My mother always had a guest over when I came home from school. Sometimes it was the next-door neighbor. Other times my aunt, or a co-worker from the hospital. Her constant shuffle between the neighborhood, the family, and the workplace appeared to be methodical, a calculated keeping-up of appearances. It was as though she needed to maintain a foothold in each social sphere, or else run the risk of losing her context. And yet, somewhere along the way, this anxiety dulled. By the time I entered junior high, my mother’s round robin had come to a complete stop, the array of guests narrowed down to just one person: Mrs. Russell, an old friend from the PTA book club. They would sit on the back patio with a glass of wine and crackers and I would give a quick “hi” as I got my snack, then make my way upstairs to do my homework. Or play videogames on mute.
One day, at the tail end of seventh grade, I came home to the sound of Mrs. Russell crying. My mother stopped me in the kitchen before I could get my snack. She told me to go to my room. I ran upstairs and listened to their conversation from the back window. Mrs. Russell had found a flyer for a “gay party” in the backseat pocket of her husband’s car. When she asked him about it, he told her that he no longer loved her and wished to file for divorce. My mother kept repeating “what an asshole” under her breath.
That night I sat in bed and tried to picture what a flyer for a gay party would look like. The scribbles of funny men danced in my mind; they faded away when I tried to focus on any individual figure. I could see the flyer. It was printed on yellow paper. The color, I felt, had to be yellow, for some unknowable reason. And in the front seat of a car, the shadowed figure of a man. Mr. Russell, void-like in his unloving. He crumpled the flyer in his fist. His face was all scratched out. I’d never met him before.
I gave up on sleep and went downstairs to the garage. My bike, long since out of commission, lay hidden behind the rusted weight rack. The back tire flat, but still rideable. And I knew how to get to Mrs. Russell’s house. I’d been there a few times with my mother, when I was younger. Just a few blocks away, behind the community golf course. I could make it there in ten minutes, maybe less.
Mrs. Russell's house was much smaller than I remembered. A prefab duplex in a low-cost housing development. The surrounding street was quiet. No dogs in the side yards. No sighs from late-night joggers. No crickets. Only the sound of my tire as it flattened against the pavement. I stopped, stuck in the driveway, unsure of what to do next. Inside, the lights were still on. I could see a man at the window, bent over the kitchen sink. He ate what looked like ornamental candies from a jar. Glass bon-bons cut up the inside of his mouth. The shards got caught in between his teeth. I probably saw this all wrong. But I think I wanted to see the wrong thing.
The sound of plastic scraping concrete came from the side yard. I kept still. Mrs. Russell walked toward the curb, a trash bin pulled behind her. She stopped and looked at me.
“It’s late,” she said.
We stood there on the cracked blacktop and waited for a release.
On my way back home, I walked my bike up a hill. A set of sprinklers came on, dousing the grass from both sides. My knees were soon wet. Worms stretched themselves onto the sidewalk. They wriggled in the sudden spray, like disembodied limbs, an image that made me nauseous. I attempted to step on every worm as they emerged. I wanted to still them. To stop their squirming. But there were so many—I couldn’t help but miss a few. As I walked to school the next morning, I found the worms dead, all dried up in the hot sun. They were nothing but bloody flakes now, little red bits plastered to the pavement. A few splotches on my sneakers.