We were lucky the way all young people are lucky—we didn’t celebrate what we had or care about what came next. It was August, or maybe July, the kind of summer day that erases your memories. We had just moved to New London because it was far enough away from whatever Roy wouldn’t tell me about. He owed money everywhere in Rhode Island, or there was another woman or other women. I was three months or four along, depending on if it was July or August. He had picked out six names for our baby, and he would tell me each of them when the moment was right. The most perfect names, he said.
There was dust everywhere that day, you could see it if you looked at the sun, millions of restless particles falling all around us, too soft and light to feel on our skin and in our hair. I watched it through my chunky sunglasses. Roy said it was dangerous to stare at the sun—I would go blind and he’d have to spend the rest of his life taking care of me and raising our baby all by his lonesome. There was a promise in everything he said, and even he couldn’t know how much of himself he would steal away. I don’t know where all the dust comes from, or where it disappears to when you can’t see it, but I suspect it’s always there, raining down on us, indifferent to everything we do and say. Sometimes I think about going back to where the Ford dealership used to be. I wonder if I could stand in the exact right spot and roll around on the earth, like a sparrow in the summertime, if I could recover whatever is left of that day.
We were trading his Chrysler in for something newer, something that worked. He said it wouldn’t pass inspection, and I didn’t like the idea of driving the baby around in it. The Chrysler was rusted out and sounded like a motorboat, exhaust strung together with wire hangers, dented doors and a cracked back window that he said came from a shopping cart at Almacs. Pretty tall shopping cart, I said at the time, but he got huffy about me giving him the third degree, so I let it go.
He wanted four hundred in credit for the Chrysler. He kept asking if I had my checkbook, and I kept saying I did, and after the third time, I dug it out of my pocketbook to show him. I didn’t know what kind of money he had. I didn’t think any, in light of the collapsing apartment we were living in. It was above a Greek pizza place that made sauce so sweet, you’d swear it was pure cane sugar. The mice came out at night.
“When we get in the showroom, stick your belly out,” he said.
“Because it’ll work, baby.”
He wanted me to look eight months pregnant, bursting. He said it would help if my cheeks were redder, and he told me to slap my own face. I tried, but he didn’t like the way I was doing it. I was holding back, he said. I needed to burst the capillaries. Roy watched me try four times more, then he did it himself. The sound reverberated through the Chrysler, and I looked toward the showroom and at the cars parked on either side of us to make sure no one saw. When he kissed me, there was something sour in the back of his mouth that he was hiding with cherry cough drops. I didn’t want to cry, but my body knew something my mind couldn’t. He watched me disapprovingly and I said it was the baby, I said it was my hormones. Even though it was summer and we were both sweating in the car, my cheek felt the way the cold feels when you leave the comfort of your bed and whatever dreams you’ve conjured and walk outside in the morning. He warned me before he did the other side to even it out. He said he loved me again. He said it five times, maybe. I watched the plastic flags strung between light poles, red and blue, all around the car lot. I swore my eyes would be dry by the time I reached the end of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and I let my mind sing the words softly, the way I would to the baby as soon as I had her in my arms. We needed the car, and Roy was going to get it.
“Larkin,” he said, at last. “That’s the first name.”
“Larkin Langman. It’s got that flow. It’s perfect.”
I didn’t love it the way he did, but there was so much pride in his voice, I could have been convinced.
Before we got out of the Chrysler, he told me to make out a check to Tom Jefferies Ford for one thousand dollars. I had saved thirteen hundred since around the time we met, the September before. I waited tables at Dom’s and passed for Italian, and they treated me just like anyone else in Cranston. In high school, everyone called me Spanish Girl and I felt like the only Puerto Rican in the state, but at Dom’s everyone called me Joanie and I brought them braciole in red sauce and chicken Milanese, and fried calamari with banana peppers. “You save your money,” Salvatore would say when he handed me my paycheck. Every Monday, I’d put $50 cash and my tiny paycheck in the bank, and Roy and I would use the rest of my tip money to get through the week. Salvatore would tell me to take classes at community college and make something of myself. He loved us. I could tell by the way he laughed with his eyes and badgered everyone to eat. When a bus boy named Marcus clocked out after his last shift before college, Salvatore served the kitchen homemade biscotti and Vin Santo. I didn’t have a job in New London yet. Roy was patching shingles with his buddy Halsey, but he didn’t have steady work either. One thousand dollars was almost everything.
He told me not to worry. He said he was getting us a new car. Not new, new, but new to us, he said. Safe. Reliable. He’d give me half of the money back as soon as he had something steady. It’ll even have working air conditioning, he said.
I never had a new car before. I never had anything of my own. We only had Papa’s car growing up and I never learned to drive until I met Roy. I didn’t have a license then, but he would take me to the Benny’s parking lot behind the Backstop and let me drive in circles around the metal light poles with their concrete bases. I learned to drive in the Chrysler, his temporary car. I asked where he got it and he said a friend gave it to him. His friends gave him everything. He never wanted for food or drink or drugs or cars. There was always someone itching to help. Everything was so easy for him.
It was no different at the dealership. A man with waxy, gray hair asked what he could help us nice folks with, and he stared at my white tank top, my intentionally prominent bump, and he rested his hand over my belly button and asked when the little critter was coming. That was all he said to me. He never asked my name, but he said Roy’s so much that it sounded like they were old friends. What about your wife, Roy? Will your wife be driving it, Roy? Is that your wife’s Chrysler out there, Roy? I didn’t correct him because it seemed inevitable; we had a half-carat solitaire with a white gold band picked out at Belden’s, and Roy would propose over the holidays. Papa would accept him when we were married. I would have my family and my job back. Maybe we would even move back to Rhode Island after everything cooled down. Everything would work out.
Outside, the cars were boring. They were taken from the same palette, a box where every color was derived from gray or brown. Grayblue. Brownred. Graygreen. Brownyellow. Graygray. Brownbrown. Even though you could see the sun’s reflection on their polished hoods, even though they were perfect in the way that manmade things with no memory of the past can be perfect, they looked hopeless too. They could never resolve an argument, or give you the love you were conditioned to spend your whole life searching for, or fill the bottomlessness you hover over on all days, bad and good.
I walked the length of each of them and ran two fingers along their bodies. There was another salesman watching us. I caught him stealing glances, over the roofs of cars, across the lot. He tried to act naturally, like he had only turned his head to sneeze. He was a joke.
Roy test drove four cars. Two Fords, a Grand Am and a Chrysler that someone else had traded in. That was the angle Gary, the salesman, went for—he wanted us to buy another Chrysler. I tried to say we didn’t care about the car we came in with, but Roy put his hand on my back and stopped me. My cheeks still stung. I caught my reflection in the windshield of the used Chrysler, but couldn’t tell if the color had faded. I did whatever he asked, even though I didn’t know it yet. He didn’t hit me again after that day, he wasn’t that way. His anger wasn’t physical. I was the one who would throw things or punch walls when his moods shifted or when he would disappear for days at a time. He would bask in my insanity, and laugh at every stupid thing I did. I was the crazy one; I proved him right.
* * *
Roy played an unbelievable sucker, with his ridiculous questions about undercoating and steering wheel softness and brake shoe warranties. There was a used Mazda 626 on the lot that he wanted to take a look at, even though the price on the windshield was double the check in his back pocket. In the time Gary talked with us, five or six other couples looked around, and a few of them left with cars.
No matter the price, no matter what it said on the windshield, Roy wanted the Mazda. He always got what he wanted. He said that to me in his car outside the roller rink in West Warwick the first night I ever met him. I had just finished high school, and he appeared in a brown leather jacket that looked expensive. He watched me skate in circles with my girlfriends. I thought he was watching all of the other girls, but then he winked at me. He wasn’t muscular, he didn’t look especially handsome. He didn’t seem like the person who would change everything about the life I knew. He was just another person. When you break it down that far, when you strip away everything that happens before and after, there is always some moment, some second in the middle of a conversation, where you stare at the other person’s lips or eyebrows and you know that they are nothing to you yet. They may become something, but they are nothing. You can just turn and walk away. When we came outside hours later, he asked if I spoke English and I said “No entiendo, pendejo,” and for a second, I watched him stare at me with nothing to say. When I laughed at him, he just smiled and asked if I was hungry. He said I must have been, after all of that skating. He said he would take me anywhere and I believed him. I told my friends to leave without me. I did everything I shouldn’t have done. In his car, the only thing I could think to ask for was breakfast, and so anywhere ended up being the Bickford’s in Cranston. I ordered pancakes and bacon and he said I should get more, I should get a cabinet too, if I wanted. I said I shouldn’t and he said I was an adult and I could do whatever I wanted. He didn’t ask me about work or my plans or my family because he wanted to let me enjoy the meal. He just wanted to share a table with a beautiful girl, he said. The waitress refilled his coffee six times. I asked how he ever got to sleep. He said he didn’t need it. He didn’t need anything. But he knew what he liked, and what was worth fighting for.
The Mazda was a ’78, already seven years old. Too small for a car seat, I said, but Roy told me to hush. He patted my back like it was a joke, and Gary laughed it off. So I said we couldn’t afford it, and Gary told me to hush too. That sent them both into forced hysterics. Gary used his index finger to wipe away a phantom tear.
“You know something, Gary, I’m afraid she’s right,” Roy said, “as much as I want it, we just can’t.”
“We have financing options,” he offered.
“I know. I know. It’s just,” Roy said. “It’s just my credit’s not so good.” Gary offered an apology and tried to comfort him, but Roy stopped him and asked me if they could have a minute alone.
“A minute?” he repeated. There was no kindness in his face, but he said it through a smile all the same. I went inside, annoyed. He was the opposite of every man I’d known. My high school boyfriends begged and pleaded when they wanted something. Papa spoke only in commands. But Roy had this easy way about him. You could go along with him, or you couldn’t, but either way, he was happy to be in front of you. Happy to ask you the question. Happy to stand there and look happy. He was natural in a way that other men weren’t. Other men had ideas about how to manipulate and extort. Roy just took what he wanted, and he was either a bastard or your ally and you couldn’t stop him either way.
* * *
In the showroom, the radio played “You’re The Inspiration,” and I hummed along, breathing in the new car scent all around me. I wondered if they piped it in, somehow, or if a certain combination of rubber and steel and plastic and leather and grease conspired to create something we’d given a name to. I watched them through the half-circle showroom window. Gary’s gray hair shined in the daylight. There was no wind outside, and the red and blue flags were limp. The showroom was cold, and the sweat under my stomach and on the small of my back made me shiver. I watched Roy speak to Gary for five minutes before I got bored and decided to rejoin them. As I moved toward the automatic doors, I felt a large hand on my bare shoulder.
“Do you need anything? Juice? Soda?” It was the other salesman. He was burly, six-foot-two maybe. Brown hair thick on the sides, thin up top. He wore two large rings on his right hand. A high school or college ring on his ring finger and a brass Indian head on his middle finger.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Ginger ale?”
I watched him duck behind a counter and open a mini-fridge and rattle around soda cans. He asked if Sunkist would do the trick.
He popped the tab and used the lining of his blue sport coat to whisk away the droplets of sticky soda that had dribbled down the can.
“You’ve been here an awful long time.” He stretched out the word awful for my benefit. He wanted me to like him, and that made him unbearable.
I took a sip and it made me feel even colder. It was the kind of day where you can never get it right, where you’re either baking in the sun or shivering indoors. The bubbles tickled my nostrils as I took a second sip.
“My friends call me Honey,” he said.
“The name’s Bedford, so I went by B my whole life, but in college, on the football team, they called me Honey on account of how sweet I was.”
“On account of how sweet you were?” I couldn’t hide my annoyance. It was a stupid nickname, one he definitely gave himself.
“Juanita,” I said, without any further explanation.
He was two or three years older than Roy. He wasn’t wearing a nametag like Gary. He had the sort of face that is easy to miss, the kind of nothingness between his ears that would inspire you to ask “Who else is coming?” in the event that you were the first two guests at a party.
“What are you? Four months?” he asked.
“Eight,” I lied.
“Eight? Holy hell. Are you sure that’s a human inside you and not a kitty cat?”
He was phony and I hated him. I hated him more than the smell of sour milk or the blue-hairs who ask for more bread seven times and then leave you ten percent like they’re doing you a favor. I turned back to look at Roy and Gary, and they were both leaning against the Mazda, hands in their pockets, heads tilted toward the tan, dust-covered earth. Everything outside was the color of a desert. Even the trees, even the green trees with green leaves were tan. The dust was eating us alive.
“Look at them out there, having all the fun while you’re stuck inside with me,” Honey said. “Did he even let you test drive anything?”
“No.” I said.
“That ain’t right.”
We were alone in the showroom. I stared at his red tie and tie clip and wondered if he wore the tie because he was some kind of manager or because he liked to wear ties.
“I can take you.”
“He already knows what he wants.”
“Do you?” He didn’t smile it off the way Roy would have. He got serious. He wanted to dig deep inside me and find a place for himself to grow. I felt hideous. There was nothing special about me that day, no makeup, no dress, no nothing. But he still had this insistence on coming between Roy and me.
“It looks like it’s going to be a while yet,” Honey said. “Pick a car, any car.” He pulled his hands apart like he was fanning cards, and then gestured with both thumbs to the three new cars behind his shoulders in the showroom. I walked right over to a black Thunderbird that we’d never have any chance of owning, and opened the door. There was no way he’d let me drive it.
“My dad drives a ’56,” Honey said. I thought he’d stop me. I thought he’d tell me to pick something else. Something used or busted up out in the lot. I got in.
“Not this one,” he said, as I looked for the key.
“No?” I asked, thinking I had won.
“This one stays in the showroom,” he said. “We have three of them out back, come on.”
Outside, Roy was leaning on the Mazda like he owned it, his ass on the hood. They were still talking.
“That’s gonna take all damn day,” Honey said. “Come on.” I said that I should tell Roy where I was going. “Forget it. We’ll be back before he even signs the deed. Let’s have some fun.”
The Thunderbirds in the lot were brown, golden brown, and red brown. Nothing as glamorous as the one in the showroom. I said it to Honey.
“You find glamour in unexpected places,” he said.
I chose the golden brown Thunderbird. He opened the door for me and pushed it shut once I was inside. He was so gentle, it barely made a sound. He pushed the door shut the way you’d push a baby on a swing, his large hands capable of multitudes. He pulled a blue swatch of fabric out of his pocket and wiped the dust from the hood as he walked the perimeter of the Thunderbird. I’ll never forget the way he brushed it aside, the nothing it was. I wanted to know why he did it, but I forgot to ask.
There was a cassette deck in the car, and the leather seats were softer than any sofa. I could have slept in that car for the rest of my life.
“This is so nice,” I said.
“So, where are you taking me?” he asked.
* * *
Four blocks turned into eight, and eight into sixteen, and no matter how far away we were from the dealership, Honey never asked me to turn the car around. It was a game we were playing. When I merged onto 95 South, he kept on with his story about playing guard against Phil Murphy. He told me that Murphy was unblockable, that he’d jump the snap damn near every time. He was deep into it before he asked if I knew who Murphy was, if I followed the NFL.
“You don’t know who Murphy is? Or you don’t follow football.”
He didn’t get cross the way I thought he might. I expected him to tell me to take the next exit. He didn’t ask where we were going and I didn’t know. He fell back into talking about the Thunderbird. He asked how I liked it. I said it was perfect. He asked if I wanted the radio on, and I said I didn’t.
“It’s got great sound,” he said.
“But you know I can’t buy it,” I said. “We can’t buy this car.”
“I know,” he said. Still, he pointed out the softness of the seats and the air conditioning and the electric windows and ashtray. He tried to fill all of the empty spaces. He was the kind of man who felt he needed to, and I pitied him.
I pulled off in Old Saybrook and followed a sign to Harvey’s Beach.
“I used to come here as a kid,” Honey said. “Bet your man takes you here every weekend.”
“I’ve never been,” I said. “Who’s Harvey?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think he’ll mind?” I asked as I parked and got out of the car.
He followed me onto the beach. I kicked off my flats and burrowed in with my toes. The ocean breeze lifted loose sand and threw it into our faces and hair. My feet were hot, but it felt nice. I was starring in a commercial for something I’d never buy, standing on the beach during low tide, my back to the camera, the wind shaking the weed grass and gap-toothed fence while a group of shirtless boys wrestled in the ankle-deep surf.
“It’s a sandbar out there,” Honey said. “The kids love it.” Without saying any other words, he unbuttoned his jacket and sat in the sand. He linked his hands together and rested his elbows on his pointy knees. He squinted and his face looked older. I could see where things were headed, the lines in the corners of his eyes, the hair atop his head that had three or four years before it disappeared forever. Looking down at him, I could see a birthmark beneath it. A quarter-sized prune of a thing that he would spend thirty until death worrying about.
“It stinks out here.”
“It’s low tide,” he said. “The fragrance comes from the water receding and exposing the mud. It’s bacteria. It’s sulfur dioxide or maybe monoxide. Sulfur all the same.”
“Tell me something important,” I said.
I sat down beside him in the sand and mimicked the way he was sitting. I couldn’t watch him squint anymore, so I put my sunglasses on his face. He tried to give them back but when I said I insisted, he chuckled and left them on. I couldn’t imagine Roy wearing women’s sunglasses in public. He’d be embarrassed or his mood would shift. We would call each other names and once he cooled off, he’d offer me the blame, and I would be dumb enough to accept. Honey just sat there sunglasses and all, watching the little waves crash.
“To those kids in the water, we look like a couple, you and me.”
“Kids don’t think like that,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
“Pardon my ignorance.”
“Adults are just adults to them. Everything is one thing or another thing.”
“A couple is one thing,” he said.
He put his arm around me, and I let it stay there, heavy on the back of my neck. Every move he made was forced and uncomfortable, but he was persistent, the way a dandelion sometimes pokes through a cracked driveway. I didn’t hate him anymore. The dust was harder to see without my sunglasses, like it couldn’t reach us at the beach. The winds had pushed it away from the coast, maybe. We’d been gone forty minutes, and I wondered what Roy would say when we returned. It would take twenty minutes to get back to the dealership, and I knew we had to leave, but I wanted to make Honey say it.
“I wish I got paid to do nothing,” I said.
“This is work. It’s a test drive.”
“You’ll let anyone put forty miles on a car and take you to the beach?”
“Sure. Why not?”
The way he said the words, the way they sounded leaving his mouth, it was a show. I was a mirror in a dressing room and he was trying out the words to see how they looked on him. He wasn’t suave; he never got what he wanted. But he was trying so hard.
“You’ll let me do whatever I want,” I said.
I reached down and took off one of his loafers. It was brown leather with two little tassels on the tongue. Holding it, I could tell it was cheap. They were passable enough, but he didn’t bother splurging. They had never been polished because he probably only ever wore them at the dealership. I poured a handful of hot sand in the loafer and handed it back to him.
“You didn’t stop me.”
“I didn’t know what you were doing.” He flipped it over to drain the sand. He didn’t laugh or smile, but he wasn’t angry either. I wasn’t sure how Roy would react if I had done that to him, but that was because I wouldn’t have.
“Give me the other shoe,” I said.
“Why? So you can fill that one up too?”
“I won’t,” I said. “I swear.”
He shrugged and removed his right loafer. He handed it to me, and I immediately stood up and walked to the water. The sand was hotter than I imagined it would be. I didn’t turn around, but I assumed he’d be right behind me, trudging through the sundried seaweed. He would say we had to leave. He would take his loafer back and be done with me. We’d drive back to the dealership, Roy would buy the 626, the days would keep passing, and I would forget all about Honey.
But he was still sitting on the edge of the beach, watching me, unmoved by whatever I was doing. I tossed the shoe into the water, close enough that he could take off his socks and hike up his slacks and wade in to get it. It landed tongue side up and floated a little. He removed his socks and came down to the edge of the shoreline to meet me, but he didn’t say anything. He tossed his sandy shoe in the water. The shoes sort of rubbed against one another and made a quiet scratching sound, like packets of Sweet’N Low, and I watched the little tassels whip around in the breeze. We stood there, and I had more than I had ever dreamed of. The Thunderbird and the man who cared about me and the ocean air in my lungs. A child inside me who he would have loved and raised as his own.
“We should go before we get a ticket for littering,” he said at last.
We walked back through the parking lot and I pointed out phantom broken glass and dog shit and watched him high step over nothing with his bare feet. When I shut the driver’s-side door, he leaned into me. We were gangly together and it reminded me of kissing when I was fifteen, when euphoria was all that mattered. We were loud and sloppy, and he only stopped when I jammed my tongue against his and we both laughed. I regretted it instantly. I put my hand on my stomach and said that it hurt. I wanted to do it. I felt cared for, like I belonged, just like at Dom’s. Then I imagined my baby having a sinking feeling in her stomach, and it almost made me cry again. If we had kept going, I don’t know where it would have ended. Somewhere different. I made him switch seats with me and drive us back to the dealership.
* * *
Roy was looking over the paperwork for the Mazda when we got back. He never asked where I went, he wasn’t curious about the car I test drove. He didn’t care about Honey at all. I sat at the tiny desk where he was reading and signing and initialing. He stopped for a moment and turned to me.
“Bailey,” he said.
“Bailey Langman. You teach him to skate and he could play in the NHL with a name like that. He could be a goddamn enforcer.” Roy put the pen down and threw two short punches.
But he didn’t want a child; he wanted a perfect version of himself. He wanted something more beautiful and stronger than he could ever be. He wanted to feel complete, and so with us he never would.
It took forty minutes before we were ready to drive away. Roy went out to the Chrysler to double-check the trunk and the glove compartment for loose change and personal effects. I watched him through the showroom window. The dust was really pouring down, and I wondered how I could survive, breathing so much of it in. I thought about the awful thing I’d done. Roy had cheated in the past, I knew, but this was supposed to be a new start, and I had messed it up. I would tell him about it when we got home, and he would probably spend all night at bar, sulking. He took his time at the Chrysler, he fiddled with the floor mats and the spare tire compartment in the trunk like he was looking for something he could never find.
I walked to the bathroom and wondered where I would have been if I had never met Roy; if I would still be living at home, working at Dom’s, waiting for something better to come along. I know now that when you don’t care about what comes next, what comes next is usually nothing.
When I came out of the bathroom, Honey was waiting with his thinning hair and his soda-stained sportcoat and his seriousness. He was holding my sunglasses.
“I had fun with you today.”
He asked to see me again. He flubbed his words and stuttered his way through it. There was no more phoniness in him.
“I’ll treat you—you deserve better than—I’ll do everything. I’ll do it all,” he finally said. I took my sunglasses from him and looked over my shoulder to make sure Roy didn’t see.
He would follow me anywhere, I knew. I’d grow to respect him for his even keel and his devotion. He’d never cheat. He’d never run away. He would love me in a way that would shame me into being better than I was.
I put my hand on his sleeve and thanked him. He stared at me and waited for whatever happened next. I was stupid enough to do anything then, and to talk myself into the consequences.
At Dom’s, there was this big swinging door that connected the kitchen to the dining room. If you were short with short arms, kicking was the only way to do it. My first week, I spilled Penne Bolognese all over the floor and later I dropped the tray altogether. Then I’d try to push open the door with my foot, and it would close on the tray as I passed through, and everything would tumble off the back of the tray and make a mess. Salvatore said I had one last chance, he said they were ready to let me go. It was nothing personal, he said, he loved me, but if I couldn’t get through the door, that was that. Maybe it was fear, or maybe it was adrenaline, but I never spilled again. What I was thinking about, as I stood in front of Honey, was the way everything went white every time I kicked the door. I’d be on one side of the door and then the other without ever knowing what happened in the space between.
I was stupid enough to do anything, and I did. Roy revved the Mazda’s engine, and I jogged outside and got in.