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Chapter One (Excerpt) of "Impossible, Maybe"
This was a city that bordered wasteland. Windmills surrounded downtown Pearson’s Green for miles in three directions, but to the north, there was nothing but upscale apartments and new pavement. I sometimes dreamt of moving uptown, but I had no idea what the people were like. Once, on a road trip through Pennsylvania, I had poked my head from the window of Dad’s convertible. Everyone seemed terribly impatient, as though they were late for something or expecting someone that was late, and they usually held a cigarette in one hand. Now, at the age of fifteen, I’ve witnessed this faux-Hollywood lifestyle firsthand. My parents handed it to me without thought, like an ugly heirloom that I would stash for years to come.
I wasted my first day of summer watching the windmills with Whitney Rainy in her backyard. We had been tanning on the roof of her garage, or pretending to, because it was overcast and the clouds were grayer than her eyes. Whitney’s sunglasses covered most of her face, hiding them at the moment, and her blonde hair hung in perfect corkscrew curls above her collarbones. In contrast, I had brown-black hair that hung limply, like pieces of string, and a bony body. Sitting next to her made me feel skeletal, especially in a bathing suit.
Down the street, my mother was sitting on the porch swing, auspiciously searching for me. Like an animal that is smothered with affection by its owner, I was her lap dog, her prize. She wanted the neighbors to look at us and think, “Oh, how sweet, isn’t it nice that Mrs. West and her daughter are so close? Isn’t it sweet that they wear matching dresses and have little chats on their porch?” But neither my mother nor my father would dare to venture here, just a few houses away, to the Rainy’s house. They would never ring the doorbell to drag me home, let alone notice me on the roof of their garage. I was momentarily safe because my parents were too classy to do such things. Instead, they would glare angrily at the antique grandfather clock.
“The windmills are always moving,” Whitney said suddenly. “Isn’t that strange? It never ends. I think about that all the time.”
“They must stop sometimes,” I said uncertainly.
“I’ve never seen them still.” Whitney turned to adjust her bikini top. “Have you?”
Whitney’s family wasn’t much of a family at all. She made up one half, and her dad, Brian Rainy, completed the other. Her mother, who had fled town when Whitney was nine months old, was always referred to as Sharon. The name was a trigger. Whitney called her a w****; Mr. Rainy called her an escape artist.
My own dad owned an expensive travel agency. Summer was the perfect time to shed rain jackets and spend time in Florida beach houses or cozy suites down south. For fun, he spent every other weekend on wine sampling trips with his best friends – angular, slack-jawed, noisy men. They sat with us at family dinners and stared shamelessly at my body. Or lack of one.
Earlier in their marriage, my parents were different. They looked down on wealthy couples. They thought garden parties and maids and ritzy foyers were proof of a crooked economy. The idea of satin housedresses made my mother laugh. Her pocketbook was paper-thin. My dad collected coupons. Our house was one level.
That was 1978. 1979 arrived with flying colors. I was given a fourteen-karat gold charm bracelet for my twelfth birthday. My mother wanted a basement in case of storm emergencies, so we moved. My dad exchanged his red Volkswagen for a tiny black car.
On Sunday morning Mr. Rainy answered the door wearing shamrock boxers and a terry cloth robe with a hole in one pocket. Underneath, I saw that his white shirt was buttoned wrong and a cigarette had left an ashy mark in his collar. This wasn’t unusual; before Mr. Rainy had his morning vodka and orange juice, he could barely open his eyes.
“Good morning, Heather,” he said warily, reaching for something in his robe pocket – which, because of the hole, was empty. “Whitney’s been at the library for over an hour, so I wouldn’t expect her to be home soon.”
This wasn’t unusual, either. When Whitney had tired of her messy house and the obscure soft rock Mr. Rainy played from his ancient radio, she disappeared to the public library and buried herself in fashion magazines. I knew for a fact that she ripped pages and brought them home, folded in her Advanced Geometry textbook, but I never let on.
“You’re welcome to stay,” Mr. Rainy offered. He didn’t bother waiting for my decision. He shuffled into the kitchen – sure enough, pouring the remains of an orange juice container and too much vodka, I thought, to taste any good.
Mr. Rainy had a way of walking very quickly and smoothly, so that he appeared to move on wheels. Even in his dozy, pre-drunken state, his ruggedness wasn’t ugly. In fact, with his stubbly chin and bedroom eyes, he could have been a cologne model. I was always seeing posters for cologne at the strip mall, and the men looked like they’d just ended a terrible hangover or stirred from a coma.
“Lemonade?” he offered, already pouring a drink. I had to move scattered newspapers, mismatched socks, and some of Whitney’s magazine ads to make room for the glass. This ad featured a tall, spindly woman in fishnet stockings. Her almond eyes were pensive. I noticed how powerful this woman looked, as if she could strut right out of the glossy page and tower over me. She had to be at least six feet tall.
“Thank you,” I said, taking a sip of the lemonade. I used the ad as a coaster, leaving a watery mark around the woman’s face.
“How’s your family?” Mr. Rainy asked suddenly. “Your sister? Your mom and dad?”
My younger sister, Ellie, was eight years old. She was short but skinny, like me, and spent most of her time playing kickball with the neighborhood kids. She wasn’t especially fast, but she sent the rubber ball flying into oblivion at each pitch. My dad, on the other hand, had never been athletic. At barbeques and wedding receptions, when old acquaintances bragged about their high school sports, he stared blankly at the floor.
“Fine,” I said hastily. My parents hated the Rainy family. My dad scorned Mr. Rainy’s wild lawn and scraggly wardrobe, which mainly consisted of concert shirts and holey pants. My mother thought Whitney was a bad influence because she wanted to drop out of high school and move to Boston.
“Have you ever heard of Fenway Park?” Whitney had asked me one week ago. “The baseball park in Massachusetts?”
When I said no, she didn’t look surprised. “I’m going to work there,” she informed me.
I’d said dumbly, “You want to play baseball?”
“No, Heather. I’m going to be a sports reporter.”
“What will you report?” I couldn’t picture her making placid conversation with athletes into a microphone. “I mean, what will you do?”
“Oh, you know,” she’d said, her tone already growing bored. “Sports things. Records. Maybe I’ll marry a player on the Red Sox.”
I’d felt my eyebrows raise. It was a bad habit I adopted from our neighbor, Mrs. Murdoc-Carver, who was constantly lifting and narrowing her thick Italian brows with disbelief or scorn.
Mr. Rainy sat in the chair next to me, downing his breakfast in a steady gulp. I remembered reading somewhere that high cheekbones were attractive, and noticed that Mr. Rainy had an interesting facial shape. In the high school art room, I would stare at him for hours with charcoal in one hand. I’d filled my entire sketchpad from freshman year, and at the end of the trimester, I’d thrown it away in frustration. I would never be able to draw delicate flower petals or ripples of water. My roses looked jagged; my lakes looked pasty. I would have given anything for a day, or even an hour, with Mr. Rainy as my model, but I would never be able to capture his kind sleepiness.
“Heather,” he said with a funny look. “You don’t talk about yourself much.”
I was immediately embarrassed and ducked my head to play with the edges of my skirt and pretend to search for something in my pocketbook. I found an ancient ID card from junior high, a few dollar bills from washing the windows at Dad’s store, a tube of lipstick, a perfume sample, and a letter from my aunt who was trekking through Brazil.
“It’s nice to be modest,” Mr. Rainy persisted, “but you let Whitney bully you.”
“Whitney’s never hurt me,” I said. She had accidentally stepped on my foot from time to time, and she had accidentally slapped me while playing tetherball, but she had never thrown punches. I was dumbfounded.
“There are other kinds of bullies.” When I didn’t respond, he said, “She’s made you into a wallflower.”
“I’m not shy.” My sweetness was boiling into stubbornness.
“Don’t you have dreams or plans? Ideas?” he persisted. “You’re young, Heather. You have to want things. Tell me.”
I couldn’t think of a clever reply.
It felt like my entire life revolved around clever people making clever statements, all while I fell silent and racked my brain for words.
“I want to go to college.” I mumbled this into the glass of lemonade and swiped my thumb across the top, capturing the red stain from my lips. “Michigan State University.”
I had no idea where this came from.
“Michigan,” Mr. Rainy, impressed. “That’s far from home. What will you study?”
“Psychology.” In truth, the idea of being a psychologist didn’t thrill me at all. I thought it must be hellish to sit in a small office, dragging words out of a lunatic and onto a notepad. At the same time, the term “mental illness” was irritating. An illness was physical, something easy fixed with a doctor, who would probe needles into your veins and hand you an orange container of pills. Mental illness was permanent. It disturbed and excited me, but I had no intention of going to Michigan or studying psychology.
Mr. Rainy gave an approving nod and ducked over his empty glass. “Dream big,” he said, his face hidden. Later – much, much later, when high school ended and I was greeted with enthusiastic professors – I would hear this instruction again, to Dream Big. For now, however, the words were fresh and important. “Nothing is impossible, but you can’t have everything. Be ambitious, but don’t be greedy. Being greedy and happy is impossible, maybe.” He was contradicting himself, but the advice was hefty.
“I’d better go home,” I announced. My cheeks were already flushed pink with sweaty exertion, and I wasn’t looking forward to the muggy, saturated air. My hair would curl into ringlets and plaster itself against my forehead. “Thank you for having me.”
“Stop by anytime,” Mr. Rainy said, absent-minded again. I stared at his work tie, which had fallen into a green puddle on the kitchen floor.
When I got to my feet, his eyes wandered to my tights and black skirt, which was tucked neatly under a red blazer. My outfit wasn’t especially revealing, but I was familiar with men’s stares. They were different from Mr. Rainy’s, though. Men were pig-like and unashamed, while he was admiring. Instead of peeking for skin, he was gentle. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this kind of staring. I paused in the doorway, propping the screen open with my thigh.
“Heather?” Mr. Rainy asked. His sole focus was my face, now. He had forgotten my body altogether and was memorizing my lips. I understood.
I’d had my first kiss at the age of thirteen, at a birthday party. Spin-the-bottle, I remembered. The boy had shaggy hair that tickled my chin, and for a brief moment, a strand had slipped between the pink of our mouths. I was distracted; I’d wanted to brush it away, and in that instant, I’d forgotten to close my eyes. If the boy, Tyler-something, had opened his eyes too, he would have seen nothing but my hazel irises.
Though Mr. Rainy had no way of knowing this, I read the word in the air between us: second. He would be my second, but in this case, the superior.
“Brian,” I said. The word was stale but reassuring. He nodding, allowing this, and shed his entire identity along with it. Mr. Rainy was no longer father, was no longer family friend or even neighbor. He was Brian, who existed only behind the bedroom eyes and perfect, hollowed cheeks.
My fingers groped for his belt loops. Almost as much as the kiss itself, I appreciated the softness of his forearm, the inside of his elbow. My shoulder grazed the doorknob and pinned the rest of my body between two dismal things, between the shadow of a coat closet and the collarbone of my best friend’s father.
I was greedy and happy, the impossible combination, but maximized to extremes. I was blissful and famished for touch.
My body, every hair and pore of it, felt completely alien. Mr. Rainy’s lips were soft. I felt the pinpricks of stubble, which resembled needles at first, but later grew unimportant. I liked the chafing of skin against skin. I loved it, in fact. I was no longer a teenage girl; I was barely human. My only purpose was to feel, because there was so much of it. My senses lost track and died, along with my willpower, if I’d had any to begin with.
Whitney Rainy was a vacant daydream. She had no relation to this man who existed in parts. Her lips were nothing like the lips that touched mine, or the hands that lifted my wrists above my head, or the legs that allowed him to crawl closer. She was the farthing thing from my mind, and also the closest.
Worries gave me energy. By the time I’d brought myself to my knees, crouched in the farthest realms of the Rainys’ closet where only the smell of mildew and the blackness of winter clothes existed, Mr. Rainy had finished.
“Heather,” he said, like a person who has recently connected a face with a name. I glowed with happiness. I was no longer a lonely word; now, too, I had a memory to match.
As I walked home, I couldn’t help but bring my hand to my mouth. I gently patted my lower lip first, then the upper. I expected to find a sort of heat, but there was nothing. There was no evidence and therefore no shame. The only sign of my visit was the fallen pea coat that we’d tread on, and by now Mr. Rainy would have returned the coat to its hanger.