By Valerie Nelan
“You may do great things,” he says, “but you were destined for a trailer park.”
He says this after he’s kicked me out of the house.
All I can think of when he says it is what a great line it is. I tuck it away. Maybe later, with someone else, I can use that line like it’s my own. I can do it better justice, and it’s too bad I didn’t think of it first. I swing my thoughts back to my husband on the cell and wonder how I’ve gotten here, and why it is that all I feel is relief.
I pull lint off the yoga pants I wear, which, along with the pajama top I have on, are at present the only things I own. Those and a pair of blue flip-flops with green and turquoise hearts peeling off them. It was five a.m. when I tucked our daughter into the car and drove away.
She is asleep behind the windows of this porch. Our daughter. Her hair, matted with sleep, pokes through the port-a-crib because she’s nearly too big to sleep in it anymore.
I remind my husband of the week before our wedding, when he got so drunk he came home and told me I had no soul, when he said I was a heartless bitch and he couldn’t believe he actually wanted to marry me. I tell him that it should have ended then. I tell him next time I’ll listen when someone calls me soulless and heartless.
He tells me he’ll listen next time he says those things about someone.
He tells me he’s burned my clothes and shoes and he says my books are next. I picture him holding a summer green pump over the grill, the tongs gripping it, the shoe squirming in his grip like a garden snake. Next will come the white heels stamped with pink flowers, the heels that were half a size too big but I didn’t care, because they were amazing and peeked out like little rabbits from underneath that perfect pair of jeans, those jeans that made even me nod and think yeah, nice butt. Then I picture my books, flapping and squawking about his head like a flock of angry crows – no, like pigeons, city rats, the exact bird he hates – desperate to save the shoes, and by extension, me.
He tells me not to send anyone over, that he has a gun, that he’ll do what he has to do.
Five minutes later, he tells me he wants to see our daughter.
He’s fucking lost his mind.
“You can get a civil standby.” Another man’s voice, quick and edged, comes over my cell. He’s not The Other Man – there isn’t one of those, there wasn’t one of those, but all the trouble I’m being put through it’s too bad there never was and I bite my cuticles thinking of all the ones that could have been. Including the one on the phone.
I consider the standby. Redneck cops eager to keep nigger boy at bay while white girl retrieves her shit. Perfect for the cops’ nightly safe story that they tell their wives before they ask for a second helping of spaghetti.
So fucking cliché it makes me want to puke.
It’s the closest I get to regret.
I spend the night in my parents’ house with my daughter curled into me on a king-size bed and I smell the Johnson & Johnson shampoo and the sweat on her neck and think of what I’ve done and what he’s done and what happens to her and if he tries to take her of how I’ll have to kill him.
I taught my husband to play chess when we were twenty, when we weren’t married, when we still cared about each other, when I danced for him, high on whatever, at raves. We’d always have to play two games because I would win and then he would. Or he would win and then I would. This morning it’s exactly the same.
My father’s driving in from Louisiana with my crazy black uncle. My crazy black uncle who’s known for his gun collection and temper. My crazy black uncle who was once so coked out he called my mother the waitress into the darkened upstairs office of the nightclub he ran on Beale Street and when he knew she hit the top of the stairs cocked and shot so that it went right by her head because it’d be a lark and that’s just how he was. And that’s just how he is.
My father calls to tell me that my husband has left a message on my crazy black uncle’s phone asking him to stay out of it, because it is none of his business. My husband has no idea how stupid that was.
I take the first pawn of the game with that one.
Then I think about it and realize I’ve already lost a rook and a few pawns because the crazy fucker’s kicked me out and grilled my shoes.
He calls and says he wants to see our daughter.
He calls and says he didn’t burn everything, but instead tossed it all into the dumpster.
He calls and says I can come get my stuff if he can see our daughter.
It’s day two of the yoga pants and pajama top so I retire them in favor of a pair of my mother’s jeans – which don’t, for the record, make my butt look good – and a t-shirt. I toss on one of her bras and hope my boobs stay reined in. I figure if they do, they’ll be the only things. Reined in, that is.
We reach an agreement. He doesn’t get to see our daughter, and I get to come get all of my stuff. I clench my jaw as I knock on the door I could just as easy open with my key. I should take the key off and throw it at him when I see him. I tuck my keys into the jeans and push my shoulder blades towards each other. I remember to exhale.
He opens the door and I don’t look at him, just nod in the general direction of a huge navy blue t-shirt and start pulling Christmas tree decorations from the outside storage. I can’t go inside yet. It’s enough for him to know I’m here.
On the other side of the fence there’s a white truck, two SUVs and a car. The fence opens and my aunt follows me, with my father and a different uncle – this one white, this one skinny and tall and sane – behind her as we all go up the stairs. Outside it’s hot, sticky fucking Memphis heat kind of hot, and in minutes I can guarantee that my husband has turned off the air because it’s the exact kind of asshole thing he’d do. I try to take pleasure in knowing he’s just as hot downstairs, sitting beside his father on the couch that’s mine.
Does it mean anything that both our fathers are here? Depends on who you ask.
My father and uncle close in on our daughter’s room as I arrow for the bedroom I never decorated to see the extent of what he’s done. In my closet, a gaping hole instead of clothes. There aren’t even hangers, hangers that I’m just as happy to lose because none of them matched and I always hated that, always meant to go buy a shopping cart full of the things so that all my clothes would hang perfectly beside each other. Someone does that kind of thing. Not me. Never me.
Behind the door, where the shoes I’d spent years on should be hanging, there’s nothing. The satin pointed heels I searched years for were gone, and so were my Fuck Me shoes – no other description defines them better. Picture yours hanging there, and then picture them gone. In my dresser, nothing, not even underwear. I decide that panties are overrated and I’ll no longer wear them. In the cardboard box that never quite got unpacked from when we moved a year ago, with the word Bedroom on it, nothing. But he’s left the box there and it says so much. Doesn’t it?
All of my books are here. I think.
Don’t cry, my aunt says. I look at her. The thought hasn’t even crossed my mind.
My uncle goes down to get the suitcases. They’re next to the Christmas decorations. I snap open a cheap black trash bag to pick up the debris that’s left: the shoes I didn’t care much about anymore, a scarf our daughter likes to play with, a belt that’s too big but who knows, I may eat my way through sadness in the coming weeks so I grab it and shove it in the bag. I look under the bed. I’m not counting on my vibrator stash being there and am kind of surprised I even thought about it, but now that I have, it’s worth a look. Just in case. Because even if the belt doesn’t come in handy, surely I’ll need a vibrator around.
They’re not there. Not the bullet, not the blue sparkly waterproof one, not the butterfly, even the Astroglide is gone. The man finally follows through on something and this is how it turns out.
Right now my crazy black uncle shows up with one of the bigger guns and intends to make good on a threat he gave my husband on the night of his bachelor party. If I look out the window I’ll see him. But I don’t know he’s there and so I don’t see my other uncle telling crazy black uncle to leave because my husband’s father is in there.
I pack up books and make sure to leave his. All five of them. My silent fuck you, you non-reading piece of shit motherfucker it’s no goddamn wonder this is where we are you don’t fucking read. Do I want to take the bookshelves, my father asks. No. I want those five fucking books to sit there. Two of the titles: Gray’s Anatomy and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. For a minute I try to read something into that. I wipe the sweat off my forehead with his pillowcase and keep going.
I’m two days of no food and as I pass through the kitchen my husband, ever the cook, clatters pots and pans as he gets ready to make dinner. Looks like he’s going low-key: marinated Italian chicken, broccoli and cheese Rice-a-Roni, greens from a can. He used to buy the greens fresh. He taught me how to pile the leaves in the sink and fill it up with water, and then put a pinch of salt in there to keep the leaves stiff even as they softened around the stems. Then he showed me how to hold the stem in my left hand, with my thumb against the sweet spot where leaf met stem, and with my right hand, taught me to grab the leaf and pull it off like I’d hold and stretch a piece of gum out of my mouth. He taught me to shell peas, to snap beans, to eat black eye peas for good luck on New Year’s Day. He asks me if I’m hungry, if I want some dinner. The funny thing is that he’s serious.
We didn’t eat black eye peas this New Years. It’s the first year I can think of. I try to remember what we were doing on New Year’s Eve – my husband always said whatever you do on New Year’s Eve is what you do, in some way, for the rest of the year. Then I remember. He was bartending, and I was somewhere different, watching my girlfriends kiss their boys and not caring so much that mine wasn’t around to kiss.
Minutes later dinner is cooking so he’s planted back on the couch with his father and I’m opening the closet in front of them and pulling out jackets. The closet smells musty. Look, I say, waving vintage suede, Something you didn’t burn.
Neither one of them speak.
Outside my aunt opens the grill and points. I see the pages of a book and what I figure must have been a shoe. I look at the grill, a $500 easy piece of cookware, and know that at least he ruined it in the process. For a man like my husband, it’s a serious loss.
On my next to last trip down the stairs I grab my daughter’s pony by the ear and it goes off as I walk past my husband. The literal sound of horse’s hooves as I move in front of him, arms laden with random bags and a horse head that’s galloping away.
There’s nothing more to get tonight and it’s good because even with nothing, really, to pack I’ve still filled every vehicle with suitcases and trash bags. Turns out that trash bags aren’t actually the worst things to use. I get in my car and see my father and uncle double back to the gate that cradles the back door, opening and shutting it behind them. I look at my aunt. Leave, she tells me. Just go. She’s two years younger than me but her face tells me not to question this.
I make a right turn out of the driveway. In the back, smashed underneath a suitcase full of books, the pony starts up again, galloping and whinnying.
Valerie Nelan’s short story “Liberties” was included in the award-winning anthology Home of The Brave: Stories in Uniform, published by Press53 in May 2009.