Read A History of Forgetting Online

Authors: Caroline Adderson

A History of Forgetting (10 page)

‘It's
real,'
said Christian. ‘It's
natural.'

‘What is?'

He smoothed both hands over his own yellow down. ‘James is a
true
redhead whose
sole purpose
is to mate with other
true
redheads and thereby replenish the redhead population which has been in steady decline since the Vikings. When you see him filled with
angst
it is inevitably because he has been fooled by a
pretender.'

‘You'd think a stylist would know.'

‘Yes, but he's a
bull,
too. When he sees red, he charges. Thi, she's very sweet. What do you make of Donna?'

‘I don't think she likes me.'

‘Oh, she
loathes
you.' He reached out and gave her hand a consoling little pat. ‘She's jealous.
You're
our star apprentice now. Another thing, Donna just got started as a stylist, but—look, don't date clients. You go out on a date with a client and decide you don't like him, think he's going to let you cut his hair again? How's your love life, by the way?'

‘Great.'

He pinched his nose, blatting like a game-show buzzer rebuking a contestant. ‘An answer in the
affirmative
is a
negative.
Love and life are one. If you separate out love, you're not living. Instead, live every moment for love.'

He was wearing a T-shirt that read ‘Worship Me', valentine-red Doc Martens and a necklace of dog chain, which he toyed with incessantly. Alison thought he was joking.

‘Not at all!'

The deli man set down her bowl swirling with pale vegetable cubes, a grainy slice of bread on the side, and walked off, oblivious to Christian's pursuing gaze.

‘What's his name?'

‘I don't know. I've never been here.'

‘Your sweetie.'

‘Oh!' She laughed. ‘Billy.'

‘Billy, Billy, let me guess.' Stubby fingers to his temples, he shut his eyes. It was a relief to her; she wouldn't have to
wonder where to look. ‘Blue of eye, blond of hair, buns of steel.'

Alison blew the soup right off the spoon. ‘He's brunette and hardly got buns at all! What about you? Do you have a sweetheart?'

‘Ham on rye,' the deli man said, appearing as if in answer to her question. He set the sandwich down. Christian watched him for another moment, then gingerly lifted the corner of the bread, then the lettuce, the cheese and ham, an inventory. He took a bite and didn't wait for the swallow. Sandwich revolved between his words.

‘Robert—'

‘I know,' said Alison, sadly. ‘Thi told me.'

‘She did? The little
gossip.'

The goat bells sounded and Christian waved as Roxanne came in. Weaving wraith-like between the tables, she seemed dazed or sleepwalking or ill: there was something deadened or trance-like about her walk. ‘Can I join you?' she asked in a slow, plaintive voice. ‘Do you mind?'

‘Rox, Rox,' Christian assured her. ‘We were waiting for you.'

She sank down on the chair, sank and slumped, folding in on herself, spine and shoulders bowing, a self-protecting posture. Staring at them, sucking on her fingernail, she really looked extremely pretty with her huge eyes and her mane, the delicate gold wire looping one tear-shaped nostril. She took the finger from her mouth to say, ‘I'm so glad you're working with us, Ali. I like you. I like your sweaters.'

Alison was just going to thank her when the tide came in on Roxanne's eyes. They filled with salt water. She blinked and expelled a tear.

‘What's the matter?' asked Alison.

‘Oh, Rox,' said Christian, chidingly. He took a napkin and wiped her cheek, digging in his jeans pocket at the same time.

‘I'm just so happy!' Roxanne cried.

‘She's hungry,' said Christian.

‘Who knitted it?' she asked, meaning the outsize blue guernsey that Alison was wearing with boots over a short
black sheath dress.

‘My mother.'

‘Have you eaten anything today?' Christian asked.

‘I had a coffee. My mother would never knit me a sweater.'

‘Coffee isn't food,' said Christian.

‘Does she know how?'

‘I don't know. I don't even talk to her any more.'

‘Here.' He found what he had been rooting for in his
pocket: a pink oblong bead. A vitamin. He set it in front of her.

‘I can't.'

‘You
can!'

‘I need water.'

‘Ali?' Christian pointed to the counter and Alison went for a glass.

When she got back to the table, Roxanne was talking
about getting a lip ring. ‘What do you think, Ali? Should I? Or maybe one through my eyebrow, like Robert's. Which do you guys think?'

Christian took the glass of water from Alison and handed it to Roxanne. For a minute they sat watching her blink petulantly at the vitamin. Who would want to take it? Bright pink, it was like the outrageous pupa of some insect from the sixties. Finally, she picked it up and took a sip of water. Alison heard a tiny clink. Roxanne swallowed the vitamin, gagged, and sud
denly, it seemed all a show, a show that both Roxanne and
Christian were putting on—not for Alison, for themselves.

Christian leaned over and kissed Roxanne's cheek. ‘There's a good girl.' She sniffed and smiled. ‘Now go and get yourself a soup or something. Go on. Or we won't let you sit with us any more.'

Slowly, Roxanne stood and made her way over to the
counter. ‘See? She's
famished,'
said Christian. ‘She barely has the energy to stand.'

They watched her talking to the deli man, teetering on her platform shoes, legs thin as an insect's. She pointed at something, then changed her mind and headed for the bathroom.

‘Go after her,' said Christian.

‘What?'

‘Go listen at the door.'

‘Why?' said Alison.

‘In case she pukes.'

She felt silly, but she went because he asked her to.

Waiting there, now and then pressing her ear to the door, Alison couldn't hear a thing. Then Roxanne opened the door and, seeing her, smiled weakly. ‘I have to go, too,' said Alison, blushing.

When she returned to the table, Christian was feeding her soup to Roxanne, coaxing. With each mouthful, Alison heard that little metallic click again, and a scrape against the spoon. Against Roxanne's tongue stud, she would learn later, when Roxanne showed her all her piercings. Under her hair and clothes, Roxanne was skewered.

 

 

 

3

 

‘
Vitae
means life,' she told her mother when she and Billy were over for dinner on Sunday night. She was helping make the salad, rolling the wet leaves in a tea towel.

‘How poetic.'

‘You don't get it,' said Alison. Her mother's refusal to approve still felt like pins stuck in.

‘I have to say I don't. You could have redone your exams. You could have gone to college if you wanted.'

‘I didn't want to go to college,' said Alison.

‘Can you tell Jeffy and his friend we're almost ready?'

Good. A way out of that conversation. She passed through the living room. Her father was in the La-Z-Boy, his gouty feet raised up on the footrest, a can of beer propped in his crotch, Billy on the couch. Hockey was on, Billy in charge of the mute button. ‘When do I get my free haircut?' her dad asked.

‘Anytime you want. But I'm not a hairdresser yet. I'm an apprentice for a year.'

‘As long as it's free.'

From the kitchen her mother called, ‘I still think she would have made a terrific nurse!'

‘She plays nurse with me!' Billy yelled back and Alison's father guffawed.

Jeffy had a friend over for dinner, though neither of them had made an appearance yet. Alison paused outside his door, patchworked with stickers, heard them inside grunting the secret guttural of teenage boys. When she knocked, though, something else—a desperate cluck and gurgle. ‘Jeffy?'

No answer.

She knew she wasn't supposed to, would undoubtedly meet his wrath, but she opened the door anyway. At first glance they seemed locked in a confusing kind of love pose: on the unmade
bed, Kevin Milligan, on all fours, straddled Jeffy who, squirm
ing, arms reaching, held Kevin by the collarbones. A few
months ago, she'd accidentally barged in on Jeffy in the bath
room, caught him on the edge of the tub jigging, so knew this time not to scream, but to duck out fast, except that just then
Kevin looked up. He was a bulky kid with coarse yellow hair, his lips drawn back to show big teeth, his whole mouth stretched wide with straining, his face very, very red. Alison's mouth opened, too, and she pitched forward slightly, but didn't make
an utterance or really move. For weeks afterward she would
remember this moment as her own near-asphyxiation, the hor
ror and shame of doing nothing cinching off her breath. Kevin was strangling her brother and Alison just stood and stared.

Then he bolted. He hurtled off the bed and out the door, knocking her aside, Alison blinking after him, afraid to look back at Jeffy. Afraid for two reasons: first, Jeffy might be dead; second, she might be relieved if he was. Jeffy, at thirteen, was the most infuriating person she knew. Across her back, lash marks from where he still ignobly snapped her bra. ‘Fatso' was his name for her. Once, right in front of her, he'd swallowed her diary key.

When she did finally turn, he was still flat out, but breathing as if he were inflating a beach ball. ‘Are you okay?'

‘Fuck off,' he croaked.

‘Supper's ready.'

Slowly, he began to raise himself from the half-dead. He sat a minute staring at the floor. His face in profile—the skijump nose, the thick lashes against his still­ flawless skin as he squeezed his eyes shut—was prettier than hers.

‘What was that?' she asked.

A tear got away. Stunned, she watched him whisk it off his cheek. As far as she knew, he hadn't cried since he fell out of the tree and broke his arm when he was ten, around the time he last spoke to her without sneering. Around the same time he'd stopped saying ‘please'.

‘Please.' He barely mouthed the words. ‘Don't say anything.'

‘But you didn't do anything!' She came over and put her hand on his shoulder, but he looked up and ran her through with his glare.

‘Leave me alone.'

She hovered there a moment, then left, closing the door behind her.

Kevin had insinuated himself in the living room with Billy and her Dad. She glared as she passed him, to no effect. In the kitchen, she asked her mother, ‘Who is that kid anyway?'

‘Kevin? He's in Jeffy's class at school.'

‘He's a little creep.'

‘Where are they? It's time to eat.'

‘You go,' Alison said.

Their mother came back with Jeffy in tow and enjoin­ed them all to sit, sit anywhere. Jeffy, looking sullen and withdrawn, made for his usual place, but when Kevin started for the facing seat, Jeffy balked. Instead, Alison and Billy took those chairs, their father his at the head of the table and their mother the one closest to the kitchen. The two remaining seats were across from each other anyway, so Alison stood.

‘Where are you going?' asked her father. ‘I'm about to say grace.'

She sat back down.

Her father clasped his big hands together. ‘Thank God supper's ready!'

Then it seemed too awkward to offer to change. Already the mashed potatoes were going around and her father had started carving the roast chicken. ‘Who's a Catholic? Who wants the Pope's nose?' He swashed with the carving knife, like it was a regular Sunday dinner.

‘You boys are awfully quiet,' her mother observed during the meal, apparently not sensing any tension.

‘They're competing for a food source,' Billy said. ‘It takes all their concentration.'

Kevin opened his mouth and showed his masticated food. Neither Jeffy nor Alison laughed.

Profound was Alison's surprise when, after dinner, Jeffy asked to be excused and the boys walked off together as if nothing had happened. Alison must have missed something, some secret sign exchanged over the meal. Or Kevin mouthing threats.

She went to Jeffy's room again to make sure he was all right. They were just turning on the computer. ‘Jeffy,' Alison said,‘we're going in a minute.'

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