By Lauren Barbato
Babcia called them the old girls, a nickname she debuted when Viv and Tess were in elementary school. Neither of them had fathers; who needed fathers? Tess’s mother, a nurse, often worked evening shifts in the ER, leaving Tess with Babcia, who’d retired from her desk job at the post office and had cared for Viv since her mother passed. Viv and Tess would ride the bus along Bloomfield Avenue with Babcia for her weekly errands. Babcia often found the old girls perched on the red metal bench outside ShopRite, sharing peppermint patties with residents from the local senior-citizen complex. At night, Babcia would pull back the woolly throw obscuring the entrance to their blanket fort, where the old girls lay on their bellies, chins resting on velvet pillow shams, cutting and pasting images from beauty and travel magazines to create their own reality in purple composition notebooks. The old girls liked to discuss their futures of living alone in foreign cities, marrying out of love, not obligation. They idolized artists over pop stars, preferred foreign films to teen movies. Tess, they always said, had the good sense; Viv had the gift.
The old girls spent the first three weeks of their summer before college in short shorts and crop tops at the diner counter on Bloomfield Avenue, eyeing Irish fries and rocky road milkshakes while the men eyed them. They didn’t mind; really, the old girls liked it. It’d become their new game, timing how long it took the men to slither over and make small talk about the milkshakes, the heat, the ’80s movies playing on the little TV in the corner. It beat lying out on the Bloomfield Green and seeing how much Sun In and lemon juice Viv needed to pour onto Tess’s black hair before it rusted. Sometimes, they got free chicken fingers and fries out of these men or, if they waited long enough, a six-pack of Yuengling.
Consider the man today: His dark brown hair, swept coolly over the growing lines of his forehead, still held its youthful wave. His biceps, on full display in his black tank top, were strong and freckled. Tess’s good sense pegged him as 30, at least. Viv asked the man his name (Matt, short for Matthew Joseph, reluctantly Catholic); she giggled when he flexed his left arm, stretching the ink of his block-lettered USMC tattoo; she pressed the side of her bare thigh against his green cargo shorts. When he flashed his driver’s license, Viv saw he was twenty-nine, born in 1974, September, a Virgo. Tess whispered, “I told you so,” from behind her sheet of silky straight black hair. Once he excused himself to the bathroom, the waitress behind the counter fluttered her blue eyelashes and said what she always said when someone else paid their check: You girls, don’t enjoy yourselves too much.
They rolled up to the local bodega for loosies, which they smoked in the parking lot below Bloomfield station. Matt was outspoken and energetic and somewhat charming in his unapologetic curiosity. He asked Viv about her grandmother, and wondered how Tess could possess a Spanish last name if she was Filipina. He teased Tess about her Stanford ambitions but wanted to know more about her upcoming California makeover. (“Viv’s gonna bleach it blonde before I go,” Tess told him. “I’m good at that,” Viv added.) When Matt said he’d always wanted to write a book, Tess began lecturing him on the gender politics of 19th-century literature and Viv groaned, No one wants to hear that shit. In Watsessing Park, they sipped PBRs masked by paper bags and Viv performed a childhood tap routine on a picnic table. Matt hurdled onto the table and spun her around by the waist. They slipped into an endearing offbeat two-step, Viv’s blonde hair, even paler now in the summer, rippling to her waist. Tess clapped along and finished his PBR.
Later, when curfew neared, Tess waited outside his gold Jeep Cherokee as Matt enclosed Viv in a soft side hug. Tess shook her black hair over her face and pretended not to see him kiss Viv on her forehead, her eyelids, and her lips. Viv kissed back; she always did.
* * *
Viv lived with Babcia in a three-family home on a narrow Bloomfield street that dead-ended into train tracks. The old girls prowled these tracks after the last train powered by at midnight. When they were ten, they placed pennies on the metal rails and scrunched their bodies among the weeds. Now they stowed their loosies and lipsticks in a shallow dirt basin, sheltered by stubborn dandelions, at the base of the crossing lights.
They slipped on their hoodies—a black Rowan University one for Viv, deep Stanford cardinal for Tess—kicked off their plastic flip-flops, and crisscrossed barefoot between the tracks. “Why you always gotta flirt like that?” Tess asked. “You never let me talk.”
“We don’t wanna hear your Stanford shit,” Viv said. “It’s literary history,” Tess said.
“It’s boring.” Viv lit a cigarette and handed it to Tess, who waved it off.
“You just want him,” Tess said, “I know.”
Viv vaulted onto the metal rail and used it as a balance beam, pointed toes and curved arms. “I don’t really like him,” she said, performing a series of wobbly arabesques.
“Then why’d you kiss him?”
“I don’t mean to flirt.” Viv simultaneously shrugged and arabesqued. “If that’s what you mean.”
“Wisława, please.” Tess grabbed the hood of Viv’s sweatshirt, ruining her impromptu ballet.
Viv knew it was serious when Tess used her birth name. She placed closed fists on her hips. “Don’t call me a slut, Maria Teresa.” Tess’s birth name was equally serious.
“Shut. The Fuck. Up.” Tess slowly grinned. “Virgins can’t be sluts.”
Viv hopped down from the metal ledge and hugged Tess, an over-protective around-the-neck type of hug. She said, “You’re so pretty, Maria Teresa. Fuck them. You’re so pretty, you can fuck them all.”
“So are you,” Tess said. “We are pretty.”
* * *
Babcia’s house stood farther back than the other aging peak-roofed homes, separated only by asphalt strips clustered with city-issued garbage cans. Mrs. Li, the widow in the attic apartment, outlined the covered porch with strings of oversized white lightbulbs as large as baseballs. Mr. Woźniak, the owner and landlord who resided on the second floor, had clicked his teeth and called the light display tacky; Babcia said it was charming. On summer evenings, once the humidity dropped, Babcia and Mrs. Li, their hair already in plastic curlers, would set their rockers on the porch, trade cigarettes, and sip hot green tea. Twenty years together on this porch and still they found their way back to their deceased husbands almost every night. Mrs. Li would try to tell the old girls that she didn’t miss him, that men aren’t for keeping. Babcia would shush her; Babcia did not miss her husband either, but she preferred decorum over reality. Tess called this respectability; Viv said, That’s Babcia.
Only the miniature porch lantern was lit when the old girls arrived at Babcia’s house. Still, they removed their flip-flops before hurrying down the walkway. They entered through the back door, certain that Babcia would be waiting in her rocker beside the front bay window in the living room. Instead, they found her playing solitaire at the kitchen table, an opened pack of Parliaments at her side. She always smoked indoors, even in the summertime.
“Get lost, old girls?” Babcia crushed a dying Parliament in the ceramic Atlantic City ashtray, a birthday gift from Viv.
“It’s summer.” Viv kissed her on the cheek and smoothed the gray curls peeking out from her plastic powder-blue rollers. “We were at a movie.”
“Dobry wieczór, Babcia.” Tess kissed her on the other cheek. She knew Babcia loved her scrappy Polish.
“Magandang gabi, Tess.” Babcia liked practicing the few Tagalog words she had learned with Tess.
“Not bad,” Tess teased. “You’ll get it in another ten years.”
“Jesuz Maria.” Babcia raised palms up to the ceiling. “If only.”
Viv smacked her palm into Babcia’s and shook her head. “Never.” She kissed Babcia again on the cheek.
Babcia nodded to Tess. “There’s some babka for your mother on the counter.”
“Tess is sleeping over, O.K., Babcia?” Viv said.
“Always.” Babcia lit a new Parliament. “Always, old girls.”
Viv and Tess cobbled a fort out of blankets and throw pillows in the middle of the living room floor. Babcia paused in the doorway, her melon-yellow linen housedress clinging to her hunched back, and mused, These old girls of mine, what will happen to them?
* * *
Here’s what Tess’s good sense, female sense, always told the old girls: never leave your real address or phone number with an older man. The old girls knew the stories. A teenage girl, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, gone missing for weeks. A body resting beneath cement. A body burned and mutilated. Even worse: a rape and a baby, which the priest at Sacred Heart had said was the best gift from a “bad situation.” (“Fucking Christ,” Viv would whisper to Tess in the pews. “Give me death.”) But the old girls also craved the ordinary adventure.
Matt drove Viv to the shore, to Point Pleasant. They held hands as they carved their way through the boardwalk crowds. He won her a hermit crab after knocking over a pyramid of metal milk bottles. Viv named the crab “Knuckles,” inspired by the way he crawled around the hard metal of his cage. They drank tallboys on the beach, sliding lower on the plaid blanket to glide their feet beneath the sand. She let him squeeze her breast under her kerchief-printed halter top. She stopped his fingers at the top of her denim shorts, the buttons indenting the skin two inches below her belly button.
Viv had lied not only to Babcia but also to Tess, who’d planned to lounge on the Bloomfield Green that afternoon with a book and fresh lemons for her hair. Babcia expected her home before midnight, and Viv had promised Tess they’d meet at the train crossing at 11:30. Matt took a detour near Watsessing Park, cutting the engine beneath that one tree whose leaves turned indigo in the fall. He told Viv that girls like her were sweet. Sweet and free. Viv would take free, but she did not want to be sweet. She wanted to be complex—free and complex, like all the girls in those foreign films. Like her first boyfriend Pawel’s older college girlfriend, who went down on him inside the gazebo near the Glen Ridge train station. Viv and Pawel had broken up months earlier because Viv, age fifteen at the time, would only let him cup her breasts as they watched Dr. Who reruns in his living room while his parents slept down the hall. Pawel said he wanted to feel, to feel something more. The next year, when she was sixteen, Giovanni from the Sacred Heart youth group lifted her skirt behind the gymnasium. She dropped down and unzipped his jeans, afraid of his touch on her pink cotton briefs. She told all the girls before Giovanni could tell all the boys, and her nonchalance seemed to make her bolder than the act itself—to everyone except Tess, who was forever curious about the size and the taste but balked when Viv bragged about her encounters at the gymnasium, the movie theater, even their beloved train tracks. “It’s fun,” Viv countered. “Let’s just have fucking fun.” Tess could never have fun without Viv, without knowing what Viv felt, having her within reach. But now Tess was alone at her mother’s house, waiting for Viv to call, and the fun was in the backseat of a gold Jeep Cherokee. Viv grew tired of the fun—tired of going down, plunging, her pleasure undone. She wanted to return, to discover that ordinary adventure. She shimmied her denim shorts down her thighs and calves. Matt was a man with an honest job and a salary, but this, Babcia would never approve; Babcia would cross herself and bow her head. Flushed and hurried, Matt ripped the seams of her pink cotton briefs, but Viv didn’t care for them, anyway.
Long after midnight, Viv and Tess stretched their legs across the train tracks. Tess asked how it felt but Viv could only say it was weird, just as she’d described dissecting a frog in seventh grade.
Tess asked if Viv would do it again.
“I don’t know.” Viv plucked the dandelions that sprung between the wooden planks until the soil crumbled. “If he wants to.”
“It must be weird,” Tess said, “if only the guy wants to.”
* * *
The halls of Tess’s apartment building resembled a ship’s passages, comically narrow, under-lit, with silver pipes running along the ceiling from one end to the other. For a time in sixth grade, she could never sleep, waking every night at 2 a.m. from ordinary nightmares—running from dogs, then bears and lions, soaring into tornados and hurricanes, ducking from invisible bullets. Her mother said Tess needed to walk away these omens, so they devised an escape route. Down the hall, left into the stairwell. Take the stairs two at a time, hop over the landing. Repeat until Tess could feel her good sense settling in.
Tess went through the escape route twice tonight; she made it to the first floor each time. On her third elevator ride to the 18th floor, she stripped off her Stanford sweatshirt and examined her body in the shaft’s mirrors, elongated and foggy like a thrifty funhouse. She and Viv were different, really, physically, but Tess never liked to admit it; Viv was lithe and thin, while Tess was broad and petite, her hips as wide as her shoulders. They could never share powder or blush, nor boot-cut jeans or baby doll dresses. Only their breasts—small and triangular, still waiting for their fullness, a little too unfeminine—seemed to match.
The overworked AC left the apartment chilly and sterile. Tess slipped on her Stanford sweatshirt in her mother’s bedroom. A sanctuary of saints, one dozen ceramic statues, covered the tops of the dresser and chest and even the television. Some glittered, some glowed, some faded away. Tess ran her finger along St. Anthony, St. Francis, St. Lorenzo, St. Bernadette, St. Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary—a duplicate of the one her mother had gifted to Babcia long ago. Tess’s mother lifted her head, rested her body against the bed’s curved cherrywood headboard. No more nightmares, she told Tess before falling back asleep. Walk away, my Maria Teresa.
* * *
After walking Tess home, Viv returned to the train tracks. She wandered there alone, slinking on the balls of her feet from Bloomfield to Watsessing and back. Her inner thighs were sore, but a small part of her, the restless part, enjoyed this roughened feeling. Crossing lights flared yellow and red: the 5:30 a.m. train. The newspaper delivery man trailed her back to the house, which only had one lit window: Mr. Woźniak, waking before the sunrise. Viv entered through the kitchen, cast in a murky morning blue. She never made it to her bedroom. She yanked throw blankets to the living room floor and collapsed there, shaking.
She could hear Babcia’s footsteps, the slight whistle of her breathing, the one she worried more often now was a death rattle. Would she know when it was—when that would be? Viv could not open her eyes to look.
Babcia lowered herself onto the couch and, calmly, began to braid Viv’s ashy blonde hair. The ends were brittle from sea salt, the roots still damp with sweat and humidity. Once Babcia reached the last strands, she let the braid fall; it swung like the flimsy string of a stray balloon until half of it came undone and Viv opened her eyes.
You and Tess, you were always so sad, Babcia said. That’s why I called you the old girls.
Viv placed Nina Simone’s “Lonesome Cities” on the record player, which sat on two stacked apple crates lazily hidden under a fringed blanket, and lit a Parliament. The man in Viv’s bed had needed a condom, one of those larger-than-average types that men believe they need. Viv let them believe it, and so she’d sent the man to the 24-hour drugstore down the block, unsure if he would return. At age 28, Viv had finally learned to say, “O.K., but only with a condom” (or, “No, you really need a condom”) after countless Plan Bs and one miscar- riage. She did not mind so much, now, if the men never came back from the drugstore.
Viv examined her right breast beneath the silk of her bathrobe, a muted yellow with pink orchids. Smoking made her nervous; she had planned to quit at 25. Viv had planned on quitting a lot of things then, including sex with people she knew only by first name. Tonight, his name was Jack. Short for nothing. Just Jack. This Jack, though, whom she had met at her friend’s housewarming on the back porch steps, sharing a beer and a mutual appreciation for that French arthouse film playing in Montclair, she liked. She would mind if Jack left her with a sobbing Nina Simone and stray thoughts of breast cancer.
When Jack returned, posing in the doorway of her prewar studio with a tiny cardboard box that he offered like an engagement ring, Viv said, Goddamn. Goddamn, I’m glad I saw that pretentious French flick. She was undoing the buttons of his jeans when her cellphone buzzed on the nightstand. And as she pulled down his jeans, buzzed again.
Text messages from Tess lit up the screen: need you
i can’t deal right now
Jack sighed as Viv reached over to the nightstand. She stuck her fingers in his mouth and texted Tess back with her free hand: soon. i’m getting it girl
Tess texted: get it girrrrllll get it
Tess tossed her cellphone into her boxy Kate Spade purse. Viv was always getting it, and where these men came from, Tess never knew. They were older, younger, police officers, sales agents, grad students.
Viv had her way of leaning back and getting everything. Tess knew that Viv did not want everything but took it anyway. Tess had stopped blaming her for it.
It was Friday night, and only 8 p.m. in Los Angeles, but Tess was already exhausted. Tess, who now went by Maria Teresa, worked a client-facing job in branded content marketing and lived with her boyfriend Davey, a commercial producer, in an overpriced hacienda-style duplex “overlooking” what was left of the Silver Lake reservoir. On evenings like this one, when everyone was playing air hockey at the local barcade, Tess navigated, on foot, the knotty streets from Hyperion to Silver Lake Boulevard. The drought had sucked up the last bit of green, transforming the hipster hamlet into a village of concrete tunnels. Tess would slip by house parties and backyard comedy shows, sidestepping the laughter and bad jokes and electronica and drunken shouts, and wonder how everyone else could have so much more fun, in the very same place. Was she, Ms. Maria Teresa Santos, missing something?
No, Ms. Maria Teresa Santos had a secret. Her life was better than Viv’s, but she hated it.
Tess paused outside a faded craftsman bungalow and followed desert-red stones like lily pads to the backyard, where twentysomethings in ripped jeans, miniskirts, and crocheted halter tops mingled in shapeless groups. Lawn chairs, beach chairs, and garden benches formed an uneven semicircle around the makeshift stage: a wooden platform affixed to four cinderblocks. Someone handed Tess a tallboy of PBR. Someone else gave her a lit cigarette. Another asked if she wanted to share a spliff. She passed along two joints and snuck off to a lumpy pink beach chair in the corner of the yard, beside a dry grotto replenished with rubber stones, and laughed at all the right times during Davey’s stand-up set. Tess knew she should record his jokes about dating the “Filipina woman” and send the video to Viv, but instead, she texted Viv a stealth photo of two women with poorly done hair extensions.
Tess captioned the picture: seriously?
Viv stood in her crowded corner kitchen, pouring a glass of water for Jack, who stretched out on her bed, unrolling a new condom. She texted back: ugh janky!
Viv worked at a mid-level hair salon. She waxed eyebrows and upper lips and bikini lines; swept discarded clumps and curls; and washed the dirty hair of people she did not like. They wanted to tell her about their babies and their dogs; the names they chose and how big they’d grown; the parties they would throw (for baby or dog) and the people they, too, did not like but had to invite. Viv never had anything new to tell these clients. She was still single; her Babcia was still dead; her landlord was still an asshole; and her life was still here, in Bloomfield, where it had started.
Tess had the money, the scenery, the man. Viv had a view of the Parkway and some used condoms in her wastebasket.
Still, Viv slept well beside Jack, who curled around her spine. In the morning, he lingered for a mug of coffee on the fire escape, wrapped in one of Viv’s fuzzy throw blankets. He stroked her ankle as she smoked her Parliaments and pointed out the street’s main attractions: the neighbors who fought; the neighbors who had kinky sex; the neighbor who was likely dead but everyone was too afraid to check. After Jack left, Viv saved his number in her cellphone and played “Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux” on the record player. She reclined on her velvet indigo arm chair, sifted through her dead neighbor’s magazine subscriptions, propped her bare feet on the thin windowsill, and called Tess, even though it was barely 7 a.m. in Los Angeles.
Tess was awake, even on a Saturday, because Tess liked to go to sleep long before Davey came home from his fledgling comedy gigs. Davey would need to drink at least five more beers to fall asleep. Tess told Viv that he needed it to treat his insomnia; Viv said, Sounds like some Dr. Oz bullshit.
What Tess did not tell Viv is that she had caught Davey one night, sitting in the corner of the bedroom, the laptop on the ottoman, jerking off to porn. Really, it had been more than a few nights. When she finally confronted Davey, he told her he just needed more, but Tess did not know what more she could give.
On the redwood balcony, flanked between two wispy birch trees, Tess viewed her sliver of the reservoir, a vacant pit once flushed with blue. Joggers still trotted in elongated circles, past construction zones and dying bushes. She loosely tied her taupe sweater duster at the waist, folded herself into a plastic hunter-green Adirondack chair, and pressed her cellphone harder against her ear, straining to hear what was happening in Viv’s 400 square feet of Bloomfield.
“Are you listening to Nina again?” Tess asked.
Viv ripped out a coupon for laser hair removal from Women’s Day. “Maybe.”
“That’s so fucking depressing.”
“It’s beautiful.” Viv traded Women’s Day for Town & Country.
“Sadness isn’t beautiful, Viv.”
“There is no happy love, Tess.”
Tess walked to the edge of the balcony and hoisted herself onto the railing. “You don’t need to tell me that.”
Tess knew Davey could be better; she knew they had to try. Six weeks ago, she’d booked a trip up the Central Coast, hoping to quell the part of his mind that spun madly. They went for an extended weekend, four days out of cellphone range and Internet access. Davey drove, 300 miles north on the PCH, stopping along the way at Santa Barbara, the Los Padres forest, Pismo Beach. She read him essays from Harper’s and The New Yorker; they argued over food politics, cruelty as art, and confessional poetry. He did not enjoy any of the poems she’d chosen, finding Adrienne Rich too political and Louise Glück too thin. But he liked how Tess read, a calm wave that somehow pierced the wind escaping the highway. Tess tried not to chastise Davey for getting lost, U-turning on rugged canyon roads until he swerved to the side, steadying the car beside a valley of trees. Calm down, he said. We’ll make it.
They were in a mossy bungalow just east of Big Sur, one of the last places in California, it seemed, which still possessed some green. The host had left them a bottle of wine (from a winery in the valley down the road) and some packaged chocolates. The bed was larger and softer than the one at home in Silver Lake. Two French doors opened onto a raised patio, surrounded by fir trees that created a natural blue-tinged canopy. Davey had said it was perfect.
He made a fire in the white-brick fireplace and Tess prepared siomai (her mother’s recipe) and pierogi (Babcia’s recipe). They ate on the patio, nestled together on the cushioned love seat, and toasted the wine, drinking two full glasses. Tess changed into a new lingerie set, which the salesgirl at Victoria’s Secret said would make her look like a “sexy angel” with her long black hair shadowing the pale pink lace. Davey fingered the garter belt, undid her bra, twisted her hair back when she straddled him against the headboard. Tess felt sexy, but not like an angel, and she slid down to the sheets, overwhelmed by the wine and adrenaline. Her mind, now, spun madly like his. She pulled the sheet to her waist. Davey snapped her wrist back and pressed her arm against the mattress. The bed wasn’t softer than the one at home; it was firm; it had hardened. He said, I can’t be in a relationship with someone who can’t be my sexual equal. She said, Can you let me go? He said he couldn’t. She said, Then go, but please let me go.
“It’s the 21st century—why am I still Googling ‘is it spotting or am I pregnant?’” Tess asked Viv over the phone, that Saturday morning, two days before she peed on three little white sticks. “You’d think we’d have this shit figured out.”
“Why are we still getting pregnant?” Viv said. “Where are those bionic uteruses?”
“Uteri,” Tess corrected.
“That’s what they’re called?” Viv said. “Sounds very Silicon Valley.”
“Forget it.” Tess could not put up with Viv this week, but Viv was the only woman, really, she could put up with. Although Viv was saying, You’ll be fine, Tess, you’ll be fine, Tess knew what Viv was really thinking: This sucks, Tess, this really fucking sucks.
“Be real, for a sec.” Tess paced in quick strides. “Be real, Viv.”
“Real? O.K.” Viv tossed Town & Country onto the floor. “I told you, never date WASPs.”
“You also a comedian now?”
“I didn’t tell you?” Viv lit a cigarette. “Comedy Central called last week.”
Tess paused, tightening the sweater duster around her waist. “You think I’m a joke?”
Viv sighed. “I think your boyfriend is traumatizing you.”
“Thank you,” Tess said.
“I think you’re stressed and pissed,” Viv said. “But I think it’ll come, I do.”
* * *
Viv had a lot of habits, including smoking, double espressos, Saturday afternoon HGTV marathons, and kissing Babcia’s ceramic Virgin Mary statue before leaving the apartment each evening. She could live with all that caffeine and rustic shiplap and questionable idolatry and even dying a premature death—maybe, if the timing was right—but she could only live with it all if she Windexed her prefrontal cortex during that soundless ride through the sprawling marshy majesty of the Meadowlands on the last train back to New Jersey.
Jack did not call her; not after a week, not after two. Viv did not like to think of herself as a mourner, someone who pines for an entirely believable but ultimately fantastical encounter until the longing fossilizes into resentment. Viv was a Jersey girl; she did not play nicely with patience. She had always insisted that she could fuck whoever whenever. That’s what boys do, she would say. That’s what Viv did.
The next week, after spraying and scrubbing all the mirrors in the salon, she traveled into the city with her coworkers, who wanted to dance at this new club on the Lower East Side. They pooled their tip earnings and got a cab, passed around a flask in the Tunnel, stuck their arms and heads out all along Second Avenue. Viv danced until her body clashed with a man in expensive blue jeans and a silky striped button down. Her coworkers, having witnessed this before, knew Viv would disappear, and they would not look for her.
The process of erasing went something like this: Viv would hug her body underneath her bulky thrift-store leather jacket and drift back through alleyways and artist lofts and college dorm rooms, filing them away one by one in her mental filing cabinet until she reached Matt, the leather seats, his sweat, the hum of the low-flying jet planes, his elbows resting on either side of her head, his knees spreading hers. She still could not see his face, ten years later, because she kept her face turned to the right, her nose grazing the leather seat.
Viv was trying, desperately, to keep a man, any man, which may have been part of the problem. You can get a man, any man, to go out with you, sleep with you, live with you, marry you, but it’s these very men who will wear you down until you’re all bone and cartilage.
Yet they had warned her, hadn’t they? They had given her signals, written out demands along her body. There were never any lies in the fucking, only lies in Viv’s retelling of it. And Babcia, poor Babcia. She had done everything the right way. She had used her Social Security checks to buy Viv a mother-of-pearl rosary; a new bedroom set for her dorm room; a blazer from Easy Pickins for her work-study position at the business school. When Viv dropped out of Rowan and returned to Bloomfield to wheel Babcia into the nursing home, she took a job at a local pub, pouring Jameson and Bacardi into open mouths, some of which she kissed, later, in the kitchen, the basement, the alley. Viv hid her exhaustion behind sunglasses and sarcasm. Babcia would sigh, When will you wise up, Wisława.
And when Babcia drifted into unconsciousness for the final time, Viv stroked her veins, already sinking between the folds of her forearm, until the priest led her away from the bed and down the hall to the multipurpose “faith room.” Having cast aside her Catholicism long ago, Viv begged for this multipurpose faith, envisioning a goddess, a gentle goddess, enwrapping Bloomfield in her elongated arms. She said to the goddess, beneath that sickly yellow light, please don’t leave me lonely.
As Train 2203 jerked past the Kearny shipyards, Viv bit into a Boston cream doughnut and paused the routine Windexing. Perhaps this is what Babcia meant, all those hours she curled Viv’s thin hair and ironed her skirts; the nights they practiced their vocabulary together at the kitchen table; the Sundays she took Viv to Mass for a little bit of grace and the library for some peace. Babcia, who rode the trains and buses alone nearly every decade of her life. She had taught Viv to always keep her pocketbook zippered, and to hold it firmly on her lap (never place it on the floor or, Lord, on the seat beside you); to keep her ankles crossed and knees together (never cross your legs at the knee on public transit, this isn’t the bar); to stare straight ahead to avoid attention, but if a man did sit beside her, to talk politely and sweetly but not actively or attentively (never ask him a question, which invites further conversation, a conversation you never wanted to have). Babcia believed in the rules. Viv, having seen Babcia solemn and steadfast and so, so exhausted as she rolled her little metal cart up and down Bloomfield Avenue, never did.
Earlier that night, Viv had let the man from the dance club fuck her against a brick wall. She felt the skin break, everywhere, her skirt up and thong down. He shimmied her around, her skirt still lifted, and pressed his body over hers. She turned her face to the right. She sucked the blood from her knuckles on the walk to Penn Station. She walked 20 blocks, at least. Outside Madison Square Garden, a man without a jacket said she was beautiful. She said thank you. He asked her name, and she said, Wisława. He said, is that Russian? and she said yes, even though it wasn’t. In the bathroom, she rinsed her ass with damp paper towels that streaked pink and black, plucked specks of brick and stone from her upper thighs. She tossed her thong into the trash can.
The long bathroom mirror reflected a woman who still, somehow, beneath the cracked makeup and runny black eyes, looked younger than what she knew. The fluorescent lights howled: Don’t go back to Jersey. Don’t go back to anywhere.
Viv did not want to leave the train at Bloomfield, but the last stop was only another five miles down the tracks. Where’s the adventure in a last stop if it’s so familiar; if it’s home? She limped down Bloomfield Avenue. The storefronts were black but cars still streamed by. She slid onto the red leather stool at the diner counter, the one she and Tess had once occupied all summer. She sat with her ankles crossed, knees together. She kept her purse, zippered, on her lap. She said hello to the 60-something-year-old man who sat beside her; replied thank you when he said she had stunning eyes. He wore a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt even though it was October. She ordered a cheeseburger and French onion soup for breakfast. He placed his hand on her knee and she left it there. He offered to drive her home and she said Thank you, thank you, but no, thank you. He followed her outside.
* * *
Davey had said couples needed to fight as much as they fucked. It was healthy, expected. When do you learn more about a person than when they’re engaged in argument, two inches from your nose and spitting red? Davey’s neck colored first; eventually, the flush reached his temples, outlining his square Ray Ban frames. Tess’s eyes shimmered black. She climbed onto the middle rung of the balcony. The reservoir emptied; the joggers slowed to a walk. She questioned if he was ready. Davey grabbed her wrist, the second time. The redwood balcony splintered beneath her bare feet. He said he would be committed to his child. Tess asked if he would be committed to her.
Tess drove west on the 10, into rolls of the late-day mist. This was the grayest Los Angeles; this Los Angeles was the closest to home. She tried to listen to her female sense, her good sense, what it told her about his face, how he smiled, close-lipped, when he came. How he said nothing the first time. How he said nothing when they drove past Little Dom’s and she told him she loved him. The first time. She remembered Viv whispering, “Give me death.” Tess could not explain to you this death sentence. She followed ducklings flop-flopping their way down a side street in Venice Beach, finding their mother wading in a canal. She watched brown sparrows flick their wings in a puddle of oily water. Ama Namin, she prayed, Ama namin, sumasalangit Ka. Kids rollerbladed past in multicolored helmets and kneepads; others ran by holding kites and mini skateboards. Santa Maria, Ina ng Diyos, she tried this time, Ina ng Diyos. She thought of little children in Halloween costumes. In face paint. In onesie pajamas. Little children with red noses sipping hot coca. Red noses pressed against the chilled bay window in Babcia’s apartment. A cyclone of fat snowflakes. Christmas lights illuminating tiny feet and pudgy torsos. Asleep in a lopsided fort of blankets and throw pillows. Falling asleep waiting. Waiting. “Fucking Christ,” she said to herself.
Tess circled back east. She called Viv from a strip mall parking lot just south of Hollywood and Highland; only the laundromat was open. Live music floated down from Highland: a drum circle in front of the Chinese Theater. Tess had longed to experience things first, but she never wanted to be the one who would call Viv with some wild story or unexamined feeling.
Viv reclined on her bed in her bathrobe and drank coffee past midnight, like how Babcia would do on the days she drained the rosary. “Son of a Preacher Man,” Dusty Springfield, played from the turntable. She tried to imagine a lover here, refilling her coffee, choosing a new record—something familiar. Something they both liked. Viv had solitude, but she had long craved Tess’s quiet comfort.
But Tess had neither. Comfort eluded her; the quiet, it beat in her stomach as loud as the drum circle a mile away. She phoned Viv and told her, “You never think you won’t be a mother.”
“It’s like, it’ll always be there.” Viv dipped her toe on the fire escape, testing the metal floor like a cat tests a still pool of water. “Waiting for you.”
“Babcia always told us there would be a man and a baby.” Tess stepped out of her sedan and paced in small circles. The Roosevelt Hotel sign kept vigil over Hollywood’s darkened crevices.
Viv sat on the fire escape, pinching her bathrobe closed. Bloomfield was dim and tired, except for her neighbors, the kinky sex ones, whose silhouettes danced from one position to the next against their white curtains. She slid down to her knees and sucked on her raw knuckles.
“What if there’s no man,” Viv said.
“What,” Tess said, “if there’s no baby.”
And so Tess became one of those women who sits in the last pew at weddings, stays for the vows but leaves well before the husband and wife rush down the aisle, bouquets and bubbles overhead. It had started with the wedding of her college boyfriend, Chad, an Evangelist Christian from Waco, Texas. (“You can’t marry a Chad,” Viv had said during their summer break between freshman and sophomore year, after Tess flashed her promise ring: sterling silver twisted into a rhinestone-studded cross.) Then there was Leo, the tattoo artist she’d dated after Davey, when she felt a little tipsy with rebellion. Shaun, a lawyer, was the only man other than Davey with whom she’d shared an apartment. And there Tess sat, before she left Los Angeles, at age 34, with a one-way ticket to Newark, in the last row at the Korean Cultural Center on Wilshire Boulevard, watching Davey marry a woman nearly 10 years his junior. His neck tightened when his eyes passed over hers. They hadn’t spoken since Tess moved out six years ago. Davey never blamed her for the abortion. He blamed her, still, for leaving.
Six months later, Tess and Viv sat in the last row of Sacred Heart, clinging to the leather clutches on their laps. Viv wore an iridescent pink shift; Tess, a floral halter sundress. They didn’t know this bride and groom, a twentysomething Filipino couple: the Mendozas, the lovely Mendozas.
“This is pathetic, Tess,” Viv said.
“That could’ve been me,” Tess whispered back.
“Fuck off.” Viv rolled her eyes. “You never liked Filipino guys.”
“If I had a dollar for every ex who said they loved me so much, then got engaged—” Tess began.
“You would have about five dollars,” Viv finished.
“I’ll take that five dollars,” Tess said.
Tess got a job working in public relations at a start-up in the city and rented a brand-new “luxury” apartment in the heart of downtown Montclair. Viv, promoted to manager at the hair salon two years ago, had upgraded to a polished one-bedroom overlooking the Bloomfield Green, which she shared with Ramon, her boyfriend of two years. The old girls were women now, neither young nor old. They returned to their high-school haunts, the diner, the pizzeria, the pub. Tess, still donning her cardinal Stanford sweater, thrived on running into high school classmates, regaling them with tales about Los Angeles, con- gratulating them on their marriages and babies. She’d turn to Viv once they left and snort, “Everyone is so basic.”
Viv had already been through this, the pitiful basic-ness, the humiliating familiarity. Before Ramon, she’d suffered the invites and blind dates set up by her clients. She couldn’t close down the pub with Tess without brushing the forearm of a former alleyway fuck. All of them were married but would still grip Viv’s waist when they approached her bar stool from behind.
Ramon was a perfectly normal man—a nice guy, even—from Elizabeth, New Jersey: a middle-school math teacher, a soccer fan, a dog lover, a coffee drinker, a secret video gamer. The type of man who sits in the corner of the bar, keeps his thoughts to himself, reads the news and listens to all opinions before making a judgment. Viv was afraid to tell Tess about Ramon; she felt guilty now for having him, and she knew she should. When Ramon first met Tess, she’d bought a round of Jameson for everyone at the bar, then tried to persuade Viv to attend an after-party with some off-duty firefighters.
“We’re tired,” Viv told Tess. “Right, babe?” She said, looking at Ramon, who curled his chin to his chest in mock exhaustion.
Tess drunkenly slung her arm around Ramon’s shoulder and pulled him a little too close. “You ruined her,” she told him. “Absolutely ruined.”
Ramon flinched. “The fuck?”
“She used to be so Viv,” Tess said. “She fucked every guy in here.”
“Tess—” Viv pulled her by the waist. Viv always had a very public life in Bloomfield, whether she wanted one or not. Once you become the girl who has a revolving love life, you are left on that rotating pedestal like a plastic ballerina frozen, in motion, as an adolescent girl in satin pink.
Tess kept going, swinging her double shot of Jameson. “Didn’t you, Viv? All these guys. Even the trucker over there.”
“Maria Teresa.” Viv grabbed her by the shoulders this time. She ducked Tess’s arm, which cut through the air like a pitcher’s windup, Jameson spilling onto the tiled floor.
“She can’t remember,” Tess, still staggering, told Ramon. “She never remembers anything.”
Viv and Ramon left Tess at the bar that night with the firefighters. They did not talk on the way home, nor when they were there, in bed, with the lights on.
“Ramon thinks I’m different,” Viv explained to a very hungover Tess over omelets and Bloody Marys the next day.
“You are different,” Tess said. She removed her oversized sunglasses to read a text message from a firefighter, with whom she’d spent the night. “You were right about those guys. Damn, Viv.” Tess waved her cellphone in front of Viv’s face. “Daaaa-mn, girl. He was fine.”
“Told you you needed some—”
“If you say, ‘some D,’ I’m gonna puke all over your eggs.”
Viv stuck a fork in her omelet and pulled out a chunk of eggs and avocado. “Some stress relieving.” She swallowed it theatrically.
Tess slid her Bloody Mary toothpick full of green olives into her mouth. Eyes closed, she slowly sucked each olive. “Mmm, Viv.”
Viv rolled her eyes and threw a home fry at Tess. “Feel better?”
Tess placed the mostly empty toothpick back into her Bloody Mary and took a thoughtful sip. “I’d feel better if you did, too.”
Viv looked beyond Tess, beyond her black hair gathered into an off-centered topknot, to a group of moms clad in luxury activewear, strappy laced-back crop tops and cutout leggings dyed various earth tones. They pushed strollers, green smoothies resting in the cup holders, their children shielded by black mesh.
Tess, too impatient to wait for an answer, turned too. The mothers had stopped to soothe a crying child, the black mesh zipped back. They smiled and hushed. The old girls wanted to hate it. The old girls knew better than to appear wistful for such things.
Viv lit a cigarette. “I just wish men would stop using me as a pit stop for their betterment.”
Tess sucked down the last of her Bloody Mary. “That’s not a word.”
“It means advancement,” Viv said. “Some people don’t need to go to college, Tess.”
* * *
The old girls, still in their summery wedding outfits, danced barefoot across the train tracks past midnight, their discarded heels poking out of the weeds. They tossed a bottle of Jim Beam and a pack of Parliaments back and forth.
“Ramon’s gonna be pissed,” Viv said.
“He doesn’t let you have any fun,” Tess said.
“Maybe Mrs. Li was right,” Viv said. “We would be better off.”
“So we can play mah-jongg for QVC handbags?” Tess marched to the center of the tracks. “Let’s just end it now.” She stood with her feet shoulder-length apart, spread her arms, and titled her head back.
“Girl, you’ll have to wait another five hours for the 5:38.” Viv said.
She snatched the Jim Beam from Tess and patted her shoulder.
Tess stumbled back, already past her threshold. She did a sloppy twirl then paused, face up to the inky blue sky.
“What is it?” Viv asked.
“How old would your kid be?” Tess asked.
Viv coughed, having just made a quick full circle and swallowing a little too much Jim Beam. She rarely discussed her miscarriage, even with Tess. She often envied that Tess had a choice, and she knew that Tess, too, envied her for escaping a decision.
“Twelve, I think,” Viv said, finally, lighting a cigarette. “I don’t know.”
But Viv did know. She had told Tess, 12 years ago, that she didn’t know the father. That he had been a friend of a friend of a patron at the pub. She was too embarrassed to say that it was Mike, the thirtysomething musician she’d met at a folksy coffeehouse show in Jersey City. They dated for almost a year—something else she, had kept from Tess. Back then, Viv preferred—no, resorted—to calling it “whatever, a fling, I guess.” It’s what she had called everything. The miscarriage, too, was considered a reprieve. Don’t we all like a fake-out sometimes, a true streak of fate? Viv didn’t know she was pregnant until the morning she drove herself to Mountainside Hospital, soaking several pads with purple-grey tissue and blood clots larger than quarters. The doctor said she was sorry. The nurses said they were sorry. Viv said, Don’t be, it’s nothing. But she could imagine it then, cross-legged and pants-less on the rubbery green gurney, imagine it because the fantasy had, briefly, been acknowledged. She could imagine peeing on the little white stick and not feeling anger, quitting smoking and her job at the pub, visiting Babcia’s grave with a good, happy message, so that when she came to this hospital in the very same circumstance the doctor and nurses would have a reason to be sorry. She could imagine it until Mike entered her partitioned-off corner of the ER fidgeting with his hoodie and said, Weird, right?
Tess took the bottle of Jim Beam from Viv and sat down in the center of the tracks. With the moon sloped behind the trees, Viv could barely see Tess there, the heavy shadows concealing her face like the long, long sheet of black hair she had as a teenager.
“My due date just passed,” Tess said. “You remember?”
“I remember everything.” Tess had wanted Viv to join her in Los Angeles six years ago for the procedure, having told Davey it wouldn’t be right if he came. She’d bought Viv a one-way ticket and texted her: don’t worry about the money, no paying me back
Viv texted: i don’t think I can get out of work
And Tess spent an unpaid sick day throwing up into a wastebasket beside her Adirondack chair on the balcony, counting the days left until the procedure. She texted back: i’ll spot you money, just quit
And Viv swept some peroxided curls into the dustpan and texted: quit?? ??
And Tess smoked her first cigarette in years, her hands softly circling her stomach, and texted: i need need need you here viv
And Viv swiveled herself around in her coworker’s chair, and texted: i’ll try old girl
But Viv kept her job at the hair salon and never boarded the plane. Tess drove herself to the clinic, opting out of anesthesia. She sipped plain Lipton tea and answered work emails in the waiting room until they took all her belongings, her phone and purse and jewelry, and placed them in a ziplock bag inside a school-sized locker. She stopped at a Ralph’s on the way home to buy pomegranate juice and rice cakes. She almost wished she had the anesthesia so she could vomit into the paper bag of “goodies” they gave her, birth control pills and spermicide and a pamphlet of warnings, from possible infections to avoiding tampons and sex. She read the pamphlet three times in the parking lot, lying on her side with the seat down. Davey had called but didn’t leave a message, not even a text. She instead called and left a voicemail for the landlord of her future East Hollywood apartment.
“We could’ve had joint birthday parties,” Viv said, hopping onto the metal ledge of the track. She performed a crooked arabesque, her black ankle boot flexed down toward the weeds.
“Let’s just have our own babies,” Tess said, skipping in a small sloppy circle beside Viv. “Why not?”
“Why not, why not,” Viv sang. She swung her leg forward, leaving her boot dangling off her metatarsals. “Two babies. One for each.”
Tess lit a cigarette and blew the smoke toward the moon. “We should get married, too.”
“Benefits?” Viv asked.
“Financial,” Tess said
“Spiritual.” Viv lit another cigarette, rocking slightly on the metal ledge. She remembered the nights in the blanket fort, when Tess would run her hand over Viv’s breast, gliding it down until their fingers entwined, and they would fall asleep like that, side by side.
“I always loved you, Wisława” Tess said, walking forward until the top of her head aligned with Viv’s neck. “I loved you first.”
Viv brushed back Tess’s black hair and kissed her on the forehead. “I know, Maria Teresa.”
* * *
Babcia had always said knowing when to leave was a skill one acquires with age. She would know—she often joked how she’d never left. But you moved from Jersey City to Bloomfield, Viv would say as Babcia braided her hair on the front porch steps. That’s something. Babcia would twist the ends of Viv’s blond strands and lean back, watch the moths complete their slow spiral into the hanging porch lights, and say, Yes, isn’t that something.
Viv lugged a drunken, heavy-eyed, still-barefoot Tess across Bloomfield Green. They paused at a bench directly across from the statue of Christopher Columbus. Tess murmured something that vaguely sounded like, fuck that guy, and rested her head on Viv’s lap. Viv stroked her fine black hair and said, I know, baby, I know. She stared at Christopher Columbus until she was sure Tess had fallen asleep.
Last winter, Ramon had driven Viv to the shore, to Asbury Park, which was always better during the off-season. They drank spicy hot chocolate and strolled the boardwalk in fingerless gloves, winter turning their noses red. Moody clouds swathed the little big-hearted city from the Stone Pony to the historic Casino. There, they took cover in an alcove of aging wood and new scaffolding. Viv leaned against a slanted beam and Ramon tugged his navy blue beanie over her ears. He told Viv she was a good woman; the type of woman you keep. Viv asked if he wanted to be an honest man. He said she could make him one. Ramon never needed much, and Viv supposed she did not, either. They slipped between unzipped parkas.
“I think I’m leaving him,” Viv said, quietly, still stroking Tess’s hair.
“Ramon is a nice guy,” Tess said, awake but unmoving.
“We’ve never liked nice guys.”
Tess collected herself into a sitting position. The old girls perched with straightened backs, hands clasped in their laps like schoolgirls in church pews, dresses hiked above their knees like women in distress. Bare feet pressed flat on the grass, their heels scattered around the bench. Two very unserious ladies, posing for a portrait no one would dare to take.
“I support your decision to like nice men, Wisława,” Tess said, finally. She lay back down, knees and feet up on the bench, her head in Viv’s lap.
Viv watched the remaining fireflies, the last wild ones, weave across the green. When they were young, the old girls would catch fireflies in the front yard and drop a select few into an old pickle jar fashioned into an insect lair. Holes punched into the lid, grass precisely positioned at the bottom. Tess loved watching the fireflies scuttle in the jar, a natural nightlight. Viv, never knowing what to do with the captured fireflies, preferred the chase. She had tried to figure out their patterns, count the seconds between their flashes, but they never had any pat- terns or codes. They flickered when they wanted to.
Tess fell asleep before Viv could tell her: She wished the old girls knew what to do with them.