Holiday Weekend Kayla Jean
The turnpike is never not under construction. I drive 476 north. Cattle chutes the whole way up. My boyfriend, Matt, taught me that word. Before him I didn’t know what to call them. Just knew I hated them, imagined myself losing control, steering wheel oscillating into the orange barrels any time I drove through. It is the Fourth of July weekend. He wants me to come up, stay at his parents’ house where he also lives now. I make the drive alone and think cattle chute cattle chute cattle chute to myself until I turn the radio on.
Once you get past the cattle chutes, the rest of the drive is pretty. It’s the Poconos but not the resort section. Even though I grew up two hours east, it looks like home because most of Pennsylvania looks the same. Mountain ridges and Sheetz stations and road work.
His parents live in a development in the woods with its own private lake. I like how dark it gets up there. I like when me and Matt watch Unsolved Mysteries and drink Espolon and Fantas after everyone else is asleep. He moved back home because he couldn’t find any accounting jobs in the city, went back to his tree trimming job. His dad recently got diagnosed with thyroid cancer and his sister was in a car accident three years ago that left her brain-damaged and unable to live alone. They are all happy to have him home. I repeat these facts to myself. I remind myself that he is a good guy and that I love him.
I want to leave the city too but I have three semesters of college left. Nights and weekends I work in a print shop, entering orders for flyers and posters, and formatting fish fry tickets in Photoshop. All the computers and printers are relics from the early 2000s. Sometimes I feel like I’m living inside a middle school textbook photo.
He meets me out front and pecks my forehead, carries my bag up the deck steps. We sit in his kitchen and sip Michelob Ultras. His mom microwaves Tupperware pulled pork. He cups a hand around my knee. I admire my own thighs, how they look tanned even though I’ve been lathering them with sunscreen, and how they look skinny even though I ate a McChicken on the drive up. He spoons coleslaw from a ceramic bowl. His mom takes her plate back to her office where she will answer calls for an insurance company until eight. His dad sits in the recliner, ice cubes melting into his Diet Coke. Matt and I have been together for just under two years but I am still anxious around his family. I swirl food around, finish my first beer. I am always calculating the balance of food to drinks, trying to get as strong a buzz as I can. He scoots his chair back and stands. Another Michelob please, I say. He grabs two and sets them on Disney World coasters. His sister loves Disney World.
Another thing I like about him: he doesn’t mind my drinking. When I start going to AA meetings he supports my decision and when I decide I don’t need to be going anymore he gets us those make your own six packs from Wegmans and we drink them in my bedroom and watch YouTube videos about the tunnels under the Denver airport.
Because it’s Thursday, no one is doing anything. Everyone is resting up for the weekend, stocking up on fireworks and potato salad and bait. After dinner we go to his room and have quiet sex. There are cicadas and spruce and honey locusts and clover just outside the open window. There is a patch of sun lighting up the scar on his forehead, making it look fresher than it is. There are twelve more Michelobs in the fridge. There is something I should probably be feeling for him right now—love, affection, tenderness.
He smokes a spliff and blows it out the open window. He tells me Krawler is in town. Krawler travels north to work construction. When he’s home, we go sit in his garage, watch him snort pills and hammer nails into boards. Every boyfriend I’ve ever had knows somebody like him.
When I wake, Matt has already left for work. I try to remember how I got into bed. I vaguely remember his arm on my waist, my socks on the carpeted stairs. I pat the area around me, making sure it isn’t damp. Last time I visited, after a bonfire at Wolfie’s house, I blacked out on whiskey and peed in his bed. We had to dust the mattress with baking soda and flip it over. I had to sneak to the basement with the sheets all balled up in my arms. After, he took me to get taco pizza and we promised each other we would be better about drinking and about eating healthy and about exercising.
He’s texted me: Water on the nightstand. My mom is in the office today. Don’t drink till I get home please. Love you. My head hurts too bad to respond. I’ll respond when my head doesn’t hurt so much. I sip the water and lay back down, sweat under his blankets, shiver when I throw them off, check the weather app to see that it will be ninety six degrees. I close my eyes and don’t sleep for another two hours. Eventually I get up, brush my teeth and hair in his bathroom. Decide I should shower too. Wash myself with his beaded blue body gel and get sentimental for the way I used to love this fake forest scent.
His sister is at the table filling out applications. She wants to go to college at Disney World. Her mug and her mouse pad are Mickey Mouse ears.
“What are you up to?” I ask, even though it’s been the same thing for weeks. Matt tells me about it when we talk on the phone, how long it’s taking her to get recommendation letters and answer simple short essay questions.
“Applications,” she says.
I am jealous of how excited she is capable of getting. I pull the can of Folgers Instant Coffee down from the shelf, stir a tablespoon into boiled water. She smiles as she types. I imagine she is working on her personal essay, is describing how visiting Disney World after the accident cured her suicidal ideation. I pick at an Entenmann's cheese danish on the counter.
She asks about our plans tonight.
“Fishing,” I say, “Krawler is in town, I guess.”
“Me and mom are going to have a movie marathon,” She says, “And then fireworks.”
I decide to go for a run even though I forgot to pack a sports bra. I put on my regular underwire bra, running sneakers, one of his t-shirts, and my sleep shorts. I won’t, I text him and then, going for a run. The ATV trails stain my sneakers red. I nearly twist my ankle on loose gravel. Whenever I want to stop and walk I think about Matt’s ex-girlfriend and how her body is curvier and thinner than mine at the same time. At the lake, families are already smoothing sheets into sand, weighing them down with sandals and stones. They are glopping sunblock into their palms, spreading it on each other's backs. It makes me ache for some future where I am a real adult with children and a husband and neighborhood friends. I loop around the lake, running until the nausea subsides and I break through the other end of the hangover. And then when I feel better, I start imaging horrific scenarios in which Matt is maimed by a falling branch.
His sister and I watch Pretty Little Liars on the couch. On her laptop she Googles pictures of Disney World, then apartments near Disney World, zooming through Zillow. In the coffee table basket there’s a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, a white elephant gift from his mother’s office Christmas party. I pick it up and flip through it and feel sorry for all the sexually frustrated women. Matt and I have interesting sex and in two years together we’ve never had to watch porn once. Sometimes I even cry afterward, because it feels so good, and I can’t believe I walk around feeling so bad the rest of the time.
Matt comes home with a fifth of Espolon and grenadine and organic orange juice.
“We’re going to be fancy tonight,” he says.
His mom walks in the door a minute later and I offer her a drink. She says “Hell yeah” and it makes me uncomfortable because my mom never swears around me. Matt’s father emerges from his room, two empty Diet Coke cans in his hands. The cancer is localized and highly treatable, but I still freeze up around him, sniff the air when he walks by, try to determine if there’s a smell to people who are dying faster than the rest of us.
I mix our drinks while Matt peels a leftover Sheetz sub from aluminum foil, eats it in three bites. His arms are a slight pink and more toned than I remember. His mom gulps her drink and slides a frozen pizza into the oven. His sister closes her laptop and starts doodling on a napkin.
Matt and I take our drinks to the deck and settle into sagging chairs. From the pocket of his cargo shorts, he pulls a pack of Turkish Royals.
“Just this weekend and then we’ll stop again,” he says.
He unwraps the plastic and stuffs it into the chair's cup holder.
We talk about our friends in the city, which ones are at work and which ones are traveling to Delaware for cheaper liquor and louder fireworks.
“I’m glad you’re not there,” Matt says, “I’m glad you could get away.”
The men who own the print shop close for every holiday weekend and the following Monday. It’s a nice thing that most companies don’t do anymore. I say this line to people when I talk about my job, how they do things that most companies don’t do anymore, even though I have no clue what most companies used to do.
“It’s like a vacation being here.” I say.
He stands at the edge of the deck, watching a train of lifted trucks rev by. He ashes off the deck. The cigarette tastes like diesel fuel smells but I smoke it anyway. I think about my mom and sisters, how they are probably finishing dinner right now. How my aunt is probably bringing over popsicles that will melt and spatter into the linoleum floor.
We have sex in his room after dinner. It is just like it always is. I think about his friend, Krawler, who is taller and skinnier and covered in freckles. I think about his ex-girlfriend and the messages she sends him on Facebook. A few weeks ago she messaged him that she was pregnant. Even though it wasn’t his, she just thought he should know because they were together for so long. I spent the whole night constructing responses to her. Variations on how pathetic she was, how in love we are, how he hasn’t thought about her in years. What I want from every boyfriend is for them to forget everything about every woman but me. Instead, I bring Matt’s exes up. I force him to think about them and get mad at him for it.
Afterward, we lay in bed and I stare at his side profile. I like to look at him from this angle, to close one eye at a time and imagine what he looks like to strangers. Try to see him all new.
We pack a cooler with ice, Espolon, Coors, hamburger rolls, lunch meat, salted peanuts, swiss rolls, one stray Dogfish Head, and a styrofoam cup of worms. Krawler and Wolfie meet us at the small wood dock. All the daytime families have moved from this lake to the state park lake to watch the fireworks. More open sky over there.
My mom and sisters back home in Harrisburg are probably unfolding chairs in the KFC parking lot right now, waiting for fireworks to start bursting over the river. I should really text them. I am always thinking about texting them and then forgetting.
Krawler has a bandana tied around his forehead, slicking down his straw-colored hair. Wolfie has a cigarette rolling crank and a girlfriend who is on her way. She is coming from a cook-out. I like his girlfriend because she always insists we take pictures together and only posts ones where we both look good.
Matt and Wolfie stab worms onto their hooks and cast. Krawler walks the perimeter of the beach, where it meets the woods, and collects kindling. I mix myself a drink and sit, swing my legs off the dock. Electronic dance music blasts from somewhere in the distance. Matt and Wolfie look at each other.
“Back at it,” Matt says.
“Having more fun than us,” Wolfie says.
“This is fun,” I say.
Matt pats the deck to his left and I sit next to him. I cross my legs so my thighs don’t spill out.
The music is coming from the nudist colony. All summer long they throw raves. I’ve asked if we could go sometime just because I want to see what it’s like but Matt says there’s a whole season pass process and they don’t even let you wear shoes past the gate.
There are the fireworks. Wolfie’s girlfriend shows up drunk. They sit under the pavilion and makeout during the whole show. Krawler squeezes lighter fluid onto a pile of sticks, pulls out his zippo. I want to ask him for some of his pills, but Matt will get mad. He’ll say he doesn’t fuck with them and he doesn’t date pillheads. I dig around the cooler and plop ice into our plastic cups. I mix us more drinks. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of orange soda. Matt puts his arm around my shoulder and it feels too heavy, not right. I try to recall all the other times I have watched the fireworks, how I’ve felt, what I’ve thought about. I pull his arm down, loop it with mine. I want to rub my palm fast on his forearm until it numbs, trace a finger up, have him close his eyes and guess when I get to the crook. I decide these are the nicest fireworks I’ve seen.
Krawler leaves our circle around the fire. He comes back with a frog in his hands. He says “don’t look” and Wolfie’s girlfriend looks anyway and screeches when Krawler snaps its short neck.
“What the fuck dude?” Matt says.
“Frog legs,” Krawler points at the fire and holds up wood he’s whittled into a spear.
“Man-” says Wolfie, like he’s going to say more, but then he turns to his girlfriend and squeezes her hand, tells her the frog didn’t feel a thing.
Krawler gets to work dissecting it with a pocket knife. I walk from the fire to the dock and think about Matt’s sister, probably so amazed by the fireworks and now all safe inside, watching another movie.
It smells like burning. I walk back to the fire. Krawler has fashioned a pan out of tinfoil. Slivers of meat sizzle inside.
“Are you gonna try some?” Matt asks me.
“I’ll try,” says Wolfie’s girlfriend.
She is slurping a warm beer, spaghetti straps clinging to her biceps.
“You don’t have to,” Matt says.
“Hell yeah she does. It’s a sin to waste.” Krawler says.
He lifts the legs into his palms, pulls it apart with his fingers.
“Here,” he gives some to Matt, then Wolfie.
If it was Matt killing the frog, I’d refuse to eat it. I’d pout under the pavilion and break up with him in his bed before falling asleep. But it’s his friend and it’s the Fourth and I am far away from my boring job and I want to be the type of girl who is liked by a group of my boyfriends friends. So I take a bite and it really does taste like chicken.
“Would be good in alfredo sauce,” I say, “like I could really see this in a pasta dish.”
Wolfie’s girlfriend wants to try it too then. Matt is proud of me, I can tell. We smoke Turkish Royals to get rid of the lingering lakewater taste. Krawler unzips a baggie of pills and waves it at us. An assortment of benzos. I look to Matt and his left eye twitches. His cheeks are red because he’s a little allergic to alcohol. Then I see something drop in him, and he tilts his head yes, and we pass the bag. I take two, slip one for the hangover tomorrow in my jeans pocket.
At some point we run out of tequila and switch to beer. I keep looking for the tequila, asking Matt where it is, and he keeps saying it’s all drank. There’s Coors, he says. He pours me a cup of just orange soda and I can tell it’s a trick so I dump it out, watch it bubble the sand. Someone catches a fish. I’m just staring at the smoldering coals and there are shouts, a wriggling fish clunks into the wood, bounces back into the water. Wolfie’s girlfriend sleeps on a picnic table bench, wrapped in towels and sweatshirts.
“Gotta piss,” Krawler says.
“Me too,” I say, “So do I.”
I’ve had to pee for a long time, I think, but I can’t remember when it started.
I follow Krawler to the edge of the beach.
“Don’t look,” I say, but he’s already facing away from me, aiming into the water.
My pee splatters the gravel. He turns his head back and looks at me. We make eye contact. I imagine us meeting up in his garage, kissing against a wall of scrap wood. I always want to have sex with my boyfriend’s friends, like all the problems in my relationship boil down to being involved with the wrong person in a group of people.
“You sound like a horse peeing,” Krawler says.
I look back at the fire, at Matt toasting a sandwich on the tin foil. I walk back, leaving Krawler, who has started tossing rocks into the lake. Matt slides the sandwich to me because it’s too hot to pick up right then. It is sometime around then that I black out.
When we wake, it’s already ninety eight and humid. The sheets are kicked off. My tongue is furry and my teeth hurt but my stomach feels fine, which means I’m still drunk. My jeans pockets have preserved the pill. I chase it with flat, days old soda from Matt’s nightstand.
“I need food,” I say, “Can you come down with me? I’m scared.”
It takes him ten minutes to get up, pull on pajama pants. He wants to have sex but I push him off and tell him I’ll throw up if we do.
Downstairs, his sister is eating a peanut butter bagel. His dad is watching Animal Planet and his mom is sorting a stack of bills. I stand at the island, grit my teeth and hope I can hold off vomiting. Matt toasts an everything bagel, plops it on a paper plate, cuts chunks of refrigerated butter and lays them on top to melt.
“Weren’t the fireworks good?” His sister asks.
“So good,” I say.
“They weren’t as long as at Disneyland but still pretty,” She says.
I know then that I need to get upstairs. I give Matt a look, carry my plate through the living room, saying I forgot something in my bag.
Matt tries to cover the sound of my exorcism puking with the History Channel turned all the way up in his bedroom. Sweat suctions my face to the toilet lid and all I want in the whole world is ice water and a plain turkey sandwich and to be the type of person who is not hungover, who can control herself, who can enjoy watching the fireworks and then go home. I wad up toilet paper and swipe it across my chapped lips.
Later, after I’ve kept down a whole ginger ale, after his sister and mom have left for Sam’s Club, and his dad has fallen asleep in his chair, we drive towards Country Junction. We pass the state park lake where families are huddled and grilling. Matt adjusts the air conditioning the way I like it and pulls a wadded plastic bag from his cargo shorts, hands it to me. I feel comforted. If I need to throw up again, I have this bag so I won’t have to stick my head out the window.
All the signs advertise “World’s Largest General Store” but it’s no longer true. The largest general store burnt down and they built this building in its place. Country Junction is probably only sixth largest. It’s a big red barn filled with aisles of local honey and long counters where people order slushy drinks and fried foods. There are baby farm animals in pens that kids line up to pet. Racks of discounted t-shirts, all laminated with quotes about fishing, farming. When I’m not sick, I like to walk around inside and hope we run into Matt’s high school girlfriends. I like to have him take my picture on the pig shaped bench.
I wait in the car while he goes in to order a taco pizza. Families waddle through the parking lot, red and blue temporary tattoos flaking off their skin. Couples hold hands and push strollers, engagement rings glinting in the white sun. Matt is inside getting us a pizza and then he will come outside and we will make promises to each other- about ourselves and improving- that we won’t keep. I will hand him napkins from the glove compartment and my chest will split open with love for him, but he won’t see it. He’ll just see crumpled napkins landing in his palm.
Kayla Jean’s previous work has appeared in Hobart, X-RAY, New World Writing, and others. Find her on twitter @dbtoil