You can’t blame the children

Adrianna Jereb

So I licked the dust of my hometown off my fingers like fine salt, all clean, got a transfer to this 24-hour Taco Bell in the city, so I could go to college and translate poetry and fork over $500 a month for a room in a house with three housemates who never do dishes or buy toilet paper. One has a dog that shits on the hallway carpet. Another roommate has to walk it for her. (Not me.) I guess she’s depressed — the one with the dog — which is why she’s always in her room. But still. I don’t know what to do when I find the poop. Do I pretend not to see it and hope someone else cleans up? Text her and tell her it’s there? Quietly sneak the broom and dustpan out of the kitchen closet and tiptoe through the living room, hurrying because now, absurdly, I’m anxious that someone will see me, scoff, say, You shouldn’t have to do that! and accuse me of needing to speak up for myself? The third roommate is a tech bro who fucks his girlfriend loudly on the other side of my wall. He makes too much money to live with us — I’ve seen his suits, and his leather shoes with the square toes — he should be in a minimalist flat, with a rooftop pool. When I complained about the sex sounds, he ordered me noise-cancelling headphones. They’re Bluetooth. The one who walks the dog is super Christian and wants to save me. Super Christian to the rescue! But I know my limits. I can’t save her either.

And now? It's 9 pm, my shift's over, I'm going to go home and peel off my sweaty socks — but there’s a text. A lot of texts. Housemate group chat says, You can’t come back. The Land Lord found out there’s four of us and changed the locks. This is bad. This is bad. The back of my throat feels stuffed full of lint. Sorry, the Lord says we can’t let you in, the Christian writes, since you're not on the lease. But I’ll hold your stuff for you and you can get it tomorrow. FUCK YOU I type out. But they don’t hate me. They were all home and I wasn’t, and someone was getting kicked out, and I wasn't there to defend myself. Must have been Lola, they decided. My hair smells like grease and cinnamon twists. I have a vision of myself walking up to the door and testing my key then texting Ringgggg. Ringggggggg. Ring ring ring ring ring ring poundonthedoor shout hey I know you’re there I can hear the dog barking! I can hear the dog barking! and finally they shout back and I see myself from the outside, I’m a neighbor watching the drama from across the street, (neighbor-me shakes her head, that girl over there looks like a mess) so I sit down on the porch with my knees pulled to my chest, I sit there, quiet, getting colder thinking they’ll take pity on me at least let me in for the night and then a cop car pulls up across the street and a cop steps out hands on hips looking both ways before crossing the street and he’s walking slowly like approaching a cornered animal, easy tiger, pretending he's not really here for me, pretending to look both ways down the street but I know — I can’t go back. I don’t send the FUCK YOU text. Sleep at Taco Bell question mark?

Grad School Dropout walks up the sidewalk. He’s a regular. He’s rude to the old couples in line, always on his phone, never holds the door for anyone, but I think he’s okay. We’re approximately the same age and he carries a battered paperback around and is on a leave of absence from grad school in another state, another city much cooler than here. He sees me standing outside the door and waves. I try not to look up but he’s already coming over. I wipe my face, smile. I say, Hey. He says, I’m going out tonight — want to come? I tilt my head like I’m debating. Come on — we never hang out! he says. I can’t stay out too late, I say. I have other pressing engagements. He grins, and soon enough — after he’s gone back in and got himself two soft shell tacos and each of us a Baja Blast — we’re leaving a bar downtown, our hips bumping as we walk. His arm’s wrapped over my shoulder like a vine desperate for sunlight, and he is much taller than I realized. My eyes are wide: rum and Coke and rum and Coke — caffeine keeping me awake when I shouldn’t be. It’s almost midnight. We’ve been talking for hours but I can’t remember anything either he or I have said. My friends kicked me out, I blurt. Your friends sound terrible. They're not really – I know I should have — this is my second year of college — I should have a group to sit with at cafeteria dinners. He says, Want to go to my place?

His apartment is fantastic. This is where Tech Bro should be living! I run out to the patio. (There’s a patio!) Wow, the whole city is out there, blinking back at me. I cling to the railing, it’s cold under my hands, and I forget he’s even there. This is highhhhh up. A breeze — my hair tickles my neck. This upside-down world: this morning I woke up in my bed, in my sheets I probably should wash since I haven’t since I put them on the bed, and now I’m here — no sheets of my own. Where’s your bathroom? I ask. He points me back inside — I slam the door shut and nearly piss myself trying to unbutton my pants. Done, I walk back through the apartment, turning on all the lights. The kitchen is very bright; I imagine it during the day, flooded with sunlight. “La luz como el agua,” that’s a story you should read. Two boys ask for a boat, and their parents give in — it’s a bribe, so what if they live in an apartment, smack dab in the middle of the Iberian peninsula? On Wednesdays the parents go to the movies and the boys haul the boat upstairs. They turn on all the lights and flood the house, and sail on the seas of electricity. In Grad School Dropout’s apartment there’s a cute den with a soft rug and a giant TV and shelves and shelves of books. There are two bedrooms. One for me? What luck — Hey. He’s back inside and looking at me. I feel suddenly bashful for my exploration. Let’s watch a movie? The couch is small. I want to lay down and sleep, but I feel his body against mine, leaning. He puts an arm over my shoulder. His breath smells like the cigarette he smoked on the patio and from this angle I see we are not the same age, not at all. Maybe I could be into guys sometimes. I think this the way you think to yourself: Who knows? I could be the kind of person who wears gold sneakers! I could be the kind of person who shoves a guy off his couch —

Why cut to the next morning? He wants to fuck me. It’s only surprising because I didn’t accept this from the beginning. Now it feels inevitable, as if I chose this hours ago. See-saw, yellow light, colder, colder, I mean, I guess, oh, your room? the bed? He doesn’t care. This is still a kind of cut-to. It is. But why should I go through the motions again? Why should I repeat a detached play-by-play? A copy of a copy of a copy of a copy es una copia de una copia de una copia de una ad nauseam.

He falls asleep, arms latched around my waist. I feel like a mismatched spoon that disrupts the whole silverware drawer. Like I’m made of spikes. Don’t put me in your mouth. I’ve always been the last to fall asleep. There’s the sound of ice falling into the freezer bin, the ice maker, in the freezer, in the kitchen, and the sound is the madeleine.

At a middle school sleepover, after makeovers; after truth or dare where Kenzi confessed her crush on Aaron, who carried a Trapper Keeper to every class with the strap slung across his skeletal chest, and we teased her until she cried; after Caitlyn’s mom came in wearing a bathrobe and told us, for the last time or I’m sleeping in here with you girls, stop giggling and go to bed; Erica fell asleep and Megan said, Let’s prank her. Caitlyn said, No, my mom’s going to hear and she’s going to be so mad. Caitlyn was like that; she followed rules and told us important life facts like, Actually, juice is, like, really bad for you because of all the sugar, and, Actually, recycling is, like, pointless? because most plastic ends up in landfills anyways. Shut up, Caitlyn, Megan said. It’ll be funny. The room smelled of Bath and Body Works body mist and microwave popcorn and Caitlyn’s mom’s potpourri. Megan dug a hot pink Sharpie out of her backpack and we all giggled. We wrote penis in bubble letters on Erica’s hands and drew moles on her face and yanked her shirt up to draw eyes over her belly button. Oh my god, where’s her bra? Kenzi asked. Megan giggled. What a slut, Megan said. Her boobs are huge. Boobs are genetic, I said. Yeah, you’re the expert, Megan said, and everyone laughed. I blushed in the dark. I didn’t know whether she was making fun of me for my flat chest, or something else I didn’t even know for sure about myself.

I was last one still awake, afraid to drift off, lest I be the next victim of the Sharpie, when someone stirred. I watched her get up and step over the other girls to go to the bathroom. The bathroom light flicked on. I heard water running. I felt a pit of dread in my stomach but I got up and went to the bathroom. Erica was scrubbing her hands red.

I was awake the whole time, she said. You were all so loud, of course I woke up. If you were awake, I asked, why didn't you say something? She went back to scrubbing her hands.

The words were fading but still there. I tried to remember if she'd been snoring. She looked at me in the mirror and said, You're really not supposed to sleep in a bra. I went back to my sleeping bag. A train rattled by, a block away. Caitlyn snored peacefully; the radiator wheezed and clanked; the hallway clock ticked; the freezer ice maker dumped ready ice cubes, replenishing the bin.

I won't tell you what to think of any of it. The ice rattles in the freezer. The light recedes, leaks out under the doors. I wake up early. In daylight I see how cheap Grad School Dropout's place is — hollow doors, faucets and fixtures made of brittle plastic, floors pretending to look like wood. A new high-rise development building. I close my eyes and allow myself a fantasy. This is a luxury apartment. The impossible: I’m in love with a man. He will give me everything. I stick around, his sad story spills out of him with the smoke from his morning cigarette — he lived here with the love of his life, who died/left him/cheated, and he’s getting older every day, just a wisp of hair left on his crown, he’s starting to stoop, stuck in a soulless job and this place he can’t afford. He needs somebody —

The fantasy collapses into itself, too tall for its hollow frame. I have nowhere to go but anywhere/anywhere is better than here. I let myself out silently and he doesn’t wake up. I prefer it this way, strange and unanswered. He is unimportant. I'm telling the story. What to share, what to demand, where to find meaning?

Leaving the apartment, I don’t want to think about what I look like to other people. I have class later but it’s too early to show up at home, I mean, my old home. The campus center isn’t open. Anyways I don't have my computer, or books, would I sit at a table alone? My phone’s almost dead.

I think about “La luz como el agua.” The story is about not knowing who to blame. You can’t blame the children — their parents gave them the boat, then scuba gear, indulged them. Can you blame the parents? How could they have known what their boys were doing? But then, why did the parents leave them at home alone? How do you blame people for what they’ve been taught?

I’ll walk downtown, to the big public library. Down the street with the big mansions. Fuck their nice lawns and their lions and their tiled roofs and topiaries. I don’t know, I’m being dramatic — I have people I can call — but tonight? I’ll figure something out. I’ll figure it out.

I find a bean bag in a corner of the children’s section, where no one will bother me. It’s a school day. I have class later, but not until the afternoon. I have papers to write — how am I going to do anything? I plug in my phone, huddle down into my sweatshirt. There are constellations painted on the deep blue ceiling. I know I need to figure out what to do, what to do what to do what do I do? Sad, pathetic girl. Sad, pathetic girl wearing yesterday’s clothes. I smell like grease and cinnamon and someone else’s sweat.

I pull a stuffed tiger off the top of a bookshelf, and cuddle it under my chin. It’s soft and plush and reminds me not to cry in public. It makes a good pillow. Two librarians chat quietly, the ceiling fan whirs, someone shuffles their feet on the entry mat.

How carefree they are, leaving on all the lights. This program sponsored by Don’t Spoil Your Kids. At least, I think it is? Nobody in Madrid knows how to sail. Did Marquez live near the ocean?

Now there’s a Taco Bell two streets over from Paseo de la Castellana. For real, you can look that up.

In an hour, when I wake up, I’ll have to make my way home and get my things and figure out where I’m going — should I even go to class or just skip? I need to do laundry somehow, I don't know when I'll have time to eat today, and, I’m about to fall asleep

and dream of Taco Bell, flooded with light, up to the ceiling, everyone’s faces pressed to the windows, the Tech Bro and the Land Lord and Super Christian and Grad School Dropout and Dog Girl gasping for breath until the glass shatters and the roof bursts and the light flows out in a slurry tidal wave of soggy chips and food wrappers

everyone drowned. In this city far from the coast

                                                                    where children do not know how to swim and you

can get a crunchwrap

24 hours a day                                                           I am learning words in a new language and

to tell you what happened, I must

                                                          translate water into light.


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