Published on July 3rd, 2014 | by Brian Hagenbuch0
“The night you were conceived I didn’t even have an orgasm,” her mom said, looking at her through an empty wine glass held high in front of her face, the rim smothered with red lipstick.
Her dad looked at a shredded piece of steak that sat in a greasy puddle of pale blood on his plate.
Janet looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room, that perfect view of Mount Rainier centered in the massive panes of glass, that old bridge, so picturesque, bisecting the mountain’s pale pink reflection in the glassy surface of the lake on the still summer evening.
“That’s why you’re so fucking unhappy,” her mom said, sighing and putting her wine glass down.
Alpenglow, Janet thought.
Snow in the summer. It always surprised her how it could be so hot and that snow never melted. It stayed all year.
A cloud sat on top of the mountain like a pink cap. Her high school science teacher had told her about those clouds. They formed by winds ripping up the side of the mountain, peaking, and leaving their moisture. Sometimes the air stream would continue undulating across the sky, leaving a series of increasingly smaller cap clouds at intervals in the vast blue, like a family.
A family of clouds, she thought.
A firecracker popped somewhere over the lake and Janet saw her father flinch. He hated Fourth of July. If he were a dog, he’d be curled up under the biggest bed in the house, trembling. PTSD, they called it now.
It was the first time in five years that Janet had been home for the Fourth of July, also a day before her birthday. Last year she drove out to Malibu by herself. She had cried on the beach.
“Pass me the lifeline,” her mother said, motioning to a bottle of red wine on the granite countertop underneath of montage of photographs of Rainier at its most glorious: symmetrically framed by a rainbow, backlit by a red morning sun and looking molten, lit up pink like it was now.
Janet walked over to the counter, picked up the bottle and peered at the thick, dark bottom.
“It’s empty,” Janet said, as if her mother didn’t know that, as if they all didn’t know that.
She walked back to the table and cleared her parents’ plates. She cleared everything. It took her seven trips, and neither of them moved or spoke.
“Open another one,” her mother finally said.
Janet did the dishes. Her dad — with his perfect posture, his stiff composure, and his resignation — got up and flipped his white cloth napkin onto the table. He walked to the couch where he sat bolt upright and turned on the television, the volume high. ESPN.
“I’m going out,” Janet said, shutting the dishwasher door.
Her mother was still sitting at the table when she walked out the door, her empty wine glass in front of her. In the distance, behind her, a massive grey military cargo plane crept across the sky like a Macy’s Parade balloon, strafing the fading pink monolith of Mt. Rainier until it disappeared behind a dark stand of firs.
Fireworks were already popping off everywhere into the dusk.
It was dark when Janet pulled out onto the narrow road that wove through the huge lake homes, the firs and cedars pushing over the asphalt in black forms. It flooded her with memories. She glanced at a little turn-out to her left, a one-lane gravel road that led down to the public boat dock where she had lost her virginity twelve years ago on a surprisingly comfortable mattress in the back John’s VW Westphalia, the smell of Old Spice and mold and comfort.
He was the one, but she had a lot to do and left him to go to school in Philadelphia. On her list of things to do: Stop war. Save the planet. Make everything beautiful all the time.
She didn’t get around to doing those things. She had spent most of college juggling high credit loads and a series of bad boyfriends. By the time she graduated, she was emotionally wounded, in debt, and not sure what to do with her BA in English, with her life.
She decided she would revolutionize the entertainment industry. Good people didn’t go to Los Angeles anymore, she reasoned, and that was the problem. In LA, she spent most of her time drinking, deflecting and accepting sexual advances, and trying to pay rent. What had she done with her life?
Janet heard her before she saw her, a shrill scream penetrating the almost silent interior of her mother’s BMW. And then her headlights panned over the figure standing in the gravel next to the road: a woman, her face bloody and eyes crazed in the bluish glare of the headlights, wrapped in a sheet with large crimson stains, little bare feet sticking out the bottom. This was a battered woman, naked, wrapped in a bloody sheet, screaming.
Janet drove past her, her heart in her throat. She couldn’t stop, accelerating the BMW through corners, now going 50 in a 25. This was not a horror movie, she reasoned, it was a real person back there.
She eased her foot off the gas and pulled into a driveway, choking back tears.
She turned the BMW around and drove the speed limit back to the bend in the road where she had passed the woman. She wasn’t there anymore.
Janet dialed 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
Is that what they always said?
“I saw a woman. She was hurt. She’s gone now….” Janet’s voice trailed off. She wasn’t even sure she had seen her anymore.
She heard herself give an address. She heard herself say words, ‘screaming’, ‘bloody’, ‘sheet’.
And she knew the ambulance would be there soon, and it could be John behind the wheel. He had stayed in Lakewood when she left for Philadelphia and become a firefighter, then a paramedic. He would probably be working on the Fourth. He worked all the holidays, 48-hour shifts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. He liked how the calls picked up, how the drama duplicated, and he’d never had another serious relationship after Janet, so family wasn’t an issue.
But Janet didn’t know if he was working tonight. She hadn’t told him she was coming home. She just didn’t want to go down the same road.
Janet, her hands shaking — her nails a smoky blue, a fat black panther ring, its eyes glittering rhinestones, on her pinky finger — grabbed the gin and tonic the bartender set in front of her. She glanced around the packed bar and was relieved she didn’t recognize anyone.
A distant wail of sirens drifted in the air outside. Janet felt a heavy presence to her left.
“Happy Fourth,” he said.
She turned to see a raised beer glass. She clinked the rim of her gin and tonic to it and looked at the man.
“To you,” she said.
He was poised, strong. She immediately saw her father in his body. She didn’t want to go down the same road, the booze, her mother, her father. But it was all too inevitable. She was already herself. She was already his.
He was handsome. He smelled like Old Spice and mold. His hair looked like it was still wet, or was it product?
“Is this product?” she asked, and surprised herself by reaching out and running a hand through his hair.
“Just showered,” he said with a smirk, “I’m Kyle.”
He put out a thick hand. Janet shook it up and down hard, twice.
“Janet. Pleased to meet you. What do you do, Kyle?” she asked, hoping to hear firefighter, EMT, chief.
“I’m just back from the war.”
“Wow, like you just got off the plane from Afghanistan and took a shower and came here?”
“No,” he laughed, “I got back a couple weeks ago.”
“Well, I would like to say you’re so handsome it’s criminal,” she said, her mind again trailing her actions.
“Nothing’s criminal where I come from.”
“Oh my.” Janet squirmed on her bar stool.
She talked and talked. He listened and listened. She told him about the words that came out of her mother’s stained lips. He laughed and laughed. She told him about her dad’s service. He nodded and nodded. They drank and drank. The bartender kept dimming the lights a bit more and a bit more until the room felt like an amber womb, like the sweet and sticky inside of a honey jar.
Janet and Kyle were leaning on each other.
“How it got to be last call I do not know,” Janet found herself saying, drunk, emphatic.
“I will never understand how in the fuck it possibly go to be last call,” she found herself following up, yelling now.
Kyle was chuckling quietly and looking around the bar. He took her arm and led her through a writhing mass of bodies and noise to the door.
Outside in the dark parking lot, Janet walked right into Kyle’s arms. There was something about this guy. He was a magnet. She was metal. He kissed her hard. He would drive her home, he said. She lived on the lake, she said. He lived on the lake too, he said. What a coincidence, she said.
“Five years. I haven’t been home for my birthday in five years, and I meet you,” Janet sighed. They held each other in the parking lot. She imagined what it would be like to live in Lakewood again. To live with a soldier.
Kyle’s black Escalade rolled slowly along the narrow road that wove through the huge lake homes, the firs and cedars pushing over the asphalt in black forms. It flooded her with memories.
He was confident and calm behind the wheel. They passed the corner where Janet had seen the woman earlier in the night and she shuddered.
“You okay over there?” he asked.
“Yeah, just a bit chilly.”
He turned on the heat. At the little gravel road turning down the boat ramp, Kyle applied the brakes and took the hard right slowly, glancing at Janet.
“Oh my. A pit stop,” Janet said, playfully.
“Oh yes,” she heard herself say, “you have no idea.”
He nosed the SUV up to the edge of the lake and cut the lights. The mountain was sitting out there in the dark somewhere, winds whipping its snowy flanks.
Kyle slid his seat back and sighed. Janet unbuckled her seatbelt and, hiking her long black dress with the tiny sequined flowers up around her waist, nimbly crawled over the console and straddled him, her back resting against the steering wheel, her pelvic bone settling down on his. There was something hard there.
She sighed. This again.
He pushed his hips up hard, and Janet felt a pinching pain in the tender flesh of inner thigh. She leaned into him and, just before closing her eyes to kiss him, glanced over his shoulder and saw a single red high heel sitting on the black leather of the backseat.
Janet’s mom stood at the floor to ceiling windows in her pink robe, a cup of coffee in her shaky hand, a pit in her stomach. The sun this time of year played a breathtaking trick, rising all fiery red and orange straight out of the crater of the mountain. She had stopped taking joy in it years ago.
She stared blankly at the water. Something that looked like a big black plastic garbage bag floated over by the boat launch. The kids and their parties and their littering, she hated it. Independence Day.
Janet still wasn’t up. She remembered the way Janet used to wake them the morning of her birthday, and thought about going into her room and returning the favor.
How had the rift between them grown so wide?
Janet’s father was in the basement, the television on, the volume high. ESPN.
Other than the deep drone of sports commentators, the house was so quiet, just the ticking of the clock, and then a knock at the door.
Janet’s mother walked to the door and opened it to see John filling up the doorframe.
“John,” she smiled. He was the one. Everyone knew it.
But her smile quickly faded. He was soaking wet, tears streaming down an expressionless pale face.