by Felicia Sullivan
They pass stores in Chinatown on Mott and Kenmare streets. Boxes dozens crowd the narrow sidewalks; fake designer purses wrapped in wrinkled plastic sit on a crushed display. Familiar logos are stamped on pleather. Short men with frayed belts buckled tight, stomachs falling over their slacks, point to the colorful display of perfume bottles. They shiver in thick, black down coats from the morning chill. The streets smell of Joy and White Diamonds mixed with fresh catch. In the outdoor markets that line the street, fresh fish scurry about in dirty white buckets. Orange, silver and sienna fins flap in the water. Ungloved hands gather small fry and thin salmon from
pails and shove the live fish in plastic bags filled with brown salt water. Everyone yells, "I've got a great price!"
James stands in front of the train station a few feet away from his two children, rehearsing his speech. He is nervous so in the event that he forgets anything, he has brought colored index cards. He wants to incorporate phrases such as Be strong for your mother (Blue index card for "Strength") and We're still a family (White index card for "Closing Comments") into his speech. He plans to smooth his six-year-old son Bunny's hair, hand his daughter Gillian a Kleenex. He comes into the city with his children armed with a box filled with pale blue lotion tissues and the phrase: My leaving you and your mother really doesn't change anything (Red index card for "Soothing Comments for the kids").
He has brought these cards because like Ellen, Gillian can see that James is a coward and will inevitably rip him to shreds. He needs these cards as a point of reference. He always falls apart when he argues with his wife and his daughter. James imagines his daughter's eyes narrow into a condescending glare when he tells her he is leaving their family for another woman. James prays that Gillian will give him the silent treatment, refuse him the satisfaction of her caring or acknowledging that he will destroy his family. He could escape unscathed and rush back to his Ford Taurus, parked at Syosset train station, and his life packed into two large duffle bags that sit in the trunk.
Among the dark suits and toiletries that he had packed is a picture of his son Bunny the only picture he had lifted from the stack of photo albums lodged in the living room bookcases. Bunny was three in the photo. He was nibbling on a large blade of grass with his one hand and gave James the middle finger with the other. Gillian stood blurred in the background, however, James could remember her running over to Bunny and folding all but one of his fingers down. She had scurried away and shouted, "Cheese!" as James snapped the photo. Ellen had stood in the background smothering a chuckle while Gillian marched about the lawn giving James Nazi salutes. James had sighed. After he had lowered the camera to his waist, he had wondered what had he ever done to deserve this an angry daughter, a cold wife and a beautiful son caught in the middle of all of this anger.
He knows his fragile son, who is most comfortable hiding in cabinets and under tables draped with linen, won't be able to handle the news. Images of Bunny as an adult serial killer plague James. He blinks away all of these images and grips the cards with two fingers. James has spent the bulk of his life miserable with his family. He wants to make a clean break, a fresh start.
James looks up from the cards to see Bunny reaching in a blue bucket. He smuggles a tiny black eel and slides it down into his pant pocket. He wipes his oil-glossed hand on the sides of his black coat. Bunny stands idle, whistling out of tune. He shuffles his feet in clean white sneakers that are too large. When Bunny thinks no one can see him, he swipes a bunch of parsley and shoves it down his shirt. The leaves begin to tickle. James bows his head down and studies the index cards. He cannot cry. James has to be strong.
Gillian smoothes Chanel No. 5 on the cracks of her elbows and purrs "Smell" to a thin, pale-faced man. The stubble on the shopkeeper's oblong face appears like large, black holes drilled into his pores. He leans to one side, slurping on a small cup of coffee. Grime forms half crescents under his fingernails. "Nice," he spits through pink, fleshy lips. She stares at him; her eyes widen. The man's two front teeth converge inward and his bottom teeth are missing. James sees his daughter lick her lips and pout. She pulls a fifty from James's wallet and says, "Keep the change." Skipping up and down Canal Street, Gillian sprays Chanel No. 5 in the air, blinding passersby.
The eel slaps against Bunny's hips. He slides his hand on the side of the pants and pats the fish gently. "Ssh!" Bunny hisses.
James still stands at the train station, his fatigue green khakis blocking the green circular number 6 sign. He shakes his leg, irritated, and frowns. He hides his cards in his coat pocket. As Gillian nears, his face folds eyes begin to tear and form watery brown slits; his cheeks sink in, his lips purse. James pulls at his scarf and wraps the gauzy wool several times around his face. Only his eyes are visible. Through the thin holes in the material, he shouts, "You smell like your mother!" Gillian presses her forefinger down on the nozzle and a mist of lavender and powder surrounds James. He stares at his daughter and closes his eyes.
"I know," Gillian says. Her hands rest at her hips. She unzips her cardigan and her nipples, small raspberry pearls, poke through her tight, see-through tank. James stifles a nervous laugh; a cough erupts from his throat. It is Gillian's fashion at sixteen to rebel against her father with acts of public nudity: a nipple on the subway, a navel in a museum, and a full left breast in a restaurant. James wonders if he has ever loved his daughter. Women pass by clutching heavy bags: paper in plastic; the weight of the contents makes small tears on the handle. They pause and stare at the scene and mumble to their children and grab them by the shoulder and shove them away. Everyone yells something in Cantonese.
When Gillian was twelve, James had come home early from work to find her at the kitchen counter pouring water into a bottle of vodka. Next to the bottle of vodka stood a tall glass of orange juice; pulp had floated to the top. James stomped over and downed the drink in several large gulps and threw the glass in the sink. Gillian blocked her face with her arms. Glass scattered about the kitchen: on the table, on the floor, bits got caught in her hair. His wife Ellen had slithered down the stairs in a periwinkle terry robe and draped one hand onto the doorway panel. Her pupils had shrunken until her eyes were a jaundiced yellow brown and she blinked only every few minutes. Within the last two years of their seventeen-year marriage, Ellen had grown solemn. She left dry dishes in the dishwasher for days, her once creatively packed lunches (which contained little cartoon clippings and heart-shaped cupcakes) now comprised: leftovers in Tupperware. A year ago, Ellen and James had quietly seen a therapist. After the session Ellen had shuddered, "I don't think that this is right for me".
Ellen had no problem, however, pressing her father to write scripts for pain medication. James wondered if she had grown listless because her children were going to school, tying their own shoes, and brushing their own hair. Her presence was merely a technicality. She served to make guest appearances at PTA functions. She guest starred as a parent in the after-school activities that her children would have chosen. They chose none. After their last visit to therapy, John had asked, "Is it me?" Ellen turned to him; her eyes seemed to glare past him. "No darling, it's me," she replied, cliché. "Does that make you feel better?" Ellen added. From that evening on, she slept with her back facing him, her body on the very edge of the bed. She used different sheets from the ones on the bed to drape herself. James stopped caring.
"Rough day with Valium, dear?" James had shouted, tightening his slate grey tie around his neck, hoping to black out.
"Why all the screaming?" she gesticulated her arms as if she were swatting at wasps. Her hair scratched her shoulders; chunks were clumped together with hairspray. Dark brown roots bled into the dark blonde highlights. Ellen's face was streaked with mascara as if she had wiped fresh tears.
"James threw a glass at me! Watch how fast I sic my guidance counselor on your sorry ass!" Gillian shouted, running to Ellen. Ellen smoothed her daughter's hair and laid baby kisses on her scalp while Gillian cried, "I'm calling child abuse!" James remembered that even as a toddler, Gillian had shrieked and spat up baby food in his arms. She had always reached for her mother. James had tried to cradle the small child in his arms, but she had fought him away, pressing her tiny palms against his neck. Her face had always turned a blistering red. Gillian hated him, James had thought, even then.
"Stop calling me James!" he had replied, annoyed that his daughter had refused to refer to him as "father" or "dad" after he had denied her room being painted red. Gillian had screamed "Fascist!" and for weeks had slipped clipped articles and books on Hitler, Stalin, and Castro in his briefcase. As he pulled out the sheets of paper to pore over the paragraphs on mind control that Gillian had highlighted in red, passengers on the westbound train to Penn Station had turned and glared. James had responded by slipping pamphlets on teen runaways and prostitution in her bookbag. He hoped that one day Gillian would get the message, figure it all out. James prayed that one day the smell of her wet hair, microwave buttered popcorn and her constant whining would be gone. All he would hear was his wife washing down Valium, Percoset or Vicodin with spring water and Bunny whimpering somewhere in the house.
James turned to his wife, who had started to nod off, "And your daughter was practically inhaling a bottle of vodka. Does this normally occur when I am not home or are you just too stoned to notice?"
"Must you shout? I am not deaf James," Ellen had replied, eyes flapping up like shutters. She leaned into Gillian and whispered something into her ear. Gillian smiled and turned to walk away.
"I'm not done with you Gillian," James shouted to her.
Gillian turned around and laughed, "You're pathetic" he only heard the skitter of her feet up the staircase and the slam of her bedroom door. Bunny had stood there the whole time, silent, sucking his thumb.
"Welcome home James, welcome home," Ellen waved her hand and walked to the counter and reached for a bottle of red on the wrought iron rack. She uncorked the bottle, took large, thirsty gulps and sauntered out of the kitchen, her robe floating behind her like a train.
James snickered bitterly, "So this is a home."
Bunny's hips keep shaking. They all stand uncomfortable in front of the Canal Street train station, uneasy of sharing each other's air.
"What is wrong with you?" Gillian diverts her attention from James to stare at Bunny, her brother. She twists stands of blond hair streaked with chunks of fuschia and begins to chew on the ends. James thinks he may actually vomit on his daughter's tank top.
James turns away from his children and descends down the station. The scent of Ellen hangs deftly in the air around him, circling his neck. James is almost convinced he will choke while waiting in line for a Metrocard. James prays that the train will pull into the station. He would hop over the turnstile, one foot then another and sprint through the two steel double doors. He would wave at his children through the windows of the car. James begins to give this fantasy serious thought. James would ride the subway all day Brooklyn to the Bronx and back again. He would carve out a section of the car for himself, a two seater at the end of the car. The seats would be decorated with his pressed khakis and navy peacoat. With one foot propped up tapping the steel pole and the other dangling over the armrest, James would flick the pages of the New York Post loudly and read the paper cover to cover, including the ads. He would lick his thumbs stained black with ink turning each page. In his pocket, a small Tiffany flask of gin would provide sustenance and recycled McDonald's containers would be swept under the seat. The waft of grilled, processed beef and melted cheddar would eclipse his wife's perfume that settled in the threads of his fabric, clung to the pores of his skin. James would call this home.
Bunny tugs at James's coat. "They don't take tokens here," Bunny pleads, opening his palm to reveal three tarnished gold coins wet from his sweat.
"What he means; James, is that we need money for Metrocards," Gillian says and turns to her brother, "Don't worry kid".
"Then Gillian dear, pull out my wallet from under the coat that I bought you and buy them yourself. You can manage that, can't you? Or do you need to be hand-held in the process?" James snaps. A train pulls into the station and the doors open and close within seconds, taking James's fantasy to the next stop.
"Right," Gillian replies, her voice faltering. She quickly turns her back to James. James stares at the line that has begun to form in back of his daughter, a line that snakes the station. The booth collector smiles and nods and scratches his head with one hand and pulls the microphone to his lips with the other. His hoarse voice cuts in and out. He is giving directions.
"For Chrissake, Gillian." James yanks her from the line, and the three, with Metrocards in hand, move through the turnstiles on to the subway platform. James lets go of her forearm and Gillian stumbles back. For a moment, terror washes her face. James has never laid a hand on her. She bites her lip hard and James sees her wrap her sweater around her arm. He moves towards her and he begins to apologize and she immediately raises her hand to his face, "Gills," he whispers. "Don't," she says, her eyes glassy, "Just don't".
Bunny's hips cease gesticulating. At the middle of the platform, a child starts to wail. Not the muffled, choked sniffled cries, but full-blown, mouth-stretched-wide, teeth-shaking, foot-stomping wails. The eel slithers and slides around her feet; grease stains her white Mary Janes with a film of yellow slime. The mother slaps the child in the back and with the side of her sneaker, kicks the eel off the platform down into the track. A squeal rises from Bunny's throat. "I can't bring it home now," he says.
"Oh MY God, Bun" Gillian says. Bunny bows his head and bites his lip. "Bun, you okay?"
"What's going on?" James asks, not that he ever knows. He wants to pat his son on the shoulder as fathers do pat their sons on their shoulders but he feels oddly repulsed by the whimpering child.
"It's not fair!" Bunny cries. Tears fill and overflow and slide down his face. A mass of snot forms above his upper lip. James shudders. Where is Ellen? She is always so good at these situations. She would have held Bunny to her breast. "It'll all be fine dear," she would coo and rub her nose against his. James wonders if he can learn to coo.
"Your son, James, your son stole a live fish from the market and shoved it down his pants." Gillian pulls a Kent 100 from her coat pocket and strikes a match. "I can't imagine that this is normal behavior for a six year old." The flame quickly burns down to the end of the match. A hot oval blister forms on Gillian's finger. "Fuck!" she shouts, shaking her finger.
"You what?" James yells and turns back to Gillian. He lowers his voice, "You can't smoke in the subway." A cluster of teenagers huddled in bulky coats turn and stare. Some snicker and point.
"It was going to die," Bunny says. His tone abruptly shifts from hysteria to flat and controlled. His lips are still moist but his voice is even and almost curt. He stops crying but his eyes are swollen and red, his cheeks, puffed and blotchy. James offers him a Dunkin Donuts napkin. That is the least he can do. Gillian snatches the napkin and crouches down to wipe her brother's tears. She touches him softly as if he is china; an unlit cigarette hangs from the front of her mouth.
"And you did nothing to prevent this?" James turns to Gillian. A train pulls into the station. James covers his ears as the screech of the brakes slamming the rails momentarily deafens him.
"Isn't that your job?" she rises, puffing away at the unlit cigarette. The right side of her lip curls up, "But from what I heard, it won't be any longer". She steps through the opened double doors of the 6 train.
"I'm okay Dad, really." Bunny raises his hand in defeat and follows Gillian into the train. Gillian extends her hand behind her and Bunny grabs it. A few curls dangle below his eyelid. He begins to nibble at his fingernails, chewing to the skin. Gillian makes eye contact with male passengers until the majority of them drop their gaze to the floor in a sudden fixation with concrete. She slips open her cellular phone and a blue fluorescent screen screams in all caps, "NO SERVICE!"
James wonders what just happened. James thinks about Ellen. Ellen would have never offered her breasts to James. His mouth begins to turn into a wide grin and he chuckles to himself, clutching the news to himself like a soft blanket.
James had packed the last of his suits in a large, black duffel bag. Ellen sat at the edge of their bed, her back towards him facing the window.
"How long?" she had said, tracing the lace on the edges of her nightgown with her fingertips. She then tapped her knee.
"Three months, I think. Maybe four," James had replied. The zipper echoed and bounced against the walls of their bedroom.
"When are you leaving?" Ellen exhaled, stood and wrapped her hair into a bun. She stood and tiptoed towards the open window and drew the blinds.
"Tomorrow night. I'll be back next week for the rest of my things. I can send someone if you prefer." James walked over to Ellen and touched the bottom of her shoulder blade. She pulls away. "You're not even going to ask why, are you?"
"Do I need to?" Ellen swallowed hard and stared at the window, onto their lawn. She lifted the window a crack and poked at the screen. "Do I need to?" she repeated.
"I mean, do you even care that I am leaving or is me telling you proper etiquette?" James had chuckled. "Well why would you care since you've been having an affair with prescription drugs for the past two years. El, I have all of this love for you and I don't know where to put it anymore." He leaned against the vanity; his body crouched over as if he had vomited. His hands had begun to shake. "I'm tired of looking," he whispered. James had begun to pace about the room, picking up photos in brass frames and placing them down, careful not to disturb the arrangement that Ellen had created in the room, in their house. James had imagined, what if he took all of those words he had just said back. What if he had rewound and started over. Instead, he could have entered the room from the bathroom, kicked his loafers to the side and slid under the quilt. He could have said nothing.
"Is there a point to all of this, James, because frankly, I'm tired. My husband tells me he is leaving me tomorrow for an English teacher, our daughter's English teacher. I am tired, James." Ellen sat back down on the bed and rested her head in her hands. She did not cry, not a sniffle or whimper. All James had heard was her breathing like dull waters drifting. He stole a glance at his wife of seventeen years, and she appeared to darken, her expression took a Moorish tone, her hair blackened and thickened. Her eyes had always swallowed him whole. Like they had at that moment. He did not want to argue anymore.
"I'm taking Gillian and Bunny into the city tomorrow. To the Hard Rock. I'll tell them then," James said.
"So like you, James, to break up our family over French fries". Ellen unraveled her hair, and strands hung down her back. She pulled at the chain of their lamp and the room went black. Ellen sat upright on the bed and said, "Apparently you've put your love for me into someone else." James had remained standing.
Seven subway stops and fifteen minutes later, a perky waitress escorts James, Gillian and Bunny through the mouse maze that is the Hard Rock Café. Her name as prominently displayed on her tag reads: Bunny. She blows and crackles Bubble Yum as she leads the three to their table. Her blond hair is weaved into tight, long braids that rest on her breast. She is dressed in a black and white pinstripe, button-down, short-sleeved shirt littered with buttons that read "We card your grandmother, SORRY!" a thin, micro-mini black skirt and a Hard Rock Café cap slung to one side. James licks his lips and rubs his chin with one hand, roving his fingers from one side of his face to the other.
"Can you be more obvious?" Gillian says, sliding herself into the corner of the tall, black leather booth. She scowls. Bunny sits next to her and immediately immerses himself in the appetizer section of the menu. "She has my name," he whispers to no one. "The waitress, that's my name."
"Just shut up, Gillian, and look at the menu," James snaps, flipping though the wine list. He settles on a Cabernet, a bottle all for himself.
"Cheers, James." Gillian spits at the plastic showcasing cheeseburgers and steaks. James ignores her. Bunny, the waitress, teeters over, pad in hand and squeaks, "How would you like to hear our specials?"
"Bottle of the Reagali for me," James says.
"Gin and tonic," Gillian yells. "Coke," James intercedes. Bunny, the waitress, nods and winks at James. James winks back.
"Classic coke, no ice, no straw. My name is Bunny," Bunny says. His eyes widen as he stares at the waitress.
"Oh isn't that just the cutest!" she shrieks. For a moment, they all think that the waitress might squeeze Bunny's cheeks. She does not.
"We're all just bouncing up and down with JOY!" Gillian says and continues, "Greek salad and fries."
"Bunny will have the hot dog and fries," James says and nods at Bunny. Bunny gives a thumbs-up. The waitress scribbles the orders down and smiles. "I'll be right back with your drinks!" James pictures Bunny with pom poms and a megaphone.
"Well," James says, clapping his hands. He rubs them so hard that he could have started a fire.
"Well what?" Gillian says, "Is this the point in the day where you act like the father?" She drums her long fingernails on the greasy table. James stumbles to fill the air with any form of conversation. He reaches within his coat to pull out the cards and they all fall under the table. James bows his head under to reach for them but Gillian has quickly scraped them to her side of the table with her feet.
"You rat bastard, I know why we're here. Mother told me this morning." Gillian does not skip a beat. Bunny nods sadly. Surprised and not armed with the wine, James is silent and sober. Gillian slouches in her seat, her eyes menacingly. James pictured pleas and all of the fanfare and confetti. Instead, his children have known all along and they hate him for it.
"I don't know what your mother told you," James begins.
"You're fucking my English teacher. That about sums it up, right?" Gillian replies.
"Dad, what is going to happen to us? We're not going to live with her?" Bunny starts to whimper and chokes on "her."
"Flat fucking chance, Bun. I hope Mother wipes you clean all across Nassau County courtroom and trust that I'm going to make that home-wrecking Ms. Taylor miserable. Miserable, James, in all CAPS."
"Gillian, it isn't like that. Give me five minutes here!" Why had it been so easy to tell his wife? His teenage daughter gives him vertigo.
"Five minutes for what? For more lies? Please, you've exceeded the bullshit threshold, James." Gillian rises from the booth. James frantically fans his hands down, motioning for her to sit.
He remembers one of the phrases from the index cards and shouts, "We're still a family!" Bunny shakes his head sadly, "No we're not".
"You got that right, Bun. James, how did you expect us to react? Did you think I would eat my fucking fries and just sit back and take it? How the hell am I supposed to go to school on Monday? Did you think about that, James?" Tears slowly trickle down the side of her face. James falls silent. He had never seen his daughter cry.
"Gills," James leans over the table and Gillian presses her shoulder blades into the leather booth.
"You don't deserve our love" Gillian says quietly.
Bunny comes over with the drinks and food and pauses at the tense scene. She smiles nervously, "Let me know if you all need anything else." She sprints to the back of the restaurant. Gillian picks one fry at a time and eats it slowly. James drinks straight from the bottle. This is not how he had pictured this scene to go. This is all terribly, terribly wrong. When Gillian finishes her last fry and James attempts to explain the situation, to plead his case, Gillian takes out the Chanel No. 5 and sprays it in his face. James screams, bolts up and stumbles to the floor; he crashes into a waitress and eggs, burgers, mashed potatoes and peas circle the air like a hurricane.
Gillian picks up the bottle of wine, three quarters full and steps over James and walks out the door. For a moment, Gillian is the image of Ellen.
"So what are we going to do, Dad? What are we going to do?" Bunny pleads.
"I don't know, Bunny, I don't know," James says and lies down on the floor of the Hard Rock Café. Twenty minutes has long passed and James lies there, smiling in a sad, pathetic buzz.