Erin rolled over. Her body stopped against something solid. She lifted her head and saw Patti’s clumps of dark hair on the pillow next to hers. She lifted herself up and craned her head around to see the room—the suitcase moved in against the wall, the plastic bag of toiletries on her dresser, the promised blue and white Alanon books on the floor. The night before seemed like some strange dream.
Maggie had gone home to get Laura, had brought her back, along with games and a sleeping bag. Erin played Clue with Laura on the living room floor while Maggie and Patti talked about what Erin called crazy family shit and crazier recovery shit. Finally Laura went to sleep, and Patti had tried to bully Erin into telling Maggie about her childhood. Erin crossed her arms over her chest and stared silently at Patti for a long time.
“Don’t make me sorry I told you,” Erin said.
Patti’s face had crumpled. “But I don’t know how to help you.”
Erin, sitting on the floor, the sleeping girl behind her on the couch, had picked up a game piece and looked at it. She thought of the Yamanote subway line in Japan, the crush of bodies; she thought of the guitar music during Feria in Seville, but all she could smell was diesel and sawdust. Travel had always been poetry, fairy tale, but sitting on the used carpet in the furnished apartment she’d rented for an six months, she realized she’d somehow switched stories. No fairy tale. No recognizable landmarks. Not even the familiar Christmas hell.
She looked up at Patti. “Anyone want to play Clue?” she asked.
“I’m going to kill you,” Patti said.
“Not if I get to her first,” Maggie added.
But Patti was already on the floor, wrestling Erin into a headlock. Erin squirmed away, held up the tiny Clue dagger in front of her. They both started to laugh.
“Such are my weapons,” Erin said.
“Tilting at windmills,” Patti told her. “Okay. Call me Sancho.”
And somehow that had led to calm. Maggie still wanted her to send her mother packing, Patti still wanted her to tell every humiliating detail about her family. They argued about it for hours. But Erin had found an eye in the storm. With no solution, with no agreement, she sat at her own kitchen table as stubborn as ever, listening to people trying to help her. And finally, looking into Patti’s dark eyes, watching Maggie yawn and lean back in her chair, that had seemed like enough. Two people. On her side.
Now, yawning, Erin realized she’d kept them from giving her another set of orders. The end result of which was that she had no idea what to do. She turned around, pressed her back against Patti’s side.
The next time she woke, her cell phone was ringing and the bed next to her was empty. She lifted the cell, pressed her thumb onto the screen, and put it to her ear.
“You coming over?” she said to her mother.
An hour later they were all there—Patti, Beth, Maggie, her mother. Only Laura was missing, sent to school for a normal day. They filled the living room with their bodies, their voices, their attempts at conversation, while Erin stood behind a counter in the kitchen, looking out and saying nothing. Patti and Beth kept watching her, while Maggie seemed determined to keep Janet occupied with talk about Tucson, or Laura, or some femme bullshit Erin couldn’t concentrate on long enough to understand.
“Pool?” Patti asked, breaking into her thoughts.
Erin pointed at Beth. “That one,” she said. “Can swim in all weather. Probably has her swim suit on under her clothes.”
Beth came over and pulled Erin out from behind the counter, and the three of them made their way down the stairs to the lounge chairs and umbrellas, the whitened concrete, the silver bar that led down into the shallow end. Beth tore off her T-shirt and shorts and started down the steps.
“No splashing,” Erin said to Beth. “Seriously.”
Patti walked around the pool, looking at identical apartment windows, with identical beige curtains pulled closed. Until she came to a glass door. Then she turned around.
“You have a community room,” she told Erin. “With ping pong.”
“And you didn’t even notice. Of course.”
She tried the door and it opened. Beth came back up the pool steps and went to look in.
“Cool,” Beth said.
“You two play,” Erin said. She sat down on one of the lounge chairs, felt the straps against her back as she looked up at the big Tucson sky. Behind her, she could hear the slap of paddles against balls, the fall of their feet, the shouts and catcalls. Upstairs, Maggie and Janet—the femmes, the moms, Erin reminded herself—were still comparing…what? Terrible husband stories? Nail polish tips? She couldn’t let herself think of what they might be saying about her. She leaned back against the chair, pulled on the arms to lower it. “Fine,” she told herself. “I’m just fine.”
She watched the thin clouds, the shadows over the foothills, until she closed her eyes. The exhaustion pulled her down into the feel of her own heavy muscles. They’d been up most of the night…she fell into an itchy sleep, full of voices, fragments, doors opening and closing in a landscape growing darker. She muttered, turned, woke briefly to the sky over her head, shut her eyes and fell asleep again.
She woke to the cool of lotion, to soft fingertips spreading it across her forehead and cheekbones. For a moment, her eyes still closed, she didn’t know where she was. Rachel? She thought.
“Determined,” Janet’s voice said, “To burn her skin off. Or get cancer. She won’t listen.”
Erin opened her eyes and saw her mother’s face close to her own. So close, she could the make up in the crow’s feet around her mother’s eyes, smell the eggs on her mother’s breath. Her entire body tensed. She couldn’t move. Janet kept smoothing the lotion over her skin of her face, rubbing it in gentle circles. There must, Erin thought, be mothers who did things like this for their daughters. There must be daughters who liked it, for whom it felt like love, like care. The thoughts came from a far distance, because she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t stand her mother so close, couldn’t stand the feel of those fingers, as if every circle called up another year of emptiness, another year of absolute cold.
“I fell asleep,” Erin finally said. Then she quickly lifted her hands and pushed her mother’s fingers away. She started rubbing the lotion on herself. Janet stood up straight, frowning.
“Just trying to help,” Janet said.
“Yeah,” Erin answered, glaring. “Thanks.” She rolled onto her side, giving her mother her back. When had Janet ever touched her? And then it flooded back, the feel of her mother pulling her into her arms the night of the strippers. Her body started to shake. She could feel it in her chest, unfamiliar, a strange trembling. She gripped her arms over her heart as hard as she could.
“I have to go,” Maggie said, walking around and bending down to look into Erin’s face. “But I’ll be back to take you to the five o’clock, okay?”
Erin didn’t answer.
“She’s fine,” Patti joked as she walked toward them from the community room, followed by Beth. “Remember?”
“Yes,” Maggie answered, still looking at Erin. “I do.”
“We’ll see you then.” Patti went to Maggie and shook her hand.
Erin jumped to her feet. She glared at Maggie and Patti. She couldn’t look at her mother.
“I am not a project!” Erin said loudly.
“She’s never wanted anyone to help her with anything,” Janet told Maggie. “When she was learning to walk, I’d hold out my hands and she’d stumble right by me. I wouldn’t take it personally.”
Maggie faced Janet. “Did you? Take it personally?”
Janet blushed. She looked at Erin.
“Since you’re talking about me like I’m not here, I might as well not be,” Erin said. She stomped halfway to the steps, boots pounding. She turned around. “And nobody better have locked the fucking door!”
“Not fine,” she heard Patti whisper.
Erin pounded up the stairs.
“Beth,” Erin yelled. “You want to come up?” She leaned over the railing, and felt the trembling spreading through her entire body.
Below, Beth said she would, but then Erin heard her mother tell her to say where she
“Maggie, is there something I should do?” Janet asked.
Erin felt the rush of blood to her face, the pounding in her arms, her legs, as she bit down, but she couldn’t keep the words from leaving her mouth.
“Maggie isn’t the boss of me!”
“I’m just trying to help.” Janet looked up toward the catwalk, shading her eyes with her hand.
She saw them all, backed up to almost the pool’s edge so they could see her, with Beth standing at the bottom of the steps, not moving, one foot on a higher stair, the other planted just below.
“What!” Erin said. “What are you staring at?”
A man in one of the apartments down the way opened his door and looked out.
“Take her to a meeting,” Maggie told Patti.
Janet crossed her arms over her chest. “I can take her—”
Maggie laid a hand on Janet’s arm. “She’s in a pressure cooker,” Maggie said. “She needs you to understand that you’re part of the pressure.”
“I’m fine!” Erin yelled as she slammed open the apartment door. “Beth? You coming?”
Beth looked up at her without moving. “You’re being scary,” she said.
“Oh my God,” Erin said. “I am not scary! I’m not the one who--” she stopped herself from saying, gets her husband to hurt you. “I’m not scary, Beth!”
She went in, slamming the door behind her. And stood, alone, still shaking with rage. Her father’s rage. Cold fell through her, without warning, and she made her way to the bedroom, where she locked the door and sat on the bed. She didn’t even want a drink. She just wanted everything to stop.
She sat there, hands curling and uncurling in her lap for what seemed like an eternity, until she heard the knob on the bedroom door try to turn, then the sound of knuckles lightly tapping the wood. Beth. But when she went and opened it, she saw her mother’s face. They looked at each other.
“What?” Erin muttered.
“Your friends wanted to talk to you, but I told them no. I’m your mother.”
“Are you going to drink again, Erin?” Janet stood in the doorway without moving.
“I don’t know,” Erin told her. “I might.” Then she moved aside so her mother could enter.
Janet walked in, looked around at the suitcase, the scattered clothes and rumpled sheets. She went over to the bed, pulled the spread up, and sat down.
“I’ve never known how to talk to you,” Janet said.
“And your father—”
Erin came and sat next to her mother.
“He’s not a good man,” Janet said.
Erin looked down at her hands, twisted them together in her lap. “No,” she said. “He isn’t.”
“When I say you’re like him, I don’t mean that you’re not a good person, Erin.”
Erin couldn’t speak. Janet had turned, and was looking at her. She could feel her mother asking her to look back.
“I just mean…adventurous. Not the other things.”
Erin turned then, looked into her mother’s face.
“Violent?” Erin said quietly. “Abusive? A rapist?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.” Janet stood up.
“I know.” Erin stood up, too. “I know you don’t want to.”
“Erin, I’m warning you—”
“No! I’m sorry, Mom. Can I just say that? I’m sorry I didn’t stop him…I’m just, I’m really sorry.”
“It’s over. We don’t have to talk about it ever again.” Janet went to the bedroom door.
“Because that’s what you want.”
“Because I don’t matter.”
“I said I don’t want to talk--”
“I guess we’ll never talk about what you did to me then,” Erin heard herself say.
“I didn’t do anything.” Janet lifted her chin.
“Right,” Erin said. “Of course.” Her fists clenched at her side. “You’re my mother, you want to help, as long as you don’t have to admit--”
Beth rushed into the doorway, her hair messed, falling out of the usual barrette. There were tears on her face. “What did you do, Mom?”
“Patti!” Erin yelled. She could see her friend’s dark hair just past her mother’s shoulder. “Patti!”
“I want to know!” Beth said. “No one tells me anything.”
“She heard,” Patti said to Erin as she entered the bedroom. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it would turn into this.”
“Beth, we are leaving, right now,” Janet announced, biting out the words, and taking Beth by the arm. “I’ve had enough.”
“Good,” Patti said. “You’ve done enough.”
“How dare you talk to me like that?”
Beth yanked herself out of her mother’s grip and ran where Erin now stood, against the far wall. She pulled on Erin’s arm, so Erin bent until they were the same height. “Don’t lie,” Beth said, her face so close Erin could see each separate freckle. “Don’t lie.”
“You always ask if I’m okay.”
“Because they hurt you. I think…I think Dad hit you. When I was little. I think he did.”
“I don’t want them to hit you, Bethie. I have to be sure they don’t hurt you.”
“Mom, too? Did Mom hit you, too?”
Erin, looking down into her sister’s face, knew if she nodded, if she answered, she would destroy her sister’s innocence with one motion, one word. Eleven, she thought. Not even fourteen. She is eleven years old. Hot tears started down her face.
“Tell me, Erin,” Beth shook Erin’s arm. “Mom hit you, too?”
“Beth!” Janet said. “We are leaving right now.”
Beth didn’t even turn to look. She squeezed Erin’s arm tighter. “Truth,” Beth said. “Remember? Truth.”
Erin closed her eyes. It was the only way she could answer. “Yes,” she said. “Mom hurt me, too.”
She opened her eyes to see the sadness in her sister’s eyes, the old look, the one Laura had, too. The one, Erin thought, she’d always tried not to see in her own mirror.
Beth lifted a hand and wiped Erin’s wet face. “Not me,” she said. “They don’t hit me, Erin.”
Erin pulled her sister into a hug so tight that Beth yelped. Erin loosened her grip. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want you to know.”
Beth held Erin tighter. Across the room, Janet had gone white, two hot spots of color on her cheekbones. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Patti pushed passed her to cross the room. She came to Erin, laid a one hand on Erin’s shoulder, the other on Beth’s.
“You’re sisters,” she said. “Eventually, you’ll tell each other everything, right?”
“But for right now, your Mom wants to leave and we’ve got to figure out what to do.”
“I’m taking Beth home,” Janet said. “We came to see if Erin was alright, not listen to ridiculous accusations—”
Erin, her arms still around her sister, looked right at her mother. “You take her home, but you don’t hurt her. And I’m not talking about hitting her. I’m talking about keeping us apart. You and I may never work, but she doesn’t get pulled into it. You hear me?”
Beth took a step back and looked at Janet.
“She’s my daughter—”
“You’re my mother and I can’t see your face without wanting to drink!” Erin yelled. “So fine, go home, let me get sober, but don’t take my sister because I have taken enough from you and I have done enough for you and I want you off my fucking back!”
“You keep talking to me like that and you’ll see what you get.” Janet turned her back and walked out of the bedroom. “Beth,” she yelled from the other room. “Get out here right now!”
Erin bent over, breathing hard.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Patti said. “I’m sorry.”
“Just think how bad it would have been if you weren’t here,” Erin said.
She reached out a hand to Beth, who was now crying. “I know you hate the fighting,” Erin said.
“She’s mean,” Beth said. “She’s really mean to you. And you scream at each other.”
“I know,” Erin said. She bent down to her sister. “I can’t see Mom for a while. You know that, right?”
“That means I won’t see you for a while either, Bethie.”
Beth looked at her. “No. You come home. Like you used to. I’ll just meet you at the end of the driveway. Or you can pick me up at school.”
“I don’t know,” Erin said. “I don’t know if I can--”
“You have to. Because you’re my sister. And that’s forever, right?”
“Yes,” Erin told her. “That’s forever.”
They hugged. When they let go, Erin could see Patti was crying, too.
“You’ll come find me?” Beth asked.
“I’ll walk her out,” Patti said. “Make sure Janet isn’t too insane to drive.”
“I love you,” Erin said to her sister.
“I love you, too.”
Erin stood absolutely still. “Get Dad to give you that secret cell phone.”
Beth nodded as she stepped away.
Erin didn’t watch Patti and Beth walk out of the room. She turned back to the window. She looked at the light. She held a hand up against the glass. And then she started sobbing. She had no words in her head, no child in her arms, no one she needed to protect. She gasped; sounds left her mouth. She couldn’t stop them. By the time Patti came back she was curled up on the floor. Patti got down with her, wrapped her arms around Erin’s back, and held her until her breathing started to calm, until her body stopped its strange convulsing. They lay like that for long minutes.
“What is this?” Erin finally said. “Butch on butch love?”
“You’re barely butch,” Patti said. “But if you’d rather I kick your ass, I’d be glad to oblige.”
Later, after Erin had sat in a meeting, slumped in her metal chair next to Patti, later, after Maggie had come over with a printout of step questions, later, after she’d talked to Beth, who’d called from the hotel lobby to prove they wouldn’t lose touch, Erin came out into the living room, where Maggie and Patti still sat. She slid down on the couch next to Patti, and elbowed her in the side. Patti elbowed her back.
Then Erin looked at Maggie. “Tell me about you. Please?”
“I don’t know,” Maggie said, looking at Patti.
“You, too,” Erin said to her friend. “Tell me stories.”
“Why?” Patti asked.
Erin shrugged. “I like to hear them.”
“Erin,” Maggie said. “Are you asking for help?”
“I think I’m going to faint.” Patti clutched her chest. “Or maybe it’s a heart attack.”
Erin rolled her eyes. “Just tell me,” she said. “Tell me the hardest things.”
“So you’re not alone,” Maggie said gently.
“So I know I’m not fucking crazy.”
“But you are crazy,” Patti said, all mock innocence. “We know that.”
Maggie looked at Patti in disbelief. “How long have you two known each other?”
“Too long,” Patti said.
“Stories. Now,” Erin said. “If it’s not too much fucking trouble.”
Maggie, of course, started, curling her legs up underneath her skirt, which Erin thought looked terrible awkward, like a deer sitting on a stool. But as she listened to Maggie talk about her mother, who walked into town three or four times a month trying to find good shoes at the giveaways at local churches, as she listened to Patti talk about her father making her stand against the dining room wall and watch everyone else eat because she hadn’t memorized her daily bible passage perfectly, the words surrounded her like a belief in freedom, in travel, in a life she would someday be able to choose again. She leaned back against the couch, felt the thick flesh of Patti’s arm against hers, thinking of the way, when everything was gone, and you stood, stripped down to utter nakedness in the hardest darkness you knew, you might be held by women who saw you, who wanted to help, women who didn’t need to walk away.