Reading Time: ~20 minutes
There was a street somewhere in a suburban town in the Northeast of the United States. It was crowded by trees and punctuated by houses. The people of these lonely houses inflated their tiny lives into bubbles that bloomed to capture anything nearby. Since the world was rudely unconcerned with their lives, the people made their lives into their worlds.
Caroline and David were part of one such world. They lived in two houses that stared at each other as they sailed the currents of this lost and wandering street. Their mothers were friends. David’s father was gone, substituted by his mother’s pattern of apologetic boyfriends, and Caroline’s father kept to himself.
The two mothers entertained each other with tales of their children’s feats, often ending the day with gin and tonics, sitting on porches in the summer and in living rooms in the winter. The gossip complemented the alcohol very nicely. They would fantasize about Caroline and David’s marriage. Occasionally, the children would hear it. Caroline would giggle and David would smile.
David turned into a Dave by his early teens. He meticulously maintained his friendship with Caroline, polishing it with a dedicated hand, waiting for her faithfully by the phone and on the computer. Caroline was a beautiful gem, a product of social pressure that glittered with the notions of what was socially acceptable and was not. Dave didn’t enjoy the prospect of friends.
He had no room in his mind for other people. He realized that Caroline was the only person who meant anything to him, even though he (like most people) couldn’t understand what it really was for someone to mean something.
Caroline enjoyed this undivided attention in a way that someone enjoys the unwavering loyalty of a dog. She flirted with Dave playfully and harmlessly on the bus, in classes, after school, in their houses, and she talked to him almost every night. He was her adviser and treasurer, processing every new occurrence in her life into a compliment and furiously scrubbing at any dust that stained her existence until the gold showed through.
Their mothers grew rigid in their increasing age and parted ways, a gradual deterioration that hastened when they began assigning elaborate criminal charges to the other, justifying their antipathy with the other’s antipathy. There could have been something more. The children didn’t pay attention. They were old enough now to be floating alone in their own bubble. It made the mothers uncomfortable.
“I don’t want you to see her anymore,” Dave’s mother said when he went to the door during a Saturday afternoon. He was looking through the glass at Caroline’s slumped, Victorian house, shedding flakes of its paint like skin. His mother knew he was going to Caroline’s. It was the only house he ever visited.
“Why?” Dave asked. His mother had sought only men who incessantly nodded and obeyed to populate her life. Consequently, Dave was not bred for confrontation. He had no role models.
“Because I don’t like that mother of hers.” She was shameless in her agenda. It was enough reason for her, so she decided it was enough reason for him, too.
Dave had never been outright restricted from anything because he had never tried anything. This abrupt decapitation of his liberty left him dry-mouthed and immobile with indecision. His mind writhed like a worm underneath his mother’s heel, never escaping, never crawling away, only burrowing. He managed to turn around and march back up to his room. His mother didn’t notice because she was watching a reality show about two parents with ten children.
“That poor mother,” she said. “She must have such a time keeping everyone in line.” No one was around to confirm this speculation.
Dave hadn’t told Caroline he was coming to her house, so her day passed liquidly. She watched TV and read a magazine that offered helpful suggestions aligned upon a vast spectrum: how to look good for boys, how to get boys to notice you, and how to react to anything a boy says or does around you. It was a winter afternoon and she stayed in bed most of the day and walked downstairs around four. This was when she remembered that someone had called her ugly at school yesterday.
She could see Dave’s house from the kitchen and her gaze lingered on it for a long moment. She felt like talking to him about the offense, so she found her cellphone and called his house. Dave was bereft of cellular miracles. Caroline usually had to pass through the medium of his mother, but she wasn’t intimidated. She was blissfully unaware of their mothers’ feud.
Dave’s mother answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Hi, Mary. Is Dave there?”
“Who is this?”
“Mary, it’s Caroline,” she laughed.
There was a razor pause. “No,” Dave’s mother replied. “David is out with Donald.”
Donald was Mary’s latest boyfriend. Dave had said they had broken up two days ago, but Caroline saw no duplicity. She assumed that Mary and Donald had reunited. She was happy for Mary.
“Can you tell him to call me?” Caroline asked.
Caroline went back to her magazine, having completely forgotten that she had been called ugly.
Dave spent the night conjuring scenarios of himself with Caroline. Some were tepidly sexual, but most revolved around conversations that would eventually lead to something sexual. He did his homework in his room while looking out the window at her house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her against the frozen winter sky. A few dizzy drops of snow fell from a night sky blurred with clouds and a sharp wind swelled against the glass.
He looked down at his Algebra book and closed it, rubbing his palm against his temple. The world had become mute without Caroline. He could hear the skeletal rattling of his mother’s straw against a martini glass from downstairs, but there was no other proof that he was still alive. He felt light like air, like he could will himself to evaporate, but when he opened his eyes he was still in his chair, still looking at Caroline’s house.
His hand went to the phone that was on his desk, but grasped emptiness. He looked at the space in surprise. The rattling of his mother’s straw grew closer and he heard the seesaw creaks of the steps as she climbed them to his room. He opened his Algebra book and put his pencil to his paper. Sweat formed at the back of his neck. He had heard his mother shriek at her boyfriends until they fled underneath the sheer weight of her voice. He didn’t desire a similar fate.
Dave wanted to ask why he had suddenly been banned from seeing Caroline, but he didn’t want to suffer the consequences. His mother was explosive. If he touched her the wrong way, she would ignite and consume everything around her. There was no way he could escape her lashing tongue unscathed. It was much better to be patient and quietly hope she was distracted from one emotion by another.
“How is your homework coming along?” His mother was perched behind him, a hawk eyeing its prey.
He didn’t turn around. He hunched his shoulders over the few problems he had actually completed and tapped a few random numbers into his calculator. “It’s good,” he said. “Coming along good.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I’m having someone over. I don’t want you to come downstairs.” She turned around and went back downstairs. Her decrees were incontestable. Her grip on her kingdom was steel. Dave bit his lip. Not only banished from Caroline’s house, he was banished from his own house. He looked at the empty space where his phone had been just this morning. His reality was eclipsing.
His gaze drifted back to Caroline’s house. The snow was falling a little harder. He noticed the backdoor to Caroline’s house had opened. Light tumbled into the darkness and a tall, broad-shouldered man crept into it. The man slipped away from the door and headed towards the street. He quickly looked over his shoulder back at Caroline’s house and then jogged straight to Dave’s house. Dave heard the door open and close, a reverberating crash that ended all sound.
The world went mute again. Dave looked at the faint footprints in the snow on the street, shining orange with the streetlight. He expected voices downstairs or commotion from Caroline’s house, but nothing happened. The snow fell and the window crackled as the wind again curled into it. Dave wasn’t sure if he was the only thing alive in a dead world or if the world had left him to go cold and numb as it rolled onwards with everyone else.
Caroline woke up at night to yelling. Her mother was yelling at her father. She shut her eyes in the darkness of her room. Their voices tore through the hallway and into her room. They yelled sometimes. All parents yelled sometimes. She was aware of this, but it did little to comfort her.
She shivered as the voices grew louder and fumbled in the dark for her Ipod. Her fingers brushed it and she grabbed it, stuffing the earphones into her ears. Her only escape was to fall back into her mind, to dance there with thoughts and fantasies. Caroline swallowed heavily and a small tear leaked out of her left eye, burning all the way down her cheek. She knew that things would get better. She knew that this was one night out of many, one scratch on the halo of a rotating lifetime. But that didn’t make it easier. Every tragedy was an eternity.
Dave hadn’t slept. He hadn’t done homework. He hadn’t done anything. The sun paled the winter sky on Sunday morning. He watched the day unfold in front of him. He wasn’t sure why he couldn’t sleep, but he knew that he couldn’t. He felt too exhausted to live and too alive to be exhausted. His existence was dry and permanent.
Hours passed and the sun stretched through the gray dawn. The sky cleared by the late morning, yawning open into a stainless blue. He narrowed his eyes at the bright color. He knew that the weather wasn’t better. He could hear the wind lean into his window, trying to break into his house. It would shred and rake his skin if he was outside. He wasn’t safe anywhere.
A minivan pulled up in front of Caroline’s house around eleven. A well-dressed boy stepped out of the passenger seat, a boy that Dave immediately recognized by his swagger: Rob Ashton. Rob Ashton was walking to Caroline’s house. He was knocking on the door. Caroline answered. She gave him a hug, he gave her a hug, who did it first? He watched carefully as Rob disappeared into the house and the door closed.
Something deep within him was suffocating. Rob was with Caroline. Dave knew that Rob shouldn’t be with Caroline simply because Dave should be with her. He didn’t know Rob too well, but now he knew that he hated him. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Dave knew that it had to stop. It had to stop. His mind was brimming with lightning. If he couldn’t believe in Caroline, he couldn’t believe in anyone.
This was the first time that Caroline and Rob had been together outside of school. They were able to talk very easily in classrooms, but the atmosphere in the house was different, foreign and terrifying. Caroline led Rob through the territory in a claustrophobic whirlwind of chatter, throwing her arm at different rooms and giggling at nothing.
Rob was endowed with the supreme gift of simplicity. The future and the past drowned when his mind was flooded with the present. He followed Caroline and glanced around the house with unmoving eyes, expressing his interest with monosyllabic noises of approval. He was perfectly unaware of Caroline’s artificial attempts to impress him.
“Well what do you want to do?” Caroline asked when they reached the bottom of the stairs. Her eyes flickered to Rob’s lips once, but they arced up past his chiseled features and rested on his murky green eyes. Rob didn’t stare away, so she looked at the stairs. She had been able to picture Rob coming to the house, but she hadn’t been able to think beyond it. She started to panic, but Rob saved her with his casual and unassuming grace.
“Dunno.” He had his hands shoved deep within his pockets. He examined a flower vase in the corner of the hallway. It didn’t have any flowers. “You guys got movies or something?”
“Movies, yeah! I’ll show you them!” Caroline was resurrected with possibility. She walked down the hallway to the living room, but was intercepted by her mother. Her face and eyes were drooping with the distinctly feminine expression of poorly concealed distress.
Her eyes widened when she saw Rob hovering behind Caroline. “Caroline!” She cleared her throat. Her courtesy softened her and she tried again: “Caroline, oh, hi… is this… this is…”
Rob assumed the smile he reserved for parents and slipped beside Caroline in the narrow hallway, extending his hand slowly. “Nice to meet you. I really like your house. These kinds of houses are my favorite.” He wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he trusted his instinct. He was born with the knowledge that nothing was a lie until you thought about it.
“Thank you, Rob,” Caroline’s mother said. She put a hand on Caroline’s shoulder and pulled her towards the kitchen. “Excuse us for a second, I just need to talk to Caroline really quick.” Rob nodded and slumped against the wall, his hands still determinedly residing in his pockets. He looked at a painting and decided orange was his favorite color.
The kitchen was where Caroline’s mother undressed from her disguise.
“What is he doing over here!” She demanded.
Caroline regarded her mother with the unaffected face of teenage obstinacy. “You said he could come over here. I asked you on Thursday and then again yesterday. And Dad said-“
“Do not…” Her mother swallowed. Her next disguise fell to her feet, a crumpled and tattered rag. Her eyes went glossy and she put a hand to her forehead, tipping her head to the ceiling. She swung around to the sink but her eyes fell on Dave’s house and she made a tiny, pitiful noise.
“Men, Caroline, men,” she said, shaking her head. “They hold their glass egos to their chests because they have nothing else to hold, because they’re afraid that someone will break it. Never try to see what’s beyond the transparency. They’ll push you and run away like children. Let them live their delusions.”
Caroline paused, regarding this irrelevant piece of wisdom. She waited for something more, but her mother floated over the kitchen sink, buoyed by her shoulders as they shook in silent grief. She felt nauseous with her mother’s sorrow, but she was also aware that Rob was lingering around the corner. She tiptoed out of the room. She was still young enough to distract herself from anything.
It had taken Dave nearly twenty minutes to infuse himself with enough courage to go downstairs to the tiny, tiled kitchen. There was a variety of different cocktail glasses standing proudly by the sink, holding pools of the winter sunlight, but the house was silent. He looked into the driveway and realized his mother was gone.
He immediately went for the door, carefully opened it and closed it behind him, and stood on the porch. He stared at Caroline’s house. It looked like it was wilting even more than before, huddled underneath the painfully blue sky. Without the clouds, the house was naked to the sun’s harsh gaze. He could see Caroline’s mother standing in the kitchen window, but decided she was doing dishes.
Dave hopped down the porch steps and onto the snow-dusted street. The air was sharp and bitter, but the wind was gone. He looked at the footsteps leading from Caroline’s house to his own, made by the man last night. Dave knew that the man was almost undoubtedly Caroline’s father and, although he dipped and skimmed the waters of more scandalous ideas, he decided that the father had visited for some kind of household necessity.
He went to take another step, but his feet had gained a thousand pounds in anxiety. He wanted to see Caroline, but he didn’t want to see her with Rob. He was almost positive this was the first time Rob was intruding in her house, and almost positive that they were just friends, but an inner voice taunted and prodded him. Caroline was either interested in Rob as more than a friend or she had decided that Dave wasn’t a good enough friend.
He looked back at the kitchen window and realized that Caroline’s mother was still there, watching him without moving, an inanimate sculpture with roaming eyes. He looked down at his feet and pretended that he was going nowhere and doing nothing, unshackling himself from his thoughts by thinking nothing.
He kept his head down, crossed the street, and stepped onto the ice-crusted gravel of Caroline’s driveway. He halted in front of the kitchen door and knocked on it with a trembling hand.
Dave’s body was tingling, but his mind was numb. His thoughts had slithered away into holes and corners, leaving his head empty and his tongue dead and useless, a withered slug in a sealed cave. His emotions had left his heart and traveled like lightning through his fingertips and his toes. He knocked again and again, but there was no response.
It was inevitable that the next minutes that passed in Caroline’s house were timeless minutes, moments where borders were broken and people tumbled accidentally and haphazardly into unknown territory.
Dave decided in the cold air that Rob couldn’t have Caroline because he wanted Caroline. He would show her that he wanted her. Dave’s mother pulled into the driveway of her house as Dave shouldered open the kitchen door to Caroline’s house. Caroline’s mother, successfully ignoring Dave’s knocks, saw Mary’s car pull into the driveway and saw her husband sitting in the passenger seat. She flew like a broken-winged bird out the backdoor of the house.
At this time, ten minutes into a movie whose name he had forgotten, Rob’s instincts and thoughts coalesced and puckered his lips. He was a unified essence of thought and emotion, body and mind, and every one of his actions flowed like water. He leaned into Caroline and gave her one whole kiss.
Caroline had read material on the first kiss with any boy, but she had never had one in her house before. She had studied them in the zoo of the classroom, watching and analyzing behaviors, but her magazines and her careful movements and observations were crushed underneath the weight of Rob’s lips.
But she enjoyed it. Caroline returned the kiss and soon they were absorbing each other on the couch in the living room, while characters of a forgotten film talked on a grainy screen and a plot failed to evolve.
Dave wandered into the room because he heard the chatter of the movie and he saw Rob kissing Caroline. Sparks ignited in his brain, sizzling but failing to start a fire, only producing smoke that clouded his thoughts.
Standing at the edge of the living room, Dave discovered that he had no idea who he was. He had defined himself by Caroline and now his definition was straying to other concepts. He felt light again, like air, like he could evaporate, like nothing he did or ever did would ever matter. He closed his eyes and let the air take him out the backdoor, ignoring the screams coming from his own house, ignoring a sudden shout of his name from Caroline’s house. He drifted into mystery, into frozen pine trees powdered with snow from last night’s lazy storm.
Caroline found Dave in a clearing of the forest next to her house. He was crouched on a stump, hugging himself and chattering. The sky was growing sick with dusk and gray ghosts melted into the sun, blurring the light with their ethereal glow. Rob was following her but lingered at the edge of the forest, instead staring at the commotion in front of Dave’s house as Caroline’s mother rent the polluted air with her pure notes of righteous despair.“Dave?” Caroline approached him like a wounded animal, unsure of whether he would bite or
whimper. When he didn’t look up at her, she came closer, her breath blooming into steam in front of her. “Dave?”
Dave was struggling with the pain of his jagged and fiery love for her. He tried to examine it, but it seared his eyes. He tried to hold it, but it burned to touch. He could only let it smolder in his chest. Tears rose like glass on the surface of his eyes, hovering and motionless.
“What’s wrong, Dave?” Caroline’s honey voice made him relax and unfold until he sat on the stump and looked up at her. He attempted a word, but nothing came. They stared at each other for a long time, listening to the shouts in the distance as they faded. The forest became silent and they were alone.
The world was mute with Caroline. Dave watched the gray sun nestle in the corners of her eyes. Even though she was right in front of him, Dave thought that if he tried to touch her his hand would pass through her. He knew now that she was an illusion, an immaculate and glowing illusion that was more real than anything else in his life.
Caroline sat down next to him on the edge of the stump. She could feel Dave trembling against her shoulder. If she touched him now, he would shatter. Rob emerged from the forest with his hands in his pockets.
She looked up at him, but her eyes dropped back to Dave. Her gaze finally settled on the snow around the stump. It was different from the unbroken snow all around it. This snow was mashed into the shape of Dave’s panicked footprints, deranged by a flurry of emotions that left it sore and alone amidst the perfect snow of the forest.
Like dreams, like thoughts, like people, some things were just too soft to last.