Erin pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex, parked in her usual spot near the stairwell and turned off the bike. She helped Beth off the bike. “This,” she said, “Is my very own dumpster. You see the lovely iron color? I picked it out myself.”
“Shut up,” Beth said. Then she punched Erin in the arm.
Janet drove into the spot next to them and got out of her car.
“Follow me,” Erin told her mother.
They walked around the complex, down by the pool, up the bleached concrete stairs. Inside, the couch held a pile of rumpled sheets. Erin grabbed them and went to throw them in the closet.
Beth looked at everything with curiosity. “I’ve never seen where you lived. Ever.”
“That’s because I mostly live out of a backpack,” Erin called from the bedroom.
“Is this your furniture?” Janet asked.
Erin came to the doorway and saw her mother looking at the couch, the kitchen table, the cheap chairs. She shook her head. “It comes furnished.”
“You don’t have any paintings.” Beth slipped past Erin into the bedroom and then back out. “Don’t you miss…stuff?”
Janet turned and looked at Erin, really looked, her face softening.
“I’m fine,” Erin said. “I like being alone.”
“It’s nice,” Janet said softly. “Like a hotel.”
“A resting spot,” Erin told her. “I’m stopping for a while.”
“Stopping is good,” Beth said.
“Have you met people? Your neighbors?” Janet asked.
Erin shook her head. “Just people in AA.”
Janet sat down on the couch. Her fingers ran over the weave of the upholstery.
“Mom’s worried about you,” Beth said.
“Because of AA. And you being here all alone.”
“Beth,” Janet said.
“You could come home. And we could all live together. And she wouldn’t let Dad come over at all, right?”
“Enough, motor mouth,” Janet said. “Come and sit next to your ancient, decrepit mother.”
Beth crossed the room and sat right next to Janet, leaned against her shoulder. Erin’s palms had gone numb. She slid into one of the kitchen chairs.
“My friend Patti’s getting in soon,” she heard herself say. “I have to pick her up at the airport.”
“On that motorcycle?”
“Yeah, well, that’s kind of a problem.”
She found herself asking if she could borrow her mother’s rental car, but Janet wanted to come with her, wanted, she said, to see Patti again. She remembered her from when Erin was in high school. As Janet talked, Erin couldn’t help remembering Patti sitting at the kitchen table of her apartment, looking at Erin in the eyes and saying, “She’s been a bitch to you forever.”
Her shoulders slumped. It wouldn’t work, but she didn’t know what else to do, so she started nodding, started saying yes, okay, fine, of course, insurance wouldn’t cover her, her mother had to drive, all the while watching the two blonde heads bent toward each other, Beth reaching into her mother’s purse, pulling out Janet’s phone, playing some video game, that ease, that comfort. Erin felt she was watching a commercial for American family life, the one everyone wanted.
“I need a shower,” Erin said.
What she really needed was a meeting. Or maybe a drink.
“We can wait,” Beth told her.
But Janet, eyes on Erin’s face, stood up and pulled Beth with her. “We’ll shower at the hotel, Beth. Your sister needs a little down time.” Janet came and touched Erin’s shoulder. “An hour? Can you come to the hotel then?”
Erin nodded. Beth hugged her, and then they opened the door and walked away down the catwalk. Erin stood by the window and watched them go.
“She’s going to be late again,” Erin heard Beth say as they turned to go down the stairs.
“I know.” Janet’s voice floated up from the stairwell. “That’s why I only said an hour.”
Erin listened until she couldn’t hear their voices any more. Then she went to the window and looked down at the blue of the pool and the white umbrellas, fastened down around their poles over the tabletops. She pulled her cell out of her pocket and looked at it. She turned it on. Immediately texts and voice mails from Maggie started filling up the screen. She ignored them, and sent a message to Patti: I’ll be there. Family in tow. Please bring methods of suicide that work in baggage claim.
She turned her phone back off without opening any of Maggie’s messages, went into the bathroom, and turned on the shower. As the water ran over her sunburned skin, she leaned her head against the tiles. She wouldn’t call Maggie. She was fine.
Less than an hour later, she walked into the hotel lobby, where Beth was talking to one of the Latino bellhops. She smiled to herself, listening to see if Beth asked the same questions she had. What’s your life like? Where did you come from? Do you miss it?
Beth turned and ran to grab Erin in a hug.
“You’re early!” Beth said.
“You’re hurting my sunburn!”
“Am not.” Beth poked Erin, then pulled her by the hand toward the elevators. “Mom has room service,” Beth said. “I love room service!”
Erin followed Beth to the room, where she found her mother had ordered her a hamburger. She picked it up, leaned against the dresser, and stuck half of it into her mouth.
“I figured you didn’t cook,” Janet said.
“You figured right.”
Erin couldn’t help herself; she kept shoving the food into her mouth, so hungry she barely took time to chew. When she looked up, Janet and Beth were both watching, identical frowns on their faces.
She put down the last of the food and wiped her arm across her mouth. “Just hungry,” she told them. “Ready to go?” Then she turned toward the door.
They drove to the airport through South Tucson, through wide streets, by Mexican restaurants. When they pulled in, Erin told her mother to let her off at baggage claim.
“I can find parking,” Janet said. “We’re in plenty of time.”
Erin crossed her arms and leaned back. “Fine,” she said.
They pulled into a space and walked back together. Beth wanted to know all about Patti, what she was like, but Erin couldn’t think of what to say. So Janet answered for her.
“She’s the one your sister counts on,” Janet said. “Erin used to stayed with her for Christmas.”
“She’s family,” Erin burst out. And then stopped.
No one said anything. Erin swore at herself under her breath, and then picked up her pace, so she was walking a little in front. She didn’t want to see the look on her sister’s face.
Inside the glass doors, a conveyor belt dropped suitcases down onto the spinning carousel. Erin saw Patti immediately—the plaid shirt, the slightly bow-legged stance, the bad haircut. She went up, tapped Patti on the shoulder, and found herself lifted in the customary bear hug. Her boots clattered when Patti put her back down. Their faces were so close they could practically touch. Patti looked into her eyes.
“Oh boy,” she whispered. “What can I do?”
“Get me home,” Erin told her. “I’ve been with them all day.”
Patti turned and stretched out a hand to Beth, who was staring.
“And you thought I was butch,” Erin told her sister. “May I introduce my brother in arms.”
“So rude,” Patti said.
“Yeah, Erin,” Beth added.
“I see you know my daughter.” Janet smiled and held out her own slender hand.
“To know is to love,” Patti said, looking directly into Janet’s eyes. Then she looked at Erin. “And to be driven slowly out of your mind.”
Erin’s eyes filled.
“Hey,” Patti said, wrapping an arm around Erin’s neck. “I love being driven out of my mind.”
“She’s a little…you know,” Beth said to Patti, drawing a circle next to her head. “On account of no AA meeting today.”
“Oh my God,” Erin said. “I’m going to shoot myself.”
No one laughed.
“It was a joke,” Erin said. “Ha-ha?”
“Let’s get my suitcase.” Patti turned to the carousel and almost immediately lifted a huge gray metal case with bungee cords wrapped around it.
“Wow,” Beth said. “Huge.”
“Yeah.” Erin went and tried to lift it. Managed to get it a few inches off the ground.
“It’s mostly Alanon books,” Patti told her.
“What’s that?” Beth asked.
“For people screwed up by knowing us screwed up people,” Erin said.
Janet shifted her purse onto her shoulder and looked away.
“Not,” Patti said to Beth
“Let’s go to the car.” Janet said as she edged away.
Erin wrestled the suitcase to stand so she could roll it, ignoring all of them.
“Three Alanon books and enough shit to live here for a month,” Patti told Erin. “Clearly I need work on my enabling.”
Beth came around and tucked her shoulder under Erin’s arm. “I’ll go to Alanon,” she said.
Erin hugged her sister. Then she bent down and dropped a kiss on the top of Beth’s head. “Love you,” she whispered. “Best sister ever.”
Patti and Beth sat in the back seat, chatting to each other, telling Erin stories. Janet kept her eyes on the road. It had grown dark, and the open spaces of the desert filled up around them, eerie and strange. Erin, trying not to listen to the conversation in the back seat, spoke softly to her mother, giving directions. They talked briefly about having breakfast, about seeing the Desert Museum, about time to rest. To Erin it felt like an uneasy alliance, built on everything they had never said, could never say. “Sounds good, Mom,” she muttered.
They dropped Patti off at the apartment; Erin went to the hotel with her mother and sister to get her motorcycle. At one point, she fell asleep against the headrest, and woke in the hotel parking lot to her mother telling Beth to shush.
“Are you safe to drive?” Janet asked as Erin stretched out her arms and yawned.
Erin nodded. “Not far,” she said. She hugged Beth, nodded to her mother, and got on the bike. It occurred to her, as she drove home, that the immediate future held no solitude, no easy choices. She would have to consult someone at every turn. The thought summoned an image of amber pouring into clean glasses in Spain. Cerveza, grande, she thought, and then banished the image from her mind.
When she walked into her apartment, Patti had set up camp in the living room and was sitting on the couch.
“No,” Erin said. “I sleep out here most nights anyhow. You take the bed.”
“What if you pick someone up?”
“I’m not supposed to sleep with anyone for a year. AA rules.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
Erin laughed. “Yeah. Me, too.”
Patti stretched her legs out in front of her, crossed her arms behind her head. “You gonna sneak out and drink?”
Erin looked at her. “Listen, Mr. Alanon, are you even supposed to ask me that?”
“I suck at 12 step,” Patti said. “Too bad for you.”
Erin came and dropped down next to her on the couch. “I suck,” she said. She let her head tilt onto Patti’s shoulder. “At pretty much everything. If I drink, it’s not on you.”
Patti slid an arm around Erin. “If I blame myself, though, it absolutely is on you.”
Erin moved away. “Jerk.”
Patti nudged Erin in the side and they started pushing at each other, laughing. When they stopped, Patti had Erin’s head under her arm. She let go.
“Seriously,” Patti said.
“Seriously,” Erin answered. She wanted to say more, but even with Patti she couldn’t. How could she talk about the waves of dark and shame, the cold, the buzzing, the complete overwhelm of all of it, until she had to make it stop and didn’t care how?
“You look like you did at Christmas,” Patti told her. “Minus the puking and slurring of words.”
“Progress not perfection,” Erin said. “That’s what they tell us.”
“But why get sober if you keep on feeling like shit?” Patti asked.
“You recommending I drink?”
“You know what I mean. Everybody needs some relief.”
Erin shrugged. And, as she did, heard the familiar sound of heels clicking up the stairs, then down the catwalk. They stopped outside her door. Erin lifted her head.
“Oh shit,” she said. “Just when you think things can’t get worse.”
She stood up, went to the door, and, looking over her shoulder, opened the door. “Meet my sponsor,” she said to Patti, with a flourish. When she turned and saw the flush of anger on Maggie’s face, she took a full step back.
Maggie glanced over at Patti, her eyes narrowed. “Excuse me,” she said. “Do you mind if I talk to Erin outside?”
“That’s okay,” Erin said.
“No problem,” Patti told Maggie.
Erin took one reluctant step outside the door, pulling it closed behind her. Maggie barely moved to make room. Neither of them spoke.
“I’m sober,” Erin said. “If that’s what you want to know.”
Maggie didn’t answer.
Maggie’s fists clenched and unclenched at her sides. Erin felt fear fall through the center of her torso like a stone. It lodged in her stomach and stayed there.
“You know,” Maggie said. “You might be better with a sponsor who doesn’t care so much.”
Erin’s mouth dropped open. “Are you fucking serious?”
“I just think—
“Great,” Erin said. “Dumping me now that my mother’s here. Thanks, Maggie. What is that? Fourteen stepping?”
She walked over to the metal railing and placed her hands on it. Cold seeped through her skin, even though the day had been warm, even though she was so angry she could barely focus on what was in front of her. She held onto the metal until it left ridges in her hands, then let go.
“Erin. For Christ sakes.”
“Just go. Whatever.”
“That’s a great way to stay sober. Act like I’m firing you.”
“Fuck you, Maggie.”
Maggie looked at her. “I know you probably don’t get this, but swearing at people is abusive.”
Erin looked Maggie right in the eye. “Great. I’m abusive. Like my father. You want to blame me? Fuck you again.”
Maggie took a deep breath. Then another. “You should have answered my calls.”
“You said no to me.”
“After all this shit I didn’t ask for, I ask for one thing and you say no.”
“People say no.”
Erin kept staring at her hands. “Is that some great recovery bullshit?”
“I have a child. I have a job. I have done a lot for you, Erin—“
“Well, don’t.” Erin spun around, pulled her hands off the railing. They trembled at her sides. “Don’t guilt me and don’t fucking bother.”
Patti opened the door. “Get in here. Both of you.”
Maggie didn’t move. Neither did Erin. They both stared at Patti, whose face had turned a bright, angry red.
“Now!” Patti said.
They filed in past her. Erin kept her eyes on the carpet, noticing the way the pile swept in one direction and then in the other. The baseboards had a coating of dust; the kitchen chairs had been pulled away from the table and not placed back in. She went to fix them. Patti and Maggie watched her move in one chair, then another.
“I have to get back to my kid,” Maggie said. “I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“Fine,” Erin said. “I’m totally fucking fine.”
“Okay then.” Maggie turned to go.
“What the fuck is going on?” Patti said. She looked from one woman to the other, and then back again. “You’re acting crazy. Like dysfunctional sisters. You even kind of look like it, all red haired and shit.”
Erin looked down at the carpet. She scuffed at it with her foot. “She’s too old to be my sister,” she muttered.
Maggie threw up her hands. “Oh my fucking God.”
“It’s better than girlfriends,” Erin muttered.
“What happened?” Patti asked. “This is way too much drama.”
“She thinks she’s too attached to me,” Erin said. “So bye-bye.”
No one said anything. Erin looked up and saw Patti looking at Maggie.
“Is that it?” Patti said to Maggie.
“You’re asking her?” Erin said.
“You’re clearly suffering from mother-induced insanity. And she’s your sponsor.”
“Fuck you back.”
Erin sat down heavily at the kitchen table.
Maggie looked at Patti. “You’re the best friend, I take it?”
“I think of myself more as a guard dog, but yeah, usually.”
“She’s in bad shape.”
“I am fine!” Erin sat bolt upright in her chair. “Fine!”
“So much so that she wanted me to come with her today. And I couldn’t. That’s when the ‘I’m fine’ started.”
“She doesn’t like to ask for stuff,” Patti said.
“I get that.” Maggie sat down in the living room’s only chair. “But she’s so fine she’s going to drink. She looks like she wants to, but that’s fine, too, right Erin?”
Erin leapt to her feet. “Everything isn’t about fucking drinking!”
“For you it is!” Maggie leaned forward in her seat.
“She has a point, Erin,” Patti said quietly.
“I don’t want to drink,” Erin lied.
“Then why wouldn’t you answer your phone?” Maggie’s eyes bored right through Erin’s skull until she wanted to run right out of the room.
“I turned it off,” Erin said, walking into the kitchen instead. “I do that.”
“At least she has one,” Patti said.
“I had phones,” Erin said, leaning around the kitchen wall.
“Phones?” Maggie asked.
“Burners,” Patti told her. “To avoid the women who wanted more than a one night stand. Until her mother forced this one on her at Christmas.” Patti came into the kitchen, pulled Erin back to the table and sat them both down. She looked Erin right in the eyes. “You haven’t told her shit, have you?”
“Don’t you say anything,” Erin said. “I mean it, Patti. I’ll buy you a plane ticket home tomorrow.”
Patti pointedly turned away and focused on Maggie. “So, you don’t know about the Christmas fiasco, or her mother calling her home from Europe to fix all their lives—”
“Patti!” Erin stood up, then realized she had no idea where to go. She sat back down. “Dude. Leave me a little dignity.”
“She has this big savior complex—” Patti continued.
Maggie smiled. “I’ve seen a bit of that.”
Patti kept on talking, leaning forward, elbows on her blue-jeaned knees, dark hair falling across her face, her head nodding up and down. All about what happened when Erin came home, how for ten years she’d go to the house and stand outside until her father left and she could see her sister for an hour or two, usually not even in the house, and ready to bolt if he returned…and how this year, instead, she’d moved in, chased him away, because that’s what her mother needed. As if all the other years didn’t count. As if Erin had no right to be angry. Even though they’d both beaten the crap out of her when she was growing up.
“I can be angry,” Erin said to Patti. “If it won’t cost me Beth.” Then she started to cry. No one moved, or spoke, as Erin sobbed and tried not to sob, as she turned away and put her head down. Patti put her hand on Erin’s back.
Erin felt the pressure of that hand, felt the chair under her legs, felt her face crumpling, but around her grew an empty house, its wood floors clean of carpeting, of footsteps, of everything but the holograms of family, as they moved through the years, tearing into each other like wolves. She saw herself standing outside her family’s home like a thief, an outcast, someone for whom no one would even open a door. It occurred to her that this bothered her. A lot more than she’d ever been willing to admit.
She looked up at Patti. Whose dark eyes looked back at her with love, the real thing. Patti had always kept a door open. Family sucks and lovers leave, Erin thought.
“I put up with so much to hold onto her,” Erin said quietly.
“I know.” Patti wrapped her arm around Erin. “I could barely stand to watch it.”
Erin leaned against the warmth of her friend’s body, the thick muscles and soft skin.
“It’s so hard not to love who you love,” Erin said. “I don’t know how not to love them. I keep trying, but I can’t make myself stop.”
Maggie got up from the couch. Erin felt her approach as a shift in the air, accompanied by the smell of perfume and coffee. She heard Maggie pull a chair back out from the table, the swish of her skirt as she sat down.
“You need to send them home,” Maggie said.
“No,” Erin answered. “Don’t take my sister away from me. I don’t care about anything else. I need to make sure Beth is okay.”
“She always talks like this,” Patti told Maggie. “Like something terrible is about to happen.”
“Why wouldn’t she be okay, Erin?” Maggie asked.
For a moment Erin couldn’t speak. She rubbed an arm across her face; it came away wet. She shook her head from side to side in tiny jerks. “I just…”
Erin looked at Maggie, at her thin face, at her kind eyes, at the no-bullshit set of her jaw.
“I’m not okay,” Erin said. “I need to make sure she doesn’t end up like me.”
Patti laid a hand over Erin’s arm. “Spent your life doing that,” she said. “Done deal.”