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Still life with tornado, p.10
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       Still Life With Tornado, p.10

           A. S. King
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  His solution to “shyster therapy” was monthly meetings.

  We never solve anything at the monthly meetings. Every conversation with him is like talking to a person with no short-term memory. He forgets that ten seconds before, he was sorry. He forgets that ten seconds before that, he admitted to being wrong about something.

  He makes excuses, manipulates, gaslights, and we end up yelling at each other every single time. In fact, I have no idea why I even show up anymore. If I can walk out at work, why not walk out of these? Usually, when the meeting ends, I feel completely alone in the world and I comfort myself with that fact that at least I have Sarah.

  But this month, since Sarah left school, I realized that every single day that goes by with me playing my part in the deal and Chet playing his part in the deal is a step toward Sarah taking shit she doesn’t deserve.

  People pleasers make the best victims.

  I see it all the time at work.

  MEXICO—Day Four I: Ruins

  Tulum. Ancient Mayan ruins an hour away from our resort.

  Mom gave Bruce the family camera and told him to be careful with it. She gave him two hundred dollars in American money and said, “Just in case.” Bruce got his phone out of the safe and programmed the hotel front desk’s number into it and Dad reminded us that he and Mom had to use their romantic dinner credits that night and were scheduled for a six-thirty sunset on the beach with champagne.

  The plan: A van would pick us up at seven thirty a.m. outside the resort. We would drive an hour to Tulum. We would tour the Tulum ruins and then swim in the crystal clear waters below the cliffs there. The van would leave Tulum at one thirty, and we would be back to the resort by two thirty p.m. to enjoy the rest of our day.

  That was the plan.

  That’s not what happened.

  The van picked us up and I was excited. I’d been reading the brochure about Tulum at breakfast. Bruce and I had to rush eating because the buffet only opened at seven. I ordered my omelet entirely in Spanish. Jamón, queso y dos huevos por favor. I only got to eat half of it.

  On the walk to the lobby, I assaulted Bruce with Tulum facts. Tulum was the last Mayan city where people lived. It was a major port for the area. Diseases brought by the Spanish probably killed everybody there. It was built between 1400 and 1200 BC. At its peak, 1,600 people lived there. One of the things traded there was obsidian. I didn’t know what obsidian was, so I asked Bruce, but he was just walking fast and trying to find the Amstar representative so we wouldn’t miss the van. So I kept saying the word over and over. Obsidian. Obsidian. Obsidian. It was a cool word.

  We got in the van with six other people.

  I was the only little kid, so I knew not to be annoying. Bruce and I sat in the back and there was barely any air-conditioning and it was hot and my seat belt was slashing across my neck because the seat was so low.

  The driver started talking to us and telling us all about Tulum. I looked out the window as we drove from the safety of our resort and onto the main road south. It wasn’t nearly as pretty outside of the resort. There were a lot of small towns where people hung their laundry on lines strung between buildings. We drove a stretch of road where it was nearly all jungle to the right and I wondered how many howler monkeys were growling there. The driver hit a bump in the road too fast and swore in Spanish and apologized. He said, “No matter how many times I drive this road, I forget this new bump!” The adults laughed. I readjusted my seat belt so it didn’t cut into me the next time he did that.

  Bruce looked down at me a few times during the drive and asked if I was okay by giving me a thumbs-up and raising his eyebrows. I returned the thumbs-up with a smile to let him know I was fine. Really I wanted to ask him about Mom and Dad getting divorced. But we were in the van—with other people. Probably not the right time.

  The driver told us too many facts about Tulum. How fortified it was. How many buildings there were. Something about the Descending God or a diving god or something about a pyramid and then some words I didn’t understand. I lost track of every sentence he said halfway through.

  We hit another bump too fast. All of us bounced and a few of the adults said something to the driver. He apologized. He said something was wrong with the van. There was a scraping sound under me and Bruce. It had already been an hour since we left the resort, so I thought we were close, but we weren’t. The driver said, when he pulled the van over to the side of the road, that we were still twenty minutes away.

  He left all of us in the van and went outside to talk on his cell phone. He looked at all four tires and then he leaned over and looked under the van and talked faster into his cell phone.

  He got louder. He said, “Okay, okay!” and then he hung up.

  “Ladies and gentlemen, we will have to be patient. Our vehicle has had some problem. Help is on the way!”

  Adults up front complained. We need to be back by two thirty! I paid money for this trip! Can’t you fix it yourself? Bruce and I stayed quiet but it was getting so hot in the van that I asked if I could get out, and when I did, all the others wanted to get out of the van, too.

  One guy, who we learned was from Michigan, made a joke about how our trip to see ruins was ruined. Nobody laughed.

  There was no shade on the side of the road. It felt like 110 degrees and Bruce helped me put sunblock on my shoulders and my back. I had a hat on but I put some on my face just in case. Every Tulum tourist van that drove by after that beeped at us, but they didn’t stop to help us.

  The driver opened the back doors of the van and handed us each a bottle of water. It was hot. Mom always told Bruce and me not to drink hot water out of plastic bottles, but we figured if there was a time to do it, that was it. I don’t know how much time passed before a van finally stopped.

  The driver pulled in behind us and I noticed there were already people in his van. Too many for us to fit in with them. I asked Bruce what time it was and he checked his phone and said it was almost eleven thirty.

  “Eleven thirty?”

  This one guy kept badgering the driver about getting his money back. The driver was too busy talking to the other van driver to answer. They seemed to be figuring out a plan. I tried to follow in Spanish, but I knew un pocito español.

  I knew what autobús meant. I knew it meant a bus. I told Bruce a bus was coming to pick us up.

  That’s also not what happened.

  The van driver told us to get our things out of the van and crossed the road with us all in tow—he held one of my hands and Bruce held the other. He said we would catch a bus. We had to walk about ten minutes in the midday sun to get to the bus stop. Every adult with us, Bruce included, was soaked from sweat. It was past noon. The bus was due any minute. The driver said we would all get a refund, he was very sorry, and we could try to see Tulum again tomorrow.

  The Michigan man made his ruined ruin adventure joke again and this time people laughed.

  It was a public bus and the van driver took care of our fares. It was crowded and didn’t have air-conditioning but the windows were open.

  The people on the autobús stared at us. Some smiled, but not that many. Most of them glared because the Michigan guy was talking so loud and the complaining guy complained about the autobús and wasting a morning of his vacation and I realized that we were the annoying American tourists that give annoying American tourists their reputation. Stupid jokes, expecting luxury, loud—all while riding on a public bus with people who were probably going to work to wash American tourists’ sheets and towels or something. The glares made me uncomfortable, but I got to see a part of Mexico that Mom and Dad would never see from their perfectly lined-up chairs over the rims of their never-ending drinks. I got to see a man spit out the window of an autobús. I got to see a woman hand-sewing the hem of a baby’s white dress. I got to see the driver let a man onto the bus who didn’t have enough pesos to cover the far

  We got back at three. The bus had stopped what seemed like one hundred times. So much for Tulum. So much for seeing pyramids and cliffs and the real Caribbean sea—crystal clear and turquoise.

  Bruce said, as we walked into the lobby, “I’m so sorry, Sarah.”

  “Wasn’t your fault.”

  “I’m going to be in so much trouble.”

  “You didn’t make the van break down,” I said. I said it snippy, though. I was tired and hungry. I wanted to talk all day to Bruce about Mom and Dad and divorce. “Can we go eat something?”

  “I have to tell them we’re back. Mom’s probably worried.”

  We found them on the beach. Under a thatched umbrella, drinking today’s drink of the day, a Sea Horse. Mom said, “Back already!”

  Bruce and I decided, right then, with a look between us, to pretend that everything had gone just right.

  “How was it?” Dad asked.

  I said, “It was awesome! But I’m starving, so we’re going to go and grab something from the snack shack.”

  Snack shack. Fried chicken nuggets and hot dogs. I knew this wasn’t real. I didn’t see one snack shack in my two hours on the autobús. After being in the real world from seven thirty a.m. to three p.m., I knew the resort was just a lie.

  After we ate, we went back to the room and Bruce had a shower because he smelled pretty bad. I sat out on the balcony and watched Mom and Dad on the beach. They just sat under that umbrella and drank and drank and Mom read a book and Dad had a nap and they never went near the water. Day Four and I bet they hadn’t even noticed the seaweed. I looked out to sea and asked the sea god to help us. I wasn’t specific. There was no need. We needed help in every department, as far as I was concerned.

  • • •

  Later, after the dinner buffet, Bruce and I sat on the balcony covered in Mexican bug spray. I didn’t know what to say to him so I did a lot of math while Mom and Dad were fake-loving each other in the tent below, having the romantic dinner they earned for sitting through the vacation club presentation.

  The math was coming to me. If Mom and Dad hadn’t slept in the same bed since Bruce was eight and I was born when Bruce was nine, then that means they stayed together for an extra year and then—

  “I’m an accident!” I said to Bruce.

  “Join the club,” he said.

  “But I’m a real accident,” I said. “They didn’t even want to be married at all by the time I showed up.”

  “It feels the same. Trust me.”

  More math. They were married a year before they had Bruce. They stopped loving each other before Bruce was eight. That’s maybe seven years they might have been happy. They had me at least two years after they were unhappy and now they’re married twenty years. Seven happy years. Thirteen unhappy years.

  “How do you know they’re getting divorced?” I asked him.

  “They told me. I thought they told you, too,” he said. “They said they were going to this time.”

  “It’s okay,” I said. “I’d rather know than not know.”

  “They were supposed to tell you,” he said.

  “It’s pretty obvious they hate each other,” I said.


  “Last week I heard Dad call Mom the c word.”

  “They think they’re being quiet,” he said.

  “I snoop.”

  “You don’t snoop. You just live in the same house. They thought I didn’t hear it either until I was fifteen and finally said something.”

  “What’d you say?”

  “I was mad because they wouldn’t let me try out for a play at that teen theater thing they run over at Arden,” he said. “I think I said something like ‘Just because you two are so busy calling each other asshole every night doesn’t mean I have to stay here and listen!’”

  “You’d think Mom would say anus,” I said.

  Bruce spat out his mouthful of beer and we both cracked up for about a minute. I think our day surviving the trip-not-trip to Tulum was getting to us because this was an obvious point. Mom would call an asshole an anus.

  We used a bottle of water to clean the beer off the balcony tiles. We looked down at the tent set up on the beach where Mom and Dad were eating their pretend-romantic dinner. The resort made a big deal out of these romantic dinners—warm, dim lighting, rose petals strewn around the tent, romantic Mexican music. I wondered if Mom and Dad were trying to figure out what the lyrics to the songs were. Mom speaks a little Spanish because of her job. Dad thinks bandadigo means “fantastic” because some guy once told him it did, but he never checked so he says it thinking he’s speaking Spanish, but he’s not. He’s speaking a language one of his frat brothers made up in college.

  I said, “What do you think the lyrics are to the song that’s playing down there?”

  Bruce said, “I can’t really hear it.”

  “No. I mean made-up lyrics. Like, You’re an asshole and I should have never had kids with you. Stuff like that.”

  “Oh,” Bruce said. “How about, You’re just a bitch because you’re on your period and you don’t realize it’s a medical condition.”

  “Oh, I have one. One day you’re going to realize that I’m a really great guy and you’ll stop nagging me all the time.”

  “Great guy, my ass,” Bruce said. “How about, You’re a dumb prick and I hate you.”

  “I’ve heard that song before,” I say.

  By the time I was sixteen, I’d forget this moment. But then I’d remember it again. And everything would change.

  Six Days (Tornado)

  What happens for the next six days is nothing new. What happens for the next six days is unoriginal. I don’t want to see ten-year-old Sarah because she wants to talk about Mexico and I don’t want to talk about Mexico because Mexico wasn’t original. I stay away from Alleged Earl’s street because I don’t want to see Alleged Earl because he’s an original idea and I don’t want my dullness to rub off on him. That happens, you know. That happens to people.

  One minute you have a guy and he’s full of energy and spark and he’s ready to take on life and then the next thing you know he meets another guy who likes to sit at home and watch football games and drink beer or something. Then his spark just gets smaller and smaller until he’s the same as the other guy. Happens all the time.

  On Tuesday morning I leave the house before Dad even gets up. I see the sunrise. I see all the people rushing to work. I see a college girl walking along singing to the music in her ears that no one else can hear. She has a nice singing voice. I see people coming out of the subway stations and I see people running down into them. Subway stations are mysterious from street level. It’s as if thousands of people just disappear down there every day. I decide that subway stations are like portals. You leave at eight in the morning, you arrive back at five thirty in the evening in the same clothes, with the same briefcase. It would be a lot cooler if the subway portals took people somewhere original, though, instead of just to work.

  I decide not to think about art for a week. I decide art is futile. I decide there are better things than art. I decide not to take any buses for a week. I decide that if I want to go somewhere, I will walk.

  On Tuesday, I decide to walk to the Liberty Bell.

  The Liberty Bell is at Independence Mall. It’s a state park, but it’s not a park. It’s just another part of the same city I live in. I stand in line and when I get to the room with the Liberty Bell in it, I learn all the things I learned the last time I was here. The crack. The repair. The second crack that ruined the bell for good. The inscription. What it’s made of, who made it, and when.

  Did you know that no one living today has actually heard the Liberty Bell ring?

  I think that’s a metaphor for something, but I’m not sure what.

  I have to stop my brain from thinking abou
t it because metaphor is art.

  I notice the groups of schoolchildren. Some can’t stand still. Most aren’t listening. Some are trying to reach in and touch the bell and they know it’s not allowed but they do it anyway until a chaperone stops them. None of this is original, but I can’t figure out what’s so important about being original right now. Who cares?

  I can’t stop my brain from thinking about art. I watch the kids and think: Those kids are art.

  I think: That bell is art. It’s on display like art and it’s viewed by millions like art and it’s a symbol of something artistic. Freedom. Freedom is artistic.

  For lunch, I stand by a trash can and wait for someone to throw food away. It only takes a half hour for some tourist guy to buy a vendor hot dog and take a bite, then toss it away. I wait for him to round the corner and I lean in and pull the hot dog out. He put mustard on it and I hate mustard, but I wipe it away with the napkin and then I eat the hot dog by the side of the trash can.

  The hot dog is art. The napkin with the mustard all over it is art. The trash can is art.

  Outside Dunkin’ Donuts, a woman tosses in a bag with half a cruller still in it. It’s the nicest doughnut I ever ate even though it had her lipstick smeared on one side of it.

  I don’t know why I’m doing this. I have money in my wallet. Five bucks. I have a SEPTA pass that could put me on any bus, subway, or trolley in the city. Instead, I hang around tourist areas and eat food out of trash cans.

  I think I’m trying to become Alleged Earl.

  Which is stupid. I am a boring middle-class girl who has a house and a bed and a favorite umbrella.

  But on Tuesday, I learn that other people’s food tastes especially nice. That and the thing about the Liberty Bell never being heard by anyone living today. You can learn things by just walking around and listening. Mom asks about dinner with my friend and I tell her my friend is sick. She says, “Maybe next Tuesday, then.”

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