Tonight, Sarah didn’t want to get drunk with her parents. There had been too many nights of the same thing, and instead of finding comfort in the routine, it only made her feel increasingly worse about what had happened. Her parents had started drinking early and were too lost in the baseball game between the Pirates and the Marlins to cook dinner. It was a perfect opportunity, Sarah thought. She had been waiting for the perfect opportunity.
She rarely scrutinized what she wore when simply picking up a pizza, but there was someone there she wanted to look good for. Her hope was to get him to think that if she looked this good grabbing a quick dinner for her family, how good would she look at the wedding?
“Let me go with you,” her brother John said, hanging on the doorjamb. She tried not to glance the scars on his arm. It always set him off.
“Okay but I control the radio.”
“I don’t care as long as I can get the fuck out of here for two seconds.”
“Go take a walk.”
“Maybe I just wanna ride, huh? I walk all the time.” John did a double take. “Oh, shit.” He put his hand over his mouth.
“Shut up.” Sarah grabbed the car keys.
“Oh, Sarah! How fetching you look for Paul! How divine!” It was his best impression of a southern belle—fluttering heart, flapping hand and rolling eyes.
She would have loved to punch him right in the gut, but for reasons unspoken in the household, she decided to pull it. Because most of the time, the way her brother didn’t simply sit but sank into wherever he planted himself, as if wishing to disappear, all that Sarah really wanted to do was to hold him and tell him that everything was going to be okay, even if it wasn’t.
John was quiet in the car. Almost pensive, which wasn’t at all what she wanted. She remembered when she was in the hospital with a broken arm, years ago, and her father kept her from crying by talking incessantly about the website he just discovered called FiveThirtyEight, and how Nate Silver was a Nostradamus-like genius. He told her the world was safe because it was predictable, despite evidence before him that the world was not. Her father, she often thought, was too smart to be very useful. But there, in the hospital, he was golden. Though now, whenever she heard the name Nate Silver, her arm would buzz with pain, right near the break.
“I had a dream about fireballs last night,” John said out of nowhere. “Trees were being struck by lighting so hard they were getting like, ripped out of the ground? And then flung toward me. They looked like broccoli in a stir-fry. Flying.”
“Actually it was fun,” he said. “And then today at school a transformer blew outside our window in class? And there was this huge ball of fire. I could feel it.” John went to technical school where he studied the culinary arts. Mostly, they made pancakes.
“So your dream came true?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I think something’s still gonna happen.”
“Get your feet off the dash,” she said.
“It’s not your car.” He loved to remind her, in small ways, that she was 22, still living with her parents and borrowing their car.
“Yeah but you know Bette Thornton? The lady with the foot? She lost it that way.”
“No, she didn’t.”
“Oh? Then how did she lose it then?”
John fell quiet.
“She had her foot right there where yours is and they hit a moose. Or the back end of a moose. The car spun around and when it stopped her foot was gone.”
“Mooses ain’t around here,” John said.
“They’ve been seen as far south as Jim Thorpe.”
“Whatever.” Still, he placed his foot on the mat and that was the end of that. Sarah always thought John inherited his intelligence and sense of self-preservation from their mother while she got it from their father. In essence, Sarah wanted to live, thank you very much.
After a while he asked, “Do you think if a bird mom made a nest out of cat hair, the bird would grow up without a fear of cats?”
“John?” she said, pulling into the strip mall. “Never change.”
Without breaking her stride, Sarah checked herself in the glass door of the pizza shop before pulling it open. It was a flash of an inspection, undetectable but vital.
She stopped in the vestibule when she realized that John was following her all the way in.
“Don’t come in with me,” she whispered.
“Why not? Think I’ll ruin your game?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
John blew air between his lips and wobbled his head back and forth. His eyes traced back to the door, as if considering giving her this, but he changed his mind and walked in by himself, digging through his pockets for something.
Sarah followed, deflated.
A stringy teenaged girl with braces and heavy bangs stood at the cash register, tapping her pen to the Taylor Swift song that blasted through the sound system. A few elderly couples sat in booths just inside the small eat-in area, slumping over their pizzas and speaking lowly, not looking at each other. An old Pac-Man and The Sopranos pinball machine sat nestled beside a large, generally untouched, gumball dispenser. John stood before The Sopranos pinball game and slipped a quarter inside. The large console sprung to life, blinking and flailing with colors and lights. A few of the older guests looked over curiously, perhaps disappointed upon learning that the thing worked at all.
“Can I get a large plain?” Sarah asked, stealing a glance toward the back.
“And Coke!” John called from the game.
“Fine. And a bottle of Coke.”
“A large Coke or a small Coke? Two liter or 16 ounce?” the girl asked. Her eyes looked barely open. Maybe it was her bangs.
“Two,” she said. And then, just in case she was assuming she meant quantity, she added, “Liter.”
The girl nodded, tapped the order into the computer. It took a long time. The music switched over to Bruno Mars. Sarah wanted to ask if Paul was working, but decided against it. She would hate to appear desperate under any circumstances whatsoever.
Sarah paid for the food and went to the pinball game to watch as John essentially wrecked whatever ambiance these patrons were hoping for in this low-end, strip mall pizza joint.
“You suck at pinball,” she said, even though that was a lie.
He flipped her off and kept playing.
The front door cried open and banged closed. A small woman in a T-shirt and jeans walked up to the counter with a paper bag in her hand. Sarah’s heart did a flip-flop, and her face felt like it was about to go up in flames. She tried to focus on her brother’s stupid game but instead watched the woman through the reflection of a large mirror that hung along the back of the restaurant.
The woman whispered something to the girl at the register. The girl at the register nodded and went to the back. In a moment, Paul emerged, wiping his hands on a towel. He wore a large white apron over a gray T-shirt and jeans. He hadn’t changed much since she last saw him save a new growth of stubble along his jaw line. Sarah felt her entire body flip on.
The woman handed the bag over to him and he looked inside briefly before thanking her. Over the counter she leaned, he leaned, and hovering in the middle they kissed—a single, tepid peck. So different from the ones she shared with him. She could feel herself melting away.
The woman turned and Sarah dropped her head, focusing harder on the game. But in the reflection, she could see Paul notice her there and stiffen. The woman had seen her, too. Through the mirror, Sarah and the woman locked eyes, but she couldn’t turn around. Maybe if she stayed very still and just focused on the little ball and John, then everything would be fine and it would be as if this wasn’t happening. She thought of her father’s voice in the hospital, Nate Silver, predictability, and knew that she was doomed.
The woman spun around to Paul, and now Sarah could only see the back of her head. Sarah had made it a point not to remember the woman’s name. She would always be “the woman”. The woman who…. The woman who had two kids with Paul. The woman who wore a ring. The woman who shared a house with Paul. The woman who didn’t wear any makeup. The woman who stopped touching Paul after their second child, two years ago. The woman who found them in the bathroom of the pizza shop giving Paul a BJ while Katy Perry’s “Roar” played over the sound system. The woman who screamed the most awful, guttural scream Sarah had ever heard. The woman who made Sarah feel like a bad person. The woman who made Sarah and Paul cry. The woman who made Paul tell Sarah that he never wanted to see her again even though he didn’t mean it.
“She’s getting pizza,” Paul said softly.
“Is she?” the woman’s voice shook.
“She’s getting a large plain and a—” the girl began mechanically, but Paul cut her off.
“She’s allowed to get pizza.” His voice was so measured, so secure. She missed his smell, missed his eyes meeting hers. Missed the way he touched her hair.
“I come all the way here—” she spat.
“Let’s not do this here.”
John had stopped playing his game and now listened without fully turning toward the unfolding drama. Some of the elderly patrons had caught wind, and sat rapt, their pizzas dangling before their half-open mouths. Never before had she thought this, but right then, Sarah would have been okay if she were suddenly very old, without these problems.
“I hope you get a fucking seizure,” said the woman, snatching the bag out of his hands. Sarah fully turned toward them now, mouth agape. Paul stood stunned, hurt, his hands open from where she wrenched his seizure medication. Even the girl with the drooping eyes appeared as if she had been struck by lightning.
“Shit,” the woman said, putting her hand over her eyes. She collected herself and placed the bag on the counter. Without a word to anyone, she turned and walked out.
Paul slowly took the bag in both hands and held it for a long moment without moving. He looked so small then, even standing over six feet. She had cut him down at the knees with deftness only acquired after years of practice. Sarah didn’t doubt for a minute that he deserved it, even though they hadn’t slept together since she walked in on them in the bathroom. She would have probably reacted the same exact way had she been in Mia’s position. Paul wasn’t somebody you lose casually.
Around back, where the dumpsters congregated and hunched, casting thick shadows along the macadam, Paul and Sarah shared a cigarette. John waited inside for the pizza. According to Paul, Hugo was making it. He was new, and kind of on Paul’s shit list for reasons Sarah didn’t care to learn about.
“I swear I just wanted pizza,” she said.
Paul looked at her then, a mirthless smirk on his face. “No, you didn’t.”
Sarah sighed and took his cigarette in her mouth. It was almost like kissing him.
“You don’t need to get messed around with me,” he said after a while. “You could get anybody.”
“So you don’t want me?” she asked without looking at him.
“Of course I do. But I’m forty. With kids.”
“That’s still young, Paul. You really want to go the rest of your life this unhappy?” Paul frowned. “I’m not saying it has to be with me, but—god, I mean you don’t want this, right?”
“You don’t believe that,” he said. “That it doesn’t have to be you.”
“Well, it would be nice.”
“I could throw that same argument at you. You’re still young. You have the rest of your life. When you’re forty I’ll be fifty-eight.”
“It really should be me,” she admitted. “I mean: this is all we ever do. What if there was more to it than that?”
Like going out to dinner, going for walks in the daylight, watching movies, taking vacations, cooking together, reading together, all of the above. She wanted to say this, but to say exactly what she wanted required a level of bravery that she didn’t have.
Instead she said, “You know.”
“I don’t know.”
“I want more than this.”
Paul sighed and finished the cigarette by scraping it against the building and slipping it inside the maw of a dumpster. Wordlessly, like falling into an old dance, Paul wrapped his arms around her and kissed her, fully, pressing her against the grimy stucco. He smelled of pizza and cigarettes and sweat. He touched her through her sweater, through her leggings, slipped his hand inside. She thought of what her brother had said About birds’ nests made of cat hair. The bird being so accustomed to the smell of its mortal enemy that it was incapable of sensing the danger in which it was putting itself. It felt so normal, doing this. Being the one to wrench him from the doldrums of his everyday, to make him feel safe and give him hope while there was in fact nothing on the other side but more of the same hurt. Because this was all that it would ever be. This was all she would ever be. Only this.
“Right here,” he said.
She faced the stucco now, her cheek grazing the stone. “I don’t want this.”
He laughed. He thought she was joking. “This is all you ever want, baby.”
The cool night air stung her exposed behind. She felt her underwear down near her knees. She couldn’t get Mia’s expression out of her head and the sound of that guttural cry upon finding Sarah on the bathroom floor with her husband’s cock in her mouth. She felt him press between her legs, naked, seeking out the place where he could hide. He hadn’t listened to her when she said she wanted more. In fact, he never really listened to her. And the more she gave him what he wanted, the less likely things would change. This was how it would always be.
“Paul, stop,” she said.
“Come on, Sarah. We’ll make it quick.”
“Stop it!” she said, pushing from the wall and facing him.
He backed off, his face red as he struggled to shove himself back into his jeans. He could have made it work, but the half-assed effort proved that he didn’t want to. His need was greater. His cock bobbed clumsily under the sodium vapor lights, veins bulging against the backdrop of purple skin. It looked sick, wrong.
“What are you…are you serious right now?” she asked.
He said nothing, too ashamed to speak but too hungry to stop. She turned away, not wanting to watch as he took care of himself between the dumpsters. It took about as long as a yellow light moves from green to red.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” he asked after zipping himself up.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You couldn’t if you tried.”
Sarah peeled herself from the wall, unable to look away from the glob sliding down the green painted monstrosity. She had hoped to be more for him, someone worth escaping with, someone special. But she wasn’t, and it had never been clearer as it was then. And now, he was nothing to her but a graying, horny pizza shop owner.
“The fuck is your problem?” he said, his hands on his hips.
Paul’s eyes widened. For the first time, she felt as if she had tapped into something so destructive that she could barely stand it.
“Hey! There you are,” John called, walking toward them. He held the pizza in his hands. The two-liter Coke hung from his arm, suspended in a plastic bag. It swung, hitting against his rail-thin body. He stopped when he saw them. He couldn’t have known what had transpired, but there between them hung enough naked shame that he had a pretty good sense. “Hey, look, um,” John began, suddenly finding the ground very interesting. “I was just thinking…I uh…well, I go to culinary school. Not sure if you know that. I was thinking maybe I could, I don’t know….” John looked at him. Paul waited, but nothing more was said.
“You could what, John?” Paul asked, his impatience building.
John threw a supplicating glance at Sarah. So this was why he wanted to go out with her. She should have known. He had been working on pizza at home, had even talked to her about opening his own place in town one day. The idea had made her happy, but that was where it began and ended; she didn’t think that John was actually serious about it. But he was—serious enough to put himself out there in his own stumbling, shy way, and ask for a job. To her surprise, he was finally thinking about the future. She wondered too if he had stopped hurting himself. She was so happy for him. So happy and so envious. She nodded at John to continue.
“Well I could come in maybe. If you needed the help. I could learn and maybe help out the guy in the back. He seemed stressed.”
“I don’t think so,” Paul said, lighting up another cigarette.
“I’d stay away,” she said. “If you gave him this, I’d never come back here again.”
Paul’s eyes flashed in anger. “It’s that easy, isn’t it?”
Sarah hugged herself, stole another glance at the once viscous glob on the dumpster, now turning to a transparent, forgettable line. “John’s a hard worker. He’s very passionate about making pizza.”
John grinned, embarrassed. “I am.”
Paul looked at them both, took a long drag from his cigarette and blew it in Sarah’s direction.
“No,” he said.
John’s face fell.
“I gotta go back in. There are other pizza shops, okay? Okay, John?”
“Okay,” John said, nodding quickly. “No problem, man.”
Paul shot one last venomous glance toward Sarah and went inside through the back. Sarah couldn’t move.
“The pizza’s getting cold,” her brother said with a heavy voice.
“I’m sorry, John.”
“I asked the other pizza place but they don’t need people right now. Next closest one is thirty minutes away.”
“I’m really sorry,” she said, shaking her head.
“What the fuck happened?”
“I wouldn’t let him.” She rolled her eyes, and John nodded in understanding.
“Good,” he said.
At home, they lay the untouched pizza on the table with the Coke and went into their parents’ liquor cabinet. Sarah filled two glasses high with rum and Coke before walking to the back porch with John. Their parents were outside examining something on the ground. They looked like children.
John and Sarah approached them, sipping their drinks.
“Starling nest,” their father said.
“Don’t touch it,” said their mother. “It has bugs all over it, probably.” To her, everything outside had bugs all over it.
“There’s pizza on the table,” said John.
“Aren’t you eating?” their father asked, eyeing their drinks.
“We’re not hungry,” said Sarah.
Their parents hurried inside to pick at the cooling pizza. She knew they wouldn’t come back out. They preferred the indoors—the both of them—because the outside made them itch.
“We’re not gonna talk about it, are we?” John said after a while.
“Nope,” said Sarah.
“I’m gonna ask you again when you’re finished with that.”
Sarah laughed, which made John laugh, too. She liked hearing it. It didn’t happen often, but more and more these days, it was becoming a regular thing. They didn’t end up talking about it after all, but of other things that they’d forget about the next morning. Of stepping on bees, dream interpretations, and why they never heard their parents argue anymore. They swung back and forth on the bench by the door and drank until the crickets came out, and the bats swooped down, circling toward the earth, as if hoping to find something they’d lost.