I was going a steady seventy-five miles per hour on a long, winding interstate highway and the sight of it just about made me hit the brakes.
The sign itself was nothing special – the usual “Ohio welcomes you!” and the image a field of flowers too colorful to live within the state’s borders- and that made it all the more offensive to come upon. The sign hadn’t changed since I packed my bags and drove off to New York City, but then again nothing ever really changes in Ohio.
The moment I was past that sign, the road was straight and dotted with fewer than ten cars for the next eternity. The sameness was suffocating to me—it had always been—but to some it was comforting. My mother liked that. She felt at home in a world where every day would start and end in the same way the day before had and any changes were completely within her control. She was steady like that.
Driving had never been easy for me. The stress of it used to make me so tense that my shoulders would hurt for hours after even the shortest road trip, but right then I was on autopilot. I was experiencing that disconnected relaxed feeling of my conscience hovering just over my body. That was how my entire life felt, in retrospect.
When I was thirteen, my father and I moved into our girlfriend’s apartment. I remember the exact day because of the rain. Dad had been cursing and swerving as water cascaded down the windshield and I had been floating in the space between reality and daydreams, my conscience hovering over my head like the storm clouds at the edge of the sky. Her name was Lorelei, she had long black hair and pieces of metal stuck in the crevices of her round face. She stood taller than I did at the time and her plunging neckline met me at eye level. I loved her. Dad would whisper “I love you” to her when he thought they were alone, but I was always listening. I knew he was lying, trying to get himself a free apartment and a constant pair of legs to spread.
I loved Lorelei. Her almond-shaped eyes and yellow nail polish. The way she wore short skirts even when it was under forty and overcast made the butterflies in my stomach do somersaults.
One night, about a month after that rainy day, Dad took Lorelei out to a local brewpub for the night and I knew it was my chance. I tiptoed into the bathroom we all shared as if they were still there and could hear me. It took me several precious moments of sifting through the bin of hair straighteners and anti-frizz serum and used nail files but I found it. The bottle was slippery and covered in a thin layer of long strands of black hair and beautifully, perfectly yellow. The brand label had chipped off.
I took the bottle with me to my room and sat on my bed, swirling the hair around with my fingers. The lid was stuck and flakes of dried polish flew across the room as I opened it. And then the smell. Sharp and metallic. It made my head spin. The pigment and the fluid were beginning to separate so I used the wand like a whisk until the polish looked like half-melted soft-serve ice cream.
I pulled the wand out of the bottle and a glob of polish fell to the hardwood floor. I eased myself off the bed and hovered over the yellow splotch on my hands and knees. It looked like molten gold there, seeping into the grains of the floorboards. Her eyes had gold in them. I sank down until the tip of my nose was nearly touching the polish and took a long, deep breath. My head felt like a slowly deflating balloon. I stuck my tongue out and ran it over the polish and the taste was everything and nothing like I had expected. I couldn’t leave it there, so I lapped up the rest of it. I fought back the urge to vomit as I swallowed. It burned a bit in my throat.
I remember the taste, the sharp chemical tang, all these years later and that makes me want to take stock of all the little memories that linger in the back of my mind. I can never be sure the girl that did that was really me or if she was just another being inhabiting my body while I was off in the clouds.
There was a deer -what was left of a deer- on the shoulder. Its long neck ended abruptly, the end of it flattened like empty yogurt tubes in the garbage of my middle school cafeteria. Its legs were suspended in the air over the round cylinder of a body. The corpse had an expression of shock. It had probably been hit by someone driving the same reckless seventy-five I was, someone whose mind had wandered off as their body went into autopilot. I almost slowed down right then but I didn’t.
Mom always got so emotional at the sight of roadkill. She would shake her head and tell me life was precious. She was always contradicting herself like that. Every part of her had this strange quality of not fitting together quite right. She liked cars, old cars with shiny red paint jobs and tires that had white rings at the center but she was a real lady. I always thought that was why Dad fell for her.
After it happened, Dad would always say the whole thing was a mistake. Marrying Mom and, though he didn’t say it out loud, having me. But I knew, somehow, he had loved her then. She was beautiful in so many ways. She liked old-fashioned cars and bicycles and put her signature on the breast pocket of all her favorite shirts with silver thread. She used to wear bright red lipstick like the girls in the movies she watched with me. Classic. That’s what she called it all. When the virtuous girl in the long skirt gave the bad boy a chaste kiss on the cheek and taught him how to be sweet, Mom would lean over my shoulder and tell me that was what a good woman does.
I wonder what she would have said about that thirteen-year-old girl licking nail polish off the floor like it was the key to all the secrets of the universe. I have a feeling she wouldn’t understand. She wouldn’t have liked Lorelei much.
Where Mom was sharp and strict, Lorelei was soft and uninterested. I had loved both of them once but feelings like that didn’t age well. What happened to Mom was her own fault and she deserved it but what happened to Lorelei—what I did to her—it shouldn’t have happened at all.
That was why I had to be there. I was traveling down the long road to retribution and Loudonville, Ohio and the exit was on the left.
When Mom was caught and put away, Dad wanted to move. He wanted to pack up and drive until the mere idea of her was gone, far off in distance like a dot on the horizon. He was like that, always wanting things he could never have. Instead, we packed up and drove down the block to Lorelei’s apartment.
I didn’t see that building as I drove through downtown. It had been old when we moved in and it must have been ancient when they finally tore it down. The new building was a sleek office space and it stuck out like a sore thumb among the old brick buildings with boarded-up windows and the old pharmacy that looked closed but somehow wasn’t. The building that was once a laundromat was now home to another one of those fast-food chains that seemed to be everywhere now.
Most families left after Mom developed a habit of destroying every beautiful thing she touched. They had gathered outside the courtroom with signs saying she was evil and would burn in hell and screamed in defiance when the judge said she wouldn’t die. Months later, when they realized no collection of signatures would send my mother to the chair, they did what Dad wanted to do but couldn’t, they drove until “Mrs. Dahmer” was a distant memory.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it was still there. The tiny shop was still painted that eclectic combination of teal and faded orange and the door was propped open slightly. White block letters spelling out “L & E Flower Shop” were scribbled in an arch directly on the display window. I pulled over into a parking space directly in front. I felt a tiny flicker of disappointment at the apparent lack of business but I chose to ignore it.
I didn’t bother with the parking meter. I slipped through the opening in the door and was hit with the intense odor. The small space was packed from floor to ceiling with endless bouquets. A large bunch of pinks and yellows caught my eye but, as I moved towards it, I noticed the rotten edges of the petals. It didn’t take me long to realize they were all like that – stems beginning to droop and colors fading away to brown.
I turned and saw the small wrinkled woman behind the cash register. Although I’d never been there before I could tell she had been the owner since before I was even born. The sweater she was wearing was an alarming shade of yellow and covered in large white puffs of lint.
“You need help finding anything, dear?” She said it more like a statement than a question.
“I’m fine, thank you,” I said, drawing out the “k” sound in that condescending way customers at Rite Aid always did. I had a thought then that I should have felt bad about that but, of course, I didn’t.
The woman’s lips formed a thin line of disapproval. I turned back to the pitiful selection and grabbed a small bouquet of red roses. The petals were not the most vivid and lively but I begrudgingly accepted that it was the best I could get. I held the bouquet up so that the woman could see it.
“Twenty-five dollars,” she said.
I gave her a rolled-up ten-dollar bill. She repeated herself. I pretended not to hear.
The air had a bit more chill to it and a parking ticket flapped in the wind, held down just barely by the wipers. I took the small yellow sheet and folded it up into a thin rectangle. I leaned down and wedged the ticket into the crevice where the street met the curb. The plastic that held the bouquet together made small crackling noises as I set it down in the passenger seat. I buckled it in and pulled the belt tight so that the stems bent like a person’s legs would. I pulled the car out of the space and pressed down hard on the gas.
I remember what Lorelei said when she found me, laying on the floor next to a half-empty bottle of nail polish
“Fran, what’s going on here?”
“I just had a little,” I said. “I left plenty for you, don’t worry.”
“Oh,” she smiled. “Can I see them?”
The room was silent for a moment. She was looking at my bare nails and I was looking at her. The light from the hallway fanned out around her and she looked like the painting of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic church Mom used to drive me to every Sunday. She was the religion, the polish the communion, and I the faithful believer.
She opened her mouth but I stopped her.
“I didn’t paint my nails, I never paint my nails.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “You can’t sit still for long enough. I used to be like that too.”
“It doesn’t taste like how I thought it would.”
“Honey that isn’t funny and you know better,” Lorelei said, though her voice lacked conviction and had that high-pitched tone of concern.
I couldn’t help myself; I laughed.
She stood there, frozen as if she was afraid of coming any closer as if the madness was contagious.
Three years later as I watched the life drain from her body I wondered if it could have ended any other way. The blood on my hands and the way her body twitched and her blank stare and my steady heartbeat. I thought I knew what it was going to feel like. It was everything and nothing like I had expected all at the same time. My knees buckled and, suddenly, I was right there with her. She was still breathing and her eyes looked panicked when our gazes met. My hands seemed to move without my permission. I reached over to where the knife had been and pushed down against the wound. I didn’t know much about fixing things like that but I thought that maybe I was trying.
I was losing her.
Her chest rising, falling, rising – sinking in.
Lorelei was gone and I was still there and everything was all wrong. Violent sobs ripped through my body. I wrapped myself around her like a blanket and watered her with my tears. She looked so fragile and young and scared.
The memory brought tears to my eyes as I made my way across the grass, weaving between the headstones with the bouquet clenched tightly in my hand. Her headstone is small; it has her name and life and a blank space where a quote should have been – Dad couldn’t afford one. As far as anyone knew, she had no real family, the funeral was just me, Dad, and the detective “working our case.” Underneath her headstone there is nothing. They never found her body, I made sure of that. I knew no one else would understand – they would think I was crazy like Mom but I wasn’t.
I set the bouquet down in front of the stone. I was probably the first person to bring her flowers. It shouldn’t have been like that. Her patch of grass should have been covered in roses. I sat down – Mom used to scold me for walking over graves, she called it “disrespectful” but, I figured it didn’t count because Lorelei wasn’t really there – I was sitting on a pile of dirt and, under that, an empty coffin.
Dad didn’t cry that day. It made no sense to me how he could say he loved Lorelei and stand there over her grave with that blank expression. The detectives thought it was suspicious and so did the people in the town. He was deemed guilty before the trial even started. When they put him away, people gathered outside the courtroom to cheer. Rumors that he had been involved in my mother’s hobby began to gain traction. They were never able to prove anything, but when did that ever matter?
I stopped trying to hold the tears back, tasting salt as some ran over my lips. The bouquet looked so pathetic there, propped up against her headstone, the rotting petals blocking the first few letters of her name. I wrapped my arms around my knees and was still for a moment, watching as an ant crawled slowly up the side of the stone. I leaned forward, tracing its movements with my index finger until I caught up with it. I let the tip of my finger hover over the ant’s body. I sighed and pressed down hard.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
It wasn’t enough.