By Natalia Jaster
They always say to stand in a doorway during an earthquake, but they never tell you what to do when you get there. So she just waits.
The house rocks, reminding Flossie of clothes being tossed in a washing machine. She hears dishes leap from the kitchen cabinets and shatter on the floor. She grips the door frame, thinks of power lines whipping the air and buzzing with sparks. She thinks of fires.
She also thinks, it’s good no one’s home. Would there be enough earthquake-safe doorways if Mom and Dad were home? If Dad still lived here?
Lamps topple and bulbs burst. A crippled noise erupts from the back of her throat. She reasons. She holds tight and reasons. Concentrates.
She pictures her family, the three of them filling doorways throughout the house, trying to catch each other’s eye and say something over the rumble. Each of them mentally mapping out a two-story that might break at any moment. Each of them trying to shoulder their home, to keep the walls up—as if they could.
Being too far to touch would be a good thing. It would be easier to look at one another from a distance. While dolls and photo boxes and clothes fall all around.
It takes a while to get through. Mom is frantic: We’ll be home in two seconds.
We? As in together?
Mom and Dad had been meeting with their lawyers. Four people in a room trying to break her parents’ life into crumbs.
Mom wants to know how the house is.
It’s paralyzed, Flossie tells her, from the waist down. Stuff is everywhere—glass, books, cacti, chunks of the ceiling—and she’d had to kick and tiptoe and hop her way through the halls. There’s nowhere to sit, to close her eyes and daydream of other places. She would’ve worn better shoes if she’d known this had been coming. Giant cracks have severed walls in the dining room and family room. Their home could collapse. It could give in and crush her. Should she stay inside or leave?
Why doesn’t she have at least one gash? A deep puncture wound? Where did they even keep the first aid kit?
Mom’s quiet, then: We’re coming. Don’t move.
Flossie almost laughs, but she’s still scared. She has to use both hands to hold the phone steady. She doesn’t want to let it go, even though Mom just hung up. She presses the receiver hard against her ear while listening to helicopters chopping through the sky and fragments of other activity. Dogs yapping. Sprinklers hissing. Neighbors shrieking because their house is in flames. The oddly hypnotic crackle of the nearby blaze. The pulse of it.
Not to mention the smell. The smoke.
She stares out the broken window.
She sees him. Over the noise. Past the mayhem. In the house across the street, standing in front of his own windowless window, staring at her. The boy…Win. Short for Window. When she was little, he was Window Face (because Window Boy had sounded too stupid).
Now, he’s just Win. Win. Win.
Flossie has never seen a boy look haunted before. Is it her fault? Does she freak him out? What does chaos look like on her face?
She wishes his voice could fill the receiver, nest itself into her ear. Whisper nonsense. Help her relax. Like he had that one night.
Flossie drops the phone. Of all the times to remember. And now that she’s started, she worries she won’t be able to stop. Thinking. Remembering.
Forget the phone—she wants him to come here.
But does she want him more than her parents? She can’t say.
Win watches her, also quietly asking for something, and she feels helpless. Burdened. Hot. Inadequate. She remembers his fingertips. The pads of skin. The nails.
She turns away from him, thinks of more direct complications. Resources. Gas. Electricity. Water.
She needs to find her duffle. She needs to put on less delicate shoes. Her family will have to evac. They always say an evac is part of a natural disaster, but they never tell you what to pack when it happens. They never tell you what matters.
Item 1: Pastel Necktie
Pay attention. Dad eyed her down and told her not to smirk. He was only going to show her this once.
Loop. Twist. Flip. Tuck. Pull. Whatever.
Did you pay attention?
No. But she wasn’t going to tell him this.
It was a velvet necktie in a soft pink hue that Mom called blush and Dad called red. When Mom corrected him, he winced—ties were not supposed to have this color or be made of this material. It wasn’t right. You look like you have a giant tongue hanging off your neck, he said. But Mom said it was charming. A lady’s tie.
Dad shook his head: A lady’s tie? Don’t be ridiculous.
Mom rounded her shoulders: It is. And don’t start.
Their tight voices pinched Flossie’s nerves. It made her feel claustrophobic and clueless, like something wedged in a drawer, in the dark. She didn’t like it when they argued. And this wasn’t even about something major. It was about a tie. Was it Flossie’s fault, then? Was she the one causing the tension?
Could she help wanting to fit in? All the middle school girls were wearing ties, with cute patterns (calla lilies, polka dots, snowflakes), hanging loose as if thrown over their heads, the buttons of their shirts undone past the collarbone.
Sexy, the boys said if they managed to stop staring and say anything at all.
Dad snorted a manly snort: What ever happened to mini skirts?
A joke. But also a relief. He wouldn’t have to worry about what she was pulling out of her closet while he was pulling out of the driveway in the morning.
Mom rolled her eyes and left the room. Left them alone.
Are you paying attention?
No. She was daydreaming of Monday.
And Dad would show her again tomorrow if she needed him to.
Does Win like neckties on girls? Would he think it’s sexy?
She secures it around her throat. It hangs down her chest, over her crewneck, loose and lazy. It doesn’t go at all, and it’s got an old stain at the tip, but who cares?
She stands at her bedroom window, waits for him to catch her, to see her from a distance as she fumbles nervously with the tie, needing his help.
His. His. His.
It doesn’t happen. He’s not looking for her anymore. Does she really give a crap? What is she doing? Why the hell is she mulling over sexiness now?
She needs to keep away from all windows. She needs to calm down. She’s just frightened. People act desperate, crazy even, when they’re frightened. Emotions go sky high.
If that’s true, who knows what sorts of creatures this will turn her parents into?
Small stuff. Focus on small stuff. She yanks off the necktie but plans to pack it, take it with her. Her dad had always had a love-hate relationship with the color. That makes it worth something.
And really, she likes the tie, right? Right. Check.
It still fits her, so the possibilities are endless. She can pretend to choke herself with it later, or use it to resurrect a trend, or inspire a certain boy to lick his lips, get his mind off catastrophes. If their paths cross again after today. If she even wants that.
What she wants is for boys to cease to exist.
Item 2: Lesbian T-shirt
Coward. She watched Rachel standing off to the side. They often walked to school together while philosophizing about the pros and cons of wearing a B cup versus a C cup. But whenever they got to school, Rachel didn’t talk to her as much. As the leader, Rachel gave her attention to the rest of the group.
At the back of the recess lawn, Rachel kicked the ground while a spokesgirl for the group did the dirty work: We don’t want you around us anymore. You’ve never even looked at a boy. And Rachel doesn’t like that weird t-shirt.
To hide her face, Flossie glanced down at the print. Citrus-colored geometric shapes formed a trio of girls in bathing suits. Square heads. Circle hips. Triangle chests and arms. Rectangle legs. Octagon hands. They posed in the water beneath the sun.
Spokesgirl asked if she knew what kind of shirt she was wearing.
Flossie didn’t get it. She liked the shapes and colors. The shapes were fun. This meant she was a fun person. And Dad had bought it for her. He said it was a nice shirt.
Spokesgirl squinted: But it’s got girls on it. They’re wearing bikinis.
Fourth grade was so confusing.
That’s their problem, Flossie said. (She was referring to the girls on the shirt.)
No. It’s your problem, Spokesgirl said back.
Flossie had heard the term before. Something Dad once said to Mom: A lesbian would touch me more than you do. What he said wasn’t as bad as how meanly he’d said it, like he wanted to hurt Mom. Or how loudly he spat the words, like he wanted Flossie to hear them.
She watched the girls leave. She walked over to the place where Rachel the Coward had stood, found the prints where Rachel had kicked at the ground. Flossie stuck a bite-sized rock into the dirt to mark the spot, deciding she’d bury her t-shirt there. She pressed her thumb hard against the pebble.
She shouldn’t have trusted Dad. It was his fault.
Mom was right. It was always his fault.
Dad bursts into the house. He clasps Flossie to his chest while she’s still holding her empty duffel bag. She’d been trying to remember where she stored that t-shirt. In a memory box somewhere in the garage? In the basement? In the attic?
It’s not easy to recall with Dad’s arms locked around her. Would he know where it is? Does he remember the shirt? He probably doesn’t. Would he take a minute to search with her? Definitely not.
She wants to hug him back. Instead, she squeezes her eyes shut and chokes the bag’s handle with her fist. She’d wanted them here so badly, but she doesn’t want them to know it.
Mom clutches her next, and for a moment Flossie’s forehead sags against her shoulder as she inhales the familiar vanilla scent.
Only for a moment.
Mom would know where the shirt is. She has some cosmic connection to everything they’ve ever wrapped in bubble tape, newspaper, moth balls. But Flossie doesn’t want to bring it up to her. Mom asks questions. Dad doesn’t.
The shirt is useless, too small for Flossie. She wants it anyway. She pictures the three of them digging through dust and cardboard to find it, this useless garment, wasting their time, Mom and Dad asking for the tenth time, Why? Why are we doing this again? To which, Flossie’s not sure if she’d have an answer. Maybe the shirt would make a decent pillowcase. They’ll need new pillowcases. She’ll be able to rest her head against those geometric girls and not fear, or care, what anyone says about it.
She resists the urge to see if anyone else is standing behind Mom, another person waiting to put their arms around her. Like maybe the boy. Win. It’s not like he lives far. He could make it across the street. And would she hug him longer than she’d hugged her parents? If she did, she’d want them to see it.
She hopes he’s okay.
Outside, sirens blare.
Inside, cracks scar the living room walls. There’s so much to look at, to inspect, but Flossie doesn’t know where to start or if they have time or where to find the stupid shirt. The house is making cruel noises like it wants to kick them out. It’s still standing, but it’s not safe or possible to stay. Every home on the block is bruised and inhabitable in its own way.
Her parents tell her to stay put. They split up to check each room for red flags. Flossie worries her mom will break down once she sees all the damage, but that doesn’t happen. Mom is too focused, too zapped on adrenaline. From the bathroom, she hollers: What do we take?
Flossie doesn’t answer. She already knows what’s coming with her, what has priority over music and (yes, Mom) pictures.
Returning from the garage, Dad steps over splinters of porcelain, snatches club soda from the powerless fridge, and chugs. Flossie lingers at the counter, watching him, wishing he had something to pack. But he doesn’t. He did that a long time ago.
Item 3: The Shredded Jeans
You’re not wearing those.
She stared at Mom through the mirror mounted on the closet door. Maybe a little low on the waist, a few carefully placed tears, but that was the purpose of the distressed look. Pre-washed pre-purchase. A good chunk of her allowance.Midnightdenim fading into creams and yellows with total harmony—ah, like a song.
It’s not appropriate, Mom said.
Something in Flossie’s chest hardened like a shield. The jeans made her feel good. How could wearing them be inappropriate?
Mom chose a pair of taupe slacks from the rack: Wear these. These make sense.
No pockets, a crease (oh God, that crease), dry clean only. The legs did this flowy hot air balloon thing when she walked. She was fifteen, not fifty!
She took the slacks from Mom and dropped them in the hamper. Then picked them up again: They’re dirty. See?
Mom’s brows lifted, causing a painful domino effect to the rest of her face, as if needles were pricking her from cleft to widow’s peek: This is a family event. Those jeans look like they’ve gone through a shredder. What will people think?
Flossie thought: If he was here, Dad wouldn’t say he was ashamed. He would laugh and suggest she wear a necktie with them. (He’d left the house early. Slammed the door on his way out. The sound still echoed in her head.)
You’re doing this on purpose, Mom said. You’re trying to make me look bad.
Flossie flinched. She felt like a traitor, like she’d broken a promise she couldn’t remember making. But she wouldn’t give in. She said, Maybe we should show up at these so-called family things separately. I’m old enough to drive now. I’ll buy a car. I’ll work for a car. You won’t see my clothes until I get out of the car.
Mom drummed her fingers on the closet door: Make sure they’re ironed before you put them on.
Item 4: The Dress
Sit up straight. Keep your elbows off the table. Make sure you keep the napkin—this is the napkin, see?—on your lap. Take the teacup by the handle when you drink. Cross your legs at the ankle. That’s it. That’s right.
Honey, she’s just a little girl. What’s the big deal?
You’re supposed to start them young. That’s what I read. Get it into their system before something else gets there first.
Daddy scratched his head: Like what?
Mommy swerved away from him: We’ll practice more with the teacups, but first go put on your dress.
Flossie twisted in her seat. Playing with her new tea set with Mommy was hard work. Being a girl meant following rules. But that didn’t seem fair. Being little already had so many rules.
The blue dress, Mommy?
No. Not blue. Don’t call it blue. (But navy was too boring, blueberry too absurd, cobalt too severe. Indigo was perfect. Elegant, but in a cute-little-girlish way.)
Go put on your indigo dress, sweetling. With the mauve sash.
It’s your mother’s idea, Daddy said.
The dress had flowers for buttons, short sleeves with ruffles at the edges and collar. It was pretty—being pretty was a rule Flossie didn’t mind—but it wouldn’t end here. She would be shown off in the dress. Mommy always liked showing her off. Mommy especially liked showing off Flossie’s hip-length sable hair to friends, women Mommy invited to the house, women she laughed with in the living room while the stereo played. Mostly when Daddy wasn’t there.
Mommy also told her to put on the white socks and the black shoes with the straps.
But she wanted to wear the red shoes.
Red doesn’t go, sweetling.
Why did it have to?
Flossie tilted her head, opened her mouth. But she didn’t have to ask.
Daddy, hovering in the doorway like a ghost, did it for her.
Mom plucks the tiny dress from the duffle and wrinkles her nose: Are you kidding me?
She doesn’t like what Flossie has chosen to take. Ripped up jeans? A child’s outfit?
If Flossie had decided to take that 8 x 10 of her in her homecoming dress, there would be no argument. What’s the difference? Are they seriously about to get into a tug-of-war over this?
Maybe she can explain it later. But first, she has to explain it to herself. And she has no time for that. She’s working on gut feeling here. Possibly bitterness, too—she’s not certain.
These are not practical, Mom argues. This is an earthquake evacuation. You need practical things.
Flossie could’ve mentioned the sweaters, tanks, and pants that she has packed, but she doesn’t bother. She doesn’t care: Worry about your own stuff. How ’bout you pack a marriage and take it with you? That’s something worth saving.
Mom’s face collapses worse than when she first saw the house. Flossie knows she shouldn’t have said it. For a second, she feels like giving in. Dumping half the duffel’s contents. Starting over.
But no. This is right. She can’t leave those items, all the girls she used to be, all those different versions of herself. It’s not fair. She’ll decode her choices later. Then she can defend herself better.
It occurs to her that she’d been home alone, during the quake, while they’d been negotiating who gets the fish tank and who gets the vintage chess set.
Flossie wonders what will get there first. An aftershock or their regret (hers, theirs).
Speaking of regret, she understands why the boy—Win—would never be able to come here, to give her a hug, preferably in front of her parents. And how stupid of her for thinking he could bother! He’s busy packing up his own life. She wishes she’d left something behind in his house, something he could find and impulsively decide to keep. But what could she have left there? She’d arrived at his door, bringing so little with her, nothing that had delayed them as they stumbled, lip-locked, to his room. Nothing except the clothes she’d (at first) been wearing.
Flossie massages her temples.
Out the window, neighbors sprint across the pavement, their arms full of valuables. A man’s scratchy voice blasts from some kind of amplifier, repeating the same phrase over and over, though she can’t tell what he’s saying. Two houses down, the single-story has become an inferno, glowing orange and blue and black. Fire pops from the roof and sparks dive into the air.
Dad is suddenly standing behind Mom: We should hurry. Leave Flossie alone. She knows how to pack.
Flossie’s smile is weak, hesitant. Dad just stuck up for her. When he moved out, what had he taken? What had he grabbed first? Second? An old family video? Ticket stubs?
How the hell can she not know?
She’s doubtful that an emergency’s the most honest time to forgive. In the midst of engines roaring and an ambulance howling, she can’t decide. Not until they’re outside. With her duffel safe in the trunk.
Item 5: The Cut-offs
Have some respect for yourself. They—many of them—said this when they saw the shorts. They used to be jeans, but she’d lopped off a good two feet with fabric scissors.
But, come on, they weren’t that short.
It’s those videos she’s watching, Auntie said to Mom at the kitchen table, steam from their orange pekoe curling like a lip between them. All those girls wear shorts like that. They act like being a sexual object is fine with them. Fun, for Pete’s sake.
Mom plunked more sugar cubes into her tea, talked about Flossie as if she wasn’t standing right there: It’s only a fashion. She’ll lose interest soon like she has with everything else. You lose interest a lot at sixteen.
Auntie’s lips puckered against the rim of her cup: That’s not all you can lose.
Oh pleeease, Flossie thought. Have some more pekoe and be quiet.
The cut-off shorts fit her hips perfectly. Snug, minus the fat rolls, and not a puff of butt-cheek to be seen. She wore them with taste.
Dad didn’t like it—he missed the tie. But he was rational.
That sister of yours has got apples up her ass, he said after dinner, while Mom washed and he dried.
Flossie wouldn’t have heard them had her bedroom not been so close to the kitchen, had she not removed her headphones at the right moment. It didn’t matter whether it was about the shorts or Auntie. Because it always began with Flossie. Disagreements always started with her.
Threatening to take the TV away won’t do crap, he said. You wanna make progress, you shred the clothes.
Mom flipped on the garbage disposal: It’s just a phase.
Dad thrust a cabinet door shut: She’s our kid. Nobody should be telling us what to do with our kid.
We shouldn’t worry. I raised her properly.
Do me a favor. Don’t invite your sister to tea anymore.
Sex. That’s what Auntie was hinting at. Which means the woman will just love getting reacquainted with the cut-offs once they get to her house. (Mom was not about to spend the night at Dad’s, and apparently Flossie wasn’t allowed to either.)
Mom and Dad had never said her clothes gave the wrong idea, never accused her, interrogated her, sat her down for some sort of humiliating talk. They’d never technically agreed with Auntie, and Flossie is glad about that.
Misunderstood. That’s what she’d been that day. Misjudged. Misinterpreted. Had her parents secretly thought she would become that kind of girl? Could she have taken advantage of such fears? Hmmm.
Nope. That would have made Auntie right, and the woman had caused enough problems in their family.
Sex. That’s what cut-offs lead to, apparently.
Funny. Flossie hadn’t been wearing those shorts on that night. She’d been dressed like a prep. It’s too great a contrast that she doesn’t hesitate to pile two more items into the duffle. As she does, she feels a peculiar tenderness for the shorts. And a weariness for the second item, the preppy item.
What is Win stuffing into his suitcase right now? She wonders if he’s packing condoms, and then she’s ashamed that she can think so low of him. Especially after he’d been so nice to her, so careful.
No. She’s positive he’s packing something special.
Mom and Dad would like him. And hate him. To varied degrees.
Maybe if he’d made an appearance before the cut-offs, they would have given Flossie a stricter curfew. Of course, that wouldn’t have made a difference.
Item 6: The Tight Polo
His weight was like a bowling ball. Not that she’d ever placed one on her chest before. In all the times she’d pictured this moment, weight wasn’t one of the things she’d considered.
She tried not to squirm. Squirming could be mistaken for revulsion. Despite his large frame, the boy—Win—was sensitive. He’d ripped off his shirt but then got all self-conscious because he had a scar beneath his collarbone. She’d wanted to touch it, but he wouldn’t let her. He directed her hands to other places instead.
Still, she kept longing to feel the scar, because touching it would mean closeness. Intimacy.
You can’t have everything, Dad had said to her as he stood at the front door, holding the last of his boxes: We tried. We really did. But it’s not your fault.
Don’t think about that now. Think romance.
Or maybe don’t think at all.
At some point, her polo was going to come off anyway. Bright yellow, worn to a fleecy softness. One size too tight. So tight the hem of the polo climbed her waist and exposed her belly button when she lifted her arms to, say, get chips from the second shelf.
Or raise her hand in homeroom. That was all it took to get Win moving. All the years of staring, living only steps from each other, peering through glass. And suddenly there he was, catching up to her, closing the distance. Maybe it had been her question about graduation, or maybe it was the slice of skin he’d seen beneath her shirt when her arm shot up. Right after the bell rung, he was writing his number in black ink across her palm.
Wear that top. The yellow one, he’d said on the phone, gazing at her from across their street, touching her from that small distance, making the insignificant space between them significant.
The polo was somewhere on the bed. She’d lost track.
He shifted. His hip bones ground into her thighs. The candle on the windowsill quivered as if to make up for the lack of background music.
Are you comfortable?
How sweet. She wasn’t, but how sweet.
At least he was warm. And his bed, which had been made when she first walked in, smelled like sandalwood and kindergarten glue. Weird but fantastic.
Last week, Dad had left. Before the door closed, he’d touched her shoulder: You’ll understand someday.
By the sixth day, he still hadn’t called. That morning, when Win asked her to come over, it had been easy to say okay.
You’re soft, he cooed. You should go to prom with me.
He said it so tenderly, like he knew what she needed. The spot beneath Flossie’s lids began to burn. She fought to keep her eyes from misting, afraid he would misunderstand and stop touching her. Her toes found the polo near the footboard and rubbed against the fabric.
The bowling ball weight traveled to her knees, separating them further. She thought of dancing with this boy, wearing a dress for him, and then marrying this boy, living with this boy, and one day leaving this boy.
And one day understanding. One day knowing her parents just a little bit more.
She never answered Win’s calls. And finally he stopped. Stopped dialing, stopped texting, stopped peering through his window for her. He never talked to her at school, never knocked. Never, never, never. Just as well. Just as she’d wanted.
So why is she feeling so strange about it? Why does it bother her that he gave up?
It was the polo, not the cut-offs, that did it. And if her parents only knew… Is that why she can’t let go of the top? The irony? Was there more to it? There should be more.
Her body still vibrating from the quake, Flossie watches her parents trying to comfort one another, touching each other’s faces for a single vulnerable desperate non-judgmental tender suffocating moment. They’re so beautiful when they forget, she thinks.
Then they stuff the trunk and ram it closed. Over. Done. Had she only been seeing things? Imagining them touch?
From the outside, their home looks like a giant has taken a hammer to the family room. Two paramedics jump from an ambulance as a couple hustles an old man whose shoulder is bleeding onto their lawn. The heat from the house fire smothers her.
Flossie’s mouth parts and releases a gasp, a sound that’s been stashed in some dormant place inside her. We’re losing it all, she thinks. She stares at her bedroom window. She wants to apologize for not having space to fit her whole house into her duffel, but she refuses to second guess herself now. She doesn’t want her headache to get worse.
That’s when she sees Win again. The roof of his house is partially caved in. The garage is open and everything inside is either on the floor or burying a silver truck. His face doesn’t look at all like it had that night. He’s terrified. Had he been alone during the quake like her? Where is his family?
Dad helps Mom into the car like they’re going on a date. A fast one.
Flossie never answered the boy’s suggestion about prom, but she hadn’t thought he was serious either. Sweet, but not serious. Not like now.
Prom would’ve been nice.
A fire truck cuts through their neighborhood and halts in front of the burning house. Her parents call for her to get in the car. Win lifts his hand to wave goodbye, in the middle of the mania, pausing long enough to do that. Pausing. Standing. Pausing. For what? For her? Really?
She wants to know. She wants a closer look.
Flossie leaps over a crack in the middle of the street, grabs his shoulders, and feels him take a step closer, this big sensitive boy who’d whispered in her ear and then did what she’d wanted and stopped calling. Next, the earth shivers beneath her—was it an aftershock or the helicopters or their lips that did it?
He touches the buttons of her jacket, his thumbs rubbing the brass. She records the movement for later. The feel of it. The slowness of it. The possibilities of it. While her family waits, motor running.
Natalia Jaster has a Masters in Creative Writing from California State University, Northridge. Her short stories have appeared in Mammut magazine, The Northridge Review, and Sucker Literary Magazine. She’s currently querying her first YA novel and working on her second. Visit her at www.nataliajaster.com or follow her on twitter @NataliaJaster.