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My new stepmother’s full name is Patricia Stephanie Jones McCoy, but I call her “Patti” because she hates it. When they first started dating, about a year and a half ago, she asked me to call her “Trish,” because she wants us to be pals. But I don’t call her that because 1. I don’t want to be her pal. 2. She thinks “Trish” makes her sound more mature, which I guess she’s insecure about because 3. I can remember when she was a senior at the local high school and she used to go by “Patti.”
She was a quietly pretty chubby girl who didn’t have a lot of friends because she didn’t really have anything going for her in the way of intelligence or personality. I know for a fact that she’s a hopeless romantic because when she moved in I looked in one of her cardboard boxes and it was filled with all of these old romance novels. Every one of them had her name, date, and age filled in on the inside cover, so I also know that she used to dot the “i” at the end of her name with a heart. She went away to some mediocre state school somewhere in the Midwest and after she graduated she came back to her hometown cool, confident, fifty pounds lighter, and with a trendy new haircut and color. I honestly have no idea why she ever came back here. I guess it was probably to laugh at all of the girls who were mean to her in high school and got fat, and then she planned on heading off to find a job in a city or something. But she ended up meeting my dad and they got married and now she’s stuck here just like those girls who she came back to laugh at. Only she’s the thin one now. She thinks she’s so smart and sophisticated, but I make sure to remind her of “Patti” every single day, and I’m going to keep doing that until one of us moves out.
So she and my dad got married about six months ago, and I met Luis two months after that, which I guess means that we’ve been “a couple” for around four months now. I really hate the word “couple.” It groups you in with that other person, ties you to him so tightly that everyone assumes that you’re constantly with that other person, that you do stuff together all the time, and that the only place you want to be is with them. I only see Luis occasionally because our schedules don’t really match up. I have school and my job, and Luis is twenty-two and works at the gas station, so both of us are almost always too busy to spend much time together. And I’m totally fine with that.
Before we went out, I met him three times completely by accident. The first time, I went into the 7/11 at the gas station to get batteries, and someone had put them way out of the way in the back of one of the very top shelves. I asked the boy mopping the floors two aisles over if he could get them for me, and as he handed them over I noticed that he was new. I’d never seen him at the station before, and I don’t remember ever seeing him in town before that. He smiled at me when he gave me the batteries, and his scraggly little mustache flexed.
I met him for the second time three weeks later. I was invited to a party by this girl that I was sort of friends with at the time, and even though I don’t hang out much with the kids she’s close with I went anyway because there was nothing better to do that night. I got drunk pretty quickly so I wouldn’t be awkward with these random kids and then my friend made me come with her to get some weed from her dealer. We crunched through the snow for six blocks, weaving tipsily down the empty main drag, which was unusually dark and silent because of the recent blizzard. When I looked up into the spotlights of the industrial metal lampposts that guarded the road I could see drifting snowflakes illuminated against the lonely yellow backdrop. Hazy, I walked backwards, trying to keep my eyes on the light like some kind of dumb moth while still following that girl. I fell on my a** ten seconds later into a pile of snow outside of the old boarded-up coffee shop. She looked back and laughed, then stretched out her hand to help me up.
“Come on, he’s not gonna wait around forever. ‘Specially with all this snow and sh**.”
We ended up behind the back of the Stop N Save, and there was that boy again. After she finished paying him, he looked up at me. This time he didn’t smile because he was high or whatever, I don’t know, and I almost told him right there that I thought I knew him from somewhere. But then my friend grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and pulled me down the sidewalk until we somehow stumbled up the steps of the house and into the blazing light and heat and noise of the party.
The Wednesday after that, he came into Jimmy’s Ski Rental Shop. I’m not a really great skier or anything, but I’m okay because the town I live in is only about ten minutes from a mountain, and there’s not really much else to do here. So I work at the ski rental place because it’s not that hard to measure people’s feet sizes and fit them to the right pair of skis. We don’t get a whole lot of business anyway because most people choose to rent at the mountain. I guess it’s easier for them, and I can’t complain because it makes my life a lot easier too. I get paid to mostly just sit around and listen to my iPod while staring at the same three snow sport posters that have been tacked to the walls since Jimmy’s opened, which is exactly what I was doing when Luis came in to get a pair of skis. He smiled at me, and it was the first time that I’d had a chance to see him clearly. He’s not handsome at all. He has a big, hawk-like nose that hangs over the rest of his face like a cliff and large brown eyes that have a lost-puppy look to them, which normally would mean that he’s kind of pathetic except that he always has this look on his face like he’s on the inside of the greatest joke in the world that everyone else should be dying to know. But my favorite part about him is his hair. It’s soft and brown and has a stylishly messy, unkempt look that makes it seem like he spends a lot of time taking care of it even though we both know that he could never in a million years afford an expensive, homeless-chic haircut. The whole effect is sort of ruined by his attempt at a mustache that jumps off his upper lip whenever he moves his mouth. He’s also way taller than me, and his baggy clothes just sort of hang off of him because he’s so lanky. He eats like a total pig, but his face always has that half-starved look of a homeless kid that had to grow up too fast. But I’m not sure what happened to him because he doesn’t talk about his family or anything in his life before he moved here, and I’m not pushy enough to ask.
He noticed me staring at him and smiled, so I looked away and shoved his skis at his grinning face. His teeth are nice, straight and white. Every day after that, he came into the shop to rent a pair of skis, wasting so much money because he could have just bought a pair for as much as he was spending. One day I told him that and we started talking for a while, and somehow I agreed to go out with him. It was only after I asked him what school he went to that I found out that he was six years older than me, and when I asked him what college he’d gone to he told me that he dropped out of high school when he was sixteen. But I don’t really care because he has a car, and he rents an apartment that he shares with a bunch of roommates who always seem to change every few weeks. I go there whenever I get in a fight with Patti or my dad, or if I’m too drunk to come home and need a place to crash.
When I went over last week we sprawled out over his lumpy gray couch thumbing through a huge stack of tabloids and switching between watching cartoons and MTV. I was right in the middle of reaching for the pack of Marlboros when I looked up from my magazine and stared at Luis’ filthy apartment. There’s trash everywhere, like empty beer cans and pizza boxes, and what he does have in the way of furniture is either old, stained, or broken. I’m not sure exactly what color the worn out shag carpeting is now, but it looks like something that partied a little too hard past purple. The walls are a creamy, but majorly chipped white and I caught sight of a dog-eared poster of a girl in a bikini from a Coors ad taped up next to the door. What was I was doing here? But then I thought about the microwaved meals lovingly prepared by Patti and the forced conversations at the kitchen table that were waiting for me at home. Carefully, so that I could avoid kicking out any more off-white stuffing, I propped my feet up on the armrest and lit my cigarette.
My dad cannot stand Luis. It’s like the only part of my life he bothers to care about. Typical Scene- I’m leaving the house to go out with Luis for the night. Dad’s sitting on his La-Z-Boy watching ESPN while he ices his bum knee. As I turn the knob he looks up and pretends that he’s just noticed me. Like I haven’t been in the den for 10 minutes already searching for my wallet.
Dad: “Well, glad to see you’ve decided to come down from your room and join the land of the living, stranger. Where do you think you’re going, though? Trish made lasagna. It’s your favorite.” (Lies. Dad knows exactly what I’m doing. And I don’t like lasagna.)
Dad: “With that guy again?”
Dad: “You’re not going out dressed like that. You look like a club girl. How about you take off all that makeup and we can have a family dinner?” (Family? Patti? I don’t think so.)
Me: “I already made plans. I can’t cancel now. Luis is waiting outside.”
Dad: “I think you need to take a look at your priorities and see if you like the way your life is going. Lately I’ve been feeling like there’s a stranger living in my house, and I’m not very fond of her.”
Me: “Me too.”
I yank open the door and stalk out, making sure to slam it shut hard behind me, hoping that the force rattles the stupid little ranch house right off its foundation.
A little while ago Patti and my dad confronted me, and he said that he would absolutely not tolerate me going out with someone who was that much older. So I said that Patti was only a couple of years older than that, and maybe she should go out with him. Then the whole house got quiet and the conversation just sort of fizzled out, so now I can do whatever I want. He didn’t even notice when I came home drunk at two in the morning with my nose pierced, and I don’t think he notices much of anything I do now. He’s too wrapped up in his marriage, and I think he’s given up on me as a “lost cause.” That’s one of the reasons why Luis and I are leaving tonight. We’re blowing out of this dead-end little ski town and moving on to bigger and better things. Or that’s at least what Luis says.
Two days ago, the last day before winter break, I was sitting on the cold stone steps at the front of our school waiting for Luis to come get me. He’d promised to pick me up so we could get coffee before he dropped me off at Jimmy’s Ski Shop, but he was late as usual. He’s always a little bit late for everything but never more than twenty minutes. It used to bother me, but I don’t mind anymore because that’s just the way he is. Anyway, I know enough by now to keep a book on me so that I have something to do while I wait. A bunch of other kids were all hanging around, and since I’m sort of friendly with everyone we all waved at each other and it wasn’t weird that I sat down near them. A huge SUV that was blasting rap music came screeching in and a cute guy from some other school threw open the side door. A group of cool seniors breezed by everyone, laughing, and they all jumped into the car and it sped away. I sighed and rested the back of my head against the edge of the concrete step above me. I shifted my eyes to the left and stared at one of the mossy stone lions that flanked both sides of the school. Even though it was chilly outside, the student parking lot was pretty full up with kids hoping to socialize before getting picked up by their parents, getting a ride from a friend, or whatever. I crossed my arms inside my light blue fleece and tried to rest my eyes, but I couldn’t ignore all the noise so I squinted at the branches of a nearby tree and how they looked black silhouetted against the sunlight. A minivan pulled up and this tiny freshman who had been sitting on a bench clutching her papers to her chest suddenly sprang to her feet and sped-walked stiffly out of the room until she reached her car and sat in the passenger seat next to her mom. Her dog licked her face when she got in and I sat up and stared down the words on a page in my book, focusing so hard that they blurred. I felt really weird and tense, like I somehow took her place as the awkward freshman waiting for my parents. When Luis finally showed up I let out a relieved breath that fogged in the winter air, and made my mouth the shape of a small wry smile. I stretched languidly and ambled on over to his car, looking right through everyone else like I could care less about people, school, and life in general.
It’s nearly 1:00 in the morning now, and my dad and Patti are in their room asleep. The plan is to slip out real quietly with a suitcase full of only essentials and a couple hundred dollars stolen from Patti’s wallet, run into Luis’ car when he pulls up, and then we’re going to speed away so fast that by the time everyone wakes up we’ll be at least two states away.
I look out my window and see Luis’ car pull up alongside the sidewalk. It’s a 1992 red Honda Accord, and there are bumper stickers plastered all over the badly dented fender. The paint is peeling and there are scratch marks from the time one of Luis’ roommates keyed his car after Luis kicked him out of the apartment. The car is missing two hubcaps and it’s all dusty and dirty but nobody ever offered me a prince with a Bentley so I’m going to take what I can get. I pick up my suitcase and creep out of the house, but in the dark I slam into the sofa because I forgot about Patti’s attempt at feng shui earlier this week. My dad’s snoring cuts off, and I hear Patti murmur, “What is it?” I freeze in the middle of the den with my heart thumping a mile a minute, and my wide eyes dart furiously from the bedroom door to the window where the red Honda Accord is idling by the sidewalk. After a few minutes, everything is silent and I carefully tiptoe out the front door and run as fast as I can towards the car. I yank the passenger side open and throw my suitcase into the trash-filled backseat. The little ranch house stares forlornly back at me and my chest hurts a little when I notice how obviously plastic the siding looks under the glow of the car’s headlights and the streetlamps. “Hey,” Luis says, and leans in for a kiss, but I crane my neck away from him and turn my head so that I’m facing the window. He shrugs and flips the hood of his sweatshirt over his head and puts the car in drive, slowly at first so that it doesn’t make a sudden loud noise and wake everyone up, but as we leave my house behind we go faster and faster until we hit the highway and I’m out.
I’m laughing so hard that I’m gasping for breath, and Luis is chuckling quietly with a huge grin plastered onto his face. After a few minutes, when I’ve calmed down a little bit, he hands me a beer and then pulls one out for himself. We both start to laugh hysterically because we’re breaking who knows how many laws, but we’re mostly just giddy from all the excitement. In between gulps, Luis talks about our plans for the future while I smile, nod, laugh and agree with him, because everything’s going to be great from now on.
“Wow, this is cool, huh? We’ve done it. Aw man, you’re going to love New York. We’re going to get ourselves a little apartment for cheap in one of the outerboroughs, and you can get a job if you want and I’m gonna deal there and make it big, there’s gonna be so many people buying from me, we’ll have so much money we won’t even know what to do with it all!”
He laughs and keeps talking, and I press my face against the window and feel the cool glass against my forehead. I watch what little I can see of the trees through the darkness go by in a blur. We pass the occasional car, and as the headlights whiz past us I wonder who’d be driving around at two, three in the morning. Then I think that the people in that car are probably wondering the same thing about us, so I resolve to try not to think anymore. My eyelids droop and I lean back into the seat and pull my jacket over me like a blanket. I let Luis’ voice and the soft rock on the radio blend together into a soothing hum and it lulls me to sleep.
I wake up a few hours later, and it’s still dark and I don’t recognize where we are anymore. Luis is still talking about our plans, but suddenly things seem sour and a lot sharper and my skin itches like crazy. I don’t have the heart to tell Luis that life’s not going to be as sweet as he thinks; that he’s probably going to have a lot of trouble with all the competition up in New York. With a city as big and twisted as that there’s bound to be a lot of guys like him, and most of them are going to be a lot tougher and smarter and meaner. Luis keeps talking about our future together in the big city, and I feel a little bad for him because he doesn’t know that we don’t have a future together. I turn my head to look at him, and all I see is a smaller, dirtier apartment with no furniture where all we’re going to do is smoke and drink. There’s no way he has enough money, or will ever have enough money to live somewhere even remotely nice, and whatever money we do have he’ll probably spend it all on beer, cigarettes, and drugs. And I don’t even know what I’m going to do in New York because all I’ve ever done is work at Jimmy’s Ski Shop and I can’t do anything else. The truth is, all I see myself doing is leaving with someone else, and going on forever like that, drifting about different cities and different guys. I pull my hand up to my face and chew on my thumbnail for a while, and as I stare out the window into the night I really want to smash the radio so the music will finally stop.
I don’t really know how much time has passed, because when you’re driving at night the hours all blur together. But after a little while, we pull into a gas station so Luis can fill up the car, and I get out and tell him that I’m going to the bathroom. I walk around to the back of the store and lean up against the wall. I slide down the wall until I’m slumped on the ground, and with the toe of my sneaker I half-heartedly push a roll of toilet paper that’s on the tile away from me. My limbs are so heavy, and all I want to do is just close my eyes and stop. Somehow I manage to drag my arm up, and I fumble around in my jacket pocket until the tips of my fingers touch my cellphone.