When I look at TJ’s arms, roped with muscle and bristles of dark hair, they make me shiver. The skin on the back of his right hand is puckered and silver. He is a man with black eyes and a sweet smile and I know better than to trust him. His wife’s name is Sharon and she is the only friend I have in this city.
‘What happened?’ I ask, when it’s long past midnight and we’ve been drinking forever and that scar is driving me wild.
‘I was in a fight,’ he laughs. His gold tooth flashes. ‘Over a woman.’
‘Over a woman? Or with a woman?’ Sharon drawls, looking at me. She sends her eyebrows climbing up her forehead in a way she has that cracks me up. It says, See what we have to put up with? Lucky we’re in it together.
TJ’s mouth closes over the rim of his can. I can’t help looking at the place where that silver track disappears into the hair at his wrist.
Sharon goes into the kitchen. ‘We’re out of beer.’ She checks her watch. ‘It’s too late to buy more.’
TJ crumples his empty can. It crackles.
‘Come back to our place,’ Paul says. ‘Bring the kids. Stay over.’
So, in the middle of a sweltering Texas night, we pack up the children-their three and our two-and Sharon’s yippy dog, Mitzi, and drive the short distance south on the freeway to the city limits, where there’s half a bottle of vodka and some beer in our ice-box. It’s not the first time we’ve done something like this to keep a party going. I’m sure it won’t be the last.
TJ has a past. His past includes an ex-wife who once tried to kill him, and surly teenagers who sometimes come to stay. When these kids are around they pick their teeth and glare at us. The girls despise me and Sharon. We’re not much older than they are. The boy leers. We laugh at them. They don’t stay long.
TJ is not the only one with a past, but I’ve left mine behind. Seven years ago I left the cold, damp island where I was born to fly south and west, directions that appeal to me. As soon as I arrived, I cut my hair and dyed it, threw my winter coat away. Even to look at it would make me sweat and fight for air.
Coming to live here was a lot like settling in the murky bottom of a hot pond. The heat makes a person slow and irritable, a dangerous mix. It gets in the way of thinking. It makes your nerves twitch. Sharon says it can do that even if you were born here, like her. Most people are on their way to somewhere else.
But it takes more than a strange city to faze me. I’ve made it my business to adapt. I’ve grown lines around my eyes from squinting at the sun, my arms are brown, my legs are always bare. My feet are broader than they used to be and stronger. Freeways, flyovers, hypermarkets don’t cost me a second thought. I know shortcuts through parts of town where even Sharon never goes. Only my accent gives me away.
Once, when I was pregnant and should have known better, I heard screams from a parked van at the mall. Forgetting where I was, I ran to pull the door open, my pulse racing. Two young blondes, caked with make-up and fake tan, cracked up when they saw me. Thrilled with their little joke.
‘You’re crazy!’ Paul was angry. ‘Don’t you know to mind your own business?’
Mostly I do, but sometimes I forget.
It’s sweet that he worries about me, but I can take care of myself.
As if he knows what I’m thinking, he points at my swollen belly.
‘There’s the baby to consider.’
TJ, now, is the kind of person who might intervene in a brawl. If he felt like it.
Sharon leaves the room to check on the boys, all asleep in one room. I can hear the baby, already tucked in to the spare bed, stirring. Sharon’s head reappears in the doorway.
‘I’ll go lie down with Jessie a while.’
She’s not likely to be back. This is how these evenings often end, one person after another drifting off to sleep. Paul has crashed out in the armchair, snoring. I’m sitting on the floor, leaning against the sofa, where TJ is. The last can of beer is propped, cold, against my ankle.
The next thing, TJ’s warm, scarred hand steals around my leg and lifts the can from my fingers. ‘Don’t be greedy.’
I twist my head to look at him. Something in that angle makes him loom larger than he is. Dark, with a halo of light behind him.
He bends his head and kisses me.
His mouth is warm and friendly and tastes of everything I need. Beer and cigarettes and late night conversation. Neither of us does more than breathe. As if we can’t decide if we’re ready. As if this can wait.
When he lifts his mouth off mine, my neck hurts. I bend away from him to rub it before unwinding to my feet.
‘I’m going to bed.’
He shrugs the can to his mouth, still smiling.
‘Later,’ he says.
I wake Paul and persuade him to come with me.
‘Goodnight, man,’ he says to TJ on the way past and TJ grins at both of us.
That night l sleep on the inside, near the wall. It’s too hot for the weight of Paul’s arm across my hip. The fan stirs the soupy air. Through the window I can hear music, sirens, breaking glass. A door closes and someone laughs.
Sharon starts avoiding me.
I think she knows.
‘God, I was really out of it that night,’ I say, testing.
She shrugs, as if she has other things on her mind.
‘Weren’t we all?’
So it’s not that.
The days get hotter.
Paul’s birthday’s coming up.
‘What do you want to do?’ I ask him.
He grins and pulls me closer. Petals of vivid colour in his irises shiver and flare, like those nature programmes about plants that eat flies. When Paul does this, it’s easy to get distracted.
‘Besides that,’ I murmur.
It turns out that he wants no fuss. Just a barbeque. A laid-back kind of day, drinking with TJ and Sharon. The kids can amuse themselves.
It could be any other weekend, but if that’s what he wants, that’s what he’ll get.
I’m not sure how it will be when I see TJ again, but when they arrive for Paul’s party, his eyes are like they’ve always been. Mocking. Inviting. But quick, so no one else need notice.
The heat outside is crazy, but the house is shuttered and cool, all the fans spinning high.
‘Paul’s outside, lighting the barbeque,’ I say. ‘Go on out, if you can bear it.’
He swings a case of bottled beer onto the counter with one hand. Sharon puts the baby into the highchair. She twists the top off a cold, beaded bottle and passes it to me, then opens one for herself.
She roots in her bag and hands Jessie a trainer cup full of juice.
‘I’ve looked forward to this the whole way over,’ she says and takes a long swallow from her own bottle of beer.
TJ loops the necks of some unopened bottles in his fingers and carries them out to the patio, where Paul is poking at the grill and the boys are digging in the sandbox. We watch them all through the window, while Jessie slaps at a mess of juice on the tray of the highchair.
‘Anything strange?’ I ask.
‘I think I’m pregnant.’ Sharon peels the label off her beer bottle with her square, strong nails. Her mouth is twisted.
‘I know.’ She looks gloomily at the baby.
‘But … ?’ My voice trails off. Sharon has plans to go back to work in a couple of months. How will she do that now?
Her face twists. ‘You try saying no to a man like TJ .’
She tries to smile, puts on a sultry voice. ‘He’s such an animal,’ she says, mimicing a TV commercial that’s playing a hundred times a day just now.
I don’t laugh. We’re teetering on the edge of something and I’m not sure I want to know what it is. Instead, I get a cloth and start to clean up Jessie’s mess.
‘I don’t want another one, Una. I can’t face it.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I don’t know.’
The side door opens and the boys clatter in, begging for drinks.
‘It’s too hot to eat outside,’ Paul says, coming in behind them. His hair is plastered to his head with sweat.
I open some more beers and pass one to Paul while Sharon pours juice for the kids.
TJ comes in with a platter of food in his brown hands.
His shirt is open and he looks cool.
‘Thanks,’ he says, taking a beer from me. His fingers brush mine. I smile a shallow smile and slide my hand away.
Later, we sit among the ruins of the birthday cake while the children watch a video. I stab the burnt-out candles into a mess of leftover cake and light them, watch them burn, blow them out again. I poke their edges with the used match, then start over, while the others swap horror stories about guns.
Two streets over, a man blew himself away while cleaning his hunting rifle. There are arguments about whether this could have been an accident or not.
‘Anyone who’s used to guns knows to be careful,’ Paul says.
‘For sure,’ Sharon says. ‘Where do you keep yours?’
I look up and laugh, at the very idea.
‘Una doesn’t care for guns,’ Paul says.
‘You don’t say,’ TJ drawls. He grins at me. ‘What all don’t you like about them?’
A kid in their neighbourhood was shot dead by his 8-year-old brother when they found their father’s gun in a bedside drawer. I give this as a reason. They all look at me as if I’m fresh off the plane.
I put the sulphured end of a matchstick against a stubby candle. The match flares and I pull it away.
Sharon tries to smooth things over. ‘I don’t care for them much, either,’ she admits. ‘But I sure do feel safer when there’s one around. We keep ours way out of the kids’ reach.’
I freeze, stare at her, the sizzling match still in my hand.
‘You have a gun?’
She shrugs. ‘It’s not loaded. The shells are locked away.’
How many times have my kids played at her house? The match burns down and singes my fingers. I drop it. They all laugh at my shock.
Paul takes the plate of crumbs and wax and splintered wood away from me and carries them over to the sink, on his way to get more beer.
‘See?’ he teases. ‘Una hates guns, but she’ll play with fire.’
Sharon catches my eye and does her eyebrow thing. I smile, but I don’t really mean it.
In the pre-school car-park, Sharon tells me that she’s not pregnant after all.
‘False alarm,’ she says.
She doesn’t seem to hear me.
‘Sure it is.’
One night, the phone rings. When I answer it, I’m confused by noise. Shouting and banging, popping sounds like a TV show. I can’t make out the words, but I’m afraid. Then the line goes dead. I hang up.
‘Who was it?’ Paul asks.
‘No one,’ I say and forget about it. But when I wake, suddenly, in the middle of the night, my heart is beating fast. Like waking from a dream of falling.
The next day, I meet Sharon at the school.
‘Hey,’ I say.
She turns sunglasses as big as plates in my direction and bites her lip.
‘Thanks for sending the police around,’ she says in her sarcastic voice, one I’ve heard her use before but not to me.
I squint at her. ‘What are you talking about?’
She takes the glasses down so I can see the bruise beside her eye while she doesn’t look at me. ‘When I called you.’
I have to lean against her car. ‘Was that you? What happened?’
‘I asked you to come get me.’
I put out my hand but it falls short of where it wants to go, comes back to my mouth.
She adjusts the glasses on the bridge of her perfect nose. They make her look like a movie star.
‘I didn’t hear you, Sharon. I couldn’t make out what you said. I thought … ‘
‘Oh.’ She tugs open the door of her car. ‘It must have been the neighbours, then.’
She arranges the baby into the car-seat, fixes the straps. I am still staring at her when she sits in behind the steering wheel. She hasn’t met my eyes once in this whole conversation.
‘Sharon … ‘
‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
She drives away.
I go to my Suburban, sit in to it and pull the door shut. All around me, mothers are hurrying to their cars, on their way to whatever their lives are while their kids are in school. When I shut my eyes I can see Sharon’s kitchen as clearly as if it’s my own. The bright lights, a whirl of confused movement, struggle. The sounds I heard come from distorted faces. Crying. Yelling. The plastic toy box on the table in the comer tilts, spills wooden blocks on to the floor. TJ’s hands reach for the phone and jerk it away from Sharon. Her hair flies around her face.
When I get home I try to call Sharon but her phone rings out.
I have to do something, but what? I take out the phone book and look through it for anything that might help, make a list of numbers to calm myself down.
When I make the first call, I feel stupid, melodramatic. I don’t know what to say.
‘I have a friend,’ I begin. ‘I think she’s in trouble.’
I can tell the woman at the other end thinks that I’m the one in trouble. When I insist that I’m not, she tells me that her best advice to me is to give Sharon their number.
The next place is more promising. At first, it sounds like the boys’ pre-school. There is a racket going on in the background, children’s music playing, the sound of clapping. I wonder if I’ve dialled a wrong number. If anything, I would have expected to hear weeping.
‘No ma’am,’ the girl who answers the phone says cheerfully. ‘You have the right number.’ I warm to her at once.
But in the end, everyone I talk to says the same thing.
They can’t help unless Sharon calls them herself. By then, I feel like a liar and a fraud. The few things I can say for sure sound stale and hollow in my mouth.
I’m not sure of anything any more. Sharon and TJ had a fight. People do.
‘You’re way off base,’ Paul agrees when he comes home early that afternoon.
‘How do you know?’
‘Don’t go there, Una. You don’t know what you’re dealing with.’
He pours two rumbiers of vodka over ice and hands
me one. ‘It’s the weekend. Here we go.’
The vodka works its magic. I breathe easier.
‘But, she’s my friend … ‘
He pulls me close, his fingers cool on the back of my hot neck, his eyes intent on mine. ‘Plus,’ he says in his rich, lazy voice, ‘When you get right down to it, what do you know?’
Sharon blanks me out. I see her in the distance, across the car park. Always in a hurry, her head down, keys ready in her hand. She wears what might be a bandage around her wrist.
Whenever I call her, she’s busy. One time, she invites the boys around to play but I remember the gun stashed away in her closet and suggest that hers come to me instead.
It’s TJ who comes to pick them up, but I needn’t have worried. He’s in a hurry, all business. He stays in the pickup, keeps the engine running and waves to his boys to hurry. He flashes me a smile and drives off as if there’s nothing wrong at all.
When the phone rings after midnight a few days later, I know it must be Sharon. This time, I’m ready.
‘Come get me,’ she sobs. ‘Hurry.’
‘Where are you?’
‘The car park. The church around the comer. The one…’
‘I know the one. I’m on my way.’
The streets are slick and brooding as I drive along. A wind picks up and the traffic signals dance on their wires. It’s hot. The air-conditioning is broken and I have to leave the windows of the Suburban rolled down, even though every instinct warns me not to.
The storefronts are shuttered and dark and there’s no one around. Not even any traffic. It’s like waiting for a storm to hit. I have a creepy feeling that something has happened that everyone knows about but me. An empty can rolls and skips along beside me for half a block. It makes a hollow sound until it falls into a drain.
When I pull into the car park, I’m afraid that TJ will have got there ahead of me, but there’s no sign of him. Sharon runs from the bushes behind the callbox and gets in beside me. She has Mitzi in her arms, no purse. Her face doesn’t look right. Her nose is crooked, and blood clots on her lip. I look at the dog.
‘Where are the kids?’
‘I left them there.’ Her eyes are dead.
‘You can’t … ‘
This woman is a stranger. I don’t know anything about her, or what I should do next.
I do what she says.
At a stoplight, a patrol car pulls up beside us. I want to lean down and ask them to take her from me, but she knows what I’m thinking.
‘Don’t,’ she says.
The dog licks her hand. I think about the fact that she’s left her kids behind and brought this pink-nosed ball of fluff with her instead, and drive on.
When we get to my house I put the dog outside in the yard. I don’t care what Sharon says. I don’t care if it keeps the neighbours awake all night with its yipping.
Sharon sits on the sofa with her feet flat on the floor in front of her and her empty hands in her lap, like this is a waiting room.
I boil the kettle and make tea. It gives me a chance to look at her, to figure out what to say.
‘What happened?’ I ask her, when I bring over the tea. Weak, no milk, sweetened with honey. This is how I’ve learned to drink it.
Sharon shuts her eyes, inhales steam from the cup. ‘You don’t have to tell me anything,’ I say, after a long silence. ‘But you have to do something.’
When she doesn’t answer, I try again. ‘What about the kids, Shar?’
‘They’ll be all right.’ She tucks her hair behind her ears. ‘He won’t do anything to them.’
‘How do you know that?’
Still, she doesn’t answer.
‘What good will it do them to grow up watching him do it to you? What about the baby? Do you want her to think that’s what she should expect?’
She shuts her eyes.
I bring her the phone and the list of numbers.
‘Please call a shelter,’ I say. ‘Talk to them.’
She makes a face. ‘Those people are crazy! They hate everyone.’
‘You know that’s not true.’ I hold out the list again. ‘They’ll know what to do. Call them.’
‘Okay,’ she says at last and takes the list from me.
I go down the hall to explain to Paul, in whispers, what’s happening. Sharon’s voice is a low murmur in the other room.
Paul yawns. ‘I thought I told you to stay out of it?’
He rolls over, turns his back to me.
I have never felt more alert and all he wants to do is sleep.
I go in to the boys’ room. The sound of their breathing steadies me. I slow their ceiling fan because it’s making too much racket. It clunks a little, off balance.
When I go back out, Sharon won’t meet my eye.
‘Well?’ I ask her. ‘Are you okay?’
The doorbell rings and my heart stops. This can’t be good. The kitchen clock says 2.55.
‘Get it,’ she says. Her voice is hollow.
I go to the door and squint into the judas-hole.
He stands back under the porch-light and lets me see his scarred hands, empty and harmless, at his sides.
‘It’s TJ.’ I turn back to her.
‘I called him.’
‘But-the shelter. .. ?’ I stare, stupidly, at the list of numbers I made for her.
She gets to her feet.
‘It’s better this way, Una.’ Her hair falls loose around her face. She gathers it up again and ties it as if there is nothing else on her mind. ‘You don’t know.’
I stand in front of her. ‘I know you don’t have to go out there. You can stay here. As long as you want.’
‘Oh yeah? Is that what Paul would say? Where is he, then?’
The doorbell rings again and this time he knocks as
‘I bet he is.’
I don’t know what to say. ‘Una.’ Her voice is flat. ‘You just don’t get it.’ She steps towards me. ‘Back off.’
I move out of her way. She goes to the side door and tugs it open, scoops up her dog and carries it past me, her head dipped into its fur so I can’t see her face.
I fold my arms. I can’t stop her leaving, but I won’t open the door. I won’t make it easier for her to go out there, where he is waiting, his dark head massive against our porch-light.
She opens the door herself and steps through it without another word.
I watch her go. She walks past him as if he isn’t there. They don’t exchange so much as a glance as she goes to his pick-up and swings herself up into the cab.
TJ is in no hurry to follow her. He’s not even angry.
It’s more like he’s curious to see what I will do. He leans against my wall, under the light he helped my husband install last winter. I stood right where I am now and cracked them both cold cans of beer. Laughing at some joke that TJ told.
Now, Paul is where he wants to be, out of earshot, cocooned in sleep, while TJ watches me. His look reminds me of all he knows: the layout of our house, our kids’ routine, the hours Paul spends at work.
The feel of my own mouth against his.
It’s like the dream of falling, all over again, but I’m about to hit the ground. My heart grates, high and uneven, in my chest.
TJ is not interested in his wife, or what he’ll do to her when they get home. It’s me he’s looking at. It’s me those hands don’t reach for.