WHERE THE SPIRALS LEAD
by Jenny Hayes
We were drinking iced coffee and watching a cheesy talk show with some model whose life had gone from fabulous to tragic and back again. I was nested in a nubbly purple loveseat, surprisingly comfortable despite the patches where its fabric was flaking off. Allie sprawled on an orange velvet couch, which made a loose border between the living and dining part of the room, with the tiny kitchen right behind. It was the first time Allie had invited me over, and I liked how cozy the apartment felt with everything together in one space.
The door clicked open. “Alysandra?” a low voice trilled. Her mom walked in, one paper grocery bag nestled in her arm, another starting to shimmy down her hip.
“Give me a hand, would you?” she called out.
“Fine,” Allie groaned, jumping off the couch and grabbing one of the bags. “Mom, this is Tasha.”
“Hi,” I said, hoping it wasn’t obvious I’d been staring. She was beautiful—which I suppose shouldn’t have been surprising: she was Allie’s mom, after all, and they had the same bronze skin, the same piercing eyes, the same thick mane of dark hair, though her mom’s was shorter and tinted with a burgundy sheen. Everything about her seemed deliberately curated: green jumpsuit, golden scarf, red lipstick, things that you wouldn’t have thought would go together but somehow made a striking effect. She seemed to come from a completely different world than my mom, with her stringy hair and thick mascara and beaded halter tops and old suede jackets. Her slew of awful boyfriends. Her huge drafty house with dirt-cheap rent because she used to party with the landlord back in the day.
“It’s nice to meet you, Tasha,” Allie’s mom said. “I’m Rhonda. Are you staying for dinner?”
“Yeah, Tash, stay!” Allie chimed in.
I didn’t need convincing. Anything Allie’s mom was making would be better than the TV dinners I had at home. Even the Salisbury Steak that I’d stashed in the back of the freezer for a special occasion.
Rhonda clattered around in the kitchen. “So, did you do your homework already?”
“Yes, mom,” Allie groaned. Neither of us had even opened our backpacks, but I wasn’t about to say anything. I’d do mine later, at home. Not that anyone would notice or care.
I can’t remember what Rhonda cooked that night, though I’m sure it was something colorful and spicy and delicious. She poured herself a glass of wine and gave us a couple of root beers and we sat around the little wood table, talking and laughing and helping ourselves to more. Before I was halfway home, I was thinking about what to say to make sure I got invited back again. But it turned out I didn’t have to do anything.
“That was fun last night,” Allie said the next day at lunch. “We should do it again.”
“Totally,” I said. “Your mom’s really cool.”
Allie rolled her eyes. “She’s kind of a pain,” she said. “But I guess she’s all right.”
I guess I’d say Allie and I were best friends already, even though we’d only met six months ago, back at the start of the school year. It seemed goofy when our tenth grade history teacher made everyone sit in alphabetical order, but it turned out that my last name, Keller, fell next to Khatcherian, and the girl with that name had purple boots, and black hair with a blonde streak, and a backpack covered with hand-drawn swirls and lightning bolts and skulls. The next day we pulled out our textbooks and found we’d each made some additions to the regulation paper cover. “That’s rad,” she said, pointing at my annotation of the Berkeley High School initials: Take away the High and all you have is B.S.I was hardly the first person to come up with that, but I accepted the compliment while admiring the shades and devil horns she’d added to George Washington’s head. Within a few weeks we discovered we could crack each other up with just a well-timed look, and we had plenty of opportunities as our teacher droned on about treaties or elections or whatever he’d picked to torture us with that day.
After that first night, I went home with Allie after school a couple of times a week. We’d watch TV, do the occasional bit of homework, Rhonda would come home and cook something amazing, and then I’d walk back to my house. On the weekends, Allie usually crashed with me. Rhonda had no objections to Allie staying at my house as often as she liked. We conveniently forgot to mention that we basically had the place to ourselves.
I guess I should explain about my mom. Even when she was home, it would be a stretch to say there was anything resembling parental supervision. She was impulsive, forgetful, incapable of making plans—more like a teenager than I was. And allergic to steady employment, though she always managed to jumble together enough odd jobs to get by: canning preserves and drying herbs on a friend’s farm, selling dreamcatchers and feathered roach clips at craft fairs and rock festivals, working for an organic catering company making whole-grain salads and sugarless pies or serving hors d’oeuvres at fancy hippie weddings in the hills.
Her personal life was just as chaotic. She was always getting hung up on one dude or another, only to have him toss her aside, just like my dad apparently had way back when. It was bad enough watching her get all lovestruck when it was so obvious how it would go—I would’ve started a pool on how soon things would crap out if I had anyone to lay odds with, and I would’ve made bank—but on top of that they were always the grossest guys you could imagine. Grizzled acid casualties, pathetic drum-circle troubadours, beer-bellied losers who tried to act tough. All of them old enough that you’d figure they’d have more of a life by now. Which I suppose makes sense, considering I could say the same about my mom.
Lately she’d been spending more time away from the house than in it. She made sure I had a little cash and the freezer was full of packaged meals, and I was lucky if I saw her every other week. So when Allie stayed with me, we could do what we wanted. Usually this meant going to parties, where Allie hit the keg or indulged in whatever was being passed around. I usually had one beer and that was it. I liked the taste okay, but I figured someone should stay clear-headed enough to make sure we got home safe, and I never liked how getting drunk made me feel so uncontrolled. Weed didn’t have the same destabilizing effect, so sometimes I’d take a few hits. It always gave me a funny nostalgia about parties I got dragged to when I was little. The first time someone handed me a pipe at a dance in eighth grade, I laughed. I’d known that smell forever, but never realized what it was.
Sometimes there were boys we were chasing, or the other way around, though to be honest this was more of Allie’s thing too. She flitted from one crush to the next—making out in corners, holding hands at school—and right when I’d think she might start hanging out with the guy more often, wondering where that would leave me, they’d have some blow-up and she’d move on to the next one without even taking time to mope. She talked a lot about what it might be like when she finally did it with one of them, wanting it to be someone worthwhile but also anxious to get it over with. I wasn’t in a hurry for that at all. I’d had a few gropes and kisses, but nothing that had gone far. It seemed like the guys who liked me were never the same ones that I liked back. I figured sooner or later someone good would come along—someone who was cute, and nice, and fun to spend time with, and took me seriously—though since I hadn’t met any guys like that yet, the thought had crossed my mind that this might be an unrealistic fantasy, and maybe I’d have to take what I could get. But if that was the case, I decided I’d pass for now. If I’d learned anything from my mom, it was that there was no shortage of questionable guys out there ready to cruise into your life.
At the end of the night, or the beginning of the morning, we’d come back to my house and crash. We slept in a new place whenever we felt like it, working through every comfortable spot in the house: the mattress on the creaky floor in my attic bedroom, the lumpy couch downstairs, the musty futon in an otherwise empty room I’d practically forgotten was there, and occasionally my mom’s king-size, under the red batik bedspread, with the window open and a light breeze drifting in. I liked having Allie in the house with me, and I tried to avoid thinking about what it would be like at the end of June when she left for New York to spend the summer with her dad.
Once in a while, if there were no parties to go to, we’d spend a Saturday night at Allie’s. I always tried to wake up early to drink coffee and read the Sunday Chronicle with Rhonda while Allie slept in. We’d read interesting bits aloud to each other, or debate which movies might be worth seeing, or laugh over a cartoon. And then before I knew it I’d be telling her about how I wanted to go to college on the East Coast, and that I sort of wanted to major in English but I wasn’t sure it was practical enough, and how one day I hoped to travel around the world. Or maybe I’d just talk about the new lipstick I wanted to get, or bitch about some teacher. It didn’t matter what we talked about. It just felt good to have her listen.
Other times we’d hardly talk at all, and I liked that too. Just sitting there, close to her, reading the paper or staring at the painting by the door, the big blue one with a forest of white swirls. Allie’s father had painted it. She said it was the only one her mom had wanted to keep after the divorce. There were a couple of his other paintings in Allie’s room, but I liked the blue one best. I’d follow the swooping lines of all the circles and spirals, tracing their paths, trying to map out every shape and structure. No matter how hard I concentrated, I always reached a point where I couldn’t keep track of which one went where, and I’d have to start over. I knew I’d never be able to finish, but I never got tired of trying.
One Sunday, Allie and I woke up at my house around noon. It was hot out, even though it was only May, and we decided to go swimming up at Strawberry Canyon. We walked over to Allie’s house to get her bathing suit, and as we approached we heard laughter out the window. Not just Rhonda, but a man’s laugh too.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
Allie’s eyes narrowed. “I have no idea.” She unlocked the door, jangling her keys a little louder than necessary. Rhonda was sprawled across the couch in a luxurious pink silk robe. Sitting at the other end, rubbing her feet, was the guy: kind of chubby, with curly dark hair and a weird beard that sort of disappeared into the hair on his neck and chest. Which was bare. The way he was sitting I wasn’t sure what he had on for bottoms, but at least I could tell there was something there.
Rhonda smiled at us. “Hi, Alysandra,” she purred. “Hi, Tash. This is Keith.” He gave us an odd little mock salute.
“I just came to get my swimsuit,” Allie said. She ran into her room, leaving a silence that clogged the air. I was still trying to think of something to say when she rushed back in. “Okay. Bye.” She bolted out the door, and I followed quickly.
Halfway down the block she hissed into my ear. “Did you see that guy? He was gross.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe it. My mom has a guy over for the first time in ages, and it’s some creep like that!”
“Yeah, he was kinda weird,” I said. “But you never know. He could be nice.”
“No way,” Allie said. “I got a terrible vibe off him.”
I didn’t press it. He did seem a little strange. But I figured if Rhonda liked him, he was probably okay.
A couple of weeks later, I was startled awake at three a.m. by a knock on the door. Probably just my mom forgetting her key again, I told myself, though I was a little nervous as I tiptoed downstairs. I peeked through the crack in the curtain and saw Allie on the porch. As soon as I opened the door, she pushed past me into the room.
“Jeez, you scared me!” I said. “What’s going on?”
Her eyes jumped around the room. “Keith came over and spent the night,” Allie said.
“Really?” I’d been at her house for dinner. Rhonda had made Indian chickpea stew and green salad. When I left it seemed like the two of them were settling in.
“Yeah. He showed up around ten. And I could hear them giggling in my mom’s room for like, hours.”
“Gross,” I said. I almost laughed, but I could tell Allie was really upset. “Well, I guess you just have to deal with it, right? I mean, your mom’s seeing him, and—”
“Tash,” she said. “That’s not all. I woke up in the middle of the night to go pee. I forgot he was over so I left the door open.” She shuddered. “And when I looked up, he was there.”
“In the doorway. Watching me.”
“What? Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure! He was staring.”
“Ew!” I sort of couldn’t believe it. He did look kind of creepy, but I didn’t think he was really creepy. “What did you do?”
“I left, obviously!” She shook her head. “He didn’t even say anything. Fucking perverted asshole!”
“Yeah,” I said, rubbing my eyes, feeling sleep wanting back in now that my panic had subsided. “Well, let’s go to sleep. C’mon.”
Allie kept staring across the room. “I’m just gonna stay down here,” she said. I shrugged and went back upstairs to my room.
Allie’s voice woke me the next morning. When I heard her slam the phone down, I wrapped a blanket around myself and walked downstairs. She was on the couch, staring at the floor with her arms wrapped around her knees.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“She doesn’t even believe me,” Allie said. She grabbed a pillow and clutched it to her chest, then launched it across the room, barely missing one of my mom’s macramé hanging planters. “I’m so sick of her!”
“I’m sorry, Allie,” I said. “That really sucks.”
She shook her head. “That guy’s a pig. I knew it the second I met him.”
I wanted to believe her. But it seemed possible that it could have been an accident. Maybe he’d been getting up to use the bathroom and just had terrible timing. And it didn’t seem like Rhonda would take his side over Allie’s, unless she knew he was telling the truth. But how could she know?
I didn’t say any of that to Allie. I knew she didn’t want to think about any alternate explanations. Instead, I told her she could always stay at my house more often, if she felt like she needed to get away.
So for the last few weeks of the school year, Allie basically lived with me. She’d go home every now and then to get a change of clothes, but she slept at my house every night. Sometimes I heard her arguing with her mom on the phone. I kept hoping they’d work it out, and every so often I tried to ask how things were going. But she never wanted to talk about it.
And then it was July, and I was alone again. Allie was in New York with her dad, probably doing all kinds of fun big-city things. My mom was visiting some friends out in the sticks. It had stretched from a long weekend into the rest of the week, and then the next, and who knew how much longer. I didn’t really count on seeing her anytime soon.
I found myself walking past Allie’s house, wishing I had an excuse to knock on the door and see Rhonda. On Sunday mornings I would buy the Chronicle so I could read the same stories as her. I wondered if she was still seeing Keith. And whether he really was a perv or if he just got up at the worst possible moment that night.
Some days I’d walk a few blocks over to Willard Park, where there were usually people hanging around that I knew, at least a little. One hot afternoon it was just me and Gina, a girl who lived nearby and went to the alternative school and always had weed she’d snagged from her dad’s sock drawer. She lit up a joint, and I didn’t really feel anything, but she kept giggling like crazy. Gina decided we needed to get some snacks, and I said sure. I was a little hungry, even if it wasn’t the full on munchies she was making it out to be.
We walked to Andronico’s and headed for the chips and crackers. Gina started trying to show me how it said SEX on the Ritz Cracker box if you stared at the right spot. I held the box up, looking for the secret writing, but all I saw was crackers. Then I looked down the aisle.
I spotted Keith first. He looked straight at me, though it didn’t seem like he remembered who I was. Then I heard Rhonda’s voice, coming closer, talking about some kind of cheese she wanted to buy. I froze, still holding the Ritz box in the air. All summer I’d been hoping to run into her, but I didn’t expect such a physical punch when I did. I felt it burrowing up my chest, bursting into my throat.
Gina was oblivious, languidly trailing her fingers across a row of Saltines.
Rhonda stepped into the aisle, still chattering at Keith. Then she glanced over and caught my eye. I grinned and stepped forward. Her face moved, but it wasn’t the smile I expected. She put her hand on Keith’s shoulder and moved away. As if she hadn’t just been about to walk in my direction.
I threw the Ritz box into my tote bag and dragged Gina out of the store. She thought I was bad-ass for stealing the crackers, but she didn’t realize I just needed to get out of there. I handed her the box and told her I wasn’t feeling good. I needed to go home.
Sitting on the porch steps, I replayed the grocery store scene in my mind. I figured Rhonda probably resented me for giving Allie a place to run away to, and I could understand that a little. It was sinking in that things would never be like before, even if the two of them made up. I didn’t matter to Rhonda, not the way I’d thought, not the way she’d mattered to me. All the magic of her spicy noodles and her silky robes and her beat-up beautiful couches might as well be on some other planet from me now.
I sat there for a long time. The sun was getting low and I told myself maybe I’d stay on the porch all night. But eventually I had to pee, so I unlocked the door and went into the bathroom. I washed my hands, splashed water on my face, and looked in the mirror. I thought maybe I’d look different, feeling so distraught. But it was my same familiar face. Brown hair, thin lips, six freckles across my nose. Just a regular boring girl.
I went into the kitchen and got a glass of water, then realized I was pretty hungry. I opened the freezer, trying to remember if I still had push-up pops in there, but it was just musty ice trays and the pile of TV dinners. My hand reached into the crevice in the back, past the Fried Chicken and the Beans n’ Franks and the dreaded Veal Parmagiana, until I found it. Salisbury Steak. I knew it was basically just meatloaf, but there was always something I loved about that little oval patty with the name that sounded royal. It was just about all I had left that had ever felt special.
I turned on the oven and tore open the cardboard box. The aluminum tray felt cold and heavy as I slid it onto the rack. I listened to the oven pop and click while I sat on the floor, looking at the empty package. I didn’t really believe Gina about the words on the Ritz Crackers, but I thought if I stared really hard, like it was one of those Magic Eye puzzles, I might see a message. Some secret wisdom hidden in the gravied meat, potatoes, peas, and cobbler. It didn’t seem like all that much to ask.
My concentration broke when someone knocked on the door. I got up and saw a guy in a faded tie-dye t-shirt with a hole near the neck. He had dark eyes, thick stubble, and scraggly black hair streaked with gray. At first I didn’t recognize him, but then I had a vague memory that he was one of my mom’s flings from a long time ago. One of the decent ones, I was pretty sure. I opened the door.
“Hey …” he said, sizing me up. Then he pointed his finger. “Tasha, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“Man, you’re all grown up now!” I didn’t say anything, and he gave me a pouty face. “You don’t remember me?”
“Kind of,” I said. I thought maybe I remembered all of us being on a boat together, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want to say anything in case that was somebody else.
“I guess that was a long time ago. You were like this big.” His hand bounced around the general height of my torso. “Me and your mom had some good times,” he said. “I’m Alvo.”
I recognized the name. It was one of many lodged into my brain. All jumbled up together, like a drawer full of keys you didn’t think you’d ever need again but hadn’t ever bothered to throw out.
“Well, she’s not here,” I said. “She’s out of town for a while.”
“Damn,” he said. “I was just passing through. Been a while since I’ve seen her and I thought I’d say hello.” He reached up and wiped some sweat off his face. “Man, it’s hot out here. You mind if I come in and have something to drink?”
I nodded and stepped out of his way. “Do you want a glass of water?” I asked. “Or I think we might still have some orange juice.”
“Brought my own,” he said, giving me a wink. He sat down on the couch and pulled a six-pack of Olympia beer out of his backpack. “You want one? I mean, I know you can’t be twenty-one yet, but I won’t tell.” Like there’s anyone to tell, I thought. Like she’d even care. I sat next to him and popped open a can.
“So what’s your mom up to these days? The last time I seen her …” I half-listened while he told the story, some festival where they’d crossed paths and rekindled old times in some manner. I didn’t really want to know the details. The beer tasted sweet and cool and it felt good to talk to someone who knew my mom, even if it was just for a month here and a week there, whatever it had been, all those years ago. I traced little spirals with my finger in the drops that frosted the can, and then it was empty and he gave me another one, and I listened to him talk some more, and then I traced new spirally shapes on the can I had after that, and then my finger was tracing shapes on Alvo. And then there was no more beer but it didn’t matter, I didn’t need one, I didn’t need anything, or so I wanted to think, not even the Salisbury Steak that I smelled burning as I slipped my shirt over my head. The next day I would reach into the oven for the blackened tray, the meat charred into a lump of coal, my thighs and chest so scratched from stubble that it would take all summer for the little pinprick scabs to fade away.
About the Author:
Jenny Hayes grew up in Berkeley, California, and now lives in Seattle. She is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at U.C. Riverside – Palm Desert, and her writing has appeared in Geometry, Litro NY, Jenny Magazine, and elsewhere.