Empty suburban homes mocked me, watched as I dug through mowed lawns searching for cigarette butts, they knew I was too young, knew that I hadn’t fallen in love yet. Dad moved into one of them with my babysitter when I was twelve, painted it yellow, planted snapdragons near the mailbox. He smoked American Spirits, reminded him of the American dream, and when the sky turned orange he undressed her in the backyard until both of them disappeared.
In the summertime we ate hot dogs on the boardwalk, laughed until ice cream came out our nose, waited for mom to die in her bed, all wrapped up in fear. Everything started to fade, and when night finally settled on our house I knew that the streetlights couldn’t save me from the monsters. He went on business trips to the black holes of the world, came back smelling like ocean breeze and vodka, hired a different babysitter to make me dinner and sing me to sleep, to make sure my mother didn’t die while he was gone. But she did, and the babysitters stopped coming and I stopped sleeping, and the monsters finally swallowed me whole.
Mom liked Ferris Wheels. She liked neon signs and tap shoes and sugarcoated fingertips. She liked to dance with dad in the basement, the lamps white glow casting a shadow over their bodies until everything felt like heaven. I remembered her swimming in the hotel pool on our vacation last summer, remembered her blonde hair soaking up the deep end, remembered thinking she looked like a movie star. Her smile was brighter than the sun.
The hospital smelled like a gas station, stains covered the linoleum floor. An outdated TV hung from the corner of her room, it was loud and bright and when five o’clock rolled around it liked to remind her that the world wasn’t as pretty as she remembered. Everyone was delirious, everything rotted with blue in cold rooms painted white. We ate lunch in the cafeteria on our last visit, the tables smelled of Clorox and my pizza tasted like death. I peeled off the pepperoni and made a smiley face on my plate, it was the closest to happiness I was going to get.
After she died Dad married the babysitter, they kissed beneath a pergola in the backyard and her eyes turned green. That night I found string panties all over the house. They were peeking from the couch cushions, hanging off the refrigerator door, and when I wandered into my father’s bedroom at midnight to escape my tears, he was covered in them. She stood above him, naked, sipping a martini, grinning while she watched her life turn into a movie. It was R-rated and I wasn’t invited to the premier, so I grew up and went here and there, fell asleep in rotting king sized beds at the junkyard, prayed someone would find me and take me home, would love me like my father never did. The nights I slept naked in the grass, letting men roll in and out of me, were the nights I realized that you didn’t have to die to go to hell. That once a drop of darkness leaked into your life a wave would follow, it would swallow you whole, and you would never remember how the light felt.
I met him when I was sixteen, his eyes were warm, hands gentle, tucking hair behind my ears until I melted into his lap. Until I became the little girl I never got to be. But glass tore through his reflection, made my arms bleed into the bathtub, turned the water into a tortured kaleidoscope. I wanted to get off the rides. I wanted to puke behind the Scrambler and wait for my mom to take me home. But he didn’t let me, his voice made me wait, made me ride the Zipper, spin in bumper cars until my neck hurt, spend all my money on carnival games, until I had nothing but empty pockets and a whirling mind. He pointed to the empty parking lot, said wait right there, and I did.
A month later we rode in the back of cargo vans, hitched rides with tubby men in big trucks, and ate hot dogs wrapped in plastic at convenience stores until we made it to the west coast. Until he coaxed me to swallow little white pills, until I woke up naked with bruises on my legs, until I ended up sleeping on the pier, sucking off old men to survive. Mom, please take me home.
I just wanted to be a normal girl, a girl who kissed jocks outside the locker room, a girl who wore cherry lipstick, a girl who despite all her tiny imperfections, looked in her bathroom mirror every morning and thought to herself, dammit I’m beautiful. A girl who lived where dreams were carbon copies of the sherbet she scooped as a teenage girl, behind the ice cream counter, her darling thighs trembling.