It Hurt to Remember
by Susan Vallee
Rebecca was just getting big enough with the baby that her body was beginning to ache. Sleep was hard: tossing and turning. Their old mattress just wasn’t comfortable anymore. Dan had to get up early, so he had taken to sleeping on the couch in the living room when she felt like this. Such a simple decision, to sleep on the couch. Stupid little things like that shouldn’t shape lives. But they do. If he had gotten up and turned off the lights, or remembered to crawl under the Christmas tree and water it the day before, would it have saved them? That damn tree. She’d insisted on getting the six-footer, instead of the cute little three-footer Dan wanted. It was too big for the room, but she hadn’t cared. It was beautiful. Later, the firefighters said it was because of the tree. That’s why everything happened so fast.
She awoke to a scene that was too intense to process. Heat billowed in through the open door. Dan was screaming in a range that her ears had never heard. And so much light. Too much light. She tried to get out the door but the heat pushed her back. The stop-drop-and-roll speech of her Kindergarten days came rushing back, so she dropped to the floor, trying to crawl to him. It was no use.
Remembering the baby, she crawled to the bathroom, closed the door and climbed into the tub. She turned on the water and prayed. That was where they found her.
Days later she’d awoken to find her mother by her side. Dan was gone. The baby too. Doctors and her mother had both tried to explain why, but Rebecca just waved at them to stop speaking. Their words hurt. Her head pulsated where she’d been burned and her lungs sent rivets of scalding fire across her chest every time she inhaled, but their words hurt more. The why didn’t matter. Only the now did.
Once she’d been released she’d moved in with her mother. But that didn’t last. As soon as she felt strong enough, Rebecca insisted on moving into a little apartment a few miles away in a much less desirable part of town. It wasn’t her mother’s fault. It was the constant pity. The never-ending stream of visitors to the house. Her mother’s panicked face when she’d found Rebecca in the garage cutting short lines in her arm. The surprise shopping spree for long-sleeved shirts. The expression on the psychologist’s face. The way he insisted life gets better. Everyone was so nice. Too nice. A newscaster had called her a miracle. But she didn’t feel like a miracle. Nothing felt like a miracle. She longed for someone to treat her like the shit she felt she was.
But now that she was here, all alone in this crappy apartment, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself. Her day used to have order. She had purpose. She had someone to wake up next to. An alarm to turn off. Breakfast to make, vitamins to take. She had coffee beans to grind, a metal filter to rinse and dry. Cups and saucers. A sugar dish. Half and half in the fridge. Work clothes. The rush of a counting down clock.
Now she just had this void of nothingness. What was the name of that movie? It was her childhood favorite. Was it Narnia? Funny that she couldn’t recall the name, but she remembered the main character Atreyu and the flying dragon who battled against the approaching vastness of The Nothing. That was how she felt. Like nothing. Like The Nothing had come and swallowed her. Taken her laughter, her joy, her loves, her inner light.
Out on the apartment’s cramped balcony she’d almost stepped on the dried exoskeleton of a cicada. It was wondrously light and transparent. Fragile, yet it once was armor. It had held life and protected it, but now it was this sad dried thing and she’d almost crushed it. It took a few moments to realize the sobbing sound was coming from her. She released the shell and watched it semi-float back down to the cracked concrete.
Dusty’s. That was what she’d do. She’d walk over to Dusty’s and have a beer or five. At least that would fill the afternoon. She liked the smell of the place. It was dank and warm. Old dollar bills hung from the ceiling. The bar had that tacky wood feel humidity creates. The bartender was a big guy named Chris. He was always kind to her. She suspected he was gay because he never once tried to hit on her. Not many men did anymore. Between the uniform row of pearly-white scars on her left arm and the shiny pink flesh around her left ear, she wasn’t what you’d call a catch anymore. But she liked that no one tried to talk to her here. She didn’t matter. Just another ass on a stool. Chris was in a good mood today, so he’d given her a couple of shots on the house. She chased them down with cheap cold beer.
“Your shoes smell like a dead, rotting possum.”
She put her beer down and looked to her left. There was a dark-haired man, hazel eyes, skin weathered by the sun and wind. He was wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and some type of work shirt. He pursed his lips and sipped his beer.
“You say something?” Rebecca asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Yes,” he said. “I said something. Jesus! I couldn’t figure out what that smell was.” He pointed down at her shoes on the floor beneath the barstool and leaned toward her with his head down, as if he was smelling her feet from there. “I bet you $100 that stank is comin’ from those nasty-ass black shoes. I mean Jesus! I ain’t never met a woman with such stinky feet.”
For some reason she didn’t tell him go fuck himself. This intrigued her.
“is this how you pick up women?” she asked. “By lying and insulting them to piss them off?”
He laughed. “I tell you what,” he said, “if you’ll put those nasty fucking things back on, I’ll buy you a drink.” She thought it was high time to upgrade from the watery piss she was drinking to something with a little more heft to it, so she reached down with her feet, hooking the tops of the shoes with her toes, and slid them on.
After a few more fancy beers she didn’t care what he thought about her feet, and he seemed to have lost his sensitive sense of smell. They stumbled into the parking lot. His truck was clean and right here, but way too small, so they walked quickly to her apartment. He kept a hand on the back of her neck and called her darlin’ and hon’ on the way.
Once inside he surprised her with how quick he moved. She was half naked and on her back before she could even turn on the light. She laughed as he threw her stinky shoes across the room. Thin carpet scratched her bare bottom. He kissed her knees with wet, open mouthed kisses and then moved along the tops of her thighs. She couldn’t be sure (too much beer) but she thought he was licking her leg. He left cold, spiffy pools every time he did that. She reached down, anxious to make him stop, and took one butt cheek in each hand. She pulled him into her. As she groaned, she slid her hands up toward the small of his back and realized something odd. His skin felt like a thin, wool sweater. It took her a second and then she realized it was hair. On his ass. He had hair on his ass.
She glanced up, watching those stinky feet rock up and down in the air. She bit her lip, tried to fake a moan, but the laugh came out anyway. He stopped moving and looked at her. She laughed harder and he moved faster.
Maybe he thinks he can fuck it out of me?
She started to fake moan again, but decided she was too drunk and didn’t give a shit. This needed to end. Did she even know his name? All she knew for sure was that he was getting heavier and the carpet was beginning to gnaw at her bare flesh. A few more thrusts and he rolled off of her and propped himself up on one arm. He slid his other hand along her belly. She pointed toward the bathroom at the end of the dark hallway.
“There’s soap and shampoo in there if you want it.” He moved his hand away.
“All right. I see,” he said and reached for his underwear. He didn’t have a bad body, just hairy in the wrong places. On another day, in a different life, she might have fallen for him.
“Aren’t you gonna get up?” he asked.
She hadn’t really thought about it. Her legs were a little sore and her ass hurt. She wiggled her toes and stretched her arms up above her head.
“No. Don’t think I am.”
He looked at her as if she’d just farted or something. Maybe my feet smell even worse after sex?
Wouldn’t that be a trip, she thought. Maybe my feet are like mood rings. When I’m happy they smell like flowers, and when I’m sad they smell like rotting possums. She looked up, surprised that he was still there. He was looking at her. Waiting.
“Why not? It’s my floor. I can lay wherever I goddamn please.”
He reached into his front shirt pocket. Her breath caught in her throat. Was he pulling out money?
“Suit yourself,” he said, pulling his truck keys out of the pocket.
“Maybe I’ll see you and those nasty feet around sometime.”
An then he was gone.
She pulled herself up and looked around the drab little apartment. Goosebumps popped up along her legs and arms. She thought of all the spit and saliva he’d left in a slimy trail along her legs and stomach. Does that shit really turn some women on? She doubted it. That must be some stupid porno move he saw and decided to try. Men are idiots.
She thought of the keys. What if he had pulled out money and tossed it down to her spit-covered belly.What would I have done? Taken it? Chased him out in rage? I used to be married. I had a good job. I had friends. I had plans. I barely even drank. This is what I’ve become?
She lathered up three times in the shower, letting the water get as hot as she could stand it. When she was done she grabbed her fuzzy white robe from the back of the bathroom door and wrapped it around her. It was all she wore most days.
Back in the little living area, she fished her shoes out from behind the TV and gave them a solid whiff. She came close to puking up what beer remained in her. How long had it been since she’d had a shower? Or washed clothes? Why were the shoes turning orange?
Rebecca lifted the lid of the white plastic trashcan that straddled the small space between her kitchen and living area and tossed them in. New shoes could be nice. She walked into the kitchen and clicked on the light. Yellow tile from the 70s gave her a sunny hello. Her stomach grumbled. A flash of gold from the counter behind her caught her attention.
“Oh, hey, Bubbles,” she said to the fish, leaning close to watch her as she skimmed the water’s surface for food. Bubbles had been an impulse buy right after she moved into the apartment. Her and Bubbles. Together they were going to make it. She opened the fridge and found two eggs in the bin. Nothing else was in there except for rotting carrots and a half jug of orange juice.
“Eggs it is, Bubbles.”
She balanced them on the corner of the oven and reached for the non-stick pan. Sunny-side up seemed like a good idea. The spatula wasn’t in the dishwasher or the sink. She slid open the catch-all drawer below Bubble’s tank and found it resting peacefully beside a lone steak knife.
Rebecca felt the breath leave her body. The urge to cut was strong. She bit down on her bottom lip and then on the corner of her thumb.
“Count,” she commanded herself. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.” The sensation began to fade. “Seven. Eight. Nine.” She closed her eyes and breathed quick, shallow little breaths. Then she looked at Bubbles.
“Let’s get you fed,” she whispered. She slid the drawer closed. Maybe tomorrow she’d put the knife in the trash with the shoes. She reached for the small bottle of flakes beside the tank. Bubbles circled in obvious anticipation.
“Day by day, girl. Day by day.”
Susan Vallee’s travel guide, Meet Me on 30A, was published in 2013 by Southwestern Publishing Group. Her nonfiction has appeared on babble.com, and she’s the publisher of 30A Kids Club Magazine. She’s also a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance in New Orleans, Louisiana. She lives with her husband and two sons in South Walton, Florida.