The driver’s seat window was shattered. Headlights smashed. Pieces of orange and green reflectors decorated the cement. Somebody cracked the windshield in so many places you couldn’t see through it. The doors were dented on both sides. The car was undriveable.
Paul was late for work when he discovered this. Standing in his apartment complex’s parking lot, he looked at the cavity in a row of Mercurys and Saturns, untouched and sunscreened against the Dallas heat that already promised to eat the day alive. Sweat trickled through his powder blue shirt as he peered inside. Nothing was stolen, not the bluetooth headphones or radio or sticky nickels in the cupholder.
Who would have done this?
He’d parked here last night when he got home, late and tipsy, from a work happy hour. It was his first week at the pharmaceutical company and he’d felt obligated to join, a decision he regretted almost immediately when he walked into the sleek Uptown bar and watched his new coworkers peel off in small groups to flirt and gossip. The only thing worse than staying would be leaving right away. So he stood at the bar, pretending to check his dead phone and knocking back Jolly Rogers, until some guy with slicked hair and one dimple chatted him up. Was he from sales? Or no – maybe they’d met during orientation. Paul drank fast as the one-dimpled man talked about his own move to Dallas years ago. “I had no furniture, nothing.” Then after weeks of eating lean cuisines and sitting on wall-to-wall carpet, the guy ordered a leather chair online. “A La-Z-boy. Final sale.” But when the chair finally arrived, something was wrong with it. “It was child-sized!” The man flashed a cavity as he laughed at his punch line. Could Paul believe that?
After a few rounds, the one-dimpled man went to the bathroom. Paul swirled the ice cubes in his glass, still thinking about the chair and the man’s disappointment. No one had an easy start in this city. But at least he’d made a work friend. That’s when the bartender, a man with a sea captain’s beard, cleared his throat. “Just so’s you know,” the old sage said. “That guy you’re talking to’s a fairy. Comes around here to pick up guys.”
So he wasn’t from work. Paul’s already flushed cheeks prickled red. He’d been mistaken before, and it never stopped being humiliating. The seaman’s warning drummed in him the memory of his brother’s muscled friends. “Twinkle toes, twinkle toes,” they’d chant on the other side of Paul’s bedroom door before busting in and dragging him to the bathroom. They turned his flailing body upside down, gripped his feet, and dunked him headfirst into the toilet. “Fairies eat ass,” they’d say. Shame always tastes worse than shit. And this time everyone from the office had seen a fucking fairy trying to pick him up. Paul paid his tab before the one-dimpled man returned and left the bar feeling a way he hadn’t felt in awhile, dirty and used.
Maybe the fairy caught lover’s rage, followed Paul home, wrecked his car.
Paul crunched through glass. He’d bought the used Camry on credit. “The most popular car in Texas!” the salesman said, as if that could make Paul feel at home in a city of people with money-colored lawns and two-and-a-half kids. Where he came from, people who passed each other on the sidewalk didn’t suddenly become interested in the cement or stare at their dogs
taking shits. They said, “hello” or “good morning” or any other phrase you could teach a robot.
And yet, these people seemed like robots with their stretched faces and power-washed driveways.
The only reason Paul moved to Dallas was to be with Marta, his 12-year-old daughter and only child. He shared her with a woman who didn’t mind uprooting him every few years when she decided with a flip of her hair that she needed to, “shake things up.” Marta’s mom lived with her new stocks-and-shares husband in a gated community near Marta’s school. Paul dreaded that moment at the end of his weekends when he dropped off Marta. There was nothing worse than watching her little red backpack disappear into a house Paul was sorry he’d looked up on Zillow.
The asking price only made him feel like more of a zero.
And now this with the car. How would he get to work? How would he pick up Marta tonight? His night. He only got two a week, which happened to be the nights Marta had basketball practice. Marta wasn’t even good at basketball. She was small and got the shakes on the court. It didn’t make sense why she was so clumsy. Paul had been a decent soccer player in high school.
Marta’s mom played tennis. Marta was not an uncoordinated baby. In clipped phone calls, Marta’s mom complained about their daughter not being a better athlete.
“She’s just acting out because of the move.”
Paul couldn’t resist the bait.
“Well, why’d you move her across the country?”
“Don’t make this about you.”
“She doesn’t even like it here.”
“What’s your point?”
“I know my daughter.”
“Fine,” Marta’s mom said. “Maybe you should talk to her about what’s going on.”
What was going on was that Marta was losing weight. A lot of weight. Paul knew there was something wrong but didn’t know how to talk to her about it. This was something that happened to teenagers. But his Marta was a kid. She still liked stuffed animals and being read to before bed. On his weekends, they built forts and listened to baseball games on the radio. He liked how hard Marta tried to memorize the players’ batting averages. He could tell she wanted him to be impressed and he was, though he didn’t let on. She should work to earn his approval. Then, he wouldn’t lose her even if she did grow up. But he had to keep an eye on her.
This whole not eating thing seemed like a new era. Teenagehood. That would be the end of it.
Boys. Cars. Marta would grow up and leave Paul and he would be alone. Already, he could feel her drifting. There had been a few times, on his weekends, when she wanted to go to sleepovers and the mall. The mall! Now that would really be the end. Paul didn’t have friends. He didn’t have sleepovers. After everything Paul had done to uproot his life, the least Marta could do was stay home and appreciate him for it.
Marta’s mom didn’t seem to care that she was losing her daughter. She let Marta wear nail polish and do this poofy thing with her hair. But it was that cookie monster t-shirt that really pissed Paul off. The eyes were googly and large.
“They look like tits,” Paul said on a call with Marta’s mom. Just talking about it made him angry.
How could she buy this? Did she even look at her daughter?
“It’s a cookie monster, Paul,” Marta’s mom said. “If you see something else, you’ve got issues.”
Paul started to say, “if you want to talk about issues!” but Marta’s mom had already hung up. Why did she always get the last word? The better house. More custody days. She was the real wreck. The kind of woman who would key your car in front of your face. Although having another kid seemed to calm her down. Kids! Marta’s mom had twins. But her calmness was almost scarier than the outbursts that peppered their marriage in the form of public shouting matches and thrown objects. When they got married, she’d been a zero like him. But that’s what the divorce machine does, spits out plain-bellied Sneetches and star-bellied Sneetches and antisocial personality Sneetches and dick Sneetches like his brother who said things like, “just see the kid at Christmas.” Paul wasn’t going to be a loser dad, even if it meant going broke and living in a shitty apartment with rooms that smelled like cat piss.
Maybe Marta’s mom destroyed his car. No, she was knocked up with another and could barely waddle to the door to let Marta inside. The husband? Probably not. Besides his mid-life crisis Harley Davidson, he actually seemed like a decent guy, although Paul still couldn’t accept that he was Marta’s stepdad. They were the perfect family. With Marta at his place part of the week, they literally had two-and-a-half kids. The world was out to get him. Someone was out to get him!
Whoever destroyed his car. He thought about asking the lady next door if she’d seen anything.
She didn’t have a car. She had a bike that she parked on her porch where she smoked. What kind of person biked around Dallas? A loser old maid Sneetch. She was one of those forty-something dried up divorcées who thought she could still get by on a thin figure and bleached hair. She sat on her porch, night after night. Sometimes it even seemed like she was watching him. She’d probably start hitting on him soon. Why was he always surrounded by these freaks? Freaks at the bar. Freaks with the car. Everyone was on his ass. Just wait until his boss got a hold of him this morning. Paul would have to call a cab. It was going to be fucking expensive. At least he would get to see Marta this week.
The Rockets are winning. Up by 10 in the fourth quarter. Two minutes and seven seconds on the scoreboard of a school gym marked with sneaker scuffs and an old school smell that makes Marta go pavlov with anxiety every time she steps through the heavy doors.
Coach Hicks paces the sidelines. He’s the dad of one girl on the team and played back in college where he could have, as he often tells the team, “gone pro.” Weak knees forced him to settle for a job in real estate and a sidegig making middle school girls do drills designed for 6-foot-7 tall men. Screaming, his true passion, unleashes whenever Marta fumbles the ball.
“Goddammit, Marta!” Coach Hicks said last week, punching the air. “You’re a chicken with your head cut off.” Marta has been benched ever since.
Back at her old school in Maryland, Marta was the fastest girl to run the mile. It hurt to be the worst on the team, and she knew she’d be better if she could be herself.
Marta slumps in her seat. Not good enough to play a single minute of this weekend’s tournament.
But relieved to not get yelled at again for losing the ball. Marta often feels divided in this way.
Between what she wants and what she fears.
From the bench, she has a clear view of the bleachers on the other side of the court where the parents of her teammates sit in a huddle. All the parents except her dad, who refuses to talk with or even sit near the others.
“He’s so anti-social,” Marta’s mom often says. She doesn’t come to games because of the twins who crawl and suck and scream especially loud anytime Marta wants her mom to play Pictionary or help with homework. Lately, Marta has stopped asking for help.
At her dad’s, it’s different. They set up forts in the living room and eat Count Chocula for dinner. On school nights, they play laser tag and board games. Last week when the neighbor lady rang the bell, they hid and didn’t answer because her dad said it would be funny. The lady must have heard them laughing because she called through the door saying she’d brought shortbread cookies. “We don’t like shortbread,” Marta’s dad whispered as they hid with their backs against the wall. “Shortbread is for old ladies.” They preferred the whipped cream pies they made for The Three Stooges marathon. They even threw the pies at each other like Larry and Moe. “I wish I could make time stop,” her dad said. “Then you would never grow up. You’d be a kid forever!”
The more he says this, the more Marta knows it’s true. He hates womanly things. All she has to do is think how disgusted he was when she wore nail polish or curled her hair. When she became a real woman, there would be no forts or games or Stooges. He wouldn’t even look at her.
She watches her teammates, girls with training bras and sturdy legs, dribble down the court and call Coach Hicks’s plays: “Xavier,” “Carolina,” “Gonzaga!” Her team could win without her.
Some of the parents, the ones in the huddle, are already doing victory cheers in the stands.
“Rockets, rockets!” They pump fists, bump hips. Later, there will be a pizza party at someone’s house. There always is. But Marta never goes. She doesn’t dare.
The last time she tried to leave him was at the back-to-school picnic. A bluegrass band played and moms doled out paper plates with burgers and sliders and chips. Marta didn’t take a plate but ran off with girls wearing miniskirts and spaghetti strap tank tops to play MASH under an oak tree. Marta was happy to be included, even if she stuck out in hiking boots and baggy jeans, the clothes he allows. “Marta’s turn,” one miniskirt said. “You’re going to live in a shack and work as a custodian and have 18 kids.” The group busted out laughing at “18 kids,” and Marta laughed, too, until she looked across the field and saw him.
“How could you leave me alone?” her dad said on the drive home. He didn’t know anyone. He had to stand there by himself near the moms with the paper plates. “You abandoned me!” he yelled and didn’t talk to Marta for the rest of the night. She went to bed, not understanding why it’s difficult for some grown-ups to make friends.
Her mom has friends. Other moms at the nursery school where the twins go a few mornings a week. Her mom thinks it’s so cute when the twins play dressup and make believe but doesn’t see that Marta is always pretending.
When Marta figured out Santa wasn’t real, she told her dad. “Don’t tell your mom you know,” he said. “It’ll be our secret.” A secret sounded fun. Like a spy game. Marta kept a secret but couldn’t resist asking her mom if this year Santa might bring her a horse, a castle, a grand piano. She wanted to see her reaction. Her mom was tired but not stupid.
“You’re stirring up shit,” she told Marta. “Just like your dad.”
Her mom went cold on her the way she did when Marta dressed like a boy. Or when the principal called to say Marta wasn’t eating lunch.
“You’re a liar,” her mom said, and it felt like a slap. “Do you want to embarrass me?”
Red-faced girls hug at the sound of the buzzer. Champions. Everyone gets a trophy for playing. Marta gets one for not playing. If one of the girls asks her to pizza, she’ll just say she can’t. But they don’t even ask. They run off with their trophies and pile into someone’s mom’s minivan.
So she goes home with her dad, in the back of his Camry. She holds the trophy heavy in her lap. Thumbs the golden girl with two breasts under her jersey and a basketball cradled at her hip.
He says it all: try harder. Don’t get emotional. Stop feeling sorry for yourself all the time. But how can she feel sorry for someone she doesn’t know? For a girlghost that haunts her with its wants and fears. Wants and fears. Wantsandfears.
Her dad pulls into the apartment complex’s parking lot. And before he can turn off the engine, Marta’s body and mind get out of the car. She smashes the trophy over a black trash can.
Screams. Thrashes. The golden girl’s head spins off her body. Arms break. Then hips and legs.
She yells until her hair catches in her teeth. Until her lungs burn and vision blotches. She expects him to get out of his car. Now? Soothe her. Now? Say something sweet. But he won’t. He’ll sit there with the car running. In case he wants to get away. And he’ll watch her, the way he always
Holding the rocks in your pockets, you feel like Virginia Woolf. But you’re above water now, standing in the parking lot at ten o’clock at night. You don’t have a car – just a bike on the porch – but you don’t have to look farther than that to see what’s wrong with the world.
The father moved in a few months ago, and sometimes the girl is there, too, jutty and hollow as you once were. But you can keep food in the fridge now. You can even bake sweets sometimes, as long as you give them away. When you saw their shadows in the window one night, you knocked on the door with shortbread cookies. They didn’t answer, but you could hear them laughing behind the door. They were people hiding something, and you know all about that.
Years ago, you were also a good girl. A very good girl. You folded yourself into boxes and drawers. You could have fallen in love with a rock, but you chose characters with sharper edges.
At first, you didn’t feel their jabs. When he wiped lipstick off your face, it was only because he thought you were naturally beautiful. When he said you looked chubby in your driver’s license photo, he was just being honest. You told him he might get a few points if he were nicer to you.
“Don’t talk to me about points,” he said. “I invented points.” You convinced yourself that was just teasing. You convinced yourself of a lot of things.
You lied to friends. (“We’re doing great”). You lied to your coworkers. (“I already ate”). You lied to a date once your ex left for good. (“I broke up with him”). But mostly, you lied to yourself, your own twin. Big You and Little You got remixed into a knotted mind and a hurried body that liked to empty-stomach whiskey or vodka (fewer calories) or anything to dizzy-spin yourself into cabs, down stairs, under sheets where your mind woke you up the next morning, jockeying your body from some stranger’s bed and back to a dim apartment where you drew a bath and ran pruney fingers over the welt on your leg, bite on your lip. The mind asked the body, “What’s that?
Where were you? What’s wrong with you!” in the same urgent tone as the doctor with tiny
eyeglasses when you showed up in his office.
“What do you see?” He pointed at inkblot pictures.
You looked and saw the same thing over and over.
“A pelvis.” Pelvis after pelvis.
The doctor’s forehead twitched like it did when you said you read your ex’s journal whenever he took a shower and once slapped a cat in the face. The doctor wanted new answers, even if they weren’t true. Lies are more comfortable for everyone. They let us look at each other. Let us exist.
You hovered over the inkblot and decided what answer might keep him happy. Two women talking closely. A scary mask. A bat. You played along. When you got the results you scored five points out of 10. The doctor took off his glasses and said your answers troubled him. A score of more than four points indicated a psychological instability. You nodded, never sure whether the score was the result of telling truths or telling lies.
But now is not the time for truth. You’re hidden as you walk through the cars to the last row next to the garbage cans where, days ago, from your kitchen window, you saw the girl smashing some blunt object. At first you thought, what a mental case, because you still have that weak-kneed reaction. But look, she’s a child, thrashing. And he’s a father, watching. Why didn’t he help her?
What did he get out of it? You can only imagine he enjoys seeing someone else lose it.
There’s nothing you can do. She’s just a kid. If she was older, you could hint: “Let me know if you ever need to talk.” But you knew you had to do something. So you waited until he was alone. Until he pulled up, killed the engine and stumbled inside. Then you followed your shadow in the night. You were a good girl. A very good girl. You folded yourself into boxes and drawers.
And as you throw the first stone, you’ll wish you’d broken out of that a long time ago.
Kaitlin Roberts is a writer and journalist living in Berlin. Her stories have been published by Necessary Fiction, Parhelion Literary Magazine, The New York Times, and others.