Janet Towle divides her time between northern California and southern Arizona. Her work has appeared in The Normal School and Eleven Eleven.
1st place, 2016 Raymond Carver Contest
Sometimes PJ imagined herself as an embryo, floating in a tempered glass tube in a laboratory somewhere off the coast of northern California, imagined the blank-faced string-pullers of the universe pausing to give her parents — having been magically transported to the Potentialry at the moment of conception — a disclaimer: “You know, if you take this one, she’ll be a true Bouchard.” She could see her father, wrapped in a sheet, blithely leaving thumbprints on the glass near her forehead — ever after six inches off in his ability to connect, but well-intentioned, always well-intentioned: “Who else would she be?” And she could see her mother sighing, ear-tucking a strand of hair gone gray before her twenties: “She’ll turn out fine, in the end.” There were two truths known to all members of the Bouchard family, whether or not they kept their last names, however diluted their blood: Puncture is inevitable and there’s no such thing as vigilance.
The first time, a needle.
Her mother had three sisters, and they used to make their own clothes. It didn’t matter that two of them hated each other or that two were budding hippies and two were fervent in their devotion to the local youth group, that one had begun smoking pot in the neighbor’s garage and that one would be eloping with a man ten years older in just a few short months; the elegance of a perfectly tailored jean jacket or a painstakingly prim blouse could not be denied or, rather, as with acts of rebellion, some acts of familial solidarity were conscious and some were not. Their hair gleamed long and they laughed like hot honey dripping from the spoon. They helped each other, measured, snipped, draped patterns, threaded, wound, knotted, and one by one they were pierced. A needle in the thumb and out through the nail. A needle though the upper curve of an ear after dark. A needle in the thigh, a grid of tiny wounds, rows and columns, ten by ten. A needle hidden in the shag, slipping as through butter into what had been deemed by their despairing mother an irrevocably callused heel. Their mother taught them how to sew.
The second time, glass.
The third, a nail.
“That’s one,” PJ’s mom had said when she came home from a sleepover with pierced ears. PJ, having just turned thirteen, liked to lie beneath her mother’s drafting table and sketch windows to other realities. She’d read enough about string theory to know that somewhere she was a warrior princess in exile. She drew a long ponytail, curling around her body in motion, her arms thin and true and uniform, her spear precisely perpendicular to her thigh as she leapt, silver charms dangling from her clothes on leather straps, silver charms dangling from her ears. Sometimes she had been irradiated and had become telepathic. Sometimes she could command fire, sometimes water. Sometimes all she could trust in the whole of the multiverse was the wire in her muscles and the grip of her trusty quarterstaff. “It’s too fast,” her mother said to her father behind the closed door of their bedroom. “I was fifteen. She should’ve had years.” Sometimes PJ’s friends were her friends in the other universes, and sometimes she had different friends, and sometimes she didn’t have any. “It’s okay,” she’d whisper to the PJ on the page. “Somewhere you do.” PJ’s mother had assumed that PJ hadn’t wanted her ears pierced. Well, it hadn’t exactly been an assumption. That’s what PJ had told her. “They said I couldn’t stay unless I did it too,” she said, but what she meant was don’t be mad.
The fourth, a knife.
The fifth, a needle.
It would be easy to say — and some of the Bouchards did, like crazy Aunt Cindy — that the only explanation was a curse. It would be easy to say that someone among their fur-trading ancestors had double-crossed the wrong dealer or sat idle while a child drowned in a well or reneged on a lovers’ pact. Some of the Bouchards thought that this “prophecy” was self-fulfilling, that it was merely a catalog of the things one might realistically injure themselves upon and that the “solution” was to scrub all sewing kits from the house — except, perhaps, for a repair kit in the attic. Some of the Bouchards put it down to the limits of human understanding when it came to the things people pass down through blood. Gleaming hair, a proclivity for daughters, a stocky frame — yes, all the studies sanctioned the Bouchards’ expectation that these traits would be passed on, but what about the way they folded their legs when they slept? What about their aptitude for geometry? What about the way PJ’s mother and grandmother and great-grandfather would chop the air with their right hands when they were angry, as though slicing the roots off an unruly tuber? PJ’s grandmother had never known her father. He died in the war. But their hands, fingers straight, rigid, thumb cocked for emphasis — no, they’d say, chopping unconsciously down through the generations. No, I won’t stand for it. If you leave this house, don’t count on coming back. If you go out that door, don’t come back.
So when PJ was fifteen, attempting to repair a tear in one of the knee-high leather boots she’d gotten secondhand, she didn’t tell her mother when she rammed the needle through the pad of her index finger. The leather was stubborn, and PJ had been pressing the threaded base of the needle against her bedpost to force it to go through, and her hand had slipped and there she was. The thread tethered her half-repaired boot to the needle in her finger. She had to clip the thread to go find a pair of pliers. She had to find a pair of pliers because she wasn’t able to pull the needle out herself. Her fingers kept slipping. And then, once she wrenched the needle out, once she washed her finger and wrapped it in two Band-Aids because she wasn’t sure what else to do, she finished sewing up the boot and it looked terrible. The thread wasn’t the right shade of brown and she had known that, going in, but she had hoped it wouldn’t show. The idea was that people see you by seeing you, that PJ could become better by dressing better, that she could be noticed by becoming noticeable. Her stature was her responsibility. Recently, she’d shredded all her old drawings. Her father caught her.
“What are you doing? We should save these.”
PJ said, “They’re not good.”
“You’ll want them when you’re older.”
“I really won’t.”
“Are you okay, sweet pea?” he asked.
She could tell he regretted the endearment as soon as he let it slip. Just last week, she’d accused him of treating her like a child.
“Dad, I promise, I’m fine.”
But he’d told her mother about it that night, and then they’d had to have a conversation. So now PJ tore her drawings into long strips and burned them in a metal salad bowl she’d stolen from the kitchen. One time she’d used the ash as eyeshadow, but she’d gotten embarrassed and washed it off halfway through second period. Mazzy Schuster had started a game around the lunch table later that year: What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done? And even though PJ knew better than to be honest, would never have considered honesty even for a heartbeat — that lesson being the real point of the game — her cheeks grew hot with the memory of that eyeshadow. Don’t be a baby, she told herself, visualizing herself scoring the words into her prefrontal cortex with a fingernail. Maybe she’d remember, this time. Maybe she’d change.
After PJ left for college, her mother Irene called her once a month. Sometimes Irene would say I love you but she never forgot to say be careful. Perhaps this was wise, for although PJ never doubted her mother’s love, she would have liked to forget she was supposed to be on guard. Irene was using her drafting table again, though not like she used to — she did all her work on her laptop now. But she would sit at the drafting table and paint small watercolor postcards of the bay laurel outside the window. All her postcards were half-finished. After leaving a message for her daughter on PJ’s 21st birthday, Irene realized that it had probably already happened. Every now and then she would ask: Still waiting on glass? And PJ would say yes, Mom, or she’d say nothing to report, or she’d say don’t fuss, but somehow Irene had always believed that her daughter would tell her when it happened. And here she was, paintbrush dripping in an empty house, and she knew she would never know. She remembered talking to her husband, late at night, in the early days of their marriage. “I would like our family to be open,” she said. “I want our children to feel as though they can tell us anything.” This in contrast to her own upbringing, to sitting in a row with her sisters in the waiting room at the urgent care clinic, her mother’s lips thinning whenever her injured offspring showed hints of potential to complain. Get up, she had always said. Move on. Don’t whine. It wasn’t as though Irene didn’t understand, it wasn’t as though she couldn’t empathize with her mother’s weariness, it wasn’t as though that hadn’t played into her decision to have the doctors tie her tubes while they were patching her up after PJ, but all the same, it had left a shadow on her lungs and a shadow on her tongue. She had wanted to spare her daughter from that much, at least. The postcard wouldn’t lie flat, though she had clipped its corners. She’d never send it to anyone.
PJ was trying to make herself available. PJ was trying to allow room for romance. Although they’d met before, this was the first real date: performances by aspiring artists of the East Bay on the idea of virginity. A mutual friend had invited them both. They had discussed it over text. It was such a bad setting for a first date that perhaps it was actually too good. “If we do go,” her date had said, “you might end up marrying me. Are we ready for that kind of commitment? Do you want to get some coffee instead? I promise it won’t be cute.” PJ watched two narrative poets sway through their sets. If she went up there, she’d bring a shot of whiskey. She’d twist her hair into a sloppy bun. I was watching him all night, she’d lie huskily or she’d say it was spring break in Santa Cruz or maybe she’d start with how they were playing “Edward Fortyhands” so she wasn’t able to catch herself when she fell onto the broken beer bottles they’d been joking about cleaning up ever since they’d started playing the game because how would they hold the broom with their hands duct-taped around more beer? How when he fucked her an hour later she could feel pieces of the glass worming further into her ass but she didn’t tell him to stop because she was afraid this would be her only chance. He didn’t know where the blood on the sheets came from. He asked if she had been a virgin, and she said no, but he hadn’t believed her even though his dick was clean. That’s not right, he said. They’d gone back down to the living room and finished watching The Fugitive with everybody else. It was funny, wasn’t it? But she knew better than to say any of it out loud because it was very likely she was the only one who would laugh. Plus it wasn’t actually a virginity story. Plus she’d be grandstanding, selling out her shame. Don’t be a baby. Her date asked her if she wanted another drink and she said sure. Their mutual friend’s framed sketches lined all the walls. It was hard to see the sketches in the dark. There were little white tags, too: $80, $55, $115. They were mostly nudes, mostly charcoal. She tried to make out her date at the bar — a back amidst a line of other backs, a coat amidst other coats — and couldn’t do it.
“Are you kidding me?” PJ asked her partner, Kei. They were sitting in the open back of their sturdy old Subaru, parked lopsided on the shoulder of Highway 1, the loose edges of their clothes — Kei’s hood, PJ’s long skirt — flapping as other cars flashed down the highway, and Kei had just finished bandaging PJ’s knee. The ocean glinted, opaque as an eggshell, and iceplant choked all the driftwood fence posts. They’d only gotten fifty yards down the trail to their favorite hidden beach when PJ had fallen. A rusty nail, among the rocks, had pierced the flesh above her left knee. The nail had probably come from the nearby railroad tracks, not that PJ had been particularly surprised to encounter it, nor had she found the nail’s presence implausible. Of course this would have happened on their anniversary. The wound was sore and throbbing, but that seemed like par for the course — nothing PJ couldn’t handle, nothing deserving of a fuss.
“We’d better go,” Kei said. “It won’t take more than a few hours.”
“We can’t wait?”
“We could,” Kei said. “But I’d rather not.”
PJ was eighteen weeks into her first pregnancy, and this, PJ assumed, was the rationale for being overprotective.
“Nobody’s going to get tetanus,” she said.
“I know. Because you’re getting a booster. You’d have to get one anyway, later on, I think. C’mon, scoot.”
PJ slid out onto the asphalt, anticipating and in her opinion successfully suppressing any evidence of her left leg’s desire to wobble, but Kei’s hand was already releasing her arm. “I’m fine,” PJ said, taking two steps away. “Look, I — please don’t make this into something.”
“I promise we’ll come right back,” Kei said, shutting the hatch. “The sandwiches will keep. We’ll just get this done first.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Don’t tell me you’re an anti-vaxxer.”
“Phew. Don’t scare me like that.”
“No, it’s just that I don’t like needles.”
Kei paused, wind-tousled, expression unusually neutral. “This is a real fear for you?”
“I know how it sounds,” PJ said, wishing she hadn’t said anything.
“I’m sorry. It never seemed to bother you before, so I—”
“Never mind, you’re right. Let’s go.”
Five foot three, twenty-nine years old, one hundred and forty-two pounds, blood pressure one-twenty over eighty, temperature ninety-eight point eight. PJ took deep breaths in the sterile little room. There were charts on every wall. The effectiveness of different methods of birth control, how to cough properly and how to wash one’s hands, the 4-7-8 breathing method. PJ breathed and counted. She’d gotten shots before, like Kei said. It was just that they were on her mind, after her fall. She wondered whether all possible PJs were fine, since all of them had fallen — she could be sure of that much at least. She wondered whether any of the Keis (in the universes that featured Kei) hadn’t brought her here and whether that meant they loved her less, or more. She wondered whether any of the babies had suffered from the fall, but of course the answer was yes. Just not here, she found herself whispering to the ceiling. Not this time, not me, please. She thought about how glad her mother would be to hear about the nail. So relieved that it wasn’t worse, that it had nothing to do with construction, with trespassing, with alcohol or a drunken spouse or a hammer or a nail gun. Irene would be so glad that PJ knew she would never tell her, so glad that PJ might even ask Kei not to mention it to her parents. Irene had been sending them gifts, packages of vitamins and essential oils, a crocheted baby blanket and a matching beanie. PJ let Kei open the packages. PJ knew her mother was overcompensating for her reaction over dinner a month ago, over fish and chips in Monterey although PJ had gotten the salad.
“Mom, Dad, I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.”
Her father had been dazed, had been overtaken by a slow smile, had grabbed Kei’s hand almost without thinking. “That’s wonderful!”
And her mother, almost without thinking, had asked, “Are you sure?”
Kei thought PJ was overreacting. “She didn’t want to get her hopes up, pickle juice.” But PJ knew that hadn’t been what her mother meant.
PJ kept a dream journal. She’d stopped smoking pot after getting pregnant, even though everyone said it wouldn’t hurt the baby, and ever since, her dreams had been even more vivid than usual. She’d wake up at three in the morning, her aged apartment creaking in the wind. She’d watch the moon arc downward through the window for as long as she could. She’d listen to Kei’s breathing. She’d count Kei’s breaths. And when she couldn’t stay still anymore, she’d roll out of bed slowly, all too aware of the way her swelling body tugged at the blankets. She’d wrap herself in the thick robe Kei’s parents had sent her last Christmas, not yet having met her in person and thus unaware of how short she was. Then she’d slip out to the kitchen to make a pot of tea, and standing there, at the counter, she’d write down her dreams. She was alone in a forest of palm trees without tops. She was sliding down the side of a sand dune, and no matter how she climbed, she couldn’t reach the top. A baby was crying, but upon waking, PJ would be forced to recognize that the sound she had been hearing was nothing like a child. You’re stressed, her friend Marta kept telling her. Haven’t you stopped working yet? PJ was a graphic designer for a marketing firm in San Jose. This being San Jose, her collar being white, her maternity leave package was generous. Go home, her coworkers kept telling her, with an increasingly solemn edge to their playfulness. And nothing changed when PJ gave birth to her son. Sure, PJ stopped working. Sure, she stole the blankets less often. But she was still waking up every morning at three a.m. to make tea and write down her dreams. She was alone in a forest of cypress. A river had begun to flow backward and to ooze, almost passively, beyond its banks. Something was crying. She hadn’t planned on a C-section but a C- section it had been — was that the knife? It didn’t matter. She chopped off the top of an index finger while attempting to open a coconut when her son Junji was one-and-a-half. Why didn’t you wait for Kei? her father asked. What did you want with a damn coconut? her mother asked. Coconuts float, PJ had said, nettled. Her parents had divorced but they pestered her equally. She had privately resolved never to give them straight answers. Her best dreams had coconuts in them, knocking together softly in the surf. She’d wanted Junji to see them. She’d wanted them to be material his own subconscious could draw upon. She’d had a miscarriage seven weeks into her second pregnancy. She didn’t tell her father that Kei had tried to open the coconut the night before. She didn’t tell her mother that Kei had been planning on picking up a hammer on the way home from work.
“My life hasn’t been so bad,” PJ told her mother. Irene was reclining in the hospital bed they were renting. She was on dialysis. “In fact I’d say I’ve been luckier than most. Why would you even tell me? Why did you make me live under that shadow?” But actually she didn’t say anything. She only held her mother’s hand.
Her mother would have said, “You have been lucky. And I’m so thankful. But you have to understand that’s not how it usually goes. And you have to take care of my grandson because, believe it or not, you’ve got no clue what it means to live under a shadow, and I hope he won’t either. And that means you do have to tell him, when he’s old enough.” Instead of speaking, her mother lay silent, listening to the sound of a plane overhead, somewhere close, listening to Kei playing with Junji on the stairs. Ba bump ba bump ba bump. But they both knew what the other wanted to say, and so they had only the usual regrets.
PJ helped her son open windows. They made castles out of cardboard boxes. They explored the caves beneath the bushes, in the park. They played Pokémon and Minecraft and Harvest Moon. Most often, they colored. She and Kei traded weeks, traded evenings, traded overtime, and when it was her turn, she did laundry, she peeled grapes (eyeballs were Junji’s favorite snack) and polished apples, and she endeavored to make something meditative out of spending the day trying to ravel what Junji unraveled: a clear carpet, a clear plan, a clear counter, a clear breath, a clear tabletop, a clear mind. PJ tried to remember that the words ravel and unravel represented the same action.
Don’t you feel like you’re drowning, she’d ask Kei, and Kei would say, yes, all the time. She cried in bed sometimes, late at night, keeping them both awake with her shaking, but she tried not to make noise because she didn’t want that to be something Junji would remember. She’d text Kei pictures, on the afternoons when she left work early to pick Junji up from school: our son on the tire swing, our son’s first drawing of a cube, our son with powdered sugar all over his nose. She bought a sewing machine, ostensibly to mend all of Junji’s torn clothes. Here, she’d think, sitting down to patch another pair of jeans, another rip in the butt, another tear at the knee. Here, I’m ready. But nothing happened. Her stiches were neat and did not waver.
On the day before her birthday — a Saturday — Kei asked their neighbors to babysit. Kei wanted to take her out for dinner and a movie. Dinner was fine. They drove in the darkness from the restaurant to the parking garage below the theater. Kei pressed the button, took a ticket, and drove them through the gate. Kei found them a parking spot on the third level. Kei shut off the car and the headlights, then looked over at her before unbuckling his seatbelt. His movements slowed. He waited. He leaned his seat back a few inches.
“How deep underground do you think we are?” PJ asked.
“I don’t know,” Kei said, tone light but not dismissive. “Thirty feet?”
Their Subaru — a new used one — was settling, its engine cooling. It made small clicks. Headlights slid past the concrete wall they were facing. White spray paint said C2. They spoke slowly.
“I feel like a virus,” PJ said, looking out her window as if there were something to see. She wished she weren’t crying.
“I don’t know how to stop.”
“I wish I had an answer.”
“I’m just tired.”
Kei reached over. He rubbed her shoulder, lightly. “Last week, when we were shopping for groceries, I asked Junji what he wanted to get you for your birthday. I’ll be honest. At first he said gummy worms.”
He paused, squeezing PJ’s shoulder. She knew he couldn’t see her.
“Then he wanted to smell all the flowers. And then he wanted to smell all the candles. He said he was looking for something very ‘pacific.’”
Kei pulled out his phone and began flipping through his pictures. PJ watched his face in the blue light. His gaze was steady.
“Here,” he said. “Don’t tell Junji I spoiled his surprise.”
It was a picture of a candle, dark magenta wax with a salty rime cupped in a halved coconut shell.
“He said it smelled like you. Now, it may have been a failure in my parenting, but I decided not to tell him that was a strange basis for choosing a gift.”
“He’s going to give it to you at breakfast tomorrow. He wrapped it himself, and by that, I mean I said yes when he asked whether he could take one of the lunch bags.”
PJ leaned on Kei’s shoulder. Her arm was pinned against the center divider, tingling already, but PJ dismissed her discomfort savagely. “Yes,” she said, attempting to enact an upswing. On one hand, she felt tethered in a way she hadn’t ten minutes ago. On the other, she knew that the effects of Kei’s comfort would be temporary, that in five hours, or ten, or twenty-four, she would be alone again. Her core was cooling all the time.
“You’re going to be fine,” Kei murmured into her hair. “Things will get better. We’ll take it slow.”
“It’ll be okay,” PJ said, pressing her nose into Kei’s shirt, trying not to say it like a question.
“It’ll be okay.”
Twice a year, PJ’s aunts included her on their big family emails. They hadn’t used to, but PJ supposed she had taken her mother’s place. They didn’t often mention which stage they were at — that’s four, that’s five — but there were enough references to piece together each catalog. Ran through a glass door. Ex-husband stabbed her with a butter knife. Stepped on a nail, right through the sole. Thought she’d swept up all the pieces of that wine glass, but she was wrong. Tore her scalp on an exposed nail in a dark closet meant for hanging coats. Anecdotes hidden behind pictures of the new house or a chatty description of a spouse’s new job or a rundown of how fulfilling one found canvassing for a local mayoral candidate. Sometimes it felt as though they were only pretending to keep in touch for the sake of the other milestones. Those were the markers that mattered. They were curious about Junji. How’s your son? They’d tack on to their closings, pretending it was an afterthought.
Aunt Rebecca, now a grandmother herself, invited PJ and her family up to Chico to celebrate Easter with a barbecue. Junji, having just turned eleven, convinced PJ to let him bring his longboard, which turned out to be a mistake. None of Junji’s second cousins had ever been allowed to own roller skates, let alone something worse. Aunt Rebecca, hair a vivid white, watched the youngest of her brood watching Junji with lips pressed thin. The kids were all out on the front sidewalk, shy and demonstrative and fully charged with the need to draw their lines.
“This world is dangerous enough without helping it along,” Aunt Rebecca warbled to one of her daughters, “in my opinion. But it’s only my opinion.”
“Bring it in,” called one of PJ’s adult cousins. “Let’s put away the toys. Come eat.”
They ate in the backyard. The in-laws handled the skewers. PJ’s cousins ate their chicken breasts with plastic butter knives. The toddlers sat in their parents’ laps. The children sat at a card table with a paper tablecloth, eating hot dogs. Junji grimaced at PJ from thirty feet away, his plate full of potato salad and cantaloupe. Last year, Junji had decided he was a vegetarian. PJ had mentioned it to Aunt Rebecca, twice. Once by email, once by phone. But it seemed to be one of those things — rather like PJ’s newfound infertility — that couldn’t be heard the first fifty times.
“So, Kei,” Aunt Rebecca asked, pronouncing it so carefully she was almost wrong. “Remind an old woman. What do you do these days?”
“I’m a programmer,” he said gamely. “I work for a company that makes software for computers in hospitals.”
“That’s interesting,” Aunt Rebecca said.
“Ha, was that as close as you could get to being a doctor? Were your parents disappointed?” asked another cousin.
“So can you explain,” asked someone’s husband, “why they never remember the stuff I put down on those damn forms? Every time with the forms!”
Kei laughed politely.
“And what are you working on these days, Patricia?”
PJ wiped her lips with her napkin. “My firm has been building a website for this farmers’ advocacy group—”
Someone’s kindergartener tripped, spilling lemonade all over someone else’s two-year-old. It took a while for the commotion to die down.
“You make good money, then?” Aunt Rebecca asked. “It’s too bad you can’t afford to stay home.”
“We’re fine,” PJ said.
Kei said, “Why don’t you tell us how you’ve been? We haven’t been up here in what, twelve years? That gas station on the corner, was it always there?”
On the drive home, the car was quiet. There was traffic. It seemed as though they could never break thirty miles per hour. There was a cinderblock wall beside the freeway. Darker blocks made a pattern, represented waves. Slow waves, over and over, like the roofs of the houses. Identical angles. The grass was dead at the base of the wall and there was trash everywhere. Styrofoam cups, long twists of brown paper. PJ thought Junji was asleep until he said, “That was awful.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Kei said from the passenger seat, massaging the small of his back. Long drives had begun to bother him.
“Please tell me we’re never going back. We don’t even celebrate Easter.”
Kei looked out his window, drawing in a long breath.
PJ said, “Not in a million years. Wild horses couldn’t drag me.”
After Junji started laughing, Kei did too.
And then, for a while, it was easier. At work, her lines were clean. Her designs were stale but her boss liked her enough not to mention it, and the clients rarely complained. Then, in what felt like quick succession although the disintegration took two and a half years, there was a change in management and a corresponding change in priorities and PJ found herself being thanked for her service, and there was a severance package that they used to buy a house an hour outside of Sacramento with a big yard, and Kei found a new job, and PJ went “freelance” although in practice she found herself driving back and forth along back roads through the hills and farmlands and forests, and Junji missed his old school, and Junji missed his friends, and Junji applied for a study abroad program for half of his junior year of high school. Kei wanted to keep him home, but PJ thought it wasn’t their place, and when Junji came back with a tattoo on his forearm, Kei considered it PJ’s fault. And it is my fault, she wanted to say. Of course it is. Kei had left the dinner table early and the house was dark.
“What does it mean?” she asked her son.
“There’s this box,” he said, turning his forearm up toward her, speaking slowly and watching her closely, poised to withdraw at the slightest sign of rejection. “There’s this box and it represents our limits or what we think our limits are. And there’s the line representing our ability to transcend.”
PJ blinked, trying not to blush, remembering her eyeshadow while wondering whether she was the box, whether she wanted to be the box, whether being the box was her rightful role. It wasn’t how she wanted her son to think of her, and so she said, “I understand.” And then she said, “Your father will come around.” She did not say, “That’s one.”
PJ took up drawing again. She left home. She drove to Alaska. She drove to the Keys. She took pictures and tried to sleep in the car but it left her too stiff in the mornings. She slept with a man she met at a rest stop. He had remodeled an old NYPD surveillance van. The van had a fridge and a skylight and a bed big enough for two, and he kept asking her what she wanted. Is this good? Yeah, do you like that? He gave her his number but she didn’t call.
Junji called, sometimes. “Mom,” he’d say. “I hope you’re not doing this just because I went to college.”
“Because I had to go, and it’s normal to go.”
“I’m not trying to steal your thunder, kiddo. I just had to get out.”
After a long silence, he said, “I don’t think that’s fair to Dad.”
“Me neither,” she said. “He deserves better.”
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to moan. I’m the bad guy here. I know that. I just need to straighten myself out.”
“Okay,” Junji said, and the patience in his tone made PJ wince. “Okay. But come home soon. And give him a chance. Don’t just get a divorce.”
“Okay,” PJ said. 4-7-8. “I won’t.”
“Be careful, Mom.”
“I love you.”
PJ saw a lake through the trees of Tennessee and parked by the side of the road. She picked her way down a steep slope, trying not to get tangled in the underbrush, a heavy digital camera hanging from her neck. She stood on the shore on a thick pad of pine needles. The water was a muddy green and the clay was reddish brown and there were thin stumps protruding from the still water and fallen trunks, waterlogged and mossy. It was shallow, and it was full of algae, and it wasn’t for swimming, but PJ took off her shoes and socks anyway, and she rolled up her thin hiking pants. She waded out. She disturbed a frog. She took pictures of two dragonflies. The sun was low. She paused to twist her hair up into a bun; it had been sticky on her neck. She took two more steps before the sharp pain. She drew her foot out of the water, but there was nothing. She had to press the camera against her chest with one hand and sift through the mud with the other to find the culprit: a hypodermic needle. Wearily, she began to catalog the diseases she could have been exposed to. Not HIV, certainly. Some flavor of hepatitis possibly, depending on how long the needle had been here. There was some kind of fluid in the tube, but PJ couldn’t tell whether it matched the lake water. She felt fine.
She sat on a damp log and called Kei. He didn’t pick up, but she left a voicemail. “I was thinking about the first time we had sex,” she said. “And I was thinking about that trip we took to Iceland. I’m in Tennessee. It’s pretty hot, even now. Well, humid. In some ways it reminds me of Nagoya.” The silence had nothing to offer. “I’ll call back later, okay? It’s almost four there, right? I’ll call again in two hours.”
She called her mother’s old number. A new voice answered the phone. “My mistake,” she said.
She called her father.
“He’s not having a good day,” the attendant said.
If she had called Junji, she’d have said, “I thought I saw the box. I thought I could see it.” But she didn’t call Junji because she was trying to cast a shadow with clean lines, a shadow of manageable scope.
She was going to live for another twenty-three years, she could tell. Or maybe fourteen. In some universes, twenty-five. She felt her way into those bodies, one by one by one, and it was as she expected.