It’s always jarring to see my mother’s face on a magazine. People talk about magazines being glossy, but most aren’t. They’re nearly dull. This one screams, “Willow Van Lise: ‘I’ve never been happier!’” The man at the cash register coughs. He’s short and seems very polite. If I were in his shoes, I would do worse than cough. I have a tendency to sneer. I seem to sneer a lot, and it’s becoming an issue.
I apologize to him and put the magazine back in its place. I used to beg my dad to buy them for me anytime my mother was on the cover, and he always rolled his eyes and ignored the question. Back when I stole things, I would take the magazines. In my bedroom I laid them out on the ground and frowned. Like my mother herself they fit poorly into context. I still have most of them, I think, in one of the four large boxes labeled esme’s stuff.
After the cashier scans all my items and asks me to sign up for a credit card, he smiles sheepishly and tells me to have a good day. I flicker my eyes back to him, but I’m already walking out. I have no delusions: I don’t think I’m a very pleasant person.
I’m supposed to be in class right now, I think, but instead I’m carrying one grocery bag back to my dorm. Inside the bag: two packs of cigarettes (I know, I know), four bars of dark chocolate, coffee beans, and a handful of figs. My goal is to get cocaine skinny without using cocaine. I’m not saying I never will, but right now, it seems like a losing move.
As though he can hear and is disappointed by my vaguely self-destructive thoughts, my dad calls. If I’m being generous, I’ll say that we have a fun rapport with plenty of banter. If I’m not being generous, I’ll say we both hate the fact that we love each other.
“She lives! How are you, Esme?”
I ignore his resentment. “Fine. Grocery shopping. Trying to spend as much of your money as I can.”
“Good thing my money is your mother’s money,” he responds. “What are you buying? Stocking your fridge with wine coolers and goat cheese? It’s a miracle you haven’t died of malnutrition yet.”
He is uncomfortably close to the truth, and sharing the truth with my dad is too alien an idea to entertain. “I don’t share your terrible shopping habits, father. I’ve got all sorts of good things with nutrients in them. Spinach. Eggs. Jars and jars of sundried tomatoes.” I sort of want to go back and buy sundried tomatoes. I can picture myself pinching the crushed, dense mass between two fingers, dripping with olive oil as I bring it to my mouth. It’s a little glamorous and a little disgusting.
My dad hums skeptically. “I see. Hey, I’ve got some bad news. Penelope’s dead. I found her this morning, by the door. I’m sorry.”
“Oh,” I say, examining the bricks beneath my feet. They’re just barely misaligned, and it’s driving me crazy. “Oh. God, that’s awful.” Penelope was a grey, skinny, love-starved cat. She always wanted more affection than either my dad or I were willing to show. On days that I sat on the floor in my bedroom and my dad sat on the chair in his, the cat would pace back and forth, scratching on both of our doors. “Was she doing poorly? That feels sudden.”
“Yeah, I mean, she seemed fine, but she was what, twelve? So I guess it’s not shocking.” I can hear him typing as he talks. Neither of us seem particularly bothered.
My dad’s sister gave her to us. Aunt Inge has these eyes that look at you efficiently and affectionately. My dad loves her. They grew up like twins, running around the property. My grandparents are dead—a heart attack and a mystery—but from what I can gather, when they were alive they weren’t much different. When I was little Inge visited often and one day she brought a tiny cat. “What am I going to do with that thing?” my dad asked her. Exasperated but unable to maintain it. He missed her as soon as she was gone, every time.
Inge didn’t answer him, but turned to me. “Isn’t she cute, Esme? You like her, don’t you?” I did. She was a kitten like you’d see in a picture book, nose pink and eyes blinking in exhaustion. I really, really loved that kitten, but we both grew up.
My dad never minded Penelope, and I can hear it in his voice. He continues, leaving the issue of the cat behind him. “Listen, are you going to be free this weekend? Fiona called. Your mother’s going to be in the city and wants to take you somewhere expensive. Thai, maybe? I don’t remember.”
“I just saw her a month ago.” I can hear the whine in my voice. I don’t like it very much. My dad has never had a problem acting as a booking agent for his daughter’s time. He’s also never seemed to mind that my mother always uses her rotating cast of personal assistants to book the gigs. “Can’t you tell Fiona I’ll be in, I don’t know, South Carolina?”
“Jesus, Esme, she’s your mother. You can take two hours out of your mysterious social calendar to let her buy you a meal.” He always gets snippy when I talk about her like this, which is every time I talk about her. Which I find funny, because it’s how he has talked about her for my entire life.
“Okay, god, I’ll go to the damn Thai place. Do you need anything else from me, or have you fulfilled your obligation?”
He pauses. I know he wants to like me more than he does, because he is, actually, a very good person. I make it hard. “How are your classes going? I remember junior year being hard.” His tone, suddenly, is almost Swiss in its neutrality. I would have hung up on me, if I were him.
The truth, which again I will not tell him, is that junior year would probably be hard if I went to class. I’m signed up for all these upper level seminars in things like modernism in architecture and the female body in classical sculpture, which sound very interesting. It’s been two weeks, and I went to the first meetings for all my classes and got the syllabi and I haven’t been back. I don’t tell my dad any of that, of course. I say, “Yeah, it probably will be, but I’m excited about the classes I’m taking. The professors are supposed to be really good.”
“That’s good. I’ll never know how you do all that art history. A painting’s a painting, right?”
“Heathen. I actually have class soon,” I say. I want to spare him the torture of digging for another question. “I’ll talk to you later. Tell Dionela I say hi.” I don’t wait for his response before hanging up. I know he won’t tell Dionela I say hi; they’ve been married for about a year, and, like most right-minded people, she doesn’t much care for me.
I consider going to class. I know I should, in theory, because someone is paying for it, but I don’t particularly mind wasting my mother’s money. She has plenty to go around. So instead I return to the building that holds my current life, tenuous as it is.
When I get back to my dorm room—this year a single, in part because I wanted it and in part because no one wanted to live with me—I unwrap one bar of chocolate and eat it in tiny bites. It’s bitter—92% cocoa, the wrapping brags from its place on the floor. I hate everything about this room, so I rearrange it frequently. I like the way my muscles feel when I move my bed. I like the sound it makes against the linoleum, and I don’t make any effort to lift rather than drag it. I like knowing that the stranger who lives beneath me can hear everything I do.