother’s murderer by traveling back to the day she was killed. It was pretty trippy, and even though we only saw whatever images survived the gravity-defying labyrinths of hair arranged on the heads of the Golden Girls doppelgangers in front of us, it was still the best movie I ever saw. Just sitting there next to Natalie was amazing, taking in her smell, like a forest on fire plus honey, tilting my head and seeing her profile, the deep slope of her nose, lips parted, cheeks glowing, cigarette tucked behind her ear like a flower. I couldn’t help but hold her hand tight, as if it were about to slip right out, as if my legs were dangling through the air and her hand was the only thing anchoring me to the edge of a cliff.

She kissed me after the movie, after I dropped her back off a few blocks away from her house, and I leaned into it, the gear shift jamming into my hip, though I barely noticed it till she slammed the door and spread her palm against the window pane and looked at me before dissolving into the shimmering pavement of Robin Lane.

Margaret asked me to describe what it’s like, you know, when I think about Natalie now. I tried explaining to Margaret how I get when an eyelash is stuck in my eye, and I try to get it out, but I can’t. I’ll look in the mirror and dig through my slimy eye socket for this skinny little, seemingly non-existent crescent. Even drowning my eyes in water doesn’t help. And it’s so annoying and kind of painful in this dull, nagging sort of way. And the longer it’s there the more I start to worry that it’ll stay stuck there forever, and I’ll never remember what it’s like to just look at stuff, like regular stuff like oranges or a kid riding a bike, without feeling like I have to try so hard and it’s still not right. It’s a really awful feeling. And that’s what it’s like without Natalie. It’s like waking up every day with an eyelash stuck in my eye. After a while, it starts to feel more normal, but sometimes I stop and think: will I ever feel that way again?


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Tara Kipnees

received a B.A. degree in English from Tufts University in 2007. After graduating, she worked for Swink magazine, and then in the art and non-profit fields. She is currently editor of the online writers’ forum, Voices in Space, and her writing has been published in Salon, Tikkun, and You Should Be Here.

At a bar four years ago, Ms. Kipnees spilled a drink on Kiera Knightley’s Louboutins. The actress’ career has torpedoed ever since.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury