PLACES WE WEREN’T
We weren’t in a barbershop.
He sat in a wooden slat-back chair on our mother’s kitchen floor and looked up at me. His face was upside down from my view above him—his eyes, a forgiving periwinkle blue, seemed out of place below his chin. His feet just grazed the chipped white tile.
“I trust you,” he said, which was the first and only time Sonny has ever said those words to me, and then he handed me the scissors.
The rusted metal handles didn’t contour to my hand the way I thought they would. With the blades pressed against each other, the scissors felt more like twin knives. I scanned our boxed-up kitchen, not lingering on anything in particular. Not the unlabeled box of wedding china, not her sheaf of handwritten recipes or the once-white apron with its singed strings. Not even my brother.
“We have to hurry, Nor. Dad said he’d be back in an hour.”
When I was younger, nothing could touch me on church steps. They were the ribcage of God, masquerading as a staircase. White marble whorled with grey, smooth and hard and miraculously cool to the touch, even in the midst of a Texas summer. I was safe, I was holy, I was halfway sacred when I knelt on those steps. I was barely five, but still quite convinced that I knew my god personally—his favorite color (blue, which explains the sky), and I knew that rain would fall if he were disappointed with me, which made spring a guilt-stricken season every year.
It was raining that day.
Sonny hadn’t been born yet. I laced and unlaced my fingers together during the service, staring at the strange, foreign largeness of my mother’s stomach, wondering about the color of my new brother’s eyes, or if he would have all his toes.
I don’t remember their fights from my youth, only their aftermaths. That day I sat between them, the pew hard against my back, the air heavy, the atmosphere Baptist. When we all stood for the closing hymn, Dad’s mouth never shaped the words. He stood tight-lipped and stoic, his hand a weight that never left my shoulder. I caught Mom looking at him once, holding her stomach, like she was protecting something.
After the service she took my hand and pulled me ahead with her, leaving Dad in our wake. We burst into the downpour and descended the stairs two at a time. I promptly sat on the last one, Mom’s hand still in mine, and refused to walk further.
“Nora, honey, what is it?” She paused for a moment, hair soaking through, a closed umbrella absently gripped in her right hand. Couples were beginning to filter out of the double doors, laughing, holding Bibles over their heads in feeble efforts to divert the rain.
I couldn’t explain the stairs to her yet; I didn’t know the words. All I had was my belief that something terrible would happen if we left the steps that day. I knew I needed to keep her here until Dad was with us again. I pulled at her pristine white sleeve a second time, droplets slipping down the incline from her arm to mine.
I just wanted her to sit. To wait. She was always moving forward, and I wanted so badly to silence the metronome of her clicking heels. I started to cry.
“Nora, baby, please.”
She sat, suddenly, and tried to wrap my arms around her, but I was too little to fit her into my embrace. It was the only day I ever saw my mother cry.
“I can’t,” she whispered into my hair. “Two of you? I can’t. I’m only twenty-two.”
We weren’t in school.
“Didn’t Mom ever teach you how to cut hair?”
I looked down at him, the shape of his face framed by the distant ceramic tile.
“I cut a Valentine heart out of construction paper back in sixth grade, when I was your age,” I said. “Is this any different?”
I pushed a strand of my own too-long blonde hair behind my ear and snapped the scissors together in an attempt to be menacing. Sonny just made a face.
“I know what I’m doing. Hold still.”
Sonny hated every trip to visit Mom’s parents, as he insisted it required more walking than was humanly possible. That day we passed a row of unnaturally symmetrical houses, lined up next to the sidewalk like cereal boxes on a pantry shelf. Mom had been trying to coax Sonny into walking the last few blocks to our hotel, but he finally stopped on the curb, complaining that his feet hurt and he had trekked further than any other living six-year-old. I stopped, too, trying to get him to move.
Dad doubled back, shaking his head and smiling the smallest bit. Instead of dragging Sonny the rest of the distance (which he should’ve, but didn’t, despite the fact that life had worn him through like a pair of blue jeans and he was only twenty-eight), he picked up a curiously shaped leaf from the ground and held it between his thumb and index finger.
“I don’t think it’s a scientific term,” he said, “but I call them helicopter leaves.” His deep voice warmed my autumn-chilled skin.
“What tree do they come from?” Sonny asked, gazing at the pavement beneath us. The peculiar leaves were scattered across the stark white cement like some sort of haphazardly woven rug.
I looked up at the trees as Dad pointed. “Maple.”
“Why are they called helicopter leaves?” I asked.
He smiled as he stood. His hair, cut close to his scalp, had a little bit of blonde in it—the kind you only notice in a glint of sharp sunlight.
He dropped the leaf, and it didn’t just fall. The wind caught it and spun it about to an unsung rhythm, like a blade gently slicing the air. Sonny followed the leaf’s flight not just with his eyes but his body as well, sliding into a crouch and stretching out his hands to catch it before it met the sidewalk.
Mom hadn’t stopped to wait for us.
We weren’t at the bookstore.
“I don’t wanna leave,” Sonny said suddenly. “Dad hasn’t taken me to work yet.”
“He hasn’t?” I said absently. After brief consideration, I’d taken to snipping arbitrary chunks of Sonny’s hair, hoping that things would even out by the end. I was trying to keep him talking so he wouldn’t ask about my strategy.
“No, he hasn’t,” Sonny continued. “I was going to help him re-alphabetize.”
“That’s what we did when he took me,” I said, letting Sonny’s hair drift to the floor. “He brought me in to fix Romance.”
It was just a few weeks ago. The section had a room to itself—a mountain range of pastel spines that spanned wall-to-wall bookshelves. Dad hardly spoke to me that day. I could never tell anymore if he was angry with me, with his circumstances, or simply lost in his own mind.
“He said they have comic books there,” Sonny said. I brushed off the back of his neck, and he jerked away from me. We heard the front door open.
“They gave me some books to take with us,” Dad called. “Nor, did you cut Sonny’s hair?”
When I turned seventeen, I was christened Eve by my fake ID. The friend who had it made special-requested the name, to the amusement of our collective group. I felt like the original sinner every time I bought a drink.
We always ended up at the dingy edge-of-town bars to decrease the likelihood of being recognized by the bartender. They were all the same in the end: claustrophobic little joints shining muggy lights over a mismatched row of barstools and a roughed-up pool table. There was always a guy who liked my name—any girl’s name.
I guess I’ll never know for sure if it was her I saw that night. I like to think that it wasn’t. I like to think that it was someone else’s too-tight dress contoured to someone else’s aging body. Someone else’s hips swaying to a rhythm I didn’t recognize.
There were things I’d noticed, suspicions I’d had over the last few years. But seeing it in person was different. I didn’t want it to be her.
I almost called her name to see if the woman I believed to be my mother would turn her head. But then, all bobbing curls and a flash of scarlet lipstick, she embraced the man she was with. The woman laughed, and I thought for a moment that it simply couldn’t be her—I’d never heard my mother sound so happy.
I swallowed her name with the night’s first shot, and it took three more to forget the possibility of her presence.
Her car was still gone when I got home.
We weren’t in their bedroom.
“Isn’t this Mom’s Bible?” Sonny asked. He’d gotten up from his chair when I moved to get the broom and was standing by the bare kitchen table, smoothing the book’s worn brown spine. “It’s the one with her name on it, Nora. It’s supposed to be on that table by their bed, upstairs.”
“Leave it alone, Sonny.” My fingers clenched around the broom handle. He threw a petulant look my way and flipped the book open.
Sonny didn’t know, but I was the one who’d found it that morning. I’d gone upstairs to ask Dad if the scissors were packed, but ended up watching him through a crack in the door.
He was facing away from me, surrounded by her things—used-up lipsticks and fake leather handbags and rings that looked so glamorous but turned your finger green when you wore them. The Bible was on the floor at my feet, as if it’d been thrown there. Without thinking, I had picked it up and left before I could decide whether or not I’d seen his shoulders shake.
“Are we gonna give it back to her?” Sonny asked.
“She knows where it is,” I said, and shook the scattered locks of my brother’s hair into the trash.
The day before she left, we made our last trip to the light store. The four of us stood enmeshed in the chaos of the flashing chandeliers hanging like upside-down electric bouquets, lamp stands rising toward the ceiling in small metallic forests, the desk lights bent on tables like hands clasping small stars. Everyone around us was talking in hushed tones, barely audible murmurs, because somehow the presence of so much synthetic radiance commanded a certain respect. It felt like a place of worship.
But my parents’ whispers were spinning together in a duet of rising decibels. We moved into a room with a ceiling of bare bulbs hanging above us, like a panel of suspended raindrops. I stared up and prayed they wouldn’t fall.
“… you make me goddamn happy, Lydia.” He took my mother by the shoulder and forced her to face him, an accidental spotlight swaying above them. “But the seventy-times-seven bullshit just doesn’t work for me anymore. You’ve spent too many nights away from me.”
I reached up for one of the bulbs in spite of myself; it turned off at my touch.
“You’re missing the point. I’m not begging your forgiveness anymore.” She gave him a long look, one I wish I hadn’t seen.
“What the hell happened to you? Lyd, you were so different when you were seventeen.” A pause. “We were both so different.”
“What happened? You wanted too much from me, Caleb. You wanted everything.” She wasn’t looking at him anymore; I don’t think she could. “I couldn’t be your happiness forever.”
Something shattered. Every head whipped in Sonny’s direction. He was standing on the periphery of the room, surrounded by a broken circle of glass shards, lip trembling, his eyes a shade of blue that will never match my father’s.
We all moved toward Sonny in the same breath, but Dad was the one who got there first, his shadow expanding and contracting as the bulbs flickered overhead. He lifted my brother away from the glass, towards the light. Sonny started to cry.
“I still love you,” Dad said. He brushed the remnants from Sonny’s sneakers, hugged the boy to his flannel chest. “It doesn’t matter. I still love you.”
Then, just like that, we weren’t even home.
The box of books hit the wall of the moving van with a dull thud. Trying to ignore the distinct smell of smoke left behind by the vehicle’s previous user, I buckled Sonny in as Dad climbed into the driver’s seat. I kept my eyes averted. The expressions his face fell into when he thought no one was looking were more than I could handle at seventeen. After she left, I think there were moments he truly believed we were the only three people left on earth.
“We’ll start from scratch,” he said, reaching back to ruffle the sparse patch of Sonny’s hair.
“Looks good, bud.” He chuckled, glanced at me. “I’ll have your sister do mine when we get to wherever we’re going.”
Dad attempted to start the engine, and it snarled to life on his third try. I made myself face forward as Sonny watched our front porch recede into the distance behind us, my mother’s Bible placed neatly on a corner of the abandoned welcome mat.