FICTION: Huff, Puff, Blow

As far as temporary homelessness goes, it was a good temporary homelessness, a great temporary homelessness I was experiencing. I was offered a new job back home, home just didn’t have a home for me until I saved up. My mom’s place was overstuffed with stowaways, even the couch was claimed. My old friends were my only choices, but they were under construction or struggling in abusive marriages or living with nuns.

Of the available options, I chose Ama, the one living with nuns to help me. She said not to worry, the nuns have plenty of rooms. The digs are pretty lush is how she phrased it. But if you want to stay there the nuns have to approve you first.

I hoped I could present a nun-friendly demeanor.

Existing in such close proximity to my family’s dramas was causing me low-grade anxiety, and in my hurry to escape them I didn’t properly prep. In the car mirror I wiped crusts from my eyes and patted down hair frizz.
When I pulled up I realized lush really meant lush. The nuns lived in a mansion surrounded by ancient oaks and willows, sycamore, maple, and ash. The landscaping hugged the home in such a way as to reign in its grandeur, but that gave it an effortlessness that was even more refined. Wow, I thought. Do I have any more crusts on my face?

I did.

I was wobbly at the front door, which was ajar. I pushed it and dipped my head into the dark wood of an entryway flanked with paintings and plants. It led to a balcony looking over what must have once been a ballroom. No one was near but I could hear voices, which beckoned me on. I looked down the long dark hallways to my left and right, and then leaned over the balcony railing. I saw what I guess I should have been expecting. Many nuns.

Around where a table should be, they sat with plates in their laps, eating and chatting. The nuns were wearing beige habits, and many were not in habits at all. Just long beige skirts and cream blouses, tucked in. A few looked up at me with expressions I couldn’t read. One of them was Ama, my friend, who smiled with delight and pointed to say she was coming up.

While I waited I ogled the gold ballroom. Plants and flowers dangled from above, fanned from the corners, rested along railings and curled in nooks.

It was glorious and I began to feel peaceful.

Some of the nuns were still gazing at me. I wondered if I would have to wear beige and cream in order to stay here. Ama was wearing beige and cream. I wondered if she was here not just to rent a room, but to actually become a nun. It would be quite a departure for her. Ama had a spiritual bend, but more yoga/vision board-spiritual than austere/self-sacrifice spiritual. Plus she loved sex.

Maybe rich nuns did what they wanted?

Here Ama came, running down the long hall, looking flushed and happy like a modern day Julie Andrews. We chatted fast at each other as she led me down toward my room, pointing out coffee and cozy snack stations along the way, and naming features of the lawn that we could see through the windows.

“Don’t I have to be approved by the nuns?” I asked as we arrived at the door to my room.

“Oh yeah, they already approved you!”

“But I haven’t met a single nun.”

“When you were standing at the balcony, they approved you.”

“So it goes by, like, vibe?”

“Something like that,” Ama chuckled.

The room was simple. There was a single bed, an antique dresser, and a desk. Warm light streamed in but there were no plants.

“I’m sure you’re tired,” Ama said.

I wasn’t tired. It was still light out. I was hungry. But I didn’t say anything.

“I’ll let you get some rest.”

Maybe she had become a nun. Who goes to bed at 8:00? She shut the door.

It was a rough night to be honest. I didn’t want to steal food from nuns, but my stomach was growling. My phone was dead and my charger was in the car. I was bored. It drummed up memories of childhood sleepovers. How long a night could be when you were trapped, stuck stiff in bed and listening to creaks for fear of run-ins with strange parental figures or other people’s ghosts.

I slipped out to the coffee nook finally. There were cookies in plastic packages in a basket. I think I drooled. I stuffed my pockets with them, only to turn and see a nun with white speckled hair in the rocker in the corner staring over the rim of her glasses.

“Sorry. Starved!” I said. She nodded kindly. So I said, “Nice place!” She nodded kindly again and said, “Google.”

“Google?” I said. “Okay, I’ll Google it, is it famous?”

She shook her head and giggled. “No, it’s owned by a Google executive.”

“A Google executive?”

She nodded.

“Wow, some Google executive!”

She giggled again. “Sometimes when people become very rich, they turn back to religion in the end.”

“Ah, so they donated this as an act of charity or something?”

“Loaned it, more like, but yes.” She said. “Or something.” She seemed to be circling a sly humor. I would have been glad to keep ping ponging with her, but she went back to her reading.

I went back to my long night.

By morning, the lushness felt like it could choke me. My mouth was still sweet with cookie crumbs. There was a text from my other friend, the one in the abusive marriage. She had kicked him out. Finally! She was having a hard time with the kids on her own. Perhaps I could be of help.

I decided to visit and see if I could stay with her instead. At least we’d drink wine and play cards at night. I could roam around and eat when I wanted, bologna rolls under the moon if I liked. There’d be no beige.

I didn’t tell Ama. I kissed her cheek and thanked her profusely.

On the road the traffic was rowdy and my car felt untrustworthy. So did the other cars for that matter. My pulse rose.

Lane texted that she was in the pool. She lived in a condo, so the pool was shared, but still. It was a bonus. Salt water. I was feeling good about my decision until I opened the gate and saw that he was with her—the constantly furious and supposedly kicked-out husband.

He was predictably furious.

She was stroking him. Which was predictable too, but I hadn’t predicted it.

The whole thing upset my stomach. Lane was one of my favorite girls. Once we stole Wet N Wild lipsticks together and used them to do our boyfriends’ makeup. We had our first kiss on the same night, and dated twins in high school. We sang songs off the edges of piers at the top of our lungs and sweat through our clothes until they crisped dry against our slickness in the sun. Now she was letting a small mean man drain her life force. She feared she had no support and couldn’t do this life on her own.

She had support. She could crush this life on her own. But when he walked off to tinker with her car in the lot outside the pool house, she instead tried to convince me he was really a good guy.

“Yeah, seems that way,” I said. We could hear him cursing and throwing wrenches.

“He fixes my car for me. I don’t feel safe not having someone who knows what’s going on.”

“I don’t have someone who knows what’s going on.”

I wanted to say that even the elderly nuns didn’t have someone who knows what’s going on. But I guess they did have Jesus. And Google. And maybe they themselves knew what was going on.

She made a face, like yeah. My point exactly. I withheld my face from flashing back.

What changed in Lane? Some slimy slurpy thing was eating her from the inside, and it was the same slimy slurpy thing that ate many of my friends. Enough to make them think that any partner was better than no partner. They chased for a body to fill the groaning space. My friends acted like they were better than previous generations, more independent, more pan/poly/open, but so many still mostly scrambled, in the end, to be wives.

“I like being single,” I said and took a beer from her cooler. I meant it. I said it like I meant it. Still, I could see Lane didn’t believe me. She believed her shouting husband, who stormed back to our lawn chairs, eyes darting.

“Your friend doesn’t like me,” he yelled. As if Lane could fix it.

“Yes, she does,” Lane said. They both looked at me for confirmation.

I did not provide it.

“You talk shit about me,” he said and threw his empty beer can down. “ You think I don’t know?” He was screaming now.

“I don’t,” Lane said gently, too gently, and looked at me like thanks a lot.

“Maybe I should go,” I said.

“Your car is going to explode,” he said. “You can’t go.”

My car did sound funny. Fuck.

“Give me the keys,” he shouted. And I did. I submitted with a bent neck, just like Lane would.

He peeled out of my spot and screeched into another one. Black smoke puffed out around the car. We could see it from fifty yards away.

“See,” he screamed opening the door. “Maybe it was because he drove it so rough.”

Lane rolled her eyes.

“I can fix it,” he yelled. I could see he was desperate for my approval for some reason. How impossible for Lane. To live with a man with so much need she couldn’t looks away from his lock-eyed gaze for a minute.

“Let him fix it,” she said.

“You’ll still hate me,” he said.

He was right, I would. Now he could enjoy a moment of superiority for being right.

I couldn’t let him play hero. Last week he kicked Lane’s door in. So I shook my head and stuck my hand out for the keys. “I’ll take care of it.”

He started pacing like an ape. Actually grunting. Lane negotiated the space between her embarrassment and her need to protect him.

“Love you,” I told her. I met her eyes. But I left.

He was still screaming as I drove away. My esophagus was a cave echoing in the guilt-ridden bedrock of my ribs. But I had been through enough of these episodes by this point to know they always ended the same way, which is to say they didn’t end.

Maybe I’d become a nun.

There was one friend left in town, the one whose house was under construction. I could listen to drills all day if it meant I was indebted to no furious god or furious man or Google exec looming in the long halls. I drove to her broken house, and do you know what? My car worked fine.

That summer I fucked to the tune of jackhammers, wore zero beige, and learned sawdust is exfoliating.

Lane eventually left herself. I carried her boxes one by one until nothing remained.

Jess Richardson's first book, the story collection It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides won the FC2 Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award in 2016. Her fictions have appeared or are forthcoming in Adroit, the Indiana Review, Joyland, PANK, Slice, Sun Dog Lit and elsewhere.

Image: The Head of Nun, Vasily Surikov

Submit a comment