By Alessandra Siraco
Liz hated the word “moist” but it was hard to hate her. It probably should have been easy. She would have hated Melanie’s Diner because everything in it was moist. Moist French fries, moist napkins. It smelled like fried food and sort of like those canned peaches that are too sugary. My suitcases were on the bench next to me, still with tags from the plane from Hartford. I loved visits to Ben in North Carolina partly because I also loved Melanie’s. I sat on the plastic bench across from Ben and watched him pick the smaller half of the sandwich to eat first, holding both up and then choosing before taking a bite.
“I’m glad you’re visiting,” he said.
My French fries were too hot but I ate them anyway, dragging them in ketchup before shoving them in my mouth and chewing too hard.
“I can’t believe Liz moved out,” I said.
“You really didn’t know?”
“She didn’t hint or anything?”
“No. Her stuff was just gone yesterday.” I felt my eyes get hotter than the French fries and I didn’t bother to wipe my eyelids because I knew more tears would be coming. The tears dropped into my plate, mixing with the ketchup, turning it a runny shade of pink, and I ate a fry dipped in tear ketchup. It tasted salty.
Ben finished the half of his sandwich and took a drink of Diet Pepsi. His brown hair was getting longer and overgrown but I had missed him so much that it didn’t bother me like it sometimes did. I looked up from my French fry tear ketchup at him.
“Don’t worry,” he said, putting a hand over mine. “You’ll have a spare room for the rest of your lease, now.”
I looked at his hands, darker than the rest of his body for some reason. There were rough spots on them, covering the fingers and parts of the back of his hand. They felt rough but embedded, not new patches, old ones, like they were always supposed to be there. They had been there for a while. I loved them.
“He’s going to dump you,” Liz said, a little drunk, tipping over and breathing out heavily as she flopped onto the couch with the felt-velvet black covering over it. Her breath smelled like wine and the cheese stick she had just eaten half of and left on the stained coffee table of my living room. My living room.
Liz took another bite of the cheese and put it down. Even drunk, she took small bites. She sat on the couch, biting the cheese in tiny bites, so small that I didn’t even know how she tasted the cheese. She held the cheese stick with her long fingers, gesturing as she talked.
“This is so good,” she said, moaning. She made sex noises when she ate really good food, but I never knew how to tell her that. “So good.” She took a napkin and daintily wiped each of her fingers individually. “It’s not dry or old-tasting at all.”
“It’s moist, Liz.”
She rolled her eyes. “I have an audition on Monday.” Liz wanted to move to New York and audition for Broadway shows, even though she’d never been cast in a show during college. I had gone to each of the shows she was in the ensemble for, though, and she wasn’t good.
“Oh,” I said.
“It’s for an off-Broadway show. If I get cast in it, I’ll probably be able to get on Broadway, because the director also works there.”
“Better not count on it,” I said.
Liz took a big bite of the cheese stick. “Bitch,” she muttered. “I think I’m going to find a guy at The Tap. I think next week it will happen.”
“At a bar?”
“I think it could happen,” she said again. She leaned back on the couch, pushing some crumbs off of it. “I just want someone who can dance. Ballroom dance.” She was completely serious. “Can Ben ballroom dance?”
I shrugged. Ben was coming to visit in eleven hours.
“Maybe you can ask him,” I said. I felt my back blend into the soft fabric of the back of the couch. My other roommate’s door was shut but there was a trail of orange liquid going into it, with an empty bottle outside her door. The windows of our living room were open but it still smelled like beer and something rotting, probably the eggplant in our fridge. The door to the fridge was half-open too. The calendar that we had made out of construction paper back when Liz was still living with us was falling down, and the pink strips were faded in the spots that the sun hit them. It was still labeled October even though it was almost May.
“I’m not going to ask him,” she said. “You guys just hole up in your room anyway when he visits.”
“You’re being stupid,” I said. We were mean to each other. It’s how it went. I was never so mean as to move out, though. “Liz,” I said, “do you think he’s really going to dump me?”
“I think you should dump him,” she said. “I’m just being honest. I just don’t think he’s good enough for you.” She flipped her hair back a bit. “I just think you could do better. You can find someone not long distance. You can find someone who can ballroom dance.”
“I don’t want someone who can ballroom dance.”
“Why? Everyone in Jane Austen novels can.”
“Life isn’t a fucking Jane Austen novel, Liz.”
“It can be.” Liz flipped her hair again. “I think that boys should be able to ballroom dance. And preferably have a British accent.” The sad thing was she was being completely serious.
“Go to London, then.”
“I’m going to New York,” she said. “Can I stay here tonight?”
“You moved out,” I said, and she glared at me, her long hair shining in the fluorescent room. “You can’t stay here.”
“I told you,” she slurred, “it was too loud in this room. It was just too loud. I needed to move out for,” she pushed her hands up, her elegant hands making the gesture in the air like they always did, “for me.”
“You didn’t tell me until after you moved out.” The air was cold as I walked by and slammed the fridge door shut.
“I’m going to bed. Mary said I could stay over whenever I wanted, ‘cause technically the room is still mine.” Liz stuck her boots on the back of the couch and lay her back down flat against the cushions, her legs in the air and one over the side, straddling the corner of the couch. Her long brown straight hair was falling towards the floor.
I made her leave, like she had wanted to, when she moved out.
The cab came four minutes after we called, and it smelled like McDonald’s French fries. Ben let me get in first but then he walked around the cab, after a minute, and got in the other side. The seats were fabric and felt dirty, worn down on the seat parts, so that I didn’t want to sit directly on them.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“We’re going to the mall,” I said.
Ben smiled, a little sadly, and pulled his wallet out of his back pocket, ready. “I’ll get it, Amanda,” he said.
The cab driver looked in the rearview mirror. The streets were dark and it was Hartford, a city, a bad city, if I wasn’t here with Ben. It was almost dark out. The cab driver had on a backwards Yankees hat, bent around the edges and frayed on the bill so it looked like the wind was always whipping just the front of his hat. It was blue, but faded, almost white.
“The Westfarms Mall?” he asked, pulling out of my apartment complex a little too fast. The cab went over the curb leading out of the complex, and I felt the bump as we went back to the ground. Ben had driven up that morning from visiting a friend nearby, and met me at the mall. I’d met him for breakfast there that morning, at this great buffet place that was open early, and we’d left both of our cars there because there was limited parking near my apartment. We’d gotten the cab from the mall parking lot.
He had dumped me there.
“I can’t anymore,” he’d said. “I’m sick of long distance. I love you but it’s too hard.”
“I’m sorry,” he’d said, embarrassed that he’d blurted it all out.
He hadn’t say anything else, just let it sink in that it wasn’t because it was long distance. It was because I was mean, because I was mad, all the time, because I was a giant ball of sadness about Liz and Connecticut and, ironically, about being long distance with him.
Ben sat on the other side of the cab, and I sat crunched up against the window. The glass was cold and a little moist.
“Are you sure?” I asked, my nose running in the hotness of the cab. The driver looked in the rearview mirror again and saw that I was staring at Ben. He turned his eyes back to the road and then to his cell phone, ringing on the seat next to him.
“I’m sorry, Amanda,” Ben said. “I really am. I can’t do it anymore, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t do it. You’re—” Ben looked into my eyes, his dark and light around the pupil, and then looked down at the dirty seat of the cab. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“We’ve already talked about it, Amanda. I can’t do long distance anymore. I can’t.”
“Because,” he said, “I miss you too much.”
“That makes no sense.” My voice was louder now, and the cab driver could probably hear me but I didn’t know if he cared. He was driving slowly, for a cab driver.
“It’s too hard.”
“That’s not fair,” I said.
“You haven’t been fair.”
The cab suddenly stopped and I went forward, my seatbelt still dangling on the side near the door. I banged my head on the plastic cover on the back of the passenger seat in front of me, my forehead sliding down from the tears that made my whole face wet. I rubbed the top of my forehead.
“Liz said you were going to break up with me.”
“Why did she say that?”
“Because,” I said, “she knew it. She was right. She’s always right.”
“She’s not always right,” Ben said, moving a little bit closer. I felt the seat shift as he shifted, but he didn’t move very close. Just a little. “She’s not. She shouldn’t have moved out.”
“Did you yell at her?”
“I told you I did. She’s a bitch.”
Ben looked at me and then squinted his eyes a little bit, like his cat did when she was angry with him. “You don’t have to be bitchy about it, Amanda.”
The cab was driving more slowly now, past the corner that led into the apartment complex and down through the trees that lined the entryway. Once we passed the trees, there were houses—beaten-down, beaten-up, chipped white paint and no trim left on them. I could see tricycles with wheels missing, and people sitting on the porches, smoking and yelling. A kid in a front yard was crying and another was drinking something out of a Gatorade bottle, sitting down near the edge of the road screwing up his face as he took a gulp.
The cab drove carefully because the road was narrow. We drove by the Welcome to Connecticut sign that was posted near my apartment complex, even though Connecticut started way before the complex did. The cab driver pushed his Yankees hat around so it was sideways. Somebody told me once that that was a sign of being in a gang. I didn’t know if it was true but I wondered if Ben recognized it as that. He leaned towards me a little and I thought he was going to move in—it’s all right, I was just kidding, I don’t actually mean it, you’re worth the long distance—but instead he just looked forward through the windshield of the cab.
“Is this the way we usually get to the mall?” he asked, looking directly at the cab driver.
“Yes,” the cab driver said. Marcus, said his name tag ID posted on the back of the seat. It was covered in plastic that was scratched around only the picture part. I couldn’t see his face on the photo but his hair was a different color, from what I could make out from the scratched picture.
The cab turned and I knew that it wasn’t the right direction. There was a house that was painted dark blue and wasn’t chipped. People sat on the lawn in lawn chairs, reclining on the white plastic. We stopped at a stop sign in front of a house with a woman who was wearing a Red Sox jersey, Wakefield, and the cab driver shoved his Yankees hat to the other side of his head so the logo was facing out towards the street.
“Ben,” I whispered, and he glanced over quickly, hearing the tears in my voice, afraid that I was going to keep begging him to not break up with me. “This isn’t the right way.” I whispered it so the cab driver couldn’t hear.
The driver turned on the radio, to a religious station. It was in a different language but the first sentence I heard was English: “Bless the Lord Jesus,” the announcer said, and launched into another language. The voices went up and down, getting louder and softer as more people joined in. We drove past more houses, getting nicer and then back to the chipped paint. This was the Hartford that I knew, depressed and distant. The rich Hartford lie in between; the nice Hartford. Some of Connecticut was beautiful, but not the part near me.
The cab driver turned at a stop sign and we were on a street that I recognized. Far away from the mall. It was behind an old church that was painted bright orange. It had the kind of wall that looks smooth and gummy, and the top of it was carved in wavy lines. It was faded, now, and there was an alleyway beside it that had old water bottles and Stop & Shop bags in it. The cab driver turned the radio station to another one, still not in English, and turned it up really loudly. He glanced in the rearview mirror at us and then picked up his cell phone.
Ben looked over at me. I was glaring at him.
“What?” he said. He moved closer to the window.
“You don’t have to move over,” I said. “I’m not going to like, pounce on you, Ben.”
He ignored me and gestured towards the church. “Why are we pulling in here?” I looked and noticed he was right; we were pulling into the alleyway, slowly driving over the weathered speed bumps.
“Should we say something?” I whispered. Ben looked at the cab driver, who was talking on the phone softly, in another language. We couldn’t hear him over the music very well, anyway.
Ben didn’t answer me, but frowned again, squinting his eyes. When he leaned over to get a better look at the alleyway, I could smell the soap he used, distinct, the scent stuck to his skin. Ben looked carefully at the cab driver and at the cab meter.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said to the cab driver, leaning forward so I’d be closer to Ben. Maybe he could smell my scent too, cinnamon body lotion scrubbed on quickly in the car ride to the parking lot of the mall that morning. Ben turned towards me and moved backwards, back to his seat, adjusting back, away from me. “Where are we going? We were actually going to the mall.”
“We are,” the cab driver said, and shut off the engine. He got out of the cab and threw his Blackberry on the passenger seat, darting towards the back of the alley. It was getting darker and we were obviously not at the mall.
I watched him walk around the back of the church and disappear behind a dumpster and a clothes bin for Goodwill. The streetlights were on by now but there were none behind the church, the orange stucco gleaming in front and dark and shadowy in the back. A few houses were around but most had the lights off; some had people sitting on front porches, in shorts too short for late April in Connecticut, smoking cigarettes. Through the open window I could smell the smoke, and then the smell of pot.
“What is he doing?” I asked, sticking my head closer to the glass of the cab so I could get a look.
“It’s a drug deal, Amanda,” Ben said. “Did you see his hat?”
“I didn’t know that was a true thing.”
Ben nodded. “It is.”
“Well, should we leave?”
Ben looked at me and crossed his arms. He was wearing a gray shirt, and his face was tan from the early spring. “We’ve been driving for ten minutes. We’re probably too far to walk back.”
“I know where we are.”
“Well, can we walk?”
He didn’t mention that I had suggested it. I wanted him to sit in Melanie’s Diner with me after Liz had dumped me, to go back to the first time I was dumped, by her, because even that was better than this.
The cab driver came back holding a Duane Reade bag. There are no Duane Reades in Connecticut. Liz told me that she went to Duane Reade before each audition to buy gum, a tradition. Apparently it didn’t bring her much luck, though.
The cab driver shoved the bag on the passenger seat near him and got back in the cab.
“We’ll go to the Westfarms Mall, now,” he said.
He drove out of the church alleyway and down the street the same way we came in, but instead of turning where we were supposed to to get to the main stretch, he turned onto another side street, and then another.
He was running the cab meter, driving us through the deep end of Hartford to get to the mall and jack up our cab fare.
“Ben,” I whispered, leaning towards him. The music was off now and the cab was silent. Ben moved backwards on reflex, towards the window.
“Would you calm down?” I said. “I’m not going to keep begging you to not dump me.” Ben didn’t look up, not surprised anymore at how mean I was. I’d been mean for a year, on the phone and on Skype and on text messages.
“This isn’t the way to the mall.”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” he asked. He was angry right back at me.
I shifted towards him, just to annoy him. He shifted backwards. The cab driver looked back at us and turned left, onto the road near where the mall was.
Ben paid the cab driver.
“I’ll see you at Thanksgiving, probably,” he said. He gave me a hug. “Bye, Amanda. I’m sorry.” He left the parking lot, his car parked next to mine pulling out of the space.
I sat in my car as he drove away, pretending to be getting ready to leave too, but after he started leaving I twisted the charm bracelet he had given me around my wrist, looking at the ice cream cone charm new out of the box only a month ago, pulling it and sparkling it against the floodlights from the parking lot’s few dim lights. The charm was different colors, light pastels in the shape of fake crystals for the ice cream, and the cone was silver.
A middle schooler walked by and stared at me, adjusting her black sweatshirt around her body, and kept walking. She was smoking and I didn’t know where she’d gotten the cigarettes, but the Westfarms Mall was pretty lenient. Pretty drug-friendly.
My phone rang and I answered it quickly.
“I’m coming back,” Ben said, talking into the receiver quickly, like he didn’t really want to be on the phone with me. “I forgot my sweatshirt was in your car. Have you left yet?”
I saw his sweatshirt, lying on the backseat, wedged in between the seat and the door from years ago, probably. It was black and said “Puma” on the front in big white letters, and the sleeves were stretched out so that the elastic on the wrists was not elastic anymore.
“Sorry,” he said, speaking louder like he thought I couldn’t hear him. “I’m sorry.”
I hung up and got out of the car to reach in the back and grab the sweatshirt. I put my hands into the sleeves, but didn’t put the sweatshirt on, holding my hands in the sleeves and facing the sweatshirt towards me, as if someone was wearing the sweatshirt, as if he was, and as if we were holding hands inside the sleeves, a secret, warm.
The streetlight went out, and I stood in darkness, holding the sweatshirt alone, leaning up against the car, feeling the heat from the day that became fleshed into the car’s black metal. It smelled like gasoline in the parking lot, and like smoke coming from behind the Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse. I breathed in the smell of the sweatshirt, sweat and salt from the beach and smoke from bonfires and his soap scent still embedded in it even after years, and listened to his car, coming back.
“Thanks, Amanda,” he says, taking the sweatshirt and looking at me oddly as he realizes that my hands are in his sleeves. “Why are your hands stuck in the sweatshirt like that?” His brown eyes look down at my hands and I want to hold his. They’re big, and I once talked to Liz about them.
“Ben’s hands are great,” I’d said, sipping my Diet Pepsi and pointing to the street where we were turning, to find an apartment. “They have rough spots on them, and they feel sturdy. Did you notice that?”
She’d shaken her head. “I don’t think I’ve noticed it,” she’d said. “But look, the apartment’s there”—and we turned into the apartment complex, past the chipped white painted houses and the Welcome to Connecticut backwards sign. “I don’t know,” she’d said. She’d flipped her hair and looked around, putting her dainty fingers on the window and tracing the fog off of it. “I kind of wanted to be closer to the train. I’m going to be going to New York a lot, you know. For auditions.”
“I like it,” I’d said. “We’re done looking. You’ve already shot down too many.”
She’d glared at me and I’d glared back, picking this apartment and making her sign the lease.
I used to run my fingers over Ben’s, my red nail polish skimming the surface of his rough spots, and I used to pretend that my hands could smooth his, even though they obviously never did.
I clutch my fingers together in the sleeves of his empty sweatshirt.
“Amanda,” he says, “come on. Give it to me.”
I can smell the gasoline and salt and French fries from Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse. This year he started putting lotion on his hands, and the rough spots are gone, and as he takes the sweatshirt from me and pulls it over his head, “Puma” straight across his chest, I feel his hands scrape against mine for a second, smooth scraping, smooth, smooth.
- - -
I recently graduated Trinity College in Hartford and am currently an M.F.A. student at Emerson College. I have taken classes with Steve Yarbrough and Ladette Randolph, and am working in insurance while I hone my writing skills.