By Nora Hennick
Seb and Anne arrived at Franco’s past midnight. Anne had been sick all day, hungover from their night in Idaho Falls. After getting her fake ID confiscated by a bouncer, Anne joined Seb back at the hotel, where they spent the night drinking Heinekens, half-watching Larger Than Life, and fucking once, standing up in the bathroom so they could watch themselves in the mirror.
But now here they were at Franco’s and the instant Seb shut off the truck, Anne dashed out the door and vomited all over Franco’s bushes. Seb watched, somewhat amazed, as Anne yanked a leaf off a branch and scraped it over her tongue back and forth. When she finished, she tore the leaf into little pieces and gave Seb a goofy smile, tilting her head towards the front door as if to say what in the world are you waiting for?
There was plenty reason for hesitation, as far as Seb saw things. Franco had married Seb’s mother seven years earlier, and while the marriage only lasted a couple of years, Franco and Seb had stayed close, perhaps improbably so. Teenage boys were supposed to hate their stepfathers, resenting the splicing of a mother’s affections. But Franco’s presence was a relief; he pulled Seb and his mother out of their dysfunction, their practiced routines, their partnership that sometimes tiptoed into a suffocating dependency. When Seb found the emails Franco had written to another woman, his first reaction was not outrage on behalf of his clueless mother, but rather a fear for what this meant for Franco. In an instant, Seb could see life without Franco, and he was terrified of it coming true.
A few months after the discovery of the emails, Seb’s mother moved to a condominium thirty minutes away and started going to church. Franco stayed in his stucco house, with the gong in the basement, the bright white walls, and bottles of brandy by each bedside. After the initial shock of the separation wore off, Seb started to spend some weekends at Franco’s. He told his mother he was staying with friends. Franco’s new woman didn’t last long, but while she was around, she acted baffled by Seb’s presence. Franco just called Seb a buddy and expected the woman to leave it at that.
It was Franco’s truck Seb took across the country, from San Diego to Portland, Maine, a college graduation gift. He had promised Franco he would return the truck by June 28th, at the latest. But Seb lost his phone charger sometime in early June, and by the time Seb stood outside the door with Anne, it was July 14th.
“Holy fuck,” Franco said when Seb and Anne finally walked into the kitchen, “look at you.”
Mornings at Franco’s were slow. Predictable. Franco’s flea-ridden dog would amble through the garden, mouth open and tongue hanging over its bottom teeth. The sky was a soaked-through blue, and by god, you had the time to look at it.
Seb placed a wine bottle filled with water at the center of the table on the patio. It immediately grew opaque with condensation. Since it was too hot to cook, Franco had run into town to grab a cheese pizza for lunch. Anne stayed in the dark kitchen, the shutters drawn shut, peeling oranges and tossing the slices into a glossy red bowl. Seb watched her from the patio. Anne’s forehead glistened with sweat, curly wisps of her hair had escaped from her ponytail and framed her head like a crown. She had thrown her bleach-stained purple dress over her bathing suit, her feet bare and sandy from the morning at the beach.
It was hard to know who Anne was, really, even after staring at her for an uninterrupted stretch of time. Seb had met Anne during one of his stops on his road trip. She said she was seventeen, an early graduate of high school, not a dropout, she was quick to point out. She had a dullness in her eyes, which Seb initially took for a lack of intelligence but later Anne told him she had a full supply of her mother’s Prozac stashed in the mesh pocket of her backpack.
Seb didn’t mind dull girls, but they all just ended up reminding him of Karen, his high school girlfriend, and her permanently flushed cheeks and yellowed front teeth poking through an apologetic smile. Karen laughed easily and listened carefully. At least it seemed careful, though it was probably just because listening required every ounce of Karen’s concentration.
Seb only noticed Anne because they were both drinking in the middle of a beautiful summer afternoon. Seb ordered a Jack and Coke and Anne sat at the bar next to his elbow, sipping on white sangria in a clear plastic cup. She had piled the fruit on her napkin in front of her and was paging through one of those community-events catalogues bars stack in the back hallways leading to the bathrooms.
Anne was wearing a grey fleece and a pair of jean shorts, and Seb thought she had to be a Rapid City native. At this point in his trip, Seb was comfortable sliding up against strangers and forcing a conversation. After a particularly long stretch on the road, it was a relief to hear his own voice.
But Anne’s hazy, heavy-lidded eyes landed on Seb before he could make his move. She picked up a piece of peach and stuck it between her teeth, letting the juice squirt out and travel down her chin. Later, when Seb kissed her, their chins would stick together. He ended up taking her back to his motel room after a long night of bar hopping in Rapid City, and they lay in that Motel 6 room until the early afternoon, listening to Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn on the radio, the crispy white sheets coiled underneath Anne’s body. Her stomach had a crease along the belly button, dividing her fat in to two sections. Seb liked that she didn’t make any effort to cover up. He was used to sleeping with skinny women, women with angles and jutting limbs, rib cages that would rise up and poke against his touch. They would shiver in the summertime and bracelets would always slide back to the thick part of their forearms.
Seb wasn’t exactly sure what made the offer come out of his mouth. Later, when he tried to remember the moment the idea popped into his head, all he could come up with was the moment Anne sat up in bed, exposing her naked back and how she tied her tangled, straw-colored hair into a bun, and then lay back down, turning her head towards Seb and smiling. After that, Seb asked.
“Will we go swimming” was the only thing Anne asked when she packed up her bag, the duffel bag Seb hadn’t seen at the bar; it was a surprise to learn when they rose from the table that Anne was a nomad, too.
“As much as you want, “ Seb answered.
When Seb filled up his truck with gas, Anne went inside the station to get them breakfast. She returned with two bacon-and-egg sandwiches and a box of tampons. “You made me start early, “ She said flatly as way of explanation. “I had to throw my underwear away.”
Seb had never talked about periods with any of his girlfriends and he didn’t know what to say to Anne. It was fine that she kept the tampons in the cup holder, as if she anticipated some sort of hemorrhage at any moment.
Now, Franco returned with the pizza and dropped the box on the table next to the bottle of water. Anne, with her keen hearing, stepped out onto the patio to deliver the bowl of oranges. Franco nodded approval, which made Seb feel good; Anne didn’t often manage to do things that Franco liked.
Franco and Seb hadn’t had a chance to discuss Anne yet. From that first night, Anne hadn’t exactly been charming, to either man. Her easy manners and comfortable conversation all but disappeared when they stepped into the kitchen that night. Seb and Anne had stopped having sex, except for one lazy blowjob about a week ago, and only because Seb practically begged for it. Most of the time, Seb couldn’t decide if he wanted Anne to get lost or if there was still something about her worth keeping around.
Franco didn’t seem to have much interest in her; Seb noticed that even when he asked a question that involved Anne, Franco looked only at Seb. Franco liked artistic women, Seb knew, and Anne was far from that type. Anne’s tastes were stubbornly unoriginal– she read supermarket romances and only willingly listened music if it fell into the Top 40 category. She hardly ever accessorized, except for a gold bullet she wore around her neck, even in the shower and when she slept. Back when they were actually having sex, it would sometimes dangle over Seb’s mouth and he would reach for it with his lips, making Anne laugh in a way that made Seb feel stupid.
Seb knew that Franco liked women like Seb’s mother—women who fell so deep into their own minds that they let their hair grow frizzy and legs prickly. The type of woman who sprinkled herself with lavender essential oil and brewed hibiscus tea while listening to NPR.
A girl like Anne would seem dull to Franco, just as Seb himself had first assumed. Anne had run out of her mother’s Prozac, so she lost whatever mystery she had going for her, that hypnotic blankness Seb first noticed.
Seb passed a slice of pizza to both Anne and Franco. Franco took his slice and went to sit on the porch swing, not saying a word. Anne plopped down on a stool, balancing her plate across her knees. Anne’s nose was peeling. She had such strikingly fair skin that Seb went out to buy SPF 30 on the first morning they went to the beach, specifically for her. But Anne claimed to hate the smell and feel of sunscreen, and even went so far as to claim her skin actually contained an olive tint that usually refracted the sunlight. By two-thirty, Anne had burnt to a crisp, and after one brief acknowledgment of her mistake, she never brought it up again.
The little band of pink across the bulb of her nose made Anne look even younger than she was. Seb and his teenage bride, Seb had overhead Franco on the phone a few days ago. He had told Franco pretty much the truth, that he had met Anne on the road, she had wanted to get out of Minnesota, had gotten a ride from a friend as far as South Dakota and then was left high and dry. Seb hoped Anne would corroborate this story with some self-effacing grin or watering eyes, but she just stood off in the corner, shifting her weight and digging her fingernails into the skin of a banana sitting on the countertop.
But the truth hadn’t mattered to Franco. He made up his mind pretty much on the spot, that Anne was a trashy teenage runaway that Seb liked fucking her and so he brought her back to California to mooch off his ex-stepfather’s fortune and show off the West coast lifestyle to a corn-fed slut.
And for her part, Anne spent most of the long summer afternoons eating shaved ice in the garden, walking in circles, dragging her big toe in the soil. Seb would watch her from their bedroom window, not sure what to do about the whole thing. Anne gave no indication that she was unhappy or happy, or that she even expected either of those emotions to surface in her lifetime.
If she would leave Franco’s property once and while, Seb could find a chance to talk to Franco and formulate a plan. They could drop Anne off at a hostel downtown. They could hook her up with one of Seb’s mother’s former students, some sensitive English major who would let Anne pace all over their dorm room. “There are a lot of opportunities out there for girls like her,” he imagined Franco saying. Someone like Anne could blend into the world and not know the difference. She could be literally anywhere in the world, and nothing would be different.
Anne held out a slice of orange in Seb’s direction. She gave him a small smile and waved the fruit back and forth like a lighter at a concert. Seb took it and raised his eyebrows in thanks. He looked over and made eye contact with Franco. Franco just shook his head. If only Franco knew Seb felt exactly the same way. Just completely exhausted with this girl. Of course, Franco must know what it’s like to be tangled up with a woman you know longer want. He would know what to do.
Anne went to the Sunday Farmer’s Market the next morning, leaving Seb alone in the kitchen with the French press. Usually by the time Seb and Anne made it downstairs, Franco already had the coffee going. But Franco was nowhere in sight and Seb didn’t even know where Franco kept the coffee beans.
“Morning, buddy,” Franco said, walking into the kitchen with a beach towel draped around his shoulders. His long silver hair looked either wet or greasy, and it flopped in front his eyes.
“Can you make the coffee?” Seb sat down at the table and started to peel an orange.
Franco laughed. “I worry about you, man.” He pulled the coffee beans down from the shelf above the stove. “I really do.”
Seb shrugged. “If you had a normal coffee maker, I could figure it out.”
While Franco ground the coffee and heated the water, Seb shuffled through the newspaper keeping one eye on Franco, trying to memorize how he did the coffee. Franco looked up suddenly, catching Seb’s eye.
“So, what are we going to do about the girl?” Franco raised his eyebrows.
It was the conversation Seb had been waiting for and dreading for the past three weeks. To stall and to clarify, Seb said, “Anne?”
“I’m not sure what you had in mind here, Seb, but I don’t think it’s working out how you wanted. Am I right?”
Of course Franco was right. Anne had become someone almost entirely unfamiliar to Seb. He could have asked any another person he had met on the road to come back to San Diego with him, but he had chosen Anne for reasons he couldn’t even remember. Lately, Seb suspected Anne didn’t remember either.
“It’s been fine,” Seb said.
“Seb, there’s nothing wrong with telling a girl you’ve changed your mind.”
Seb rolled his eyes.
“I’m serious. She’ll get over it.”
Seb didn’t doubt that Franco believed this. Seb had never seen an upset woman around Franco before, other than Seb’s own mother. Maybe the experience with Seb’s mother had been enough to convince Franco to never involve himself with an emotional woman again. After all, Seb’s mother was no Christine, no Molly, no Tina—none of those lanky, whispering women Franco brought home after the divorce. Seb’s mother was loud. She sang songs from Porgy and Bess when she felt bored, she was always butting into conversations, she mispronounced words just to see how people would react. Seb thought that his mother had probably tired Franco out; the woman Franco sent emails to during his marriage wrote back with things like, Can’t wait, babe. Your so sexy. Seb’s mother left little notes on the fridge like, F: my humingbird, can you fix the way the door squeaks? [i.e. If all else fails, make it squeak differently!]
Would Anne get over it?
“She’s kinda attached to things here, you know?” Seb finally said.
“Things?” Franco asked, winking. “You mean your—”
“She doesn’t have anywhere to go,” Seb filled in quickly.
“Don’t let her walk on you, Seb. You got her to California, you don’t owe her anything. Trust me. I’ve been there before.” With that, Franco clapped a hand down on Seb’s shoulder and Seb felt there was nothing else to do but nod.
“Hell, she’s young and not too bright. Drop her off at Venice Beach.” Franco laughed, gave Seb one last shove, and walked out of the kitchen.
Seb woke up in the middle of the night. When he rolled over, he realized Anne was no longer next to him in bed. A shadow moved across the sheets, a dab in the white moonlight. Anne was standing next to the open window, looking out at the garden. Anne no longer slept naked and instead now wore a pink cotton tunic as her nightshirt, something she found in a cardboard box at the end of a driveway down the street. It was shapeless and maternal looking, and twisted over her knees so Seb couldn’t even get his hands up under it. Which, he realized after a while, was the point.
“What are you doing, “ he forced himself to say.
“Couldn’t sleep.” Anne didn’t act startled to hear Seb’s voice, but she moved away to the window and slid back into bed. She settled on her back, staring directly up at the ceiling. She looked, for a second, like she had when they first met. The curves of her face looked firmly drawn with a soft brush, rather than pinched and doughy. Her hair, still damp from her bedtime shower, lay splayed across the pillow and the green apple scent of her shampoo drifted into Seb’s nose. Seb reached over and laid his arm across Anne’s stomach, remembering how he used to be amazed at its solid softness.
Anne let his arm lie there for a minute but as soon as Seb began to move his fingers across the fabric, she wiggled out from underneath his arm.
“What?” Seb sighed.
Anne sighed, too. “It’s just boring.”
“Sex.” Anne closed her eyes.
Seb snorted. “You didn’t used to think so.”
After a long moment, Anne said quietly, “I think you’re boring.”
It was possibly the most surprising thing Anne could have said right then. He could have guessed that she had decided sex was boring and that she hated it when he touched her. For all her opacity, Anne never seemed to have a problem being clear about what her body would or wouldn’t do.
But the fact that she would find Seb boring, after all this. He looked over at her, her pudgy hands were now folded across her belly so she looked like a corpse. Her eyelids fluttered, so he knew she was struggling to keep her eyes closed.
“And you’re a dumb bitch.” Seb finally said, the word dumb catching slightly in his throat, giving the sentence a more emotional delivery than he intended. Anne didn’t react one bit. Seb stared at her for a little longer and lay his head back down on his pillow, turning away from Anne, and facing the door. Seb was surprised to realize the next morning that he had fallen back asleep so quickly.
If Anne had intended for a dramatic departure, she was disappointed. She was at the mercy of Franco’s truck and Seb’s driving, so Anne would have to ask to leave. She handed Seb a piece of paper with seven or eight lines of directions scribbled on it and asked if he wouldn’t mind driving to the depot. Seb was taken aback that Anne had taken the time to research and write out the directions to the train station, a destination she should have assumed Seb would know.
But when Seb started to feel badly about the night before, he just had to remind himself of her voice, the nasty, moonlit corpse that had lay next to him, and he would get angry all over again.
It didn’t take long for Anne to assemble her things and by noon, she was waiting down in the kitchen, her duffel bag slung over her shoulder. It was another scorching day, but Anne was wearing the same grey fleece and jean shorts she had been wearing when they met in Rapid City. As soon as Seb entered the kitchen, Anne kicked open the screen door and walked out into the garden. When Anne placed her palm on the gate to push it open and enter the driveway, Franco called out, “Well, goodbye, Annie!”
Anne paused for maybe a hair of a second, but then continued pushing the door open and disappeared from view. Seb turned around to find Franco, who was perched in his Adirondack chair in the middle of two rhododendron bushes, his legs crossed and smiling openly at Seb. Seb shrugged and Franco laughed, because he must have known exactly what Seb was going through right then.
Without Anne around, Seb felt like his old self again. He managed to pluck out a song or two on his guitar, he got around to calling his mom for a quick update, and then he finally found the time to clean Franco’s truck from his road trip. It had sat nearly untouched in the two months since his return. Scattered all around the backseat were receipts from gas stations from all over the country, the flimsy and crumpled memorabilia from his late night driving binges across southern Illinois and Missouri. He rolled up the tent he had used three or four times at KOA sites along the highways, those sweaty nights trying to fall asleep listening to drunk men plan their morning fishing trips. Seb even picked up and plopped into a Ziploc all the errant coins lying over the floor, his tollbooth money.
And it was inevitable that Seb should find one of Anne’s tampons she had bought, that first morning. Just one, no longer nestled in the cup holder, but fallen in between the passenger seat and the divider. Almost automatically, Seb found himself dropping the tampon into plastic bag with all the change and shoving it into the backseat pocket of the passenger’s chair.
Seb went back inside the house to look for Franco to tell him the job was finally done, but Franco had already left for his date. Seb probably wouldn’t even see him later that night, Franco had warned him he would probably be spending the night at the woman’s house.
Seb poured himself a glass of whiskey, the good whiskey from Franco’s liquor cart in the dining room. He thought about going downstairs and banging the gong, something he got such a kick out of when he was a teenager, but he didn’t want to move. Not for a while, probably. The only thing to do, Seb realized, was sit and stare at Franco’s walls, and admire just how white they really were.
Copyright Hennick 2015