She tells me to come over any time – literally any time – just put the security code in the keypad, 1-9-8-6, the year she and Rich got married. She makes a joke about setting the code as one of her kids’ birthdays, but she honest-to-God struggles with who’s on the 15th and who’s on the 16th.
“I know I should know,” she says. “And I do know! But sometimes I just don’t know.”
I’m friends with her kids. I know who’s on the 15th and who’s on the 16th.
Liz tells me all kinds of things. She tells me about the too-expensive yoga pants she bought online. Do you think Rich will be mad? She tells me about a stupid thing she did while driving, nothing dangerous, just a missed turn she’s made a thousand times. Still – where was my head? She tells me she recorded over one of Ryan’s shows on the DVR. Will he hate me?
I always thought I was a confessional: a vessel with a lid that shuts tight. But lately I’ve begun to see that I’m a fountain, a collector of coins. Liz throws a penny over her shoulder, makes a wish. I just catch it and watch her move on.
She used to ask me about boys, my job, where I’m applying to college – all the same questions she soft-balled at the rest of my friends. But I liked being seen by Liz; I wanted her to like me best. And even though I’m technically here for Ryan – the one born on the 15th – I’ve ended up coming back for Liz.
“I can’t believe you’re only 17,” she says. “Such an old soul.”
I smile, complimented. “I get that a lot.”
Liz pushes off the granite kitchen island and crosses to the fridge. “I have an anniversary coming up!” She announces this to the room as though it were full of people. She grabs the handle and does a little dance. “Lucky me, huh?”
I smile. “Lucky you.” I don’t talk to Rich as much as I do Liz.
Liz likes to tell the story of how she met Rich. She brings it up a lot, especially on nights like this when Ryan has people over. They’re good stories for the other girls, and she can rattle off her anecdotes with the memorized precision of an actor. Everyone gasps when Rich reveals how he feels, awws when he proposes. It’s so romantic they say, then they leave the kitchen through the sliding door and walk out to the bonfire where the boys are waiting. Tonight is different, though. No one else stayed inside, and Liz seems off, distracted or something. I think it’s this heat. It’s the dead of summer, and no matter how much she runs the A/C, the humidity still hangs on everything.
“Rich and I waited until our wedding night,” she says. She sort of says it to the inside of the refrigerator, like it’s a fact she wants to store for a while longer. She turns to me, her face expectant.
It’s so random, and I wonder if she meant to say it aloud. I want to diffuse a potentially serious admission, so I make my eyes and mouth go wide in cartoony shock. If I had pearls, I would clutch them. I’m making a joke. I also think she’s lying.
As though she can read my mind, she says, “I swear on my kids’ lives, we waited.” She’s smiling again, leaning into the absurdity of sharing this story. She’s gotten a white wine refill from a huge jug, and I wonder if this is the tannins talking or if it’s something else. “This might be gross to say, but I was too terrified of my dad finding out.”
Liz has intimated on several occasions that her relationship with her father is a complicated one. Whenever his name is mentioned, she darts her diamond-blue eyes at me, assuming I understand. I don’t. To me, her father is just Ryan’s Grandpa, another old guy that I see at football games and prom pictures. When he comes by the house, he kisses the top of Liz’s head, comments on the hydrangea bushes or the condition of the siding, offers to connect her to his landscapers and contractors if she wants quality work for a change. Ryan calls him “Walt” like they’re friends, right to his face and everything. Walt doesn’t seem to care, though – Ryan’s his first grandchild and can get away with anything. Walt also can never remember my name. He knows all the other girls because of who their dads are, but I’m a phantom that appeared from seemingly nowhere. You went to middle school where? He asks every time he sees me. Never heard of it. I never know how to respond, because I don’t know how to prove to someone that my life really happened.
“So just Rich, huh?” I ask.
Liz sucks in her cheeks a little, her flesh surely in between molars. “No. There was a boy in high school.” She says these words in a whisper, like she might conjure a ghost. Or worse – Rich from the depths of their perfectly finished basement. She starts to talk into her mug of wine, the ice hissing up at her like a musical score. It turns out the boy from high school was older, some angry guy who sat in the back of her Western Civ class. That’s her word – ”angry.” I ask her what she means by that.
“You know, wore a lot of black. Listened to weird music.”
“Weird music? How weird are we talking?”
“The Clash or the Cure or the Cult. One of those.” She waves their names with her free hand. “But he had friends.” She’s starting to slur. “I swear to God he wasn’t some scary loner.”
Liz says he would sit silently in the last row of desks until a class discussion piqued his interest. Then he’d chime in and everybody would nod their heads in unison like, Wow, this guy gets it. She never nodded along because she wasn’t paying attention. He was a guy who marched in workers’ rights rallies, who put anti-Reagan patches on his jackets, who read up on Afghanistan and the Soviets because the world mattered to him, and he was terrified of being just like everyone else.
“Which is funny, because I’m exactly like everyone else,” says Liz.
“That’s not true,” I say. “You’re one of the most interesting people I know.”
She smirks, ca-thunks her mug down on the island. “That’s very sweet, but I’m about as typical as you can get.” She taps the ice cube at the top of her mug, sinks it to the bottom.
Liz says the first thing she noticed about him was his hands.
“I know that’s like, a weird thing to notice, but that’s what I noticed. I couldn’t help it.”
She was walking to French class down a hall lined with lockers. She was talking to her friends, all cheerleaders she says, not paying attention at all, when a locker door opened in front of her, just BAM, right in the face. Only it didn’t hit her in the face; the owner of the locker grabbed it before it could swing too far into traffic. She demonstrates this part by holding her hand in front of her nose, showing how close the locker door came. One of her gel nails is missing. She saw the back of his hand and said her stomach dropped. She actually felt sick. The hand was rough and tan, masculine, perfect. She wanted whoever it was connected to. She said she was disappointed when the hand closed the locker and revealed the boy from high school instead of a country club lifeguard or a football player. They didn’t look at each other – he didn’t even remember this happening, in fact –but she was struck dumb by the hands that were rough from something other than sports.
Imagine Liz’s surprise when she walked into Western Civ that afternoon and realized, oh, that’s him. That’s always been him, his hands were just behind me. She wanted to turn around and get a better look. He sat silently for much of class until he chose his moment and piped up. She could finally turn to look at him with everyone else. She broke out into a cold sweat when he said that Sacco and Vanzetti had been framed.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what he was talking about. I just memorized the names and the dates. I didn’t know I had to have an opinion.”
Her efforts to win him over were easy. She said it only took about a week for him to notice her once she started putting in the effort.
“I don’t even know why he liked me.”
“Because you’re gorgeous,” I say. It explodes out of me. It’s so obvious it’s frustrating.
“But he was interesting.” This word pains her, like it’s not for her.
The first time they touched each other she went right for his hands. She didn’t know what to do with them; she just knew she wanted them. Some of her more experienced friends told her that a guy thinks it’s sexy when you put his fingers in your mouth, but she couldn’t buy into this. She thought this would make her look dumb, like she was trying too hard. But eventually his hands made their way into her mouth, and any place else she led them. New skin on hers, as easy as that. They were in the backseat of his car–
“Is this too weird?” She stops herself suddenly. “This is T.M.I, isn’t it?”
“No,” I say. “Fine by me.” But this is, literally, too much information. Too much for any person to say to another. Too much to fill up with before spilling over. I hold my breath for a second, try to make the space as silent as possible. I can’t hear the people outside anymore.
She says she loved him. She was certain of it. What else could it have been if not all-consuming, heart-crushing love? He understood her. He told her she deserved to be more than just a wife.
“He could be so moody sometimes, so dramatic, but I liked that one. It made me feel so cool. And I never felt cool.” She separates the necklaces she wears all at once, pulls a tiny diamond circle up and down its chain. “More than just a wife. Imagine that.”
If they weren’t in his car, she would let him in through her bedroom window, always waiting for the sound of her parents’ bedroom door to close from the other side of the house. He’d sit in his parked car out on the street, listening to tapes or reading, waiting for her to signal. She’d flash the lights three times then wait for him at the open window. She said he probably could have just come in through the back door, but this felt special, passionate, necessary. He’d climb up the columns of the front porch, getting leverage from the downspout and slate shingles. She’d watch his hands work, muscles in his forearms contracting, the veins pulsing together in unison. This was her favorite part.
Sometimes he’d ask her to read to him, but the only book in her room was her sister’s copy of Carrie. She winces when she says the title of the book, like she missed out on a chance to read all the classics, or at the very least to impress him. I want to tell her there’s still time to read whatever she wants. After multiple reads of Carrie, he started bringing over books from his own collection. She distinctly remembers trying to read aloud from a mildewed copy of A Clockwork Orange.
“What’s that weird language? I couldn’t read it to him! I sounded crazy trying to pronounce anything. I kept the book, though. Finished the whole thing by myself.” She said she felt only a little guilty about not finding it offensive. Even the parts that she knew were meant to make her uncomfortable only made her feel more powerful. She doesn’t remember anything else about it now, though, which she thinks is a shame. And besides–
“I can’t rent the movie. Rich wouldn’t want to watch it.”
He would sneak out just before sunrise and get changed for school in his car. Sometimes he’d just re-wear the same clothes again. She actually preferred the latter – she liked catching whiffs of herself when she passed him in the halls. Liz liked this relationship. She liked that it lived up to all the fantasies she’d ever had about what love was supposed to be. It’s supposed to be hushed and explosive and primarily under blankets. It should feel like the best secret and maybe like you’re going to be sick and maybe like you’re in trouble but it’s all okay because it’s so, so good. No one could ever be mad about how great it is.
“I got pregnant,” she says. She’s crying now.
“Oh, Liz, I’m sorry,” I say.
I don’t mean to, but I look outside. There’s laughter again. I can’t tell which, but one of the girls is in Ryan’s lap.
“You can go outside,” she says wiping her nose. “I’m keeping you in here.”
I snap back from the party I’m missing and look at Liz. It’s occurring to me that I’m witnessing a birth, a fully gestated secret that’s never been spoken aloud.
“No, it’s okay,” I say. “Tell me.”
It was a humid May night when she sensed what was growing inside her. She said it wasn’t a missed period or morning sickness that tipped her off, but something else.
“Oh God, I was so sick when I was pregnant with Ry. Even worse with his sister. But this one...I don’t know...I felt pretty good.”
She woke up one morning and just knew.
“That sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Like, oh, I just knew! But I did.”
She took the home test alone in her bathroom, hiding the box in between the folds of her plush, pink bath towel. It had her initials, EM, stitched onto a corner. And there the lines were. She knew she was supposed to panic, scream, cry. Something big enough to match the enormity of her mistake. Instead, she remained on the toilet, her feet kneading into the pink towel, the “EM” wedged between her toes. The only thought she really had was that Alex would make a good name for either a boy or a girl.
“I know now that I was in shock,” she says, crunching ice between her teeth. “I had a lot of feelings about it. But you didn’t talk about that in my family.”
She told him as soon as she saw him.
“I’m positive,” she said, “because the test is positive. And so was the second one. And the third.” She watched his face, waiting for something to change, a hint of what she could expect going forward. She remembered him opening his mouth to speak then closing it again.
“You’re safe about that stuff, right?” Liz is pointing a finger at me.
“Who, me?” I say, unsure if this question is for the Royal You or literally for me.
“Yeah, Miss Thang, you.” She’s still pointing at me. “You got so cute all of a sudden. I bet you’re fighting boys off with a stick.”
“Oh, yeah. Super safe,” I say.
A peal of laughter comes from one of the girls outside. I hear Ryan shush her, giggling himself as he tries to quiet her. I look outside and catch Ryan’s eye. He mouths “sorry” before nuzzling back into the girl’s neck.
“Good,” says Liz. “I buy condoms for Ryan. I can get some for you, if you need.”
I smile and nod, silently accepting her offer.
Liz told her parents on the 4th of July, right before their annual barbecue. Neighbors and work friends usually arrived around noon to start drinking and then didn’t go home until after the municipal fireworks were long over. Walt always wore his “Grill Master” apron and reigned over the Weber. He piled hamburgers and hot dogs on a platter next to him, and personally served everyone with a pair of silver grill tongs. This seemed to be his favorite part – when his guests looked him in the eye and thanked him for the party. But that year, Liz sat her parents down in the just-power-washed patio furniture, before any guests had arrived, and told them.
She began with her boyfriend, how they’d been together for the last eight months, how they were in love. Her mother showed some shock, most of it rooted in concern that all the other mothers would judge her for not knowing this simple detail about her own daughter. Walt just sat there with his arms folded across his Izod-covered chest. A red, white, and blue Salvation Army-issued ribbon was pinned over his heart. Liz went on to tell them that she really loved this guy, and if they would just meet him–
“Elizabeth,” he said, “get to the point.” He pushed a handful of honey-roasted peanuts into his mouth, palm to lips.
“It seems...I am pregnant.”
Liz thought saying it this way might make it a little funny.
“I told you Marilyn,” said Walt to his now crying wife. “I told you this would happen.”
He was smug, like he’d won a bet and was expecting his cash payout.
“Not now, Walt. Damn it, not now.” Marilyn took off into the house and, though the sliding door separated them, Liz swears she heard her mother say “Jesus Christ.” Walt stayed seated on the back patio, arms still crossed, patriotic ribbon breathing in the wind. He stared at her, daring her to say more. She put a hand on her stomach. A firecracker exploded in the next yard over. Neither of them flinched. After a full minute of complete silence, Walt leaned forward and said, “We’re not helping you.” Then he excused himself and went into the house, too.
Liz stayed for the barbecue. She smiled and laughed with her parents’ friends, answering questions about her Advanced Placement courses and summer volleyball practices. They asked about colleges she was interested in, the books she was reading.
“I just re-read Carrie for like, the 10th time,” she said laughing.
“You ought to read something a little more sophisticated. Colleges pay attention to that sort of thing,” said a balding banker in a red, white, and blue polo shirt.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, adjusting the material of her tank top.
Marilyn had made her way back to the party after her earlier meltdown, one that Liz now assumes had been pacified with lots of gin. Her mother had completely redone her makeup, all the way down to the foundation. The mascara was eerily perfect, as though she’d separated each individual eyelash with the tip of a needle.
The fireworks began at 9:45 on the dot. Liz’s favorites were the ones that exploded like palm trees. She always struggled to describe them, but that’s what they looked like to her – great, yellow palm fronds reaching down to the horizon. She wondered how much it would hurt if she managed to catch a falling sparkle on her tongue, if it would be worth it.
He picked her up the next morning before the sun had risen, and they left.
“Yeah, we just picked up and went. Got away for a while.”
Liz downs the rest of her Riesling.
She didn’t come home until September. It was the weekend of Labor Day, and her junior year of high school would be starting soon. She hadn’t called her parents once, and as far as she knew, they hadn’t tried to find her either. She came back for several reasons. First, the boy was going to college. He had back-and-forthed over the decision, made lists of pros and cons, and visualized futures with and without a piece of paper detailing an arbitrary expertise. He decided he wanted it. Second, she couldn’t deal with the idea of being a high school dropout herself. She was embarrassed to find out how much it mattered to her. And finally, on an August night with humid air like pea soup, there was a sudden rush of liquid in her underwear. Her first thought was sweat.
“I know, that sounds so dumb. Why would that much liquid ever be sweat? But I didn’t know what was happening, my guess was as good as any.”
When she sat with her parents in the living room, she told them about the blood, the night in the hospital, and how they didn’t have to worry anymore.
“I guess my body just wasn’t ready,” said Liz.
Her mother only inhaled then looked to Walt for the words.
“Elizabeth,” he said, “we prayed for you. I want you to know that.”
Liz says there was a silence that could have swallowed her whole. Her father’s steady eye contact dared her to speak first. The standoff was broken by her mother, who stood up and asked what they wanted for dinner. That was the last time she and her parents ever spoke of it.
“They just never brought it up again?” I ask.
“Didn’t you want an apology? Help? Something?”
She shrugs. “I knew they couldn’t give it to me.”
“And what happened to the guy?”
“He went away to school. I never heard from him again.”
“Maybe he wrote you letters, and they got lost,” I say hopefully. “Maybe he tried to call, but someone didn’t give you the message.”
“No. I just think I wasn’t very interesting after all.” She tries to drink more from her mug, but there are only ice cubes left. They clink together and hiss. She keeps her lips there anyway, as though she might tell the mug one more secret.
“I’m sorry for everything. Really. That’s a hard thing to go through.” I don’t know what else to say.
“It all worked out! It’s all good.” Liz makes her eyes big and blue and nods her head vigorously. “I don’t know what else I’d be doing if I wasn’t doing this.” She frowns at her now-empty wine mug. Then she looks around at her house: the overstuffed couch in the adjoining family room, the textured vases picked out by an interior designer, the flat-screen TV mounted above the fireplace, no art, no bookshelves, no books. She sees a life that makes Walt feel comfortable, that shields her children from anything difficult. A home fit for a keypad. The nicest house I’ve ever seen.
The backdoor slides open and Ryan comes into the kitchen. He smells like beer and trees.
“People want to stay over,” he says as he rifles through the fridge. “I said it’s cool.”
Liz shrugs. “Are you staying?” This is directed at me.
“Mom, come on,” says Ryan as he sets fresh cans of beer on the counter. “She’s like my sister. That would be so awkward.”
“Oh, so this is what, a sex party? Is that what I’m hosting?” Liz is laughing now.
Ryan looks at me horrified. Then he pulls the nearly empty jug of wine out of the fridge, looks at her sweating mug on the counter.
“I get it. Mom has her big mug out.” He rolls his eyes at me, faux-embarrassed.
“Be nice to your mom,” I say. But he already has his arms wrapped around her, his chin on her head.
“I’m her favorite,” he says. “I can say what I want. Right, mom?”
Liz looks up at Ryan and her eyes catch the brightness from the puck lighting up above. She might be crying. Ryan’s already curling his lips back to hurl a soft insult her way, a quick jab that makes fun of her for loving him so much. He looks so much like her.
“Well,” Liz says finally. “I don’t play favorites. But you are my first.” She closes her eyes and presses her cheek into his chest. She grabs one of his hands and plants a kiss on his knuckles. It’s like I’m not even here, like she’s said all she can for one night.
Katherine Markovich is a writer and teacher living in Los Angeles, having previously written and studied in Chicago and northeast Ohio. She has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Portland Review, and was a 2018 longlist finalist for the Stockholm Writers Festival’s First Pages Prize. Her three-part scripted podcast, “Sarah Someone,” was recently released on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.