"Kissing Vertigo," by Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy writes Fiction. She is an Arizona native living in Boston where she is an MFA candidate in the fiction program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She lives with her wife and two cats in a small apartment above a garage. Her stories have appeared in Write on the DOT, a journal of Dorchester artists, and The Breakwater Review, UMass Boston's online literary journal. When not writing she searches for edible Mexican food in and around New England and eavesdrops on conversations between fellow passengers on the train.  

Kissing Vertigo

East Lake Park: Samantha

Dad is banging full force against the side of the tv with his fist. The reception has been loose for days and he about wore a hole in the faux wood paneling on the side of it. The cracks web out from the center of the panel where he strikes the tv constantly. It’s—fuck-fuck-fuck—and come on—with a long draw on the o, each time his fist lands. The picture is all snow until he touches the antenna, which only frustrates him more. I sit at the kitchen table and watch him beat the tv instead of doing my homework. I can’t concentrate anyways. I am too busy thinking about Sara.

She’s been gone a week now. She’s never been gone this long. None of us know where to look. She was thinning and grey before she left but we all thought we had time—time to dry her out—sober her up. When I found the note on my pillow the night she left, I thought she’d be back in a day or two. The way she usually did. Then Dad would take her down to the station to have an officer talk some sense at her.

I slip the keys to the old Datsun off the hook when dad starts to bang harder. I ask him to tell mom I’ll be back later. He says okay and doesn’t look at me as he shifts his weight to take it out on the other side of the tv. I call Justin before I leave and tell him I’m on my way. He says ok and hangs up.

We’ve been doing this for days now. We go out and look for her. We drive around my neighborhood and the school every night. The police said she’s probably in an area she knows. When we reported her missing it was sort of like a let-go. We had to admit we didn’t know if she’d come home this time. They said to start looking around the places she goes to a lot, if we’re going to look. None of us knew where that was. So I started by the school. Mom’s been looking too, but she won’t tell anyone where. I think she just drives around. She takes off and comes home late.

Justin takes care of his uncle because no one else in his family will. He doesn’t have any other place to go since his mom left him. His uncle is in a wheelchair and can’t do much on his own. All of the cupboards in their kitchen are empty because his uncle can’t reach them. Justin keeps his weed and a bottle of Boones Farm in the farthest cabinet above the refrigerator. It’s not like his uncle could ever get to it anyways but Justin still feels bad. I think he wants to pretend that he might get into trouble. That someone might give a shit enough to tell him, you’re fucking up. Even if his uncle ever did find the weed or the Boones Farm, I doubt he would care enough to punish Justin. His uncle is mean to everyone and tells me to leave every time I visit.

I wait in the car and flash my headlights at Justin’s window instead of knocking on the door. I don’t want to deal with his uncle even though he’s probably asleep. Since Sara left all I think about are the times I was mean to her. The time in elementary school I hid her bike in the tall grass lawn of the condemned house across the street and waited until she cried to tell her where it was. Once, I slapped her across the face just to see what it felt like to hit someone hard. And more recently, when I told her she couldn’t sit with me at lunch anymore. I told her that just because she was a freshman didn’t mean I had to take care of her at school. She needed to find her own friends. She started hanging out with the smokers after that. They smoke cigarettes around the electrical box at the gas station across the street. They smell like dust and most of them don’t bother coming back to school after lunch. One time, I told her that her new friends were burn-outs and that she was pretty close.

Justin comes out of the side gate that leads into his backyard. He is wearing his light green Polo shirt. The one that makes his biceps look big because of the way it hugs the curves on his arms. I can see his uncle nip and shiver the blinds in the lower corner of the living room window and I turn off my headlights. Justin slides into the passenger seat and kisses my jawbone. He works his nose behind my ear and his hand up my thigh—under my skirt. I pull away. He throws me a glance, like he doesn’t know what to say to me anymore. Ever since Sara left, he looks at me with his eyebrows pinched together at the ridge above his nose.

I drive past the school and head towards the mall. The roads are practically empty so I barely look when I make a right to get onto the highway. Justin is fussing with the radio and whenever he looks at me he pinches his eyebrows together. He pops The Essential Simon and Garfunkel into the cassette player, and starts to sing, “Feeling Groovy.” He found the tape in a case in my dad’s shed, all draped in dust, when he was helping him rebuild the cinderblock wall out back after someone took a sledge hammer to it in the night. He wants to listen to this kind of music every time we’re together.

I don’t feel groovy, so I push the fast-forward button until I hear it click over to the next song. I pop the play button and “Homeward Bound,” comes on. Justin’s brows are raised like he expects me to cry or something. But I like how it makes me feel. How it reminds me that I was a bad sister. And I focus on that moment when I told her to leave me alone. I turn this thought over and over in my head. Each time I become crueler.

The roads look wet in the night but it’s only the heat rising from the street. It comes in waves and shimmers in the light of the street lamps, then disappears as I get closer, but emerges farther down the road. All of the roads in Phoenix are laid in a grid. It’s easy to circle the block. Or find your way back when you get lost. The mall has a parkway that rings around the buildings and weaves through the parking lots. There is a rent-a-cop sitting in his jeep in the far end of the lot. Otherwise the mall is empty. I tell Justin to keep looking as I loop around the block a few more times. He tells me we should probably check the park before it gets too late. I stop the car in the middle of the two lane parkway and scan the lot for Sara’s blonde hair and listen for her laughter to clap through the silent night air.

East Lake Park is a few blocks from the mall. There is a pond and a playground with a sandbox, which is more than most other parks in Phoenix have. When dad brought Sara and I to the pond to teach us to fish, I found a syringe under the concrete bench where we picnicked.

I try to remember more of the cruel things I’ve done to Sara—cutting her bangs off when we were kids, to see what I might look like—shaving her eyebrows while she slept because I was mad. Justin starts humming “Baby Driver,” when it comes on. He taps his knees and rolls his window down. The breeze kicks the stale air from the floorboards and the hot drifts behind me and laps at the back of my shirt. I pull into the empty parking lot of East Lake Park and Justin turns the radio down. There is a group of homeless gathered around a picnic bench. The flicker glow of their lighters, brighten their faces in flashes. We are crawling so slow that I wonder if the Datsun will stall. One of the homeless men stands on the table, grabs his crotch, and yells, lookin’s gonna cost ya, when he sees me staring. He is wearing a black t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His jeans have smudged black streaks along the thighs and hang loosely around the peaks of his hip bones.

Justin gets nervous and rolls his window up half of the way. He looks at me like he wants to say let’s go, but he doesn’t say it. He knows I won’t. I’m looking through him. I’m looking through the mass of homeless and the man fondling himself on the bench. Justin snaps his head back to the crowd to see what I see. Above the bluffs on the far end of the park, near the pond, I can see a silhouette, the small frame of a girl.

I stop the car and punch the emergency brake. I don’t even pull the keys from the ignition or shut my door when I leave the car. I can hear the click of Justin’s seatbelt when he unbuckles, as I take off sprinting past the crowd of homeless, across the manicured lawn and disappear inside the thick black air of the park. The grass squeaks beneath my feet. I can see the hair on the silhouette turn into blonde locks. I push harder across the field. My lungs expand with hot air. They burn like they might catch fire. My feet pound against the lawn as the soft dirt gives beneath me. My heart beat and my temples sting. My eyes tunnel and the frame comes into view. For a moment, it is Sara. For a moment I think it’s over. I think about how I will tell her she can sit with me at lunch. I think about how I will apologize and she will come home. But as I get closer the frame grows larger and her hair turns matted and curled. The figure near the pond grows chunky, saggy and old. I stop running. I stare at the woman on the ground. She is a huddled blob draped in sun-rot blankets—faded and thinning material—almost see through. And I can see now that it isn’t Sara. It never was.

My temples pound and my chest hurts. I can hear the faint chime of Justin’s wallet chain as it bounces against his thighs while he runs to catch up to me. I turn around and see him jogging. He slows then stops when he sees me heading back towards him and the Datsun. He doesn’t ask if it’s her.

We get back to the car and circle the park until Justin asks to go home. It’s two in the morning when I drop him off. He says he’s sorry and asks if I want to stay with him tonight. I tell him my mom and dad are probably worried about me and that I should get home too.

I take the back roads and look close at all of the bus stops on the way. Mom’s Honda isn’t there when I pull into the driveway. I smell the blooms on the Palo Verde tree in our front yard and the honeysuckle bush below my window. Inside, dad is still in his work clothes. He’s asleep on the couch while the tv plays white noise in the background. The antenna is twisted into a spiral with mounds of tinfoil packed in between the ears. The paneling on the tv is beginning to flake and crumble near the web of cracks on its side. I turn it off as I head to my room.

I lay in my bed awake most of the night. Mom’s Honda pulls into the driveway at day break. Her keys chime as she hangs them on the hook. She doesn’t wake dad. Her shadow stops in the hallway. I can see the small knots of her feet under the slit in my door. I sit up thinking she might open it. She stands there a moment. Then the knots of her feet move. I hear the rustle of her going down the hall—the silent breathy exhale of her walking away from my door. The click of the knob as she closes hers.