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Stargazing

By Meg Walters

            In the weeks following her mother’s death, Josephine refuses to comb her hair. She stops washing the dishes at night and leaves her bed unmade in the mornings, her sheets often tossed to the floor in the throes of her sleeplessness. She begins ordering things online that she has no particular use for – a bagel slicer, a flamingo-shaped pool floatie, a tiny race car she can control with a remote.

            When her brother comes by one day, she is playing with it, watching the blur of blue and white zigzag around her living room. She is no good as a driver, never has been. The car crashes into the wall, the legs of the coffee table, the toe of Felix’s rainboot.

            “C’mon Josie, it’s a goddamn mess in here.” He bends down to pick it up, but she keeps running the engine, so that the tires whip around and around in the air. “When’s the last time you took out the trash? Or showered? Looks like rats are building a nest in your hair.”

            She shrugs, putting the remote control down and curling her knees into her chest.

            Felix sighs. “You’re not a fucking kid anymore, Josie.”

            She hears the thump thump of his boots going up and down, up and down the stairs as he takes out the garbage bags that had accumulated in the kitchen. Then the final slam of the front door.

            Packages continue arriving each day – a facial exfoliator, a poster for an old movie she’d never seen, a zen garden that comes with a miniature rake – and empty boxes pile up in the foyer, one at a time, until a fort has constructed itself. Often, especially on rainy days, Josie lays under it and stares up at the cardboard and imagines constellations there. She likes the sky, always has. When she was little, she had seen glow-in-the-dark stars advertised in a free catalog thrown on their stoop and asked her mother if they could buy some.

            “What the hell for?” She had replied as she bustled around the kitchen, boiling water for the hotdogs, sipping whiskey from a plastic cup. She was still in the neon yellow vest that she wore each day for work, as she drove city buses through the treacherously narrow streets. The uniform made her skin look pasty, stole away her shape. “You think we’re made of money?”

            “They only cost five dollars.” Josie was laying on the carpet with the catalog at her side, limbs sprawled out like a starfish, attempting to balance a pencil on her nose.

            “Exactly.” Her mother waved a slotted spoon in the air. “That’s five more dollars than you’ve got. And stop doing whatever you’re doing, it’s unladylike.”

            Josie had never much cared for being like a lady. She still wasn’t sure what it meant. According to her mother, this was why she didn’t get asked to the prom, and dateless girls are destined to become dateless women. The kind who chain smoke on park benches, microwave frozen salisbury steak for dinner, and wear socks with holes in the toes. It doesn’t matter that Josie turned out to do none of that. It doesn’t matter that mere hours before the death, Josie had gone on a date with a somewhat handsome, steadily employed man, because her mother will never know that now. She will never know more about what her daughter was or has done or will become.

            The date had been okay. They went to a restaurant. Cloth napkins, red tablecloth, jazz music, the whole shebang. He wore a shirt with a collar, paid for her spaghetti with meatballs, and when their water glasses were empty, he filled up hers before his own.

            “I’m having a lovely time,” he said.

            “Me too,” she said.

            “You’re really beautiful, you know that?”

            “I guess so.” She gnawed on a piece of garlic bread.

            “Tell me.” He reached across the table to hold her hand, which was slick with butter. “Why’s a woman as nice as yourself still alone?”

            “That’s a great question,” she said, though it wasn’t. “Probably because I talk in my sleep, forget to floss, set off the smoke alarm whenever I cook, and only laugh if something is actually funny. Also, I have credit card debt. A lot of it.”

            He let go of her hand and asked for the check, while she wondered what was the deal with men asking things when they didn’t want answers. Maybe it had been unladylike to tell the truth. Maybe her mother had been right about everything. Right that she would end up alone, that she would always be poor, that she wasn’t a real artist, et cetera.

            On the drive home, she got the phone call. It was a problem with her heart. Funny, Josie wanted to say, I didn’t think my mother had one of those. But all she could really get out was a small whimper. She parked on the side of the road and sat there for hours, first watching the headlights of other cars zip by, then reclining her chair to look up through the sunroof at a sky as flat and dark as tarmac.

            Now Josie orders a three hundred pack of stars on the internet and sticks them everywhere. On the ceiling, the walls, the bathroom mirror, the refrigerator, the oven door, the television, so that when she turns off all the lights, it feels like her whole apartment is floating through outer space. This soothes her. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be in outer space. You just exist.

            One evening, while she is laying on her flamingo pool floatie and doing exactly that, Felix barges in again without knocking.

            “What the fuck is this?” he says.

            “Performance art,” Josie says. “I call it mourning.”

            “I call it psychotic.” He flicks the lightswitch, turning off all the stars and casting the living room in a sickly yellow glow, making Josie flinch. This time, he brings dinner. Cheeseburgers and french fries in a grease soaked paper bag.

            “How do you keep getting in here?”

            “You need to eat something, you look like a twig.” He sidesteps a pile of limited edition blu-ray DVDs and a miniature gumball machine on his way to the kitchen. “And you gave me a key so I could water your houseplant once, remember?”

            “Oh yeah.” She glances at the potted fern in the corner. Its leaves have gone brown, so paper thin that they would crunch with a single touch. “I forgot about that.”

            “Look, Jos,” her brother says while rummaging through her cabinets with his unwashed hands, clinking glasses together, rearranging bowls. He pulls out two plates and starts dividing food between them. “I know that things have been hard lately. I get it, but isn’t it time to get back to normal?”

            Like usual, Josie doesn’t know how to answer. She opens her laptop, scrolls through a vast selection of lipstick, adding colors to her cart at random. Burnt rose, flirty fuschia. He doesn’t get it. That’s the thing. He will never be a woman. He is not the mirror image of the person who grew him inside her body, does not have the same limp hair, same skinny arms, same freckles spilled across his cheeks. Josie is her mother but with smooth skin, is her mother if all fifty five years of her monotonous life had been undone, is her mother if she had started from zero. It’s hard to be the beginning for someone. There’s so much pressure to do everything right.

            “Are you hearing me?” Felix turns over his shoulder to look at her. “Are you listening at all?”

            Peony pink, firetruck red. She clicks purchase and watches the circle on the load screen spinning. She has never done anything right. She is not good at any of this – gardening, attracting men, scheduling doctor’s appointments, calculus. She remembers taking a midterm exam in eleventh grade. She blanked, forgot all the equations, and drew a bunch of flowers on the paper instead. She thought they were beautiful.

            When her mother saw the grade come in, she grabbed Josie by the hair and beat her with a slipper right on the front porch. It was the middle of winter. Slush seeped through her socks, her nose burned red, her fingers were so cold she couldn’t curl them into a fist. Loud enough for the neighbors to hear, her mother yelled at her to stop being such a goddamn embarrassment.

            “I’m trying,” Josie wailed.

            “Well try harder.” The slipper smacked onto the concrete, a foot sliding back in. “You think I like driving a bus? You think I like driving all these shitty people to their shitty fucking jobs every day? That I don’t want to doodle and stare out the window instead?”

            Josie shook her head no. Her mother’s face was so close to her own that she could see each wrinkle on her face, smell the sour fruit reek of her breath. Each exhale crystallized in midair, hung between them like an ornament.

            “Leave that pretty stuff to men like your father,” she said, “because if I ever stopped to smell the roses, you’d be living under a bridge right now, shaking your titties at passing cars for a few bucks. You hear me?” Josie felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder, warm and soft against the whip of the wind. “Now get inside and make yourself useful, we’ve got dinner to make.”

            Sometimes useful and ladylike sounded the exact same, both words encapsulating all that Josie wasn’t. She understood this even back then. There was no space in their apartment for any item – furniture, appliance, person – that lacked tangible purpose. Just the gray futon for sitting, 6 the gingham curtains for blocking the sun, the bare light bulb with its brass string dangling over the wooden table. Her mother owned no jewelry, no sundresses, just a single black skirt for funerals and job interviews. She had worn lipstick once. Josie saw it in a photograph taken years before she was born.

            “All this hoarding shit, Jos,” her brother says, handing her a plate piled high with fries. “It’s got to stop. You’ve got to stop.”

            “Why should I?” She puts the plate on the coffee table.

            “What do you mean, why?” He slides the plate closer to her.

            “I’m an adult. I can be whoever I want.”

            “And this is it?” He gestures around him. “Who you want?”

            Josie looks at the apartment. There is so much stuff now that she can see only a few slivers of cream carpet. Unread books, unworn dresses, board games still wrapped in plastic. A beanbag chair, a yoga ball, an exercise bike she had ridden for five minutes once. A silver kettle, a wooden cheese board, a record player with no records to play.

            “What if it is?”

            “Then that’s fucking pathetic.” Felix throws his arms up in the air. “It’s pathetic, and it’s strange, and it doesn’t make any goddamn sense!”

            “Why does everything need to make sense?” She clambers to her feet, voice rising. “Why can't I have something just to have it? Do something just because I feel like it?”

            “C’mon, Jos. You know that’s not how the world works.” She feels her cheeks burn hot. Her palms sweat. She wants to spit right in his face. Say something smart, and retaliate, and win – but there is only so much to say to the truth. There is only so much to say when your mother is dead and will always be dead and you have spent your entire life trying to be enough, and now even if you become enough, you’ll never know because there is nobody here to tell you.

            “Fine then,” Josie says, retrieving a pair of scissors from her desk drawer and grabbing the flamingo pool floatie by its neck. “If you want me to get rid of everything, I’ll get rid of everything.”

            She stabs it right in the head. Immediately, it pops and deflates and she stomps on it until there is no air left. She does the same with the yoga ball. Then she slices open the bean bag chair, watches as thousands of tiny beads spill onto her floor like teardrops. She rips a poster in half, shatters a champagne flute, smashes a miniature waffle maker into the wall until it splits in half. She goes on like this for minutes. Finishes by kicking over the gumball machine, spreading a rainbow out over the carpet. Felix stares at her.

            “Are you happy?” she asks. “Are you happy now?”

            She is panting. Her arms are on fire. She doesn’t remember what happy is like. There was one time, years ago, when a blizzard hit the city. Everything shut down, even school, even the buses. Everything was quiet and soft. Her mother played records on their old turntable and danced all morning in the kitchen. Her robe tied loosely around her waist, a mug of bourbon in hand. Josie had peeked around the corner and watched, not wanting to be seen, feeling like that would ruin it somehow, but it didn’t.

            “There she is,” her mother said, reaching out to hold her hand. “Come dance with me.” They twirled and spun around the tiled floor, the ruffles of their nightgowns soft on their knees while snow piled up on the windowsill. “My beautiful daughter.” They pulled each other close and swayed, Josie pressing her head against her mother’s chest, listening to the rhythmic boom 8 of her heartbeat. Ba boom, ba boom. Like a song. “My sweet, sweet baby girl,” her mother said, just minutes before vomiting into the sink.

            Josie starts to cry, right there in the middle of the debris that she created, amongst all the tiny shards and broken bits and garbage. Her brother stares at her for a beat or two, jaw hanging open. Then he walks over, glass crunching beneath his shoes, and wraps his arms around her. He holds her still just like that, until she quiets down and her chest stops heaving and she can breathe again.

            “Do you think that she was happy?” Josie asks.

            Felix pauses, letting go of her. “I think she loved us.”

            So they sit down side by side on the couch and eat the cold cheeseburgers. Felix grabs the tv remote and flicks on some mindless comedy, the screen casting a gauzy light over their bodies. Josie sits there listening to the canned laughter, waiting for the punchlines, thinking how strange it is that love feels nothing like love sometimes.

            Outside, it has started to rain. Through a cracked window, she can see the headlights of a bus approaching, windshield wipers jerking back and forth, tires slicing through puddles. The bus comes to a halt in front of a lone woman with no umbrella, its brakes squealing, its doors creaking slowly open, all its light and warmth spilling out onto the street.

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