by Kate Wisel
The last week of school, Benny dies. I have to act like everything’s normal. I come home with Cem and help with his homework. I stay up late with my mom till she falls asleep watching Turkish soap operas, curled up against the couch with her arms crossed as I lay a blanket over her.
Benny flipped his jeep and smashed into a utility pole. Every time I blink, I feel myself flip like I’m sitting in the passenger seat. If I keep my eyes closed, I see the whole sky shatter into shards.
Since freshman year, I’ve told my mom five-hundred lies to get away to Benny’s. She moved us here from Turkey, when Cem was in her belly and before I could talk. She refused to learn much English. “Bana ne!” she says in a quick scowl. She doesn’t understand the concept of sleepover parties or parent-teacher conferences.
I’ve been acting strange and she knows it, refusing her baklava, staring into space.
“Raffa!” she yells, from the kitchen, where she is wiping the same spot on the counter like she’ll get a wish. “What?” I say, leaning against the doorway. She pivots from the counter and throws up her arms. “What’s this what?” she says, her face twisted. Then she turns back and laughs into the counter, shaking her head. The sunlight from the window hits a strand of copper that sweeps through her hair, but she keeps it tied back in a scrunchy.
“So stupid,” she says to herself, and I can think of a million things she means.
“I’m going,” I mumble, watching her wring cloth out over the sink. She turns back to me with a little smile as I hook my thumbs under my backpack. She’s two inches shorter than me but stands on tiptoes to see my eyes. “Huh?” she says. “Where you going?”
What does she know—nothing or everything? My eyes roll back into my skull. “I told you! I’m going to Hannah’s.” And like that, I’m out the door. I don’t look back, but I can see her watching from behind the sink, her stationed eyes squinting as I round the corner.
This is what freedom is, the seven blocks between my apartment and Benny’s, the field behind our old elementary school, the rock in the woods behind the field, big as a house.
Big as Benny’s house, which is tall and brick. It looks traditional from the window of a car, but if you’re standing outside like me, you can see the front door is boarded up with plywood. Benny would walk me through the side-door, after we’d been passing a bottle of Svedka back and forth on the swing set in his backyard. I’d take my Converses off to be polite, even though the kitchen has blue carpeting and appliances like old airplanes. I’d carry my shoes all the way up to Benny’s room in the attic.
I walk inside. The house smells like Cutex and old rain, like there’s no roof.
In the living room, Benny’s mom is sitting in the dark. I can see the back of her head, her matted black hair propped up on the recliner. She’s watching an old episode of Friends. Relief passes through me like a slow sip of beer.
The first few times Benny took me inside he led me by the wrist through the kitchen, past the recliner, up the stairs to the attic. He never said anything about his mom.
One day we were naked under his sheets, except for the pair of orange polka-dot underwear I kept on, looking like a Creamsicle, half to stay cool and half to tease Benny, who once said girls were sexier with their underwear on.
We were having a staring contest. Benny had eyes that changed from gleaming green to pale yellow in different lighting. I blinked twice and blurted “Is there something wrong with your mom? I mean, why doesn’t she say hello?”
Benny pinched my chin as I pulled apart a split end. He didn’t squirm. He was the only guy I knew with a beard, yet the gap teeth that would appear in his smile turned him back into a kid. “Who, Woman?” he said with a grin. “She’s on lots of meds, ‘cause she’s a fucking nutcase. Don’t feel bad for me, though, it’s always been this way.”
“Hi, Woman,” I say, like I had learned to say after, leaning against the staircase.
“Oh!” she says, startled. She reaches for her glasses and turns back to me, says “I just want to see you better.”
My Mom had taught me to talk to strangers. Every time a new neighbor moves into our apartment complex, which is practically once a month, she makes Cem and I cross the walk and shake their hand. She watches from behind the screen door, like we’re doing it for her. But Woman’s not such a stranger anymore.
She looks happy to see me. Saying hello to her always feels like the first time, her quick gasp, her childish giggle, thrilled to see me again, again.
“Ra-ffa,” she says in a slow slur, holding her hand to her heart. “I’m so happy, you’re here.”
“I’m going to Benny’s room,” I say, playing along, taking the moment with me, like a present so intricately wrapped you can’t even bear to open it.
I get to the second floor, the attic stairs straight ahead.
Benny’s dad’s room is to the right. Benny called his dad “Pops,” but I don’t call him anything. I slip into the bathroom and run the sink, flipping open the mirror to find a Sesame Street toothbrush Benny bought for me while he was buying cigarettes at CVS. It’s meant for some kid with teeth the size of pebbles.
Across the hall, Benny’s dad is watching CNN in his room. I know because he is always watching CNN in his room. There’s an armchair in front of his twin bed and in front of the armchair there is a small TV. He is always sitting there watching, with the door halfway open.
The only time I’d seen Benny’s dad out of the chair was last spring, when Benny and I skipped class to race up the stairs to his bed. It was like we were just married. On the way down, Benny’s dad cleared his throat in the doorway. I stopped mid-step, so that Benny tugged me too hard, and we both stumbled down a step.
“Hi,” I said, feeling caught, which was why Benny gripped my knuckles tighter, squeezing in some small part of my embarrassment.
“Hey, Pops,” Benny beamed, “we’re on our way out.” Benny’s dad held us there with a deep stare and then sort of chuckled and said, “Glad to see you focused on your studies.”
Benny’s dad gets up from his chair. He looks tired, like he’s coming out of a cave. “Raffa?” he says, coming toward me, a wretched look on his face, and then, “how are you doing?”
For a second, I think he means what are you doing and I say “My mom kicked me out of the house.”
“Sure, sure,” he says, rubbing the back of his head. “You know where to find me if you need anything.” Then he goes back into his room.
Up in the attic, everything looks the same, except me. I try not to touch anything. I look up, the ceiling big as an auditorium, or a church, with stretched wooden beams. Benny’s bed sits in the corner where the ceiling slants down with a built-in skylight. If you lay down at night, you can watch your own episode of Planet Earth. But today, the sun shines a spotlight on the bed, like it could burn holes through it.
A Bruce Lee poster hangs on the wall, next to a road map of the human heart. I walk past Benny’s desk, sitting between two floor-length windows. Nobody can see me, but I can see everything. On one side, the radio towers out in Dedham, and on the other, a faded view of the Boston skyline. I stand for a long time, looking out, waiting for something beautiful to happen, but it just gets darker.
I flick on the light and go to Benny’s dresser. Nobody knows what’s inside but me. I pull open the bottom drawer, the smell of Benny’s folded Hane’s t-shirts lingers out like a washing machine that’s still running. Under his shirts are the bottles of pills. I sit cross-legged and line them up on the carpet. Two hold little blue pills that rattle like Tic-Tacs if you shake them. The other is oversized with the label peeled off. White dust chalks up the inside. I swipe my finger over it like a secret code.
Last fall, I stole them. It was only for a half hour. Benny was having people over and we were playing kings on the carpet. “Two is for you!” I said, making my hand a gun aimed at Benny as he took a long gulp from his can. Benny flipped a seven and we swung up our arms, pointing fast to heaven.
Halfway through the game, Benny got up and went over to his desk. I was leaning against the bed, but I watched him open his dresser drawer and take out a bottle. He called Mike over and I saw them crush pills up on Benny’s desk with his school ID.
“Why do you need to know everything?” Benny said, pulling on a beater. When he had gone downstairs to pee, I rushed across the room and stuffed the bottles in my backpack.
“Stop going through my stuff, Raffa, I mean it. They’re not yours to take.” Benny ran his hands over his gelled hair as I propped myself up. “Come the fuck on, Benny,” I said, “They’re not yours either. They’re your mother’s.”
“Raff, relax,” Benny said, coming over to bed and rubbing my shoulders, even though he was the one shivering. Benny’s skin had begun to look white. “It’s like you don’t tell me things,” I said. Benny’s arms wrapped around me, then my eyes closed.
I count the pills twice. I think about Benny’s gap teeth and how when people die in movies, the camera swings up across the sky and sweeps through blowing leaves so they are everywhere. I don’t feel Benny anywhere, only the urge to swallow, pills bouncing against the bottom of my stomach.
On Saturday morning, I wake clutching Benny’s pillow. Downstairs pots clatter and bacon is burning. I find a sweatshirt in Benny’s closet and slide my hands through the sleeves as I drift downstairs. Woman is by the stove and swings back when she sees me standing in the doorway. “You scared me!” she says, with a spatula in her hand. Her black hair is clipped at the top of her head and piled high, like a bird could fly out of it. She wears fuchsia lipstick and a silky nightgown that skims her ankles.
Benny’s dad is at the kitchen table with the paper. “You scared yourself,” he says. I sit across from him and drum my fingers against the vinyl seat. Woman almost dances to the table with the pan, prying scrambled eggs onto my plate. “Thank you,” I say, holding a fork. “Benny loves breakfast,” she says, heading to Benny’s dad’s plate. I look up across the table. He sets the paper down and for a second we stare at each other. “That’s enough,” he says and Woman thinks he means enough breakfast. “Cha-cha-cha,” she says, dropping the pan in the sink.
He takes a deep breath as she shimmies into the seat between us. She turns to him, like she needs to be told what to do next. Benny’s dad holds a napkin over his mouth and says “Eat up,” tears running down his checks.
I wear Benny’s t-shirts and sleep in his bed. I take his pills. When I go downstairs to pee I stare at my toenails, half green since the last time I painted them. After I flush the toilet I stand in Benny’s dad’s doorway, where he is breaking kosher and watching the History Channel. He looks up at me. I feel brave, looking in at the other side of his room. There is a large window seat facing the backyard. It surprises me. I hold onto the doorway. I’m wearing Benny’s Bob Marley t-shirt and no bra.
“What’s happening, Raffa?” Benny’s dad says, but I don’t answer. “You want to watch this with me?” I nod. I sit next to him on the edge of the bed by the armchair. I skate my fingers through my hair and leave some pieces in my face.
We’re both quiet, volume low on a documentary about the Civil War.
He holds his hands wide on either arm of the chair with his legs crossed. Benny’s dad is going bald.
I can see the outline of where all his hair used to be when the screen flashes gunpowder explosives, but his eyelashes are long and soft looking, like Benny’s were, like they’re meant for collecting falling dust. I close my eyes. I reach for his hand. I hear the TV click off and I turn to Benny’s dad.
“Can you kiss me?” I ask. I think I’m crying. Benny’s dad doesn’t flinch. He reaches over for me, both hands cupping my cheeks. I’m going to kiss him, and maybe more. I look up at him, at his lips, half-hidden by a longer beard than Benny’s. He takes me toward his chest, kisses the top of my head.
I pull away from him. I wander over to the window and hug my knees, looking at how small the swing set looks from way up here. He watches me from his armchair, and I say “It’s getting really dark,” and for the first time in weeks I think of my mom, seven blocks away and alone.
I go back up to Benny’s room for the last time. I see Benny and I on the bed our freshman year. He’s wearing a black baseball cap and I kneel up against his hips and twist it backwards. Neither of us blinks. I lie back down and let my hair splay out against his pillow. Benny glides back on top of me and cups both palms under my head, smoothing back hair from my eyes. He unzips my jeans. He doesn’t look away. “Will I bleed?” I whisper, and Benny whispers back “You might,” and then “don’t worry.”
I remember the sharpness. “Ow,” I say, searching Benny’s eyes.
Benny shifts my hips over the sheets and tries from a different angle. I push his chest back slowly, his body a magnet I’m pulling from my own.
“It hurts,” I say, a line of sweat gathering down my back. Benny takes deep, desperate breaths. “Do you want to stop?” he asks, gripping my eyes. I shake my head, no. Benny says he’ll be right back and goes over to his dresser, yanking open the drawer. He comes back to bed with a closed fist, two Oxycontin in his palm. “What’s that?” I ask.
“So it won’t hurt,” he says, fixing everything with the look of love like I’ve never seen.
I remember the relief and thinking: I can’t feel anything. I can’t feel anything.
I’m running now. Down the stairs, out Benny’s side-door, down the hill, our old elementary school with the new field, where Benny and I played kickball. I climb the rock, big as a house, where broken glass glitters off the top like a beach.
In eighth grade, Benny and I became friends. He hung out between the trees by the rock, with his hood up over his eyes. I walked through to cut across. Benny’s friend had his back turned, spray painting an outline of Marilyn Monroe on the flattened side. “Hey!” Benny shouted with his hands in his pockets. Twigs broke under his sneakers as he walked closer. “Hey, you,” he said, his face flickering under branches.
Now the woods are empty as I duck through the twisted opening of a chainlink fence I leave rattling. The sidewalk toward my apartment is crumbling, and the summer’s just started. There will never be anywhere to go but home.