Monday, November 16, 2015

#185: "A Kiss Thing" by Robin Gaines

~This story was previously published in Slice  (2010).

I hadn’t seen Big Becca Leonard in weeks. Not that I thought of her all that much, but suddenly there she was, bigger than ever, like a cartoon figure come to life, banging on our screen door.
            “Now what do you want to show me?” I say from the other side of the screen.
Big Becca likes coming to the front door and grossing me out with dead animal skulls she finds or flattened frogs she peels off the street. Only this time, she just stands there, twisting her hands together, looking lost.
Big Becca nudges her thick glasses up closer to her eyes. “I’m locked out,” she says, rocking side to side, staring at where the tiny bird’s nest pokes out from the top of the address sign nailed to the brick.
            “Those baby birds used to chirp all the time,” I tell her, “but not anymore. They probably got too big or maybe just bored living around here and flew away.”
            “Maybe they’re hiding,” she says. “I think they might be hiding, like ghosts.”
            “Why aren’t you in school?” Every morning a white van filled with kids like Big Becca picks her up and takes her to a special school two towns over.
            “It’s meat loaf day. Last time it was meat loaf day I threw up. My mom’s supposed to make me lunch.”
            Normally, on Wednesday afternoons, I’m not home either, but yesterday, the principal suspended me for punching Andy Dembeck between the shoulder blades at recess. The sun was out and everyone was running around going crazy because it was warm enough not to wear a sweater or jacket. Waiting my turn at tetherball, I looked over my shoulder and saw Dembeck blow me a kiss. When he turned to his loser friends and laughed, I ran up behind him, slugging him as hard as I could, knocking his glasses off onto the asphalt and cracking one of the lenses.      Dembeck couldn’t believe I did it, and neither could I. First, he looked like he was going to cry. Then, after he got a hold of himself, he had this dumb look on his face like his dog just bit him in the leg.
            It wasn’t just that one blow-kiss thing that caused me to snap. Dembeck has been harassing me the whole school year. He leaves hard candies sprinkled with pepper on my doorstep and follows me around at recess trying to give me handfuls of dandelion bouquets. Teachers think it’s cute, like puppy love, but I know the real Dembeck, the psycho who eats the fuzz he digs out of his belly button then moves his finger slowly up to his nose like he’s going to pick it just to hear the shrieks from his classmates.

Suspension is supposed to be an easy day off. My mom made sure mine wasn’t. Punishment is a list of chores she wrote down before she left for work this morning. Most of the chores, like vacuuming the carpet and peeling potatoes, are on the list because Roy is coming to dinner. My younger brother Burke and I call him “Mr. Hai Karate” because he drenches himself in the stuff. Before he rings the doorbell, we can smell him coming up the walk. He’s Mom’s second boyfriend since Dad died two summers ago. The first one she ditched when she found out he was married. Roy, on the other hand, has never been married; he once studied to be a priest, but never made it. Mom thinks this is a big deal. She’s not even Catholic. Dad was the Catholic. He’s the one that took us to church every Sunday while Mom slept in. Since his funeral mass we haven’t set foot inside a church, which is fine with me.
            After her third date with Roy, Burke and I made Mom hold her hand up and swear on Burke’s First Communion Bible that she wouldn’t marry him. That was months ago. “You wouldn’t like anyone I picked,” she says now, “and besides, Roy could be our savior in disguise.”
            Mom says she can’t continue to make the house and car payments and put food on the table on her income alone. The money’s running out. I wonder if Roy knows he’s answered mom’s mental classified ad:  Ready-Made Family: Two agreeable but grief-stricken kids, pleasant home in safe neighborhood, furniture included! Contribute paycheck and all this could be yours!
Big Becca stares at me through the screen, as if she’s listening to my thoughts, but I don’t think Down’s syndrome people can do that even though she’s not the weird kind like those ones you see on field trips at the zoo, drooling on themselves and making weird sounds trying to imitate the animals. Big Becca’s smart in a secret way. The neighbors blame her for missing tools, lost toys, and picked flowers. Most of it’s true. She takes stuff from people’s yards, but she always brings it back. I think that’s saying a lot about somebody who returns what she borrows.
One night last spring, Big Becca picked every last purple lilac off the Nagle’s driveway hedge. The next morning, everyone for blocks found a lilac in their mailbox.
            I leave Big Becca on the front porch while I dial her home number from the kitchen phone. No answer. When I get back to the door, she’s already wobbling across the grass toward home.
“I can make you a cheese sandwich, or peanut butter,” I holler after her. “We’ve got Kool Aid, too.”
With her thick creased legs and big rounded shoulders, Big Becca looks like a gigantic toddler crossing the street.
The screen door clicks shut behind me as I follow her then stop at the edge of the lawn. I’ve been avoiding the Leonard house ever since the day I saw Big Becca’s mother kissing my dad. I was sleeping, but their laughter had woken me up. They were standing underneath my bedroom window in a shadowy part of the backyard. The moon was lying on its side like a fingernail cuticle, its light hanging over the yard. From my window I looked down on them expecting to see Mom come out of the shadows to join in on the joke. But it was just Dad and Mrs. Leonard, their soft voices and the crickets’ racket. Dad reached up to touch Mrs. Leonard’s face, just like he touched Mom, lightly, under the ears, like he was going to whisper something. Instead he kissed her, on the lips, his head tilting sideways. I stared and blinked, then blinked some more trying to make out my mother’s shimmery platinum hair, but it was Mrs. Leonard, the whites of her black eyes giving her away as she stopped kissing my dad long enough to look up over his shoulder to the second floor window where I stood watching.
It must have been a poison kiss because Dad died the next month.
* * *
Maybe Mom has always shared Dad with Mrs. Leonard since Mr. Leonard is never around. There’s a photo of the three of them, Dad’s arms around both women, their bellies big as pumpkins. Mrs. Leonard is looking down at her round stomach; her hands hugging her belly as though she knew even then that the baby inside needed her special attention. My mother has one arm balanced at the top of the ball that is me, the other behind her back. Big Becca and I were born 12 years ago, one month apart.
I decide Big Becca needs my help. Mrs. Leonard is probably not home, so I cross Vermont Street, where nothing ever changes except the color of the front doors or the rare, new car parked in the driveway. Our yard—a triangle shape that sits on a bend in the street—is the largest on our block. It takes twenty-four cartwheels to get from one end to the other. Before Roy convinced my mom the grass was getting trampled by too many kids, everyone used to congregate on our lawn at dusk to play pickle, touch football, or to practice flips and round-offs.
Now our lawn is lush, green, and unused, unlike the Leonards’ yard where only the strongest weeds survive amidst the scrawny shrubs and baked dirt. Mr. Leonard has never been obsessive about his lawn and shrubs like most of the other dads, but these days the yard is looking worse than ever. Even at our house, without a dad around, the grass seems to get cut. Sometimes Roy does it, sometimes me or Mom, most times Burke.
            I follow Big Becca around to the backyard then down the five concrete steps to the backdoor. It’s locked. It’s the same back door as ours except the Leonards’ is brown and ours is white.
            I knock lightly, trying to think what I will say to Mrs. Leonard if she answers. Sometimes I wonder if I dreamt the whole kiss thing. Lately, my dreams seem more real than normal everyday life. In the most frequent of these I see a small plane sputtering above me on its way to the Mount Morris Airport. Something’s wrong. The wings dip right then left, the pilot looking down at me through the small window, his eyes wide with panic, saying something to me. Not HELP, but something important: a secret, I think, or maybe a message. Then the plane disappears beyond the houses and a fireball erupts from the field across the street. It’s as if the pilot knew he was going to die and wanted to tell me something important. Something I needed to know. I’d even ride my bike to the field in the morning to the spot where in my dream the plane went down, expecting to see twisted plane parts scattered around like crumpled aluminum foil or scorched grass where it crashed. But there was nothing. There was always nothing. 
            Mrs. Leonard doesn’t answer the door. Big Becca and I peek in through the window into the laundry room. Piles of clothes litter the floor.
            “I’m hungry,” Big Becca whines.
            I remember the cheese sandwich and Fritos I left behind on the kitchen counter at home. “Maybe your mom’s at the Heflers,” I say, though I don’t believe it. Mrs. Leonard doesn’t visit like other moms in the neighborhood, gossiping over cups of coffee and club sandwiches. Mrs. Leonard doesn’t even look like the other moms with their matching shorts and headbands. She wears her blue-black hair teased up in the front and flat in the back, like half her skull is missing.
Bees loop around the bushes that run along the back of the house. A small plane buzzes over our heads and then over the tree line past our neighborhood of streets named after states: Vermont, our street; Oklahoma Court, around the corner; and California up past the stop sign. Near Joy Road, where you can hear cars drag racing late at night, are all the southern states.
            Mom says some of our neighbors—the gossipy older ones who comment on Roy’s comings and goings and the married guy before that—have never left Michigan and “get a jolt” by having so many states represented within walking distance. I don’t believe it, because she says it smart-alecky, with her lower jaw tipped up and held tight. Most of Mom’s comments are about other people, never about us. Burke sleeps on the hallway floor outside Mom’s bedroom door because she won’t let him sleep with her.
“He’s the man of the house, now,” she tells me, as a way of explaining Burke’s crying himself to sleep every night.
“Yes, but didn’t Dad, the first man of the house, sleep next to you?” I ask.
            No comment. That dark look, the silence, is all we get when Mom doesn’t feel like explaining. I hate that about her.
            Big Becca pounds on the door. I am about to give up and take her back home with me when I hear voices from an upstairs window, like a TV has been left on and the wind is carrying the voices through the upstairs screen and out into the spring air.
            “Somebody’s home,” I say.
            I run around to the front door and hold my finger down on the doorbell, jiggling the handle just to make sure it’s really locked, then run back around to the yard.
            Dad and Mrs. Leonard could have kissed here too. Right under Big Becca’s bedroom window, with the moon bright silver in the black sky, and Big Becca in the middle of her dreams above them.  
            There was nothing different in the way Dad acted after the kiss that made me believe he might love Big Becca’s mother more than he loved us. He still ate ice cream right out of the carton, watered the rose bushes in the morning, and kissed Mom’s neck while she washed the dishes. For days, I spied on his every move, looking for clues that he was planning on ditching us for the Leonards. That had happened to my aunt. Uncle Lou left her and my three cousins to go live with a lady he worked with.
As it turns out, Dad did leave us, but it wasn’t with Mrs. Leonard. His sudden death from a heart attack made me push the kiss thing to the back of my brain thinking for sure it had to be another crazy dream. Besides, Mom had moved on in the two summers since his death. That’s how she said it, moving on, like a train running late with other stops to make. The photo frames of Dad, once three deep on her bedroom nightstand, are gone. I took two of the photographs from the box she stashed behind the furnace and put them on my dresser. One shows Dad the way I remember him: in his cardigan sweater, smiling his crooked smile with the chipped front tooth, the lines around his eyes deep and crinkly like used wax paper. The other photograph is of Dad and Burke walking hand in hand with their backs to the camera. It was probably taken after one of Burke’s baseball practices because he carries a baseball mitt in his free hand. I told Burke he could take it to his room but he said he didn’t want it, even though sometimes I catch him staring at their two figures side by side.
Big Becca fiddles with something in the dark mouth of the garage. She has maneuvered the ladder off the garage wall and drags it over to the back of the house. I help her stand the ladder, splattered with dry glops of paint, up against the brick ledge under an upstairs window.
            “You’re going up that, right?” I say. “You’re not expecting me to climb that thing?”
            “Papa goes up it all the time.”
Big Becca twists her hands together.  I think about smacking them so she’ll stop, but it won’t do any good. On Devil’s Night, Gary Cipriani threw a bunch of eggs at her from his garage roof, a couple breaking on her arm and one on her back, and Big Becca didn’t flinch. 
            “Then you do it,” I tell her. “You go up the ladder.”
            “Papa won’t let me. He’s the one that always climbs up there.”
            “Maybe we should wait until he comes home.”
            “He’s not coming home.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “He lives somewhere else.”
            “Where else could he live?”
            Big Becca shrugs her round shoulders and pushes her heavy glasses back up on her nose. She untangles her hands then runs a forearm under her nose to catch the tears and snot.   
            “I’m hungry,” she says, looking up at the window that is her mom and dad’s bedroom.
            “I know, you already told me.” But I can’t help noticing how pale she is, how used up she seems, like a dimming flashlight.
            I try to remember the last time I saw Mr. Leonard. I see the U-shaped hairline on the back of his balding head when he pulls out of the driveway in the mornings as I walk to school. But that was eons ago. His face is a blur.
            Somewhere down the street a lawnmower coughs to life.
            “Do you know where he lives now?”
            Big Becca covers her mouth and giggles. “Someplace not with me.”
Poor girls—that’s us, Big Becca and me. Lumped together forever like the slow kids in gym class. Poor fatherless girls. The marks are so identifiable I am convinced everyone on my street and in my school can see through my skin to the tiny black holes of pain and sadness that grow like mold inside. It will take leaving Vermont Street to shed all the unhappiness that comes with being us.
I look at the ladder. At the window. “God bless it,” I say, inching my way up each wobbly step. Near the window I am only a few feet from the roof and I feel shaky. I think about the two kids, high on LSD, who died jumping off the roof of the high school during a football game last fall. Every chance he gets, Roy lectures Burke and me about the dangers of drugs. He’s the principal at the high school and says he can tell from fifty feet away if someone’s stoned. He even looks at me funny sometimes. 
            Wind shakes the leaves of the trees along the side of the yard. White gauzy curtains swell out into Mrs. Leonard’s bedroom. Through the hazy screen I see someone on the bed. I remember stumbling down the dark hallway to my parents’ bedroom, wishing for the shape to move under the sheets so I could tell her about Dad kissing Mrs. Leonard and ask her what she was going to do about it.
            The ladder teeters.
“Come back here and hold the ladder,” I shout a whisper down to Big Becca who is off chasing a butterfly near the garage.
            The voices we heard are coming from a radio in the bedroom.
“Mrs. Leonard?” I can see her black hair fanned out against a pillow. She doesn’t move. I thought Dad was napping when I found him on the living room sofa in his suit and tie, car keys in his fist. He was having a heart attack. Dying and I didn’t even know it, death looking so much like sleeping.
With a tug up, the screen pops out into the room and cartwheels onto the hardwood floor. Braced inside the window ledge, I stick one foot through the window then the other, and push off, landing on Mrs. Leonard’s bedroom floor with a thud. She sighs, moves her hand up off the pillow to her side, then falls back asleep. I let out the breath I was holding and notice the dust specks circling around the room. The air smells sticky sweet and sour at the same time, like sweaty clothes. Big Becca yells up to the window.
            I snap my eyes shut: please let me wake up in my own bedroom, or anywhere but here.  But when I open my eyes, I am staring at Mrs. Leonard’s brown nipple poking out of her unsnapped housecoat.
            “Claudia!” I hear again and picture Big Becca’s hands snaking around each other like dancing serpents.
            I try pulling the sheet up from the end of the bed to cover Mrs. Leonard, but it’s molded into hard little mounds at the end of the bed. A song trails off and the news comes on the radio as I press my hand on her shoulder. Reaching around I turn the radio off and my elbow knocks a bottle off the nightstand into a tangled heap of clothes on the floor. Clear liquid runs down the clothes and under the bed. I grab the bottle and set it back on the nightstand, and recognize the label as the same kind of vodka that Dad used to drink in a glass with olives rolling around at the bottom. It made his breath smell like medicine.
Mrs. Leonard’s chest looks still. Not going up and down like it’s supposed to. A fly sits on her earlobe rubbing its feet together. When I lean my ear down to her mouth, Mrs. Leonard sighs deeply and turns her face toward me. I jump backwards, my heart pounding like I’ve just run fifty laps round the school gym. One of her eyes peels open. Then the other. Her eyes narrow to slits as she looks at me, trying to focus through her bloodshot eyes.
            What did my father see in this face to want to kiss it?
            Big Becca pokes a hand through the open window. “Help me in!”
            I leap around the bed over to the window. “Shush. Get down. Go around to the front door and I’ll let you in.”
            Mrs. Leonard slumps over to her side then props herself up on an elbow.
“Rebecca?” Her words fumble in her sleepy mouth. “What the hell’s going on?”
            “I’m hungry,” Big Becca shouts, poking her head through the window. “Hungry, hungry, hungry…”
            My body wants to run, run as far away from this bedroom, this neighborhood, from Mt. Morris, to a place where no one knows me, where I can make up a different life for myself. I’d take Big Becca with me and hope that she could keep up.
            But right now all I want is the truth, and it’s right there in the bed.
I turn around to face Mrs. Leonard. She clutches at her housecoat, moves a hand through her hair.
            “I saw you. Remember?” I say, my voice sounding like it’s coming from someone else in the room with us, someone older, someone brave. “You and my dad?”
            Mrs. Leonard pats a hand around the nightstand, fumbling for a pack of cigarettes and lighter. I’m not sure she’s listening.
“You kissed him in the backyard. I saw you.” I smile, glad to be getting rid of the secret I had carried around like a cloud of shame, not really knowing what I had done wrong except dreaming or witnessing something I shouldn’t have.
            She lights a cigarette, inhales deeply, and blows the smoke at me in a tight long stream.
            “I told Mr. Leonard what you did,” I sing out, the rush of excitement in telling this lie filling me with a warm liquid happiness that races to my fingertips, to the ends of my toes. “That’s probably why he left you.”
            Through the smoky haze surrounding her face I see her eyes close, erasing me from the room. When they open, I’m still there and Mrs. Leonard looks deflated, the air sucked out of her.      
* * *
            The Leonards’ kitchen is a mess. I find the peanut butter in a cupboard taken over by ants, and the bread has mold on it, but Big Becca happily eats the two sandwiches I make for her.
            “We’ll always be friends, won’t we?” I say, watching her chew and waiting for her to say something about the afternoon, about her mother or father, about anything. The kitchen is quiet except for the rush of water through the pipes from the bathroom upstairs where Mrs. Leonard is taking a shower.
            Big Becca, her eyes like magnified boulder marbles behind her glasses, doesn’t answer, but stares at someone or something else beyond me. When I turn around to see what it is, Big Becca giggles.
            “What?” I laugh.
            “Too late,” she chews. “It’s gone.”
* * *                                 
            I’m lying on the bear rug in front of the TV watching The Twilight Zone and checking my hair for split ends, tired of thinking, wishing it would snow in July. Mom hasn’t said anything about the Leonards leaving. For the last month since the day I climbed the Leonard’s ladder, every time Mom went into the kitchen she’d stare out the screen door at the Leonards dark house. Now she only glances at it as she goes into the kitchen for more lemonade.
That’s when Roy gets off the couch and moves the floor fan away from me and points the cool air in his direction. He thinks I don’t have a brain or feelings; I could be anything, a head of cabbage that has rolled to a stop in the middle of the rug in front of him. Maybe since he’s a principal, he’s used to treating all kids as people you hear about but never really understand, like Tibetan monks or African albinos: interesting species without an impact on his existence.
            “Doesn’t the bear look nice with the matador?” Mom says to Roy as she plops down next to him on the couch.
            Mom’s admiring the living room and all the changes, part of her moving on plan. I’m supposed to be moving on, too. After I finally got enough courage to tell Mom about the kiss thing she told me to stop believing my dreams were real.
“You’re a kid,” she said. “Think about kid things.”
            “I’m trying,” I told her. That was the end of it. No questions. No blank looks. No reaching for a cigarette like Mrs. Leonard did.
            Too often Mom gets her ideas from watching old movies where everyone has a butler and the women’s shoes match their purses. That’s still a big deal to her. And Jackie O and her big sunglasses; Mom copies that, too. I guess her husband kissing the neighbor is just part of life’s drama.
A few days ago she bought the black velvet bull and matador picture and a bearskin rug. The bear’s head has real looking yellowed teeth, but they’re fake, just like the bear. Made in Japan, reads the tag under the right paw. Mom’s redecorated the house, ripping wallpaper off the walls and pulling up the carpets. Gone are my grandmother’s antiques and the green chairs. Everything is now black, white, and red. It’s hard on the eyes but brown-nose Roy, with his perfectly parted greased-back hair, rubs his hand along the newly reupholstered couch, and says, “You’ve got great taste, Fiona.”
            Burke, who’s watching all of this from the top step near the railing, pretends like he’s sticking his finger down his throat. He’s never said more than twenty words a day since he was a baby. Since Dad’s death, he gave up being friendly to anyone, too. All the tears that poured out of him after that day dried him up on the inside causing his curly hair to grow in straight and his freckles to disappear.
            Burke slumps into his bedroom and shuts the door. Inside, he’s built an elaborate maze of rooms constructed from old sheets and blankets strung up from the corners with clothesline. In one of these secret rooms he’s able to sleep through the night.
            After a few minutes I can hear the ball game on his radio.
            Roy gets off the couch to turn the channel—again, without asking me if I was finished watching The Twilight Zone, even though I haven’t been following the story.
            “It’s time,” he says.
Walter Cronkite adjusts his glasses, then rambles on in a monotone about gravity and space suits, about the surface of the moon and lunar landings. Roy starts to imitate Cronkite’s voice, but Mom shushes him.
            “I want to hear this,” she says.
            “Yeah, me too,” I chime in, happy to irritate him.
            There’s a sizzle on the screen and some grayish-black images appear. I hold my breath as Neil Armstrong in his white puffy space suit backs out of the Eagle and climbs dreamlike down the spaceship steps. The landscape around him is empty of everything familiar, like trees and houses, and even the moon’s own beams to light up its surface. I never expected the moon to be such a lonely looking place. From earth it looks full of brightly lit cities. Instead it looks dark and coated with years and years of dust.
            “Good Lord, Claudia, this is history being made,” Mom says.
            Armstrong hops off the last step like a kid on the monkey bars at the park. I’m waiting for the moon’s surface to rear up like a huge tidal wave and carry Neil Armstrong under.
            “Is there water on the moon?” I turn to ask my mom, and see Roy put his arm around Mom’s shoulders. She’s smiling at him. They kiss. They’re sitting on the recently reupholstered couch that my dad died on.    
            I push myself off the rug, giving the bear a quick kick in the head before heading toward the kitchen to go outside where the air is still heavy with heat. To hell with lunar landings, history, and people in general. Earlier, Roy said he wanted to talk to Burke and me about something, but Mom had said it wasn’t the right time. This is about Mom moving on again. When she moves on, we all do whether we like it or not. Moving on to a life with Roy. Like new furniture, Burke and I need to fit in somewhere in this new life of hers.
The spaghetti I ate for dinner balls itself like wet cardboard in my stomach. I lie down on the cool grass and squint up at the hazy moon, trying to see a speck of something that might be the Eagle. It looks like a gluey thumbprint in the sky, now stuck with invaders.
            With the sound of crickets singing and bugs zapping in the streetlights, I think of Big Becca and Mrs. Leonard and wonder where they are. That day their front door was propped wide open with the Hoover, I knew they had left Vermont Street for good. No one really paid much attention until days later when the house was full of flies, mosquitoes and a neighbor’s missing cat. People up and down the street started to phone one another wondering what could have happened to the Leonards. No one could remember seeing a truck in the driveway and movers carrying furniture out of the house, but it happened. The only thing left was the Hoover.
            The Leonards are like celebrities with everyone talking about the last time they spoke to one of them. Before, they were nobodies, just strangers behind their lopsided curtains and pulled shades.
            They’ve moved on, I think, if not to the life they were meant to live then at least to a life where they can pretend to be normal and happy. Where no one knows you took things from people’s yards, had to climb up a ladder to wake up your drunk mother to make you lunch, or you once had a dad but now he’s gone.
I stare up at the moon which seems friendly and watchful from Earth, but cold and dark up there, like a house vacant for too long.
I will not call Roy “Dad”. I promise my dad this as I squint to try to see the astronauts moving around. 
            I’d like to imagine Big Becca is looking at the moon now, too, maybe thinking of Vermont Street, of me, of dead frogs and all the things left behind, of someone leaving footprints on the Moon so someone up there next time will see they aren’t alone.
            I wonder about this for a minute. Then I decide to put a flower in everyone’s mail box tomorrow morning. Everyone will believe Big Becca’s ghost was left behind, that it’s hiding but still watching all of us. She’d like knowing one person cared.


I’ve always been fascinated with family life behind closed doors, especially suburban lives with their gleaming or modest facades sheltering rooms full of secrets. Claudia and Big Becca are twelve-year-old girls recently fatherless, and both come to understand that their “new” lives are built on chaos and uncertainty. It’s the end of their childhoods as they are left dealing with the residue of the adults’ mistakes.
In “A Kiss Thing” I wanted to show how each girl, one with Down’s syndrome, the other a bully, are part of a fatherless tribe that sets them apart from others in their neighborhood. Big Becca is locked out of the house. Claudia, a prisoner inside her own home, feels as inconsequential to her mother and new boyfriend as the floor fan in the living room. The idea of writing about girls in emotional peril on a quiet suburban street came to me after reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s, The Virgin Suicides. All you hoped for the Lisbon girls was a chance to escape their fates. We don’t know if Claudia and Big Becca in “A Kiss Thing” ever reclaim their innocence after the Leonard home is emptied out one night with only the Hoover left holding open the front door. After, Claudia’s mother tells her “to think about kid things,” but all she can do is compare her lonely life with the astronauts’ first steps on a pocked moon. 

My mom told me the story of how she crawled through the window of a neighbor’s house on several occasions to unlock the door for the kids because their alcoholic mother was passed out. The family eventually moved. I was a teenager when I heard the story, and the image stuck with me. Like the fate of Big Becca, we never really knew what happened to that family after they left the neighborhood. The people left behind are the ones to wonder. Especially the children. Always the children. 



Robin Gaines’s first book, Invincible Summers, a semi-finalist for The Iowa Short Fiction & John Simmons Short Fiction Award for 2014, will be published by ELJ Publications in May 2016. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Slice, Current Magazine, The Citron Review, Crack the Spine, The Homestead Review, Willard & Maple, Oasis: A Literary Magazine, Porcupine Literary Arts Magazine, and Spindrift. She received her master’s in journalism from Michigan State University. For more, visit Robin at


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