Graduation Day

The cluster of latex balloons sagged, limp and forgotten the morning after, weighted with regret and unfulfilled promise from the mailbox post. Not even a breeze stirred them. Was there anything more depressing?

Tess didn’t think so.

She moved across the yard with a recycle bin pinned against her hip, shading her hand against the early sun, assessing the mess: abandoned soda cans everywhere; half-eaten cake on soiled paper plates; burnt flakes of cardboard fireworks peppering the lawn like wet volcanic ash, damp with the morning dew that she could feel coming through the bottoms of her slippers. And then the morning-after balloons, hanging impotent. Just the day before those same ribbon strings had been pulled taut in her hand as she’d tied them down, the balloons jumping, almost alive with possibility. Now, even the colors looked somehow washed out.

From the backyard she could see into the garage, where her father was still asleep on a greasy pullout sofa. Mom had thrown him out two years ago, but now, in recent months, their reconciliation had been growing more and more public, and although he still kept an apartment fifteen minutes away, he stayed at the house most nights, usually in Mom’s bedroom, but once in a while out here in the garage. Of course, it wasn’t really just a garage these days. Before the split, he’d moved the cars out into the driveway and laid a faux-hardwood floor down, turning it into a showroom for his 1947 Harley Davidson Knucklehead. Tess often wondered if he slept out here on the sofa because her parents were fighting or, perhaps, just to be close to the bike.

The previous morning she’d donned her cap and gown and collected her college diploma, a B.A. in literature, minor in philosophy. Finished it in three years. She’d felt self-conscious in the outfit and had stripped it off as soon as she could, but her mother had made her put it all back on again at the graduation party for pictures. There was little in this world she liked less than having her picture taken, every pose the exact same: chin angled slightly down and head tilted to the left, that same closed-mouth, shy smile. It was her go-to pose, but there weren’t many of them. Graduation day, though, was a tough day to dodge cameras.

“Honey, please, look up.” Her mother was relentless. While most people heard say cheese when a camera was pointed their way, Tess heard honey please look up. What bothered Tess most was that it made her feel distant from her mother, like they existed in completely different circles. How else to explain why her mother would put her through that same charade every single time. It made her throat tighten with sadness, and then she’d have to smile through that too.

 

She hated the motorcycle. All these years later and she still hated it. Maybe even more now, since he’d repurposed the garage as a showroom for it, a museum almost. He’d had the bike appraised at a little over twenty-six thousand dollars just a couple weeks earlier, and she had to admit it was pretty: powder-blue gas tank and wheel wells, all that reflective chrome, like mirrors. After the accident her father had restored it himself back to mint condition—a painstaking process that had taken years: endless nights and weekend hours that Tess was sure must have contributed to her parents’ marital problems.

Maybe she didn’t hate it. Maybe it was just jealousy. Jealous that he’d made it new again. Better than new. Jealous too that he’d put new flooring down over the poured concrete in the garage and changed out the lighting so that it was more complimentary to the bike. “It’s a ’47 Knucklehead,” he’d said again and again, as if this alone explained everything—the hours, the money, the absence. Sometimes, over the years, Tess would parrot this when one of her friends from high school, Mo or Geraldine, asked her about why he was always out there, in the garage, sitting on that old sofa, just looking at it. “It’s a Knucklehead,” she’d tell them.

 

But she wasn’t jealous that he’d restored the bike, because that’s what Donny Huxley did: he restored things. Made them new. Not just the bike but other items. A bubble gum machine from the 50s he’d pulled from a scrap heap that now stood in the showroom garage, gleaming cherry red, a flawless glass globe loaded with gum balls that she wasn’t allowed to touch. He’d brought home a desk that someone had left on the side of the road, stripped and refinished it, refitted it with new handles and fixed the broken drawers. It was in the home office now and he said he could get a thousand bucks for it easy. A riding lawn mower. A cuckoo clock. Old light fixtures. He rescued these things and gave them new life.

So it wasn’t necessarily jealousy, but Tess did feel something—a sadness bleeding into anger—that the ’47 Harley Davidson Knucklehead was a museum-worthy showpiece while she, just as damaged in that very same accident, remained, all these years later, broken.

 

The graduation party’s guests had been mostly family, a lot of aunts and uncles, but she did have a few girlfriends from college and even a couple from high school. A few years ago she’d never dare imagine it: friends, girl friends, showing up for her party. She especially felt grateful for Geraldine and Mo, girls she’d known since freshman year of high school who’d befriended and stuck by her even when the boys, and a lot of the girls too, called her Mess, or sometimes Tess the Mess but usually just Mess. She wore turtlenecks even on the muggy days in September and June, her head tilted slightly, shying away from her left side. By sophomore year she wore eyeglasses with no prescriptive lenses in them in an attempt to mask her left eye, which some mistakenly thought was a glass eye. And she’d always despised those fluorescent, unforgiving overhead classroom lights, how she could look so—passable—in her bedroom mirror in the morning and so fucking gross at school.

For a long time she’d blamed everyone else. The boys and girls who’d called her Mess were to blame, of course, but she blamed other classmates as well, the ones on the fringes, the ones who didn’t outright tease her but also never gave her the time of day, who averted their gazes in the cafeteria or lecture hall or library. But the truth was—and she’d always known this somewhere within her—it was kind of her own fault too. After a difficult middle school and a brutal freshman year, she’d stopped trying altogether. Geraldine and Mo hadn’t though, and that had meant something to Tess.

During her three years as a college student she’d commuted from home. Chose a school within thirty minutes of her house, despite being accepted into the two schools that had been her top picks. But when it had come time for a decision, in the quiet and dark of her bedroom, she couldn’t imagine leaving. Couldn’t imagine carrying her pillow and blanket into a dorm room, having to introduce herself to a new roommate, having to explain the scars, almost apologetically, that sorry-you-have-to-look-at-me tone she hated hearing herself slip into. She’d then make those stupid self-deprecating jokes just to make sure she was beating everyone to the punch. This is what she would almost certainly had done with her new roommate, this is what she’d have done with the girls down the hall, and this is what she’d have done when they’d inevitably make her put her books away to drag her to some party. It was better, she’d decided one night with her pillow hugged to her chest and clamped between her knees, to just stay here.

 

“Three years!” She heard the refrain over and over as she’d made the rounds. Her aunts and uncles throwing their arms around her, pulling her close. Like Aunt Joy: “Can you believe that, Chip—” (her third husband) “—my little niece: just three years! Such a smarty-pants, I love it. Takes after her favorite aunt!”

Chip: “Yeah? Which one?” He winked at Tess.

“Which one?” Joy pulled Tess even closer, almost into a headlock. “This one, right here. Her old Aunt Joy.”

Chip: “Tess, ask your Aunt Joy there if she went to college.”

Joy: “I coulda gone to college. I got pregnant is what happened. It was a different time.” She kissed Tess on the temple and finally released her. “Don’t listen to that dope.”

The truth was, Tess didn’t really think of herself as anything out of the ordinary in the brains department. She’d been called ‘smart’ often, or smarty-pants, as Joy had said, brain wave, she remembered some high school kids calling her (not the same ones who’d called her Mess). But anyone who paid attention would know that she found school hard work, always had. She struggled to write essays, stared at the keyboard, watching the cursor flash, typing and then deleting. It was a painful process. Nor was she a strong test-taker, though the evidence suggested otherwise. She studied though. She studied long and hard. And she read. Loved to read. All habits that she’d developed over a period of years, since those early days of high school, when a good book started to feel like an acceptable substitute for a good friend; when the satisfaction of an A filled that empty space where a boy’s attention might have gone.

Her father, sitting in a lounge chair opposite Chip, his bare barrel chest red with sunburn and shiny with sweat, sat up and pushed himself to his feet. He picked up an empty beer can and shuffled away. And while it certainly might have meant nothing, the timing of it had struck Tess. To the casual observer it was a nothing gesture, someone getting up to move out of the sun and refresh a beer. She’d never say it out loud, of course; even to her it sounded a little paranoid, a little whacky. But she felt almost certain that her father had dismissed himself because he was actually ashamed of her academic success, that he’d stepped away so he wouldn’t have to listen to all this praise.

Just as she wasn’t jealous of the Knucklehead Harley, her father, she knew, certainly wasn’t jealous of Tess’s ‘brains’. To him, her good grades and the pile of books in her room, the Friday and Saturday nights she’d earmarked for school work, spotlighted just how socially inept she was: an outcast, a loner, really. Graduating college in three years didn’t highlight her talents, as far as he was concerned; it highlighted her shortcomings.

And sometimes, on those quiet nights when she’d slip a bookmark between the pages of a well-read novel, trying not to fall asleep too early on a weekend night but exhausted from staying up too late to study for a final the night before, Tess knew that her father was kind of right.

 

Her mother had bought a cake, and it was a nice one. Had one of those photos on it, made of sugar, a little grainy to look at: a picture of Tess standing at the end of the driveway on the first day of school, six years old, first grade. Holding her lunch box and Jem backpack in her fingers sparkling in the morning sun. Tess hated looking at it, hated looking at all old photos of herself, photos from before. She hated how happy she looked in them, how naïve, oblivious to her fate. She hated how light and sunstreaked her hair had been, because it highlighted just how brown, dull, and wispy it looked now. And she hated, of course, how her skin had looked, how healthy, how smooth, that left side, from her collarbone and neck up her cheek to her eye; her eyes so…so symmetrical. She hated, most of all, that the little girl in the photos didn’t exist anymore.

Still, it was a nice gesture and she’d been sure to compliment the cake, even though it had been bought and not made, not homemade the way her mother used to make cakes, and cookies and fudge sometimes. Back when they’d all still resembled a family, even though it was just the three of them and she didn’t have that brother or sister she’d always wanted so badly. But, yes, they were a family. She remembered that.

The cake had not been cut into yet. Later, her mother would bring it out into the backyard, make some sort of production out of it. Take some more pictures. To hold herself over, Tess wiped her pinky finger across the sugary icing of her own first-grade face, blurring it. She licked her finger and wiped it absently on the hip of her dress. It tasted a little too sweet.

“Hey, hey, hey. Lookit that cake!” Her father came in from the garage’s side door and into the kitchen, a fresh beer bottle sweating in his hand. Tess thought she smelled pot but that wasn’t unusual. She just didn’t like the idea that he wasn’t being discreet about it. This was her graduation party. Her friends were here. He stepped toward her and gave her a clumsy kiss on the side of her head before she’d had time to avoid it. Yes, he definitely smelled like weed. She wanted to ask him to please not do that here, not today, not where someone might notice. And the words were there, hitching somewhere behind her throat. But it was a topic they’d never broached before, and in that moment she realized that despite having the words, she was still a million miles from being able to say them aloud. Instead, she folded her arms and took a step back. Her father gave her a slow wink and sliced himself a giant piece of cake. “Fucking yum,” he said.

 

She hated outdoor photos especially. Her mother stood her in front of the hydrangeas with her aunt Joy and her Nana, then another series with her girlfriends, then a cousin picture, and finally a shot of Tess with her parents that Joy took. Tess stood between the two of them, stiff, the whole thing feeling staged, manipulated, then made even worse by the endless seconds it took Joy to figure out how to push the button and take the goddamn picture already. She knew, even standing there, that she would come to hate this photo, for all it stood for: her parents’ artificial reconfiguring of this family unit. Look at us, it said. Look at us smiling, look at our shoulders pressed against each other. Look at this party, the balloons, the cut grass, the newly painted porch railings that her father had been working on these past few days as not only preparation for this party, but as a way to get back in her mother’s good graces. A thank you, perhaps, for taking him back. Look at us, everybody.

But she’d hate it for another, different reason as well: the outdoor factor. Natural sunlight was unforgiving, even for those who weren’t physically scarred; everyone squinting in the sun, revealing their wrinkles, freckles, whatever. For her, outdoor photos spotlighted every single crinkle of ruined, hardened skin, every note of discoloration. She used to pull up these pictures on her computer and Photoshop them: play with the colors and tones and contrasts, give the image a slight blur, but subtle, just to take the edge off. One night, not long ago, in a moment of self-pity and self-loathing, she’d opened her computer and deleted every one of the photos that she’d touched up, hating them for their artificiality, hating herself for sinking so far as to create this fiction in the first place.

As soon as Joy finally found the button and took the photo, her mom scurried to check it for herself. “Let me see. How’s it look?”

She shaded her hand around the camera’s screen and smiled. Joy pressed her head in as well, their cheeks nearly touching. “Beautiful!” Joy patted Tess’s mother on the shoulder. “Beautiful family.”

“Take a look, Donny,” her mother said, tilting the camera in his direction. Tess, playing with a lock of her hair, pulling it to make sure it covered her left cheek, walked away.

 

Like all cookouts at her house, this one dissolved into show-and-tell, her father leading guests into the garage—the showroom—to give them a look at the Harley. Most, of course, had seen it a hundred times before, all her aunts and uncles and family friends, but today the dynamic was a little different. From her vantage point in the backyard, Tess could see the garage’s side door open and the lights on inside. She saw the movement of shadow in there, maybe three people. Her guess was that he’d brought Mike and Pat in, Geraldine’s and Mo’s boyfriends, whom Tess had never met before today. Probably a sign that she wasn’t as close to her high school friends these days as she’d once been, and that was her fault, she knew. Both girls lived less than a mile away. Mo was just two streets over. For some reason she’d all but let them slip away. They were good friends to even be here after all this time.

Tess blinked, turned her head and looked at them—Mo and Geraldine—sitting right next to her, talking to each other. Talking to her, too, for all she knew, though she hadn’t been paying attention. And that was it right there, wasn’t it? They were here, but she wasn’t.

“…he had no idea,” Mo was saying, “None. Zero.”

Geraldine shook her head. “That’s awesome.” They both wore the same mirrored sunglasses, big on their faces, both with their hair pulled back tight in ponytails. Tess liked the sunglasses, liked the coverage they gave, but she’d never in a million years pull her hair back from her face like that.

“I know. He loved it.”

Tess smiled and pretended to know what they were talking about, but the smile felt fake and heavy on her face, too much work. She was a shitty friend.

And reinforcing this, she allowed her attention to drift back to the garage, at the long stretch of shadow on the floor, the silhouette of her father’s fat head in the window, then someone else’s head, must’ve been Mike’s, with his backwards baseball cap. She knew exactly what was being said, the entire script, word-for-word. Her father walking slow circles around the Harley, his thumbs in his front pockets, telling them exactly what they were looking at: 1947 was the last year that Harley Davidson made the Knucklehead engine, replacing it the following year with the Panhead—totally inferior in her father’s opinion. You could tell a Knucklehead a mile away, he was telling them, by the distinct bulges of the engine’s rocker boxes that kind of looked like knuckles. There was nothing else like it now. This, he was telling them, was a two-cylinder V-twin engine, a kick-ass motor with a kick-ass look. This puppy, he’d tell them, was the holy grail of motorcycles. Tess knew all of it.

They came out a short while later and when Pat leaned over Geraldine’s chair and squeezed her shoulders, Tess could of course smell the pot. Mike fished a beer out of a Styrofoam cooler he had brought. “Your fucking dad’s pretty fucking cool.”

“No shit,” Pat said. He held out his palm for a beer. “And that bike. Fuck.

Nice vocabulary, Tess thought. This was exactly why she didn’t have a boyfriend.

 

But that wasn’t really true at all. In fact, both Mike and Pat were kind of cute in their own ways, for different reasons. Mike for his height and that Brillo pad of dark hair, sort of goofy-looking but not self-conscious about it, a take-me-or-leave-me attitude that Tess was in awe of. Pat was quieter, like herself, an observer, and she liked that too. He didn’t seem quite as big a dope. The truth was, she’d found them both attractive, and whether they smoked or dropped too many F-bombs or whatever, she would certainly be able to ignore all that just to have a little attention, like the way Pat had rubbed Geraldine’s shoulders, brief but intimate, kind of nice. And not just for the connection, the touch, but on a much shallower level she longed for a moment like that just so others could see it, that a boy had claimed her, had validated her, put that stamp of approval on her. God, it sounded so stupid and weak and she hated that she thought this way sometimes. Both guys were idiots, and not really that cute when studied up close.

She’d been on dates over the years, although some of those dates were really not much more than mixed-gender group hangouts, with her college friends Eileen or Jordan sort of/kind of setting her up with someone, getting them together in one space with no pressure, just hanging out with friends, to see how it would go, see if anything took off. But things never really took off, and she had to share the blame: that defense mechanism inside her, hair-trigger, finding flaws in boys she met: too annoying, smelled bad, cleaned his teeth with his finger, kept clearing his sinuses, blinked a lot. This in turn would shut her down, switch her into polite mode. She turned icy. It would end with a handshake or an empty, weightless hug, and that was that.

It had been seven months since Alex. The first days of December, in the midst of finals. Some had already finished and had departed for break. The campus had grown quieter and more desolate by the day. She had one final left: 17th Century Poetry. It had been a tough one to study for—how does one study for a poetry exam? But she’d been rereading the anthology and going through her notes, anticipating probably a blue-book test, two hours or so to scribble a convoluted, near-illegible essay, hand left achy and stiff. A couple nights before the final she’d inserted herself into a study group, not something she normally would have done but Jordan was there and had invited her, insisted, really. Which is what she liked about Jordan, the way she forced Tess to push against her own instincts of retreat.

Alex Burr was in the group. She’d met him before, seen him around in a peripheral way, not even sure with whom exactly he was friends. She didn’t find him particularly attractive—he wore his hair kind of long and pushed around his ears, his eyes seemed dark and distant, he was a little chubby around the middle. Nor did she find him particularly interesting, or funny, or smart, or anything really. But that night he talked to her and told her about the Shakespeare class he’d cheated his way through, and then about a poem he’d written back in high school that he got an A on even though he’d lifted a few lines from an Alice in Chains song. “Alison what?” she remembered muttering, picking her head up from a Milton poem she’d been trying to get through. And before that night was over he was sitting next to her in Jordan’s apartment with his shoulder leaning just a little bit on her shoulder, and once in a while he would point to something in her notebook, touching the page against her lap, and she could feel the pressure of his fingers on her thigh, and suddenly Alex was a little more interesting.

He’d walked her across the quad to her off-campus apartment and there they’d hugged, a good hug, a hug that suggested something. He told her that they should celebrate the next night, after finals, told her about his friend Steve who was having people over and played guitar. For some reason she’d told him maybe, and then, when pressed, said okay.

It happened that next night. She’d had a few beers and was in a good mood with finals being over, with just one last semester left before graduating, maybe even feeling a little grown-up for the first time. They’d started kissing in a side room, the notes of this guy’s guitar coming through the walls. Whose room was this? They were on someone’s unmade bed and it smelled of sleep in here, something stale, dirty clothes. She remembered trying to tell herself that this was okay, that this is what people did, they connected, they got together, they had fun for crying out loud. Even when Alex leaned on her a little too much, his weight pinning her, she’d told herself to relax, to stop running away from every single interesting experience. But then Alex wasn’t kissing her anymore but was breathing on her, the side of his mouth open against her cheek, breath hot and sour with booze. The paw of his hand mashed against her breast, then squeezed. He tried to lift the bra cup off through her top and it pinched a little, so she tried to arch her back to make it easier for him even though his weight made it tough for her to arch. Her instinct was to ask him to stop, to say that’s enough, but maybe that was her running again, right? Poor Tess Huxley, socially inept, painfully introverted, always with that sarcastic wall of defense front and center. That’s what everyone thought, wasn’t it? He slobbered against her neck, sucked her chin, put his open mouth on her breast through her shirt, leaving a wet spot. He locked his fingers around her hand in a moment of intimacy that she liked and tried to focus on, but then he pulled her hand to his crotch and held it until it stayed there on its own, and when she’d tried to slide away he pushed it back.

Maybe she had to force herself through this moment. She’d wanted the attention so long, harvesting such ugly envy for the girls she knew and the ease with which they talked to boys, the ease with which they seemed to toy with them, tease and flirt and play: a small touch or even just a smile, looking at the ground and pushing a lock of hair around the delicate ridge of an ear. Such an art, really.

Sometime in the midst of this she’d surrendered, stopped trying to decide first how to stop him—an authoritative push with her palms, a stern request, a combination of the two—then if she should stop him at all. Her hand was still there, his hardness pushing against her fingers, and now his own fingers were between her legs too, and it was time to make a decision one way or another, and before she could really decide his jeans were down around his white thighs and he tugged at the snaps on the front of her cargo pants, and she didn’t want to graduate college a virgin, did she? And then it was too late and he was wedged between her legs, his fleshy weight against her, her left breast pinched under his shoulder, Tess taking the inside of her cheek between her teeth and turning her head to the window, the glass frosted, and when she looked closer the frost looked almost like thin white hairs crisscrossing one another. Alex was grunting and working into her and she felt him leave a warm trace of drool on the nape of her neck. She winced against the unpleasantness of it all, sucking her cheek and looking at that window and the frost and the yellow light of the streetlamp behind it, fractured and hazy. The corner of the bed kept knocking into the nightstand, and once she noticed this she noticed that a wheel of the bed frame was scraping on the floor, too, and Alex grunted like he was taking a shit or something and she was sure that the boys in the other room could hear this, that they were drinking and looking at each other with their mouths open in silent, conspiratorial laughter, the guitar fallen quiet.

 

At dusk, her father lugged a rotted cardboard box filled with fireworks from the partially caved-in shed to the dirt that had once been a garden, back when they’d looked like a real family, whenever that had been. Mike and Pat were suddenly big fans of Donny Huxley, following him, carrying a couple of loose rockets that had fallen from the torn side of the box, their jeans slipping down their waists and bottles of beer slung low in their free hands, looking almost indistinguishable from one another in this last glimmer of dusk sky.

Her mother stepped next to Tess, arms crossed tight across her torso. “Oh God, what’s he doing?”

“Shooting off fireworks, I guess.” Tess glanced over at her friends, who’d slid their chairs so that they formed a circle. They talked low and laughed, and Tess felt left out. Which was ridiculous, of course, but still, there it was. Something left over from a long time ago. She’d only have to take a few steps over there and all would be right—they’d of course slide over and make room for her and that would be that, she’d laugh too and feel light and good. Instead, she stood with her mother and watched as her father and the two boyfriends set up cardboard rockets, and she realized then that she too had her arms folded tightly across her ribs, like she was protecting herself, the way you’d pull a blanket up tight to your chin. She untangled them and pushed her hands into her pockets.

With the first darting whistle of what was called a Raining Daisy she stiffened her shoulders, bracing for the thunder that didn’t come. Instead, the firework burst in the high sky with little more than a hollow pop. White and yellow spirals of light drizzled down, then turned blue before extinguishing into gray vapor. She’d loved firework shows as a kid, up on her father’s shoulders at the beach or lake, her hands outstretched as if to catch the falling confetti of light. Even the loud booms hadn’t bothered her, the way it did some of the other kids, with their hands earmuffed against their heads, some even crying while their parents laughed and told them it was fine. Her father would lean back and let out a long “Ohhh!” and Tess would know that it was okay and she’d laugh and let one out too. Her mother, holding an ice cream that Tess couldn’t finish, would lick the drips and, with her free hand, touch Tess’s foot against her father’s chest.

Now she found herself wincing in anticipation each time she saw one of them strike a match. She could feel her face scrunching, teeth clamped together. She caught herself doing that a lot now; the last time she’d visited the dentist, Dr. Smalls had asked her if she grinded her teeth. She said she didn’t know.

Her father lit the next fuse and Tess winced and stiffened, but before her father could even begin to retreat there was a thundering burst right there on the ground, and all three of them hopped and danced out of the way as the set-up exploded like popcorn, ricocheting off the side of the house and the steps and the propane grill in a wild flurry. “Jesus Christ!” her mother said.

Her father stumbled backward, brushing embers off his T-shirt and out of his hair. “Everybody all right?” He laughed as he said it. The boys clapped their hands, crouching and then holding their heads in excitement and disbelief.

Tess backed away, folding her arms again high against her chest. “This is stupid.”

There was still a trail of smoke just a few feet from her uncle Chip, who was turning in circles with his head pulled down, muttering “Holy shit,” over and over. Tess’s mother walked across the yard and leaned toward her husband’s ear. They talked for a few seconds, Tess’s father shrugging his loose shoulders, two long rockets in his hand. Her mother turned away, shaking her head while her father kept talking at her in protest. But that was it; the show was over.

When it was time for the aunts and uncles and most of the older crowd to say their goodbyes and make their slow exits, Tess was generous with the hugs and gratitude. She loved her extended family, particularly her mother’s brothers and sisters, funny and quirky and full of stories. Tess had grown up with few friends of her own and kneeling on a kitchen stool with her aunts congregated around the breakfast bar was as entertaining an evening as she could imagine. Her aunt Joy once put on a fashion show with a box of old clothes that had been pulled from the attic for a yard sale—white go-go boots and funky scarves, jeans with red and green patches, stuff from the 60s, Tess thought, or maybe 70s. Old, at any rate. She’d always been allowed to stay up late on these nights, drinking soda and eating crackers and pepperoni, listening to long stories of those old days, when Tess’s mother was a little girl herself, the trouble she used to get in, the fights she’d had with her sisters—how she used to leave for school in the morning with a reasonable skirt that reached her knees but would toss a second set of clothes from her bedroom window and then change into something a little more fun at the neighbor’s house, only to be sent home from school to change an hour later.

“Bye Aunt Joy. Thank you for coming.”

Joy released her and kissed the rough texture of her cheek. Joy probably thought nothing of it, Tess was sure, but to Tess it had felt intimate, unconditional. She felt the slight sting of what might have been tears somewhere above her eyelids, gone before she was sure they were ever really there. “You’re my favorite aunt,” Tess told her. “Don’t tell the others.” She laughed and Joy laughed too, but it was also true. Sometimes, especially in the dark, in bed, Tess would absently brush her fingers against that cheek, hating what she felt as much as hating what she saw, maybe even more so: its texture so distinct and exaggerated in the dark and quiet. The words nooks and crannies came to mind in moments like that, something she’d heard in an English muffin commercial. She’d make herself pull her fingers away and hide her hands under the blankets to keep from obsessing, so she could hurry up and fall asleep. She hated nights like that. But she loved her aunt.

“Time for the old bats to go to bed,” Joy said, to Tess but loud enough for everyone to hear, a message to the lag-behinds. “Go have fun with your friends, hon. Oh, to be twenty years younger.”

Funny. Tess had always wished she were older. Wished she could fast-forward through this adolescent shit, all these growing pains. She dreaded the rest of her twenties sometimes. The bars, the boys, the bullshit. Older people, people like Aunt Joy and her other aunts and uncles, seemed so okay with themselves.

Chip! Come on! I’ll be in the car.” Joy put her hand on Tess’s shoulder. “Sorry, didn’t mean to yell in your ear. He’s so fucking slow, this one.”

 

With the backyard growing quiet Tess began helping her mother clear off tables, empty cans and abandoned paper plates, the half-eaten cake. She took a couple of trips into the kitchen, covering a tray of deli meats with aluminum foil, taking a full bag of trash back out with her. On one of these trips she’d noticed that the circle of chairs her college friends had staked out was empty. The garage lights were back on, spilling warm rays out onto the lawn. In these rays she saw fine particles of mist, making everything look grainy like an old photo. She put her hand out flat and tilted her head back, feeling it.

Through the windows she saw her father, and then a couple other figures that she knew were her college friends. Jordan was easy to spot with the scrunchy on top of her head, bobbing. She heard laughing, probably Eileen with that big, unfiltered voice of hers. And again she could smell the marijuana, triggering that familiar injection of embarrassment, her family being exposed one ugly detail at a time. Her father was talking, and although she couldn’t make out what he was saying, she picked up a few key words—like forty-seven, and saddle, and of course Knucklehead. He loved nothing more than an audience. Most Saturdays he’d wipe the bike down with that special spray cleaner, the same stuff used to clean eyeglasses, and then take the bike to a “car show,” which was really just a bunch of dudes who parked their classic cars in some agreeable restaurant’s parking lot and sat beside them in canvas camping chairs sharing the same stories to the same people, week after week. Sometimes, when there wasn’t a show, he might ride to the Harley Davidson shop and congregate there for a couple hours, swapping those same stories, how he’d bought it at an auction and overpaid but couldn’t leave without it, how it had nearly ended his marriage (that got a big laugh), how he’d kept the thing pristine and was always afraid to take it out of the garage, worried about pebbles kicking off the street and chipping the paint, worried about bird shit, worried about sun damage. He’d tell these same guys the same story of how he’d rebuilt it—obsessively, painstakingly—over a two-and-a-half-year period, after wrecking it on that chilly Easter Sunday morning.

She heard the motorcycle’s engine erupt with life, then her father shouting over it. When she made another pass, her arms full of beer bottles and crumpled gift wrap, she peeked into the garage to see her father giving his presentation, standing at the handlebars of the bike, resting a beer can on top of his belt buckle. He gave the throttle a little juice. Jordan had her hands over her ears, laughing. Eileen handed a joint back to her father. Back in the kitchen, her mother wiped the edges of the sink, tracing the sponge along the ridge. Tess thought she looked distracted. “You okay?”

Her mother gave the sponge a squeeze and tossed it down into the bottom of the sink. “That’s good for tonight. We’ll get the rest in the morning.” She blew a lock of hair from her face, her lower lip jutting. “I just wanted to get the food up here. Keep the animals away.”

Tess let an armful of bottles plunk into the recycle bin. “Okay.” The motorcycle engine revved three or four times in quick succession. Tess looked at her mother. When her mother didn’t say anything, Tess said what she knew she must have been thinking: “A little late for that, isn’t it?”

Her mother forced a smile at the corner of her mouth. Then she touched Tess’s elbow and went down the hallway to the bedroom. A row of wine glasses hanging by their stems under the cabinets rattled with each rev of the bike, then settled as the sound of the engine elevated in pitch but grew farther away, the bike heading off somewhere down the street.

Tess stepped backwards to look out the front window, catching a glimpse of red tail light. The clock on the stove read 11:40. She went outside and down the back steps and could smell the burning oil, even see a thin trace of blue exhaust on the air, like mosquito netting.

Eileen was facing the far wall of the garage, staring at a calendar, each month a different motorcycle mounted by a different topless girl. This one was a 1963 Monarch 500, an off-road bike nicknamed the Swedish Missile. The girl straddling it, of course, was blonde with spray-tanned skin and wearing a fur hoodie unzipped to her belly button, large breasts spilling out. The month below said February. Her father, he’d told her more than once, liked this one so much he’d never had the heart to switch it.

The bike was gone and so was her father. Eileen turned around when Tess’s shadow spilled across the floor. “Hi,” Eileen said.

Eileen was alone. “Where’s Jordan?”

“This calendar’s hilarious. Donny took her for a ride.” The smell of pot was strong in here. So was the oily exhaust. “I’m next,” she said.

Donny? That sounded weird coming from her friend’s lips. Donny. As weird as if Tess herself had used it. She felt like she was intruding, an outsider dropping in on something intimate. Not just the first-name stuff but the sharing of pot, and not because it felt conspiratorial although that was certainly part of it, but more about her father putting something to his lips that her friends then put to their own lips. And it had nothing to do with germs, either, of course—she’d seen this act a hundred times at school (though she never participated and couldn’t remember being asked, anyway)—it just all felt too familiar. She pictured Jordan out there on the back of the bike with her fingers clutched against her father’s ribs and she could feel herself heating up with anger now, although she wasn’t sure which one of them to direct it at.

“Okay,” Tess said. Eileen sipped a beer and looked at her, and Tess blinked and looked at the floor. There were bottle caps all over the place. She counted nine but then noticed a few more over by a stool near the workbench. It was usually so clean in here, so sanitized.

“Okay what?”

Tess didn’t have an answer to that. She didn’t know why she’d said it, really. “I don’t know.”

Eileen looked at the sofa in the corner, a thin pillow folded in half, a crumpled blanket half on the floor, no sheets. “Does he sleep out here?”

She could hear the faint whine of the engine far off, shifting gears. The mist flattened the sound. “Yeah, sometimes.”

That sofa had been out here for as long as Tess could remember. Long before the garage had been converted into a showroom, back when it was just an oily garage with bare bulbs lighting it, spiders living in the corners of the window frames. When she was little she hated it out here—the loud thunder of the motorcycle, the bugs, the grime, often Dad’s friends drinking and swearing and laughing loudly. Back then the couch was just used as a couch, something her father once pulled from a junk pile, stained and musty. Her father used to sit out here with the radio on, sometimes a Red Sox game or what sounded to her like angry talk radio. Sometimes with his drinking buddies but more often alone. Tess usually avoided it.

But on that Easter morning, seven years old, she’d come out to the garage despite her apprehension, too excited and proud of her new basket of candy. Her father loved the malted eggs and she was going to offer him some, partly to be generous, partly to show off her riches. A pair of furry bunny ears had been crowned atop the basket that morning, and now they were fitted atop her head.

“What’re you, the Playboy Bunny?” He had just finished changing the spark plugs that morning and now sat on an overturned bucket, his forehead sweaty and his fingers black. His fingernails were always dirty at the dinner table, and this scared her too. Like bad guys in movies.

“No, the Easter Bunny’s helper.” She reached up and touched one of the ears.

Her father smiled, wiped his forehead against the upper sleeve of his shirt. “Easter Bunny doesn’t have helpers, does he?”

Tess shrugged.

“You’re thinking of Santa Claus. Santa Claus and his merry little elves or something.”

Tess shrugged again, the basket swinging in her hand. She looked at the Harley Davidson Knucklehead. Her father had bought it just a few weeks earlier, and her parents had been arguing about it since. She had heard them from her bed. Her father had come from a motorcycle family; he’d been around them his whole life. But they were foreign to her mother, dangerous. The fights, though, were usually about the expense, how he’d rolled the bike out of the back of one of his buddy’s trailers one day and hadn’t asked her first. He’d lose his temper and his voice would boom through the house, not unlike the sound of the bike. Tess’s heart pounded from her bed. She’d hear him shouting about how he’d given up everything and this was his one toy, how she was micromanaging their money. He’d just gotten a raise the month before from Macklemore Motors, where he’d been doing small engine repair since his high school days and argued that this was a just reward.

Tess had still been looking at the bike, drawn to its shiny chrome, its powder blue gas tank that seemed too pretty for such a loud, angry-sounding machine, when her father said, “You ready for that ride?” He’d asked her a few different times since bringing the bike home and she always shook her head no, once even running back into the house when he’d pressed her a little too hard.

By that Easter Sunday though, she’d had a couple of weeks to get used to it, to acclimate to its intimidating size, the sound of that monstrous engine becoming a little more familiar as the days passed.

“Whataya say?” he’d said. “You give me one of those candies I like and maybe I’ll think about taking you out.”

The day before, her father had lifted her by the armpits and put her on the bike’s seat, after he’d promised again and again that he was just putting her there to sit on it, that he wasn’t going to start it up and it was not to take a ride. Just to sit.

She didn’t remember a lot from that morning, but she must have said yes. Her father told her to cover her ears while he started it up, and she’d had a moment where she considered running away again, back to her mother, who she’d left back in the bathroom curling her hair with a curling iron. Her mother had given Tess two or three dramatic curls in the back before fitting the bunny ears on her, telling her the new curls would look beautiful with her new Easter dress that she was supposed to later wear to church and then to Nana’s house.

His helmet had a skull smoking a cigar painted on one side. She didn’t like that very much either. Tess didn’t have a helmet for herself, but her father took a yellow construction hard hat hanging from a rusty nail and placed it on her head, then snapped the bunny ears over the hat. He told her she looked great.

“Go slow, Daddy,” she told him, wedged between his legs. The bike felt wobbly going down the driveway but it straightened out by the time they’d turned into the road. Tess held the handlebars down low and squeezed. She looked back at the house and the hard hat shifted atop her small head.

She felt the need to say it again even though her father was, in fact, going quite slow: “Go slow, Daddy.”

“Okay. I’m going slow.”

She actually liked it—the sensation of movement, the road passing below them—so long as he kept the front wheel straight and didn’t accelerate. When he shifted gears, and the bike lurched, she panicked and gnashed her teeth. She gripped the handlebars with all her strength whenever he turned, even just a little bit. It was a cool April morning and she wore only her pajamas, and by the time they reached the end of their street the bike was going fast enough that the wind gave her a chill. “Okay, we can go back now,” she told him, but the engine was loud and so was the wind and she felt her voice falling away, disappearing off her lips.

The bike turned onto the main road and picked up speed. The wind hit her hard now and she stiffened against the cold, feeling it everywhere but especially on her bare feet. The momentum pushed her back against her father’s chest, and this felt a little better—the warmth of his sweatshirt, his chest and outstretched arms forming a sort of protective cage around her, even as the back of her head hitting his sternum knocked the hard hat forward, blocking some of her vision. She thought of pushing it back with her hand but couldn’t quite summon the will to take her fingers off the handlebars.

They passed the bank her mother went to and then the grocery store, but then they were moving faster and the bike was vibrating under her and everything she looked at seemed to be vibrating too. Her father slipped into another lane, Tess gasping at the sensation of the bike tilting, her father leaning. Then the bike was level again and darting straight ahead, going faster. Her lips and mouth felt dry and she thought about licking her lips, but, like her inability to move her hand, she couldn’t unclamp her teeth to do it. Ahead of them, the red tail lights of a car flashed, and her father reacted by leaning the bike to the right as if to find space to pass. Then he seemed to think better of it and instead squeezed the brake, shifting the momentum of their weight forward. She actually felt herself slip a little, or at least perceived it, and this is where she must have moved her feet, somehow looking to brace them, something instinctive, done without thought, the way a passenger in a car might press a phantom brake. When she did this the bare toes of her left foot landed against a scalding hot piece of the engine block, and she recoiled as if she’d been bit. Suddenly her weight was askew, her body sliding too far right. Her father felt this and wrapped her in his arm, securing her, but had let go of the brake in order to do it. Coming upon the car in front of them, he tugged the bike right, looking for that gap again that he had considered a moment before. There seemed to be enough space, but then the front tire caught the curbstone and the bike skipped violently back into the lane, catching the side of the car. The front wheel wobbled and the handlebars jerked free of Tess’s grip. She felt the bike seat fall away beneath her and her hard hat twist on her head. She thought she might have heard her father yell Fuck! but it was farther away than she’d expected and she realized he was not right behind her anymore.

It was over quickly. She hit the sidewalk and skidded first on her side and then face down, the hard hat long gone somewhere and her pajamas disintegrating. She could hear the metal crunch of the bike cartwheeling and then wedging beneath a mail truck. Tess skidded into the grass and felt herself catch some air again before bouncing into a violent end-over-end roll. When her body stopped, somewhere in a damp ditch below the road, she was facedown and looking at blades of grass and pebbles and even a dead earthworm, white and waterlogged. She didn’t know just how hurt she was yet: the skin on her upper arm and shoulder gone, neck and cheek stripped away almost as much, jaw broken and most of her secondary teeth on her left side missing, teeth she hadn’t even had that long, her nasal cavity caved in and eye socket shattered. Part of her ear ripped loose.

She remembered pushing herself up, not much but a little, just a second or two after landing in the ditch, as if she thought perhaps she wasn’t really hurt. As her arms trembled under her weight she happened to run her tongue along the inside of her mouth, first her upper gums and then her lower, tasting blood, feeling something ragged and sharp where her teeth should have been. The tears would come, but right now she was too confused and too scared. She surrendered under her weight and let herself back down to the mud, lifting her hand instead to her head, feeling for her bunny ears.

 

She retreated to the house. Back in the kitchen she disposed of a few more paper plates, then stopped at the kitchen faucet and tried to make it stop dripping. The wine glasses, hanging upside down, vibrated with the sound of the motorcycle accelerating out of the driveway again. Through the back window she saw Jordan in the yard, almost invisible in the dark but for a white tank top and the orange ember of a cigarette. Jordan wandered to the lounge chairs and sat on the end of one.

Tess padded down the hallway in her bare feet, a handful of graduation cards in her hand. She saw a band of light at the half-inch space at the bottom of her mother’s door; not the yellow, warm light of the bedside lamps, but a duller, grayer light of the old television on her dresser in an otherwise dark room. Tess stopped at the door and listened, but the volume must have been all the way down, or muted. She let her forehead touch the wood of the door, cool and smooth. She placed one hand flat against it, the other falling to the door handle. She considered opening the door and poking her head in, say goodnight, make sure her mother was okay. She thought she should thank her for the day. She even imagined herself rolling onto the bed with her, hugging her. Falling asleep like that. But the truth was she couldn’t even make herself open the door to say goodnight. She didn’t know why.

Instead, she slunk to the floor right there in the hallway, her back against the wall next to the bedroom door. In the dim light she opened cards, smiling at the words of wisdom, embarrassed by the cash and personal checks. Too much. “You did it!” the cards read. “We’re So Proud of You!” “Congratulations, Graduate!” She smiled again to herself, let out a sigh. People were too generous. Some of these checks she knew she would not cash. “You’re Somebunny Special!” the next card read, with a grinning white bunny wearing a black graduation cap and squeezing a rolled diploma. She opened it. “Love, Mom.” It struck her that her father hadn’t signed it. Just her mother.

She closed the card and looked at the front again. One straight bunny ear, one bent. She traced them with her finger, up to the top of one ear, down to the black cap, then up along the other ear. In the distance, the whine of the motorcycle grew fainter, receding until she thought the sound had disappeared altogether. But when she closed her eyes, holding her breath for a moment, it was still there after all.

Sean Conway holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans, completing most of the coursework in both France and Spain. His short fiction has previously appeared in Eunoia Review, Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, Digital America, and the anthology Mental Ward: Stories from the Asylum (Sirens Call, 2013). His stories, as well as his travel blog, Map & Compass, can be found at http://sean-conway.com.

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2 Responses to Graduation Day

  1. Really Mom? A bunny card?

  2. David Parker says:

    Ouuuuch (on so many levels). But beautifully written. Nice, Sean.

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