Tragic Expressions of Unmet Needs
I hadn’t heard from Kelly Sindler for almost ten years before she used Facebook to invite me and the rest of “THEM,” as we had been called in high school, to restore her dad’s house for when he returned from the cancer ward. As she wrote, “I need you to help me clean the basement, remove all the junk and trash, and install a ramp. I’m sorry for the bother but look forward to seeing all of you who spent so many nights here before Saturday detentions smoking and drinking and just being crazy. Consider it the high school reunion none of us attended. #THEM.”
Kelly and I had been best friends throughout high school and, although we never had sex, we had experienced everything else sexual first together, such that it felt weird I hadn’t technically lost my virginity to her. It seemed somehow like something that I still anticipated, even though the time for that had passed, as we had both been married, although she’d recently divorced Chris, who, rumor had it, abused her.
My wife didn’t want me to go.
“Her dad’s sick,” I said, sitting on the edge of the bed throwing tools into a gym bag for the clean up (I’d hidden the real bag, containing cigarettes, vodka, and condoms, under the spare tire hub in my company’s hauling van). “And anyway, everyone else will be there.”
“How do I know they’ll be there?”
“Check the Facebook page, the thing where people say they’re coming.”
“Right, Troy, you expect me to trust Facebook?” She exited the bathroom, her face puffy from the steroids for colitis and masked with exfoliants, her hands on her widening hips, eyes tiny black points.
“I expect you to trust me.” I turned around and gave her an innocent look, which I immediately regretted. She was the kind of woman, I feared, who was incapable of saying "I’m wrong" or "I’m sorry," a fear that was confirmed as our twin girls became teenagers and began to challenge her. This disposition resulted in any comment intended to make her feel bad making her angry instead. I knew she’d be pissed; the saddest thing looking back is that I didn’t even care how she felt anymore; I was already resigned to just sticking around until the girls left for college.
“This isn’t about me. This is about you fucking your high school girlfriend and leaving your family, alone, with a blizzard coming I might add. What if the power cuts out again?”
“I talked to Gary.” Gary was our neighbor and my partner in our construction business, A.M. Construction. I zipped closed the gym bag and threw it on my bureau, making a gesture like Look If You Want To. “I’ll only be 30 minutes away. She’s in Radley Run, by my parents’ old place in Chadds Ford.” I got into bed without changing clothes.
She was still standing in the bathroom threshold, looking small. “That’s just what you want. Me to call and so everyone can talk about what a bitch I am. Or how ‘bout I show up, then you can really roll your eyes and pretend you’re Mr. Perfect, the Perfect Son, the Perfect Husband, the Perfect Dad?”
“I just think I’m average, not perfect,” I said. “I do my best.”
She returned to the bathroom and slammed the door. The electric toothbrush whirred, she gargled and spit, the toilet flushed. When she came out she grabbed her self-help book from the end table and strode into the sitting room, muttering “Must be nice to do whatever you want.”
I stretched out diagonally across the bed to her side, where I hadn’t been in months, imagining how tomorrow evening would go. According to her Facebook profile pics, Kelly was still pretty, she just looked different, skinnier, paler, ghostly—all her pictures were shadowed selfies, as if she never left the house anymore. It was like something had been taken from her, perhaps by Chris’ abuse, some certainty of who she was: there was a look in her green eyes as if questioning who she was. She never smiled, but rather had her mouth open, like she were surprised at who she saw in the camera. In some of the pictures she had the look of someone who’d been abducted.
I had no idea if she were thinking about what I was thinking about, remembering what I had remembered, or if her experience with Chris had those memories and desires. As I fell asleep, I thought of all those moments where we could have fucked but had been prevented at the last moment—a parent coming home early, a sibling walking into a bedroom, us being on drugs that made us just want to caress one another—and whether a similar opportunity would occur that night, without anything to prevent its realization. (To this day, when my daughters complain about their husbands’ infidelities, I wonder if I would have done it, if we would have finally done it that night, had other things not intervened.)
We were all back in Kelly’s dad’s basement for the first time since senior year then. Chris was absent because of Kelly’s protection from abuse (PFA) order, but most everyone else who had been there in high-school had returned, in slumped forms, some restoring molding, vacuuming, painting, clearing out board games and athletic equipment from closets, and piling these into emptied dorm fridges and laundry baskets before stacking them with groans and muttered obscenities into the back of my van.
Duggan, wearing a turtleneck tucked into his slacks, turned off the vacuum cleaner and said, “Member that time Hext was in the library and he told Bradgett he could do this with the Dewey Decimal System?” He gestured as if he were jerking off, his knees bent and back hunched forward with the cord still in a loose coil around his pivoting elbow and wrist.
“Hey Hext?” Duggan called outside the basement’s patio doors. There was no response. Hext and his brother, I could see through the window in Kelly’s bedroom, were pulling a rug taut between them and then sort of bucking it up and down with their shoulders and elbows out by the compost pile in the flat section of the yard where we’d played football and everyone’d parked for parties when Kelly’s dad was gone. They looked like lunar figures under the yard’s motion lights illuminating the forecasted snow, which had arrived early and like something vengeful covered roads and cars and power lines. “Hey Hext, did you get a Saturday for that time you told Bradgett he could just jerk it to the Dewey Decimal System?”
Hext ran into the room and pretended to jerk off like Duggen. His khakis were wet at the bottom and his golf shirt was no longer tucked in. Hext named the teachers he’d told to go jerk themselves off, proudly recalling which incidents had resulted in weekday detentions, in-school suspensions, Saturday detentions, or out-of-school suspensions. We all had similar lists.
Throughout high school, we’d convened in Kelly’s dad’s basement on Friday nights to drive to Saturday detentions together. We’d stay up the whole night drinking stuff from Kelly’s dad’s liquor cabinet and beer bought by Hext’s older brother, sometimes doing acid or ecstasy or pain pills when one of us found some in our parents’ bathroom. We’d play video games, pool, Foosball. When we watched movies with Strong Sexual Content on Cinemax, Kelly’d roll her eyes and call us pervs, or if she were depressed, talk about how ugly she was. When this happened she would retreat to her bedroom and write poetry.
Kelly and I were together on the bed in her bedroom looking through old photo albums. I couldn’t stop looking at the scar on her cheek from Chris. I kept wanting to talk about it but she shut down.
“I don’t talk about that. I have walls up now,” she said.
Her hair, cut shorter than in school, brushed against the pages of the albums as we turned them. I noticed empty adhesive strips of what I presumed were pictures of Chris, either Chris and her or Chris and all of us, Hext and Forman and Duggan and Frank and me, all of those in the basement that night, strangers bound together by high school memories and present fictions of successful marriages, children, careers.
“I’m so jealous of you guys,” Kelly murmured, her voice almost a whisper. “You’ve all grown up to be such good men, good fathers.”
“It’s easy to look impressive for a couple hours,” I said.
“But still,” she motioned towards herself, “I’m such a mess, divorced, two abortions, you don’t even know it all it’s so embarrassing You guys act right, dress right, say the right things, you’re…what adults should be. I’m… just nothing.”
She shut the album, folding one leg under another (she wore ripped jeans and an Ani Difranco concert shirt) and looked at me with those large empty eyes and gaunt cheeks. “I don’t expect anything, y’know?” She took a bottle of vodka and slugged it straight, ignoring the Dixie cup of vodka and Dr. Pepper we’d mixed.
We were wasted, all of us. It seemed natural to get wasted, either to re-live old times or to distract us from the realization we no longer had anything in common. I’d already told my wife the roads were too unsafe to drive on and, after calling Gary to take care of her and the girls, turned off my phone, but the rest would all soon leave, despite the weather. (Perhaps they had better marriages than mine.) Every time someone left, I’d hug him, talking about how much I’d missed him and how we’d have to get together when the weather was nicer, to see a game in the city or golf. But I knew these were simply conventional exits, polite flourishes (like a handshake over a construction contract), and that neither of us intended to get in touch again, until the next tragedy beckoned.
The last person to leave was Hext. He and I moved the orange couch that looked like the one from Married with Children into my van and stood outside under the deck columns trying to light cigarettes in the wind, snow blowing in our faces. Kelly was with us too, wearing a hoodie two sizes too large for her and Chuck Taylors, her arms wrapped around herself. Down in the valley all the lights were off.
“Think the power will go out here?” I asked Hext. It was like five in the morning.
“That’s why I have to get home. The kids think it’s monsters when the power goes out.”
“Been there,” I said.
“You sure you good to go?” Kelly asked him, rising on her toes and hugging him.
He left, trudging up the hill all alone. I knew he was good for the drive, not worrying about him or any of the others (we’d mastered drunk driving in school). I never considered the possibility that my wife could be driving these same condemned roads, relying on her poor memory and stressed reflexes, to find Radley Run, to find me complicit, to finally prove my guilt.
Kelly and I’d been in the kitchen transferring bottles of liquor from the cabinet to the island when the lights flickered and went out for the first time. Kelly just stood there stunned holding out her phone’s light in front of us, waiting. When the lights came back on, we emptied out the cabinet, putting all the bottles and some bags of ice in a plastic crate. We were at that point when we wanted to drink for hours but didn’t have the capacity to even walk, and chances were none of that alcohol would have been touched at all even if we had made it downstairs to her bedroom. Except we never did. As Kelly led the way to the stairs she stubbed her toe on the coffee table’s leg and fell, curling onto the loveseat and holding her toes tight, the crate of liquor falling safely on the cushions. She sort of laughed, and then the power went out again with three deep shudders, and a rattle, and a kind of final silence, and in that silence her fierce breathing persisted.
“Okay?” I asked. She was grimacing but laughing harshly too. I slipped off her Chucks and caressed her toes. I was trying to palpate them for a fracture, but intended it to be sexual as well, without it being obvious.
“It’s nothing really,” she said, raising her foot and clenching it in her hand, gently removing mine. “It’s like one of those pains that hurt but just enough to distract you from things that really hurt. It’s like the thing with the elbow, it sort of feels good?”
She folded an ice bag from the crate around her foot as I poured two cups of whiskey, spilling some on the loveseat as I handed one to her.
“The afghan,” she said, pointing behind her, where it saddled the loveseat’s back.
I nestled onto the loveseat with her, balancing my drink high above my head as I spread the afghan around us. The loveseat seemed like half the size it had been in high school. We sat holding our drinks looking out the window, like an old couple that wakes up at 5 to drink coffee, except it was sort of the opposite of that. Outside the snow covered everything, still clean and white and layered in gentle rolls, the sun doing that thing where its rays bounce off the snow and everything seemed bright, even though it was barely dawn. Neighbors were outside in their pajamas and parkas conferring about generators and emergency supplies. I could hear sirens doing that Doppler Effect thing: I couldn’t tell if they were approaching or going out down the valley, where the best chance of accidents would be. “I hope they cancel Saturday detention,” I joked, wrapping us tighter in the afghan,
She giggled. “We’ll do two next month.”
“You mess with the bull, you get the horns,” I said, quoting from The Breakfast Club.
She slid her legs up over my thighs, resting her head on the edge of the loveseat. I caressed her toes and leaned in to kiss her, but it was one of those drunk kisses. Our noses bumped, my neck strained in a way that aggravated my sciatica.
“Troy,” she said. She pushed me away. “I thought I could but I can’t.”
I returned to my former position, thinking, maybe we will in the morning, maybe she’ll feel better then.
“I’m sorry, Troy, after everything that’s happened… it needs to be the right time. I need to be sure.”
I didn’t say anything. I wondered if maybe I should just leave, if I had waited too late. If the van could get up the hill.
“If I make any more mistakes I don’t know what.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m sorry I’m a mistake.”
She made a sound and then stopped, her head still resting and me looking across the street at a man and two little boys shoveling, the boys with plastic yellow shovels taller than them.
“How’s your toe?” I asked.
She didn’t respond. I finished my drink and joggled her legs with my knee, saying “Hey,” but she was asleep. Her neck was contorted straight left, her face smashed against the cushion. I staggered up and draped the afghan over her, moving her by her shoulders so she could breathe better.
I made myself another drink and lunged outside, the snow up to my knees. I turned on my phone, scanning the text messages and listening to the voice mails in a state of confusion. Neighbors were talking, slamming car doors and trying to start cars and making shoveling sounds. That clean hard schhhhhuuuuuuGGGGHNNNK of metal on asphalt. I waded towards the main street where I figured she would be, still holding my drink aloft, reminded of that story we read in Mrs. Learson’s 10th grade class about the alcoholic guy in the suburbs who swam home through neighbors’ swimming pools. I saw the sirens before I heard them, down beyond the bend where Radley Run split into three sub-neighborhoods. I knew before I saw it was her car, our car, surrounded by ambulances and cop vehicles, their red lights spinning, refracting the sun’s light off the snow in a million directions blood-red like in your inner eye and the stretcher being bumped up into the ambulance’s back and the surrounding people cheering and clapping.
I never saw or heard from Kelly again, except on my Facebook Newsfeed when she announced her father’s death and, later, her marriage to Chris. I never erased those final voicemails from my wife, gurgling and spastic, saying "I’m sorry," "I’m wrong," "I love you," — which was true then, I guess. After she was released from the hospital we stayed together and things were okay but once the girls left for Penn State I built her an improved, top-of-the-line ramp (by myself, I didn’t want another reunion with THEM) and a chairlift for her to get up the stairs and left, like I’d always planned, hiring a Dominican woman to come by weekly to help with the laundry and the chores. When my girls ask why we divorced, I tell them things sometimes happen early in your life that seem like nothing but in fact change everything. That’s as much as I tell them. I try not to think about those things anymore, that everything should have started and ended differently.
James McAdams has published fiction in decomP, Literary Orphans, One Throne Magazine, TINGE Magazine, Carbon Culture Review, and r.kv.r.y Journal, among others. Before attending college, he worked as a social worker in the mental health industry near Philadelphia. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he also teaches and edits the university's literary journal, Amaranth.