Cover Image
Samantha Wiener
The Park

When my parents start to scream so loud I can't hear myself think, I plug headphones into my dad's old Dell laptop that weighs about seventeen pounds, press the first thing I can find on YouTube, and turn the sound all the way up. I can still hear them though, so I take the barbeque chips I hide in my closet because I have what my best friend Lindsay calls "an unhealthy relationship with food" and I chomp really, really hard. I can't hear them for a while, which feels good until I remember that they are still fighting. Like that tree falls in a forest thing, only I know that the tree makes a sound.

     Someone slams the door to the trailer and my bed trembles because this is a small "mobile home" and no one can hide anything here. Not from me, sitting in my room a few feet away, and certainly not from the rest of the park which is pretty much the rest of the world.

     When it is quiet, I throw the empty bag of chips under my bed and go to the door. If you're exactly one foot from the doorway, the door doesn't creak when you open it. I peer out through the sliver of light that washes in through the barely open door. Dad is already napping on his recliner, which means Mom is gone for the night. Dad would never take a nap if Mom was here because then she'd start about him not having a job and he'd get all red in the face and say, "Kerri, you know damn well I have a job." And she'd stand over him in his recliner and say, "selling dime bags to the kids in the park isn't a job, Bob!" Then he'd say, 'I'm bringing in cash, aren't I?" and she'd say, "not enough!" and he'd say, "maybe that's cause someone takes an eighth for themselves every night! For free!" and she'd say, "nuh-uh. Not me." and he'd say, "then who?" and she wouldn't bat an eye as she says, "I saw Sawyer do it." And dad says nothing and I say nothing because we both know it isn't true, but sometimes, you've just gotta let Mom win.

<  2  >

     Mom is a big lady. Her own words. She used to be "curvy" but now she's just big. She works at the Sew and Shop a couple miles away. She's the chief thread untangler. That's what I used to call her when I was little because every time I'd go in, that's what she'd be doing.

     Mom's not much for customer service. She got the job in high school, the "curvy" days when her better-than demeanor was charming because she was pretty and everyone thought she was going to be the one to get out of here. Her hair was her trademark here in the park. It hung halfway down her back, naturally auburn and shiny, like the cover of one of those drugstore hair dye boxes. When I picture her as a teenager, I see her from behind, that long auburn hair glowing as she walks. She steps lightly, not completely weighed down by the world just yet. She doesn't know yet that she's gonna get knocked up soon and end up marrying not her daughter's biological father, but the only man who was ever really nice to her. He'll be a lanky, nervous man, not from the park but from just outside the city, that she'll meet when she's seven months pregnant and craving a hot pickle from the 7/11. He'll tell her she's beautiful and refuse to accept payment for the pickle. She'll be depressed, feeling ugly, and alone with a big belly full of a baby she doesn't want so she'll give him her number when he asks. When he calls the next day, she'll agree to go with him to Bertucci's, the family-style Italian place a little outside the park. She'll invite him into the trailer at the end of the night and that'll be that.

     And now, still working in the Sew and Shop, married to the man from the city that moved into the trailer after their fourth date, raising the baby she never really wanted, her hair doesn't glow. It's too long, down to her waist, and dyed fake, almost red auburn from a box. I pretend when she asks me if it looks okay, that I don't notice the persistent gray strands she thought she had masked in L'Oreal's finest hair dye.

<  3  >

     Mom leaves at night sometimes. I don't know where she goes, she's never told me. Dad might know, but he's never said anything about it so I don't ask.

     But when the night stretches into early, early morning which stretches into three AM and then four and maybe five and she's still not home, I start to get nervous. I sit against my bedroom door, sometimes nodding off but never climbing into bed and giving up the wait. I listen for the sound of tires on gravel, the slam of the car door, the heavy, sluggish footsteps walking up the steps to the door, the squeak of the old screen door, and the way she doesn't let it slam behind her because part of her, maybe even the smallest part, doesn't want to wake her family. Once I am sure she's safely inside, I stand up, as quietly as possible, and bury myself in my bed and close my eyes, feigning sleep. Just in case she opens the door to check on me. I don't know if she's ever done that before, but she could. And I wouldn't want her to think I'm worried about her, that I stayed up until five in the morning waiting to make sure she came back. I'm not sure she thinks like that, but sometimes, when I can feel her shutting the door so gently behind her, I think maybe she does.

     It's not always all that good when she's here, but I don't ever want her gone.

 

Lindsay's favorite snack is Takis from the gas station. My favorite snack used to be hot fries, but I don't eat them any more because two months ago, we watched "27 Dresses" and I ate the whole family-sized bag and threw every bit up all over Lindsay's mom's shag carpeting she just had cleaned. I'm also trying to work on that "unhealthy relationship with food" thing that Lindsay has been talking to me about, so I watch her eat her Takis, sitting on the curb outside the gas station, and drink red Gatorade that makes the space around my lips cherry red. Mom always tells me, when I come home with the red ring of Gatorade around my lips, that I look like I got punched in the mouth.

<  4  >

     "I'm probably going to give Colby a handjob on Saturday," Lindsay tells me, talking with her mouth full. A little wet crumb of hot tortilla chips flies out of her mouth and lands on my thigh. I stare at it and try to use the forces in my mind to lift it off my leg and fly back into her mouth.

     That doesn't work, so I act like a handjob is no big deal and say, "cool," taking a big gulp of my drink.

     It's hot as hell and you can tell, even from indoors, when you look out at the asphalt and it is blurry, like a puddle, like maybe it's melting. When you get closer, the puddle disappears. The heat plays tricks on you.

     "I'm fifteen now, so the way I look at it," Lindsay pauses to lick the red chili powder coating her fingers, "it's time."

     I'm seventy-three days away from being fifteen, so the way I look at it, it's not time for me. Boys are a separate beast I've yet to tackle. Adding penises to the mix makes it that much more complicated, and I haven't decided if I even want to tackle this beast in the first place. But Lindsay is brave and kind of spectacular, with bouncing black curly hair and smooth skin and actual boobs, not the ones I have that have to be molded by the push-up bra section of Walmart. She's smart, too, and reads Joan Didion which makes her an Intellectual. Three boys and one girl have had crushes on her so far, which makes her experienced. She is, for the most part, everything I want to be.

     Mom doesn't like Lindsay because she calls her by her real name, Kerri, instead of "Mrs. Donoghue" and is always wearing crop tops with funny words across the boobs, like, ''ketchup" or ''This is My Patriarchy." But she acts like Lindsay is one of us, which makes me love them both even more.

     After the gas station, after we've become delirious sitting in the sweltering, unrelenting Florida sun, we head to Lindsay's house to eat popsicles dipped in her mom's Smirnoff and then frozen again. We lay on our stomachs on the floor of her bedroom and I watch Lindsay pretend that her popsicle is a penis. She thinks this is great practice, but I think sucking on the popsicle just makes my mouth sticky.

<  5  >

     Time doesn't exist because no one is expecting me for dinner and the AC is weak and my hair sticks to the back of my neck. Lindsay tries to describe a Ted Talk she watched recently, but I'm not listening. I'm thinking about the way that her hair is curling into tight ringlets in the humidity and how her lips move so perfectly, so controlled, when she speaks, dyed purple from her grape popsicle providing a brilliant contrast to tan skin. When she catches me staring, not listening but staring, we laugh, at first slow and deep and then uncontrolled, clutching our stomachs and rolling around on the floor.

     Buzzed and sweaty, I crawl onto her bed to sprawl out and watch the ceiling fan turn in slow, lackadaisical circles. Lindsay has decided this is the time to clean out her closet and I am supposed to be helping. Mostly, I'm holding my nose up with my finger to mold it into a perkier shape and willing the fan to turn faster.

     "If you could go anywhere right now, where would it be?" I ask her. I am starting our favorite game. One person asks the first question, then the next person follows suit. No rules, we just like to be asked questions. I think I know everything I could ever know about her, but I still want to find out more.

     She first responds to my question by tossing an old bra at me.

     "This doesn't fit me anymore. You can have it."

     I take a good look at the bra. It's baby pink but faded peach around the underarms. The underwire has attempted to poke out on one side, but she's tried to fix it with bright blue duct tape. It has no extra padding and is far too big for me. I take it anyway. Wishful thinking.

     She turns back to her closet and is sorting the shoes all piled at the bottom of the closet. A single high top converse is tossed to the door, it's partner lost somewhere in the depths of the shoe mountain. This shoe was once white but is now covered in my interpretation of various smiley faces drawn by a faded black sharpie.

<  6  >

     "The Galapagos Islands."

     "Why?" I was thinking somewhere more like Savannah or maybe Atlanta.

     "It's the farthest place I can think of right now. Plus, you always hear about it in school and I've never been sure if it's real. I'd like to find out."

     I stare at her upside down, my hair dangling off the edge of the bed, as she tosses more drawn-on shoes to the door, waiting to be exiled from her carefully curated collection of memories.

     "Can I come with you when you go?" I ask her, imagining us in ten years, going on a vacation to a faraway place like real adults.

     "Always. We'll hang out with the tortoises and weird birds and get really tan and tell people we're from France and are on the run from the Mafia."

     "Does France have a mafia?"

     Lindsay ignores the question and tosses a shirt at me, found loitering at the bottom of the shoe pile. It's one of her first signature crop tops, featuring a picture of a snake curled around a banana with the words, "come and get it" written on the bottom.

     "I'm passing the torch. Take care of her."

     I hold the shirt up and examine the snake suffocating the banana.

     "Where do you think you'll live after we graduate?" She asks, coming to lay next to me on the bed. I'm tempted to tell her the truth, which is that I don't know if I'll ever get farther than my own trailer in the next trailer park over. Dad tells me I could leave if I want to, but I'm not so sure. Leaving takes guts and I don't have many. Still, Lindsay wants me to imagine, so I do my best.

     "Maybe Tampa."

     Lindsay slaps me gently on the arm. "Tampa is twenty minutes away. Dream bigger, Sawyer."

<  7  >

     "No, listen," I tell her and sit up. "We could get an apartment and I'd be a journalist or a teacher or something and you could work at Sephora or write books, you know? At night, we'd make dinner with tofu instead of meat because people in the city do that and we can drink wine out of real glasses, not the plastic ones."

     Lindsay stays quiet. She wants to leave the park, leave Florida even, and go somewhere where no one knows her or knows that this place exists, somewhere she can be someone that would never live here in this trailer with these people in this park. I hope she doesn't want to be someone who doesn't still love me.

     "Sawyer," she says quietly. "Don't you wanna go away from all this? Somewhere you can't hear your parents screaming at each other all day, maybe?"

     I don't want to tell her that I'm too scared to go for that exact reason. But I also know that she won't wait around for me to work up the courage to leave this place and I can't tell which is scarier.

     But when I think about leaving the park, I think about leaving Dad on the days that he wakes up and decides we all desperately need to eat French Toast for breakfast. He uses cinnamon raisin bread and sings quietly to Springsteen as he cooks, and it's the best way to wake up. And if I left, I wouldn't be able to stop thinking about mom letting out my church dress the night before Easter without me having to tell her that it's too tight in the chest now. I would leave behind car rides with Dad, driving an hour to St. Pete to sit by the ocean for a bit, just the two of us, quiet but comfortable. I would be leaving behind "Jeopardy" marathons with Dad who is the best at "Jeopardy" of anyone I've ever seen, the smell of Mom's hair dye, the laughter of Steve on his way up to the door, ready to collect rent. And I'd be leaving behind late afternoons under the covers of my bed, blasting music into my ears from headphones, pretending I don't hear Mom's anger and Dad's submissiveness. I would be leaving behind lies that hold the family together. But I don't want to leave behind the good stuff. I don't think Lindsay gets that.

<  8  >

The first and only day that I wear Lindsay's "come and get it" shirt is the fourth of July. We are headed to the fireworks show on the golf course a little bit away. Almost everyone goes to the fireworks show because we've reached that point of the summer where everyone is tired of being cooped up inside and people are starting to lose their minds a bit. Sometimes, on good days, Mom and Dad are there, hanging out off to the side of the crowd, sitting in the crappy white lawn chairs we've had since I can remember, sharing a special Fourth of July joint. Other days they stay home, maybe to fight, maybe to sit and watch "The Price is Right" in silence together. Even if they stay in, the heat will draw everyone else out of their stuffy homes where the AC is starting to quit and the air is stale and everyone's sick of everyone else. Summer does that to you. When you can't get cool, you start to lose it a bit. I offer to wash Albie, my neighbor's dog, just so I can soak myself in the freezing hose water. Even that feels lukewarm.

     It's the hottest day of the summer and my head is swimming a little from the heat. People move slowly and the air is almost too thick to navigate. But, there'll be fireworks and burgers and stolen vodka lemonades tonight, so we are excited. We haven't seen anyone from school all summer, so we must look our best.

     We get ready at my house, me in my shorts from last summer that are a little too small now and Lindsay's banana-snake crop top that she insists I wear. I tug the shirt down, trying to pull it past my belly button but it snaps back into place. Lindsay wears an American Flag tank top from Goodwill that she cropped herself using kiddie scissors and shorts that are probably too small but look a whole lot better than mine. Mom is still at work and Dad is at a "meeting," so we take some of the Absolut from the liquor cabinet (which is really just the cabinet above the toaster) and mix it in our bottles of orange soda. I pour too much on accident, so we fill as much as we take with water, which feels like the smartest thing in the world. The drinks taste like rubbing alcohol which is just an excuse to drink them too fast.

<  9  >

     When we leave the house, it seems we are swimming through the humidity.

     "Hey Linds," I say too loudly as we walk, arm in arm, towards the golf course. "Do you think they'll be able to light the fireworks even though it's so, you know, heavy outside?"

     She ponders my question for a very long time, thinking heavily as we leave the park behind, turning onto the street. We walk on the edge of the road, just daring enough to not use the sidewalk because we are almost fifteen and the world is ours.

     "I don't think that's how that works," she eventually decides, long after I've forgotten what question I ever asked.

     A truck speeds past us and honks twice which is the most hilarious thing we've ever heard. We skip the rest of the way there, tripping over our own feet, and singing Reba at the top of our lungs. The heat starts to absorb our drunkenness, but we egg each other on with dares to dart into the middle of the road and back and lyrics from "Freaky Friday," our favorite masterpiece by Lindsay Lohan. Somehow, we're more intoxicated by the time we reach the course.

     Everyone I know is here. All of my neighbors and Albie the dog and the rest of the pets that live in the park, including an old ferret in a stroller made for cats that the resident old lady, Ms. Allen, brings with her everywhere she goes. Little kids wear pull-ups or bathing suits or nothing at all and sprint around in front of the people camped out on picnic blankets and lawn chairs, tagging each other before erupting into hysterics. Some boys from school, including the ultimate receiver of the handjob, Colby, hang out behind everyone else. We settle a little ways ahead of them, far enough away that we aren't suspicious, but close enough that they can see us from behind. We make sure to laugh only the laugh we've practiced that sounds really natural and cute and we lean back on our hands so that we look relaxed. Lindsay is sure that the boys will come over, and I really just want to spend time with her, but she's excited, so I am too.

<  10  >

     Sunsets over the golf course are my favorite and tonight, drunk off the orange soda-Absolut and the giddiness of being almost fifteen and the feeling of my bare stomach, exposed by Lindsay's shirt, and the ridiculousness of the heat, I think that this sunset is probably the best I've ever seen. The small green mountains of the course roll over each other and the sky is red and pink and purple, a sharp contrast to the bright green of the hills. Still, everything seems to mix and swirl before my very eyes and I watch, smile on my face, as the sun sinks. `

     Which is what I'm doing when Lindsay attempts to whisper into my ear, "look behind you. But be subtle."

     I try my best to turn around casually like I'm looking for someone, and I see what she's talking about. Colby is staring right at Lindsay, his eyes boring into the back of her head, a cunning little smile on his face.

     "I have to go over, right?" She says, grabbing my hand. "Right?"

     I look back at him and he is still staring at her, this time smiling a little bit wider. He's amused. I try to focus, to blink away the blurriness that the alcohol is putting over my eyes but he is still there, smiling at her a little too intently.

     "I don't know, maybe wait for him to come over here," I tell her. The sun is gone and suddenly I feel the alcohol swirling in my stomach, a warning that at any moment, something might come back up.

     But Lindsay doesn't like this plan. Lindsay is drunk and brave, even braver than usual, so she ignores my warning and marches over to Colby. I watch as she plops herself next to him and he is just the littlest bit surprised, or so he seems because his arm hesitates before it wraps around her waist. He pulls her closer and I realize I haven't eaten anything since breakfast and the alcohol and orange soda is bubbling in my stomach. I turn away as they lean into each other and try to steady myself or steady my stomach or whatever it is that is so angry inside me and focus on keeping the contents of my stomach on the inside of my body.

<  11  >

     That is a hopeless effort because the Cheerios that I ate for breakfast mixed with vodka and bright orange soda erupts out of my mouth all over the grass in front of me. I gag once more and a little bit more comes out and I try to catch my breath. My body is trembling and I want to go home because now I feel too empty but still sick, but when I turn around to find Lindsay, I see that she and Colby are gone.

 

I leave before the fireworks start. The alcohol ejected from my system, I am alarmingly sober but still unsteady, my mind shaky and unclear, and Lindsay is gone. She's off with Colby, I'm certain, and I don't want to think about what they're doing because I didn't like the way he stared at her, so eager and sure of himself. He knew exactly what was going to happen.

     The sun is gone and everyone is still at the golf course. Walking on the sidewalk back to the park, no one to scream sing "All Too Well" by Taylor Swift with at passing cars, no one to laugh uncontrollably with, no one to recount what was supposed to be the best night of the summer with, I feel very, very alone.

     When I get home, Mom is gone and Dad is asleep in his recliner. I try to stay up to wait for her, but the will to sleep is too strong and I fall into bed, crop top and all, and slip into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

The sun is awfully abrasive the next morning, melting the world already at eight AM, but that isn't what wakes me up. Someone is holding my nose shut and I wake aggressively, shoving the person away.

     When I open my eyes, Lindsay is sitting next to me, her head hovering over mine.

     "I told you I don't like when you do that."

     She huffs. "I needed you to wake up."

     I don't question her presence in my bedroom at eight AM. She comes and goes through our house just like she's family, which, essentially, she is.

<  12  >

     My feelings are hurt and I can't exactly figure out why. Something about abandonment, something about throwing up alone under the sinking sun with only Steven, our landlord, and Mrs. Allen offering me napkins and water and beer (hair of the dog, or whatever) to settle my stomach. But there's something more there and I can't put my finger on it. Something inside me, deep in my stomach, is hurt and I don't know why, but every time I look at Lindsay, it twists further.

     Lindsay is still wearing her American Flag crop top and too small shorts, but her hair is tied up in a bun on top of her head and the eyeliner we spent so long trying to perfect is smudged down her cheeks.

     Something is off about her, though. Something tells me to forget about the twisting of my stomach for a moment.

     "What happened last night?" I ask her. I don't mention the orange throw up and the long, lonely walk home.

     "We hooked up," she tells me, then stands up from the bed. Her face is suddenly concerned and I sit up in bed, nervous.

     "Okay‚Ķ"

     "And I think that's it."

     "What does that mean, 'you think?'"

     She's pacing now and the seventy-three days between me and fifteen start to feel like a pretty huge gap. She's stretching into uncharted territory.

     "Do you think we could, um, go to Walgreens?"

     Walgreens is far, farther than 7/11, and the golf course. It'd take us hours to walk there and the sun is already boring into the Earth. Our options are limited, but I think I know what she's asking.

     "I'll ask my mom to drive us," I say. Her face relaxes, just a bit, and she nods, her way of saying thank you.

<  13  >

An hour later, Mom, Lindsay, and I share the long drive to Walgreens. It's at least a twenty-minute drive and Mom isn't happy about it. She keeps the windows rolled down the entire way, the only method to getting some real breeze in the car, and chain-smokes. Twenty minutes provides just enough time to get through four cigarettes, what with me lighting them for her, and the rate at which she inhales. Lindsay sits in the back, silent, her arms wrapped tightly around her stomach. Mom doesn't ask what we need at Walgreens and we don't tell her.

     When we pull up, Mom stays in the car so she can continue smoking with the windows down. Lindsay and I try to walk casually inside, but I think both of our hearts are beating too fast.

     Standing in front of the family planning section, we attempt to decide which is the best, most accurate test. People walk past us and I wonder if they know what's going on. I wonder if they know I'm only fourteen years old and haven't had my first kiss and don't know anything about pregnancy tests.

     There are about a million options. We could get one that would tell us in three minutes, one that claims to be the most accurate, one that claims to be the favorite of women everywhere, one that could predict the gender just eighteen days after conception. I want to read the fine print on the back of each box to decipher which is going to tell me what to do if my best friend is pregnant, but we don't have that much time. Lindsay grabs one that reads "First Choice" and we walk away too quickly to look like this is okay. The cashier is a man that I'm sure is as old as my father. He doesn't say anything as Lindsay's hands over the nine dollars that the test costs, but I know what he's thinking because I'm thinking it too.

     Mom is waiting right in front, windows rolled down, radio blaring. Fleetwood Mac is singing "Dreams" and we don't say anything at all when we get into the car. Lindsay clutches the test in her hands and stares out the window and I pretend not to be so aware of everything that Lindsay is doing.

<  14  >

     "So," Mom says, slowly blowing smoke out the window. "You know you can't take the test the morning after, right?"

     "What?" I ask too abruptly. My voice is squeaky and nervous and Mom looks right at me, her eyes blank and devoid of emotion, which somehow tells me that I can't lie to her right now. I didn't know that, and Lindsay is quiet in the backseat which tells me she didn't know that either.

     "Whose is it?" Mom asks.

     "Mine," Lindsay says quietly, almost inaudible over the sound of the music, but we both hear her. I stare out the window, willing this car ride to be over.

     "It's like," Mom takes another drag. "It's like you just learned nothing."

     I don't know what she means, but I'm not sure that I want to. We pass the 7/11 and I notice Steve pumping gas into his truck, his beagle mix standing in the bed of the truck. The air in the car is too thick, like the wind whipping around my face as we drive is filling my throat and choking me, and I take big gulps of air. The thick air fills me up again. I want out of the car.

     "It's like you didn't learn anything from me," mom says again. She looks at Lindsay in the rearview window. "Is this what you want from your life? Look around for a minute, y'all."

     I look around. At the other trailer parks that we are passing by, at the cracked pavement we drive over, at the dead possum on the side of the road, at the Confederate flag-waving bravely from the bed of the truck in front of us.

     "Jesus," she says and reaches out for me to light another cigarette.

 

A treacherously long five days later, Lindsay and I wait for the test results in the bathroom that my parents and I share. I sit on the floor, arms wrapped around my knees, and she sits on the edge of the bathtub, watching a mosquito buzz around the tiny room. The test rests on the edge of the sink, next to some dried toothpaste and a long strand of auburn hair, certainly left behind by mom when she was dying her hair earlier this morning. Four minutes have passed and one is left. We wait together because we are in it together because that's what friends are for and I think I might be just as scared as she is. Just as scared that she's gonna stay in the park for the rest of her life, that she's going to turn out just like my mom, or that she'll end up with a hot pickle and a man from 7/11, or that I'll never leave here either and I'll exist forever in these heavy summer days in the park, no future but this, which is maybe what I want and maybe the worst thing that could happen.

<  15  >

     Five minutes is up and we look at each other first. I know I'll never leave her and I start to think maybe this potential baby is a good thing. We could raise this baby together and we could raise this baby to leave the park and she'd actually do it and we'd still get to be together no matter what. Maybe that's all I want.

     Lindsay breaks our gaze first and picks up the test. At first, she doesn't say anything, just hands it to me. I take it from her, examine it closely, and barely have time to breathe before Lindsay is crying, crashing into my arms on the floor of the bathroom and sobbing. The TV is on in the living room and I listen to the sound of my father watching Jeopardy and the way Lindsay chokes for breath before I start to cry too.

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