Kaitelinn won American Idol that year. Sheldon, the loser, was made to sing a ballad about his failure and inevitable return home to Buttfuck Nowhere, Indiana. Kaitelinn watched from the wings with a lower lip that trembled under the weight of so many emotions. Her eyes leaked tears but her eyeliner stayed put. When Sheldon was finished, she ran onto the stage, completely overcome, and enveloped him in a bear hug that was covered by camera men from at least five different angles. My mom and I watched on the couch, eating gelato straight out of the container until my mom had to leave to throw up. I watched the rest in silence, pretending that I couldn’t hear her. It is probably good that Sheldon lost. He needs to go home and tend to his farm.
On rainy days, there was popcorn and quiet. Reading days, my mom called them. When I was younger, she used to let me skip school sometimes. We’d brew tea and sit on the porch, watching the rain fall, reading our books with a bowl of popcorn nestled between us. Something about the rainy weather made her greedy for popcorn. In Los Angeles, rainy days were rare enough to warrant a day off, at least when I was still in elementary school and my grades were not an issue. When my dad got home from work, he would join us on the porch, always careful not to break the silence.
My mom doesn’t read much anymore. It makes her head hurt, she says. She has fallen so behind on keeping up with contemporary releases in fiction, something that she used to take pride in, that she’s thrown in the towel. Instead, she watches T.V. inside her room with the curtains closed. My dad tries not to bother her. He either sleeps on the couch or on the floor next to her bed, like the dog I was told would be too much work.
No one tried to sugarcoat the diagnoses, for which I am grateful. They trusted me with the burden of her failing health. Either that, or they knew I’d see right through any attempt to tack on imaginary years to her life. You can’t shit a shitter, my dad used to say. Save your sympathetic shoulder pats for a better prognosis.
Since we are a unit of three, we have always talked through everything, sometimes ad naseum. Everything is a discussion. Which is why when the cleaning lady found the underwear I stole from the Rite Aid, the mesh thongs in neon colors and huge lacy bras with jewels attached to the front instead of bows, I was surprised when no one confronted me. I figured my parents would be shocked—appalled, even. Embarrassed. I know she must have told my dad—though she had started working for us only when my mom got sick, she had quickly become part of the family. Illness does that.
My dad said nothing on the day that the stuff went missing, but he looked at me a bit funny over dinner. My mom was still in her room watching T.V. Not only was she not hungry, but the smell of food made her sick.
“The doctor said to make sure she eats,” I said, funneling fried rice into my mouth. Dad snorted.
“Easier said than done,” he said, still eyeing me funnily. I moved onto the spicy noodles, plopping a big hunk onto my plate.
“Slow down. It’s not a race.” He got up to fill the water pitcher. The red pepper flakes in the noodles tingled on my lips. I piled the rest of the rice onto my plate while boring a hole in the back of his head.
He returned to the table with the pitcher, pouring me a tall glass. He reached for the carton of fried rice and, finding it empty, moved on to the green beans. Water was a new thing—it used to be Lipton’s Peach Iced Tea. My mom ordered 72 packs on Amazon and stored them in the hall closet. Now it was just water.
“I’m just telling you what he said at the last appointment. She needs the strength.”
“I know,” my dad said. “But short of force-feeding her, I’m at a loss.”
“She just yacks it up anyway.” I got up to put my plate in the dishwasher. “I have a bunch of math left to do,” I said, moving away from the table.
“You’re done already? We just sat down.”
“It doesn’t take that long to eat.” I pushed my chair in and grabbed my textbook from the counter.
“Annie?” he asked. I waited at the bottom of the stairs as a bolt of fear rushed through me. Maybe he’d address the stolen underwear. I didn’t know how I could explain this one away.
On Saturday I was forced to go on a bike ride. I had apparently reached my couch quota. TMZ was airing an eight-part special on Sheldon, the American Idol contestant that had lost in the final round. A blond woman with a fake tan and big teeth was interviewing him on his ranch. He looked even paler by comparison, standing there pathetically grinning.
The scene cutaway to a close-up of him milking his cow, tenderly stroking her side with one hand as he tugged on her udder with the other. Her name was probably Bessie. The whole thing was frankly obscene.
I was ambushed about two hours into the special. I had been inside too long. I needed to get some exercise. The fresh air would do me good. It was pathetic that I lived so close to the beach and only went a couple times a year. If I wasn’t going to play sports, I could at least go on a bike ride every now and then. Subtext: the noise from T.V. was bothering my mother and my constant presence in the house was annoying my father. None of us had any place we needed to be.
“Go outside,” said my father, agitation building. “You could use some exercise.” White-hot fury burned through me.
“What about you, dad? You’re not exactly the picture of health.” Recently his paunch had grown bigger since my mom wasn’t well enough to keep him on a diet. I knew the second those words left my mouth that I had said a dumb thing; that the argument was lost and the bike ride was inevitable. He shot me a look full of equal parts sympathy and disappointment.
I lugged the old beach cruiser out of the shed and hosed it off—a fine layer of dirt and grime coated the frame. I went inside for a paper towel to wipe off the seat, shooting my father a look as I did so. He was intently typing on his computer and didn’t notice.
I wheeled the bike out into the alley and looked up at my parents’ room on the second floor. As always, the blinds were closed. I popped in my head phones, straddled the seat, and peddled.
I hated how good it felt. I hated the way the wind blew back my hair. I could practically feel the freckles forming on my nose and shoulders; freckles that gave me the appearance of an overgrown toddler. With my Spotify queued up to The National, I thought about how long I would need to bike around before I could return home without my dad getting angry. I decided on at least half an hour. Any shorter than that would be pushing it.
I passed the Rite Aid where the cashiers took breaks in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes and ignoring the customers that would be their responsibility again soon enough. I passed the Mexican restaurant that gave me change for a ten that one time when I know I had handed them a twenty and then refused to pay up. I biked through wide residential streets lined on either side by small two-bedroom houses, intricately designed. When I got to the bike path that hugs the beach, I considered turning around, figuring that my half hour was up. I had already listened to a third of an album, which totaled about fifteen minutes, and by the time I made it home I would hit thirty.
I decided to keep going. I walked my bike over to the start of the path and hopped on, weaving my way slowly through gawking tourists and rollerbladers. The sun was setting over my left shoulder, and the further I went, the more inconceivable it seemed that I would turn back. One more landmark, I told myself, though there weren’t many landmarks to go by—just endless beach, repeating itself over and over again—the same aimlessly meandering tourists and surfers shaking out their wetsuits.
I biked twenty minutes to the next town over, finally pulling off the path and gulping down water from a nearby fountain. My ears and legs and ass hurt from the ride, and I struggled my way up a hill to a nearby patch of grass. When I finally made it, I threw my bike to the ground and collapsed, lying on my back.
I lay there for a while, hearing my heart beat in my ears. I didn’t want to admit to myself how out of breath I was, so I struggled to breath normally. I eventually pushed myself up with my hands and looked out over the water. The sun hung over the ocean, perched precariously on the horizon. Nearby, a flock of seagulls insisted on being heard.
It was sitting there, out of breath and wearing my ratty old P.E. shorts that I had taken home from my locker because they were overdue for a wash, that I saw Mr. Greenbaum jog by. In a Spandex running outfit. Mortified, I lay back down and tried to make myself invisible, hoping that he would jog past but also kind of hoping that he’d notice me.
He didn’t right away, but he eventually did. Notice me. Similarly exhausted and out of breath, he plopped down a few feet away from me and hugged his knees to his chest. I looked at a distant point over his shoulder, draping my cardigan over my t-shirt and hugging my arms to my chest.
He chuckled at me, shaking his head. “I thought that was you. I swear to God, you can’t go anywhere in this city after 40 years of teaching without running into a student.”
I couldn’t tell if he was happy or irked to see me. “Yeah, I imagine it must get annoying.” He didn’t deny confirm or deny my theory.
“One time I was standing in front of the Grand Canyon, pondering life’s great mysteries with a single tear in my eye, when I heard the telltale ‘Mr. G!’. It was some punk I had taught a few years earlier, mid-vacation with his family.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing and nodded. The sun had fallen and it was getting chilly.
“What are you up to, Annie? Just biking around? Meeting friends?”
“Just biking around,” I replied. I hoped I didn’t sound like a loser.
“You finish that assignment I gave out on Friday?” I paused, unsure of what to say—I hadn’t even looked at it yet. Again, I said nothing. “I’m kidding. I know it isn’t due until Wednesday.” He picked at the grass. “It’s interesting stuff, though.”
I hoped my dad was sitting at home worried, but I knew it was more likely that he had forgotten I had left and was still staring at his computer. Or tending to my mom. I wondered what he had done with the stolen underwear. Mr. G. snapped me out of my reverie with his unashamedly loud, ragged breathing.
“Hey, Annie, would you happen to have some water by chance?” I reached into my tote and pulled out my bottle, suddenly embarrassed by the childishness of the Lisa Frank stickers I had attached to it. Would he know that the I had put the stickers there ironically, or did he think I was actually into puppies with hair bows?
He handed me back the bottle and stood up, pausing. “I’ve got to get going,” he said, looking out towards the path. “The wife wants to watch the TMZ coverage of last night’s Idol finale.” I realized at this point that I hadn’t spoken in a long time, and opened my mouth to say something. “Okay, I want to watch it too,” he admitted. I choked on my unspoken words and laughed a little.
“Let me guess: team Kaitelinn?” I asked him.
“Is that a joke? Sheldon was robbed,” Mr. G. replied, refastening his helmet strap. I secretly sort of agreed, though I didn’t want to admit it.
“I don’t know. I kind of like seeing the blonde bombshell that doesn’t know she’s beautiful win something for a change.” Mr. G. let out a startled chuckle.
“You’re funny, Annie.” He looked at me like maybe he didn’t know me, which he didn’t. “I’m glad I ran into you. Bike home safe, okay?”
“Yup,” I replied. I tried not to let on how pleased I was that he found me funny. That we had managed to have a normal adult conversation, and that it had gone off without any major hiccups.
“Do you have a light on your bike? It’s dangerous biking at night…” I flashed the light on the front of the bike twice for affirmation.
“See you Monday,” he said as he jogged away.
As soon as he was safely out of sight, I picked up my bike and wheeled it to the nearest bus stop. No way was I about to bike all the way home.
When the bus came fifteen minutes later, I loaded my bike onto the rack on the front and got on. I watched the familiar storefronts of Lincoln Boulevard pass by in a fog of exhaustion, which came over me suddenly. At my stop, the driver helped me remove the bike from the front (“Watch your fingers!”) and I wheeled it the rest of the way home.
Inside, my dad was sitting on the couch, typing away. I could see the blue television light coming from behind the thin curtain in the window upstairs. I locked up the bike before anyone had to ask me to and went inside, dropping my tote bag near the stairs.
My dad looked up briefly as I walked in, then went back to his work. A few minutes later, he knocked on my door while simultaneously barging into the room, a habit I had been trying to break him of.
“How was it?” he asked, looking around as though he had never seen my room before.
“How was what?”
“The bike ride.”
“Fine,” I replied.
“I made mom some ramen. There’s still some left in the pot if you want.” He carefully closed the door as he walked out.
I lay back down and listened to the ceiling fan. I reached under my bed and padded around my old hiding spot, where I had kept the underwear and a pack of cigarettes that an older cousin had given me (before I decided to throw them out). My hand caught the edge of a price tag, and I quickly hopped out of bed and moved the mattress aside. Underneath, all the underwear had been returned and folded neatly.
I stared at it for a while and then put the mattress back into place. I grabbed a bowl and ladled in the rest of the ramen, pausing on my way upstairs to listen to the rapid clicking of my dad’s computer keys.
Mom was watching Say Yes to the Dress, a show she begrudgingly admitted that she “loved to hate.” I crawled into bed and noisily slurped some soup.
“How was your day, sweetie?” she asked, patting my hair. I shooed away her hand.
“Fine,” I said. Expectant pause. “I went biking.”
“Nice,” she replied, already turning back towards the T.V. I looked intently at the little prickles of hair that dotted her scalp—already growing back, but coming in more gray than black. I finished my ramen and set the bowl on her nightstand.
“I’m not gonna finish mine.” She was apologetic, as always. “Stomach is bothering me today,” she shrugged. As though this weren’t a nightly occurrence. Without saying anything, I slurped down her bowl too. Neither of us planned on telling dad that she hadn’t eaten.
I fell asleep briefly, but I knew when the episode was over because I heard the perfect dress music come on, accompanied by the shrieks and happy tears of the bride and her closest twenty friends. Mom had nodded off too, so I grabbed both bowls and put them in the sink downstairs.
When I returned to my room, I turned on my white noise machine to avoid having to listening to the sound of my father type. I fell asleep to its persistent hiss.
Eva Dunsky is originally from Venice, CA, though she currently spends most of her time browsing the $2 rack at The Strand Bookstore in NYC. Her fiction has appeared in Juked Magazine and you can read her writing at https://evaduns.ky/. She is an incoming MFA candidate at Columbia University School of the Arts. Connect with her on Twitter: @eva4fr