When I was a junior in college, I spent the week before Christmas with my aunt Sallie in New Jersey. Sallie has a cabin by a lake right off Route 34. She calls it a lake, but it’s a weed-choked pond put in to sell property. Sacagawea Shores. They brought in sand for the beach, so now there’s a roped-off swimming area and a raft and a lifeguard. The “cabins” have sheetrock and wall-to-wall carpet and granite countertops and jacuzzis. On the outside, the logs are painted brown — a community rule — and each cabin has a dock on the pond, but only paddleboats are allowed. Sacagawea Shores. A place to pretend around, like a ouija board. Migrating geese land there, which is something, I guess. They take their small consolations, which was what I was supposed to be doing. Mom’s idea. Go to New Jersey, she said. Fall out of love.
Sallie is not my real aunt. She and my mom are friends from college. Sallie doesn’t have kids, so she spends Christmas with Mom and me. She makes her boeuf noel and decorates it with little plastic political figures. Last year, 2014, it was Barack and Michelle, Hillary and Bill. On Christmas Eve we were to drive up to Pine Plains, New York, where Mom and I lived. I’m an only child, so it’s always just “us girls,” as Sallie says. Sallie, the pretend aunt in the pretend cabin on the pretend lake.
She’s a tall woman, Sallie. Big boned with a bright, snaggletoothed grin and great, ruined feet. She has her shih tzu, Lulu, and her job and her podcasts and her outrage. On our first night she fixed us gimlets and gnocchi with broccoli rabe and garlic. I’d never been with Aunt Sallie without my mother. Normally in a crisis I would be with Dani, my best friend, but after what had happened, I wasn’t sure I’d ever speak to her again.
Sallie shared things with me I didn’t want to know: That she sleeps with a mask on her face for sleep apnea. That she has a skin tag on her labia that she’s never done anything about. She beset me with stories I’d heard a million times, of her and Mom’s college years at Macalester. She was trying to break the ice, working up to consoling me about Cav, so I let her. She had come from work and was wearing square-toed brown pumps with a buckle, as in some distant decade. Sheer hosiery. I’d only ever seen her in jeans. I wanted her to change clothes, be the Aunt Sallie I was used to, but she didn’t. I drank my first gimlet on the stool in her kitchen, watching her cook. I asked if she dated. It was love she was supposed to be helping me with, after all. She threw a hand in the air and said, “Oh, golly, honey, I wouldn’t know what to do with a man. I’d scare him off in two seconds.” So, no, she didn’t date anymore. I was already depressed, but this admission, and the shoes, and Sacagawea Shores, and the paddleboats, and how crowded the rooms were in her “cabin” (and that she really called it a cabin) — all of that made it worse. Aunt Sallie was bright and intelligent, and she had found no other way to live. Though my mother was different in important ways, I couldn’t help thinking that she hadn’t either.
On my first full day in New Jersey, I woke early and listened as Aunt Sallie got ready for work. I didn’t get up, just kept dozing, balled beneath shih tzu–scented goose down. Outside the window, electric icicles hung from the eaves. I thought of Cav, who was at his parents’ house in Stockbridge, maybe waking up with Robin Nash.
Aunt Sallie left, and outside the guest-room door, Lulu the shih tzu panted and ticked her nails on the kitchen tiles. At last I got up, pulled on my flannel pajama bottoms, pushed my feet into my broken clogs, and put on my coat. I let Lulu out and stepped outside, too, to light a joint and contemplate the window box full of fake greenery, the salt-stained flagstones, the mildewed porch furniture, the dock, the sky, which looked like a huge slab of chicken fat. I was wandering around the backyard when I heard someone bang on the front door. I hurried inside in time to see a UPS truck pulling out of the drive. A large rectangular box on the stoop cried out to me in big red letters: REFRIGERATE! Sallie had told me it might arrive, the pig delivery from her brother. He was, Sallie had explained, a foodie who had, in an enthusiastic rush of late-life reforms, divorced his wife, married his male lover, and converted to Judaism without quite considering what that would mean for his dining habits, pork being a passion of his. As a compromise, he started sending a gigantic cut of pork to Sallie every Christmas and then harassing her with a phone call every other day, suggesting how she should cook it.
It was much larger than I’d expected. I staggered back into the house with it, but how was I supposed to refrigerate something wider than the refrigerator? I slung it onto the counter and read the tag. It was from Niashe Farms. Twisp, Washington. I fed Lulu and changed her water, fished the joint out of the plastic greenery, put the pork on the back patio, and went out to the dock. It had never seemed entirely there to me, Aunt Sallie’s dock. If a thing isn’t used, isn’t put to its intended purpose, can it be said to fully exist? Doesn’t it disappear a little? Was that what was happening, bit by bit, to Aunt Sallie, and to my mother? It would happen to me, too, wouldn’t it? Had it already started? I sat down and stared into the “lake,” trying not to panic, telling myself I could make my life original, that I didn’t have to settle, that I had a future, even without Cav. But it was hard to believe, sitting in that place that the powers that be had so intentionally fucked over, as they did regularly all over the globe.
I stretched out, closed my eyes, imagined disappearing. Not telling anyone, just taking off. I pictured Sallie’s red and swollen face as she answered my mother’s hysterical questions over the phone; the crackle of a police scanner in the cruiser in the driveway; the announcement at school; the huddle of girls in my dorm. Meanwhile I would head west, cut my hair, dress like someone else, take up running. Read nonfiction for a change, learn about something real. Lichens. Halibut. It didn’t matter what. OK, I thought, I’d call Mom from the road.
The thing is, Dani knew Cav and I were trying to work things out, and still she set him up with Robin Nash. My best friend set up the guy she knew I loved with another girl, who he was now dating. If she could do that, what did being a best friend even mean?
Sallie’s closet had a metallic, oily odor, of pennies and sweat and Elizabeth Arden face cream, which my mother also used. I put on my jeans and a red-and-blue-checked rayon blouse of Sallie’s — the ugliest thing I could find — and snapped the leash on Lulu. I would walk to Starbucks for coffee. In Sallie’s blouse I thought I could already feel her essence seeping into me. See how easy it is to disappear, I thought.
I was on Route 34 next to the undeveloped parcel of land Sallie referred to as “the woods on the way to town.” I’d never seen them from outside a car. Close up they were a tangle of vines and brush and layered leaves in a dun-gray shade of fear and defeat, speckled here and there with bright bits of styrofoam and foil wrappers and plastic grocery-store bags caught on stubble. No one who matters is meant to view what’s viewable from the shoulder of Route 34. Trees and scrub chewed to nubs by starving deer, and beyond the trees the hapless, snaking trickle Sallie likes to call “the river.” As I walked, the state of my heart was all mixed up with the state of that landscape. I had intense, melodramatic thoughts. I imagined dropping to my knees, saying prayers. I didn’t, of course. I waited while Lulu the shih tzu dribbled a little yellow dal-like shit onto a discarded Doritos bag, and I kept walking. Up ahead I saw a point of interest. A white cross, nailed to a tree.
When I got to it, I saw the tree had a gash in it, and on the cross was taped a cellophane-wrapped photograph of a teenager. MARK HOHN, a handwritten sign said. DEC. 19, 2013. 17 YRS. Here’s what struck me like a bus. It happened to be Dec. 19. He’d died exactly two years earlier. I sat on the ground before the cross and told myself to pay attention, that this was no coincidence. Next to me, Lulu sniffed an ancient Vitaminwater bottle. Cars whizzed by. I could barely see the boy’s face through the battered cellophane, but I could make out dark hair, bright teeth, obviously radiant health.
He died here, I thought. His spirit rose from here. If there are spirits, his rose from this very spot and found its way past this metastasis of a town, past Denims & Daisies; past Let’s Make Art; past the windowless Beijing Palace with its peeling gold columns encircled in Christmas lights; past Knead a Bagel. Mark Hohn’s soul would have had to thread its way through all of it, and through other obstacles that laced the invisible regions, if invisible regions even existed, which they didn’t. I scooted closer, to keep him company. I thought of Cav and me, as we’d been for two and a half years at school: The time we both fell asleep on Pembroke Quad and woke in the morning just in time for class. My birthday when he brought a cupcake to me in my Victorian Novels class, set it on my desk, lit the candle, and walked out.
A deer tick made its way across the boy’s blurry face. I got it to crawl onto my finger, and I ground it to a smudge, then used Aunt Sallie’s house key to carefully extract Mark Hohn’s photograph from its cellophane wrapping. Why, I’m not sure, except that we seemed to be partners in something now, and I didn’t want to leave him there alone like that. I put the photograph between the pages of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was in my bag. I was supposed to be reading it for Italian class.
At Starbucks I tied Lulu’s leash to a bench, went in, and studied the holiday menu. “Our new Holiday Spice Flat White combines Christmas Blend Espresso Roast with velvety-steamed whole milk infused with cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. All together in perfect harmony. Happy holidays.” The Starbucks Hawaiian Holiday Blend CD was on display. When I looked out the front window, I saw a teenage girl petting Lulu. She hiked up her jeans so her butt crack wouldn’t show, but she was fat, and it showed anyway. A tiny girl was with her. The tiny one was as tiny as the big girl was big.
“Holiday spice flat white,” I told the guy with the mohawk fade behind the counter. “Grande.” If I disappeared, I could go west, I thought, use the money in my savings. I’d get a job, rent a room, begin research for a novel. It would be good, and if it wasn’t good, at least it would be mine.
The tiny girl had on big white hairy boots like ski bunnies wear, and an oversized maroon sweatshirt. White-blond hair gathered on top of her head the way Aunt Sallie had arranged Lulu’s. She sat on the bench facing Starbucks, sipping a huge coffee, one leg thrown over the other and pumping hard. She was talking nonstop to the fat girl, whose hair was dyed black and braided into two stubby pigtails. She would not let Lulu alone, the big girl. She lowered herself onto the sidewalk and pulled Lulu onto her lap. Through all this, the tiny one kept talking, leg pumping. Around fifteen or sixteen years old, the both of them. They did not look at each other. The one on the ground seemed to ignore the torrent of words, her head bowed over the dog. All I could think of was how cold that sidewalk must have felt on her ass.
I thought about going outside, but I liked where I was. Someone had scratched “Sorrow is a white fire” into the table where I sat in the back, and those words, like Mark Hohn’s picture, seemed to have been delivered especially to me. I wrote them on the title page of the Divine Comedy. A crowd, perhaps from a nearby office, entered the Starbucks then, and for some time my view of the girls outside was blocked. When I could see again, they were gone. It took a few seconds for me to realize that Lulu was gone, too.
I burst out of my chair, ran outside, and saw them a block down, the big girl walking fast with Lulu tucked under her arm like a ham, the leash skipping over the concrete behind her, and the little one in the giant Wookie boots walking fast alongside.
“Hey!” I called.
They kept going.
“Hey! That’s my dog!”
They stopped and turned around, which I did not expect.
“What the fuck?” I said when I caught up. I wrenched Lulu out of the fat girl’s arms. She seemed weirdly unperturbed and settled her gaze on a point somewhere past my left shoulder. I turned to look, but there was nothing there.
“What are you even doing?” I demanded, but the girl wouldn’t look at me. She lifted a shoulder and let it fall.
“Jesus. Chill,” the little one said. “We thought the dog had been left. We, like, waited and waited.”
“So that’s why you took off at a run? Please. Get your own dog if you want a dog.”
The big girl gave me a weary look.
“Yeah, well,” the little one said, “maybe you shouldn’t keep your dog tied to a bench in the middle of winter while you hang out in a warm Starbucks sipping your coffee. Your poor dog was shaking like a leaf. We kept her warm. You should be thanking us.”
I hesitated. “I wasn’t gone that long.”
“Don’t tell us how long you were gone,” snapped the little one. “We were out in the cold taking care of her. We know how long it was. And you don’t even live around here.”
“What? I do too live here,” I said. Lied.
“No you don’t.”
“Well, I used to,” I said. Also a lie. “I left this shithole as soon as I could.”
It seemed the right moment to walk away, and I did.
Back at Starbucks, I tied Lulu to the bench again and saw that my coffee had been tossed. I got back in line to ask for a replacement, but instead of the guy with the mohawk, I got the manager. CHUCK, his nametag read. TEAM LEADER. I explained that someone had stolen my shih tzu, that I’d had to bolt, and in the meantime one of his employees had tossed my coffee. “I’d appreciate a replacement,” I said.
He eyed me suspiciously. “What’s a shih tzu?”
What’s a Chuck? I wanted to say. What’s a team leader? But I’m too polite. “A dog,” I said.
“Where is it?”
“There.” I pointed outside, and there was the fat girl, holding Lulu again.
“Who stole it?” he asked.
“That girl,” I said impatiently. I turned and left without the coffee, but on the way out, as payback maybe, or to prove myself badass enough for the life I wanted, I lifted a small red-and-green Starbucks juniper-scented holiday candle.
“Are you serious?” I asked the girl outside.
She shrugged. “Are you really from here?”
“Where are you from?”
“Twisp,” I said.
“Twisp, Washington.” I could have said Pine Plains, but I liked the idea of a place that was far away, and I wanted to test it out. She handed over Lulu and lit a cigarette. I took off back toward Sacagawea Shores, and for some reason the big girl walked with me. We didn’t say anything. When she finished the cigarette, she stepped on the butt and left it on the sidewalk. I’m my mother’s daughter. I pick up cigarette butts, recycle, and don’t smoke — or shoplift, for that matter — but the old markers seemed flimsy and flyaway, and I felt up for grabs in a way that was new to me.
I told the girl my name and asked hers. Myra, she said. She asked if she could carry Lulu. “Sure,” I said, and she cradled her as before.
She asked if I was in college, and I said I was. She asked my major, which I said was English literature.
We passed a deli called Angie’s, a print shop called Color Connections, a walk-in, do-it-yourself pet grooming place.
“You’re in high school, right?” I said. “What year?”
I winced. “That’s shit. I’m sorry.”
“You planning on college?” This was the kind of thing grown-ups used to ask me all the time, and now here I was asking it myself.
She gave a weak laugh. “No.”
“I hate this town, too,” Myra said at last.
I kicked at a yellow bottle cap that didn’t budge. “Right. It’s like . . . I don’t know, falsely reassuring or something.”
I felt her look at me.
“Or maybe not reassuring,” I said. “Maybe just false. Like a facsimile.”
“Facsimile.” Myra gazed about as if to measure her town against this new word.
We were walking along the sidewalk toward Mark’s cross, but it was still far away.
“Did you ever know Mark Hohn?” I asked. “He died in a car crash up the road two years ago.”
She knew quite a bit about Mark Hohn. Everybody knew, she said. She told me how, the day he died, everyone had gathered at the tree. They’d brought candles, flowers, photographs, and stories. Two grief counselors were stationed in the gymnasium. The memorial service had been standing room only. Myra said she’d been in eighth grade at the time. “The other guy in the car was fine,” she said. “He didn’t even get a scratch. Well, a few scratches, but he was fine. He was driving drunk, but he’s not the one who died.”
“Mark’s the one who died,” I said unnecessarily. I pulled him out of Dante’s circles of hell and showed him to Myra.
She stopped walking, and her expression sharpened. “You took him off the cross.”
I thought this was an odd way of putting it.
“Why?” She was looking hard at me. “You shouldn’t have.” Her nose had gone white. I thought she might hit me.
“He was getting ruined,” I said, though that’s not why I had taken him.
“He isn’t yours.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She was still holding Lulu, and now she held her more tightly.
“He’s ours,” she said and paused, clearly about to say something more. “You stole him.”
That was rich, I thought, coming from a dog thief.
“It’s a picture,” I said. “And I was going to put it back.” I studied Mark’s face. “OK, I wasn’t. But I will.”
For a moment I imagined us breaking into a fight, each trying to take back what we felt was ours — me, Lulu; Myra, the photograph, though neither of these things belonged to either one of us. I began to walk again, and to my surprise, she kept walking with me. When we reached the tree, I wedged the photograph back beneath the cellophane.
“There,” I said.
“Yeah, but you ripped the cellophane,” Myra said. “Now the picture will be ruined.” She turned and looked at the cars passing on Route 34. She was upset and probably didn’t want to be seen standing there with some anonymous girl who was now sitting cross-legged on the ground.
“It’s the second anniversary of his death,” I said, and I pointed to the date on the cross.
“It’s not the nineteenth,” Myra said.
“Yeah it is.”
She pulled out her phone and checked. It was.
“Sit,” I said. I patted the ground. I didn’t want her to leave, but she did. She handed Lulu to me and walked back the way we’d come.
I sat there a long time. I had grown confused. Maybe it was Myra’s accusation. This dead kid Mark had been cheated, robbed of everything precious, like I had, though in a smaller way. I don’t know. I had thought I might get some traction if he and I joined forces, something to push off of, but I’d made the mistake of sharing him, and now that was slipping away, and maybe he was just a scrap of paper taped to a cross, nailed to a tree. My candle, even if I had stolen it, was nothing next to all the other candles that had been lit for him at the right and proper time by people who’d known and loved him.
I was about to leave when I saw Myra coming from the direction of town, a plastic grocery sack around one wrist.
“You know my cousin Gina? She’s going to college,” she said when she reached me. She motioned behind her. “That girl with me.”
A little joy bomb was going off inside my chest, I was so happy to see her again, so happy she hadn’t left for good. “That ridiculously tiny kid?” I said. “What’s the deal with those boots she wears?”
Myra laughed. “My mom says they make her look like a beer-truck horse. A Clydesdale.”
“Yeah, or maybe a beer-truck Chihuahua. Though, I swear to God, she’ll make a killer lawyer someday.”
She was holding an empty paper cup, folding it this way and that, pressing it between her big fingers.
“What’s in the bag?”
“Tape,” she said.
I took the candle from my pocket and nestled it into the dirt as Myra taped up the cellophane. She was not angry or unfriendly, just determined — the same quietly unapologetic girl who’d stolen Lulu.
I asked to borrow her lighter, and I lit the candle. I told her about Cav, how I was the one who had left him. How he’d been in love with me, but I’d wanted to date other people. How he was my first real boyfriend, and I didn’t want to feel like I was missing out on someone better. I put him through hell. I just . . . He loved me, and I thought he always would. I was staring at the flame. “Stupid,” I murmured. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
“It’s all right,” Myra said.
I heard the story later from friends. Cav and Dani had been at a party on campus, and Cav had asked Dani to introduce him to Robin Nash, a friend of hers, and Dani had said, “Sure, you two would be great together.” And she did. So now it’s Cav and Robin.
Myra wanted two things — the “two impossibles,” she called them. One, to get out of her dad’s house, and, two, to go to college. I stared into the pale flame and asked questions and listened to her answers. Lulu climbed into my lap and went to sleep. I took a pen from my bag and wrote my number on Myra’s arm, and she wrote hers on mine. We both jumped when a car drove by, honking. It was Aunt Sallie, heading home for lunch, window down and waving wildly. Good Aunt Sallie, who knew to keep driving so that Myra and I could sit there on Route 34 in front of Mark’s cross, keeping him company on the second anniversary of his death.