Once we firmed up
When we were young, we were plump. The others spent their free moments listening to our heavy breathing, taking us apart, putting us back together: We were the juice running down their chin.
Once we firmed up, we decided the roles we’d play, which parts fit best with one another’s respective qualities. We’d always wanted something akin to limelight, but from a distance: more like savoring a memory than committing to a mostly haptic back and forth.
Often we were accused of speaking in our own language, two doors open only to each other. “I feel like you two girls don’t even care to know anybody else,” our mother said. “There are other people in the world, you know.” We never decided how right she was.
Our mother, she’d always figured into more of a supporting role, never one to speak above the whisper, never louder than a shadow. Father, he gave us tours of museums after hours, shining flashlights at paintings we were too short to reach. He watched the artwork, making sure girls like us, he said, didn’t abscond with them in the night. We loved him for thinking he could stop us if he wanted.
They didn’t last, and when we caught wind that people could leave each other, we blew through lives at lightning speed.
But first, we fell for Akai, who lived sticky with a jam-covered face. His mother would coo as she left him with his nanny for the day, his lip glubglub as she turned toward the door. That was when the world was warm and everything had the drip of salty mist: a sign of a healthy body of water nearby.
For Kelly, our first kiss, there was a trampoline she would turn her ankle on at least once a summer. As a trio, we would get into situations we had to back out of slowly. Later, we heard she was living in a RV park in New Mexico, living it — as it was described — up.
Our mutual acquaintance, Conrad, he blessed animals we shot in the woods with BB guns. Squirrels mostly. He would fall to his knees, the animals’ little white chests blossoming red, and murmur prayers not meant, we knew, for our ears. Turned out we were feeding a proselytizing habit of his, and we sought different company.
Juniper, whom we’d only chatted with on video screens, her parents named her after liquor and that’s where the cleverness stopped. We kept her around when we couldn’t sleep, her voice a sonorous billow that edged us closer to dreams than our own mother’s waiting arms.
Eventually, regarding Mother, we were summoned to her funeral, counting family members we had left. We devised two categories: family who we would miss if they died, and family we would pretend not to know.
When the tallies were final, there was a notable imbalance, so we left them as they milled about stiffly in their funeral clothes, waiting until they’d put enough time in to justify leaving. We lifted Juniper’s cell phone, borrowed Conrad’s pickup (he gave a lovely eulogy), and never looked back.
Crossing state lines, we figured much of life hinged on things like chances: the crackle of egg on hot cast iron, the meeting of a man on a park bench who holds the key to your life, the wrong amount of playful innuendo taken too seriously. In other words, we got lost. Bad.
Eventually, we had no place else to go but to seek Kelly, her RV, and to find out how she was able to move on. She answered the door too quickly, and we lost something resembling respect: she didn’t even pretend not to be home.
“Y’all got skinny,” she said. It’s true that, once familiar, it’s easy to miss the gradual changes. We looked each other up and down and decided Kelly was worth at least one night’s adventure. Inside, she poured us watered-down gin and promised she had dropped off her resume to at least three places that day, but, she told us in a tired whisper, nobody was hiring.
Eventually one night became all of them. We had settled, unknowingly, as stationary itinerants. We thought about jobs using our hands, something to tire out our bodies so every night we could just lie there and take whatever the world thought to put forth. We teetered on edges throughout, doing what we did best.
Before we knew it, Kelly was gone and we’d got old and brittle, because that’s what happens when you’re not looking. She left a note saying she never knew two people who needed each other less. She couldn’t even call herself a third wheel. She had always loved to label herself.
In the RV, we grew to miss her stink of cigarettes, her arm she always slung over us in our shared bed, her snores that shook the thin aluminum walls. We got her postcard from Tallahassee that asked if we were still the same people as when she left and if so, her deepest condolences.
But she got it right in the end, pinpointing our failure: We forgot, being so close we circulated the same air and wiped each other’s lipstick clean off each night, to look out for each other and make sure one of us didn’t end up alone.
Lucas Church’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Zone 3, and Pleiades, among other journals. He holds an MFA from North Carolina State University and is the editor of PINBALL, an online literature and comics magazine. You can reach him at lucaschurch.com.
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