Story of the Week: Bedfellows by KaLyn Stewart

Bedfellows by KaLyn Stewart

plants and room

When I was thirteen-years-old, I changed my name to Rosie and the Johnson family moved into our basement. Mom indulged me, took to calling me Rosie even if her mouth twisted as she said it. Georgie, my stepfather, still called me May, but my mother told my teachers. I told my friends. I was Rosie and that was that.

The Johnsons moved in when I’d been Rosie for four weeks. They’d lost their house because the father, Dennis Johnson, was a truck driver but crashed and totaled his semi. He couldn’t walk or talk, moved from room to room in a mechanical wheelchair that whirred and creaked. His red hair was cut into short, soft fuzz my baby brother, Marcus, liked to touch. His right eye was brown and bloodshot while the left was sealed up, puckered like a kiss. Sometimes, he cried. Sometimes he flexed his fingers or what was left of his toes because it made the dog jump and Marcus laughed as a result.
 Mom was best friends with Nancy Johnson. They knew each other in nursing school and shared secrets like sisters. She looked like Mom: both blonde-haired and green-eyed with a deep cupid’s bow. She worked at the nursing home in Louisville and then came back to repeat the motions on her husband. She was nice, liked to sing and dance in her socks around the living room. She kissed Dennis in that open, honest way that we all want to be kissed. We all want to kiss like Nancy Johnson.

Georgie didn’t approve of the Johnsons living with us. He complained about money even though the Johnsons paid their ways, complained about food even though we never went without. He argued with Mom at night, not even doors and a floor could muffle the sound of his footsteps on the floor, the clatter and bang of the door slamming into its frame.

On those nights the daughter, Angela Johnson, came out of the basement to sleep with me.  She was my age, and we shared a few classes together. We were friends, close like Mom and Nancy were close, maybe closer. She had Dennis’ face and Nancy’s hair: sharp features, brown eyes and tiny mouth framed by these tumbling waves of blonde hair. She was always quiet when she came into my room. The door announced her arrival, squeaking on old hinges.  She shuffled through the piles of clothes I couldn’t be bothered to put away, peeked on Marcus in his crib, and slid into my bed—drifted off with a sigh or a brief nuzzle on my neck.

She slept curled against me, like she was trying to protect me or maybe she was hoping I’d protect her.  We slept like we remembered sharing a womb together: her arm draped over me, keeping me grounded and my arms wrapped around her, keeping her close. It was the greatest, feeling her heart throbbing through her skin in time with mine. We talked more nights than not. I liked to leave the television on, and her eyes would be bigger and brighter than good china plates. We whispered about school, a new episode of Sailor Moon, the rumors we heard, the other friends we had but didn’t like—stupid things, kid things.

****

The week before the Johnsons moved out, Angela asked me, “Why did you change your name?”

The house had gone quiet, but there was stillness—the kind that came after Georgie fired one of his guns. I thought I could hear the doorframe still chattering. In that silence Angela asked, “Why Rosie?”

I shrugged and Marcus made a tiny mewling sound in his crib. “I like the name.”

“What was wrong with May?”

“Nothing. I just didn’t like it.”

Mom was watching Snapped on the big screen in the living room. She didn’t know Angela and I shared a bed. It always sent a something skittering up my spine, knowing she didn’t know. It felt more dangerous than it should’ have. She was waiting for Georgie to come back, no doubt smoking a cigarette. I thought I could smell the smoke, the burning paper.

Marcus stirred, his tiny fist rubbing against the mattress, and Angela’s hand found mine in the dark. “Why didn’t you like it?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“Try.”

The dog snorted at my feet, a big black shape that heaved with breath. He rolled onto my feet. “I was supposed to have a sister named May,” I said as I flexed my toes under the dog’s massive chest, his heart beating hard against my toes. “She was my twin, but I ate her in the womb. Mom didn’t have a name picked out for me, so she just gave me May’s name.”

Angela’s nose crinkled. “You ate her?”

“Mom said I absorbed her. It happens, sometimes. That’s what she tells me.”

“Do you know why?”

“I guess I thought I needed the space.”

But I didn’t want it, not then. I couldn’t imagine not having Angela next to me, or not having Marcus cooing in his sleep. I needed noise. Quiet felt too much like a heavy storm brewing and preparing to rip the sky apart, like Georgie and Mom glaring at each other across the dinner table.

Angela nodded like she understood me. “So what would’ve happened if you stayed May?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

Angela smiled at me. She had a pretty smile, yearbook-worthy.  “You’ve said that already.  Try.”

The front door opened and shut, the metal rattling. Georgie and Mom mumbled together in the living room, his boots heavy against the hardwood that could never stay clean as he moved from the couch to the television and back to the couch again. Neither one of them knew how to whisper, but they knew how to mumble—incoherent lilts of sound that were almost comforting.

I waited until I heard the soft sound of their bedroom door shutting. “If I stayed May, maybe I’d turn into her—who she was supposed to be. Maybe Mom would look at me and think, ‘This is what my baby could have been,’ and who wants to be compared to a dead girl? It’s stupid, right?”

Angela released my hand, and I missed the sweat-damp warmth of her skin. She sat up so she could tilt her head. “No, not really.  I mean, I’m still not too sure about what you’re trying to say, but I think I do. Before I was Angela, I was supposed to be named Alexandria.”

The name sounded odd, too long and too many syllables. I couldn’t stop the snort that came out because, at thirteen, you’re filter isn’t screwed on as tight as it should be.

“Why Alexandria?”

Angela flipped over onto her back, the mattress huffing beneath her. “I used to have a brother, Alexander. He died before I was born. Mom and Dad didn’t like talking about him, even when Dad could talk. But his pictures were all over the house, felt like I was staring at grave markers. They wanted to name me Alexandria because it sounded like his name.”

“Who told you?”

“My grandmother.”

“Why?”

Angela shrugged, “Not too sure, guess she figured I had a right to know.”

“What stopped them from naming you Alexandria?” The name folded and collapsed on my tongue like wet origami paper.

Angela peeled back her lips in the dark, showed off her teeth that glinted in the blue light coming off the television. “Grandma did. She said to me, ‘I told them Alex was Alex and you were supposed to be you. You shouldn’t cling to ghosts.’”

I didn’t know my grandmother. She died when I was a baby, but her picture was hanging above a little corner in the kitchen. She didn’t look like Mom. She had black hair and gray eyes, and she was wearing lipstick in the picture—red like Ronald McDonald’s hair. I was jealous of kids who had grandmothers because they always seemed to give good advice. They knew how to keep secrets. I told Marcus my secrets, but what did he know?  He was a baby. I wanted somebody who would understand me. I liked to think Angela was my grandma’s way of saying she was looking after me.

“Your grandma sounds smart,” I said.

“I think most grandmas are.”

I didn’t know any, so I just nodded.

Angela was quiet for a few moments before she whispered, “If I tell you something, will you keep it a secret?  Just between us?”

I said, “Sure.” Asked, “What is it?”

Angela rolled over onto her side and whispered, “I kissed Mindy Marcus in the bathroom.”

A rumor had been going around school. Toby Fick called Angela a dyke, and I tripped him at lunch. I’d heard the word before, spoken in odd ways I didn’t understand—sometimes people laughed when they said it. Sometimes they sounded angry. But when Toby said it, he sounded disgusted, like something slimy had been smeared on the back of his tongue.

“I know, Toby Fick was talking about it. I tripped him because at lunch.”

Angela laughed at that, a soft huff of breath. I liked it when I made her laugh. It made me feel good—like I’d accomplished something noteworthy.  “That was you?”

“Who else would it be?”

Angela’s face was cut into jagged shapes by the shadows and light, furrows cutting deep into her forehead. “And? What do you think?”

I knew what Mom thought.  Georgie made it clear everybody knew what he thought. It was hard, thinking for myself, but I did it anyway. “You still like hotdogs with just mustard, right?”

She blinked at me, owlish and slow.  “Yeah.”

“You still think Sailor Uranus is the best, right?”

“Of course.”

“You still think Georgie can’t cook.”

“I know he can’t.”

It was my turn to find her hand under the sheets. It slipped into mine, her fingers filling the space between my own. “Then you’re still Angela. Who you kiss doesn’t make that much of a difference does it?”

Angela licked her lips, and the dog snorted again.  “No, I guess not.” Her thumb made lazy rotations on the thin skin of the knuckle of my own thumb. “You know we’re moving soon, right?”

I didn’t want to think about it. The mood in the house had turned sour, not hostile but getting there. Georgie and Mom were fighting too much for anyone to deal. Dennis avoided everyone, and Nancy cried in the bathroom when she thought no one could hear her.

“We’re moving closer to Louisville,” Angela said and her voice was thick. “They have really good apartments where we’re going.”

“I don’t want you to go.”

I was so honest, I felt myself tighten up. I felt like my skin was too-small. For almost a month, we’d been trading secrets and sharing bedsheets. It was private, sacred.

Angela’s head dropped to my shoulder.  “I’m going to miss you.”

“So don’t go.”

“I can’t just stay.”

“Sure you can, just don’t go.”

Everything was so easy to explain away. She didn’t want to go, so she shouldn’t have gone. Marcus made a noise. I thought he was going to start crying, but he just yawned.  “You’re going to leave me here with him.  Who am I going to share secrets when you go?”

“You’ll find someone else.”

“I don’t want anyone else.”

I felt petulant. I felt selfish, but I didn’t care. Angela was leaving. The world could’ve been ending, and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.

Angela sighed, soft, tired. “We should sleep.”

“You’re dropping it?”

“If we sleep, we can stay together a little longer. We don’t have to think about next week or the week after. It can still just be us, you know?  Hey, Rosie?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I kiss you goodbye?”

“You’re not leaving yet.”

“I know, but when I do, I won’t be able to do it—not in front of my folks or Georgie. So can I do it now?  It’ll be one of our secrets.”

I’d seen Mom kiss Nancy on the cheek as she left for work. They made it seem normal so I rolled my head onto the pillow.  Said, “Yeah, what’s another secret between us right?”

Angela leaned across the dark gap and pressed her lips against mine, chapped and bitten rough, little scabs tasting like iron. Her hand free hand came up, curled into the grove of my waist, holding me, holding me, holding me.

I curled lifted my own free hand up, touched her face, wove my fingers through her hair, holding her, holding her, holding her.

The following week she was gone, and my bed had never felt more cold and lonely.

****

I still see Angela, every now and again. We pass by each other on the streets, her on the arm of another woman, me holding hands with my wife. We smile at each other, kiss each other on the cheeks like our mother used to do. We have coffee, talk about our ladies, television shows we still love or can’t stand, talk about the weather, the day, the color of the sun—stupid things, not kid things anymore, just things that exist and affect us in some way. Sometimes, she’ll kiss me on the lips, and I’ll be back there again: in my room, sharing a bed with her, her hair slipping between my fingers, her hand on my waist. I miss her, sometimes, in that odd way you miss someone who helps you, befriends you, loves you in a way that is somehow both platonic and a little romantic: a first love you didn’t even know was the first love.

My wife beside me, she’s familiar in the way that Angela is, different in all the right ways. I don’t miss Angela so much when I’m next to her.

Sometimes I’ll ask my wife, “Can I tell you a secret?”

And she’ll give me a smile that’s yearbook-worthy. She says, “Of course.”

And we giggle and kiss, sharing a bed, a space, a home, a heart in a way Angela and I both did and didn’t.

*********

KaLyn Stewart is a graduate from Western Kentucky University with a major Creative Writing and a minor in Chinese. Her wrists and fingers hurt from spending too much time on word documents, but she can’t bring herself to care. When she’s not creating stories, she’s reading them or watching Netflix. She thinks inspiration can come from anywhere–from a favorite quote to a scene from a movie to the people you see walking with you on the street.

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